Showing posts with label Faith. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Faith. Show all posts

29 August 2014

Placing the Heart in Indo-European

In Sanskrit the main word for 'heart' is hṛd or the suffixed form hṛdaya. However most of us are also familiar with the word for faith, śraddhā, which we think means 'placing the heart'. Here the word for heart is śrad. Most sources suggest that the two words hṛd and śrad are in fact two forms of a single word that has undergone a series of phonetic transformations. However some sources suggest that there are two distinct roots. This word makes for an interesting case study in comparative linguistics and shows the kind of evidence that is used to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European. In this case the reconstructed root is written different ways: k̑ered- : k̑erd-, k̑ērd-, k̑r̥d-, k̑red-.

We need to note some conventions. Where a form is reconstructed and/or not actually attested it is frequently suffixed with an asterix: *kred. In order to distinguish phonemes or sounds from letters they are written between two forward slashes. Thus come has initial c but is pronounced /k/. Similarly c can be pronounced also as /s/. Linguists make a distinction between /ḱ/ or /k̑/ the palato-velar and /k/ the plain velar. The difference is the k sound in "scum" and "come". If you pay close attention to where your tongue is in your mouth as you pronounce these words you'll notice the tongue makes contact with the roof of the mouth further forward in the word "scum" and is the /ḱ/ sound. In English the two are allophones, meaning we don't hear the difference and don't notate it differently. This seems to be true of other Indo-European languages also, though the distinction is important in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) the putative mother language of all the present day and dead IE languages.

I'll begin with a survey of the various cognates in other Indo-European languages by family grouping. In Indo-Iranian we have several related forms:

Vedic: śradśraddhā

It's quite regular for Avesta to have /z/ where Sanskrit has /ś/. In Sanskrit dhā is plain root meaning 'place/put'. Perhaps because of the conservative nature of religion we can see this form throughout the Indo-European language family. We need to ask about the two distinct forms in Vedic. There are two possible explanations for this situation.
  1. There was a progressive change /ḱ/ > /ś/ > /h/
  2. The word came into Vedic twice: PIE /ḱ/ > /ś/ and /ḱ/ > /h/.
There is a regular change from PIE /k/ to Vedic /ś/ so we can quite easily explain kred > śrad. What we need to explain then is either  /ś/ > /h/  or /ḱ/ > /h/.


As we move from west we find three other language family has the change from palatal stop to sibilant. The Armenian form is sirt. It's very easy for a voiced consonant /d/ to change to an unvoiced consonant /t/ with the same articulation (compare Latin pater - German fader - English father). Slavic languages follow a similar pattern: heart = Church Slavonic srĭdĭce; Russian serdtse; Polish serce; Slovak srdce. And finally the Baltic languages: Old Prussian seyr; Lithuanian šerdìs; Latvian ser̃de. We can see that in most of these words a vowel is interposed between the initial /s/ and /r/. Here, then, the initial consonant change is /ḱ/ > /s/ 

The Anatolian, Helenic and Italic families preserved the /k/ though this is often spelled 'c'. Thus we see Hittite kar-ti-ya-aš 'heart'; Greek kardia (καρδία); Latin cordis (and credo 'trust, believe'). The Latin gives rise to Romance Language forms: French cœur; Italian cuore; Spanish corazón; Portuguese coração; Romanian cord. Note the dropping of the final stop in French and Italian. In Spain /d/ becomes /z/ and in Portuguese /d/ > /sh/. One can see how this might have come about in the sequence: /d/ > /dz/ > /z/ > /sh/. Initial /ḱ/ is preserved, though it may become the plain velar /k/. The notation is ambiguous.

Celtic similarly preserved initial /k/: Old Irish cretim; Cornish créz; Welsh craidd. Though the more common word for 'heart' in Welsh seems to be the unrelated calon.

Germanic languages change initial /k/ to /h/ which is interesting because this is just the change that we are looking for. There's no question of any communication between Germanic and Sanskrit, it's just a case of parallel evolution, but it's helpful to know that one of the transformations that an initial /ḱ/ can undergo is change to /h/. The Proto-Germanic form is *herton- (OEtD) The Germanic family is divided geographically. West Germany covers what's now Germany and Holland. East is represented by a single dead language, i.e. Gothic. North is all of the Scandinavian languages. Usually English has been considered to be part of the West Germanic sub-family, related to Old Saxon. However more recently a case has been made to consider it part of the Northern sub-family along with Scandinavia. The Germanic speakers—Saxons, Angles and Jutes—who settled in Britain did come from what is now the state of Schleswig-Holstein in the North of Germany, which abuts Denmark. And of course there was a significant overlay of Danish onto Old English as well.

West North
Old Frisian herte/hirteOld Icelandichjarta
Dutch hart Swedish hjärta
Old Saxon herta Danish hjerte
Old High German  herza Old English heorte
German herz Mid. English hert
English heart

With the Norman Invasion English picked up the Latin derived words for heart as well, as can be seen in words such as accord, cordial, courage, credible, credit, creed, grant, miscreant, and quarry (i.e. prey). 

What comparative linguistics does is to look at all the forms and look for logical transformations that might account for all the forms. Such changes much be checked against a range of words with the same sounds. It's only when patterns emerge across a wide range of words that one can describe regular changes (what we might once have called formulating laws). The more obvious examples help to explain the less obvious.

*kred vs *kerd

I recently read that treating kred and kerd as the same root might be incorrect.
Outside of the verbal system we find another word that curiously seems to display such a gradation and that is *ḱerd- 'heart', while in Sanskrit we find hṛd- and in Avestan we find zərəd- which both seem to go back to *ǵʰrd-, and then there's the Sanskrit śrad- (notice the schwebe ablaut!) which in combination with dhā- 'to give' give a lovely indo-european expression also found in Latin Credere 'to believe'. This form seems to go back to *ḱred-.
A schwebe ablaut is a full-grade vowel that is not always in the same position within the root. We don't really talk about vowel grades in English though we use them, e.g. in the verb sing sung sang and the related noun song the changed vowel gives us grammatical information. Ablaut is a very important part of Sanskrit morphology, for example those derived from √dṛś exhibit the various vowel strengths: dṛṣti, darśana, draṣṭṛ, adrākṣit. But note that darśana and draṣṭṛ invert the order of the vowels in the stronger grades (what the Sanskrit grammarians called guṇa and vṛddhi). Modern grammarians make guṇa the normal grade and talk about a weaker () and a stronger (ār/rā) grade. So in √dṛś the vowel grades from weakest to strongest are: , ar/ra, and ār/rā. With one sees that strengthening in Sanskrit is like adding ă (short a) before the root vowel and applying the rules of sandhi. With other vowels the changes are a bit less obvious.

Another example is √bhū 'to be'. The vowel grades for ū are: ū, o, & au, where o ≈ ă+u; and au ≈ ā+u. [note au is a diphthong]. √bhū forms a present stem by strengthening the root and adding a.
  • root:  bhū
  • guṇa: bh[ăū] (= bho)
  • + a:    bhă-ūa (which sandhi resolves to) bhava-
  • conjugations: bhavāmi, bhavasi, bhavati etc.
In the past particle, the root stays in the weaker grade so: bhūta. And in the strongest grade we find the noun bhauta 'related to living beings'. These processes were first described by Pāṇini in perhaps the 4th century BCE. Through study of Sanskrit grammar the principles were rediscovered by the first European comparative linguists. The term ablaut (German 'off sound') for this phenomenon was coined by Jacob Grimm of "the Brothers Grimm" in the late 19th century.

Edward Sapir notes a difference in the Tocharian word for heart:
The Tocharian word [käryā] does not represent IE *ḱṛd-yā́ (i.e. *erd-yā́) but *ḱred-yā́ (reduced from the basic *ḱred- seen in Sanskrit śrad and Latin crēdō < * krede-dō).
Selected Writings of Edward Sapir. University of California Press, 1968 p.227

So Sapir is also distinguishing *kred and *kṛd (> kerd). Jonathan Slocum's PIE Etyma List records two roots: kered- and kred-, but they both mean heart and the list of cognates or reflexes does not distinguish between them.

Sanskrit roots with initial /h/ are very often degraded from /dh/ or /gh/. Sometimes this becomes obvious. For example in the root √han 'to strike' The present tense 3rd person singular is hanti, but the 3rd person plural is ghnanti. Similarly we find the perfect jaghāna, a past participle ghāta (also hata). (cf my comments on the word saṅgha). So we can deduce from this that √han must originally be from *√ghan. In other roots the archaic forms don't survive. So on face value the idea that hṛd might represent an archaic *ǵʰrd- is not outrageous. However I can't find a root *ǵʰrd- in any PIE etyma list I have access to. Nor does any root that I can find seem to fit the bill.

Words related to either hṛd or śrad are few and far between in Sanskrit. If hṛd were a separate root we might expect a word hrada, and we do find such a word, but it means "a deep pool" and it seems to be connected to the root √hlād or √hlad 'refresh', which has only sporadic use. In India there is a regular confusion of l and r. In fact on the Asoka pillars the word for king is lāja not rāja. Both words have a specific domain beyond which they have little use: hṛd, hṛdaya 'heart'; hṛdya 'in or of the heart; charming etc'. Versus śraddhā 'faith', śrāddha 'faithful, funeral rite'. We do see some variants on √dhā used with śradśrad-dadhānaśrad-dhayitaśrad-dhitaśrad-dheya but the sense stays the same. 


Sound changes cannot happen at random. And yet the change from /k/ to /s/ is counter intuitive. It is logical however. The steps to get the other sounds look like this (as best I can tell):

/k̑/ > /k/ involves a moving the tongue back slightly in the mouth. Allowing some air past the tongue gives /kh/ and dropping the stop altogether leaves us with /h/. The same change starting from /k̑/ > /h/ > /ś/. Voicing /ś/ gives /z/ and moving the tongue a little forward and dropping the aspiration gives /s/. 

We've already seen how ar can alternate with ra with no change in sense. And lastly we have to allow for a vowel to interpose between two consonants. Describing all the vowel changes would extend this essay too much, but one can work through the logic of that as well. We've now described how one root with a weakest grade *kṛd and strong grades kred or kerd, could produce all the many variants by the application of simple rules that are anchored in how the tongue moves in the mouth to produce vocal sounds. With this particular word the sense of it has remained remarkably stable - all the different languages understand this word to mean "heart".

So can we now say any more about Sanskrit hṛd/śrad? Looking at the IE cognates it seems that only Sanskrit exhibits this alternation of ar and ra. So my suspicion is that Sanskrit has retained this feature of PIE rather more prominently than other languages. Since getting from /h/ to /ś/ is a complex process I conclude that it is less likely than the other option: that either hṛd or śrad is a loan word from another branch of the Indo-European family. Since the expected change is /k̑/ > /ś/ and the Avestan has /z/ it looks like hṛd is a loan word from a closely related language that favoured the change /k̑/ > /h/. This doesn't eliminate the possibility that hṛd comes from a root *ǵʰrd-, just that with the resources at my disposal I cannot find such a root. Since the sense of the word changes so little across time and space, however, it seems less likely that there were two roots.

The point here is not to draw strong conclusions, but to think about how language sounds change over time, and how that change tends to be systematic: e.g. all initial /k̑/ change to /ś/. It is interesting that some of the main distinctions between say Vedic and Avestan, or between Vedic and Pāḷi are just these systemic changes in pronunciation.


Note 7 Sept 2014

According to a chart on wikipedia (I know) Avestan /z/ is a reflex of PIE /ǵ/ and the corresponding Sanskrit reflex is /h/. Thus Skt. hṛd and Av zrad might well come from *ǵʰrd-. And śrad < *ḱred is another root. What is the relationship between *ǵʰrd- and *ḱred? How to square this with cognates in other languages that clearly point to heart < *ḱred?

*ḱm̥tóm, 'hundred' > Vedic Sanskrit: śatám & Later Avestan: satəm 
*ǵʰasto- 'hand' > Skt. hástas & Av. zasta, 

Note 13 Sept 2014
Still looking into this in a desultory way. As well as ablaut (the change in vowel strength) we also see changes in the strength of consonants. The change from unvoiced stop // to voiced stop /ǵ/, as well as the change from stop to fricative /ś/ is an example of lenition or "weakening". *gʰan > han is another example of this phenomenon. The opposite process is fortition. Another type of lenition, called debuccalization is the weakening of final /s/ to /ḥ/ (as in manas > manaḥ).

9 Apr 2017

In a recent discussion on this issue on, German Dziebel wrote:

We know that Lat cre:do, OIr cretid go back to *k'red- attested in Skrt śraddha- and, with an original root shape and a syllabic r, in Lith sirdis, etc. So, we don't need extra proof that there was a palatovelar there. We know it already. We  also have a voiced variant of it attested in hrd/zered, so we only need to understand how this voiced palatovelar got devoiced. We know that *s+D can give *sT in any IE dialect [Siebs's Law], and in Skrt ś can go back to sk- (śardha next to Lith (s)kerdzius). This is what Lubotsky shows. If Skrt ś can go back to sk-, then it can go back to sk'-, too, if comparanda warrants a PIE palatovelar after s-. This is simple logic. For us, to link hrd and śraddha- we just need to postulate 1) *g'herd- > InIr *j'hrd; and 2) *(s)g'herd-/*(s)g'hred- > *sk'red- > *śrad-, and both hrd and śraddha- receive a systematic explanation. I think where I got you confused is in bringing up Lubotsky who described how sk- > ś- in Skrt before a front vowel. He didn't tackle a situation such as śraddha where k' is inherited from PIE and what we need to prove is not the emergence of palatovelar from *sk- but the presence of s- before a palatovelar because it is that s-mobile that we're attributing the devoicing of the palatovelar to.

06 July 2012

Why I am (Still) A Buddhist.

Cairn and flag to celebrate my private ordination,
June 10, 2005. (Cairn ~ 1.5m). In the hills above
the Guhyaloka Retreat Centre, Spain.
(38.620356,-0.186663 looking almost due west.)
GIVEN THE TONE of my blog over the last two years especially, and some of the responses to what I've written, I've been meaning to pause for thought and write something about why I'm still a Buddhist. Glenn Wallis of Speculative Non-Buddhism expressed his enthusiasm for such a project when I mentioned it to him. So here goes, but it might not be what you expect, because the subject is by nature personal rather than impersonal. I've tended to avoid being personal here because it's bitten me in the arse before now, but I can't avoid it today.

In the last couple of years I've been quite busy becoming disenchanted (nibbindata) with traditional Buddhism. I've been analysing and critiquing some of the central doctrines of Buddhism. I did not set out to attack Buddhism, I set out to discover Buddhism in more detail. However on closer examination I found the presentations of Buddhism wanting at every turn, and have been endeavouring to articulate the various problems as I see them.

In the process I have discovered that there are Buddhist fundamentalists who seem to see me as a kind of anti-Buddhist agent provacateur bent on destroying the True Faith. There are also a number of people who feel disappointed with Buddhism for various reasons who have sought to make common cause with me, though I don't find their self-indulgent little revolutions very attractive, and such contacts frequently turn sour when it becomes apparent that I have no intention of sacrificing Buddhism on their bonfire. Then there are the people who have either reinvented Buddhism in their own image, or developed their own special philosophy which peripherally touches on Buddhism, and who want to share it with me, mistaking my critical stance for an openness to every crackpot idea that comes along. After seven years of this I'm a bit jaded, and more likely to give up blogging than I am to give up Buddhism.

I became a Buddhist in 1994, after a bit of shopping around. I've had a more or less life-long interest in psychology and human potential thanks to my mother, Durelle Dean, a true seeker, and until recently a born-again member of a pentecostal church and a missionary working in rural Africa. (She's looking at becoming a Catholic at present!) We get on famously, btw, and I'm about to publish her memoir of her childhood. By the time I went to the Auckland Triratna Centre I was quite clear about what I was looking for. I was looking for a community to belong in. I had toyed with 12-step groups for a couple of years (I'm 20 years sober now), and I'm grateful to my old school friend Gareth Masefield for introducing me to the Steps. It was also Gareth who suggested I try meditation to help with recurrent depression, which I still experience. But why community?

Taupo, looking south.
I grew up in Taupo, New Zealand. A small town in a small country. Technically I'm a hick, as one of my English friends amusingly pointed out to me. I lived in a rough neighbourhood in that hick town, it wasn't East LA, but it was often frightening and sometimes violent. A guy in Taupo, called Geoff Henshaw, had a chemistry set (probably the only one in town) and I became fascinated by science, at which I turned out to be a prodigy, and ended up doing a degree in chemistry. But there's not much scope for being an egghead in hick town, and being good at maths and science had a negative impact on my social circle. Geoff moved on and out of my life after less than a year (and he promptly forgot me as I discovered years later). When I was twelve my family also moved to NZ's largest city, Auckland. Being a pubescent hick in the large and (from my point of view) sophisticated city was no fun, and even the city kids weren't impressed by my knowledge of science. I became more dislocated. Though I met Gareth around that time (also good at science) and had other friends, I did not feel I belonged anywhere. After about four years I found a new friend in Mary Holmes, whose family welcomed all kinds of waifs and strays. Mary's friends were my friends for a while which was both a treat and an education. I even lost my virginity to one of Mary's friends, who is now a senior civil-servant in the NZ government. Going to university to study chemistry meant a new town, and new friends. I loved the classes and labs, but I didn't identify with the science crowd and was still dislocated. I made a few friends, but started to come apart, and depression set in once again. And so it goes. I never quite fit in anywhere.

Allan, Mitch, Lee, Jaimi
Then one year my brother Allan and his wife Lee, living in Australia, decided to go on a road trip, beginning from Melbourne, north through Sydney and Brisbane, up to Darwin and Cairns, down the middle via Uluru and Alice, to Adelaide, and then back to Melbourne. There to start a family (they now have two grown-up kids Jaimi and Mitch). They set off with a caravan and six months of unscheduled time. They'd drive for a bit, find a place to park the caravan, set up their temporary home. But then, since Allan played rugby, they'd head down to the local rugby club and have a few beers with the locals. Sometimes if they were around for the weekend and the local club needed an extra player, Allan would play for them. And they did this for six months the whole way around Australia. Everywhere they went had a place to go to meet like-minded people, with whom they shared a set of values (of a sort) or at least a common interest. If you play sport in the Australia or New Zealand you need never be lonely. Needless to say I didn't play sport.

Hearing about my brother's experience I realised that there was something missing in my life. This was the late eighties and in Auckland there were lots of choices. Durelle was involved in all sorts of things, but latterly Sahaja Yoga. I was reading Robert Bly, Sam Keen, James Hillman, Jung, and chanting oṃ namaḥ śivāya with the yogis occasionally (I always did like a sing-along). I 12-stepped for a while, but didn't find the community vibe I was looking for. If the Alexander Technique people had had a community in NZ at that time I might have gotten involved in that. But they didn't and the nearest training centre was in Australia and it was very expensive! But through my Alexander Technique teacher, Peter Grunwald, I heard about a big men's gathering over a long weekend on the theme of male archetypes, so I headed off to that. We did drumming in the woods, trust games, and a sweat lodge and all that stuff. It was fantastic! And afterwards I got an invite to join a regular men's group which I attended for a while. In the end I felt it was too small scale, and did not constitute a community. It was what I did on Thursdays evenings. I'm grateful to Trevor Johnston (founder of Bean Supreme) for his inspired leadership of that group, and for making meditation sound attractive, but I moved on.

And so to the Buddhist centre to see if meditation might help with depression. It was almost immediately obvious that the Auckland Buddhist Centre was what I had been looking for. I was greeted by Guhyaprabhā, the class leader. We don't really have publicity seeking famous teachers in our movement, so in all likelihood you've never heard of Guhyaprabhā. A really beautiful woman in many ways, with a good mind, and an adept meditator. She taught me the basics of meditation, but even more she and her team showed me that I had been looking for a spiritual community, and that I had found it. Guhyaprabhā now also lives in Cambridge and remains a dear friend. After 10 weeks I was already eager for more, and immediately signed up for the next class. The leader of that course, Guhyasiddhi, also became a lifelong friend. I felt at home at the ABC. As well as finding a bunch of people to hang with, I was discovering that a lot of the New Age 'wisdom' I'd been hearing for years had been recycled from Buddhism. I felt I was getting information from source. Given that I was unhappy a lot of the time I was interested in what Buddhism had to say about this, and it did, and does make sense to me.

Those were some of the happiest times of my life. Difficulties followed as they always do with people: more depression; a broken marriage; bad advice from amateur Buddhist psychologists; and friends who betrayed me for stupid reasons. My first retreat was a mix. In the deep end I loved the long meditations and weird rituals, but it was also a time of anxiety and it was a few years before I could let go and enjoy retreating. I usually had some kind of crisis for the first dozen or so (and thereby became notorious). But almost two decades later, looking back, some of the peak moments of my life have been lived on retreat. Various pics from retreats are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Other stand out connections: Nityajyoti in Wellington, and his seat of the pants classes with me flying alongside and making tea. Sona who came from the UK to lead two week ordination training retreats, and is so very kind and helpful, Very direct at times as well, which is rare in an Englishman. I found other mentors who offered friendship and kindness. All of them are down to earth and do not require special treatment or artificial reverence. I met my dear friend Peter Willis through Gareth initially, but then he started coming to the centre and we started playing music together, and through music found a deep friendship. I miss Peter very much. I also met Victoria Chammanee who I immediately fell in love with, which might have complicated things, but we managed to sustain a friendship with that is one of the most important relationships in both of our lives.

Jayagupta & me with our
private preceptor, Nāgabodhi (centre)
freshly ordained 13 June 2005.
And then there's Nāgabodhi. We made friends comparing insomnia experiences at a place called Ngati Awa, on the Kapiti Coast about 16 or 17 years ago. He's amazing. Always laughing, but capable of great seriousness as well. Always caring and concerned. Always encouraging, but testing to see if there's options I need to consider (I could have saved myself considerable misery by more carefully considering his questions in 1998!). When he and I did my private ordination ceremony together, and he gave me my initiation and my Buddhist name, I felt so loved and so loving. It was a time of intense joy, and a highlight of my life. The ordination courses was four months on retreat, a shitload of meditation, and making more friends. I understood things up in those mountains in Spain, late at night, pacing around in the dark under the brilliant stars, that made my whole life makes sense. For the first time I saw the 'logic' of my life. These are not the traditional insights of Buddhism, but they were the insights I needed to have. And I came back as Jayarava (Cry of Victory). I love my name. I associate it with the joy and happiness of my ordination, and a sense of spiritual rebirth I had on the ordination course. I use my birth name for legal purposes still, but it's not me any longer. I left that guy in the mountains.

I moved to Cambridge in 2002, and was ordained in 2005. I've been living with Buddhists, working with Buddhists; all my friends are Buddhists. I've been going on retreats, courses, weekends, gatherings, seminars (all paid for by my Buddhist employer as part of an innovative remuneration package).  I found friends in Satyapriya, Vidyavajra, Gambhiraḍāka, Śākyakumara, Emma, Sanghaketu, Dhīvan, Amanda (and many others). I live with Nāgavīra and Jayasiddhi, one of a dozen Buddhist communities in Cambridge. Dozens of people have passed through our semi-monastic home, from Holland, Venezuela, Portugal, Spain, Australia, Mexico, England and New Zealand. It's had its ups and downs but has been very rich, and I have few regrets. This is my life now, though I hope one day to go back to New Zealand as, like the Māori people, I feel that the landmarks of my birthplace--Tauhara, Waikato, Taupō-nui-a-tia, Aratiatia, Kaingaroa, Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe, Tongariro, Kaimanawa, Uruwera--are part of my genealogy.

Not long after ordination I went on a retreat focussed on White Tārā. I didn't know anyone there, but as we sat together, sang mantras and praises together, cooked and ate meals together, all in spirit of kindness and friendship based on shared values, a connection emerged that epitomises for me why I'm a Buddhist. Being a member of this community opens up the possibility of deep communication and friendship that I have never experienced in any other context.

I've been chronically ill for the last few years and often get a bit out of touch with my local community. When times are tough I hunker down writing, or go to the Cambridge University library, or I get sucked into the internet. But I recently went to a farewell do for a colleague, who for 15 years had dedicated himself to helping at the Cambridge Triratna Centre, doing everything from designing the website, to cleaning, and leading classes. Vajrapriya is doing some shorter retreats--a week here, a month there--before setting off to Spain for a year on retreat in 2013. The thing is that there was so much warmth and love in the room. About 70 people all wishing him well, and celebrating his positive qualities, telling anecdotes. And I felt good being part of that. Was it intellectually rigorous? Not hardly. But it was all very warmly human, and I felt at home amongst these people, and I'm happy to sort out the metaphysics later. Indeed the combination of human relationships like this, and intellectually sorting our the metaphysics is just about perfect for me.

I'm grateful for our community. I feel sorry for people who don't have what I have. Though I'm so critical, I actually find a ready audience amongst my peers. Many of us have similar concerns. Our community has its share of ideologues, but because we constitute a practice community rather than a faith community we can carry quite a lot of intellectual dissent. And we do. I see saṅgha as essential to the process of growth and change. No doubt groups have their downsides, but humans are social monkeys, and we're actually worse off alone. Parasocial relationships: soap operas, celebrities, teachers, blogs, forums, all the modern ersatz communities, are no substitute for getting into relationship with people. Ethics is really only empathetic relationships, nothing more, but nothing less. You can't practice outside of human relationships.

Of course I see that I fell in love, and my critique of falling in love applies to me as much as anyone. "Naivety demands betrayal" according to Robert Bly, though he may have been quoting James Hillman. And I have been betrayed at times. But losing naivety is not a bad thing. In being betrayed I've grown. Better to be betrayed by friends than enemies I suppose, as the long term consequences are usually less severe. I suppose my friends and enemies would be quick to point out I've done my share of betraying (I claim to be a Buddhist, not a saint). I didn't fall in love with Buddhist ideas until later. I was first and foremost a saddhānusarin. I fell in love with the reality of people living and working together with a set of shared values and common goals, and very obviously benefiting from it. Today I might grumble that we are too idealistic, but better that than too cynical. For all the iconoclasm in my blog it's actually a small part of my life.

Of course now I find myself deep in a critical inquiry into Buddhist ideas, the work of a dhammānusarin. The ground work was laid by studying Saṅgharakṣita who remains something of an enigma to me. I'm really very grateful to him, and love him; I'm inspired by his life; and find him frustrating at the same time. He's very kind and friendly in person. Unfailingly so, I believe, whatever is said about him on the internet. I am a Saṅgharakṣitarite Buddhist at heart. He encouraged me to really think about Buddhism in the first place, not to have blind faith, and our correspondence (such as it is) on my recent ideas to date has been encouraging. I don't think just any kind of Buddhism would suit me, and I've no intention of leaving the Triratna Order. I doubt many movements would put up with me slaughtering their sacred cows for long. I have no real interest in Secular Buddhism, though some secular Buddhists were interested in me for a while.

More recently I'm very grateful to Richard Gombrich who has been quite generous over the years, without ever being under any obligation to be so. His Numata Lectures in 2006-7 (that subsequently became What the Buddha Thought) caused a revolution in how I thought about and approached the practice of Buddhism. You can see the change in my blog from around that time. And that lead me to his student Sue Hamilton. I think it's fair to day that Sue is not a great writer, but the ideas she wrote about now saturate my thinking. It was Sue that woke me up to Buddhism being about experience rather than reality. She's not working in the field any more, but graciously responded when I wrote to her. I feel I've developed her ideas in my own way. Many of the scholars I've bugged with my questions have responded, usually positively. I'm grateful to Satyanandi (Fellow of Trinity College) for writing a letter of introduction for me to get a Cambridge University Library reader's card, my most precious possession.

Anyone expecting an intellectual defence of Buddhism from me might be puzzled by what I've written so far. If you only know me through my writing you might be forgiven for thinking that I am someone who has a fiercely intellectual approach to Buddhism. But really I don't. The intellectual side of things is only my pastime. Here's my definition of 'Buddhism' and 'Buddhist':
  • Buddhism is the stuff that Buddhists do, and the experiences that Buddhists have doing that stuff.
  • One is a Buddhist if one does stuff that other Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists.
Yes, they are circular, and there is a chicken & egg problem for those who like that kind of thing. I'm someone who does stuff that Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists, and therefore I consider myself a Buddhist. I'm still a Buddhist because the experience of doing that stuff is something I value more than solving intellectual problems. Belief seems to have little to do with why I'm a Buddhist, so even my own intellectual critique seems to have little effect on my feeling that I am a Buddhist. Indeed attacking views makes me feel more of a Buddhist, and my intellectual understanding of the dynamics of experience have resulted in quite strong faith in our methods.

I'm bored by intellectuals who carp from the sidelines, who are not involved in a Buddhist community and have never engaged in any Buddhist practice, but feel confident to comment on Buddhism. Like armchair sports fans, or vicarious travellers it's possible to become very knowledgeable but still to have no sense of what it feels like to kick a ball into a goal, or arrive in a new country. Intellectuals, especially the armchair variety, seem to get caught up in definitions; in what we are supposed to believe or think. They mistake the map for the territory. They are convinced that thinking is the most important thing because it's what they like doing and what they are good at. However most of the important phenomena of Buddhism are felt rather than thought. Buddhism is all about experience. Thinking about Buddhism in the absence of any experience of Buddhism is just having a wank. We all enjoy a wank, but let's not pretend it's anything more than it is. Or perhaps, if that offends, we could paraphrase Frank Zappa, and say "thinking about Buddhism is like dancing about architecture".

What people say they believe is far less important to me than what they do and how they behave, which is a far better indication of what they really value. It's also how I know I have anything important in common with them. Some of the kindest, most empathetic people I know are not great intellects (no disrespect intended). Bad philosophers can still be good human beings (and good Buddhists). They often make far better friends. It's all very well being able to have a good argument with someone, but when the chips are down I want a friend who is loyal, empathetic, kind, and practical; I want a community who'll support me. I don't give a fig for the professed beliefs of the Amish, but if my barn burned down I'd surely love it if the community showed up and made an event out of building a new one together. The fact that we generally don't behave like this seems like a malaise to me. I happen to like the vibe in my Buddhist community, and I like the experience of practising Buddhism. I've watched many people be transformed by our practices and it still gives me a buzz watching friends striving to be better people, and succeeding in whatever degree. I've also watched the internet chatter about Buddhism over many years, and come to the conclusion that it has little to offer. Text is not really suited to mediating human interactions, or communicating values. Realising this I stopped doing forums and started writing longer more considered essays instead. Comments on my blog have only reinforced my perceptions about internet interactions generally. On the whole they've not worth much. Better one hour spent talking to a real person than a 1000 hours spent online.

It is no doubt fun to exercise one's intellect. I love writing the stuff I do and spend hours doing it. But I also like solving killer sudoku puzzles. The most important thing is human relationships, which have to be lived rather than solved by logic. I suspect that it's more important to be able to have a laugh at yourself than to understand the metaphysics of Kant, or the phenomenology of Heidegger (perhaps because I can only do the first). Such things are for the intellectual elite. Certainly I admire people who can cope with that level of intellectual activity, but if I had to choose I'd rather share a good joke with someone than share a philosophical insight. Not that thinking is totally unimportant, just less important. I don't think I can be fairly accused of not thinking. Sharing ideas can be stimulating and interesting, but sharing a laugh is to experience a wordless and deeply satisfying sense of connection and empathetic resonance. And explaining the joke kills it. I discovered today that this opinion is not original.
The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians — and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent. 
Henry Menken. "Critical Note" in "Clinical Notes" in The American Mercury (January 1924), also in Prejudices, Fourth Series (1924) [My emphasis] Via Wikiquotes.

So, I still do the stuff that Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists, and I enjoy the experience. Which is what makes me a Buddhist. Yes, their are flaws in Buddhism and in Buddhists, but perfection is a myth. There are no perfect human communities, but at least our community is striving individually and collectively to improve itself. It's all very well being a critic, but I'll finish with the words of Jean Sibelius:
"Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."

22 June 2012

Why Do Fools Fall in Love?

WHEN I BECAME A BUDDHIST I was initially attracted by the fellowship of the people and the promise of becoming a better person. I also found attractive the idea that Buddhism did not require blind faith, though it's obvious to me now that Buddhism does in fact strongly suggest, if not actually require, blind faith.

Apropos faith I recently participated in quite an interesting discussion on Glenn Wallis's blog Speculative Non-Buddhism. Responding particularly to something written by Stephen Bachelor, but also from general observations of the Secular Buddhist online groups, Glenn outlined five articles of faith he could see in so-called Secular Buddhist discourse. These articles of faith, he suggested, showed that Secular Buddhism is not secular at all, it is another variety of what he styles 'x-Buddhism'.

Secular Buddhists (including Ted Meissner who might well have invented the term; and is now Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association) chimed in that they did not recognise Glenn's portrayal of them, but on the whole they missed the point of his meta-analysis of their discourse. Sadly it did not attract a response from Bachelor himself. Whatever we make of secular Buddhism, Glenn's articles of faith are interesting and I would like to discuss them in light of my own ideas.

Buddhist Articles of Faith
  1. Transcendental Dharma: The dharma—that unity of unique and timeless truths uttered by the enlightened Buddha—addresses and resolves our 'ultimate concern' as human being.
  2. The Buddha: the human source of this timeless dharmic clarification of the great matter of life and death.
  3. Special Teachings: both exigent and unique. "For, all four [Noble Truths] have been articulated throughout history, and continue to be formulated and developed, in ways far more sophisticated, hence appropriate to a modern audience, than Buddhism’s ancient, ascetically-driven versions."
  4. The Principle of Sufficient Buddhism: The Dharma as Theory of Everything, with no need for input from any other domain of knowledge.
  5. Ideological Rectitude: Buddhism is "natural, empirical, pragmatic, and in accord with science". The teachings, as the ancient trope has it, are simply how things are. They are phenomenologically obvious. Thus, they posit not matters to be believed but tasks to be done.
This list is intended as a polemic of Secular Buddhism, but I think it has a broader application as a polemic of Buddhist faith generally. I've critiqued the idea of the Dharma as Theory of Everything at some length (See: Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything? Short answer: no it isn't). But some new ideas occurred to me as a result of thinking about the problem in the light of my essay on the interactions between reason and emotion, and the idea of embodied cognition (Facts and Feelings) and I began to articulate them in comments on Glenn's blog. I've gathered the threads together in this essay and tried to flesh them out.

I think we translate the word saddhā (Skt. śraddhā) as 'faith' because this is the standard English translation of the Latin 'credo', which probably comes from the same PIE root and is conventionally understood to mean 'I believe'. However, in practice saddhā has little in common with credo. I've explored the notion of saddhā before, but now I want to put forward a new interpretation. Recall that saddhā is typically tathāgate saddhaṃ, which is conventionally translated as 'faith in the tathāgata'. It arises after hearing the Buddha talking about the Dharma. It's widely known that saddhā comes from sad 'heart' (Skt. śrad = hṛd < PIE *kred > Latin cred; the śrad form is more closely related to Iranian forms, and only used in this context), and the verb dhā 'to place'. Saddhā then is 'what we give our heart to'; or as I am now suggesting what we fall in love with. This is very far from being an intellectual position or a mere statement of belief. Saddhā has an erotic charge to it (using eros in the Jungian rather than the Freudian sense). The Pāli texts, I suggest, do actually talk about saddhā as if people fall in love with the Buddha. And why not? He is always portrayed as supernaturally beautiful and extraordinarily charismatic. In Indian religious terms this feeling is also called bhakti 'devotion, love, worship', and one who feels it is a bhaktin. Once a disciple gets some fruit from their practice they experience avecca-pasāda 'definite clarity', i.e. they know from personal experience what the practice does. The first fruit traditionally being described as stream-entry (sotāpanna), after which one can say "I know, I see" (janāmi passāmi) And this knowledge replaces the superficial feelings of saddhā with something more grounded. One can now continue under one's own steam. Although the word is typically used in another way, we could call this śakti 'capability, power, strength', and one possessing it a śaktin.

Probably most Western Buddhists initially fell in love with some aspect of Buddhism. When we fall in love we experience fascination with the beloved, a desire to be in their presence, to exclude others, and anxiety when apart. Another word for this is passion, the flooding of our system with strong emotions that alter the way we think and act (in my terms: that change the salience of information). The metaphor flooding is appropriate because the alteration in our faculties is paralleled by our endocrine system flooding our bloodstream with hormones. Love has been likened to a drug and to madness; and is often described as a sickness. Like drugs, love feels great, but often has unintended consequences. Under some circumstances, e.g. in a religion, we make common cause with people who share our passion and feel a sense of solidarity. Of course falling in love with Buddhism is complex because it involves relationships with teachers (whom we also fall in love with) and with communities of people. Often people seem to come to Buddhism on the back of some trauma or tragedy, and are looking for a solution to some problem. I don't want to reduce the phenomena of becoming a Buddhist, only to focus on an aspect of it for rhetorical purposes.

Most of us remain bhaktins; we fall in love, and we never become independent śaktins. We never stand on our own two feet. We could blame Western culture for this, but I think it is a more general problem for humanity. For example as humans we have become self-domesticated. Domestication induces certain characteristic changes on animals. One of which is a tendency to retain juvenile behaviours, and physical characteristics; the technical term for this is pedomorphosis (see e.g. Gilbert 2010). Compare for instance the domestic dog with the wolf. These two can in fact interbreed producing fertile offspring, which has forced a change in the taxonomy of domestic dogs. They are now considered a subspecies of the wolf, though their physiology and behaviour are very different. Dogs are behaviourally adapted to human society, and will tend to bond with a family, be very much less aggressive (than a wolf), and be more inclined to submissiveness. And we live in a society in which, for example we have to keep a lid on aggression; where some of us find it difficult to grow up and some of us are wilfully immature. I'm beginning to see that, yes, we are social animals, social apes; but also that we are domesticated social apes.

However it comes about, the majority of us, including many of the more prominent Buddhist Teachers, never quite become śaktins; we never experience the fruits that would make us truly independent. We fall in love and do not mature. In talking about Buddhism we often go beyond our personal experience and resort to quoting books and teachers. And I suspect this might also be related to falling in love with an abstraction (or some might say a projection). A real person inevitably disappoints us and even betrays us, so that we lose our naivety. This cannot happen with an abstraction since the relationship is entirely one sided. An abstract ideal always remains aloof. In Buddhism we might say that this abstraction is a true refuge, for example, because it lacks all human weaknesses and so it cannot let us down. While the down side of this obvious it might not be all bad. By projecting the best parts of ourselves onto an idealised anthropomorphic figure we can come into relationship with ourselves at our best, the angels of our better nature. Transference is not always a bad thing as long as there is some way to own the projections at some point. The problem comes when we over identify with the angels and forget about our demons, though Buddhism has a place for them too!

Falling in love also changes the salience of facts; changes the way we view, validate and value information. For religieux the articles of our faith take on so much mass that they almost always tip the balance back towards our belief system. And recall that this process of weighing facts is not intellectual, but primarily emotional: i.e. we experience the value of information as felt emotional responses to it (hence 'gut feeling').

Once Buddhism starts to 'feel right' to us, it changes the salience of other information. In particular we begin to think in terms of the articles of faith outlined by Glenn, and (re)interpret our experience according to the articles of faith in order to find confirmation of the articles. Anything which does not conform or confirm is either reinterpreted (e.g. as symbolic) or rejected. These responses are just abstract versions of the way primate groups deal with strange individuals: adopting or ousting. When someone reblogged my essay Rebirth is Neither Plausible Nor Salient on Reddit a number of the responses were hypercritical of me. They overstated my claims, and characterised me as reprehensible for trying to undermine "those who followed the original teaching of the philosophy" (Reddit). There was no attempt to engage with my ideas, only a clamour of irrational denunciation. In other words they acted just like jealous lovers.

In the Rebirth essay I summed up my understanding of the general dynamic of the belief in an afterlife like this:
  • We believe a priori that self-awareness is not tied to the body...
  • So the idea that 'something' survives death and continues to 'live' seems plausible.
  • The emotional weighting of facts makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable,
  • And since we don't want to believe in death, post-mortem survival seems preferable!
  • We make the leap from preferable to actually true, and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance and been consistent with our other values.
Falling in love with Buddhism, which stipulates an afterlife as another article of faith, also changes the salience of statements about the afterlife; though it is circular because the eschatology of Buddhism is part of what makes it attractive. This makes the third step of the dynamic very much stronger; and powerfully influences us to make the leap described in the fifth step. Add to that the power of peer pressure, and it becomes very difficult for any Buddhist not to believe in rebirth. The feeling of rightness drives the intellectual effort to justify the belief, though such attempts are always flawed in some way. (See my review of Thanissaro's Apologetic for Rebirth).

As I have suggested, falling in love can make us jealous and possessive. This may help to explain why Buddhists are so very jealous of their texts, their lineages and titles, their special words, and their myths and legends, and especially the historical uniqueness of the Buddha and his Dharma. From the very beginning the peaceful and tolerant religion of Buddhism has been openly contemptuous in its treatment of competing religions. A great deal of effort goes into refutation of heterodox views, which suggests a sense of insecurity in the face of competition. It sometimes appears that Buddhists are afraid that the Buddha's sāsana can't stand on it's own merits. At the same time Buddhists have absorbed whatever seems to work from some of those same traditions! For people who repudiated Brahmanical soteriology and made fun of Brahmins, the early Buddhists surely incorporate a disproportionate amount of Brahmanical cosmology. The very word brahman comes to signify anything particularly important to early Buddhists! There's a very powerful contradiction here that I don't think anyone has yet fully understood or explained.

The idea that Buddhists are often playing the jealous lover may help to explain why, in a religion whose central idea seems to be that everything changes, that so many Buddhists are hostile to changes in their belief system. Glenn Wallis quotes Noam Chomsky:
"The system protects itself with indignation against a challenge to deceit in the service of power, and the very idea of subjecting the ideological system to rational inquiry elicits incomprehension or outrage, though it is often masked in other terms."
Buddhists often lack any sense of chronology in their teachings, any kind of historical analysis. I've tried to provide some in my posts about how karma and rebirth have changed over time. The teachings are far from timeless. Indeed the very timelessness of them is an article of faith; and it is obvious to anyone who studies even a little of the history of Buddhist ideas that fundamental doctrines do change. This, however, is not enough to outweigh the transcendental Dharma's status as an article of faith. The gravity of the faith gives the article of that faith much greater salience than it would otherwise have. Which means that it feels right to continue believing it even in the fact of counter-factual evidence. You can't prove something wrong to a believer, because if what you say is contradictory then it is not salient! Historical changes or (mere) human expressions are not salient in relation to a transcendent absolute. This is a metaphysical proposition which is not open to debate, or to evidence one way or another--we either believe it or we don't.

And here is what I see as the crux of the matter. Falling in love changes our evaluation of salience in favour of the beloved. Always. Love is blind. Love is a passion that overcomes reason. Unfortunately this means that most Buddhists are living a fundamental contradiction. On one hand they've adopted a powerful salience-altering ideology which creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop (with internal and environmental vectors) that is incredibly difficult to be free of; and one the other hand it is precisely this kind of world altering view we wish to free ourselves from. Buddhism, as many of us receive it, has the strong potential to be inherently self-defeating. In the oft quoted metaphor from the Aladgadūpama Sutta the Dhamma is a raft which we have to abandon when we reach the other side. Unfortunately for many people the Dhamma becomes a millstone instead, and prevents them from setting off, let alone reaching the other side.

One of primary postulates of Buddhism is that the Buddhism itself is a perfect panacea that endows us with infinite compassion and perfect wisdom. But in real life even the great and good amongst the living are not perfect or immune from vice or, notably, from suffering. The ideology fails to deliver. In a few rare cases where people seem temperamentally (or perhaps genetically) suited to a more ethereal worldview; or it happens by accident e.g. Eckhart Tolle, Ramana Maharshi, Jill Bolte Taylor. 2500 year after the first "fully and perfectly enlightened" human being, the human race, including all the Buddhists of various denominations I've ever met, still suffer. The general failure to deliver has historically caused some Buddhists to adopt an apocalyptic worldview: they see this is a 'dark age' (kāliyuga), and there's nothing we can do except tread water until Maitreya comes in five gazillion years. The long time frame has not prevented a number of sincere and plausible lunatics have come forward to claim the title of living Buddha. Self proclaimed arahants seem to possess something rather less than perfect wisdom and infinite compassion. Despite this notable failure, that we attribute to human weakness and not to wrong information, most of us decide that despite everything Buddhism still "feels right" and persist with it. Surprise, surprise. Failure is simply not salient to a believer. Just as the current global economic depression is not salient to economists. This is not to say that Buddhist practice is not beneficial, because most of the time we do benefit from it. Just not in the way we might hope for, not in that forever life changing blinding flash we read (and talk) about. However, we weave any benefits into our story, and bracket out any difficulties, and thus interpret our experience as confirming Buddhist ideas.

When we're in love with an abstract idea we enter into dialogue with other domains of knowledge only to the extent that it reflects well on our beloved: such as the rather facile and pathetic attempts by Buddhists to invoke quantum mechanics (c.f. Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat); or the appeals to Romantic Poetry (when most Romantics were and are quite morally reprehensible from the point of view of Buddhist morality). Glenn calls this the Principle of Sufficiency. Buddhism can become a box that we cannot think outside of, and don't even want to. This places some severe limitations on us that aren't really helpful. Glenn argues that they are positively harmful, which I will concede can be the case, but I don't think it is universally so.

To summarise, Buddhists are often in love with an abstraction called Buddhism, or with the imagined figure of a Buddha. Falling in love changes our values, and changes the way we assess the salience of information. Love is blind. Passion overwhelms reason. Because we are in love with an abstraction we cannot lose our naïveté in the usual way, through betrayal. As domesticated social primates we have a strong tendency towards paedomorphia, and juvenile behaviour anyway. Love is jealous and protective. Falling in love makes the beloved more beautiful. As such when presented with articles of faith, we are happy to go along with them, and unlikely to be critical if they confirm our opinion of the beloved. Ironically Buddhism can easily become a view (diṭṭhi/dṛṣṭi) that, according to our own rhetoric, traps us in saṃsāra. It's therefore vitally important to identify articles of faith and subject them to the most rigorous intellectual and experiential examination, and be receptive to criticism of them. Most articles of faith are unlikely to survive this process, so we need to be prepared to relinquish them.

The situation is similar to Relativity. Values bend the space in which information is situated; and therefore reason travels in curves near values, and can become captured in orbits. People with strong convictions are caught in an emotional gravity well, and reason in circles about their beliefs. Opinions that matter to us seem to have gravitas. Of course we're all operating in this relativistic cosmos, and no one is free of values or convictions. However falling in love magnifies the value of the beloved enormously, and can leave us happy in our little orbit looking inward, oblivious to the stars. Belief needn't be a black-hole, but leaving orbit requires us to look up and wonder; and it requires concerted effort.


Cited in this essay

Bachelor, Stephen. A Secular Buddhist.

Gilbert, Scott F. (2010) DevBio: a companion to Developmental Biology. (9th ed.). Especially 23.7 'Evolution and Domestication: Selection on Developmental Genes?'.

Thanissaro. 'The Truth of Rebirth and Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice.' Access to Insight. 2012.

Wallis, Glen. 'On the Faith of Secular Buddhists.' Speculative Non-Buddhism. May 2012. 

Update: 24 June. 
Anyone who is unconvinced by the idea that Buddhists have articles of faith, and that it is blind faith should read the Wikipedia entry on Faith in Buddhism while trying to imagine how it might sound to a non-Buddhism. Jargon abounds, but worse the page is full of magical thinking, supernatural entities and forces, and bizarre metaphysical statements. Underlying it all is the notion that Buddhism represents the ultimate truth about the universe (though several different and mutually exclusive versions of the ultimate truth can be found on the page). The authors of the Wikipedia page are plainly deluded, if not delusional. They are incapable of seeing their views except from within a framework in which Buddhist Dogmas represents the ultimate truth. I cannot imagine a better example of the idea of reason in orbit around a belief.

15 July 2011

Faith in What?

teaching Buddha
teaching Buddha
Asian Arts
I'VE BEEN PONDERING FAITH quite a bit recently. I've written a number of times about belief, and then last year was interviewed by Ted Meissner of The Secular Buddhist. Subsequently I joined a discussion group in which we talked about faith and belief; and about secularism and religion. One of our number came up with this aphorism;
Religious Buddhism doesn't convince us;
Secular Buddhism doesn't move us.
This seems to sum up a dilemma faced by modern, Western Buddhists. We often get this dichotomy between faith and reason. In our group we discussed the Kālāma Sutta which I have already written about. [1] It's one of those texts that gets cited far too often and usually for the wrong reasons. One of the negative criteria put forward in this text is:
mā ākāraparivitakkena...
don't use reflecting on signs...
To put it in context, this is saying that we should not decide on what constitutes good and bad behaviour on the basis of ākāraparivitakka, which I translate as 'reflection on signs'. Ākāra is from ā– + √kṛ 'to do, to make' and means 'a way of making; a state or condition; a property, sign; a mode'; while parivitakka derives from takka with prefixes pari– and vi– and means 'thought, reflection', or 'meditation' (in the English sense). Bhikkhus Nyanaponika & Bodhi translate it as 'reflection on reasons' which is not incorrect, but leads to a strange conclusion: that one should not reflect on the reasons for acting ethically. I've discussed the problem a little in my post about the ten negative criteria, but want to return to consider the context a little more.

In the Apaṇṇaka Sutta (MN 60) Gotama asks the Brahmin lay folk he's just met whether they have settled on a teacher in whom they 'have reason to have faith' (ākāravatī saddhā paṭiladdhā) - or perhaps 'have obtained reasoned faith'. Here ākāra is combined with the possessive suffix -vatin so the sense is a faith which possesses (-vant) 'reasons', or perhaps 'signs'. They have not found a teacher and so he gives them an incontrovertible teaching (apaṇṇakadhamma). There's no sense here that reasoning is a bad thing, and the expectation seems to be that people can be expected to have reasoned faith in a teacher.

The task of understanding is not made easier if we then read the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta (MN 47). Here the disciple has faith in the Buddha, which they should explain this way:
Where-ever I approach the Bhagavan, friend, he teaches a dhamma better and better, higher and higher, with dark and light counterparts, and [as a result of] direct knowledge of a certain aspect of that teaching I arrived at the conclusion (niṭṭḥamadama) I found satisfaction (pasīdi) in the teacher (expressed) thus 'the the Bhagavan is perfectly awakened, his dhamma is well taught, and his community on the good path.'
Most Buddhists will tend to talk about faith in the teachings, and indeed much of the discussion on the Kāmāla Sutta, both with my friends and in published work, revolves around the content of the teaching. Here, although his good teaching is certainly a positive criteria, saddhā is associated with the teacher, not in the teachings. Note that the Kālāmas ask "who is telling the truth?", not "what is the truth?" The Kālāmas are apparently not seeking independence, only guidance on which teacher to have faith in. Here in the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta we see that one firstly has faith in the teacher. Likewise the culmination of the Kālāma Sutta is the act of going for refuge to the Buddha by the Kālāmas - i.e. they place their confidence in him. The worldview of the texts is one in which not having a teacher is almost inconceivable, hence the magnitude of Gotama's achievement.

This same theme is repeated elsewhere. In the Karandaka Sutta (MN 51), the Mahānāma Sutta (AN 6.10 & AN 11.12), and the Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) one develops confirmed confidence (aveccapassāda) in the Buddha after hearing a Dhamma talk. It seems to me that the one thing that faith does not require, in these texts, is practice or experience. Faith arises merely upon hearing the Buddha speak. Elsewhere in the Vīmaṃsaka Sutta it says that faith should also be 'rooted in vision' (dassanamūlikā), a metaphor here for personal knowledge, but this vision also seems to arise upon hearing the Buddhadhamma, not upon practising it.

A number of texts in the Saṃyutta Nikāya refer to faith in the Buddha. For instance:
SN 55.37 (S v.395)
"To what extent, Sir, is a layman endowed with faith (saddhā-sampanna)? Here, Mahānāma, the layman is faithful (saddha), he trusts (saddahati) in the understanding (bodhi) of the tathāgata [as expressed in the Buddha vandana or itipi so gāthā]. To this extent, Mahānāma, the layman is endowed with faith."
This is interesting because it contains the noun (saddhā), the verb (saddahati), and an adjective (saddha) all from the same root. Faith here is faith in bodhi of the Tathāgata. In the Cabbisodhana Sutta (MN 112) we find it explicitly said:
tāhaṃ dhammaṃ sutvā tathāgate saddhaṃ paṭilabhiṃ

Hearing the Dhamma, I gained faith in the Tathāgata.
I have yet to find a text which describes faith, in the sense of saddhā, in anything other than a teacher. So despite the received tradition - and I include here the tradition I received - in the early Buddhist texts faith (saddhā) seems to mean faith in the person, or the personal achievement, of the Buddha.

There is another kind of confidence that arises from personal experience of practice and this is called aveccapasāda. Pasāda is more literally 'clear, bright' and we might translated it as 'clarity', and aveccapasāda as 'definite clarity'. SN 48.44 explicitly contrasts faith in the Buddha, with knowledge gained from personal experience. Sāriputta says he need not rely on faith in the Bhagavan (Na khvāhaṃ ettha, bhante, bhagavato saddhāya gacchāmi) to have faith that the faith faculty has the deathless as it's final goal (saddhindriyaṃ... amatapariyosānaṃ): he knows it for himself.

As I mentioned above there are texts where aveccapasāda is synonymous with saddhā, but more often the two are distinguished. Although this distinction is reasonably clear in the texts, it seems to have been lost in practice. And this has a downstream effect on discussions of faith in Buddhism. There is an over emphasis on what is effectively aveccapasāda (confidence based on personal experience), and a down playing of saddhā (faith in the teacher) as irrelevant. Although we use the term saddhā we do not use it in the same way as the canonical texts do, we tend to mean something more like aveccapasāda.

However this discussion still leaves the problem of how to understand and translate the occurrence of mā ākāraparivitakkena in the Kālāma Sutta. Frankly the only way it makes sense to me is to assume that ākāra here means something other than 'reason', and we do know that the interpretation of signs was practised since monks are banned from doing it in the Brahmajāla Sutta. [2] In various places Buddhaghosa equates ākāra with liṅga and nimitta (e.g. MA 3.38), both of which mean 'a sign'. For instance the clothing, long hair and beard are said to be a sign (ākāra, liṅga, nimitta) of the villager. Perhaps then our little phrase means 'don't go by external appearances', which would also fit the context.

If our morality is unreasoning, then it will likely be unreasonable. Similarly with faith. But in the texts I've cited faith is a quality of relationship between the protagonist and the Buddha. According to traditional compound analysis (in Sanskrit):
śraddhā iti. yatra hṛdayam mama dadhāmi, sā.
'Faith' [means] where I place my heart. [3]
This suggests that we don't place our hearts in things or ideas, but only in another person. For us it could could refer to the relationship between ourselves and our teacher, or perhaps between us and our imaginative connection with the Buddha. The latter, though, leaves us vulnerable to narcissism and hubris since we tend to imagine the Buddha (as Theists imagine God) to be like us, but a bit better.[4] Perhaps what this reinforces is the necessity of contact with a living exemplar of the practices, although even this is no longer a straightforward proposition in the West. So many of us have been more than a little naive about who we trust, and so many of the trusted have proved untrustworthy. And given that many of us convert to Buddhism, having already fallen out of love with Christianity or some other religion, faith is a subject fraught with tensions. We have a naive, romantic view of trust and love, and falling in love. Perhaps this is the fundamental problem - we court betrayal by trusting naively; then being hurt we think we'll find a refuge in ideas (aka The Dharma). I'm quote doubtful about this.


  1. I discussed this three years ago in a post on Persian influences on Indian Buddhism.
  2. See my Visible Mantra blog post on śraddhā, especially the comment by Elisa Freschi a scholar of Sanskrit, and Indian Philosophy.
  3. Since originally publishing this essay I came upon some research which has quantified this phenomenon. Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs. PNAS. Part of the abstract reads: "In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated [brain] areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God’s beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one’s own existing beliefs." Put simply: we appear to believe that God agrees with us. I leave atheists to contemplate what it means for us.

08 July 2011

Rescuing the Dharma from Fundamentalists

Then a miracle occurs
© Sidney Harris
MY TITLE THIS WEEK is taken from a book by Bishop Shelby Spong, who, apart from having a delightfully resonant surname, wrote Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, a book I read long before converting to Buddhism. I no longer recall much about Bishop Spong's opus other than the title, but that phrase has popped into my head a number of times recently as I have been confronted by fundamentalist Buddhists. Surely the phrase 'Buddhist fundamentalist' should be redundant, at least if I am referring to the colloquially pejorative use of fundamentalist, but sadly it is not. Over the years I've met many fundamentalist Buddhists online, but have also met one or two in person.

Buddhists will often tell you that Buddhism is not a religion of blind faith. I think this is at best a misconception. Buddhists take many things on faith, most of them blindly, and many of us have spent a good part of our lives searching for confirmation of those articles of faith, usually without ever finding it. To keep believing, after decades of seeking and not finding, requires a great deal of faith. (Though I should add it's not that we've found nothing at all, just not what we were told to seek) Amongst the articles of faith that characterise Buddhism are beliefs in ideas such as karma, rebirth and nirvāṇa. For many years I myself accepted the notion of some kind of Absolute Reality, some reality above and beyond the one I currently experience - in philosophical terms this kind of thinking is called Idealism. This Absolute Reality has many names: nirvāṇa, dharmakāya, amṛta. Sometimes it is described in terms of paramārthasatya - ultimate truth, or ultimate reality, or Even Ultimate Reality! Talking to Buddhists it rapidly becomes clear that the belief in such views is not supported by personal experience, though personal experiences have been interpreted to fit these dogmas. These truly are articles of faith in the sense of beliefs unsupported by any evidence, only ancient, scriptural testimony. And what's more, when one presumes to question the validity of such beliefs the believer can become upset and even aggressive.

The basic problem of fundamentalism seems to be that if you question the articles of faith, then the faith disappears, and the person is left with nothing. I do not believe that this faith is Buddhism in the first place, or that it harms Buddhism to set aside views, or that we cannot dispense with the Iron Age Indian worldview that underpins traditional Buddhism and the Indic language terminology that comes with it. If Buddhism is not a religion of blind faith (and I am saying that for the majority this is a moot point), then relinquishing articles of faith should present no problems at all.

Because I'm in the habit of reinterpreting scripture, and questioning traditional authorities, I often find that fundamentalists are upset by what I write. For instance some time ago a chap going by the name of 'Namdrol' on the E-Sangha bulletin board, in a discussion of the Theravāda three lifetimes model of the nidāna chain - for which there is no Pāli Canonical authority - declared: "to reject the three lifetimes model is harming the dharma". I mentioned back then that I thought this a fundamentalist view, but was told that the word "fundamentalist" was banned in that forum (along with any reference to the New Kadampa Tradition which was a bit of a give away). E-Sangha died not long afterwards, but not before I realised that online forums, and arguing with strangers on the internet generally, were a waste of my time and started focussing on writing this blog.

When I first discovered the Dharma I fell in love with it. I just took the whole thing on, accepted everything I heard uncritically for a long honeymoon period. When you're in love you don't see the flaws in your lover. I read quite widely, but mostly at the level of popular Buddhism, and certainly nothing very scholarly or critical (in the sense of critical thinking). And I ended up getting into arguments. I've always learned through intellectual disputation, and I wanted to test this new found belief system. But as I got older, and I got interested in Buddhist scholarship, I found myself becoming less sure, more doubtful about what was now more obviously dogma at best, and often rank superstition.

As time has gone on I have come to see that the traditional accounts of Buddhism are not entirely coherent, that certain key terms and concepts are very, very difficult to understand, though talked about incessantly. [1] Indeed some dogmas which seem reasonable at a level of popular simplification, are positively incoherent when considered in detail. At the same time I became more interested in practice and what actually happens because my own experience of doing Buddhist practice was exciting and revealing. I began to have insights into my own character and the dynamics of my personality that I don't think I could have gained except through intensive practice. These insights changed my life, in some cases dramatically, and mostly positively. I don't claim that these were Insights in the technical Buddhist sense, but they were significant breakthroughs for me personally, and as a result I suffer considerably less than I used to, though still a lot more than I would prefer.

Where a dogma is incoherent or inconsistent I think we have a duty to say so. Where history or archaeology is at odds with tradition, we must not sweep it under the carpet. And where the Iron Age Indian world view conflicts with the modern scientific world view then I think we must accept the findings of science and adapt our presentation of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has said something similar [2], though I've found his followers more the usually ready to accept dogma - with one or two exceptions (see e.g. the blog Buddhism Sucks).

I've written a number of posts exploring the philosophical problems of belief in karma and rebirth [3]. Intellectual honesty says that at best we can be agnostic about rebirth, but it's the kind of strict agnosticism associated with the Tooth Fairy (this is cited from Richard Dawkin's book Unweaving the Rainbow). Tooth Fairy agnosticism acknowledges that we cannot know for certain that there is no tooth fairy - after all how would one disprove such a proposition? It would be much easier to disprove the opposite proposition - that the tooth fairy doesn't exist - simply by producing the Tooth Fairy. Equally the Tooth Fairy is not something we need to take seriously, or spend a lot of time agonising over. Rebirth is a pre-scientific afterlife belief with very little to distinguish it from other afterlife beliefs, at least there is no more evidence for or against it than any of the others. The so-called proof of such beliefs is merely that at some time in the past, some people appeared to believe it, though the argument over whether the Buddha himself believed in rebirth continues to bubble away 2500 year later. The same people appear to have believed in gods, demons, and animistic spirits. The same people believed that a person could possess magical powers to fly though the air, hear conversations at a distance, and multiply their body so as to be in many places at once. If we accept rebirth as 'true' then why not all these others things? And of course there are some credulous folk who do believe every story the ancients told as having a basis in fact. They may also believe in bigfoot, the yeti, visitors from another planet living amongst us, that economics will solve the world's problems, and no doubt the tooth fairy. But what people believe is not as important as how they behave as a result of what they believe!

In a recent comment on this blog, one person asked what was left if we stripped away all of the articles of faith. I suggest we are left with some simple propositions. We suffer. We can gain insights into the conditions for, and workings of, suffering, and thereby suffer less (and help those around us to suffer less also). We gain insights into suffering through examining the arising and passing away of suffering. That we suffer is a simple observation, and I do not think any one can argue against this. Sangharakshita has proposed that the Buddha starts with an experience because it cannot be argued with (A Survey of Buddhism, p.145f.). The problem of suffering is not incidental or accidental: suffering is the central problem of Buddhism. I do maintain that there is a distinction between pain and suffering on more or less traditional Buddhist lines, and that suffering is a mental response to physical pain. The early Buddhist tradition was talking about suffering in this sense (c.f. my commentary on the Salla Sutta).

The proposition that we can gain insights into why we suffer, and thereby lessen our suffering, is one I can vouch for from personal experience and without resorting to mysticism, or obscure Indian jargon, or a world-view alien to the one I grew up with. The one article of faith that I maintain is that there is, so far as I can see, no limit to the extent of the insight which is possible; and therefore no limit on the extent to which we can reduce suffering in the world. Pain is inherent to sentient existence, suffering is not. One can be in pain, for instance and be happy. I can see no reason that the insights gained could not make permanent and irreversible changes in the way we perceive pain. After all we've probably all had an experience which has forever changed us.

And what I find is that the methods of Buddhist practice, and even more so the fundamental principles of Buddhist practices, are very conducive to understanding and relieving suffering. There are also methods not traditionally associated with Buddhism - tai chi, yoga, psychotherapy etc - which can help. Clearly the idea that anything that helps is part of 'the method' is one that is very attractive to some, but threatening to the fundamentalist. Fundamentalists are not simply conservative, they don't just resist innovation and change, they are opposed to any change - in direct contradiction of the dictum that everything changes.

In the last year of so I have had a little contact with varieties of so-called 'secular' Buddhist, 'atheist' Buddhists and even 'non-Buddhist' Buddhists, and while I have some sympathy with them I think we differ in some ways. To me religious Buddhism is fine. I have no problem with bells and smells, and devotional practices, or even idol worship. Because my criteria is not ideological or philosophical, it is pragmatic. I think religious Buddhism, with some caveats, is a good thing.

Buddhism has near enemies and far enemies. A near enemy is something we mistake for the true quality, while a far enemy is the polar opposite.

One near enemy of Buddhism is that instead of disinterestedly investigating our minds for insights into suffering, we tendentiously try to prove a dogma, to achieve a certain state, and see every experience in an elaborate sectarian ideological framework. It is a delicious irony that the great figures of Buddhism, from the Buddha onwards, have been the one's that said - "no, my experience does not fit the traditional narratives" and developed their own ways of making sense of the experience of doing Buddhist practices. In this respect I must say I find the new crop of arahants, who appear to confirm the traditional narratives, intriguingly old school.

One of the great problems of Buddhist fundamentalism is the way we Buddhists speak of our beliefs as Reality (always capitalised). Our dogmas are different because they are "the way things are". But are they? How do we know this? The knowledge that our dogmas are Reality, if it comes at all, only comes with Awakening (which we also capitalise). So logically if we are not awakened, we do not know the truth - so why do we believe? The best the unawakened can do is to have faith in the awakened - who ever they are. But few Buddhists really make this distinction, and many argue as if they personally know the truth. I've done this. It seems plausible partly because paṭicca-samuppāda is superficially a theory of cause and effect. Cause and effect is how we experience the world, so a doctrine which proclaims cause and effect must be true. But paṭicca-samuppāda was not originally a doctrine of cause and effect, it was an idea about how the experience of suffering arises, and used the language of conditionality, not of cause and effect. There's no real evidence that the originator(s) of this doctrine intended it to be a theory of cause and effect, let alone a Theory of Everything. And there's every evidence that the Western Intellectual tradition has understood cause and effect for at least as long as the East has - at least since the Buddha's Greek contemporaries, but throughout the intervening period we find quotes to the effect that "everything changes". If cause and effect, or even conditionality, was all the Buddha was talking about then we are all awakened, because in fact this is all rather easy to understand, and is covered in high-school physics. The fact that we do not appear to be awakened, in the sense that we still suffer, suggests very strongly that in focusing on cause and effect we are looking in the wrong place!

When a doctrine is Reality, when it is the Truth, when it is just "how things are", then to question it is not really possible. Indeed to question Reality is seen not merely as heresy, but as insanity. Buddhists will happily tell you that we don't have a sin called heresy; but they are also fond of the apocryphal quotation "all pṛthagjanas are crazy". The pṛthagjanas are you and me, the hoi polloi, the unawakened, and usually this statement includes the people citing it (and after 17 years of looking I've yet to find the source). So if I question the notion of karma, I'm not simply a heretic, I'm not offending anybody (because we Buddhists don't get offended) I'm just expressing my insane "views".

Most of the time this delusion of knowing Reality is actually pretty benign. Buddhists, on the whole, are tolerant of lunatics like me (See the case of the mad monk). Buddhists don't tend to coerce, manipulate, bully or injure unbelievers. It's been known to happen, including amongst our clergy, but it's rare. We are mostly harmless, as one would expect. We spout incomprehensible jargon a lot of the time, and are often a slightly edgy combination of zealous and defensive. But Buddhism, on the whole, is not a cult that is going to damage you. The main problem is confirmation bias -- if you already know what Reality is, you will dismiss everything else.

A far enemy of Buddhism, which we are seeing more and more, is militant nihilistic iconoclasm which strikes down any and all manifestations of religion. Perhaps we need to reflect on why some people are so violently opposed to religion per se - after all religion in some form is a feature of all human cultures, and to hate religion seems to me to be tantamount to hating our humanity. Many people appear to be appalled by their humanity. The sociality, irrationality, emotionality, and fragility of all humans appears to be deeply problematic to some. Is it a symptom of the widespread alienation that characterises the post-industrial world?

Buddhism proceeds by many ways and means to illuminate the way that suffering arises, but the focus is always on the arising and passing away of mental states. I would say that even those who "merely" offer generosity to monks are at least potentially fully participating in this exploration since to be truly generous one must find a deep empathetic connection with another being and give them what they truly need, to make them happy at whatever the cost to ourselves (the very opposite of the philosophy of Ayn Rand which has been so very influential on Wall St and in The City, as well as in Silicon Valley). Poor traditional Buddhists assiduously feeding and caring for monks are in some ways more admirable than middle-class Western Buddhists with desultory meditation practices and still driven by their own selfishness. Though we so often scoff at them as merely 'ethnic Buddhists'.

So, yes, I think we can dispense with the vast bulk of traditional Buddhist narratives, worldviews and terminology, and yet still consider ourselves to be Buddhist if we pursue Buddhist practices. I define a Buddhist in terms of what they do, not what they profess to believe. A Buddhist is someone who explicitly and purposefully pursues some form, any form, of practice whose purpose is ultimately to identify and ameliorate the causes of suffering; and who calls themselves as a Buddhist in the process. The last bit is relatively inconsequential. I personally know Buddhists with beliefs ranging from outright materialism, through the wackiest aliens-amongst-us conspiracy theories, to the most esoteric mysticism, whom I know to be good people, sincerely pursuing a Buddhist path, and even finding some success upon it, at least in the sense of manifesting Buddhist virtues like friendliness and generosity. I also know plenty of people who share values I hold dear, and even express them in virtues I admire, but who have no inclination to call themselves Buddhist.

Karma and rebirth as traditionally taught are just dogmas. Buddhists are afraid that if we dispense with karma and rebirth no one will be moral, and freedom from suffering will not be possible - after all it takes many lifetimes to practice the perfections. Christians expressed a similar fear about the death of God - without God, they said, people will be immoral, and the world will turn to chaos. Are we more or less moral than our 17th century pre-European-Enlightenment forebears? Probably about the same on average. Probably about the same, on average, as individuals anyway, as anyone anywhere, any time. Because morality is not determined by profession of belief. Even the faithful can sin; even the heathen can be moral. To find what makes us moral we need to look deeper than belief and religion. To find out what causes us to suffer we need to look at our own minds, and set aside our preconceived ideas.

Buddhists, of all people, should recognise that our traditions have sprung from centuries of cultural change, that our narratives and doctrines are not "original" and haven't been for more than 2000 years. Buddhists, of all people, have nothing to fear from change, should embrace change, should initiate change. Fundamentalism just seems out of place amongst us.

"What can we take on trust in this uncertain life?
Happiness, greatness,
pride - nothing is secure, nothing keeps."

Euripides (ca. 480 BC – 406 BC), Hecuba. [4]



  1. See for instance: Confessions.
  2. "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview." The New York Times (12 November 2005) [via Wikiquote]
  3. see e.e. Rebirth and the Scientific Method; and Hierarchies of Values.
  4. Note that Euripides's estimated dates coincide exactly with the most recent estimations for the dates of the Buddha.