Showing posts with label Buddhism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buddhism. Show all posts

02 November 2018

Buddhism, Bodhisatvas, and the End of Rebirth

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

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

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

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

Awakening as the End of Rebirth

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

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

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

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

The Collapse of Early Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

The Absent Buddha

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

Pure Land

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

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

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

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

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

The Evolution of the Bodhisatva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Approaches

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

16 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 3. Buddhism

In the first two parts of this essay I set up a scenario. I made a case for a mind-independent world, arguing that it is consistent with scientific knowledge and not inconsistent with early Buddhism. This dual approach hints at the overall purpose of the essay. I also tried to stress that I don't think we can project the human desire for perfection onto the mind-independent world, so that referring to it as Transcendental, Absolute, or even fair, is not warranted. The idea of an ordered universe is compelling; but why should it be ordered according to human standards? In fact, it isn't. Humans are only important to humans. An important and ongoing intellectual task is to identify the myths linked to such desires—just-world, perfect world, afterlife, immortality, supernatural, etc.—and reclaim them as human desires rather than as properties of the kosmos, per se. The world isn't like that, but we are. On a practical level, if we acknowledge our desires, we can figure out which are achievable and organise things as best we can to achieve them. It's not like fairness is a crazy idea, for humans.

Having established that there is a mind-independent world and that it is neutral with respect to our values, I tried to locate humans wholly within that world. Just because the world is independent of my mind, from my perspective, does not require that there is an ontological distinction between mind and world. There is an epistemological distinction due to the channels by which we gain knowledge. We tend to conflate the classic five physical senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) as providing us with information about the world and treat our mind-sense, that part of our mental activity which brings sensations and inferences to our attention, as providing a completely different form of information. Early Buddhists by contrast placed the mind-sense in the same category as the classic set of five senses.

The opening question of Part 1 was whether my experience was real or an illusion. I've been researching the history of the phrases from the Heart Sutra that begin "form is emptiness" (rūpam śūnyatā). These were, originally, a reference to that familiar Buddhist simile, "form is like an illusion (rūpam māyopamaṃ). There are two ways of looking at the skandhas: they can be seen as categories into which all phenomena—mental and physical—can be slotted; i.e., the skandhas encompass everything and are an ontology or a theory of existence. In some views, this totality (sarvam) is real and in others it is unreal, an illusion. The middle way is to say that this totality is neither real nor unreal, but because it is contingent and ephemeral, it is like an illusion.

Alternatively, the skandhas can be seen as the apparatus of experience or the experiencing apparatus and are concerned only with experience (i.e., with mental phenomena). In this case, the metaphysical question about real/unreal doesn't arise. Experience per se is like an illusion, because (in Western terms) it's all just representations in our heads. Experience is virtual - not real, not unreal. In this case the skandhas are not an ontology, but an epistemology; a theory of knowledge or of how we produce knowledge.

Sue Hamilton has made a good case for taking early Buddhism as referring to experience. And, over many years of reading early Buddhist texts, I have found this by far the most productive approach to them. It also works extremely well when reading the Prajñāpāramitā texts. Where an ontological reading throws up paradoxes and conundrums, many times an epistemological reading is far more straightforward. This impression has been reinforced by discovering certain modern approaches to ontology and epistemology. But all this begs the question...

So What?

What does this account of experience and a neutral mind-independent world gain us? Why insist on the epistemological nature of Buddhist insight, e.g., that the skandhas are experience? The reason is compatibility. And hence the title of the essay. Traditional Buddhism—e.g., the skandhas as ontology—is incompatible with what we currently know about the world. This can hardly be a surprise, since Buddhist ideas originate in Iron Age North India and are developed in a number of medieval Asian contexts. Very little knowledge about the world from these periods (ca. 500 BCE to 1800 CE) is considered accurate or reliable any more.

During the last 400 years in Europe and its imperialist enclaves around the world, we have discovered a great deal about the value neutral, mind-independent world. In 2003/4, Cambridge Buddhists went to India on pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha. Right here in Cambridge many of the giants of the Enlightenment have studied, lived, and worked. Not figures of myth, but genuine historical people such as Newton, Rutherford, Darwin, Krebs, Crick, Maxwell, Eddington, Turing, Goodall... to name a few personal favourites. People whose ideas helped me to make sense of my world. Hundreds of other luminaries across the entire spectrum of human knowledge (and folly) lived and worked just down the hill from here. Why go to India?

A lot of Buddhists, especially Buddhists I know, are powerfully influenced by Romanticism. As such, they can be carelessly dismissive of the European Enlightenment; some of them, rather ironically, use the internet to devalue science and technology. They seemingly forget that, though the Enlightenment did go down some culs de sac from time to time, it did a huge amount of good. For example, the Enlightenment effectively broke the power of the church over all our lives. It extracted concessions for ordinary people in the form of basic freedoms and rights for the first time. Nor did these freedoms exist in any Buddhist country, where totalitarianism was the norm. Power shifted away from ecclesiastical hierarchies to democratic institutions. As new, more reliable ideas began to emerge, superstitions lost their grip on our lives, particularly the big superstition, God. Nietzsche announced the death of God, but it was the great figures of the Enlightenment who killed him. And a good job that was. The Roman Church and its Protestant spin-offs subjugated the people of Europe and the people conquered by Europe for more than a millennium.

But things were no better in Asia or India. Buddhist nation states routinely denied citizens basic rights and freedoms; they substituted the kinds of religious ideologies that made subjects content to be subjects. The idea of karma was used to undermine Buddhists' sense of agency in the present, by insisting that what is happening now is a fate predetermined by how we lived our previous lives. We need to be clear that traditional Buddhism seeks to turn back the clock and take us back to a medieval worldview. The risk with this is that we relinquish the basic freedoms wrested from the church and put an ecclesiastical hierarchy back in charge. The level of sycophantic deference directed towards "venerable" monastics suggests that many Buddhists are all too willing to be subjugated by them. Just as it's important to resist the rise of the far-right in France, the "moral majority" in the USA, and the right-wing nationalists in the UK or India, we have to recognise the regressive and backwards social and political organisation associated with Buddhist nation states and Buddhist monasticism.

What I hope to show is that there is a middle way between embracing the intellectual slavery of religious ideology and the complete, nihilistic rejection of Buddhism. In other words, acknowledging the kind of world we live in, both in a physical and political sense, I want to show that we can easily imagine a Buddhism which is compatible with the modern world, but still worthy of the name "Buddhism".

Buddhism as Epistemology

The account of Buddhism as concerned with epistemology is consistent not only with key features of early Buddhist and Prajñāpāramitā accounts of experience, but also with a number of post-Enlightenment accounts.

On the Buddhist side, I associate the ideas most strongly with Sue Hamilton but, for example, Bhikkhu Bodhi has also commented that the world with which the Buddha's teachings are concerned is the world of experience. It is also a view that seems to resonate with those people I personally know who have made most progress with meditation and insight, though not always with the people who have adopted so-called "direct pointing" methods, with whom I am still out of step. The latter still seem to believe that they have discovered "reality" in their experience, and while this is an understandable mistake, it is a mistake and only sets back the project of modernising Buddhism.

My approach does undermine those streams of Buddhism which purport to be about reality or metaphysics. Buddhism has nothing of interest to say on matters of existence, causality, space, or time. Nor does any religion. Buddhists may have a major contribution to make on the nature of experience and on the role of the first-person perspective in organising experience, but only if we can disentangle it from our narratives about "reality".

Buddhism as ontology is not compatible with what we know about the value-neutral, mind-independent world. When some Buddhists assert that the mind creates the world in the sense that "mind precedes matter", they are clearly at odds with most of philosophy and all of science. Those Buddhists are asserting a form of causality for which there is no evidence, and which appears to go in the opposite direction to "reality". Worse, Buddhist narratives about reality are not even supportable on their own terms (as I have been pointing out for some years now in considerable detail on this blog). When they come into contact with modern methods and knowledge, these narratives cannot compete, except where people positively want magical explanations and are thus willing to be fooled (and I know plenty of people like this). However, if we interpret "world" as the early Buddhists texts clearly did, as "world of experience", then yes, the mind does create that world or, at the very least, is a central element in creating that world. (Note, it's not that Buddhist texts lack a social world, or a physical world. In fact, they use the word loka for all three. But the world we gain insight into is specifically the world of experience). 

This epistemological account of Buddhism is compatible with basic, macroscopic laws of nature because it says nothing about them and nothing that is at odds with them. There are other accounts of Buddhism which have similar compatibility. This is not a monolithic argument for Jayarava-ism. It's a general argument in favour of compatibility, using my ideas as an example of a compatible account.

When we confuse experience and reality, then the result is usually inconsistent with laws of nature, because the contents of our minds, as virtual representations, are not constrained the same way that physical objects are (I illustrated this in Part 2 using the image of pigs with wings). When we correctly distinguish experience and reality, then we gain some wriggle room. Unfortunately for Buddhism, science is very accurate when it comes to the human scale physical world. At the scales of length, mass, and energy that we work with in our daily lives and which our naked senses can take in, science makes predictions far more accurate than our ability to perceive them, and in some cases more accurate than our ability to measure them at all.

When we take Buddhism to be concerned with epistemology we gain in two ways:
  1. we gain an internally coherent reading of doctrines that are incoherent under an ontological reading;  and 
  2. we gain an accommodation with science as the leading knowledge system of any time or place by stepping out of its way.
Taken together, I submit that these two factors make a compelling case for adapting Buddhism towards an epistemological reading. This is the essence of what I wanted to say with this essay. So the reader could stop at this point. In what follows, I try to characterise in more detail the situation we Buddhists face in the modern world.


Some years ago I was obsessed with the environmental art of Andy Goldsworthy. I emulated his efforts, often using discarded objects to create ephemeral sculptures. I began making freestanding arches out of whatever was at hand. A big feature of my four month ordination retreat was using my spare time to create arches from the abundant local stone (some pics here). I also got into making tall thin spires of stone, but I want to focus here on arches. A stone has certain properties: rigidity, density, external texture, colour, etc. The stone I was working with was weathered from surrounding cliffs. Individual stones tended to be fairly flat and had a rough texture. Now, a simple pile of stones does not have rigidity as a property, it is less dense than the stones that make it up, and doesn't really cohere into an object. It's more of an aggregate. When you make an arch you create something more than a pile of stones. You create a new kind of entity that has properties that piles of stones don't have. Archs are structures with emergent properties. 

My method was to erect two towers of stones that curved toward each other until there was a final gap that could be plugged by one more stone - the keystone in arch-making jargon. Up to that point neither tower would be capable of supporting itself, but relied on a substructure to hold it up. Inserting the keystone to complete the arc feels a bit like an act of magic (I know). The two unstable structures become one structure that is stable, there is a palpable shift in the distribution of forces as two things that feel inherent unstable, become one that is stable. The best arches are lifted off their support a little by wedging in the keystone, so that the arch is already free-standing at that point.

No investigation of the properties of the stones would throw up the possibility of making arches if one did not already have the idea of an arch as a structure in your head. The building blocks do not enable us to predict the architecture. This is the fundamental limitation on reductionism with respect to structure. On the other hand, one can analyse arches to see how the properties of the stones, assembled in a particular way, create the new property that enables the freestanding arches to remain standing. 

King's College Chapel
The basic principles of arch-making are old. The Romans were already experts at making them. The physics is all quite well understood and can be described in classical terms. Cambridge and the surrounding area are home to some spectacular medieval architecture. The fan-vaulted ceiling of King's College Chapel is an apotheosis of the architectural arch. The Norman cathedral at Ely is a classic of the type and full of spectacular arches and a dome. However, these days we have pre-stressed, reinforced concrete, steel beams, lightweight metal-alloy cladding, and toughened glass. It's nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing, but to some extent it democratised grand spaces.

Architecture tells us a lot about a society. For example, the periods of self-indulgent monumental architecture in Britain, associated with the Normans and later with the British Empire, were signs of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny ruling elite at the expense of both British workers and the indigenous people of the various colonies. During the height of the Empire, for example, typical housing for working people was rows of tiny, small-roomed houses, crammed together; built at minimal cost, with the cheapest materials, and little or no decoration. Walls were thin, the houses were not insulated, and many had little or no garden space. Socialising in such houses was next to impossible, so this was done at the local pub for adults, or out in the street for children (weather permitting). Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie were building a network of country mansions, each with vast landscaped gardens, and a staff of peasants, many of these establishments on what was once common land, previously owned by no one but used by peasants as back-up for when work dried up. The huge dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London represents, as much as anything, the cruel inequality of British society, and the avarice of the Church of England at the time. You also learn a lot about British society by noting that the statues lining the walls inside the cathedral are mostly military figures, rather than saints. The role of the military is to protect commerce.

We need to be clear that the meeting of Buddhism and modernism is not like two leaning towers of blocks coming together with only the keystone missing to join them into one harmonious whole. No. While Buddhists are hunting around for just the right keystone to complete the arch from the ancient past to the present, secular modernists have already just dropped a couple of massive steel beams across the gap, bypassing our religion entirely. Mindfulness is already a secular commodity and enlightenment is about to become one (Look up Jeffery A Martin for one version of how this might look, complete with hi-tech gadgets).

Once people realise that they can have the enlightenment experience without the burden of memorising a bunch of words in a dead language, a load of ancient Indian myths, some rather doubtful "history", and incoherent ancient philosophical speculations, then "Buddhism" is going to become an even more niche activity; a theme park attraction or a Asian fetish. Like most people, while I do appreciate the elitist grandeur of the Norman Cathedral, I mostly just want an affordable roof over my head.

As beautiful as arches are, and as fascinating as it is to make them, they no longer serve as structural features in buildings. Where arches are used, they are merely decorative rather than functional. Load -bearing is handled by modern materials in modern configurations. We might mourn the loss of the arch, but no one is arguing that we stop using steel beams or prestressed concrete and go back to using them as functional features of our buildings. Idea on the value of arches in structures is pretty much irrelevant.

Buddhism and Modernism

Some critics of what they call "Buddhist Modernism" complain that the values being promulgated by Western Buddhists are just modern liberal values masquerading as Buddhism. I suppose, to some extent, this is true, but what is the alternative? Look around at societies in which Buddhism is the dominant religion. Look at their values. Most are nominally democracies, but until very recently most have also been dictatorships, very often military dictatorships. Most have been engaged in civil wars recently; many in wars with other nations. Democracy and human rights are not so much embraced by nominally Buddhist nations, as they are imposed on them by external, secular influences (one of the main ones being the cultural imperialism of the USA). 

Here in the West we now take liberal values—such as democracy and human rights—for granted. A couple of weeks ago, 68% or around two-thirds of eligible voters turned out for an election in the UK and this figure was considered "high". A third of the electorate not voting is outrageous when you consider what people went through to get the right to vote in this country! Ironically, traditional Buddhism, unmolested by modernism, might never have produced the kind of liberal values that we hold dear, if traditional Buddhist countries are anything to go by. Traditional Buddhists are likely be fatalistic about their lot in life, about the unfairness of the system, and about who is in power. As often as Buddhist monks protest oppression, they are the oppressors.  

If Japan had won the Pacific War, for example, and subjugated Asia and the USA, leaving the Germans a free hand in Europe and Africa, would we expect to have the UN declaration of human rights? History makes it fairly clear that the authoritarian, imperialist, militaristic government of nominally Buddhist Japan, with support from Buddhist clergy, was not heading in that direction. Communist China was brutal in Tibet, but it would have been much worse if Buddhist Japan had completed their conquest of Asia (which had begun some years before WWII).

So, yes, we Western Buddhists have created a Buddhism that is consistent with our liberal values. But to be fair, we have created it from an idealised version of morality as found in Buddhist scripture, not from the historical values of Buddhist societies. Critics can be grateful for that, because in most Buddhist regimes, critics are not tolerated! We Western Buddhists may be religious, but we're not idiots. To argue that this is a form of modernism rather than a form of Buddhism is to ignore the highly eclectic intellectual history of Buddhism. The critique of Buddhism seems itself to be motivated by Protestant ideas about what a religion ought to be like. Sometimes I think it is ironic that my friend David Chapman touts a modernist version of tantric Buddhism, itself a syncretistic amalgam of various elements of medieval Indian and indigenous Tibetan religion, as a better "alternative" to what he calls 'consensus Buddhism'. On the other hand, he is probably right that embracing the hedonistic tendency of the West is more likely to be successful than the suppression of it required by renunciation-focussed forms of Buddhism. Puritanism still has its appeal to many Europeans (especially in the colonies they founded to allow Protestants to follow their religious ideology unmolested), but it's never been a realistic alternative to the way of life most people prefer.

The Protestant trend in religious critique, combined with simplistic readings of Foucault and others on the idea of power and society, has made Westerners overly suspicious of community. Indeed, it seems to be de rigueur for critics of modern Buddhism to define the social aspects of Buddhism as not Buddhism. Modernists' Buddhism is sometimes narrowly defined in terms of a few elite practitioners with on-going non-symbolic experiences. Which excludes 99% of Buddhists from the category of "Buddhist". Pop psychology buzz-words like "group-think" or "echo chamber" seem to be over-worked at the expense of any attempt to understand humans as social animals. Still, I think Buddhists embracing Protestant attitudes is probably neutral. At least, in Protestantism, fatalism is undermined by the imperative to actually do something about one's faith, something sorely lacking in traditional Buddhism.

It is essential for any modern critic to acknowledge that human beings are social and hierarchical by nature (which is, incidentally, why I am a socialist and not an anarchist). The same is true for all social mammals and many social birds, as well. Yes, some social situations are open to exploitation by sociopaths, but a human set apart from society, alienated from society, is far more vulnerable than one in a group. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment for a reason. Alienated individuals are prone to addiction and mental illness.

Foucault's notions of power embrace the role of the subject in hierarchical relationships. As social animals we instinctively subject ourselves to the group norms in a trade off for the protection and other benefits that community membership (ideally) provides. Some of the happiest people in the USA live in strictly religious communities. Amongst the Amish, rigid social norms constrain the behaviour of individuals in ways that look oppressive to outsiders. However, an Amish knows that they can rely on their community to a much greater extent than any outsider can on theirs. And in most cultures, this tradeoff of conformity for a very high degree of support is the norm. It is ironic that in secular society, with all its freedoms, inequality is orders of magnitude greater, and so many people appear to have no support at all. The destruction of the union movement, for example, has decoupled employment rates from wages. Employment is at record highs in the UK, while wages have been falling in real terms for 10 years and continue to fall. Divided, we fall.

The embracing of Romanticism and the rejection of science, however, seem positively detrimental to me. Of course, alpha-critic, David McMahan, highlights ways in which he thinks Buddhists have embraced science, but my observation is that the influence is tiny in practice. Those Buddhists who do embrace science are few, and have started to form breakaway movements, though it remains to be seen how well they can integrate the two. They often fail to make the corrective move away from ontological readings of Buddhism, leaving them attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. Or else they throw out far too much in an attempt at reconciliation. 

More interesting are those who have some ongoing non-symbolic experience and have either modified or largely abandoned the tradition to focus on just the elements that appear to directly contribute to non-symbolic experiences. This exacerbates the old tension (I almost said, the old injury) already mentioned, in which the social and cultural aspects of Buddhism are devalued in favour of isolated people doing specific meditative techniques. One of my friends characterises this as the distinction between Buddhism and the Dharma. Some movements are teaching people how to be Buddhists; others are solely focussed on creating non-symbolic experiences. I think we need both.

If a Buddhist group is only teaching people how to act like Buddhists (which, of course, may include a regular meditation practice) then they would seem to be guilty of the complaint often laid at the door of secular mindfulness teachers: i.e., that their program is incomplete. On the other hand, a group that only offers intensive meditation instruction, and no pastoral care or community support, also seems to be incomplete. On one side is the danger of fatalism, complacency, and formalism; while on the other the danger is solipsism, alienation, and delusions of grandeur. Is there a keystone waiting to be inserted? I'm not convinced there is one. I suspect this will be another case of steel beams making keystones irrelevant.

Buddhism and STEM

The rejection of science is particularly problematic for Buddhism. It is true that the scientific project is incomplete. There is a great deal that is not understood. And it is problematic that so much of science is dominated by reductionist ideology, which ignores structure and emergent properties. This seems to be changing. It's mainly physicists and neuroscientists who are obsessed with reductionism. A lot of other branches of science, such as biology, AI, or cosmology, understand that anti-reductionism is required where structures and systems are concerned. Chemistry is somewhere in the middle. We chemists know that everything is made of atoms, but that the really interesting objects are molecules and macromolecules, because they have properties and variety that are not found in atoms. No one designing a semiconductor or superconductor can afford an ideological commitment to reductionism, because the very properties that they investigate are systemic and emergent. Imagine if an architect only ever studied bricks and thought houses (let alone mortar) were not relevant because, being composite, they are not real. That's where a lot of science is right now. On the other hand, it's also where Buddhist doctrine has been stuck for 2000 years or more.

In the clash of Buddhism and modernity, Buddhism stands to lose unless Western civilisation collapses and we go back to medieval or earlier forms of knowledge. I suspect that, in fact, the tipping point has been reached and traditional Buddhism has peaked. Buddhism as a religion is going to be gradually eclipsed by recycled secular presentations of our best ideas (few) and practices (many). However, if we cede the domain of reality to science we gain in two ways. We are still the experts in understanding the world of experience (for now) and we are seen not to insist on the kinds of obviously false claims about reality that religieux typically make.

In his first book on Buddhism, authored from notes for a series of talks delivered in 1954 in India, my first Buddhist teacher, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, wrote that he prefered Buddhist doctrine to rational inquiry, in all things (A Survey of Buddhism, Chp 1). Even then, the romantic influence on this thinking is apparent. For example, describing Wong Mow Lam's translation of the Platform Sutra he says:
"Despite bad grammar, faulty syntax and wrong use of words (to say nothing of printer's errors, coarse paper and unattractive binding of the original edition) there shines through its pages a light which is not of this world... (Survey 42; emphasis added)
Sangharakshita studiously ignored science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) throughout his long teaching career despite the advances that occurred during his career, including the discovery of DNA, the integrated circuit, space flight, personal computers, organ transplants, brain surgery, and so on. None of this ever seems to attract his attention. Even when he spoke about evolution (a 19th Century theory) in the 1960s, rather than citing Darwin, Sangharakshita innovated a teleological and vitalist approach to evolution that was completely out of touch, not to say at odds, with the science of his own day (let alone the science of our day). Sangharakshita's layered approach to "reality" under the rubric of niyāma (an unfortunate misnomer that considerable effort from scholars of Pāḷi in the Order has been unable to shift), recently reiterated and elaborated on by Subhuti, incorporates elements of the 19th Century Western thought of Comte and Mill, via the Edwardian figure of Caroline Rhys Davids. However, again, Sangharakshita incorporates no insights from the STEM fields, but simply reiterates his vitalist teleology.

I know I find this frustrating and I'm sure many of my STEM educated friends and colleague do also. I seldom make the challenge direct and personal, but I think this time I have to. The idea of a value-neutral, mind-independent world eviscerates Romanticism. My whole approach is anti-Romantic. And it is a considered stance that I believe is necessary, however confrontational it appears (my motivation is not to provoke confrontation, it is to rescue Buddhism from obscurity). While any influence is unconscious, it is potentially pernicious. This seems to me to be consistent with the early Buddhist criticism of dṛṣṭi or "views".

On the other hand, I have never articulated a theory of aesthetics. Art and music do affect our states of mind. And, if we are in pursuit of altered states of mind, then, for this reason, aesthetics are important. The lack of an articulated approach to aesthetics is something I ought to address at some point (art and music have been important to me most of my life). In an environment in which aesthetics has become synonymous with Romanticism, what would an anti-Romantic aesthetic even look like? But if I have failed to engage with aesthetics, then I'm in good company, because neither has any other critic of traditional Buddhism. 

Buddhism and the Supernatural

A major remaining problem for modern Buddhism is the supernatural. I no longer find anything about the supernatural plausible - it is not required in a value-neutral, mind-independent world. But virtually all religious, and even some non-religious, people do. Many intelligent people are willing to remain, or insist on remaining, agnostic on this matter. I know that many of my Buddhist colleagues and acquaintances are fully committed to supernatural interpretations of experience and structure their self-views around supernatural narratives. The supernatural is a fact to many people and likely to remain plausible to them for reasons I have previously explored on this blog. I find the evolutionary accounts produced by scholars such as Justin Barrett, Thomas Metzinger, Robin Dunbar, and Stewart Guthrie compelling. However, if their accounts are accurate, then factual arguments will most likely never convince believers that they are wrong. The supernatural will remain plausible and will be impossible to eradicate from religion. It will continue to form the core of religion, but it also informs people's views about the world far beyond the religious sphere. Unfortunately, the supernatural involves built-in falsehood, and it can only hinder any attempt to free ourselves from harmful views. 

Meanwhile, our methods and insights are being repackaged even now and represented in secular terms that appeal to a growing number of people who are not otherwise interested in religion, let alone an exotic minority religion like Buddhism.

I suspect that at some point Western Buddhism will split into two broad factions over the issue of the supernatural. If this happens then a lot that is good about the tradition in terms of stories, myths, art, and so on, will be lost. I say this because I think that Buddhism, as presented to Westerners, is not sufficiently in tune with Western Values to ever be anything but exotic, with appeal to a tiny minority. As much as critics complain about the presentation of Western liberal values as Buddhist morality, in fact, many Buddhists are scornful and dismissive towards Western values. Politics (and with it concepts like freedom and liberty) and STEM are seen as outside the scope of valid knowledge. And the view seems to be that once one is enlightened one's values will be radically altered to be consistent with the sentiments of the English Romantic Poets (a bunch of degenerate freeloaders who spent a lot of time getting out of their skulls on opium).

Since science and technology more or less define our modern values, any religion which eschews them or demonises them, as Buddhists tend to, will not grow beyond the 1% that we have attracted to date. And we will watch in frustration as other supernatural narratives, particularly God's love, divine forgiveness, and everlasting life, continue to outperform ours. It's a lot of hard work for quite meagre returns, and not really sustainable. Of course, a diaspora who have nothing left but their deeply religious culture will probably keep the traditions alive for centuries. Judaism shows just how powerful cultural identity can be under extreme adverse conditions. 


In this longish essay I've outlined a view of the world that I think provides maximum compatibility between contemporary knowledge of the world and Buddhism. It requires a considerable compromise on our part. In this last part I've tried to make it clear, using the imagery of arch building, that the task is not simply finding the right "keystone" that will allow science and Buddhism to map onto each other. In fact, I think it far more likely that science will simply bypass traditional Buddhism and leave it behind as a curiosity or fetish for Asiaphiles. Instead, commodified, secular versions of our key approaches to experience will eclipse traditional Buddhism, making much of it irrelevant. All it lacks at present is a sense of communal values, though, of course, the very act of commodifying something strips it of much of its value; and the therapeutic model steers away from creating communities.

I want to finish with a different metaphor. In his book on the canon of Western literature, curmudgeonly literary critic, Harold Bloom (The Western Canon), turns the tables on Freud. Freud had infamously diagnosed many of Shakespeare's characters with psychopathologies. Bloom was of the opinion that Shakespeare had the greater insight into the human psyche, and argued that Freud probably agreed with this, at least subconsciously. Freud was reputed to be obsessed with Shakespeare. Where Freud had diagnosed Hamlet as having an Oedipus Complex—a rather simplistic and gross reading of the character—Bloom turns it around and diagnoses Freud as having a Hamlet Complex as a result of his feeling that Shakespeare had the deeper insight. However plausible we find this characterisation, the idea of a Hamlet complex is one I find useful in considering many things in life, but particularly the potential fate of Buddhism.

Hamlet discovers from his father's ghost that his uncle Claudius, at his mother's bidding, has murdered his father and usurped the throne of Denmark. The testimony of a ghost would not stand up in court, but the knowledge compels him to act. He knows his mother, Gertrude, is complicit, so to confront his uncle is also to condemn his mother which he recoils from. For a while he feigns madness, or perhaps is a little mad, and during this period rebuffs his childhood friend and sweetheart, Ophelia. Things go from bad to worse when he inadvertently kills Ophelia's father, Polonius. Ophelia is so distraught from Hamlet's rejection and Polonius's death that she kills herself. There seems to be no course of action or inaction Hamlet can take to relieve the unbearable tension of his knowledge. Hamlet's attempt to expose Claudius using the play-within-a-play only alerts Claudius to Hamlet's awareness of his crime. Claudius plots to kill Hamlet, resulting instead in the deaths of his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the end, events overrun Hamlet as Ophelia's brother Laertes returns and, prompted by Claudius, accuses Hamlet of responsibility for her death. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel. At the duel Claudius offers poisoned wine to Hamlet, but Gertrude drinks it instead and dies. But not before Laertes cuts Hamlet with a poisoned blade supplied by Claudius, sealing his doom. Hamlet's dying act is to stab Claudius with his sword, a final act of justice. 

We can define the Hamlet Complex as, when one understands the situation, knows that action is required, but is prevented from acting, not simply by indecision or cowardice, but also by the terrible unintended consequences provoked by attempts at action, and by the machinations of opposing agents. Eventually, events overrun the protagonist, leading to the worst possible outcome. (I'm not sure that this applies to Freud, but I'll pass over that)

To me, Buddhism has a Hamlet Complex. I think deep down we all know that the world has changed and, indeed, is changing rapidly around us. I suppose we might go down the route of the Amish. We might reject the modern world, get off the internet, stop using electricity, motor-vehicles, and modern medicine; we might give up personal freedoms and adopt rigid social norms; and that might be a satisfying life. I've certainly dabbled in it, during, for example, my four month ordination retreat. But we'll never sell this as an ideal which modern Westerners can aspire to.

So here we are. We know that God is dead and religion is dying. We know that fewer and fewer people are religious. And yet, we who are still religious stand by as some promote an identical program but call it something else, and some pick out parts of our program and commodify it. We have good PR to an extent that we don't deserve, but we can't seem to capitalise on it, because we are promoting the one thing that no one wants any more. And yet,with some adjustments we could make it interesting to everyone.

On Twitter this week, David Chapman asked what Buddhists offer the world. We offer a vision of human potential; a practical path for realising that potential; and a community of people who want more from life than mindless consumerism and blind obedience to the dictates of commerce. These are our gifts (ratna) to the world. If we were more aware of the limitations of these gifts (particularly the powerful constraints on who can achieve their potential) and of what we don't offer (an ontology; politics), then I think we would be in a stronger position. Perhaps we can boil it down to the idea that, at our best, Buddhists offer a way for people to experience a powerful sense of interconnectedness; something they crave, but which modern life does not provide. Let's not allow ideology to get in the way of giving our gifts with an open hand. 


02 September 2016

Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism

In this essay I will outline John Searle's approach to philosophy of mind. I've been making use of it for most of this year, but wish I'd read The Rediscovery of the Mind twenty years ago, because Searle cuts through a lot of the confusion to outline a workable philosophy of mind. I don't agree with everything he says, but the basic outline seems to me to be the best set-up for thinking about and exploring the mind. 

At the outset we need to make the distinction between a philosophy of mind and a science of the mind. A philosophy is a broad brush-stroke approach to a subject, which sets out the basic premises and presuppositions on which to approach studying and understanding the subject in more detail. Scientific theories seek to account for the known facts and guide a research program. Our philosophy of mind attempts to make the results of our science of the mind comprehensible; to create a meta-theory in which the relevant scientific theories fit together and are consistent with other scientific theories. Philosophy provides the framework in which to understand the results of science; and science informs the framework of the philosophy. I'll try to say something about where I see Buddhism fitting into this below. It's important to state unequivocally that at present we do not have a complete version of either a philosophy or a science of the mind. However, Searle is adamant, and I entirely agree, that we have have good enough versions of both to be getting on with. 

I had heard of John Searle as a philosopher of language many years ago when I tried to look into the mechanics of mantra. It seemed at the time that pragmatics (what mantras do) was a far more fruitful line in inquiry that semantics (what mantras mean). I naturally came across Searle in this context because he helped to define the field of language pragmatics. Much later, in 2014, I happened to listen to a lecture by him at Cambridge University (via their YouTube channel). In his lectures, Searle is direct and confident. He states the conclusions he thinks are obvious with none of the obfuscation I usually associate with philosophy. He's trying to clarify the issues, not to confuse his audience. In every lecture I have seen he invariable comments, Dr Johnson-like, on freewill: "I decide to raise my arm, and look [raises his arm] the damn thing goes up" (with that emphasis). I like this. Recently, I have gone back to Searle and read a couple of his books, The Rediscovery of Mind and The Construction of Social Reality; and I've listened to some other lectures. Searle's lectures on consciousness seem to invariably cover the same ground, most of which was in The Rediscovery of the Mind. The view has been updated to some extent over the years and linked to a theory of social reality, but from the mid 1990s on, Searle has been pointing out how confused most philosophy of mind is, restating his own philosophy of mind, and wondering aloud what all the fuss is about.

Part of my attraction to Searle is that he takes a straightforward approach to the subject and provides a meaningful entry point for me to join the discussion - he writes with clarity and explains jargon terms. I still have to use my dictionary from time to time, but the argument itself is presented in an accessible way. And yet what he is saying is quite a lot more radical than he tends to get credit for, particularly his critique of scientific materialism as a form of Cartesian dualism! Searlean philosophy seems quite compatible with Naturalism more generally and with the structure antireductionist philosophy I've been exploring recently. 

~ What is Consciousness? ~

Searle's standard definition of consciousness can be found in many books, articles, and lectures. It goes like this:
Consciousness consists of inner, qualitative, subjective states and processes of sentience or awareness. Consciousness, so defined, begins when we wake in the morning from a dreamless sleep - and continues until we fall asleep again, die, or go into a coma, or otherwise become 'unconscious'.
Searle says that consciousness has a "first-person ontology", by which he means "a first-person mode of existence. That is to say when it exists, it only exists for one person, privately, and is not accessible to others. I will offer challenge this assertion when I deal with the mind-body problem below.

For Searle consciousness is a neurobiological phenomenon. He says that consciousness is wholly caused by neural activity in the brain. Remember that this is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Searle is saying that the best explanation, really the only plausible explanation, we have is the neurobiological one - which is a structure antireductive view. This does not mean that we have a fully worked out scientific description of consciousness in terms of neurobiology. We don't. But there really is no other type of explanation that is plausible in the current state of our knowledge about the world at mass, energy and length scales relevant to the question. If consciousness happens, it must happen in the brain, and this is why it is not a public event. It's first-person in the same way that biological processes like respiration and digestion are first-person. The glucose, amino-acids and other nutrients liberated by digestion from the food I ate are only available to me; similarly the conscious states produced by the functioning of the brain are only accessible to me. This distinction will be important when we look at the implications of Searlean philosophy for Buddhism. 

For a long time the science of consciousness was actually hampered by philosophers. One cannot study consciousness, for example, if one believes that it doesn't exist (a belief broadly referred to as eliminativism). Those who believe that consciousness is an illusion, often end up not studying consciousness at all. Or they focus on the question of how a non-conscious organism came to have the highly sophisticated mechanisms for creating illusions of having conscious states. Searle points out that the apparent illusion is a conscious state, so it cannot be considered as non-conscious. The eliminativist approach seems like a cul de sac. Nor can one study something if one believes that it cannot be studied, which is a surprisingly common claim amongst intellectuals. Ironic that the object of which we can claim no facts enables us to claim this one meta-fact. What is the epistemology behind this ontological claim? How can one know this? With all the obfuscation and confusion, it has been difficult to convince the mainstream of scientists that consciousness exists, is something that can be studied, and is worth studying. We're really only just beginning to get serious about studying consciousness a few decades after the study began. Before this, no one studied consciousness. 

One of the attractions of Searlean philosophy of mind, is that it encourages rather than discourages scientific study of conscious. For Searle the existence of consciousness is an unequivocal and rather trivial matter. Of course we have conscious states. However, as we will see, consciousness is irreducibly subjective and the subjectivity of conscious seems to have confused scientists who are committed to the belief that reality can only be objective. The ostensible reason for this is to avoid Cartesian dualism.
"The bankruptcy of the Cartesian tradition, and the absurdity of supposing that there are two kinds of substances of properties in the world, "mental" and "physical", is so threatening to [philosophers] and has such a sordid history that we are reluctant to concede anything that might smack of Cartesianism. we are reluctant to conceded any of the common sense facts that sound "Cartesian", because it seems that if we accept the facts, we will have to accept the whole of Cartesian metaphysics." (1992: 13) 
There are two ironies here. Firstly Searle is routinely accused of being a dualist despite saying that he finds dualism absurd; he points out that scientific materialists in avoiding talking about or studying the consciousness qua subjective reality, effectively reify the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. I'll say more about this below.

 Searle (1992: 127ff) elucidates a dozen features of consciousness, but in (2000) he highlights three that are distinctive of consciousness: qualitativeness, subjectivity, and unity.


Each experience we have, has its own distinctive qualities, though some experiences have shared qualities. Thomas Nagel (1974) argued that we could have perfect knowledge of the physiology of a bat and still not know what it was like to be a bat. Since then philosophers have used this idea that there is "something that it is like" to have an experience in contradistinction to the physical apparatus which underlies the experience to highlight the importance of the quantitativeness of consciousness. Conscious experience is not encompassed by knowledge of physiology. Of course in 1974 there was no serious study of consciousness to speak of and the knowledge of neuro-physiology was considerably less detailed than it is now.

Some philosophers have coined the word qualia for this aspect of consciousness. Sometimes they distinguish qualia from other kinds of mental experience. However, Searle argues that all conscious states have a qualitative aspect - there is always "something that it is like" when having or being in a conscious state. Therefore qualia is just a fancy word for conscious states, which doesn't really add anything to the discussion. Indeed, it could be said to confuse the issue by making it seem that a conscious state and the qualitative aspect of a conscious state are two different things. They aren't.

Whatever we call it, there is something that it is like to be in a conscious state, or to have a conscious experience. And this is part of how we define a conscious state. By contrast there is nothing that it is like to have a non-conscious mental state, such as the kind of non-conscious processing of visual data from the eyes before an object in the visual field becomes conscious.


Because there is always something that it is like to have a conscious experience, it follows that someone is having the experience. Consciousness is always someone being conscious of something. Buddhists are doubtful about there always being a someone and I will deal with this issue below. For now I will just say that I conclude that even non-dual experiences are subjective in the sense of being someone's experience. Consider the other possibilities: i.e., that an experience is everyone's experience; that the experience in one person's brain is someone else's experience; or that an experience can be no-one's experience (if it is no-one's experience it is not an experience at all, but another kind of event). So consciousness is subjective in the sense that there has to be someone whose mind is experiencing the conscious state or it is not conscious. 

A problem here is Searle's assertion that the fact that consciousness is subjective amounts to consciousness having what he calls a first-person ontology. By "ontology" in this context he means "mode of existence" and he makes a distinction between this and the fundamental ontology. I see this broad use of the word ontology as a weakness in Searle's philosophy. The fundamental ontology is similar to my own view: the universe is made of one kind of stuff (the view is called substance reductionism). The modal use of the term ontology with respect to consciousness invites misunderstanding. And Searle is frequently misunderstood as either a reductionist or an ontological dualist with respect to consciousness (he is neither). On the other hand consciousness excites such emotional and polarised responses, especially amongst professional philosophers, that it is almost impossible that any given statement about consciousness will not routinely be misunderstood by those with a different idea.

To me the first-person/third-person distinction is epistemic rather than ontic, by which I mean that it is not a matter of modes of existing, since all existing is of one type, so much as it is of modes of knowing. That consciousness is subjective, means that it can only be known from a first-person perspective. Any given conscious state is only instantiated in one brain. It can only be known from the point of view associated with, or created by, that one brain. Searle himself insists, consciousness is wholly caused by neurobiological processes, which suggests that the ontology of consciousness is not distinct from the ontology of any other biological process. Indeed, as we will explore below, elsewhere Searle is insistent that there is no ontological distinction between mind and body. I'm nowadays doubtful about the notion of causation. However intuitive and natural it seems, causation is still a metaphysical concept, rather than one that is native to physics. That said, consciousness is at the least an emergent property of a functioning of the brain (however that happens). 


Searle describes consciousness as a unified field. All of our senses are working all the time (if they are working at all). Sense experience is to us as water is to a fish. Most of the time we don't even notice that we move through a unified field of sense experience. Searle identifies two dimensions to this process. A "horizontal" dimension in which mental events are unified over short stretches of time (I discussed this issue in my essay, The Citta Bottleneck. 21 Jun 2016). The "vertical" dimension takes in all the various features of my sensory experience across the different modes, i.e. visual, aural, tactile, etc. By unified we don't mean uniform. Conscious states certainly have features and structures, but they occur in a unified context.

While we can certainly be aware of particular facets of experience at any given time, these facets appear to us to be embedded in a unified field. In neurophysiology this is known as the Binding Problem. The division of labour in the brain is completely transparent to us, we are presented with this unified field of perception and it's not yet clear how this happens. 

Unity can be most striking when it fails. In some patients who have their corpus callosum severed as a way of treating epilepsy, thereby isolating the two halves of the brain, unity can become a duality. The different halves of the brain can operate as two independent unities. In the so-called "out-of-body" experience, the unity of consciousness also breaks down so that the sense of being embodied becomes disconnected from the visual perception of the body, so that people appear to themselves to be floating above themselves looking down at their own body. The illusion is vivid and compelling, but it is an illusion. 

This modern view of the unity of consciousness conflicts with the understanding of consciousness that was developed Buddhists and enshrined in the various versions of Abhidharma. I've dealt with this recently (The Citta Bottleneck. 21 Jun 2016) so I don't propose to go over it again.

Other qualities

Included in the list of other features of consciousness are: intentionality; centre/periphery relations, mood, pleasure/unpleasure dimension, gestalt structure, finite modalities, familiarity, overflow, boundary conditions.

Intentionality does not mean "will" in this context, but the fact of conscious states have a referential content (perhaps referentiality was a neologism too far for philosophers?). Most conscious states refer to something: we are conscious of something, or about something. As Searle (2000: 6) says "If I have a normal visual experience, it must seem to me that I am actually seeing something". In hallucinations, it still seems to us as though we are seeing something. The hallucination still has intentionality.  

However, Searle thinks that states such as "undirected anxiety" are not intentional. I'm not convinced by this, nor by his treatment of mood (1992: 140-1; 2000: 6-7). Emotion is not a conscious state like thought, but also involves physiological arousal triggered by the actions of the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system, which functions autonomically, i.e. it is non-consciously self-governing. As Gerald Mandler (1984) has pointed out:

emotion = arousal + emotional thoughts

(cited in Fine 2006: 43)

Searle seems to lack this important insight and I think his exposition on intentionality suffers because of it. A good deal of what makes an emotional state is our awareness of physical feelings in the body associated with states of physiological arousal, and our attribution of meaning (emotional thoughts) to those feelings. The attribution of meaning to experience is a deep a difficult topic, in the case of feelings in the body as much as any other kind of experience. Anxious thoughts can be triggered by states of arousal that are not linked to any obvious external stimulus; but in this case the thoughts are intentional in Searle's sense, because they refer to the feelings of arousal. Thoughts themselves can also stimulate the autonomic nervous system. I can easily think myself in a panic, in the complete absence of any external threat. 

Searle (1992: 140) suggests that moods may be non-intentional, but again, as in the the example of anxiety, the conscious thoughts we have are a response to feelings in the body that result from the workings of the autonomic nervous system. My view is that mood is itself is not a conscious state, because it is probably more a matter of the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. Awareness of experiencing a particular mood is a conscious state and because it is awareness of something, it is intentional.

Two related features of consciousness are the gestalt structure and centre periphery relations. Within the complex unity of perception some things stand out. In my essay The Citta Bottleneck, I cited the example of degraded images that are more or less impossible to decode until one is told what they are, at which point the objects become comprehensible. This leads to the insight that expectation is central to perception. However, the crystallisation of an image out of noise is also a good example of the gestalt feature of consciousness. Our senses produce a lot of information all at once and our brain processes and filters this mass of information so that some aspects of it stand out. What stands out is presumably determined, ultimately, by evolution. The brain that causes the right aspects of the noise to stand out as signal, is the brain that survives. Another way of looking at this, is that our brains are extremely efficient pattern recognition engines. So within the field of perception some things and patterns stand out. But we also have the ability to shift our attention within this unified field structured by gestalt relations. We can focus on different aspects of experience: now I'm formulating a sentence, now I'm listening to the drum beat of the Massive Attack tune I'm listening to, now I'm thinking it's time to get ready to meet my friend for an outing.

These two features are, to the best of my knowledge, completely absent from Buddhist accounts of mind and difficult to fit into those accounts. I think this is because Buddhists privilege altered states of consciousness over everyday states. Whether this is a valid manoeuvre remains to be seen.

Another feature that Searle identifies that is present in Buddhist accounts is the pleasure/unpleasure dimension (to use Searle's terms) to experience. Although he doesn't make much of it, Searle suggests that we can always answer questions like "Are we having fun?" The Buddhist account of this dimension is (unusually) more developed than Searle's, though I will link it to other modern thinkers that give a modern perspective. This dimension is important because we are attracted to the pleasant and averse to the unpleasant. This can of course manifest in trivial likes and dislikes of the the kind that Buddhists seek to eliminate. However, more fundamentally, it is what drives all seeking and avoiding behaviours: seeking food, seeking shelter, seeking company, seeking a mate; avoiding danger, avoiding poisonous substances, avoiding conflict, avoiding predators. These responses to the pleasure/unpleasure dimension of experience are clearly not trivial, and not very well dealt with in Buddhist accounts.

Having outlined some of the major features of consciousness states, I now want to try to show how Searle tackles a perennial problem in philosophy of mind, the mind-body problem. 

~ The Mind-Body Problem ~

The essence of this problem is the puzzle of how something like the mind can affect changes (or actions) in something like the body and vice versa. The problem is based on the idea that the mind and body are fundamentally different. 

There are broadly speaking two popular approaches to the mind-body problem. One group adopt an eliminativist stance and try to explain away consciousness. In other words they try to account for consciousness without any reference to consciousness, and instead try to explain how we function without consciousness. This argument takes many forms, the leading contenders are forms of materialism, such as Behaviourism. Proponents of eliminativism often claim that consciousness is an illusion, but this tends to leave us scratching our heads about why would we have the illusion of consciousness. What would the evolutionary argument for the development of the complex brain architecture required to support the illusion of consciousness? But more importantly, Searle asks how we would distinguish the illusion of consciousness from a conscious state? Indeed, an illusion, to be an illusion, must itself be a conscious state. The having of the illusion is itself tantamount to consciousness (since the illusion is qualitative, subjective, and part of a unified field etc). In the end Occam's razor applies and it is far simpler to just acknowledge that we have subjective conscious states. 

The second approach is to adopt some form of ontic dualism. In this view consciousness is a distinct kind of substance from matter. Again this kind of argument takes several forms, and it is particularly popular amongst religious intellectuals. The religieux, amongst other things is stuck trying to explain the afterlife. No afterlife is possible unless something survives the death of the body, and by definition that something cannot be physical because we know in great detail what happens to the physical aspects of a human being after they die: the body is broken down by microbial and chemical means and recycled. Some prominent philosophers, notably David Chalmers have returned to dualism despite the scientific consensus against it and despite the absurdity of the idea. 

Proponents from both eliminativist and dualist camps frequently argue that consciousness can never be understood. Which strikes me as a premature conclusion at best. Certainly, if we define something as unknowable, that can only hamper efforts to study it. As an axiom it seems to be a deadend. We ought only adopt deadend axioms when all other possibilities have been exhausted and we are very far from that eventuality at present. 

Searle deals with this mess by going back to Descartes. Descartes was looking for a way to satisfy both the mechanistic views emerging from the nascent physical sciences of his day and the necessity to make room for God. He did this by formalising a kind of dualism that had existed for a long time:  i.e. that a human being consists of two parts: a body and a mind, formed from difference kinds of stuff (substance dualism; or substance antireductionism). Body was an expression of matter; mind was an expression of soul. The body functioned like a machine; the mind was where God came into it. I've previously looked in some detail how the language and metaphors associated with this dualism interact to create a particular kind of worldview (Metaphors and Materialism. 26 Apr 2013). 

Nowadays, it is only religious intellectuals who feel the need to make room for God and the physical sciences themselves have showed that mechanistic views of physics only apply when classical mechanics applies and classical mechanics is a special case of a more fundamental non-mechanistic (in fact probabilistic) understanding of science. Many physicists and neuroscientists still talk as though the world is mechanistic, but they are confused on this score. This can be distinguished from other interpretations of quantum mechanics, such as Everett's "many worlds" interpretation which is deterministic, but not mechanistic. Many worlds is deeply counter-intuitive as most quantum theories are. The key problem with mechanistic views is that mechanisms cannot exhibit emergent properties, even in complex mechanisms the properties are simply the sum of the the properties of their parts. 

Searle observes that scientific materialism, which portrays itself as the antithesis of dualism, is in fact underpinned by Cartesian dualism. Materialists divide the world into matter and mind, just as Descartes did, but they then claim that only matter is real and that mind is not real (that it can be reduced to matter). The claim that only matter is real only makes sense if we assume that mental phenomena are ontologically distinct from material phenomena. Searle denies that this distinction is valid. Idealists also divide the world into two, but they say that only the mind is real and discard matter. Some nihilists complete the picture by dividing the world into two and denying the reality of either. This observation might be my favourite thing about Searle. 

In other words the mind-body problem is still essentially a Cartesian problem. Proponents of materialism and idealism are making an (erroneous) ontological distinction between mind and body. If we truly reject Descartes, then mind and body are not, and cannot be, ontologically different. I go a bit further with this than Searle does. Searle makes the distinction between a first-person consciousness and a third-person reality an ontological difference: he makes a distinction between a first-person ontology or mode of existence and a third-person ontology.

Searle often compares consciousness as neurobiological process to digestion. I find this analogy apt, but I want to emphasise that digestion is encompassed by the same ontology as everything else. Reality is ontologically monistic. I know that Searle agrees with this, and sometimes he speaks of the "fundamental ontology", but I still think his use of the word ontology is too vague. The fact that the nutrients that I get from digestion are only available to my body does not change the ontology of the process. All events are local, so the localisation of consciousness in my brain is not particularly significant in or of itself. To my mind the grammatical person with which we observe the phenomenon is an epistemic matter, not an ontological one. It is true that consciousness is only available to be known as a first-person phenomenon, but if we eliminate Cartesian dualism as an option, then there cannot be an ontological distinction. It is a problem of what can be known, not what exists. I think this may be why some commentators mistake Searle for a dualist or a materialist (the two views he is openly and vehemently critical of).

On the other hand I can see how tempting it is to conclude that because something is so epistemically distinctive and localised that there must be an underlying ontic distinction. It's a kind of "no smoke without fire argument". The epistemic difference seems to intuitively point to an ontological difference. One thing we have learned in the last 400 years is that reality is often counter-intuitive. And in this case, while there might be emergent properties involved, the ontology is the same in each case. 

Thus the mind-body problem is, in Searle's views, based on a misunderstanding about the nature of reality. And that misunderstanding is the same one formalised by Descartes, i.e. that the mind and the body are ontologically different. This misunderstanding leads to the mistaken idea that we have to produce a special account for how mind and body interact. In fact, philosophically, we know how they relate, mind is an emergent property of the functioning brain. There is no reasonable doubt about this. Scientifically we are still gathering evidence and developing explanations, but so far the evidence we have all points in the same direction. If evidence starts pointing in some other direction, I'm quite capable of changing my view and don't see the point of being a tooth-fairy agnostic in the meantime.

Hopefully this brief outline gives a flavour of Searle's approach, though of course to really get what he's on about you have to read his books and watch his online lectures. Hopefully some one will read this and do just this. As always when I'm thinking about such things, one of my concerns is how this impacts on Buddhist belief. In the next section I comment on one aspect our discussions about awakening, particularly the contemporary discussions.

~ Consciousness and Awakening ~

In recent years a number of people have "come out" as awakened to some degree and there have been public discussions on the experience of awakening as well as more focussed programs for those genuinely seeking awakening (as opposed to those who want to be Buddhists). This is all for the good, partly because it allows us to recalibrate our expectations based on first-hand accounts of the experience rather than only referencing highly unreliable myths and legends. I'm appreciative of those people who have contributed to this recalibration. However, I'm also critical of the philosophy that appears to accompany the discussions, because, all too often, it is still rooted in the medieval adaptations of the original Iron Age Buddhist orthodoxies.

One of the things that is widely agreed upon seems to be that awakening consists in breaking down the distinction between objective and subjective points of view. This is often discussed as a realisation that subject and object don't exist. I think we need to take a step back from this. One of the observations that Searle makes is that the subjective/objective distinction has two senses: an epistemic sense and and ontological sense, i.e. a sense concerned with modes of knowing, and a sense concerned with modes of existence. I've already suggested that the epistemic/ontic distinction is not entirely clear in Searle's exposition on mind and body, so if nothing else this should alert us to how difficult it can be to be clear on this distinction. It seems to me that awakened people seem to be unclear in discussions of the subject/object distinction.

I've now described several times my philosophy of collective empirical realism. This is the idea that accounting for what everyone knows (for epistemology generally) without there being some kind of ontic support (a mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality) seems extremely unlikely. Explaining experience without such a reality seems overly complicated and difficult. A mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality is the simplest explanation for experience. And while we do not have direct access to this reality, by comparing notes we can infer a great deal about it, which is what scientists do. And since science produces accurate and precise descriptions of what we observe in the world, the world cannot be very different from how we perceive it to be when we eliminate the various cognitive biases and logical fallacies we are prone to. This is collective empirical realism - i.e. a mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality as described by inferences drawn from the collaborative interpretation of empirical evidence. Individuals are in a difficult position because of how perception and reason work. The individual sees the world in terms of transcendental idealism, i.e. a world that is constructed by the mind, on the basis of sense experience, memory, and expectation. An individual reasoning in the absence of other people is prone to fall into cognitive bias and/or logical fallacy. For this reason the individual who generalises from their own experience is unlikely to accurately describe the mind-independent, immanent, non-supernatural reality. And yet this is exactly what the awakened tend to do! 

Let us assume that Devadatta* has an experience of awakening in which his ability to distinguish subject from object breaks down. When conscious Devadatta now experiences an undifferentiated field of experience, which has some features, but to which distinctions like inner/outer; me/not-me; or subject/object don't seem to apply. It is more or less impossible for anyone to imagine what this experience is like unless they too have it. 
* Devadatta is the equivalent of Joe Bloggs in Indian works of philosophy generally. The name means Given by God and is thus cognate with the English name Theodore.
This change is frequently presented with some reference to reality. The awakened, we are told, see reality, the nature of reality, the true nature of reality, or even the True Nature of Reality. Granted that the experience is profound and wonderful, but claims about the nature of reality are ontological claims and they are still based on generalising from personal experience. 

In fact I think this reasoning is flawed. Think for example of how Devadatta physically sees. Photons are still reflected from objects and into the eyes of Devadatta, focussed on his retina, and processed in his brain; his brain integrates a whole bunch of  disparate streams of information to create a unified field of consciousness (the binding problem q.v.), only now the features of his conscious states are radically different. Reality in this sense has not changed, nor can it have been revealed, because Devadatta is no more seeing reality directly than anyone who relies on human eyes and a human brain is seeing reality. What has changed is what Devadatta makes of the information being presented to his consciousness by innumerable non-consciousness processes. Devadatta may argue that the model of the world now in his head is better than the one he previously had, but clearly the world has not changed or we'd all notice it. The change is private in the sense that it is contained within Devadatta's skull. His model of the world is now radically different, but physics still applies. The subjective/objective distinction is an epistemological distinction, not an ontological distinction.

Devadatta's brain now produces thoughts without an "I" or an internal monologue about experience. But such thoughts as Devadatta has are still his thoughts, even if he does not experience a sense of ownership. They are happening in one brain and not other brains. The view from his eyes is not the view from my eyes. When pushed, the awakened people I have quizzed on this admit to only having access to one set of eyes and thus to having a physical location in space and a particular perspective on the world. It's just that they experience no sense of ownership or privilege of that perspective. And again, this is an epistemic issue, not an ontic issue.

Importantly, Devadatta still only has access to his own thoughts and not to mine and vice versa. So Devadatta's non-dual consciousness still has a first-person epistemology. The contents of Devadatta's awakened mind are still only accessible to Devadatta, even if he no longer believes in Devadatta or feels any privilege in his experiential field. And as wonderful as it might be to be awakened there is still this limitation on how experience is understood and communicated about by an embodied mind. However, the Awakened seem confused about the epistemic/ontological distinctions and mistake their perception for reality. Unfortunately this category error has always been a millstone around the necks of Buddhists because we give priority to the views of the awakened, even though they fall prey to this cognitive bias and the logical fallacies that it entails. In short the awakened need to have a few non-awakened philosophers around to talk things over with because they seem to lose perspective on experience along with the subject-object distinction. Without the dualistic perspective, they mistake their experience for reality. This is understandable, because when one stops making dualistic distinctions it must seem even more intuitive than for a dualistic mind to assume that experience is reality. But we must insist that experience is not reality. It cannot be. 

~ Conclusions ~

Searle seems to have produced a coherent, self-consistent, and plausible philosophy of mind a quarter of a century ago. It is not the only such philosophy produced in this time frame, but it has some major advantages over the competitors that I'm aware of. Searle not only rejects mind-body dualism, but he identifies where the competition have retained a tacit commitment to dualism. He accepts the existence of consciousness and treats it as the subject of a philosophy of mind. Even if consciousness were some kind of illusion, the illusion itself would be a conscious state. 

Searle does not pretend to be a scientist of the mind, though he is clearly informed by scientists. He is seeking to establish a framework within which science can proceed by asking pertinent and intelligent questions and produce comprehensible answers. If we proclaim that mind has a different ontology from the body, or that mind does not exist, then our questions about mind tend not to be pertinent or intelligent and our answers to important questions are not simply counter-intuitive, but completely implausible. 

Once we thoroughly purge our ontology of dualism, then the mind-body problem evaporates. This is surely one of the most attractive features of Searle's philosophy. There are other features of his philosophy which I have not touched on. For example I have not dealt at all with his debunking of the idea of the brain as a computer. To my mind this is an applied problem and not fundamental to the philosophy. He responds to the proposal "the mind is a computer" by pointing out reasons that this cannot be the case. What is central to his philosophy are those elements that are asserted positively, such as that reality is monistic; that consciousness exists and has certain features, and so on. 

The main weakness I perceive in Searle's philosophy is in the area of his reference to the mind having a "first person ontology". I understand what he means by this. He means that conscious states occur in relation to a single brain and they are accessible, if they accessible at all, to only one person (at present any way). I presume to correct Professor Searle here by arguing that this is in fact an epistemological distinction. 

We may not have arrived at a finished product for a philosophy of mind, but my feeling is that Searle has come very close to the mark and that we need now only sort out the details. Searle's philosophy fits into the broad category of Naturalism. Naturalism is by far the best approach we have and we are a very long way from exhausting the possibilities it throws up for exploring and understanding our world. But we should not mistake Naturalism for a simple philosophy. My version of naturalism involves a ontology that combines substance reductionism and structure antireductionism; an epistemology that acknowledges that individuals see the world in terms of transcendental idealism, but asserts that collective empirical realism allows us to make accurate and precise inferences about the immanent (but not supernatural) reality, the sense impressions of which our brains present to us as conscious states that are qualitative, subjective, and unified. I take this all to be settled at the mass, energy, and length scales relevant to everyday human life (or to the unaided human senses), but to be incomplete at the extremes of scale. In cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology we have the unfolding story of the world. In anthropology, psychology, and sociology we have the story of humanity's place in that story. All local myths and legends are superseded by this story. 

Unless civilisation is destroyed by some cosmic scale cataclysm, Buddhism will have to eventually come to terms with Naturalism.  Towards this end, I've been developing two kinds of critique of traditional Buddhist ideology. Firstly an historical critique based on intra-Buddhist disputes over doctrine (to the best of my knowledge this approach is unique); and secondly the more direct critique drawing directly on Naturalist philosophy and science that highlights the internal contradictions and logical incoherence of traditional Buddhist doctrines. As a sideline I'm also interested in how systematic misreading of Prajñāparamitā and related texts has led to a cult of paradox and nonsense in Buddhism and how that appeals to the Romanticism of Buddhist modernists.

I'm cautiously optimistic about the possibilities for synthesis between Naturalism and Buddhism. 


~ Bibliography ~

Fine, Cordelia. (2006) A mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Icon.

Mandler, G. (1984). Mind and Emotion: Psychology of Emotion and Stress. W. W. Norton.

Nagel, Thomas. (1974) What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50. Online:

Searle, John R. (1992) The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press, 1994 (pb).

Searle, John R. (2000) Consciousness. Annual Review of Neuroscience.23(1):557-78. Online version pagination begins at p.1.