02 September 2022

Some Notes on Cessation and Prajñāpāramitā.

My thirteenth article on the Heart Sutra has been published. 

(2022) "The Cessation of Sensory Experience and Prajñāpāramitā Philosophy" International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture 32(1):111-148. IJBTC Website. [free download]. Academia.edu

In this article I directly address the philosophy of Prajñāpāramitā as it occurs in Prajñāpāramitā texts for the first time (for me, and probably for you too). I'm not the first to attempt to explain Prajñāpāramitā by any means. That said, these days I'm operating in an entirely different paradigm to scholars like Edward Conze or Linnart Mäll, or religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. I never did fully accept the metaphysical speculations that surround this genre, which always sounded screwy to me, but now I know there is a better alternative. As usual, I rely a great deal on pioneering work by Sue Hamilton, Jan Nattier, and Matthew Orsborn (aka Huifeng).

Hamilton (2000) explores an epistemic reading of early Buddhism, notably the khandhas. She shows that it is far more coherent to think of the Buddha as being concerned with experience rather than with reality. Indeed there is no Pāli word that corresponds with our concept "reality" and few if any texts that discuss reality or the nature of reality. What the Pāli suttas mainly discuss, amidst all the myth and miracles, is sensory experience and in particular the cessation of experience during meditation. That sensory experience can cease without loss of consciousness is the key discovery that sets Indian religion and philosophy apart. A great deal of Indian religion seems to me to be bound up with the implications of this discovery.

Nattier (1992) showed that the text was composed in Chinese, and both Huifeng and I have independently confirmed this by showing that the patterns she observed in the core passage can be seen throughout the Heart Sutra. Huifeng (2014) was the first to notice certain mistakes in the Sanskrit text that have contributed to our misreading of the Chinese Xīn jīng «心經». He noted at the time that the corrected text points to the need for an epistemic reading if the Heart Sutra. In 2015, I published the first of a series of articles pointing out long-standing, but unrelated mistakes in Conze's critical edition of the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Between us, we ought to have created enough doubt to suggest the need for a reappraisal of Prajñāpāramitā philosophy. 

This essay is a kind of supplement to the published article, with more background information. I begin with some history.

Some History

At around the time that city states were emerging on the central Gaṅgā Valley floodplains, new religions  or Dharmas were emerging in the region: theistic Brahmanism, Sāṃkhya, Jainism, Ajivaka-ism, and of course Buddhism. And these appear against a backdrop of local animistic religions from which Buddhism got yakkhas, tree-spirits, and other non-human (amanussa) beings. Archaeologists tell us the new cities begin to appear in the sixth century BCE. The cities are mainly kingdoms and several of them are characterised by imperialism and military conquest. The Moriya dynasty of Rājagaha and Paṭaliputta went on to spawn a subcontinent spanning empire in the third century BCE. Of the ancient cities from that time, only Varanasi (Pāli: Kāsī) has been continuously occupied.

Incidentally, although it is de rigueur to give historic names in Sanskrit, the practice is incoherent. Almost no one outside of the Punjab spoke Sanskrit at that time. The other thing that emerged at this time were the Middle Indic (or Prakrit) languages, the everyday speech of people in those regions was not the Old Indic saṃskṛtabhāṣya recorded by Pāṇini. The new vernacular languages probably don't derive directly from the language of the Brahmins either, since that was only one form of Old Indic and preserved only within a hermetic community of Brahmins. In particular, there can be no suggestion that Lāja Piyadasi, aka King Asoka, ever spoke or used Sanskrit in any way. It is anachronistic to refer to him in Sanskrit as Aśoka (or Ashoka).

I have speculated (Attwood 2012), based some informal comments by Michael Witzel, that one catalyst for the social transformation that resulted in city and Prakrits emerge was the arrival of small groups of people (including the Vajji, Mallas, Kāmālas, and Sakkas) who initially migrated into India from Persia (bringing with them some Persian ideas and customs a few of which were incorporated into Buddhism). After a dry spell, they moved into the interior, avoiding the Brahmin territories to the north, and settled on the margins of the emerging city states in the Gaṇgā Valley where they took up the patterns of life that we see depicted in Pāli stories.

We have little reliable evidence for this period but it seems likely, from texts like the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, that meditation in the sense of withdrawing attention from sensory experience was discovered by a group of migrant Brahmins living around the city of Kosala who were experimenting with visualising rituals, rather than acting them out (sometimes called the "interiorisation of ritual").

However it happened, the early hagiographies of the Buddha show him learning how to meditate from non-Buddhist teachers whose attainment of the āyatana states are consistent with attention-withdrawal being their main technique and who are distinguished only by how far they got with it. Buddhists, especially the Theravāda sect, were at pains to show the Buddha breaking away from his early teachers and finding his own technique, which we now refer to as jhāna (Skt dhyāna). But there are also suttas in Pāli, notably the Cūḷasuññata Sutta (MN 121), that show Buddhists still doing the older style of meditation in which one withdraws attention and reflects on the absence of sensory experience that results from this. The persistence of this thread in Buddhism in the Buddhist canon is all the more interesting when we consider that it went against the flow of Buddhist orthodoxy, which at that time was rapidly moving towards focus on Vinaya and Abhidharma. In this sense we can think of Prajñāpāramitā as an innovative literary form emerging from a conservative community of meditators. 

Learning to withdraw attention from sensory experience can be fascinating. Not least because it is functionally identical to sensory deprivation and has the same side effects, i.e. visual, aural, and somatic hallucinations. Experienced meditation teachers tell us that the weird sensations, lights, and even sounds that we encounter in our minds when we first learn to meditate are not significant. However, as sensory deprivation intensifies we may have more vivid hallucinations with a hyperreal quality that very often are judged to be significant. We tend to call these types of hallucinations "visions" and attribute a heightened meaning to them. Many meditators feel that their "visions" have revealed an ineffable truth about the universe to them. As yet there seem to be no scientific studies of the role that sensory deprivation and consequent hallucinations play in Buddhist meditation (I've dropped hints with some of the leading neuroscientists via Twitter: look up people like Karin Matko, Heleen Slagter, Thomas Metzinger, Ruben Laukkonen, etc).

Ancient texts like the Cūḷasuññatā Sutta tell us that beyond all this foam of ephemeral sensory experience there is a state (variously deeper or higher depending on preferred cognitive metaphors) in which all sensory experience has ceased (nirodha), is extinguished (nirvāṇa), or absent (śūnya). I speculate that after emerging amongst Brahmins in the Kosala region, these techniques were taken up by all the religions of Second Urbanisation India. People of those various religions were all practicing attention withdrawal but (then as now) interpreting the results differently according to their own doctrines. 

The Buddhist explanation of the absence and presence of sensory experience became the dependent arising doctrine, which some Buddhists sought to make a theory of everything. In this view, sensory experience arises dependent on the presence of conditions (imasmin sati idaṃ hoti), one of the main conditions being "attention" (manasikāra). In manasikāra, the kāra refers to "a maker" and manasi is manas "mind" in the locative case. In English we naturally want to read this as "in the mind", but I'm a little doubtful about whether ancient Buddhists had the cognitive metaphor: MIND IS A CONTAINER (see The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor 27 Jul 2012). In translation the locative typically becomes the prepositions "in, on, at, etc," but we can also read it as "with reference to". So manasikāra would be "a maker with respect to the mind". It is apparent that in some contexts words like manas, citta, and vijñāna were seen as interchangeable; while in other contexts they have distinct technical meanings. We typically take this context to be temporal, with technical terms emerging relatively "later" than undifferentiated forms. But this is a presupposition and as far as I know there is no evidence external to the texts that could corroborate this. Such differences need not be temporal at all. They might be sectarian, for example, or geographical. We really don't know. 

A Digression on Causality and Proximity

I'm sometimes chided by orthodox Buddhists for saying that dependent arising implies the presence of the condition; a view on this that I notably share with Anālayo (2021). A prominent Theravāda scholar and journal editor once insisted that the formula only requires the existence of the condition. At the time, I was flummoxed by this but found it difficult to articulate why. 

In modern arguments about causality (which is more rigorous than mere conditionality) physical proximity (or locality) is required for causation. Causation or action at a distance is a deeply problematic idea. Where we see apparent action at a distance, such as magnetic attraction, we always find some intervening medium (the electromagnetic field) or an alternative explanation (gravity is not a force, but an effect of the geometry of spacetime). Most modern scientists and philosophers would question whether any action at a distance is possible on the macro-scale that Buddhism deal with. There is an exception for nanoscale at which is seems that locality may be up for grabs. Causation, as far as any Iron Age Buddhist could have understood it, at a minimum requires the cause to be in the same physical location as that which it acts on, or immediately physically proximate to it. This is not only a logical necessity, but is also implied by the grammar of the Pāli formula of dependent arising. 

So, I can now more confidently insist that the dependent arising formula states that a condition must be present for an effect to arise. It's existence is insufficient if, for example, the condition existed on the other side of the planet at the bottom of the ocean, then there is no possibility of it causing an effect here in my house. 

From Experience to Reality

Causality is a tricky topic (especially if we are trying to understand an Iron Age worldview), but it is easy compared to "reality".  The word is used so vaguely and ambiguously that sometimes it hardly seems to mean anything. Defining "reality" is next to impossible without invoking some other metaphysical quality. For example, we might say that reality is that which exists. But what does it mean to exist? Philosophers are still arguing about this one.

In my view, to be "real" is to have some observable quality that is, or some qualities that are, independent of any particular observer or their beliefs.  It is entirely possible that some real things cannot ever be observed by us. About such things we know nothing and at this stage we likely never will. Many things that might be observed have not been. Think of bacteria which existed for billions of years, but were first observed in the eighteenth century.  

For those aspects of reality that are apparent, all observers agree on some ontologically objective facts. For example, gravity on earth is experienced as an acceleration of 9.8 ± 0.03 m/s2 towards the centre of the planet, and everyone who measures it accurately gets a value in that range. Variations can be explained by the inherent measurement error, and the thickness and density of the earth's crust at the point of measurement (the oblate-spheroid shape of the planetis a factor in this). Gravity is not a matter of opinion. It is not produced by each person individually. Gravity is a fact that transcends the observer. How we explain the universality of gravity depends on the context. 

Those who argue that the material world is an illusion or is generated by the mind, have no interest in explaining a phenomenon such as gravity. It's just part of the "illusion". Illusion and related words are often bandied about in this context. We often see clickbait headlines like "Reality is an illusion" or "self is an illusion". But this is not a form of explanation: it does not help us to understand the concepts involved. Even if something is actually an illusion—like "the dress"—simply calling it an illusion leaves open all the important questions. 

That said, gravity certainly does not behave like an illusion, it behaves like a "brute fact". Anyone who seriously doubts this could try jumping off a tall building while fervently imagining that they can fly to test their belief (Darwin Awards await). 

Some Buddhists are surprised to discover I distinguish experience from reality. They wonder if they not one and the same thing (i.e. they are Idealists). The reasoning is usually along the lines of "mind creates reality". This is a misconception. If mind did create reality, then there would be no reason for everyone to imagine gravity being 9.81 ± 0.03 m/s2. There would be nothing to prevent me from inventing gravity at 5.6 ± 0.3 m/s2. or any arbitrary figure. In the absence of an objective world, what could possibly account for the uniformity and universality of gravity? I've yet to see any convincing explanation of this from an Idealist. 

NB the standard figure for gravity is often given with greater precision that the measurement error allows. The standard figure is 9.80665 m/s2 but the variation due to error is on the order of two significant figures (0.03 m/s2), so the standard figure cannot have a precision greater than that, i.e. 9.81 m/s2.

Gravity is just one of many universal quantities that we know of. Others include the mass of a proton, the charge of an electron, and the speed of light in a vacuum. Explaining these from an Idealistic worldview is difficult at best. Universality seems to requires something extrinsic to the observer  in order to impose standardisation but how to achieve this in a nonmaterial, idealistic worldview? An objective universe, independent of observers, is far and away the simplest and most elegant solution to shared knowledge and universal constants. Over the last 450 years, scientists have described our universe to an exquisite level of detail, often to 10 or 12 decimal places, so that in terms of our everyday world, we now completely understand the processes involved. On this see these blog posts by Sean Carroll. 

The gaps in our understanding of the universe as a whole are huge, but they are at the extremes. The physics of human scales of mass, length, and energy are fully comprehended by the atomic theory of matter and forces. Buddhist idealism is forced to sweep 450 years of science under the carpet and pretend that it is inconsequential compared to what Buddhists say they learn in meditation about the nature of reality. 

Early Buddhists didn't explicitly say, but they did imply that they accept the existence of an objective world. An objective world is not a problem for early Buddhist doctrine, or for Prajñāpāramitā, because the focus is on sensory experience and what happens to our minds when we withdraw attention from sensory experience. The nature of the objective world is, at best, secondary to questions about the nature of experience and the meaning and significance of the complete cessation of sensory experience. As long as the nature of reality allows for sensory experience and cessation it doesn't matter what we believe about it. Especially in Iron Age India when it seemed plausible to take nirvāṇa as an analogue of death, so that by attaining the former, we bring the latter to an end. Once rebirth caught on, the end of it became the avowed goal of all known Iron Age Indian religions. 

Still, getting from objectively real to objective reality is a much bigger step than most people realise.

From Reality to Myth

My approach to abstract concepts like "reality" is broadly speaking nominalist. In this view, reality is the abstract notion that all real things have something in common that qualifies them as real. This common quality then retrospectively authenticates a phenomena as "real". On a nominalist reading, however, abstractions themselves are not real. Abstractions are ideas that we have about experience. Abstracting a perceived commonality and then retrospectively using that abstraction to define what is "real" is a method that produces nonsense. I noted above that it's very difficult to define reality from first principles. Part of the problem is that "reality" is an abstraction; an idea. And this allows that different people can define reality differently depending on their idea. This also means that a phenomenological account of "reality" is no help: what kind of phenomena is an idea? Ideas are subjective phenomena. So how can a subjective phenomena be used to define something objective? 

A further problem we routinely face in Buddhism is that many Buddhists believe in a magical reality over and above "mundane reality". In other words, many Buddhists are openly dualistic about this world (ayaṃ loko) and the world beyond (paraṃ loko). This is typical of all religions that emphasise "life after death". Many Buddhists insist that there is a more real world, or a real world juxtaposed with the world of illusions reflected by sensory experience, waiting for us after death, be it nirvāṇa or a buddhakṣetra. The world of experience is, at best, a poor reflection of a "spiritual" (read "magical") reality beyond. For example, my bête noire, Edward Conze openly argued for a magical [his word] reality existed over and above physical reality. Moreover, he apparently believed this for many years before he ever encountered a Sanskrit text. He managed to shoehorn this view into a Marxist analysis of Aristotle long before he shoehorned it into Prajñāpāramitā. 

There is an obvious attraction in the idea of a "world beyond"; a world that has none of the flaws of our world; a world that is not broken, cruel, and merciless; a world in which all of our desires are fulfilled, and so on. One need not labour the point since a better afterlife is the essence of what all religions promise followers. Although it is notable that some early Buddhists stated that their intention was "the end of the world" (lokassa anto). 

It's not until the Pure Land texts that we see this idea of a magical reality beyond the "mundane" world begin to take hold in Buddhism. Before this there were better and and worse rebirths, but all rebirth was problematic. Rebirth in a "heaven" (devaloka) only prolongs the inevitable and has no soteriological value. Indeed, some Buddhists say that liberation is only possible from the human realm (manussaloka).

Because there can only be one Buddha at a time (by Buddhists' own definition) and Gautama disappeared from our world when he died. Gautama brought rebirth to an end and his post-mortem status was officially "indeterminate" (avyākṛta). But this was apparently interpreted in some quarters as Gautama abandoning us to our fate. In response to this Buddhists invented alternative universes where living Buddhas could still be found who were willing to "save" us. These Buddhas effectively live forever and would rescue any faithful devotee from saṃsāra. At first this centred around the Buddha Akṣobhya and his buddhafield Abhirati, but he was soon eclipsed by Amitābha who lives in Sukhāvati and is much less demanding: a single act of recalling his name (nāmānusmṛti) is enough to draw his attention and he comes to our universe to collect us after death so that we are reborn in Sukhāvati and from there attain liberation from rebirth. The two sutras that describe this are both called the Sukhāvativyūha Sūtra. They seem to have appeared around the same time as Prajñāpāramitā literature and have proved to be amongst the most influential texts in Buddhist history. It's likely that theistic Pure Land followers are the majority of all Buddhists worldwide. 

Such stories are mythological. That is to say, these stories reflect the values of some Buddhists at some point in time and space, expressed in symbolic, often anthropomorphic, terms. The stories don't reflect actual events. Myths are not objective histories to inform us about the past. As noted, Buddhist myths reflect a growing dissatisfaction with the idea that Gautama simply left us behind when he ended his own stream of rebirths. A really good person, they reasoned, would have stuck around to give us a helping hand: who could look at the world and not conclude that it desperately needs help? Not me. The Buddha was supposed to be the epitome of good. 

A little later a related idea emerges, i.e. the idea of a pluralistic Buddha who at one level seemed to be a human man, but the mortal man was merely a material manifestation of a timeless, immaterial, undying principle of awakening. The issue of the Buddha's apparently short lifespan is tackled in this way in the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra (aka the Golden Light Sutra). These are religious myths, but Buddhists the world over either believe that they are objectively true or behave as if they describe reality. Again, this is theism, turning the Buddha into a god.

At around the same time as these myths were emerging and taking Buddhism in innovative directions, some Buddhists, notably one known as Nāgārjuna, began to assert that the absence of sensory experience is reality. This is the essence of Madhyamaka metaphysics, for example. We often see this stated as "emptiness is reality" as though this means something, although I think it does not. Mādhyamikas also say things like "dharmas don't exist", although whether or not Nāgārjuna said this or even implied it is moot. The problem here is that although there is a state in which all sensory experiences cease, asserting that this state is reality is problematic since it lumps all phenomena into the "not real" category, which is completely absurd and creates paradoxes. In short, reifying the absence of experience following gets us nowhere. But some Buddhists still value the contradictions and paradoxes that this stance throws up. They seem to find the existence of paradox as confirmation that they are on the right track whereas I would say that a paradox either reflects our ignorance or a mistake. In the case of Prajñāpāramitā it is both: we were naively ignorant of the context and misled by the lies of Edward Conze (et al) to believe that paradox was normal when, in point of fact, paradox and contradiction play no role in Buddhism until substantially later. 

Not Doing Metaphysics

Talk of grand abstractions like truth, reality, and existence all comes under the heading of metaphysics. Anyone who gives an opinion on "reality", let alone the "nature of reality" is ipso facto doing metaphysics. Hence, I do not believe Mādhyamikas when they claim not to be doing metaphysics but assert that they understand or have experienced the nature of reality. 

Humans are constantly trying to discern the reality that lays behind or beyond sensory experience because we all know that our eyes can be deceived. In modern terms, the world we experience is a virtual model created by the brain (as demonstrated, for example, by phantom limb syndrome or the Capgras delusion). The better our model of the world is, the better our chances of survival and procreation. Most of us are not naive realists. We do understand that reality and experience are not identical and we strive to minimise the differences or errors. When we foreground this in our thinking we may become more reticent about drawing conclusions about reality based on unusual experiences. 

When someone makes an assertion about reality or has an opinion on what is real, it is always legitimate to ask "How do you know?". Doing this we find that Buddhists place high value and significance on experiences in meditation. Some of these experiences have all the hallmarks of hallucinations caused by the brain's response to sensory deprivation. In the end, the one thing that makes all the difference is the  fact that sensory experience can cease, though I still hesitate to call this "an experience". Along the way we lose our sense of our body, our sense of self, and our sense of a world "out there". In the end, when all sensory experience has stopped and we are still alive and aware, we find ourselves in an contentless but nonetheless hyperreal state that begs to be assigned meaning and significance. The cessation of the sense of self, for example, is often seen as evidence of the nonexistence of self. 

However, "I don't see it" and "It doesn't exist" are very much not the same thing. 

The mystic says that the experience of, say, selflessness, is sufficient to establish that our "self" is not real. This is a metaphysical conclusion. But it's also solipsistic (i.e. egocentric). One of my most striking memories of timelessness in meditation was on a long retreat. I was deeply concentrated and sat on after the bell rang for the conclusion of the session. While I was there not noticing the passing of time, the other retreatants prepared, cooked, and served a meal. That took time; about one hour in fact. Time that I didn't notice passing. The obvious conclusion here is not "time is not real" or "time doesn't exist", but that I was unaware of time passing for about an hour while everyone around me had a pretty normal experience of time. This is an epistemic conclusion. It lacks the panache and glamour of metaphysics, it doesn't cast me as the hero of the story, but it's more intellectually honest. 

The weight of evidence is that most of these kinds of metaphysical conclusions that appeal to Buddhists are factually wrong. What other conclusion might someone who has experienced, say, the cessation of their self come to? I like to use the example of Gary Weber who reports that he has no sense of self. I find Weber very credible, so I believe him when he says that he doesn't experience much if any sense  of self. And yet, wildly contrary to Buddhist doctrine, he takes this to mean that everything that happens is predetermined and events unfold without any influence from us whatever. He will tell you that we don't really make decisions, we are just carried along falsely believing that our desires cause our actions, when in fact it's all just a fixed set of events playing out as they were always going to. Clearly this is a very different metaphysical conclusion than your average Buddhist would arrive at based on experiences that seem to be exactly the same

An alternative explanation that occurs to me is that the apparently selfless might conclude that selfing, the activities of the self, is now going on unconsciously. This would help explain why a person with "no self" is able to carry on a conversation for example, as Gary Weber obviously does. A conversation is a complex social interaction in which each participant has to keep track of who said what to whom, and whose turn it is to talk. It seems to me that this would be impossible without some sense of self/other dichotomy. If someone who has no sense of self is conversing normally, we might want to conclude that their selfing was now unconscious. Unconscious selfing presents fewer problems than conscious selfing, because the role of self-centeredness is reduced. Moreover it is considerably less problematic than the view that no self exists, even in people who sincerely believe that they are experiencing themselves as a self from moment to moment. 

In Triratna we often talk about this in psychological terms, particularly in terms of the subject/object duality "breaking down". Many, perhaps most, of us take this to mean that the subject/object duality is not real. The corollary, that the absence of a subject/object duality is reality, follows but all the same caveats apply to us as to others. Just because we can experience the subject/object duality breaking down, does not mean that it is not real or that it doesn't exist. And so on. 

The Alternative: An Epistemic Approach

Reality is a complex subject. And the relationship of experience to reality is not clear either in Buddhism or in some modern accounts of mind. 

The mind-body problem is one of the most famous philosophical conundrums. My own view is that the dichotomy is not really one of mind and body but is, more fundamentally, a matter-spirit dichotomy. That is, I take the distinction to have deeper roots in our basic ideas about the material world and another world of invisible life-force often associated with the afterlife. This is a prominent topic in my book Karma and Rebirth Reconsidered and in a range of blog posts. My sense is that while most scientists  now eschew the grosser forms of matter-spirit dualism (since they don't believe in "spirit"), the average person still has a profoundly dualistic outlook. Almost everyone I know believes in an afterlife for example, and this necessitates some ontological dualism. 

In epistemic terms the subject/object duality is real since we get information about subjectivity and objectivity through completely different sensory modalities: introspection and extrospection. One way of thinking about meditation is that it shuts down extrospection and leaves us in a purely subjective state. If we mistake this purely subjective state for objective reality, then we may be tempted into the conclusion that "mind makes reality", but this requires that we give no value whatever to objectivity. And this seems a perverse way of thinking about it. 

Dualisms are deeply embedded in how humans conceptualise the world. And when we take the distinctions to be metaphysical, as we do in matter-spirit dualisms, we find ourselves in tricky territory. What usually happens is that having divided the world into two, we dismiss one part (usually matter) as unreal. Materialism, as John Searle pointed out, is a dualism in which proponents divide the world into material and non-material halves and declare the non-material to be unreal. This manoeuvre has consequences. If the mind is non-material, then the materialist is left with no explanation of it except to argue that it is an illusion. 

An epistemic approach to this problem rapidly finds purchase and leverage over this particular dualism. As I say, there is an obvious epistemic distinction between how we get information about the world and how we get information about ourselves. We have a range of external senses that inform us about the world in particular modalities: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. This information allows us to construct virtual models of the world that are efficient for navigating the world. We have a different set of senses for the internal states of our body, many of which are not available to introspection or conscious control (e.g. blood sugar levels). Notably our mindthoughts, feelings, emotions, etcis an important source of information about our own internal states. 

There is some crossover, as when we gain information about our body by looking at it. But generally speaking there is a clear epistemic distinction between "in here" and "out there". Just as there is an epistemic distinction between, say, seeing light reflected from an object and hearing the physical vibrations that it makes. To my knowledge, and despite the phrase "seeing is believing", no one has ever argued that seeing is real and hearing is unreal, or vice versa. We acknowledge that both occur, that they are different modes of sensing, and give us different information. And we can always ask another person, "Did you see/hear that?" and compare notes. Problems emerge when we jump to metaphysical conclusions based on epistemic differences without first establishing whether there is some metaphysical basis for the differences. 

As far as anyone can tell, there is no mind/body dualism in the sense that they are different substances. But that said, we do have an undeniable experience of an epistemic difference between mind and body. We gain knowledge of each in different ways. One cannot introspect an external object for example. Nor can one use empathy to project the emotional disposition of a non-sentient object. When I put my cup down I don't wonder how the table will feel about it. There is no way for the table to support sentience let alone forming an opinion. 

At this point, Buddhist cite mystical experiences as evidence for their conclusions. The problem with mystical experiences, is that they are interpreted differently according to one's preferences. I have already cited the example of Gary Weber, the Advaita Vedantin. But there are also Christian mystics, for example who interpret what seem like the same experiences as evidence for the existence of God. 


Everyone is trying to make sense of their world. Some go about it more systematically than others. The less systematic our approach, the more likely that errors and infelicities will creep into our worldview. Early Buddhists systematically explored mental states that occur in the process of withdrawing attention from sensory experience. The results are practices that we call "meditation", a word that goes back to an Indo-European root *med and (rather appropriately) means "take appropriate measures". Early Buddhists did not systematically investigate anything else. They showed no interest in "reality" or the "nature" of reality, except insofar as it pertained to karma and rebirth, which they accepted a priori as true. 

Here we see the disadvantage of religious modes of thinking. Religieux begin reasoning from a metaphysical commitment; a belief. And recall Michael Taft's aphorism: belief is an emotion about an idea. From the belief, religieux look for evidence that is consistent with that belief and hold it up as confirmation of the belief. At the same time they overlook, ignore, or dispose of any counterfactual information. 

Religious metaphysics are not motivated by a search for the truth. Religieux invariably believe they already know the truth. This applies to Buddhists as much as any other religion. We start from certainty and then inquire as to how reality confirms our assumptions. A procedure known as confirmation bias

Buddhist metaphysics, of which there are several, are fine except that they disagree in every possible way with physics. Buddhists who are aware of this fact (and appalled by it) will often invoke Eugene Wigner's version of Niels Bohr's interpretation of the Schrödinger equation, i.e. "consciousness collapses the wavefunction". Back in the real world, physicists universally agree that Wigner was talking bollocks, and most of them have abandoned Copenhagen (though they continue to teach it to undergraduates). Buddhists seldom, if ever, come out in defence of other valid interpretations of the Schrödinger equation. We see no Buddhist essays arguing that, for example, Bohmian mechanics (aka pilot-wave theory) reflects the Buddha's insight. Buddhists are attracted to the deprecated Copenhagen interpretation because purely by confirmation bias. There really is no connection between the Iron Age observations of Buddhists about how their minds work and the twentieth century observations about how matter changes  over time on the nanoscale. 

That said, like other physicists, Bohm himself later went into the business of speculative metaphysics. It is a quirk of many physicist that they start to believe that they really do understand everything. There are any number of books of unscientific (but influential) nonsense from people like Eugene Wigner, Linus Pauling (Vitamin C), and including Bohm himself, and even the Venerable Albert Einstein. 

When I began to adopt an epistemic approach to Buddhism, I realised that I no longer had any conflicts with my education in the physical sciences (I majored in chemistry). 

Buddhist metaphysics as reflected in various texts across time have no advantages over any other religious metaphysics. The Buddhist worldview is always stated in such a way as to allow for the supernatural (or what I sometimes call "the unnatural"): karma, rebirth, gods, demons, spirits, heavens, hells, ESP, etc. At best these views approach the sophistication of Descartes, accepting a dualistic world in order to preserve a place for non-natural entities, forces, locations, and events. Buddhism provides us with nothing approaching the physical laws of nineteenth century science. No equivalent to, say, the universal principle of conservation of momentum.  Which is hardly surprising given that most Buddhists think the real world is "an illusion" and that a "spiritual" Reality is to be found in purely subjective mental states. Why would this approach produce any insights into the real? 

While religious Buddhists have an ongoing battle with the real, in that it clearly does not conform to Buddhist orthodoxy, I no longer have this problem. I no longer feel any tension between my scientific outlook and my Buddhist vocation based on working with my mind. They are two distinct provinces of knowledge, at least for the time being. 

Why does this matter? I think religion in Europe (and her colonies), generally, is struggling with two tendencies: the tendency towards fundamentalism and the tendency towards rationalism. The former stymies all intellectual progress, while the latter sees no value in religion. We've all watched secular mindfulness rapidly become very much more popular than religious Buddhism. We've seen many emotive arguments against practising mindfulness outside of the metaphysical commitments held by most Buddhists. How much worse will it be when we begin to see secular training in attention withdrawal (if it does not already exist) and a secular "enlightenment". That could easily eclipse European Buddhism, though my sense is that Asian Buddhism is more insulated from this kind of discourse.

Central to my faith in 2022 is this credo: I believe that sensory experience can cease without loss of basic awareness. I believe this knowledge was discovered in ancient India and became the basis for a number of religions. 

Although the result is described as "contentless awareness" those who undergo this can remember what it was like and are usually eager to offer an interpretation. To date religious explanations have dominated the field. Nascent academic attempts to characterise and categorise such phenomena are fascinating, but still lack coherence. While I mainly write for a Buddhist audience, I kind of hope that some academic will also notice my epistemic approach and see how it disentangles religious sentiments from the difficult work of identifying and characterising what is real. 

In this sense, then, I think enlightenment, awakening, liberation, purification, or whatever we call it, is a real phenomena. I feel fairly confident that I've met people who are "in that state" (tathā-gata, as we say in Pāli). And scientists are right now measuring the neural activity of people in a state of contentless awareness looking for, and finding, neural correlates of cessation and awakening. Where Buddhism and science part company is precisely where all religions breakdown, that is on the interpretation of experience, especially with respect to what experience tells us about "reality". 

Cessation is something we can systematically cultivate. The way to cultivate it is to minimise sensory experience, both in daily life and more radically in meditation. The goal of practice is a form of knowledge, not a form of existence. We call this knowledge prajñā or paragnosis, knowledge from beyond the cessation of sensory experience. Without the supernatural elements, with the view that the Buddha was talking about experience rather than reality, we can drop all the metaphysical speculation about what it all means, and arrive at a simpler, more coherent view of Buddhism, that has realistic goals for maximising human potential.  


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