03 June 2022

Buddhist "Ethics" and Sensory Deprivation

In my previous essay, I argued for a link between meditation and sensory deprivation: more specifically that meditation, viewed as withdrawal of attention from the sensorium, causes (non-pathological) hallucinations in the same way that sensory deprivation does. In this essay, I want to broaden the scope to look at śīla "conduct" in the light of this link and its place in the threefold path: śīla, samādhi, and prajñā. Along the way I introduce the Spiral Path (which ought to be familiar to my readers) and Karl Friston's free energy principle. 

It is common to translate śīla as "ethics", even though we have known for some time that Buddhism has no ethics. That is to say, traditional Buddhism produced no treatise on ethics. Here, I am making the philosophical distinction between morality as rules of conduct (pañcaśīla, praṭimokṣa) and ethics as the principles or meta-rules that guide the formation of rules. Alternatively we could think of ethics as the reasons for following moral rules. The lack of ethics in Buddhism has been a problem for those of us who wish to adapt Buddhism to modern life. On one hand, we have no guidance for forming new rules and, on the other, we have yet to write our own ethical treatises. Europeans, much like their Buddhist counterparts in Asia, have filled in the lacuna by drawing upon their own culture. European Buddhists tend to be liberals (of various types including, more recently, neoliberals) and as David Chapman discovered in relation to US "Consensus Buddhism" we tend to see liberal values as Buddhist values, because after all these are our values and we are Buddhists. It's a shame David McMahan did not include liberalism amongst his important factors of modernity, in Buddhist Modernism

Here I want to revisit some research I did before getting sucked into the Heart Sutra vortex.

Ethics and the Spiral Path

In Triratna we emphasise what Sangharakshita called the Spiral Path, for which we tend to use his book The Three Jewels (1967) as the principal source. I published a scholarly essay on this formulation of the Buddhist path (Attwood 2013). I also created an infographic (right) which describes the main features and variants of these texts.

Sangharakshita based his exposition on the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12:23) which is something of an oddity. Ayya Khema (1991) and Bodhi (1980) also composed commentaries on the Upanisā Sutta, the latter directly in response to Sangharakshita (who used Sanskrit technical terms rather than Pāli). However, in my view, the locus classicus for this doctrinal formulation should be considered the first five suttas of the Dasakanipātapāḷi and the Ekādasakanipātapāḷi of the Aṅguttara Nikāya (i.e. the Tenfold Chapter and Elevenfold Chapter)*.

* The reason we cite both is that, while otherwise the texts in the different chapters are identical, in the Tenfold Chapter, nibbidā and virāga are treated as one step, while in the Elevenfold Chapter. they are treated as two.

The Spiral Path describes a form of conditionality that has a different emphasis from the one that most Buddhists are focussed on. The presence of one condition naturally (effortlessly) gives rise to the effect, which then becomes the condition for the next effect, in a cumulative manner. In some cases it is accompanied by the image of water overflowing from one container to the next like a champagne fountain. 

This doctrine is less systematic than its counterpart the twelve nidānas and, at least in Pāli, shows little standardisation, especially in the early stages. The Chinese counterparts of these texts, collected in the Chinese Madhyamāgama translation (MĀ 42-55), have been homogenised to a greater extent, though some variations remain.

When I looked at all of the forty or so Pāli suttas that have some version of the Spiral Path, I could see a familiar pattern. I was able to show that the Spiral Path is in fact an elaboration of the threefold path: śīla, samādhi, and prajñā, which we routinely see translated as "ethics, meditation, and wisdom" One of the salient features of the threefold path in these suttas is the two liminal states that link the three phases. So in śīla we see a range of techniques that culminate in pāmojja "joy" (also pāmujja; Skt prāmodya) which is a result of śīla rather and an example of śīla. In her exposition of the Spiral Path, Ayya Khema (1991) refers to pāmojja as a necessary prerequisite for meditation. Pāmojja is the culmination of practising sīla and the doorway to samādhi. Similarly, the stages of meditation in the spiral path texts—pīti, passadhi, sukha, and samādhi; which seem to approximate the stages of jhāna—lead to another liminal state: yathabhūtañāṇadassaṇa "knowledge and vision of things as they are". Knowledge and vision opens the door to the prajñā stage of the threefold path, i.e. one becomes fed up with sensory experience (nibbidā) and rejects it (virāga), resulting in either liberation (vimokkha) and the knowledge of liberation (vimokkhañāṇa), or the cutting off of karma-making (āsavakkhaya) and the knowledge of this (āsavakkhayañāṇa).

Defining Śīla.

One approach to defining śīla would be to list all the practices that lead up to pamojjā in the Spiral Path literature and look for patterns. From my 2013 article here is such a list:

  • saṃvara/saṃvuta "restraint"
  • indriyesu guttadvāra "guarding the sense doors"
  • yoniso-manasikāra "wise attention"
  • appamattassa vihārato "dwelling vigilantly"
  • sati sampajañña "mindfulness and attentiveness"
  • hiri-otappa "shame & scruple" (AN 8.81)
  • sīla "behaviour"
  • kusalāni sīlāni "virtuous behaviour"
  • saddhā "faith".

Of these, the only practices with an explicit moral character are shame (hiri) and scruple (ottapa). Like mindfulness (sati) and full attention (sampajañña), these two terms often occur together and are often poorly distinguished in the literature. They are said to reflect one's active recognition of an unskilful act, and the fear of being judged unskilful by the discriminating (viññū) members of the Buddhist community. And keep in mind that these are passive feelings about actions, these are practices or, in other words, these are actions that one consciously and voluntarily engages in for the purposes of achieving the goals of Buddhism, including the ultimate goal of ending rebirth. 

The odd one out is "faith" (saddhā). Despite a great deal being written about faith in Buddhism, I have yet to see a modern English account that accurately reflects saddhā as I encounter it in Pāli. In the suttas, saddhā is that feeling when one has listened to the Buddha talk about his teaching, it makes you want to try what he's talking about. What saddhā means, then, is less about faith (unreasoning and/or unreasoned belief) than it is about enthusiasm combined with intention. Enthusiasm for Buddhist practices based on understanding an explanation by an expert, and an intention to try it out. This is not an unreasoning belief as faith in Christianity is supposed to be. Nor is this confidence in the teachings based on experience. The quality of having confidence in the practices as described is called aveccapasāda "perfect clarity". Saddhā is "faith" in the reasoned sense that having listened to a presentation on Dharma, one finds it plausible enough to want to go ahead and try it. Unreasoned faith comes into Buddhism only with the advent of so-called "Pure Land Buddhism", with the focus of the early centuries being initially on Akṣobhya and his realm of Abhirati, before moving to Amitābha and Sukhāvati. Neither is part of our universe but both are able to appear in our universe to succor those who have sufficient faith, with a gradually lowering bar on "sufficient". 

The bulk of these ideas, by contrast, are not obviously moral in character and, indeed, they involve minimising, to the point of elimination, interacting with other people rather than improving the quality of those interactions. More precisely the practices listed as comprising śīla appear to aim to limit our relationship with sensory experience. Here, for example, we are counselled to reduce input, to stop ourselves from seeking out sensory experience, to guard the sense doors (against the intrusion of sensory experience), to attend to the sensorium wisely, i.e. to not be intoxicated (appamāda) by experience but to remain indifferent (virāga) to it. These are not instructions on how to treat other people well (morality), nor are they principles for treating people well (ethics). They mostly involve avoiding and ignoring other people as much as possible. The idea for Buddhists being the solitary retreat. 

From the point of view of modern Buddhists, śīla is about our moral conduct. We link śīla not to these practices of restraint, but to the precepts (sikkhapāda) or monastic rules (vinaya, paṭimokkha) or some other formulation. The Spiral Path texts, by contrast, don't mention precepts or rules. So there is a disconnect between the received tradition of Buddhist rules of conduct and this formulation of the path of Buddhism. Treating people well is not really considered in this context. Rather one is largely concerned with maintaining social isolation and having a sober relationship with sensory experience; concerned with reducing sensory input. It seems to me that śīla as a moral teaching came along after the fact as a sop for people who were not spending their days in samādhi.

If śīla is not principally about moral conduct, if Buddhism moral rules are an afterthought, then what is śīla concerned with? Here I foreground the idea of restraining the senses and try to relate it to the idea that sensory deprivation is an important component of Buddhist meditation. 

Śīla as Preparation for Meditation.

The threefold way formulation of Buddhism includes the idea that śīla is preparatory. Specifically, we learn that śīla prepares us for the samādhi "meditation" phase. Moreover, the Spiral Path texts suggest that the significant result of our preparation is pāmojja "joy". In this view, śīla leaves us with an untroubled conscience which then facilitates our entry into jhāna and other altered states". And this is not wrong. It is explicitly included in the Spiral Path texts in AN 11.1, where the benefit of wholesome conduct (kusalāni sīlāni) is non-regret (avippaṭisāro) which in turn is the condition for pāmojja, which, as we have seen, is the doorway to meditation. It's not hard to interpret this as relating to morality. "Non-regret" appears to tie in with seemingly moral practices such as shame (hiri) and scruple (ottapa). In this context, "wholesome conduct" seems to suggest the practices of restraint that we find in the other Spiral Path texts.

In most cases, the idea that good behaviour contributes to liberation is largely concerned with obtaining the right kind of fortunate rebirth. It needs emphasising that, for Buddhists, good behaviour alone provides no escape from saṃsāra. Good actions (kusalāni sīlāni) result in a good rebirth destination (suggati), but the acme of Buddhism is the cessation of rebirth. This can only be accomplished once we stop making new karma. And we only stop making karma when we see things as they are.

What if the point of śīla in this context was not morality? What if these behavioural norms were actually intended to help us cope with the intense sensory deprivation of samādhi meditation?

Experience shows that difficulty applying meditation techniques is often correlated to how busy one's life is. The Buddha almost always recommends that a meditator should detach themselves from society, to find a deserted spot in the wilderness, far away from the intense sensory stimulation of town, village, or monastery. Buddhist monastics are supposed to definitively severe their social connections and live adrift from society. As the Buddha says in a memorable Vinaya passage,

"Monks," said the Bhagavan, "you have no mother and no father to care for you. If you don't care for each other, then who will care for you? If you would care for me, then tend to the sick." (Vin I 301).

The ideal Buddhist meditator is solitary, isolated, and disenchanted with sensory experience.

As noted in the previous essay, it is very common for meditators to meet hallucinations when they practice, almost ubiquitous. Even complete beginners can meet with hallucinations the first time they try it (I've known people for whom this was true). For the most part, these gross hallucinations are a barrier to deeper concentration. We experience them as a kind of turbulence or disturbance that distracts us from the focus of the meditation. At least in traditional Buddhist ideas about mind, hallucinations are a form for sensory experience in which the object is mental rather than physical. Buddhism treats the mind as a "sense" in this worldview. So internally generated experiences, with no objective counterpart, are not seen as special, they are just experiences, just the kind of thing that stops with cessation. And the goal of Buddhist meditation is to make experience cease (I'm going to get into this in a subsequent essay).

Perhaps it is worth saying that Pāli clearly does allow for an objective world that follows different rules to sensory experience. There is no talking of breaking down the subject/object distinction. There is no talk of non-dualism. And to my mind, had non-dualism been part of early Buddhism, it would have been mentioned. Not being dualists, I doubt such a doctrine would have appealed to the authors of the Pāli suttas.

The Allostatic Brain

If we take śīla in the sense that I have been suggesting, then we can begin to see how it helps. It comes back to the brain and allostasis. If our brain were simply reacting to sensory input, it would never be able to keep up, even with the relatively coarse-grained representation that reaches awareness in our first person perspective. It is true that life requires that various parameters of our body are kept within limits conducive to life. This is called homeostasis, which effectively means "keeping things the same". Homeostasis is achieved using feedback loops. The basic process is represented by the simplest version of feedback, the kind of mechanical switches we see in thermostats. Heat causes a bar composed of two metals to bend as they expand at different rates. The bending breaks the contact, switching the heating off. The room cools and the metal bar straightens out, and eventually makes contact and switches on the heating.

Our body has various, far more complex and interrelated, feedback loops that help to keep things like the composition of our blood in the optimal range. But the feedback process is reactive and thus can only change things after the fact. And reactive processes can't account for what the brain does. Rather, neuroscientists have shown that the brain anticipates changes and sometimes takes preemptive actions. We could go so far as to say that what the brain does is predict future inputs and try to minimise any discrepancies between what it predicted and what is happening. Moreover, this can be seen as a specific application of a principle, first enunciated by Karl Friston and called the Free Energy Principle. Friston has given this idea its own mathematical formalism, but also showed that the resulting formulas recreate results from statistical mechanics and information theory. Thus the FEP appears to unify a number of seemingly disparate fields. I suspect that eventually this will tie into work by David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto on constructor theory, but that is another essay entirely. 

There are two ways the brain can minimise prediction errors (or in Friston's terms to minimise the free energy of the system): it can alter its prediction, or it can alter the input (which is usually accomplished by intervening in the world through some action).

It's worth emphasising that this is not a process open to introspection. And therefore, it is not intuitive. Moreover, when we talk about the brain "predicting inputs" we are not talking about the high-level, coarse-grained experiences that we are aware of. The only "inputs" to the brain are 1) electrochemical signals from peripheral nerves; and 2) electrochemical signals from within the central nervous system. With respect to 2), Lisa Feldman-Barrett notes that 90% of the incoming connections to the visual cortex are from other parts of the brain, rather than from the eyes. There are millions of such inputs. So what the brain is predicting is patterns of electrochemical signals, i.e. variations in signal strength and frequency across millions of individual inputs. Similarly the only output the brain has is firing neurons that connect outwards to the body, sending identical electrochemical signals that cause the body to move in various ways.

Let's use an example from Feldman-Barrett's account: standing up. Moving from sitting to standing involves a lot of coordinated muscle activity, all of which is stimulated at a fine-grained level by brain activity. Our coarse-grained first person perspective on this is very different in scope and detail. One of the problems we face is that suddenly standing up causes a drop in blood pressure in the head, which means insufficient blood reaches the brain and the brain does not work at optimum. In other words, standing up threatens to disrupt homeostasis.

Before we consciously decide the stand up, the brain is balancing the odds. If it predicts that we are going to stand up, then it initiates actions that at a coarse-grained level amount to raising our blood pressure (and neither the prediction nor the preemptive action are available to introspection). At best we become aware of this process when it fails, i.e. we stand up too quickly and get dizzy due to transient low blood pressure in the head. Of course, how we get from the fine-grained view of nerve cells storing energy and releasing it in pulses, to coarse-grained first person perspective, is still unclear. But there is no other viable explanation.


In my last essay, I floated the idea that sensory deprivation is an issue for meditators. In this view, one of the consequences of doing mediation techniques can be, often is, hallucinations. In this view, hallucinations are internally generated distractions and while they may bother meditators at first, they are generally transient. My too-small sample of meditation instruction books suggested that as we become more profoundly cut off from sensory experience, as we may experience more subtle hallucinations that are more tempting to assign meaning or specialness.

Even with a tenuous grasp of Friston's free energy principle (which mine admittedly is)  we can see hallucinations due to sensory deprivation in the context of what the brain expects to see. If one lives a hedonistic lifestyle, one's brain comes to expect high levels of sensory stimulation. One outcome of this is insensitivity to more subtle stimulus. 

It seems to me that we can now state a hypothesis: dropping from high levels of stimulation to very low levels of stimulation is likely to produce a much stronger response that moving from low levels of stimulation to very low levels. Trying to meditate after a busy day at work, is likely to throw up a lot of internal stimulation (I'm going to avoid calling this self-stimulation). 

At least some Buddhists have been concerned to attain what neuroscientists are various calling "contentless experience", "contentless awareness" or "minimal phenomenal consciousness". If our aim is to bring sensory experience to a halt, then reducing the gap between the starting level of stimulation and the aimed-at level would make sense. That is to say, if we aim to achieve contentless awareness, then starting from a much reduced level of stimulation would be advantageous. 

My meditation teachers always emphasised preparation. It's no use going from indulging in the senses to trying to cut oneself off from them. It just creates misery and doubt. Rather one must actively reduce input, reduce stimulation. 

I often find myself explaining that for Buddhists, good behaviour or good karma has little soteriological value. No one is saved by good works. Rather the key to Buddhist soteriology is ending karma-driven rebirth; this requires ending karma. Yes, this does require being reborn as a human and having access to instruction in Buddhist techniques, which in Buddhist soteriology we achieve through good karma, That this is as far as good karma can get us, the mere opportunity to escape. The acme of Buddhism is the end of rebirth. Something similar applies to sensory experience. There is no mileage, from a Buddhist perspective, in indulging the senses. Indeed, since karma is intention (cetanā) in early Buddhist thought, indulging in sensory perception is counterproductive since it gives rise to greed and hatred. 

If śīla is seen as preparation for Buddhist meditation, then it would make sense if it were aimed at reducing sensory stimulation. This is, to some extent at least, intuitive. If Karl Friston is right, and he does seem to be, then the free energy principle gives us a deep explanation for this. It's not simply a useful heuristic, though it is that. Rather it reflects something built into the human mind. We can cope with low levels of stimulation, we can avoid distracting hallucinations, if and when our brain comes to expect low levels of stimulation. And the brain can be habituated by, for example, long intervals of not talking for example, or periods of doing nothing (which is much harder than it sounds).

Thinking about traditional Buddhism in these ultra-modern ways, incorporating cutting edge science, is not straightforward. One has to be aware of projections. I'm not suggesting that Buddhists pre-empted or even prefigured the free energy principle and its detailed mathematical formalism. Buddhism is not scientific and certainly not proto-scientific. There is a kind of systematic approach to Buddhism, but it is all presented in a thoroughly religious context. The central problems of Buddhism are much the same as in all religion, i.e. the afterlife and the problem of evil (i.e. it is based on interpreting a metaphysical speculation as though it accurately reflected reality). 

Rather, what I am trying to show here is that modern perspectives, especially scientific perspectives, often give us better explanations than Iron Age or Medieval religious texts. Which ought to come as no surprise. My sense is that Buddhists, for example, are highly critical of Christian fundamentalism, but their arguments against Christianity often amount to Buddhist fundamentalism, i.e. your religious book is not right, because our religious books say so. I don't think looking to the Iron Age for solutions to living in the twenty-first century makes much sense. Since I have taken the time to learn Pāli and read those Iron Age texts in that language (and compared them with Sanskrit and Chinese counterparts) I find the anachronisms in Buddhism even harder to take seriously. Our texts are no more an accurate reflection of reality than any other religious text. 

In the final analysis, if samādhi is your goal, then you will need to have some understanding of, and strategies for dealing with, sensory deprivation. Traditionally this amounts to reducing sensory input across the board. And this process of reducing sensory input preparatory to meditation is called śīla.

Anyone interested to follow up the connection between meditation and the free energy principle could try reading the recent paper by Ruben Laukkonen and Heleen Slagter (2021) which uses Friston's model to propose a new way of understanding what meditation does. It's not easy and I don't fully understand it myself, but it seems very promising as an addition to how we think about what we wish to achieve as Buddhists. 



Attwood, J. (2013). "The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda." Western Buddhist Review 6, 1–34. http://www.jayarava.org/texts/the-spiral-path.pdf

Bodhi. (1980). Transcendental Dependent Arising: a Translation and Exposition of the Upanisa Sutta. (The Wheel Publication no.277/278.) Buddhist Publication Society. Online: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel277.html

Khema (1991). When the Iron Eagle Flies. Penguin.

Laukkonen, Ruben E. and Slagter, Heleen A. (2021) “From many to (n)one: Meditation and the plasticity of the predictive mind.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 128, 199-217.

Sangharakshita. (1967). The Three Jewels: An Introduction to Buddhism. Rider.

Woods, T.J., Windt, J.M. & Carter, O. (2022). "The path to contentless experience in meditation: An evidence synthesis based on expert texts." Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.  (Open access version unpaginated) https://doi.org/10.1007/s11097-022-09812-y

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