Showing posts with label Mind. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mind. Show all posts

25 August 2017


There's been quite a lot of talk of "meta-rationality" lately amongst the blogs I read. It is ironic that this emerging trend comes at a time when the very idea of rationality is being challenged from beneath. Mercier and Sperber, for example, tell us that empirical evidence suggests that reasoning is "a form of intuitive [i.e., unconscious] inference" (2017: 90); and that reasoning about reasoning (meta-rationality) is mainly about rationalising such inferences and our actions based on them. If this is true, and traditional ways of thinking about reasoning are inaccurate, then we all have a period of readjustment ahead.

It seems that we don't understand rationality or reasoning. My own head is shaking as I write this. Can it be accurate? It is profoundly counter-intuitive. Sure, we all know that some people are less than fully rational. Just look at how nation states are run. Nevertheless, it comes as a shock to realise that I don't understand reasoning. After all, I write non-fiction. All of my hundreds of essays are the product of reasoning. Aren't they? well, maybe. In this essay, I'm going to continue my desultory discussion of reason by outlining a result from experimental psychology from the year I was born, 1966. In their recent book, The Enigma of Reason, Mercier & Sperber (2017) describe this experiment and some of the refinements since proposed.

But first a quick lesson in Aristotelian inferential logic. I know, right? You're turned off and about to click on something else. But please do bear with me. I'm introducing this because, unless you understand the logic involved in the problem, you won't get the full blast of the 50-year-old insight that follows. Please persevere and I think you'll agree at the end that it's worth it.


For our purposes, we need to consider a conditional syllogism. Schematically it takes the form:

If P, then Q.

Say we posit: if a town has a police station (P), then it also has a courthouse (Q). There are two possible states for each proposition. A town has a police station (P); it does not have a police station (not P or ¬P); it has a courthouse (Q); it does not have a court house (¬Q). What we concerned with here is what we can infer from each of these four possibilities, given the rule: If P, then Q.

The syllogism—If P, then Q—in this case tells us that it is always the case that if a town has a police station, then it also has a courthouse. If I now tell you that the town of Wallop in Hampshire, has a police station, you can infer from the rule that Wallop must also have a courthouse. This is a valid inference of the type that Aristotle called modus ponens. Schematically:

If P, then Q.
P, therefore Q. ✓

What if I tell you that Wallop does not have a police station? What can you infer from ¬P? You might be tempted to say that Wallop has no courthouse. But this would be a fallacy (called denial of the antecedent). It does not follow from the rule that if a town does not have a police station that it also doesn't have a court house. It is entirely possible under the given rule that a town has a courthouse but no police station.

If P, then Q.
¬P, therefore ¬Q. ✕

What if we have information about the courthouse and want to infer something about the police station. What can we infer if Wallop had a courthouse (Q)? Well, we've just seen that we cannot infer anything. Trying to infer something from the absence of the second part of the syllogism leads to false conclusions (affirmation of the consequent)

If P, then Q.
Q, therefore P. ✕

But we can make a valid inference if we know that Wallop has no courthouse (¬Q). If there is no courthouse and our rule is always true, then we can infer that there is no police station in Wallop. And this valid inference is the type called modus tollens by Aristotle.

If P, then Q.
¬Q, therefore ¬P. ✓

So, given the rule and information about one of the two propositions P and Q, we can make inferences about the other. But only in two cases can we make valid inferences, P and ¬Q.

If P, then Q.PQ

Of course, there are even less logical inferences one could make, but these are the ones that Aristotle deemed sensible enough to include in his work on logic. This is the logic that we need to understand. And the experimental task, proposed by Peter Wason in 1966, tested the ability of people to use this kind of reasoning.

~Wason Selection Task~

You are presented with four cards, each with a letter and number printed on either side.

The rule is: If a card has E on one side, it has 2 on the other.
The question is: which cards must be turned over to test the rule, i.e., to determine if the cards follow the rule. You have as much time as you wish.

Wason and his collaborators got a shock in 1966 because only 10% of their participants chose the right answer. Having prided ourselves on our rationality for millennia (in Europe, anyway) the expectation was that most people would find this exercise in reasoning relatively simple. Only 1 in 10 got the right answer. This startling result led Wason and subsequent investigators to pose many variations on this test, almost always with similar results.

Intrigued, they began to ask people about the level of confidence in their methods before getting their solution. Despite the fact that 90% would choose the wrong answer, 80% of participants were 100% sure they had the right answer! So it was not that the participants were hesitant or tentative. On the contrary, they were extremely confident in their method, whatever it was.

The people taking part were not stupid or uneducated. Most of them were psychology undergraduates. The result is slightly worse than one would expect from random guessing, which suggests that something was systematically going wrong.

The breakthrough came more than a decade later when, in 1979, Jonathan Evans came up with a variation in which the rule was: if a card has E on one side, it does not have 2 on the other. In this case, the proportions of right and wrong answers dramatically switched around, with 90% getting it right. Does this mean that we reason better negatively?
"This shows, Evans argued, that people's answers to the Wason task are based not on logical reasoning but on intuitions of relevance." (Mercier & Sperber 2017: 43. Emphasis added)
What Evans found was that people turn over the cards named in the rule. Which is not reasoning, but since it is predicated on an unconscious evaluation of the information, not quite a guess, either. Which is why the success rate is worse than random guessing.

Which cards did you turn over? As with the conditional syllogism, there are only two valid inferences to be made here: Turn over the E card. If it has a 2 on the other side, the rule is true for this card (but may not be true for others); if it does not have a 2, the rule is falsified. The other card to turn over is the one with a seven on it. If it has E on the other side, the rule is falsified; if it does not have an E, the rule may still be true.

Turning over the K tells us nothing relevant to the rule. Turning over the 2 is a little more complex, but ultimately futile. If we find an E on the other side of the 2 we may think it validates the rule. However, the rule does not forbid a card with 2 on one side having any letter, E or another one. So turning over the 2 does not give us any valid inferences, either.

Therefore, it is only by turning over the E and 7 cards that we can make valid inferences about the rule. And, short of gaining access to all possible cards, the best we can do is falsify the rule. Note that the cards are presented in the same order as I used in explaining the logic. E = P, K = ¬P, 2 = Q, and 7 = ¬Q.

Did you get the right answer? Did you consciously work through the logic or respond to an intuition? Did you make the connection with the explanation of the conditional syllogism that preceded it?

I confess that I did not get the right answer, and I had read a more elaborate explanation of the conditional logic involved. I did not work through the logic, but chose the cards named in the rule. 

The result has been tested in many different circumstances and variations and seems to be general. Humans, in general, don't use reasoning to solve logic problems, unless they have specific training. Even with specific training, people still get it wrong. Indeed, even though I explained the formal logic of the puzzle immediately beforehand, the majority of readers would have ignored this and chosen to turn over the E and 2 cards, because they used their intuition instead of logic to infer the answer.


In a recent post (Reasoning, Reasons, and Culpability, 20 Jul 2017) I explored some of the consequences of this result. Mercier and Sperber go from Wason into a consideration of unconscious processing of information. They discuss and ultimately reject Kahneman's so-called dual process models of thinking (with two systems, one fast and one slow). There is only one process, Mercier and Sperber argue, and it is unconscious. All of our decisions are made this way. When required, they argue, we produce conscious reasons after the fact (post hoc). The reason we are slow at producing reasons is that they don't exist before we are asked for them (or ask ourselves - which is something Mercier and Sperber don't talk about much). It takes time to make up plausible sounding reasons; we have to go through the process of asking, given what we know about ourselves, what a plausible reason might be. And because of cognitive bias, we settle for the first plausible explanation we come up with. Then, as far as we are concerned, that is the reason.

It's no wonder there was scope for Dr Freud to come along and point out that people's stated motives were very often not the motives that one could deduce from detailed observation of the person (particularly paying attention to moments when the unconscious mind seemed to reveal itself). 

This does not discount the fact that we have two brain regions that process incoming information. It is most apparent in situations that scare us. For example, an unidentified sound will trigger the amygdala to create a cascade of activation across the sympathetic nervous system. Within moments our heart rate is elevated, our breathing shallow and rapid, and our muscles flooding with blood. We are ready for action. The same signal reaches the prefrontal cortex more slowly. The sound is identified in the aural processing area, then fed to the prefrontal cortex which is able to override the excitation of the amygdala.

A classic example is walking beside a road with traffic speeding past. Large, rapidly moving objects ought to frighten us because we evolved to escape from marauding beasts. Not just predators either, since animals like elephants or rhinos can be extremely dangerous. But our prefrontal cortex has established that cars almost always stay on the road and follow predictable trajectories. Much more alertness is required when crossing the road. I suspect that the failure to switch on that alertness after suppressing it might be responsible for many pedestrian accidents. Certainly, where I live, pedestrians commonly step out into the road without looking.

It is not that the amygdala is "emotional" and the prefrontal cortex is "rational". Both parts of the brain are processing sense data, but one is getting it raw and setting off reactions that involve alertness and readiness, while the other is getting it with an overlay of identification and recognition and either signalling to turn up the alertness or to turn it down. And this does not happen in isolation, but is part of a complex system by which we respond to the world. The internal physical sensations associated with these systems, combined with our thoughts, both conscious and unconscious, about the situation are our emotions. We've made thought and emotion into two separate categories and divided up our responses to the world into one or the other, but in fact, the two are always co-existent.

Just because we have these categories, does not mean they are natural or reflect reality. For example, I have written about the fact that ancient Buddhist texts did not have a category like "emotion". They had loads of words for emotions, but lumped all this together with mental activity (Emotions in Buddhism. 04 November 2011). Similarly, ancient Buddhist texts did not see the mind as a theatre of experience or have any analogue of the MIND IS A CONTAINER metaphor (27 July 2012). The ways we think about the mind are not categories imposed on us by nature, but the opposite, categories that we have imposed on experience. 

Emotion is almost entirely missing from Mercier and Sperber's book. While I can follow their argument, and find it compelling in many ways, I think their thesis is flawed for leaving emotion out of the account of reason. In what I consider to be one of my key essays, Facts and Feelings, composed in 2012, I drew on work by Antonio Damasio to make a case for how emotions are involved in decision making. Specifically, emotions encode the value of information over and above how accurate we consider it.

We know this because when the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala is disrupted, by brain damage, for example, it can disrupt the ability to made decisions. In the famous case of Phineas Gage, his brain was damaged by a railway spike being drive through his cheek and out the top of his head. He lived and recovered, but he began to make poor decisions in social situations. In other cases, recounted by Damasio (and others) people with damage to the ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex lose the ability to assess alternatives like where to go for dinner, or what day they would like doctor's appointment on. The specifics of this disruption suggests that we weigh up information and make decisions based on how we feel about the information.

Take also the case of Capgras Syndrome. In this case, the patient will recognise a loved one, but not feel the emotional response that normally goes with such recognition. To account for this discrepancy they confabulate accounts in which the loved one has been replaced by a replica, often involving some sort of conspiracy (a theme which has become all too common in speculative fiction). Emotions are what tell us how important things are to us and, indeed, in what way they are important. We can feel attracted to or repelled by the stimulus; the warm feeling when we see a loved one, the cold one when we see an enemy. We also have expectations and anticipations based on previous experience (fear, anxiety, excitement, and so on).

Mercier and Sperber acknowledge that there is an unconscious inferential process, but never delve into how it might work. But we know from Damasio and others that it involves emotions. Now, it seems that this process is entirely, or mostly, unconscious and that when reasons are required, we construct them as explanations to ourselves and others for something that has already occurred.

Sometimes we talk about making unemotional decisions, or associate rationality with the absence of emotion. But we need to be clear on this: without emotions, we cannot make decisions. Rationality is not possible without emotions to tell us how important things are, where "things" are people, objects, places, etc. 

In their earlier work (See An Argumentative Theory of Reason) of 2011, Mercier and Sperber argued that we use reasoning to win arguments. They noted the poor performance on a test of reasoning like the Wason task and added the prevalence of confirmation bias. They argued that this could be best understood in terms of decision-making in small groups (which is, after all, the natural context for a human being). As an issue comes up, each contributor makes the best case they can, citing all the supporting evidence and arguments. Here, confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. However, those listening to the proposals are much better at evaluating arguments and do not fall into confirmation bias. Thus, Mercier and Sperber concluded, humans only employ reasoning to decide issues when there is an argument. 

The new book expands on this idea, but takes a much broader view. However, I want to come back and emphasise this point about groups. All too often, philosophers are trapped in solipsism. They try to account for the world as though individuals cannot compare notes, as though everything can and should be understood from the point of view of an isolated individual. So, existing theories of rationality all assume that a person reasons in isolation. But I'm going to put my foot down here and insist that humans never do anything in isolation. Even hermits have a notional relation to their community - they are defined by their refusal of society. We are social primates. Under natural conditions, we do everything together. Of course, for 12,000 years or so, an increasing number of us have been living in unnatural conditions that have warped our sensibilities, but even so, we need to acknowledge the social nature of humanity. All individual psychology is bunk. There is only social psychology. All solipsistic philosophy is bunk. People only reason in groups. The Wason task shows that on our own we don't reason at all, but rely on unconscious inferences. But these unconscious (dare I say instinctual) processes did not evolve for city slickers. They evolved for hunter-gatherers.

It feels to me like we are a transitional period in which old paradigms of thinking about ourselves, about our minds, are falling away to be replaced by emerging, empirically based paradigms that are still taking shape. What words like "thought", "emotion", "consciousness", and "reasoning" mean is in flux. Which means that we live in interesting times. It's possible that a generation from now, our view of mind, at least amongst intellectuals, is going to be very different. 



Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011) 'Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.' Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2017) The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding. Allen Lane.

See also my essay: Reasoning and Beliefs 10 January 2014

09 December 2011

Saṅkhāra qua Construct

This word saṅkhāra is one of the most puzzling terms in our Buddhist lexicon. It is used a number of different ways, meaning quite different things in different contexts. There is no reason why a word should not have different senses - a phenomenon known technically as polysemy 'many meanings'. Indeed polysemy is the rule with words in most languages. Take a word like gravity. It has a sense in Physics as one of the fundamental forces. As an adjective in ordinary speech it might signify that someone, or something is important or wise. Incidentally the Sanskrit word guru is cognate and means 'weighty'. Context usually resolves any contradictions so if I say that "Newton spoke with gravity about gravity", you'll probably be able to see the two distinct ways I'm using the word gravity. However within a technical jargon it is much less useful to have important words being polysemic, in fact it's downright confusing. And yet so many of our important Buddhists jargon terms are polysemic: dharma is particularly troublesome, and whole books have been written on this one word.

I want to highlight a particular use of this word saṅkhāra in a Pāli text, but let's see if I can encapsulate the main senses of the word to begin with. The Pāli saṅkhāra is equivalent to the Sanskrit saṃskāra - the skā conjunct being reduced to khā in Pāli. The root of the word is √kṛ 'do, make' and here the prefix saṃ is equivalent to the Latin com- and means 'with, together; or complete'. The basic sense here is 'to construct or make up', and a close English cousin is confect, where -fect is from the Latin facere 'to make, do'. The word has a technical meaning in Vedic, but we'll leave that aside for our present purposes.

Saṅkhāra occurs in Pāli as the second of 12 nidānas, and the 4th of 5 khandhas. In the first instance it seems to mean volitional activity (and is defined in terms of cetanā). In the second it suggests a wider definition of all mental activity or indeed everything constructed from conditions - e.g. in the phrase sabbe saṅkhārā anicca. It is used in the sense of 'function' in reference to the body, speech and mind. So we might say that it has the active sense of "putting together" and the passive sense of "having been put together". [1]

In the text I am exploring today - The Pālileyya Sutta (SN 22.81; S iii.94f) it seems to have the sense of 'construct'. I'm particularly interested in this sense because it appears to confirm an intuition I've had about this term for some time (which should alert readers to the problem of confirmation bias!). In the Pālileyya Sutta we find this equation - I have simplified the text a little:
rūpaṃ attato samanupassati... yā samanupassanā saṅkhāro so.
he perceives form as his self, that perception is a construct.
Why is the perception (samanupassanā) a construct? Because in order to have a perception sense object and sense faculty must come together in the presence of sense cognition - perceptions are constructed (saṅkhāta) from these specific building blocks. The text asks the same question and answers (again simplifying a little:)
avijjāsamphassajena vedayitena phuṭṭhassa [tassa] uppannā taṇhā, tatojo so saṅkhāro
thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance.
Bear with me here as this sentence is not easy to translate. Firstly uppannā taṇhā is easy 'desire has arisen'. Here tassa 'for him' is standing for assutavato putthujjanassa 'for the unlearned ordinary person' and phuṭṭhassa tassa 'for the one who has been affected (phuṭṭha)'. Then vedayitena 'by the experience [which is] 'avijjāsamphassaja'. This last compound needs unravelling: it is made up of three parts: avijjā 'ignorance' + samphassa 'contact, reaction' + ja 'born'. So the whole thing is probably: 'born of contact with ignorance' or perhaps 'born of a reaction from ignorance'. I suggest the latter makes more sense. Bhikkhu Bodhi has come up with a particularly torturous translation here: "When [he] is contacted by a feeling born of ignorance-contact, craving arises." It's not clear what "ignorance-contact" is. [2] Thanissaro does better on Access to Insight with "To [him] touched by the feeling born of contact with ignorance, craving arises." But what is "contact with ignorance"? In the Buddhist model of mental functioning it can only be contact while being ignorant surely? Hence my translation: "thirst has arisen for the one affected by an experience born of a reaction from ignorance." Thirst for existence perhaps?

The sutta notes that this construct is impermanent (anicca), constructed (saṅkhāta) and arisen in dependence on conditions (paṭiccasamuppanna). Similar constructs include
rūpavantaṃ attānaṃ samanupassati - perceiving myself as endowed with form
attani rūpaṃ samanupassati - regarding form as within myself
rūpasmiṃ attānaṃ samanupassati- seeing myself amongst forms
All of these are conditioned and impermanent constructs. The whole formula is repeated with other four khandhas vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā and viññāṇa. Note the statement that saṅkhārā are a saṅkhāra does not seem to bother the author of the text, probably because he is consciously using the word in two different senses. In the plural it is defined in some places as the cetanā or 'intention' associated with the six senses (e.g. S iii.60).

So we may say that these perceptions of a being a self are only what we project onto experience., they are a construct, and not a property of experience. By the way, I see no connection here with Upaniṣadic thought on the nature of the ātman. There's no reason to think that this formulation of the teaching was in reaction to Brahmanical metaphysics.


  1. Nyanatiloka in his Buddhist Dictionary insists that the interpretation of saṅkhāra as 'subconscious tendencies' (which is common in the Triratna Movement) is incorrect and "entirely inapplicable to the connotations of the term in Pali Buddhism" (p.193).
  2. Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom. P.922.

03 June 2011

Body and Mind

Assutavā Sutta
(SN 12.61, PTS S ii.94-95)
THUS HAVE I HEARD. One time the Buddha was staying in Sāvatthi in the Jeta Grove, in the park of Anāthapiṇḍika… [the Bhagavan said] the folks (puthujjana) who are unlearned (assutavā)[1], monks, might become fed-up (nibbindati) with the body composed of four elements, might lose interest (virajjati) in it, and might be freed (vimutti) from it. The reason? The taking up and putting down, the grasping and giving up[2] of this body four elements can be seen. Therefore the unlearned folk might become fed-up, lose interest, and be free.

However that which is called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, or ‘cognition’ is insufficient for the unlearned folk become fed-up, lose interest, and be freed from it. What is the reason? For a long time the unlearned folk have hung on, cherished, and succumbed to the thought ‘this is mine, I am this, this is myself’. Because of this it is insufficient for the unlearned folk to become fed-up, to lose interest in it, and be freed from it.

It would be best, monks, for the unlearned folk to approach the body as their self, rather than thought. What is the reason? The body made from the four elements is seen remaining for 1 season [3], 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, remaining for 100 seasons or more.

And that called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, or ‘cognition’ is night and day arising and ceasing, one after another. [4] Just like, monks, a monkey goes through a forest on the side of a mountain,[5] swinging from branch to branch. [6] So, monks, that which is called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, ‘cognition’ night and day is arising and ceasing, one after another.[7]

Therefore, monks, the learned (sutavā) noble-disciple (ariya-sāvaka)[8] pays close attention[9] to the dependently arisen origins: thus –
There being that, this is; with the arising of that, this arises. When that isn’t there, this isn’t; with the ceasing of that, this ceases: thus when there is ignorance there is volition, from the condition of volition there is cognition and so on, and this is the origin of the whole mass of disappointment. With the remainderless cessation of ignorance there is no volition, with the cessation of volition there is no cognition and so on, and this is the way the whole mass of disappointment ceases.
Seeing it like this the learned noble disciple is fed-up with forms, fed-up with sensations, fed-up with apperception, fed-up with volitions, fed-up with cognition; and being fed up, loses interest, and is free, and knows “birth is cut off, the perfect life is lived, what needed to be done is done; no more becoming here.”


The sutta makes two kinds of comparisons - between bodily and mental experience; and between ordinary people (assutavā puthujjana) and ideal disciples (sutavā ariyasāvaka).

The body does not change very fast and may continue on for a long lifetime changing only gradually, and leaving us with the perception of continuity, and therefore of a lasting identity. However even the ordinary person who has not heard (assutavā) the Buddhadhamma, and who is not making an effort (by definition) might still find the body disappointing, as they age, get ill, and die. They might still, according to this text, come to liberation from the body because of the dissatisfaction associated with the body. The Buddha allows that if you were going to identify with anything as your self, then the body would be a better candidate because it is far more stable. I think this is hyperbole for an audience of people already committed to the path, a point I'll come back to. In talking about getting to liberation the Buddha mentions the sequence of terms nibbindati - virajjhati - vimutti. This is the end of the upanisā sequence (c.f. AN 10.1-5, AN 11.1-5, & SN 12.23; see my blog Progress is Natural) and in suttas which have this sequence nibbindati arises from yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana: knowing & seeing the nature of experience.

However most of us think of 'I' as the thoughts in our mind - we identify ourselves with the content of our minds - cogito ergo sum "I think [about stuff], therefore I am" (sañjānāmi tasmā asmi). The text uses the three main terms associated with 'mind': citta, mano, and viññāṇa. Bhikkhu Bodhi renders them "mind, mentality, and consciousness" in his Saṃyutta translation (p.595) - and notes his struggle to find suitable distinctions as he routinely translates both citta and mano as 'mind' (p.769). I think my translation brings out later differentiations between these words, though I suspect this is overcooking things a little, and perhaps they are simply synonyms here. [c.f. Mind Words]. It is this identification with our thoughts which makes it unlikely that we will become fed-up our mental processes - we don't think of mental processes as 'us', at least not in the conscious way that we think about, e.g. what to have for dinner: to ourselves, we are our thoughts. The sense of being a self is vivid, transparent (i.e. we don't see ourselves making the identification), instantaneous, and persistent.

The mind goes from one mental event to another like a monkey swinging from branch to branch, grasping first this and then that object - and each time generating a cascade of sensations, responses and proliferation - which all happens so fast that it seems to just be the ways things are - this feature is referred to Thomas Metzinger as 'transparency' because we don't 'see' it. This description of the mental process is perhaps the most attractive feature of this text.

And part of what we do in this process is create a virtual point of view, or First Person Perspective - "I, me, mine". I've come to the conclusion, after many years of resistance and argumentation, that what is intended by attā in these cases is the ego, in more or less the same way that Western psychologist speak of it, as opposed to the soul-like ātman of Brahmanical religion which provides continuity between lives. (If I was a UK politician, this would be called a policy U-turn). I don't think Buddhists were cognisant enough with the kinds of ideas about ātman that we meet in the early Upaniṣads to warrant our directly linking the two. This sense of identification with, and ownership over the contents of our minds is what prevents us from becoming liberated. [C.f. First Person Perspective] This includes all the polemical terms like selfishness, egotism, and self-centredness, but I'm not sure it is simply a critique of selfishness - it seems to be about how we identify with experience, and how we therefore generate expectations of experience that it cannot deliver. Selfishness is one little corner of a much larger issue!

The Buddha is outlining the worst case scenario for the monks, before telling them what the ideal disciple would be like. The ideal disciple is sutavā 'education, learned' (literally: 'one who has heard'), and is described as ariya which we would typically associate with someone either liberated or well on their way to liberation (at least a sotapanna 'stream-entrant'). Presumably most of the monks are somewhere in the middle. It's a fine rhetorical strategy to show that they have come a long way from being ordinary lay people, but have some way to go before finishing their task.

The ideal disciple is one who employs yoniso-manasikara. I have explored this term in the Philogical odds and ends II, but would also refer readers to the Theravādin blog where another interpretation can be found which is very useful. However I think my own definition 'thinking about origins' is apposite here. The content which one is paying attention to is paṭicca-samuppāda - the formula imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti... and the nidāna sequence. (see also A General Theory of Conditionality for a critical look at the relationship between the two). In this case one is paying attention to how things arise from conditions - to the processes arising (and ceasing) in dependence on conditions. And it is clearly implied here that where one needs to focus this exploration is in the mind. It is the mind that we mostly identify with and which is very hard to see in a way that conduces to liberation. It is relatively straight forward to see the body as conditioned (it is even a truism in the Western intellectual tradition that 'things change'), but it is in seeing the processes of the mind this way that the breakthrough to bodhi comes.

I imagine that this was a tailored discourse. It may not be a general teaching on the relative qualities of mind and body, so much as a teaching for people who were ascetics in the first place. It seems to me that the Buddha assumes that the monks, unlike lay people, do not see the body as their self, and dis-identification with the body is exactly what we would expect of ascetics. And what they would need is a teaching on how to deal with identification with the mind. Note that he almost taunts them by saying - even an untutored ordinary person might become liberated by being fed-up with their body - so if you're a bhikkhu, or possibly an ascetic, who is dis-identified with the body, then why aren't you liberated already? Remember that the Buddha has been down this road of mortification of the flesh and found it wanting. I think this perspective helps to make sense of what he is saying about ordinary people and the body (which is otherwise a bit paradoxical). The text clearly has broader appeal and application, but it is important to be sensitive to context when interpreting a text, especially where it seems natural to generalise the content.

The ideal disciple -- the sutavā ariyasāvako -- becomes fed-up not with the body but with forms, sensations, apperception, volitions, and cognition; that is with the khandhas, what I call (following Sue Hamilton) the 'apparatus of experience'. Whereas these are usually taken in quite a materialistic way by the Buddhist tradition, Hamilton has convincingly shown them to be collectively concerned with experience, they are the processes by which, or through which we have experiences. So the ideal disciple sees this, becomes fed-up with this whole process, and it is through disillusionment with the processes of experience that they are liberated.

A discourse like this one throws some interesting light on the historicity of the Dharma. It seems to make more sense in a specific context, but we can only imply this. If the implication is wrong, and there is every chance that it is, then it leaves us puzzling over the possibility of ordinary people spontaneously becoming liberated, and the Buddha recommending that if we must believe that something is our self then we should opt for the body as it is more likely to disappoint us in the long run. In the end we have to select the option that makes most sense to us, and follow up to see where it leads. The one thing that a detailed study of Buddhists texts does not supply is certainty about the Buddha's message!

I seldom talk in terms of practice here, but in this case I offer the following way to approach meditation on impermanence from my own practice. It's usual when considering impermanence to take a changing object, or to try to get your head around the "fact" that "everything changes" by seeing everything around you changing. I think these are fair places to start. But in fact many things don't change that much. I've had this coffee cup for a couple of years, and it hasn't changed in that time as far as I can see. I have a B.Sc in chemistry so I know it is changing in ways that I cannot see, but the Buddha didn't know this, didn't have electron microscopes, spectroscopy, or magnetic resonance imaging did he? So when reflecting on impermanence chose an object which does not visibly change for the duration of the meditation. I have lump of quartz I brought with me from New Zealand. Beautiful, but quite inert and probably unchanged for millions of years! What can impermanence mean with respect to this from the point of view of an Iron Age person like the Buddha? And yet when looking at and/or thinking about something relatively unchanging, experiences still come and go. Why is that? [Rhetorical questions]

A second level is to then reflect on how we perceive change. If everything is moving at the same speed (say like inside an aeroplane travelling at 500kph) then we don't perceive things to be moving relative to us (this is the Principle of Relativity). The perception of change requires a reference point. For us, most of the time, it is our sense of 'self'. Change around us is perceived with respect to our sense of continuity. Other people change, and I look older, but inside I'm just the same person. Think of the potency of the phrase "you've changed". But consider that your sense of being a self, your First Person Perspective, is just an experience as well. It has all the features of other experiences, including impermanence. Contra Metzinger, I do believe that if we approach things in the Buddhist way we can get glimpses of this process in action, and that it is liberating.

Yes, people, places and things change, the world changes; but then again we've known this forever. Heraclitus was a contemporary of the Buddha! We need to get beyond this banal observation and see the process of changing experience and our responses to the changing of experience -- to see that mental experience is a feedback loop, where the output immediately becomes input, and generates complexity like the Mandlebrot set. It really does help to have experience of samādhi when trying this, but one can get glimpses without it. So go ahead and consider impermanence in the light of an unchanging object. Let me know if you get enlightened.


[1] nominative of assutavant: opposite of sutavant ‘one who has heard; i.e. ‘one who has been taught the Dhamma’, ‘learned’.

[2]ācaya ‘piling up, accumulating’, i.e. accumulating the actions the fruit of which are rebirth; apacaya – opposite of ācaya, i.e. decrease in the possibility of rebirth; ādānaṃ - grasping; nikkhepanaṃ - getting rid of the load.

[3] vassaṃ - literally ‘rain’, i.e. the rainy season. More or less equivalent to a year. Monks counted years of ordination by the number of rainy season retreats they had completed.

[4] aññadeva… aññaṃ. ‘another and another’.

[5] Such as one still finds around the Vulture’s Peak in Rājagaha where I have seen monkeys doing just this! There aren’t any mountains nearby Sāvatthī.

[6] lit: “grasping a branch, having released it grasping another, having released that grasping another” (sākhaṃ gaṇhati, taṃ muñcitvā aññaṃ gaṇhati, taṃ muñcitvā aññaṃ gaṇhati)

[7] Cf AN i.10. “No other single thing can I perceive, monks, that is so changeable as the mind (citta). So much so, monks, that there is no simple simile for how changeable the mind is.” (Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññaṃ ekadhammampi samanupassāmi yaṃ evaṃ lahuparivattaṃ yathayidaṃ cittaṃ. Yāvañcidaṃ, bhikkhave, upamāpina sukarā yāva lahuparivattaṃ cittan’ti.)

[8] ariyasāvako ariya ‘noble’, sāvaka ‘a hearer, someone who has listened to the Dhamma’ synonymous with sutavant.

[9] yoniso manasi karoti cf yoniso-manasikara sometimes ‘wise attention’ but yoniso means ‘according to the origin’ [yoni ‘origin, womb’ with the distributive suffix –so] so the phrase implies paying attention to how things arise, to dependent arising. Yoniso manasi karoti cf yoniso-manasikara sometimes ‘wise attention’ but yoniso means ‘according to the origin’ [yoni ‘origin, womb’ with the distributive suffix –so] so the phrase implies paying attention to how things arise, to dependent arising. See also Yoniso manasi karotha on the Theravādin Blog.

12 November 2010

Action and Intention

IN THIS POST I'M REVISITING an old favourite of mine. I mention one of the phrases in this sutta - cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi - on a regular basis. I've even done a commentary on it. Here I translate the section of the Discourse on Piercing - Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63 PTS A iii.414) - that contains the phrase and this sheds further light on the idea it is expressing. It came up recently on Elisa Freschi's blog sanscrite cogitare, sanscrite loqui in the comments on a post called 'Desire, cognition and action', looking at the role of intention and cognition in actions. The role of intention in actions naturally brought to mind the Buddha's equation of cetanā and kamma.

The Nibbedhika Sutta consists of an introduction and then several sections with the same form. It concerns correctly identifying certain things, their cause, their distinctiveness, their result, their cessation, and the way to make them cease. Clearly this format is an expansion on that used in the ariyasacca or truths of the nobles ones (dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga). The 'things' are: sensuous pleasure (kāma), sensations (vedanā), apperceptions (saññā), influxes (āsavā), action (kamma), disappointment (dukkha).

Translation [1]

Action should be known, the basis (nidāna-sambhava) for action should be known, the distinctiveness (vemattatā) of action should be known, the result (vipāka) of actions should be known, the cessation (nirodha) of action should be known, the way to bring about cessation of action (kamma-nirodha-gāminī paṭipada) should be understood. This was said, but why? I call action ‘intention’. Having thought/intended one acts, with body, speech, or mind.

And what is the basis for actions? Contact [between sense faculty and sense object] is the basis for actions.

And what is the distinctiveness of actions? There is the action to be experienced (vedanīyaṃ) in hell (niraya); the action to be experienced as an animal (tiracchānayoni); the action to be experienced in the domain of hungry ghosts (pettivisaya); the action to be experienced in the human realm (manussaloka); and the action to be experienced in the god realm (devaloka).

And what is the result of action? I say there are three kinds of result: to be experienced in this world (diṭṭhe-dhamme); in the next rebirth (upapajje); or in subsequent rebirths (aparāpariya). [2]

And how does action cease? It ceases with the cessation of contact. With the noble Eightfold-path (ariyo aṭṭḥaṅgiko maggo) being the way to bring about the cessation of action: perfect-vision, perfect intention, perfect speech, perfect action [3], perfect livelihood, perfect effort, perfect mindfulness, perfect concentration. [4]

Because of this a Noble Disciple knows action, its basis, its distinctiveness, its result, its cessation, and the way to bring about that cessation. He knows this piercing spiritual path for the cessation of action.

This is what was said, and why it was said.
A few comments. Firstly we have the sequence: contact > intention > action. This is descriptive not prescriptive; an outline of the process, rather than concrete definition. It highlights the aspects of our responses to the world which are important for the Buddhist project/object. [5] The important thing is that action is a response. As I said in my earlier commentary the underlying root of cetanā:
"...concerns what catches our attention on the one hand, and what we move towards on the other; or, what is on our minds, and what motivates us (emotions are what 'set us in motion')" - Ethics and Intention.
As humans we are flooded with sensory impressions, some of which gain our attention, some of which we respond to unconsciously. Broadly speaking we are either drawn towards or away from stimulus, and actions are how these tendencies play out in the mind, speech and body. The text presents the outcomes of actions in terms of various realms of rebirth: hell, animal, hungry-ghost, human, god. If we are uncomfortable with these as literal destinations - and let's face it, most of us Westerners are - we can perhaps see these as metaphors for moods in which our mental life takes place. [6] Either way the result is general, not specific - this important point is often lost sight of in discussion of karma, especially when people are looking for reasons that specific bad things happen to people. All you can really say is that kamma has meant a human rebirth - the details are not covered, though of course any rebirth in saṃsāra is by definition disappointing. There is no answer to the question "why me?"; one can only think in terms of "now what?"

The text's answer to "now what?" is to invoke the eight-fold path, i.e. having defined the problem in general terms it offers a generic solution. Still, the specific insight contained in the equation of kamma and cetanā is an interesting one to reflect on.


  1. Pāli text from CST.
  2. c.f. Vism xix.14: "Thus there are four kinds of kamma: to be experienced in this world, to be experience on rebirth, to be experienced in some subsequent rebirth, and kamma which doesn’t ripen [because it is inhibited by a more potent kamma]." Tattha catubbidhaṃ kammaṃ – diṭṭhadhammavedanīyaṃ, upapajjavedanīyaṃ, aparāpariyavedanīyaṃ, ahosikammanti. See also PED s.v. ahosi-kamma.
  3. i.e. action (kamma) ceases through acting perfectly (sammākammanta) - this kind of tautology does not seem to bother the author of the Pāli.
  4. sammādiṭṭhi, sammāsaṅkappa, sammāvācā, sammākammanta, sammājīva, sammāvāyāma, sammāsati, sammāsamādhi. I follow Sangharakshita in translating the word samma (S. saṃyak) as perfect. I think 'right' reflects a bygone era, and if it ever conveyed the right impression it now seems a bit bloodless. I wrote about this word in Philological Odds and Ends III.
  5. Project/Object was a term coined by Frank Zappa for his oeuvre when considering all it's various manifestations (including recording, live performances, interviews, writing, and film) considered as a whole. From our point of view it includes all the positive things that Buddhists do.
  6. C.f. Trungpa and Freemantle. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Shambala, 1975. (esp. p.5-10); and Sangharakshita. A Guide to the Buddhist Path. Windhorse, 1990. (esp. 'The Six Realms." p.81 ff.).

15 August 2008

Dhammapada verses 1 - 2

mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā
manasa ce paduṭṭhena bhāsati vā karoti vā
tato naṃ dukkham anveti cakkaṃ va vahato padam

mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā mansoeṭṭhā manomayā
manasa ce pasannena bhāsati vā karoti vā
tato naṃ sukham anveti chāyā va anapāyinī

Mind precedes experience, mind is foremost, [experience is] mind-made.
If, with a corrupt mind one speaks or acts:
From this disappointment and suffering follow as the wheel, the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes experience, mind is foremost, [experience is] mind-made.
If, with a clear mind one speaks or acts:
From this happiness and well-being follow like an inseparable shadow.
This is a fairly literal translation which largely retains the structure of the Pāli. Two interesting philological features are pointed out by K.R. Norman and John Brough with regard to these verses. Firstly the word anveti appears to be a Sanskritisation. Norman suggests that Pāli would usually resolve the consonant cluster nv to nuv, but here it doesn't. Secondly Brough (p.243) points out in his notes to the Gāndārī Dhammapada that vahatu (vahato being the genitive case) is an archaic word not in the Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary. The word means ox, and vahato padam is “foot of the ox”, where pada is also used in it’s archaic sense of "foot", as opposed to it's later more abstract meaning "word" as in the title of the Dhammapada: "the word of the doctrine".

The archaic forms suggest age, but the Sanskritisation may also indicate later editing or composition. Perhaps an old image re-used? Interestingly the Pāli commentators (Sri Lanka, ca 5th century) seem to have understood the sense of “vahato padam” but not the words, so come to the right conclusion by some tortuous arguments. This is evident in many Dhammapada translations which treat vahato as a present-participle meaning something like "bearer".

In these verses the terms mano and dhammā (nominative plural) are twinned, as are sukha and dukkha, and paduṭṭha and pasanna. Mano and dhammā in this context are the mind which senses mental "objects", and those "objects" or dhammas. This is the more specific meaning of mano, which is sometimes also used synonymously with other words for "mind" such as citta and viññana. Dhamma has such a wide range of meanings that it can be misleading to settle on one in particular, but here does seem to indicate the mental phenomena which the mind senses - in these cases it is usually written in lower-case. Note also that mind here includes the emotions, and other subjective experiences. Mano also coordinates the mental responses to the information coming in from the five physical senses. I have chosen the word "experience" as a translation of dhamma in this case because it covers both the mental and physical aspects. I have justified using "experience" to translate dhamma in other contexts as well, particularly in my essay on the Buddha's Last Words.

Mano is that part of us that cognizes experience, that part of us that knows we are experiencing. And these verses are saying that mano comes first. But why? Other Buddhist models of the psyche suggest that mind, in the sense of citta, arises in dependence on contact of sense organ with sense object. It is important not to get caught up in the various models here. This is a pragmatic teaching. Mind comes first in these verses because mental states determine actions, and therefore consequences. The Buddha famously said: Cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi - I say, monks, that intention is action [A vi.63]. This is why we must focus on the mind.

Actions arising from a mind which is paduṭṭha (spoiled, rotten, corrupt, literally "made bad") lead to dukkha - which I translate as "disappointment". However actions which are directed by a mind which is passana (clear, bright, good) result in sukha or bliss. The latter term is one which was in use before the Buddha. Brahman, the universal absolute has three characteristics: being, consciousness, and bliss (sukha). Brahman is also nitya (Pali nicca) or eternal. So in a Brahminical context sukha has a connotation of the goal of the spiritual life: union with Brahman. I think the Buddha may well have been employing sukha as a synonym for nibbāna - drawing on the Brahminical imagery as we know him to have done in many other cases. Despite this I have translated sukha as happiness and well-being. References to underlying Brahminical metaphors are often confusing to modern Buddhists who are frequently ignorant of the Brahminical context of some of the Buddha's sermons. Happiness here though does mean true happiness, the highest happiness, the bliss of nibbāna.

Dukkha, then, is the opposite of nibbāna. This gives it a much broader scope than is usually suggested by translations such as "suffering". When we read "suffering" we tend to think of physical pain or injury. But dukkha characterises all unenlightened experience. At this point you may be thinking "aha! Jayarava has fallen into that old trap of stating, contra the Dharma itself, that everything is suffering". However I am making a more subtle point. Not every experience is physically painful, but we the unenlightened have habitual tendencies which make even pleasure a disappointment. This operates at the level of immediate responses to vedana or sensations. Typically when we experience a pleasant sensation we want it to last, and when we have an unpleasant sensation we want it to stop now. We seek out pleasure, and avoid pain. I have argued at length in my essay on the Buddha's Last words that it is at this level of experience that dependent arising is really important. It is experiences (sensations including mental sensations and our responses to physical sensations) that are impermanent (anicca). The disappointment (dukkha) comes because we fail to grasp the nature of experience - we think of it as, or desire it to be, lasting (nicca). Because experiences (dhammā) are impermanent (anicca) they are disappointing (dukkha). The argument showing how this ties in with the doctrine of anattā would take a bit long to spell out, but it relates to the Brahminical idea about ātman being Brahman in the microcosm, and therefore necessarily having sukha as a characteristic - anything which has dukkha as a characteristic cannot be the ātman. A purely psychological understanding of ātman as simply 'ego' is, I think, a bit limited.

The verses are saying that we experience dukkha if our mind is corrupt. That is, if we fail to see and understand the nature of experience (yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana), then suffering follows, just as the wheel follows the ox which draws the cart - as the wheel follows the foot in the simile of the verses. The image for sukha is subtly different. If our mind is clear and bright (pasanna) then we see things as they are, and bliss cleaves to us. For dukkha the sense is that one thing follows another, and the two are distinct. A shadow however is simply an extension of our body - the shadow moves with us, moves as we move, instantaneously. Our shadow is inseparable (anapāyinī literally not-going-away). Apāyinī can also connote "a falling away (in conduct)" or "transient state of loss or woe after death" [PED sv apāya] so that anapāyinī (not-apāya), like sukha, suggests the goal of the Buddhist life: not falling away from good conduct, not falling into state of loss or woe.

So mind is first, mind is foremost, and things are said to be mind-made because mind determines the results of our actions. Those results are experienced as vedana (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral sensations) and it is our response to vedana that determines whether we experience 'being' as dukkha or sukha, ie saṃsāra or nibbāna. If we fail to understand our existential situation we can expect only dukkha. Of course Buddhism offers us a plethora of tools for the job of waking up, and tells us that everyone can wake up. So while unawakened experience is disappointing, it is not the only possibility. There is every reason for optimism.


  • Brough, John, ed. The Gandhari Dharmapada (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).
  • Norman, K.R., trans. The Word of the Doctrine (Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1997).
See also my commentary on Dhammapada v.3-4

See Also:

Agostini, Giulio. (2010). 'Preceded by Thought Are the Dhammas': The Ancient Exegesis on Dhp 1-2. Buddhist Asia 2. Papers from the Second Conference of Buddhist Studies Held in Naples in June 2004. Edited by Giacomella Orofino and Silvio Vita. Italian School of East Asian Studies, Kyoto 2010.