17 February 2023

What's the Difference Between a Meditator and Corpse?

At first glance, my title this week might seem like an odd question or the opening to a joke. In fact, the question is asked and answered in the Pāḷi Mahāvedalla Sutta (MN 43). This is one of those suttas that seems to be an attempt to comprehensively summarise Buddhism as it was understood at the time, but not in a standard Theravāda way. 

The Mahāvedella is a teaching by Elder Sāriputta for Elder Mahā-Koṭṭhita. The pair are also portrayed as speaking together in the Koṭṭhita Sutta (AN 9.13) and another Koṭṭhita Sutta (SN 35.232).

In this case, the sutta includes some ideas that are rare elsewhere. What the Pāḷi texts repeatedly show is that different ancient Buddhists thought about the same terms in different ways. Not everything that we find in a Pāḷi sutta was incorporated into Theravāda Buddhism, even in theory. 

The Mahāvedalla Sutta

The Mahāvedalla Sutta is a series of questions and answers. For example, the first question asks for a definition of "faulty pañño" (duppañño; Skt duḥprajñā) and compares this with someone endowed with pañño (paññavā; Skt. prajñāvat). Note how these are not quite opposites. The natural opposite of duppañño would be supañño; while the opposite of paññavā would be apaññavā. No doubt there was a story here, but it's lost to time. It's not clear how the Mahāvedalla-kāra understood pañño, the adjectival form of paññā, but in Prajñāpāramitā it seems to connote the knowledge gained by undergoing cessation (nirodha). The series of questions continues. Define "discrimination" (viññāṇaṃ; vijñāna)? What is the difference between viññāṇaṃ and paññā? The answer here is that paññā is to be cultivated; discrimination is to be comprehended (paññā bhāvetabbā, viññāṇaṃ pariññeyyaṃ). 

This explanation leaves me in the dark about the distinction, I think, because I lack the context in which to understand it. There is one other reference to cultivating paññā in Pāḷi. The Rāga Sutta (AN 6.107) describes a group of three things to be abandoned (raga, doha, moha) and three to be cultivated (asubha, mettā, and paññā) in order to eliminate them, i.e. cultivating understanding (paññā) dispels confusion (moha). This one is comprehensible on its own, but doesn't help us to distinguish paññā from viññāṇa. It seems that the Mahāvedalla-kāra did not see viññāṇa as something that could be cultivated or abandoned. But this doctrine was not developed by Buddhists and all we have is this incomplete snapshot. This happens a lot in the Pāḷi suttas. 

Then the sutta asks, what is valence (vedanā) and recognition (saññā)? And are these three—saññā, paññā, vedanā—inseparable? The sutta-kāra says they are not separable because "what one experiences, that one recognises; what one recognises one discriminates" (yaṃ hāvuso, vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vijānāti MN I 293). Note that the traditional skandha meditation practice is predicated on being able to distinguish these three, while here the three are said to be impossible to distinguish individually (na ca labbhā imesaṃ dhammānaṃ vinibbhujitvā vinibbhujitvā* nānākaraṇaṃ paññāpetuṃ).

* The repetition of vinibbhujitvā here is odd, but seems to be in the original texts. 

Then a change of pace. "Comrade, what can be inferred by purified mental discrimination that dismisses the five [physical] senses?" (Nissaṭṭhena hāvuso, pañcahi indriyehi parisuddhena manoviññāṇena kiṃ neyyan ti?)

* Ñāṇamoḷi & Bodhi "Friend, what can be known by the purified mind-consciousness released from the five faculties?

Interestingly, what can be inferred or understood (neyyan) from this are precisely the āyatana states. From the statement (or thought) "space has no limits" we can infer the stage of limitless space (ananto ākāso’ti ākāsānañcāyatanaṃ neyyaṃ); from "there is no limit to discrimination" we infer the stage of limitless discrimination can be inferred (anantaṃ viññāṇan ti viññāṇañcāyatanaṃ neyyaṃ); and from "there is nothing" we infer the stage of nothingness can be inferred (natthi kiñcī ti ākiñcaññāyatanaṃ neyyaṃ). And we know this phenomenon through the eye of paññā (paññācakkhunā). And what is the purpose of paññā? It is higher knowledge (abhiññatthā), exact knowledge (pariññatthā), and abandonment (pahānatthā). The latter refers to eliminating sensory experience (cf. Pahāna Sutta SN 35.24).

More questions follow on right view (sammādiṭṭhi), being (bhava), first jhāna, the five faculties, and then the section that really interests me.

Life and Heat

The pertinent question is, "On what condition do the five faculties depend?" (pañcindriyāni kiṃ paṭicca tiṭṭhantī ti); where the five faculties are eye, ear, nose, tongue, body. The Mahāvedalla Sutta says that they depend on āyu "life" (Skt āyuḥ; as in āyurveda). Life itself depends on the condition of "heat" (āyu usmaṃ paṭicca tiṭṭhati) but, at the same time, heat depends on the condition of life (usmā āyuṃ paṭicca tiṭṭhati). The relation between the two is explained by an analogy: it's just like how seeing the light of a lamp is dependent on seeing the flame, and seeing the flame is dependent on seeing the light. This mirrors the analogy between mutually conditioning viññāṇa and nāmarūpa in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) there conceptualised as two sheaves of harvested grain that lean against each other (called a "stook" in English).

Life and heat are not a common topic in Pāḷi; they occur together in just three texts including the Mahāvedalla Sutta, and I will digress briefly to consider the other two. We find life and heat together in a verse at the end of the Pheṇa­piṇḍ­ūpama Sutta (SN 22.95) where death is equated with the absence of āyu, usmā, and viññāṇa (SN III 143). In the Kāmbhū Sutta (SN 41.6), which features a discussion between the patriarch* Citta and the bhikkhu Kāmbhū, we find a similar discussion of the difference between a corpse and a meditator experiencing cessation (Starting at SN IV 294). Here the bodily, verbal, and mental formations (kāya-, vācī-, and citta-saṅkhāra) cease in a meditator undergoing cessation. However, they still have life and heat, and their "faculties are serene" (indriyāni vippasannāni).

*Gahapati refers to the patriarch of an extended household or possibly an extended family within a clan structure. Standard translations like "householder" seem to miss the point.

Note the inconsistency here: a living person in both texts has life and heat, but the third factor is viññāṇa in one account and indriyāni in another. Here we might conjecture that viññāṇa is intended as the function of the indriyāni, i.e. objectification is the function of the sense faculties. We could, at a pinch, see the two terms in this context as synonyms. Though this is a neat solution, we have to consider other possibilities as well. The two texts may be trying to say something different and incompatible that we no longer understand (this is not uncommon between two Pāli texts).

I don't understand how we came to translate viññāṇa as "consciousness" but it seems plain wrong to me. Notably, viññāṇa is an action noun rather than an abstract noun, so viññāṇa and consciousness are not even on the same level of abstraction. It is my view that no Pāḷi word can be translated into English as an abstract noun "consciousness" and that our whole philosophical concept of "consciousness" is absent from ancient Buddhist dialogues (see also The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor). The use of "consciousness" in discussing ancient Buddhist discourses is a Whiggish anachronism (in which we imagine ancient Indians to be primitive precursors of ourselves).

In any case, the gist here is clear. It can be very difficult to distinguish a meditator from a corpse by the usual signs of life that we look for in a conscious and aware person, because we cannot interact with them. We could say that following cessation a person becomes completely unresponsive to the world around them. People undergoing cessation of sensory experience necessarily lack all sense of time, since all of the clues to the passing of time have, by definition, ceased. Hence, perhaps, the Buddhist insistence that the Buddhadharma is akāliko "timeless", though in a culture where death is often referred to as kālaṅkato "having done one's time", akāliko could also be a synonym for amata "deathless" (Skt. amṛta). The phenomenon of people sitting lost in samādhi for days on end is likely related to their undergoing cessation and having no sense of time passing. It is likely that thirst, i.e. a need for water, is what rouses them. Being dragged out of samādhi by thirst may explain why "thirst" (Skt. tṛṣṇa; P. taṇha) became such a key word in the Buddhist lexicon.

Life Force

Coming back to the Mahāvedalla Sutta and moving to the next section the subject is now "life" (āyu) and the "constituents of life" (āyu-saṇkhārā). The sutta explicitly states that these "constituents of life" are not phenomena that one can experience (na kho, āvuso, teva āyusaṅkhārā te vedaniyā dhammā). And then it says that, if the āyu-saṅkhārā were phenomena to be experienced, the one who experienced the cessation of awareness and experience would not emerge from their meditation, that is to say they would die. The logic here is that if āyu and āyu-saṅkhāra were part of the experienced world, then when the experienced world ceased, so too would life. Rather, the text makes the apposite observation that life continues even when all sensory experience ceases. 

What did the sutta-kāra mean by āyu and āyu-saṇkhārā? It is difficult to say, because the terms are not defined. Sujato has blogged about how the words āyusaṇkhāra and jīvitasaṇkhāra are used. There is not a great deal more to be said. In the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16) the Buddha mentions jīvitasaṅkhāra in a sense that Sujato interprets as a "will to live". He is, I think, here relying on the traditional idea that saṅkhāra means "volition" because it is explained as the six kinds of cetanā associated with the six sense spheres.

This meaning of saṅkhāra derives from the earlier Brahmanical use of the Sanskrit equivalent. In Vedic ritual, a saṃskāra is a rite of passage. When performing these rites, the Brahmin priests carry out a series of actions (karman). Hence, in Buddhist usage, saṇkhāra/saṃskāra is "an opportunity for doing karma". Keeping in mind that all intentional acts carry a karmic debt. At the same time, the unique but influential passage in AN 6.63 famously says "intention is how I talk about karma, monks" (cetanāhaṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi). Thus an opportunity for doing karma becomes an intention to act. 

Whether this meaning can be applied to āyusaṅkhāra is moot and, since Sujato doesn't make this case, we are none the wiser. He finds a way to make sense of jīvitasaṇkhāra as "the will to life" and then retrospectively relates āyusaṇkhāra to this as a kind of "vital force". In the end, however, Sujato concludes that distinction between āyusaṇkhāra and jīvitasaṇkhāra probably emerged later and that the two words are synonyms for "vitality" and "vital energies" and are best translated as "life force". This is a self-consistent explanation and it might be right. But there is presently no way to confirm such conjectures: we are trying to make sense of how a word was used in the absence of any contemporary explanation and from just a few instances that are vague and/or ambiguous. This is a common problem when dealing with older Buddhist texts (in any language). 

Across the ancient world we repeatedly encounter the idea of a "life force", but it is almost always conceptualised as breath. Words indicating breath as life force include: psyche, anima, spirit, qi 氣, and prāṇa. For more on this theme see my 2014 essay: Spiritual I: The Life's Breath. In the Indian context the vital force is āṇa "breath" which itself is caused by the action of the element of wind (vāyu). Vāyu conceptualises all forms of movement. The word āyu, however, does not refer to "breath". Rather, it is related to the words aeon and age, and often refers to lifespan or longevity. Breath (āṇa) is what animates the body (kāya); the resulting animation seems to be called āyu (and is accompanied by usmā). Similarly, jīva is not related to breath but is cognate with Greek bio, Latin vivarus, and Germanic quick; all meaning "life; living".

These are not ideas that were integrated into later Buddhism. Nor does the concept of a life-force as distinct from mind and body ever become mainstream. The reason is obvious, and has also bothered European philosophers. If there were a "life-force", then it would surely have a roll to play in facilitating life after death. And if it is present in all living things, as appears to be implied, then we are in the realms of eternalism: that is to say āyu starts to sound suspiciously like ātman. Not surprisingly most Buddhist schools of thought set the idea of a "life force" outside of their orthodoxy and āyusaṅkhāra never became a mainstream Buddhists' technical term. Moreover, Buddhist knowledge of physiology never really developed beyond this Iron Age conception.


To answer the question in the title, a meditator and a corpse are similar in that signs of life in the form of actions of body, speech, and mind are absent. Even though the meditator is insensate, or even catatonic, they are still alive; still warm. The corpse is cold and lifeless (and decay sets in almost immediately). 

Presumably, this was enough of an issue for the early Buddhists thought that it required some doctrinal explanation. That said, the terms used to explain the difference—like āyu and āyusaṅkhāra—did not seem to need an explanation in the minds of the author(s). Leaving us scratching our heads. 

This sutta is not consistent with Theravāda Buddhism, if only because it unequivocally states that vedanā, saññā, and viññāṇa cannot be distinguished from each other. Nor is this statement consistent with any form of Buddhism I am familiar with. The Mahāvedella Sutta appears to be from an unknown sect of Buddhists, missing from the historical record. Their text was preserved, but the teaching lineage associated with it was not. I suspect this is true in a large number of Pāḷi suttas.

However, that āyu and usmā occur together in three texts suggests that at least some Buddhists believed in some kind of "life force" as distinct from a soul (ātman). A life force (jīva) was also important in Jain theology, where it provided the necessary continuity for rebirth. At least some Buddhists further conceptualised life as composite and posited life-constituents (āyu-saṅkhāra). However, in the end we don't know precisely what words like āyu or āyusaṅkhāra meant to those people then, because they didn't say and there is not enough context to guess.

In this case it is very tempting to smooth over the difficulty by conjecturing an answer that solves all the problems, is plausible, and self-consistent. However, this is not sufficient to establish how the author(s) thought. Any number of plausible, self-consistent answers are possible. But we have no objective facts available to help us choose between them.


03 February 2023

Does Buddhism Provide Good Explanations?

This is my 600th essay on this blog. Thanks to all my readers over the last 17 years. Although I've slowed down in order to focus on publishing in academic journals, I still enjoy writing these less formal essays.


What is an explanation? And more to the point, what is a good explanation? To answer these questions we have to formulate a "good" explanation of "explanation" along with an  explanation of what constitutes "good" in this context. There is a whole branch of the philosophy of science concerned with characterising scientific explanation. We can draw on this to outline such an explanation. In a classic article, Jan Faye (2007) outlines three modes of scientific explanation. These will form the basis for an exploration of what kinds of explanations that Buddhism offers.

Formal-Logical Mode of Explanation

In this approach, A and B are both (logical) propositions. We may say that A explains B if B can be inferred from A using deduction. This approach involves some idealisation because both A and B are propositions rather than brute facts. Moreover, if A explains B according to this definition, then A is ipso facto a good explanation. Here a "good explanation" is one that follows the rules of logic. Formal-logical explanations are thus prescriptive rather than descriptive.

The problem with this mode of explanation is that in applying deduction we inevitably seem to reproduce our starting assumptions. All exercises in logic involve axioms or propositions that we hold to be true but cannot substantiate. For example, many Buddhists assume that the Buddha was an historical character. We can't prove this, since there is no direct evidence of the Buddha, but the proposition has very broad appeal and most people uncritically accept it as true. The problem, then, is how this unevidenced commitment affects the outcome of deductions from circumstantial evidence. 

If we were simply to begin with known facts then we might deduce new facts. But in all cases of applying logic to the real world we cannot avoid axioms, or at least propositions that we take to be axiomatically valid. If we set out to prove that the Buddha was an historical character when we have a prior intellectual commitment to that proposition, i.e. if we treat the Buddha's historicity as axiomatic, then the details of the logical argument are irrelevant. There will always come a point when we deduce that the Buddha was an historical character and we will judge this to be a valid deduction precisely because it concurs with our axiomatic presupposition. In other words, if our axiom is "the Buddha was an historical character" then any sequence of deductions that reproduces the axiom will automatically be accepted as valid. This boils down to Aristotle's law of identity: A is A. 

Recently, David Drewes (2022) challenged the axiom of the historical Buddha by arguing that the basic definition of an historical character is that they can be connected to an historical event or fact. If this is our criterion then the Buddha is not an historical person since he cannot be connected to any historical event or fact. Drewes concludes that it does not make sense (at least for academic historians) to speak of an "historical Buddha". Indeed, the same can be said of all the characters in early Buddhist texts, including the kings. Usually, if anyone can be associated with history, it is kings. Lāja Piyadasi (aka  Emperor Asoka whose name means "remorseless") is the first historical character in Indian history. He left artefacts that we can definitely link to him. 

This mode of explanation has long been out of fashion in science, but it still holds sway in theology, including Buddhist theology.

Ontological Mode of Explanation

Ontological explanations seek to identify and understand causes. The idea here is that facts, events, and states explain observations by revealing law-like casual relations between them. This mode of explanation is familiar to anyone who has studied science. In this mode, A explains B if A is the cause of B: where A and B are facts, events, or states. 

In a classical scientific explanation we might say, for example, that a force applied to a mass causes it to accelerate (i.e. undergo a change in speed and/or direction). The size of this effect is given by Newton's second law of motion: F = ma; where F is force, m is mass (kg) and a is acceleration (m/s2). From this we can say that the magnitude of the change in acceleration is equal to the force applied divided by the mass. It also allows us to define a unit of force: one Newton of force (N) is 1 kg⋅m/s(i.e. mass multiplied by acceleration). However, note that there is no term in the equation that corresponds to "causation". We assume that the applied force is the cause of the acceleration, but we don't need to encode that in the descriptive law. 

As Faye says, in this mode, "An explanation is both true and relevant if, and only if, it discloses the causal structure behind the given phenomena." (I'm referring to an unpaginated preprint). As another commentator, Sam Wilkinson puts it, "events explain other events, and they do so by standing in predictable law-like relations" (2014: 2)

Causation is a very tricky subject since, as David Hume observed some 300 years ago, we never observe causation, we only ever observe sequences of events. Immanuel Kant went further with this and asserted that causation and other metaphysical notions, like space and time, are actually structures imposed on experience by our minds in order to make sense of them. This basic insight seems to have stood the test of time. The explanations of causation I have seen tend to be rather abstract. In my view, our understanding of causation is related to learning how to use our own limbs and especially our hands. The archetype of causation, then, is action initiated by desire. This is why the concept of causation seems so intuitive but also why it is so confusing. Desire is an emotion and is not present outside of animal life. It's not present at all in most sequences of events in the universe, and as far as we know the only agents in the entire universe all live on earth. Thus our internal model for causation is not typical of causation generally. The conscious initiation of an action is an anomaly, not a model. 

Moreover, most events have multiple causes and we tend to highlight one or a small number from amongst them. The real world is far too complex for single causes to give rise to single effects, so most causal explanations introduce simplifications: for example, we often ignore gravity when it is perpendicular to the plane of interest. Our perception of initiating movements is biased because we are simply not aware of the complexity involved in making our limbs move: our kinesthetic sense, for example, is very coarse grained compared to our physiology. We don't sense, in any way, the nerve impulses involved, or the muscle fibres contracting and relaxing. We just have a broad sense of the limb moving. 

Thus, causal explanations are also fraught with uncertainty because the basic concept of causation is ill-defined and our understanding of it is based on a local anomaly. 

This leaves us with the third mode of scientific explanation. 

The Pragmatic Mode of Explanation

"Pragmatic" here is a technical or jargon term that refers to a particular approach to philosophy that is mainly focussed on speech and "speech acts". A speech act is an utterance that is intended to do something. This approach is contrasted with semantics, which is focussed on what words mean. It is not that pragmatists deny the meaning of words, but they do see meaning as secondary to doing. A classic example is irony, when we say one thing, but mean another, and do so "for effect". Semantics struggles to explain irony, though semantic explanations of irony have been proposed. Irony is simple for pragmatics since the effect of irony is to highlight the gap between expectation and reality. This is what the ironic utterance does

A question, in this view, is a speech act with the intention of seeking information. According to Faye, an explanation begins with a question. A pragmatic explanation, then, is a response to a question. As such, then, the purpose of an explanation is to satisfy the questioner. And an explanation is "good" to the extent that it does this. 

This may seem like a slippery slope to "relativism". Pragmatist philosophers address this by requiring that the questioner not be delusional and thus the answer only has to satisfy the rational requirements of a questioner and not their irrational requirements. Different philosophers have addressed this in different ways. For some, it requires a metaphysical turn, that is, linking "good" to being "true". 

Less problematic is the idea of accuracy: the closeness of an observed value to the true value. A good explanation has to attain a somewhat arbitrary level of accuracy. In physics, for example, scientists look for a confidence level of 5-sigma (5 σ). This means that there is a one in two million chance that your measurement is a statistical fluke that can be explained by some alternative route such as measurement error. So when, for example, someone announced that they had measured neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light, the first reaction was to look for some problem in the measurement rather than an immediate overturning of general relativity. And sure enough, a loose wire in the measurement device was fixed and the neutrinos "slowed down" to subluminal speeds.

Note that all measurements have an inherent level of error due to the limitations of our methods. Real science will always state what level of error the scientists have identified in their measurements. If you see a measurement that is not followed by the ± sign, then you should be on alert because someone is, at best, oversimplifying things and, at worst, attempting to deceive. 

An explanation that matches observations with a 5 σ level of accuracy is taken to be a good explanation in science. General relativity is a good explanation to certain questions asked by scientists. What is gravity? "Gravity is the geometry of spacetime". Why does the orbit of Mercury precess at the rate it does? Because at perihelion the curvature of spacetime caused by the sun is much greater than at aphelion, causing the planet to get ahead of where its orbit is expected to go under classical descriptions. And so on. 

Other philosophers try to apply criteria like "usefulness" a good explanation is one that is "useful", though usefulness is itself a nebulous concept: Useful for what? Useful to whom? 

In the pragmatic view, a good explanation entails the person asking the question understanding the answer that addresses their rational concerns. And if it does this, then it is a good explanation for that situation. For example, it remains to be seen whether my explanation of this is good from the reader's point of view. It gets interesting when authors raise questions that readers have never thought to ask, a situation I meet everyday as an author. 

Incidentally, this is consistent with Mercier & Sperbers contention that reasons are post hoc explanations that we produce in response to questions about motivations. Humans don't act for reasons, we act and then produce ad hoc reasons as required. Our deliberations on whether to act or how to act are generally handled by inferential processes below the threshold of awareness. Moreover, we tend to adopt the first plausible explanation for our actions that comes to mind. A striking demonstration of this can be seen in people with neurological damage who cannot form new memories. Oliver Sacks reports one such case in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985). The patient is in hospital but cannot remember why. Asked to account for why he is there, the man confabulates a story that seems plausible to himself. He's there for a check up, he's waiting for someone, and so on. Each time it's different because he can't remember his previous answers. One of the functions of memory is to put limits on our speculations about how we got here. 

By this criterion, if a five-year old asks me why the sky is blue, and I respond by explaining how the scattering of incident sun light by atoms in the atmosphere is dependent on the type of atom and the wavelength of the light; blue light is scattered by more nitrogen gas than other frequencies, so we see more blue light than other colours in any direction in the sky away from the sun itself. The answer is objectively true, to the best of my knowledge, and accurate to some arbitrary level. However, I have still failed to give a good answer because my five-year old interlocutor is unlikely to understand it. This is not relativism, since we can still say that some answers are better than others. The sky is not blue because that is God's favourite colour, for example. Rather there is a limit on the "goodness" of an explanation that is dependent on the knowledge and capabilities of the questioner. Similarly, if a scientist asks why the sky is blue and I give a mythological answer that would satisfy the people of, say, Iron Age India, it would not be a good explanation in that circumstance.

So a good explanation, in this mode, is an utterance that addresses a particular question, asked by a particular person whose rational needs (especially for understanding) must be satisfied by the answer. This means that explanations in this mode are not universal, they have to fit the requirements of the question/questioner. In this mode, contrary to the others, the explanation is not inherent in nature, not a fixed thing, but changes dependent on who is asking and why. An explanation has to do more than simply reveal a pre-existing truth, it has to communicate something to a specific audience. And as such, an unmitigated scientific explanation is seldom the best explanation except to other scientists. 

Other Modes?

These modes are how philosophers of science explain explanation to each other. I was alerted to this by reading Sam Wilkinson's (2014) application of Faye's schema to a problem in neuroscience. One mode that is not included, though it was the primary mode of explanation for ancient Buddhists is, explanation by analogy. In this mode, one can explain an unknown event or process by analogy to some known process. One of the best examples of this from ancient Buddhism is the niyāma doctrine that we find in Pāli commentaries attributed to Buddhaghosa. 

In this view, for example, we can explain karma by reference to the way a seed grows into a plant (bīja-niyāma). Indeed, we refer to the results of karma as phala "fruit" and vipāka "ripening, maturing" (from √pac "to cook"). This also explains the like-for-like specificity of karma: good actions (kusala, puṇya) lead to a good rebirth (sugati); bad actions (pāpa, akusala, apuṇya) lead to a bad rebirth (duggati). The analogy here is that a rice seed can only grow into a rice plant. On the other hand, karma also has to be timely, i.e. to ripen at the appropriate time. The analogy for this is the way that plants bloom and fruit in season, or the way the monsoon rains (mostly) come at the same time each year (utu-niyāma).

However, sometimes ancient Buddhists could find no analogy. And in these cases they often resorted to theological arguments. Taking another example from the doctrine of pañcavidha niyāmaKamma-niyāma itself refers to the inevitability of consequences. Karma must ripen. There is no good analogy for the inevitability of this, since it is not true that real fruit must ripen. In nature, crops may fail to ripen for many reasons. Some unripe fruit fall from the tree, some are consumed by birds, insects, or fungus, some are affected by draught, etc. Where they could find no analogy from nature, Buddhists would resort to an appeal to authority. In the case of kamma-niyāma Buddhaghosa opted to cite a verse from the Dhammapada (127) which describes inevitability. 

In my articles on karma I have noted that the early belief in the inevitability of karma is overridden in  later Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts that allow for religious practices to mitigate karmic consequences. The epitome of this is the Vajrasatva mantra, the chanting of which is said to eliminate even the most negative forms of karma, such as that from killing a buddha. This alone suggests that argument from authority is less successful than argument from analogy.

Doctrine as Explanation

Buddhist explanations are typically codified as "doctrine", a word derived from Latin that means "teaching", but is also used to refer to the official body of teachings that are core to a particular religious community. Some religieux, notably Christians and Muslims, define membership of their group by acceptance of certain doctrines. Modern Buddhists will often ape this practice, setting out a Buddhist catechism, but ancient Buddhists seem to have defined membership in terms of behaviour rather than belief. And after all, a person can profess belief, but if their behaviour is not consistent with that belief such profession is meaningless. 

Doctrines are not necessarily arbitrary, but can reflect a considered position on a particular question or problem. That is to say, a doctrine can (and often does) function as an explanation. For example, in response to the question, "How should we live as Buddhists?", Buddhists codified sets of training rules or śikṣapāda, the best known of which are the pratimokṣa and the five precepts for lay Buddhists.  These constitute different levels of explanation for different people. Lay people were not expected to live according to the pratimokṣa, though they often knew the rules and reported monks who broke them. 

However, Buddhists seldom codified the questions or problems that gave rise to the doctrines. And thus we have to be careful. We do not know, for example, why anyone believed in rebirth in India. Vedic speakers were originally from a milieu that did not believe in rebirth. They seem to have embraced it when they encountered it in India (traces of the process are found in the Ṛgveda stories about Yama as the discoverer of the way to the pitṛloka). We know a good deal about the content of what various communities believed about life after death, and we know how they responded to the belief, but we don't know why they found rebirth a more compelling version of the afterlife than the one they arrived in Indian with (every culture has a view about this). Nor do we fully understand how rebirth happened, since even within Buddhism there was no general agreement on this. 

There are times when we can attempt to reverse engineer the problem that gave rise to a doctrine, but since we have no way to go back in time and confirm this directly, such reconstructions are always speculative. 

According to many Buddhist texts, the most fundamental thing that Buddhism seeks to explain is suffering. In Christianity, for example, suffering must be explained with reference to the creator and is often referred to as the problem of theodicy or "God's justice"; or simply the problem of evil. If God created the world with evil in it, was he compelled, complicit, or indifferent? Christians have addressed this problem in different ways. Evil is not God's fault because he gave humans free will (evil is our fault; or worse, evil is women's fault). Evil is part of God's plan and not being omnipotent we simply cannot understand it. Many of us now say that the explanations of evil offered by Christians are not good explanations because all of the answers implicate God as the creator of evil. 

Buddhists, free of the scourge of a personified creator, had a number of approaches to explaining suffering. One of the most important reasons offered is the belief that we are repeatedly reborn in one or other of the realms of saṃsāra. To be reborn is to suffer. In response, all ancient Buddhists sought an end to rebirth as their primary goal. Arguably all modern Buddhists do also, but they seldom couch it in these terms. Modern Buddhists often try to explain evil from the point of view of individual psychology (often with a psychoanalytic perspective): evil is a result of an individual's desire, since it is desire that fuels rebirth. 

However, in this example, rebirth is a given. The belief in rebirth seems to have been ubiquitous in pre-modern India. Rebirth is not a conclusion, it is an axiom. That we are reborn is never in question for Buddhists (and when it is questioned, many Buddhists throw up their hands and declare that without rebirth Buddhism is meaningless). There are early Buddhist references to non-believers, but we don't know if they actually existed, because they did not leave their own records and where we have external confirmation (as through archaeology) we find Buddhist texts are quite unreliable witnesses to history. As we know, none of the characters in the Pāli stories can be linked to historical events. Indian history begins with writing and writing in India begins with Asoka's inscriptions. Before that, we have archaeological evidence, such as potsherds or stupas, but this tends to shed light only on material culture, not on individuals or mores.

As Sue Hamilton (2000) says repeatedly, early Buddhists were interested in how certain things worked; they did not have much to say about whether or not anything existed. This is also true for Prajñāpāramitā.

Is Dependent Origination a Causal Explanation?

Recall that the causal mode of explanation aims to explain something by showing a causal relation with something else. X explains Y, if X is the cause of Y. Superficially, the formula of dependent arising resembles a causal explanation, so much so that many modern Buddhists speak of dependent arising as a "theory of causality". This is inaccurate. Dependent arising tells us when causation happens, i.e. when the condition is present; it does not explain how causation happens. Moreover, the relations between the twelve nidānas are extremely varied: ignorance is the condition for volitions, for example, but birth is the condition for death. In the latter we get a dramatic example of why this is not a theory of causation. If X causes Y, then we are left stating the proposition that "birth causes death". This is obviously false. 

Of course one cannot die without first being born, but it would be ridiculous to say that birth is the cause of death. Such a causal explanation fails to satisfy any rational question about death. Take the case of a person who dies at age 100. Their birth was 100 years prior. Just as Buddhists insisted on the presence of the condition, we too think of causation as happening locally, both physically and temporally. A cause with a 100 year delay in fruition doesn't work as a causal explanation because we don't perceived widely separated moments in time as being present to each other (note that in English we almost always discuss time using spatial metaphors). We are constantly interacting with the world and its living creatures; constantly experiencing causation at various levels. A 100 year delay opens the door to uncountable causal relations that would smother any causal connection between two events. 

Leading up to bhava the nidānas can, at a stretch, be understood as relating to experience. But bhava means "existence". It may be that this was the end of the sequence at some point, because bhava here implies a series of rebirths driven by karma. This raises larger questions about whether the nidānas are an explanation at all. Many would say that the nidānas are not an ontology (not an explanation of what exists), but merely a framework for reflecting on the nature of experience in the pursuit of ending rebirth. The whole thing is predicated on axiomatic rebirth. 


I started with an overview of different modes of explanation as understood by philosophers of science:  the formal logical mode, the ontological mode, and the pragmatic mode. Philosophers of religion have to add a few more modes of explanation that scientists don't accept, such as explanation through analogy and appeals to doctrine. This looks like a fruitful approach to exploring Buddhism. For example, it would be useful to identify what kinds of questions Buddhists were asking. We get some idea of this from the work of people like Richard Gombrich who have identified where Buddhists were in dialogue with Brahmins or people of other faiths. For example, it seems that everyone in ancient India who believed in rebirth looked for an explanation of rebirth. Just saying we are reborn again and again is not satisfying, especially in a culture that sees birth as a misfortune. Ancient Buddhists wanted to know why we are repeatedly reborn into misery because the idea of being reborn into misery was taken to be axiomatic true. And the doctrine of karma seeks to explain rebirth rather than the belief in rebirth. Buddhists never sought to explain their belief in rebirth because everyone took it to be axiomatically true. Background beliefs are almost never explained, which is why we still need philosophers. 

What other kinds of questions were Buddhists trying to answer in their myriad doctrines? And why do those doctrines compete? We tend not to even think in these terms so the answers are not forthcoming.

Then there is the question of why doctrines change. I have been interested, for example, by changes in the doctrine of karma over time, especially where we get oddities like the sarvāsti doctrine or the pudgala doctrine. What caused such changes? Buddhists themselves are uninterested in such questions. They are more concerned with the question of authenticity. For example, there is now a regular stream of articles saying that secular mindfulness is not authentic because the suite of practices under that  rubric have been removed from their "spiritual" context (see for example White 2023). 

What does this word "spiritual" mean any more? What question is "spiritual" the answer to and for whom? Moreover, there is no word in the Buddhist technical lexicon that can legitimately be translated as "spiritual"? The word has no meaning in modern English anymore, but it never had any meaning in a Buddhist context. 

In the end, what do the Iron Age doctrines of Buddhism explain and for whom? For example, the intended audience for many texts is monastics, living a life that has almost no parallel in modern Buddhism, i.e. mendicant monasticism: living rough, depending on begging, mostly engaged in meditation. Do answers for this community constitute a good explanation of anything for someone living in the 21st century? Many modern Buddhists require us to believe that not only are the Iron Age doctrines still apt, but that they are the acme of all explanations: Buddhists purport to explain reality itself. 

But these explanations strike few of us as salient or good. And by "us" here, I mean modern Europeans and people living in European colonies. Traditional explanations are still popular where Buddhist traditions thrive. But they clearly do not relate to the majority. If we look at the statistics, Buddhists are typically less that 1% of the population of European states. 200 years after the first Buddhist monks arrived in the UK we are still less than half of 1% of the population. The fact is that, while many Europeans are sympathetic to and tolerant of Buddhism, they have no interest in becoming Buddhist. The largest and fastest growing category of religion in the 2021 UK census was "no religion". Religious explanations are not winning people over, secular explanations are. 

Moreover, I don't find the Buddhist account of reality convincing anymore, either. I'm not sure I was ever wholly convinced, but I did take on a lot of doctrine in order to facilitate a sense of belonging. Now I find the metaphysics of Buddhism quite dull and uninteresting, especially in the light of Sue Hamilton's heuristic of treating the Buddha of the Pāli canon as addressing issues of phenomenology and knowledge, and not as addressing metaphysical problems. Indeed, the Buddha famously avoids answering  questions framed as "Does X exist or not exist?" And this attitude persists into the Prajñāpāramitā literature that I have spent the last ten years studying. 

Buddhist metaphysics leads to paradoxes and contradictions; to philosophical kludges like the two truth doctrine (dvisatyavāda) or the momentary doctrine (kṣanavāda). One paradox, for example, is that dependent arising forbids action at a temporal distance while karma demands it: conditionality requires the presence of the condition, while some karmic actions only mature (vipāka) into consequences many lifetimes later. We cannot have both and ancient Buddhists produced all kinds of fudges to try to overcome this, with simple denial being at the forefront. For example, one academic journal editor, who is a Theravādin Buddhist, refused to publish an article of mine because he refused to admit that dependent arising requires the presence of the condition. We need to be clear about this: causation in the absence of a cause is totally incoherent, even in Buddhism. Causation in which the cause and effect appear at arbitrary times doesn't even meet the requirement of being a repeating sequence of events. It is not a sequence at all since any number of other events intervene and are implicated in conditionality generally. 

The internal contradictions of Buddhist doctrine are a sign that something has gone wrong. Moreover, ancient Buddhists must have been aware of this, since all Buddhist sects introduced doctrinal innovations and this still goes on today. Some of the explanations, such as sarvāstivāda and pudgalavāda, make clear that they introduced innovations to deal with  perceived problems in doctrine, but most never acknowledge the motivations for innovations. Changes in the doctrine of karma are never justified. Later Buddhists simply adopted a different definition and did not acknowledge the older one. 

The modern Buddhists' use of ancient Buddhist texts as justification for a belief is not a good explanation for me, as it doesn't answer any question that I have posed about Buddhist doctrines. Moreover, not even ancient Buddhists could cite textual justification for changing the doctrine of karma, because that would mean admitting that the Buddhavācana had mistakes in it. 

What Buddhism does explain is this: there is a real state of contentless awareness that a human being can reach by withdrawing attention from sensory experience and enduring the resultant sensory deprivation (often accompanied by hallucinations). 

In terms of conditionality we have to leave dependent arising behind in explaining contentless awareness. This is the state that occurs when all conditions for sensory experience have been eliminated through the practice of nonapprehension of sensory experiences. Philosophers would refer to it as a non-intentional conscious state. That is to say, a conscious mental state that is not "aimed at" anything. 

However, the vast majority of Buddhists reify this state and talk about it as "reality". The word may be explicit (especially in English language publications) or it may be implicit. And this is ironic for several reasons. There is no word in Indic languages that quite covers the same semantic field as the abstract noun "reality". Reality is never explicit in Pāḷi, for example, because there is no such term in Pāḷi. The same applies for Sanskrit and Chinese. Buddhist accounts of reality are often merely silly, like the common claim that "mind creates matter". It doesn't. Moreover, Buddhist texts don't claim that it does, because they almost never discuss "matter" (dravya) in relation to mind; they discuss phenomena (dharma) which they clearly distinguish from objects. 

My conclusion is that traditional Buddhism does not provide me with good general explanations. Modern Buddhism does little better since it subordinates all knowledge to the claims of the traditional buddhist: where a Buddhist acknowledges the validity of a scientific explanation, for example, they almost always assert that the Buddha got there first. For Buddhists, science or any foreign body of knowledge can only ever be a handmaiden to Buddhism. In this all too common scenario Buddhists co-opt the explanatory power of science to assuage their anxieties over orthodoxy and to bolster metaphysical claims (that are otherwise unreasonable).  Buddhism does not provide me with good explanations of reality, truth, or any other metaphysical issue. Buddhists have no explanation whatever of morality, just a bunch of lists of moral rules. As Damien Keown long ago noted, there are no ethical treatises in traditional Buddhist literature. 

Buddhism can do a decent job of explaining the state of contentless awareness that follows the cessation of sensory experience. And yet I know that scientists are now exploring this phenomenon and are likely to do a better job of explaining it, just as they do for other events and states. 

We have an interlocking network of good explanations of reality in science (in the form of theories that satisfy many levels of questioning). Science gives us extremely accurate and precise values for some of the physical properties of changing systems. However, even science is not a complete description of the world as it stands because the vast majority of scientists are committed to a reductionist explanatory paradigm: any event or state is best explained in terms of events and states at a lower order of structure and/or complexity: the parts explain the whole. Only... bricks and mortar don't explain architecture. I don't accept reductionism as a complete metaphysics. Rather, I hold that structure is equally important to substance, and that in order to have knowledge of structures we cannot employ the destructive analysis of reductionism (which destroys structures). Any good explanation will explain both substance and structure and privilege neither. So, while I am critical of Buddhist explanations, I'm not advocating scientism as an alternative. As useful as reductionist science undoubtedly is, we have a long way to go understanding the place and role of structure. 



Faye, Jan.(2007). "The Pragmatic-Rhetorical Theory of Explanation." In Rethinking Explanation. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. 43-68. Edited by J. Persson and P. Yikoski. Dordrecht: Springer.

White, Curtis. (2023). "How Corporations Attempt to Co-opt Buddhism." Yes Magazine. Jan 24, 2023. https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2023/01/24/corporate-buddhism

Wilkinson, Sam. (2014). "Levels and Kinds of Explanation: Lessons from Neuropsychiatry." Frontiers in Psychology 5 (article 373): 1-9. 

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