28 December 2018

What is the Point of Dependent Arising?

In the first two parts of this essay I showed that a close reading of the Pāli texts associated with the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda contradicts the received tradition. The imasmim sati formula says that the condition must be present for the duration of the effect, which contradicts all modern accounts (though it does fit the defunct Sarvāstivāda). Despite the traditional association, this is not the conditionality of the nidānas; rather, it is that of the upanisās (or Spiral Path), a lesser-known doctrine that is well attested in Pāli and Chinese. 

All of this ought to have been obvious, but Buddhism as a religion generates powerful cognitive biases against seeing things as they are. Instead, we are encouraged to see things the way that religious leaders tell us they ought to be. We are taught that Buddhism offers insights into reality, or even the ultimate nature of reality, but it really does not. To some extent this is the standard cognitive bias generated by expectations, but magnified by the emotive atmosphere of religious observance. Where others are expressing devotion and making sacrifices, we are more likely to be swept along by emotional contagion (cf. Martyrs Maketh the Religion. 05 February 2010). 

The kind of contradiction explored in this essay is so common that we can say that it is the norm. The doctrines of the Pāli texts are frequently so faulty that later Buddhists abandoned them altogether. This is partially hidden because they retained the jargon of Buddhism, simply redefining words to give the illusion of continuity. Technical terms like "nidāna" provide a figleaf of authenticity and legitimacy and allow those seeking leverage to reference the "Pāli Canon" but, in fact, no one teaches what is in the suttas. And why would they teach ideas that don't make sense? What we teach is someone's attempt to make sense of the early teachings. This is not wrong per se, but it is deceptively presented as ancient wisdom, when often it is just modern liberal humanism. 

In the final part of this essay I'll apply my principle hermeneutic—Buddhism is experience—to the idea of dependent arising. I've already shown that it doesn't make sense as metaphysics and now I'll try to show that it makes some sense as a kind of epistemology. 


A Third Way

If paṭicca-samuppāda is a failure as metaphysics, does it have any application? In the year 2000, Sue Hamilton argued that the doctrines in the Pāli suttas are concerned with experience rather than with reality. Since that time other scholars have picked up on this idea and I have made it one of the central tenets of my approach to Buddhism. There is, in fact, a third textual approach to dependent arising that corresponds to this experiential approach. This third way is found, for example, in two adjacent suttas in the Nidānasaṃyutta, i.e., SN 12.43 and SN 12.44 (they are also repeated verbatim at SN 35.106 and 35.107). There is a pericope here that crops up regularly and forms the core of the idea. I'll call it the tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati formula.
Cakkhuñca paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ. Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso. Phassapaccayā vedanā; vedanāpaccayā taṇhā. (SN ii.72) 
Dependent on the eye and form eye-cognition arises. The conjunction of the three is contact. From the condition of contact feeling exists, from the condition of feeling, craving exists. 
The texts say that the same is true for all the sense modalities (indriya): eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Each of the sense modalities has its object (S. ālambana; P. ārammaṇa): forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactiles, dhammas. The meeting of sense object and sense faculty gives rise to its own kind of cognition or viññāṇa (S. vijñāṇa). Note that ālambhana means "seized, grasped"; Pāli uses the Sanskrit spelling of indriya (we expect indiya); and viññāṇa does not mean "consciousness" (and never does). 

The sense faculties are also sometimes referred to as the saḷāyatana "six spheres", but this term later comes to refer to the six sense faculties along with their objects. Another important later category is the eighteen dhātus, which is the twelve āyatanas plus their respective viññāṇa
6 indriya + 6 ārammaṇa = 12 āyatana 
12 āyatana + 6 viññāṇa = 18 dhātu 
These categories become important in the development of dharma theory and form the basis of many Abhidharma lists. However, in the texts in question, the later categories have yet to be imposed.

Tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati is Pāli for "conjunction of the three", where saṅgati comes from saṃ√gam meaning "going together, meeting, conjunction".  Rather than one condition giving rise to one effect, we have a combination of three conditions giving rise to vedanā. We can summarise the tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati by substituting the general terms:
indriyañ ca paṭicca ārammaṇañ ca uppajjati indriya-viññāṇaṃ. 
On the basis of sense faculty and sense object, sense cognition arises. 
It is only when all three are present that contact (phassa) occurs and on this basis vedanā and then taṇha arise. According to SN 12:43 this is the origin of dukkha and according to SN 12:44 exactly the same process is the origin of loka. From this and other texts we know that the Pāli authors considered the two terms to be synonymous. However, this equation appears to be have been lost sight of and  disappeared from Buddhist teaching until it was rediscovered by Sue Hamilton in 2000.


Cessation

Then the text asks about the cessation of dukkha/loka. The cessation passage repeats the pericope on how dukkha and loka come into being, but it then continues with the standard nidāna sequence:
Tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodhā upādānanirodho; upādānanirodhā bhava-nirodho; bhavanirodhā jātinirodho; jātinirodhā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkha-domanassupāyāsā nirujjhanti. Evam etassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa nirodho hoti. (SN ii.72)
From the remainderless absence of passion and cessation (of that craving; there is cessation of the fuel [of becoming]). From the cessation of the fuel, there is the cessation of becoming. From the cessation of becoming, there is the cessation of birth; from the cessation of birth, aging and death, of remorse, sorrow, misery, depression, and despair cease. Just this is the cessation of the whole [blazing] mass of experience. 
I've translated this in line with Richard Gombrich's (2009) idea that it ties in with the general use of metaphors of fire for the mind. Compare especially the Āditti Sutta (SN 35.28) and an early essay of mine, Everything Is On Fire. There are two problems to point out with this:

The first problem is that in this view we think of craving (taṇha) as the fuel (upādana) for becoming (bhava). However, the fuel for becoming is here abstracted out as a separate item from craving. Here craving is the condition of the fuel, and the fuel is the condition for becoming. It suggests that we look to the applied meaning of upādāna, i.e., "clinging". Thus, craving gives rise to clinging, and it is the clinging rather than craving per se that fuels becoming. Indeed, we sometimes read that vedanā is simply a vipāka. Depending how we view karma there are a range of views on vipāka. 1. There is nothing we can do about it (Dhp 127). 2. All we can do is mitigate the impact of the vipāka (cf Loṇapala Sutta AN 3.99). 3. We can ameliorate the vipāka through religious practices so that it does not ripen. 4. We can eliminate all evil karma at the root through religious practices. Either way vedanā arises as a result of past actions and is not under our direct control (even in those views which allow us to eliminate evil karma)

The second problem is that becoming (bhava) is abstracted out of birth (jāti). The traditional explanations of the nidānas overlay bhava with a more complex doctrine involving "the rebirth producing kamma-process" (kammabhava) and the actual "rebirth process" (upapattibhava). It doesn't make sense to consider rebirth in the abstract as the underlying condition for the physical act of birth.

In tracing our way along the nidānas we lurch from abstractions like ignorance, to the subjective experience of cognition, to the concreteness of the body and sense organs, to the senses operating to produce subjective experience, into the realm of abstract ideas, and then back into the concrete world of birth and death. This is not a coherent series.

One can see how the three lifetimes interpretation emerged. Having birth be the effect of experience (saḷāyatana → phassa  vedanā → upādāna → bhava →) makes no sense because one has to already have been born in order to have experiences. In other words, experience presupposes a body and therefore birth. It is difficult to see how this series would work otherwise, although the three lifetimes model is still problematic for reasons given in Part II.

Note also that a literal reading of the nidānas combined with ideas from elsewhere, especially misreading the opening verses of the Dhammapada, leads many Buddhists to conclude that "mind creates matter". In the twelve nidānas, viññāna is the condition for nāmarūpa, literally name and appearance. Even in the three lifetimes model, this pairing is part of the present rebirth process (upapatti-bhava). In order for there to be human "consciousness", there has to be a human body. One can, of course, in traditional views, become a disembodied spirit. But as far as human beings are concerned, one cannot have consciousness without a body and vice versa. This is also the conclusion of the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) which presents viññāṇa and nāmarūpa conditioning each other (nāmarūpapaccayā viññāṇaṃ, viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpaṃ DN II.56). As Frank Sinatra said, "you can't have one without the other." Note also that the Mahānidāna Sutta labours the point about eliminating all forms of birth (anywhere in any way by anyone) in order to eliminate death. The goal of Buddhism is to entirely eliminate sentient life on earth in order to prevent suffering.

Even in this third approach to dependent arising the nidāna sequence is not coherent. It is a mix of different kinds of entities and events. 


The World of Experience

I've already mentioned that in SN 12:43 and SN 12:44 loka and dukkha are synonymous. A close look at the word loka reveals that in this context it means "the world of experience" (Jayarava 2010). Sue Hamilton (2000) explains that dukkha is not descriptive:
"...dukkha is not descriptive of the world in which we have our experience: it is not descriptive of everything that we perceive out there and then react to. Rather, it is our experience. (2000: 82; emphasis in the original)
Our experiential world is created by the operation of khandhas. As Hamilton puts it, dukkha, khandha, and loka all refer to experience:
"... all three terms refer in effect to the way one's experience (dukkha), the apparatus of which is one's khandhas, is one's world (loka). (2000: 205).
This tells us that we can think of dependent arising in terms of giving rise to one's experiential world. That is, not to "the world" in a metaphysical sense, but to "one's world" in an epistemic or phenomenological sense. The American Theravādin monk and translator, Bodhi, made a similar point about the world at around the same time as Sue Hamilton:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182)
Some years ago I would have called this world "psychological", but I have come around to the idea that one's world is a social phenomenon as much as it is a psychological one. The social side of cognition is completely absent from traditional Buddhism and largely absent from modern Buddhism. The important point is that it seems likely that the authors of the Pāli actually had this epistemic approach in mind. The metaphysical application was an after-thought.

The Bodhi quote also introduces the idea that the Pāli authors might have entertained a duality between a subjective and an objective world, with a clear focus on the subjective. This was precisely the idea that I was expanding on in my previous essay on Perennial Philosophy. This is how the early Buddhists thought, though their views were quite undeveloped and poorly expressed.

We can unequivocally say that, from the point of view of a self-aware individual, the world of experience appears to come in two varieties: objective experiences which relate to a mind-independent world (reality) and subjective experiences which relate to the workings of the mind itself (experience). The two varieties are not the result of any ontological dualism, but merely because the apparatus of experience presents these two kinds of experience to our awareness: one which is directly based on physical senses and one which is only indirectly based on the senses, if at all, but is more reflective of our reactions to experience (both affective and cognitive). The fundamental mistake we all make is to assume that, because there are two main kinds of experience, the world must be divided into two types of existence. One does not follow from the other. This becomes clearer if we compare the information from the different physical senses. Light and sound, for example, are two very different phenomena, but we now know that they are manifestations of one reality at two very different scales. 

It becomes apparent, to every neuro-typical four-year-old, that we are not the only self-aware being, but that other beings (human and animal) have minds that are unique but also like our own mind. We are not alone and we can compare notes. Thomas Nagel's argument that there is "something that it is like to be a bat" (viewing the world via sonar) is true, but it downplays the fact that we evolved to understand what it is like to be another person. We have a highly developed innate ability to feel what other sentient beings feel and to understand the world from their point of view. All social mammals have some capacity for doing this. When we understand other animals in this way, it is not simply projection or anthropomorphising, but recognition. Our pet's mind may be smaller and limited in scope, but it is a mind and comprehensible. And it can go the other way, domestic animals can understand and respond appropriately humans to some extent.

Our experience of the world is shaped by our social environment, our sensory apparatus, our cognitive equipment, and a number of other factors. Discovering how any of this relates to reality is a matter of painstakingly separating subjective from objective by taking and comparing notes. The path to such knowledge has not been straight but we have built up a highly accurate and precise picture of how our everyday reality works. And it has nothing to do with Buddhist theories of dependent arising. 


The Epistemic Reading is More Authentic

The history of Buddhism Studies is littered with the detritus of naive attempts to reconstruct the "original Buddhism". It is almost always a mistake to assume that we can get back to Buddhism before it is presented in early Buddhists texts, even though it is apparent that the early texts represent a rather advanced stage of development. We can only get so far in reconstructing history from texts when there is no corroborating evidence from elsewhere. We can see a progression in the Canon: some texts have a more epistemic approach and some a more metaphysical approach. And we know that there is a general trend toward exploring metaphysics amongst Buddhists that does not fully manifest until really quite late in the development of Buddhism, i.e., well into the Common Era. Thus we expect an epistemic approach to be more prominent in early texts.

The texts were composed over several centuries and we have no way, at present, of stratifying most of them. It is a matter of relative rather than absolute chronology. Also, we do not, and cannot, say anything about what the Buddha taught or thought. We just do not know how these texts relate to the legendary figure of the Buddha. 

The idea of paṭicca-samuppāda makes a certain amount of sense in the context of epistemology, but it comes unstuck when pressed into service as metaphysics. In other words, when applied to the context that history suggests is the earlier, we are able to use the doctrine to make a certain amount of sense. On the other hand, when Buddhists tried to use the doctrine as metaphysics we can see that they had to make many adjustments, some of which effectively repudiated the original idea and replaced it with something novel. The more metaphysics became a concern, the less like the doctrines in the early texts Buddhism became. Many later forms, such as the medieval Japanese and Tibetan schools (Zen, Shin, Gelug) bear almost no relationship to the doctrines of the early texts. 

Thus, we may argue that the epistemic reading is more authentic, provided that we do not overlay it with a modern epistemology. The idea that Buddhism makes a contribution to the understanding of reality, or the nature of reality, i.e., to ontology or metaphysics, is not authentic, in the sense that such claims are inconsistent with the earliest forms of Buddhism that we have access to. And this becomes increasingly obvious. Buddhism addresses the subjective, epistemic, phenomenological, experiential world; that part of the world which is an internally-generated virtual model; what Thomas Metzinger has called the Virtual Self Model. In this domain Buddhism retains some sense and usefulness. Still, this is not an easy adjustment for anyone used to thinking that they are on the trail of ultimate reality via Buddhism. I tried to show that, in terms of ideas and methods, that Buddhism is strongly connected with subjectivity. I know that many Buddhists will remain unconvinced by this, but it is true nonetheless. If our age tells us anything it is that "truth" and "belief" are often unrelated.

~~oOo~~
 

Bibliography

Bodhi 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom.

Hamilton, Sue. (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Jayarava (2010). "Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?". http://www.jayarava.org/writing/paticca-samuppada-theory-of-everything.pdf

21 December 2018

Dependent Arising: Nidānas

In Part I, I began with a detailed grammatical analysis of the traditional Pāli paṭicca-samuppāda formula. I showed that it tells us that the presence of the condition is required for the duration of the effect. The only traditional Buddhist view compatible with this criterion was Sarvāstivāda. And, to be clear, this means that modern teachings on dependent arising are inconsistent with the formula. Also, this entailed a particular view of time: it has to be linear and infinite in the past. Now, in Part II, I will continue by looking at the traditional connection of paṭicca-samuppāda to the concept of nidāna "basis". Although this is not as easy as it sounds.

Given that all Buddhists these days use the 12 link nidāna model, there are a surprising number and range of variations in the early Buddhist texts and disagreements between the various recensions. See the accompanying diagram for a visual representation of the main variations.

click to embiggen
Not included in the diagram are the numerous versions of the standard links that leave out the early links. A number of suttas have standard links but begin at the six senses (e.g., SN 12:24) or even at clinging (e.g., SN 22.80). The existence of these shorter links led Austrian Indologist (and Nazi), Erich Frauwallner to the conclusion that the sequence must have originally been two shorter sequences that got mashed together (cited in Bucknell 1999). The list might also have started off short and expanded with time.

Meanwhile, Polish Indologist, Joanna Jurewicz (2000), has proposed that the nidānas might have emerged as a parody or even polemic of Vedic cosmogony, an idea that Richard Gombrich (2009: 133 ff) has enthusiastically supported.

In addition to these obvious major variations, Rod Bucknell (1999) has noted many minor variations that are not visible to the casual reader. The different lineages of Pāli texts (i.e., Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, etc) are often at odds, with some leaving links out and some adding them. Also, there are several examples where two variant suttas in Pāli are represented by a single text in the Chinese Āgama translations, which Bucknell says this indicates a variation emerging in Pāli. However, we cannot rule out that either the Sarvāstivādin redactor or the Chinese Translator tidied up the Āgama versions by removing minor variants, just as a modern editor might do (see, e.g., Bodhi 2000 p.586).

The much vaunted unity of the early Buddhist Canon has been imposed on a riot of different teachings by one or more anonymous systematizers. I don't see this as a problem, per se; it is true of all Canons that they are constructed from less systematic raw material. Of course, one might argue that these are all variations on the theme and that the theme itself constitutes the unity. In response I would point to the inconsistencies between the themes: karma does not gel with dependent arising. If they are the product of one mind, then that person was, at best, an unsystematic thinker.

In the standard view, the texts were passed on orally with high fidelity until being written down. In fact, the fidelity must have been very low, judging by the written canon. Given the internal suggestions of the texts themselves it is likely that they were passed on orally in a wide range of dialects and only standardised at the time of being written down.

If anything, the Pāli Canon feels more like the work of a committee of people. The idea that the different nikāyas form a single collection must be relatively late and specific to the Theravādins. There is no evidence that other sects viewed them as such. The Āgama equivalents were separately translated into Chinese. The Pāli Canon is a compromise. Where conflicts could not be resolved, two or more versions of texts were included. The Sarvāstivādins, as evidenced in their Canon of early texts that survive in Chinese, were both less divided and more systematic, despite working from similar raw material.

This is all worth keeping in mind when we reflect on the nature of the early Buddhist doctrines. However, for the porpoises of this essay I will look at just two of the many variations from this mess. The familiar twelve nidānas and another model that will be familiar to some, the upanisās also known as the Spiral Path.


Nidānas

In this section, I'm going to outline the implications of obligatory presence for our understanding of dependent arising applied to the nidānas.

The twelve nidānas are usually seen as an application of the principle set out in paṭicca-samuppāda. Eviatar Shulman has argued that, actually, the formula applies specifically, and only, to the nidānas. In 2010, I outlined his argument in an essay called A General Theory of Conditionality? At that time, I tended to disagree, but I have come around to his way of thinking. As far as the Pāli suttas are concerned, paṭicca-samuppāda is the nidānas, though the nidānas frequently occur without the formula. It does not appear to be the case that the former is a general principle and the latter one application amongst many. However, nidāna models also exist that appear unrelated to paṭicca-samuppāda, per se. So we may be looking at an uneven composite that developed at the same time as the texts.

First, we may say that the circularity argument from Part I is a blow for the three lifetimes conception of dependent arising. The requirement of presence means that all such arguments are topologically identical to the case where an event is the condition for itself. Any form of cyclic conditionality has only two outcomes: everything always exists or nothing ever exists. As I notated it in Part I, any circularity in which the presence of the condition is a requirement for the presence of the effect logically reduces to: (A if A) and (¬A if ¬A). If we accept that conditions must be present, then we have to accept linear time with an infinite past or an eternally existent condition at the start of time. The universe may have spatial epicycles of creation and destruction, but time itself must be linear. A phenomenon cannot appear in its own past as a condition. A way around this would be to argue that the nidānas are categories of phenomena rather than a specific phenomenon: each instance is unique, but together they form a class of similar phenomena. Whether this rescues the three lifetimes interpretation is moot, but I want to move on because delving into the theory of categories would take me too far from my topic.

The traditional depiction of the nidānas around the outside of the "wheel of time" (kālacakra) is not a workable model of the nidānas. They are not a loop because conditional loops are forbidden by the requirement for presence. Also, death is not the condition for ignorance. If you look at how the teaching is presented in the texts, it's not presented as a loop, either. The cycle is birth and death. The rest of it is an attempt to explain what happens during a life to drive the constant recycling into new lives. Compare the important version of this doctrine in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15), for example, which only has 10 links (I leave this as an exercise for the reader). Arguably, for the unawakened, ignorance is a constant presence rather than something newly arising from moment to moment (I will look at the implications of this shortly).

Presence is problematic for the nidāna model. Take cognition (viññāna) as a nidāna. The imasmim sati formula says that cognition must be present all the time for the rest of the string of conditions to occur. And not only does this not work, it is evidently not the intended meaning of the nidāna. There are obviously times, when we are asleep, for example, when we do not cognise anything.

If we work through the logic, the condition for cognition is karmic volitions (saṅkhārā) which are arguably present, and the condition for karmic volitions, i.e., ignorance (aviijā) definitely is present. Ignorance is a constant for the unawakened; it must be, or they would be awakened. and it must persist for many lifetimes. If ignorance is present then, according to the formula, karmic volitions must also be present, and cognition must follow. Except that we know there are times when cognition is not present even when ignorance is. So the nidāna chain is constructed on a model which does not have a requirement for presence, or indeed which has a requirement for non-presence some of the time.

Things get even worse at the other end of the chain. If birth (jāti) is the condition for aging and death (jarā-maraṇa) then it cannot make any sense at all to require presence. Birth is an event, and not a short lived event, but one which takes place over an appreciable and often considerable time. Labour can last for a day or more. But if the presence of birth is the condition for the presence of aging and death, the death would be instantaneous for every new born. Again, presence here is counter-indicated and some other form of conditionality is required. If birth is the condition for death then we hope to delay it by as long as possible, but the average in the developed world is around 75. Also surely birth is not that significant compared to conception. Iron Age India only had vague and inaccurate conceptions of conception so they could not have come to this conclusion.

The consequence of this is that, whatever tradition and scholars tell us, the paṭicca-samuppāda formula emphatically does not logically apply to the nidānas. Indeed, a further analysis would reveal that more than one kind of conditionality is required to make sense of the nidānas and several schemes involving multiple types of condition were concocted by the different Abhidharmakāras. For example, Theravādins teach about the twenty-four different kinds of conditionality that their Abhidhamma speculates have to exist to make it all happen. Sarvāstivādins got by with just four. But most of the time the nature of the conditionality is unspecified, which allows us to have a more intuitive but less precise account of conditionality.

We do not teach the nidānas with the requirement for presence despite the clear implication of the paṭicca-samuppāda formula. There is nothing wrong with teaching a story about conditionality that we think works, if the alternative is one that we know doesn't work. But it seems disingenuous to promote this as something the Buddha taught. The whole concept is rather dubious, anyway, as we cannot even say if the Buddha was a historical figure. Even if we stipulate this much, however, it is clear that the early versions of the doctrine are incoherent and later Buddhists disagreed on how to fix this. What we now teach has no connection with the Buddha, it is "Buddhist" pragmatically because it is something that Buddhists say, not because it was something the Buddha said.

This is all bizarre enough, but there is a related, though largely neglected early Buddhist doctrine which is a much better fit for paṭicca-samuppāda, i.e., that also requires the presence of the condition.


The Spiral Path

click to embiggen
The lesser known model of conditionality was rediscovered by Carolyn Rhys Davids while she was editing and helping to translate the Saṃyutta Nikāya for the Pali Text Society. The idea was taken up by Sangharakshita but has never really gained much traction outside of the Triratna Buddhist Order, where it is an important doctrine. Both Ayya Khema (1991) and Bodhi (1980) wrote about it but just the once each, and some time ago now. Sangharakshita called it the "spiral path" (though in his teaching it is not a spiral, but a helix). The Nettiparakaraṇa, an early Pāli commentary included in the Canon, refers to it as lokuttara paṭicca-samuppāda which Bodhi translated as "Transcendental Dependent Arising". Other terms such as "progressive nidānas" have been used. As nidāna "basis" is used to refer to the paṭicca-samuppāda links, I have suggested that the spiral path be referred to as the upanisā "preconditions".

The PED is unsure about whether to derive the word upanisā from upa-ni-√sad, in which case it would be the same as Vedic upaniṣad, or from upa-ni-√śri (P. upanissayati), in which case we would have to see the word as an abbreviated form of the gerund upanissāya "depending on, by means of". Given how the word is used in the upanisā doctrine, the latter is far more likely. Compare BHS upaniśritya. In the Chinese Samyuktāgama (SA 495) the word is translated 所依 (T 1: 2.129a11), which is commonly used for Sanskrit terms such as āśraya and niśraya (ā√śri and ni√śri respectively) both meaning a "basis" or "foundation".

The upanisā doctrine occurs in about 40 suttas, whereas the imasmim sati formula occurs just 13 times, and the two are never related in Pāli. The scattered references were collected into one section of the Sarvāstivāda Madhyama Āgama, which is preserved in Chinese (see my draft translations of MĀ 42-55, Taishō 1: 26 §5).

In the spiral path, the upanisās are cumulative, with earlier conditions needing to be present, and thus  it is consistent with the paṭicca-samuppāda formula. Although existing explorations of the doctrine have focused on the Upanisā Sutta (SN 12:23 ≈ MĀ 55), my view is that the suttas at the beginning of the Chapter of Tens/Elevens in the Aṅguttara Nikāya are the template.
  • Kimatthiya Sutta (AN 10.1 = AN 11.1 ≈ MĀ 42)
  • Cetanākaraṇīya Sutta (AN 10.2 = AN 11.2 ≈ MĀ 43)
  • Paṭhama-upanisā Sutta (AN 10.3 = AN 11.3 ≈ MĀ 44, 47)
  • Dutiya-upanisā Sutta (AN 10.4 = AN 11.4 ≈ MĀ 48)
  • Tatiya-upanisā Sutta (AN 10.5 = AN 11.5 ≈ MĀ 43)
Seen in the light of the broad range of other spiral path texts, the Upanisā Sutta is an oddball, albeit an interesting one since it is the only text that attempts to join the nidānas with the upanisā. The usual nidāna sequence is listed to birth, which is followed by dukkha, then the upanisā sequence beginning with faith (saddha). However, this is a very problematic conjunction. Linking faith to suffering as a condition is prima facie strange but more so when one realises that the usual condition for faith is hearing the Buddha preach. Explanations for this conjunction typically add three extra steps in the process of linking the two. Even in the Triratna Order, where we actively teach the upanisā doctrine, we do not utilise the text as it stands. Instead, we use Sangharakshita's revision. Whether it even makes sense to combine the two models at all is doubtful.

The pattern from AN 10.2 begins like this:
The virtuous one, monks, endowed with virtue, need not form an intention ‘may my conscience be clear.’ It is natural (dhammatā) for the virtuous one endowed with virtue to have a clear conscience. Having a clear conscience, there is no need for an act of will ‘may I feel joy.’ Joy naturally arises in those who have a clear conscience.
The dynamic is illustrated in the Upanisā Sutta and several of the Madhyama-Āgama texts with a simile:
"Just as, when the gods pour down rain over the mountains, water flows down the mountainside, filling up the branches of the crevices and gullies; having filled the crevices and gullies, small lakes and the great lakes are filled; the great lakes being filled, the small rivers fill up; the small rivers fill up the large rivers, and the large rivers fill up the great ocean."
 Again, this is consistent with the continued presence of the condition giving rise to the effect and not with the sequences of the nidāna doctrine.

As I showed in my first published article on the subject (2013), the upanisā doctrine is a more elaborate version of the threefold path of conduct, concentration, and insight (sīla, samādhi, and paññā). The factors leading up to pāmojja constitute what we usually call "morality", but which are more about creating the conditions for meditation, rather than being a good person or following group norms. Hence, I would now say that "conduct" is a better translation than "morality" or "ethics", both of which are too broad in this context. The stage of conduct involves accustoming oneself to reduced sensory stimulation through restricting one's exposure to sense objects. It is characterised by restraint and renunciation. This is supposed to lead to a general mood of uplift and happiness (pāmojja) which is the prerequisite for meditation.

Having crossed the threshold of pāmojja as one becomes concentrated in meditation (and here we can infer that jhāna meditation is intended) one passes through a series of phases of increasingly refined experience, with less reference to external sense objects. This is not the place to argue about the general applicability of the model (I have my doubts) but we can say that at least this doctrine is consistent with the doctrine of paṭicca-samuppāda, although the Buddhist tradition seems to have kept apart the two doctrines that do make sense together, and to have largely forgotten the upanisā doctrine (or at best to have let it fall out of use).

What's more, it is apparent that the upanisā list aligns with the bojjhaṅga or "factors of awakening" list. For a graphic representation of this see my big dependent arising diagram.

The conclusion of this section is that the dynamic in the paṭicca-samuppāda, which requires the presence of the condition, is not the dynamic of the nidānas. In fact, the requirement for continued presence is incompatible with the nidāna model. And this despite Shulman's observation that the wording suggests that Buddhist authors saw the nidānas as spelling out in detail the principle of the formula. By a strange twist, the requirement of presence is exactly what we find in the neglected and sidelined upanisā doctrine. The two are not linked in surviving texts (Theravāda or Sarvāstivāda) except the Upanisā Sutta, which cobbles the two together end to end and this could not possibly work (and is not used in practice).

This shows, I think, that the received texts have been quite heavily and ineptly edited to favour an interpretation of doctrine that does not make sense, despite there being a combination that did make sense. This suggests that religious ideology has trumped common sense. It also shows that what appears to be unity to some people, is not apparent on closer inspection. 


Alternatives?

There is still one issue with the Spiral Path model to deal with. As before, the problem is explaining cessation. The conditions for rebirth are present and are the reason that we are continually reborn. In order to eliminate rebirth we have to eliminate the conditions for rebirth. But if presence is the norm, then this would involve an infinite regress: conditions must be present and the past must be infinite. In order to wholly eliminate rebirth we would have to go back to the base condition for rebirth, which is the existence of the universe that allows for rebirth. With infinite time we could never get to the beginning of the sequence to remove that ultimate cause. And thus rebirth could never cease because the preconditions for rebirth would always be present. This paradox tells us there is something wrong with the model.

Could it be that we have it all wrong and that the formula expresses a different dynamic? Is is more like a cue hitting a snooker ball? Or a line of dominoes? A seed growing into a tree?

Let's take the first idea. As a general approach it suggests that the condition gives the effect a "push" that enables the effect to be present in the absence of the condition. But if the effect can be present in the absence of its condition, then it is the condition for its own presence and we have explored this scenario in detail already. Alternatively, we may argue that the condition bequeaths a temporary quality of momentum to the effect. But what is the condition for the continued presence of this momentum? Nothing can be unconditioned except nirvāṇa (and perhaps space, ākāśa). Clearly, at the outset, the presence of momentum is due to the condition itself. But the momentum has to be an effect of the condition and dependent arising says that when the condition ceases the effect ceases. So there is no way for the condition to pass on anything to the effect by way of momentum if the condition is not present. The requirement for presence cannot be subverted by adding extra steps, because if any effect can outlive its conditions, under any circumstances, then it has become a condition for its own presence.

In the line of dominoes analogy, the suggestion is that the condition changes its state in such a way as to force the effect to change its state in the same way, creating a cascade. The problem is that at the outset a line of dominoes are all present and are simply knocked over. They don't cease to be present once they have fallen over. So at the beginning and the end we have dominoes. There is no help from this analogy, although this is similar to the Sarvāstivāda view of constant presence combined with a changing state of activity. 

A traditional image that is sometimes use to try to illustrate dependent arising is the seed sprouting and turning into a tree - continuous change. This is an argument from analogy which is not an explanation. But let's consider it. What is the condition for the seed to sprout? We may say that it must grow in soil (a complex mix of organic and inorganic elements) and at a minimum be watered. What happens to the soil once the seed sprouts? Nothing much. It has to continue to be present. Similarly, water must be continually present in some form or the plant dries out and dies. One might argue that this analogy is considerably worse that others we have considered.

I cannot think of any other situation in which we take dependent arising at face value and arrive at a workable solution. The only logical conclusion is the sarva-asti-vāda. Conditions all exist all of the time because if they did not everything would cease. Indeed, if any past condition ceased then all of the downstream effects related to it would instantaneously also cease. Of course, this is not what we see when we look at the world. Rather, we see phenomena arising and ceasing.

Usually Buddhists take what they see to be what they are supposed to see and assert that this is what dependent arising shows. Clearly, this is not what the formula of dependent arising says. Rather, it says a condition must be present for the entire duration of an effect. We do not teach dependent arising according to canonical accounts, but substitute what seems intuitively correct to us. And if we are allowed to do this with our supposedly central doctrine, then what changes are we not licenced to make?

Contrarily, if we insist that the canonical account is the Buddha's verbatim teaching, then we have to admit that the Buddha screwed up his most distinctive teaching or those who attempted to preserve his teachings were hopelessly confused by the time they came to be written down. Either way it seriously undermines the case for the supposed authenticity of the early Buddhist teachings.


Conclusion

It seems to me that the people who promote dependent arising as a metaphysical truth have really not thought deeply enough about it. Even taking dependent arising on its own terms we end up at the sarvāstivāda position that all past conditions must still exist. This is not a position I advocate, it is simply the inescapable logical conclusion of dependent arising as stated in the imasmiṃ sati formula. This was, in fact, a hugely popular approach in classical Buddhism in India and in China. The Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma books are all preserved in Chinese. While every Buddhist (presumably) accepts some form of conditionality doctrine, no living Buddhist actually holds this view.

The imasmim sati formula does not describe the conditionality of the nidāna doctrine, which is not, in any case, a single kind of conditionality. On the other hand, the formula does describe the upanisā doctrine, which can be seen as extending the threefold path (conduct, meditation, wisdom) and as consistent with the bojjhaṅga doctrine as well. It's just that the formula and upanisā doctrine are never linked in early Buddhist texts. No traditional school continues to promote the upanisā doctrine and its importance has largely been lost sight of.

Modern Buddhists may wish to argue that conditionality is not linear but that everything conditions everything else. Certainly this is a common Buddhist assertion. It has the disadvantage of gaining no support whatever from early Buddhist texts. However, many innovations in doctrine emerged over time to fix exactly this kind of problem, so this disadvantage is not fatal. Does it get us out of the bind? It does not, since, if everything is a condition for everything else, then this reduces to events or entities being the condition for their own existence. And again, this is not what we see when we observe conditionality: we see arising and ceasing. Any explanation we pose must at the very least allow for arising and ceasing. We see multiple conditions, but not infinite conditions. 

Should we be surprised that an Iron Age religious doctrine doesn't stand scrutiny? Hardly. I cannot think of a contemporary idea from anywhere in the world which has survived contact with modernity. Outside of academia no one gets excited by Plato and claims that he discovered the nature of reality. Platonic Idealism is trotted out to confuse philosophy undergraduates, but plays no great role in how modern intellectuals think about the world. Equally, no one in Britain thinks that our lives are controlled by the whims of Tiu, Woden, Thor, and Frigga any more. It's not credible to keep arguing that outdated theories tell us about the nature of reality.

What is really worrying is how much of academia is involved in trying, for example, to reconcile karma with modernity. I'd like to do some research on this, at some point. As an interim measure I think all believers in Buddhism should declare a conflict of interest with writing about Buddhism so that readers can be alert to unexamined assumptions. Editors should make it clear when someone is writing as an apologist or theologian rather than a scholar. I think I'll start adding a disclaimer to all my articles from now on.

So far, I have tried to avoid any argument rooted in modernity; even the logic I refer to is of a similar age to the doctrines themselves, if from another culture. I've tried to show that Buddhism is fundamentally incoherent on its own terms: the logical conclusions are avoided in favour of intuitive conclusions. Of course, it is much worse when we consider Buddhism in the light of modern philosophy and science. The painful thing is that we have a very useful practical approach that seems to benefit people; we just don't have a coherent explanation of what we are doing or why.

In the final instalment, I revisit the argument that our problem is treating doctrine as metaphysics and  that the solution is to shift the discussion to epistemics. Buddhism has a veneer of respectability as metaphysics but it is thin and getting thinner. The modern world is going to figure us out at some point, so we Buddhists need to get ahead of the curve in order to survive. We have nothing coherent to say about the nature of reality, but the same statements read as commentary on our paradigm make more sense and are sometimes compatible with modern knowledge. For the long term survival of Buddhism as a meaningful cultural movement, we need to come to terms with this issue.


~~oOo~~


Bibliography

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

Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha : a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.

Bucknell, Roderick S. 1999. "Conditioned Arising Evolves: Variation and Change in the Textual Accounts of the Paṭicca-samuppāda Doctrine." JIABS 22 (2) 1999: 311-342.

Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What The Buddha Thought. London: Equinox.

Jayarava. 2012. Chinese Spiral Path Texts from the Madhyāgama. Draft Translations. Sept 2012.

Jayarava. 2013. "The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda." Western Buddhist Review 6: 1–34.

Jayatilleke, K. N. 1963. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. Motilal Banarsidass, 2010.

Jurewicz, Joanna. 2000. "Playing with Fire: The pratītyasamutpāda from the perspective of Vedic thought." Journal of the Pali Text Society 26 (2000) pp. 77 – 103.

Khema, Ayya. 1991 When the Iron Eagle Flies. Penguin.

14 December 2018

Dependent Arising: Presence And Time

We can think of the following essay as a coda to my critique of the Perennial Philosophy since dependent arising is often presented as a singular universal metaphysical truth. In this essay I will begin by stipulating that paṭicca-samuppāda is a metaphysical doctrine and then proceed to draw out the implications of this premise.

The first task is to establish exactly what paṭicca-samuppāda says, using the standard methods of philology: analysing the grammar, syntax, and lexemes of the sentences. With a clear understanding of what the traditional formula says, we can try to understand what it means. I will show how the effect and condition relate under paṭicca-samuppāda. In addition, Buddhists were forced to accept a particular account of time and I will show why it had to be that account and no other. By the end of Part I, we will have a pretty good idea of how paṭicca-samuppāda performs as metaphysics.

If anyone thinks this is an elementary exercise and that we can hardly learn anything new about this most famous of all Buddhist doctrines at this late stage, let me assure them that in this case I learned something new or I wouldn't be writing about it. Most of what we learn about Buddhism in the present is only loosely correlated to the ancient texts and in this case there are major discrepancies.

In Part II, I will take the usual step and discuss paṭicca-samuppāda in terms of the nidānas (or bases) and what is often called the Spiral Path or upanisās. In particular, I will show, contrary to the received wisdom, that it is inconsistent with the nidānas, that the two describe very different kinds of conditionality. Unexpectedly, paṭicca-samuppāda turns out to be exactly consistent with the conditionality described in the upanisās. This is a major new observation.

Finally, in Part III, I will return to the issue of metaphysics and argue that paṭicca-samuppāda has nothing to do with metaphysics, but was employed as a description of subjective experience arising and passing away. Attempts to make it a metaphysical doctrine resulted in the kind of nonsense epitomised by Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā. Relieved of the necessity to make sense on the level of metaphysics, we are in a better position to see what the early Buddhists were getting at.

Let us begin at the beginning:


Dependent Arising

The classic formulation of paṭicca-samuppāda (Skt. pratītya-samutpāda) can be found in the four phrases found scattered through the Nikāyas:
imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti
imass' uppādā idaṃ uppajjati
imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti
imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati
Since there is no regular pattern of metre we cannot think of these as verses. This is prose and, since each phrase has its own finite verb and there are no conjunctions, we can say that they are grammatical; four separate sentences, presented on separate lines to aid discussion. The formula occurs just a few times in Pāli: MN i.263, ii.32, iii.63; SN ii.28, 65, 70, 78, 79, 95, 96, v.388; AN v.184; Ud 1, 2.

The usual Sanskrit version is:
yaduta asmin satīdaṃ bhavaty asyotpadād idam utpadyate | yaduta asmin asatīdaṃ na bhavaty asya nirodhād idaṃ nirudhyate ||
Although in Sanskrit this often be abbreviated to just the first two sentences. And in Chinese the phrase is typically:

         此有故彼有、此生故彼生、此無故彼無、此滅故彼滅。

For reference, the verbs here are 有 "being", 生 "arising", 無 "non-being", and 滅 "ceasing". And Chinese does not have the rich grammar of the Indic languages so the structure is the same in each of the four phrases. It comes out sounding like something from the 道德經 Dàodé Jīng and this may not have been an accident since Daoism was a strong influence on Chinese Buddhism.

However, we will stick with a grammatical analysis of the Pāli. The two phrases imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti and imasmiṃ asati idaṃ na hoti use a locative absolute construction with present participles to indicate the relationship between the conditioning factor (paccaya) and the conditioned factor (vipāka). This kind of construction is used to indicate an action that is simultaneous with the main action of the verb. The main clause is idaṃ hoti "this is". The deictic pronoun idaṃ is used for an object present to the speaker and hoti is a dialectical variant on the verb bhavati (√bhū) "to be, become". The dynamic sense of "becoming" is probably better since it parallels uppajjati (ud√pad) "arising", though the difference in this case is minimal.

The "absolute" clause is imasmiṃ sati or imasmiṃ asati. The (irregularly formed) present participle sata is from the verb atthi (√as) and is in the locative case, while the pronoun is from the same base as idaṃ and also declined as locative. The meaning is: "this exists", but the locative absolute construction makes it "when this exists" or "while this exists"; and negatively "while this does not exist". Note that the deictic pronoun is used for both condition and effect; i.e., both are present to the speaker. However, if we translated literally it would be ambiguous, so most translators substitute this/that for this/this.

With this in mind I read these sentences as, “while the condition exists, the effect comes into existence” and “while the condition does not exist the effect doesn’t come into existence.” or more briefly: "This being, that becomes" and "This not being, that doesn't become".

The phrases imass’ uppādā idaṃ uppajjati and imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati combine an action noun (uppāda, nirodha) in the ablative of cause with a present indicative verb from the same root (ud√pad, ni√rudh). These mean: “from the arising of this [condition], that [effect] arises” and “from the cessation of this [condition], that [effect] ceases.”

So the sentences may be translated as:
This being, that becomes.
From the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that doesn't become.
From the ceasing of this, that ceases.
or:
While the condition exists, the effect exists.
From the arising of this condition, this effect arises.
While the condition does not exist the effect doesn’t exist.
From the cessation of this condition, this effect ceases.
This reading is supported by the influential Sri Lankan Buddhist writer, Kulatissa Jayatilleke, who expresses the relation as "Whenever A is present, B is present ..and... whenever A is absent, B is absent." (1963: 449). He notes that Buddhaghosa also saw it this way in the Visuddhimagga:
uppajjamāno ca saha samā ca uppajjati na ekekato no pi ahetuto ti sampanno (Vsm 521)
"Arisen (sampanno)" means arising together and arising equally, not one at a time and not for no reason.
There is not a lot of discussion about this, but my understanding is that the condition is both necessary and sufficient for the arising of the effect. The necessity part must be true, but the sufficiency is debatable. Conditionality might be underspecified and, indeed, in one way of talking about conditionality, multiple conditions are required to give rise to the effect (see Part III). We may ask if, in this standard case, the necessary condition could be present and not give rise to the effect? My reading of the formula is that this could not happen. Therefore the condition is sufficient. I deduced from Jayatilleke's translation and exposition that he also takes this to be the case.

To labour the point, the condition must be present for the entire duration of the effect, and as soon as it is not present, then the effect ceases. To put it another way, we could say that the effect and condition must coexist. This is one way to understand the world samuppāda, although more literally it means "co-arising".

Now that we know what the formula says and why, we can begin to explore the implications:


The Logic of Presence

The early Buddhist theory of conditionality says that an effect can only arise when the appropriate condition is present and that it must cease when the condition is absent; and thus we can say that the condition must be present for the entire duration of the effect. Note that Buddhaghosa himself has described arising as na ekekato "not one at a time" or "not from itself".

The doctrine of momentariness (focused on mental events) asserts that events can only happen one in each moment of time (the one citta rule). Under the conditions of momentariness, a condition can never coexist with its effect and therefore no effect can ever arise. Dependent arising simply does not work under these conditions. So the doctrine of momentariness fails, on its own terms, to explain karma (or anything). This puts the one citta rule in the spotlight, because this rule vitiates any attempt to link consequences to actions via dependent arising since it requires the two to always coexist (samuppāda).

There is a further profound consequence of the necessity for the coexistence implied by the paṭicca-samuppāda formula. Let us say that we have a number of events that (co)exist in conditioned relations as defined by dependent arising. We can call them a precondition, a condition, an effect, and an aftereffect (upanisā, paccaya, vipāka, and anuvipāka).

Each one is the basis (nidāna) for the arising of the next. If the precondition exists, then the condition arises. Once the condition arises, then the effect will arise, and the aftereffect will follow. And, of course, the system is not closed, but open-ended.

Let us say that the condition ceases, the effect immediately ceases, and thus the aftereffect also ceases. There is no backwards conditionality, so the cessation of the condition does not affect the precondition. This is good news for soteriology because if we can destroy the precondition then the whole edifice comes down. In Buddhism, ignorance (avijjā) is said to be the precondition for the whole miserable mess (kevala dukkhakkhanda), i.e., of rebirth, sentience, and suffering.

Another way to look at this is to begin with an event and trace back the conditions. Let us say that we observe the aftereffect and we analyse the conditions for that. We know that if the aftereffect exists, then the effect must exist at the same time. But if the effect exists, then the condition must exist, and if the condition exists then the precondition must exist. And so on. So if the aftereffect exists (i.e., if we perceive it) then all the preceding conditions must also exist at the same time.

...
precondition
condition
effect
aftereffect
...

→ → → → →
→ → → →
→ → →
→ →


In logic notation, ≡ stands for if and only if, thus the logic of this relation is:

aftereffect ≡ (effect ≡ (condition ≡ precondition))

We can generalise this as: For any system with N elements:


In order for anything to exist now, all the conditions for it must be in place stretching back in time. And at any point in the future, this must always be true. This was effectively the view of the Sarvāstivādins, although their process of inference was slightly different; they arrived at the same conclusion: in order to be consistent with paṭicca-samuppāda we are forced to conclude that everything exists all the time. See also my essay: Sarvāstivāda Approach to the Problem of Action at a Temporal Distance (02 May 2014).

There is a further problem here. This is a workable explanation of existence or becoming, but how could anything cease under these conditions? In order for something that is present to cease, the condition would have to ceased, and the condition for the condition, right back to infinity. But if all the conditions right back to infinity cease, then it would seem that all conditions whatever must cease. Thus if anything ceases than everything ceases. Though, of course, this is not what we experience, so it must be wrong.

One way around this would be to argue for a distinct thread of conditions for every phenomenon. However, in order for something new to arise, the conditions would have to stretch right back to infinity. In fact, if we follow the logic of paṭicca-samuppāda, nothing can come into existence and nothing can come out of existence. And since this is not the universe we observe, even on a superficial level, then something is wrong with our theory. Dependent arising does not describe the world at all. It cannot be thought of as a metaphysical theory. 

We also need to consider the implications of paṭicca-samuppāda for how Buddhists understood time:


Time

The precondition cannot be the condition for itself. Any event that is the condition for itself can only be always existent or always nonexistent. If it presently exists and is the necessary and sufficient condition for its own existence, then the condition is present and it must continue to exist forever. If it presently does not exist, then the condition does not exist for it to come into existence and never will.

There are only a limited number of scenarios that can explain the situation:
  1. Time is linear and infinite towards the past. There is an infinite and constantly expanding stream of conditions which allow the present to exist.
  2. Time is linear and finite in the past. This would lead to a first condition which must always exist for anything at all to exist.
  3. Time is circular. This reduces to the case of an event being the cause for itself.
To clarify the problem with circular time. If a condition occurs in its own timeline, then it becomes a condition for itself. In the simplest case, two events A and B condition each other A ⇄ B. A conditions B, which conditions A. If we take an arbitrary slice of this stream and lay it out flat, we would see a series of conditional relations:

→ A → B A B

If we spell this out:
  • If A is present then B is present and then A is present...
  • If A is not present then B is not present and then A is not present ...
  • In other words, If A is present then A is present; if A is not present , then A is not present .
  • If A is not present, the only way for it to be present is if B is present, but B can only be present if A is present. Therefore A is never present.
  • If A is present, then the only way for it to cease is if B ceases. But the condition for B is A which is present, thus A is present. Therefore A is always present.
In logic notation, for any system A,B where the relation is dependent on presence:
A ⇒ B • B ⇒ A
¬A ⇒ ¬B • ¬B ⇒ ¬A
∴ A ⇒ A • ¬A ⇒ ¬A
which is equivalent to:
(A if A) and (¬A if ¬A)
If B stands for a relation such as (P ⇒ Q) then we can see that for any arbitrarily long chain of similar relations, circular conditionality with obligatory presence logically reduces to: (A if A) and (¬A if ¬A).

Traditionally, Buddhists opted for the idea that time was linear and infinite towards the past, but they combined this with epicycles of evolution (samvaṭṭati) and devolution (vivaṭṭati). Strictly speaking, it would not matter if the universe were spatially finite, or had a finite future, but under dependent arising time must be infinite in the past to avoid an eternally existing first condition.


Summary of Part I

The paṭicca-samuppāda formula describes a dynamic in which the condition must be present for the effect to arise and the effect ceases when the condition ceases. It says that the condition must be present for the entire duration of the effect. It has always said this, so if you learned something different then, I'm sorry, but your teacher misled you. Historically, only the Sarvāstivāda understanding of conditionality is consistent with paṭicca-samuppāda.

The requirement for presence means that the condition must be present for the effect to arise; and it means that the condition for the condition must also be present. And so on back through time. To avoid an eternal initial cause, Buddhists have to adopt a worldview in which time is infinite in the past. To avoid having conditionality collapse into something being a condition for itself, time must be linear, although within this linear time, Buddhists accepted the Vedic myth of epicycles of evolution and devolution. However, having explained presence this way, we struggle to explain ceasing.

I am sticking to the internal logic of paṭicca-samuppāda in this essay, but I cannot help but point out that early Buddhists were wrong on two counts: time is continuous rather than discrete; and time is finite in the past. As far as I can see paṭicca-samuppāda explains nothing on its own terms and it explains nothing on modern terms.

This concludes Part I. Part II will look at the relationship of paṭicca-samuppada to the concepts of nidāna and upanisā.


~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Jayatilleke, K. N. (1963). Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. Motilal Banarsidass, 2010.

07 December 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part III: Applications

In this three-part essay, I've argued against the idea of a single, overarching metaphysical truth as conceived in the Perennial Philosophy. I characterised it as an eclectic and syncretic form of religiosity that eschews the organised part of religion. At the heart of Perennial Philosophy lies the matter-spirit duality that has retarded progress in thinking about religion, religiosity, and religious experiences. And this duality is itself based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the distinction between epistemology and ontology: i.e., mistaking experience for reality. The single metaphysical truth is not the conclusion of Perennial Philosophy, it is the intuitive premise on which it is based. Religious experiences merely confirm this intuition. This is not to say that people do not have experiences that are outside the usual range of waking awareness. Altered experiences are relatively common.

In order to better place these kinds of experience in a naturalist setting, I introduced the idea of a spectrum with pure subjectivity at one end and pure objectivity at the other. Religious experiences, in the Perennialist understanding, point to some form of pure objectivity, but I began to suggest that they are more like pure subjectivity.

In Part III, I will try to show how we can make sense of, and find value in, altered experiences without accepting the premises of either traditional religion or of modernist forms of religiosity. I will argue that Buddhism employs methods that involve increasing subjectivity. Thus, any knowledge gained is not concerned with the nature of reality, but with the nature of experience. And, crucially, that this form of knowledge is useful and valuable to anyone who attains it.


Meditation

There are so many different approaches to meditation that any generalisation is bound to fall short. I'm going to say that the paradigm for meditation is sitting still, eyes closed, focusing on some aspect of experience (aka an ālambhana or object of meditation). Of course, some people prefer to meditate walking, with eyes open, or with no particular focus. Generalisations always admit to exceptions and are thus limited in scope. For the moment I want to work within this limited scope in order to make the subject manageable for an essay. So when I refer to "meditation" below, I am referring to this paradigm.

In meditation then, we withdraw our attention from the sensory world. As we focus our attention on the object it appears to expand to fill up our awareness. The sensory world appears, from our point of view, to fade away. By this I mean, in Buddhist terms, that deprived of contact (sparśa) the mental objects (dharmas) associated with objects don't arise. One may pass through a threshold so that this minimal experience becomes stable. The object remains present in our minds without distraction, but the experience may be accompanied by quite intense physical/emotional resonances: traditionally called rapture (prīti) and bliss (sukha). Whatever we call this threshold or the experience of stability, with practice we can cross over and sustain it more or less at will.

Going deeper, all bodily sensations fade away leaving us in a state of profound equanimity that is traditionally referred to as samādhi, a word that I understand to mean "integration" (the word has a more general sense as well, but I will use it in this specific sense of profound integration). Our usual awareness flits constantly from object to object, accompanied by conscious perceptions, reactions toward or away, urges to act, and associative thinking. Samādhi is characterised by awareness being one-pointed (ekodibhāva). Generally speaking, in this state there is no awareness of the world or of our body. It is a happy and contented state to be in.

One of the interesting side-effects of a lengthy period of samādhi can be a subsequent lack of motivation to do anything; a kind of lassitude with respect to the world. Normally we feel all kinds of competing desires and want to do all kinds of things as a result. Such desires may be attenuated by samādhi. In the absence of desires, there is no motivation. Even usually powerful urges like hunger might not have much effect for a while after a lengthy period of samādhi.

The fading away of the world raises an old question. What happens to the world when we do not perceive it? Before going anywhere with this we need to address a prior question: what is meant by the world here? In a number of discourses, the Pali suttas discuss the idea of ending the world without going anywhere (I studied these discourses in my unpublished essay Is Paticca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything). It turns out that by "world" (loka) we can mean three things in Sanskrit and Pali:
  1. the world as everything that exists;
  2. the world as a metonym for the people in the world; and
  3. the world as it is represented by our minds.
And when the Pali texts are talking about bringing the world to an end, they are using the third definition. So the question in a Buddhist context is more precisely this: what happens to perceptions of the world when we do not perceive the world? The answer is nothing happens. Percepts simply fail to arise. When we are not in contact with an object, then no perceptions of that object will be presented to our minds. We will not be aware of that object. This is an epistemological point. It speaks to what we know. It says nothing whatever about the existence or non-existence of the object. Indeed, the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15) explicitly says that in this context, existence and non-existence don't apply.

Incidentally, we can also say that nothing happens to the world in the more general sense as well. Contrary to popular belief, the world does not depend on our attention, at least this is what mainstream physicists tell us. Consciousness plays no role in the universe. If one person sitting in a hall of 100 people enters samādhi, the world carries on for the 99 who are not in samādhi. Meditation is localised. Your meditation does not affect my experience (in the moment).

Where does this put us on the subjective/objective spectrum? Simply closing our eyes cuts off visual perception of the world and pulls us back from shared experience. Absorbed in the object of meditation with no sensory cognitions, we enter states of increasing subjectivity. Not pure subjectivity perhaps, but there is very little overlap and perhaps nothing that fits in the middle ground. In meditation, as described, we lean toward the subjective pole of experience and away from the objective pole.

Imagine that a skilled meditator enters a stable state of withdrawal, but they go deeper, until passing through more and more subtle thresholds, they find themselves in a state where no sensory cognitions arise and no mental cognitions arise. Experience as we generally understand this term has stopped for that person. There are no sense impressions reaching their conscious minds at all and no thoughts about anything. Unlike states of sleep or anaesthesia, they are still aware. When there are no longer any objects registering the sense of being a subject, i.e., the experience of selfhood, itself tends to fade away. There are no physical sensations registering, so there is no way to orient themselves in spacetime. There is awareness but it is not intentional, i.e., not directed at anything, because nothing is presenting itself to awareness.

We might call this state, following the Pali suttas, "emptiness" (suññatā). Nothing from the objective world impinges on awareness in emptiness, there is not even a sense of subject/object duality. So one has gone over to the subjective pole as far as one can go; this is pure subjectivity, or as close to it as one can get. And it is as far from pure objectivity as one can get. It is precisely from this experience of pure subjectivity that we are asked to believe, as Buddhists, that knowledge of the true nature of reality emerges.

It is true that having been in emptiness, one's perceptions may change, sometimes permanently. One of the most common changes that people notice is an absence of self-referential thinking. Sometimes this is referred to as being egoless.

Egolessness

There is a circular discussion that I've been having with a colleague for a couple of years now. He reports that he has no sense of self. His world is just a field of experience and there is no sense of ownership or a special perspective on the field. He goes further and states unequivocally that arising and passing away no longer characterises his field of experience. I am fortunate enough to have a couple of other people with whom I can compare notes on this. Doing so with one of them, he pauses, introspects for a few seconds, and then offers, "Yes, it can seem like that".

As far as I can tell, both colleagues are enlightened in the traditional sense. And there are a bunch of other people around who are credibly enlightened. Or something very like it (I'm not much interested in the traditional definitions or quibbles over them). Their stories differ in some respects and coalesce at others. But here we run into problems. What seems to happen with the awakened is that after awakening they confirm the accuracy of the doctrine they learned before awakening. So in the case of, say, a Vedanta practitioner like Gary Weber, he confirms absolute being (brahman as described in the Upaniṣads). This means that the world is completely deterministic and events just unfold as preordained. There is no such thing as free-will. But awakened Buddhists confirm something completely different: there is no absolute being, the world is largely deterministic but there is a chink through which we can escape because we have some freedom of will. Theists who experience awakening confirm that they have experienced communion with God or been in God's presence. Mystics that they have experienced the ineffable. And so on.

At a stretch, one may extract something common from all these accounts so that they appear to confirm the Perennial Philosophy. This is simple confirmation bias. The fact is that when you look at the accounts they are all different. Their methods push them towards the subjective pole and any knowledge they gain is more or less purely subjective. Just like a meditating Buddhist.

People who claim to have no ego or no first-person perspective find it difficult to acknowledge that whatever events or changes that have occurred are subjective. They still have a pair of eyes that receive photons and a brain that turns electrochemical signals into an experience. And the experience they have is just their experience and no one else's. I have previously used John Searle's example of nutrition obtained from food. When we eat food we absorb nutrients from it and these are not available to other people. If the Buddha has lunch, Ānanda does not feel full.

If an egoless person perceives, say, a red apple, that perception is not mine. It is not yours. It is not everybody's experience. And it is not nobody's experience. It is an experience that one person is experiencing. It is their experience. It is therefore subjective. Whatever they say about how they perceive experience or themselves, the experiences that awakened people have are still particular to one individual. They are still only accessible to the individual whose sense organs are creating the signals to the brain. It does not matter how the individual conceptualises and communicates about it. If you genuinely don't perceive a subject in your field of experience then this will not be an easy argument to get your head around. If you mistake the subjective for the objective, if you argue, for example, that the pure subjectivity of emptiness is actually pure objectivity, then your understanding of this situation will be compromised. Which may be why the awakened appear to be so bad at philosophy, on the whole.

In some conversations I've had, I have pointed out that the egoless person is still able to have a conversation. They know who is speaking and can parse heard sentences into meaning (which requires temporal sequences of sounds being processed into language). They know that the ideas in their head as a result of hearing someone speak are not the same as the ideas that come from their own thought processes. Thus, you can ask them "how's it going?" and they reliably convey information about their own state of well-being and do not try to answer from some other point of view.

To "parse" a sentence is literally to state the parts of speech for each word. It comes from the French plural of "part". But we can use the term generally for any process by which we sort information into categories in order to make sense of it. For example, in every two-way conversation the participants have to accurately parse all utterances into "I said" and "the other said". In other words, we have to keep track of who said what. There is simply no way around this. If a person is able to converse successfully, then they are, minimally, parsing the utterances into their own and the other persons. They have to parse the concepts and the grammar of the utterance. Then they have to construct some kind of appropriate utterance in response.

I'm reminded of John Searle's idea of background capabilities. Although societies have rules and we do have to learn them, becoming a competent citizen (or whatever) requires that we internalise the rules. In Searle's language, we develop dispositions for action that largely conform to the rules without having to consciously reference the rules. I cover this in the 5th of 5 essays about Searle's ideas on social reality: Norms Without Conscious Rule Following (28 Oct 2016).


Some Other Accounts of Emptiness

When I was learning Sanskrit, one of the texts I read in class was the Sāṃkhyakārikā (SK), a sūtra style text composed ca. 350-450 CE and attributed to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. This outlines what is called a dualistic worldview: the duality is between puruṣa and prakṛti. Puruṣa is the eternal, passive conscious observer while prakṛti is the ephemeral active phenomenal world. The usual state of affairs is that consciousness is caught up in the play of phenomena and treats them as real. Thus, people do not see the true nature of phenomena or their own true nature. However, through religious practices one can roll back the phenomenal world until prakṛti is in the quiescent state called pradhāna "first". At this point, puruṣa is no longer assailed by phenomena and one's true, eternal nature can be realised.

Anyone attuned to the language of modern Buddhism ought to hear the resonances here. A lot of us talk about Buddhism in Sāṃkhya terms. And no one questions this or asks how the Sāṃkhya vocabulary made its way into Buddhist discourse.

I suggest that what Īśvarakṛṣṇa called pradhāna is the same as, or at least equivalent to, śūnyatā. Meditation techniques were widely known and practised across India in the first millennium BCE. There are hints that formless meditations were widespread, for example, in the stories about the Buddha's early career in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 26). It seems that some techniques were shared across different sects. Both pradhāna and śūnyatā are described as states in which the practitioner becomes a passive observer of a quiescent state in which no phenomena are arising or ceasing, a state in which all sense of orientation in spacetime is lost, giving one a sense of timelessness (no beginning or end). These are classic "mystical" or "religious" experiences.

Another parallel to this can be found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.9. In Olivelle's translation (15)
In the beginning this world (idaṃ sarvaṃ) was only Brahman, and it knew itself (ātman), thinking "I am Brahman" (ahaṃ brahman). As a result it became the Whole (idaṃ sarvaṃ). Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realizes this, only they become the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among humans... This is true even now. if a man knows 'I am Brahman' in this way he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, "he is one, and I am another", he does not understand.
The Vedanta interpretation of this suggests that awakening is merging with Brahman, where Brahman is conceived of (a priori) as absolute being. There are various expressions of this, ahaṃ brahamaṃ, "I am Brahman"; tat tvaṃ asi, "You are it"; and so on. Brahman is said to have three characteristics: saccidānanda; i.e., being (sat), awareness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). The last is particularly resonant with Buddhist descriptions of cessation or emptiness, although the very idea of Brahman is criticised in the early Buddhist canon, especially the Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13).

This suggests that we need to take a fresh look at certain types of altered experience.


Altered Experiences

Although the term "mystical experience" is in widespread use, to my mind the term suggests acceptance of certain premises that I think are up for discussion. I will, therefore, refer to "altered experiences" as an attempt at something more neutral. Altered experiences come in a great deal of variety and not all of them overlap with the idea of mystical experiences. In trying to tabulate them researchers have come up with various related qualities that might apply to altered experiences. There are 100 different qualities in the States of Consciousness Questionnaire, but many researchers now used a revised Mystical Experience Questionnaire with 30 items drawn from the 100. The qualities are grouped into categories like internal unity, external unity, ineffability, transcendence of space and time.

One of the prominent target qualities is interpreting the experience as "ultimate reality". This highlights the deeply problematic nature of the idea of altered experiences. Our approaches to them are interpretative. Both experience and interpretation are ontologically subjective, so there is no easy way to probe these. If someone tells us they experienced "ultimate reality" we cannot easily know what they mean by that. One would have to do extensive research into the way a person thinks about reality to really know what they meant by reality in the first place, let alone what ultimate reality might mean for them. Ironically, the very concept of ultimate reality is highly subjective. And interestingly, ultimate reality appears to be different for different people, which tells us at least that whatever the experience is, it is not ultimate.

The hyperreal sense that one has of these types of experience is a quality of the experience. And we have to emphasise that this is not a shared experience, so the hyperreality of the experience places it at the subjectivity end of the spectrum: hyperreality is an illusion. There are two main occasions for altered experience: in a religious context, which usually involves indoctrination and heightened expectation; and in drug taking in which a drug molecule interferes with the normal working of the brain, often by suppressing the operation of centres which coordinate information. Expectation is highly influential on how we interpret what we perceive and can even directly affect what we perceive. The illusion of hyperreality is simply that, an illusion. It is certainly an altered state of consciousness, but if anything it is less real. Some will argue that it is more real because it seems more meaningful. But meaning is not intrinsic to experiences, meaning is subjective. We make meaning.

And think about it. If I take some psychedelic drug and my perceptions of the world change, do your perceptions change? No. They don't. The drug is ingested and works by a molecule interfering with the activity of the brain either as agonist or antagonist. And when the molecule is metabolised then the effects wear off. Ultimate reality can't wear off.

Some of the experiences are framed in mystic terms when they needn't be. For example, if you lose your sense of orientation in space and time, because you have lost out awareness of the reference points that make this possible, you have not, as the questionnaire suggests "transcended space and time". You just lost your awareness of them. No one ever transcends space and time in any real sense. You may think you are transcending space, but no one around you can tell what is happening in your head at that moment. So the feeling of losing track of spatial boundaries and orientation is just that losing track. As freaky as this experience may be, no transcending takes place.

It is entirely possible that someone might transcend their sense of self or their attachment to certain types of experiences. Subjectivity can be transcended, but objectivity can only be lost track of. There are a whole raft of ways of saying that you find it difficult to communicate your experience afterwards. But this can hardly be surprising if you lose awareness of cognitive processes in the altered state. In Thomas Nagel's terms, there is nothing that it is like to be in a state of emptiness.

Another prominent target property is a sense of connectedness or oneness. Why is this so prominent and why does it feel so meaningful? The boundaries of selfhood are obviously part of a brain-generated self-model (a la Thomas Metzinger) and they can break down under a variety of circumstances, some of which are not at all mystical. I've often cited the example of Jill Bolte Taylor's account of her stroke. It's a very moving account of the beauty she experienced as those boundaries dissolved. On the other hand, she was having a major stroke and it took her eight years to rehabilitate. Another reference to connectedness that I've often cited comes from Ariel Glucklich's book The End of Magic. He describes our basic state of well-being as involving a sense of interconnectedness. That sense can break down due to illness and what the Tantric healers of Varanasi try to do is revive that sense of connectedness.

With respect to a sense of connectedness, we may also reference Frans de Waal and his work on the dynamics of primate groups. As social primates, we are bound to our social group by empathy and reciprocity. Feeling "connected" is something that all social primates spend a lot of time on. About a third of wild primates' time is spent in mutual grooming. As Robin Dunbar has shown, humans have found more efficient ways to achieve cohesion in large groups where one to one grooming would take up far too much time (we also have to forage and sleep). In traditional societies we do this through communal singing, dancing, telling stories, and shared ordeals. Modern urban societies tend to rely on ersatz versions of these. As a young man, the euphoria of being part of a dense crowd at a rock concert, singing along and dancing was one of my favourite experiences.* The social lifestyle requires a heightened ability to feel connected with other members of the group. That we can isolate and over-clock this quality is hardly surprising.
* Speaking of which, I note with sadness the passing of Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks, who were the best live band I ever saw.
There is something about human brains that allows us to have these kinds of experiences. We don't yet know what it is, but we have some interesting clues. For example, we know that certain types of task cause the sense of self to "shut down". The inhibition of ego is a built-in function.
“The regions of the brain involved in introspection and sensory perception are completely segregated, although well connected,” says Goldberg, “and when the brain needs to divert all its resources to carry out a difficult task, the self-related cortex is inhibited.” (Vince 2006)
This is presumably also related to the phenomenon known as flow, first noted by the magnificently named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


Perennial Epistemology

The Perennial Philosophy is an argument about metaphysics, i.e., about existence and truth. What I have tried to show is that this presentation is orthogonal to reality. What mystics experience is not ultimate reality, but pure subjectivity, albeit with a quality of hyperreality. There is no doubt that this experience has attractive features, despite the fact that it tends to make for confused philosophy. It's not even true that altered experiences all have the same flavour. There are at least 30 different flavours of altered experience, perhaps as many as a hundred.

No matter what games they play with language, the awakened individual is still just one person having experiences. Awakening is one person's experience, even if they don't perceive themselves as a person. Given this and the methods used to attain this state, there is no possibility of a purely objective truth emerging from it. Yes, there are some common features of the experience itself. The commonality is not widely shared and is still not the middle ground, but towards the subjective pole.

If there is a workable Perennial Philosophy then it points to a variety of epistemic patterns rather than a single metaphysical truth. Perception is an activity of the brain and it can be disrupted in different ways to give a range of altered experiences characterised by as many as a 100 different properties in several categories.

One of the tendencies for those who have altered experiences is to see them in isolation. In a long conversation about insight with Vessantara he described the "Aha" moment and how it leads one to think along the lines of "this is it!". Without further practice, for example, one can become fixated on a particular interpretation of emptiness. If one keeps practising, then one reaches another "Aha" moment and realises that one's previous insight has been superseded. That was not it, but this, now, this is it. If one keeps practising then the same thing happens. Again and again. Until one realises that despite all the "Aha" moments there doesn't seem to be a definitive "this is it". The process simply keeps unfolding and one learns to relax about it and not to take the conclusions too seriously.

So, in effect, there is no one truth that is pointed to, except that whatever you believe to be the truth, turns out not to be, from another point of view. Perhaps this is why the mental state of emptiness came to symbolise a more general truth for Buddhists.

Even if we stipulate, for the sake of argument, that there is one metaphysical truth, no one ever seems to experience it; or everyone experiences it differently. Those who claim to have experienced the ultimate truth are, in fact, just stuck in their current phase of awakening and making a mistake. The mistake is primarily an epistemological mistake; it is a misinterpretation of an experience that is towards the pure subjective pole. The secondary mistake is to extrapolate an ontology from this mistaken view and the technical term for this is prapañca.

As I understand the Buddhist project, the idea is to suspend judgement and just pay attention to what we happen to be experiencing (without getting hung up on the past or the future). And, at the same time, to deliberately pursue experiences far towards the pole of subjectivity. The idea seems to be that we are supposed to turn this into a definite view, because repeated insights tend to deconstruct any views that develop about past experiences. There is nothing in this about the nature of reality or theories about the nature of reality. There is no metaphysical truth. We are not spiritual beings.

We are human beings, having human experiences. No more, no less.

~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Vince, Gaia. (2006) Watching the brain ‘switch off’ self-awareness. New Scientist. 9 April 2006