Showing posts with label Modernity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Modernity. Show all posts

18 January 2019

Against Karma: Modern Buddhism

This is the concluding part of a long essay making a Buddhist case against traditional karma views. Part 1, Against Karma, set the scene by reiterating some points I've made before about karma and the just world fallacy. Part 2, Against Karma: Suffering and Justice, explored the role of suffering in the just world fallacy. In this part, I conclude with some very incomplete ideas about how we make a good society, a summary of the main points, and some concluding remarks.

In my view, no suffering is ever deserved. It might be a direct result of some evil or ignorant action, but still, I have experienced a great deal of suffering and I don't think anyone deserves it. Moreover, I don't believe that it helps people to be more moral in the first place, or the that moral debts are satisfactorily repaid by the infliction of suffering (and nor does anyone else, since criminals are always treated with prejudice). I cannot think of any circumstances in which inflicting suffering is justified. I don't see any suffering as "earned".

And I don't say this as a saint. I have harmed people in the past and probably will again. Sometimes I have set out to do harm. But I am ready to admit that I was wrong to do so. I do believe that it is immoral to harm others or, indeed, to harm any sentient being, or the environment, generally. I have made a lifelong commitment to doing better and recognise the need for constant work in this area. Part of my reason for being in a Buddhist Order is to make common cause with people who feel the same way (although this has gotten complicated lately). 

Minimising harm is the urgent task of every human on the planet. I think most of us get it, but we define our group narrowly and only apply the principle locally. We need to expand our sense of identity to take in a broader picture. But there may be limits to how far some people can go with this. Nationalism as a response to insecurity and high levels of immigration is no great surprise. It may well be that globalisation is a good thing, but the reactions we are seeing to it suggest that, at best, it has been poorly managed. The UK going through the self-mutilation of Brexit is a sign that something has gone very wrong with the post WWII European project. But I don't see any sign of soul-searching going on.

I do not believe in karma because I do not believe that suffering restores justice; all suffering is unjust and there is no just world to balance it out. We can certainly cause ourselves to suffer, but I cannot see that any greater purpose is served by this. Fairness and justice, to the extent they exist at all, are emergent properties of human social interactions.

Of course, most people still think in terms of in-groups and hierarchies of exclusion; they put a higher or lower value on the lives of others depending on how closely related that they are. This is unlikely to stop because we evolved for it. We are social, hierarchical primates, and have an intuitive sense of what works (whether it does or not). But we are also capable of transcending our biological and social conditioning. And here modern Buddhism offers us some very useful tools for pursuing a better life: mindfulness, devotion, critical thinking, scepticism, positive emotion, meditation, and community.

I emphasise modern Buddhism because in order to continue to refine Buddhism we have to change it. I would say that we have to root out the presupposition that some suffering is deserved. We have to align what we say to what we do: we are interventionists in the world with the aim of reducing suffering. So let's not espouse doctrines that say "it will all work out in the afterlife" because that is counterproductive. Our approach is far more dynamic than this: we believe that we must take urgent action, whether or not we are enlightened, to reduce harm and increase well being. That's why we have public centres and teach meditation and Buddhism (though I think we do the latter all wrong).

And, above all, we have to communicate our ideas and values to other people in ways that will motivate to move in the same direction. Not necessarily to join our community, but to help form a confederation of smaller, loosely aligned communities which aim to reduce suffering. We have more in common with Amnesty International or Greenpeace than we do with Christianity or Islam (which is partly why I am bored by comparative religion). On the other hand, the folks who go out on cold winter nights offering hot tea and sandwiches to the homeless tend to be Christians rather than Buddhists. Anyone who is acting to reduce suffering is on the side I want to be on. The Triratna movement in India is more of a social movement with religious features and there is our model - the poor and downtrodden empowered to uplift themselves through education, equality, and fraternity.

Sometimes people are determined to make others suffer or are indifferent to their suffering. And we need a moral code that explains when and how we can intervene and what kinds of steps we can take. And counter-intuitively this may include inflicting harm. A policeman who shoots dead a suicide bomber before they can set off their explosive to kill and maim many others has clearly done the right thing and we need to adopt a moral code which can handle this situation. We also need to have ways of preventing, say, a capitalist who makes excessive profit at the expense of the security and safety of workers. We must see to it that everyone is housed, clothed, and fed. Work need not grind anyone into the ground for minimum wage. Industry must not harm the air we breath, the water we drink, or the soil we grow our food in! None of this is rocket science. We mainly just need to consider empathy and reciprocity.

If we want members of our society to behave themselves and contribute then we have to make it worth their while. The fact that some members of society chose lives of crime, instead, tells us that we are not making law abiding attractive enough. If obeying the law is oppressive or leads to unequal hardship, then we should expect a lot of law breaking.

In the west we tend to be quite hard hearted about the law. There is no obvious reward for being law abiding, it's just the minimum we expect. However, we set society up so that there is inequality and some people can't get by, even if they are working. If there is reciprocity then law abiding citizens need to know that they are going to be looked after as recompense for keeping to the rules.

So let's give people incentives. For example, housing should always be cheap - speculators should not be allowed to force up the cost of housing. One household, one house: no companies, no foreign investors, just people living in houses. Of course it has to be viable, so the housing can't be free. But in the UK landlords who rent houses can afford to pay 10% of the rent to a company to manage it for them and it is still one of the most profitable investments. We could just decide, no: houses are for people to live in.

The amount of wealth in the world is easily enough to provide for the needs of every living person. Easily. We need not have poverty or hunger. All it takes is for people to change their minds about who is deserving of what.

Our views about fairness, justice, and the role of suffering are just beliefs. "Belief is an emotion about an idea" (Michael Taft). If we feel differently, then our beliefs can change. Usually, it takes a personal connection to change someone's mind. Just bombarding people with facts is not enough.

In Part 2 of this essay I made the point that work is less secure nowadays and that this creates anxiety. To illustrate how we think about things, many people feel aggrieved that the government gives out-of-work people money. They may believe that such payments are undeserved. They may cite an example of someone who typifies this undeserving person or they may just believe what the media says: that the unemployed are lazy and feckless (repeating a 600 year old lie).

Most of the unemployed people I have met in many years of being unemployed want to work; they feel anxious about not being able to provide for their family, the insecurity of handouts, and the stigma of unemployment. They are bored from having nothing to do. I think one has to connect with them on a human level. It is all too easy to demonise people based on superficial judgements. But we know what this looks like writ large because we had the 20th Century. If we don't treat people as people it makes us less human, and on a societal scale can be monstrous: e.g., the British Empire.

Of course, ideally, the state would provide meaningful work and pay high wages for shit jobs to make them more attractive. Lately, government has decided to stay out of providing work and shit jobs offer shit pay. Should the person who carts off your dirty garbage in all weather be paid 10% of the salary of the manager who sits at a desk all day pushing (clean) paper around or 1000%? Who is more essential? What about the people who teach your kids at school and university or who care for you in a hospital? Why are they paid poorly compared to chief executives? Hint: the reason that CEOs are well paid is that they get more work for lower pay from fewer people, thus maximising shareholder returns. It just so happens that the people who make employment laws are all major shareholders in companies, often because they inherited their money. 

Key points
    Where "we" is humans in general,
  1. We are social and hierarchical primates
  2. We evolved empathy and reciprocity
  3. Morality emerged from the obligations and expectations created by 1. and 2.
  4. Fairness is an appropriate response to obligations and expectations
  5. Justice is the restoration of a situation of fairness
  6. We tolerate what would otherwise be called bad behaviour in response to unfairness, because
  7. We believe "suffering creates justice".
  8. We perceive ourselves as having different obligations to and expectations of ingroup and outgroup people
  9. Our definition of ingroup can be very flexible and expansive, if we feel secure
  10. Most cultures see immorality as creating a debt and
  11. Moral debts are paid in suffering and thus
  12. Suffering is in some sense earned or deserved and restores fairness and is just
  13. But there is evident injustice and undeserved suffering, so
  14. Religions invoke the afterlife as the place where one suffers in order to restore justice.
  15. Belief is an emotion about an idea, and both can change through personal connections. 


In traditional Buddhism the idea that suffering is deserved is encapsulated in the doctrine of karma. The doctrine says that present suffering is a result of past actions (with some debate as to the extent of this). It also says that our future experience is dependent on our present mental states. Buddhism demonises emotions since these are what lead, ultimately, to suffering (except in Tantra where they turned this on its head and embrace emotions).

By contrast, I believe that no suffering is earned or deserved. Even those who cause themselves harm through being misguided or careless don't deserve to suffer, because their suffering does not make things fair. It's not fair that mistakes or ignorance cause suffering, but more suffering does not improve the situation in any way. There is no justice in the mistaken or ignorant person suffering because of their mistake or lack of knowledge. Sometimes pain will help us learn to avoid the action that caused us pain, but if the route to learning is blocked then again, that is not fair or just.

The idea of a just world is pernicious because it inevitably blames humans for everything that goes wrong, when the fact is that sometimes shit just happens and no one understands why. There is no fairness and justice apart from how we treat each other. It's nothing to do with abstract principles or the supernatural.

Further, I believe that emotions, including so called negative emotions, are natural and helpful. Anger and fear protect us. Desire gets us our basic necessities. Love bonds us to the people who help keep us alive. And so on. Demonising these is unhelpful, but so is the idolisation of them in Romanticism. Emotions are just states of physiological arousal mediated by the autonomic nervous system in response to certain types of stimuli which can be internal (e.g., hunger) or external (i.e., a predator). They are typically accompanied by a style of thinking that gives the emotion its special flavour. Arousal plus happy thoughts is joy whereas arousal plus fearful thoughts is anxiety; and so on. Still, I can't help thinking that if we allowed ourselves to experience emotions more and theorised about them less we'd be better off.

I believe that some of us are able to have a radical transformation of perception so that it is not so self-referential. But not all of us. For most people life is never going to involve that radical transformation so there is no point in selling it as a panacea to all ills or as something everyone can attain. I suspect more people could attain it than current do, but the world is not fair so most people don't have the opportunity. Also, the techniques required are still embedded in contexts which make them inaccessible to the majority - i.e., in religions that require people to take on beliefs and obligations that are unattractive to the majority.

Karma as it is taught by Buddhists is a false picture of the world that clouds the issue and makes the possibility of radical transformation considerably less accessible. Traditional Buddhism ignores the way things really are in favour of a fantasy that is fundamentally unfair and unjust. As modern Buddhists, we could do something about this by exemplifying the change we seek and by telling new stories about the way things are in 2019. Which personal liberation is desirable, modern Buddhism needs to be politically engaged and seeking change on a societal level to make life better for everyone. I'm a fan of the various Green New Deal initiatives. The idea is taking hold in the US amongst progressives, but dates back to a group convened in the UK in 2007.

Mind you, as I watch the politics of the English-speaking world descend into a morass of pettiness and stupidity, I cannot help but wonder if we have left it a little too late to pay attention to the bigger issues.

I don't doubt that traditional Buddhism, complete with monks pretending that they live in medieval India or Tibet, will continue to be a draw card. And modern Buddhism will always have a relationship with the tradition. But this modern-tradition distinction is, to some extent, false. All Buddhism practiced today is modern, it's just that some Buddhists are convinced that pretending to represent some earlier phase of Buddhism makes them more authentic. And, of course, with monks a lot of it is tied up with issues of identity and status. It might be better to use distinctions like conservative and progressive; or authoritarian and libertarian.

I suppose if pressed I would say that I am a green libertarian socialist Buddhist, not an anarchist or a communist, but in favour of mutual aid between willing participants in society and an economy which rewards industry and innovation. Also in favour of a government that puts people and the environment first ahead of profit and that redistributes wealth fairly. Some profit is fair enough, just don't forget who adds the value to the raw materials through their labour! Basically, I grew up in New Zealand in 60s and 70s and there was a lot about it that was good.

But more than this. Look at any movie in which a group of people are threatened by some external force. All humans succeed by having two advantages: individuals with great ideas, and groups of people who work together to make their ideas a reality. We need both and to reward both. Buddhism, no less than society, or all of humanity, fighting off an alien invasion! One of my favourite thinkers, René Jules Dubos, said "Think globally, act locally". I might add, "think individually, act in concert."


16 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 3. Buddhism

In the first two parts of this essay I set up a scenario. I made a case for a mind-independent world, arguing that it is consistent with scientific knowledge and not inconsistent with early Buddhism. This dual approach hints at the overall purpose of the essay. I also tried to stress that I don't think we can project the human desire for perfection onto the mind-independent world, so that referring to it as Transcendental, Absolute, or even fair, is not warranted. The idea of an ordered universe is compelling; but why should it be ordered according to human standards? In fact, it isn't. Humans are only important to humans. An important and ongoing intellectual task is to identify the myths linked to such desires—just-world, perfect world, afterlife, immortality, supernatural, etc.—and reclaim them as human desires rather than as properties of the kosmos, per se. The world isn't like that, but we are. On a practical level, if we acknowledge our desires, we can figure out which are achievable and organise things as best we can to achieve them. It's not like fairness is a crazy idea, for humans.

Having established that there is a mind-independent world and that it is neutral with respect to our values, I tried to locate humans wholly within that world. Just because the world is independent of my mind, from my perspective, does not require that there is an ontological distinction between mind and world. There is an epistemological distinction due to the channels by which we gain knowledge. We tend to conflate the classic five physical senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) as providing us with information about the world and treat our mind-sense, that part of our mental activity which brings sensations and inferences to our attention, as providing a completely different form of information. Early Buddhists by contrast placed the mind-sense in the same category as the classic set of five senses.

The opening question of Part 1 was whether my experience was real or an illusion. I've been researching the history of the phrases from the Heart Sutra that begin "form is emptiness" (rūpam śūnyatā). These were, originally, a reference to that familiar Buddhist simile, "form is like an illusion (rūpam māyopamaṃ). There are two ways of looking at the skandhas: they can be seen as categories into which all phenomena—mental and physical—can be slotted; i.e., the skandhas encompass everything and are an ontology or a theory of existence. In some views, this totality (sarvam) is real and in others it is unreal, an illusion. The middle way is to say that this totality is neither real nor unreal, but because it is contingent and ephemeral, it is like an illusion.

Alternatively, the skandhas can be seen as the apparatus of experience or the experiencing apparatus and are concerned only with experience (i.e., with mental phenomena). In this case, the metaphysical question about real/unreal doesn't arise. Experience per se is like an illusion, because (in Western terms) it's all just representations in our heads. Experience is virtual - not real, not unreal. In this case the skandhas are not an ontology, but an epistemology; a theory of knowledge or of how we produce knowledge.

Sue Hamilton has made a good case for taking early Buddhism as referring to experience. And, over many years of reading early Buddhist texts, I have found this by far the most productive approach to them. It also works extremely well when reading the Prajñāpāramitā texts. Where an ontological reading throws up paradoxes and conundrums, many times an epistemological reading is far more straightforward. This impression has been reinforced by discovering certain modern approaches to ontology and epistemology. But all this begs the question...

So What?

What does this account of experience and a neutral mind-independent world gain us? Why insist on the epistemological nature of Buddhist insight, e.g., that the skandhas are experience? The reason is compatibility. And hence the title of the essay. Traditional Buddhism—e.g., the skandhas as ontology—is incompatible with what we currently know about the world. This can hardly be a surprise, since Buddhist ideas originate in Iron Age North India and are developed in a number of medieval Asian contexts. Very little knowledge about the world from these periods (ca. 500 BCE to 1800 CE) is considered accurate or reliable any more.

During the last 400 years in Europe and its imperialist enclaves around the world, we have discovered a great deal about the value neutral, mind-independent world. In 2003/4, Cambridge Buddhists went to India on pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha. Right here in Cambridge many of the giants of the Enlightenment have studied, lived, and worked. Not figures of myth, but genuine historical people such as Newton, Rutherford, Darwin, Krebs, Crick, Maxwell, Eddington, Turing, Goodall... to name a few personal favourites. People whose ideas helped me to make sense of my world. Hundreds of other luminaries across the entire spectrum of human knowledge (and folly) lived and worked just down the hill from here. Why go to India?

A lot of Buddhists, especially Buddhists I know, are powerfully influenced by Romanticism. As such, they can be carelessly dismissive of the European Enlightenment; some of them, rather ironically, use the internet to devalue science and technology. They seemingly forget that, though the Enlightenment did go down some culs de sac from time to time, it did a huge amount of good. For example, the Enlightenment effectively broke the power of the church over all our lives. It extracted concessions for ordinary people in the form of basic freedoms and rights for the first time. Nor did these freedoms exist in any Buddhist country, where totalitarianism was the norm. Power shifted away from ecclesiastical hierarchies to democratic institutions. As new, more reliable ideas began to emerge, superstitions lost their grip on our lives, particularly the big superstition, God. Nietzsche announced the death of God, but it was the great figures of the Enlightenment who killed him. And a good job that was. The Roman Church and its Protestant spin-offs subjugated the people of Europe and the people conquered by Europe for more than a millennium.

But things were no better in Asia or India. Buddhist nation states routinely denied citizens basic rights and freedoms; they substituted the kinds of religious ideologies that made subjects content to be subjects. The idea of karma was used to undermine Buddhists' sense of agency in the present, by insisting that what is happening now is a fate predetermined by how we lived our previous lives. We need to be clear that traditional Buddhism seeks to turn back the clock and take us back to a medieval worldview. The risk with this is that we relinquish the basic freedoms wrested from the church and put an ecclesiastical hierarchy back in charge. The level of sycophantic deference directed towards "venerable" monastics suggests that many Buddhists are all too willing to be subjugated by them. Just as it's important to resist the rise of the far-right in France, the "moral majority" in the USA, and the right-wing nationalists in the UK or India, we have to recognise the regressive and backwards social and political organisation associated with Buddhist nation states and Buddhist monasticism.

What I hope to show is that there is a middle way between embracing the intellectual slavery of religious ideology and the complete, nihilistic rejection of Buddhism. In other words, acknowledging the kind of world we live in, both in a physical and political sense, I want to show that we can easily imagine a Buddhism which is compatible with the modern world, but still worthy of the name "Buddhism".

Buddhism as Epistemology

The account of Buddhism as concerned with epistemology is consistent not only with key features of early Buddhist and Prajñāpāramitā accounts of experience, but also with a number of post-Enlightenment accounts.

On the Buddhist side, I associate the ideas most strongly with Sue Hamilton but, for example, Bhikkhu Bodhi has also commented that the world with which the Buddha's teachings are concerned is the world of experience. It is also a view that seems to resonate with those people I personally know who have made most progress with meditation and insight, though not always with the people who have adopted so-called "direct pointing" methods, with whom I am still out of step. The latter still seem to believe that they have discovered "reality" in their experience, and while this is an understandable mistake, it is a mistake and only sets back the project of modernising Buddhism.

My approach does undermine those streams of Buddhism which purport to be about reality or metaphysics. Buddhism has nothing of interest to say on matters of existence, causality, space, or time. Nor does any religion. Buddhists may have a major contribution to make on the nature of experience and on the role of the first-person perspective in organising experience, but only if we can disentangle it from our narratives about "reality".

Buddhism as ontology is not compatible with what we know about the value-neutral, mind-independent world. When some Buddhists assert that the mind creates the world in the sense that "mind precedes matter", they are clearly at odds with most of philosophy and all of science. Those Buddhists are asserting a form of causality for which there is no evidence, and which appears to go in the opposite direction to "reality". Worse, Buddhist narratives about reality are not even supportable on their own terms (as I have been pointing out for some years now in considerable detail on this blog). When they come into contact with modern methods and knowledge, these narratives cannot compete, except where people positively want magical explanations and are thus willing to be fooled (and I know plenty of people like this). However, if we interpret "world" as the early Buddhists texts clearly did, as "world of experience", then yes, the mind does create that world or, at the very least, is a central element in creating that world. (Note, it's not that Buddhist texts lack a social world, or a physical world. In fact, they use the word loka for all three. But the world we gain insight into is specifically the world of experience). 

This epistemological account of Buddhism is compatible with basic, macroscopic laws of nature because it says nothing about them and nothing that is at odds with them. There are other accounts of Buddhism which have similar compatibility. This is not a monolithic argument for Jayarava-ism. It's a general argument in favour of compatibility, using my ideas as an example of a compatible account.

When we confuse experience and reality, then the result is usually inconsistent with laws of nature, because the contents of our minds, as virtual representations, are not constrained the same way that physical objects are (I illustrated this in Part 2 using the image of pigs with wings). When we correctly distinguish experience and reality, then we gain some wriggle room. Unfortunately for Buddhism, science is very accurate when it comes to the human scale physical world. At the scales of length, mass, and energy that we work with in our daily lives and which our naked senses can take in, science makes predictions far more accurate than our ability to perceive them, and in some cases more accurate than our ability to measure them at all.

When we take Buddhism to be concerned with epistemology we gain in two ways:
  1. we gain an internally coherent reading of doctrines that are incoherent under an ontological reading;  and 
  2. we gain an accommodation with science as the leading knowledge system of any time or place by stepping out of its way.
Taken together, I submit that these two factors make a compelling case for adapting Buddhism towards an epistemological reading. This is the essence of what I wanted to say with this essay. So the reader could stop at this point. In what follows, I try to characterise in more detail the situation we Buddhists face in the modern world.


Some years ago I was obsessed with the environmental art of Andy Goldsworthy. I emulated his efforts, often using discarded objects to create ephemeral sculptures. I began making freestanding arches out of whatever was at hand. A big feature of my four month ordination retreat was using my spare time to create arches from the abundant local stone (some pics here). I also got into making tall thin spires of stone, but I want to focus here on arches. A stone has certain properties: rigidity, density, external texture, colour, etc. The stone I was working with was weathered from surrounding cliffs. Individual stones tended to be fairly flat and had a rough texture. Now, a simple pile of stones does not have rigidity as a property, it is less dense than the stones that make it up, and doesn't really cohere into an object. It's more of an aggregate. When you make an arch you create something more than a pile of stones. You create a new kind of entity that has properties that piles of stones don't have. Archs are structures with emergent properties. 

My method was to erect two towers of stones that curved toward each other until there was a final gap that could be plugged by one more stone - the keystone in arch-making jargon. Up to that point neither tower would be capable of supporting itself, but relied on a substructure to hold it up. Inserting the keystone to complete the arc feels a bit like an act of magic (I know). The two unstable structures become one structure that is stable, there is a palpable shift in the distribution of forces as two things that feel inherent unstable, become one that is stable. The best arches are lifted off their support a little by wedging in the keystone, so that the arch is already free-standing at that point.

No investigation of the properties of the stones would throw up the possibility of making arches if one did not already have the idea of an arch as a structure in your head. The building blocks do not enable us to predict the architecture. This is the fundamental limitation on reductionism with respect to structure. On the other hand, one can analyse arches to see how the properties of the stones, assembled in a particular way, create the new property that enables the freestanding arches to remain standing. 

King's College Chapel
The basic principles of arch-making are old. The Romans were already experts at making them. The physics is all quite well understood and can be described in classical terms. Cambridge and the surrounding area are home to some spectacular medieval architecture. The fan-vaulted ceiling of King's College Chapel is an apotheosis of the architectural arch. The Norman cathedral at Ely is a classic of the type and full of spectacular arches and a dome. However, these days we have pre-stressed, reinforced concrete, steel beams, lightweight metal-alloy cladding, and toughened glass. It's nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing, but to some extent it democratised grand spaces.

Architecture tells us a lot about a society. For example, the periods of self-indulgent monumental architecture in Britain, associated with the Normans and later with the British Empire, were signs of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny ruling elite at the expense of both British workers and the indigenous people of the various colonies. During the height of the Empire, for example, typical housing for working people was rows of tiny, small-roomed houses, crammed together; built at minimal cost, with the cheapest materials, and little or no decoration. Walls were thin, the houses were not insulated, and many had little or no garden space. Socialising in such houses was next to impossible, so this was done at the local pub for adults, or out in the street for children (weather permitting). Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie were building a network of country mansions, each with vast landscaped gardens, and a staff of peasants, many of these establishments on what was once common land, previously owned by no one but used by peasants as back-up for when work dried up. The huge dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London represents, as much as anything, the cruel inequality of British society, and the avarice of the Church of England at the time. You also learn a lot about British society by noting that the statues lining the walls inside the cathedral are mostly military figures, rather than saints. The role of the military is to protect commerce.

We need to be clear that the meeting of Buddhism and modernism is not like two leaning towers of blocks coming together with only the keystone missing to join them into one harmonious whole. No. While Buddhists are hunting around for just the right keystone to complete the arch from the ancient past to the present, secular modernists have already just dropped a couple of massive steel beams across the gap, bypassing our religion entirely. Mindfulness is already a secular commodity and enlightenment is about to become one (Look up Jeffery A Martin for one version of how this might look, complete with hi-tech gadgets).

Once people realise that they can have the enlightenment experience without the burden of memorising a bunch of words in a dead language, a load of ancient Indian myths, some rather doubtful "history", and incoherent ancient philosophical speculations, then "Buddhism" is going to become an even more niche activity; a theme park attraction or a Asian fetish. Like most people, while I do appreciate the elitist grandeur of the Norman Cathedral, I mostly just want an affordable roof over my head.

As beautiful as arches are, and as fascinating as it is to make them, they no longer serve as structural features in buildings. Where arches are used, they are merely decorative rather than functional. Load -bearing is handled by modern materials in modern configurations. We might mourn the loss of the arch, but no one is arguing that we stop using steel beams or prestressed concrete and go back to using them as functional features of our buildings. Idea on the value of arches in structures is pretty much irrelevant.

Buddhism and Modernism

Some critics of what they call "Buddhist Modernism" complain that the values being promulgated by Western Buddhists are just modern liberal values masquerading as Buddhism. I suppose, to some extent, this is true, but what is the alternative? Look around at societies in which Buddhism is the dominant religion. Look at their values. Most are nominally democracies, but until very recently most have also been dictatorships, very often military dictatorships. Most have been engaged in civil wars recently; many in wars with other nations. Democracy and human rights are not so much embraced by nominally Buddhist nations, as they are imposed on them by external, secular influences (one of the main ones being the cultural imperialism of the USA). 

Here in the West we now take liberal values—such as democracy and human rights—for granted. A couple of weeks ago, 68% or around two-thirds of eligible voters turned out for an election in the UK and this figure was considered "high". A third of the electorate not voting is outrageous when you consider what people went through to get the right to vote in this country! Ironically, traditional Buddhism, unmolested by modernism, might never have produced the kind of liberal values that we hold dear, if traditional Buddhist countries are anything to go by. Traditional Buddhists are likely be fatalistic about their lot in life, about the unfairness of the system, and about who is in power. As often as Buddhist monks protest oppression, they are the oppressors.  

If Japan had won the Pacific War, for example, and subjugated Asia and the USA, leaving the Germans a free hand in Europe and Africa, would we expect to have the UN declaration of human rights? History makes it fairly clear that the authoritarian, imperialist, militaristic government of nominally Buddhist Japan, with support from Buddhist clergy, was not heading in that direction. Communist China was brutal in Tibet, but it would have been much worse if Buddhist Japan had completed their conquest of Asia (which had begun some years before WWII).

So, yes, we Western Buddhists have created a Buddhism that is consistent with our liberal values. But to be fair, we have created it from an idealised version of morality as found in Buddhist scripture, not from the historical values of Buddhist societies. Critics can be grateful for that, because in most Buddhist regimes, critics are not tolerated! We Western Buddhists may be religious, but we're not idiots. To argue that this is a form of modernism rather than a form of Buddhism is to ignore the highly eclectic intellectual history of Buddhism. The critique of Buddhism seems itself to be motivated by Protestant ideas about what a religion ought to be like. Sometimes I think it is ironic that my friend David Chapman touts a modernist version of tantric Buddhism, itself a syncretistic amalgam of various elements of medieval Indian and indigenous Tibetan religion, as a better "alternative" to what he calls 'consensus Buddhism'. On the other hand, he is probably right that embracing the hedonistic tendency of the West is more likely to be successful than the suppression of it required by renunciation-focussed forms of Buddhism. Puritanism still has its appeal to many Europeans (especially in the colonies they founded to allow Protestants to follow their religious ideology unmolested), but it's never been a realistic alternative to the way of life most people prefer.

The Protestant trend in religious critique, combined with simplistic readings of Foucault and others on the idea of power and society, has made Westerners overly suspicious of community. Indeed, it seems to be de rigueur for critics of modern Buddhism to define the social aspects of Buddhism as not Buddhism. Modernists' Buddhism is sometimes narrowly defined in terms of a few elite practitioners with on-going non-symbolic experiences. Which excludes 99% of Buddhists from the category of "Buddhist". Pop psychology buzz-words like "group-think" or "echo chamber" seem to be over-worked at the expense of any attempt to understand humans as social animals. Still, I think Buddhists embracing Protestant attitudes is probably neutral. At least, in Protestantism, fatalism is undermined by the imperative to actually do something about one's faith, something sorely lacking in traditional Buddhism.

It is essential for any modern critic to acknowledge that human beings are social and hierarchical by nature (which is, incidentally, why I am a socialist and not an anarchist). The same is true for all social mammals and many social birds, as well. Yes, some social situations are open to exploitation by sociopaths, but a human set apart from society, alienated from society, is far more vulnerable than one in a group. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment for a reason. Alienated individuals are prone to addiction and mental illness.

Foucault's notions of power embrace the role of the subject in hierarchical relationships. As social animals we instinctively subject ourselves to the group norms in a trade off for the protection and other benefits that community membership (ideally) provides. Some of the happiest people in the USA live in strictly religious communities. Amongst the Amish, rigid social norms constrain the behaviour of individuals in ways that look oppressive to outsiders. However, an Amish knows that they can rely on their community to a much greater extent than any outsider can on theirs. And in most cultures, this tradeoff of conformity for a very high degree of support is the norm. It is ironic that in secular society, with all its freedoms, inequality is orders of magnitude greater, and so many people appear to have no support at all. The destruction of the union movement, for example, has decoupled employment rates from wages. Employment is at record highs in the UK, while wages have been falling in real terms for 10 years and continue to fall. Divided, we fall.

The embracing of Romanticism and the rejection of science, however, seem positively detrimental to me. Of course, alpha-critic, David McMahan, highlights ways in which he thinks Buddhists have embraced science, but my observation is that the influence is tiny in practice. Those Buddhists who do embrace science are few, and have started to form breakaway movements, though it remains to be seen how well they can integrate the two. They often fail to make the corrective move away from ontological readings of Buddhism, leaving them attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. Or else they throw out far too much in an attempt at reconciliation. 

More interesting are those who have some ongoing non-symbolic experience and have either modified or largely abandoned the tradition to focus on just the elements that appear to directly contribute to non-symbolic experiences. This exacerbates the old tension (I almost said, the old injury) already mentioned, in which the social and cultural aspects of Buddhism are devalued in favour of isolated people doing specific meditative techniques. One of my friends characterises this as the distinction between Buddhism and the Dharma. Some movements are teaching people how to be Buddhists; others are solely focussed on creating non-symbolic experiences. I think we need both.

If a Buddhist group is only teaching people how to act like Buddhists (which, of course, may include a regular meditation practice) then they would seem to be guilty of the complaint often laid at the door of secular mindfulness teachers: i.e., that their program is incomplete. On the other hand, a group that only offers intensive meditation instruction, and no pastoral care or community support, also seems to be incomplete. On one side is the danger of fatalism, complacency, and formalism; while on the other the danger is solipsism, alienation, and delusions of grandeur. Is there a keystone waiting to be inserted? I'm not convinced there is one. I suspect this will be another case of steel beams making keystones irrelevant.

Buddhism and STEM

The rejection of science is particularly problematic for Buddhism. It is true that the scientific project is incomplete. There is a great deal that is not understood. And it is problematic that so much of science is dominated by reductionist ideology, which ignores structure and emergent properties. This seems to be changing. It's mainly physicists and neuroscientists who are obsessed with reductionism. A lot of other branches of science, such as biology, AI, or cosmology, understand that anti-reductionism is required where structures and systems are concerned. Chemistry is somewhere in the middle. We chemists know that everything is made of atoms, but that the really interesting objects are molecules and macromolecules, because they have properties and variety that are not found in atoms. No one designing a semiconductor or superconductor can afford an ideological commitment to reductionism, because the very properties that they investigate are systemic and emergent. Imagine if an architect only ever studied bricks and thought houses (let alone mortar) were not relevant because, being composite, they are not real. That's where a lot of science is right now. On the other hand, it's also where Buddhist doctrine has been stuck for 2000 years or more.

In the clash of Buddhism and modernity, Buddhism stands to lose unless Western civilisation collapses and we go back to medieval or earlier forms of knowledge. I suspect that, in fact, the tipping point has been reached and traditional Buddhism has peaked. Buddhism as a religion is going to be gradually eclipsed by recycled secular presentations of our best ideas (few) and practices (many). However, if we cede the domain of reality to science we gain in two ways. We are still the experts in understanding the world of experience (for now) and we are seen not to insist on the kinds of obviously false claims about reality that religieux typically make.

In his first book on Buddhism, authored from notes for a series of talks delivered in 1954 in India, my first Buddhist teacher, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, wrote that he prefered Buddhist doctrine to rational inquiry, in all things (A Survey of Buddhism, Chp 1). Even then, the romantic influence on this thinking is apparent. For example, describing Wong Mow Lam's translation of the Platform Sutra he says:
"Despite bad grammar, faulty syntax and wrong use of words (to say nothing of printer's errors, coarse paper and unattractive binding of the original edition) there shines through its pages a light which is not of this world... (Survey 42; emphasis added)
Sangharakshita studiously ignored science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) throughout his long teaching career despite the advances that occurred during his career, including the discovery of DNA, the integrated circuit, space flight, personal computers, organ transplants, brain surgery, and so on. None of this ever seems to attract his attention. Even when he spoke about evolution (a 19th Century theory) in the 1960s, rather than citing Darwin, Sangharakshita innovated a teleological and vitalist approach to evolution that was completely out of touch, not to say at odds, with the science of his own day (let alone the science of our day). Sangharakshita's layered approach to "reality" under the rubric of niyāma (an unfortunate misnomer that considerable effort from scholars of Pāḷi in the Order has been unable to shift), recently reiterated and elaborated on by Subhuti, incorporates elements of the 19th Century Western thought of Comte and Mill, via the Edwardian figure of Caroline Rhys Davids. However, again, Sangharakshita incorporates no insights from the STEM fields, but simply reiterates his vitalist teleology.

I know I find this frustrating and I'm sure many of my STEM educated friends and colleague do also. I seldom make the challenge direct and personal, but I think this time I have to. The idea of a value-neutral, mind-independent world eviscerates Romanticism. My whole approach is anti-Romantic. And it is a considered stance that I believe is necessary, however confrontational it appears (my motivation is not to provoke confrontation, it is to rescue Buddhism from obscurity). While any influence is unconscious, it is potentially pernicious. This seems to me to be consistent with the early Buddhist criticism of dṛṣṭi or "views".

On the other hand, I have never articulated a theory of aesthetics. Art and music do affect our states of mind. And, if we are in pursuit of altered states of mind, then, for this reason, aesthetics are important. The lack of an articulated approach to aesthetics is something I ought to address at some point (art and music have been important to me most of my life). In an environment in which aesthetics has become synonymous with Romanticism, what would an anti-Romantic aesthetic even look like? But if I have failed to engage with aesthetics, then I'm in good company, because neither has any other critic of traditional Buddhism. 

Buddhism and the Supernatural

A major remaining problem for modern Buddhism is the supernatural. I no longer find anything about the supernatural plausible - it is not required in a value-neutral, mind-independent world. But virtually all religious, and even some non-religious, people do. Many intelligent people are willing to remain, or insist on remaining, agnostic on this matter. I know that many of my Buddhist colleagues and acquaintances are fully committed to supernatural interpretations of experience and structure their self-views around supernatural narratives. The supernatural is a fact to many people and likely to remain plausible to them for reasons I have previously explored on this blog. I find the evolutionary accounts produced by scholars such as Justin Barrett, Thomas Metzinger, Robin Dunbar, and Stewart Guthrie compelling. However, if their accounts are accurate, then factual arguments will most likely never convince believers that they are wrong. The supernatural will remain plausible and will be impossible to eradicate from religion. It will continue to form the core of religion, but it also informs people's views about the world far beyond the religious sphere. Unfortunately, the supernatural involves built-in falsehood, and it can only hinder any attempt to free ourselves from harmful views. 

Meanwhile, our methods and insights are being repackaged even now and represented in secular terms that appeal to a growing number of people who are not otherwise interested in religion, let alone an exotic minority religion like Buddhism.

I suspect that at some point Western Buddhism will split into two broad factions over the issue of the supernatural. If this happens then a lot that is good about the tradition in terms of stories, myths, art, and so on, will be lost. I say this because I think that Buddhism, as presented to Westerners, is not sufficiently in tune with Western Values to ever be anything but exotic, with appeal to a tiny minority. As much as critics complain about the presentation of Western liberal values as Buddhist morality, in fact, many Buddhists are scornful and dismissive towards Western values. Politics (and with it concepts like freedom and liberty) and STEM are seen as outside the scope of valid knowledge. And the view seems to be that once one is enlightened one's values will be radically altered to be consistent with the sentiments of the English Romantic Poets (a bunch of degenerate freeloaders who spent a lot of time getting out of their skulls on opium).

Since science and technology more or less define our modern values, any religion which eschews them or demonises them, as Buddhists tend to, will not grow beyond the 1% that we have attracted to date. And we will watch in frustration as other supernatural narratives, particularly God's love, divine forgiveness, and everlasting life, continue to outperform ours. It's a lot of hard work for quite meagre returns, and not really sustainable. Of course, a diaspora who have nothing left but their deeply religious culture will probably keep the traditions alive for centuries. Judaism shows just how powerful cultural identity can be under extreme adverse conditions. 


In this longish essay I've outlined a view of the world that I think provides maximum compatibility between contemporary knowledge of the world and Buddhism. It requires a considerable compromise on our part. In this last part I've tried to make it clear, using the imagery of arch building, that the task is not simply finding the right "keystone" that will allow science and Buddhism to map onto each other. In fact, I think it far more likely that science will simply bypass traditional Buddhism and leave it behind as a curiosity or fetish for Asiaphiles. Instead, commodified, secular versions of our key approaches to experience will eclipse traditional Buddhism, making much of it irrelevant. All it lacks at present is a sense of communal values, though, of course, the very act of commodifying something strips it of much of its value; and the therapeutic model steers away from creating communities.

I want to finish with a different metaphor. In his book on the canon of Western literature, curmudgeonly literary critic, Harold Bloom (The Western Canon), turns the tables on Freud. Freud had infamously diagnosed many of Shakespeare's characters with psychopathologies. Bloom was of the opinion that Shakespeare had the greater insight into the human psyche, and argued that Freud probably agreed with this, at least subconsciously. Freud was reputed to be obsessed with Shakespeare. Where Freud had diagnosed Hamlet as having an Oedipus Complex—a rather simplistic and gross reading of the character—Bloom turns it around and diagnoses Freud as having a Hamlet Complex as a result of his feeling that Shakespeare had the deeper insight. However plausible we find this characterisation, the idea of a Hamlet complex is one I find useful in considering many things in life, but particularly the potential fate of Buddhism.

Hamlet discovers from his father's ghost that his uncle Claudius, at his mother's bidding, has murdered his father and usurped the throne of Denmark. The testimony of a ghost would not stand up in court, but the knowledge compels him to act. He knows his mother, Gertrude, is complicit, so to confront his uncle is also to condemn his mother which he recoils from. For a while he feigns madness, or perhaps is a little mad, and during this period rebuffs his childhood friend and sweetheart, Ophelia. Things go from bad to worse when he inadvertently kills Ophelia's father, Polonius. Ophelia is so distraught from Hamlet's rejection and Polonius's death that she kills herself. There seems to be no course of action or inaction Hamlet can take to relieve the unbearable tension of his knowledge. Hamlet's attempt to expose Claudius using the play-within-a-play only alerts Claudius to Hamlet's awareness of his crime. Claudius plots to kill Hamlet, resulting instead in the deaths of his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the end, events overrun Hamlet as Ophelia's brother Laertes returns and, prompted by Claudius, accuses Hamlet of responsibility for her death. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel. At the duel Claudius offers poisoned wine to Hamlet, but Gertrude drinks it instead and dies. But not before Laertes cuts Hamlet with a poisoned blade supplied by Claudius, sealing his doom. Hamlet's dying act is to stab Claudius with his sword, a final act of justice. 

We can define the Hamlet Complex as, when one understands the situation, knows that action is required, but is prevented from acting, not simply by indecision or cowardice, but also by the terrible unintended consequences provoked by attempts at action, and by the machinations of opposing agents. Eventually, events overrun the protagonist, leading to the worst possible outcome. (I'm not sure that this applies to Freud, but I'll pass over that)

To me, Buddhism has a Hamlet Complex. I think deep down we all know that the world has changed and, indeed, is changing rapidly around us. I suppose we might go down the route of the Amish. We might reject the modern world, get off the internet, stop using electricity, motor-vehicles, and modern medicine; we might give up personal freedoms and adopt rigid social norms; and that might be a satisfying life. I've certainly dabbled in it, during, for example, my four month ordination retreat. But we'll never sell this as an ideal which modern Westerners can aspire to.

So here we are. We know that God is dead and religion is dying. We know that fewer and fewer people are religious. And yet, we who are still religious stand by as some promote an identical program but call it something else, and some pick out parts of our program and commodify it. We have good PR to an extent that we don't deserve, but we can't seem to capitalise on it, because we are promoting the one thing that no one wants any more. And yet,with some adjustments we could make it interesting to everyone.

On Twitter this week, David Chapman asked what Buddhists offer the world. We offer a vision of human potential; a practical path for realising that potential; and a community of people who want more from life than mindless consumerism and blind obedience to the dictates of commerce. These are our gifts (ratna) to the world. If we were more aware of the limitations of these gifts (particularly the powerful constraints on who can achieve their potential) and of what we don't offer (an ontology; politics), then I think we would be in a stronger position. Perhaps we can boil it down to the idea that, at our best, Buddhists offer a way for people to experience a powerful sense of interconnectedness; something they crave, but which modern life does not provide. Let's not allow ideology to get in the way of giving our gifts with an open hand. 


22 May 2015

Critiquing Buddhist Karma

In researching karma and rebirth I came across an interesting article by well known scholar of religion, Paul J. Griffiths. It dates from 1982 and while there was some immediate response from one scholar and the article has been cited a number of times, the ideas in the article seem to end up going nowhere. I read recently that 90% of humanities articles are never cited!

One of the main points made in the Griffiths article is that there is very little critical evaluation of Buddhist philosophy or Buddhist ideas more generally. My own reading on the subject of karma has turned up few critical articles (see Bibliography). What's missing, according to Griffiths, is a critical engagement with Buddhist ideas. By this he specifically means a genuine attempt to assess the validity of truth claims made by Buddhists (1982: 277).  

Scholarly publications on Buddhism seem to fall into a number of categories:
  1. Descriptive works which are concerned with continuing to flesh out the history of Buddhism and to describe the intricacies of this complex subject. The opening up of Chinese Buddhist studies and comparison of Chinese, Gāndhārī and Pali versions of the early Buddhist texts mean that this descriptive phase of Buddhist studies will continue for the foreseeable future. 
  2. Apologetics, that is works whose aim is to defend a Buddhist worldview in some form. We have both religious apologists who seek to retain the traditional elements of Buddhism, and secular apologists whose views are broadly aligned with a Buddhist tradition and who write in such a way as to bolster traditional readings, particularly of history. 
  3. Polemics of the field of Buddhist Studies itself, which are aimed not at Buddhism per se, but at the hubris of scholars making claims based on texts which contain far more uncertainly, ambiguity or down right incoherence than Buddhist Studies scholars like to admit. At best these result in more sophisticated articles of type 1.
  4. Ideological polemics aimed Buddhism, which essentially criticise Buddhism for not being, for example, Christian, Vedic, or Marxist enough. 
There's quite a bit of work which is comparative, especially recently comparative ethics, which seeks to find points of cross-over between Buddhist thought and the Western Intellectual tradition. These seem to combine descriptive and apologetic modes of writing. It's a mode of positively engaging with Buddhism, but it never really gets down to assessing the truth claims made by Buddhists.

There is a large gap in the market when it comes to the kind of critical attention that Griffiths has in mind. And in an age where the claims of religion are increasingly challenged head on, it is surprising that Buddhism appears to be escaping the kind of scrutiny that atheists are directing to Christianity (which may simply be a measure of how unimportant Buddhism is in the West). Although Griffiths was writing more than 30 years ago, very little appears to have changed. There is almost no critical engagement with Buddhism in the Academy and yet at the same time attention is lavished on Buddhism. This might be because disproving the truth claims of Buddhists would be killing the goose that laid the golden egg for scholars of Buddhism (though the survival of the field since Griffiths is a counterargument to this). Many people see the criticisms that I propose, for example, as "destroying" Buddhism (at the very least I regularly have people tell me that I am not really a Buddhist). Another factor is that many scholars of Buddhism are clearly in love with their subject and have all of the objectivity of the love struck. They can hardly be expected to criticise their love interest.

Another explanation is that we have adopted the anthropologist's disinterested, objective stance. I recall discussing this with an anthropologist friend who did her post-graduate work on stupa building projects in New Zealand and Australia. She showed me pictures from her Australian group which showed physical relics of the Buddha and the previous Buddha. I scoffed, since at best the previous Buddha is a myth, but she told me that her stance was to accept that this is what they believed and to focus on how this belief affected their lives and actions. The fact that they venerated such "relics" was more interesting than the truth of their claims. Assessing the belief played no part in her approach to research. Her work is thus mainly descriptive. Such is also true for those whose focus is historical or linguistic.

My impression is that it's not just Buddhism. The whole field of Indology skirts around the problem. Of course criticising Indian thought is a political minefield. Another problem for Western scholars who positively engage with Indian thought is that they risk being labelled as racists or cultural imperialists. Professors Michael Witzel and Wendy Doniger for example regularly suffer these canards, largely because their work does not satisfy the criteria of nationalists.

Doing Philosophy with Buddhism

Problems emerge when we engage with Buddhist ideas as philosophers. There is a great deal published now on the subject of Buddhist (or Indian) philosophy and the history of Buddhist ideas. As philosophers we cannot be content with a descriptive approach. We have an imperative to weigh the claims of Buddhists to see if they are true, or to what extent they are true. And if they are not true, then we have an obligation to say so, and to make a case for abandoning the claim. It's very difficult for Buddhists to do honest philosophy when we are in love with Buddhism. We are too strongly subject to cognitive bias. The same is true for many scholars of Buddhism. Personally, I found the intellectual weakness of Buddhist teaching, and in particular the teaching I had received directly, quite shocking once I began to study the history of Buddhist ideas in earnest (I think of Professor Gombrich's 2006 Numata lectures as a watershed in this sense).

Some Buddhist bloggers have taken up the challenge, to some extent: e.g. myself, David Chapman,  and Glenn Wallis (and others who used his blog as a vehicle; with whom my relationship is complicated). But we are not always consistent, or always coherent, and we all have different approaches and agendas. One thing we all have in common is limited success in engaging mainstream Buddhists. There's very little interest from the wider Buddhist community, who almost universally prefer to read confirmation of their beliefs rather than challenges. The most popular Buddhist blogs simply reflect Buddhists beliefs back to them. Thus those of us who write critically about Buddhism, are either preaching to the converted or to the birds.

What makes Griffiths interesting is that he is trying to do philosophy with Buddhist ideas, rather than trying to justify a religious view. And this means that his paper is one of the most interesting articles ever published on Buddhist philosophy. It is certainly a relief from the steady stream of (re)interpretations of Nāgārjuna's impenetrable jargon-filled jumble. Not only do the least interesting philosophers of Buddhism seem to get all the attention, but we seldom seem to get to the nub of the issues they were grappling with.

There was a response to Griffiths (1982) from White (1983) and then a rebuttal from Griffiths (1984), but little beyond that. Bronkhorst has tackled the problem of teleology in Indian conceptions of karma across the board (2000). More recently Cho (2014) has joined the discussion from an interesting angle. In response to attempts to jettison karma by secularists he argues that Westerners have failed to understand how traditional cultures make use of karma. Meanwhile apologetics continue to multiply: e.g. ThanissaroBodhiSangharakshita, and Vessantara's resent essays Some Problems with Not Believing in Rebirth & More on Rebirth.

Griffiths acknowledges that there is a difficult apprenticeship to grapple with the subject. It requires at least some familiarity with a number of scriptural languages. Griffiths's own article suffers from a common complaint, which is over-reliance on Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāṣya as a source book on sectarian Buddhist views. This general over-reliance on the Bhāṣya is because most of the surviving source material is only available in Chinese translation. Sanskritists and Palists have historically not had the Chinese language skills to match. It's not surprising as mastering these languages takes years of effort (it takes about 5 years to get really confident in Sanskrit), though this is changing.

Griffiths Thesis

Griffiths distinguishes three major functions of karma in Buddhism (280):
  1. as an "explanatory cosmogonic hypothesis"; the universe as created by volitional acts.
  2. as an "explanatory hypothesis for the varied states and conditions of sentient beings"; why we are human, why some have good/bad fortunes.
  3. as a means of social control in Buddhist societies; "acting as a powerful mechanism for regulating and enforcing the essentially hierarchical structure of Buddhist societies and of providing a rationale for Buddhist soteriological practice..." 
From these functions Griffiths derives seven truth claims, seven propositions that have to be true if the Buddhist account of karma is to be judged true as a whole (in the article they are labelled P 1-7). Griffiths is at pains to say that he has no space for a full treatment of these propositions. However, for our purposes even a superficial analysis is useful. In this essay I will focus on the propositions that Griffith deduces from the second major function. 

In my previous essays I have already showed that Buddhist cosmogony cannot be taken literally, thus the propositions (P1 & P2 n Griffiths notation) that derive from this function are not very interesting since they are patently false. If it once provided Buddhists with a satisfactory account of the origin of the universe then it does not now do so. Griffiths emphasises this when he shows that for the karma theory of the origin of the universe to be true, it means sentient beings must precede the origin of the universe, which is nonsensical.

The propositions (P6 & P7) associated with the third, regulatory, function probably do help to regulate Buddhists societies as long as they are treated as being true. Traditionally Buddhists have believed in a supernatural function of the universe, which correlates past actions to present vedanā and future punarbhava or rebirth. In fact my own work has already shown that Buddhists did not come up with a completely coherent account of this function. But a coherent narrative is perhaps less important than a compelling narrative when it comes to motivating people to ethical behaviour. 

This brings us to the truth claims for the second function. These seem to me to be the most important claims made by Buddhists. As an explanation for our present state, Griffiths suggests that the Buddhist theory of karma makes the following truth claims (282, paraphrased):
P3 Each individual undergoes more than one life.
P4 The parameters for any individual are set at conception and result from actions in previous lives.
P5 There is no undeserved suffering.
As critical readers we must not only assess the validity of the author's conclusions, but also the strength of the reasoning involved and the validity of this starting propositions. We need to be clear that the basis of this account of karma is Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. I have a serious objection to P5, but let us work through Griffith's argument. 

Multiple lives
P3 Each individual undergoes more than one life.
Griffiths argues that if define an individual as having physical continuity in time, then P3 is incoherent since death clearly disrupts physical continuity. A soul inhabiting many bodies is unacceptable to Buddhists. Buddhists conceive of an individual as a series of psycho-physical events (khandhas). In this view death is not an interruption to the series, even though the individual body ceases. I've already discussed Vasubandhu's approach to rebirth to some extent. He believed that rebirth occurred an appreciable time after death if only to account for the time taken for vijñāṇa to travel from one physical location to another. Vasubandhu was against instantaneous arising of vijñāṇa elsewhere. 

As such Griffiths reformulates P3 as
P3' Any given caused continuum of momentary states exhibiting sentience (i.e. an individual) does not cease with death (283).
This allows Buddhists to eliminate any tendency to postulate a more substantial something which dies and is reborn. Griffiths notes, as I have done, that Buddhists are likely to assert P3' when they are concerned with social control and as the basis of morality. If actions have consequences, but the consequences are lived by someone else, then that is no motivation for morality. Thus Buddhists discussing morality emphasise personal continuity. Whereas Buddhists discussing metaphysics and identity stress mere processes. 

A corollary of P3' is that all moments of being are simply moments in a series. In the strong form of this idea, identity is always merely contingent. In fact there are no individuals. It's a moot point to claim that at any two moments any two "individuals" are linked at all. Without the sense of continuity, the concept of an individual, the concept of individual responsibility for actions, breaks down. 

I would add that this was Nāgārjuna's ultimate argument against mainstream Buddhist karma theories:
karma cen nāsti kartā ca kutaḥ syāt karmajaṃ phalam |
asaty atha phale bhoktā kuta eva bhaviṣyati || MMK_17.30 ||
If there is no agent and no action, could their be result born of action?
In the absence of a fruit, how can there be one who suffers the result? 
kleśāḥ karmāṇi dehāś ca kartāraś ca phalāni ca |
gandharvanagarākārā marīcisvapnasaṃnibhāḥ || MMK_17.33 ||
Defilements, actions, forms, agents and fruits;
Are like a Gandharva city, like a mirage or a dream. 
All the talk of morals is just an upāya, a lie that is justified by compassion. However Griffiths argues that neither P3 nor P3' stand up to criticism and are in fact both false, because the whole idea of an individual is false in the strict reading of Buddhist metaphysics. Taken to it's logical extreme we get to Nāgārjuna's conclusion, that ultimately none of these ideas constitutes a substantial reality. Nothing is what it seems and the idea that anything could persist long enough to earn the title "individual" is simply wrong. Ergo, there is no one to reap the fruit of actions, no one to be reborn. Here we see precisely why other Buddhists considered Nāgārjuna to be a nihilist. However, barred from any form of Realism (Sarvāstivāda and Pudgalavāda notwithstanding) Buddhists seeking an alternative to Nāgārjuna's perceived nihilism, fell into forms of idealism, specifically citta-matra, the idea that there is only mind.

Time and again when this idea comes up, Buddhists cite researchers into paranormal phenomenon such as Ian Stevenson or Jim Tucker. I've dealt with some of the problems of this kind of research previously: Rebirth and the Scientific Method (1 Oct 2010) and Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient (27 Jan 2012). What Stevenson in particular thought he had evidence for was reincarnation. The same soul returning to be incarnated in a new body. If this were true then the whole edifice of Buddhist metaphysics would be broken, since we vehemently deny that existence of a soul and the very possibility of reincarnation (Tibetan tulku's notwithstanding).

Influence of Previous Lives

P4 The parameters for any individual are set at conception 
and result from actions in previous lives.

By parameters Griffiths means state of congenital health, intelligence, physical appearance, i.e. all the factors that we would now ascribe to genetic inheritance from our parents. Not included, is what we will make of our lives within these givens. Clearly if the propositions P3 and P3' are false, then P4 must also be false, since it is predicated on P3 (previous lives). However, as Griffiths notes, Buddhist karma theory is not strictly deterministic. On this basis he is willing to grant that actions in a previous life might have influenced this life, with the caveat that the mechanisms suggested by Buddhists are hardly credible. 

It may be that Griffiths was not writing from a very informed position on genetics, or that in 1982 genetics seemed a less promising science. This was before the sequencing of the human genome for example. But from my point of view, Griffiths is far too generous on this point. Even if we take in the newish field of epigenetics, which (re)opens the door to Lamarckian passing on of passing on learned characteristics or at least parental responses to environmental conditions, the idea of influence from one life to another is no longer credible.

I've outlined Sean Carroll's argument against this and have yet to see any Buddhist attempt a refutation. Basically, if the body is made of atoms that hold the information which makes up our personality and memories, the second law of thermodynamics means that the information cannot survive our death. Additionally if there were other forces that could affect matter in any perceptible way we would have found them by now. The argument against this is typically dualistic. Mind stuff is different from matter stuff. However for mind stuff to be interesting it would have to interact with matter stuff, since mental events always have a material correlates. Such interactions would be detectable and thus since we do not detect them we have a strong argument against a separate mind stuff. There is only one kind of stuff. 

Thus Griffiths was too soft on Buddhists in this part of his argument. Hereditary does indeed set the parameters for our present lives, but there is no evidence that this has anything to do with having lived before. Our parameters are set by our particular recombination of our parents DNA, a few epigenetic factors and the environment we develop in. The combination of hereditary and environment explain everything about us without the need to invoke previous lives.

When one looks at afterlife beliefs they are almost always tied to the idea that the universe is moral or ethical. An afterlife is required to deal with the patent unfairness of life. And this brings us to proposition five. 


P5 There is no undeserved suffering.

This proposition is not logically contradictory or incoherent in itself. However, in Buddhism it is always tied to the previous propositions. One could hold this view independently of Buddhist truth claims (many conservatives appear to hold this view for example), but according to Griffiths, traditionally Buddhists always combined them. Indeed the attractiveness of Buddhist karma as an explanatory power is precisely for the kinds of extreme circumstances cited by Griffiths: e.g. the suffering of infants who have had no chance to commit the kinds of deeds that might warrant suffering a punishment (there's an assumption here that suffering can be deserved or undeserved, but we'll have to take it on face value for now). Explaining undeserved suffering has been a major feature of all religious moral narratives, which are necessarily predicated on the idea of deserved suffering. However, I think Griffiths has missed some subtly here. Buddhists have a variety of responses. While Tibetan Buddhists appear to believe that everything that happens is a result of karma, and this accept that the suffering infant must have been evil in a past life; the Pāḷi texts make it clear that karma does not account for illness, only for birth in the human realm where one is subject to illness and suffering.

I'm not aware of any traditional narratives from the Pāḷi to explain infant suffering, but there are several stories which purport to show how one might deal with the death of a child.  I'm thinking particularly of the Piyajātikā Sutta in which a man has lost his child and the Buddha simply tells him: that's just how it is (evametam evametam). The other stand out example is the story of Kisā Gotamī who loses her child, but is brought to a gentle understanding that death, even of an infant, is simply part of life one just has to learn to accept. None of the texts I am aware of attribute apparently undeserved suffering, such as the suffering of infants, to actions in a previous life. The one example of an infant suffering that comes to mind, is in the story of Aṅgulimala in which the eponymous character relieves the suffering of a mother having a difficult birth by using the magic of truth (I discuss this in Attwood 2014). Nothing in the story, in either it's Pāḷi or Chinese versions, suggests blame was apportioned to the infant. Aṅgulimala's suffering is a result of evil deeds in this life!

In my research on the inevitability of karma (Attwood 2014) I drew attention to a major change in how karma worked from the early Buddhist texts to the later texts. At first karma is absolutely inescapable. One must always live with the consequences of one's actions. This is very strongly emphasised. But gradually this criteria of karma is abrogated and ways to mitigate the effects of karma and to avoid them all together become mainstream Buddhism. The acme of this idea is the Tantrika chanting the Vajrasattva Mantra to eliminate any and all bad karma.

The fact is that even were the Buddhist theory of karma correct, there would be no way to link present suffering to past actions, because we do not have knowledge of those past actions. However, this limitation has not stopped Buddhists from constructing narratives which attribute present suffering to past actions in the form of Jātaka stories. These are mainly pious homilies which draw on the wider Indian culture (some of the stories also occur in Jaina and Brahmanical texts). Precisely this ability to see how past actions contribute to present suffering is one of the supernatural abilities which are attributed to the Buddha. This god-like ability is necessary for the Buddha to function as Buddhist saviour. In one view of this, the Buddha cannot be in the dark about this as we are, else we could not break free of suffering. He has to know how to act in order to not cause suffering. Since natural sources of knowledge cannot reveal this, the Buddha has to have supernatural knowledge. This is an example of a teleological argument of the type critiqued by Bronkhorst (2000).

Ultimately Griffiths rejects P5 on the basis that it is connected with P3. He also suggests that it is repugnant to most Western eyes and "certainly to Christians". However I find the latter an extremely weak argument. The karmic explanation is no less repugnant than the idea that an omnipotent God allows an infant to suffer, or causes that suffering, as part of some cosmic plan. Centuries of Christian arguments over Theodicy show that many Christians found there own narratives of apparently undeserved suffering equally repugnant. Griffith's objectivity has slipped here. 


Griffiths' own conclusion is that the philosophy of karma, as represented in the Bhāṣya does not stand up. He concludes:
"The empirical falsification of P1 and P2, the partial incoherence of P3 and its variant P3', the falsity of P4 in so far as it depends on P3/P3', the empirical falsification and moral repugnance of P5, and the vacuousness of P6 and P7 -- all these mean that Buddhist karmic theory as expounded in the major theoretical works devoted to it must be false." (291. Emphasis added)
I am in broad agreement with Griffiths, with some caveats as stated above. In some cases I find the case has strengthened over time. The empirical evidence against any kind of afterlife is much stronger in 2015 than it was in 1982. This is not to say that it is not possible to formulate a Buddhist theory of karma that is true, but that the traditional accounts are not true. Also any new formulation of karma must deal with the objections raised in the article.

As Griffiths points out, this may "pose many urgent questions for Buddhists". I suggested at the outset, such criticisms have largely been ignored. Those who write, for example, about Buddhist ethics do not seem to take a critical stance on traditional Buddhist moral philosophy. A great deal is written for example on whether Buddhist ethics is a virtue ethic or a consequentialist ethic, but very little about the fundamental validity of the worldview. And because we never really come to grips with the flaws in Buddhist thinking, we can never move on. Those who do write about it are marginal, if not marginalised. Dayāmati has asked why it even matters what kind of ethics Buddhism has in relation to the Western intellectual tradition.

One response is to quietly drop the subject of karma because of the supernatural aspect of it, which some people reject out of hand. Having rejected karma, one can then describe a secular humanist ethic with a Buddhist flavour: retaining the five or ten precepts, but explaining them in secular humanist terms. This suffers from the problem that many people identify in my own writing. A secular humanist account of ethics, albeit with a Buddhist flavour, is secular humanism rather than Buddhism. Isn't it?  If the underlying account of ethics is humanists, then the Buddhism is just window dressing or marketing. Certainly actions having consequences is no more a revelation in the Western intellectual tradition than is "everything changes". It's another case of "So what?" Defining what is Buddhist about Buddhist ethics in the absence of the supernatural elements is difficult. Buddhist ethics is predicated, as Griffiths suggests, on certain truth claims. Truth claims that turn out not to be true.

Coming back to the broader point about assessing truth claims, we can of course point to the efforts to research the effects of the practices known collectively as "mindfulness". On his blog, Justin Whitaker has written a useful summary of the latest round of recriminations against mindfulness, Buddhist mindfulness, morality, and Protestant presumptions. There is also criticism of the research into the effectiveness of mindfulness along the lines that it suffers from confirmation bias (unlike the rest of Buddhism?). There is a growing body of research and as long as it does not seal itself off from the outside world, like say paranormal research, then the scientific method will eventually sort out any kinks. These things take time. It is mildly interesting to see Buddhists attacking innovation and genuine attempts at scientific assessment, since this is exactly what we expect from a religious community. It confirms the problems that religious style thinking produces and highlights the clash with Enlightenment thinking.

If Buddhism is to have a future then we need to create an intellectual culture of open minded questioning and testing. At present, Buddhists are nice enough, but on the whole they don't ask the hard questions and they appear to dislike being asked hard questions by outsiders. And those who do ask hard questions are treated as apostates and outsiders. The problem is that a lot of what we take for granted as timeless truth is at best "a skilful means" and at worst simply false. But rather than face up to this and think about how to respond, most Buddhists are hiding their heads in the sand and pretending that such discussions are not happening. Of course the level of investment many Buddhists have in old ideas is enormous. For some, their whole identity is built on propounding "ancient truths" and all that. Scholars of Buddhism appear to be colluding with Buddhists in this. But it means that there is a huge amount of inertia. This calls for patience and compassion on the part of critical philosophers as we proceed to have this discussion that so many would rather not have.


Attwood, Jayarava (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21. 
Bronkhorst, Johannes (2000). Karma and Teleology: A Problem and its Solutions in Indian philosophy. Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies. 2000. (Studia Philologica, Monograph Series, XV.)
Cho, Francisca. (2014) Buddhism, Science, and the Truth About Karma. Religion Compass. 8(4): 117–127.
Griffiths, Paul J. (1982) Notes Towards a Critique of Buddhist Karma Theory. Religious Studies 18: 277-291.
Griffiths, Paul J. (1984) Karma and personal identity: a response to Professor White. Religious Studies 20(3): 481-485.
Hayes, Richard P. (1989) Can Sense be Made of the Buddhist Theory of Karma? [Paper read at the Dept of Philosophy, Brock University].
White, J. E. (1983) Is Buddhist Karmic Theory False? Religious Studies. 19(2):223-228.

05 September 2014

The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism.

Endosymbiosis according
to Lynn Margulis.
There have been some watershed events in the history of evolution theory. The discovery of fossils. Darwin and Wallace's insights into natural selection. The discovery of the structure and function of DNA by Crick, Watson, Franklin and Wilkins. To this list I would add the discovery of endosymbiosis. Unfortunately there hasn't yet been a defining moment in the study of epigenetics, but it ought to be represented too. We're still waiting for a decisive breakthrough in biogenesis - how life got started in the first place, but it will also be a watershed when it comes.

It's Endosymbiosis I want focus on in this essay. Endo means 'internal' and symbiosis means 'living together' and the compound refers to the fact that each of our cells is in fact a community of bacterial cells living together. This idea was first floated in the early 20th Century by a Russian scientist, Konstantin Mereschkowski. His observation concerned the green parts of plants. Seen under a microscope the plant resolves into uncoloured structures which support small green pills called Chloroplasts. These are very similar to cyanobacteria or blue-green algae and he conjectured that their might be a relationship. In the 1920s another scientist named Ivan Wallin made a similar identification between mitochondria (the oxygen processing parts of our cells) and other kinds of free living bacteria.

However the watershed event for endosymbiosis was the publication, after considerable difficulty with the establishment journals, of this paper:
Sagan, Lynn. (1967) 'On the origin of mitosing cells.' Journal of Theoretical Biology. 14(3) March: 225–274, IN1–IN6. DOI: 10.1016/0022-5193(67)90079-3
This rightly famous paper is now copied online in many places. Lynn Margulis had married Carl Sagan young and subsequently reverted to her maiden name for most of her career. So we'll call her Margulis, even though she was Sagan at the time. Incidentally Margulis was a collaborator with James Lovelock and a major contributor to the Gaia Hypothesis. 

Margulis's mature theory goes like this. The first cells were bacterial. They had no nucleus, DNA in loops that could be shared with any other bacteria, reproduced by simple division, and no internal organelles with membranes. Bacteria are able to live in colonies with loosely symbiotic relationships, some are multicellular through their life cycle, but at some point one bacteria engulfed another, or one invaded the cell of another, and the result was not digestion or infection but symbiosis: a mutually beneficial relationship with one bacteria living inside another. Margulis argues that the complex cells of all plants and animals (called eukaryote) are the result of at least three symbiosis events in the past, with the photosynthesising chloroplasts of plants being a fourth. The resulting eukaryote cells are large, have a nucleus and other internally bounded organelles (particularly mitochondria) and reproduce sexually (they divide their DNA and allow it to recombine with half the DNA of another individual to produce variety). Eukaryote cells don't just form colonies, but collectively form multicellular organisms with a high degree of morphological specialisation.

The paper by Margulis led to the theory of endosymbiosis finding a firm footing and eventually to the idea being included in biology textbooks. However the establishment was and to some extent still are reluctant to follow up the implications of this discovery. NeoDarwinians treat Endosymbiosis as a one-off event 3 or 4 billion years ago with little relevant to evolution in the present.

But consider this. Every sperm is very like two kinds of organism. On one hand they are like certain type of motile bacteria with a single flagellum (a rotating 'tail') that propels them through the liquid environment. On the other hand a sperm is rather like a virus, which Margulis conceived of as a bacteria from which almost all the biological functionality had been stripped out: a virus is nuclear material with a basic mechanism to inject it into the host cell. A sperm travels to its target like a motile bacteria. When it meets an ovum it bonds with the outer surface and injects its DNA into the egg, like a virus. That DNA is transported to the nucleus to form a complete set of chromosomes and the cell is "fertilised". It begins to grow and divide almost immediately. Sperm are also unusual in that production of them requires lower temperatures than any other cell type - we males have to maintain a separate cooler environment for sperm production. So part of the complex human life-cycle is lived as a cross between a motile bacteria and a virus which prefers cooler temperatures. Each fertilisation event is an example of Endosymbiosis. If we don't have endosymbiosis at the forefront of our minds, we cannot understand the basics of reproduction.

Endosymbiosis is the most significant event in the history of evolution since life began. It ought to inform one of the fundamental metaphors for how we understand our universe, but instead we have competition, selfishness and treat the predator as totem. I hate to say this, but it all sounds a bit masculine, don't you think? We we might just have easily focussed on the combinative, symbiotic, collective aspects of life. So why don't we? 

Evolution and Empire.

Margulis speculated in interviews that the reason her idea was so difficult to get published and the establishment was so reluctant to take it seriously, was to do with Victorian attitudes amongst the mainstream (mainly male) proponents of evolutionary theory. The maxim of evolution is "survival of the fittest", coined by Herbert Spencer and adopted by Darwin in later editions of On the Origin of Species. By this Darwin apparently meant "the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life" (Darwin Correspondence Project). In this section I want to look at the historical context for this maxim.

Britain and various European powers had fought repeated wars over many centuries, but with the opening up of Asia and the Americas, trade was making Europe seriously wealthy at the expense of their colonies. The British, perhaps more so even than their European neighbours, developed a sense of superiority. The decisive battles involved in defeating Napoleon at the beginning of the 19th century left Britain in almost total control of the world's sea lanes and trade routes. This cemented a victory in the long running trade wars between expanding European Empires and accelerated the growth of wealth in the UK. Investment money poured into technological innovations that turned the industrial tinkering into the the Industrial Revolution. The great symbol of the British Empire is found in Trafalgar Square in London. There Admiral Nelson is celebrated by a very ostentatious, and very costly monument: a statue set on a towering column supported by four enormous bronze lions. Less obvious are the aisles of St Paul's Cathedral which are lined with statues of military heroes rather than saints, something that shocked me when I first arrived in this country but now makes perfect sense: church, mercantile sector, state and military are all aligned here.

Darwin, Spenser and a previous generation of thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham (father of utilitarianism) and Adam Smith (humans primary motivation is self-interest) were writing at a time when Britain was the world's only super-power and it was busily using that advantage to exploit the entire world for individual profit. Even the peasants of England were exploited. The newly rich forced the enclosure of common lands for example, in order to both become more wealthy, but also to keep pressure on peasants to stop them revolting. Britain was, and to a great extent still is, a deeply hierarchical society dominated by a few wealthy and powerful families. Everyone is expected to play the social role they were born into, though anyone can aspire to be middle class these days because that threatens no one (except some of the middle class).

Back in the 19th Century Charles Dickens chronicled this way of life and the baleful influence it had on the less fortunate. Another contemporary, Karl Marx, saw the system for what it was and wanted to completely replace it. What has changed since Dickens and Marx is the rise of the middle class: a class of people whose main function is to manage and facilitate the wealth making activities of the wealthy. They do so in exchange for lives of relative comfort and security (compared to the poor) but seldom make enough money to escape the need to work for a salary for the best part of their adult lives. Averages salaries are about 1% of the earnings of their company's CEO and a tiny fraction of the actual profits of the company. Religion is still the opium of the people, but the middle classes oversee the production of the empty calories and mindless entertainment that are the crack cocaine of the people. 

Thus for members of the landed gentry, such as Spenser and Darwin, it was only natural that they subscribed to the theory that nature favoured some members of a species above others. Some were destined to succeed and dominate the herd. It was at heart a notion that justified their position both in British society and the dominance of the British internationally. They and their whole class saw themselves as the fittest to rule. This attitude persists in Britain and is on open display in today's government. The members of government have hereditary privilege and wealth and often title as well. They see themselves as the natural leaders and arbiters of morality. In other words there is a political dimension to Darwin's ideas. We cannot understand the development of mainstream science of evolution without understanding this political dimension. 

A key NeoDarwinian figure like Richard Dawkins is very much a product of the British class system: born to a Civil Servant father who administered a colony (Kenya); educated in a private school, followed by Balliol College, Oxford University; eventually becoming a "Don" at Oxford. There's no doubt that the boy was bright, but he was a member of a privileged class and as such had opportunities no ordinary British person would have, even now. And the vision of his class is basically the Victorian one. The Selfish Gene is essentially the Victorian gentleman's values expressed as an ideological view of genetics. Dawkins repeated says that the Selfish Gene is only a metaphor, but it is a metaphor for, even an apology for, the values of the British upper-classes as much as it is a metaphor for evolution. We can see that being enacted even today in the policies of conservative governments. Dawkins basically recapitulates Adam Smith's idea that each individual striving for their own benefit is the best way to benefit society. He even argues that this is the best way to understand altruism!

Compare Adam Smith
"Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it ... He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. 1776
With Richard Dawkins:
"The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes. Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. 'Special' and 'limited' are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. " The Selfish Gene. 1976.
Coming in the late 1970s the conception of The Selfish Gene coincides with the rise of the new political and economic ideologies of the Right: the new libertarianism, that deprecates government's role in society and says it's every man for himself. Neolibertarians distrust government and believe an abstraction called "the market" can mediate and arbitrate the price of everything (including political and white-collar corruption). This is erroneously called Neoliberalism, but there is nothing liberal about it. Three years later Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister of the UK and began transforming society with this same metaphor in mind. Stripping away anything which put the breaks on the profit making activities of business people or the need for them to contribute to society beyond paying the lowest possible wages to their staff. Her successors, including the New Labour Party, have gone much further: NLP removed credit controls allowing the largest amount of private debt in recorded history to build up (topping 500% of GDP in the UK ca. 2008) so that when bust inevitably followed boom, it was arguably the worst in recorded history. The present government are slowly dismantling the welfare state by selling off provision of services to the private sector where they themselves are major investors (in any sane society this would count as corruption). Meanwhile vast amounts of taxes go unpaid, and the wealthy are helped with the process of insulating themselves from social responsibility by shoddy laws enacted by their peers in government and corrupt administrators.

Dawkins and Darwin must be seen in their political landscape. Must be seen as active participants in both shaping and justifying the ideology of the ruling classes, at least in Britain. Seeing things clearly is part of waking up.

Each year we discover more and more about the role of symbiosis in speciation, in the effective working of our gut, in evolution generally. And not just symbiosis, but cooperation more generally, and related events like hybridisation.  All of these make a mockery of the Selfish Gene metaphor because everywhere we look things only work at all when they work together. Where Dawkins saw altruism as rare, it is in fact ubiquitous. Where Dawkins saw genes only working for the benefit of similar genes, in symbiogensis and symbiosis completely unrelated genes benefit each other. Genes are in fact very generous. 

In fact there's no level of organisation in which the part can function independently from the whole. A gene requires a genome; a genome requires a population; a population requires an ecosystem. The dependency is not mere abstraction, it's an absolute. For example, the cell is a product of its genome as a whole (including epigenetic factors) and without the cell the gene can neither survive nor function. This is not to say that there is no competition or no examples of self-interested behaviour. But it is to question the pivotal role given to metaphors involving selfish individuals pursuing self-interested goals benefiting the whole, especially when generally speaking. It is to question what is a self in the first place. When what we think of as a "self" is in fact a community, what does selfish even mean?

The Values of Modernist Buddhism

The self-justificatory Victorian metaphor runs very deep in British society. And is generally quite popular at the moment, because the USA is inventing stories to justify its position in the world: the self-declared champion of freedom. The idea that the vision of nature put forward by ideological zealots, steeped in the politics of Libertarianism, is the only possible view is beyond a joke. It's a tragedy. At present it is being used to justify exploiting working people throughout the first world to pay off debts incurred by corrupt bankers and their political facilitators. The effect in the developing world is often akin to slavery. The every-man-for-himself and no-holds-barred approach was supposed to allow wealth to accumulate across the society, through "trickle down economics", but in fact it just meant that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Wealth is being funnelled up to the wealthy. This happens because given free reign, greed forces wage-earners to work longer for less money. Neolibertarians only see staff as an expense that sucks money out of the pockets of shareholders: a line item to be minimised. People don't matter to them.

More than any other area of science I know of, the science of evolution reflects politics and in particular the political values of the Right. As George Lakoff has wryly observed, the Right have not only been setting the political agenda for the last 4 or 5 decades, they have been cunningly using language to frame and control the political discourse for everyone. I fear we may be seeing an end to the liberal experiment, to the spirit of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

This critique, if you believe it, has much wider implications. The idea of creating a world that might be consistent with Buddhist values is at present losing ground. Survival of the fittest, as envisaged by the wealthy elite, is driving us backwards. A survey of Buddhist countries offers no great insights and no models for emulation (unless we fancy the brainwashed peasantry of Bhutan). While I do not agree that Modern Buddhists are necessarily complicit in and facilitating this situation (Slavoj Žižek strikes me as a fatuous pseudo-intellectual), I am not seeing the clarity of economic and political thinking from Buddhist leaders that might make a difference. Because of this deficit I see Buddhists engaged in activities, which, while in themselves are admirable enough, are entirely ineffectual and insufficient to make a significant difference to the status quo. We continue to reach 100s of people each year in countries with populations of 10s or 100s of millions. Of those 100s the vast majority are middle-aged and middle class and none at all are of the ruling classes. Indeed as Westerners have begun to take Buddhism more seriously, the Western world has taken substantial steps away from our values because legislators and businessmen are now one and the same. That was the revolution. It was not televised. The rule of the business people, for the business people, by the business people. The only Buddhists challenging this at present are those taking mindfulness into the corporate and political arenas and they seem to get nothing but flack from other Buddhists.

At present our Buddhist leaders tend to be introspective and politically naive meditation teachers. Our organisations are headed by introverts who fail to be outward looking enough to properly engage in politics let alone effective organisational communication. We have great difficulty managing the politics of our own organisations, let alone getting engaged with the world in a united way.

Modern Buddhists generally have a tendency to disengage from worldly events and distance themselves from politics. We still draw heavily on the baby-boomer counter-culture ethos that sat back and let the Neolibertarians take over. In this we are quite unlike our monastic antecedents. Buddhist monks were sometimes so wealthy and so heavily involved in politics that they virtually ran empires. Sometimes the conflict between monks and bureaucrats spilled over into open war, in which the monks usually lost out. Obviously some kind of middle-way would be preferable.

We Buddhists need to get up to speed with economic and political critiques and to get involved in public discourse. We need to understand the metaphors that underpin modern life, where they originate, how pervasive they are, and develop strategies to effectively counter them where necessary. At present all the major political parties have bought into Neolibertarian ideology to some extent and it is inimical to our values. Dropping out of the system does not change the system. It merely allows the system to change in ways beyond our influence. This is the lesson of the baby-boomer counter-culture approach.

It won't be easy. Most of us are middle-class and middle-aged already (80% of the Triratna Order are over 40 and I gather this is not unusual in Buddhist Groups). We're used to being able to do pretty much what we want in exchange for our functionary roles in the economy. We don't expect to lose our freedom of religion or our comfortable way of life. Or we're comfortable with dropped-out obscurity. We do worry about being able to sustain that comfort after we stop working. And since we live longer, our retirement lasts longer and decrepitude progresses much further before we die, meaning we have to put more effort into ensuring that comfort. We're hardly revolutionaries, though many of us like to think we are. With all due respect to my teachers, the counter-culture thing was never revolutionary because it hardly changed anything and in contrast to the rise of Neolibertarianism that happened at the same time, it was negligible. Contrast this with the aggressive engagement and success of the suffrage movement and its successors (though I sometimes blanch under the scorn of feminists, I support equal rights). There are models for changing the social landscape, and to-date we are too proud to follow any of them.

I'm not a Buddhist leader, nor do I have the ear of any Buddhist leaders. I know one or two influential people read this blog, but I'm not getting open endorsements or anything. The best I can hope for is to be an irritant. One of my intellectual mentors once asked "Of what use to me is a friend who is not a constant source of irritation?" (Richard P Hayes. Land of No Buddha, p.179). I've tended to paraphrase his conclusion as "a friend ought to be a constant source of irritation; but not a source of constant irritation." I hope to be a friend to Buddhists everywhere.


It so happens that George Lakoff  recently updated his book on political metaphors and framing political debates: Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Due in shops mid September 2014. Worth a read if this kind of thing floats your boat.