30 November 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part II: A Spectrum of Experience

In Part I of this essay I concluded that the Perennial Philosophy "ignores historical processes, fails to adequately distinguish epistemology and ontology, and asserts an untenable matter-spirit dualism." It is the second of these points that I wish to pursue in Part II. In particular, I will pick apart the claim of a metaphysical truth. Before I can do this, I need to introduce a way of thinking about experience that clearly distinguishes subjectivity and objectivity.

In the following diagram, I depict a model world with just four people. The field of experience of a person is represented by a coloured circle. 

The fields of experience may overlap with all others, with some others, or not all. It is assumed that people are able to communicate about their experience to about the same extent as their fields of experience overlap, because communication is a kind of shared experiential. I will present this as a general model of experience but also use it as a way of highlighting certain qualities of particular experiences.

Keep in mind that this is a simplified model created for rhetorical purposes. It does not perfectly represent a real person's field of experience. I will use the model to make analogies, but there are limitations. 

A general point is that most experiences are intentional. In philosophy of mind, intentionality refers to the quality of "aboutness". So we think about our day, or see an object, or feel happy to see our friend. Experience is structured by this epistemic subject/object distinction (later I will posit that this must also be true of the awakened). The structure is reflected in universal features of language. All human languages enable us to identify objects and processes using nouns and verbs, and specifically to identify agents and patients (who is doing what to whom). 

Note that subjectivity, as I am using the word, is not the same as ego or self-referential thoughts. Subjectivity is a point of view forced on us by the architecture of our bodymind. No one else can see through my eyes. And even the awakened still only see through their own pair (I don't take stories of ESP literally). One may have an egoless subjectivity, because subjectivity, as I am using the term, refers to all kinds of experience. By contrast I take objectivity to apply to any and all facts that are true without reference to our experience of them. In the normal scheme of things, all knowledge has an irreducible component of subjectivity, and it is really only collectively that we can infer objective knowledge, since comparing notes enables us to eliminate qualities that are only apparent to us.
1. Pure Subjectivity 

On the far left of the diagram, we see four fields of experience that do not overlap at all. These are four people in contact with four separate parts of the world, perhaps on different continents, and with no overlap of their sensory fields. In this artificial world, each person has only their own perceptions and while they can compare notes on experience, there is no apparent commonality and thus no possibility of agreement. It is as if they live in different worlds.

If this is a single experience, then all four people disagree on the nature of what happened. No two descriptions share any features.

An important class of experiences falls into this category, i.e., experiences where the object is apparent to us, but not to anyone else. Examples include, my private thoughts, or hallucinations (on which, see also my essay Realities).

2. Mixed Subjectivity

In the second left position, some of the fields of experience overlap. When they compare notes neighbours can find come commonality, but there is still nothing  that they can all agree on. There is no general sense of a shared experience. While red may agree to some extent with blue, and to some extent with yellow, blue and yellow have no common ground. As far as blue and yellow are concerned they are experiencing entirely different worlds.

With respect to a single experience we might say that some of the accounts partially overlap, but the opinions expressed about the experience are still largely unrelated to what others are saying.

As with pure subjectivity, there is no common point of reference. 

3. Middle Ground
In the middle all the experiential fields overlap to some extent. For the first time, there are some experiences that all four people in this world share. Note also that there is considerably more overlap generally. As well as all four sharing experiences, there are some experiences shared by three, but not the fourth. About one third of their experiences are available only to them.

For the first time, the four are able to agree on some details of a single experience. They will all agree that they experienced something similar, though they may still disagree on many details. We see here the beginning of objectivity, because comparing notes allows each observer to identify the aspects of the experience that are subjective and eliminate them from their account. However, a good deal of uncertainty remains for any knowledge inferred about the object.

4. Mixed Objectivity
In this state there is substantial overlap between all the experiential fields. About half of any given person's field of experience overlaps with all the others and less than a quarter is private to any one person.
The four are now largely in agreement on the core features of a shared experience, though they may still have their own opinions about it. In these cases, observers are able to infer knowledge about the object of experience with a high degree of confidence and begin to formulate descriptive and predictive theories about how objects behave to levels of accuracy and precision that are limited by their ability to measure. 

5. Pure Objectivity
At this end of the spectrum, the sensory fields of each of the four completely overlaps with the others. Nothing about the experience is private or hidden from the others. Of course this never occurs in nature because we all have our own views and thoughts that are inaccessible to others. But in discussing the perennial philosophy we need this extreme because it encompasses the category of absolute truth or pure objectivity.
This is the one experience that everyone has in exactly the same way and that cannot be distinguished between them. Every detail is perfectly aligned. Any knowledge about this kind of experience is entirely shared by anyone who has the experience: the observer has perfect knowledge of the object and completely understands everything about it and they know that the others know. In other words, this is what a metaphysical truth would be like.

General Comments
This, then, is the model and how it works on two levels: the general level of the extent to which experience is shared (from not at all to completely) and the level of agreement amongst people about a specific experience. I hope it is obvious that most of our experiences are in the middle ground. We share experiences to some degree with the people around us, but most of the people are not around us, so our sensory fields do not overlap. With respect to any given shared experience we can usually agree on the core features and some of the details, though there is always room for subjective, not to say idiosyncratic, conclusions and opinions.
For example, if I lean over the fence and ask my neighbour how the weather is and they say it's cloudy and raining, when I am experiencing clear skies sunshine, I will intuit that one of us us out of touch with reality, or they are feigning it for some rhetorical purpose, perhaps humour.
If I am sharing a meal with someone who likes searingly hot chili and is very much enjoying it, but I dislike the burning sensation, then we are having the same experience but interpreting it differently. There's overlap, but it's slight.
What can seem to be pure objectivity can still be wrong. For example, for thousands of years, people have watched sunsets. Their body tells them that they are at rest via multiple sensory channels (kinesthetic, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual, visceral). If I am at rest and there is perceptible movement of an object, then the only logical conclusion is that the object is moving. However, in the case of the sun, we know this is wrong. The fact is that we are moving relative to the sun, but the acceleration is so small that it does not register on our senses, giving us a false impression. I have called this the sunset illusion. We still talk about the sun "setting" even though we know that it does not because it feels right.  There are many other kinds of sensory illusions, as well. These are oddities of how our senses work and how the brain interprets signals from nerves and presents a picture to awareness. Such illusions are important to keep in mind when thinking about metaphysical truth, because, obviously, such a truth could not fall into this category.

Similarly, what can seem to be pure subjectivity can still have an objective component. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that they are not out to get you. Sometimes people will insist that we can't know how they feel, but of course we can. Emotions are universal and we do know how things feel. What we cannot replicate are the thought patterns that accompany emotions. Emotions themselves are relatively simple and can be boiled down to about seven or eight basic moods. And they are highly contagious precisely because we are empathetic: we literally experience the emotions of others. And empathy is universal in social mammals.

In practice, our individual knowledge of the world is always coloured by the physical nature of our senses and the architecture of our brains. Pure objectivity is never attained under normal circumstances. Mystics argue that it can be obtained under extraordinary circumstances and Perennial Philosophy rests on this claim. 

If there is a single overriding metaphysical truth, then in principle at least, it must fit my definition of pure objectivity, and to experience it would be to have 100% overlap with everyone else who experiences it. All descriptions and definitions of it would be identical because experiencing it would not involve any subjectivity. Indeed, the complete agreement on the truth could be seen as the defining feature of the Perennial Philosophy. Proponents assert that religieux completely agree on a core of common beliefs and that all religions point to (if they do not actually teach) this single absolute truth or Truth.

In my view, however, this is an impression created by a biased and highly selective reading of religion and mysticism. The supposed common core of beliefs is more like a collection of vague statements of values expressed in woolly terms. I have already pointed to a better explanation based on the necessary characteristics of social mammals: empathy and reciprocity. The social lifestyle requires these. As the social lifestyle becomes more sophisticated and groups grow larger, these two qualities lead to mores and to morals. Once we can think abstractly about our mores, we discover morality and we can begin to tease out ethical principles. Without the evolutionary argument for commonality, we tend to look to explain it by appealing to some external agent, such as metaphysical truth. Having a better explanation helps, but it does not eliminate the bad explanation. This requires a different strategy. 

The proposition I will defend is that all human experience occurs on this spectrum (or something analogous to it). Some philosophers of mind will counter that all experience is entirely subjective and inaccessible to others. But if this were true we'd never agree on anything. And on some things we find an extraordinary degree of agreement. Ask anyone at all, anywhere on the planet, about gravity and they will describe something similar because the experience of having weight is more or less the same for everyone. Put anyone in microgravity and they will struggle to orient themselves, and their physiology will change. Gravity is an objective fact and the only uncertainty about it is in the tooth-fairy agnosticism category (aka philosophy). We might explain things in different ways, but the phenomenology is so similar as to be beyond coincidence. We all know the experience of weight.

How the spectrum applies and the point of it will become clearer if I outline the examples that made me think of it. I will do this in part III. At the heart of my criticism of the Perennial Philosophy is a rejection of the idea that we can arrive at a purely objective state or the knowledge that pertains to it, via purely subjective methods or experiences. Indeed, this seems to me to be self-evidently false. 


23 November 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part I

In this essay (in several parts) I will deconstruct the so-called Perennial Philosophy and present an argument that we have, in effect, been looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope, at altered experiences. Rather than a single metaphysical truth, there are, in fact, a range of epistemic facets and subjective phenomena that point to common features of the human brain and human societies. In effect, God is made in man's image. However, I will argue that we are not constrained to accept the narratives of mysticism on their own terms. We can choose a different framework and find meaning and value in the absence of the articles of faith that drive the Perennial Philosophy.

Returning to the telescope metaphor, it can be entertaining to look through the wrong end, but the revolution in knowledge comes when we look through the right end. Distant objects are brought virtually closer, enabling us to discern with greater accuracy the features of the world around us.

I begin, in Part I, by critiquing the premise of the Perennial Philosophy as a form of eclectic and syncretic religiosity based on perennial misunderstandings. In part II, I will propose that experience forms a spectrum along an axis defined by two poles: subjectivity and objectivity. I've been wary of these terms in the past, but I think we can employ them here to good effect. The spectrum will provide us with a unifying construct or hermeneutic with which we can understand different approaches to religiosity. In Part III, I will apply this hermeneutic to subjects of interest to Buddhists: meditation, egolessness, and mystical experiences. I try to show that a purely subjective method cannot lead to ontologically objective facts. However, the experiences that arise in the process of pursuing these methods, can help us draw inferences about the human brain and human societies.

We can sum this up as "We are human beings having human experiences. Nothing more, nothing less." 

The Perennial Philosophy

The Western roots of the Perennial Philosophy are often traced to the Renaissance and the renewed interest in Neoplatonism and alchemy at that time. The central idea is that there is a single metaphysical truth to which all religions and mystical traditions point: "The One" of Neoplatonism. The term philosophia perennis seems to have been coined by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716).

Of course, this project is helped when the main religions that intellectuals have to examine are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of these emerged from Semitic cultures and thus share not only ideas, attitudes, and practices, but have considerable overlap in their holy books and even, to some extent, recognise each other's prophets. The God of all three is essentially the same god (El) under different names. Additionally, they were all influenced by Zoroastrianism, particularly in adopting the combination of one god and one prophet.

Perennialism got a boost in the 18th Century when Westerners began to explore Indian religions. The Vedantic abstract, absolute being, or Brahman, seemed to be much the same thing as the abstract, absolute being, the One, of Neoplatonism. Looking at summaries of Neoplatonic ideas, they look suspiciously like Vedanta and some scholars have suggested a real influence which seems prima facie plausible.

Unlike European Christianity, the religions of India have always been very open to ideas, attitudes, and practices from other religions. There has long been a general attitude of eclecticism in Indian religions. Islam and Christianity have both taken root in India, but are not Indian religions. For example, Vedic and chthonic gods appear in the early Buddhist texts, while Śiva appears in several later texts. In the Vaiṣṇa religion, the Buddha is an avatāra of Viṣṇu, while Vedanta is influenced by classical Buddhism. The eclecticism and syncretism of Tantra is even more pronounced. While such observations and the terms "eclecticism" and "syncretism" carry negative connotations in Abrahamic religious contexts (and thus in Europe and its colonies), we have to see them as virtues of Indian religion.

Some Europeans, being blind to historical processes in the evolution of religion, especially the lateral transfer of ideas, and primed by Neoplatonism, saw similarities as confirmation the idea that all religions point to a single metaphysical truth. Once the idea took root, then all kinds of cognitive biases kicked in to make it seem increasingly likely.

This is the problem that we face again and again in trying to understand religion. Theologians seek supernatural explanations; they do scholarship to confirm their faith, rather than to discover the truth. Buddhism Studies has the same problem. We know the outcome of this method because we know the articles of faith from which it sets out. If anyone adopts the axiom that all religions point to the same truth, they filter the evidence to highlight anything which supports this view and to eliminate any contradiction. The exact shape of the articles of faith is of secondary importance in this process. Belief persists for reasons unrelated to the external forms of religion. For example, in a previous essay, I adapted Justin L Barrett's argument about why people believe in God, to a Buddhist context by applying it to karma and rebirth (the twin myths of the afterlife and the just world).

As well as commitments to the supernatural, to an afterlife, and to a just world fallacy, humans also have a strong desire to discover unity in diversity, convergence on a single entity, event, or cause; a single overarching truth; the nature of reality; a prime mover; a first cause; a creator god, and so on. The problem is that, as with technical standards, there have always been many singular absolute truths to choose from.

Like many subjects in the modern philosophy of religion, the Perennial Philosophy really begins with a horrified reaction to the notion of a mechanistic universe that emerged in the early days of the scientific revolution, but throws the baby out with the bath water. This reaction took slightly different forms in different places: English Romantic poets, German Idealist philosophers, and American Transcendentalists. All contributed to shaping the Perennial Philosophy.


It is because of the Transcendentalists, in particular, that we discuss "spirituality" as a distinct subject. Before the Transcendentalists, and particularly Emerson, the word "spiritual" really only applied to the church. But now we all have a "spiritual dimension". And hence the French Idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin could assert in the 1960s:
"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."
This could be straight from the mouth of Vivekananda or Ramakrishna. It fully embraces Cartesian mind-body dualism, but in metaphorical terms is framed more as a matter-spirit dualism. On the cognitive metaphors and entailments of this kind of dualism see an earlier essay of mine Metaphors and Materialism. (26 April 2013). We can sum up the kinds of metaphorical language used by citing pairs of terms that describe each substance:
Matter is: cold, dead, inanimate, fixed, passive, low, below, dull, opaque, dark, heavy, dense, viscous, illusory, material, limited, finite, mundane 
Spirit is: warm, alive, animated, changing, active, high, above, bright, translucent, luminous, light, airy, fluid, real, immaterial, unlimited, infinite, transcendental
Matter is associated with the earth, the nadir; with the body, with physical laws, with death and the non-living 
Spirit is associated with the sky, the zenith; with the mind, with mental agency, with life and the afterlife
Religion and religiosity employ these dual cognitive metaphors unconsciously and it shapes the attitudes of religieux. Heaven is above and Hell below. Matter is all about constraint and suffering whereas spirit is about liberation and bliss. And it leads a hatred of the body and bodily functions, a rejection of the material world, and this life. And by contrast a love of the immaterial and imaginary and a longing for the afterlife (in which everything has the qualities of spirit).

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was around near the beginning of the mechanistic universe idea. It made a lot of sense and he could not simply ignore it. But he was constrained in his acceptance by a desire to leave open the door for God. And he did this by formalising an intuition that almost everyone has, what we now call mind-body dualism. Yes, he said, matter does follow a mechanistic pattern, but spirit remains free from this and the acme of spirit is God. Even with the decline of mechanistic thinking, it was clear that matter was far from inanimate and that the supernatural realm of spirit had nowhere to hide. The line between chemistry and biology became thinner and then disappeared, leaving Vitalism (the theory that spirit animates matter) completely discredited amongst intellectuals. Folk Vitalism, along with folk Dualism continue to flourish amongst ordinary people.

I cited Teilhard de Chardin earlier. What he intends to say is that we are not "mere matter" attaining the qualities it supposedly lacks from the ground up, but that we are spirits trapped in physical bodies.  Such virtues as we have come from wholly from spirit. In this dualistic view, spirit is the animating substance—the life's breath—that brings life to dead matter. Matter can never have the qualities of spirit, and where those properties are present, then the conclusion is that spirit must be present. Human life is seen, egocentrically, as the paradigm for where matter and spirit overlap. Animals (literally, "that which breathes") have considerably less spirit.

In the essay on matter-spirit dualism, I pointed out that as a chemist, I saw matter as typically having most of the attributes of spirit: light, colour, energy, etc. Chemistry consists partly in studying these qualities and partly in persuading different atoms to interact and form new compounds. I grew up around volcanoes and they also force one to think about matter rather differently: hot, active, high, light, fluid, and so on. The matter-spirit dualism is dependent on seeing stone as the prototype for matter - dull, grey, cold (to touch), inanimate, hard; very like a corpse in rigor mortis (though if we only waited a few days, we would find that a corpse continues to change as life at a different scale recycles the components of the body). In effect, the dualist has to be ignorant, or to deliberately blind themselves to the animated qualities of matter. Some dualists attribute those qualities in matter to the presence of spirit everywhere (a theory called Panpsychism).

The monist view is that there is only one kind of stuff in the universe. Mind and matter might be epistemically different, but not ontologically. As John Searle pointed out, the usual definition of "materialism" accepts a dualistic split of the world into matter and spirit, and then proceeds to define one as real and the other as unreal. This is not monism, this is just lopsided dualism. Most of the critiques of materialism that I have seen take this straw man approach.

Monism proper does not accept a matter-spirit ontological distinction at all. Therefore, a monist cannot reduce one to the other (since that is still lopsided dualism). The qualities that we would like to separate are, in fact, found everywhere. All light is a perturbation in the electromagnetic field, it is not a quality of spirit. If we see light it is because photons are hitting our retina. If we experience light in the absence of this it because the visual centres of the brain are active on their own and we are hallucinating. Meaning comes from interpretation and we are not constrained to interpret experience according to any paradigm.

But these metaphysical observations are complicated by epistemic distinctions that pervade our experience as a result of our different sensory modes. For example, we perceive mechanical vibrations differently than we perceive vibrations in the electromagnetic field. We might conclude, as the ancients did, that light and sound are two different things. But on examination we realise that the different perceptions are due to senses tuned to respond to vibrations at very different scales. In other words, the major difference in our perceptions of light and sound are epistemic, not ontic. Light and sound do not point to two different substances, but to the different behaviour of one substance at different scales. And our perceptions themselves, according to monists, are not because of two substances (mind and body) but are due to two modes of perceptions: perceptions are stimuli represented in the brain coming into relationship with our virtual self-model. Thoughts in the form "I see you" are representations rather than realities, even though there may well be real entities corresponding to "I" and "you" (by which I mean two organisms).

The legacy language matter-spirit dualism still has a strong influence on how we discuss such subjects and it is all too easy to mistake the epistemic use of terms such as "mind", "body", or even "I" as indicating an ontological commitment that was not intended. Since the epistemic/ontic distinction is seldom made clear (or clear enough), confusion about what monism says is rife. The continued popularity of ideas like the Perennial Philosophy is partly dependent on this philosophical and linguistic confusion. Professional philosophers have no vested interest in clearing things up. Their job is to undermine certainty by producing alternative explanations whether or not it is helpful to do so. The nature of intellectual discussion unconstrained by evidence allows for this to continue indefinitely, even in the face of our complete understand the physics of everyday experience. What philosophers don't seem to realise is that you can win the argument and still be wrong.


Perennialism is part of a trend that included Theosophy. They were both eclectic and syncretic approaches to religiosity that drew especially on Vedanta. They both suggested the possibility of a rational religiosity opposing it to irrational religion. The idea of a rational alternative to religion is a theme of religiosity in Europe and to some extent America from the mid-19th Century onwards. This is because of the inroads made by science. Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and has come to represent a broader seachange amongst English speaking intellectuals. Edwin Arnold's epic poem about the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, became a bestseller just 20 years later, even though in the early 19th Century Buddhism was roundly denounced as a heathen religion.

The publication of Aldous Huxley's book The Perennial Philosophy in 1945 took the subject to a much wider audience. The novelist's book has the characteristic eclecticism and syncretism of other expositions on the subject and was particularly inspired by his reading of Neo-Vedanta, a form of Hinduism which itself incorporated ideas from the Perennial Philosophy. Again, the unacknowledged lateral transfer of ideas contributes to the impression of a deeper unity that would be better categorised as syncretism.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was the grandson of Thomas Huxley, the infamous champion of evolution who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest". He was educated at Eton, the elite private school, and attended Oxford University (at that time also an elite private institution), and was from that generation who saw Europe almost destroyed by two all-out wars that killed millions of people and consumed vast amounts of resources for no obvious benefit. In WWII both sides specifically targeted civilians, killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants. He himself could not fight due to his poor eyesight. Traditional forms of authority were falling apart, the Church had lost its relevance, and the sun was setting on the age of European Empires. The various churches continue to struggle to be relevant on many fronts: the discrediting of the supernatural by science, the scandal of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests, the failure to treat women and men as equals, the failure to accept a spectrum of sexuality as valid, and so on. Huxley was known as a social satirist, but soon descended into writing dystopian novels beginning with Brave New World in 1932. The Perennial Philosophy thus strikes a rather optimistic note in his oeuvre.

The desire for diverse religions and traditions to be unified under one rubric reaches an apex with the theology of Ken Wilber, termed "Integral Theory". And it is not an unworthy goal. After all, the divisions of religion are implicated in many intractable conflicts around the globe. On the other hand, pinning the blame on religion is often a false flag operation for what are effectively economic or political wars. However, Perennialism and the desire for human unity is not a purely Western phenomenon. From time to time, new dispensations which unify and supersede existing religious traditions have emerged in many different places. I've mentioned Neo-Vedanta. We could add Sikhism and Bahá'í. Note that early Buddhism is not perennialist. It does assert the Four Noble Truths, but it also asserts that all other religions are mistaken about them. The Buddha of the early Buddhist stories does not suffer fools or contrary views gladly. On the other hand, many modern Buddhists are also Perennialists. 

Perennial Philosophy has leaked from its container and contaminated the groundwater of popular culture. Common tropes like "all is one", "everything happens for a reason", "what goes around, comes around" may also have roots in specific religious traditions, but they were popularised by Perennialism. New Age approaches to religion seem less popular now than 20 years ago, but they were a manifestation of the same impulse to a unified religiosity without religion. There was a vast reservoir of people who felt the need to be healed. Too little was made of this, I think: the profound alienation of modern life, especially since the rise of Neolibertarian/Mercantilism, creates distress and disease that can't be treated by doctors. What is lost is a sense of connection to people and the world around us. Regaining that without knowing that it is missing is difficult. The current generation have moved on from the need for healing, to the need for protection from harm. This is especially true in America where mass school shootings are now an almost daily occurrence. University students now routinely deplatform speakers, demand trigger warnings, and so on. I find it quite understandable that they do not feel safe, but it is a shame that it has manifested as a closing of their minds.

Twin claims

Thanissaro makes an interesting point about the claims of Perennialism actually having two parts:
Perennial philosophers base their thinking on two claims. The first is a fact-claim: All the great religious traditions of the world share a common core of beliefs. The second is a value-claim: The commonality of these beliefs is proof that they are true. (Thanissaro. "Perennial Issues" Insight Journal. Summer 2010). 
I'm not entirely convinced about the distinction between as "fact-claim" and a "value-claim". Both of Thanissaro's claims are truth claims, one is based in an article of faith, the other on a deduction from the article of faith. Though there are two of them. This kind of reasoning is quite common and I want to briefly discuss two parallels.

Carl Jung makes a similar truth claim when he asserts the existence of the "collective unconscious". Myths around the world share a number of common themes and symbols. Jung sees mythic symbolism as common with dream symbolism and both as emerging from the unconscious mind. He reasoned, without a shred of evidence, that if there are collective symbols then there must be a collective unconscious in which these symbols reside (btw this is very similar to the reasoning that underpins the Yogācāra version of karma doctrine). However, in his book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, Michael Witzel has shown that if we look at the evidence more broadly there is a more plausible explanation. A relatively small group of story-telling people left Africa and populated the world beginning around 100,000 years ago.  They had a common core of myths, the story arc which they bequeathed to every human culture. Witzel's book represents the first comprehensive statement of a theory that is still in the progress of emerging. It is a rational explanation for something which previously only had an irrational explanation. Similarly, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's explanation of image schemas and how they influence thought via cognitive metaphors also explains why all humans have symbols in common. Our worldview is profoundly shaped by how our bodies interact with the world and how our brains present information to awareness.

The other example that comes to mind is the idea of universal values. Although the subject is a minefield, humans do seem to share a common set of values. These manifest in religion as common moral rules and ethical principles. For example, killing an in-group member is universally a bad thing under ordinary circumstances. For the killer, it creates an obligation or debt to the group (and especially to the family of the one killed) that must be (re)paid. Explaining this commonality in terms of an overarching metaphysical truth never satisfies. But it is not our only option. As I explored in my essays on the evolution of morality, all social mammals have two things in common, the ability to experience empathy and to practice reciprocity. Frans de Waal has argued that these two qualities are all that is needed to show how morality evolved in human beings and why it takes the form that it does. Morality, in the sense of having group norms, is universal in social mammals and at the same time specific to the group (and partly dependent on their environment). The basic principles that give social mammals a successful evolutionary strategy are the common core of morality and ethics. As Charles Darwin said:
"...the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts; and in the case of the lower animals is would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness, or for the happiness of the community. They have, however, certainly been developed for the general good of the community." (Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man, 1871). 
Because of our common evolutionary history, all humans have recognisable forms of morality. And we can recognise something similar in other mammals, especially in those that are most similar to us, the chimps and bonobos. This is not a top-down morality imposed by a metaphysical truth or a god, but an emergent property of organisms living a social lifestyle that ensures their survival. Morality is naturally selected for. For example, a truly selfish species would soon die out because a social lifestyle requires individuals to put the group first more often than not. Any species where members put their own needs first would not benefit from a social lifestyle and would evolve a more solitary lifestyle (as some mammals do) or die out.

The common core of beliefs is an article of faith for Perennialists, but is it true in the way that they want it to be? That is to say, is it the result of an overarching metaphysical truth? In fact, this seems quite unlikely to be the case.

A Common Core?

I've already pointed out that a good deal of religious commonality is down to the unacknowledged lateral transfer of ideas, attitudes, and practices between different religions. Vedanta was influenced by Buddhism (and vice versa), and in turn influenced Neoplatonism, which influenced modern Christianity, which shared common roots with Judaism and Islam (variants on the same religion), which came full circle and influenced Neo-Vedanta.

However, focussing on the similarities also obscures the vast differences. As a Buddhist, I argue that there is no god, no soul, no creation, no prophet, and no messiah. These are innocent enough mistakes to make for premodern people. But they are not real and maintaining such beliefs when we know better is reprehensible for followers and dishonest of priests. As far as the core beliefs of Buddhism go, I have nothing important in common with Christians, Muslims, or Jews (to the extent that I understand these theist religions), beyond a human commitment to morality which fits the pattern described above; i.e., that is an emergent property of a social lifestyle.

I know, however, that a Buddhist who is also a rationalist and naturalist is rare. Many people who profess Buddhism, in fact, have a prior commitment to matter-spirit dualism. This opens the door to seeming commonality with other religions if only because the framing of matter-spirit duality entails certain core beliefs. Some of my colleagues in the Triratna Buddhist Order are very definitely in the Dualist camp. Most of the Buddhists I meet on the internet are very definitely Dualists, including those who assert some form of non-dualism.

This matter-spirit Dualism, framed using similar cognitive metaphors and image schemas necessarily takes the same form everywhere. If one is inclined to believe in metaphysical truths, then here is the obvious candidate. However, I would say that matter-spirit dualism is something that we impose on experience. It is not imposed on us by reality. In other words, this is not a metaphysical truth in the sense that is implied by the Perennial Philosophy.

Even if the facts are in evidence, the conclusions we draw are highly dependent on how we think. Axioms, for example, are inevitably reproduced by a process of deduction. Explanations that do not resort to magical thinking or mind-body dualism or any of the other faults that go with the Perennial Philosophy are generally better in the sense of providing more accuracy and precision. Where we do not yet have an explanation, it is better to admit we don't know than to make something up.

However, the example of the common core of empathy and reciprocity makes this discussion more complex because in these two qualities of social primate group interactions we do have something like a common core. We can easily see how a species with these minimal qualities might evolve a moral culture alongside its genetic evolution, if that meant living in ever larger groups, surrounded by and having to deal with strangers most of the time.

Moral rules do vary from group to group, even family to family within a large society, but the form that moral rules take emerges from a common background so there are similarities. For example, because it is based on reciprocity, morality is often framed as an accounting exercise (on this subject, I highly recommend George Lakoff's essay: Metaphor, Morality, and Politics). The classic religious image of an afterlife reckoning is the one from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (which I have mentioned many times before). In the image, Anubis is weighing the soul of the scribe, Ani, in a large balance. On the other side is an ostrich feather representing the law. Of course, Ani is armed with spells to make his soul lighter, but the principle is that one who has lived in accordance with the law (the moral norms of Egyptian society of the day) will have a light soul and will ascend to the realm of the gods ruled over by Osiris. Anyone with a heavy soul will be devoured by a hybrid animal monster. The idea, as with all such stories, is to encourage the living toward normative behaviour with a carrot and stick approach.

Thus the common ideas of God as absolute being, the human messenger who conveys the message, and the apparently similar moral rules can all be explained in ways that do not involve the supernatural at all, let alone a single metaphysical truth. But, and this is important, there are commonalities. There are shared ideas and qualities that give the impression of a common core of beliefs. These do not prove Perennialism; on the contrary, they show that Perennialism is simply a mistake as a result of not seeing enough of the picture and/or not seeing it clearly enough. Our commonalities are evolutionary rather than supernatural. Evolution emerges not as a single metaphysical truth, but as an embodied paradigm that explains how humans come to have common qualities both at the genetic (including phenotypic) and social levels.


Perennial Philosophy is simply bad philosophy. It ignores historical processes and evolutionary processes, it fails to adequately distinguish epistemology and ontology, and it asserts an untenable matter-spirit dualism. The supposed metaphysical truth that religions point to can be explained as confirmation bias. Calling such a belief system a "philosophy" bestows a veneer of respectability and rationality on a form of modernist religiosity at a time when organised religion is widely viewed negatively. It is ironic that Perennial Philosophy is quite individualistic given the central proposition.

That said, philosophy generally seems far too open to speculation in the absence of evidence and to be burdened by tooth-fairy agnosticism. Philosophy is all about prolonging arguments by introducing hypothetical objections to everything. It almost always assumes a solipsistic point of view. I have been talking with a friend about the trolley problem, for example, and as classically posed it eliminates the social context.  In fact, morality is irreducibly social. If we are weighing up moral choices we may ask questions like:
Who will see me act?
Who will know about my choice and who might find out?
How will my peers react to my decision?
Moral philosophers try to eliminate such considerations and leave a human being making decisions in isolation. Some of us may think of such considerations as themselves immoral, but this would be a distortion based on an idealisation that is far from the reality of being a social primate: we are moral  precisely because we are social, because we can empathise and understand reciprocity. Furthermore, we acknowledge that social isolation is detrimental to both mental and physical health and think of solitary confinement as a cruel punishment. Quite a lot of moral philosophy seems to be based on these kinds of false assumptions about the social nature of humanity. Contrast this with the idea of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that reasoning is a group activity (explaining why individuals do poorly at solo reasoning tasks).

A pragmatic approach to knowledge, grounded in empiricism, and which takes account of the social nature of knowledge is more empowering for human beings. We can always change our minds, but mostly we need to get on with our lives using the best heuristics we have. Of course, we cannot agree on what the best course of action is a lot of the time. In any rational consideration of reality, this would undermine the Perennial Philosophy. However, because of matter-spirit dualism, it leads us to think of humans as evil, which is extremely counterproductive.

The subject I have not yet touched on is that some kinds of experience seem to support the bad theory of a single metaphysical truth, especially the so-called "mystical" experiences. These cannot be ignored, but again, we don't have to accept how Perennialists frame the discussion. In order to reframe the discussion, in the next part of the essay I will introduce a simplified model with characteristics that illustrate my approach. This aims to show that the supposed metaphysical truth of the Perennial Philosophy sits at one end of a spectrum and the methods used to try to realise that truth all point to the other. Then, in Part III, I will explore the example of meditation and how it moves us away from objectivity towards pure subjectivity. The goal we pursue in meditation is not reality or the discovery of the nature of reality. Instead, we pursue an understanding of the nature of sensory and cognitive experience and, in fact, the cessation of experience is the highest attainment of these methods.


02 November 2018

Buddhism, Bodhisatvas, and the End of Rebirth

This essay is dedicated to the memory of
Urgyen Sangharakshita (1925-2018)
There is a pernicious trend in Buddhist historiography. It is the attempt to smooth out inconsistencies and present Buddhism as far more coherent and unified than it ever was in practice. A prominent manifestation of this is the idea that there really is no difference between the so-called "arahant ideal" and the so-called "bodhisatva ideal". While I'm sure that those who take this approach are sincere in their belief that playing down the differences is a worthy cause, it obscures the reasons the new idea emerged in the first place. Those reasons are intrinsically interesting.

In the last 20 years we have discovered a great deal more about the early Mahāyāna than was previously known. A great summary and assessment can be found in a pair of articles by David Drewes (2010a and 2010b). We now know, for example, that what we call Mahāyāna was actually a rather disparate group of ideas that took centuries to converge. It emerged in monasteries, in all likelihood alongside mainstream Buddhism (though, of course, Mahāyāna became the mainstream, eventually).

By about 200 BCE all Buddhists were starting to reject the early Buddhist  doctrines and to quietly rewrite or replace them. In my article on karma (Attwood 2014), for example, I traced the rejection of the idea that karma is inescapable. Later Indian Buddhists did not accept this constraint (niyāma) and modified the doctrine of karma to allow for the consequences of actions to be avoided. One mostly did this using religious practices, especially ritualised confession, though later simply chanting a mantra was thought to literally eliminate all evil karma.

I've shown in previous blog essays that all Buddhists found the sutta version of dependent arising wanting and rewrote it, especially where it appeared to interfere with the working of karma; i.e., where dependent arising says that consequences cannot outlive the conditions for their existence. When this ceases, that ceases.

Awakening as the End of Rebirth

It is repeatedly and frequently stated across the Pāli texts, that awakening is tantamount to the cessation of or the liberation from rebirth. "I will not be born again" is something that arahants frequently exclaim upon awakening. In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11), often referred to as "the first sermon", the Buddha concludes his account of his awakening by saying:
ñāṇañca pana me dassanaṃ udapādi akuppā me cetovimutti. ayam antimā jāti. natthi 'dāni punabbhavo ti. (SN v.423)
This knowledge and vision arose for me: "My liberation of mind is unshakeable. This is my last birth. Now rebirth doesn't exist."
A more common refrain, heard across the Nikāyas is this one:
khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā ti
Birth is ended; the religious life is fulfilled; the task is completed; I'll never be reborn.
No doubt there are variations on these as well, but there is no need to search them out. It is clearly understood that awakening is synonymous with the end of rebirth. So whatever else happens to a tathāgata after death, they are not reborn. And the reason for this is found in the nidāna formulation of dependent arising. For example, in Dasabala Sutta (SN 12:21), “from ignorance as a condition, there is volition” (avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā), from volition as a condition, there is discrimination (saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ)” and so on, up to, “from the condition of birth, there is aging and death” (jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ), which is said, in this case, to be the origin of the whole mass of suffering (evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti)” (SN ii.28). In the suttas (re-)birth is synonymous with dukkha. To be born, even as a deva, is to suffer. To end suffering one must be completely extinguished (pari-nibbāṇa). Thus the tathāgata is never coming back and that is the way it must be or awakening is not an escape from suffering.

This escape was cause for celebration in the early days of Buddhism. The Buddha was the first man to escape suffering, by escaping rebirth. And in this myth the Buddha shares some features with Yama. We think of Yama as the King of Hell (naraya), but as I showed in my essay on him, he is not a god, but rather a Brahmanical culture hero. Yama's claim to fame is that he was the first man to find his way to the ancestors in the sky (svarga) after death, i.e., to the pitṛloka or "world of the fathers". Yama opened the door to a cyclic afterlife. This is significant, because no other Indo-European culture has a cyclic eschatology (Plato's speculations aside, the Athenian afterlife was not generally cyclic). A cyclic afterlife appears to be a regional feature of cultures in the sub-continent. 

The myth of Yama shows the Vedic speaking people adopting this eschatology into their mythos. To be more precise, it shows the Vedic patriarchy adopting the myth - we have no idea how women were placed in this scheme because they are not mentioned. The Vedas are the literature of a group of men who barely gave a thought to women. The Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad is antinomian for many reasons, not least because it shows some women claiming and receiving equal status with the leading male protagonist.

The Buddha is hailed in Buddhist mythology as opening the doors to the deathless by none other than Brahmā, the creator god of the Brahmins of the late Vedic period. The doors to the deathless are open and the Buddha left hundreds, if not thousands of followers behind who were also liberated from rebirth. Many of them had their own students numbering in the thousands. The presence of the Buddha was not necessary while living arahants were able to teach those with "but a little dust in their eyes". Buddhism ought to have prospered on this model. But it did not. And we have no good accounts of why.

The Collapse of Early Buddhism

What is seldom if ever acknowledged is that the Buddhism of the Pāli suttas did not last. It did not do what was needed for the societies in which it persisted. It was once thought that the Mahāyāna was a radical departure from monasticism introduced by lay Buddhists. But this has been put to rest. Mahāyāna grew out of the the monastery. In the early Mahāyāna sūtras the term bodhisatva is applied to full-time, hardcore meditation practitioners aiming at awakening. And this shows that awakening was still seen as a potential, if hard won goal. Amongst the mainstream sects the interest was in the analysis of mental events and theorising about how they contributed to bondage or liberation. Many schools were primarily focussed on śāstras or commentaries which attempted to make something coherent from the dog's breakfast of the Nikāyas. Before the advent of Protestant Buddhism in the 18th and 19th Centuries, all Buddhist sects were primarily focussed on śāstra rather than sūtra; even those sects which advertised themselves as being focussed on sūtras (like the Lotus Sutra sects) still relied on commentaries.

The received tradition was sometimes simply rejected, but more often than not the commentaries present themselves as essentializing the Dharma. By this I mean they present a coherent, and therefore highly partial, account as the whole of the Dharma. What the Buddha (is reported to have) said becomes less important than what he meant,  and many people were happy to tell the world what he meant. The rise of the śāstra literature meant that the confusion, incoherent, contradictions, and conflicts of the early Buddhist texts were set aside in favour of a unified view. The problem was that there were at least a dozen different unified views by the beginning of the Common Era.

The Theravāda often collude with naive scholars in pretending to represent early Buddhism. They don't. Modern Theravāda is just that, modern. As with all the other sects, Theravādin monks for many centuries mostly studied Abhidhamma commentaries when they studied at all - even when they spent their lives copying out Pāli texts. They had given up on meditation and they have given up on awakening. As Peter Masefield outlines in his book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (1995), the view had arisen (despite considerable literary evidence to the contrary) that the presence of a Buddha was required for people to awaken. A Buddha was special in being self-awakened (so to speak), but everyone else needed the physical presence of a Buddha. After the Buddha's death, Masefield argues, no more arahants were liberated. Monks did memorise suttas, but they were chanted as magic spells at ceremonies and rites.

Against this we have to weigh the fact that many of the prominent modern Western Theravādin bhikkhus are connected to Thai and Burmese traditions that re-invented meditation in the 18th and 19th Centuries. These monks have long believed that their reinvented tradition maps onto what is found in the suttas preserved in Sri Lanka (though the bhikkhu lineage of that country died out and had to be re-established from Burma twice).

This situation of revised and essentialised teachings was still apparently unsatisfactory to Mahāyānists. There is no normative account of why this was so. However, I can offer my own explanation for this. I think it all begins with the absence of the Buddha. 

The Absent Buddha

The arguments I outline below derive from reverse engineering. By looking at the form that innovations take we can get an idea of what problem they were trying to solve. And there is a common thread to many of these innovations. And it is the problem of the absence of the Buddha. It was in this context that new figures began to emerge in the Buddhist imagination as replacement Buddhas, but designed without his "flaws" in mind. Because when Mahāyāna sūtras disparage the arahants, the real target is the father-figure who left and never returned. 

Pure Land

Consider the Pure Land schools. The earliest Pure Land Sūtra featured Buddha Akṣobhya in his Pure Land Abhirati. As Jan Nattier (2000) has shown, getting into Abhirati was hard work. Then came Amitābha living in Sukhāvati and he made it easy. The two Sukhāvativyūha Sūtras introduced the idea that one only need call his name in devotion and he'll meet you at death and guide you to Sukhāvati where everything was arranged to perfection (according the patriarchy of the day).

Take a step back and consider the form of this doctrinal innovation. It is predicated on the idea that Śākyamuni is dead and not coming back, and that the next Buddha Maitreya is not going to arrive for some billions of years. We are on our own. Part of the problem is that early Buddhists instituted a rule that there could only be one Buddha in any world at a time. The cultural evolution of the world followed a set pattern. The Buddhadharma had to flourish and die out before a new Buddha could be born to rediscover the Buddhadharma from scratch, since this is a defining feature of a Buddha. The main effect of this invented doctrine is that it raises the prestige of the so-called historical Buddha to its zenith. 

I showed, in my article on karma, that raising the prestige of the Buddha was a central concern for Buddhists. Over time, the Buddha became more magical and powerful until he was effectively a god. The prototypical event for this observation was the meeting with Ajatasattu. In the Pāli versions the king is doomed by his patricide. But in the later Mahāyāna retelling, the king is saved from his own evil karma by meeting the Buddha. The mere presence of the Buddha purifies him of patricide - one of the five unforgivable karmas that result in immediate rebirth in Hell.

The unforeseen consequence of gradually raising the prestige of the Buddha is that it began to appear to make awakening in his absence impossible. And his absence was an established fact. The authors of the Pure Land texts, some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, simply invented parallel universes with immortal Buddhas who could arrange for us to jump the tracks and be reborn in this alternate universe - the apotheosis of the Buddha. While Akṣobhya was a task-master, Amitābha was a soft touch. He only required your devotion. We know the metaphysics of this set up. Amitābha is a god, pure and simple. Sukhāvati is Heaven. We are sinners who can only be saved via the intervention of an external agency (or "other power") not touched by the sin of the world. 

Pure Land became one of the leading forms of Buddhism in the world and remains in that position some 2000 years later. The reasons for its popularity are not hard to fathom. It is an undemanding form of Buddhism, most of the work is done for you by an magical immortal father figure, in the afterlife. He just wants you to love him and most of us love our Daddy (or want to). 

The Evolution of the Bodhisatva

It's too early I think to have a proper history of the bodhisatva since we are really just getting used to the new information about their true relevance in early Mahāyāna. But we can take a similar reverse engineering approach to the mature concept of bodhisatvas like Mañjuśrī, Vajrapāṇi, or Avaklokiteśvara. The most important feature of the mature concept of the bodhisatva is that they are enlightened but take rebirth.

Why do we need the awakened to come back? On one hand the answer is obvious. We want our loved ones to come back to us. The Vedic speakers were entranced by the aboriginal Indian idea that after death one would be reborn amongst one's ancestors just as many Westerners are in love with the idea of people "coming back". We have an incurable nostalgia for the dead. We want to see them alive and well again. Belief in an afterlife has been linked to burying bodies with grave goods, the practice of which is arguably as old as modern humans, if not older (though the first undisputed evidence dates from around 40,000 years ago).

On the other hand, it speaks to a deep seated insecurity. Living teachers simply did not create the required confidence in the Buddhist population of India. And this can have two main causes. Firstly, the standard of teaching may have declined, leaving students doubting the efficacy of their practice regimes. Secondly, and I think more likely, is that the placing the Buddha on a pedestal to raise his prestige had a detrimental effect on Buddhist communities. The higher the Buddha got, the lower human teachers were and the closer relatively to their human students.

This problem is not particular to India or Buddhism. When you raise the goal of religion to the zenith and talk about it in absolutist terms; when the goal is perfection, then no human being can ever come close. In fact, even if most teachers are fantastic, the one who goes bad seems to taint all of them. In this process, the goal becomes unreachable and any attainments that humans do achieve are down played by comparison to perfection; while imperfects that show up confirm suspicions.

So yes, we do see arahants being talked down to and mocked in degrading fashion in some Mahāyāna sūtras. Perhaps this is not because they are not awakened; they are arahants, after all, and thus very much awakened. Perhaps it is because they fall short of some imaginary perfection that has been set up in opposition to mere human awakening. That is to say, it is not because people were falsely claiming to be arahants as is sometimes suggested, but that Mahāyānists allowed themselves to be fooled into thinking that perfection was attainable on some level, just not by human beings. Mahāyāna is delusional in the way that all theology is delusional. It sets up an impossibly high standard, insists on judging people (harshly) by that standard, and in the absence of any human exemplars, transfers its devotional feelings onto imaginary magical beings.

The result is the classic matter/spirit duality.  I have discussed this in some detail in the past, analysing the metaphors involved and showing how they form an interlocking set of ideas that self-reinforce (like a cybernetic feedback loop). I also extended this in a series of essays on the idea of "spiritual" looking at the language and power relations involved in organisations which frame themselves as "spiritual" (see Bibliography). This duality has powerfully shaped all religions which tend to favour the (imaginary) spirit side of the equation. 

In some forms of Buddhism, this duality contrasts the bodhisatvas as pure beings made of light with dirty humans made of shit. For example, Śāntideva goes on an extended rage about the disgusting human body in his celebrated work on Mahāyāna, the Bodhicaryāvatāra. It covers two pages in the definitive translation by Skilton and Crosby. The language is harsh and hate-filled. Buddhists attempt to excuse the tirade as a skilful means (upaya) but to me it is inexcusable; the epitome of unskillfulness. It is born out of a deep-seated hatred based on a matter-spirit duality.

Other Approaches

I think these two examples demonstrate the principle. We might also cite tathāgatagarbha doctrine, as a way of making the Buddha present in his absence. Or the passage from early on in the Golden Light Sutra in which the Buddha is proclaimed to be immortal (he only appeared to die). Or the idea of everything being interpenetrated by the dharmakāya, the true form of the Buddha, magically above change and decay (i.e., permanent). Or the idea that one can imagine oneself to be a Buddha already and magically transform oneself into a Buddha in reality (while avoiding delusions of grandeur and other mental problems).

We also know that around the same time the first images of the Buddha appear in Gandhara and Mathura. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Gandhara had been conquered by a group of pastoralists known by their Chinese ethnonym 月氏 Yuèzhī. They appear to have had caucasian features (judging by portraits on coins) and to have spoken an Iranian language. However they also adopted many local norms as well, including, possibly, the Buddhist religion. The resulting Kushan Empire was a melting post of Persian, Greek, Yuezhi, and Indian ideas, attitudes, and practices. Perhaps it was coming into contact with theism (Zoroastrianism) that made the Buddhists in that region aware that the absence of the Buddha was problematic? In any case it was amidst this milieu that images of the Buddha as a man were first made. 

Having identified the pattern we can see how it makes sense of a range of innovations over time.


Everywhere Buddhists demand the presence of the Buddha or they resign themselves to despair and give up on awakening (as the Theravādins did before they reinvented meditation). And this is no accident. Where do we find a principle of required presence in Buddhism? We find it precisely in the doctrine of dependent arising. The idea was initially to describe the arising of suffering in the presence of sense experience. And it does an OK job of this for an Iron Age idea. But before long Buddhists began to treat it as a theory of everything. It is as though a Freudian were to argue that the world is structured into world-ego, world-id, and world-super ego, and that cosmic sex is the driving force of every process in the universe. For all I know there are Freudians who think like this, but I bet they have never tried to rewrite the equations of classical mechanics to show how sex is the basic force in the universe.

Once you take dependent arising to be a theory of everything then it is only logical that awakening requires the presence of an awakened teacher. Because without the necessary condition, the effect cannot arise. But the underlying condition for all awakening in Buddhist mythology is the Buddha. If this is so then the presence of a Buddha is a requirement for a world in which there is awakening.

We don't know how the argument went because the Mahāyānists did not show their working. They might have reasoned that since there are awakened people then a Buddha must be present somehow, and since that Buddha is not physically present he must be present in some other form: corporeal in a parallel universe, or incorporeal in ours. Or they might have reasoned from the physical absence of the universe combined with a desire that awakening were possible again, believing that it currently was not.

However, this way of thinking also misunderstands awakening. No matter how many different ways we say it, Buddhists always end up thinking of extinction as something; or as arising. Cessation is the right word. The point is that sensory experience stops when we withdraw from attention from it. Trivially, if I am focussed on writing, the outside world fades from my mind. And, more profoundly, when we use concentration techniques to bring about the complete cessation of sensory experience, aka emptiness. The use of emptiness as a metaphor was about the worst road Buddhists could have taken. It was a disastrous philosophical blunder because it led to Buddhists thinking of emptiness in metaphysical terms rather than as the simple absence of sense experience. 

Absence of sense experience is essential to awakening. And yet we made Buddhism all about the presence of the Buddha. The former is Buddhadharma, the second is mere religion (and no better than any other religion which invokes the presence of a father figure). 


Arguments, scholarly, religious, or increasingly both, that seek to minimize the distinction between arahant and bodhisatva, however sincere in their motivation, damage our understanding of the history of ideas in Buddhism. Such approaches actively prevent us from asking interesting questions about why Buddhism changed and if we never ask the questions, we never answer them. Whether or not the new ideas were totally novel or evolutions is of course interesting. And yes, we can often find precursors in the Pāli texts; texts that were composed and edited over centuries that overlapped with the emergence of the new doctrines. 

We scholars, especially, have to resist the urge to bowdlerise our presentations of the history of ideas in Buddhism. However, Buddhists can also benefit from an interest in the actual history of our religion. We cannot understand a cultural phenomenon (or really a set of phenomena) if we refuse to see anything that sits outside normative accounts. To be sure, the real story is complex and convoluted. It does not fit neatly into a six week university teaching block. But it is worth telling nonetheless.

Let's face it, what makes history interesting is conflict. Without it, history is boring. Pretending that there was no conflict in Buddhist history is a gross mistake. Sure, religions all present significant figures as saints, but so what? This is not interesting at all, because people are not saints. The fact that all Buddhists repudiated the teachings that had been ascribed to the Buddha is perhaps the most interesting fact about Buddhism. But no one ever says that this is what happened. The least interesting story—the hagiographical version—dominates both academy and temple. Yawn. The story is trite, tedious, and simply untrue. The telling of it tendentious and smacks of insecurity. All too often it is the rhetoric of persuasion rather than the rhetoric of truth.

We have to be willing to see change ("everything changes") and to ask why things change. Cultures and doctrines change for reasons and it only seems reasonable to enquire as to those reasons. Buddhism is not special in this regard. We need to be willing to face up to the fact that the Buddha died and is not coming back. 

Sadly, my teacher Sangharakshita died this week, aged 93. He had a good life, all things considered: he was a good friend to hundreds of people and he inspired hundreds of thousands of people to practice the Buddhadharma (our movement operates in India where social movements happen on vast scales). I'm not suggesting that he was a saint, but on balance he did a great deal of good and most people who met him were glad of it. He was loved. But he's gone and he's not coming back. As I loved him, so I mourn, but I'm not interested in fantasies of his reincarnation and return. I don't want false comfort. The Triratna Buddhist Order is well placed to carry on providing a context for practising the Buddhadharma that combines a good deal of tradition with some conscious modernism. We could do better, but Sangharakshita gave us a robust organisation. Succession is long settled and nothing much will change now that his suffering is ended. Now is the time for practice. 

vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā
All experience is perishable; sensual sobriety is the way to succeed.
(the supposed last words of the Buddha. DN ii.156) 



Attwood, Jayarava. 2014. Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.

David Drewes. 2010a. Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship. Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x https://www.academia.edu/9226456/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_I_Recent_scholarship

David Drewes. 2010b. Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism II: New Perspectives. Religion Compass 4/2: 66-74. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00193.x https://www.academia.edu/9226471/Early_Indian_Mahayana_Buddhism_II_New_perspectives

Masefield, Peter. 1995. Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. Paul & Co Pub

Nattier, Jan. 2000. "The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 23 (1), 71–102.

Skilton, A and Crosby, K. 2008. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Oxford University Press
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