Showing posts with label Suffering. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Suffering. Show all posts

11 January 2019

Against Karma: Suffering and Justice

The central issue of Buddhism is dukkha, variously translated as suffering, dissatisfaction, misery, stress, etc. Dukkha and its antonym (sukkha) are used in subtly different ways in different contexts. For example, Sue Hamilton (2001) has shown, in one sense dukkha is synonymous with unenlightened experience. That is to say that we don't have an experience that is qualified by the presence or absence of dukkha, rather unenlightened experience itself is dukkha. The first noble truth is just this: that sense experience does not satisfy our longings (whatever they are). The second noble truth informs us that the unsatisfactory nature of experience has an origin (samudaya) and that this origin is our own craving for it (taṇha). The pursuit of experience is not the way to happiness.

On the other hand, in the context of vedanā, experience can also be parsed as sukha or dukkha, meaning here, "agreeable" and "disagreeable". Finally, sukha and dukkha can be metonyms for nibbāna and saṃsāra. As we find in Dhammapada 203:
jighacchāparamā rogā,
saṅkāraparamā dukhā;*
etaṃ ñatvā yathābhūtaṃ,
nibbānaṃ paramaṃ sukhaṃ.
Hunger is the worst disease,
Constructs are the worst misery;
Knowing this, just as it is,
Extinction is the greatest happiness.
*note that dukkhā is spelled dukhā to fit the metre of the verse.
There is a presupposition in the Buddhist discussion of suffering. It is, of course, a self-evident fact that there is suffering. This is not something special that only Buddhists have noticed. More generally the problem of evil (or the question of why there is suffering) has been discussed by humans for as long as we have been capable of abstract thought. There is suffering. And it has a cause. That cause is us, i.e., we cause our own suffering. This is not unique to Buddhism, either. The Christian myth of the Garden of Eden blames humans for their suffering; they could not follow a simple prohibition and thus their God turned against them. In that story, the only responsible adult present is Yahweh. If anyone should be punished, it's him. In our myths, humans like to blame ourselves for our own suffering. 

I know that some people are horrified by the suggestion that Buddhists are "blaming the victim". I am certainly in that camp. But what I'm getting at is that "we cause our own suffering" is a presupposition of the received Buddhist tradition. I'm not endorsing this view, I'm stating it as baldly and as simply as possible in order to get to an important point. It raises questions I will try to address in a later essay. Why did we evolve in such a way as to consistently cause ourselves misery? 

Let's soften it a little and restate the idea in a slightly more subtle way: Buddhists believe that (at least some, if not all) suffering is the natural outcome of conscious choices we make. Karma is the theory that the suffering we experience is inevitable, appropriate, and timely. The idea is that if we could anticipate the consequences we would not act. And since it is our own mental states that determine the outcome, we can introspect before any action and exercise restraint to prevent any bad consequences.

On one hand, rebirth is the main consequence of karma and we end rebirth by not doing karma. On the other hand, we keep doing actions (with rebirth as consequence) until we purify our minds of evil intent through religious exercises. As Richard Gombrich has shown (2009), Jains had the first half of this equation but indiscriminately saw all actions as contributing to rebirth. Brahmins had the second half but equated karma (and escape from rebirth) with correct performance of rituals. Buddhism combines them to make a new hybrid religion. By equating karma with intention (cetanā) and characterising it as good or evil, Buddhists counteracted the worst aspects of Jainism (extreme austerities, lack of discernment with respect to good and evil actions). And by making the individual's willed actions the focus they disrupted the priestly hegemony and expensive rituals of Brahmanism. The key feature of Buddhism, unlike other Indian religions, is that it does not treat the cessation of sense experience in religious exercises as absolute being (jīva, ātman, brahman, puriṣa, etc). However, the explanation of this new syncretic religion proved to be very difficult. The early iterations were deprecated because of inconsistencies. But none of the later iterations quite managed to be fully consistent, either. At worst, Buddhism is solipsistic sophistry; the worst being Nāgārjuna and his "nothing goes" approach.

Coming back to the focus on suffering, most Buddhists seem to go further and argue that this reaction of action and consequence is what Buddhist justice looks like. Broadly speaking, karma is what supplies the "just" in just world or the "moral" in the moral universe. In other words, the suffering that we experience is only what we would expect in a just world. It is just what happens when our previous life was ruled by greed and hatred, even though we don't have any strong connection to that life (no memories that would enable us to conceptually connect consequence to action). We have to presume that our suffering is appropriate, which leaves some of us wondering what kind of monster we were in our last life to deserve this one. 

To distil the idea down its essence: suffering is the instrument of justice

Again, this is not peculiar to Buddhism. This is the presupposition behind all just world myths. The just world is just because bad behaviour leads to suffering (eventually). In Buddhism, an evil action [miraculously] produces suffering; a good action [miraculously] produces pleasure. More specifically, an evil life is [miraculously] rewarded with rebirth in a world of suffering; a good life is [miraculously] rewarded with rebirth in a world of pleasure. A saintly or holy life is [miraculously] rewarded with the end of rebirth so as to preclude any future suffering. Somehow, the universe just delivers the right result, at the right time, to the right person, every time.

This is sometimes written about as though it is like a law of nature. The thing with laws of nature is that they have to be consistent with all the other laws of nature. A "law of nature" that involves supernatural forces or entities, is not a law of nature. It's a miracle. Karma is a miracle, not a law of nature. Indeed, it doesn't even fit with other Buddhist stories about the world, let alone with laws of nature. This brings us to a feature of knowledge seeking in the ancient world: analogical reasoning.

Argument from Analogy

Many of the arguments for this view that suffering is the instrument of justice take the form of analogies. A classic Buddhist analogy is that allowing yourself to be angry is like picking up a lump of burning coal to fling at your enemy. We understand this analogy. Few of us get to adulthood without a few minor burns. Burns are very painful, partly because we have special nerves for burning pain. Signals from pain nerves are turned into subjective burning sensations by our brain. So we all know and understand burning sensations. The analogy is saying that when acting from anger we create the conditions for our own future suffering in the same way that taking hold of hot coal burns us. 

With all arguments from analogy, we need to pause and consider how apt they really are. Metaphorically, anger burns. When we feel angry, we get red-faced, steamed-up, hot-tempered; we burn with rage, erupt, boil over,  scald, etc. And if this happens it can easily tip over into violence, if only into violent words. Physiologically, anger activates our evolved autonomic arousal response to a threat and helps us on the fight side of the fight-or-flight-or-freeze triangle of threat responses. Anger might just put off a threatening predator or competitor because they know they will have to fight us. Anger makes us look scary. As a precursor to violence, anger warns aggressors that they risk injury. Anger marshals our physiological resources to defend ourselves and our loved ones from danger. 

As a species, we are highly attuned to reciprocity. If someone is angry with me and threatens violence (all anger is a threat of violence) then I reciprocate with my own fight-flight-freeze response either to warn the assailant that it's not worth their while to fight me, or to better enable me to escape, or to avoid detection (depending on which path I take). And note that violence need not amount to the loss of self-control. Sometimes violence is very deliberate and directed. Whether physically or psychologically, we set out to hurt and we do it in the most direct way we can think of. 

With burns there's a feedback loop; the pain of being burned rapidly teaches us to avoid flames and hot things. We learn how to test for heat before picking up potentially hot items. The same is not true for anger because we evolved to get angry whenever we are threatened as part of our suite of survival mechanisms. Anger marshals the body's resources for life or death action. Metaphors aside, the feedback is different from experiencing burning pain. 

If I go around just being angry all the time, then people will want to fight me or avoid me. However, for this to happen I'd have to both perceive myself to be under threat and my social group not working to provide me with safety and security. So anyone who is angry all the time is already in a dysfunctional situation. The anger is not a cause of suffering; it is a symptom that results from the situation. This is not the same as being burned by a flame at all. Acting from anger is nothing like picking up a burning coal to fling at your enemy. Of course, it can rebound on us, but that very much depends on who the anger is directed at. If my group and I get angry at someone who is trying to hurt us and we work together to drive them off, then we are not harmed by that. We are protected and brought closer together.

All analogies have their limitations. This analogy which sounds OK at face value is, on closer inspection, simply false. In fact, behaviour is very much influenced by environment and social convention and is much less about individual psychology. Disruptive behaviour is like pain. It tells the community that something is wrong, that some vital need is going unmet.


In 2018 there was a spate of knife injuries in London and many people have been expressing opinions about what bad people these criminals must be. No one is asking the obvious question: why do young men in some parts of London suddenly feel insecure enough that they would start carrying a knife. Anyone carrying a weapon is much more likely to be injured or die. Just a few years ago stabbings were significantly less common. We also know that, in stark contrast to my days at university in the 1980s, that today's students are demanding that the institutions protect them by not inviting provocative speakers and not allowing challenging topics in lectures. Well-heeled university students don't resort to carrying knives, but they also feel less secure than teenagers did two generations ago. What has changed in the environment to make young people feel less secure? 

One thing is that work is much less secure than it was a generation ago. Work pays less in comparison to costs - the cost of housing has increased outrageously. Work is often on a fixed term contract or a zero hours contract (where you have to work if offered hours, but no work is guaranteed). Over my working life employers have radically reduced the quality of working life, the rewards for loyalty, and the ability of workers to make common cause to demand better treatment. Working conditions have steadily eroded as a result of Neoliberals seeing the cost of labour as an overhead that soaks up profits. And they see profits as rightfully belonging to shareholders. In the UK many people working full-time don't earn enough to live on.

The solution has been to offer state handouts rather than reforming wages. At the same time, the government is pursuing a low taxation fiscal policy; more tax money is being spent propping up high rents because the market-driven alternative would be thousands of homeless families. No one thinks this is a reason to revisit the policy of allowing foreign speculators to force up the price of homes at 5-10 times the rate of inflation or the policy that allows businesses to pay wages below a subsistence level. This can only be perceived as a threat to life by those who work for a living. It might not be an acute threat, but it is a chronic threat. Children may not be working, but they live in families affected by the insecurity of work and wages.

Add the threat of internal terrorism and external war, combined with economic threats (massive indebtedness of nations and business sectors) and yes, the average citizen feels less secure than they did. If they pay attention then they may feel less secure for other reasons also, such as climate change or pollution.

Social problems have social causes and require social remedies. The idea that an individual is responsible for everything that happens in their life is just bunk. Individualism is an idea that allows the rich and powerful to justify abdicating from their obligations to society at the same time as exploiting people and common resources for their own profit. Individualism makes the poor and oppressed much weaker and leaves them with little or no access to common resources. And it leaves the middle feeling constantly insecure about what they have. Individualism, the cult of the individual, is one of the most pernicious ideas ever entertained by humanity. We evolved to live in groups.

Why should individual suffering be highlighted? In a situation where a person's very thoughts and choices are (at least partly, but likely mainly) determined by their social environment, why should the focus of a just world theory be on individual psychology? That is not fair. Of course, every now and then some bright spark can rise above their circumstances and shine as a star. Think of Dr B. R. Ambedkar, born an untouchable outcaste but died with a PhD from the London School of Economics and having helped to write the modern Indian constitution! But look at the vast majority of his people, the Mahar caste, and they are still downtrodden, still oppressed, and still poor today. And in fact, even Ambedkar was given opportunities because of the British Army's policy of recruiting Dalits and because of a wealthy Sikh man who wanted to eradicate caste.

Most of us do not rise above our circumstances. We are our circumstances. We have obligations to and from our group. We have responsibility to and for our group. This is not an argument for so-called "collective karma"; rather, I'm arguing that karma as a concept is inadequate to the task of thinking about morality in real life (as opposed to the fantasy world most religieux live in) precisely because human life is collective in almost every aspect.

Let's return to the central thesis of this essay by looking at how we actually pursue justice.

Suffering as an Instrument of (In)Justice

Take a look at the justice system of any nation on earth, including all the nominally Buddhist nations. What happens to people convicted of crimes? They are punished, both in the short-term and the long term.

In the short term, we inflict harm on criminals; we isolate them from friends and family, deprive them of basic freedoms and rights. In other words, we violate the basic constituents of a deontological morality. And note that prison is a punishment that fully takes into account our social nature; it isolates us from our group, forces us to live amongst strangers, pushes us down into an inferior social position. This is how you torture a social mammal.

Sometimes prisons are designed to be humiliating and degrading, while sometimes they are that way because of indifference or banal reasons like lack of resources. Britain's prisons are often overcrowded because governments have decided to imprison more people and for longer but haven't expanded the capacity of prisons to take account of this. Crowding is stressful for social primates, especially with strangers. Overcrowding leads to stress and conflict, and sometimes to violence and riots. Although by the standards of, say, Thailand, the UK prison system is pretty well off. The more we dehumanise people on the inside, the more alienated they are when they get out.

What is the theme of almost all prison-based dramas? The establishment of a society within a society with two options: the redemption of those concerned through friendship and finding ways to hold on to their humanity or suffering under a violent autocracy that may or may not be subverted.

In the longer term, we deny criminals certain types of work, the ability to travel, and we force them to confess their crime repeatedly, i.e., every time they apply for a job, rent a house, interact with the government, and so on. There is no question of making a mistake and paying for it. Once a crim, always a crim.

We behave towards criminals in ways that we would never sanction for ordinary citizens. We treat criminals as less than human. We not only judge them deserving of suffering, we actually stand in line to inflict it on them. And again this is just as true in nominally Buddhist countries as in nominally Christian countries. The savagery of "justice" in Islamic countries is equalled by officially atheist China. So religion cannot be blamed, although I think it is a factor in defining in-group/out-group dynamics. It is often worse to sin against God than it is to sin against a fellow human so that the punishment for blasphemy can be particularly savage. But it's all a matter of degree. Some prisons in the US and UK are every bit as savage as those in less economically developed countries. There have been repeated scandals about the conditions in our prisons at the moment, especially in the private sector. Private sector prisons are a special kind of hell.

The presupposition behind all of this is that suffering creates justice. Or in other words, moral debts are paid in the currency of suffering: immediate and ongoing. And yet it is all too obvious that prison doesn't provide a deterrent or restore the balance of justice. It certainly creates more suffering, but the rationale for making people suffer is bizarre and sickening when you start to think about it.

The Scandinavians lead the way in the humane treatment of criminals and have much lower recidivism rates as a result. They have a much more cohesive society but it has been forced upon them. The government actively interfered in people's lives for decades to create the conditions for the modern Scandinavia. Still, the presupposition that guilt demands punishment is so strong in most places, that "justice" is relentless and merciless at inflicting suffering.

Karma In Real Life

Because I'm a member of a religious Order, I know a lot of religious people. And I would guess that most people I know say that they believe in some form of karma (although some of them define karma in ways having nothing in common with traditional Buddhist karma doctrines). In other words, they believe in the just world fallacy that justice will be restored (usually in the afterlife).

The natural consequence of such a belief ought to be a profound relaxation about injustice. They ought to be laid back about transgressions to the point of fatalism. Jesus said to his followers that if someone was to strike them on the face, that they should turn to give the assailant another target to punch, i.e., "turn the other cheek". Buddhists have an even more extreme version: In our moral stories, the Buddha says that even if robbers were to seize you and cut you apart with a wooden saw, if you had a single negative thought you would not be his disciple. "Vengeance is mine," sayeth the Lord, and all that.

The Triratna Buddhist Order is currently having a crisis because a senior member stands accused of some gross misconduct. The process of "safeguarding" we have adopted from the surrounding British culture has meant that no details have or ever will emerge about the nature of the offence. In the past, we were accused of not dealing with transgressions honestly and in the open so we voluntarily looked at how other groups deal with them and adopted the best practice model with little modification. In this case, it ironically means suppressing all knowledge of the misconduct outside of a tiny group to hide the identity of the accuser (at their request). The deliberating panel included a retired judge (and another outsider), which is meant to reassure outsiders as to the fairness of the procedure.

So now we have the situation where a loved and valued member of our community has been suspended from the Order for an indeterminate period (he thinks it will be at least two years) because they have been accused of something grossly unethical (though apparently not illegal) by someone who will remain forever anonymous. This is apparently what justice looks like in the world of UK religious groups nowadays. The process and outcome contradict my sense of what is just and fair and has made me question my continued involvement in the Order. This has nothing to do with karma and I have pointed out that we should now make clear that as an Order we do not believe in karma. I'm not hopeful.

Despite what they say they believe, no one I know is laid back about injustice. We all want to get involved, to pre-empt karma, to take control of situations and steer them towards the outcome we think best. Most people believe that justice is only served by such active intervention. And we all believe that we are acting for the good; that our motives are above question when it comes to our well-intentioned interventions. The many different recensions of the Vinaya also take this approach. Thousands of rules of conduct were created, often for quite trivial reasons, complete with prescribed punishments including expulsion from the saṅgha

I'm not saying that interventionism is unreasonable. We do need to intervene to ensure work is fairly paid and safe. We do need to act to ameliorate climate change. What I'm saying is that this is hypocritical if at the same time one insists on professing to believe in karma or God or any other just world myth. You either believe things will turn out alright, or you get involved.

In my view, suffering is not an instrument of justice. No one deserves to suffer. Even people who, from ignorance or malice, hurt others do not deserve to suffer. Suffering does not resolve situations of tension or unhurt someone who has been hurt. Making a guilty person suffer achieves nothing. Taking satisfaction from inflicting suffering on another person is sick. So no, I don't believe in a myth which organises and enacts this on a cosmic scale. Karma is an idea. It's a human desire to be well treated by our fellow humans and to have good fortune in the world projected onto the universe. Believing in karma is no better than believing in God. However, it is understandable that ancient people would come up with an idea like this to try to explain why things go wrong in our lives: bad faith from humans and bad luck in the world.

This begs the question: what is the alternative. I will make some comments on this in the next instalment. 


22 May 2015

Critiquing Buddhist Karma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Philosophy with Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

Griffiths Thesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Influence of Previous Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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


P5 There is no undeserved suffering.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

26 March 2010

Pain & Suffering

Saint SebastianWhen we talk about suffering in Buddhism we often make a distinction between various 'types' of suffering. In the Arrow Sutta* the Buddha makes an important distinction which I like to think of in terms of physical pain, and emotional (or mental) suffering. This text is fairly well-known, and there are already several translations of it available. The translations that I'm aware of all seem to suffer more or less from the phenomenon which Paul Griffiths has called "Buddhist Hybrid English", that is English which preserves the syntax of Pāli and therefore sounds peculiar. What I've tried to do is read the text in Pali in order to understand it, and then render it into contemporary English. I've retained the overall structure of the Pali text, including the verses at the end, though I've made no attempt to turn them into English poetry, not being a poet. I hope the result is both readable and informative.

The Arrow

The ordinary person feels pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and vague feelings. Likewise the insightful person feels the same kinds of feelings. So what is the distinction, what is the difference between the two?

The ordinary person touched by pain is upset and miserable, they are aggrieved and confused. They have two experiences: one physical (kāyika), and one emotional (cetasika). It is like someone being pierced by an arrow, and then immediately pierced by a second arrow, and feeling the pain of both. When they experience pain they immediately feel aversion, because they have an underlying predisposition to aversion in relation to pain. Coming into contact with painful sensations they seek out pleasure, because they don't know any other response to pain. They don't understand the reality of the origin and passing away; the sweetness and the bitterness; the outcome of those experiences because of a predisposition to ignorance.

Feeling a pleasurable or a painful sensation they are caught up in it. Or if there is vagueness about sensations they are caught up in that. The ordinary person is caught up in birth, old-age, death; in grief, crying, misery, dejection, and trouble.

By contrast the insightful person touched by pain is not upset and miserable, they are not aggrieved and confused. They feel only one sensation: the physical; not the mental. They are not pierced by the second arrow, and so feel only one feeling.

Coming into contact with painful sensations there is no aversion, because they do not have an underlying tendency to aversion in relation to pain. They do not seek out pleasure because they know another response to pain. Not having a predisposition to ignorance they understand the reality of the origin and passing away; the sweetness and the bitterness; the outcome of those experiences.

When they have a pleasurable or a painful sensation, they are detached from it. When there is vagueness, they are not caught up in that. So the insightful person is not caught up in birth, old-age, death; in grief, crying, misery, dejection, and trouble.

This is the distinction, this is the difference between the ordinary person and the insightful person.
The big difference between
The insightful and the ordinary.
Is that on feeling pleasure or pain,
The wise-one is not reactive.

For the well-versed examiner of mental processes,
Seeing through this world and beyond.
Objects of desire do not disturb their mind
And the undesired is not resented.

For them satisfied and obstructed desires,
Are scattered and destroyed.
Having known the faultless sorrowless state,
They understand perfectly, and transcend, becoming.


I need to say one or two things about my translation. The phrase that I have translated as 'ordinary person' is assutavā puthujjano. Assutavant means 'one who has not heard' (suta) with an implied reference to the Buddha's teachings. The word puthujjana is translated in different ways, 'worlding' is common; while puthu means 'separated, individual; numerous', and while jana means 'people or person'; so the overall sense is of the majority, the crowd, especially those people who are not interested in religion. Compare puthujjana with the Greek word 'idiotēs' which referred to an individual who could not, or would not, participate in public life (from which we get the word 'idiot'. Juxtaposed with this is the sutavant ariyasāvako - the learned disciple of the noble one which I have translated as 'insightful person'. The phrase is something of a tautology because suta and sāvaka come from the same root √śru 'to hear', and mean 'heard' and 'one who hears'. Saying of someone 'they have heard much' is equivalent to contemporary English 'learned' because an ancient India one did one's learning by listening.

I've translated cetasika as 'emotional' in this case. A more typical translation might have been 'mental', but the context clearly shows that what is intended here is our emotional reactions to pain. In the Buddha's time there was no clear distinction between mental and emotional. Interestingly neuroscience has showed us that physiologically there is often very little to distinguish between emotional states. We have states of arousal or excitation which are similar across a great range of what we usually think of as different emotions, such as e.g. fear and anger, and what really distinguishes between these is the thoughts that go with them.

The phrase 'caught up in that' translates saññyutto naṃ. Saññyutta (also spelt saṃyutta) may be familiar as the name of the Nikāyas in which we find this text and means 'yoked together': yutta 'joined' being a past-participle of √yuj 'to join' (from which also yoga); and saṃ- suggesting togetherness or completion. It has the sense of 'yoked to', or 'bound together' - so the ordinary person is bound to be caught up in their emotional responses.

Newcomers to Buddhism, and sophists, like to ask questions such as 'did the Buddha feel pain?' This sutta is one of many which make it clear that anyone with a human body feels pain. However not everyone feels the anguish, the aversion that goes with it. As the verse at the end of the sutta says the big difference (mahā viseso) between someone who is insightful and someone who is not, is that the insightful person is not reactive towards feelings pleasure or pain. It is possible to feel physical pain and yet not to experience that as suffering. This does not mean that it is not painful. In another sutta the Buddha's foot is pierced by a stone sliver and it is excruciating, but again he is not caught up in that pain, he never loses his mindfulness or composure.**

I've repeatedly emphasised that the Buddha's teaching is mainly to do with the mind. I take the Salla Sutta to be a confirmation of this. Yes, we do have physical sensations. However we share these with the enlightened ones. What distinguishes an insightful person from us, is the mental and emotional side of the equation. Buddhist practice does not make us invulnerable to pain, but it does help us to bear that pain. This is where I find it useful to make a distinction between pain on the one hand, and suffering on the other. From this point of view enlightenment is the lack of reactivity towards vedanā or sensations arising from contact between us as subject, and objects of the senses (whatever they might be).

* Salla Sutta. SN 36.6, PTS iv.207 (aka Sallatha Sutta). Not to be confused with another Salla Sutta in the Sutta-Nipāta, Sn 574ff. See also Access to Insight.
** Sakalika Sutta. SN 1.3, PTS: S i 27.

image: Painting by Il Sodoma (c. 1525) depicting the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Wikipedia.

28 August 2009

Why do we suffer? An alternate take

Blake's SatanIn the first of two essays last week (why do we have a sense of self?) I explored how neuroscience might explain the emergence of self-consciousness or self-awareness. In this second essay I want to use an evolutionary-biology perspective and look at how the emergence of consciousness has left us with the problem of suffering; and why the Buddhist response to suffering is so useful.

In Buddhist terms we could say that we suffer because we are selfish, especially in relationship to sensory stimuli. I've explored this in a number of blog posts recently. [1] In order to find happiness we seek to obtain, maintain and retain pleasurable experiences. These are, however, inherently impermanent and unsatisfactory so that we find life itself unsatisfactory. But why are we this way? Why evolve a faculty that only makes us miserable?

Actually as social animals, despite our sense of being independent selves, we are not inherently selfish: rather we are instinctively gregarious, cooperative and empathetic. As humans, indeed as primates, these are very much part of our genetic heritage. Although there is conflict and competition in all primate groups, they are characterised by a high level of helping each other and working together for the benefit of the troop. So why do we become selfish? I think that the problem is a result of our own success - or because our success at exploiting the environment has outstripped our genetic evolution. We are genetically adapted, to take two examples, to scarce resources (e.g. diets low in sugar and fat) and small group sizes. Pleasurable sensations help motivate us to find and assess the goodness of food, and to contribute to the social group through, for example, cooperation and social grooming; while unpleasant sensations helps us avoid spoiled food and danger for instance. In short we are programmed to experience pleasure as happiness because in the world that we are genetically adapted to this makes us more successful.

About 10,000 years ago we humans began to use our ability to think ahead to our advantage. We began to cultivate food crops rather than scavenging, and to domesticate animals which we had previously only hunted. The result was a reliable food surplus for the first time in history. It was still somewhat related to climate patterns - drought was not unknown - but we could mitigate that through irrigation. We ate well and as a result grew stronger, lived longer, and our groups began to get larger. We began to make large scale permanent dwellings - the first cities seem to date from around 9,000 years ago. Large scale cities with hundreds of thousands of residents became possible as agriculture intensified. Civilisation provides many benefits to us individually and collectively. Importantly it makes reproductive success more likely, much more likely, which is positive in evolutionary terms.

It is sometimes said that humans have stopped evolving but this is not true. [2] It is true however that our cultural and technological evolution has outstripped our genetic evolution by orders of magnitude. In most cases we live in an environment to which are not genetically adapted. This is the result of a trend that began thousands of generations ago, and means that we have to consciously adapt to our circumstances using our ability to learn and innovate. As societies become more complex, we have to be better at learning and teaching these acquired skills because our genetic adaptation is less relevant. It's a self-reinforcing cycle, and the speed of change is increasing!

In a world of generalised surplus the relationship between pleasure and happiness becomes more abstract. [3] Once the relationship becomes abstract then it is a bit like abandoning the gold standard behind money - it's difficult to know the value of anything. The result is that pleasure becomes an end in itself. Similarly any pain, or the lack of pleasure, is bad and to be avoided. This gives rise to two extremes: on the one hand we theorise about an absolutely abstract ultimate pleasure (or equally an absence of pain) which awaits us (usually) in an afterlife; on the other hand we might decide or there is no greater good than pleasure here and now. These are the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism.

As group sizes soar we not only split into increasingly disparate factions, but we become accustomed to being surrounded by strangers to whom we have no social ties - they are not related and not part of our troop and we owe them nothing. Larger social groups require new social structures with arbitrary relationships. We may never meet those who lead our community for instance, or even their deputies. I've never personally spoken to a member of parliament of any country for instance. The result is alienation and a feeling of disconnection between us and the people around us.

So we find ourselves pursuing pleasures with considerable energy and ingenuity, but surrounded and led by strangers, and over several hundred generations this becomes the cultural norm. This is our norm. It creates a deep dissonance within us - emotional as well as cognitive - because we are overstimulated on the one hand, and alienated on the other. We find ourselves plagued by diseases caused by diet such as heart disease, obesity, bowel cancer and diabetes; by drug problems, alienation and depression; and by conflict, crime, civil strife and violence. To some extent this is balanced out, though, because at the same time this dissonance has driven the production of great art, music, literature and drama as people try to give expression to something more wholesome. However we are left with a considerable and worsening problem.

Eventually some individuals began to emerge who used their powers of reflection to examine the human situation. During the so-called Axial Age (ca 800 BCE - 200 BCE) many such individuals appeared including Lao-tzu, K'ung-tzu, Isaiah, Zoroaster, Yajñavalkya, Mahāvīra, Gautama, Pythagoras, and Socrates. One thing they all seem to have done is call into question the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself, and encourage us to relate to each other in more wholesome ways. The greatest of these individuals was Gautama, the Buddha - he saw the nature of the problem more clearly than any other human being before or since. Since the Axial age we Westerners have swung between puritanism and hedonism, from eternalism to nihilism in response to our inner dissonance without any great success in quelling it. For some time now some of us have been exploring the Buddha's middle-way, although in Britain's last census more people identified their religion as Jedi (0.7%) than as Buddhist (0.3%).

Neither hedonism nor puritanism address the underlying relationship we have with sensory stimulus, especially pleasure, so neither can resolve the fundamental dissonance, nor produce lasting happiness. The extent of suffering in the world (various 20th century genocides for instance) makes belief in God untenable for any thinking person, but the abandonment of old values in reaction to the loss of faith has had a devastating effect on society. Plurality has lead to moral relativity and reinforced the confusion over values. The sad truth is that as much as some of us find the choice and variety of contemporary life exciting and stimulating, the majority feel overwhelmed and anxious or angry (fuelled in part by a media with a vested interest in stimulating precisely these emotions). Increasingly people are closing their minds and hearts - or turning for example to drugs [4]; or the ersatz, but less challenging, community provided by the internet. [5]

So we suffer because, as a side effect of civilisation, we have an aberrant relationship with sensory stimulation. Instead of experiencing ourselves as being part of a complex web of relationships with people and the environment, we feel isolated and alienated. We are overstimulated most of the time, and continually stoke the fire because we are convinced that pleasure is happiness in a generalised abstract sense. Selfishness is a by-product of this process, not a cause - which is to turn traditional Buddhist narratives on their head. Civilisation has been a two edged sword which may suggest why periods of barbarism punctuate the history of civilisation. Buddhist practice offers the best way forward because it directly addresses these problems with practical methods and suggestions. [6]

  1. Examples of recent posts on our relationship to the senses include:
  2. see for example 'Humans are still evolving - and it's happening faster than ever'. The Guardian 11.12.2007.
  3. Here I have to make a broad generalisation which glosses over some important questions such as endemic poverty and whether the subsistence farmer is better off than the hunter gatherer etc. Certainly agriculture is at different stages around the world (I've seen farmers using all-wood ox-drawn ploughs in India for instance), but there has been a general trend towards more sophistication. My remarks are intended to apply mainly to my audience who I take to be English speaking internet users.
  4. It is ironic the extent to which terrorism, supposedly the greatest threat to our society, is funded by western drug habits - certainly Middle-Eastern terrorists are funded by opiate production, and opiate production is driven by the demand for illicit opiates in the west.
  5. See my comments on virtual community [19.9.08]
  6. Although Buddhist practice is the overall theme of this blog I did summarise the entire Buddhist path in a way which is relevant to the current post in another two-parter back in 2005: - part one (generosity, ethics, and patience), and part two (vigour, meditation, wisdom).

19 June 2009

Who craves?

One time when the Buddha was dwelling at Sāvatthi*, a bhikkhu called Moḷiyaphagguno asked a series of related questions: Who consumes the nutriment of consciousness (ie receives the input from the senses)? Who makes contact? Who feels? Who craves? Who grasps? Sense impressions, sensations, craving, grasping are part of the list of nidānas or links - that is part of the sequence which is traditionally used to explain the workings of paṭiccasamuppāda or dependent arising. Each of the answers is similar and we can get a feel for the discourse by focussing on just one: craving.
‘‘Ko nu kho, bhante, tasatī’’ti? ‘‘No kallo pañho’’ti bhagavā avoca – ‘‘‘tasatī’ti ahaṃ na vadāmi. ‘Tasatī’ti cāhaṃ vadeyyaṃ, tatrassa kallo pañho – ‘ko nu kho, bhante, tasatī’ti? Evaṃ cāhaṃ na vadāmi. Evaṃ maṃ avadantaṃ yo evaṃ puccheyya – ‘kiṃpaccayā nu kho, bhante, taṇhā’ti, esa kallo pañho. Tatra kallaṃ veyyākaraṇaṃ – ‘vedanāpaccayā taṇhā, taṇhāpaccayā upādāna’’’nti. (SN 12:12; PTS S ii.13)
Who craves, Sir? The Blessed One said "that is not a proper question". I don't say "he craves". If I did say "he craves", then it might be a proper question, but I don't talk like that. A proper question would be: "with what condition is there craving?" And the proper answer is that because of sensations, there is craving; and because of craving, there is grasping.
Note here that 'he craves' is tasati, while 'craving' (the verbal-noun) is taṇhā, this literally means 'thirst' and is a poetic metaphor for craving more generally. The relationship is more obvious in Sanskrit where the verb is tṛṣyati and the noun tṛṣṇā. Each of the verses is structured identically and identifies the condition and what is conditioned by it - that is the cause and the effect - of the element being asked about. Here the sequence is
  • vedanā > taṇha > upādāna
  • sensation > craving > grasping
Note that the Buddha does not associate pronouns with the links. He does not speak in terms of "I crave", "you crave", "he/she/it craves". He talks in terms of "there is craving", and there is craving because the condition of sensation (vedanā) is present.** It is an application of the general principle "because of that being, this is (imasmiṃ sati, idam hoti)" to the existence of craving.

So the agent of craving is not a person, it is the process of paticcasamuppāda. Craving is in fact impersonal. Craving arises because there is sensation.*** By the way I have taken to translating vedanā as 'sensations' rather than the more usual 'feelings', because in English we talk about our emotions as 'feelings' and this is not what is intended in the Buddhist term. Emotions are a down stream product of experiencing vedanā that emerge as a result of papañca.

An interesting conclusion here is that we aren't personally responsible for the arising of craving (or hatred) in the present. There can be no doubt that we are responsible for our present actions, but because of the situation we are in, if there is sensation then there will automatically be craving - until we are awakened this is involuntary. But we don't need to feel guilty about experiences which have arisen in dependence on causes. The text is not trying to pin the blame on anyone. There can be no blame for a natural process. We don't blame rain for being wet. This exposes an aspect of the ancient Buddhist world view which is that some things are dhammatā - the natural thing, a natural law. Dhammatā literally means lawfulness - it is an abstract noun from dhamma in the sense of law or principle.

The Buddha is saying then that the arising of craving in dependence on sensations is a natural process, a natural law even. Such things as craving are unavoidable, they just happen. However we cannot rest here, because the rest of the story is that where there is craving there is grasping (upādāna), and grasping is the fuel (a more literal meaning of upādāna) for becoming (bhava) which leads to birth, old age, and death - in other words it all leads to dukkha, to sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā - grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble. So if we simply acquiesce to this process then we are stuck with the misery of it.

Fortunately for us there are other dhammatā or natural laws (or other aspects of the law) which means we can address the problem of suffering in two basic ways. Firstly by removing the causes: where there is no craving there is no grasping, where there is no contact there is no craving, etc which is the solution recommended by this sutta. When this ceases, that ceases also. Secondly we can try to cultivate positive states. For instance through practising ethics, we generate non-remorse, which gives rise to joy, to rapture, etc, which we know after Sangharakshita as 'the spiral path'. There are a few variants on the spiral path in the canon (for a list see my essay A Footnote to Sangharakshita's A Survey of Buddhism). The spiral path also represents a dhammatā in that the texts say that if we only begin and persist, the effects will follow quite naturally. Both of these approaches lead to freedom from suffering - the ultimate goal of the Buddha's path in the Pāli texts.

A note here for Mahāyanists: it's often said that the so-called 'Arahant Ideal', the ideal of awakening propagated in the Pāli texts is selfish. It's clear from this text that the ideas of a self or the idea of my suffering or my awakening, are not properly phrased. The Buddha does not talk in terms of I, me, mine; thou, thy, thine; or he, him, his etc. There can be no question therefore of only practising to remove "my suffering", because "my suffering" is an improper use of language. It is simply that there is suffering, and it arises in dependence on a cause. One can either remove the cause, or one can cultivate the opposite, but "I" doesn't come into it. While compassion for all beings, or awakening for the sake of all beings is more explicit in Mahāyana discourse, it is only a restatement of something implicit in the Pāli texts, something which perhaps did not need to be stated so boldly at the time.

Once again this texts focuses on the nature of experience - sensory input and how we process it. It seems especially important to understand the nature of this relationship between sensations, craving, and grasping. It is equally important not to get caught up in trying to figure out what Reality is, or dwelling on metaphysics. You have access to all the information you need - it is your own experience. What is required is a systematic investigation of your experience of things, which does not require much in the way of definitions and discussion, or even education for that matter. If you can sit quietly and pay attention to the effects of sensations on mind/body, then you are well on your way.

* The Moḷiyaphagguna Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 12:12; PTS S ii.13). My translation based on the Pāli text from Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi on pg 541-2 in his Connected Discourses of the Buddha; and by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight as the Phagguna Sutta.
** It is a quirk of Pāli and Sanskrit that one doesn't need to use a verb "to be" in order to assert the existence of something. Just stating 'taṇhā' is sufficient. Although one can say 'taṇhā hoti' - there is suffering - in these Pāli sentences 'to be' is not used, but is understood. Note that this way of talking without pronouns is similar to some of the ways that Benjamin Lee Whorf records being used amongst indigenous Americans.
*** I think this view of dependent arising as impersonal and the eschewing of pronouns is an argument against a literal reading of rebirth, but that is a more complex story than I can address here.

22 May 2009

In the seen...

eye by Guhyaraja There is a very famous story regarding the ascetic Bāhiya Dārucīriya (Bāhiya of the bark garment) who travels far to find the Buddha. He repeatedly asks the Buddha for a teaching and eventually the Buddha turns and utters the now famous words: "in the seen, only the seen; in the heard only the heard" - etc for all the senses. However it is quite difficult to know exactly what the Buddha meant, and although we get a general picture the details are sometimes left obscure. Indeed scholars allow that the passages which follow are not really understood any more.

I recently stumbled upon precisely the same teaching being given to another person in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Māluṅkyaputta is an elderly bhikkhu and asks the Buddha for a nice brief teaching that he can reflect on. The Buddha repeats the same words as he says to Bāhiya. Fortunately for us Māluṅkyaputta is not sure he understands either, and he asks the Buddha for clarification. He does this by spelling out his understanding and asking if that is what the Buddha meant. And since it he gets it right we can learn from this sutta.

Here is an edited version of what he said:
Rūpaṃ disvā sati muṭṭhā, piyaṃ nimittaṃ manasi karoto;
Sārattacitto vedeti, tañca ajjhosa tiṭṭhati.

Tassa vaḍḍhanti vedanā, anekā rūpasambhavā;
Abhijjhā ca vihesā ca cittamassūpahaññati;
Evaṃ ācinato dukkhaṃ, ārā nibbānamuccati.

..sutvā ... ghatvā... bhotvā... phussa... dhammaṃ ñatvā
Having seen a form with mindfulness forgotten,
attending to the delightful appearance
Experiencing an impassioned mind,
and remaining attached to that

In him numberless sensations multiply from that form.
Covetousness and worry impair thinking.
Thus suffering is heaped up and nibbāna is said to be remote.

Similarly for sounds, smells, tastes, contact, and the knowledge of mental objects.
So let's pause here to consider what's been said so far. This is our existential situation. We see forms, hear sounds, etc and we are entranced by them. Consider that we do not have one sensory experience at the time, but live in a flood of sense impressions all giving rise to sensations and thoughts. So the problem is multiplied many times. And, because we are caught up in the delightful sensations that our senses deliver up to us, we are covetous. As I say - we seek happiness by pursuing pleasure. We worry when we don't get pleasure - either new pleasures or the same old pleasures. We are appalled when we get unpleasant sensations because we think this means we are unhappy. And all this impairs our mental functioning. We get caught up in the pursuit of pleasure and defending ourselves from worry and vexation. We accumulate material goods, we indulge in hedonism, we fight and quarrel over things. And none of this actually makes us happy! In fact the more we go on like this the less happiness we are likely to have. The more we have the less content we will be. The more pleasure we find, the less we will enjoy it. Pleasant sensations are like addictive drugs - after a while we need more to get the same effect.

So in this state nibbāna - the blowing out of the fires that torment us - is remote. It is remote because our craving is fuel for the fire. We keep the fire burning by pursuing pleasure and reacting against pain.

The sutta continues:

Na so rajjati rūpesu, rūpaṃ disvā paṭissato;
Virattacitto vedeti, tañca nājjhosa tiṭṭhati.
Yathāssa passato rūpaṃ, sevato cāpi vedanaṃ;
Khīyati nopacīyati, evaṃ so caratī sato;
Evaṃ apacinato dukkhaṃ, santike nibbānamuccati.
Having mindfully seen a form, he does not delight in forms,
He experiences dispassion and remains unattached
He sees a form and has the associated sensation,
It falls away, does not accumulate - thus he exercises mindfulness.
Thus suffering is not heaped up, and nibbāna is said to be near.
So what is the alternative to heaping fuel on the fire? Should we just give up everything and join a monastery? Well it's not quite as simple as that. Renunciation in a worldly sense can sometimes be counter productive if we remain mentally attached to the thing. Renouncing pleasure qua pleasure is not really possible. Those who try to do so end up cultivating pain, and that is quite as unhealthy as pursuing pleasure. The problem is our relationship to sensations. The key is mindfulness - which enables one to stay calm in the face of pleasure or pain, and to just experience what is happening in each moment as it happens.

This requires training. At first we don't even see that we have this kind of relationship to sensations. We have to become aware of what we are aware of, and not trundle along letting our unconscious reactions to things dictate our behaviour. This is what it means to become truly human - to rise above instinctual or habitual reactions and be conscious. By cultivating mindfulness of things, and our body and other people we generally refine our awareness. And most people find that this makes them slow down and appreciate things a little more, and it allows a measure of contentment to develop. This is preliminary to the greater work which is to begin to see more clearly that pleasure is not equal to happiness, and vice versa, and equally that pain - as in the physical sensation of pain - doesn't necessarily equate to unhappiness.

We may also pay attention to the grosser forms of impermanence and cause and effect - this helps us to tune into the spirit of the teachings. At some point our focus needs to shift to the impermanence of experience itself: to the way that experiences occur when the conditions are there (that is to say sense organ, sense object and sense consciousness) and that nothing substantial is found in the experience itself. Pleasurable experiences in particular do not last, they create no lasting happiness, and if we are very subtly attuned we begin to sense that our addiction means that as soon as we feel pleasure we begin to fear it's end - we cling to it.

So in order to be closer to extinguishing the flames that torment us we need to stop feeding the fire. When we have a sense experience we try to stay aware of it's temporary and contingent nature - we have that experience, but do not try to hold onto it, and stay open to possibility. We become 'fed up' with chasing pleasure and we turn away from the chase. This detachment brings it's own rewards - we are calmer, we are content. Life becomes simpler. Equanimity means we have more energy since we no longer waste it, and it is smoother. We are no longer rocked by the winds of change and fortune - because we stop looking for happiness in pleasant experiences.

  • The Māluṅkyaputta Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 35.95 PTS: S iv.72). Pāli text from Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi The Collected Discourses p. 1175-8. It is also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  • On Nibbāna and the fire metaphor see also my essay: Everything is on fire!
  • Another take on the Māluṅkyaputta Sutta can be found in this interesting essay:

image: eye by Guhyaraja.