Showing posts with label Insight. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Insight. Show all posts

01 December 2017

Aṣṭasāhasrikā: Insight and Ongoing Transformation.

We're making slow progress on the Aṣṭa, but both enjoying the process and nutting out some tricky passages. I want to highlight another passage from early on in chapter one. This part of the introduction seems to serve several functions. One of the main functions is that it addresses the perennial Buddhist anxieties over legitimacy and authenticity. The aim of the text here is to establish the principle that what the disciples of the tathāgata say is authentic because it ultimately derives from him. But it also does something more interesting.
1.4.1. atha khalv āyuṣmān subhūtir buddhānubhāvena āyuṣmataḥ śāriputrasya imam eva rūpaṃ cetasaiva cetaḥ-parivitarkam ājñāya āyuṣmantaṃ śāriputram etad avocat – yat kiṃcid āyuṣman śāriputra bhagavataḥ śrāvakā bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti, sa sarvas tathāgatasya puruṣakāro veditavyaḥ | 
Then Elder Subhūti, with the authority of the Buddha, having known the form of the thoughts of Śāriputra with his own mind, said this to Śāriputra: “Elder Śāriputra, whatever the disciples of the Bhagavan say, instruct, teach, draw out, reveal, and illuminate, it is all to be understood as the work of the Tathāgata. 
1.4.2. tatkasya hetoḥ? 
What is the reason? 
1.4.3. yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ, tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti, tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkṛtya dhārayitvā yad yad eva bhāṣante, yad yad eva deśayanti, yad yad eva upadiśanti, yad yad evodīrayanti, yad yad eva [3] prakāśayanti, yad yad eva saṃprakāśayanti, sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham | 
Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata. Training in that instruction of Dharma,  they realise the nature of experience and carry [the realisation] along. Having realised that nature, whatever they speak, whatever they instruct, whatever they teach, whatever they draw out, whatever [3] they reveal, and whatever they illuminate, is all consistent with the nature of experience. 
What I want to focus on here is the sentence 1.4.3 (Chapter 1, Para 4, sentence 3). In this passage there is a series or succession of related phrases using different grammatical forms. 

yo hi tathāgatena dharmo deśitaḥ

"Because of that Dharma taught by the Tathāgata." The tense is past, and the mode is passive as so often occurs with Sanskrit (deśita is a passive past participle). In the traditional guru/chela relationship it is the teacher who is active at this point, and the student is a passive recipient of the teaching. Or more literally the "pointing out", since √diś means "point". Not like modern ideas of education. Guru, as we know, means "heavy", while cela means "cloth or clothes" (though it can also mean the "mere outward appearance", or "slave"). It's not clear how this word came to be used in the sense of "disciple".

Here dharmaḥ appears to mean the teaching of the Buddha. In other words, they adopt a lifestyle and are taught to interact with other people; they are taught meditation techniques, and how to interpret their experiences of meditation in a particular theoretical framework, according to the ancient doctrines of Buddhism.

Note that the Dharma was taught by the tathāgata, the "one in-that-state". This is the basis of the claim to legitimacy of these ideas. Everything that enlightened Buddhists say or do is ultimately traced back to the the ultimate authority in Buddhism, the original tathāgata (though note that what Buddhists mean by this shifts over time).

tatra dharma-deśanāyāṃ śikṣamāṇās

[Edit. Dhīvan has reminded me that here tatra, is a logical connector - it means "with respect to this". A literal translation would be pretty clunky, even for me, so while I think some more about it, I'm going to leave it as is. Also note that the phrase before tatra is singular and after is plural.]

"Training in that teaching of the Dharma." Here the tense has become present and the mode active (via the present active participle). Both the pronoun and the noun are in the locative case. The cognitive metaphor that comes to mind for an English speaker is that the teaching is a container; one trains in it. Almost as though one enters a special room which is set up for the purpose of practice. A virtual environment. Or even an abstract "sacred space". 

Śikṣā can mean learning, study, or training (i.e., both the more cognitive and the more practical elements of learning). The verb √śikṣ is from the desiderative mood of the verb √śāk, "to be able, capable" (whence śākya). So śikṣā reflects a "desire to be capable". So we begin with learning as a passive activity and then proceed with the student or pupil as an active participant, trying to fulfil their desire for competence or capacity.

Incidentally, in early Buddhist texts these two phases have two different outcomes with respect to confidence. The outcome of  the passive phase of learning is faith (saddhā), usually faith in the tathāgata; while the outcome of  active training is perfect clarity (aveccapasāda). So, despite what mainstream Buddhists say, saddhā or śraddhā is precisely the passive faith of the newly converted. It carries us through into training, but is eventually replaced by one's own understanding. Faith is very much the right word for this initial phase of confidence in the teacher. It is blind in the sense that it has not been tested, but not blind in the sense that it cannot be tested.

te tāṃ dharmatāṃ sākṣātkurvanti dhārayanti

And as a result of having been taught and putting it into practice two things happen. One gains personal insight (sākṣātkurvanti) into (the) nature (dharmatā) and one carries it one (dhārayanti). It is not explained here what is meant by dharmatā. But we get this dichotomy that one is taught the Dharma and one realises dharmatā. The - suffix makes an abstract noun. These refer to ideas, qualities, and states that cannot be experienced with the five sense. So in a sense this is saying that by practising the Dharma one has a personal insight into the idea of the Dharma. 

The word I'm translating as "personal insight" is sākṣātkurvanti, a verbal compound sa-ākṣāt + √kṛ. The first part sa-ākṣa means "having eyes"; and is only used in the ablative of cause "from having eyes"; which is taken figuratively to mean "before one's eyes, evidently, in person, etc". And it is combined with a form of the verb √kṛ "do, make". A single word translation might be "realise", but it maintains the connotation of a personal insight. Something that has been seen with one's own eyes, as it were. As we know, seeing is a metaphor for knowing in both English and Sanskrit. "I see" means "I understand" in both languages. 

Of course, with an abstract noun the word must be metaphorical, since abstractions cannot literally be seen. So the student "sees" the nature (dharmatā). A lot of my recent published scholarship has involved infiltrating Sue Hamilton's hermeneutic of experience into interpreting the Prajñāpāramitā literature as also being concerned with experience rather than metaphysics. Hence, I prefer to think of dharmatā referring to the nature of experience. This is exegesis rather than translation, but without the proper interpretative framework (or hermeneutic) a text like the Aṣṭa rapidly becomes incomprehensible. 

However, realisation itself is an experience and thus only fleeting. A true insight will change the "seer", or at least change their perceptions of experience. They may no longer feel any sense of experience being owned, for example - there is a flow of experience for them, but they do not feel it is "my experience" (though it continues to be their experience and no one else's). The verb √dhṛ means "carry, maintain, preserve, practice, undergo." With respect to the mind it can mean "remember". Here we are using the causative form, so the sense is "causing to remember (i.e., memorising)" or "maintenance". 

My reading is that the ongoing effects of the realisation are what is meant here, rather than any reference to remembering. One has an experience of (what we Buddhists call) "insight" and is left with an ongoing change in one's perceptions. What Jeffery Martin calls "on-going non-symbolic experience". 

One of the things that interests me here is that a century or two later, the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra introduces the idea of the dhāraṇī as something to be attained, alongside samādhi. In other words, the bodhisatva, by practising, accumulates a range of samādhi and dhāraṇī. And this use of dhāraṇī has puzzled scholars, because it does not clearly relate to the other uses. I think that this early (and somewhat confusing) use of dhāraṇī might relate to the ongoing nature of the changes wrought by meditation on one's perceptions of experience. Other uses of the word dhāraṇī were tacked onto this basic idea; first as the mnemonic practice in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā—which uses the Gāndhārī alphabet as a reminder of a sequence of words, which in turn form the basis for a series of reflections on śūnyatā); and subsequently as the magic spells chanted for protection. 

I've already noted how the opening sentence of Aṣṭa has some dhāraṇī-like qualities. We see this again here in the sequence: bhāṣante deśayanti upadiśanti udīrayanti prakāśayanti saṃprakāśayanti. Again if we made these nouns, with the -e ending, and added svāhā at the end, it would be indistinguishable from the type of dhāraṇī than began to appear in Mahāyāna texts a few centuries later. And there is evidence from the Chinese texts that the original phrase had just one verb, bhāṣante, and that the synonyms were added later. Another way of looking at these lists over synonyms is that they are a form of auto-commentary. The earliest version simply had bhāṣante "they speak" and then someone elaborated, by adding five synonyms, just in case we didn't get it. On the other hand √bhāṣ "to speak" is one of the most common verbs in Sanskrit, so it hardly needs explanation.

yad yad eva bhāṣante.... sarvaṃ tad dharmatayā aviruddham

Finally, the text concludes that whatever is said—by someone who has been instructed in Dharma, practised it, and realised the idea behind the Dharma (dharmatā) and experienced ongoing shifts in their interpretation of their experience—is consistent with the nature of experience. The text goes on to say a little more about this and justify it, but we have the gist.

Here then is the justification for going beyond the ancient stories and legends of the Buddha. It is because the experience of a personal insight into the nature of experience is common between the Buddha (presuming he existed) and the contemporary teachers who bring new perspectives on the experience and new ways of explaining it. Having had a realisation, it is carried on and informs the teaching of the next generation. 

Of course, not everyone accepted such arguments, but over about five centuries Mahāyāna gradually became the mainstream in Buddhist India and it was Mahāyāna that spread to most of Asia. Even the Theravādins in Sri Lanka flirted with Mahāyāna briefly before purging it and taking a conservative stand on their own stories and commentaries.

This is a text that requires and benefits from a considerable amount of unpacking. And this requires an interpretive framework. It is better to consciously choose a framework, rather than relying on intuition, and it is better to choose one that is fruitful in terms of practical and actionable insights. I think the hermeneutic of experience is the best interpretative framework available to us. I didn't invent it by any means, but as I have applied it over some years now, I find it resolves paradoxes, creates sense from nonsense, and recasts the mystic in pragmatic terms. One of the main things we look for in our literature is suggestions for practice. Metaphysical or mystic interpretations don't give us that. Even if this is not what the authors intended (though I believe it is), it is still the best way to approach any Buddhist text, because it informs approaches to practice that have long been confirmed by experience. 

My final comment is that Conze seems to get almost every sentence wrong in his translation. He obscures more than he reveals. The need for a new, accurate, and reframed translation is urgent. I cannot understand why this text has not been retranslated in the way that, for example, the Pāḷi texts have been retranslated. Of course, nowadays we have a partial Gāndhārī text (dated to ca. 70 CE) and we give a lot more weight to the seven Chinese translations (though not all equally). So, any study of the Pala Dynasty Sanskrit manuscripts would need to be accompanied by parallels from the Gāndhārī and Chinese versions where they shed light. It would be a major undertaking (and is beyond the scope of what I could achieve). 


17 October 2014

Anicca, Dukkha, Anattā

This essay discusses the Aniccavaggo (the Section on Impermanence) in Saṃyutta 35 (Saḷāyatanā the six sense bases) in the fourth book of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN iv.1ff). The key words nibbindati, virajjati and vimuccati mark these passages as relating to the third stage of the Spiral Path, the stage of paññā (Skt prajñā) which I will translate here as "understanding". These texts lay out, in a very accessible way, some important ideas with regard to what Buddhists are seeking to understand. At least for the early Buddhists, understanding has a specific domain and content. 

I'll present my translation the first text of the section (with notes on the 2nd and third which differ only by substituting dukkha and anattan for anicca) and then discuss the texts afterwards. There are 12 texts in this section, but we can easily summarise them because there is considerable repetition with minor variation. Each text is presented with more or less identical wording focussing first on impermanence (anicca), then on disappointment (dukkha), and finally on insubstantiality (anattan); and each of these is repeated from the "subjective" (ajjhatta) and "objective" (bāhira) points of view; and finally with respect to the past, present and future giving twelve variations on the basic text. Only the first text in the section has a tradition nidāna or framing narrative.

1. Ajjhattāniccasuttaṃ ~ 2. Ajjhattadukkhasuttaṃ ~ 3. Ajjhattānattasuttaṃ
The Suttas on Subjective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification. (SN 35: 1-3)
1. Evaṃ me sutaṃ. Ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sāvatthiyaṃ viharati jetavane anāthapiṇḍikassa ārāme. Tatra kho bhagavā bhikkhū āmantesi – ‘‘bhikkhavo’’ti. ‘‘Bhadante’’ti te bhikkhū bhagavato paccassosuṃ. Bhagavā etadavoca –
Thus I heard. One time the Bhagavan was staying in Sāvatthī in the Jeta Grove or Anāthapiṇḍika's park. Right there the Bhagavan addressed the bhikkhus: "bhikkhus!"
"Sir?", the bhikkhus replied.
This is what the Bhagavan said:
‘‘Cakkhuṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Sotaṃ aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… ghānaṃ aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… jivhā aniccā. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Kāyo anicco. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… mano anicco. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. 
The eye is impermanent [2. disappointing; 3. Insubstantial]. What is impermanent is disappointing. What is disappointing cannot be identified with a Self. Of that which cannot be identified with [we say] "It is not mine; I am not this; this is not my Self." Just this is to be seen as it is, with perfect understanding (samma-paññā). The ear is impermanent, etc The nose, etc, The tongue, etc. The body, etc
Evaṃ passaṃ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako cakkhusmimpi nibbindati, sotasmimpi nibbindati, ghānasmimpi nibbindati, jivhāyapi nibbindati, kāyasmimpi nibbindati, manasmimpi nibbindati. Nibbindaṃ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati; vimuttasmiṃ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṃ hoti. ‘Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī’’ti. 
Seeing this way, bhikkhus, the educated insightful disciple, is disenchanted with the eye; disenchanted with the ear, disenchanted with the nose, disenchanted with the tongue, disenchanted with the mind. Being disenchanted they can disentangle themselves. Having disentangled themselves, they are freed. Being free there is the knowledge "I am free". They know: "birth is ended; the religious life is fulfilled; the task is completed; I'll never be reborn."

The other texts in the section are:

4. Bāhirāniccasuttaṃ ~ 5. Bāhiradukkhasutta ~ 6. Bāhirānattasuttaṃ

The Suttas on Objective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.

7. Ajjhattāniccātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 8. Ajjhattadukkhātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 9. Ajjhattānattātītānāgatasuttaṃ

The Suttas on Past and Future Subjective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.

10. Bāhirāniccātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 11. Bāhiradukkhātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 12. Bāhirānattātītānāgatasuttaṃ.

The Suttas on Past and Future Objective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.


I've made the point about the domain of application for paṭiccasamuppāda many times, but not for a while. So to reiterate, these texts confirm the summary found in the Sabba Sutta. The domain of application of paṭiccasamuppāda is the sensory world; that is to say the domain of experience.

Here we focus on the two aspects of sense experience: the "subjective" (internal = ajjhatta) aspect in terms of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind; and the "objective" (external = bāhira) in the sense of forms, sounds, odours, tastes, tactile sensations and mental-activity. This is a relatively unsophisticated view of sensory perception in which the eye does the action of seeing as well as all the processing that we now associate with the brain. The eye passes on the seen to the manas which carries out the other functions, such as naming (saññā) and attraction/repulsion (saṅkhārā), etc. Both subjective and objective aspects of experience are treated identically.

I'm usually wary of the terms subjective and objective for reasons I've spelled out in previous essays (See esp. Subjective & Objective). The term here is purely epistemological. The experience of seeing a form has two aspects: the seen and the seeing. No ontological conclusions can be drawn from this. From the mere experience of seeing a form we cannot know the nature of the form nor of the eye. Where form is defined, it is defined in experiential terms: colour, resistance, shape, texture. In the Buddhist description of experience both form and eye—i.e. both sense object (alambana) and sense faculty (indriya) —are necessary for the arising of sense cognition (viññāna) and the three together give rise to a sensory experience (vedanā "a known", "a datum"). There are no pure forms or ideas as in Plato's account of phenomena and noumena. Indeed noumena are implicitly denied here and elsewhere. 

Later Buddhism insists that the subject/object distinction is just something we impose on experience, an argument which is itself based on deep meditative experience. But even when the distinction is acknowledged, as it is here, there is no difference in treatment, no suggestion of ontological speculation or position taking. Even in form etc., there is nothing in experience to identify with. 

The object of knowing and seeing (ñānadassana), then, is the process of sensory perception. It is not "reality". When we say that we see "things" as they really are (yathābhūta), we do not mean "things" in the the general sense of "everything" (reality) but specifically we mean the things experience. We may choose to generalise this into a Theory of Everything, but this generalisation creates many philosophical problems of the kind that Buddhist philosophers are still arguing about. As a theory of why experience is disappointing the traditional account is still quite workable and based on sound foundations that will make it relevant for the foreseeable future. The rest, the arguments about the nature of reality and all that (all ontological arguments), are already anachronistic and irrelevant. 

It is evametaṃ 'just this' relation to sense experience that is to be seen with perfect understanding (samma-paññā; Skt. samyak-prajñā). In Buddhist jargon, right-view consists in correctly seeing experience as it is. To take this statement in context, we know that a similar analysis is carried out with regard to the khandhas (the factors of experience). So neither the factors of experience, nor the content of experience, nor any aspect of experience, is permanent. And what is impermanent is disappointing; and what is disappointing cannot be our Self. This logic is almost certainly drawn from the Brahmanical sphere. It represents a direct contradiction of the Vedantic ideal of saccidānanda. These are the three characteristics (trilakṣaṇa) of brahman/ātman: being (sat < √as), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ānanda). But we know that the early Buddhists denied that experience has being. In fact neither existence (astitā < √as) nor non-existence (na-astitā) apply to the domain of experience. And because experience is anicca it is dukkha rather than sukkha; sukkha being a synonym for ānanda. Nothing that is dukkha can possibly ātman or brahman. This parallel between Buddhist and Vedantic thought was established by K R Norman (1981). 

The Buddhist analysis blocks identification with any aspect of experience as our essence, self, soul or any enduring entity - which is why I'm suggesting "non-identification" as a translation of anattan (Skt. anātman). If ātman means 'myself' (reflexive pronoun) then an-ātman can be seen as a bahuvrīhi compound: "without a myself", "non-self-referential". Since absolutely every experience is impermanent, disappointing and non-self-referential even if we did have a soul, we'd never have access to knowledge of it, since knowledge is mental and thus an aspect of the experiential domain. If we can know something permanent, then if we do not presently know it, we'll never know it; or if we presently know it, we've always known it and always will. Ignorance of a soul is either impossible or absolute, precisely because the soul is defined as permanent. Thus if we don't know now, we never will. This is the essence of the argument that Nāgārjuna went on to make about dharmas having svabhāva (See Emptiness for Beginners). 

Note also that, though many Buddhists claim that bodhi has no intellectual content, this text and countless others like it, ascribe a very specific content to the experience of vimutti. Firstly one knows that having become disenchanted with the sensory world and losing interest in the froth of the play of thoughts and emotions one has disentangled oneself from it all. We cease to suspend our disbelief in the play of senses and see sense experience as it is (yathābhūta). There is nothing here about seeing reality. And being free from entanglement, free from the automatic moving towards attractive sensations and automatic moving away from repulsive sensations, we know that we are free. Interestingly this is expressed in the first person: vimuttami (i.e. vimuttaṃ asmi) 'I am freed'. But then there are a series of realisations related to the ending of rebirth. Being free from automatic responses one cannot carry out the kind of actions that contribute to rebirth. One is free in the precise sense of being free from rebirth

Those who do not believe in rebirth have yet to propose an alternative understanding of this process of disenchantment and what it signifies. This maybe because so few of the proponents of a no-rebirth (apunabhava) Buddhism have experienced liberation for themselves. We won't have a truly modern Buddhism until we have a number of credible first-hand accounts of liberation in rationalist terms. As far as I know most people who have insight still resort to traditional narratives to describe their experience. This may be because the traditionalists are more motivated to practice with sufficient intensity. 


Norman, K. R.  (1981) 'A Note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama Sutta.' Studies in Indian Philosophy LD Series, 84 – 1981

25 February 2013

Insight, Peak Experience and the Supernatural

It's important to be clear that in critiquing the conceptual explanations of experience, as I did in my essay Thinking it Through, I am not denying experience itself. People have experiences. Clearly people have experiences in very many contexts which fall into the vague category of "mystical" experiences - a sense of boundlessness, feelings of transporting bliss, a sense of connectedness, the loss of a sense of self, apparent separation of the self from the physical body, and so on. I certainly do not deny that people have such experiences. To some extent I've had similar experiences. What I don't do is invoke the supernatural to explain and interpret such experience.

It was reading Thomas Metzinger's account of his out-of-body experiences that finally convinced me that a supernatural explanation is never preferable.  Metzinger realised that although he initially was drawn to a supernatural perspective on his OOBEs that there was a simple (and to both him and me) a preferrable explanation which invoked the way that the sense of self is constructed in the brain by integrating several streams of input. An OOBE occurs when the integration breaks down. It's definitely worth reading his account (especially before commenting!) though the very brief summary in New Scientist Magazine 23 Feb 2013 may suffice. (I recommend getting hold of this issue and reading the articles on self!) I finished reading The Ego Tunnel and I simply did not believe in the supernatural any more. It was a relief. It means there are some things I can't explain yet, but there is no principial problem with that, and in most cases the lack does not affect my daily life. Though not having a satisfactory explanation for a phenomena does often make us uncomfortable - the human mind abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature does. For many people a supernatural explanation is preferable to no explanation, despite the many weaknesses of supernatural explanations.

We are capable of having extra-ordinary experiences. We all have them to some extent. At their highest pitch these experiences are radically transformative. One can't have a mystical experience, it seems, and remain the same. It is a watershed where one realises that there is another mode of experience that is unlike ordinary waking experience in its beauty, peace, happiness; unlike dream awareness in that it is coherent and consistent; unlike unconsciousness in that there is awareness. I think Jill Bolte Taylor does a pretty good job of describing this mode of awareness in her TED talk about her stroke: beautiful, expansive, unifying, inclusive, blissful. She stresses the word beautiful several times. Aldous Huxley coined the phrase "opening the doors of perception" for such experiences based on his experimentation with hallucinogens and they do help us to see our world anew.

Many writers have noted such experiences across the full range human cultures. These experiences seem to be available to any human being. Sometimes they come spontaneously; sometimes they are induced through intense austerities or meditation; and sometimes through the use of hallucinogens. The mystical experiences that result become the touchstones for religieux, even if only vicariously (for a large but unquantified proportion of religieux - my guess would be 99%).

Leading members of my Order have been struggling with how to convey this kind of experience. Recently Dharmacārī Subhuti has been experimenting with different kinds of language. A year ago he  spoke at an Order gathering about numinous experiences, and confused this with a noumenal realm behind experience, and it was a relief to see him abandon this attempt. These terms are loaded with unhelpful connotations. More recently he has suggested that there is something he cumbrously calls a "supra-personal force" (a term associated with sociologist Max Weber, but also used by psychologist Erich Fromm - Subhūti doesn't cite his sources). The "supra-personal force" is experienced as acting from an egoless perspective. Subhūti's prototypical example being the weeks after the death of Dr Ambedkar when Sangharakshita did his bit to rally Ambedkar's supporters and felt as if "something were working through me" (this period of his life is recounted in his memoire In the Sign of the Golden Wheel). At the peak of experience, the ego melts away and we act on the basis of this "supra-personal force" rather than our own will. Any artist who has created something will most likely be able to describe the feeling of something coming through them as they create. When I have experienced this it is as though I was merely a conduit for something which emerged on a canvas for example, and I could view it quite dispassionately because it did not seem to be "mine" and in a way the whole seemed unrelated to my dabbing paint on a particular part of it. The suggestion is that this feeling is analogous to the egolessness experienced by mystics and meditators. Sangharakshita has also modified a commentarial list -- the fivefold niyama aka the five niyamas -- to provide another name for this "supra-personal force", i.e. dhamma-niyama. It's now common for my colleagues to speak of "the Dhamma-Niyama" as we used to speak of "the Absolute" or "the Unconditioned". I'm not necessarily endorsing any of this, by the way, but I do find it interesting that the traditional ways of discussing mystical experiences are being re-invented by my senior colleagues drawing (without acknowledgement) from various modern(ist) forms of discourse.

There are two important facts embedded in the preceding statements: mystical experiences can be induced by massive left-brain strokes; and they can be induced by chemicals. Indeed we know from experiments conducted in labs that strong magnetic fields which disturb brain activity in certain spots also produce similar experiences; and can add epileptic seizures and migraine to the list of triggers. Even the most ardent proponent of the supernatural must grant that these mystical states have a physical correlate in the brain. The brain is always involved in experience and thus always involved in mystical experiences. Whether this is causal or epiphenomenal or something else is not so important to my argument, I merely wish to state that as far as can be determined there is always a cerebral correlate to experience. I'd be willing to reconsider if someone can show me evidence of the counter, i.e. an experience with no brain correlate, but I'm not currently aware of any such evidence. Direct changes in the brain--through injury or drugs--do change perception and/or personality and/or awareness, and the descriptions of such changes are often indistinguishable from descriptions of mystical experiences.

All of these experiences come under the general banner of 'insight' in Buddhism. But it is reasonable to ask: "in-sight in-to what?" The most general answer is that the mystic has insight into the "nature of reality" and the claim is that the mystical experience is somehow more real than other kinds of experience. The idea being that reality is in fact more like a mystic vision and that other kinds of experience is poor substitutes. I suppose it is inevitable that peak experiences change the way we perceive the world. The peak experience seems to expand possibilities, and even opens new fields of endeavour for us. We know from first hand experience that we can be more, and for some that can be very inspiring. And most people are never the same after their mystical experience - it brings a radical shift in perspective. I've know one or two people dissipate their lives in trying to  recreate that peak experience and never quite managing it.

Humans seek out peak experiences is many ways: meditation, drugs, and extreme situations or activities of various sorts. Starvation and painful austerities have often proved popular and effective triggers. People are often willing to risk injury or death in search of a peak experience. And we often dine out on recounting the peak experiences of our lives, or if our lives are very drab we may simply recount the experiences of others. Buddhists with special teachers are prone to the last. It seems that the peak experience defines us in some way. That peak experiences seem more real because they are more intense. Ironically the pursuit of intense experience of any kind merely blunts our sensibilities, which is a consequence of being embodied in an organic feedback system. Either we reach satiation and stop, or if we persist we experience less and less pleasure from our activity and must seek out more intense forms of stimulation. This may be why pain becomes fascinating as an intense experience. As the Buddha said, we mistake the painful for the pleasant.

How we interpret experience, especially peak experience, is heavily culturally determined. We are not free to interpret experience in any old way. We make sense of the world on the basis of some built in concepts such as causality and time (though these are also to some extent culturally determined); and in terms of concepts we learn through our memberships of various groups: family, school, peers, religious groups, etc. So if we have a mystical experience we will understand it in terms of our previously accumulated categories and concepts. Though the experience itself may give us new categories and concepts.

Thus many of my friends have experienced sleep paralysis and all of the creepy sensations involved, but because they live in a house that is supposedly haunted, they describe the experience as involving the ghost(s) of the house. Some are quite convinced they have experienced a disembodied spirit, some are more sceptical but favour the ghost story, and none have been receptive when I point them to the well documented phenomenology of sleep paralysis.

The belief in ghosts or disembodied spirits comes from our pre-scientific past and has persisted through to the present. Ghosts and other entities which survive death are prominent themes in modern literature and film. The ghost belief forms a complex with the prominent stories of the haunted house which is listed in more than one book as "one of the most haunted houses in Britain". The experience of sleep paralysis is certainly unnerving, but why the resistance to the idea that it might just be sleep paralysis? Why does belief persist in the face of plainer, simpler facts? I addressed this in some depth in my essay Facts and Feelings. Beliefs alter the salience of facts so that when we come to weigh things up, certain facts are deemed by us to be more weighty or more important. (Recent research suggests that those with supernatural beleifs find sleep paralysis more distressing - ScienceBlog). Thus the ideas of a ghost outweighs the idea of sleep paralysis for a whole complex of reasons. And not least of which is the impression that being visited by a ghost comes with a certain notoriety and even popularity and everyone wants to hear your story and marvel at your fortitude in dealing with it. Who wants to give that up?

I'm arguing that peak experiences are just like this. We no doubt have experiences. There is no doubting the sincerity of the people who describe these experiences. But for some it is a meeting with god, for others a glimpse into reality, and still others it is non-dualism or egolessness or brahman. There is a clear coherence in the phenomenology of the experiences themselves, but there is no coherence in the phenomenology of the interpretation except in relation to culture. The interpretation is generally in terms of categories we already have.

However sometimes we have experiences for which there are no convenient explanation. In the modern world we cast about, often in popular literature or on the internet, until we find someone or something who can explain what happened. Thus for instance the people who are sincerely convinced that they have been abducted by aliens. Often such inexplicable experiences are what lead us to religion in the first place. Scratch a Buddhist and you often find a trauma.

The sad fact is that however much we pursue such experiences most of us will not have a mystical experience. Even amongst long term meditators (and I know dozens of people who have been meditating for more than two decades) such experiences are relatively rare. Certainly meditation can give us all peak experiences, and I've my share of those, but the mystical or visionary experiences that transform, even radically transform the practitioner are elusive. Most long term meditators are certainly admirable people, but they are refined versions of themselves, rather than egoless or saintly or whatever. For most of us the path produces slow growth and evolution, but not revolution. Personally I mourn the loss of the value placed on cultivating virtues that has come with our societies struggling free of superstition and supernatural religions. I admire people who consciously cultivate virtues such as generosity, harmlessness, contentment, empathy and heightened awareness. So I don't see it as a problem, nor as any great surprise, that most people are not saints.

In my search for better explanations and interpretations I certainly do not mean to devalue the experiences themselves. In some cases my approach does take away the personal kudos attached to an experience like sleep paralysis because my explanation is at first glance more mundane. But only at first glance, because sleep paralysis reveals a fascinating side of our embodied minds and has its own value. It raises all sorts of questions about our embodied minds, and those who explore such questions are producing the most tantalising results.

When I was a youngster (in the 70s) we used to call vanilla ice-cream 'plain'. We'd be asked "Do you want chocolate ice-cream or plain?" As I got older however I began to appreciate that vanilla is a delightful flavour in its own right, and when I first smelt a real vanilla orchid pod I though I had died and gone to heaven. Serrendipitously, in my third-year organic chemistry lab I was handed a vile of white powder and, with no clues, required to identify the compound before the end of the term. So I analysed it (using chemical methods and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and Infra-red spectroscopy) and it turned out to be 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde or vanillin (right) one of the main compounds associated with the smell and taste of vanilla -- artificial vanilla essence is basically an alcoholic solution of methyl- and ethyl-vanillin. If I had a greenhouse I would grow the vanilla orchid. Vanilla ice-cream is my favourite these days. My kind of explanation need not lead to a grey world which lacks meaning. It is not plain compared to the chocolate of the supernatural. My world is full of wonder and colour. Also full of questions to be answered. Life is deeply puzzling. But I no longer feel any need to invoke the supernatural in response to questions and puzzles.