Showing posts with label Ego. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ego. Show all posts

16 March 2018

Self: The Endless Refrain

For people who ostensibly don't believe in such a thing, Buddhists talk a lot about self. Often in an unsophisticated and even naive way. Discussions on the subject, which recur endlessly in online forums and social media, tend to conflate all manner of ideas and philosophical positions, often with a view to establishing an ideological position. Many Buddhists are entranced by the idea that they don't exist, and will tell us with irony that they do not. The adoption of highly politicised techniques from Vedanta has only made it worse, as we now have wildly egotistical people telling anyone who will listen, and many who won't, that they have eliminated their ego, as if they had one before but don't now. On the other hand, people I know do seem to be getting some good results in attaining cessation and becoming self-less. But even they seem to struggle to give the experience any intellectual clarity.

As modern Buddhists we have inherited a complex of legacy ideas about self from the Asian traditions. Our Buddhism has been reinterpreted through the lens of Victorian orientalism and combined with the legacy ideas of Freud and his bastards. And in recent decades the results neuroscience investigation of selfhood have complicated the discussion. The result is widespread vagueness as to what is even meant by "self".

Given the huge range of viewpoints even within Buddhism, I doubt it is possible to bring clarity to this issue in a way that will suit everyone. However, I think the approach of treating self as an experience that we all have, and that is thus subject to the same rules as other experiences, is coherent with a majority of practice-focussed Buddhist views. 

Absolute Being

One of the massive legacy problems we have is that while Buddhism was emerging and reaching its peak, the "philosophers" of India were mostly engaged in a search for absolute being. Absolute  being is called different things by different groups: brahman, ātman, Brahmā, puruṣa, jīva, amṛta, sattva, and so on. 

Absolute being is a construct; an abstraction from mere existence. The idea seems to be that if anything exists, then we can abstract from that a kind of principle of existence, with (more or less) only the quality of being. The reasoning seems to go like this: If two things are red, then they have redness in common, so a quality "redness" must exist over and above any given instance of red. Similarly, if two things exist, then existence must be a quality that things can posses, and we can imagine an absolute being - an object whose only quality is being. The being that gives being to all beings.

The absolute in this sense is similar to Plato's noumena. It underpins phenomena, in the sense that phenomena are like projections of the noumena, an image that comes from Plato's famous analogy of shadows cast on the wall of a cave as real things pass in front of a light source. A lot of Buddhists seem to have a Platonic worldview in which a higher or transcendental reality exists and our experience of phenomena is an illusion. 

In India the idea arose in a milieu of advanced meditation. In all likelihood they were regularly able to observe the complete cessation of sense and cognitive experience while remaining conscious. When one is in this kind of state, there is awareness, but it is contentless. The Sāṃkhya view was that behind or underneath the phenomenal world exists a passive viewer, the puruṣa. Phenomena exist in a quessient state, but through ignorance may unfold into a fully fledged phenomenal world (prakṛti). Religious practices roll back those phenomena to reveal the puruṣa.
It is pure consciousness: it enjoys and witnesses Prakṛti’s activities, but does not cause them. It is characterized as the conscious subject: it is uncaused, eternal, all-pervasive, partless, self-sustaining, independent. It is devoid of the [qualities], and therefore inactive and sterile (unable to produce). IEP
This is pretty much a description of being in the state of emptiness. Nothing arises or passes away, there is no sense of time passing, no spatial sense. There is just a bare awareness that does not do anything. It often described as "luminous" and sometimes mistaken for being "primordial" or the "ground of being" and so on. Clearly, non-Buddhists were experiencing this state. Descriptions that seem related can also be found in the early Upaniṣads, for example.

Brahmins talked about absolute being in two ways. From the universal point of view, as Brahman, and from the personal point of view as ātman. And this dichotomy leads us into looking at the flaws in believing in absolute being. Modern Buddhist discourse about absolutes has been strongly influenced by Theosophy, especially through such prominent figures as D. T. Suzuki, and Edward Conze. Theosophy was and is a mystery cult loosely based on a narrow range of Indian texts in English translation. Madam Blavatsky, for example, relied heavily on Wilson's Vishnu Purana and Dowson's Hindu Classical Dictionary (Vidal 1997: 11). The influence of Theosophy on modern Buddhism is probably on a par with the influence of scholars of Indology. So, next, I will look at why absolute being is problematic. 

The Problem With Absolutes
The word “absolute” literally means something which is not relative in any way, in other words something which is beyond the possibility of relations and interrelations with anything in manifestation and surpassing any similarity of any kind with manifested and objective being. — Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK
The basic problem with all absolutes is that all humans are relative. Absolutes are eternal and don't change. We are temporal and contingent. As such, the absolute is "beyond the possibility of relations and interrelations". So how do we relate to something that is beyond the possibility of relations? How does a human being experience the absolute if all experience is temporal and contingent? And it's not just Buddhists who face this problem. How does a Christian come into relationship with God? And so on. If the acme of your religion is absolute being, then you'll never know it. 

Some kind of interface that spans both worlds is one answer. Angels, for example. Shamans are another. Or messiahs in human form. Another approach is to argue that the absolute somehow becomes "manifest" or has avatars (from the Sanskrit ava-tara "descend"). This manifestation of the absolute is usually via some black-box process, and sometimes given succor by scientists - for example, via the idea that our universe is a holographic projection from a higher dimension (which is a fancy version of Plato's cave). Note also that the absolute is usually associated with particular cognitive metaphors. The Absolute is UP in heaven; and the angels, messiahs and avatars DESCEND to earth; from spirit to matter, etc: (For more on this see Metaphors And Materialism)

The ability of meditators to experience emptiness—contentless awareness—seems to short-circuit this problem. In emptiness (śūnyatāyām), the boundaries of self fall away, the subject/object distinction breaks down, one feels connected to everything or that one is everything, time stops. There are no causes and no effects. Nothing arises, nothing passes away. In short, we seem become the absolute. Or do we?

Early Buddhists, already familiar with cessation, were highly critical of the idea that one could find the absolute in experience. They encouraged some to look for something unchanging in their experience, knowing that it could never be found. They counselled others not to bother looking. Experience is characterised by constant change, they pointed out. Therefore, you cannot experience the absolute. Even if you enter the state of emptiness through meditation, at some point the meditation ends and one begins to experience again, unless one dies in meditation. So that meditative experience is ipso facto not absolute. Others argue that even if it doesn't last, one is "in touch" with the absolute while one is in that state. We may be temporal, but the absolute is always there to dip into. Later Buddhists developed more sophisticated critiques against this view. If something exists absolutely then we must always experience it, or never experience it. That the experience comes and goes denies that the absolute can be experienced. In other words, if the absolute were able to be experienced in any way, we would, ipso facto, always experience it and experience nothing else.

This is more or less the Advaita Vedanta argument, except that they propose that we mistake this experience of the absolute for something else. How one could mistake the absolute for the relative is anybody's guess. The very nature of the absolute means that there is an absolute and unmistakable distinction between absolute and relative. Errors of this kind ought to be impossible rather than ubiquitous. 

However, having been in the state of emptiness, one may find that the world doesn't come back the way it was. One might feel that the bounded self, the sense of ownership, the internal monologue are all attenuated or absent. Without a sense of ownership over experience, the push and pull of desires and aversions have no momentum. Mental suffering (cetasika-dukkha), as distinct from physical pain (kāyika-dukkha), may well cease. One may be left in a state of ongoing bliss. The transformation wrought by the experience of (what we call) emptiness continues to inform Indian religious culture even today. And it is starting to inform Modern Buddhist culture to much greater extent as more people speak openly about the experience of cessation/emptiness.

That said, India religious culture, like European culture, has its scholastic side. Arguments about the number of devas you could balance on the head of a pin were formulated and considered. Such discussions tend to reify experience and hypostatise it. Events become entities. Similes become propositions. Metaphors and abstractions become concrete. Jokes lose their punch lines. Descriptions of the experience of emptiness became thoroughly entangled with metaphysical speculations about the nature of reality, the role of consciousness in world, and the whole mess we are familiar with in European philosophy. The bullshit-fest was, if anything, more elaborate in India. Then Buddhism came to Europe and mated with the European tradition, spawning modernist Buddhism or Buddhist modernism depending on your point of view (perhaps both).

There is a fork in the road here. Either we can go down the root of detailed arguments about the pros and cons of this or that philosophical view on self, repeating historic arguments and probably never coming to a conclusion. Or we could short-circuit the whole thing and decide to rethink the idea of self. I think the former approach has had a good run and it's time for something new. 

Does the Self Exist?

When we use a word like "self", it comes loaded with presuppositions and assumptions, few of which ever make it to the light of day. So, asking such a question is never straightforward. Which self are we talking about? But we can short-circuit the discussion, to some extent, by arguing that, whether or not some kind of entity corresponds to it, we definitely all experience ourselves as selves. We start out with a first person perspective on experience; i.e., the feeling or thought that sensory experience is "happening to me", that the sensations are "my sensations", and that this body I inhabit is the location of "my experience". 

We don't have direct access to anyone else's experience or their point of view. We can infer that they have experiences in the same way that we do (the intentional stance, or theory of mind). Experience appears to have an object (i.e., to be "intentional") and a subject. And this dichotomy is encoded in the grammar of all human languages, leading to universal theories of language and grammar.

But if we look closely at this first-person perspective we find that it is not based on an entity. The first person perspective is relatively easy to disrupt. And the ways that it malfunctions suggest that it must be virtual rather than real. Our sense of self can become distorted or attenuated in meditation, for example, or through taking tiny quantities of psychedelic drugs. Just a few micrograms of LSD is enough to seriously disrupt one's sense of self.  Applying strong magnetic fields that disrupt the brain can do the same. Our brain generates our first person perspective on experience as part of conscious experience and disrupting brain function has predictable consequences for our sense of self. We learn that self is not essential or inherent in consciousness, because we can have experiences without any sense of self.

What is Experience?

Experience is part of a virtual model of the world, generated by the brain, which creates a simplified simulacrum that enables us to function efficiently in the world (finding food, finding mates, avoiding predators, etc.) We might then ask, what is the ontological status of a virtual model? In other words, do experiences exist or not? Are they real or unreal? I don't think mainstream philosophy has made much progress on this. Early Buddhists already recognised some of the difficulties involved.

Although it is not explicit, it seems to me, after long reading of Pāḷi suttas, that the authors must have believed in a mind-independent objective world. They say nothing about it, but there are some hints. For example, they say that experience is like an illusion (māyopama). This simile makes no sense unless there is a contrast with something that is not like an illusion; in other words, something real. This real world held no attractions or interest for the communities of men and women who were spending time in states induced by meditation. For them it became clear that, in talking about experience, it wasn't helpful to characterise it as either existent or non-existent, as real or unreal. The nature of the object of perception was more or less irrelevant to their project because one of the principles they embraced was turning away from sense experience, from contact with the mind-independent world.

Experience is a subset of everything. It is not separate from reality, but included in it. However, mind-independent objects and mental objects (from a first person perspective) follow different rules. No matter how convinced you are that you can fly, if you jump off a tall building you will inexorably plummet to the ground. Gravity is not a matter of belief. But you can imagine or dream that you can fly. You can, at times, experience yourself flying. Or to be more precise, you can virtually experience it. Here, the precise meaning of "virtual" is important.

"Virtual" comes from the same root as virile and virtue. It means "excellent, potent, efficacious." (from the same root we get Sanskrit vīra "man, warrior". However, in the mid 15th Century, the word "virtual" began to be used in the sense "being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact" (OEtD). When we dream we can fly, we may completely suspend disbelief and experience it as if we were flying, though in reality we are not flying. "Virtual" here, then, means as if.

Experience is a virtual representation of the world, created by our brains, that feels as if it is real. So real that most of the time we don't notice. So real that we take experience to be reality. Some philosophers even argue that the distinction I'm making is not useful and we are in fact experiencing reality. Those people have apparently never taken drugs or done meditation.

If experience is a virtual reality, and selfhood (or the first person perspective on experience) is a kind of experience, then selfhood is part of a virtual reality. Not real; not unreal; but virtual. As if real.

Metaphysics versus Phenomenology

Some of my friends phrase this distinction as the difference between a metaphysical self and a phenomenal self. I'm not always sure what they mean by this. But I presume that by "metaphysical" they mean existent. In other words, this is another way of talking about self as an entity. This is so easily ruled out that we don't need to consider it. The self could not be an entity and behave the way it does. 

By phenomenal self, I take my friends to be talking about the first-person perspective on experience. On the whole, I try to avoid calling this "a self". The trouble with this type of language is that it can be all too easily mistaken for some kind of metaphysical stance. We try to fudge things by saying "there is a phenomenal self", but people just hear "there is a... self". By referring to our sense of selfhood, or our sense of being a self, we can avoid this, to some extent. But to be accurate, most of the time I am actually thinking about a first-person perspective on experience rather than a self. I'm not sure that "self" is even a useful word for this. I'm sure that "soul" is completely the wrong word. 

One might argue that the perspective has to be someone's perspective although I don't think this is helpful. The first-person perspective is a function of having sense organs located in a body that is a locus of experience. Since aspects of that perspective, such as the direction of my gaze, are subject to my will, it feels like I am in control, that the experience is mine. It is definitely limited in space to one body. As much as I can make my body seem to disappear in meditation, I cannot then inhabit another body or take control of their limbs or the direction of their gaze.

It is not that we have a self that has a first person perspective. It is that the brain generates a first person perspective on experience and from this we infer a self. The first person perspective is seeing itself as a self. This is not a bad first approximation of what is going on in experience, and it is as far as most people get, unless they have a mental health crisis, take psychedelic drugs, or get good at mediation. Most of us have no reason to question our early inferences.

For me, a qualified self is still overstating things. At best, the sense of being a self is a perspective on experience generated by the brain.

What About Ego?

When Freud (1856–1939) was writing about the mind, he used three metaphors for functions that minds carry out: Ich, Es, and Über-Ich ("I", "It", and "Over-I"). In this model the Ich function mediates between the desires of the Es function and restrictions of the Über-Ich function, to enable human beings to operate as social beings. Unrestrained, the Es function is how the Victorians thought of animals (though they were largely mistaken about this). Without emotions the Über-Ich function makes for an inhuman tyrant. According to Freud, it is the Ich function that mediates between these two basic forces in our inner life and also mediates between us and the world. To not have an Ich function is catastrophic. But also, if the Ich function is unable to impose order on the other functions, one or other of them will dominate leading to animalistic or inhuman behaviour.

Nietzsche (1844–1900) also wrote about two forces human society. The two were of chaos and order, which he dubbed Dionysian and Apollonian after the two Greek gods. Like Freud, Nietzsche saw life as a battle between these forces. However, rather than settling for a detente overseen by the meditating influence of the Ich, Nietzsche (possibly influenced by the Upaniṣads) saw a transcendent type of human being who had resolved his inner conflicts and risen above the human, all too human, level. Like Freud and other men of his day, Nietzsche systematically dismissed women as inferior. It is worth mentioning Nietzsche because his rhetoric remains popular amongst Romantics. The controversial, but popular, conservative Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, for example, often seems to be channelling Nietzsche and apparently sees this kind of conflict between order and chaos in much the same way.

Such things are not rocket science for anyone who is human. We are social animals and as such we are constantly trying to balance individual desire and social obligation. Whether we project balancing these forces onto the world as archetypes (Dionysus and Apollo), or conceive of them them as internal functions in psyche (as Ich and Über-Ich), they resonate, to some extent. And there are differing opinions as to whether individual liberty or collective obligation should take precedence, though clearly without both a society cannot function. 

One of the classic pop-culture references to this accommodation is the friendship between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock in the Star Trek stories. Kirk is hedonistic, impulsive, and moody. Spock is logical, controlled, and detached. Of course, neither could be a pure archetype, because Kirk has to be the Captain. He also has to be cunning, decisive, a planner and a leader. Similarly, Spock is only half Vulcan. But generally speaking, Kirk without Spock is rash, ruthless, and reckless. Spock without Kirk is cold, calculating, and (potentially) cruel. Had they been more purely Es and Über-Ich, a third party would always have been required to mediate. When mediation is required, it comes in the form of the physician, McCoy a "man of science" who is nonetheless highly sentimental. He plays the role of Ich function portrayed as the healer of the psyche.


When Freud's work was translated into English his German terms—Ich, Es, and Über-Ich—were translated, not into English, but into Latin. The idea seems to have been inspired by medical jargon which even today prefers Latin derived words to those with Anglo-Saxon heritage (the 1000 year old English prejudice against Germanic vocabulary is another story). And so today we discuss Ego, Id, and Super-Ego. Reification may have happened anyway, but it was helped along by the quasi-medical Latin. What were functions of the psyche, became entities that make up the mind. Freud's metaphors became three homunculi living in our heads. Which was, and is, deeply unhelpful.

This manifests in Buddhism as people talking about "the Ego" as something to be disposed of, cut off, and done away with. If we accept Freud's model and we get rid of Ich, what is it that moderates between Es and Über-Ich? If there is nothing, and the other aspects of the psyche are left unchanged, then the result is a chaotic battle in which one or other of the two forces in our psyches will likely win, leading to hedonism or nihilism; or, in Nietzsche's terms, to chaos or totalitarianism.

Early Buddhists identified three thoughts about experience that were problematic: 'I am this', 'this is me', 'it is mine'. These coincide very well with characteristics of the first-person perspectives defined by Thomas Metzinger. Metzinger says that for there to be a first person perspective we need three 'target properties'
  • mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  • selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  • centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".

I've mentioned before that these seem to substantially overlap early Buddhist views on selfhood. And precisely these three qualities are problematic in the Buddhist view, but also they disappear in the state of emptiness.

As a thought experiment I want to consider simply stripping away these properties from an ordinary person. Let us say that we take away the sense of ownership, particularly over the body. This is something that victims of trauma often experience. When you are, for example, beaten or raped, you lose control of what happens to you. And that sense of ownership may be damaged. One may feel so vulnerable around other people that one develops social anxiety or even social phobia. If you walk into a room full of people and lose your sense of self, it is disorienting and frightening.

Similarly, if someone does not experience "I am someone" they may be unable to relate to other people. In the state called "depersonalisation" one stops feeling like a person. Events swirl around you and you cannot respond to them or make connections with other people. It can be very distressing to be cut off in this way.

If I am not the centre of my subjective self, then mental events may seem to be the result of an external agency. It may seem that other people are controlling our thoughts and actions. Our internal monologue may become a hectoring external voice, some other person telling us what to do.

This is a flavour of the the mass of ways in which loss of a sense of self or first-person perspective can leave us wounded and debilitated. All of these events would constitute what is nowadays called a "mental health crisis". If ongoing, such experiences often result in hospitalisation. It has long bothered me that Buddhists seem ignorant of this side of psychology and that they apparently trivialise problems of this kind. Buddhists are often sincere in their beliefs, but sincerity doesn't really mitigate ignorance or stupidity. We have some very dangerous ideas about the mind and its functions.

Going Beyond Self

And yet, something happens in practice that is typically not the same as a mental health crisis. The loss of a sense of self as one goes into samādhi might be scary, but it is not the same terror as comes from a psychotic break. The similarity of language for describing the two has long fascinated me. But it seems to me that, whereas mental health problems are subtraction and division, the effects of meditation are addition and multiplication. 

In other words, I do not believe the interpretations of those meditators who report  that they do not experience themselves as having an Ego. The complete loss of Ego per se would be a catastrophe. Rather, I suggest, that we have to take a step back and look more holistically. We need to think of the Ich, Es, and Über-Ich becoming integrated into a holistic and harmonious structure in which the contest between Ich and Über-Ich is resolved, relieving us of the need for Ego to mediate. When our internal struggles are over, we are free to respond creatively to the people around us, no longer concerned with seeking pleasure or with imposing order. So that would be a Freudian analysis, but I think Freud is deeply problematic, so I wouldn't want to rest there.

My Buddhist analysis goes like this. The fundamental problem we have is that we respond to pleasure with desire for more pleasure; that we are averse to pain and avoid painful situations is also problematic, but, really, pleasure-seeking is the focus. More precisely, we associate happiness with pleasure. Everyone wants to be happy, so we seek out pleasures to make us happy.

Evolution has tuned our body-mind to seek out the things we find pleasurable, because they have survival value. The things we find pleasurable are meant to motivate us. But the evolution argument ends at the beginning of civilisation. When social change outstrips our ability to genetically adapt, we run into problems. One of the problems of civilisation (eventually) is a surplus of the things that we find pleasurable. We can satiate our desires more fully and more often, but what happens when we do this is that we become insensitive to pleasure. We get caught in the addictive loop of seeking more pleasure and more intense pleasure in order to find that feeling of satiation. For example, we add more sugar, more fat, more salt, more chilli to our food, in order to try to recapture the simply pleasure of eating. And it doesn't work. We are always left wanting more. At the extreme the amounts of sugar, fat, and salt are long-term lethal. Or we become obese (though I think obesity is complex, and also involves  attempts to deal with stress by eating. Eating stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system).

When we reach a more integrated state in which the sense of self is less central, we become less prone to the addictive cycle. The aspect of self that claims ownership over experience plays an important role in a healthy mind. Simply eliminating it leads to chaos. Integrating it allows us to opt out of the cycle.

Another way of looking at it is that, while we are self-centred, then we are motivated to feed that sense of self. Claiming what gives us pleasure, pushing away what the unpleasant, we attempt to cling to the pleasant experience as if it existed. But experience is not like a mind-independent object. We can hold a bar of gold, but owning it brings diminishing returns of happiness. Ownership must be continually extended in order to provide happiness. One gold bar is never enough. It is acquisition (novelty) that produces the pleasure, whereas ownership soon loses its savour. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Also, the loss of ownership is a source of misery. And the same dynamic applied to experiences that are fleeting and insubstantial is a recipe for unhappiness. One cannot grasp an experience. It arises, one's attention wanders, and it disappears again. All in a moment.

As one becomes skilled in meditation, one realises that the object is irrelevant compared to the pleasure of simple sustained attention on any arbitrary object. A concentrated mind is a happy mind, but more than this, with glimpses of insight we integrate the disparate aspects of our psyche so that the sense of self is bound up in a greater whole that leaves us without that sense of craving and grasping that plagues modern humans everywhere.

In Conclusion

Discussions about the existence of a self had already been tagged as pointless by early Buddhists more than 2000 years ago. Modern Buddhists need to take note of this and rethink our approach. Self is an experience, generated internally, arising and passing away as the conditions dictate. Under many circumstances this sense of self ceases or does not arise. But we cannot say that having an experience is either real or unreal. Such dichotomies send us down intellectual dead ends with respect to experience.

It seems to me that this cessation of the sense of being a self has to be the result of a forward progression rather than a simple excision. I've seen the results of excising aspects of people's selves and it's ugly and often catastrophic. That is not what Buddhists are doing in meditation.

We need to see self as an experience and Ego as a function. Ego is a milestone on the lower evolution. A human being must develop the Ego function to be happy and healthy. Having an Ego is not an endpoint, but necessary while we also have Id and Super-Ego functions which are in conflict. However, there is also a higher evolution. By integrating these separate functions into a harmonious whole, we may transcend our personality, at least to some extent. We may cease to have, or perhaps to rely on, a first-person perspective to organise our experience. We may find that craving for pleasure is attenuated because there is no longer the same desire to accumulate experiences associated with ownership.

I believe a new doctrinal synthesis is required and that we are better off being proactive and creative in our approach to it than being conservative and reactive. The clash of tradition and modernity is always destabilising. Traditional cultures are often devastated when modernity overruns them. I grew up in the aftermath of one such collision. We would do well to get out ahead of this. It seems to me that accomplishing such a synthesis requires us to step outside the legacies of both Buddhism and Modernism and evaluate what is useful about both and what is not useful.

What remains useful will go beyond mere facts. Facts do not move people. In order to communicate our values effectively we need symbols and images. We have to tell stories that move people. Some of these stories will most likely be ancient, perhaps with a modern twist. We may, for example, decide that the founder figure remains a central organising element in telling our story. We may still tell morality tales about selfish people and the harm they cause.

The focus on experience, I believe, has to take precedence over any metaphysical speculation, particularly in the face of the huge successes scientists have had with describing the world on the human scale (things we can experience with our naked senses). Experience is equally our hermeneutic (the principle on which we base our inquires into doctrine), our heuristic (the process by which we more forward seeking knowledge), and our pedagogy (the underlying principle of how we teach). Everything should be aimed at getting people to look at their experience in a new light, and to seek the altered states provided by meditation to provide insights into experience that are otherwise inaccessible.



Vidal, Denis. (1997). 'Max Muller and the theosophists or the other half of victorian orientalism.' in  Jackie Assayag, Roland Lardinois, Denis Vidal. Orientalism and Anthropology; from Max Muller to Louis Dumont, Pondy Papers in Social Science (24), Institut Français de Pondichéry.

Also check out

Deconstructing Yourself. “Masters of Oblivion” – Michael Taft discusses extinction with Kenneth Folk. Especially the section starting at 48:45 – The preposterousness of eradicating the self

06 April 2012

Ātman, Ego, and Rebirth

sheaf and flail

medieval peasants thresh
a sheaf of barley with flails

WHAT FOLLOWS IS my translation of the Sheaf of Barley Simile (Yavakalāpi Sutta S 34.248), along with some threads which I draw from it. The simile relates to my research into papañca: the past participle papañcita is used in a context that helps us to understand that word. Here I will be focussing on some other implications.

I have restructured the text so that the last part condenses several pages into a couple of paragraphs - without losing anything of importance. The central metaphor of the Yavakalāpi Sutta is that how we think about our existence determines whether we bound or free.

Sheaf of Barley Simile

Suppose that a sheaf of barley were laid at a crossroad. And six men might come bearing flails, and those six men might thresh that sheaf of barley. That sheaf of barley would be well threshed by those six flails threshing. Then a seventh man might come bearing a flail, and he might also thresh the sheaf of barley. So that sheaf of barley would be more well-threshed by that seventh flail threshing.

Just so the uneducated hoi polloi [1] are struck in the eye by pleasant and unpleasant forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, and mental objects. If an uneducated hoi polus[2] strives after future rebirth, that foolish person is more well-battered, just as the sheaf is more well threshed by the seventh flail.

Once upon a time the devas and asuras were massed for battle. The Asura Lord Vepacitti addressed the asuras: "If, sirs, in the midst of the battle the asuras are victorious and the devas are defeated, then binding Sakka, Lord of the Devas, with bindings, with his neck as the fifth[3], then lead him to me at Asurapura (the City of the Asuras). Sakka also addressed the devas: "If, sirs, in the midst of the battle the devas are victorious and the asuras are defeated, then, binding Asura Lord Vepacitti with bindings, with his neck as the fifth, then lead him to me at Sudhamma, the Hall of the Devas. In that battle the devas were victorious and the asuras were defeated. Then the thirty three devas, binding Asura Lord Vepacitti with bindings, with his neck as the fifth, lead him to Sakka, Lord of the Devas, at Sudhamma, the Hall of the Devas. There Asura Lord Vepacitti is bound with bindings, with his neck as the fifth.

When Asura Lord Vepacitti thought "the devas as just (dhammika) and the asuras are unjust (adhammika) now here I am going to the city of the devas”, then he perceived himself released from his binding with the neck as fifth, and possessing and endowed with the five divine cords of pleasure enjoying himself. When, however, Asura Lord Vepacitti, thought "the asuras are just and the devas are unjust, now I will just go to the asura city”, then he perceived himself as bound by bindings with the neck as fifth. And the five divine cords of pleasure faded away. So subtle were the bonds of Vepacitti, but more subtle are the bonds of Māra. Thinking (maññamāno)[4] is the binding of Māra, not thinking is release from the Evil One.
'I am…'
'I am this…'
'I will become…'
'I will not become…'
'I will be beautiful…'
'I will be ugly…'
'I will be aware…'[5]
'I will be unaware…'
'I will be neither aware nor unaware…'
…is an opinion (maññita), an anxiety (iñjita), a writhing (phandita), a proliferation (papañcita), [6] a state of conceit (mānagata)…

Opinions, anxieties, writhings, obsessions and states of mind are a disease, a boil, an arrow. 'We will dwell without the conceit of opinions, without the conceit of anxieties, without the conceit of writhing, without the conceit of obsessions, having destroyed conceit' this is how you should train.

The first point to make is that opinions etc, including papañca, are something that we add to the perceptual process, they are the seventh flail. We're already battered by the experience of our six senses, and then we add to the battering. This is consistent with texts such as the Salla Sutta which make a similar distinction between the pain from the senses, and the suffering of our reactions to pain. However the specific thing that we add in this case is striving after future rebirth (āyatiṃ punabhavāya ceteti).

However what got me thinking about this text today was that I was reconsidering my blog post Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman. It is here that I note my discovery, I think for the first time, that no Brahmin ever talks about ātman in the Pāli Canon, and that the Buddha never debates the subject with a Brahmin. This strongly suggests that, at the very least, we have to re-assess the idea that the Buddha was familiar with the Upaniṣads, or the extent to which the Buddha (i.e. early Buddhists) might have been familiar with Upaniṣadic themes.

In Yavakalāpi Sutta the Buddha takes an approach to self that, as far as I know, is not one that is found in the Upaniṣads. The statements above--the 9 statements starting with 'I am' (asmīti)--are not about an essential or eternal self; much less the merging of the self into brahman for the attainment of immortality. Where the Upaniṣadic ātman is trans-personal and identified with creation or creator, these statements are very much concerned with personal identity and personal continuity. So in reading this text we are not talking about the Upaniṣadic ātman, we are talking about the simple sense of being a self and having a first-person perspective.

Coming back to future rebirth, we see that seven of the nine statements use the future form of the verb, i.e. bhavissāmīti--'I will be', or 'I will become'--and therefore concern people's anxieties about a future life. It is entirely natural in a culture with a rebirth eschatology to be anxious about future lives, indeed as a moral technology this belief system actually depends on people having these anxieties to motivate their compliance with moral norms.

But this text is saying, quite distinctly, that opinions or anxieties about a future life are sources of suffering over and above the suffering induced by the senses. The ideal disciple does not indulge in opinions and anxieties about future lives. We might say that this is because they train for release from saṃsāra. However consider the simile involving Vepacitti which seems to be an allegory with the message that how we think about our sense experience, or (perhaps) what we make of our sense experience, is precisely what binds us to saṃsāra.

There's a interesting feature of the text. For humans being bound by the five cords of sensual pleasure (pañca kāmaguṇa) is synonymous with being caught in saṃsāra. The devas and asuras however operate in a different way. When Vepacitti perceives things correctly--perceives the devas as lawful or just (dhammika)--he is endowed with the divine version of the five cords. When his perception is distorted, the cords fade away. And note that the text speaks of seven flails related to the five physical senses, the mental sense, and then striving after rebirth as the seventh; while there are only five cords of sensual pleasure, and thinking. Indeed the problem for humans is precisely thinking (maññamāno), which is the verb usually associated with activity of mind (manas).

In any case the message is quite clear: even if you do believe in rebirth, it only causes unhappiness to think about rebirth; it only causes unhappiness to wish for a better rebirth; it only causes unhappiness to speculate about the nature of rebirth; in short: thinking in terms of being reborn is generally quite unhelpful. The whole point of Buddhism is to be liberated from rebirth, to not be reborn, to escape from the cycle. What the allegory of Vepacitti suggests is that if you even think in terms of rebirth, then you are caught in Māra's bonds. So the disciple should not be thinking in terms of rebirth at all, not having opinions or anxieties or conceits with respect to rebirth.

Therefore, even if you do believe in rebirth, there is no advantage in thinking about it or talking about it, and considerable disadvantage in doing so. It is best not to think about rebirth at all, since thinking in those terms binds you to Māra's realm. Belief in rebirth only leads to speculation, worry, proliferation and conceit which poison our minds.



[1] assutavā puthujjana: suta 'heard' sutavant 'possessing the heard' i.e. educated; puthu (many) jana (people). Greek hoi polloi 'the many'.
[2] pollus is the singular of polloi.
[3] This appears to mean bind his four limbs plus his neck.
[4] The word refers to all kinds of mental activity: thinking, imagining, having opinions; being convinced, being sure. The context suggests that here it refers to having opinions.
[5] saññin – possessing perception or recognition, a perceiver.
[6] The word iñjita is a past-participle (used as substantive here) from iñjati 'to shake, turn about, move, or vacillate'. In Pāli trembling is often associated with fear. The Pali Commentary says: "the reason for the meaning of 'iñjitaṃ' etc., is that through the vices (kilesa: lobha, dosa, moha, i.e. greed, aversion, and confusion ) beings shake (iñjita) and writhe (phandita), and are obsessed (papañcita) because they are afflicted by states of carelessness."

10 September 2010

Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman

It is well known that the teachings on anātman (translated variously as 'no-self', 'non-self', 'no-soul', 'not-soul' with variations particularly in capitalisation of self/soul) are important to the overall Buddhist program of transformation. Several books and many articles have been written arguing for and against various interpretations of the relevant texts - some finding an ātman affirmed, some finding it denied, and some taking a middle way between these two extremes.

It is widely accepted that the teachings on anātman must be set against the background of Brahmanical thought of the day. It is further generally accepted that the texts that have come down to us as the Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāranyaka, Chāndogya, Taittirīya and Aitareya Upaniṣads, reflect the Brahmanical religion at the time. In the the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) we find references to these four for instance [1]. It is often assumed that the Brahmanical faith formed the mainstream of religion at the time and place, though this is now plausibly disputed (see Rethinking Indian History), and it seems likely that Brahmins and their religion were new comers to the North-east of India, and in fact in the process of absorbing ideas from the samaṇa movements. In any case many people have pointed to passages in the Pāli Canon which show that early Buddhists were familiar with the Upaniṣads - and anatta in relation to ātman is one of the key aspects of this theme.

Just as the central uniting concept across all of the Buddhist texts is paṭicca-samuppāda, the central subject in these early Upaniṣads is the identity of brahman and ātman: the former being the universal essence, while the latter is the manifestation of that universal essence in the individual. As Signe Cohen puts it:
"An Upaniṣad can, most simply, be defined as an ancient text in Sanskrit that teaches that ātman and brahman are one and the same, and that the knowledge of this identity leads to liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth." [2]
However at the same time there was a theistic tendency present in the Upaniṣads which gradually became more prominent. In its theistic guise the grammatically neutral brahman becomes the grammatically masculine brahmā, and is equated with Prajāpati 'Lord of Progeny' aka the Creator God. The two terms are often ambiguous: as the first member of a compound they are both brahma-. Additionally the two are sometimes used side by side as if to make it clear that they are not to be considered distinct. As time goes on brahman is used less, and brahmā more.

We know a certain amount about the Buddha's contemporaries from polemics and parodies directed against them in the Pāli texts, though of course such portrayals must be taken with a grain of salt. Jains, Ājivakas and Brahmins are recognisable in the texts from the way they behave and how they speak. However, and this is my main point today: nowhere in the Pāli canon, so far as I can tell, does any Brahmin so much as express an opinion on ātman, and nowhere is the ātman doctrine attributed to a Brahmin. This is a surprising situation since this doctrine is one of the most characteristic and distinctive of that group. A subsidiary point is that while the founders and important teachers of religions are mentioned, Jains for instance talk about former teachers, and while there are even lists of the seven Vedic ṛṣi - the star of the early Upaniṣads - Yajñavalkya - is not mentioned in Pāli.

In Pāli the two Sanskrit words brahman and brahmā have coalesced into the single form brahmā (a masculine noun) which sometimes stands for religious ideals in general (it is often translated as 'holy' or 'divine' for instance), but in our present context always means the creator god. [3] The coalescence may be reflected in the confusion of the declension of the noun, [4] and we do not know whether the single, if somewhat variable, grammatical form in Pāli represents the state of Buddhist knowledge of Brahmanical beliefs, or whether a mechanical process of grammatical change obscured a difference (c.f. my comments on sattva, satka, satva in Philological Odds & Ends III sv bodhisattva). Notwithstanding the ambiguity of brahma- as the first member of a compound, in the context of the beliefs put into the mouths of Brahmins (or indeed into the mouth of Brahmā) there is no clear reference to brahman in any text in the Pāli Canon. [5] I'm not the first to make this observation, but don't have references to hand.

Parodies of the creator god are some of the funniest, and most damning of the Buddhist polemical texts - the creator god is portrayed as a deluded and bombastic fool, afraid to look bad in front of the other gods. The central Brahmanical idea of the identity of brahman and ātman is completely absent and has been replaced by the idea of brahmasahavyata - companionship or union with Brahmā. The word brahmavihara 'dwelling with Brahmā' is a synonym of this. However note that I have summarised Gombrich's discovery that the Buddhist texts seem to have lost the true sense of this allusion before the fixing of the Canon - The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor.

The clear references to Vedic texts noted by Gombrich and others (including me) have established that the Pāli texts themselves are aware of Vedic concepts. We find the names of Vedic ṛṣi, and Vedic traditions; references to sacrifices, sacred fires, mantras (in particular the Sāvitṛ mantra); references to sacred bathing, to worship of the sun. We find a high awareness of Brahmanical class (vaṇṇa) prejudice. We also find more oblique references to the five fire wisdom, and to Vedic cosmogony (especially as found in the BU and Ṛgveda 10.90). Many of these ideas and practices are still current in India more than 2000 years later! Although sometimes Brahmins are clearly just straw-men and present an inauthentic façade to be knocked down, there are many texts were Brahmins are recognisable even if not labelled as such. What's more the texts themselves record that many Brahmins of various kinds became converts (including prominent disciples like Sāriputta and Moggallana!) so the compilers of the texts had plenty of opportunity to mix with actual Brahmins. We have evidence of increasing Brahmin participation and influence in the Buddhist Sangha - some of which I discussed in A Pāli Pun. The text which most often seems to referenced is the Bṛhadāranyka Upaniṣad (BU). Those scholars who have tried to determine the geographical locations of the various texts (primarily Michael Witzel) place the BU in the eastern areas of North India in the Kingdoms of Kosala and Vidheha - precisely where the Buddha was active.

A conflicting picture emerges for which I have as yet no explanation. Brahmins in the Pāli texts are either old school Brahmins focussed on the sacrifice, or they are outright monotheists which is usually considered to be a late development - associated with later Upaniṣads or even the Puraṇas. A possibility is that the jaṭila or dreadlocked ascetics (especially Uruvela Kassapa) were ascetic Brahmins - the commentarial tradition certainly considers them Brahmins, though the nikāyas are more ambiguous. They are fire worshippers, some of them show allegiance to Brahmins (c.f. Sela Sutta) and have Brahmin surnames like Kassapa. But what beliefs they espoused is not revealed to us.

The Pāli texts appear conversant with aspects of the Upaniṣads, especially those related to cosmogony; and to Brahmin culture more generally, particularly concern for social class and stratification; and ritual purity. Certainly the subjects of atta and anatta get considerable attention, but they are never linked to the source i.e. the Brahmins themselves. Although we can easily make the cognitive link between a teaching against ātman and a group which we know espoused views on ātman, in practice the Pāli texts never seem to make this link! Indeed the important point about ātman from the Brahmanical point of view is not its eternal nature, i.e. not the fact that it participates unchanged in rebirth per se which is the focus for Buddhists, but its identity with brahman, since it is this identity that allows one to escape saṃsara (with more space I would discuss the proposition that this was by no means universally accepted by Brahmins in the Buddha's day). In short early Buddhists, perhaps the Buddha, but certainly the Early Buddhist texts, seem to have missed the main point of the Upaniṣads. The apparent fact of increasing Brahmanical influence in Buddhism makes this even more difficult to understand. Ironically centuries later they adopted more or less the same idea in the form of the Tathāgatagarbha for precisely the same reasons the Brahmins adopted it - it explains how liberation is possible for someone mired in saṃsara. There are also echoes in such ideas as absolute and relative bodhicitta.

Contra my previous enthusiasm for this idea, I think, therefore, that we must be cautious in accepting the conjecture that Early Buddhists were conversant with the traditions represented by the Upaniṣads. My suspicion is that the teachings on anātman/anatta do not relate directly to the ideas on ātman found in the Upaniṣads; that this is simply a coincidence of terminology, rather than a coincidence of ideology, however this would require a major rethink about the relationship between Buddhism and Vedism. Another possibility is that Buddhists only came into contact with Brahmins at a much later date than we usually allow for. Alternatively the Brahmins in the Canon, especially those who joined the bhikkhu saṅgha, might not have accepted the Upaniṣads - perhaps they moved eastwards for the same reasons that people fled Europe for America in the 17th century.

We must do more work to establish the extent of that Buddhist conversance with Brahmanical thought. Ideally we would go back over the research on ātman in Buddhist texts to date, and try to determine if it does in fact relate to Brahmanical views at all, or whether we need to look to another source.

  1. DN13 records various types of Brahmins: addhariya, tittiriya, chandoka, chandāva and bavhārijjhā or brahmacāriya (the ms. disagree on the last, but there is a lost Brāhmaṇa text called Bahvṛca which would coincide with Pāli bavhārijjha). The chandāva brāhmaṇas are left out of some mss. and the connections are uncertain. Tittiriya and Chandoka correspond to Sanskrit Taittirīya and Chāndogya and to the Brāhmaṇa and Upaniṣad textual traditions of the same name. Although the Bahvṛca Brāhmaṇa is lost it is linked to the Aitareya Upaniṣad. Lastly addhariya corresponds to Sanskrit adhvaryu and is associated with the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad. These correspondences are discussed in the notes to Rhys Davids translation of the Dīgha Nikāya (p.303, n.2) and in Jayatilleke Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, p.479f.
  2. Cohen, Signe. Text and Authority in The Older Upaniṣads. Leiden: Brill, 2008. p.39.
  3. A cursory look at the Mahāvastu suggests that it also only uses brahmā and not brahman, or uses brahma- as the first part of a karmadhāraya compound (i.e. as an adjective). The vast majority of uses are in the compounds brahmacariya and brahmacārin. Along with the name King Brahmadatta these account for perhaps 90% of occurrences in the Sanskrit text.
  4. The Pāli treatment of Sanskrit nouns ending in consonants is inconsistent. Our word brahmā sometimes follows the masculine -a declension, sometimes the -u declension; with other minor variations such as a vocative singular brahme and plural brahmāno perhaps drawing on the feminine -ā declension. Other -n nouns such as rājan, and attan show similar variability.
  5. I have sought to identify all nikāya texts where a Brahmin makes a profession of belief. They are:
    • DN 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 27.
    • MN 49, 50, 84, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 108.
    • SN 6.3, 4; 7.1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22; 35.132, 146, 151; 42.6; 45.38; 55.12.
    • AN 3.54, 56, 58, 59, 60; 4.23, 185; 5.191, 192, 193; 6.38; 7.62; 10.119, 167, 168, 176, 177.
    • Sn 1.7, 8; 2.7; 3.4, 6, 7, 9.
    In each case I have studied the text and translated relevant portions of it to be sure I understand it. Interestingly many of the narratives in these texts are repeated two or three times. For instance the story of Vāseṭṭha and Bharadvaja gets three closely related, but not identical tellings at DN 13, MN 98, and Sn 3.9. I think this tells us that at least three narrative lineages are preserved in the Pāli texts. It may be possible with close study to identify stylistic features in common and tease out other related texts that have multiple recensions within the Canon.

04 September 2009

None dearer than myself

Indian King and Queen from
Understanding Patio Umbrellas.
One time the Buddha was staying outside the walled city of Sāvatthī (modern day Śravasti) in the park that the merchant Anāthapiṇḍika had purchased from Prince Jeta at great price. Sāvatthī was the capital of the Kingdom of Kosala [1] and was ruled by King Pasenadi. Pasenadi was a follower of the Buddha, and so was his wife Mallikā. Mallikā was wise and her husband often asked her opinion about things.

The Ūdana relates a time when the King and Queen were discussing spiritual matters and both realised that they held none more dear than themselves - despite being in love with each other. This troubled the King and made him seek out the Buddha. Hearing about the royal discussion he spoke an inspired utterance (ūdana):

Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā,
Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci;
Evaṃ piyo puthu attā paresaṃ,
Tasmā na hiṃse paramattakāmoti.
Going around all the directions in imagination
[Something] more dear than one's self, is nowhere found
The self of other individuals is similarly dear
Therefore don't harm another self that is loved.[2]
Hopefully this will already have struck readers as curious. Yes, the word being translated as self is atta, or ātman in Sanskrit. And yes, it is being affirmed as existent and the thing that we all hold most dear. What a surprise this text is! What to make of it? I think we must proceed cautiously and think pragmatically.

Firstly the use of atta here is most likely simply the reflexive pronoun - "me" - but even so it suggests a kind of egotism that we associate with ātman as self in any case. Many scholars have attested to the fact that nowhere does the Buddha explicitly deny the self - he never says outright "there is no self". It would be easy to get bogged down here if we allow ourselves to drift into metaphysics. However the Buddha's point was not about whether the self exists or not, but to encourage people to examine their own experience and the apparatus of experience. He is telling people who believe in an ātman (that links not only successive lives, but moments of consciousness) to look for that persistent factor (if they must) in their experience - in mind and the senses. Although the language, context, metaphors etc all vary the Buddha's advice boils down to the same thing for everyone: examine your experience, pay attention especially to how experience arises and passes away.

The text acknowledges that we all tend to think of ourselves as the most important person. We look after ourselves first, we tend to try to meet our own needs first, and we protect ourselves above others. (I speculated as to why this is in Why do we suffer?) This is not an absolute it is a generalisation and as a contrast we might think of the selflessness of a mother protecting her child as is referred to by the Karaniya Mettā Sutta (some well known characters in the Pāli scriptures, notably Bahiya, are gored to death by cows with calves). One of my preceptors says: "we all go around thinking that other people are thinking about us, but they aren't: they are thinking about themselves".

Surely this is not a positive thing? In fact surely this self-centredness and self-preoccupation is the big problem that we all have. I think this highlights an aspect of the Buddha's teaching. He himself does not seem to have been bound by jargon and formalised ways of talking about the Dharma. The Buddha himself seems to have felt free to present the Dharma in whatever way suits his audience. He is able to talk to Brahmins as a Brahmin, to Kings as Kings, to merchants as a merchant and to a farmer as a farmer. The Buddha so embodied and epitomised the Dharma that he could present his teaching in many different ways, as long as the person ended up paying attention to the conditioned nature of experience.

In a passage in the Saṃyutta Nikāya the Buddha questions Sariputta about his attainments. He does so employing a number of different metaphors and formal ways of talking about liberation. At first Sariputta is confused, but he continues to confidently answer the Buddha's questions.
Friends, the first question that the Blessed One asked me had not been previously considered by me: thus I hesitated over it. But when the Blessed One approved of my answer, it occurred to me: 'if the Blessed One were to question me about this matter with various terms and with various methods for a whole day, for a whole day I would be about to answer him with various terms and various methods.[3]
Maybe we could say that the one who is liberated from suffering is also liberated from jargon - which makes it seem all the more attractive in my view!

So my self is most dear to me, and your self is most dear to you. With a little effort I can imagine that since you experience selfhood in the way that I do, then you experience suffering in the way that I do [4]. You experience pain, and disappointment, and grief, in the way that I do. You also experience happiness and joy, and will ultimately experience liberation in the same way as me. Although we see ourselves, experience ourselves, as separate and unique, we are in fact very much alike. All humans seem to share certain basic emotions, and to have this instinct for self preservation. And it is by seeing that we share this characteristic that the golden rule emerges quite naturally - do unto others and you would be done by. One can nitpick and find exceptions, but lets keep an overview - the golden rule is a generalisation that describes the spirit of morality, not the letter. So despite the fact that we Buddhists are fixated on self and views on self, it's important to see this text as being about empathy, not about self.

In the translation above I have rendered 'cetasā' as 'imagination'. This seemed to fit the context - what is one doing when "goes around all the directions with the mind" except using the imagination? However it also helps to make an important point about Buddhist ethics. The key skill is not self restraint, or strong will power, but the ability to imagine the other. To put oneself in their shoes. As Sangharakshita says: "the Love which is the positive form of the First Precept is no mere flabby sentiment but the vigorous expression of an imaginative identification with other living beings." [5]

This text is a good example of the pragmatism of the Buddha. He's not interested in metaphysical questions such as whether there is a self or not - this is not a question that can be finally decided. One can believe in a self, or not believe, but it's just an opinion, just a view. If you do believe in a self then the Buddha's challenge to you is to find it in experience, and by doing so to draw your attention to the conditioned nature of experience. If you do not believe in a self, then his starting point will be different, but he will still draw your attention to the conditioned nature of experience. What this says to me is that there's no point in quoting dogma at people who have different beliefs, because dogma doesn't make any difference.[6] What makes a difference is practice and experience, not doctrine. Too many Buddhists focus on orthodoxy - having the right opinion - and seem to forget that according to orthodoxy Reality is ineffable. They refuse, however to follow Wittgenstein in staying silent about that of which nothing can be said. However it is true that confusion divides the will and can make wholehearted practice difficult if not impossible.

The main point though is the nature of empathy - which is imaginative identification - and it's role in ethics. Morality does not exist in the abstract. Buddhist ethics is about how we relate to other people. This imaginative identification, which underlies ethics, can become the whole path via practices such as mettābhāvanā, which culminate in Brahmavihāra - an earlier (and often forgotten) metaphor for nibbāna.

  1. Śravasti and Kosala were north and west of Magadha - in what is now northern Uttapradesh.
  2. Rāja Sutta. Ud 5.1 (PTS: Ud 47); and SN 3.8 (PTS: i.75) - the two texts are identical. This is my translation. Also translated by Thanissaro at Access to Insight; and Bhikkhu Bodhi. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. p.170-171.
  3. The Kaḷāra Sutta. SN 12.32 (S ii.54). Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. p. 570.
  4. cf Dhammapada 129-130 which represents a kind of negatively phrased counterpart of this verse.
  5. Sangharakshita. The Ten Pillars of Buddhism. Windhorse, 1984. p.57 (my italics)
  6. I noticed that two weeks ago when I attempted a novel interpretation of selfhood (Why do we have a sense of self?), and at other times when I have expressed a new idea to Buddhists, the reply is almost always to recite Buddhist dogma at me. Not only is it boring, but it so clearly does not come from personal experience that it almost makes a mockery of the Buddha's teaching methods. We know that some Buddhist metaphysical arguments have raged for more than 1000 years with no conclusion in sight, and this should alert us to the intractability of metaphysics and dogmas.

26.9.15 Compare
tad etat preyaḥ putrāt preyo vittāt preyo 'nyasmāt sarvasmād antarataraṃ yad ayam ātmā | sa yo 'nyam ātmanaḥ priyaṃ bruvāṇaṃ brūyāt priyaṃ rotsyatītīśvaro ha tathaiva syāt | ātmānam eva priyam upāsīta | sa ya ātmānam eva priyam upāste na hāsya priyaṃ pramāyukaṃ bhavati || BU 1.4.8 ||
This innermost thing, this self (ātman)--is dearer (preyo) than a son, it is dearer than wealth, it is dearer than anything else. If a man claims that something other than his self is dear to him, and someone where to tell him that he will lose that he holds dear, that is liable to happen. So a man should only regard only his self as dear to him. When a man regards only his self as dear to him, what he holds dear will never perish. 

28 August 2009

Why do we suffer? An alternate take

Blake's SatanIn the first of two essays last week (why do we have a sense of self?) I explored how neuroscience might explain the emergence of self-consciousness or self-awareness. In this second essay I want to use an evolutionary-biology perspective and look at how the emergence of consciousness has left us with the problem of suffering; and why the Buddhist response to suffering is so useful.

In Buddhist terms we could say that we suffer because we are selfish, especially in relationship to sensory stimuli. I've explored this in a number of blog posts recently. [1] In order to find happiness we seek to obtain, maintain and retain pleasurable experiences. These are, however, inherently impermanent and unsatisfactory so that we find life itself unsatisfactory. But why are we this way? Why evolve a faculty that only makes us miserable?

Actually as social animals, despite our sense of being independent selves, we are not inherently selfish: rather we are instinctively gregarious, cooperative and empathetic. As humans, indeed as primates, these are very much part of our genetic heritage. Although there is conflict and competition in all primate groups, they are characterised by a high level of helping each other and working together for the benefit of the troop. So why do we become selfish? I think that the problem is a result of our own success - or because our success at exploiting the environment has outstripped our genetic evolution. We are genetically adapted, to take two examples, to scarce resources (e.g. diets low in sugar and fat) and small group sizes. Pleasurable sensations help motivate us to find and assess the goodness of food, and to contribute to the social group through, for example, cooperation and social grooming; while unpleasant sensations helps us avoid spoiled food and danger for instance. In short we are programmed to experience pleasure as happiness because in the world that we are genetically adapted to this makes us more successful.

About 10,000 years ago we humans began to use our ability to think ahead to our advantage. We began to cultivate food crops rather than scavenging, and to domesticate animals which we had previously only hunted. The result was a reliable food surplus for the first time in history. It was still somewhat related to climate patterns - drought was not unknown - but we could mitigate that through irrigation. We ate well and as a result grew stronger, lived longer, and our groups began to get larger. We began to make large scale permanent dwellings - the first cities seem to date from around 9,000 years ago. Large scale cities with hundreds of thousands of residents became possible as agriculture intensified. Civilisation provides many benefits to us individually and collectively. Importantly it makes reproductive success more likely, much more likely, which is positive in evolutionary terms.

It is sometimes said that humans have stopped evolving but this is not true. [2] It is true however that our cultural and technological evolution has outstripped our genetic evolution by orders of magnitude. In most cases we live in an environment to which are not genetically adapted. This is the result of a trend that began thousands of generations ago, and means that we have to consciously adapt to our circumstances using our ability to learn and innovate. As societies become more complex, we have to be better at learning and teaching these acquired skills because our genetic adaptation is less relevant. It's a self-reinforcing cycle, and the speed of change is increasing!

In a world of generalised surplus the relationship between pleasure and happiness becomes more abstract. [3] Once the relationship becomes abstract then it is a bit like abandoning the gold standard behind money - it's difficult to know the value of anything. The result is that pleasure becomes an end in itself. Similarly any pain, or the lack of pleasure, is bad and to be avoided. This gives rise to two extremes: on the one hand we theorise about an absolutely abstract ultimate pleasure (or equally an absence of pain) which awaits us (usually) in an afterlife; on the other hand we might decide or there is no greater good than pleasure here and now. These are the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism.

As group sizes soar we not only split into increasingly disparate factions, but we become accustomed to being surrounded by strangers to whom we have no social ties - they are not related and not part of our troop and we owe them nothing. Larger social groups require new social structures with arbitrary relationships. We may never meet those who lead our community for instance, or even their deputies. I've never personally spoken to a member of parliament of any country for instance. The result is alienation and a feeling of disconnection between us and the people around us.

So we find ourselves pursuing pleasures with considerable energy and ingenuity, but surrounded and led by strangers, and over several hundred generations this becomes the cultural norm. This is our norm. It creates a deep dissonance within us - emotional as well as cognitive - because we are overstimulated on the one hand, and alienated on the other. We find ourselves plagued by diseases caused by diet such as heart disease, obesity, bowel cancer and diabetes; by drug problems, alienation and depression; and by conflict, crime, civil strife and violence. To some extent this is balanced out, though, because at the same time this dissonance has driven the production of great art, music, literature and drama as people try to give expression to something more wholesome. However we are left with a considerable and worsening problem.

Eventually some individuals began to emerge who used their powers of reflection to examine the human situation. During the so-called Axial Age (ca 800 BCE - 200 BCE) many such individuals appeared including Lao-tzu, K'ung-tzu, Isaiah, Zoroaster, Yajñavalkya, Mahāvīra, Gautama, Pythagoras, and Socrates. One thing they all seem to have done is call into question the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself, and encourage us to relate to each other in more wholesome ways. The greatest of these individuals was Gautama, the Buddha - he saw the nature of the problem more clearly than any other human being before or since. Since the Axial age we Westerners have swung between puritanism and hedonism, from eternalism to nihilism in response to our inner dissonance without any great success in quelling it. For some time now some of us have been exploring the Buddha's middle-way, although in Britain's last census more people identified their religion as Jedi (0.7%) than as Buddhist (0.3%).

Neither hedonism nor puritanism address the underlying relationship we have with sensory stimulus, especially pleasure, so neither can resolve the fundamental dissonance, nor produce lasting happiness. The extent of suffering in the world (various 20th century genocides for instance) makes belief in God untenable for any thinking person, but the abandonment of old values in reaction to the loss of faith has had a devastating effect on society. Plurality has lead to moral relativity and reinforced the confusion over values. The sad truth is that as much as some of us find the choice and variety of contemporary life exciting and stimulating, the majority feel overwhelmed and anxious or angry (fuelled in part by a media with a vested interest in stimulating precisely these emotions). Increasingly people are closing their minds and hearts - or turning for example to drugs [4]; or the ersatz, but less challenging, community provided by the internet. [5]

So we suffer because, as a side effect of civilisation, we have an aberrant relationship with sensory stimulation. Instead of experiencing ourselves as being part of a complex web of relationships with people and the environment, we feel isolated and alienated. We are overstimulated most of the time, and continually stoke the fire because we are convinced that pleasure is happiness in a generalised abstract sense. Selfishness is a by-product of this process, not a cause - which is to turn traditional Buddhist narratives on their head. Civilisation has been a two edged sword which may suggest why periods of barbarism punctuate the history of civilisation. Buddhist practice offers the best way forward because it directly addresses these problems with practical methods and suggestions. [6]

  1. Examples of recent posts on our relationship to the senses include:
  2. see for example 'Humans are still evolving - and it's happening faster than ever'. The Guardian 11.12.2007.
  3. Here I have to make a broad generalisation which glosses over some important questions such as endemic poverty and whether the subsistence farmer is better off than the hunter gatherer etc. Certainly agriculture is at different stages around the world (I've seen farmers using all-wood ox-drawn ploughs in India for instance), but there has been a general trend towards more sophistication. My remarks are intended to apply mainly to my audience who I take to be English speaking internet users.
  4. It is ironic the extent to which terrorism, supposedly the greatest threat to our society, is funded by western drug habits - certainly Middle-Eastern terrorists are funded by opiate production, and opiate production is driven by the demand for illicit opiates in the west.
  5. See my comments on virtual community [19.9.08]
  6. Although Buddhist practice is the overall theme of this blog I did summarise the entire Buddhist path in a way which is relevant to the current post in another two-parter back in 2005: - part one (generosity, ethics, and patience), and part two (vigour, meditation, wisdom).

21 August 2009

Why do we have a sense of self?

image of a man by LeonardoThis essay is part one of two in which I explore how contemporary ideas in neuroscience and evolutionary biology can help to make sense of the human condition and the Buddhist response to it. I begin with selfhood, the sense of being a 'self'. The notion of a self - having a self, being a self - comes in for sustained and often bitter criticism from Buddhists. I have argued in several blog posts [1] that it is not the self per se that is the problem, since without it we could not function, but selfishness or self-preoccupation. Selflessness, the opposite of selfishness, is not the absence of a self, but an attitude which values others at least as much, if not more, than one's self.

One might well ask why the very idea of selfhood - often the word 'ego' is used though it hardly fits the context - is so problematic for Buddhists? And if the sense of self is the root of all our problems, why do we even have it? Why did we evolve so unsatisfactory a faculty in the first place? I find the traditional answers to this question deeply unsatisfying and I know from talking to other Buddhists that I'm not alone in this. [2]

I've dealt with some of these questions in previous posts (see below) so here I want to look at where the sense of self comes from and why we have it. This is one area in which we need to quietly drop the tradition and find a better answer. I believe that neuroscience can provide a more satisfying answer to these kinds of questions, while leaving us the full scope of Buddhist practice as the best response the problems we encounter.

To my mind the best explanation for we we have a sense of self is put forward by Antonio Damasio in his book The Feeling of What Happens. Organisms, he says, are complex self-regulating mechanisms. Even a single cell is able to respond to changes in it's environment which allow it to survive better than if it were simply passive. So for instance if we are too hot we sweat, this fluid evaporates and this cools us down. This process has limits, but it enables us to tolerate a wide range of hot conditions, opening up ecological niches that might not be available otherwise. However sweating means we lose salt, and therefore we must ingest more salt. So the situation is complex and requires constant monitoring. In order to most successfully monitor our current state we need to compare a number of variables from the present (e.g. temperature, salt levels) with those in the past. Ideally we will have access to information about both the immediately preceding moment, but also to some longer term data which enables us to respond to trends in change. Even a single cell organism is able to monitor and adjust for such quantities as salinity, temperature, internal pressure, availability of food, light and dark, presence of predators, toxins, pathogens; and to do this without anything like sentience. We humans have a far bigger job. On top of each cell monitoring and regulating itself in concert with it's neighbours near and far, we have internal structures and systems such as organs; and we have an overview of the whole for maintaining things like balance, and readiness for action, and for the all important social interactions that we maintain. There is a vast, elaborate array of internal states at a variety of levels to keep track of. This is the primary function of our brain. We map all of this information in our minds - largely unconsciously - and keep track of it. This is the most rudimentary level of consciousness.

We also maintain archives of previous states: we can compare our present state to the immediate past so that we can respond to trends in the environment. If I am a little hotter now, but know that I'll be cooler again soon because it's late afternoon and the sun is getting low in the sky, then the need to cool my body is less urgent. Longer term memory enables us to understand trends and minor fluctuations better. But a consequence of this ability to compare our present state with many previous states is that we develop a sense of continuity. There is our map of our internal states now, and there are all these previous states. Demasio argues that the sense of continuity is an illusion. Consciousness is a series of discreet states of awareness, a snapshot of how we are now that can be compared with how we have been. This happens fast and often enough to give a sense of continuity - much like a film gives the illusion of motion by using 25 frames per second.

At some point in the evolution of this faculty the comparison of states begins to take in mental states. When it takes in the act of comparing then there is an element of self-awareness. We become aware of being aware, and because of the sense of continuity we have the feeling that there is a constant presence 'I' behind the observations and acting on them. However contra what most Buddhists say the 'I' naturally experiences itself as embedded in a complex web of relationships with the environment and other individuals. 'I' is not naturally alienated from these relationships. [3] Next week I'll look more at why 'I' has become alienated, and in two weeks will look at the 'I' as the basis for empathy.

This is not mere epiphenomenalism - the idea that consciousness is caused by the matter of the brain, and not the other way around - because it suggests that the demands of consciousness have driven the evolution of the brain. If anything the brain is an epiphenomenon of consciousness.

A further advance on this faculty is the ability to predict future states. This is the basis of imagination - the ability to project ourselves into the future and see if a course of action is fruitful, or if a situation is likely to be dangerous. It enables us to plan ahead, to predict the kind of impact the environment is going to have on us and to make preparations. It enables us to devise ways to overcome problems before they arise - by building a structure to keep the rain off before it comes, or planting crops that won't be harvested for several months, and to store food for winter or famine. Without the 'I' none of this would be possible.

The sense of being an embodied self, then, emerges naturally from the evolving faculties of the human organism, and it is important to our healthy functioning. However we are still left with the problem of suffering and what to do about it, which is the subject of next week's essay.

  1. Links to my other blog posts on ego.

  2. Many people struggle to see how suffering in this life is caused by actions in a previous life for instance. Also on the one hand saṃsara is said to have no beginning, no first cause; while on the other Buddhist cosmogonical myths suggest that we have fallen from a pure state at some point in the distant past, and Mahāyāna Buddhists talk of original purity. This begs the question of how we became defiled! The Buddhist discourse on self (ātman) makes little sense, in my view, unless we understand the intellectual context of the day: for my take on this see Anatta in Context [24.10.08] So we're left with considerable ambiguity.
  3. I looked at this in my post: The Meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ particularly with reference to Glucklich, Ariel. 1997. The End of Magic. Oxford University Press.