Showing posts with label Polemics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Polemics. Show all posts

05 June 2016

Substance & Structure

This is a long-read (~ 5000 words) polemical essay about parts and wholes; about analysis and synthesis; about substance and structure. It's about the tension that exists between modern ways of thinking about these things and traditional Indian Buddhist ways of thinking about them. About why the traditional ways of thinking about them are a philosophical and practical disaster.

In 2009 I wrote about the Vajirā Sutta which contains one of the most famous similes in all of Buddhist teaching, i.e. a being is made up of skandhas in the same way that a chariot is made up of wheels, axles, etc. We take this to imply that a being is no more than the sum of its parts. Similarly any complex phenomenon (saṃskāra) is merely the sum of the simple phenomena (dharma) that make it up.
This argument may also be familiar to us via the allegorical story of the axe (or shovel). The man in the story says that this is his favourite axe. "Of course," he adds, "I've replaced the handle several times and the head also." The clever Buddhist leaps to an Aha! at this point because man has trapped himself in a foolish error (one that we apparently make constantly), which is to consider this to be the same axe. We assume that it cannot be the same axe if all its parts have been replaced. After hearing this little parable, the maxim "everything changes" is trotted out, heads nod sagely, and it's game over for common sense. We never question the explicit reductionist assumptions, that come to us from ancient India, that complex objects are merely the sum of their parts and no more. This essay questions that assumption, and tries to show that it is wrong.

The idea that we don't exist except as the minimal sum of our parts and no more is so counter-intuitive that it makes very little headway in most people's minds. A few nihilists are attracted to the idea that we are nothing more than the sum of our parts, but I think most people find nihilism a bit off putting. Indeed the Western way of thinking leans towards the opposite conclusion, that things are considerably more than the sum of their parts with a large dose of woo. This is, for one thing, why we find the afterlife so plausible. Ironically, both of these central Buddhist doctrines require us to be greater than the sum of our parts, even though this contradicts the story of the chariot. It is yet another incoherence at the heart of Buddhist metaphysics. 

The Axe

If I replace the head and handle of an axe, is it still an axe?
It is, right?
My starting point for this essay is to ask if anyone would dispute that the axe in the story is still an axe? Or, having replaced the parts of the axe, has it become something other than an axe? I think most people would agree that the combination of an axe-handle and an axe-head together, aligned in the right way, would always make an axe. No matter how often we change the parts. Potential there is always an axe and as long as we continue to supply axe-heads and axe-handles, there always will be an axe. Not an unchanging axe, to be sure, but the axe will exist in every sense of the word as we use it in English (though not in Pali or Sanskrit, but we'll come to this). 

This point is often lost in the telling of the parable. We get out of it what we want to get out of it, which is confirmation of our existing belief in the contingency of the world. What we do not see, due to this confirmation bias, is the important point that no matter how many times we replace the parts with other suitable parts, the object is still an axe. And if the axe is still an axe, no matter how many times we replace the parts, then there is an invariance that is not accounted for by our reductive Buddhist theory. Something is not changing. But that something cannot be found by reducing the axe to its parts! In fact, the act of reducing the axe to its constituents obliterates the something and apparently allows us to claim that it never existed in the first place. So then, what were we chopping our wood with before we broke our axe?

Another view is that the axe is not simply the sum of its parts. It functions because its parts are put together in a particular way. In other words it can function as an axe only because it is structured or organised as an axe. Any appropriate materials can be used. A stone-headed axe is still an axe, because it has the same structure and is used for the same function. So any composite object, including a human being, is greater than the sum of its parts because structure gives those parts a unity and allows them to function (to be causal) in ways that are not implicit in the mere materials. Steel and wood can be structured in a variety of different ways to make objects with different functions - related tools for example (saw, chisel, hammer, adze, spear, arrow, etc). But steel and wood could be make into something entirely different. A clothes-peg for example. A desk. A picture frame. In these examples the parts also have structure. Structure can manifest at different levels. And structure at one level need not influence structure at another - having shaped a steel blade and a wooden handle, we are still free to configure them as different tools depending on our desire.

As early as 1843, John Stuart Mill was making the same point about chemistry (see Mill 1868). To use an example from one of his later contemporaries, the properties of a water molecule cannot be understood by adding together the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. In the chemical reaction that creates water from hydrogen and oxygen something new has come into being. It is not new in substance, since we know that it is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But it is new in structure and function. Water is greater than the sum of its parts. It interacts with the world in ways that a simple mixture of hydrogen and oxygen cannot, in fact water is utterly unlike a simple mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. George Henry Lewes (1875) introduced a new term for these new properties: emergent. Complex objects have emergent properties that are not inherent in their constituents, but only emerge when the parts are welded into a structured whole.

The point is that this is true also of our bodies. We replace atoms, molecules and cells as we go along, so that the elements that make up our bodies now, are different from those which made it up when we were born. Although some brain cells tend to remain throughout our lives once they appear. Similarly though the cell is the fundamental unit of living things, not all cells are identical in the way that all electrons or carbon atoms are identical. Just as identical and interchangeable atoms make up a variety of different molecules, there is no reason for evolution not to create infinite variety based on the basic structural features of the cell, e.g. brain cell, nerve cell, muscle cell, blood cell etc. The structures of lipids, proteins and nucleic-acids are important, but they don't fundamentally limit how cell might diverge (as long as it has the basic structural features of a cell).

The principle I am describing has several different names, the two most common are structure antireductionism; and emergentism. Some form of antireductionism seems to have been adopted by Aristotle, but J S Mill's explanation of it is the starting point for a more serious modern discussion of the principle. I became aware of this coincidentally after starting to read a series of blog posts on The Brains Blog by William Jaworski, who was aiming to provide an introduction to his book Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind (2016). Searching for background on his argument, I found an excellent introduction to the subject by Richard H. Jones (2013), whose work on translating the Prajñāpāramitā and Madhyamaka works I have cited in the past. Jones is a thoughtful writer who seems to write at the right level for someone like me. The book is genuinely introductory in that it doesn't seem to assume too much prior knowledge of the subject, but its also focussed and serious and takes me deeper into the subject. Jones tries to present all sides of the argument, while clearly favouring a view that might be called substance reductionist & structure antireductionist. 

Currently in terms of substance it is clear that physics accurately describes the world we live in. But structure reductionism is an abject failure in accurately describing our world. It explains nothing. On the other hand structure antireductionism has some unsettling consequences. It says that every single new level requires its own rules: water does not simply have emergent properties, but these emergent properties are real and this level of reality requires its own explanation. This might be the death knell for the great unification project that has been a characteristic of Western knowledge production since the ancient Greeks.

The usual Buddhist point of view is this: we are simply the sum of our parts (often those parts are the skandhas); and the parts that make us up are constantly changing; so we don't exist in a permanent sense. And ancient Indian Buddhists always use "exist" to mean permanently existing without alteration or any possibility of change. So if we are arguing against an ancient Indian Buddhist then this is demonstration of an existing but yet changing entity is to them an oxymoron. The statement that an axe can exist but also change is self-contradictory. This reductionist argument based on the skandhas (or dhātus or whatever), which is self-consistent, is seen as a powerful confirmation that our Buddhist views reflect reality, but it entirely leaves out the question of structure. It does not acknowledge that a person persists over time as a structure, if not as a collection of the same parts, then as a series of parts making up the same structure. Because Buddhists were committed to this reductionism, they could not acknowledge the way that structure makes complex objects greater than the sum of their parts. Most Buddhists still cannot. However, this Buddhist form of structure reductionism has all the same problems as the structure reductionism of scientists. It doesn't work.

What Arises In Dependence on Conditions?

Rightly speaking it is dharmas that arise in dependence on Conditions. And dharmas are the object of he manas, or mind-sense. It is problematic to apply this Buddhist theory to objects themselves when it really only applies to our experience of objects. In other words, what arises in dependence on conditions is precisely experience. This is made explicit in the Vajirā Sutta in the last lines of simile that are almost always left out when citing this tex:
Dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca;
Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī’’ti
For only suffering is produced; suffering persists, and ceases.
None other than suffering is produced, none other than suffering ceases.  
This sentiment is echoed in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (cited here in its Pāḷi, Sanskrit and Chinese versions):
Pāḷi: ‘Dukkhameva uppajjamānaṃ uppajjati, dukkhaṃ nirujjhamānaṃ nirujjhatī’ti
Skt.: duḥkham idam utpadyamānam utpadyate | duḥkaṃ nirudhyamānaṃ nirudhyate |
Chinese: 苦生而生,苦滅而滅。
P: “Arising is only disappointment arising. Ceasing is disappointment ceasing.”
S: Arising is this disappointment arising; ceasing is disappointment ceasing.
C: Disappointment arising, arises; disappointment ceasing, ceases.
Experience here is not characterised as duḥkha or unsatisfactory; it doesn't have unsatisfactoriness as a quality; experience is duḥkha. In this context experience is synonymous with the world (loka) of experience. In early Buddhist texts duḥkha and loka are ways of talking about the same thing, which was first noted by Sue Hamilton (2000).

The parts that a person or indeed the world is supposedly made up from, the skandhas, turn out to be more like the apparatus of experience or the experiencing factors. So Buddhists usually misapply there own most significant formula to "reality" and try to make pratītyasamutpāda an theory of what exists (ontology) or worse, a Theory of Everything (TOE) that exists. It does the job badly. The skandhas are far too flimsy to represent the world or even objects in the world, and 4 of the five are mental and thus nothing to do with the mind-independent world anyway. Given that it describes experience well and the mind-independent world badly, I give the early Buddhists the benefit of the considerable doubt and assume that it was intended to only describe experience. The parts (skandhas) are aspects of how our minds create our experiential world from sense impressions of the world. The possibility of mind-independent reality is left open and never addressed by early Buddhists, though experience really only makes sense if there is one.

In other words, pratītyasamutpāda is not a theory of what exists or how the world works, but a theory of what experience is and how it works. It says nothing about the axe per se. On the other hand this is exactly how most Buddhists in history have taken pratītyasamutpāda.

Structure and Scale

Recently I started asking myself a question about what is real. Not in an "I can't tell what's real, I'm going mad" kind of way, but in a reflective philosophical way. In particular, I've previous written about the importance of scale on how we understand the world. The rules that apply on one scale may not apply on another. There are obvious examples of this. The kinds of objects that we can perceive with our naked senses follow laws described in classic mechanics and chemistry. However at the nano-scale, these rules are not followed and another type of mechanics, quantum mechanics, are required to describe their behaviour. This was so far from being intuitive that in 200,000 years of anatomically modern humans, it is less than a century since these new rules were first described in detail. 

If we fire a rifle into the air, the bullet gradually, smoothly slows down due to friction over-coming inertia. Gravity makes the bullet describe a parabolic curve, though one that is gradually compressed as it slows down. If I shoot a mass-less photon into the air will travel in a flat curve that is determined by curvature of space, but which at the surface of the earth may appear to be a straight line. A photon does not experience drag in the atmosphere, but will keep going until it collides head on with something, at which point it will undergo an instantaneous transition to a different energy level that is a multiple of some constant (a quanta in other words).

Bullets do not behave like photons and vice versa. There is a discontinuity between the different scales so that different fundamental laws apply. This was the point of my essay Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat (29.10.2010). What applies to a sub-atomic particle does not apply to a cat; and vice versa. The cat is a metaphor. Matter at the nanoscale is governed by probabilities, with some real limits on what we can know via Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. For example, the more precisely we specify the position of a particle, the less we can know about its momentum; and vice versa; and similarly with other pairs of quantities. Matter at the macro-scale, in sharp contrast is governed by cause and effect and we can very precisely specify both position and momentum for any macro object. Matter on the nano-scale is discreet and digital (quantised), matter on the macro-scale is continuous and analogue. And so on. 

This creates a problem for determinists. Determinism is a product of structure reductionism. In the structure reductionist view, everything can be explained by breaking the world down into its components and describing how those components behave. At present, the best explanation seems to be that the world is fundamentally made of a number of interacting quantum fields (not that I understand quantum field theory!). The interactions of these fields is what leads us to see particles and forces when we look at the universe at the appropriate scale. Quantum mechanics describe the behaviour of individual particles that are the manifestations of quantum fields interacting, but quantum mechanics is not deterministic, it is probabilistic. The matter that we can perceive with our senses does not, despite what certain "spiritual types would have us believe", follow the same rules as the particle does. The probabilistic quantum world does not determine the macro world. This means for example, that deterministic arguments against freewill fall short if they are rooted in structure reductionism. Within introducing any woo factor, determinism is simply not a convincing explanation of higher levels of structure and organisation. Determinism does not predict emergent properties. 

Another major discontinuity occurs at larger scales when classical mechanics also fails to provide a good description of matter and we must shift to using relativistic descriptions. And finally at the scale of the whole universe some unknown force is causing the universe to expand at an increasing rate. When we look at galaxies they are accelerating away from each other and we do not understand why this is, though we refer to the phenomenon as "dark energy". And the thing about these distinctions of scale is that they have almost no effect at different scales. Clever chemists can make some large molecules behave as particles, under special conditions, which is no doubt interesting as it blurs the boundaries between levels. But, at the macro-scale we typically interact with at least sextillions (1021) of molecules at a time and we never see probabilistic behaviour. To our naked senses there is no observer effect, no tunnelling, no entanglement, no (self)interference, and so on. Similarly when we look at the world with our naked senses we do not see curved spacetime or have any reason to see space and time as related. Space looks flat. Everyone thought it was flat until 1919, when English scientist Arthur Eddington disproved this proposition by observing the bending of the path of photons passing close to the sun. This could only be explained by the curvature of spacetime itself (the first of many successful tests of the accuracy of Einstein's General Relativity). 

Another way I have developed for looking at the problem is that lower level physical laws are more general; higher level laws are more specific. So there are physical laws that govern atoms, that describe and circumscribe the nature of chemistry, e.g. thermodynamics, electromagnetism, etc. Such laws describe the possibilities at the next level of complexity, but they do not specify which of the possibilities will manifest, or how that level will appear to us. Of all the possible molecules, only some occur naturally in the set of conditions set by the conditions on the earth, one of the main contributions comes from the higher level level of interconnected ecosystems of organisms (or Gaia, if you like). Though it is a debatable proposition as to whether higher level structures are capable of downwards causation. Similarly the laws that govern the emergent properties of cells describe and circumscribe the nature of evolution, but they do not specify which species will evolve at any given time. Evolution is governed by higher level laws like natural selection. Perfect knowledge of the first cells would not give us the ability to predict what life on earth would look like at any point in time. It would only allow us general knowledge about life now. For specific knowledge we have to go to higher levels. Higher levels must be studied in their own right and though they are circumscribed by lower level laws, the emergent properties of higher levels are not determined by lower level laws.

Another potential confusion for Buddhists is that the act of analysis, the success of analysis as a method, does not validate reductionism. The success of analysing experience into skandhas does not validate the doctrine that there are only skandhas and nothing else. Antireductionists generally acknowledge the usefulness of analysis. In understanding a cell it is helpful to know how and of what the structure is composed. Just as in understanding water it is useful to know that its parts are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atoms; or that an axe is made from head and handle. Reductionism requires us to accept that the whole is only the parts, and that all levels collapse to the lowest one we can imagine. It is clear that this is a bar to understanding the behaviour of wholes. It is one thing to say, for example that the brain is made of atoms, it is another to say that a full knowledge of quantum mechanics is sufficient to understanding human behaviour. The further apart the levels are, the less likely this proposition seems. Emergent properties, and emergent laws, manifest at every level of complexity: atoms don't behave like quarks, molecules don't behave like atoms, cells do not behave like molecules, organs do not behave like cells, organisms do not behave like organs, organisms with brains do not behave like organisms without brains. At no point does perfect knowledge of a lower level ever lead to a full understanding of a higher level (or vice versa). 


I'm often appalled by how simplistic Buddhist arguments about philosophy are (and I am far from being the world's most sophisticated philosopher!). All too often I see all scientists written off as "Materialists" or "Physicalists" for example, and all of their knowledge judged as irrelevant to the Buddhist project. I've complained about this before (see Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism. 8 Aug 2014). No consideration is given to issues of how individual scientists might approach substance, structure, theory, or method. When I read someone like founder of the Triratna Order, Sangharakshita, complaining about scientists insisting on a "mechanistic" view of the world, I cannot help but be depressed that his knowledge of science seems to stop at the end of 19th Century. Similarly with many other prominent contributors. 

Yes, there are some scientists who are structure reductionists and as such make ridiculous claims about the success of mechanistic or deterministic views, or dismiss freewill, and so on. To be fair very few physicists are taught philosophy, so they don't really know how to think. On top of this prominent scientists like Stephen Hawking dismiss philosophy as irrelevant, while indulging in hedgerow philosophy of the worst kind. That said, more characteristic of our leading scientists is a more nuanced view of what they do and what the universe is like. For example, the success of quantum physics has undermined all claims to a mechanistic universe and this is generally acknowledged. Einstein infamously complained that he found the idea of a probabilistic universe objectionable. But Einstein was wrong, the quantum level is probabilistic, though of course this does not mean that the macro-world is probabilistic. We know that it isn't. Silly problems, like the singularity at the beginning of the universe are now widely accepted by scientists as problematic - as Sean Carroll recently tweeted (with added emphasis), 
The Big Bang “model” (hot expanding universe) is true; the BB “event” (early singularity) is just conjecture." 
(The Big Bang singularity isn't even sensible conjecture. There are no singularities in quantum mechanics. Could be a first moment of time.) 
All too much of what passes for intellectual discourse in Buddhism is bad philosophy and bad science. I've written about the various problems I've found in closely examining Buddhist doctrines. I find very few Buddhists (or Buddhist Studies scholars for that matter) are at all interested in such problems. And I've also written quite a lot on why people continue to find religious ideas intuitive and even compelling. So it's not surprise to me that I meet resistance when I talk about problems in Buddhist doctrine, but it can still be quite frustrating.

This particular problem is one that ought to really shake Buddhists. Buddhism is both substance and structure reductionist. The substance reductionism, which distorts a model which was originally a description of experience into an ontology, is incoherent. It is possibly the worst description of the universe that has ever been seriously considered. It is one thing to reduce experience to dharmas or cittas, but to try to reduce the whole world, everything, to dharmas? That leaves us confused. Dharmas are not good candidates for the ultimate substance of the world because they are irreducibly subjective. But worse, where they do make predictions about the world, they are demonstrably wrong. If we restrict this theory to the epistemic domain, or what we can know about the world, then some of the claims made stand up. But Buddhists insist that it applies to the ontic domain, to what is. Subjectivity probably does affect how the world looks to us, does not determine how the world is. But in practice what we find is that Buddhist theories of what the world is made of are just wrong. Most Buddhists hold a dualist or vitalist view in which consciousness is a distinct substance. This view is no longer tenable. And it turns out that the world is made of particles and/or energy. Buddhist is just completely wrong about the substance of the world. Buddhist substance reductionism might have worked as psychology, but as ontology it is laughable.

The structure reductionism of Buddhists causes most of us to believe that complex objects do not have emergent properties, but can be considered as admixtures of the properties of their constituent parts. In this view, a being is no more than the the combined properties skandhas. Since, emergent properties are so much a part of modern discourse I imagine that many Buddhists would be concerned to know that their worldview denies the very possibility of emergent properties. Especially those who are enthused by general systems theory (often via Joanna Macy's book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Living Systems). Perhaps the late invention of interdependence solves the problems caused by denying emergent properties (without which general systems theory doesn't work), but I don't see how this helps. Mutual causality still reduces all structures to the simple additive properties of the constituents, so it does not allow for emergence of new causal entities. Ironically, various Abhidharmas did invent different kinds of causality to try to solve the problem of maintaining continuity between action and consequence, but as we've seen this explanation fails (see The Logic of Karma. 16 Jan 2015). And in any case they still reduce all forms of causality to one.

But the really great disaster of Buddhist philosophy is the insistence on equating existence with permanence. This is an error of such great proportions and such catastrophic consequences that it is hard to over state it or forgive it. That most people who talk and write abut Buddhism never address this foolish criteria or adjust their language to account for it is another indictment of out intellectual culture. If we only remove this unnecessary restriction then, at the very least, we can dispense with the tortures of studying Nāgārjuna and Madhyamaka, which are entirely framed within this unworkable ontology. And the world would be a better place for it.

What I wonder is how Buddhists ever came to be so triumphant about their philosophy. How does a group with such a grossly defective view of the world end up trumpeting their superiority over all comers? It's a joke right? I've said this before, but the Emperor has no clothes! And the scholars who are supposed to be objective about Buddhism are all so in love with it that they don't see it either. Since more and more monastics, with explicit commitments to medieval religious worldviews, are infiltrating academia, this situation is only going to get worse. Worryingly, the same scholars are often part of a movement that seeks to impose the teaching of Indian "philosophy" on university philosophy departments!

Something is rotten in the state of Buddhist philosophy. There's just no mileage in the kind of reductionism that is axiomatic in Buddhism. At the very least we need to think in terms of structure antireductionism and emergent properties, and this involves at the least rejecting traditional reduction to the skandhas. It would also help to clarify the way in which substances reduce, not to subjective mental constituents, but to objective quantum fields. Do I even need to repeat that I think that Buddhist claims to understand the true nature of reality are laughable?

Of course the remaining uncertainty over how to think about consciousness is going to make it difficult to really deal a death blow to traditional Buddhism - it will cling to life by claiming to have understood and explained consciousness (though it doesn't). Clearly the brain itself is subject to substance reductionism, it's made of matter. Substance reduction is completely useless for producing plausible theories of consciousness. But how the structures of the brain produce a first person perspective is not understood. If it is to be understood, it seems that a structure antireductionist approach is the most promising. And since Buddhists are structure reductionists, it seems unlikely that they will have much to contribute.

Buddhists need to take stock of what they believe. We need to stop papering over the cracks and being flattered by the attention that we get from outsiders. We need to hold our hands up and admit that, as sophisticated our intellectual defences are, we don't really understand much at all. Where we think we do understand, we often seem to be deeply confused and flailing.



Hamilton, Sue. (2000) Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Jaworski, William. (2016). Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford University Press.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Lewes, George Henry. (1875). Problems of Life and Mind. Vol.2. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Turber.

Mill, John Stuart. (1868). A system of logic, ratiocinative and inductive; being a connected view of the principles of evidence and the methods of scientific investigation. 2 Vols., 7th ed. London: Longman, Green, Reader and Dyer. [First published 1843.]

20 November 2015

The Ambivalent Religion: An Alternate History of Mahāyānism.

Some weeks ago I summarised a bunch of recent research on the origins of the Mahāyāna. It turns out to have been an amorphous movement made up from a number of distinct cults, to have emerged from within Mainstream Buddhism, from within Mainstream Buddhist monasteries, and to have taken many centuries to coalesce as "the Mahāyāna" (with a possible name change due to a misunderstanding as Sanskrit took over from Prakrit). Eventually, some forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism became the mainstream in North India, others probably remained as outliers.

A lot of my recent work has involved identifying internal contradictions in early Buddhist doctrines. At first I didn't go looking for these, it was just that when I started paying close attention they stood out. And at first I had no intellectual context for them because all the historical narratives are of unity and coherence increasing as we go back in time. In trying to get some background I realised that the problems I was seeing were once live issues for Buddhists. They recorded some of their arguments about these matters in texts. While each sect was developing it own attempts to reconcile the contradictions, they were also trying to discredit their Buddhist opposition. Generally speaking, if you take any given formulation of Buddhist doctrine there is a record of a concerted effort by other Buddhists to discredit it. 

In previous essays and a published article (Attwood 2014), I explored how some Mahāyānists tinkered with the theory of karma, doing away with the inevitability of consequences and introducing some mythology about how meeting the Buddha could eliminate evil karma, as well as a number of religious exercises which could do the same. In this essay, I want to explore another aspect of the way Mahāyānists reacted to the doctrine of karma. 

I've seen some secularists argue that karma and rebirth are not essential to Buddhism. But my view is that karma and rebirth are central to classical and traditionalist accounts of Buddhism. Indeed, I've shown that as problems with the metaphysics of Buddhism became apparent, in the form of a conflict between karma and pratītyasamutpāda, that Buddhists refined their accounts of pratītyasamutpāda to ensure the continued working of karma and rebirth. They were not beyond tinkering with karma as well, but I will endeavour to show in this essay, that what they have in mind in doing so, was concerns about rebirth and the ending of rebirth. 

In their most basic forms karma and rebirth enact a twofold myth common to many religions: the myth of a just world, and the myth of an afterlife (in which justice is enacted). In previous essays, I've showed that the two almost inevitably go together because as the world of everyday experience is clearly unjust, so the other world is naturally conceived of as just. To some extent, this emerges from the basic concepts and metaphors associated with ontological dualism (see Metaphors and Materialism). For Buddhists, karma is the supernatural monitor that "sees" all actions and ensures that we get the fate we earn. In India that fate is experienced primarily as repeated death and life; or in escape from repeated death and life. 

However, in trying to ensure that no permanent entity persisted in the process, Buddhists created an internal contradiction, first explicitly noted by Nāgārjuna: karma requires personal continuity to be the basis of an effective morality (we have to feel a connection to the consequences of our actions or we don't restrain our unwholesome urges); but pratītyasamutpāda, as conceived by early Buddhists, denies personal continuity, thus cutting a person off from the results of their actions. This basic self-contradiction led to a number of innovations prominent amongst which is the doctrine of momentariness adopted by the Theravādin Abhidhammikas and the Yogācārins. 

Early Mahāyāna theorists created a whole other problem for themselves. The Buddhist afterlife (seen from the moral point of view) is a hybrid of the two principle types of afterlife that I identified in my taxonomy. Without an effort, one cycles around dying and being reborn according to one's actions. However, with effort one can be liberated from this cycle and escape from being reborn. Buddhists were extremely reluctant to say much more about nirvāṇa other than that it meant not being reborn. They produced a few metaphors, largely drawing on standard North Indian imagery (cool caves, dried up streams, lotus flowers, etc) of the kind that crops up across the board in Indian literature. The frequent refrain of those who achieve the goal of Buddhism in early Buddhist texts is that they will not be reborn. But the specific question of what happens to a tathāgata (one who is "in that state") after death is inexplicable (avyākṛta).

As an aside in one of the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad creation stories, just after Brahman has created the world and the gods we find:
tad dhedaṃ tarhy avyākṛtam āsīt | tan nāmarūpābhyām eva vyākriyatāsau nāmāyam idaṃrūpa iti | BU 1.4.7
At that time this world was undifferentiated (avyākṛta); it was distinguished only in terms of name and form (nāmarūpa): [the one with] this name [has] this form.
So it's possible that the choice of words used when refusing to discuss the post-mortem state of the tathāgata was borrowed from this Vedic myth.

In the generations after the Buddha, the stories about him became inflated: he became more magical, more knowledgeable, more powerful. All the worldliness of the Buddha was gradually eliminated from the stories about him. The Buddha became superhuman and took on more and more godlike powers - he walks and talks at birth for example. We can to some extent see this process at work and it's also common in other hagiographies. In this inflationary process was the roots of a tectonic dilemma. If the Buddha was godlike and had infinite compassion for people (and indeed all living beings) then why did he have to die? Even more crucially, why did he have to stop being reborn?

Once in India, being reborn was just an ordinary part of life. By the time the early Upaniṣads were composed rebirth was seen as a burden. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad quietly slipped in the idea of ending rebirth and joining with brahman as a superior goal to a good rebirth within saṃsāra. Brahman is a kind of universal consciousness, a world-spirit that parallels, or perhaps originates, the element of spirit in us. A common image for the relation between absolute and relative being (sometimes erroneously used by Buddhists) is that people are like waves: brahman is water and it can take the shape of an individual wave (ātman) that appears to be independent, but ultimately the waves are water and returns to the ocean. And the Upaniṣads conceived of the end of rebirth as going to brahman. Sometimes brahman is personified as a god, Brahmā, and a theistic variety of Brahmanism is attested in the early Buddhist texts. But Buddhists rejected this kind of cosmology or theology and simply refused to speculate on the Buddha after his death, except to say he was not reborn and that he had "opened the doors to the deathless" i.e. made this escape available to everyone. In this Gautama to some extent resembles the culture hero Yama who opened the way to the ancestors for Brahmins.

The disappearance of this increasingly superhuman Buddha from the scene was a problem for Buddhists. He became an "otiose god", to use a phrase from Witzel (2012), who could play no further role in our lives. The fact that he simply died like an ordinary human being was difficult enough, but his disappearance forever seems have been deeply troubling, particularly for Mahāyānists. One of the places in which this dilemma is openly discussed is the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra, where a bodhisatva called Ruchiraketu does a bit of logic.
  • Puṇya leads to long life.
  • The Buddha practised the perfections over an incalculable number of lifetimes.
  • Therefore, the Buddha has an incalculable store of puṇya.
  • Therefore, the Buddha should have an infinitely long life. 
  • However, the Buddha died after only 80 years. 
In other words, the received facts about the Buddha's life were at odds with the beliefs about the Buddha that had developed in the meantime. Ruchiraketu then has an expansive visionary experience (not unlike some of the visions described by the well known lunatic and darling of the Romantics, William Blake) in which supernatural Buddhas explain that the Buddha's lifespan is, in fact, infinite. The world of appearances seems unrelated to the true nature of tathāgatas, though we are not told why or how in this text.

In the early model of Buddhism, the Buddha instructed many disciples who went on to recreate his experience for themselves and become liberated from rebirth. People who did this are arhat (worthy). The arhat instructed many disciples of their own and so the community of arhats grew. But within a few generations this scheme seems to have been failing. We don't know the details, but we do know that Mahāyānists began to criticise arhats in their literature. They seem to have seen this scheme of passing on teachings as a failure and the arhats as unworthy. They seem to have have two main responses.

The first response was to invent new Buddhas in other universes who were not dead and therefore still able to intervene in human affairs. This gave rise to texts such as the Suvarṇabhāsottama, Akṣobhyavūyha and Sukhāvatīvyūha Sutras; and eventually to what we know as "Pure Land Buddhism". Despite the fact that our Buddha died and disappeared beyond comprehension, in a next door universe, usually Abhirati or Sukhāvatī, there was another Buddha who was very much alive, omniscient, and omnipotent. This powerful figure would intervene at death and allow the worshipper to be reborn in a land where liberation was easy. No nasty sex or other forms of ritual pollution (that Buddhists seem to have assimilated from Brahmanism) just bliss and flowers and ambrosia and nirvāṇa. Paradise, in other words, as envisaged by celibate men living in the Central Ganges Valley in the early first millennium CE. This form of theistic Buddhism went on to be one of the most popular, if least demanding, forms of Buddhism and remains very popular. It is easily compatible with WEIRD sensibilities because it is so very close to familiar forms of messianic theism.

A sub-thread of the development of theistic Buddhism was the cult of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya is sometimes portrayed as a kind of immanent Buddha, who is taking a keen interest in human affairs and can't wait to get into the fray, he's just waiting for the previous dispensation to completely die out. This ought to have taken about 1500 years by some accounts, and to have been considerably accelerated by the ordination of women. However, as time went on Maitreya's birthday became further and further off, until it was infinitely far off. I think this is partly because he got tangled up in the deification of the Buddha, whose dispensation could not be seen to die out. Someone as fantastic as the Buddha would not teach a Dharma that only lasted a few hundred years. It would have to last forever. That this conflicts with other aspects of the developing culture of Buddhism is awkward, but not surprising. 

The second response was a lot more complicated. The reasoning seems to have been that the Buddha was a lost cause. He was gone and not coming back (and his replacement wasn't due for an infinitely long period of time). However, there were really hardcore practitioners who attempted to emulate the Buddha (or at least the stories about him). They already referred to themselves as bodhisatta, which we have reason to believe originally meant "committed (sakta) to awakening bodhi". These bodhisaktas conceived of a way that they could be better than the Buddha, or at least better than the arhats, by not disappearing from the world. They retained a commitment to the fundamental worldview in which karma gave rise to rebirth unless one was liberated. And they also inherited a tradition which said that the most helpful thing one could do is become liberated and teach others to liberate themselves. So they reasoned that if they got to the brink of liberation, a point where they have all the advantages of intense meditation practice, they could hold back from being liberated from rebirth. Being unliberated they would be bound to be reborn (they overlook the traditional view that breaking the fetters ensures the end of rebirth within a fixed number of lifetimes and the metaphysical problems that implies), but being so highly attained they could take control over the process, retain all their knowledge, and being eternal good guys in the fight against duḥkha. In other words, by a few twists of metaphysics they made themselves into immortal superheroes.

The superhero myth continued to play out. Fictional characters who embodied this new ideal began to appear in literature and then in art (quite some time later). Ironically, given that Buddhist karma and rebirth was originally a rejection of the general idea of beings reincarnating, the superheroes found a kind of apotheosis in Tibetan men who were proclaimed to be the (re)incarnation of imaginary superhero figures (tulku). Lineages of reincarnated superheroes were established along with procedures for recognising new avatars. Though curiously the young children had to be educated from scratch to be bodhisatvas, rather than being born with all their knowledge intact. Coincidentally, this turned out to be an excellent political strategy for preventing the dissipation of monastic power and wealth under the control of a celibate clergy.

It wasn't enough simply to proclaim themselves superheroes. Their own superiority had to be combined with a negative campaign against the existing mainstream, which may explain the negative attitude towards Arhats in some texts. Those who merely repeated the human Buddha's example and liberated themselves from rebirth had to be portrayed as men of lesser talents and ability, whose selfishness resulted in a lesser attainment. By this time the Buddha had achieved apotheosis and become an eternal god who manifested in human form, but was, in fact, eternal. This enabled Mahāyānists to establish a mental split between the human Buddha and a cosmic Buddha, as evidenced by the Suvarṇabhāsottama. The Buddha, that is the selfish figure of Gautama who died and won't come back, became increasingly irrelevant to Buddhism. Why emulate the mere human being (who isn't coming back) when there was a god-like, omnipresent dharmakāya who would save all beings from suffering, however long it took? Why this cosmic Buddha did not continue to manifest in human form, repeatedly and in parallel, is a question that ought to plague Buddhism the way that the absence of the second coming of Jesus plagues Christianity. Omnipotent beings are not limited to one body at one time. If I was omnipotent, I would simply manifest sufficient avatars to accomplish the goal. Apparently this never occurred to Buddhists or it was a step too far even for the most credulous. 

The negative spin campaign against arhats had three main focusses: the hero of the early Buddhist saṅgha, Śāriputra, the arhats themselves, and the distinction between the mainstream and this new cult of immortal superheroes. New texts were composed on the model of early "sutras" which expounded these new ideas. Śāriputra becomes a figure of mockery (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa), the arhats are dismissed as irrelevant and selfish (Saddharmapuṇḍarikā), and a new pejorative (probably caste based) term for the Mainstream is coined: hīnayāna meaning "defective vehicle", to contrast with mahāyāna (Cf Hīnayāna Reprise). It is in creating this false view of mainstream Buddhism that "the Mahāyāna" really crystallizes as a distinct approach. The common enemy of early Buddhists is usually Brahmins, whereas, in the post-Abhidharma period, it is conservative Buddhists. For a movement which proclaims itself as the most sublime human aspiration, this is pretty dirty politics. It's fairly obvious that this dark side of the Mahāyāna is not motivated by love, compassion, or wisdom. And yet apologies for this misanthropic behaviour are still being made. Where is the critique of any of this in the modern literature of Buddhism or Buddhist studies? It may well exist, but I've never seen it. 

The new cults seemed to have some positive elements as well. They produced intellectuals who grappled with the self-contradictions they found in early Buddhism and who tried to improve upon early attempts at reconciliation. Up to a point, such people were able to look back and see the best of early Buddhism. Nāgārjuna in the 2nd Century CE is at the threshold for this. Two centuries later, Vasubandhu is almost wholly forward-looking. From this point on no school of Buddhism looked to the early Buddhist texts for new ideas. They just made them up or borrowed them from other religions. Not until the Protestant reformation of Sri Lanka and Modernist Buddhism did we rediscover the early Buddhists. Ironically we mistake them for authorities and fail to see the mistakes they made, privileging them on the basis that they are older. We erroneously associate age with authority, but in the history of Buddhist ideas the peak of coherence is not reached until the mid-First Millennium CE.

The new cults also engaged in comparative studies of Buddhist doctrine, though usually with a strong sectarian bias. The Prajñāpāramitā movement seemed to carry on an intellectual current of early Buddhism which emphasise experience and meditation. It offered a useful if somewhat cryptic critique of the incipient realism of the Abhidharma. On the other hand, some of the enduring appeal of Mahāyānist thinkers is in arguing over what they said and what they meant. Nāgārjuna is the prime example of this. There are many ways to interpret his words, but after some 1800 years there is no consensus on what the author intended. His commentators could not agree and modern day Mādhyamikas either regress into a false certainty of one interpretation or incessantly rehearse the commentarial arguments. WEIRD scholars still build careers on reinterpreting his oeuvre. Medieval Buddhists also engaged in philosophical debates with thinkers from other Indian traditions, though by this time what was meant by Buddhist philosophy is almost unrecognisable from early Buddhism. 

Rather than being a single cult, Mahāyāna developed as a number of competing cults, often with very little in common beyond their Vinaya ordination. The advent of the Gupta Empire (3rd-6th Century CE) must have helped this as they opened up trade routes that spanned the sub-continent and allowed disparate elements of the movement to communicate and move around more freely. The resulting collection of cults gradually took over as the mainstream. As they became the mainstream there was an imperative to integrate the disparate aspects of the movement into a more coherent whole. Indian Buddhist intellectuals began to pull the disparate threads together and weave them into something more coherent. 

As with the same impetuous in early Buddhism in response to the Mauryan Empire, the formation and powerful influence of the Gupta Empire in North India likely had a huge effect on Buddhism. During the Gupta period, Sanskrit became the main language of the literati and scripts evolved to handle the more complex task of encoding Sanskrit (with its extra vowels and conjunct consonants). Mahāyānist texts, composed in Prakrit began to be translated into Classical (i.e. Pāṇinian) Sanskrit. By this point, the Theravādins were relatively isolated in Sri Lanka and committed to using the less prestigious Prakrit (or vernacular) that came to be called Pāḷi (the word means 'line'). The willingness to embrace Pāṇinian Sanskrit became another distinguishing feature of Mahāyānist literature.


From its own propaganda, Mahāyāna is a superior form of Buddhism that was the natural successor to the inferior form that initially took centre stage. It's difficult to generalise about such a broadly based movement since many of the separate cults that contributed to the movement had very different ideas and ideals, and superiority is a rather subjective judgement. What we now think of as "the Mahāyāna" is a synthesis of a variety of cults, largely filtered through centuries of adaptation to Chinese, Japanese and to some extent Tibetan culture (depending on who one is talking to). 

Not only did Mahāyānist not solve the doctrinal problems of early Buddhism, they introduced a whole raft of new problems through their failures. If early Buddhists could be described as metaphysically reticent, then Mahāyānists are metaphysically exuberant. They invent whole universes as required. In their literature and art, the Buddha undergoes apotheosis. This partly to explain away his rather disappointingly un-godlike human incarnation and all too final death. And yes, there is a contradiction here: Gautama is simultaneously elevated to virtual godhood and reduced to a bit player. New superhero figures emerge and multiply. Emphasis shifts away from dead Gautama, and towards these new buddhas who are still active in their own worlds, and to superheroes who are not so selfish and graceless as to stop being reborn. These imaginary characters continued to become more and more magically potent and godlike. They approached omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. In some strains of Buddhist thought, the dharmakāya Buddha is the universe. 

My point is that although we call it Buddhism, the religion of the Mahāyānists is a wholly different religion from what came before. It certainly has some roots in Buddhism, but it repudiates much of what made Buddhism identifiably Buddhist while retaining some pan-Indian features such as karma and rebirth. 

The new religion of Mahāyānists employed a number of dirty tricks to establish itself, but having taken over, acted as though this was simply the natural order of things. They could not quite make Buddhism disappear, but they managed to discredit most of it by the time they were driven out of India. The religion of Mahāyānists these days markets itself as the religion of compassion and (unless pulled up on it) claim that compassion was their innovation. It wasn't. By compassion ancient Buddhists generally meant "teaching the Dharma". Mahāyānists did not invent it or introduce it.

Despite many openings for criticism, most scholars of Buddhism join with Buddhists in taking Mahāyāna on its own terms, or limit themselves to describing Mahāyāna as they find it, careful not to disturb anything. No one ever asks the Dawkins questions, "Why would you believe something that is obviously false?" And yet, because of the proliferation of metaphysical speculation, imaginary beings, and imaginary worlds, the Mahāyāna religion is far more open to such criticism than it's more conservative cousins. My conclusion is that scholars are in love with their subject and don't want to say anything bad about it. We're afraid of being asked to leave the temple, or being thrown out.

On the other hand part of the reason that Mahāyānism receives so little critical attention is that it dovetails into a Romantic worldview so well. It is full of hyperboles, epitomes, acmes, essences, embodiments, and archetypes that appeal to the Romantic imagination. It does not simply allow for magical thinking, it positively encourages it. So for the Romantic escapist, Mahāyānism is fertile ground. One can easily become caught up in the hyperbole, the colour, the excitement, and let us not forget the interminable arguments, and forget for a while that one is a limited, short-lived being whose life is probably quite dull, boring, and pointless. Mahāyānism is a high-quality drama that distracts us from reality while preaching that the very distraction is reality. Which is quite brilliant from a marketing point of view. And if the cracks start appearing one can confidently fall back on some perplexing pseudo-wisdom culled out of context from the Diamond Sutra or that old fraud Nāgārjuna. It's all just śūnyatā. Isn't it? 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.
Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012). Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. 

08 August 2014

Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism

Tsze-lu said, "The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?"

The Master replied, "What is necessary is to rectify names."

The Analects. (13.1)

The three words in the title of this essay are often conflated and used pejoratively to criticise anyone who argues that the results of scientific exploration must be taken into account. In fact they delineate three different philosophical narratives, the first two are ontologies concerned with the nature of reality, while the latter is an epistemological position. Since the terms come up so often and are so often used indiscriminately, leading to confusion, it's worth unpacking them and sorting one from the other.


Physicalism is a relatively new word. It was coined in the 1930's by the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, which is also associated with the epistemological stance of Positivism. Indeed the confusion of anti-science campaigners is such that they will often refer to science as "Positivist".  This is very easy to refute since in the schism between Viennese refugee Karl Popper and the Vienna Circle, scientists decisively sided with Popper in rejecting Positivism. Modern science is not Positivist, it is, if anything, Popperian. The heart of the dispute was the Positivist claim that propositions could only be considered true when they could be directly verified. Popper showed, using the example of the black swan, that this was not a useful approach to assessing the truth value of knowledge. For example: "All swans are white" had been used as an example of an demonstrably true proposition in Europe, since all European swans are white. But in Australia swans are black and thus once Europeans got to Australia they realised that it was never true that all swans were white. This is now known as the Black Swan Effect. The Positivist approach is constantly undermined by unknown unknowns. Those who claim there is no certain knowledge cite the Black Swan Effect as a justification for this view. 

The Physicalist position is essentially a linguistic one. They said that all linguistic statements are synonymous with some physical statement. Which boils down to the idea that everything is (ultimately) physical. If this were so it would certainly make truth claims a lot easier to establish or test. Everything we experience is simply a result of how the physical world is arranged. For example an arrangement of atoms.

Although philosophers still discuss the idea of Physicalism, it is not a very convincing position and has very little influence on the world at present. Indeed it is precisely the mind which undermines physicalism. It is very difficult to account for the phenomena of the mind in a Physicalist paradigm. While most current theories of mind are reductive, in the sense of explaining the mind as an activity of the brain, this would still be difficult to account for on the basis of Physicalism, because the phenomena of the mind are not physical. For some philosophers this looks like a case for substance dualism. David Chalmers who coined the term "The Hard Problem" is a substance dualist. 

I think it's safe to say that no scientist is presently trying to explain the mind through the Physicalist paradigm. Granted, the physicists seeks to understand physical phenomena through studying the physical world. But this is a methodological approach rather than an ontological position. Physicists may believe that studying the world (the way they do) will lead to a theoretical understanding of reality, but this is technically not Physicalism, it is Naturalism


Materialism is a somewhat older term with roots in the early Enlightenment. We need to think carefully about the historical context of Materialism. In fact some of the Ancient Greeks were materialists - they believed that the world was made up of one substance and it's transformations. A popular early contender for this single substance was water. Fire was also considered by some. There were apparently some materialists in ancient India as well and they also played around with both water and fire as the ultimate substance. A little note here is that in Buddhism we frequently meet Nihilists who do not believe in rebirth, or Determinists who believe our actions are all pre-determined, but neither of them can legitimately (or rationally) be called Materialists because they do not espouse a substance ontology. However it is de rigueur to irrationally call such characters materialists. Materialism, as an ontology, did not catch on either in Europe or in India. In Europe materialism lost ground to other ideas and then was obliterated by Christianity for over 1000 years. In India the transmigration of souls in a cyclic eschatology required some form of Vitalism that dominates the Indian worldview even today.

At the dawn of the Enlightenment the Roman Catholic Church (previously the Holy Roman Empire) had been the dominant intellectual power for a millennia. They maintained this by having a monopoly on education and by persecuting heretics. Roman theology translated into secular power as well. Thus when the first cracks appeared in Church dogma - discoveries by Johannes Kepler, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Galileo - they were embraced with great enthusiasm in some quarters where the Church was less popular.

As much as anything the early Materialists hoped to throw off the oppressive yoke of the Church. And they did this by playing up the possibilities of gaining knowledge by studying the material world as distinct from the spiritual world of the Church; and by playing down the superstition and ignorance fostered by the Church as part of its program to control the masses.

We have to see the Materialism of the Enlightenment as distinct from contemporary Materialism because of the historical context and the fact that most of the central planks of contemporary materialism were discovered in the 20th century. The understanding of the 17th and 18th Century materialists was entirely different and commentators such as Arnold Schopenhauer (the darling of many Romantics) who attempt to refute 18th century Materialism are barely relevant to modern discussions of materialism because they are talking about something completely different.

In the 21st century the Church is a spent force intellectually. For a start it is divided and full of internal strife over issues of equality. The Church plays no major role in public discourse any more. In addition we have a series of discoveries that have established materialism as a very useful way of seeing the world: building on the life and works of Newton, Hume and Kant et al.; 19th century natural philosophers extended our knowledge of the natural world: evolution and the discovery of fossils; the explorations of the early chemists; Maxwell's electromagnetism and so on. This laid the foundations for far more sophisticated theories which have allowed exploration of the natural world in greater breadth and depth, such as: Relativity, quantum mechanics, and nuclear forces using techniques such as deep space telescopes, electron microscopes, and fMRI scanners taking pictures of the brain in action. These are all the activities of what used to be called natural philosophers - those whose study is of the natural world, and who nowadays take an approach that might be called Naturalism.

The success of methodological Naturalism can lead to the ontological view that the material world is all that there is, i.e. to mono-substance materialism. However the Materialism of today is vastly different to the Materialism of the 19th Century. The picture of nature is much more wide ranging and compelling. It will readily be admitted that we do not understand everything, the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, not to mention problems associated with the mind, are as yet unsolved. Still, what we do know about the world is astounding. And we know the basic principles upon which the world, as we know it, operates. (See Sean Carroll's essay Seriously, The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Really Are Completely Understood).

The main problem that undermines Materialism as a complete ontology is what David Chalmers has called "the hard problem of consciousness. As he says "The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience." It's very difficult to explain first person experience, the fact that we are subjects of experience, from a Materialist perspective. However we must carefully note that, rather disappointingly, Chalmers is a substance dualist: in expounding his views he makes it clear that he believes that the mind is made of a different stuff to matter. It is natural, even axiomatic, for a mind/body substance dualist to argue that studying matter will tell us nothing about the mind. Substance dualism is a theological position rather than a philosophical position: there is no way to test the proposition, it must simply be taken on faith. Just because a substance dualist like Chalmers cannot conceive of a way around the problem, because his definition of mind erects insurmountable barriers around it, does not mean that people who reject substance dualism are bound by the same assumptions. I recently cited John Searle and his contention that these discussions often mix up ontology and epistemology:
"The ontological subjectivity of the domain [of consciousness] does not prevent us from having an epistemologically objective science of that domain". - (Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology)
Over the last few weeks I've been arguing that substance dualism, and in particular Vitalism, is incompatible with basic Buddhism. In fact like Nāgārjuna I'm forced to conclude that any hard and fast ontological position is untenable, because by the Buddhist understanding of the existential situation there is no epistemological support for any ontology. We simply have no way to know one way or the other if the world really exists or really doesn't. All we can know is that experience arises and passes away and it marked by impermanence, disappointment and insubstantiality. However I offer the caveat that together we can infer a lot about the world and that through empiricism and comparing notes we have a lot of useful information and accurate theories. 

The other kind of Materialism, the other side of the mono-substance ontology, argues that there is only one kind of substance in the universe and it is mind. Whereas the Materialism that is regularly attacked by Buddhists is a form of Realism, if we say that there is only mind then we have a form of Idealism (after Plato's conception of 'ideas' the ultimate, true, noumena behind phenomena). Idealism is quite a popular philosophical stance amongst Buddhists.  And it's still a mono-substance ontology and thus a form of Materialism.


Scientism is distinct from Physicalism and Materialism because it's primarily an epistemological stance. Scientism, on the back of the massive success of science, argues that the scientific method (empiricism) is the only valid method of acquiring knowledge. Presumably Scientism would argue that common sense is a less sophisticated form of empiricism. In fact this is mostly a pejorative term used by social "scientists" against real scientists. And the irony here is that the humanities have been vigorously gearing up to be sciences since around the time "Scientism" was coined as a pejorative. So in some sense the argument is not with scientists, but with humanities scholars enthusiastically adopting the paradigms of science. Of course they do this because of the kudos that comes with empirical research: it's much harder to argue with measurement than with surmise or reflection. 

In fact I see this adoption of empiricism outside the natural sciences as a rather baleful influence on everyday life. Ordinary professionals such as teachers and nurses now have to have masters degrees and spend half their time on administrative and bureaucratic tasks designed to measure their performance. Such initiatives stem from the influence of Neolibertatian ideology on society: Neolibertarians enthusiastically adopted Game Theory for example and measurements of productivity adapted from manufacturing. The most egregious example of this was measuring the efficiency of the Vietnam War in terms of the "body count". The inventor of this metric, Allan Enhoven, was subsequently employed in the 1980s by British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher to reorganise the National Health Service. But the upshot of this is that there is never enough efficiency and constant organisation reviews and reorganisation that do more to sap efficiency than regular bouts of Norovirus. If there's a downside to empiricism this is it. 

The critics of science particularly focus on the reductive nature of scientific theories - things are always explained in terms of simpler components. (Which is just what Buddhism does in models like the skandhas, dhātus and nidānas). In fact though science does largely rely on reductive accounts, with huge success it must be said, this is changing with the rise of cross-discipline work and systems theory. Reductive explanations give you a particular kind of leverage on the problems you are looking at. Buddhists exploit this leverage as much as scientists to, though to different ends. 

In many ways the term Scientism expresses the anxiety that the efficacy of previously privileged forms of knowledge seeking (such as through meditation or abstract philosophy) are denied by scientists. This anxiety being felt as much within the disciplines of sociology and psychology as without. The application of empiricism to fields like psychology looks like reducing the role of gifted pioneers like Sigmund Freud. The impressionistic and visionary approach to psychology doesn't always tally with what scientists find. take homeopathy which is so popular amongst those who lean towards Buddhism. Factually speaking there is nothing in homeopathic remedies and homeopathy is exposed as based on untrue propositions. The Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon website sells tee-shirts with the legend: Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543. The term "Scientism" is aimed at taunting those killjoy scientists who disprove unicorns and homeopathy, often with no real acknowledgement of the successes of science and the new stuff that we enjoy: like the internet.

Jan 2016: See also Sean Carroll's plea: Lets Stop Using the Word Scientism.

Ontology and Epistemology

Early Buddhism has a reasonably clear epistemology i.e. it is reasonably clear on what constitutes sources of valid knowledge (pramāṇa). Historically this clarity is lost because Buddhists begin to prioritise ontology, but before they go down that dusty road, there is some clarity. Knowledge comes from experience.

The central truth criteria are three axioms: experience is impermanent; experience is unsatisfactory; and experience is insubstantial. Any knowledge which conforms to these three axioms is valid knowledge. But here we must be cognizant of the scope of early Buddhist thought. Time and again the Buddha says: "I teach suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the way to cessation." Thus early Buddhist ideas were never intended as a philosophical system as though Gotama were an Indian Plato or Aristotle. Buddhism is programmatic. It's pragmatically focussed on duḥkha and minimalist in being unconcerned with wider philosophical questions which when asked are frequently left aside as unexplained (avyākata).

By cultivating certain kinds of experience, particularly samādhi or integration and by reflecting on experience per se in that state, one can get access to knowledge of the nature of experience (yathābhūta-jñānadarśana) and become liberated from duḥkha. Subsequent to that liberation (vimukti) we obtain the knowledge that we are liberated (vimuktijñāna) or the knowledge that we have destroyed the āsravas (āsravakṣayajñāna). 

There is another kind of knowledge traditionally associated with samādhi called abhijñā. This is what we would call "extra-sensory perception". How we understand these ESPs will depend on temperament and worldview. However the most import of the abhijñās, and the only one described as lokuttara, is āsravakṣaya the destruction of the fluxes; synonymous with vimukti. And although , in early Buddhist texts, it is certainly possible to gain ESP powers, it is not usually seen as desirable, especially in contrast to the āsravakṣaya.

At no point in early Buddhist texts, and as far as I know in the Perfection of Wisdom texts or the Sukhāvativyūha texts, does the Buddha say anything at all about the nature of reality or of objects. Such speculations as we have in the Buddhist tradition seem to come out of arguments between the successors of the Ābhidharmikas and non-Buddhist Indian philosophers and to date mainly from ca. the 6th century AD onwards. Buddhists went for over 1000 years without worrying about what the world is made of. Even the so-called "elements" (dhātu) are defined in experiential terms: earth is characterised by the experience of resistance and so on. 

It's important to be clear about all this, about the doctrinal stance that underpins Buddhism: both early Buddhism, sectarian Buddhism and at least the early Mahāyāna. The focus is on gaining knowledge that can release us from suffering. That knowledge is obtained by examining our mind, especially from a state of samādhi or through reflections carried out immediately post-samādhi. While natural processes do offer metaphors for the mind, the natural world is never given any consideration in the process of liberation. It is broadly speaking a source domain of objects of the senses, but nothing more and of little or no interest to Buddhist thinkers.

I've already mentioned that one of the implications of this Buddhist epistemology is that it can support no ontological arguments. And indeed where Buddhists make ontological arguments they have to first modify the Buddhist epistemology in ways that are not related to the program of gaining liberation from suffering. Thus, I would argue, that if one is a Buddhist then one cannot legitimately take an ontological stand. I believe that this is precisely the message of the Kaccānagotta Sutta

From the early Buddhist point of view, we have no basis for arguing that "reality" or "things" or "the universe" is one way or the other. We have no basis for a Realist point of view and no basis for an Idealist point of view. We have no valid source of knowledge about the nature of reality or the nature of objects of the senses. All we have is experience. And even those people with insight are just describing another kind of experience which is entirely personal to them. Knowledge from the senses can be reliable to varying degrees, even the unawakened can function in the world and physics makes incredibly accurate predictions. But any ultimate knowledge we might gain can only be of the workings of the mind, and in particular the way the mind responds to sensory stimulation and how that relates to the three axioms of experience.


Whenever we see pejoratives flying around in a intellectual discussion we know that someone's toes have been stepped on. Pejoratives are about trying to score points. Good polemic deals with substantive points, it does not resort to lazy labelling. Of course it can be helpful to point out that a critic has an unstated, and possibly unexamined, assumption or philosophical stance. Buddhists all too often take a stand in Romantic ideology or in Vitalist ontology. Or they may cite some anachronistic philosophy or philosopher (Schopenhauer is a favourite). And it can be helpful to point out and critique the stance or the view when developing an argument. When one's critics are thoughtlessly expounding a philosophical stance, then undermining that stance is a valid way of proceeding. Pejoratives are employed to shut down discussions, to silence opposition, and to try to put an opponent at a disadvantage so as simply to win an argument.

It's useful to see that Physicalism, Materialism, and Scientism are three different labels for three different approaches to being and/or knowledge. And to know that if one wants to put a non-polemical label on the worldview of most scientists it would be Naturalism.

If someone wants to pick a fight on the basis of their own confusion about these terms, or based on an anachronistic view of science, or the views of a philosopher who died before science really got going; or to make an argument based on an ontology for which there is no supporting epistemology; then I'm under no more obligation to take up that fight than I would be to argue theology with a Jehovah's Witness appearing uninvited on my doorstep. Wrong views are irrelevant to my project/object. Refuting the wrong views of individual strangers seldom attracts me, unless the stranger seems to have a representative view or class of views, or if in refuting a wrong view I can highlight a right view.


25 July 2014

Demonising Our Religion

Thai Buddha Amulet
for warding off evil spirits
I started writing this essay before my series on Vitalism and it got overtaken by that project and so comes a little too long after the publication of the article which sparked it. Sometimes a break for digestion is useful however. One of the fascinating aspects of Buddhism in the present is how Buddhists are negotiating the collision with modernity. In a way modernity is too vague a phrase. It refers to what is happening how, but it also suggests the changes in European society and its colonies that have been happening for centuries. Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter in 1610 establishing Scientific Rationalism (or Naturalism) as a transformative force. Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses which led to the formation of the Protestant movement in 1517. Romanticism by contrast emerges only in the 19th century. For a while we seemed to have transcended modernity and become post-modern, but the death of modernity was much overstated and modernity seems to be reasserting itself.

In an interview in Tricycle Magazine, titled Losing Our religion Professor Robert Sharf expresses considerable reservations about Modernism. I'm not in agreement with most of the views expressed in the interview. I'm not convinced by his arguments against "Buddhist Modernism", as he calls it. We're certainly not losing our religion as Buddhism continues to gain ground in the West, and also often unnoticed by Westerners, in India where millions of Dr Ambedkar's followers have formally converted to our religion. But we are in danger of demonising innovations within our religion and stifling the changes that modernity necessitates. 

Sharf has that unfortunate tendency of Americans to think of American Buddhism as Western Buddhism ignoring the rest of the Western world. So his archetypal modernist is D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), a figure who was hugely influential in America from the 1950s onwards. The weakness of a US-centric, even Zen-centric, view of Western Buddhism become apparent in some of Sharf's complaints about "Western Buddhism" since they clearly do not apply more generally. 

Buddhist Modernism.

The term "Buddhist Modernism" is a problematic one. It gives priority to Modernism and suggests that the contribution from Buddhism is a minority. It seems to say that although I call myself a Buddhist, I am in fact merely a modernist who flirts with Buddhism. This is not fair to Buddhists. Modernist Buddhism would be much more like what we actually do. The Tricycle introduction tells us that Buddhist Modernism is:
"a relatively recent movement that selectively places those elements that are consistent with modern sensibilities at the core of the tradition and dismisses all else."
This is a caricature and a rather cynical one at that. Is it even a movement per se, or is it just Westerners getting interested in Buddhism in all it's varieties? Modernist Buddhism takes in the entire span of Western engagement with Buddhism: from 19th century Sri Lankan so-called Protestant Buddhism, the Pali Text Society, the first European to become a Theravāda bhikkhu, and Edwin Arnold's poetic adaptation of the Lalitavistara Sutra (a best seller in it's day); via 20th Century events such as the founding of the Buddhist Society in London, mass conversion of Ambedkarites in India, and the Triratna Buddhist Order; through to 21st Century breakaway groups like the Secular Buddhist Association, politically active bhikkhus in Burma and renegade Theravāda Bhikkhus ordaining women in Australia. The American scene is a bit over-rated by Americans. Modernist Buddhism begins when people living in the modern world (around the world) begin actively engaging with Buddhism. 

The complaint that Modernist Buddhism is based on a true observation, though others criticise Modernist Buddhists for being too eclectic. Seen in context this complaint tells us nothing whatsoever. All Buddhist movements throughout history have "reduce[d] Buddhism to a simple set of propositions and practices". Partly because the whole is incoherent and partly because there's too much of it to be practically useful anyway, increasingly so as time went on and the Canon of Buddhist writing inexorably expanded. We're all interested in subsets, and disinterested beyond that subset, and this has always been true. Partitioning is the only way to make Buddhism manageable and practical. We're all selective, we're all dealing in simplification. Even the complicated Tibetan forms of Buddhist doctrine are simplifications and in practice most Tibetan Buddhists focus on a subset of their own teachings - usually based on popular commentaries which synthesise and simplify rather than the too-voluminous source texts they managed to preserve. Buddhists are selective. So are scholars of Buddhism. So what?

Sharf may well have coined the term "Buddhist Modernism" in his 1995 article for Numen: 'Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.' His argument in this now dated paper is that contemporary commentators have "greatly exaggerated the role of experience in the history of Buddhism". Contextualised, this point is uncontroversial and even passé. We know that for most of Buddhist history the majority of Buddhists, and even the majority of Buddhist monks, have not meditated. Thus in Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon meditative experience has played only a small role. The problem for Sharf is that modern Buddhism emphasises meditation. Something he resists explaining in positive terms and apparently see as a distortion. I find this attitude incomprehensible. 

Throughout Buddhist history meditation has been seen as essential for liberation. It's just that a lot of the time most people, and all lay people, were convinced that liberation was impossible for them (or indeed anyone). For instance when Kūkai returned to Japan from China in 806 bringing Tantric Buddhist meditative rituals (sādhana) for the first time, he confronted a Buddhist establishment that not only did not meditate (chanting texts was about as close as they got), but which believed liberation to require three incalculable aeons of assiduous practice. Thus for any given person, liberation was always infinitely far off. Kūkai countered this with his slogan "Attaining Buddhahood in this very life" (sokushin jōbutsu) and he met with initial confusion. But he went on to establish the practice of Tantric meditative rituals at the heart of elite Japanese society in a way that lasted for 400 years, until it too was replaced by a reform movement, Zen, which also stressed meditative experience.

The vast majority of Buddhists have always been outside the monastery walls and no society ever seems to have expected lay Buddhists to do much, other than materially support monks. Thus, throughout the history of Buddhism the majority of people who we might identify, even nominally, as Buddhist, have been non-meditators. But reform movements throughout Buddhist history have almost always been about re-emphasising the personal practice of meditation and often involved something of a cult of personality based around one gifted meditator. The major exception being Pure Land Buddhism. Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon has not always emphasised the pursuit of liberation, but where liberation is a concern, with the sole exception of Pure Land Buddhism, it is intimately connected with meditation. Of course meditation requires a context of ethical and devotional practice as we see in most Buddhist groups. 

I note that Sharf seems unaware of the UKs largest Buddhism movements (Trirtana, Soka Gakkai, and NKT), none of which emphasise meditation at the cost of other contextualising practices (SG don't meditate so far as I'm aware). Triratna see meditation as indispensable, but in the context of developing the other "spiritual faculties" as well through devotional practices, study and reflection, the arts, social engagement and even environmental activism. Nor do I see this one-sidedness, for example, in Shambala in the USA (I have a friend involved in Cleveland, OH and know people who've spent time living at Gampo Abbey). So, who is it that is advocating meditation and nothing else, and why are they getting more attention than those much larger and more successful groups that constitute the mainstream of Western Buddhism (at least in the UK and as far as I can tell in Europe too)? 

It seems to me that Sharf's focus is on the wrong aspects of history. He is asking the wrong questions. Instead of complaining that historically Buddhist societies have not emphasised meditation generally, he ought to be taking the time to investigate why this age is one in which liberation again seems possible, and how it relates to previous cultures where this has been true: such as early Heian or early Medieval (1200-1400) Japan; Tang China and Tibet, 1st century Gāndhāra and so on. 

Unprecedented Social Change.

Modern Buddhism, like many reform movements before it, insists that liberation is a reasonable goal for everyone and that therefore everyone ought to take up the practices aimed attaining liberation, in particular meditation. Another aspect of this has been a Protestant-like rejection of the religious institution of monasticism. Just as with Christianity this is largely based on perceptions of corruption and hypocrisy amongst the priestly elite. Sangharakshita's trenchant polemics against the monastic Sangha are as good a representative of this sensibility as any, and he saw the institution from the inside. See for example:
His account of the life of Dharmapala (1980) is also revealing of the habits of Theravāda monks (at least in the mid 20th Century). Like European Protestants of the 16th century, modern day Protestants are sick of the flabby corruption of the priests. Some of this mistrust is also directed at academics despite their role as translators and interpreters of history. Of course there are now Modernist reform movements within the monastic Sangha and many admirable bhikṣu(ṇi)s (Ānandajoti, Anālayo, Bodhi, Hui Feng, Pema Chödrön, Robina Courtin, Sujato and Thanissaro come to mind). 

Although Sharf's academic complaint is against other academics who over-emphasise experience he seems to have generalised this to include Buddhists who do so. Compare the work of Dr Sue Hamilton which has decisively shown that the primary concern of early Buddhist ideas about liberation were tied up with the nature of experience. It's not only moderns who are concerned with experience. Ābhidharmikas of many varieties went into great depth cataloguing experience and trying to understand the mechanics of it. My reading of the early Perfection of Wisdom texts is that they share this preoccupation. The constant return to experience goes alongside interest in meditation in reform movements. Meditation is nothing more or less than the examination of the nature of experience. 

Sharf seems to consider that Modernist adaptations of Buddhism are not legitimate because he does not see the historical precedents for them. As though precedent was the only form of legitimisation. Apart from the fact that there are historical precedents for interest in meditation everywhere we look, we have to ask where he does find relevant historical precedents for Buddhism's encounter with modernity that might inform alternate responses? As far as I understand modernity in the West it is unprecedented anywhere in history. The sheer scale and pace of technological, social and political change we are currently experiencing is unprecedented and we have been saying this for at least a century and a half. Arguing that precedent is the only form of legitimation in times of unprecedented events means that no adaptation to modernity will ever be legitimate. But clearly adaptation is required. And clearly buddhism has adapted to circumstance and culture time and time again. There is that kind of precedent. 

Ronald Davidson has outlined what seem to be the social and political changes that resulted in the only other event in Buddhist history that might even come close to Modernism - the Tantric synthesis of the 6th century. Davidson describes how the collapse of civil society as a result of Huna attacks on the Gupta Empire resulted in a chaotic situation. Law and Order on the wider scale broke down. Trade routes became untenable. Certain regions became too dangerous to live in, causing large scale migrations. The reach of civil order shrank and withdrew behind city walls, leaving the countryside exposed to banditry. In the resulting milieu a new religious sensibility was required and did in fact develop. As society broke down, religion compensated by bringing together disparate elements and synthesising them into an entirely new approach to liberation that we call Tantra.

In the face of unprecedented challenges Buddhism was always going to need to come up with unprecedented responses. However Sharf seems to be resistant to the changes that are emerging. So, what is wrong with modernity?

Critiquing Modernism

Sharf urges "a willingness to enter into dialogue with what is historically past and culturally foreign." This is itself a Modernist attitude. Buddhists have ever been reluctant to see themselves as historically conditioned or to acknowledge the culturally foreign. Innovations are almost inevitably attributed to the Buddha (or to the most impressive historical figure to whom they can plausibly be attributed), and assimilation of non-Buddhist ideas - such as when a Bodhisatva named Avalokita-svara absorbs some of Śiva's attributes (e.g. blue throat) and iconography and becomes Avalokita-īśvara - are never acknowledged but presented as a fait accompli.

The Rhys Davids were very influential at the beginning of the modern engagement with Buddhism in the 1870s and 1880s and seem to get lost in the American versions of modern Buddhist history (Which apparently begins with Suzuki's visit to San Francisco). It is because of RDs that we translate bodhi as "enlightenment" for example. The RDs and some of their contemporaries were consciously trying to align European Buddhism with the European Enlightenment; and the Buddha with (British) figures like Newton, Hume, and Berkeley. They lived in the immediate Post-Darwinian era and saw Christianity in crisis, but could not imagine life without religion. They saw Buddhism as a "rational religion" that might replace superstitious Christianity. And this was half a century before Suzuki began to influence American Buddhist thought in the 1950s. The Pali Text Society was founded in the UK in 1881. The Buddhist Society in 1924. Suzuki seems to have been influenced by his training under German-American theologian Paul Carus. Carus himself is described as "He was a key figure in the introduction of Buddhism, to the West" (where again for "West" we have to read "America"). Suzuki is important in America, no doubt, but he was influenced by Carus and others, presumably his Theosophist wife Beatrice (who doesn't rate a separate Wikipedia article or any mention in Tricycle and seems to be absent from history as women often are). Even in American the roots of Buddhism go back to the 1850s: see Buddhism in America.

The idea that Buddhist Modernism is necessarily ontologically dualistic is partial at best. More and more Buddhist modernists embrace ontological monism as the most likely situation. I've been arguing against mind/body dualism for years and regularly get accused of being a Materialist for that reason. I've written an extended critique of Vitalism which is one of the most important varieties of dualism. However the idea that duality is foreign to Buddhism is also misleading. Just look at the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is deeply dualistic. The interim state (Skt. anatarabhāva = Tib. bardo) between death and new life is widely accepted in Buddhism. Just read any Jātaka story for another form of dualism - they clearly depict souls transmigrating and retaining their identities. All the disembodied spirits that haunt our stories also suggest ontological dualism. Buddhism is full of it! And the standard Buddhist critique of dualism is not an outright denial, but a hedge which allows a disembodied consciousness to arise when the conditions are right, even in the interim state (which is neither here nor there).

Early Buddhists appear to accept, or at the very least not to offer any challenge to, the idea of an external, observer independent reality. They're just not interested in it because the content of experience is of only minor interest in the bid to understand the mechanisms of experience. Which specific object happens to be stimulating desire at present is of no particular interest. Sense objects are a requirement for experience, but never the focus of investigation. What version of Buddhist epistemology is Sharf working with?

In answer to the question "But to get back to your point, what gets lost when primacy is given to individual spiritual experience?", Sharf's response is that "The sangha gets lost! The community gets lost." If the Sangha has been lost in Modernist Buddhism then someone ought to tell the various large Sanghas that span the Western World. We in the Triratna Sangha must have missed that memo because our sangha is growing and getting quite large now. Indeed some of the problems we are wrestling with are due to an overly large sangha. In particular how do we maintain consensus decision making in an Order of 2000+ members who are distributed around the world and have no common language (many of our members are monoglot in their mother tongue). How do we cultivate that sense of involvement in something that transcends the local situation? In contradiction to what Sharf says we're very much alive to the third jewel! Even the very Modernist Secular Buddhist Association is clearly trying to build a Sangha.

I'm not sure of the details of the situation in America is, but my impression is that, even in the home of libertarianism, sanghas are flourishing, even though a few people chose to operate outside of sanghas (and even they tend to habitually haunt online forums as ersatz communities). I simply see no evidence whatsoever that an emphasis on spiritual experience has led to sangha being "lost". 

Seeing Modernism in a Positive Light

What are we to make of these scholars who decree that Modernist Buddhism is not a legitimate adaptation of Buddhism to the present? Are these the same kind of thinkers who once saw Tantra as a "degeneration" of pure Buddhism? On one hand it is useful to identify how we Modernists are responding to Buddhism and the state of the world. But on the other if all our innovations are seen as illegitimate then Buddhism may as well be dead right now.

In fact my reading of Robert Sharf's criticisms of American Buddhism is that they are hardly different from generalised liberal criticisms of American culture: viz, Individualism at the expense of society; engineering at the expense of architecture (literally and metaphorically); and a confusion of values leading to relativism and hedonism. Sharf sounds like he might be just a(nother) liberal academic complaining "O tempora o mores". In general terms, sure, I find Utilitarianism ugly as an ideal and ugly in terms of the results it produces. I deplore Neolibertarianism and its effects on society. But the vast majority of Buddhists are also against those values, primarily because of other streams of Modernity especially Romanticism. As much as I dislike Romanticism, it is at least opposed to Utilitarianism! And the majority of Buddhists I know give expression to these values in how they live, even when they live what might be relatively conventional lives. Radicals are always few in number and require the support of followers.

Must we join Sharf in seeing Modernist Buddhism or even Buddhist Modernism in negative terms? Protestant Buddhism, like Protestant Christianity, was and is a progressive movement. It criticised corrupt and bloated (often state controlled) ecclesiastical power bases. In a place like Sri Lanka where the term was coined, protest was an absolute necessity (though arguably that pendulum has swung too far). The Sri Lankan monastic sangha was, and not for the first time, moribund and merely formalistic. The extreme conservatism of the monastic establishment in South East Asia is also obvious. Witness the response to Western bhikkhus ordaining women. They were kicked out of their organisation. Certainly we must protest against such practices as institutionalised sexism. If we are not Protestants in this respect, then we are part of the problem.

On the other hand the bhikkhu sangha in Sri Lanka is once again infected with Nationalism and politically active monks who don't meditate, but use hate speech and call for violence against Tamils and anyone else who opposes their ideas of racial and religious purity. Sri Lanka is struggling against a powerful fascism inspired by Buddhist monks. That's the downside of collectivity, of sangha divorced from a personal commitment to the religious ideals of Buddhism. Without the personal engagement with practices like meditation, a group may well drift into this kind of quasi-madness. The advantage of the Protestant-like personal engagement is that each person feels they can be held accountable for their actions and not simply go along with the crowd. 

Scientific Rationalism meant the end of being ruled by superstition (or at least the beginning of the end). That's clearly a good thing. Charles Darwin's daughter, Ann, died at least in part from the Water Treatment, based on four humours theory, that she was subjected to when desperately ill. She probably had tuberculosis and would have been cured by antibiotics had she lived a century later. That is progress. Reconciling Buddhism entirely with scientific rationalism is obviously going to be slow and painful, and perhaps eternally incomplete, but I think we're making progress on that front also.

Why cannot we be proud of being Modern Buddhists, proud of the changes we are making and excited about the new 21st Century Buddhism? I certainly am. I love it. Although we're seeing a burgeoning of conservative apologetics for good old-fashioned Buddhism, we're also seeing a continuing stream of innovations and exploration of potential new avenues for Buddhism. The UK now has a mindfulness class for MPs and senior civil servants in parliament. This may well be the most significant event in the last 500 years of Buddhism, since historically Buddhism only takes root when adopted by the social elite. 

I welcome open discussion of the role of Modernism in our Buddhism and wish to see the critiques developed further, so that we're more aware of the cultural influences we operate under. I'm appreciative of McMahan's efforts in this direction. And for instance of Thanissaro's critique of Romanticism. But I compare McMahan's descriptive approach with the conservative, prescriptive approach of Sharf and I find the latter much less attractive. The fact that McMahan does not seem to have a vested interest is an interesting observation on the perils of emic scholars - people of a conservative religion, studying their own religion, tend to come to conservative conclusions.

It's my belief at this time that conservatism with respect to Buddhism will be deeply counter-productive. Conservative Buddhists are obsessed with authenticity, authority and legitimation. And this leads to the view that if we don't already have it, it's not worth having. Conservative Buddhists seem to see science as a kind of fad that we'll grow out of; and innovations like mindfulness therapies as dangerous threats to the authority of Buddhism (when in fact it's more like a threat to conservative power-bases within existing hierarchies). And this too seems counter-productive to me. 

I am a Modernist. I was born in 1966, how could I be anything else? Even growing up in small town New Zealand we had Modernism. Like all cultural phenomena, Modernism has its pros and cons. We can't afford to be one eyed about it. I'm also a Buddhist. If my studies have shown me one thing it's that Buddhism changes. We Buddhists change with the times. We always have. Sometimes the changes have amounted to upheaval. We regroup, refocus, and re-invent ourselves.