Showing posts with label Meditation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Meditation. Show all posts

07 December 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part III: Applications

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Other Accounts of Emptiness

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

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

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

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

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

Altered Experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perennial Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

17 August 2018

The True History of the Heart Sutra. III

In Part I and Part II of this essay, I laid out a lot of evidence drawn from Chinese sources from the 4th to the 8th century. Most of the evidence is complicated in that it can be interpreted different ways. The received tradition has relied on presenting a partial picture and a single monolithic reading that sustains the status quo of the Buddhist establishment.

Having an esoteric text that can only be understood by masters is a way to engage in what has recently been called "charismatic signalling". Masters display their mastery by commenting on the ineffable as embodied by the Heart Sutra. "Effing the ineffable" as David Chapman has memorably phrased it. The master signals that they have a shaman-like ability to cross the boundaries into the other world and bring back knowledge.

The status quo was disrupted in 1992 by Jan Nattier when she proved that the Heart Sutra was composed in Chinese and the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya was a translation from the Chinese. Nattier has made an inestimable contribution to Buddhism Studies. However, her discovery has been met with ambivalence and rather late, grudging acknowledgement from Western academics and open hostility from some Japanese (who are typically also clergymen).

Given the evidence of the bibliographers and early commentators, there are at least three different narratives that we must now consider: 1) the already discredited received tradition of the Heart Sutra in which Xuanzang translates a text he is given in Sichuan; 2) a version of events in which the Xīnjīng is identified with the shénzhòu texts and is an anonymous digest text; and 3) a version in which the Xīnjīng is a standalone digest text.

The question of the Sanskrit text is secondary to this, since it is a translation of the Xīnjīng. My paper putting this beyond all doubt has been accepted by the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and will appear in November 2018. When we think about what was happening in China at the time and how Buddhist texts were being used, it becomes apparent that the Sanskrit text had a particular role in the history of the Heart Sutra and I will spell this out.

We begin by reviewing the received tradition.

The Received Tradition

The received tradition is that the Heart Sutra was composed in the 3rd or 4th Century, in Sanskrit, in India, and transmitted via the usual routes to China. It may have been in China by 374 CE, but was definitely translated by Kumārajīva (Damingzhoujing; T250) in the early 5th Century and then by Xuanzang (Xīnjīng; T251) in 649 CE. This is complicated by the story of Xuanzang receiving the text in Sichuan from a sick man before travelling to India in 629. Was that text in Chinese or Sanskrit? Each option is problematic.

But the problems go very deep with this narrative. Jan Nattier (1992) has already shown, on the basis of internal evidence, that the Sanskrit text is a translation of the Chinese rather than vice versa. Publications by Matthew Orsborn (writing as Huifeng 2014) and myself (2017, 2018 forthcoming) have confirmed this by showing that the translator at times misread the Chinese text and chose the wrong Sanskrit words and phrases, and that the Sanskrit text contains a number of Chinese idioms that cannot have come from an Indian, Sanskrit-using milieu.

Furthermore, in this three part essay, I have now shown that the Chinese bibliographies do not support this version of events either. Rather, they consistently see the text as having no translator and class it with other digest texts. The Heart Sutra perfectly fits the description of a digest text in that it cites a passage from Chapter 3 of the Dajing (T223) but also uses shorter pericopes from Chapters 19 and 33. 

The received tradition is also historically problematic in the way it portrays Xuanzang in relation to Taizong, Gaozong, and Wu Zetian. The historical evidence frequently contradicts the received tradition and makes it seem highly implausible.

Clearly, this version of the history of the Heart Sutra does not stand even superficial scrutiny. It is surprising how little scrutiny it has received from scholars of Buddhism and how long it has survived as the official story. Many facts, such as the translation date, are cited uncritically even by scholars who should know better.

The Shénzhòu Identity

In the second scenario, a digest text similar (or identical) to the Damingzhoujing was produced soon after Kumārajīva completed his Dajing translation (T223) in 404 CE, although there is no record of this until the Kaiyuan Catalogue of 730 CE. This text circulated, but was completely eclipsed by Xuanzang's translation when it appeared — the first and only time a translation by Xuanzang displaced one by Kumārajīva in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Though the Damingzhoujing exists, and is regarded as canonical, not a single commentary on it is preserved, nor is it mentioned in any other text until the 20th Century.

This early version of the Heart Sutra went by a different name before the Tang Dynasty, i.e., (摩訶)般若波羅蜜神呪 (Móhē)bōrěbōluómì-shénzhòu. Even so, all the extant bibliographies up to the Tang recognise the text as lacking a translator, and most also class it as a digest text (抄經 chāojīng). As such the text was always recorded apart from authentic sutras.

The problem with this scenario is that the shénzhòu texts appear in bibliographies stretching back to Dàoān's catalogue dated 374 CE, as recorded by Sēngyòu in 515 CE. The texts that we take to be the Heart Sutra date from before Kumārajīva's Dajing (T223); however, all the extant Heart Sutra texts cite it.

If the Xīnjīng is, in fact, a continuation of the shénzhòu texts, then we have a fundamental contradiction and the scenario falls apart. If the Xīnjīng is not related to the shénzhòu texts then the shénzhò texts are irrelevant to the history of the Heart Sutra. Either way, this scenario is not viable.

Xīnjīng Standalone

The final scenario is that the shénzhòu texts referred to in pre-Tang catalogues are not the Heart Sutra. The shénzhòu texts do, indeed, predate Kumārajīva's Dajing, but this is not problematic because they are not the Heart Sutra. Hundreds of digest texts (抄經) were produced in early medieval China. It would be more surprising if there were not more than one digest based on Prajñāpāramitā texts which were first translated in China in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries.

In this scenario, the Xīnjīng is a completely new digest of Kumārajīva's Dajing, including a smattering of terms introduced by Xuanzang. As these terms were introduced by Xuanzang after his return from India, the Xīnjīng must have been created after 645 CE. Since the text is carved in stone in 661 CE, we have a maximum window of just 16 years in which it could have been redacted from Kumārajīva's Dajing. Given that it must have taken some time for the popularisation of these new translations, the window narrows towards the later date.

The fly in the ointment is the Damingzhoujing which, by consensus, represents an earlier version by virtue of being closer to the original. However, it was clearly not redacted by Kumārajīva for the many reasons spelled out by Nattier (1992: 184-189). We can add that Kumārajīva was a foreigner and the elegance of his translations is almost entirely due to his working with talented Chinese assistants. The fact is that Kumārajīva is unlikely to have had sufficient command of written Chinese to make a digest sutra in that language, though some of his assistants may have. By the 7th Century, the manuscripts of the Large Sutra and commentary that Kumārajīva's translation group worked from in the 5th Century were unlikely to be extant. Hence the need to travel to India to get more manuscripts. As such, the date of the Damingzhoujing is in doubt. I will advance a new theory about this text below.

Of these three narratives there is only one which is not immediately ruled out by the evidence from the bibliographies. In this view, the Xīnjīng is a relatively late, Chinese-language, digest sutra produced between 645 and 661.

The Chinese/Sanskrit Complex

The Xīnjīng is easily recognised as a digest text if one is aware of the category and is scrutinising the text. I've shown how bibliographers from Sengyou (515 CE) onwards established the criteria for judging authenticity and consistently treated digest texts as inauthentic. Chief amongst the authenticity criteria were a connection to India and attribution to a named translator. This set the scene for making the Xīnjīng, a digest text, into a bone fide sutra. The transformation was achieved by attributing the "translation" of the text to the famous pilgrim and translator, Xuanzang. The first time we actually meet the Xīnjīng, in 661 CE, it is presented as a fully fledged sutra translated by him.

Religieux and scholars alike have uncritically accepted the authenticity of the Heart Sutra based primarily on this association with Xuanzang.

The rest of the information establishing the authenticity of the Heart Sutra dribbled out over quite a long period of time, but is also treated as authentic by scholars. After Xuanzang's death (664 CE), the sutra is officially ascribed to him by the bibliographer, Dàoxuān, in his Nèidiǎn Catalogue (664 CE). The story is elaborated twenty years later in the Biography (688 CE). It depicts a much closer bond to Taizong than seems plausible; and introduces important elements of the backstory such as receiving the text from a sick man and presenting Gaozong with a copy in 656 CE. There seems to be no reference to any of this in secular sources. However, note that all of these events take place during the time that Wu Zetian is either de facto or de jure ruler of China.

Then, in 730, the Kāiyuán Catalogue adds the date of the translation. This date was not noted by either of the catalogues produced in 664, even though one of them was compiled specifically to include translations by Xuanzang. The Kāiyuán Catalogue also introduces us to the Damingzhoujing for the first time.

The problem with relying on Xuanzang to legitimise the text is that his work is very well known. The fact that he does not mention the Heart Sutra or include it in with his Prajñāpāramitā translations is more significant than has been credited. To be credible, the attribution would require some sort of recognition from Xuanzang himself. Instead, he seems to be unaware of the text. The same goes for Kumārajīva and the Damingzhoujing. There are many reasons to be doubtful about these attributions, but the fact that two prolific authors themselves never mention a text they are supposed to have translated should ring alarm bells. Not including the Heart Sutra translation in T220 is effectively a denial by Xuanzang that he did translate it.

We have also seen how the commentaries of Kuījī (ca 664-683) and Woncheuk (ca 664-696) played a role in legitimising the text by taking on its own terms. Kuījī appears to be writing sometime after the death of Xuanzang, since he quotes from T220, but makes no reference to a Sanskrit text. Woncheuk, writing at an unspecified period but possibly after Kuījī, does appear to have a Sanskrit text but does not translate it and does not treat it as wholly authoritative. Both men seem to be aware that they are commenting on a digest text extracted from the Dajing, though there remains some ambiguity to this. Since Kuījī was Xuanzang's successor, he would have had access to a Sanskrit text if one was available, hence it was probably produced after his commentary.

When looking at the history of Buddhism we are frequently asked to believe that the assigning of an author or translator could be an act of humility or homage on the part of the true author. Ancient writers, we are told, credited their teacher, for example, or some other worthy person rather than take credit themselves. It was all quite innocent and "in that culture" they were not bothered by questions of authorship or copyright.

The Chinese bibliographers show that at least some Chinese Buddhist monks did not think this way at all. They were very much concerned with authorship, authenticity and the accurate attribution of texts to authors and translators. They went to a lot of trouble to distinguish authentic translations from inauthentic, and codified different levels of authenticity. It was often the bibliographers who added attributions to anonymous texts based on their research. On the other hand, Robert Buswell has argued that, in the wider Chinese culture of the time, the concerns of the bibliographers were not always shared by other Buddhists. Texts identified by Bibliographers as fake, such as The Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna and the Pseudo-Śūraṃgama Sūtra remained in popular use (on the former see Lai 1975 and the latter see Benn 2009).

Creating a Chinese language digest text for a Chinese audience would not have raised any eyebrows. It was a common practice, though going out of fashion by the beginning of the Tang (in 618) as genuine Buddhist texts began to flood into China. It is a stretch to accept the attempt to pass off a digest as an authentic sutra as quite so innocent. Some digest texts and outright fakes were passed off and were only identified much later, often after modern methods of scholarship emerged. I can find no other case where a Sanskrit text was produced for the purposes of legitimising a Chinese apocryphon.

The Chinese Xīnjīng was already in a rather grey area when, late in the 7th Century, someone produced a Sanskrit translation of it and managed to convince the experts that it was an Indian "original" of which the Xīnjīng is a translation by Xuanzang. And this before Xuanzang was even dead. In an environment in which Buddhism was taught and practiced through the medium of Chinese (hence the importance of translations), and only a handful of people could read Sanskrit, the Sanskrit text served only one purpose; i.e., to make a text of doubtful authenticity seem completely authentic. This seems to go beyond what might be put down as humility or piety by the author. Someone set out to deceive us as to the origins of this text.

Far from being an Indian original, the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya is a deliberate and knowing forgery. The forgery succeeded spectacularly, producing what must be one of the longest running hoaxes in history. By the end of the 7th century the Xīnjīng was incorporated into the Chinese Canon as a translation of an authentic Sanskrit sūtra produced in India. By the eighth century it was joined by the Damingzhoujing, the Amoghavajra transliteration of the Sanskrit text (T256), and two more translations that were from the Sanskrit (T252, T253). More would follow along with the longer version of the text, which possibly was produced in India. The existence of the Sanskrit text blinded everyone to the true history of the Heart Sutra, including the Indian commentators.

Not only is the true history of the Heart Sutra emerging for the first time, but some hard truths about the transmission of Buddhism are coming out also. The romantic ideal of disciples writing down the wise words of the master and transmitting high-fidelity copies of these to far off places is clearly bunk. When cultures assimilate Buddhism, they are not passive. They actively shape the form that Buddhism takes in their society. Buddhism is literally whatever Buddhists say it is.

Who Forged the Hṛdaya?

The Fengshan Stele, dated 661 CE, already attributes the "translation" of the Xīnjīng to Xuanzang. Thus we know that the plot was hatched during Xuanzang's lifetime, but it is very difficult to know what involvement he might have had. Certainly, had he been the translator (of the Sanskrit) we'd have expected him to do a better job of it and to own it. By 660 he was in failing health and he spent the last three years of his life in seclusion with a team translating the Prajñāpāramitā texts that he'd brought from India. Scholars will often reference Xuanzang's strong connection with Prajñāpāramitā, but, in fact, they were the last texts that he translated. His main concern was with texts directly related to Yogācāra.

There is still a lot more painstaking, detailed, forensic examination of relevant material to be conducted and I can only hope that my amateur efforts will stimulate the professionals to come back and look again at the neglected Heart Sutra. We may never be able to establish who pulled off the initial hoax. At the moment, I think it is likely that the forger worked alone since no word of it ever leaked. They managed to deflect attention away from themselves - no one claims responsibility for "finding" the Sanskrit text, for example. The forger had to be a member of the small circle of Chinese monks educated in Sanskrit, but also someone with the authority to pass off a counterfeit manuscript without causing suspicion. The text had to have been physically forged as well and in such a way as other experts were not suspicious. Very few monks of the day would have dealt directly with Indian manuscripts.

Perhaps 60 monks were part of Xuanzang's inner circle of translators and most of their names are lost. Woncheuk, Huili, and Dàoxuān were around at the time, but they seem to have alibis. One suspect stands out as having the means and the opportunity, i.e., Kuījī, Xuanzang's chief student and successor.

However, it is not at all clear what the forger's motivation might have been. Obviously someone wanted us to believe that the Heart Sutra is authentic, but what is gained by this? What does anyone stand to gain by convincing people that the Heart Sutra was composed in India when there are any number of genuine Indian Buddhist texts available, in multiple translations. Identifying the underlying motive for the forgery will be an important step in the process of identifying the culprit. 

This, then, is the true history of the Heart Sutra, or at least as close to it as I have been able to get. Lest it be seen as a wholesale denunciation of the text I will finish by suggesting some reasons that the Heart Sutra should continue to valued by Buddhists.

The Value of the Heart Sutra

When Jan Nattier suggested, with a good deal more politesse than I would have, that the Heart Sutra was a Chinese apocryphon, it caused a minor stir. A few Japanese scholars got angry and soon produced refutations that bring to mind the hysterical response of historians to Wu Zetian. Western Scholars mostly decided to stay out of it. Both Matthew Orsborn and Dan Lusthaus suggested that there might be minor flaws in Nattier's argument (I disagree, but have also suggested my own very minor corrections). That said, Orsborn, then writing as Huifeng (2014), was the first scholar to publish work which took on Nattier's approach and extended it. And by doing so he transformed our understanding of the text. When I appeared on the scene, in 2015 (having started working on the Heart Sutra in 2012), I began by showing that Edward Conze had made errors in editing, translating, and explaining the text. Over the next few years I also explored the evolution of the Heart Sutra and extended Nattier and Orsborn's work on understanding and translating the Chinese text. I've now written more than 40 essays on aspects of the Heart Sutra, and my 5th peer-reviewed article has just been accepted for publication (No.6 is almost finished, and no. 7 will be a formal write up of these notes). All going to plan, a book will follow. I am as qualified as any person, living or dead, to comment on this text.

We now know that the received tradition of the history of the Heart Sutra is bunk. We also know that the standard mystical approaches to the text, the Theosophy inspired gnosticism, are very wide of the mark. Suzuki and Conze might have understood Zen, but they did not understand the Heart Sutra or the long-dead Prajñāpāramitā tradition.

Where does all this leave the text? When Orsborn showed that aprāptitvād "from a state of nonattainment" was, in fact, a mistranslation of a Chinese phrase and ought to have been anupalambhayogena "through the exercise of nonapprehension", he also noted that his discovery shifted the reading from the usual metaphysics and mysticism towards a more realist epistemology. In fact, his discovery is key to understanding the Heart Sutra as a Prajñāpāramitā text and to understanding the Prajñāpāramitā literature as a whole. I have also argued for such an approach, showing that we can read the Heart Sutra using Sue Hamilton's hermeneutic of experience (2017b). My colleague Satyadhana has highlighted connections with Pāli suttas and meditations in the formless spheres (arūpa-āyatanā). Although I have made small original contributions, my work on the Heart Sutra is largely corrective and synthesises the contributions of Nattier, Osborn, Satyadhana, and Hamilton.

“Mediation is not about having experiences, it is about bringing experience to an end.” 
 ‒ Satyapriya

“The Buddha presents a life extinction program, not a life improvement program” 
In this view the text does have magical elements, but it is primarily a perspective on a kind of Buddhist practice that involves withdrawing attention from sense experiences so that one does not apprehend (upa√labh) them. The practice of nonapprehension (anupalambha-yoga) of dharmas is central to the Prajñāpāramitā. Just such a practice of withdrawing attention from sense experience is outlined in the Majjhima-Nikāya (MN 121) and so this material is relevant for early Buddhism enthusiasts as well.

By withdrawing attention from sense experience, using meditative techniques, we can bring sense experience to a halt without losing consciousness. In the ensuing state, the processes which give rise to experience (i.e., the skandhas) are not apprehended. Nor are the objects of the senses. This state feels like being in infinite space. If we also withdraw attention from cognitive experience, then we cease to apprehend thoughts and it feels like infinite consciousness. Through several more refinements that are more difficult to explain, one ends up in the state of emptiness in which there is only a kind of base awareness; one is conscious, but not of anything. Subject and object do not arise. Self does not arise. No dharmas arise in this state. And this is what the Heart Sutra is describing.

That is to say, the Heart Sutra does not deny the existence of dharmas, but notes that in emptiness (śūnyatāyām) no dharmas register in the awareness of the practitioner. And we can say that having been in that state (tathā-gata) one's whole world is changed. The idea that the Heart Sutra is about negation or  non-existence is simply wrong. Despite the fact that negation is at the heart of a lot of Mahāyāna rhetoric, it has nothing to do with the anupalambha-yoga. Far from being profound, the ontological reading of the Heart Sutra is facile. It ends in paradox, and no, that is not a good thing. Paradox in this case represents a level of unhelpful confusion that pervades Buddhist ideology. We have to set aside Nāgārajuna if we ever hope to understand Prajñāpāramitā, because he has disappeared down a metaphysical cul de sac.

The Heart Sutra epitomises the Buddhist project to extinguish sense experience and cognition, but it also reminds us of the credulity of religious Buddhists and the superficiality of most Buddhist philosophy. And this strongly suggests that what Buddhists believe is nowhere near as relevant to success with Buddhist practices as Buddhists say it is. Right-view is something that emerges from  the experience of emptiness, it seems to make no contribution to having the experience. And in this sense, meditation is an equal opportunity practice: it requires no intellectual skill, no philosophy, no education, and no ability to think clearly. It only requires an ability to first direct attention and then withdraw attention.

Fundamentally, Buddhism asks us to orient ourselves away from the kamaloka, to turn away from sense experience as a means to life satisfaction. The Heart Sutra draws mainly on a tradition of attempts to communicate from the ārupaloka. This is not some metaphysical absolute. It is not a paramārtha-satya or ultimate truth. Emptiness is not some alternative reality. It is experiential, though perhaps not in any way that someone intoxicated with sense experience can appreciate.

In conclusion, then, the Heart Sutra is not what we were told it is, but it is exactly what we wish it to be. It is not an Indian, Sanskrit text. It is not a genuine sutra. It is a patchwork of pericopes, stitched together by a 7th Century Chinese monk. However, it does contain an accurate depiction of what we often call the farther shore, the cessation of sensory experience and cognitive experience that results in the radical reorganisation of our psyche away from self-centredness.


  1. Part I (03 August 2018). Bibliographies up to the Tang and early commentaries.
  2. Part II (10 August 2018). The historical background, Xuanzang, and the emergence of the Heart Sutra


Attwood, Jayarava. (2017a). ‘Epithets of the Mantra’ in the Heart Sutra. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 12, 26–57.

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017b). ‘Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13, 52–80.

Attwood, Jayarava. (2018 forthcoming). ‘The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra.’ Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 15. [to be published Nov 2018]

Benn, James A. (2008). 'Another Look at the Pseudo-Śūraṃgama sūtra'. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 68(1), 57-89.

Buswell, Robert E. (1990). 'Introduction: Prolegomenon to the Study of Buddhist Apocryphal Scriptures.' in Robert E. Buswell (ed). Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha. University of Hawai'i Press, p. 1-30.

Eisenberg, Andrew. (2012). Emperor Gaozong, the Rise of Wu Zetian, and factional politics in the Early Tang. Tang Studies 30, 45-69.

Hyun Choo, B. (2006) An English Translation of the Banya paramilda simgyeong chan: Wonch’uk’s Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra). International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture. 6: 121-205.

Jorgensen, John. (2002). 'Representing Wŏnch'ŭk: Meditations on Medieval East Asian Biographies' in Religion and Biography in China and Tibet, edited by Benjamin Penny. Routledge.

Kyoko Tokuno. (1990). 'The Evaluation of Indigenous Scriptures in Chinese Buddhist Bibliographical Catalogues' in Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, edited by Robert E Buswell. University of Hawai'i Press, 31-74.

Lai, Whalen Wai-lun (1975). The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (Ta-ch'eng ch'i-hsin lun): A study of the unfolding of the Sinitic Mahayana Motifs. PhD Thesis, Harvard University.

Nattier, Jan (1992). 'The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223.

Satyadhana. (2014) The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (Cūḷasuññatasutta, Majjhima-nikāya 121): translation and commentary. Western Buddhist Review.

Sen, Tansen. (2003) Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Trade. The Realignment of Sino-Indian Relations 600-1400. Association for Asian Studies; University of Hawai'i Press.

Storch, T. (2014). The History of Chinese Buddhist Bibliography. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press.

Tanahashi, Kazuki. (2014). The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Shambala

25 March 2016

Self, Continuity, and Morality

Buddhists make a big deal about how disadvantaged people are by having the illusion of self. The rhetoric implies that having a sense of self is a severe disability. Since it is axiomatic that it is up to each of us to make progress on the path, it's further hinted that those who still have a sense of self are culpable for their own disability, as though we are simply not making enough effort. I find this a rather unattractive version of Buddhism. To my knowledge, the breakthrough to non-self has always been the preserve of a few who have the temperament for intensive practice and the opportunity to pursue it. No doubt some genetic and environmental factors are also involved, but this only reinforces that it always was and always will be a minority who make that kind of breakthrough. The idea that we all might make this breakthrough is a quaint dream.

On the other hand, this view overlooks the good that people with selves do, the great art that they have created, and the general advancement of humankind from science and technology (better health, longer life, lower infant mortality, less violence, etc). Buddhism implemented on a national scale, on the other hand, has almost always led to repressive, authoritarian politics, rigidly stratified societies, and entrenched privilege, along with poor standards of living, especially for the poor. So if we were looking for ways to save all beings from suffering, or at least reduce suffering for all beings, then the evidence suggests that Buddhist rhetoric is vastly overblown: basic education and healthcare is probably more effective. The eradication of polio has done more for the reduction of suffering in the world than Buddhism ever did.

This kind of discourse which sees self as a a disability is more prevalent now that it was when I became a Buddhist twenty years ago, partly because of the rise in prominence of Advaita Vedanta in Western countries or at least people who employ Vedantin methods of undermining the sense of self. Those who do this, like to refer to it as "Advaita" (non-dual), but I prefer to use Vedanta to keep it clear what kind of religious ideology underpins the methods and worldview associated with the approach. A Vedantin is typically seeking the non-duality between soul and God, two concepts foreign to Buddhism. While self-enquiry seems like a good idea, we also ought to be enquiring into the worldview espoused by Vedantins and asking why the Vedantin who claims to have no self talks about it in such different terms to the Buddhist.

Despite the popularity religious rhetoric around the evils of selfhood I remain deeply suspicious of it. I wrote a few essays on this theme in late 2009, including:
In these essays I expressed some of my doubts about the negative rhetoric around self. I tried to show how vital the development of a healthy ego is. One might, perhaps, transcend one's ego, but the idea that we could develop from scratch as human beings without an ego seems fanciful. A whole raft of behavioural and cognitive problems emerge from the lack of a well-defined sense of self. If the sense of self fails to develop in a person, or is compromised by disease or accident, then (contra the religious narratives) that person really is disabled. However good it might seem to lose your ego as an adult, having no ego to start with is uniformly disastrous. This seems never to be acknowledged or discussed by advocates of non-self.  I've argued that the problems ascribed to "egotism" seem more often to be the result of an under-developed ego rather than too much ego. I've also expressed doubts about the possibility of a functioning morality in the absence of a self (Ethics and Nonself in Relation to the Khandhas, 21 Mar 2014). I want to return to this last theme in this essay.

The different attitudes of Buddhist and psychological models partly relate to different definitions of what is meant by ego or self. Which definition we use is notoriously dependent on context and each context requires us to redefine the word. From the psychological side we may say that without what psychologists call an ego, no social interaction or learning is possible. Without a clear sense of self and other we do not develop empathy, for example. Without empathy we could not be moral because morality requires us to see our actions from another person's point of view and feel what they feel (or at least to imagine how they might feel). We also know that people who have personality disorders or other psychiatric problems can get into real difficulty if they take up meditation, particularly the kinds of meditation that undermine the sense of self. Generally speaking Buddhists have been quite reckless in seeing meditation as a panacea and not cognizant of how mental health problems manifest and how they affect a person's experience of meditation (I addressed this to some extent in my essay  Rumination, the Stress Response, and Meditation, 22 Jan 2016).

So what can Buddhists and Vedantins mean? How can we understand the no-self discourse in the context of contemporary knowledge about the brain and its role in what Westerners call "consciousness". The scare quotes are employed because I'm not sure that there is a cross-over between ancient Indian theories of cognition and modern theories which treat consciousness as an entity rather than a function or process. In other words I am inclined by my Buddhist studies to see consciousness as something we do, rather than something we possess.

Traditionally Buddhists use concrete nouns like "mind" (manas) or "thought" (citta), and action nouns like cognizing (vijñāna) "thinking" and "remembering" (smṛti) but they don't seem to use abstract nouns with respect to the mind. So even if a word like vijñāna can be made to mean "conscious", there is no equivalent abstract noun vijñānatva, no conscious-ness. So there is no abstracted faculty of mind under which concrete functions can be groups. In Buddhists texts the functions of the mind are most often grouped under a concrete noun "citta" rather than an abstract noun. These observations often seem trivial, but they point to a radically different worldview that separates us from the authors of the earliest Buddhist texts. They did not think like us at all.

Another big difference in how early Buddhists and Westerners understand the mind is metaphorical. In an earlier essay I tried to show that the MIND IS A CONTAINER metaphor, which is almost inextricable from the Western understanding of mental phenomena, is absent from Buddhist texts. Pre-modern Buddhist authors did not conceive of cognition as happening in the mind; nor thoughts, memories etc in the mind. Again, rather than being something we have, consciousness seems to be something that we do. For example it's might be phrased that the Buddha dwelled with a particular state of mind (iminā vihārena viharato) not in it.  Hence, I've also argued that where we might be tempted to translate "consciousness" in a Buddhist text, the phrase "mental activity" is almost certainly better (Manomaya: Background to Mind-Made Bodies. 28 Nov 2014).

Since my first forays into this field I have discovered the work of Thomas Metzinger, in which I find a very useful paradigm for thinking about selfhood. For example I wrote Origin of the Idea of the Soul (11 Nov 2011) and First Person Perspective (29 Apr 2011) exploring Metzinger's work and how I think it applies to contemporary Buddhism.

Metzinger draws on work by Antonio Damasio, amongst others, who I also refer to directly. Damasio has put forward the idea that what the brain does, in the first place, is model the internal milieu of the body for the purpose of maintaining optimal conditions for life. The inputs include information about blood pressure, blood sugar levels, hydration, hormone levels, balance and other forms of internal physical senses, and the state of the gut. The brain integrates these internal inputs with information from the senses about the environment and produces behaviour as a result. The view that this is all that the brain does is called Behaviourism. Behaviourism was a briefly popular theory of consciousness in the mid 20th Century. 

In a simple animal like the round-worm C. elegans (see Reflections on Living Things. 13 Nov 2013), Behaviourism may well be a sufficient account of the animal's behaviour. Though in a brain with only 302 neurons, it is still not entirely clear yet how it produces behaviour, and attempts to model the brain in a way that does produce behaviour are in their early stages. In more complex animals with millions or billions of neurons something more sophisticated is going on. As brains become more complex, with layers of organisational sub-units, emergent properties become apparent that cannot be predicted from the physiology of neurons. Sophistication of behaviour is correlated to some extent with brain complexity. Generally speaking more neurons with more connections, correlates to more complex behaviours. Though the relationship also has to take into account what subsystem the neurons are in. Neanderthals for example had significantly bigger and more complex brains than their ancestors, but most of the gain was in the visual cortex not in the neocortex. The increase went to improved eyesight, especially night vision, not to improved cognitive abilities generally. In anatomically modern humans, the gain in complexity was in the neocortex which does correlate with improved cognitive abilities. In particular Robin Dunbar has famously showed that there is a correlation between the ratio of neocortex to the rest of the brain and the size of social group an animal lives in. Out of this research came the famous Dunbar Numbers.

From the mapping of our internal milieu and via emergent properties we get the most basic sense of consciousness that all reptiles, mammals and birds seem to have. At least this seems to be the most plausible explanation. In fact we still do not know much about what consciousness is or how it is created by the brain. But neuroscience is a relatively young science (a few decades) and consciousness is a big problem. Consciousness, as neuroscientists generally conceive of it, is mainly concerned with moving around and seeking food and mates, but also forward thinking, learning from past experience, and social interactions. In some animals and birds the basic level of consciousness is the basis for an even more sophisticated simulation—a sense of being aware of what is happening, of ownership over the actions that result, of having a point of view—in other words a sense of self. Many animals, for example, recognise themselves in a mirror. One of the tests is to surreptitiously paint a dot on the forehead of the animal and see how they respond. The self-aware animal will look in a mirror, see the dot on their forehead, and try to touch their own forehead to feel what is there. 

One of the important findings from recent neuroscience is that when we study the many ways in which our sense of self can be compromised by disease, accident, surgery or even perceptual tricks (such as the rubber hand illusion or the virtual reality) we are led to the conclusion that our sense of self can only be a simulation or what Metzinger calls a virtual self model. If the self were "hardwired", i.e. if there were a definite structure or architecture associated with selfhood, such as there are for say visual processing or memories, this would be inconsistent with what we see in neurology cases.

The evidence also tells us that the sense of self cannot be divorced from the brain. For brain damage to affect the self the way it does, the self and the brain must be intimately associated. Because of this intimate association of the brain and the mind, physics at the mass, energy and length scales relevant to the functioning of the brain can now rule out other forces or types of matter than those already described. Of course other forces and types of matter may and do exist at other scales, but not on this scale. If there were such forces and they could interact with matter at this scale we'd be able to "see" that interaction and describe it. The fact is that we do not see it. And if we do not see it, then it cannot interact with the matter of the brain to play any role in the mind (see There is No Life After Death, Sorry, 23 Jan 2015). So the self and the mind cannot be wholly immaterial either.

We do not need to have all the specifics to draw broad conclusions about the mind and especially that part of the mind which is our sense of being someone, our first-person perspective. Despite the fact that many philosophers wish to hedge their bets, arguing that science is a social construct (or whatever), what we can do with evidence is eliminate certain types of explanations. As intuitive and attractive as other kinds of explanations for mind are, they simply do not explain what has been observed. The two extremes of physical-monism and dualism can be excluded from consideration because they do not generate the right kinds of answers. And this enables us to focus on the type of answers that are at least possible. There are still a range of these, but we do know that only a virtual self of some kind, generated by the brain in some way, fits the facts.

The current best explanation of the known facts is that the brain is creating a simulation of a self, integrating many streams of information into a first-person perspective. No one suggests that we fully understand the workings of the brain or how it generates a sense of self. Indeed some argue that theories of the mind have yet to explain anything. But any theory that eventually does explain the functioning of the mind will certainly not be a kind of physical-monism or involve substance dualism. And thus, for example, studying how neurons and brains work in a physical sense will not only be relevant to the study of the mind, it will be essential.

This is good news for Buddhists. As regular readers will be aware I am rather antipathetic to the idea that modern science confirms ancient wisdom. For example, I think there is no genuine connection between Buddhism and quantum mechanics. As far as I can see, claims to the contrary are bunk based on a superficial understanding of both Buddhism and quantum mechanics. Just because two bodies of knowledge can be counter-intuitive does not mean that they are in any way connected. However, in this case the idea of virtual self is fairly consistent with some Buddhist ideas about selfhood. It is also consistent with the idea that one can, through concentration exercises and reflection, substantially and permanently alter one's perspective on the world of experience to the extent that one no longer relates to it via a sense of self. If the sense of self were wholly immaterial (a ghost in the shell) or material (i.e. "hardwired"), then meditation could have no effect on it; we could not rid ourselves of the sense of being a self through meditation and introspection if self were anything other than a simulation whose parameters we can tweak through how we think.

Morality and Continuity

In 2014 Thomas Metzinger wrote:
"As a philosopher, my conceptual point is that only if an organism simulates itself as being one and the same across time will it be able to represent reward events or the achievement of goals as a fulfillment of its own goals, as happening to the same entity. I like to call this the "Principle of Virtual Identity Formation": Many higher forms of intelligence and adaptive behavior, including risk management, moral cognition and cooperative social behavior, functionally presuppose a self-model that portrays the organism as a single entity that endures over time."
Here Metzinger has put his finger on the crucial point about living things. Living things act in ways that over time seem purposeful. We move towards goals and to some extent towards meta-goals. I'm wary of a teleological argument here. I mean, for example, that we seek out and consume food as a goal. And in anticipation of this we plant crops many months ahead of their ripening, and then store the resulting food, anticipating future need as a meta-goal. I don't mean, for example, that evolution is developing towards a general goal or anything of that nature. Desire, seeking behvaiour, and reward for fulfilling the desire have to be coordinated at some level. If they were not then we would have real difficulty with basic functions like eating and mating.

But crucially moral behaviour requires us to believe that we endure over time. Buddhist teaching on morality openly acknowledges this. The Jātaka stories are all about connecting actions to consequences over time, linking previous lives to present one. Buddhist metaphysics goes out the window at this point, because they disrupt the kind of continuity required for moral behaviour by weakening the links between behaviour in this life and reward in the next (I'll return to this point below). 

If I believe that I will not be the one to achieve the goal, that it will for example only be achieved by my grandchildren, then I am probably less motivated than if I could see an immediate benefit to myself. The classic example of this is the problem of climate change. Even where climate change is admitted to be caused by human activity, the political will to make the necessary changes is lacking, partly because the time scale over which the changes occur are too long for most people's imaginations, i.e. the not only go beyond the electoral cycle, but beyond an individual human life. Almost no one is willing to commit to spending resources on a project that has almost no immediate benefits, but which will make life easier in future centuries. And as frustrating as this is, it can hardly be surprising. We surely know enough about human motivation not to be surprised by this fact.

George Lakoff has described morality as a kind of book keeping exercise (see Moral Metaphors, 8 Nov 2013). Actions create mutual obligations for ourselves and those we have contact with, which may be conceived of as debts. As social animals we are always in debt to our social group, and need to keep track of the debts of the group as a whole. If, for example, food is shared with us a quid pro quo is expected that we might repay in kind or through something of equal value. A social group is held together by a network of these mutual obligations. Where I grew up, people are quite relaxed about taking on social obligations - we make friends easily. In England most people are at pains to avoid any new social obligations, so it's difficult to make friends. English people don't want to be in debt to strangers, though ironically they have amongst the highest levels of financial indebtedness in the world.

Different political ideologies evolve out of the different responses to these debts. In the present political climate of the UK we have a government which on has staked everything on paying back existing national debts (despite 0% interest rates) and not accruing any more debts (which by its own standards it is failing to do). We have an opposition which is confused about how to respond. The Brits are largely a conservative nation and don't like to see the government getting into debt. On the other hand household debt is very high and rising.

What most cultures do is extrapolate from this social model of fairness within the group and propose the idea that the world is fair. This is called the Just World Hypothesis. I've written about this in connection with the afterlife. Since life is patently not fair or just, the afterlife becomes the place of debt settlement. And an afterlife requires a matter/spirit duality to enable something to survive the death of the body. In afterlife theories in which the afterlife destination is determined by morality, the deeds of the deceased are weighed against the law. In the case of ancient Egyptian myth, as recorded in their Book of the Dead, the heart of the dead person is on one side of the balance and an ostrich feather representing the law is on the other. In some religions God does the judging. Being judged is a distinct milestone on the journey to the afterlife in all moralistic religions.

Buddhists tried to skirt this inherent eternalism by proposing that rebirth was governed by the same principle as the arising of vedanā, i.e. that the dying being was a condition for the next living being. But they almost immediate split into factions, each of which developed a different explanation for how this might happen. There was no consensus amongst Buddhists on how rebirth occurred or what it entailed. And no existing explanation survives its encounter with modernity (See The Logic of Karma16 Jan 2015). This is because trying to explain the afterlife by generalising a theory of how mental events are related doesn't work. It reduces the connection between actions and consequences. Hence, historically, Buddhists had to sustain two distinct discourses: one with respect morality (summed up as actions have consequences for me) and another for metaphysics (it is not me, but not another either). But in moral terms, as Buddhists tacitly admit, if it is not me that is game over for morality. The second part of the formula, not another, is not important because it is not me. Hence Buddhists both deny that it is you (or another); and at the same time emphasise that it really is you. Getting Buddhists, or even supposedly neutral scholars of Buddhism, to even admit that this duality exists has proved very difficult. One meets incredible resistance and even hostility to the very idea. Even though it is plain as day.

Morality, especially Buddhism morality, depends on being aware of and sensitive to the consequences of actions, but, as I say, our metaphysics creates a barrier to owning consequences. The metaphysics is so problematic that Nāgārjuna ends up repudiating the very idea of karma (or a being who does karma) as fictions of "relative truth". He describes them as illusions "like the cities of Gandharvas in the sky" (see Chapter 17 of Mūlamadhyamaka Kārikā). Connecting consequences to actions without invoking eternalism is almost impossible. The early Buddhists simply set aside metaphysics when it came to morality. They set aside the limitations of the anātman doctrine and taught that we are the owners of our karma, the heirs to our karma (Cf. Five Facts to Continuously Reflect On).

But if morality is a book keeping exercise and accounts are settled in the afterlife, then where are the books? Something has to provide a memory of our accounts that persists after death. For those worldviews that include a soul or an overseer god this is not a problem. Admitting supernatural entities solves the problem. Buddhists came up with various schemes to allow karma to accumulate and transfer. Highlighting the arguments that each came up with for the other views is a theme of my writing on karma. No Buddhist idea of how karma and rebirth work was universally accepted. Most sects thought that other sects had got the problem disastrously wrong. 

Morality depends on some connection between the person who acts and the person who suffers the consequence. And in those Just World worldviews in which justice is delivered postmortem, that connection must survive death. And this is precisely where Buddhist metaphysics of no-self are problematic. There are two main problems as I see it.
1. The relation of conditional arising is not sufficient to motivate anyone to act well. I argue that this is born out by Buddhist's own approach to teaching morality. I have already identified a dichotomy between metaphysical and moral teachings.
2. The flat denial of any self in many Buddhist metaphysical narratives, even an experiential self, undermines any possibility of morality. Also if there is actually no self, then everyone would be severely autistic and unable to respond to anyone else.
Hence the talk of no-self literally meaning there is no self must be at least partly wrong. Because even those people who claim to have broken the fetter of self-view (sakkāyadiṭṭhisaṃyojana) are still able to interact with people, to recognise them and respond appropriately to them. On the other hand any self we do have at the experiential level can only be a simulation created by our brain to help us navigate the world. The trouble is that existence and non-existent are black and white extremes when we need something a little more subtle. If instead the self is part of a virtual simulation then terms like existence and non-existence don't apply. If we abandon the attempt to prove this kind of all-or-nothing proposition one way or the other and view the self as a simulation then we can start asking more interesting questions. How does the brain achieve the kind of continuity required for goal seeking behaviour and thus for morality? Is it simply memory, or is there a more specific mechanism?

Earlier I mentioned the semantic problems of talking about self. Everyone understands something different by the relevant words. I have written about on several occasions the confusion of terminology. On one hand the meaning of ātman in Buddhist circles apparently changes depending on when and where it is being used. Initially the instruction seems to be that because ātman is a permanent unchanging entity it cannot be associated with any of the sense spheres. Thus, it cannot be experienced. And ipso facto cannot be known. There is a strict epistemological limit (despite what Vedantins may say). A permanent entity could not give rise to an experience. Nāgārjuna discusses this: we either always know about a permanent entity (past, present and future); or we never know. There can only be absolute knowledge or absolute ignorance of permanent entities; there can be no middle ground, no change from ignorance to knowledge. So ātman can never appear in experience (and nor can God). This is explicitly ruling out some unnamed extra sense beyond the five physical senses and the mind. There is no possibility of knowing by extra-sensory perception. And yet the same texts clearly believe in what we would call extra-sensory perception: that space is no impediment to knowledge. One can see things that are invisible, hearing things that are inaudible, and so on. That said the knowledge that comes this way is just an extension of sensory knowledge. One might see or hear at a distance, but no new senses are operating.

There is considerable confusion over how to translate ātman: soul, self, Self, ego, Ego, and so on. And on how to understand what it means at different times and in different contexts. As far as the Pāḷi texts are concerned they appear to be responding to the metaphysical entity as described by the Upaniṣads (see Gombrich 2009). There the ātman is a permanent unchanging entity that resides in our body, usually in our heart, and is not affected by the changes that our bodies and minds experience; not affected by life or death or suffering. Ātman is always pure and unadulterated. This is not what ego means, nor "self" in the usual sense. It does not equate to an homunculus either.

Morality in the Absence of Self

In discussing this issue with a colleague a resolution to this apparent conflict between karma and anātman emerged. In his view the sense of being a separate self is the origin of unskilful actions. While one has a sense of being a separate self, one will react to experience with attraction or aversion and thus create karma. So for someone with a simulated sense of self (i.e. all "normal" human beings), it is necessary for them to believe that they will suffer the consequences of their actions in order to motivate them to be moral. However, when one eradicates the sense of being a separate self, this also removes the motivation to act unskilfully. Greed and hatred are responses of the self to opportunities and threats in the environment. No self means no greed, no acquisitiveness; no hatred, no aversion. Thus the need to motivate the person to be ethical through the fear of consequences is also eliminated at the same time. 

Part of the problem we have in understanding this and communicating it, is that the few people who attain this state of spontaneous morality have not yet been properly studied. Worse we still rely on Iron Age or Medieval worldviews that are rooted in profoundly wrong conceptions of the world, life, and people. As yet we have no good way of integrating this perspective into a modern body of knowledge. The beginnings of a way forward may emerge from the work of people like Andrew Newberg who is studying the neuroscience of religious experiences. He calls his field "neurotheology" and is particularly interested in theistic interpretations of religious experiences, but has also studied the brains of Buddhist meditators. Ideally we would have a cohort of people who experience themselves as having a self who could participate in a baseline study before they practised and then again once they had eliminated the sense of self. This would give us a much better understanding of what has happened to them.

It would be especially interesting to see if anything changes in the way that they parse grammar. It is common for such people to use pronouns in the conventional way, but to say that they no longer understand the world to be divided up into I, you or they. So how they use pronouns accurately becomes an interesting question.

Unfortunately all we have to go on at present is the testimony of those who experience the cessation of the sense of being a separate self and they are themselves a source of confusion. It's clear that many approaches to achieving this state exist and that people from different traditions are attaining it. But each of them seems to see in it the culmination of their particular tradition and explain that their traditional interpretation of the experience is the correct one. As David Chapman recently observed:
"People in non-ordinary states, produced by psychedelic drugs or meditation, often proclaim sudden, unshakable, universal understanding. They rarely or never can explain their supposed understanding. I think these are probably mostly illusory. Such experiences may give genuine but ineffable insight into some things. I’m reasonably sure they involve no actual understanding of most things." - The Illusion of Understanding
This is also my conclusion from trying to correspond with a few people who talk about being permanently in a non-ordinary state, and many in-depth conversations with a friend who spends a good deal of his time in non-ordinary meditative states. 

Compare the conclusions of Gary Webber for example. For him the dropping away of ego is the confirmation of the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, an early 20th Century teacher of Advaita Vedanta. Webber understands his experience in Vedantin terms and is critical of the Buddhist teaching of emptiness. Though he clearly doesn't really understand the emptiness teachings. For Webber, for example, free will is an illusion because in his view everything ties back to an unchanging essence that underlies the universe. This combines ideas from the Upaniṣads with the influential Sāṃkhyā school of Indian metaphysics (a huge influence on Patañjali and Yoga metaphysics). For Webber this kind of metaphysical speculation is underpinned by his experience of awakening. But Buddhists who describe more or less the same experience -- i.e. the loss of internal dialogue and a first person perspective -- argue that no such metaphysical speculation is valid. The Awakened can still disagree amongst themselves on metaphysics (as they have traditionally done throughout history, especially in India).

This discrepancy plays out in other ways and one that particularly interests me is the use of language, particularly pronouns and grammatical agents. People with no self say that they experience no first-person point of view, that they do not see the world in terms of self and other. And yet they are still able to accurately use pronouns. If there truly was no distinction at all between self and other, then pronouns would be confusing. If there were genuinely no reference point in experience, then one would struggle to accurately ascribe actions or qualities to agents. A pronoun is used to point out the agent of an action or owner of a property. So the awakened still have access to the knowledge of how pronouns map onto situations, on how verbs require agents, and thus on some level are able to distinguish agents. Mind you most of us use pronouns without thinking, so perhaps it is unfair to expect the awakened to have insight into this issue. Until we better understand how anyone with no first-person perspective can use pronouns accurately we have to remain suspicious of the generalisations that those people draw from their experience. Something does not add up.

In other words the awakened still seem to be unable to look past their own subjectivity. That subjectivity may be radically different from mine, but it still seems to have the same kinds of limitations. Logical fallacies and biases are still in play. What we need is for a few people who have experienced enlightenment to become lab rats, so that we can study them. We need to better understand the nature of the changes they have experienced in order to better codify them and make them available to other people, if in fact that is desirable.


Metzinger, Thomas (2014). What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement? The Edge.