Showing posts with label Myth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Myth. Show all posts

12 February 2016

The Myths of Religion and Being Bauddha.

No doubt there are innumerable definitions of religion from many different points of view. In 2015 I wrote an essay, The Complex Phenomenon of Religion (25 Sept 2015), mapping out some of the key ideas that I see as underlying religion and how they interrelate to create religion. The foundational ideas being: supernatural agency, morality, and ontological dualism. These ideas are intuitive to most people, or at least (to use Justin Barret's term), minimally counter-intuitive. I tried to show how each of these ideas entails others and thus starting from our intuitive conclusions about the world, we are drawn into a complex and self-confirming worldview. Morality or a just world entails an afterlife because the world of the living is patently unfair. An afterlife is itself intuitive for various reasons, but particularly made possible by ontological dualism, the idea that our soul or mind is distinct from our body. And this dualistic conclusion is intuitive to many people because of, for example, out-of-body experiences, and so on. All of the main features of religions, including Buddhism, emerge from various interactions amongst these basic intuitive conclusions and generalising from experience.

Another way to look at religion, is to see it as based on a series of interrelated myths. Myths are stories that express the values of a society in symbolic terms. A characteristic of many of these stories is that, as well as embodying our intuited conclusions about the world, they include minimally counter-intuitive elements that make them interesting and memorable. Figures like founders of religion are often essentially human, but capable of miracles or other superhuman feats for example. The main myths that I have identified are:
  • The myth of a just world
  • The myth of an afterlife
  • The myth of paradise
  • The myth of the golden age
  • The myth of the immortal founder
  • The myth of eternal truths
My project for the last few years has been focussed on demythologising and demystifying Buddhism. In short I have attempted to show that these myths no longer make sense of Buddhism in the light of what we currently know and understand about the world we live in. As of yesterday (Thur, 11 Feb 2016) we live in a universe permeated by gravity waves and direct detection of blackholes. Part of my project has been showing that the intuitive concepts that underlie religion are not true; that many of the ideas that seem intuitively right to us, are in fact wrong. Unfortunate many religieux struggle to understand science, especially those who write books and blogs about Buddhism and science. One of the problems for science communicators is that the new knowledge is frequently counter-intuitive or at least quite difficult to understand (look at the comments section of any newspaper coverage of the LIGO announcement of gravity wave/blackhole detection. Very few lay people really understand Quantum Mechanics for example, though it frequently (and almost inevitably erroneously) comes up as providing confirmation of Buddhist philosophies. This, combined with the weight of our established beliefs, means that many of us are reluctant to accept the new knowledge on face value, except in rare cases when it seems to confirm our beliefs (though in many cases the apparent confirmation amounts to wishful thinking). 

As time has gone on I have found more and more holes in the Buddhist account of the world, while at the same time finding the Buddhist account of experience more compelling. Buddhists get the world almost entirely wrong, but they get experience almost entirely right, and combine this with a number of techniques for exploring experience (though let's be clear there is nothing scientific about this exploration). The opinion about the world makes some people say that I am not really a Buddhist, since for them Buddhism is primarily about assenting to a set of dogmas; the latter opinion is for me the crux of the matter and why I am still a Buddhist. 

"Buddhism is about changing our fundamental values away from maximising experience towards dying to experience."

- Satyapriya
I was having a discussion with a friend and mentor recently and he mentioned one of his conclusions about what Buddhism is. He said, "Buddhism is about changing our fundamental values away from maximising experience towards dying to experience." I concur. The problem Buddhism sets out to solve is that we seek happiness without any clear idea of what happiness is or what might make us happy. And thus we go about it all wrong. The basic assumption of civilisation is that happiness is achieved through maximising pleasurable experience and minimising painful experience. And yet it has been clear for at least 2 millennia that this does not work. Part of the problem is civilisation itself. We evolved desires to motivate us to perform certain behaviours: desire motivates us to seek out food, after consuming it we experience satiation and sense of reward (so the behaviour is reinforced). Under modern conditions, finding food entails almost no effort, we always have access to food, and it is laden with sugar, salt, and fat. Since we don't eat to satiate hunger, but for pleasure instead, we seldom experience satiation and reward is connected to consumption itself. As a consequence more and more of us are fat and getting fatter. The desire for food, the reward of eating it, and the sense of satiation all seemed to be fundamentally warped by civilisation. The same can be said of sex, work, and almost every other facet of life. So Buddhism (at least originally) set out to disrupt these habitual responses leading to hyperstimulation through prolonged periods of withdrawing attention from sensory experience, and to discovering that there is life beyond the world of the senses.

We might contrast this with a Tantric approach to Buddhism. In the words of David Chapman: "It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality." I'm intrigued by Chapman's writing about Tantric Buddhism (in this and a number of recent related blog posts) and his argument that perhaps Tantra would form a better basis for "lay Buddhism" than renunciation. On face value this is an intriguing proposition, since in fact even many dedicated people are not practising renunciation and the practised associated with it. I'm going to look into this, however, at present I'm not convinced that a turn toward experience is viable because most people are habitual hedonists (motivated by pleasure seeking). To my mind there is too much evidence from outside of Buddhism that supports the idea that our basic problem is seeing happiness in terms of pleasure. Arguing that an habitual hedonist will escape this trap by turning toward experience is a bit like arguing that an alcoholic can be cured of their addiction by turning to the bottle. Like many Tantrikas, I still think that renunciation and reordering of our relationship to experience is a prerequisite to turning towards experience.

A third possibility which interests me at the moment involves re-examining the context of addiction. In his book Chasing the Scream, journalist Johann Hari describes a new approach to addiction which focusses nor on the chemical properties of the drug, or the character of the addict, but looks at the environment of the addict. People who are well embedded in a social context, who experience the love and support of friends and family, and who live in a conducive physical environment, do not, in most cases, get addicted. Most people (Hari suggests 90%) use recreational drugs without getting addicted, just as most people drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics. So why do only 10% become addicted. Hari argues that it is because of their social context, that people become addicted because they are isolated or alienated from a supportive social context. Alienation is, of course, a feature of modern urban life. With respect to intoxication with experience this would mean focussing not on experience itself, but taking an indirect to the addiction to sense pleasure by working on environmental factors that support addiction. As far as I know, no one has applied this kind of logic to the problem that Buddhists are trying to solve, though many of us are concerned with creating supportive contexts for practice (saṅgha). One of the issues that Hari seems not to deal with is the problem of people who may not be addicted, but who none-the-less make poor choices and decisions while influenced by drugs.

As interesting as these other approaches may be this essay is going to continue to explore my main theme: turning away from experience qua source of happiness. 

When we sit down to meditate we may well still be seeking experience, or we may well still see mediation as focussed on experience. But the acme of meditation—emptiness—is an end to experience. From the Pāḷi Suññatā Suttas (MN 121, 122, see also SN 41.6) through into the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras there has been this powerful theme of practices in which we bring all experience to an end. We stop experiencing our body and the physical senses, and then we stop having mental experiences; and simply dwell in what remains. We do not experience ourselves as a self or the world as a world, or any distinction between the two. However, in this state of emptiness we continue to be and to be aware of being aware. This approach to emptiness, in which emptiness is more than simply a critique of experience or an ideal, but which is instantiated as the absence of experience seems very promising. My view is that the (earlier) Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras are attempts to put this experience of no experience (or perhaps an experience with no content) into words, to use metaphors and abstractions to explain what the absence of experience is like and what the consequences of it are like. But one cannot experience this absence of experience while seeking an experience. One must allow experience to die away, or as my friend put it, die to experience. And there is no doubt that this is far more difficult than it sounds. Many people find it terrifying because from one's first person perspective, one ceases to exist, or at least discovers that one's existence was always contingent and that when one stops paying attention to the conditions that underlie it, self stops arising.

I've written about this before in an essay from 2008 on communicating the Dharma. In two suttas from the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 45.11 and 45.12) the Buddha is describing spending time reflecting on his awakening. He says:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
"I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening."
In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā).
So evaṃ pajānāmi... chandapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chandavūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; vitakkapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; vitakkavūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; saññāpaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; saññāvūpasamapaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chando ca avūpasanto hoti, vitakko ca avūpasanto hoti, saññā ca avūpasantā hoti, tappaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; chando ca vūpasanto hoti, vitakko ca vūpasanto hoti, saññā ca vūpasantā hoti, tappaccayāpi vedayitaṃ; appattassa pattiyā atthi āyāmaṃ, tasmimpi ṭhāne anuppatte tappaccayāpi vedayitan ti.
"I know this... the condition of desire is experienced, the condition of the suppression of desire is also experienced; the condition of thinking is experienced, the condition of suppression of thinking is also experienced; the condition of perception is experienced, the condition of the suppression of perception is also experienced. There is suppression of desire, and thinking, and perception and on that account there is experience. There is stretching out to attain the unattained, and in this also experience on account of the unattained."
I surmise that this experience with no content was probably also known to Brahmin meditators. They described it in Sanskrit as saccidānanda, i.e. being (sat), consciousness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). But they associated this state with Brahman, the absolute consciousness of the universe. Absolutes are problematic. Modern day Advaita Vedantins will still argue on the basis of belief in an absolute, that there is no free will. If there were free will it would undermine the absolute. Partly influenced by Sāṃkhya philosophy they see the world as māyā—a creation of mind—and as such it has only relative existence. In the absolute sense it does not exist, only Brahman exists. It's important to remember that existence in ancient India (including in Buddhism) was always associated with permanent, unchanging existence. Temporary, contingent, or mutable existence are all contradictions in terms. If something is temporary, contingent, or mutable then "existence" does not apply. And this in turn also seems to have influenced Buddhists who were trying to mitigate the turn to Realism in the Abhidharma project, giving rise to the idea of Two Truths (the word satya has strong ontological implications and can just as well be read as reality as truth). In Sāṃkhya thought there are two basic conditions: puruṣa which is passive, permanent, and real; and prakṛti which is active, impermanent, and unreal. The world of experience is prakṛti (literally "nature") and it is māyā, a creation of mind. It is not real. Buddhists called this pole of experience samvṛti-satya, usually translated as "relative-truth" though more literally saṃvṛti means closure or concealing (so it could mean "concealed reality"). Progress is made by rolling up manifestations of prakṛti and leaving only puruṣa as a passive observer. Buddhists called this paramārtha-satya or "ultimate-truth" (or "revealed reality"). Again the Sāṃkhya may well be informed by the experience of emptiness, but interpreted as a kind of absolute. Very few accounts of Indian philosophy tie it to experience and this is a catastrophic mistake which leads to confusion.

Where Buddhism is different from Sāṃkhyā, Vedanta, and Advaita Vedanta, at least some forms of Buddhism, is that it rejects the very idea of absolute existence (this is made explicit, for example in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, SN 12.15, extant in Chinese and Sanskrit versions, as well as quoted by Nāgārjuna and his commentators). Everything we experience arises and passes away and therefore cannot be absolute or related to an absolute. This is one reason why I have a problem with the Two Truths Doctrine. It appears to contravene this more fundamental Buddhist axiom. What Buddhists seem to believe, at least originally, was this state of no experience achieved temporarily in meditation could be made permanent in the afterlife. Nirvāṇa meant not being reborn, not being reborn meant possessing no sense faculties, therefore having no experience. Nothing comprehensible arises. Thus questions about what a Tathāgata experiences after death are avyākṛta "undetermined". As I've pointed out the Mahāyāna eventually rejected this as an ideal because by necessity a Buddha was uninvolved in our lives post-parinirvāṇa. They redefined the goals of Buddhism (See my alternate history of Mahāyāna).

This is an important role that the myths of religion play, i.e. as interpretive frameworks for experience. On the basis of apparently similar experiences, someone raised in a Vedantic tradition comes to very different conclusions to someone raised in a Buddhist tradition. The versions of religious myths we internalise form the basis of how we interpret the experiences we have as a result of doing religious exercises. And this seems to be the case even for people who have insights into the nature of experience - they see their experience as a confirmation of their belief system. In this sense, the intellectual context within which we practice is very important. We know that it is entirely possible to draw the wrong conclusions from individual experience. In fact it is probable that we will do this, all the time. We all do this with respect to pleasure for example. We enjoy it and so we unconsciously think more of it will lead us towards happiness. But it doesn't. 

Some of the received myths now seem counter-productive. The strong ontological dualism involved in the myths of an afterlife, for example, might lead one to think of one's mind as a more real and permanent phenomenon than is either true or helpful. Absolutes always seem to be a bar to further progress. Once one believes oneself to be in contact with an absolute then the motivation to change or make progress almost by necessity ceases. One can go no further than the absolute. The fact that an absolute ought to be, by it's very definition, out of the reach of the human organism is avoided by the narratives surrounding mysticism. To touch the absolute one has to have a mystical experience. In this we invoke a capacity for experience which is not related to our relative senses or mind - another twist in the story of ontological dualism. Something absolute must reside in us (an ātman in other words) which is able to appreciate and perceive the Absolute in the universe. This kind of talk ought to have no place in Buddhism, which rejects all absolutes, though it does appear and not simply in the Vedanta inspired Tathāgatagarbha, but in the most embarrassing places (Triratna Dharmacārins will know what I mean). We have to place all such dualisms in a basket labelled, "false conclusions and generalisations from experience" and move on.

Over the centuries different approaches to insight into the nature of experience have developed. Some schools emphasise the dangers in seeking emptiness through concentration techniques. These techniques produce bliss and rapture as early side-effects and these can be intoxicating in themselves. The argument is that spending a lot of time in dhyāna is analogous to weaning people off alcohol by giving them heroin, it's counter-productive. So some schools eschew the development of concentration and instead try to look directly at the arising and passing away of experience. There's no doubt that this can be an effective method, but it usually works best when the meditator has a good deal of concentration practice behind them, enabling them to have a relative stable and happy mind and not to simply get lost in habitual distraction without noticing it.

On the whole most Buddhists have found some balance between samatha and vipassanā approaches to meditation work best. Samatha stabilises the mind and gives us a sense of well-being that is not dependent on circumstances. And insight undermines our sense of self in relation to experience and our sense of a subject/object duality (though again I think the word "reality" is out of place in this discussion). Samatha enables us to pursue insight more effectively than a one-sided approach.

On the other hand how many Buddhists are seriously pursuing insight in this way? One in a thousand? What proportion of Buddhists are genuinely awakened people? A small handful at best? To die to experience goes against every instinct and to even get the point where we commit to doing so is rare. Most of us are still "doing research", as they say in AA. We're researching the possibility of achieving happiness through pleasurable experience, the way an alcoholic researches the possibility of happiness through drinking booze.

Someone who is not only willing to, but actively trying to die to experience and die to themselves may not really need all the myths and mumbo-jumbo. Emptiness, the experience of no experience, is it's own reward. Though observation suggests that insight doesn't liberate anyone from confirmation bias. On the other hand the rest of us are still wallowing in intoxication with the senses. We eat too much, drink too much, and stimulate our senses too much to ever attain the depths of concentration required except perhaps on long retreats (and even then our retreats are often quite indulgent). So we need to tell motivational stories based on the myths. The Pali Canon is full of stories of people seeing the light while the Buddha is telling an edifying story. They refer to it as gaining faith (saddhā) in the Tathāgata. Sometimes the stories are logical discourses on the progress one makes through rigorous practice culminating in liberation; sometimes the stories are motivational accounts of other practitioners who have done what needed to be done. And so on. But all of these stories reference the religious myths of Buddhism.

Any thoughtful person is dissatisfied with modern life. Civilisation is a two-edged sword. We benefit in so many ways from civilisation, but it also makes us sick by skewing our perceptions and our relationship to experience. Look around at the obesity epidemic, the drug and alcohol problems, the rising levels of mental health problems. The downsides of civilisation began to be apparent in India right around the time that the second urbanisation was getting going (ca 7th Century BCE). Civilisations in many places in the world gave rise to similar conditions it seems. Prophets began to pop up who basically criticised the pursuit of happiness through pleasurable experience. Some turned puritanical, urging us to spurn pleasure and torture ourselves as an alternative (early forms of Jainism fit this mould). Some responded with hedonism. Some regarded the whole world as an illusion which ought not to be taken seriously. Many variations of dissatisfaction were expressed as new sets of values; new variations on the religious myths.

It so happens that in India religious seekers had discovered meditative techniques which culminated in this state of emptiness and this powerfully informed their approach to religion. But emptiness is not easy and it never was a practical path for 99.9% of the population. Sub-optimal options had to emerge for those who bought into the rhetoric but who had already committed themselves to family, career, and ownership - i.e. to success in ordinary human terms of having a spouse, offspring, and material comfort that could be passed on to the next generation. And versions for the peasants who might aspire to having a family, but who would never be successful materially and whose families were locked into poverty by social conventions that ensured that the wealthy retained control of their wealth. Different versions of the Buddhist myths emerged to cater for people in different walks of life.


In this essay I've tried to show the role that our foundation myths play in Buddhism. However I've also tried to show how these myths are also a liability for Buddhism because they are based on false conclusions based on intuition. We certainly still need to employ our critical faculties, even with respect to the awakened, or especially with them as they most likely feel they have "direct confirmation" of their beliefs and are more firmly trapped in confirmation bias than most people. Most essentially, we need to be on guard against any form of absolute. We ought to insist that we are investigating experience and we are not investigating "reality", keeping in mind what these terms meant in the context of Buddhism in India. Statements about reality that are generalisation from meditative experience are untrustworthy, and probably wrong (no meditator ever predicted gravity waves for example). Where myths score highly is that they do sometimes communicate values more effectively than non-symbolic modes of story telling. Generally speaking, values need to be embodied and enacted to have meaning. We need to see what it is like for our values to inform how we live. Ideally our mentors will be doing that. 

I've argued that Buddhism seeks a change in our values system so that we move away from seeking happiness through experience and move towards what my friend has called "dying to experience". There's nothing in experience that will make us happy. We can usually be persuaded of the logic of this statement with a little nudging, but most of us are still committed to researching the possibility that it is wrong. Although some of the myths of Buddhism help to communicate this new system of values, many of them are unrelated to it. Legacy beliefs in an afterlife and a just world seem to be a hindrance to communicating these values.


24 January 2014

Origins of Myth: The Other Evidence

image credit:
A few weeks ago I reviewed Michael Witzel's book Origins of the World's Mythologies. In that review I focussed, as Witzel does, on the evidence from comparative mythology. It's fairly obvious that if we share a grand narrative into which our myths fit, that there ought to be other evidence that follows a similar pattern. And Michael Witzel devotes a chapter of Origins exploring this evidence.

It must be said that none of the evidence is unequivocal and much of it is still rather ambiguous. More information is being added all the time. For example in the main text the book claims that there is no evidence of interbreeding between Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo Neanderthalensis. However between writing and publishing just such evidence was found indicating that all humans outside of Africa, New Guinea and Australia share a small number of genes with Neanderthals and Witzel acknowledges this in the forward. In the meantime further examples hybridisation have been discovered. (See Evolution: Trees and Braids)

To briefly recap, Michael Witzel sees a shared grand narrative in the mythologies of Europe, Asia, Oceania and the Americas (what Witzel calls "Laurasia") that is distinct from the grand narratives found in Sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea and Australia ("Gondwana"). The Laurasian narrative involves creation of the universe from nothingness (void, chaos) via an egg or giant; the emergence of the earth from an abyssal ocean; the birth and lives of gods who fight amongst generations; the pushing apart of (father) sky and (mother) earth; the genesis and age of humanity, with an heroic age followed by our more mundane times; and finally the destruction of this universe, sometimes followed by the creation of a more perfect one. Local variations exist in abundance, but the overall story-arc seems to follow this broad outline. Gondwana mythology, by contrast, places no importance on creation.

Comparative Linguistics

The science of comparative linguistics is Witzel's home turf. He has, for example, studied the regional vations in Vedic Sanskrit and mapped the geographic areas that can be associated with various Vedic texts. He has also extensively studied loan words in Vedic showing that Munda may well have been the substrate language in Northwest India where the Vedic speakers first became firmly established. The early successes of comparative linguistics in the 18th and 19th centuries were impressive. It initially became clear, for example, that Greek, Latin and Sanskrit sprang from a common ancestor language. Germanic, Celtic, Iranian, and Slavic languages were soon added to the family, now most commonly called Indo-European. Systematic changes (such as /f/ for /p/ in Germanic as compared to Latin, part of Grimm's Law) across whole languages make it certain that they share a common ancestor and that language can be reverse-engineered on the basis of its surviving transformations. The reconstructed ancestor language is called Proto-Indo-European. The theory for example predicted three laryngeal sounds (related to our /h/) for PIE, which were not found in any living language, but were subsequently discovered in a written form of Hittite.

More recently the effort has been to try to create superfamilies by trying to locate systematic relationships across families or in reconstructed proto-languages. One result of which is a super-family called Nostratic (= "our language"). Nostratic includes Indo-European, Semitic, Sino-Tibetan, Austric (South-east Asia and Polynesia) and American Indian languages. The reconstruction is yet to find universal support amongst linguists. Witzel thinks this is in part due to artificial limits placed on the possibility of language reconstruction, but also due to the inherent difficulty of comparing so many languages at once. After all, few have the linguistic skill to do so. If we accept the proposed Nostratic language superfamily then we are immediately struck by the fact that its range is almost identical to the Laurasian mythology. For Witzel this is no coincidence, though he concedes that more work is required to establish Nostratic as a reality. But the tantalising conclusion is that the Laurasian mythology might have originally been framed in something like a Nostratic language. We are not there yet, but we have fine null hypothesis to try to disprove.


Where language provides tantalising hints at an underlying unity in the form of a common ancestor tongue, the field of genetics provides further insights into the relatedness and movements of peoples around the world. Two main subjects make up this evidence: phylogenies (or family trees) of mitochondrial DNA which is passed from mother to daughter; and phylogenies of Y chromosomes which are passed from father to son. Both types of DNA change only slowly, but at a rate we can estimate. However of all the evidence, the genetic evidence is most difficult to follow. The results of experiments are somewhat confused at times and the use of acronyms is intense.

In outline genetic studies show that all modern humans are related and that our ancestors lived in Sub-Saharan Africa. Anatomically modern humans emerged ca. 150 kya (1000's of years ago) plus or minus about 50 kya. More than one migration event seems to have taken place, but the one that succeeded in populating the earth seems to have happened about 65 kya. There are competing models for exactly how this was accomplished, but most include a small group of between 1000 and 10,000 travelling along the coastline eastwards. Sea levels were between 50m-150m lower, the figures cited vary wildly even within Origins, so evidence for this migration is mostly now covered by the ocean. But modern humans arrived in Australia (having crossed the open ocean) by about 45 kya for which we have good archaeological evidence. They continued North as well settling in China between 42-39 kya. Across Eurasia, modern humans encountered other species of hominids, but in every case survived, probably at the expense of the predecessors (and probably also interbred with them to some extent). The image below shows an up-to-date outline of the migrations based on mitochondrial DNA.

Migrations: approximate routes and times from Guha et. al (2013)

Theories on how the rest of Eurasia was settled are much less clear. There are two most likely scenarios. Firstly a second wave of migrants left Africa ca. 45 kya and went north into Western Asia and spread from there. Or secondly part of the first wave, perhaps based somewhere in West Asia, were the source of the expansion (this is what the image above shows). Eurasia being backfilled from China is also a possibility. In any case modern humans entered Europe 40-50 kya where they met, and to some extent interbred with, Neanderthals. From about 20-11 kya successive waves of migration occurred from Siberia into the Americas which were very quickly settled all the way to Tierra del Feugo. From about 5 kya inhabitants of Taiwan began the epic ocean voyages that peopled the islands of Polynesia, reaching New Zealand ca. 800 CE, but not before making contact (directly or indirectly) with South America or people from there. These dates are broadly supported by archaeological and anthropological evidence.

The dates for the settling of the Americas are important in dating the Laurasian mythology. Since the mythology is shared between all of the Americans and Eurasians the main outlines must have been in place before the first American migrations across the Beringia land bridge ca. 20 kya. This is long before any evidence of civilisation in the form of agriculture or large-scale permanent settlements. However, if Witzel is right about the implications of shared narratives then we have to accept that the narrative was in place by 20 kya at the latest.

Beringia Land-bridge from Balter (2013)

Recently a complete genome was sequenced for a child who died some 24 kya in Mal'ta, southern Siberia (Balter 2013). This boy is closely related to Amerindians, but also, surprisingly to populations in west of the Altai mountains. "Before 24,000 years ago, the ancestors of Native Americans and the ancestors of today's East Asians split into distinct groups. The Mal'ta child represents a population of Native American ancestors who moved into Siberia, probably from Europe or west Asia. Then, sometime after the Mal'ta boy died, this population mixed with East Asians. The new, admixed population eventually made its way to the Americas."

And just as with language studies the broad outlines of this evidence is consistent with Witzel's hypothesis. If a people, probably (initially) sharing a language or group of related languages, spread through Eurasia then we would expect to see evidence of relatedness in their genes. The best fit to Witzel's myth and language data involves two out-of-Africa migrations. The first, beginning ca. 65 kya, along the southern coastal route to Australia took with it the Gondwana mythology and certain mitochondrial genes. They left behind a string of languages with no connection to the languages of Laurasia. The second began around 45 kya and pushed first north and then both east and west populated Laurasia. These people spoke languages unrelated to the first migration, had a new, or at least different, mythology, and shared variants of mitochondrial genes not common amongst the first wave.


It is often commented on that although anatomically modern remains are found by about 150 kya, other features we associate with ourselves - burial, complex art, music - are first seen only about 40 kya. Witzel notes that more recent research indicates a slow build up to this so-called explosion of culture. But none-the-less there does seem to be a turning point. Most of the complex cave art begins around this time. The first evidence of musical instruments in the form of bone flutes are found. And burials with valuable items or indications of a belief in an afterlife also date to around this same period.

I've already cited the migrations to America as a latest date by which the Laurasian mythology can have been known in a more or less complete form. Since we know that the Gondwana mythology was unknown in Africa, New Guinea or Australia ca. 45 kya we have a upper limit for it's existence. It would seem then that the creation of the Laurasian mythology broadly coincides with the expansion of culture into Europe and Asia ca. 40 kya., but not later than 20 kya. 

Thus, with many caveats and hedges, we can draw out from the evidence a coherent picture in which ca. 40 kya a change took place amongst the ancestral Laurasian population that they subsequently spread, along with their genes and their language, across all of Eurasia, the Americas and the Pacific. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this story itself fits the Laurasian mythology, what we might call the Laurasian worldview. It is a peculiar feature of human beings that we are constantly seeking out new frontiers, while at the same time obsessing about our origins.

It's important to note that in the case of genetics and language we see evidence of hybridisation - shared genes across species on one hand, and loan words and regional language features on the other. The image we tend to have in our minds is a tree structure branching out from a singularity. This singularity almost certainly never happened. If you view railway lines going off to the horizon they appear to converge due to parallax error. I think we need to be aware of the historical equivalent of this. Just because we can find common factors underlying present complexity, does not mean that everything converges. History is complex at whatever magnification or scale we choose.



Balter, Michael. (2013) 'Ancient DNA Links Native Americans With Europe.' Science. 25 October 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6157 pp. 409-410. DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6157.409.
Guha P, Srivastava SK, Bhattacharjee S, Chaudhuri TK. (2013) Human migration, diversity and disease association: a convergent role of established and emerging DNAmarkers. Frontiers in Geneticsdoi: 10.3389/fgene.2013.00155. eCollection 2013.  Aug 9;4:155. 
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.

Note 27 Jul 2015

A recent large scale genetic study ( strongly suggests a single movement of people from the Siberia region into the Americans ca. 23,000 year bp.
The new genetic analysis suggests that the first immigrants to America left Siberia no more than 23,000 years ago, and then lived in isolation on the grassy plains of the Beringia land bridge for no more than 8,000 years. Those plains disappeared beneath rising seas 10,000 years ago. 
Once in the Americas, ancient Native Americans split into two major lineages about 13,000 years ago. One lineage populated both North and South America and one stayed in North America.

13 December 2013

Origins of the World's Mythologies

Michael Witzel is one of the most prolific scholars in Indology of any period. His publications have set the standard in the field of the early history of India and the Indic languages. His 2012 book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, published by Oxford University Press, is extremely ambitious in scope and intriguing in its content. In a lesser scholar I'm sure that such a work would be dismissed, but Witzel has the stature and the background to carry it off. I've previously been strongly influenced by Witzel's work. His theory on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe led to my own article on that subject being published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (Vol. 3). 

I'm a long way from assimilating all of the ideas in the book, but want to begin to note what I find interesting about it. I won't be critiquing his methods because frankly I'm not qualified. They are explained in some detail and my layman's eye tells me only that he has at least set out how he proceeded. It seems a plausible enough way to proceed and I see every sign of his dealing well with complexity and exceptions. Witzel repeats several times that the project is heuristic a term he borrows from textual criticism to mean still gathering information, though he thinks his outline of the general features is likely to accommodate any new facts. Inevitably the result is a broad brush-stroke, rather speculative picture. There will be many who find this kind of speculation unwarranted, but I have always been fascinated by such an approach which crosses disciplines and fields. Books like this are pioneering efforts, providing a background against which more detailed investigations can proceed.

Witzel's method is primary comparative mythology, but he approaches this in a novel way. Instead of comparing individual myths or themes, he compares whole mythic systems. In this I believe Witzel has been strongly influenced by the field of comparative linguistics. The comparative method works best across whole languages rather than with isolated words or points of grammar (though these may be important signposts). So while it is neither here nor there that Latin pater becomes fader in Germanic, it is very significant that everywhere that Latin words begin with  /p/ the Germanic cognate will begin with /f/. This systematic shift in consonant sound is an aspect of Grimm's Law (after the elder of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob). As an example I have looked in detail at how the sounds in words for five and finger are related across various Indo-European languages in studying the Sanskrit word prapañca. Similarly here Witzel is looking for, and finds, systematic correspondences in the mythologies of far flung cultures.

What emerges is that mythic systems spanning Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, India, Asia, South East Asia, the Pacific and the Americas share important features. In particular they share a story arc. Individual myths are fitted into this same story arc in these regions. By contrast the myth of Subsaharan Africa, New Guinea and Australia follow an very different story arc. These two areas roughly correspond to the ancient landmasses of Laurasia and Gondwanaland and Witzel has chosen these names to represent them - though he is fully aware of the different chronologies of geology and human evolution.

The striking conclusion from the shared features of Laurasian myth that the mythology "...can be traced back to a single source, probably in Great Southwest Asia, from where it spread across Eurasia, long before the immigration of the Amerindian populations into North America and before the Austroasiatic colonisation of the Indonesian archipelago, Madagascar, and the Pacific." (19)

That is to say that Witzel claims that he can identify elements of an ancient mythology common to a group of people who lived at least ca. 20,000 years ago. This figure emerges because the first migrations from Siberia into America via the Beringa land bridge (which crossed the Bering Strait). Testing this thesis will be a monumental task as it involves a huge amount of evidence from across multiple disciplines (the book is about 660 pages). Along the way Witzel provides many examples of testable hypothesis and gaps in our knowledge. We get no sense that the theory is complete or unequivocal. Witzel is not making unwarranted claims to knowledge, but proposing a conjecture to be further tested.

Chapter One introduces the main ideas and situates his study in the history of such studies. Chapter two explores his comparative method and chapter three explores the Laurasian myth in greater detail, noting all the variations and contrary evidence. Witzel is not afraid to cite contradictions which is always a good sign. However he does try to show how or why such evidence might be understood in his framework. Chapter four explores evidence from other fields such as linguistics, physical anthropology. genetics, and archaeology which serve to bolster the thesis because they are largely in agreement with the results of comparing myths. It should be noted however that much of this evidence is disputed or ambiguous. Interpretations exist which flatly contradict Witzel. Thus here at least we need to be aware of confirmation bias. Chapter five looks at the Gondwana mythology as a study in contrast, giving both the main characteristics of these myths and discussing the similarities and differences. Clearly in some cases the two broad traditions intrude on each other. Chapter six speculates on the first myths that might underlie both Laurasian and Gondwana mythology, which Witzel refers to as Pan-Gaean Mythology. Certain myths, such as the story of a flood that nearly wipes out humanity, are more or less ubiquitous around the world. Chapter seven deals with changes in Laurasian Myth over time.

Witzel's provisional outline of the story arc of Laurasian Myth is as follows:
In the beginning there is nothing, chaos, non-being. Sometimes there are primordial waters. The universe is created from an egg or sometimes from a cosmic man. The earth is retrieved from the waters by a diver or fisherman. (Father) heaven and (mother) earth are in perpetual embrace and their children, the gods, are born in between them. They push their parents apart and often hold them apart with an enormous tree. The light of the sun is revealed for the first time. Several generations of gods are born and there is infighting. The younger generation defeat and kill the elder. One of the gods kills a dragon and this fertilises the earth. Slaying the dragon is often associated with an intoxicating drink. The sun fathers the human race (sometimes only the chieftains of humans). Humans flourish but begin to commit evil deeds. Humans also begin to die. A great flood nearly wipes out humanity which is re-seeded by the survivors. There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the brining of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman. having survived and now equipped with culture, humans spread out. Local histories and local nobility begin to emerge and then dominate. Consistent with their being four ages of the world everything ends in the destruction of the world, humans and gods. In some stories this destruction is the prelude for cyclic renewal.
Cultures as far flung as Indigenous Americans, Polynesians, Japanese, Malaysians, Indians, Greeks and Celts have a system of mythology which draws on these themes (or mythemes as Witzel terms them) and in this order. Which is to say their system of myth is structured around this story or something very like it. Of course there are many variations and exceptions. Having grown up with Greek and Māori mythology and comparing it with the Indian myth I have subsequently studied, I am particularly struck by the parallels between Vedic and Māori myth both of which closely follow the general outline above. These are two populations that simply could not have come into contact for many thousands of years, suggesting that they must have shared these stories for the kinds of time periods Witzel is proposing. 

The origin of the Laurasian universe is mysterious. In the beginning there is darkness or chaos (from Greek khaos meaning "abyss") or non-being. Such images are found in myths from the Pacific, Greece, China, India and the Middle-East. The commonality spans geographical areas and language families (though language superfamilies are now being proposed, which I will discuss in a future essay). Sometimes this phase is characterised as primordial dark waters (water has no form) from which the earth (order) emerges. "The myth of primordial waters is very widely spread, especially in northern Europe, Siberia, and the Americas, the Near East, India, and Southeast Asia/Oceania" (113). One of the ways that the world is brought into being is through speech - a theme in Vedic, Icelandic, Maya, Maori and Biblical texts (111).

In his final chapter he sums up Laurasian myth:
"Viewed from the present vantage point... Laurasian 'ideology' seems to be based on a fairly simple idea, the correlation of the 'life' of humans and the universe. But someone, about 40,000 years ago, had to some up with it. As it is closely related to the concepts of the Paleolithic hunt, the rebirth of animals, and shamanism, it must have been a shaman who did so." (422)
Chapter three provides a detailed look at the sources and variations of what Witzel calls "Our First Novel", including lengthy quotes from published versions of world mythology. Witzel has given special place to old tellings of myth. "The earliest written codifications consist of the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, the (four major) Egyptian cosmogonies, the oral but--due to extremely faithful oral transmission--virtually "tape recorded" Vedic corpus, the Greek Theogony of Hesiod, the Japanese Kojiki, the Quiché Mayan Popol Vuh, the Hawai'ian Kumulipo, and not to forget, the Torah, the Hebrew Bible." (65) The point here being that, just as with older written texts the connections between cultures are clearer than in more recent texts.

One of the interesting contrasts of Laurasian and Gondwana mythology is cosmogony. The Laurasian stress on the creation of the universe is entirely absent in Gondwana mythologies (105). For these people the world has always existed and always will exist. By contrast creation is a particular fascination for the majority of the world's people (given that the Laurasian area takes in China, India and Indonesia, who between them account for half the population of the world, in addition to Europe and the Americas). Gondwana myth is concerned with the origins of people however.

In addition there are some stories which are found to be ubiquitous. Chief amongst these is the flood. According to a widespread, more or global story (178ff and 348ff) at some point a flood nearly wiped all of humanity except for a few survivors. Witzel treats this myth as a survival of a much older Gondwana story since it is found in Africa, New Guinea, Melanesia and Australia as well. And it has been intelligently incorporated into the Laurasian story line. It is one piece of evidence pointing to what Witzel calls Pan-Gaean Mythology that must have existed when the migration out of Africa began ca 65,000 years ago.

All this is interesting from a Buddhist point of view because the Buddhist universe is beginningless and endless and has no creation story. In Buddhist stories there no primordial chaos and no bringing the world into being and no interest such things. Though many people cite the Agañña Sutta as a creation myth in fact it represents a Śākyan parody of a Vedic myth. There are elements of the Vedic cosmogony of a cyclic creation and destruction overlaid on this substrata, but its clear that it is part of a much larger process of assimilating elements of Vedic culture (for example virtually all the names of the members of the Buddha's family, including Siddhartha, have Vedic overtones. See my essay Siddhartha Gautama: What's in a Name?). According to Witzel this absence is characteristic of the mythologies of Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and New Guinea. So this raises a question of how we relate Buddhism to Witzel's characterisation of world mythology. At first glance the basic Buddhist worldview would appear to be more like the Gondwana than the Laurasian. This is a subject that would require more study.

Witzel appears to have done something at once similar to, and yet vastly more far reaching than, Joseph Campbell's characterisation of the Hero's Journey. This overview can hardly do justice to the sweep of a 600+ page book that purports to describe 65,000 years of story telling and myth, though I hope that readers with an interest in myth and/or history will take up the challenge of reading it. It's clearly a book written by and for academics, but Witzel is a good writer who repays careful attention. I don't imagine the book would be beyond anyone who regularly reads this blog.

Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. Pbk: 978-0-19-981285-1
See also the article (2008) 'Slaying the Dragon Across Eurasia.' in In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Essays in the Four Fields of Anthropolog: In honor of Harold Crane Fleming. Ed. John D. Bengtson. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
See also Origins of Myth: The Other Evidence. 24 Jan 2014  


25 September 2009

The Hero's Journey

OrpheusIn this essay I want to highlight the importance of myth. Carl Jung realised that many myths around the world have similar content and characters, and he made that the basis of a theory of a universal 'collective unconscious'. Whether or not we accept Jung's idea the one thing that he has done is highlight the universality of myth. Myths are stories which at their best reflect our unconscious motivations and attitudes - what Jung called the archetypes. Rather than simply being allegorical or stories with a moral, myths seem to reveal the (often amoral) inner workings of our psyche, though through symbolism not through logic - we understand them because we resonate with the symbols qua symbols. Joseph Campbell identified one myth - the hero's journey - which is so ubiquitous, and underlies so many other myths, that he called it 'the mono-myth.' In classical mythology it is the story of Orpheus, in fairy stories Jack and Bean Stalk amongst many others, and in Buddhism the biography of the Buddha also follows the same trajectory. In psychological terms it is the journey of individuation, but as Buddhists we look beyond this to a higher goal - liberation. I want to give an outline of that myth here and show how it relates to the spiritual life, indeed I will try to show that all spiritual practices are modelled on the hero's journey myth.

The Hero's Journey
  • The call to adventure
  • Crossing the threshold
  • Trials
  • Blessing
  • Return Journey
  • Benevolence
In The Hero with a thousand faces Campbell describes the journey in stages. I'll use his outline modified to fit a short essay. The journey begins with an invitation. Campbell calls this the 'call to adventure', and Robert Bly has called it the 'call in the night'. It can come in many forms but often the 'call' is felt as profound dissatisfaction, the yearning for something 'more'. Recall the story of the four sights: where the Bodhisatta sees old age, sickness and death and longs for some way to overcome them; and then sees a wandering holy man. It is at that moment that he feels the call - he joins the wanderers in the search for the deathless. The invitation is to adventure and usually results in a journey - the hero's journey. Very often the journey is to the underworld.

Having set out adventuring the hero must cross a threshold into the underworld. For the Buddha it was leaving home to taking up an itinerant, vagrant lifestyle. In some stories the threshold is literally a door. Some heros board a ship (or a rocket!). But there is a definite transition from the mundane world into another world which is most often talked about in myths as the underworld - though in Jack's case the threshold was a beanstalk and the other world was in the sky.

Having crossed the threshold the hero undergoes a trial or trials. For the Buddha there was his long period of austerities. For Jonah it is the belly of the whale. For Milarepa it is the building and taking down of towers for Marpa. The trial period can be seen as a period of purification and preparation. The hero must prove themselves worthy, and, having been purified and found worthy, the hero then receives some kind of blessing. The hero meets a powerful person, or at least a being in human form, who gives a gift. The nature of the gift may not be immediately apparent, and sometimes it does not reveal itself until the journey is completed. In many European myths the gift is the Holy Grail. In many world myths the gift is some form of immortality! What the Buddha finds is liberation from suffering. Milarepa receives Marpa's initiation. Jack finds the golden harp. Note that in early Buddhist myth the Buddha self-initiates.

On receiving the gift the hero must now make the return journey. This aspect of the overall myth often stands alone as a theme in stories. The return of the prodigal son, for instance, or the return of the Buddha to his home town Kapilavastu represent this phase of the journey. One of the most powerful evocations of the return journey myth is Homer's Odyssey. Sometimes the return journey is also full of trials and the hero may have many obstacles to over come. Finally having returned the hero understands the gift and uses it to enrich everyone around them. The hero in these myths is never selfish.

I've mentioned several episodes from the Buddha's biography to show that it fits this general pattern - a more detailed examination finds other resonances with the hero's journey. What I want to do now is to show how spiritual practice generally fits this pattern. I'll briefly describe meditation, puja, and Sādhana. The call is the same in each case - usually it is some insight into dissatisfaction with life: we wonder "is this it?", or perhaps a loved-one dies.

In meditation the threshold is when we sit down, close our eyes and find ourselves immersed in our own mind. Beginners can sometimes be surprised at how much is going on in their minds that they were not conscious of before! In meditation the hindrances to concentration correspond to the trials. The achievement of concentration is the beginning of the blessing, which may indeed culminate in Awakening. At the end of the period of meditation we open our eyes and go about our business. There may still be trials because the sensitivity we develop may leave us feeling vulnerable, or even irritable. But if we have achieved even a measure of calm then we are, even if only for a short time, a better person - more ethical, more kind. If we achieve some insight then we may be permanently changed for the better.

The Seven Fold Puja more explicitly draws on the metaphor of the journey. I treat puja as an acting out of the spiritual journey - a rehearsing of what we intend our lives to be like. In Worship and Salutation we experience the call of the Buddha and begin to respond to it. In Going for Refuge we form our intention to undertake the journey, and cross the threshold by committing ourselves. Confession of Faults and Rejoicing in merit are at once the preparation for, and the early stages of the journey - we unburden ourselves and find new reserves, but we also put into practice our commitment to be ethical. With Entreaty and Supplication we request a blessing, and with the reciting of the Heart Sutra we receive it. Finally with Transference of Merit and Self-Surrender we make the return journey and share the blessing we have received.

In Sādhana meditation we find an even more explicit version of the hero's journey. There is no space for more than a cursory look at it. Sādhanas are all based on the abhiṣeka ritual in some form, which in turn draws on royal coronation rituals. In this style of meditation we first imagine ourselves in a clear blue sky - the threshold to another world. In many Tibetan Sādhanas there are stages of renunciation, Going for Refuge, and purification which precede entering the blue sky, or even the whole seven-fold puja in compressed form. Then in stages the Buddha manifests in this other-world, and after a series of preliminaries bestows a symbolic blessing on us. This blessing is the abhiṣeka or initiation which communicates the Enlightenment of the Buddha through the medium of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala (or image). It is called abhiṣeka because it usually involves the sprinkling (seka) of water - a direct borrowing from the coronation. Having received the blessing, the whole pageant eventually dissolves back into the blue sky, and then we return to this world. If the initiation has been successful then our body, speech and mind have been aligned with the body, speech and mind of the Dharmakāya Buddha via the medium of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala and we have become a Buddha!

In effect then, spiritual practice is the hero's journey, when we sit to meditate, or do puja, or go on retreat, and even the whole process of taking on the higher evolution, the outline follows the path of the hero on their journey to and from the underworld. It is sometimes said that Buddhist is an Asian religion and that we westerners can't really understand it. The Dalai Lama, in his enthusiasm to not be seen as a proselytiser, has suggested that we pursue the religion we were born into. I disagree wholeheartedly with this view. Buddhism speaks to us because the myths that underlie it are universal stories reflecting universal concerns, and deep structures in the human psyche. Buddhist practices draw on myths which are as familiar in the West as in Asia (whether near or far, north or south).

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a thousand faces. Fontana, 1988 (first published 1949).

image: Orpheus playing his lyre.