Showing posts with label Self. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Self. Show all posts

16 March 2018

Self: The Endless Refrain

For people who ostensibly don't believe in such a thing, Buddhists talk a lot about self. Often in an unsophisticated and even naive way. Discussions on the subject, which recur endlessly in online forums and social media, tend to conflate all manner of ideas and philosophical positions, often with a view to establishing an ideological position. Many Buddhists are entranced by the idea that they don't exist, and will tell us with irony that they do not. The adoption of highly politicised techniques from Vedanta has only made it worse, as we now have wildly egotistical people telling anyone who will listen, and many who won't, that they have eliminated their ego, as if they had one before but don't now. On the other hand, people I know do seem to be getting some good results in attaining cessation and becoming self-less. But even they seem to struggle to give the experience any intellectual clarity.

As modern Buddhists we have inherited a complex of legacy ideas about self from the Asian traditions. Our Buddhism has been reinterpreted through the lens of Victorian orientalism and combined with the legacy ideas of Freud and his bastards. And in recent decades the results neuroscience investigation of selfhood have complicated the discussion. The result is widespread vagueness as to what is even meant by "self".

Given the huge range of viewpoints even within Buddhism, I doubt it is possible to bring clarity to this issue in a way that will suit everyone. However, I think the approach of treating self as an experience that we all have, and that is thus subject to the same rules as other experiences, is coherent with a majority of practice-focussed Buddhist views. 

Absolute Being

One of the massive legacy problems we have is that while Buddhism was emerging and reaching its peak, the "philosophers" of India were mostly engaged in a search for absolute being. Absolute  being is called different things by different groups: brahman, ātman, Brahmā, puruṣa, jīva, amṛta, sattva, and so on. 

Absolute being is a construct; an abstraction from mere existence. The idea seems to be that if anything exists, then we can abstract from that a kind of principle of existence, with (more or less) only the quality of being. The reasoning seems to go like this: If two things are red, then they have redness in common, so a quality "redness" must exist over and above any given instance of red. Similarly, if two things exist, then existence must be a quality that things can posses, and we can imagine an absolute being - an object whose only quality is being. The being that gives being to all beings.

The absolute in this sense is similar to Plato's noumena. It underpins phenomena, in the sense that phenomena are like projections of the noumena, an image that comes from Plato's famous analogy of shadows cast on the wall of a cave as real things pass in front of a light source. A lot of Buddhists seem to have a Platonic worldview in which a higher or transcendental reality exists and our experience of phenomena is an illusion. 

In India the idea arose in a milieu of advanced meditation. In all likelihood they were regularly able to observe the complete cessation of sense and cognitive experience while remaining conscious. When one is in this kind of state, there is awareness, but it is contentless. The Sāṃkhya view was that behind or underneath the phenomenal world exists a passive viewer, the puruṣa. Phenomena exist in a quessient state, but through ignorance may unfold into a fully fledged phenomenal world (prakṛti). Religious practices roll back those phenomena to reveal the puruṣa.
It is pure consciousness: it enjoys and witnesses Prakṛti’s activities, but does not cause them. It is characterized as the conscious subject: it is uncaused, eternal, all-pervasive, partless, self-sustaining, independent. It is devoid of the [qualities], and therefore inactive and sterile (unable to produce). IEP
This is pretty much a description of being in the state of emptiness. Nothing arises or passes away, there is no sense of time passing, no spatial sense. There is just a bare awareness that does not do anything. It often described as "luminous" and sometimes mistaken for being "primordial" or the "ground of being" and so on. Clearly, non-Buddhists were experiencing this state. Descriptions that seem related can also be found in the early Upaniṣads, for example.

Brahmins talked about absolute being in two ways. From the universal point of view, as Brahman, and from the personal point of view as ātman. And this dichotomy leads us into looking at the flaws in believing in absolute being. Modern Buddhist discourse about absolutes has been strongly influenced by Theosophy, especially through such prominent figures as D. T. Suzuki, and Edward Conze. Theosophy was and is a mystery cult loosely based on a narrow range of Indian texts in English translation. Madam Blavatsky, for example, relied heavily on Wilson's Vishnu Purana and Dowson's Hindu Classical Dictionary (Vidal 1997: 11). The influence of Theosophy on modern Buddhism is probably on a par with the influence of scholars of Indology. So, next, I will look at why absolute being is problematic. 

The Problem With Absolutes
The word “absolute” literally means something which is not relative in any way, in other words something which is beyond the possibility of relations and interrelations with anything in manifestation and surpassing any similarity of any kind with manifested and objective being. — Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK
The basic problem with all absolutes is that all humans are relative. Absolutes are eternal and don't change. We are temporal and contingent. As such, the absolute is "beyond the possibility of relations and interrelations". So how do we relate to something that is beyond the possibility of relations? How does a human being experience the absolute if all experience is temporal and contingent? And it's not just Buddhists who face this problem. How does a Christian come into relationship with God? And so on. If the acme of your religion is absolute being, then you'll never know it. 

Some kind of interface that spans both worlds is one answer. Angels, for example. Shamans are another. Or messiahs in human form. Another approach is to argue that the absolute somehow becomes "manifest" or has avatars (from the Sanskrit ava-tara "descend"). This manifestation of the absolute is usually via some black-box process, and sometimes given succor by scientists - for example, via the idea that our universe is a holographic projection from a higher dimension (which is a fancy version of Plato's cave). Note also that the absolute is usually associated with particular cognitive metaphors. The Absolute is UP in heaven; and the angels, messiahs and avatars DESCEND to earth; from spirit to matter, etc: (For more on this see Metaphors And Materialism)

The ability of meditators to experience emptiness—contentless awareness—seems to short-circuit this problem. In emptiness (śūnyatāyām), the boundaries of self fall away, the subject/object distinction breaks down, one feels connected to everything or that one is everything, time stops. There are no causes and no effects. Nothing arises, nothing passes away. In short, we seem become the absolute. Or do we?

Early Buddhists, already familiar with cessation, were highly critical of the idea that one could find the absolute in experience. They encouraged some to look for something unchanging in their experience, knowing that it could never be found. They counselled others not to bother looking. Experience is characterised by constant change, they pointed out. Therefore, you cannot experience the absolute. Even if you enter the state of emptiness through meditation, at some point the meditation ends and one begins to experience again, unless one dies in meditation. So that meditative experience is ipso facto not absolute. Others argue that even if it doesn't last, one is "in touch" with the absolute while one is in that state. We may be temporal, but the absolute is always there to dip into. Later Buddhists developed more sophisticated critiques against this view. If something exists absolutely then we must always experience it, or never experience it. That the experience comes and goes denies that the absolute can be experienced. In other words, if the absolute were able to be experienced in any way, we would, ipso facto, always experience it and experience nothing else.

This is more or less the Advaita Vedanta argument, except that they propose that we mistake this experience of the absolute for something else. How one could mistake the absolute for the relative is anybody's guess. The very nature of the absolute means that there is an absolute and unmistakable distinction between absolute and relative. Errors of this kind ought to be impossible rather than ubiquitous. 

However, having been in the state of emptiness, one may find that the world doesn't come back the way it was. One might feel that the bounded self, the sense of ownership, the internal monologue are all attenuated or absent. Without a sense of ownership over experience, the push and pull of desires and aversions have no momentum. Mental suffering (cetasika-dukkha), as distinct from physical pain (kāyika-dukkha), may well cease. One may be left in a state of ongoing bliss. The transformation wrought by the experience of (what we call) emptiness continues to inform Indian religious culture even today. And it is starting to inform Modern Buddhist culture to much greater extent as more people speak openly about the experience of cessation/emptiness.

That said, India religious culture, like European culture, has its scholastic side. Arguments about the number of devas you could balance on the head of a pin were formulated and considered. Such discussions tend to reify experience and hypostatise it. Events become entities. Similes become propositions. Metaphors and abstractions become concrete. Jokes lose their punch lines. Descriptions of the experience of emptiness became thoroughly entangled with metaphysical speculations about the nature of reality, the role of consciousness in world, and the whole mess we are familiar with in European philosophy. The bullshit-fest was, if anything, more elaborate in India. Then Buddhism came to Europe and mated with the European tradition, spawning modernist Buddhism or Buddhist modernism depending on your point of view (perhaps both).

There is a fork in the road here. Either we can go down the root of detailed arguments about the pros and cons of this or that philosophical view on self, repeating historic arguments and probably never coming to a conclusion. Or we could short-circuit the whole thing and decide to rethink the idea of self. I think the former approach has had a good run and it's time for something new. 

Does the Self Exist?

When we use a word like "self", it comes loaded with presuppositions and assumptions, few of which ever make it to the light of day. So, asking such a question is never straightforward. Which self are we talking about? But we can short-circuit the discussion, to some extent, by arguing that, whether or not some kind of entity corresponds to it, we definitely all experience ourselves as selves. We start out with a first person perspective on experience; i.e., the feeling or thought that sensory experience is "happening to me", that the sensations are "my sensations", and that this body I inhabit is the location of "my experience". 

We don't have direct access to anyone else's experience or their point of view. We can infer that they have experiences in the same way that we do (the intentional stance, or theory of mind). Experience appears to have an object (i.e., to be "intentional") and a subject. And this dichotomy is encoded in the grammar of all human languages, leading to universal theories of language and grammar.

But if we look closely at this first-person perspective we find that it is not based on an entity. The first person perspective is relatively easy to disrupt. And the ways that it malfunctions suggest that it must be virtual rather than real. Our sense of self can become distorted or attenuated in meditation, for example, or through taking tiny quantities of psychedelic drugs. Just a few micrograms of LSD is enough to seriously disrupt one's sense of self.  Applying strong magnetic fields that disrupt the brain can do the same. Our brain generates our first person perspective on experience as part of conscious experience and disrupting brain function has predictable consequences for our sense of self. We learn that self is not essential or inherent in consciousness, because we can have experiences without any sense of self.

What is Experience?

Experience is part of a virtual model of the world, generated by the brain, which creates a simplified simulacrum that enables us to function efficiently in the world (finding food, finding mates, avoiding predators, etc.) We might then ask, what is the ontological status of a virtual model? In other words, do experiences exist or not? Are they real or unreal? I don't think mainstream philosophy has made much progress on this. Early Buddhists already recognised some of the difficulties involved.

Although it is not explicit, it seems to me, after long reading of Pāḷi suttas, that the authors must have believed in a mind-independent objective world. They say nothing about it, but there are some hints. For example, they say that experience is like an illusion (māyopama). This simile makes no sense unless there is a contrast with something that is not like an illusion; in other words, something real. This real world held no attractions or interest for the communities of men and women who were spending time in states induced by meditation. For them it became clear that, in talking about experience, it wasn't helpful to characterise it as either existent or non-existent, as real or unreal. The nature of the object of perception was more or less irrelevant to their project because one of the principles they embraced was turning away from sense experience, from contact with the mind-independent world.

Experience is a subset of everything. It is not separate from reality, but included in it. However, mind-independent objects and mental objects (from a first person perspective) follow different rules. No matter how convinced you are that you can fly, if you jump off a tall building you will inexorably plummet to the ground. Gravity is not a matter of belief. But you can imagine or dream that you can fly. You can, at times, experience yourself flying. Or to be more precise, you can virtually experience it. Here, the precise meaning of "virtual" is important.

"Virtual" comes from the same root as virile and virtue. It means "excellent, potent, efficacious." (from the same root we get Sanskrit vīra "man, warrior". However, in the mid 15th Century, the word "virtual" began to be used in the sense "being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact" (OEtD). When we dream we can fly, we may completely suspend disbelief and experience it as if we were flying, though in reality we are not flying. "Virtual" here, then, means as if.

Experience is a virtual representation of the world, created by our brains, that feels as if it is real. So real that most of the time we don't notice. So real that we take experience to be reality. Some philosophers even argue that the distinction I'm making is not useful and we are in fact experiencing reality. Those people have apparently never taken drugs or done meditation.

If experience is a virtual reality, and selfhood (or the first person perspective on experience) is a kind of experience, then selfhood is part of a virtual reality. Not real; not unreal; but virtual. As if real.

Metaphysics versus Phenomenology

Some of my friends phrase this distinction as the difference between a metaphysical self and a phenomenal self. I'm not always sure what they mean by this. But I presume that by "metaphysical" they mean existent. In other words, this is another way of talking about self as an entity. This is so easily ruled out that we don't need to consider it. The self could not be an entity and behave the way it does. 

By phenomenal self, I take my friends to be talking about the first-person perspective on experience. On the whole, I try to avoid calling this "a self". The trouble with this type of language is that it can be all too easily mistaken for some kind of metaphysical stance. We try to fudge things by saying "there is a phenomenal self", but people just hear "there is a... self". By referring to our sense of selfhood, or our sense of being a self, we can avoid this, to some extent. But to be accurate, most of the time I am actually thinking about a first-person perspective on experience rather than a self. I'm not sure that "self" is even a useful word for this. I'm sure that "soul" is completely the wrong word. 

One might argue that the perspective has to be someone's perspective although I don't think this is helpful. The first-person perspective is a function of having sense organs located in a body that is a locus of experience. Since aspects of that perspective, such as the direction of my gaze, are subject to my will, it feels like I am in control, that the experience is mine. It is definitely limited in space to one body. As much as I can make my body seem to disappear in meditation, I cannot then inhabit another body or take control of their limbs or the direction of their gaze.

It is not that we have a self that has a first person perspective. It is that the brain generates a first person perspective on experience and from this we infer a self. The first person perspective is seeing itself as a self. This is not a bad first approximation of what is going on in experience, and it is as far as most people get, unless they have a mental health crisis, take psychedelic drugs, or get good at mediation. Most of us have no reason to question our early inferences.

For me, a qualified self is still overstating things. At best, the sense of being a self is a perspective on experience generated by the brain.

What About Ego?

When Freud (1856–1939) was writing about the mind, he used three metaphors for functions that minds carry out: Ich, Es, and Über-Ich ("I", "It", and "Over-I"). In this model the Ich function mediates between the desires of the Es function and restrictions of the Über-Ich function, to enable human beings to operate as social beings. Unrestrained, the Es function is how the Victorians thought of animals (though they were largely mistaken about this). Without emotions the Über-Ich function makes for an inhuman tyrant. According to Freud, it is the Ich function that mediates between these two basic forces in our inner life and also mediates between us and the world. To not have an Ich function is catastrophic. But also, if the Ich function is unable to impose order on the other functions, one or other of them will dominate leading to animalistic or inhuman behaviour.

Nietzsche (1844–1900) also wrote about two forces human society. The two were of chaos and order, which he dubbed Dionysian and Apollonian after the two Greek gods. Like Freud, Nietzsche saw life as a battle between these forces. However, rather than settling for a detente overseen by the meditating influence of the Ich, Nietzsche (possibly influenced by the Upaniṣads) saw a transcendent type of human being who had resolved his inner conflicts and risen above the human, all too human, level. Like Freud and other men of his day, Nietzsche systematically dismissed women as inferior. It is worth mentioning Nietzsche because his rhetoric remains popular amongst Romantics. The controversial, but popular, conservative Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, for example, often seems to be channelling Nietzsche and apparently sees this kind of conflict between order and chaos in much the same way.

Such things are not rocket science for anyone who is human. We are social animals and as such we are constantly trying to balance individual desire and social obligation. Whether we project balancing these forces onto the world as archetypes (Dionysus and Apollo), or conceive of them them as internal functions in psyche (as Ich and Über-Ich), they resonate, to some extent. And there are differing opinions as to whether individual liberty or collective obligation should take precedence, though clearly without both a society cannot function. 

One of the classic pop-culture references to this accommodation is the friendship between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock in the Star Trek stories. Kirk is hedonistic, impulsive, and moody. Spock is logical, controlled, and detached. Of course, neither could be a pure archetype, because Kirk has to be the Captain. He also has to be cunning, decisive, a planner and a leader. Similarly, Spock is only half Vulcan. But generally speaking, Kirk without Spock is rash, ruthless, and reckless. Spock without Kirk is cold, calculating, and (potentially) cruel. Had they been more purely Es and Über-Ich, a third party would always have been required to mediate. When mediation is required, it comes in the form of the physician, McCoy a "man of science" who is nonetheless highly sentimental. He plays the role of Ich function portrayed as the healer of the psyche.


When Freud's work was translated into English his German terms—Ich, Es, and Über-Ich—were translated, not into English, but into Latin. The idea seems to have been inspired by medical jargon which even today prefers Latin derived words to those with Anglo-Saxon heritage (the 1000 year old English prejudice against Germanic vocabulary is another story). And so today we discuss Ego, Id, and Super-Ego. Reification may have happened anyway, but it was helped along by the quasi-medical Latin. What were functions of the psyche, became entities that make up the mind. Freud's metaphors became three homunculi living in our heads. Which was, and is, deeply unhelpful.

This manifests in Buddhism as people talking about "the Ego" as something to be disposed of, cut off, and done away with. If we accept Freud's model and we get rid of Ich, what is it that moderates between Es and Über-Ich? If there is nothing, and the other aspects of the psyche are left unchanged, then the result is a chaotic battle in which one or other of the two forces in our psyches will likely win, leading to hedonism or nihilism; or, in Nietzsche's terms, to chaos or totalitarianism.

Early Buddhists identified three thoughts about experience that were problematic: 'I am this', 'this is me', 'it is mine'. These coincide very well with characteristics of the first-person perspectives defined by Thomas Metzinger. Metzinger says that for there to be a first person perspective we need three 'target properties'
  • mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  • selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  • centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".

I've mentioned before that these seem to substantially overlap early Buddhist views on selfhood. And precisely these three qualities are problematic in the Buddhist view, but also they disappear in the state of emptiness.

As a thought experiment I want to consider simply stripping away these properties from an ordinary person. Let us say that we take away the sense of ownership, particularly over the body. This is something that victims of trauma often experience. When you are, for example, beaten or raped, you lose control of what happens to you. And that sense of ownership may be damaged. One may feel so vulnerable around other people that one develops social anxiety or even social phobia. If you walk into a room full of people and lose your sense of self, it is disorienting and frightening.

Similarly, if someone does not experience "I am someone" they may be unable to relate to other people. In the state called "depersonalisation" one stops feeling like a person. Events swirl around you and you cannot respond to them or make connections with other people. It can be very distressing to be cut off in this way.

If I am not the centre of my subjective self, then mental events may seem to be the result of an external agency. It may seem that other people are controlling our thoughts and actions. Our internal monologue may become a hectoring external voice, some other person telling us what to do.

This is a flavour of the the mass of ways in which loss of a sense of self or first-person perspective can leave us wounded and debilitated. All of these events would constitute what is nowadays called a "mental health crisis". If ongoing, such experiences often result in hospitalisation. It has long bothered me that Buddhists seem ignorant of this side of psychology and that they apparently trivialise problems of this kind. Buddhists are often sincere in their beliefs, but sincerity doesn't really mitigate ignorance or stupidity. We have some very dangerous ideas about the mind and its functions.

Going Beyond Self

And yet, something happens in practice that is typically not the same as a mental health crisis. The loss of a sense of self as one goes into samādhi might be scary, but it is not the same terror as comes from a psychotic break. The similarity of language for describing the two has long fascinated me. But it seems to me that, whereas mental health problems are subtraction and division, the effects of meditation are addition and multiplication. 

In other words, I do not believe the interpretations of those meditators who report  that they do not experience themselves as having an Ego. The complete loss of Ego per se would be a catastrophe. Rather, I suggest, that we have to take a step back and look more holistically. We need to think of the Ich, Es, and Über-Ich becoming integrated into a holistic and harmonious structure in which the contest between Ich and Über-Ich is resolved, relieving us of the need for Ego to mediate. When our internal struggles are over, we are free to respond creatively to the people around us, no longer concerned with seeking pleasure or with imposing order. So that would be a Freudian analysis, but I think Freud is deeply problematic, so I wouldn't want to rest there.

My Buddhist analysis goes like this. The fundamental problem we have is that we respond to pleasure with desire for more pleasure; that we are averse to pain and avoid painful situations is also problematic, but, really, pleasure-seeking is the focus. More precisely, we associate happiness with pleasure. Everyone wants to be happy, so we seek out pleasures to make us happy.

Evolution has tuned our body-mind to seek out the things we find pleasurable, because they have survival value. The things we find pleasurable are meant to motivate us. But the evolution argument ends at the beginning of civilisation. When social change outstrips our ability to genetically adapt, we run into problems. One of the problems of civilisation (eventually) is a surplus of the things that we find pleasurable. We can satiate our desires more fully and more often, but what happens when we do this is that we become insensitive to pleasure. We get caught in the addictive loop of seeking more pleasure and more intense pleasure in order to find that feeling of satiation. For example, we add more sugar, more fat, more salt, more chilli to our food, in order to try to recapture the simply pleasure of eating. And it doesn't work. We are always left wanting more. At the extreme the amounts of sugar, fat, and salt are long-term lethal. Or we become obese (though I think obesity is complex, and also involves  attempts to deal with stress by eating. Eating stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system).

When we reach a more integrated state in which the sense of self is less central, we become less prone to the addictive cycle. The aspect of self that claims ownership over experience plays an important role in a healthy mind. Simply eliminating it leads to chaos. Integrating it allows us to opt out of the cycle.

Another way of looking at it is that, while we are self-centred, then we are motivated to feed that sense of self. Claiming what gives us pleasure, pushing away what the unpleasant, we attempt to cling to the pleasant experience as if it existed. But experience is not like a mind-independent object. We can hold a bar of gold, but owning it brings diminishing returns of happiness. Ownership must be continually extended in order to provide happiness. One gold bar is never enough. It is acquisition (novelty) that produces the pleasure, whereas ownership soon loses its savour. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Also, the loss of ownership is a source of misery. And the same dynamic applied to experiences that are fleeting and insubstantial is a recipe for unhappiness. One cannot grasp an experience. It arises, one's attention wanders, and it disappears again. All in a moment.

As one becomes skilled in meditation, one realises that the object is irrelevant compared to the pleasure of simple sustained attention on any arbitrary object. A concentrated mind is a happy mind, but more than this, with glimpses of insight we integrate the disparate aspects of our psyche so that the sense of self is bound up in a greater whole that leaves us without that sense of craving and grasping that plagues modern humans everywhere.

In Conclusion

Discussions about the existence of a self had already been tagged as pointless by early Buddhists more than 2000 years ago. Modern Buddhists need to take note of this and rethink our approach. Self is an experience, generated internally, arising and passing away as the conditions dictate. Under many circumstances this sense of self ceases or does not arise. But we cannot say that having an experience is either real or unreal. Such dichotomies send us down intellectual dead ends with respect to experience.

It seems to me that this cessation of the sense of being a self has to be the result of a forward progression rather than a simple excision. I've seen the results of excising aspects of people's selves and it's ugly and often catastrophic. That is not what Buddhists are doing in meditation.

We need to see self as an experience and Ego as a function. Ego is a milestone on the lower evolution. A human being must develop the Ego function to be happy and healthy. Having an Ego is not an endpoint, but necessary while we also have Id and Super-Ego functions which are in conflict. However, there is also a higher evolution. By integrating these separate functions into a harmonious whole, we may transcend our personality, at least to some extent. We may cease to have, or perhaps to rely on, a first-person perspective to organise our experience. We may find that craving for pleasure is attenuated because there is no longer the same desire to accumulate experiences associated with ownership.

I believe a new doctrinal synthesis is required and that we are better off being proactive and creative in our approach to it than being conservative and reactive. The clash of tradition and modernity is always destabilising. Traditional cultures are often devastated when modernity overruns them. I grew up in the aftermath of one such collision. We would do well to get out ahead of this. It seems to me that accomplishing such a synthesis requires us to step outside the legacies of both Buddhism and Modernism and evaluate what is useful about both and what is not useful.

What remains useful will go beyond mere facts. Facts do not move people. In order to communicate our values effectively we need symbols and images. We have to tell stories that move people. Some of these stories will most likely be ancient, perhaps with a modern twist. We may, for example, decide that the founder figure remains a central organising element in telling our story. We may still tell morality tales about selfish people and the harm they cause.

The focus on experience, I believe, has to take precedence over any metaphysical speculation, particularly in the face of the huge successes scientists have had with describing the world on the human scale (things we can experience with our naked senses). Experience is equally our hermeneutic (the principle on which we base our inquires into doctrine), our heuristic (the process by which we more forward seeking knowledge), and our pedagogy (the underlying principle of how we teach). Everything should be aimed at getting people to look at their experience in a new light, and to seek the altered states provided by meditation to provide insights into experience that are otherwise inaccessible.



Vidal, Denis. (1997). 'Max Muller and the theosophists or the other half of victorian orientalism.' in  Jackie Assayag, Roland Lardinois, Denis Vidal. Orientalism and Anthropology; from Max Muller to Louis Dumont, Pondy Papers in Social Science (24), Institut Français de Pondichéry.

Also check out

Deconstructing Yourself. “Masters of Oblivion” – Michael Taft discusses extinction with Kenneth Folk. Especially the section starting at 48:45 – The preposterousness of eradicating the self

25 March 2016

Self, Continuity, and Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality and Continuity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality in the Absence of Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

20 June 2014

Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power

Caged or Fleeced?
from right-wing journal The Spectator
arguing for more individualism. 
So far we've looked only at what the word spiritual means and what frames it is associated with. In other words we've been focussed on the conceptual space delimited by attaching the adjective spiritual to various nouns and verbs. Now we need to think about who is using the adjective to make their nouns and verbs special. And how those people operate within the conceptual space. In other words we need to look at the politics of spiritual. As a first step this essay will outline a view of contemporary Western politics in which modern ideas of identity play an active role in shaping individuals into subjects. This leads into a consideration of the impact of Romanticism on the political landscape and Foucault's view of the subject as a construct whose purpose is subjugation.

Politically spiritual is tied up with notions of authority, and authority is an expression of power. The essay will argue that spirituality is concerned with channelling power in religious communities. In the Buddhist context we take on to surveil and police our own inner life as a service to the community, and as long as we are seen to be doing so, the community repays us in belonging.

Apologies, but this essay is long. I hope not too long that people won't read it, but I can't see how to split my treatment of spritual into any more parts. And in any case I want to move on to other subjects. So to begin with we need to look at the modern idea of selfhood and identity and to see how it is shaped by the discourses of power which have dominated the Western World for some centuries now.

The Modern Self.

"... history is read narcissistically to reconfirm one's present sense of identity and any potentially disruptive awareness of alterity is suppressed." - Lois McNay. Foucault: A Critical Introduction. (p89)

Individualism is one of the guiding lights of modern Western Society. Philosophically it seems to stem from 18th century Utilitarianism and the associated attitudes of Mercantilism. It is epitomised in the trade-fuelled Libertarian governments of the 18th and 19th centuries and more recently in the Neolibertarian governments (conservative and progressive) that have dominated the Western world since at least the 1970s. It's the mentality that, for example, enslaved Indian peasants to grow opium and then went to war with China to make certain of continued profits by ensuring that Chinese peasants consumed the dangerous drug. These days the East India Company has been replaced by the IMF and World Bank, but the bottom line is still profit.

Present-day individualism benefits the rich and powerful in two main ways. Firstly by telling everyone to pursue their own good (their own desires) it divides the population and prevents effective opposition to Neolibertarian aims of creating the perfect conditions for businessmen to become rich and powerful. Secondly it justifies the means used by businessmen to become more rich and more powerful (e.g. political economies based on mythological "market forces"; use of ultra-cheap labour abroad; evasion of taxes; etc.). Individualism gives the illusion of freedom. We are more free to choose our religion in the West than at perhaps any time in history. We have greater choice of breakfast cereals or TV channels too. But we are enslaved to an economic system that regards us as units of production, that characterises every human being as perfectly self-centred, manipulative and ruthless in pursuit of their own best interests. From the point of view of those in power, the religion of the masses and their breakfast cereal have the same value, or at least the same kind of value.

The more we exercise our individual choice, the more society fragments. And the more society fragments the less effective we are as a collective. We out-number the rich and powerful by at least 100 to 1. So we could stop them if we wanted to, just by acting in concert. We've seen a number of successful revolutions in the last few decades where the people simply gathered and demanded change in sufficient numbers that they could not be ignored. Former Soviet Eastern Europe went this way. But because we feel free we don't resist our slavery. "Spiritual but not religious" is one of the most exquisite examples of this pseudo-freedom. We have complete freedom of religious belief because it has no longer has any economic implications. We are encouraged to have our own individualised religion, partly because organised religion is what bound communities together for centuries (perhaps forever). If being spiritual was a real threat to profits, it would be illegal. Where collective action is perceived as a threat, as ironically it is in communist China, then religion is tightly controlled and rouge groups persecuted.

© Tom Toles
Meanwhile we work hard for minimum wage and 2 or 3 weeks of holiday a year, in a world of absolutely astounding productivity and unimaginable wealth. And yet we never have enough. This is a deeply rooted feature of Merchantilism: the poor only work hard enough to meet their needs, so the rich make it almost impossible for them to meet their needs, despite vast surpluses and enormous waste. Think, for example, of all the food going to waste! Estimates in the UK are that 30% of food produced is wasted. All that wasted food helps to keep food prices high, while those who grow it over-supply and cannot earn a living on the prices they get. House prices (in the UK at least) are kept artificially high to hoover up any extra wealth we might accrue. The point at which we might feel we have enough, and might thus stop working so hard, is kept out of our reach.

Merchantilism is predicated on everyone working as hard as they can all the time in the knowledge that worn out workers can easily be replaced. When you accept payment for work, you are expected to give everything you have in return, however low the wage. Of course the system is imperfect, but measurement techniques have become ever more intrusive in recent decades. In addition one of the main messages of the school system is conformity: "do as authority tells you". Schools are able to enact and enforce arbitrary rules such as dress codes and to exclude pupils from eduction is they refuse to conform. In Britain school children routinely wear ties (I still find this shocking). University education is gradually changing for the worst as well, becoming more and more oriented to the demands of Merchantilism.

In addition, government policy consistently encourages high unemployment levels (unemployment is an invention of the Merchantilist system) in order to keep wages down. And while real wages continue to fall, executive salaries rise exponentially. An executive may earn more in a single year than the average employee earns in a lifetime. Of course governments regularly promise full-employment, but they simply cannot afford anything like it. Without high unemployment wages would sky-rocket and severely impact profit. In addition we are constantly encouraged to want more, to buy more by the representatives of companies than make things we don't even need. Thus the goal is always moving, and the game is rigged so that we could never reach it if it was. And yet few of us consider quitting the game. Most of us are not equipped to function outside of society, even the outcasts depend on society.

Many of the gains won by a century of concerted action by labour unions have been eroded or completely lost. The adversarial relationship between labour and capital led to excesses where labour was able to seize power. The UK seems to be firmly on the road back to Dickensian relationship between capital and labour in which all power in the relationship is held by capitalists. Only this time the capitalists are vastly more wealthy than they were in Dickens's time. Wealth has certainly been destroyed by the repeated economic crises since 1973, but the 1% are wealthier than ever.

Most Western states have implemented some kind of "safety net" that were initially conceived of as offsetting the damaging social effects of Merchantilism. The impulse behind the welfare state grew out of humanitarian urges of the late Victorian period and a recognition of the hardship caused by industrialisation and the unemployment that was built into the economy to keep wages low. But in the UK it has grown into a vast control mechanism. The economy is structured so that whole sections of society must rely on welfare payments - which are called benefits. The benefit being the up side of an economy which can simply shut down the industries that provided employment for whole towns and industries, creating long-term, generational unemployment for which the poor are blamed. To take the state pound nowadays is to invite the state to surveil and scrutinise one's life to a degree that would make Catholic priests envious. The state can for example, examine one's bank accounts and engages in regular interrogation of recipients and draconian examinations of "fitness". Despite endemic unemployment the unemployed are seen as morally reprehensible. Taking money from the state is seen in moral terms as incurring a debt, especially by conservatives (the reasoning behind the "moral accounting" metaphor is explored by George Lakoff in Metaphor, Morality, and Politics).

For an alternate view on the modern self see Adam Curtis's documentary The Century of the Self. Curtis explores Freudianism in relation to the rise of democracy. Democracy is seen as releasing the primitive Id of the masses producing the horrors of WWI. The irrational masses required control via the manipulation of their unconscious via propaganda (rebranded as "public relations").
But it's not only the unemployed who are tempted with "benefits". Housing is now so expensive in the UK that a clear majority of new claimants of Housing Benefit (a welfare payment provided specifically for housing costs) are in work. Housing Benefit is a £17 billion annual subsidy to landlords to allow them continue to gouge unreasonable profits from the market and to restrict the supply of housing to keep prices high. At the same time British society promotes the ideal of home-ownership as the acme of individual identity. The agony the average British wage earner is going through is exquisite, and many of them are convinced it is because of bogus reasons such as immigration.

Meanwhile the media don't just sell us things we don't need. Apart tax payer funded broadcasting, all media is paid for by advertising, including most internet content. The media has a vested interest in shaping our behaviour towards consumerism, towards views which promote the goals of Merchantilism. The media began employing psychologists to make their presentations more effective back in the 1920s. (See the Adam Curtis documentary for an account of this). They use subtle techniques to "nudge" our behaviour in a direction that is good for business. For them it was a problem that social conventions were against women smoking for example. So Edward Bernays cooked up a publicity stunt which linked smoking to the suffragette movement and painted cigarettes as "torches of freedom". Great result. Women felt more free by becoming addicted to a harmful poison, and began to die in their millions from tobacco related illnesses. Again the illusion of freedom disguises the reality of bondage.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I don't think that dark cabals are meeting behind closed doors to arrange it. I think its a dynamic of civilisation, an emergent property of the kind of social system we have based on a huge number of factors. And for the most part it's happening in the open. Governments are open about their beliefs and about their methods. The media are less open, but investigations like Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (a book and a film) have left us in no doubt about how they operate.

So individual identity in modern times is shaped to fit into this worldview, not simply Vitalist and Dualist, but Utilitarian, Merchantilist and (pseudo) Libertarian. Spirituality is no threat to this because it is focussed on the spirit and the immaterial  and leaves the body emeshed in the world and subject to market forces.

The Curse of Romanticism

If we look more closely at the referrants of "spiritual" we see a considerable overlap with the concerns of Romanticism. A concern with the immaterial over the material; with the unseen over the seen; with nature over culture; with experience over reason; with eternal life, even eternal childhood conceived of terms of in spontaneity and innocence, over death and the loss of naivete. The material world is less interesting than the afterlife; human beings less interesting than spirits (the higher and less material the better). According to French mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
The goal of the spiritual is escape from the material world where we inevitably die and, in the Indian worldview, die repeatedly. We escape (even if only in imagination) the material, relative, contingent world—i.e. saṃsāra—for an immaterial (outside space and time), absolute, eternal world—i.e. nirvāṇa. And when someone like Nāgārjuna tries to point out that the dichotomy is meaningless, we simply invent some new transcendental escape route: e.g. the dharmakāya.

By the beginning of the 20th century most Westerners were politically aware enough to have good reason to distrust authority figures, both spiritual and secular. The wealthy and powerful collude against the poor and oppressed to keep them divided, poor and oppressed. This was made easier by the rise of the middle-class, the administrators and facilitators of the rich and powerful, aspirational with respect to security and comfort and instilled with aristocratic contempt for working people. The popularity of Romanticism also worked to the advantage of business people. A few drug-addled, spoiled brats from the upper-classes who wrote sentimental poetry that made individualism seem desirable for the masses. The kind of freedom from responsibility or the need to work for a living, the kind of freedom that only comes with inherited wealth and privilege, became a thing for everyone to aspire to. Partly as a result of this, people have drowned their awareness in intoxicants and particularly the middle-classes have Romanticised this as a kind of freedom, though as before it leaves their bodies in bondage to profit. After a weekend "on the lash" as the Brits so eloquently call it, Monday morning means a return to bondage. Or after a lifetime of bondage we retire to freedom in old age. Except old age has been consistently redefined to make it less accessible.

At it's worst the hippy movement encouraged everyone, though in effect mainly the newly wealthy middle-class progeny of the post-war baby-boom, to disengage from politics and society. Like their Romantic heroes, the baby-boomers were sexually promiscuous, leading to a huge upsurge in sexually transmitted diseases. They were intoxicated, leading to drug and alcohol addiction with massive impact on families and society, and many new cases of psychosis and early death. And they were free of social conventions which boiled down to political disengagement, allowing conservatives to set the social and political agenda by exploiting the subsequent breakdown in the value of collectivity. Conservatives simply acted in concert and over-whelmed the divided progressives.

After decades of letting conservative business interests set the public agenda, we've got to the point where even the Left implement Neolibertarian economic policies. Sometimes the Left are even more assiduous in pursuing these policies, because they are trying to prove themselves on terms set by conservatives.

Romanticism might have started off as a necessary correction to the mechanistic views of scientists flushed with success as the beginning of the Victorian Era. But it has simply become another way in which we play into the hands of those who would economically enslave us. SBNR is the perfect religious view for a Neoliberal ideology. The political disengagement that typically goes along with individualistic spirituality is perfect for the powerful. Escapism relieves the frustration and tedium of modern work, leaving us resigned to wasting our best years for men who earn more in a year than we will in a lifetime. Contemporary spirituality is escapism. By focussing on the immaterial it denies the value of the material, and this plays into the hands of those who control the material world. We end up fighting Māra's battle for him.


Michel Foucault argued that to be a subject is to be subjected - thus providing an important counter-weight to Romanticism. The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces. Reflecting on my own life I see that my self-view has been shaped by many institutions: schools, church, medical clinics, hospitals, government departments, workplaces, unions, clubs, secret societies, professional associations, the news/entertainment media; by people playing their own social roles: family, in-laws, friends, peers, colleagues, romantic and sexual partners; by people playing various official roles such as doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, priest, politician, police, lawyer, accountant, psychologist, guru; by abstract institutions such as time, wealth, money, wages, taxes, property; by abstract issues such as gender politics, sexual politics, national and international politics, national identity, post-colonialism, multiculturalism; by the fact that I emigrated twelve years ago and had to retrain in many of these areas and add class awareness. The list goes on and on. My personal input into who I am is rather minimal. Virtually every I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being. Sure, my basic psychology is broadly speaking nature; but my identity is almost pure nurture.

Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. The veneer of civilisation on how we treat others is very thin indeed. One sees all this play out in simpler forms in primate societies. It's well worth reading Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man, in order to get a sense of how human society is an extension of basic primate society. The fundamentals are all similar.

Our very subjectivity is a construct which we have built in concert with society from birth. Forget the metaphysics of self, we don't even understand the politics of self. And Buddhism also plays it part in creating an acceptable subjectivity. We use "precepts" as a way of reminding other Buddhists about what is acceptable behaviour: we surveil and police each other. We emphasise that a Buddhist must take on to be ethical, rather than allow ethics to be imposed on us (with explicit comparisons to other ethical systems). When we criticise each other, it is often not for the act itself, but for the failure of self-control, the failure to conform. We explicitly invite others to subject themselves to Buddhist values which we extol as the most sublime set of moral values ever enunciated. Who would not want to subject themselves to sublime taboos, especially when part of the narrative is that no evil thought goes unpunished? Buddhism channels the power inherent in social groups in a particular kind of way, with particular kinds of narratives. It is not exempt or outside this social dynamic, despite all the transcendental narratives, Buddhist humans and still just humans.

Buddhism uses carrots to make obedience seem attractive, and sticks to make disobedience seem frightful. Just like every other primate group. This is how primate groups ensure collective survival. But it is open to exploitation. Even amongst chimps, as the story of monstrous Frodo of Gombe Stream suggests. Frodo used his size and aggression to cow the Gombe stream group and to terrorise neighbouring groups. The usual social controls, often operating through the "person" of the alpha-female, failed with Frodo.

Along with conceptions of subjectivity which are aimed at controlling individuals, Foucault points out the role of institutions which institutionalise social forms of control. We are shaped, but imperfectly and so society creates conditions in which it can exert control over any stray desires and urges that pop up. Religion is a partly a formalisation of certain social controls, aimed at subjecting and controlling the tribe. This has clear survival value. For Buddhists this manifests as belief in karma and enforcing of precepts. Karma is, like God Almighty, a supernatural surveillance agency that knows whether you've been bad or good. Karma makes the Panopticon seem an amateurish fumble. Be good or go to hell, has always been religion's trump card.

Today we don't see ourselves as dependent on friends and neighbours. We see them as accessories, as optional. The average person has just enough individual wealth, and is so steeped in the rhetoric of individualism that they are convinced they can go it alone, or at least with their mate and children in tow. Communities are bound by mutual need. If we assume that we don't need anyone, then we are not part of the community. And divided we are conquered by the more powerful. These days they make our captivity pretty comfortable, and a lot of the time we can forget we live in bondage. We lap up the narratives of virtuality—virtual friends, virtual pets, virtual communities—without seeming to notice that they are virtually useless compared to the real thing.

Authorities and Adepts

Despite rampant individualism, we cannot override the fact that we are a social species. We arrange our society in a uniquely human way, but still retain some features in common with other primates. And I think this insight may point to a weakness in Foucault's attempts to problematise society. We can't really live without it. Which is why we accept virtuality as ersatz society.

Many of us accept authority figures (alpha-individuals) and feel more secure having one around. In effect we like someone to tell us how to be individualistic, like teenagers who dress alike to symbolise their rebellion against conformity. Some of us prefer to try to unseat authority figures whether in an attempt at wresting actual power from them (pretty rare) or in a kind of impotent passive rage against authority generally (pretty common). Some of us have an ideology which is against authority figures on principle, like eternal teenagers. There's a lot of pressure on us to be neotonous, to remain childish because, like children, people with childish ideologies are easy to manipulate. A surprising number of Buddhists seem to be against any authority figure and any form of collectivity.

Every domain has it's authorities and adepts. And the spiritual domain is no exception. Spiritual long referred to that which pertained to the church. 200 years ago adding the adjective spiritual to nouns and verbs was how the Church marked out its demesne. In that tradition becoming an authority in the church was relatively arduous. Priests were often the only educated people in their milieu. The great universities were founded to educate priests during the so-called Dark Ages. However with the modern decline of the power of the church to impose standards and the rise of religious alternatives (particularly the freelance gurus of India), the adjective spiritual has been co-opted by non-church groups. The demesne of spiritual and all it's power and resources is now hotly contested. Anyone can become a spiritual authority or a spiritual adept with no effort or qualification. The demesne is haunted by frauds and hoaxes, but this seems not to slow down the commerce in all things spiritual.

In Buddhism we have a great deal of anxiety over authenticity and authority. We see a lot of ink spilt over whether our scriptures are authentic while modern scholarship, including my own, is constantly casting doubts. If the texts are authentic, then just what authentically are they? Similarly Buddhists enunciate lineages at great length in the hope that this guarantees the authoritativeness of authorities. However, Sangharakshita has shown that lineage is no guarantee of anything: see Forty-Three Years Ago.

This is not a new priority, but visible at all stages of Buddhist literature. The question of who is a spiritual authority and who is a spiritual adept, and just what that entitles them to say and do are constantly under review. It's always difficult to tell. (See How To Spot an Arahant). And of course Western Buddhism has been more or less constantly dealing with the problem of authority figures who defy norms and break rules. It is notable that commentators seem to fall back on Judeo-Christian notions of justice when this happens. A crisis of behaviour almost always becomes a crisis of faith and the faith we grew up with very often shapes our opinions more than our convert beliefs. 

Even the individualist tends to have a "spiritual teacher" someone who is both spiritual themselves in some exemplary fashion and who who is an expert in spiritual practice and thus able to oversee the practice of others. This relationship may be personal or be at arm's length through books and videos. And we may hedge our bets by picking and choosing from spiritual teachers of various kinds. But we still look to someone to define what is spiritual: what we should believe, and what we should do about it. And this gives those who play the role of teacher considerable power. Indeed with direct disciples who abdicate personal authority and decision making to a guru, the problem is even more acute. It's interested that despite early flirtations with spiritual masters, we now tend to follow teachers instead. The obedience implicit in the disciple/master relationship doesn't sit well with individualism and has been famously disastrous on a number of occasions. Being a celibate teacher in a sexually promiscuous society seems to be an especially fraught situation.

I've already touched on the Foucaldian critique of the inner self as envisaged by the Enlightenment. My take on this is that the Enlightenment self, characterised especially by rationality, is a feature of Neolibertarianism via its Utilitarian roots. Utilitarianism is caught up in the Victorian over-emphasis on a particular kind of rationality. We see it in the "rational choice" models of economics, which let the developed world's economies fall into a major recession with (almost) no warning in 2008. I've been critical of this view of rationality in my writing e.g. Reasoning and Beliefs; or Facts and Feelings. Foucault's study of the fate of the irrational person in post-Enlightenment society traces the ascendency of this view. and particularly examines the power exercised over those who seem to be unreasonable or irrational. We can contrast this with the Romanticisation of spirit and the self in reaction to an overly mechanical view of the universe.

The political side of spiritual can be seen in this light: that it represents an exertion of power to control the individual, and that individual consents to be controlled. By obeying norms we find belonging. Belonging is essential to the well-being of human beings, and has always provided one of the strongest levers against the individual: conform or be excluded. In a hunter-gatherer society conformity conveys benefits that outweigh the costs, but in a settled society (with cities etc) the dynamic is far more complex.

In Libertarian ideology this is turned on it's head. In the Libertarian view no benefit can outweigh the cost of conformity. The Neolibertarian ideology is one adopted by the 1% of rich and powerful. It says that everyone is free to make a profit. The fine print however is pure Mercantilism: the person only has value to the extent that they contribute to profit making. Self-employment is fine, even admirable, but unemployment is immoral. In this ideology arguing for more taxation on profit is irrational since it interferes with profit making; in the jargon it's anti-business. The purest form of profit making is the effortless increase in wealth obtained from owning land that goes up in value due to external factors. Profit without effort. It's almost a religion in the UK and almost completely exempt from taxation (compared to wages and profits). To some extent the individualism of SBNR partakes of this ideology. Let no one interfere with my spirituality. Magazines are full of ads promising spiritual attainment with no effort. And there is a spiritual 1% living in relative luxury on the proceeds of this economy.

Attempts to break out of this thought control often take the form of what we in the Triratna Order call therapeutic blasphemy, where one deliberately breaks taboos, such as prohibitions against blasphemy, in order to loosen the grip of a lifetime of conditioning in Christian values. Sangharakshita used this example of positive blasphemy in his 1978 essay Buddhism and Blasphemy (Reprinted in The Priceless Jewel [pdf], 1978), written in response to conviction of the editor and publishers of the Gay News for "blasphemous libel" in 1977 (see BBC summary of the case). The use of antinomian and transgressive practices in Buddhist tantra dating from perhaps the 8th century onwards appears to have a similar purpose.

One might think that Buddhism at least would inform a better kind of government, that countries where Buddhism is the state religion would tend to exemplify Buddhist values. However, the opposite is more often true.

Buddhist Politics

Think for a moment about the forms of government associated with nominally Buddhist countries. Traditional Asian Kingdoms and Empires have been, like their Occidental counterparts, harshly repressive, imperialistic, racist and rigidly hierarchical. There is nothing particularly attractive about the forms of government that have developed in the Buddhist world.

Today the three main Theravāda countries, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, are all run by authoritarian, repressive governments. Either military governments as in Burma, or militaristic. Thailand declared martial law last month.

Mahāyāna countries have not produced more compassionate forms of government on the whole: China, North Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet. Bhutan might be the only exception, but the peasants there really are brainwashed into seeing their royal family as deities to whom they owe fealty, obedience and obeisance. A form of political control once employed by the Tibetans as well. There's nothing particularly admirable about virtually enslaving the peasant population in order to support a huge number of unproductive men. A system that produced a major shortage of marriageable men, and yet such poverty than brothers often clubbed together to share one wife. Of course one cannot condone the Chinese invasion of Tibet on those grounds. The brutal repression of the Tibetans and the widespread destruction of their culture has been heartbreaking. But pre-invasion Tibet is Romanticised by Westerners (this is the theme of Don Lopez's Prisoners of Shangrila which is worth reading).

For those who hope to implement Buddhist control of Western countries the question is this: based on which historical precedent do you see religious government of our countries as a good thing? Churchill did say:
"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
The governments of nominally Buddhist countries are amongst the most repressive in the world, no matter what period in history we look at. In fact Buddhism makes for poor politics precisely because it is traditionally disengaged. And the engaged part of engaged-Buddhism is coming from external sources. A Green government might be a good thing, but one that values the natural world would mostly likely be better than any form of Buddhist government. No one who denies the reality of people or suffering should have access to power over people.


We'll probably never get rid of spiritual in Buddhist circles, certainly not on my say so. Religious people use the religious jargon of the day, just as the authors of the early Buddhist texts used Brahmanical and Jain jargon. Some times the re-purposing of a word works out, sometimes not. Brāhmaṇa retained its Vedic meaning and caste associations despite attempts to assimilate it, while karman or dharman became naturalised and have now even been Anglicised. The argument over whether or not Buddhism is a religion, or a philosophy, or a spiritual tradition, or whatever, goes on.

And old habits die hard. Spiritual is a word we use partly as a lure, a familiar term for those who are dissatisfied with ordinary life. "Mundane life sucks? Try our all new/old spiritual life, guaranteed 25% more satisfying! We're so confident that you don't get your money back." Spiritual is a handle on what we do that outsiders can grasp and given the jargon laden claptrap some of us come out with, something familiar comes as a relief. It provides what Frank Zappa used to call Conceptual Continuity.

But all of this goes on in an economy of power. Spiritual discourses aim to shape a particular kind of subject for a particular kind of purpose. And the explicit purpose, spiritual liberation, may mislead us into thinking that by taking on the discourses of spirituality we are becoming more free. In fact very few people achieve liberation and most of us are in bondage. Unfortunately the politics of the day is easily able to exploit the myth of liberation to better enslave us. Power exploits our naive dualism and over-concern with the mental or immaterial, to enslave our bodies.

To some extent we suffer from "the world that has been pulled over our eyes to distract us from the truth." This line from The Matrix draws on Gnostic ideas about the world. In fact the rampant escapism of spirituality does make it easier to create compliant, obedient subjects who work hard to create obscene profits for the 1%. Like the middle-classes who facilitated Merchantilism, the cadre of disciples channel power within communities.

But it's not the end of the world. There are benefits to being religious and a member of a religious organisation. Buddhism's lessons on life are actually pretty helpful a lot of the time. The practices are worth pursuing in their own right. It's just that ideally we'd all think about our lives a bit more. And especially reflect on where our views come from.