Showing posts with label Triratna Buddhist Order. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Triratna Buddhist Order. 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. 


02 November 2018

Buddhism, Bodhisatvas, and the End of Rebirth

This essay is dedicated to the memory of
Urgyen Sangharakshita (1925-2018)
There is a pernicious trend in Buddhist historiography. It is the attempt to smooth out inconsistencies and present Buddhism as far more coherent and unified than it ever was in practice. A prominent manifestation of this is the idea that there really is no difference between the so-called "arahant ideal" and the so-called "bodhisatva ideal". While I'm sure that those who take this approach are sincere in their belief that playing down the differences is a worthy cause, it obscures the reasons the new idea emerged in the first place. Those reasons are intrinsically interesting.

In the last 20 years we have discovered a great deal more about the early Mahāyāna than was previously known. A great summary and assessment can be found in a pair of articles by David Drewes (2010a and 2010b). We now know, for example, that what we call Mahāyāna was actually a rather disparate group of ideas that took centuries to converge. It emerged in monasteries, in all likelihood alongside mainstream Buddhism (though, of course, Mahāyāna became the mainstream, eventually).

By about 200 BCE all Buddhists were starting to reject the early Buddhist  doctrines and to quietly rewrite or replace them. In my article on karma (Attwood 2014), for example, I traced the rejection of the idea that karma is inescapable. Later Indian Buddhists did not accept this constraint (niyāma) and modified the doctrine of karma to allow for the consequences of actions to be avoided. One mostly did this using religious practices, especially ritualised confession, though later simply chanting a mantra was thought to literally eliminate all evil karma.

I've shown in previous blog essays that all Buddhists found the sutta version of dependent arising wanting and rewrote it, especially where it appeared to interfere with the working of karma; i.e., where dependent arising says that consequences cannot outlive the conditions for their existence. When this ceases, that ceases.

Awakening as the End of Rebirth

It is repeatedly and frequently stated across the Pāli texts, that awakening is tantamount to the cessation of or the liberation from rebirth. "I will not be born again" is something that arahants frequently exclaim upon awakening. In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11), often referred to as "the first sermon", the Buddha concludes his account of his awakening by saying:
ñāṇañca pana me dassanaṃ udapādi akuppā me cetovimutti. ayam antimā jāti. natthi 'dāni punabbhavo ti. (SN v.423)
This knowledge and vision arose for me: "My liberation of mind is unshakeable. This is my last birth. Now rebirth doesn't exist."
A more common refrain, heard across the Nikāyas is this one:
khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā ti
Birth is ended; the religious life is fulfilled; the task is completed; I'll never be reborn.
No doubt there are variations on these as well, but there is no need to search them out. It is clearly understood that awakening is synonymous with the end of rebirth. So whatever else happens to a tathāgata after death, they are not reborn. And the reason for this is found in the nidāna formulation of dependent arising. For example, in Dasabala Sutta (SN 12:21), “from ignorance as a condition, there is volition” (avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā), from volition as a condition, there is discrimination (saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇaṃ)” and so on, up to, “from the condition of birth, there is aging and death” (jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ), which is said, in this case, to be the origin of the whole mass of suffering (evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti)” (SN ii.28). In the suttas (re-)birth is synonymous with dukkha. To be born, even as a deva, is to suffer. To end suffering one must be completely extinguished (pari-nibbāṇa). Thus the tathāgata is never coming back and that is the way it must be or awakening is not an escape from suffering.

This escape was cause for celebration in the early days of Buddhism. The Buddha was the first man to escape suffering, by escaping rebirth. And in this myth the Buddha shares some features with Yama. We think of Yama as the King of Hell (naraya), but as I showed in my essay on him, he is not a god, but rather a Brahmanical culture hero. Yama's claim to fame is that he was the first man to find his way to the ancestors in the sky (svarga) after death, i.e., to the pitṛloka or "world of the fathers". Yama opened the door to a cyclic afterlife. This is significant, because no other Indo-European culture has a cyclic eschatology (Plato's speculations aside, the Athenian afterlife was not generally cyclic). A cyclic afterlife appears to be a regional feature of cultures in the sub-continent. 

The myth of Yama shows the Vedic speaking people adopting this eschatology into their mythos. To be more precise, it shows the Vedic patriarchy adopting the myth - we have no idea how women were placed in this scheme because they are not mentioned. The Vedas are the literature of a group of men who barely gave a thought to women. The Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad is antinomian for many reasons, not least because it shows some women claiming and receiving equal status with the leading male protagonist.

The Buddha is hailed in Buddhist mythology as opening the doors to the deathless by none other than Brahmā, the creator god of the Brahmins of the late Vedic period. The doors to the deathless are open and the Buddha left hundreds, if not thousands of followers behind who were also liberated from rebirth. Many of them had their own students numbering in the thousands. The presence of the Buddha was not necessary while living arahants were able to teach those with "but a little dust in their eyes". Buddhism ought to have prospered on this model. But it did not. And we have no good accounts of why.

The Collapse of Early Buddhism

What is seldom if ever acknowledged is that the Buddhism of the Pāli suttas did not last. It did not do what was needed for the societies in which it persisted. It was once thought that the Mahāyāna was a radical departure from monasticism introduced by lay Buddhists. But this has been put to rest. Mahāyāna grew out of the the monastery. In the early Mahāyāna sūtras the term bodhisatva is applied to full-time, hardcore meditation practitioners aiming at awakening. And this shows that awakening was still seen as a potential, if hard won goal. Amongst the mainstream sects the interest was in the analysis of mental events and theorising about how they contributed to bondage or liberation. Many schools were primarily focussed on śāstras or commentaries which attempted to make something coherent from the dog's breakfast of the Nikāyas. Before the advent of Protestant Buddhism in the 18th and 19th Centuries, all Buddhist sects were primarily focussed on śāstra rather than sūtra; even those sects which advertised themselves as being focussed on sūtras (like the Lotus Sutra sects) still relied on commentaries.

The received tradition was sometimes simply rejected, but more often than not the commentaries present themselves as essentializing the Dharma. By this I mean they present a coherent, and therefore highly partial, account as the whole of the Dharma. What the Buddha (is reported to have) said becomes less important than what he meant,  and many people were happy to tell the world what he meant. The rise of the śāstra literature meant that the confusion, incoherent, contradictions, and conflicts of the early Buddhist texts were set aside in favour of a unified view. The problem was that there were at least a dozen different unified views by the beginning of the Common Era.

The Theravāda often collude with naive scholars in pretending to represent early Buddhism. They don't. Modern Theravāda is just that, modern. As with all the other sects, Theravādin monks for many centuries mostly studied Abhidhamma commentaries when they studied at all - even when they spent their lives copying out Pāli texts. They had given up on meditation and they have given up on awakening. As Peter Masefield outlines in his book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (1995), the view had arisen (despite considerable literary evidence to the contrary) that the presence of a Buddha was required for people to awaken. A Buddha was special in being self-awakened (so to speak), but everyone else needed the physical presence of a Buddha. After the Buddha's death, Masefield argues, no more arahants were liberated. Monks did memorise suttas, but they were chanted as magic spells at ceremonies and rites.

Against this we have to weigh the fact that many of the prominent modern Western Theravādin bhikkhus are connected to Thai and Burmese traditions that re-invented meditation in the 18th and 19th Centuries. These monks have long believed that their reinvented tradition maps onto what is found in the suttas preserved in Sri Lanka (though the bhikkhu lineage of that country died out and had to be re-established from Burma twice).

This situation of revised and essentialised teachings was still apparently unsatisfactory to Mahāyānists. There is no normative account of why this was so. However, I can offer my own explanation for this. I think it all begins with the absence of the Buddha. 

The Absent Buddha

The arguments I outline below derive from reverse engineering. By looking at the form that innovations take we can get an idea of what problem they were trying to solve. And there is a common thread to many of these innovations. And it is the problem of the absence of the Buddha. It was in this context that new figures began to emerge in the Buddhist imagination as replacement Buddhas, but designed without his "flaws" in mind. Because when Mahāyāna sūtras disparage the arahants, the real target is the father-figure who left and never returned. 

Pure Land

Consider the Pure Land schools. The earliest Pure Land Sūtra featured Buddha Akṣobhya in his Pure Land Abhirati. As Jan Nattier (2000) has shown, getting into Abhirati was hard work. Then came Amitābha living in Sukhāvati and he made it easy. The two Sukhāvativyūha Sūtras introduced the idea that one only need call his name in devotion and he'll meet you at death and guide you to Sukhāvati where everything was arranged to perfection (according the patriarchy of the day).

Take a step back and consider the form of this doctrinal innovation. It is predicated on the idea that Śākyamuni is dead and not coming back, and that the next Buddha Maitreya is not going to arrive for some billions of years. We are on our own. Part of the problem is that early Buddhists instituted a rule that there could only be one Buddha in any world at a time. The cultural evolution of the world followed a set pattern. The Buddhadharma had to flourish and die out before a new Buddha could be born to rediscover the Buddhadharma from scratch, since this is a defining feature of a Buddha. The main effect of this invented doctrine is that it raises the prestige of the so-called historical Buddha to its zenith. 

I showed, in my article on karma, that raising the prestige of the Buddha was a central concern for Buddhists. Over time, the Buddha became more magical and powerful until he was effectively a god. The prototypical event for this observation was the meeting with Ajatasattu. In the Pāli versions the king is doomed by his patricide. But in the later Mahāyāna retelling, the king is saved from his own evil karma by meeting the Buddha. The mere presence of the Buddha purifies him of patricide - one of the five unforgivable karmas that result in immediate rebirth in Hell.

The unforeseen consequence of gradually raising the prestige of the Buddha is that it began to appear to make awakening in his absence impossible. And his absence was an established fact. The authors of the Pure Land texts, some of the earliest Mahāyāna texts, simply invented parallel universes with immortal Buddhas who could arrange for us to jump the tracks and be reborn in this alternate universe - the apotheosis of the Buddha. While Akṣobhya was a task-master, Amitābha was a soft touch. He only required your devotion. We know the metaphysics of this set up. Amitābha is a god, pure and simple. Sukhāvati is Heaven. We are sinners who can only be saved via the intervention of an external agency (or "other power") not touched by the sin of the world. 

Pure Land became one of the leading forms of Buddhism in the world and remains in that position some 2000 years later. The reasons for its popularity are not hard to fathom. It is an undemanding form of Buddhism, most of the work is done for you by an magical immortal father figure, in the afterlife. He just wants you to love him and most of us love our Daddy (or want to). 

The Evolution of the Bodhisatva

It's too early I think to have a proper history of the bodhisatva since we are really just getting used to the new information about their true relevance in early Mahāyāna. But we can take a similar reverse engineering approach to the mature concept of bodhisatvas like Mañjuśrī, Vajrapāṇi, or Avaklokiteśvara. The most important feature of the mature concept of the bodhisatva is that they are enlightened but take rebirth.

Why do we need the awakened to come back? On one hand the answer is obvious. We want our loved ones to come back to us. The Vedic speakers were entranced by the aboriginal Indian idea that after death one would be reborn amongst one's ancestors just as many Westerners are in love with the idea of people "coming back". We have an incurable nostalgia for the dead. We want to see them alive and well again. Belief in an afterlife has been linked to burying bodies with grave goods, the practice of which is arguably as old as modern humans, if not older (though the first undisputed evidence dates from around 40,000 years ago).

On the other hand, it speaks to a deep seated insecurity. Living teachers simply did not create the required confidence in the Buddhist population of India. And this can have two main causes. Firstly, the standard of teaching may have declined, leaving students doubting the efficacy of their practice regimes. Secondly, and I think more likely, is that the placing the Buddha on a pedestal to raise his prestige had a detrimental effect on Buddhist communities. The higher the Buddha got, the lower human teachers were and the closer relatively to their human students.

This problem is not particular to India or Buddhism. When you raise the goal of religion to the zenith and talk about it in absolutist terms; when the goal is perfection, then no human being can ever come close. In fact, even if most teachers are fantastic, the one who goes bad seems to taint all of them. In this process, the goal becomes unreachable and any attainments that humans do achieve are down played by comparison to perfection; while imperfects that show up confirm suspicions.

So yes, we do see arahants being talked down to and mocked in degrading fashion in some Mahāyāna sūtras. Perhaps this is not because they are not awakened; they are arahants, after all, and thus very much awakened. Perhaps it is because they fall short of some imaginary perfection that has been set up in opposition to mere human awakening. That is to say, it is not because people were falsely claiming to be arahants as is sometimes suggested, but that Mahāyānists allowed themselves to be fooled into thinking that perfection was attainable on some level, just not by human beings. Mahāyāna is delusional in the way that all theology is delusional. It sets up an impossibly high standard, insists on judging people (harshly) by that standard, and in the absence of any human exemplars, transfers its devotional feelings onto imaginary magical beings.

The result is the classic matter/spirit duality.  I have discussed this in some detail in the past, analysing the metaphors involved and showing how they form an interlocking set of ideas that self-reinforce (like a cybernetic feedback loop). I also extended this in a series of essays on the idea of "spiritual" looking at the language and power relations involved in organisations which frame themselves as "spiritual" (see Bibliography). This duality has powerfully shaped all religions which tend to favour the (imaginary) spirit side of the equation. 

In some forms of Buddhism, this duality contrasts the bodhisatvas as pure beings made of light with dirty humans made of shit. For example, Śāntideva goes on an extended rage about the disgusting human body in his celebrated work on Mahāyāna, the Bodhicaryāvatāra. It covers two pages in the definitive translation by Skilton and Crosby. The language is harsh and hate-filled. Buddhists attempt to excuse the tirade as a skilful means (upaya) but to me it is inexcusable; the epitome of unskillfulness. It is born out of a deep-seated hatred based on a matter-spirit duality.

Other Approaches

I think these two examples demonstrate the principle. We might also cite tathāgatagarbha doctrine, as a way of making the Buddha present in his absence. Or the passage from early on in the Golden Light Sutra in which the Buddha is proclaimed to be immortal (he only appeared to die). Or the idea of everything being interpenetrated by the dharmakāya, the true form of the Buddha, magically above change and decay (i.e., permanent). Or the idea that one can imagine oneself to be a Buddha already and magically transform oneself into a Buddha in reality (while avoiding delusions of grandeur and other mental problems).

We also know that around the same time the first images of the Buddha appear in Gandhara and Mathura. In the 2nd century BCE, the Greco-Bactrian kingdom of Gandhara had been conquered by a group of pastoralists known by their Chinese ethnonym 月氏 Yuèzhī. They appear to have had caucasian features (judging by portraits on coins) and to have spoken an Iranian language. However they also adopted many local norms as well, including, possibly, the Buddhist religion. The resulting Kushan Empire was a melting post of Persian, Greek, Yuezhi, and Indian ideas, attitudes, and practices. Perhaps it was coming into contact with theism (Zoroastrianism) that made the Buddhists in that region aware that the absence of the Buddha was problematic? In any case it was amidst this milieu that images of the Buddha as a man were first made. 

Having identified the pattern we can see how it makes sense of a range of innovations over time.


Everywhere Buddhists demand the presence of the Buddha or they resign themselves to despair and give up on awakening (as the Theravādins did before they reinvented meditation). And this is no accident. Where do we find a principle of required presence in Buddhism? We find it precisely in the doctrine of dependent arising. The idea was initially to describe the arising of suffering in the presence of sense experience. And it does an OK job of this for an Iron Age idea. But before long Buddhists began to treat it as a theory of everything. It is as though a Freudian were to argue that the world is structured into world-ego, world-id, and world-super ego, and that cosmic sex is the driving force of every process in the universe. For all I know there are Freudians who think like this, but I bet they have never tried to rewrite the equations of classical mechanics to show how sex is the basic force in the universe.

Once you take dependent arising to be a theory of everything then it is only logical that awakening requires the presence of an awakened teacher. Because without the necessary condition, the effect cannot arise. But the underlying condition for all awakening in Buddhist mythology is the Buddha. If this is so then the presence of a Buddha is a requirement for a world in which there is awakening.

We don't know how the argument went because the Mahāyānists did not show their working. They might have reasoned that since there are awakened people then a Buddha must be present somehow, and since that Buddha is not physically present he must be present in some other form: corporeal in a parallel universe, or incorporeal in ours. Or they might have reasoned from the physical absence of the universe combined with a desire that awakening were possible again, believing that it currently was not.

However, this way of thinking also misunderstands awakening. No matter how many different ways we say it, Buddhists always end up thinking of extinction as something; or as arising. Cessation is the right word. The point is that sensory experience stops when we withdraw from attention from it. Trivially, if I am focussed on writing, the outside world fades from my mind. And, more profoundly, when we use concentration techniques to bring about the complete cessation of sensory experience, aka emptiness. The use of emptiness as a metaphor was about the worst road Buddhists could have taken. It was a disastrous philosophical blunder because it led to Buddhists thinking of emptiness in metaphysical terms rather than as the simple absence of sense experience. 

Absence of sense experience is essential to awakening. And yet we made Buddhism all about the presence of the Buddha. The former is Buddhadharma, the second is mere religion (and no better than any other religion which invokes the presence of a father figure). 


Arguments, scholarly, religious, or increasingly both, that seek to minimize the distinction between arahant and bodhisatva, however sincere in their motivation, damage our understanding of the history of ideas in Buddhism. Such approaches actively prevent us from asking interesting questions about why Buddhism changed and if we never ask the questions, we never answer them. Whether or not the new ideas were totally novel or evolutions is of course interesting. And yes, we can often find precursors in the Pāli texts; texts that were composed and edited over centuries that overlapped with the emergence of the new doctrines. 

We scholars, especially, have to resist the urge to bowdlerise our presentations of the history of ideas in Buddhism. However, Buddhists can also benefit from an interest in the actual history of our religion. We cannot understand a cultural phenomenon (or really a set of phenomena) if we refuse to see anything that sits outside normative accounts. To be sure, the real story is complex and convoluted. It does not fit neatly into a six week university teaching block. But it is worth telling nonetheless.

Let's face it, what makes history interesting is conflict. Without it, history is boring. Pretending that there was no conflict in Buddhist history is a gross mistake. Sure, religions all present significant figures as saints, but so what? This is not interesting at all, because people are not saints. The fact that all Buddhists repudiated the teachings that had been ascribed to the Buddha is perhaps the most interesting fact about Buddhism. But no one ever says that this is what happened. The least interesting story—the hagiographical version—dominates both academy and temple. Yawn. The story is trite, tedious, and simply untrue. The telling of it tendentious and smacks of insecurity. All too often it is the rhetoric of persuasion rather than the rhetoric of truth.

We have to be willing to see change ("everything changes") and to ask why things change. Cultures and doctrines change for reasons and it only seems reasonable to enquire as to those reasons. Buddhism is not special in this regard. We need to be willing to face up to the fact that the Buddha died and is not coming back. 

Sadly, my teacher Sangharakshita died this week, aged 93. He had a good life, all things considered: he was a good friend to hundreds of people and he inspired hundreds of thousands of people to practice the Buddhadharma (our movement operates in India where social movements happen on vast scales). I'm not suggesting that he was a saint, but on balance he did a great deal of good and most people who met him were glad of it. He was loved. But he's gone and he's not coming back. As I loved him, so I mourn, but I'm not interested in fantasies of his reincarnation and return. I don't want false comfort. The Triratna Buddhist Order is well placed to carry on providing a context for practising the Buddhadharma that combines a good deal of tradition with some conscious modernism. We could do better, but Sangharakshita gave us a robust organisation. Succession is long settled and nothing much will change now that his suffering is ended. Now is the time for practice. 

vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā
All experience is perishable; sensual sobriety is the way to succeed.
(the supposed last words of the Buddha. DN ii.156) 



Attwood, Jayarava. 2014. Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535.

David Drewes. 2010a. Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship. Religion Compass 4/2: 55-65. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00195.x

David Drewes. 2010b. Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism II: New Perspectives. Religion Compass 4/2: 66-74. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00193.x

Masefield, Peter. 1995. Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. Paul & Co Pub

Nattier, Jan. 2000. "The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 23 (1), 71–102.

Skilton, A and Crosby, K. 2008. The Bodhicaryāvatāra. Oxford University Press

08 June 2018

Asoka's Dates and Historicity

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Joe Cribb at the Ancient India and Iran Trust (25 May 2018). Joe was keeper of coins at the British Museum and is an expert on early coins in the area of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, his main interest is in what coins and other physical objects can tell us about chronology. The gist of his lecture for the AIIT was a revised chronology of the Kushan period of Gandhāra, ca. 1-500 CE. The lecture covered much the same ground as a recent paper: Numismatic evidence and the date of Kaniṣka I. This is an important result for anyone interested in, for example, early Buddhist art in Gandhāra. Some of the earliest images of the Buddha appear on Kushan coins. 

Much of my pleasure at meeting Joe was that, just the day before, I had downloaded and read his 2017 article on the dates of Asoka. He was spurred to reconsider the dates of Asoka by our mutual friend Richard Gombrich, former Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, though it took him some time to get around to publishing his findings.

Dating the Buddha

In 1992, Gombrich had argued for a revised reading of the ordination lineages found in the Dīpavaṃsa, a history composed in Sri Lanka. Gombrich's most relevant conclusion is that:
...the Buddha died 136 years before Asoka’s inauguration, which means in 404 B.C. So, taking the margin of error into account, he died between 411 and 399 B.C., probably towards the middle of that period. (1992: 20)
This revised date for the parinibbāṇa has become widely accepted amongst scholars, though it is approximately a century later than the traditional dates (of which there are more than one). However, note that Gombrich's date relies on the only fixed point in early South Asian ancient history, the dates of Asoka.

Dating Asoka

The tale of the rediscovery of Asoka by Military and Civil officers of the British East India Company acting as amateur archaeologists is engagingly retold by Charles Allen in his book Ashoka (2012). I won't go over this ground, but I want to make the comparison with the Buddha as a legendary figure and Asoka as an historical figure.

We know about the Buddha from living Buddhist traditions and from the extant texts of both living and dead Buddhist traditions. The story of the Buddha as the founder of our religion has been told and retold for centuries. How many centuries we are not sure, but at least 20 and as many as 25. The old literary strata of our texts had to have been composed after the so-called "second urbanisation" which occured in the Ganges Valley after about 700-600 CE. The first urbanisation was the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilisation, which ended ca. 1700 BCE due to climate change. However, survivors of that prolonged drought moved north and blended with the populations there, so the people themselves lived on. The second urbanisation was a rather extended process, and some sources place the emergence of the key city of Sravasti as late as ca 400 CE. I need to look more closely at this as  Sravasti (Pāli Sāvatthī) is a key location for the Buddhist stories and its dates can help us to narrow down when the production of such stories began. 

Since the Nikāya and Āgama texts don't mention Asoka or his Grandfather, we may infer that they were composed before his time. I think Cribb makes this argument all the more plausible. This means that the earliest texts were composed between ca. 700 and 300 BCE.

The modern discussion about Asoka's dates is quite vague, partly because the basic facts became established in the 19th Century. For a few decades references were made to the original observations, but after a while everyone just takes it all for granted and says that Asoka reigned in the mid 3rd Century BCE and leaves it at that. His dates are sometimes given more precisely. The Wikipedia entry on Asoka, for example, citing the first edition of Romila Thapar's excellent History of India, says that he "ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE," the latter date also being the date of his death. These dates are widely accepted as being accurate, if not very precise.

Cribb notes that the dating of Asoka is based on a number of different sources of evidence:
Our knowledge of Mauryan chronology comes from five main sources: Buddhist texts like the Dīpavaṃsa, Jain and Purāṇic texts, references to the Mauryan kings in Classical Greek and Latin texts and the inscriptions of the reign of the third Mauryan king Ashoka. (2017: 5)
All of these sources, except for the inscriptions, were composed long after the life of Asoka. The inscriptions themselves are the single most important historical source, not only for Buddhists, but for all of ancient history in India. Rock Edict no. 13 mentions five Greco-Bactrian kings:
"Of the five Greek kings three are of chronological significance: Antikini must represent Antigonus Gonatus (276-239 BC); Maka must be Magas king of Cyrene (c 283- 250 BC); Alikasundra is most likely Alexander II of Epirus (272-255). The other two cannot be used to create any direct chronological evidence: they are Antiyoki, i.e., Antiochus, and Turamaya, i.e., Ptolemy." (2017: 8)
This edict is not dated, but by combining inferences drawn from other edicts, we may conjecture that it was created in the 13th or 14th year of Asoka's reign. Knowledge of these kings reflects the period 272-255 BCE and, allowing a year for the news of them to travel, suggests that the edict was made in 271-254, making his coronation dates 285/4-268/7 BCE. Sri Lankan sources suggest a delay of four years between accession and coronation.

Greek and Latin sources do not mention Asoka, but they do seem to mention his grandfather, Chandragupta:
"The Classical historians Diodorus (16.93-4) and Curtius (IX.2.1–7) referred to the Indian king ruling at the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of north-western India, 326-5 BCE, in terms which correspond to the descriptions in Indian texts of one of the Nanda predecessor of the Mauryan kings (low born, śūdra origin and the descendant of a barber, Singh 2012, 272–3), who the same sources state immediately preceded Chandragupta. Diodorus called him Xandrames; Curtius called him Agrammes. These texts can be seen as evidence that Chandragupta was not yet king in 325 BCE." (2017: 6)
Chandragupta is also apparently referred to by Pompeius Trogus, Strabo, Appian, Hegesandrus. All of these European classical authors were writing long after the time, and their observations have to be treated with caution. Cribbs notes that all previous treatments of them have taken these sources at face value, but they have also misinterpreted these texts to fit a preconceived idea about Indian chronology.

The Greek and Roman sources put the beginning of Chandragupta's reign "at about 321 BCE, with the range proposed being c. 324–320 BCE." (2017: 9). Cribb discusses the various accounts of the length of the reigns of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka, including summaries of the Purāṇīc and Jain texts. He concludes that "the Greek and Roman sources are pointing to the accession of Chandragupta during the period c. 311 (unlikely to be earlier than 316) to 303 BCE." (2017: 11).

As it turns out, in order to make the highest number of the various dates match up, it is necessary to adopt Richard Gombrich's revised reading of the Dīpavaṃsa. This gives the date of Asoka year 1 based on his accession (with coronation four years later) as no earlier than 285/4 BCE and no later than 270/1 BCE.

Based on the Dipavaṃsa sources, anchored by the revised dates for Asoka, this places the Buddha's parinibbāṇa no earlier than 423 BCE and no later than 389 BCE, i.e., less precise than Gombrich's dates (411-399 BCE), but centred on roughly the period, i.e., beginning of the 4th Century BCE. As I noted above, Sravasti might have emerged as a city around this time or only a little earlier. Sravasti is the established capital of Kosala in Buddhist and Jain texts, as well as in Pāṇini's grammar.

Cribb sounds a final note of caution that we do not actually know that the edicts of Asoka were composed and/or inscribed by him or during his lifetime. We need to constantly question the accepted wisdom of our time, because it is often simply based on assumptions that have become hidden over time.

A Historical Figure?

Some time ago I linked to David Drewes (2017) article, in which he starts out by saying:
We are thus left with the rather strange proposition that Buddhism was founded by a historical figure who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent. (Drewes 2017: 1)
This, unsurprisingly, proved to be a provocative statement for many Buddhists and members of the Triratna Buddhist Order. For many of us the historicity of the Buddha is not only beyond doubt but to doubt it seems a little perverse. I bring it up again because Cribb's article draws together all the research which makes Asoka seem to very definitely be a historical figure and this highlighted for me what a historical figure is.

Over and above the inscriptions in stone which purport to have have been erected by Asoka, the stories of Asoka were preserved by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus in India, and by Greeks and Romans outside of India. Of course, we must keep in mind that the Greek Herodotus was not only called the Father of History, but also the Father of Lies. Like other writers of his age, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story (there is nothing new about "fake news"). All of these sources, particularly those composed centuries after the facts they recount, taken individually must be treated with caution, even the inscriptions themselves. However, taken together they make a compelling case. Asoka may well be a figure of legends and myths, but he also has a good claim to be the first genuinely historical figure in Indian history (Pāṇīni is another claimant to the title, but his dates are based on Asoka's).

In contrast, the Buddha is a figure only of Buddhist stories. No account of him is found in Jain or Hindu texts, let alone in Latin or Greek. It might be argued that they could not be expected to record someone outside of their own communities, except that the Buddhist texts record many encounters between the Buddha and non-Buddhists. Of course, there are no written records until some centuries later, but if we preserved stories from that time, why would others not? Would the Brahmins not have been keen to denounce Buddhists as heretics for denying both ātman and Brahman?

Recall that, by the time of Roman and Greek contact with the Mauryans, the Buddha was nearly a century dead and his followers could be found throughout the Empire. Did other groups really not meet any or hear news of them?

One of the arguments for the historicity of the Buddha (i.e., for his being a historical figure) is that we all tell the same story, more or less, about him. I'm not the first to point out that actually the received story is contradicted in many details in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta account of his life. In an unpublished article (Attwood 2013), I've argued that we know his name was not Siddhārtha and there is reason to doubt that his name was even Gotama. With respect to this, if Buddhism began with a small group of people and expanded out, at the end of the process all Buddhists would have a version of the original story of founding that the small group told. In a published article (2012) I argued that, based on the preserved stories, the small group in question, the Śākya tribe, might have arrived in Central Ganges Valley having ultimately come from Iran. That idea was first put forward informally by Michael Witzel and I simply formalised it. The same year Witzel (2012) published a masterly account of the origins of world mythology in the small group who left Africa ca. 100,000 years ago (incidentally allowing us to set aside Jung's fantasy about a "collective unconscious").

The historicity of Asoka is not in doubt because there is a range of evidence for his having lived. Some of the details of his life may be vague or in doubt, but he himself is beyond any reasonable doubt. Asoka was a man who lived in India in the 3rd Century BCE. He inherited an Empire, which collapsed not long after his death. Accepting the historicity of Asoka is a simple matter of rationality. It would be irrational to argue that the evidence amounts to nothing.

Whether or not any reader accepts the historicity of the Buddha depends entirely on how much credence they give to the Buddhist stories about the Buddha. One of the arguments is that it is the simplest way to account for the stories - all those stories must be based on a man. I think this is doubtful for two reasons. The texts themselves are full of stories that are unequivocally myths (stories about gods and fairies) and legends (stories about past Buddhas). We know that the authors of these stories had good imaginations, they used a wealth of similes, metaphors, imagery, and humour to convey their message. They clearly did make up stories (e.g., the Jātakas) in order to communicate their values. And such stories are also common to all of Buddhism. So why not the founder figure also?

The other objection to this is that the preference for simple answers is a known cognitive bias and it turns out that things are almost never simple. We tend to think of evolution in terms of the tree metaphor - things getting more complex over time, and therefore simpler as we look back in time. History, in this view, is simpler, the further back we go. This bias makes a single founder figure, uninfluenced by his family or culture, seem much more likely than it otherwise would. It's common, for example, for naive historians to say that WWI was started by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, ignoring the vast number of factors which had to have accumulated beforehand for this spark to give rise to a global war.

This may also be an artefact of what is sometimes called The Great Man Theory of History. In this view, a handful of men (not women), are responsible for history. Therefore, when we study history, we give precedence to studying the lives of great men and trying to understand their psychology. The ways in which this is wrong are so numerous as to require a book to refute them all. Most of how we think about individual psychology is bunk, based on fantasies composed by Freud and his bastards. Social factors are much more likely to influence behaviour than individual psychology, including in the case of powerful men. Women are as much a part of history. And those men who are powerful are often involved in the mass manipulation of societies that have to bend to their will instead of rebelling in order for the man to wield power (i.e., societies make individuals great, not the other way around). 

It is more accurate to say that everything influences everything else and that any one person seen in isolation is very unlikely to be significant. Founders do occur. But if we take the example of Christianity, it has long been acknowledged by scholars that the shape of Christianity as a religion had a lot more to do with people down the ages than it does to do with Jesus. Buddhism is much the same. Whenever the founder became inconvenient, followers simply changed the story or made up a new bit, just as they made up his forgotten name.

The Buddha's final death was seen as extremely inconvenient by all Buddhists by the beginning of the Common Era. For most Buddhists, the knowledge that the Buddha was gone and never coming back was a catastrophe. They started to invent new stories: this included Buddhas from parallel universes (and we mock the Scientologists for their beliefs). Best of all, we invented a class of beings (with both mythic and human representatives) who were able to get enlightened without disappearing from the world - i.e., awakening without the ending of rebirth, when to that point the whole raison d'être of Buddhism was to end rebirth. These beings would stay to help out, the way that the Buddha had not. There was even a suggestion (played up by some modern Buddhists) that Gotama had been selfish to get enlightened and end rebirth for himself, leaving the rest of us on the carousel.

In any case, I hope the contrast between the Buddha and Asoka is clear with respect to the kind of evidence that makes a person a "historical person". For Asoka, there is a wealth of evidence both textual and physical. For the Buddha, only stories told by Buddhists.

The last time I bought this up within the Triratna Buddhist Order, some people argued that it didn't matter to them whether or not the Buddha was historical. I think this attitude is probably quite widespread. But as some people in our community still struggle with this issue or reject any suggestion that the founder myth is not true, or at least based on a true story, it is problematic for all of us. We agree, to some extent, on the role of faith in our Order, but are not in harmony on the issue of articles of faith. For example, on the issues of karma and rebirth, even those of us who believe in the Buddhist versions of the twin myths of the just world and the afterlife, disagree on the details of how they work. 

Some years ago Dharmacārin Subhūti expressed his fear that we might drift into doctrinal incoherence and therefore needed to impose limits on the Order. I would argue that we long ago passed that point, if, indeed, we ever had such coherence. Discussions about articles of faith such as the founder, the just world, and afterlife are apt to be emotionally charged and divisive. Not believing (and there are many of us who don't) is seen as deeply problematic: more so, for example, than the gap between those who favour incompatible Buddhists views on such issues as those who draw fairly exclusively on Theravāda, Madhyamaka, or Yogācāra ideology, for example. These are three incompatible views.

Non-sectarian scholarship inevitably steps on people's sacred cows. Which is why most of us ignore it in favour of sectarian scholarship, I suppose.


Sources Cited

Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor. Abacus

Attwood, J. (2012). Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3, 47-69. Online

Attwood, J. (2013) Siddhārtha Gautama: What‘s in a Name?. Unpublished.ārtha_Gautama_Whats_in_a_Name

Cribb, J. (2017). 'The Greek Contacts of Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka and their Relevance to Mauryan and Buddhist Chronology' in Kamal Sheel, Charles Willemen and Kenneth Zysk (eds.) From Local to Global, Prof. A.K. Narain Commemoration Volume, Papers in Asian History and Culture (3 vol.). Delhi: Buddhist World Press. Vol. I: 3–27. Online.

Drewes, D. (2017). The Idea of the Historical Buddha. JIABS. 40: 1–25. Online.

Gombrich, R. (1992). 'Dating the Buddha: A Red Herring Revealed' in Heinz Bechert (ed.), The Dating of the Historical Buddha/Die Datierung des historischen Buddha, Part 2 (Symposien zur Buddhismusforschung, IV, 2). Göttigen: venderhoeck & Ruprect, pp.237-59. Online.

Witzel, E. J. M. (2012). The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.

27 January 2017

Doctrine & Reason III: Madhyamaka Karma

4.4 Multiple Versions of Karma

In a recent online discussion with members of the Triratna Buddhist Order I discovered that we have no common narrative when it comes to karma. A majority believe in karma of some kind, but very often the kind of karma an Order member believes in is mutually contradictory with the kind that another Order member believes in. "Actions have consequences" is a relatively common way of expressing karma, but as we have seen (Part II), it is inadequate. The traditional idea of karma leading to rebirth is supernatural by its very nature, but encouragingly, a sizeable minority are reluctant to commit to any supernatural version of "actions have consequences". There is certainly no explanation to be found for karma in nature.

In a sense, the Order reflects the confused history of karma in Buddhism. Different versions emerged from time to time, presumably in response to perceived needs, and many of them were incompatible with others. More or less the only common features are the word karma and the notion that willed actions are somehow significant.

I've critiqued some of the main versions of karma, especially in an essay called The Logic of Karma (16 Jan 2015). So, for the purposes of this argument, I will focus on my critique of the Madhyamaka version of karma, particularly as set out in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. I don't think I've given a detailed critique of this version before and it turns out to be the one most resistant to reasoned argument and is thus the view most in need of effective refutation.

5. Madhyamaka

5.1 Nāgārjuna the Nihilist

The most difficult version of karma to argue against is the one that begins with Nāgārjuna and comes down to us via various groups that have assimilated elements of his metaphysics (including those various schools that claim the label madhyamaka). It took me many years of  losing arguments with pseudo-intellectual mādhyamikas to work out what is wrong with Nāgārjuna's explanation of karma. As Nāgārjuna says, near the end of his chapter on karma:
karma cen nāsti kartā ca kutaḥ syāt karmajaṃ phalaṃ |
asaty atha phale bhoktā kuta evan bhaṣyati 
|| MMK 17.30 ||
If action and agent don't exist, how would an action produce a consequence?
And if the consequence does not exist, who would suffer it? 
Ultimately, for Nāgārjuna, there is no action (karma) and no agent (kartṛ), thus there is no consequence (phala), no one who experiences it (bhoktṛ), and thus no rebirth, either. At best, they are like an imaginary city in the sky, like a mirage, or a dream (MMK 17.33). So Nāgārjuna rejects the idea of actions having consequences.

I've read a number of explanations of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma and they all baulk at accepting his dismissal of karma and restate the mainstream Buddhist assertion that actions have real consequences. For example, Kalupahana concluded:
"The most significant assertion here is that the rejection of permanence and annihilation and the acceptance of emptiness and saṃsāra (or the life-process) do not imply the rejection of the relationship between action (karma) and the consequence." (1986: 55)
But, clearly, Nāgārjuna does reject the relationship between action and consequence and, what's more, he rejects the more fundamental notions of action, consequence, and relationship per se. To Nāgārjuna, these concepts are not part of paramārthasatya or ultimate truth. How should we read a statement like Kalupahana's which is echoed in other academic work? It seems that Nāgārjuna's rejection of karma and rebirth does not sit well with anyone who identifies with more mainstream Buddhist ideas. To say that agent, action, patient, and consequence are all just illusions is a form of nihilism.

My sense of Nāgārjuna is that he is trapped by his own articles of faith. In maintaining that nothing persists in the face of plentiful evidence to the contrary, he is left with no choice but to obfuscate and distract us from his dilemma. Ironically, we know this because we still have his actual words. They, at least, have persisted for some eighteen centuries. Mādhyamikās (those who follow madhyamaka ideology) are apt to point out that this is not what commentators have understood him to be saying. However, when the text is clear and the commentary contradicts it, we have little choice but to reject the commentary as driven by motivations unrelated to those of the author.

Nāgārjuna's view is a pernicious one, because it destroys the basis of morality. If actions do not have consequences at all, let alone appropriate and timely consequences, the observation of which allows us to modify our behaviour in the future to obtain different results, then morality is simply not possible. If there is no definite relationship between action and consequences, then there could only be chaos. The view appears to be based on a fundamental confusion.

5.2 Arguing Against Madhyamaka

However, this is also a view that is extremely resistant to rational argument, because part of the madhyamaka ideology, at least in its modern versions, is that rational argument has no place in the Buddhist system. Only personal experience counts towards knowledge and experience, by definition not susceptible to logic. Here we see medieval Buddhist folly meshing with Victorian Romantic folly to produce a persistent delusion. Mādhyamikas further stretch the credibility of a critic through the structure of their rhetoric. In the typical conversation about karma, the mādhyamika asserts their view (some variation on MMK 17.30) as though it were ultimate truth (pāramārtha-satya). If one disagrees on any grounds, they assign those grounds to relative truth, which is simply an illusion and can be safely ignored. Thus, any argument against the asserted view is defeated solely on the grounds that to dissent against the ultimate truth is always wrong. One cannot argue with ultimate truth. The use of reason to undermine the assertion of ultimate truth is dismissed or even mocked, because the ultimate truth allows no role whatever for reason. Having declined to recognise the validity of any objection, the mādhyamika will often emphatically restate their view and then refuse any further discussion.

The view itself is irrational, but the defence that any dissent can only be a manifestation of ignorance is potent. It allows the believer to summarily reject any argument without ever having to consider it. One cannot win an argument with a mādhyamika on their terms, so one must shift the terms and one way to do this is to undermine the foundations; i.e., to point out Nāgārjuna's fundamental errors and argue that the framework itself is flawed.

5.3 The Two Truths

The two truths doctrine is completely absent from the early Buddhist suttas. This suggests that the problem which the two truths were supposed to solve did not exist earlier. I see this problem emerging from the confusion of experience and reality. This happened partly because Buddhists took a description of experience and tried to use it to describe reality. At the same time, they singled out certain rarefied meditative experiences and thought of them as reality.

The early texts are fairly clear that the domain of application of Buddhist practice is experience. There is no word that conveys anything like our word "reality", no discussion of the nature of existence, the nature of objects. The focus is on the nature of experience. As Bodhi has said:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182
This is highlighted in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15), a text which Nāgārjuna appears to cite, but completely misunderstand. The importance of this text is emphasised by Kalupahana when he suggests that MMK is a commentary on KS. What KS says is that existence (astitā) and non-existence (nāstitā) do not apply to the world of experience (loka). This means that the usual way of looking at objects doesn't apply to experience. When we have an experience, nothing comes into being; when the experience stops, nothing goes out of being. The ontology of experience, especially in Iron Age Ganges Valley, is difficult to pin down, in a way that the ontology of objects is not.

Experience is what it is, fleeting, insubstantial, and unsatisfactory. This was important at the time because Buddhists were in an argument with Brahmins about the possibility of experiencing absolute being (brahman/ātman). The Buddhist argument was that, since absolute being is unchanging, ever-changing experience could not allow access to it. We could not perceive something unchanging, because experience is always changing. So, even if an object was existent in this absolute sense, our experience of it would constantly change.

The classical texts say nothing much about the world of objects, except that they do acknowledge that some objects (particularly our bodies) persist through time. So the world of experience and the world of objects have a different ontology for early Buddhists (to the extent that they have any awareness of ontology). It is only experience that is governed by pratītyasamutpāda. Also, there seem to be no Pāḷi texts that seek to explain karma in terms of dependent arising, but by the early medieval period when Nāgārjuna was writing this distinction had been lost. By then, everything was understood to be governed in the same way. The description of mental events arising in the meditative mind was taken to be a universal principle. And this means that nothing whatever in the world might persist even for a second. And this in a world where objects do persist for years, decades, centuries, and millennia (the universe is currently thought to be 13.7 billion years old and will continue expanding indefinitely).

So Nāgārjuna's task was to explain away the ubiquitous evidence of persistence in favour of a reality in which nothing persists, based on an Iron Age theory of how experience works. He had to allow for persistence, because all the evidence of our senses tells us that external objects persist, while not allowing for persistence because dependent arising applied universally ruled it out.

By this time the Brahmanical arguments about absolute being seem to be a distant memory to Buddhists, which is puzzling because Brahmanical influence is seen everywhere in the development of Buddhism. The problem of absolute being is still present, but it is seen as a mistake that everyone makes with respect to their own experience. Some Buddhist groups were struggling to explain the connection between karma and phala. A Sanskrit term exists for this problem, i.e., karma-phala-saṃbandha, where saṃbandha means "connection".

Since it was completely implausible to assert that the world did not exist (or that existence did not apply to the world), Nāgārjuna was forced to accept that the world does exist. But he argued that this existence is saṃvṛti, a word meaning 'concealing, covering up, keeping secret'. Saṃvṛti-satya is often translated as "relative truth", but a Sanskrit speaker would be alive to the connotation of "concealing reality". In defiance of early Buddhists' reactions against absolute being, Nāgārjuna contrasted the world with an absolute reality: paramārtha-satya, translated as "ultimate reality", or "ultimate truth".

Both saṃvṛtisatya and paramārthasatya are not true. They are mistaken views that come about when we try to shoehorn dependent arising into everything. This is not to say that the experience of emptiness (śūnyatā) is not profound and transformative, only that it is an experience. It changes the way we perceive the world, which is an epistemological change. Ontology is unaffected by meditation.

5.4 The Confusion of Experience and Reality

Nāgārjuna's method is thus the theory tail wagging the evidence dog. And this methodology is one of the reasons his followers are locked into irrational positions. Evidence is made to fit the theory, not the other way around. And since this requires deprecating reason, rational arguments find no purchase. Compare this to the Pāḷi texts were rational arguments are part and parcel of Buddhism, alongside myth, legend, and inner monologues.

Nāgārjuna's worldview was one in which all domains are governed by dependent arising. He appears to see no alternative to this, despite being familiar with and valuing the Kaccānagotta Sutta. But this creates many problems for him, precisely because the persistence of the world and objects in the world is self-evident. Even something as simple as perceiving movement or change become problematic for Nāgārjuna. And, frankly, his task is not made any easier by composing his answers in metered verse.

The central problem with karma is what I have been calling action at a temporal distance, but which Indian commentators called karmaphalasaṃbandha. Karma requires consequences to manifest long after the condition for them have ceased. And this is forbidden by the formula of dependent arising.

Knowledge that we get by reasoning about experience is useful (i.e., an accurate and precise guide to interacting with the world), as long as we are actually reasoning rather than relying on a bias. Accurate and precise ontology requires careful comparing of notes and critical questioning of which assumptions in our worldview are valid. We have to switch to using abduction and eliminate all the impossible premises.  We did not begin to get this right until after 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). The critical comparing of notes about experience is what enables us to understand the world. Unless we make a strict distinction between experience and reality, and have a very critical eye out for bias, we are apt to come to erroneous conclusions.

Nāgārjuna's fundamental mistake was to mix up epistemology and ontology, which is to say that he mistook experience, especially meditative experience, for reality; and the nature of experience for the nature of reality. Meditators I know continue to make this same fundamental error. Buddhists are constantly talking about the "nature of reality", but nothing about how we go about seeking insight could possibly tell us about reality.

It is entirely possible that we might gain insights into the workings of our minds, seen from the inside; that we might gain insight into the nature of experience. And this kind of knowledge is certainly very useful for avoiding misery. And even though reality is an over-arching super-set, which incorporates the mind and experience, as I have tried to show in my previous essays on reality, it is layered, and descriptions that work on one scale of mass, length, energy or complexity, may not work on another scale. So a perfect description of experience may still be a faulty description of other kinds of phenomena. In fact, the classical texts were wrong about the persistence of mental states - these do persist for short periods of time beyond the stimulating sensory contact, else we could not perceive the passage of time or any kind of change. Language and music both depend on this extension in time.

Nāgārjuna's description of reality is copied from a description of experience. Unsurprisingly, he comes to false conclusions about reality. He takes it as axiomatic that nothing persists. Indeed, he says that if anything were to persists that would contradict dependent arising (MMK 17.6). Note again that the classical Pāḷi texts don't have this problem, because they do not take dependent arising as a description of the world, only of experience (i.e., they take it to be an epistemology, not an ontology). In order to accommodate these obviously false conclusions, he has to bifurcate the truth into two domains, apparent and ultimate, because, for example, it is self-evident that our bodies and identities do persist over time. Nāgārjuna accommodates this by saying that it is true, but only relatively true (saṃvṛti-satya); i.e., true only in the sense that we perceive it to be true. In the ultimate view it is not true. Again this mixes up ontology and epistemology.

5.5 Compatibility with Reason

Ironically for modern Western mādhyamikas, our own intellectual tradition, from Heraclitus onwards, tells us that all existence is impermanent. At no point do we assume that if something exists, it is permanent and unchanging, except in the case of God. And since God no longer features in mainstream Western thought, even he is not a problem. For the Western tradition, persistence is not a problem per se because, unlike Buddhists, we do not associate all being with absolute being. We are not forced into the position of explaining away persistence as an illusion, because temporality is built into our notions of the world. We say quite explicitly that we live in a temporal world.*
* Pedants may be tempted to point out that quantum physics theorists are now suggesting that time might be an emergent property. 1. There is no consensus on this speculation. 2. Even if there were a consensus, descriptions of the quantum level are not relevant to the macro-world that was the whole world until the invention of the telescope and microscope in the early 17th Century. 

Rather than the classical position—that neither existence or non-existence apply to any experience—Nāgārjuna is forced into the bizarre assertion that both existence and non-existence apply to everything. Thus, the obviously false conclusions that his philosophy leads to are rationalised away. This is a philosophy in which obviously false conclusions have to be tolerated; the irrational is valorised, and logic is deprecated in favour of a religious ideal. Paradox becomes the sine qua non. And these conditions fit perfectly with the Romantic threads of modernism. The nihilism also fits the zeitgeist in which people feel that they don't matter and have no influence in the world, despite being bombarded with information about events in the world.

However, in our Western tradition, paradox usually suggests a deeper flaw in our understanding, which has led us to make false assumptions, or to frame the problem ineptly. Or they are curiosities. For example, "this sentence is not true" is a trivial example of a paradoxical sentence that is both grammatically and semantically well formed, but is logical impossible. All it tells us is that there is more to language than grammar and syntax. A glance at anyone's eyebrows as they speak could have told you the same.

For all these reasons, the Mādhyamikā view of karma is not compatible with reason. It's not a rational view. Nor, I argue, is it resolved by insight, because those with insight seem to be beset by the same confirmation bias as all of us: they seek and find confirmation of their pre-existing views. Most meditators spend many years absorbing the rhetoric of Buddhism before making any significant progress in developing insight. Thus when insights arise, confirmation bias prompts us to see them as proof of our view.

My best informant on the process of having insights suggests that each insight both shatters existing views, but tends to set up an alternative view. One finally sees the truth and is prepared to settle down with it. However, if we persist in practising, the next insight shows the flaws in this new view and points to another view. One has to go through this "Aha... Oh. Aha... Oh." process many times before one stops taking the views seriously and realises that all views are just different perspectives on experience. It's not that one gains insight into reality, but that one stops mistaking one's experience for reality.

However, Buddhists tend to treat Nāgārjuna as a god -- someone who had infallible omniscience. His words, or at least the interpretations of his words by commentators, are seen as ultimate truth. I notice that some people are puzzled that I would argue against Nāgārjuna. It seems to cause cognitive dissonance, because they accept what he says as gospel. To dissent from the "ultimate truth" is almost unimaginable to many Buddhists. It is akin to blasphemy, and they often respond the way theists to do blasphemy: with hostility.

So why do modern scholars not take Nāgārjuna to task as someone who mistook experience for reality? After all, they are supposed to bring a certain objectivity to their work, aren't they? Buddhist Studies is all about accepting Buddhism on its own terms, rather than taking a critical stance. So in the 21st Century we still find scholars trying to elucidate Nāgārjuna on his own terms and he is still hailed as probably the greatest Buddhist philosopher. To me, Nāgārjuna is the greatest disaster in Buddhist philosophy because his mistake continues undetected and his influence is pervasive (it goes far beyond Madhyamaka). This is partly because the mādhyamika rhetoric is impervious to reason, but partly also because Buddhists don't use reason when thinking about their views anyway: they only seek confirmation, they do not seek falsification. Of course confirmation bias is a feature of argument production, but religious argumentation discourages doubt and scepticism.

This critique will most like not make any impact whatever on the way people see Nāgārjuna or the way his disciples see the world. The way Madhyamaka is set up employs several cult-like features that make adherents particularly hard to reach. Those who do not simply reject the argument out of hand, will condescendingly explain that I have simply misunderstood the ultimate truth. I'm with Richard Feynman however, "I'd rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned."

This concludes the central argument of this essay. It remains to sum up and conclude.

6. Compatible With Reason?

I set out in this essay to explore the idea that the Buddhist belief in karma is compatible with reason. I argued that both karma and reason are complex subjects on which authorities disagree about almost every detail. Karma has few common features across Buddhist sects apart from the proposition that actions cause rebirth. Also, reason and our ability to employ the methods of reasoning have been widely misunderstood. Reasoning is, more often than not, subverted by cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Even so, I tried to set out a coherent account of how reason works and how we might use it to think about karma in general terms. I then critiqued a particular Buddhist view about how karma is supposed to work, by showing how the reasoning in that view is flawed.

The question I posed in Part I of this essay was, could we come up with the doctrine of karma from first principles. That is, based on experience, can we infer—using deduction, induction, and/or abduction—a doctrine in which our actions lead to rebirth; or the watered down version that our actions infallibly lead to appropriate and timely consequences.

Based on observations across many species of primate, Frans de Waal is able to deduce that we all experience empathy and understand reciprocity. From reciprocity we can induce an understanding of fairness and justice. And from this we can construct a highly plausible, bottom-up theory of morality that has broad applicability and explains a great deal. In this view, morality can be understood as a principle in which the social consequences of actions are appropriate and timely.

To get to a doctrine of karma however, we have to go beyond experience and observation, and make a number of unsupported assumptions. Firstly, we have to assume a just world. This assumption is so common that it has its own name: the just-world fallacy. Secondly, we have to assume that a supernatural afterlife exists, in defiance of the laws of nature. Thirdly, we have to assume that this afterlife is cyclic or a hybrid between cyclic and linear. Many religions have a linear eschatology, a single destination afterlife. There is no credible evidence that we cite to help us choose which is the true version of events. In fact, the way the world seems to work rules out all these possibilities. Fourthly, we have to assume that some mechanism connects our actions to our post-mortem fate.

None of these assumptions is compatible with reason, since none of these assumptions is based on inferences from evidence or experience; i.e., they were not produced by reasoning. They are assumptions that we make so that our doctrine works in the way that we wish it to. All the evidence suggests that these assumptions are simply false (an afterlife is demonstrably false). So assuming that they are true is certainly not compatible with reason. And yet, without these assumptions, there can be no karma doctrine. So karma doctrines, as a class, are not compatible with reason.

Forms of morality in which the social consequences of our social interaction are appropriate and timely are at least possible, even if our social groups seldom attain the ideal. Beyond this, reason, fails.

In my critique of Madhyamaka karma I tried to show that the problem of continuity (saṃbandha) remains unsolved and that it seems insoluble within the traditional Buddhist metaphysics. A completely different approach to ontology would be required because the description of mental-states arising does not work as a general description of the world. In other essays I have proposed such an approach. In my proposed ontology all existence is temporary, both substance and structure are real, and structures (such as our bodies and minds) persist over time, for a time. Morality is explained by bottom-up manifestations of empathy and reciprocity, but karma is ruled out because there is no afterlife, no supernatural, and no just-world.

karma is not
compatible with
Belief in karma fails to meet the standard set in Subhuti's essay (cited in Part I). So, the major conclusion of this long essay is that karma is not compatible with reason. By this I mean that no existing Buddhist version of the doctrine of karma is compatible with reason. I also infer that any theory of karma that involves logical fallacies (such as the just-world fallacy) or supernatural elements (such as an afterlife) cannot ever be compatible with reason. Since no logical fallacy or supernatural element is demonstrable, karma also appears to fail Subhuti's verifiability criterion.


Post Script. 29 Jan 2017. Someone wrote in to say that my understanding of Nāgārjuna's approach to karma was "obviously false", because he talks about karma in more conventional ways in other texts, such as the Ratnāvalī. But the fact that a Buddhist talks about karma in different ways in different contexts is completely consistent with the trend I first identified in 2013. In contexts that emphasise morality, Buddhists maintain a narrative that emphasises continuity between actions and consequences; for example, in the Jātakas, the personal continuity of people across lifetimes is normal; while in contexts that emphasise metaphysics this continuity is denied, and the idea of any persistence of any kind is rejected. And these two narratives co-exist. Buddhists switch between them without even noticing that they are doing so. Our metaphysics denies the possibility of morality; and yet morality is clearly very important to all Buddhists and karma is maintained in defiance of our metaphysics, without even achieving resolution. So the fact that Nāgārjuna exhibits this same kind of duplicity is not evidence that he does not deny the reality of karma in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā


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Barrett, Justin L. (2004). Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. SUNY.

Mercier, Hugo & Sperber, Dan. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason. Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 34: 57 – 111. doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968. Available from Dan Sperber's website.

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