Showing posts with label Spirit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spirit. Show all posts

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.


13 June 2014

Spiritual II: Frames.

In order to better understand the word spiritual I want to try to look at it in terms of frames. George Lakoff defines frames as "mental structures that shape the way we see the world." (2004, p. xv). Frames unconsciously structure of our thoughts, our intentions, and our memories. We each have thousands of frames. We develop them partly through exploring our physical environment and partly through interacting with our social environment. So my frames will be similar to yours to the extent that our physical and social environments are similar. The resulting structures are encoded in physical structures in the brain.

Words are defined with respect to framesA word like "mother" doesn't just just refer to the woman who gave birth to us, but invokes the frames of all the attributes we associate with all mothers and mothering: birth, nurture, fertility, gestation and so on. But the particular associations are based on social conventions. When we use a word we automatically invoke frames associated with it.

"Don't think of an elephant" 

Most people can't see or hear this statement and help thinking of an elephant and associated images and ideas. The words we use in a discussion or debate are not neutral. Because of frames. There is an ongoing discussion over how to define Buddhism which is largely concerned with marketing. Typically the argument is quite one dimensional.
  • Buddhism is a religion and thus offers solutions to traditional religious problems, i.e. "Where did we come from?" or "What happens after we die?" or "Why is life unfair?"
  • Buddhism is a philosophy and concerned with traditional philosophical questions, i.e. "What is there?" or "What can we know about what is there?" or "What should we do in hypothetical situations?"
  • Buddhism is a way of life and concerned largely with moral questions, i.e. "How should we live?"
Frames also make it possible to sum up arguments in slogans. And it's against this background that I want to look at the word spiritual. What would it mean, for example, to say that Buddhism is a form of spirituality.

I've shown that spiritual is historically rooted in the Vitalist idea of the 'breath of life'. However, it's safe to say that spiritual invokes a large number of frames, of which 'breath of life' is now relatively unimportant. So if we say that we are spiritual beings, living spiritual lives, doing spiritual practices, from a spiritual tradition, in order to have spiritual experiences that culminate in a spiritual awakening, just what are we saying? What frames do we invoke? Obviously we can't deal with every detail of thousands of frames, so I want to cover some of the main ones.


In an exchange with me on one of his blogs Bhikkhu Sujato recently expressed the view that for him "spirituality" referred to wholeness and integration for example. I think that this frame comes from thinking of human beings as having three parts: body, mind, and soul. (Hence the bookshop classification). Soul, or spirit, completes the trilogy. The Catholic Encyclopedia argues this heretical tri-partite view of the human being is partly due to a clarification of the distinction between psychē and pneuma by St Paul:
"Body and soul come by natural generation; spirit is given to the regenerate Christian alone. Thus, the "newness of life", of which St. Paul speaks, was conceived by some as a superadded entity, a kind of oversoul sublimating the "natural man" into a higher species." (Catholic Encyclopedia sv Soul)
This is related, I think, to the Pentecost, which was originally a Jewish harvest festival. In the Book of Acts the followers of Jesus are assembled for the Pentecost Festival when something miraculous happens and in the famous line:
"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Acts 2:4. (Bible Hub)
Here the New Testament Greek word translated as both "Ghost" and "Spirit" is pneuma (see previous essay for the etymology). People with bodies and souls were completed by the descent of pneuma into them. In this day and age where the two basic divisions of the person are mind and body, many people feel that something is missing. They feel that we are more than either mind or body, more than a combination of the two. And what is missing is spirit and part of the spiritual province. This feeling comes about because of a conviction about the truth of Vitalism. 

Wholeness might have another sense that derives from psychoanalysis. We all know that rather than having a single "will" we are in fact usually in a state of conflicting desires and urges that battle for our attention and often move us in unexpected directions (what Harold Bloom has mockingly called "the Hamlet Complex"). At worst we suffer from what early psychologists conceived of as schizo-phrenia 'a divided mind' (schizo is from Greek skhizein 'to split'). In the psychoanalytic view we integrate our disparate inner parts by gaining knowledge of our own unconscious.  This is achieved indirectly through analysis of dreams, slips of the tongue, associations and so on; or directly (in psychodynamic approaches) through introspection and confessional reporting of thoughts and emotions. Our unconscious is revealed through analysis of patterns over the long term.

Some Buddhists argue that meditation achieves this psychological goal of resolving psychological tensions without the need for introspection or analysis. However in the Buddhist process, outlined in the Spiral Path, integration (samādhi) precedes knowledge (jñāna) rather than the other way around.

Buddhists also divide the person up into parts: body, speech and mind; five skandhas, six elements. And we mostly do this to try to show that we are simply the sum of our parts. Unlike Christians who believe that we are more than the sum of our parts because we have an immaterial, immortal soul. Thus "wholeness" for Buddhists ought to have something of an empty ring to it. Yes, it is good to be a whole person, with our faculties intact and our will undivided, but there is nothing beyond that, nothing more. As the Buddha says to Bāhiya: "in the seen, only the seen". Some take this to be a reference to the Upaniṣadic teaching about the ātman as the seer behind the seeing as found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. As always Buddhists are keen to deny any kind of metaphysical self or soul. 


Sujato also says: “Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a sense of the highest good.” This frame is linked with the metaphor GOOD IS UP/BAD IS DOWN, which itself has a number of entailments that I've already explored at some length with respect to religious language in my essay Metaphors and Materialism. This spatial metaphor is perhaps the most important in the context of spirit and spirituality.

If "ways of being" and "goods" can be higher and lower, then there is a hierarchy of being and goodness. Christians, following influence from Neoplatonism, refer to this hierarchy as the Great Chain of Being. Pure being is entirely immaterial, the realm of pure spirit, in later Buddhism the dharmakāya. Because it is a frame, we know transparently and unconsciously, that spirit, being immaterial is not weighed down by the earth, it naturally floats up (the Jains invoke precisely this metaphor in their version of the soul). Good spirits go UP to heaven to be with the Sky Father (in Biblical Greek 'Heaven' is ouranus = Ancient Greek Uranus, the Sky Father and husband of Gaia, the Earth Mother). 

The association of highest good with the highest way of being is important. In the Great Chain of Being, God is at the pinnacle: the highest being is infinitely good. In Buddhist cosmology the highest state of being is an absolute disconnection from the worlds in which one can be reborn, even the pleasant ones. One cannot say anything about the state of being of a Tathāgata after death; the post-mortem Tathāgata defies the very categories of being and non-being and even the most refined gods, in states of beings almost off the scale, cannot compare.

Kūkai had a great deal of difficulty getting his 9th century Māhāyānika colleagues to believe that the dharmakāya teaches, because in their view the dharmakāya is absolutely abstract and disconnected from realms of rebirth. This reality, lying beyond any kind of knowledge, is sometimes referred to using terminology drawn from German Idealist philosophy, such as "the Absolute," or "the Transcendental" (with capitals and the definite article). Later Buddhist philosophy swings between a transcendent ultimate reality and an immanent realisation of reality (though early Buddhism is not concerned with reality at all).

In this view it's axiomatic that rebirth is bad. Rebirth is what we are seeking to escape from. This means that the world one is born into cannot have any absolute value. All that seems valuable about the world is simply a product of our ignorance. The best things a spiritual person can do is renounce the world and focus on religious practices that temporarily take one higher in pursuit of a permanently higher state of being. As with many of forms of mind/body dualism, this detachment from the world does make us rather ineffective in the world. At a time when we see the environment being destroyed for example and need to mobilise feelings of engagement, Buddhism councils disengagement. Despite this some Buddhists are engaged in social and environmental projects. But this is a new departure for Buddhism, a product of Buddhist Modernism, and more Modernist than Buddhist. And given the consequences of disengagement it must be seen as a highly positive move, albeit not fully integrated yet.


The vertical spatial metaphor can work in another way. Above ground HIGHER IS MORE, but below ground DEEPER IS MORE/SHALLOWER IS LESS. Verticality is with reference to the (flat) surface of the earth. Early Buddhists used reductive analysis, i.e. they went deeper, to end the rumour of ātman and to show that human beings are simply the sum of their parts, though this includes physical (kāyika) and mental (cetasika) parts. There is no soul, spirit or anything resembling them lurking inside us as other religions would have us believe. Reflection on the skandhas is probably the representative practice for deconstructing satkāyadṛṣṭi (the idea of a true substance, aka 'personality view'), but the foundations of recollection (satipaṭṭhāna) or recollection of the elements  (dhātvanusati) perform a similar function.

Deeper also invokes psychoanalytic ideas. After Freud we understand that much of our thought goes on in an unconscious realm. We may delve into our own unconscious with difficulty, but at times shine light on it's workings in order to gain in-sight. In those areas of knowledge where a literal spirit was not entirely credible, this dark inner-world began to take it's place. Of course the fact that we have inner-lives was not lost on the pre-Freudian world. Harold Bloom has made much of the fact that Freud read Shakespeare incessantly and appeared to be jealous of the Bard's greater insights into the Human psyche, especially in the story of Hamlet (See the Freud Chapter in The Western Canon). But recall that the word psyche itself meant something like 'soul'. C. G. Jung also chose words from this domain, i.e. anima/animus in his account of our inner life. 

Michael Witzel has shown that Jung's ideas about a collective unconscious are less good at explaining common themes in myth than the idea that story telling is much older and more conservative than we thought possible. Widely dispersed people have the same stories because once they lived closer together and shared a common storyline. In Witzel's mythological scheme the "Laurasian" story arc involves a first generation of humans who are heroic and perform miraculous deeds aimed at benefiting human-kind rather than the gods. Again Prometheus is the archetype.

Freud, Romanticism and burgeoning Spiritualism (see below) made common cause. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell reminded us that the new Western story of a dark inner realm visited to gain truths that set us free or make us whole, was tapping into the re-occurring myth epitomised by Orpheus who defies the gods by journeying to Hades realm to reclaim his wife. We are intended to equate the psychological unconscious with the mythic underworld, and process of psycho. The implication being that we will find treasures in dark aspects of our own minds. Thus in psychoanalysis Vitalism found another dark corner in which it could continue to exist. Introspection became one of the chief tools gaining access to this "underworld". The Romantic hero explores their own depths like Orpheus seeking Eurydice.  

By the time Westerners dropped their early prejudices against heathen religion and came into more substantial contact with Buddhism, some Buddhists had come to a similar belief about their inner self. This theme is more apposite in the USA since it was there that Zen took root. In Europe Theravāda Buddhism, with it's strong emphasis on anattā,  was influential earlier and for longer. Zen can be problematic because it embraces tathāgatagarbha doctrine and in English expresses it in terms like "Original Mind" or "True Self" (with capitals). Without the sophisticated critique of tathāgatagarbha that is contained in Madhyamaka thought, and lacking in popular presentations of Zen (the kind that people dip rather than take seriously), it is easy to tip over into Vitalism without the help of psychoanalysis. The two combined make it almost inevitable.


The word spiritual also invokes the idea of sacredness, though these days "sacred" is a rather degraded idea despite attempts to rehabilitate it. Nothing is sacred any more. That said, for many people the loss of a sense of sacredness is a serious problem and they are busy trying to install Sacredness 2.0™. Very often the target domain for modern sacredness is "nature". Not the "red in tooth and claw" nature, but the more tranquil nature typically associated with the English countryside (a giant landscaped garden). Not wilderness, which can easily kill the unwary, but the tame versions of nature that are non-threatening and easily accessible. Old trees are sacred. Certain hills. Stone henge and other archaeological sites that are presumed to have been religious in nature are rebooted as modern sacred sites, even though no one really knows what makes them sacred.

We're not quite sure what sacredness means, but the tribal people our ancestors colonised put a lot of store by it. Our word taboo comes from the Pacific Islands (tapu in Māori). A tapu is a restriction placed on a person, place or object that prevents every day interactions and allows only specialised ritual interactions. Similarly sacredness puts the labelled thing outside the grasping of Utilitarianism and this can only be a good thing. The value associated with sacredness is nothing to do with money or utility. It's important in this banal age to be reminded that some things cannot be valued in economic terms. Often it is not nature per se that we value, but how we feel when we are in a natural as opposed to an artificial setting.

The sacred designation, if plausible, can help to protect "natural resources" (an economic term) from exploitation and destruction. Given the destructive effects of large scale industrialisation on the environment across the planet, it might not be a bad idea to extend the sense of sacredness to all living things. However invoking the sacred via the word "spiritual" is problematic because of the other associations, particularly with organised religion and paranormal hoaxes. By confusing sacredness, in terms of non-utilitarian values, with spirituality, we in fact make it a little more difficult to defend those values. 

For Buddhists the world accessible to the senses is not sacred. It's not until we get fed-up with the world and turn away from it that we are liberated. Thus for Buddhists something is sacred only to the extent that it points, and leads, away from the world. A stupa, for example, might be a sacred monument, but only because it reminds us of the Buddha who transcended the world. At the level of popular religion or superstition Buddhism is happy to acknowledge that sacred sites have some value, but they are not seen as a true refuge. We see this sentiment expressed for example in Dhammapada (188-189)
Many people seek refuge from fear;
In mountains, forests, gardens, trees and shrines 
This is not a secure refuge, not the ultimate refuge;
Going to this refuge, they aren't delivered from all misery.
Nature is not sacred in early Buddhist thought. So, as with engaged Buddhism, what we seem to be seeing is a new departure. A necessary, but quite a radical departure.


Spiritualism is a complex of ideas that particularly involve interacting with the spirits of the dead in the afterlife. The movement owes a great deal to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) which communicate his visions of the afterlife. In turn his version of the afterlife seems to owe a great deal to Dante. In fact Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost, especially via art inspired by them, are two of the most influential religious works in the Western World.

Unfortunately spiritualism has always been rife with hoaxes. Early and prominent hoaxers were the Fox sisters who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, but one of them later confessed to having faked it. However, like the admission of the crop-circle hoaxers, the repeated exposure of fakery and fraud does not dampen enthusiasm for spiritualism. We want to believe that the dead are still with us, and not simply metaphorically.

Most of mediumship depends on a technique called cold reading. This skill can be extremely effective and yet entirely fake. One modern master of the technique is Derren Brown, who openly acknowledges that he is using cold reading techniques, but is able to seemingly evince information that he could not have access to except through psychic powers. It's possible to be entirely convincing to even a sceptical audience. (See e.g. this video explaining cold reading). Brown's performance in Messiah is a remarkable display of how to dupe an audience. 

One spin off from Spiritualism and its interaction with Eastern religion is the phenomenon of past life regression and mundane memories of past lives. Ancient Buddhist texts suggest that if we develop certain psychic powers through spending a lot of time in the fourth dhyāna, we ought to be able to remember past lives. This ability to remember past lives gradually declines in importance over time in Buddhist texts and is hardly mentioned in Mahāyāna texts. I've dealt with this aspect of spirituality in an earlier essay: Rebirth and the Scientific Method. So I won't dwell on it here. The Skeptic's Dictionary response to "research" into this field is a useful counterpoint. One very important point for Buddhists is that all this past-life research confirms the Hindu view of reincarnation, not the Buddhist view of rebirth. So we ought to be marshalling all our criticisms of it, not embracing it. It's spiritual in the best sense of the word, i.e. concerned with spirits and eternal souls.

The success of Spiritualism, despite the exposure of so many frauds, forms part of the background against which modern Buddhists assess the relevance of Buddhist ideas. Modern Buddhists are almost all converts from Christian societies, even if the converts themselves were not Christian. Beliefs like rebirth and universal fairness (karma), subtle bodies, and the life's breath (prāṇa) are easy to assimilate if we already believe in ghosts, communication with the spirits of the dead and the other phenomena associated with Spiritualism. In fact for some people it's almost as if the Enlightenment never happened. 


Certain relatively uncommon experiences are referred to as spiritual or mystical. These include so-called out-of-body experiences, or near death experiences and other experiences that seem to point to a clear mind/body dualism or more precisely to a consciousness that is able to exist independently of the body. This taps into the idea of the spirit as distinct from the body and thus points to a strong version of mind/body duality. Thomas Metzinger has decisively showed, in The Ego Tunnel, that the out-of-body experience is not what it seems. In fact a better explanation can be found in the way that the brain constructs our sense of self and how that process can breakdown. I've also dealt with this in Origin of the Idea of the Soul.

Another kind of experience often associated with meditation is important (though also associated with potent hallucinogens like LSD). It seems to have two poles. At one pole the subject-object distinction breaks down and leaves one with a sense of nothingness or no-thing-ness. In the traditional Hindu description there is just saccidānanda 'being, consciousness and bliss'. One is entirely disconnected from the world of sense experience, from mental activity as normally understood. There is no sense of self, nor of being located in space or time and thus no other, no world. In Buddhist terms experiences of this kind are referred to as the arūpa or formless dhyānas. At the other pole the subject-object distinction breaks down leaving one feeling connected to everything. One feels that one is the universe, that there are no distinctions between self and other. Again there is no sense of self, but one feels located everywhere in time and space, one feels one is the world. and the world is oneself. It is the feeling that "all is one". Both of these seem to have a profound impact on the person experiencing them and can radically alter one's perspective on everyday waking experience.

Almost inevitably the person who has this experience believes there is "more". More to life; more than meets the eye; "more than is dreamt of in your philosophy". And the "more" is spiritual. It can also be associated with the idea of a transcendental, ineffable reality. This hard-to-reach reality is higher, better, deeper, etc than everyday life. In fact compared to reality, everyday life is hardly worth living. Some people get a glimpse of this kind of experience and spend the rest of their lives trying to get back to there. This kind of story is high reminiscent of the story of the Holy Grail, particularly as it is outlined by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz in The Grail Legend. Often what Buddhists seek is the Holy Grail, the transformative experience that will leave them in a state of grace.

Visions of "higher" beings are also sought-after mystical experiences, especially if they are accompanied by a sense that the vision is more real than reality. Often visions are of human figures, anthropomorphisms of values we hold dear, or saints. Usually visions are culturally specific. Hindu's see Śiva, Viṣṇu or Kāli or one of the 33 million other deities; Christians see Christ, Mary or angels; Buddhists see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And so on. It's not unusual for Western convert Buddhists to see visions of Christ, simply because they grew up Christian and our culture is saturated with images of a Westernised Christ. We notice this with imagery, visions and icons take on the regional characteristics of the people they appear to. Monastics have often used extreme techniques to achieve such visions: starvation, sleep deprivation, extremes of heat and cold, flesh wounds (from self-flagellation) that become infected, and other painful austerities. Meditative techniques are a more humane way of approaching having a mystical experience, but still require considerable dedication to repetition and duration of practice.

What is interesting about mystical experiences is that the individual phenomena can now be reproduced in the laboratory using a variety of techniques that physically affect the brain (be it accidental damage, surgery, drugs or electro-magnetic stimulation). Thus the arrow of causality points from brain to experience. There is no doubt that the experiences are significant to those who have them, but also little doubt that the significance is imposed on the experience by the experiencer. Mystical experiences are not what they seem. On face value they are what the mystics have always said they are; but we can look beyond the face value now. And we see that the value we place on such experiences is a human value. And this is not to say that the experiences are not valuable or transformative. But they do not always mean what they are said to mean in a pre-scientific worldview.

Another caveat on discussing such experiences is that they are difficult to distinguish from hallucinations. An hallucination is when someone sees, hears, smells, tastes or feels things that don't exist outside their mind, but which nonetheless have a vivid realness about them and are mistaken for things which do exist. Hallucinations and spiritual experiences have very different valuations, but how we determine which is which may be entirely context dependent.  

In 2009 the Pew Research Group reported at about half of all Americans had had a "religious or mystical experience. This is more than double the number recorded in a 1976 Gallup Poll. In their analysis the bulk of the increase seems to come from Christians and those who regularly attend religious services, with as many of 70% of some evangelicals claiming some kind of experience and a clear correlation with frequency of attendance at a religious service. The level is also fairly high (30%) amongst unaffiliated religious people (SNBR?). About 18% of people with no religious inclinations report experiences of this time.

Mystical experiences are much more likely amongst people who expect to have them: people with strong religious beliefs, who regularly participate in religious activities. But even non-religious people appear to have mystical or religious experiences fairly commonly (one in five adults).  


In an essay like this, one can only touch on the main points of a complex argument. Clearly the frames that help to define the word spiritual are many and varied. Each of us works with thousands of frames. We can see that some of the main frames activated by the word spiritual involve a Vitalist worldview or mind/body dualism. There is a possible defence against this charge which is similar to the one that sparked this analysis. One may argue that even when, for example, the higher frame is invoked (along with the various associated metaphors like GOOD IS HIGHER) that one is not intending to invoke religious ideas from Christianity. However we don't have a lot of control over the frames we use. Frames structure our thoughts, but do so unconsciously. And even if we ourselves use words with more than average deliberation (and as a writer let me assure you that this is much more difficult than it might appear) we have no control over what happens in the minds of our readers/listeners.

The question of whether Buddhism is or is not a religion is moot, though if it is not a religion then what is it? The idea that Buddhism is spiritual or concerned with spirit is just wrong. Most of the main frames invoked by spiritual just don't fit very well if at all. In some cases, as in the revaluing of nature are helpful and in other cases not so much.

When Nixon went on TV and said "I am not a crook" it was probably the first time most people thought of  him in terms of being a crook. But from that time on, most people thought of Nixon as a crook. For the group of people who believe that Buddhism is not a religion, the statement "Buddhism is not a religion" only reinforces the Buddhism/religion connection in the minds of hearers because the word invokes the frame. As "spiritual but not religious" simply reinforces the connection between spiritual and religion. The desire to contradict an argument in yes/no terms is strong, but if one wants to define Buddhism in a certain way, then one can only use words that are consistent with that definition else the message is mixed.

People who invoke spiritual when referring to Buddhism probably do so because it's familiar. It taps into centuries of religious ideology. I see it rationalised in a variety of ways. But my view is that the choice of words lends advantages to certain sections of society. The next essay will shift the focus from how the word is used to who uses the word; the politics of spirituality. Who wins by linking Buddhism to the various spiritual frames? Who loses?


George Lakoff on frames and framing.

06 June 2014

Spiritual I: The Life's Breath

I've been arguing against using the word spiritual in relation to Buddhism for a while now. My contention is that the word has all the wrong connotations for Buddhism, we don't believe that humans have spirits, do we? One of the frequent counter-arguments is that spiritual simply doesn't mean what I say it does. In what I consider one of the most important essays I've written (Metaphors and Materialism) I identify the word spiritual with a tradition of ontological dualism and now I would link it another in the form of Vitalism. So is this fair?

Ancient Indian Buddhists had a practice of adding prestigious adjectives to names. It's still goes on today. VIPs, especially religious VIPs affix śrī to their names, sometimes more than once, e.g. Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and Sri Sri Sri Nirmalanandanatha Swamiji.

In early Buddhist texts one common prestige word, curiously, was brahman: brahmavihāra, brahmacarin, etc. It's curious because it's a word which can only have come from the Vedic context and derives it's meaning from Brahmanism. It refers to the cosmic essence with which the theologically minded Brahmin hopes to merge at death (a new idea introduced by the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad). Alongside brahman was ārya 'noble'. Before long Buddhist started to prefer ārya. Avalokiteśavara becomes Āryāvalokiteśvara; Tāra becomes Āryatāra. The Prajñāpāmitāhṛdaya becomes then Āryaprajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. And so on. And we know that mature tantra substituted vajra: vajraguru, Vajrasattva, vajra-everything. Nowadays the adjective is spiritual: spiritual tradition, spiritual community, spiritual practices, spiritual teachers, spiritual experiences, and spiritual awakenings.

The key adjective in all cases is used to mark out a conceptual space. It is not merely linguistic, does not merely rely on denotation, but also defines social and political roles and relationships. A spiritual teacher is a very particular type of teacher for example, with a very particular relationship to a student and a particular kind of role in an organisation.

In this and two subsequent essays I will try to excavate around this word spiritual to see how it became the religious prestige word of the moment. My argument is that just as the Dalai Lama has adopted the ecclesiastical title of a Pope, i.e. His Holiness, the word spiritual is one we Buddhists have adopted from Christianity and because of this it comes with all the connotations and entailments of the Christian world view. However the word spiritual had already begun to be used independently of the church when Buddhism started to become popular, particularly in spiritualist circles: the space defined by spiritual was already contested allowing us to stake a claim in it.

Part I, this essay, will begin with the etymology of the word, showing how the word draws on various words for 'breath' as a metonym for 'life' and is intimately tied up with Judeo-Christian ideas on the animation of inanimate matter (which I've already shown to be an anachronistic view). I'll show that 'life's breath' is very common way of understanding life in the pre-modern world, but is ultimately based on misunderstandings about how the world works and in particular how the human body works.

Part II will look at the word in terms of frames as described by George Lakoff and try to analyse the web of images and ideas invoked by the word. Part II will critique the applicability of these frames to the Buddhist project.

Having looked at how the word is used Part III will shift the focus onto who uses the word. Influenced by Michel Foucault Part III will look at the power relations implicit in the domain marked out by spiritual, or what we might call the politics of spirituality.


Our usage of the word "spiritual" is tied up with translations of the Christian Bible, especially Genesis and the story of the creation of Man:
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7, King James Bible (Bible Hub)
Here, breathed and breath of life are distant translations of Hebrew words: way·yip·paḥ and niš·maṯ ḥay·yîm respectively. (Note that "God" here as elsewhere is ’ĕlōhîm which is the plural of El 'God'). (Bible Hub) In Biblical Greek "breath of life" was translated pnoín zoís from pneuma 'breath' and zōēs 'life'. Biblical Latin at first translated the pneuma part with words derived from anima, which also derived from a root meaning 'to blow, to breath' and is also equivalent to Greek psykhē (meaning something like animating essence) which itself comes from a from PIE root *bhes- 'to blow, to breathe'In Augustan times translators settled on the Latin spiraculum vitae from spīritus 'to breathe' and vita 'life' (from vivare 'to live' and cognate with Sanskrit jīva). After being animated Adam is described as animam viventem 'a living soul'.

The word spīritus has a range of meanings:
'a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath; breath of a god,' hence 'inspiration; breath of life,' hence 'life'; also 'disposition, character; high spirit, vigor, courage; pride, arrogance.'
Of course we also find spīritus sanctus 'the Holy Spirit' playing an important role in Christianity. Spīritus derives from a Latin verb spirare 'breathe'. It can be further related back to a Proto-Indo-European verbal root: *(s)peis- "to blow, to fizz". If we start from the root and work forwards we find it at the base of a relatively restricted range of English words. The Indo-European Lexicon lists 'fart, fizz, fizzle' all via Germanic and 'spirit' via Latin.

Words derived from the Latin spīritus begin to appear in English in about the 13-14th century and may either have come more or less directly from ecclesiastical Latin or via Norman French. This period coincides with mature Middle-English as the language of most of England, representing the final merging of Norman French vocabulary into Old English (Anglo-Saxon) to produce a single language. It left English with a rich vocabulary for many domains, for example (see also table below):
breath (Old English bræð), quick
inspire, expire etc. (French)
spirit; anima (Latin)
pneumatic, pneumonia; psyche (Greek)
The noun spirit first meant 'animating or vital principle in man and animals' and derives from a French usage meaning 'soul'. Compare the modern French esprit. Online Etymology Dictionary. Thus we see that from the beginning spirit in English is a metonym for spiraculum vitae 'the breath of life', that which makes us animam viventem 'a living soul'. Our word spiritual is an adjective deriving from spīritus and primarily meaning 'of or concerning the spirit'. Spiritual is also used in the sense of 'pertaining to the church'.

There are several subsidiary senses of 'spirit' that help to shed light on what the word meant in Medieval times. From about 1400 spirit began to mean ghost - the disembodied spirit of a dead person; often in the sense of a spirit that has not (yet) ended up in either heaven or hell. The word ghost comes from PIE *gheis- "to be excited, amazed, frightened" (c.f. German geist). From about 1500 the word was used to suggest "a nature, character". This line of connotation developed so that spirit as 'essential character' appears by the 1680's and becomes common in the 1800s. Thus I can write in the spirit of Enlightenment scholarship or comment on the zeitgeist (the spirit of the times). The sense of 'divine, related to god' is attested in the 14th century. When we say someone is "spirited" we mean they are lively, energetic, courageous. This sense is attested from 1590, though Milton uses it to mean "possessed by a spirit." OEtD

This takes us close to the crux. For pre-modern people the difference between living and dead matter was breath. I think we've come such a long way that it's difficult to get our heads around this nowadays. What God did in creating Adam was gather up some dead matter, some dust, and "breathe life into it"; he animated it - indeed he inspired Adam. The metaphor is BREATH IS LIFE. Breathing is the activity par excellence of living beings. This metaphor is quite widespread in the ancient world.

The Life's Breath

In pre-scientific times to live was to breath; and die was to stop breathing. However, the ancients came to a very different understanding than we have today. We now know that when the diaphragm muscles contract it draws air into the lungs where oxygen molecules cross the membranes to enter the bloodstream and be captured by haemoglobin molecules for transportation around the body. At the same time carbon-dioxide crosses the membrane in the other direction so that our our breath contains less oxygen and more carbon-dioxide than our in breath. In the mitochondria of our cells oxygen takes part in creating an energy transfer molecule, adenosine-triphosphate (ATP) and is converted to CO2 in the process.

In ancient India by contrast the arrow of causation between the bodily movements of breathing and the air entering the body was reversed. For them the movements of the air element (vāyudhātu) caused all bodily movements, particularly the movements associated with breathing and not the other way around. Vāyu takes in the movements created by the wind (leaves rustling in trees), the movement of the bodies limbs, and the movements associated with breathing. Vāyu in the body is called āna 'breath' and comes in various forms indicated by the prefixes: apa, ud, pra, vi, and sam. We have:
  • apāna 'down-breath' (aka fart; Monier-Williams resorts to Latin at this point: ventris crepitus); 
  • udāna 'up-breath' the breath involved in speech; 
  • prāṇa 'fore-breath', but used in the sense 'breath of life'; 
  • vyāna 'diffused-breath' (spread throughout the body); 
  • samāna 'complete-breath' (?) circulates around the naval and essential for digestion (though digestion itself is a kind of fire, the food must move through the body); 
The Buddhist practice of āna-apāna-sati (Skt ānāpānasmṛti) involves watching the in and out breaths (though note the connotation of apāna in Sanskrit!).

In China we find a similar idea in 氣 (Japanese pronunciation ki) The Chinese etymology is blowing 气 qì (may have been a man blowing) on rice 米 . (Another more in-depth interpretation via Language and Meaning). The character has a wide range of meanings: "air, gas, the atmosphere, weather; breath, spirit, morale; bearing, manner; smells, odours; to be angry, anger;  provoke, annoy." In our context means 'vital energy'. It is this energy which gives the martial artists their control and power and which the acupuncturist believes they are manipulating. 

It's possible that the Sanskrit reflexive pronoun ātman 'myself; the body; soul') may derive from either √an 'breath' or √at 'move' though this is unclear. The Proto-Indo European Lexicon puts ātman alongside a very small group of Germanic words (e.g. Old Saxon āðom 'breath, vapour') that may derive from a form such as ēt-mén-. Monier-Williams links ātman to Greek ἀυτμή (= autmē) 'breath'. However these etymological connections look tenuous and ēt-mén- is too complex to be a root. So what is the primitive? (PIE) ēt- > (Skt) at > (Grk) aut > (Old Saxon) āð 'breath'? It's not entirely clear what lexicographers had in mind here. We might see ātman as √at-man 'animate' where the -man suffix forms neuter action nouns, e.g. karman (< √kṛ), dharman (< √dhṛ), though why has the root vowel been lengthened in ātman?  This would link ātman to the PIE root *at- 'to go' which gives Latin annum (dental plus nasal gives rise to a double nasal) and Germanic aþnam 'years'. I don't see how we can derive ātman from √an and there are no suggestive PIE forms either. Clearly there is considerable overlap in the semantic field, especially when we consider that movement is product of vāyu, but the etymology here is ambiguous at best.
Note 11 June 2014. Just discovered that in Ṛgveda the word tman signifies both breath of life and self. This suggests that ātman is not āt-man but ā-tman. And this also makes it unlikely to derive from either √an or √at. Also the use of ātman is not common in early Vedic and predated by the possibly cognate tanū in ṚV. Tanū is thought to derive from √tan 'stretch, extent'.
Thus spirit, and many related words and concepts are references ultimately to the spiraculum vitae or the élan vital of ancient Vitalist views on the nature of living things.


Despite being demonstrably mistaken with respect to human anatomy some people still take ancient views of what animates the body as accurate and relevant. There is nothing wrong with doing yogadaiji or any of the other ancient techniques which purport to manage or manipulate the breath qua life-force. Most are beneficial in some way and thus may be recommended. However, while breathing and respiration is certainly essential to sustaining life, the view that breath, as an entity, animates the body is demonstrably false.

The view that breath causes the bodily movements and not the other way around is also demonstrably false. Ancient Vitalist views of bodily processes are false. If we are genuinely concerned with reality and want our views to align with reality, then we must reject these ancient Vitalist views, at least in the terms they present themselves.

The history of our word spiritual is inextricably tied up with ancient Vitalist views. In the next essay I will look more closely at what it means in the present day using a method drawn from Lakoff's analysis of language. I will try to show that modern usage is still tied up with Vitalism and will argue that this ought to make us think twice about identifying Buddhism as a "spiritual tradition".


The linguistic domain of the "breath of life"

PIE Greek Latin Sanskrit Old English Modern
aevus (aeon)
āyuaye, age, world
anemosanimaāna, prāṇa, udāna etceðiananimal
(blow, breathe)
psykhēpsyche, psychosis,
(one’s life)
(animal life)

*gwhre-?(scent, smell)bræðbreath
(diaphragm,mind, soul)
√hiṃs (harm)geistghost, aghast
pneumafnora (sneeze)snore, apnea
spīritus, spirarefart, spirit

English Words related to spirit:
aspire, conspire, dispirit, expire, inspire, perspire, respire, spiracle, sprightly, sprite, transpire.
Breath and Spirit in Arabic

26 April 2013

Metaphors and Materialism

brain pathways
human connectome project
OVER the years I've been puzzled by the horror of materialism that some people exhibit. Materialism never really bothered me. It's been pretty successful and I like some of the stuff it comes up with: medicines, computers and communications tech, air and space travel, electric guitars. Cool stuff.

More recently, however, I have tried to explain that I am philosophically not a materialist. I don't think we have direct contact with the material world. My understanding is that we can infer things about that world, but not know it directly. Any explanations relating to the world are perforce explanations of our experience of the world, rather than the world itself, something I try to make explicit in my writing. I'm chiefly concerned with the nature of experience rather than the nature of reality.

In the course of exchanging comments on the different ways of understanding consciousness I had a little breakthrough in understanding the aversion to materialism. Michael Dorfman, said this:
"I'm just saying that there's no good reason to assume that consciousness/qualia/etc. are reducible to matter."
I have read the works of George Lakoff for many years now, with varying degrees of comprehension. To be honest some of it is still over my head. However, it's from Lakoff that I learned about the idea of embodied cognition (which makes me think a disembodied mind is an oxymoron). I learned about metaphor from Lakoff and his writing partner Mark Johnson. And it was seeing this statement by Michael in the light of Lakoff & Johnson's work in a book called Metaphors We Live By that lead to an insight. I hasten to add that Michael chastised me at some length for suggesting that he might think the way I'm about to describe. But I think we all do at least to some extent, myself included.

The phrase "reducible to matter" is an abstraction. Lakoff & Johnson show that virtually all abstract thought is carried out metaphorically. And that the metaphors we use to manage abstractions are rooted in our experiences of the world and the way we interact with it. "Reducible to matter" implies that matter is more fundamental than other kinds of substance. The metaphor is: MATTER IS BASIC (I'll follow Lakoff & Johnson's convention of putting explicit metaphors in upper-case). The major contrast with matter in the West is spirit.

Spirit is what animates or vivifies dead matter, but it is a separate kind of substance which can be independent of matter. It may or may not reside in a separate realm of spirit and may or may not be associated with an afterlife. Where matter can collapse back into its inanimate state, spirit is the opposite. Freed of its association with matter, spirit rises up. Although spirit is associated with animation, motion and change it seems not to be affected by these. Spirit is like a catalyst that is involved in a chemical reaction, but remains unchanged at the end. These days we often hear spirit referred to as 'energy', a word borrowed from physics. As frustrating as it can be to hear this word misused, energy is what animates matter (or what makes matter animate). Spirit which is a pre-scientific concept does have affinities with energy in the scientific sense, especially if we are not very sophisticated in thinking about science. Another cross over area is quantum mechanics. The popular versions of quantum mechanics emphasise the apparent subjectivity involved in the world (the observer effect was originally pointed out as a flaw in the Copenhagen Interpretation) which hints at spirit underlying even matter at the most basic level. As post-Christians we may not explicitly believe in spirit, but I think it lurks in the background.

Metaphors exist in webs of relationship. For example what is fundamental is (practically and metaphorically) lower down. And with respect to spirit: MATTER IS LOWER; SPIRIT IS HIGHER. This is a spatial metaphor. Lakoff & Johnson relate it to our experience of being bipeds: when we are alive, healthy and active we are upright; when we are dead, unhealthy and inactive we are prostrate. That is to say the spatially vertical metaphor can be understood to relate to our experience of physical verticality. The metaphor MATTER IS LOWER; SPIRIT IS HIGHER is related to the more basic metaphor UP IS GOOD; DOWN IS BAD. And thus logically MATTER IS BAD; SPIRIT IS GOOD. Metaphors are thus not stand-alone, but interdependent and interconnected. We begin see the metaphorical implications of "reducible to matter".

Because GOOD IS UP, and SPIRIT IS UP, heaven above is the realm of spirit (or is it vice versa?). Earth (down here) is the realm of matter. Below earth at the nadir (down there) is Hell. So we have heaven, the world, and the underworld as the basic pre-scientific structure of our cosmos. This structure emerges from the notion of good-and-evil combined with an afterlife. [1] We might not believe in God or heaven or any of this, but we understand these metaphors because we have grown up in a society where these are part of the landscape of abstract thought.

A metaphor like UP IS GOOD is not an absolute. For instance: more inflation is bad, but the vertical spatial metaphor also applies like this: MORE IS UP and LESS IS DOWN. In this case because MORE IS BAD, UP IS BAD. We don't usually struggle with deciphering these metaphors despite the complexity and conflict. Indeed we may not even notice that we are using metaphors. There are many ways in which metaphors based on experience can be used. We can say that a house "burned up" and also that it "burned down". Two distinct metaphors are involved. "Burning down" means that the house was reduced to a more basic state (the construction falls down or is reduced to ash); "burning up" means the substance was consumed. Compare "eaten up" and "used up", which reflect another metaphor: EATING IS FIRE. Fire sends flames, smoke, and sparks upwards, into the realm of heaven. This is important for fire sacrifices - the substance of the oblation is converted into flame and smoke (which is more like spirit than solid matter) and is wafted upwards into the sky, to the realm of spirit. Fire is the agent in both cases, and the result is the same, but it is reached via two distinct metaphorical routes, reflecting different experiences of, and interactions with, fire. The appetitive aspect of fire is prominent in Buddhism, particularly in the Ādittapariyāya Sutta (SN 35.28, PTS iv.19) aka the Fire Sermon. And the goal of Buddhism is for the fires of greed and aversion to be extinguished (nirvāṇa 'blown out').

For the most part we use these metaphors unconsciously. When we say that we grasp what someone is saying we don't consciously translate the metaphor, we don't need to. We automatically understand the metaphor because it is part of the language and culture and it is rooted in our own experience of the world. Words are not real entities and cannot be physically grasped. However we intuitively understand the metaphor WORDS ARE OBJECTS. And any conceivable physical manipulation of objects can be applied to abstract objects such as words. Words can be twisted, spun, or thrown back and forth. Words can lift us up, put us down and spin us around for example. Words can be hurtful. What I say may come "as a blow". Also words can take on any property that an object might have. Words can abrasive and hard or smooth and soft. Hard words are uncomfortable, soft words soothing. Colourful language can shock or stimulate. None of these statements are perplexing to an English speaker, even for a second, but all of them are metaphorical manipulations of an abstraction. We understand these metaphors because from the moment we began to think abstractly they have structured our thoughts. (This idea is related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but that digression must wait for another essay).

I've already applied Lakoff & Johnson's ideas to the CONSCIOUSNESS IS A CONTAINER metaphor (see The Mind as Container Metaphor). I'm trying to steer away from the word consciousness at the moment since it seems tied up in the myth of subjectivity and no one seems to know exactly what it is. In that previous essay I tried to show that this container metaphor for the mind is essentially absent from early Buddhism. For us the MIND IS A CONTAINER and THOUGHTS ARE OBJECTS; and thus THE MIND IS A CONTAINER OF THOUGHTS: viz. "What do you have in mind?" "open your mind to me", "keep a lid on your thoughts". The physical basis for this metaphor is fairly obvious since our head is literally a container and we have extensive experience of the properties of containers.

All metaphors are possible, but we tend to use them selectively. Because the head is a container and contains the brain and since the mind is also an object: THE MIND IS IN THE HEAD. The mind and the brain occupy the same container. So there is no cognitive dissonance for us in saying for example: "the thoughts in my brain" as opposed to "the thoughts in my head". Both metaphors work. The limit seems to come around the metaphor THE MIND IS IN THE BRAIN. The metaphor THE BRAIN IS A CONTAINER is just about acceptable, but to go further and say that THE BRAIN PRODUCES THE MIND is a step too far. The problem seems to be a conflict related to matter and spirit. For matter to become living and conscious requires an infusion of spirit from the outside. Also the container is generally conceived of as passive. The container itself does not manipulate the object it contains. The thought object in the mind container is like a marble in a jar. What does the manipulating of the thoughts (the "grasping" of ideas) in the container is generally understood to be 'I'. Despite all the arguments of scientists and philosophers, intuitively there seems to be a homunculus at work. The result is that:
Matter can be animated by spirit; but spirit cannot be animated by matter.
This metaphysical proposition is transparently obvious to a native English speaker and has far reaching implications. I suspect it's true in other languages as well. The equation of life featuring matter and spirit is not associative. The order of the words is important - one cannot take on the function of the other. It's only with conscious effort that we think differently, and even then we still behave as if this is true. Profession of belief is very often distinct from intuitive belief. One of the purposes of Buddhist practice is to try to align the two. Flesh is a special form of animated matter, which I will come back to shortly.

Most Buddhists seem to be at home with the concept of disembodied consciousness moving between lives to be reborn, manifesting as ghosts, leaving the body at times, and all the other supernatural phenomena. We have no problems with 'subtle energy' or 'subtle bodies'. Cakras, nadī, Qi, and prāna are all fine by Buddhists these days. Buddhism seems to be compatible with Reiki, Kinesiology, homeopathy, shiatsu and acupuncture; with Hatha Yoga, Qigong and Taijiquan. We Buddhists happily use words like 'spirit', 'spirits', 'spiritual', and 'spirituality'; and phrases like 'spiritual life', 'spiritual death', 'spiritual rebirth', 'spiritual healing', 'spiritual welfare', 'spiritual awakening', 'spiritual practice' and so on. Of course when pressed we will deny an unchanging spirit, because we know by rote that it is a wrong view.

With regard to flesh we need to look again at the metaphor MATTER IS BASIC. This entails matter being simple, which draws us towards Lakoff's contribution on the subject of categories (from the book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things). Lakoff uses Wittgenstein's "family resemblances" but also draws on contemporary research to elaborate a theory of how we think in categories. When I use the word 'matter' it will evoke a mental category; and in that category each reader will have a prototypical image that represents the category for them. The prototype for 'matter' may well be something simple, like a lump of rock. Matter has the characteristic property of resistance (similar to rūpa in Indian thought). Matter has mass. Matter is lifeless. Matter tends to be dull. Matter is the opposite of spirit which is massless, light, free, colourful and animating. So in terms of prototypes we can see that flesh is a member of the category 'matter' but that it is rather peripheral to that category. Flesh has some of the characteristics of matter, but is more complex and more flexible than the prototype. The living creature occupies a liminal space between matter and spirit. Bridging them as angels bridge heaven and earth (the realms of spirit and matter respectively). Life comes from dust and returns to dust. Spirit is the catalyst which temporarily makes dust more than the sum of its parts.

I well remember seeing my father's dead body in 1991. I can bring to mind the image very clearly. He had been tidied up by the undertaker and was dressed as he often was in slacks and a woollen jumper. His receding hair line was even covered by a comb-over. Long eyebrows. His face was composed, frozen and waxen, but instantly recognisable. Indeed I experienced the emotional tremor of recognition that comes with meeting a loved one. However the body was entirely lifeless; completely unresponsive and inanimate. My father was both present and absent. He had been reduced to matter. I instinctively knew something was missing. I intuited at the time that the missing element was something like "spirit", though I did not use that word. Even now the experience is vivid and the dichotomy between matter and spirit remains the most obvious interpretation, though it is one that I reject on philosophical grounds.

I suspect this experience of dead loved ones may well be the source of our fundamental distinction between matter and spirit. And the source of our quest to understand what animates living things; what separates the quick and the dead.

The situation is further complicated by Romanticism. Most Buddhists I know are crypto-Romantics. They espouse the ideas of Romanticism without knowing or acknowledging that they are adopting a Romantic view of the world. Indeed some seem to imply that Romanticism is an expression of things as they are. My disgruntlement with this uncritical adoption of Romanticism has been steadily growing since reading David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism and Thanissaro's essay on The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism. The Romantic is inevitably a dualists and focused on spirit. Romantics see matter as a mere surface beneath which they can penetrate to discover the spirit lurking within. Romantics I know love to quote Blake saying he could see the world in a grain of sand as a very profound statement. Indeed Blake did have a tendency to see things that weren't visible to anyone else. Romantics are the first to argue that Blake was a genius rather than a madman. He saw and conversed with angels, Jesus and God on a daily basis and that ought to make him a saint or a madman (and how often the line between them is blurred). Mere matter, mere flesh, is not of much interest to Romantics, though many of the Victorian Romantics sought ecstasy through the pleasures of the flesh. The original Romantics liked to get "out of their skulls" in various ways. Romantic Buddhists do it with meditation. In meditation one can withdraw from awareness of the body and float about in la la land. Which is not to say that some people are not seeking something a little more satisfying or profound through their practice.

When we put all this together the horror of materialism begins to come into focus. Matter might be suitable to be a container for mind, but not to be the womb which gives birth to it. Mind, rather, is clearly related to spirit. Matter has all the wrong qualities, whereas spirit has all the right qualities. The images conjured up by matter do not fit our images of consciousness. Thus, on an unconscious level, the idea that the mind is strongly associated with matter creates a cognitive dissonance. Unless one has studied chemistry.

Now chemistry is interesting because it combines practical applications (synthesis and analysis) with elegant models and theories about the processes involved. Chemistry in practice is fizzes, fumes, bangs, bubbles, colours, odours, and all manner of exciting transformations. In theory it has a vision of matter which is entirely different from the popular imagination. Atoms are composed mostly of space. They are entities in which there is constant movement and a tug of war between competing forces of attraction and repulsion. Atoms are little bundles of kinetic energy. They combine into molecules which rather violently vibrate, spin, twist, flex, and wriggle; molecules which give off light of every colour of the rainbow and far into the infra-red and ultraviolet. Chemistry is the study of the reactions and transformations of supposedly inert matter. When two or more molecules react they are changed into other molecules: trans-substantiated. There is still a little alchemy present in the science of chemistry. That changing world held me spell-bound for many years (and resulted in a bachelor's degree). I was an adept of that art and science of transforming matter. The possibilities of form and structure are seemingly infinite. Carbon compounds are seemingly uncountable. Every year new compounds are made or discovered and used in various ways. One molecule will kill cancer cells for example. Another can potentially be used to create a room temperature super-conductor. Chemical analysis can tell us what killed Richard III or about how the moon was created. In this world illuminated by chemistry everything is animated . Everything is moving and changing. Matter is solid, liquid, gas, plasma, super-fluid, Bose-Einstein condensate. Even such solidity as it has, is only on the surface: literally surface tension, beneath which lies pure energy. m = E/c2. Thus my prototype of matter is something very different from a lifeless, grey, cold rock!

A few weeks ago I introduced the term apophenia: "the ability to attribute meaning to patterns or events; and significance to stimuli." Psychologist Justin Barrett has proposed that we also have a faculty he dubs Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD). This is a fancy way of saying that we are a bit too ready to assign agency to objects in our experience. Barrett uses this to explain the pervasive belief in gods, but agency is a sign of life more generally; and of sentience in particular (see particularly Why Would Anyone Believe in God??). Humans have a strong tendency to see patterns, assign them significance, and attribute agency to them. We do this even where no pattern exists, the significance is entirely projection, and no agency operates. Something we did not notice until we started to look objectively at ourselves.

Perhaps what we think of as spirit is a product of our ability to attribute meaning and agency where none exists? If we go in search of spirit we never find it because it's just a story told by our over-active imaginations. We imagine ourselves to be so much more than we are and yet we have to continually paper over the cracks of our failures. We can imagine the world a better place, people as better people, but somehow reality always spoils the vision. As Buddhists we nod sagely and intone "saṃsāra" as if we understand.

Whatever the answer is, this story of matter and spirit rolls on in the West. It syncretises with our Buddhism and unconsciously informs our attitudes and approaches. We end up embracing our conditioning rather than transcending it, because we don't even notice that we are conditioned. This is the value of the work of someone like Lakoff. It exposes the structures and patterns of our mind at work. We think we are free to think new thoughts, but really we are constrained in narrow ruts.

There remains this gap in our knowledge; which because of our culture appears to be a spirit shaped gap. We are still unsure how to get from mere matter to the simplest living bacteria without invoking spirit (and in fact most scientists gloss over the part of the equation that says 'and then a miracle happens'). And for some people matter and spirit will remain forever apart. I understand this. I empathise because of my experience with my father, and because I've studied living and dead matter in some detail. However I think the horror of materialism is irrational. I don't have a problem with "we don't yet know" but I don't accept "we can never know" because that argument smells like Romantic spirit.

In fact we don't know if it will be possible to understand the mind. The answer to that problem is difficult to find because the question remains poorly defined. This in turn is (at least in part) because we still struggle on with pre-scientific legacy concepts from philosophy. We do not yet think clearly enough about what the mind is to be able to understand it. In the mean time we seem to be learning a lot. Some of it has practical applications, but all of it is fascinating. If your position is "we'll ever understand the mind" that's fine. But my challenge to you would be to justify such an epistemological position. I don't believe that anyone is in a position to know this. I don't believe it is possible to be categorical about it. By contrast I find myself optimistic about the attempt and enthusiastic about what we are discovering along the way.


  1. This basic threefold structure is found in ancient Egypt. From there is seems to have influenced Zoroastrianism in Iran. In one published and one forthcoming article I argue that from there, via the Śākya tribe, Zoroastrianism influenced the development of Buddhism. See:
    Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol.3 2012. Paid Access.
    The way that ideas about ethics and afterlife combine to produce this threefold structure are discussed in Gananath Obeyesekere's book Imagining Karma. I summarise my own thinking in various essays including:

29 Apr 2013 - I saw this today:
"Free will as an emergent phenomenon can be perfectly compatible with an underlying materialist view of the world." Preposterous Universe.

30 June 2015.
"The fact was that, as droves of demon kings had noticed, there was a limit to what you could do to a soul with, e.g., red-hot tweezers, because even fairly evil and corrupt souls were bright enough to realize that since they didn't have the concomitant body and nerve endings attached to them there was no real reason, other than force of habit, why they should suffer excruciating agony." - Terry Pratchett, Eric.
This is an interesting theological point. The very idea of a soul is that it is not part of the realm of matter, but purely of the realm of spirit. Lacking a body, the soul would be free of all the functions that go with having a body. Thus torturing or pleasuring a soul is impossible. So all narratives of Hell or Paradise are logically false. Not just ridiculous or fantastic, but false on their own terms.

On the other hand if a soul is susceptible to pleasure and pain, then that would imply that it cannot be purely of the world of spirit and must in fact be partially made of matter. And that contradicts the very idea of a soul.

Of course if one is bodily resurrected then that's a different story. But if the body is resurrected, then what is the point of a soul?