Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

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Thinking about self and not-self

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…the desire to become free from delusion or egocentrictiy is one of the causes of our delusion and egocentricity. …the desire to escape from this side of existence and enter another side is another expression of egocentric desire.

— Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjōkōan: the Key to Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2010, p. 44

Fifty years of being puzzled

The first presentation of Buddhist thought and practice that I ever heard was in a Unitarian church. In that presentation, given by a Theravādin lay Buddhist from Sri Lanka, it was said that a key tenet of Buddhism is that there is no self. It was also said, rather emphatically, that no one should accept any doctrine, Buddhist or otherwise, simply on authority. No Buddhist, it was explained, should accept any teaching simply because it was presented as a Buddhist teaching. For some reason, I accepted, simply on the authority of this lay Buddhist teacher, that it was acceptable not to accept a teaching of Buddhism, even if it was presented as a key tenet, so I did not accept the teaching that there is no self. It’s not so much that I rejected it as false. It was more a matter of not being able to make enough sense of what was actually being said to accept it or reject it.

Over the years I heard various explanations of what the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (anātman) was saying. Some people insisted that it means that there is no soul. Others suggested it is an ethical injunction that one should not be self-centered. Others said it means no one has a fixed and permanent nature, because everything that comes into being eventually passes out of being.

The first of these claims, that there is no soul, struck me as far too modern and materialist to be a likely candidate for what early Buddhists meant when they said there is no self. After all, these Buddhists talked about consciousness, reactions to experience, character, decisions, and various other psychological functions that correspond to what philosophers in other traditions talked about when they discussed the soul and its faculties. It was not at all helpful to interpret anātman as meaning that human beings have no psychological dimensions.

The second of these claims, that anātman is advice not to be self-centered, makes perfectly good sense, but there are scores of traditions that disparage selfishness. The claim, which I came across repeatedly, that anātman is a distinctively Buddhist doctrine that differentiates Buddhism from all other religions and philosophies, would obviously be false if anātman is simply the commonplace warning that little good comes of being selfish.

The third claim, that anātman does not mean that there is no self at all but rather means that such self as there is is a work in progress that does not remain unchanged over time, also makes good sense, but who would ever deny that? Is that not what pretty nearly every human being discovers in the process of being alive for a while? Like the advice not to be selfish, there is surely nothing at all uniquely Buddhist about the observation that people do not have exactly the same nature when they are fifty years old that they had when they were toddlers.

Becoming provisionally less puzzled

As time went on, I came to feel that Buddhists were simply being boastful and making false claims to uniqueness when they said that the doctrine of anātman is what sets Buddhism apart from everything else. It is true that there were philosophical schools in India at the time when Buddhism was evolving there that claimed that the true self, the ātman, is unborn, unconditioned, unchanging and imperishable, and it is also true that Buddhists criticized those schools. That historical reality hardly makes Buddhism unique; it simply makes Buddhism one of the schools that denied the rather strange claim made by some in ancient India that the self is unborn, unconditioned, unchanging and imperishable.

In other words, making sense of the doctrine of anātman in Buddhism was not at all difficult to one willing to pay the price of saying that Buddhists were deluded in thinking that they alone realize that there is no fixed self. That is a price that I have always gladly paid, since Buddhists surely do not have a monopoly on thinking that they have a monopoly on truth. Thinking they are unique and special and better than everyone else is what human beings do best. As Sri Ramakrishna is said to have observed, “Everyone thinks that only his watch tells the right time.” In such chronometric arrogance, the Buddhists are not so unique.

Fifty years later and running out of time

When I first encountered the Buddhist doctrine of not-self, I was twenty-one years old. As I write this, I am seventy-three years old and none the wiser, but it’s clear that in the endeavor to become a little wiser, I’m running out of time. So let me say, for what little it is worth, what the doctrine of anātman means to me this week.

First, what it means to say that there is no self is that everything that I am (or that anyone is) is derived from something other than what I intuitively think of as myself. Subtract everything that is not me from me, and there is nothing left over.

One way to see the truth of that claim is to look at one’s accomplishments, the sort of claims that one makes on a curriculum vitae or a resumé. One of the things that appears on my resumé is a PhD, which I supposedly earned. What made that possible? I was born into a family of well-educated people who valued education, encouraged curiosity, had shelves full of books, had large vocabularies that they used well, instilled the importance of accuracy, and insisted on critical thinking. All that rubbed off on me simply by my growing up in that environment. I cannot take any credit for having acquired any of that. I did not choose to be born into that family and I did not choose to acquire their values. The circumstances of my upbringing happened by sheer luck. In picking up my families values, I simply did what every child naturally doesz: i imitated what I saw around me.

When my time came to pursue a higher education, money was available to pay tuition and keep life and limb together through a variety of sources—family money that had been passed down for several generations from nineteenth century industrialists, government scholarships, student loans, employment that I was fortunate enough to get during student years.

Everything that I eventually came to know was passed to me by people who had learned it from others, some of it through contact with teachers, some of it through books that someone had bothered to write, that someone had published, that someone had selected for a library, that someone had catalogued and shelved and made it possible for me to find. The entire enterprise of getting an education was possible because I was living in stable and mostly peaceful countries. Things that I might have fancied that I had discovered were nothing but items that had somehow been there to discover. There is none of that for which I could honestly take sole credit. Everything that I have ever allegedly accomplished was in fact due to someone or something other than myself. Subtract all the external factors, all the things that I do not normally think of as myself, from my PhD, and there is no PhD left. It is mine only by the grace of social convention, through an impossibility of giving credit to all those to whom credit is due. As with the PhD, so with everything that I have ever been or done or thought of being or doing. In all this, I am typical.

Second, what it means to say that there is no self is that there is no such thing as individuality. I mean that in two senses. The etymological sense of “individual” is that which is not divided. Buddhists, like numerous others, pointed out that what one takes to me one’s self is made up of numerous parts or features; a physical body that is itself made up of organs, that are themselves made up of cells, that are themselves made up of molecules, that are themselves made up of atoms, that are themselves made up of subatomic particles; a bundle of perceptions and thoughts and memories and other intangible features that can be analysed almost indefinitely; a collection of narratives about life, the universe and everything, all of them acquired from the society around one. A person can be endlessly divided into components and so is no individual.

There is another sense in which it can be said that no one is an individual, and that is that one cannot be divided off from, separated from, everything else that exists. By everything, I mean no less than everything in the universe. There is nothing anywhere to which everything everywhere is not in some way or another related and connected.  In this, as in all other things, what I have come to think and believe has been said by someone else better than I could say it myself. In writing about the sense of self as a kind of delusion, A.H. Almaas writes “The delusion here is not that you are an individual, but that you are an isolated individual, with boundaries that separate you from every thing else.” (A. H. Almaas, Facets of Unity: The Enneagram of Holy Ideas, pg. 102, loc. 1693. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.)

It is possible to act and think and speak in forgetfulness of all that interconnectedness and inseparabity and dependency on what intuitively feels to be outside the self. The result of that forgetfulness is usually, but not always, painful in some way, or at least uncomfortable. Being discontented can usually be traced back to being unrealistic in some way.  Unfortunately, because we are physcially finite and psychologically limited, and because being realistic means being fully aware of every thing in all its details and all its relations to everything else, we must all settle for having a pathetically narrow and partial picture of reality. We must all settle for being unrealistic, and as a result of that we must always settle for being prone to a share of disappointment, surprise, and even the occasional shock. The best approximation of being realistic anyone can hope to have is not to have unrealistic expectations of ever escaping the conditions that make being alive somewhat stressful.

Classical Buddhism told a different story. It held out the promise of the possibility of nirvana, the cessation of afflictions (kleśa-nirodha), when one became awake (buddha) to things are they really are. If that promise is taken too literally, it turns out to be a bogus promise. If, however, it is taken to mean that if one becomes awake to realizing that some degree of suffering and frustration is inescapable and that there is really nothing to be gained by fighting and resisting that fact, then that acceptance, insofar as one can muster it from time to time, will probably feel better than getting worked up into a frenzy over that over which one has no control.

That is how the doctrine of anātman makes sense to me today. Who knows what sense it will make tomorrow?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, June 24, 2018 at 20:54

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A narrative to end all narratives?

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Alice: But I don’t want to go among mad people.

The Cat: Oh, you can’t help that. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.

Alice: How do you know I’m mad?

The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn’t have come here.

A common feature of the kind of madness that modern psychologists call psychosis is delusion, that is, a perception of events that does not conform to experiences of the majority of people. A person with a psychosis may be subject to audial or visual hallucinations, that is, experiences they have that other people are not experiencing. It is not uncommon for a person with a psychosis to have a sense of self-importance or extraordinary ability, called a delusion of grandeur; this sense is sometimes accompanied by a feeling that one is so important that others are conspiring to thwart his efforts or bring him harm, which is called a paranoid delusion. People living with those who have been diagnosed with a psychosis sometimes report that the psychotic is convinced that he alone is sane and the the rest of the world is crazy. Whatever its content may be, delusional thinking involves a narrative, a story that the thinker is weaving to make some sense of his or her experiences.

The very idea of delusion presupposes a correct narrative, deviation from which constitutes fantasy. What is considered correct can vary considerably from one time to another—one need only recall that there was a time when the narrative that the earth was fixed in space and that the sun, planets and stars all rotated around it was so firmly established that alternative accounts of the relative positions of heavenly bodies was considered preposterous. Even at the same time, there can be significant differences among narratives. The Qur’ān, for example, claims to correct the mistaken narrative of the Christian gospels that Jesus died on the cross—Jesus was not crucified, says Qur’ān 14:157, it appeared to some that he had been. From the perspective of one who accepts the narrative of the Qur’ān as the true standard, the appearance of the crucifixion of Jesus may have been a hallucination, and the gospel narrative is an example of delusional thinking.

Consensus is not necessarily a reliable criterion of what is actually the case. Indeed, logicians regard the appeal to popular consensus an informal fallacy, called argumentum ad populum. It is absurd to believe that something must be true simply because most people believe it, equally absurd to hold the contrarian belief that something must be false simply because most people believe it.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900), who by popular consensus was, or at least was becoming, insane during the years when his most often-cited works were written, famously wrote “There are no facts, only interpretations.” If he was sincere in writing those words, of course, he cannot have believed that to have been a factual claim; it was merely a statement of how he interpreted things. It was his narrative of the moment, one that presumably helped him make some sense of what he was experiencing.

Narrative, the telling of stories, is most often done with language, although it is also possible through images such as wordless cartoons or mime. Language has been regarded with particular suspicion both by some individuals and some traditions. Consider the Daoist saying, “Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.” Or consider the character Hugo in Iris Murdoch’s novel Under the Net, who says in chapter four to the first-person narrator:

“All the time when I speak to you, even now, I’m saying not precisely what I think, but what will impress you and make you respond. That’s so even between us—and how much more it’s so where there are stronger motives for deception. In fact, one’s so used to this one hardly sees it. The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.”

There were (and perhaps still are) some Buddhists who seemed to agree with Hugo’s claim that “the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.” The Mādhyamika philosopher Candrakīrti, for example, can be interpreted as having held the position that propositions and propositional thinking have a place in the world of commerce (vyavahāra) and other practical goal-driven enterprises, but they have at the very best an asymptotic relationship with the greatest good, nirvāṇa, the eradication of the causes of personal and social turmoil (duḥkha). A philosopher on one of whose principal works Candrakīrti wrote a commentary was Nāgārjuna, who praised the Buddha for having shown that liberation (śiva) consists in the silencing of narratives (prapañcopaśama).

I have written about prapañca as narrative before in a squib suggesting that the Buddhist notion of prapañca is that it is “pointless narrative.” Candrakīrti’s praise of silence (tūṣṇīm-bhāva) as the route to liberation suggests that he may have regarded all narrative as pointless and troublesome. If that was indeed his view, of course, he courted the same dilemma as Nietzsche would have courted if he thought it was a fact that there are no facts, or that the Daoist Laozi courted when he said in chapter 56 of Daodejing that those who know do not say and those who say do not know (知者不言、言者不知。)

Creating narrative is what people do. Every culture is a culture of story-tellers. It could even be said that what we call culture is little more than story-telling. There may well be no way of avoiding narrative so long as the brain is alive; this may be the case for spiders who build webs as well as for human beings who write books and then build cathedrals in which to asseverate what has been written. Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti were creating narrative when they said the the way to peace is to find a way to stop creating narratives.

It could be the case that narrative becomes a problem only when people believe narratives that create in their minds hopes that cannot be fulfilled or expectations that cannot be met. The Buddhist, for example, who uncritically accepts the narrative that the root causes of turmoil can be eradicated through mindfulness may be setting up an expectation that can lead only to frustration when the goal remains elusive. The ethicist who places an emphasis on the questionable premise that agents have freedom of will may be transmitting a narrative that leads to the avoidable condemnation of those whose essentially involuntary actions are unwelcome in mainstream society. Nations and would-be nations that take collective actions on the basis of the narrative that there are inalienable rights to which everyone is entitled may be promoting conditions in which citizens are constantly invited to be indignant about their rights (which are, after all, entirely fictitious) having been abridged.

A good deal of religion, philosophy and politics consists of pernicious narrative. To conclude, however, that because some narrative is pernicious, all narrative must be pernicious is to fall prey to the inductive fallacy, a form of thinking that, according to the narrative of mainstream logicians, may lead to conclusions that prove disappointing.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, September 2, 2016 at 20:25

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Religious Society of Primates

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Where the crowd is, therefore, or where a decisive importance is attached to the fact that there is a crowd, there no one is working, living, and striving for the highest end, but only for this or that earthly end; since the eternal, the decisive, can only be worked for where there is one; and to become this by oneself, which all can do, is to will to allow God to help you—“the crowd” is untruth. (Søren Kierkegaard, On the Dedication to “That Single Individual”)

One feature of being a primate that I enjoy the least is the way we primates tend to organize our social groups hierarchically. Our penchant for hierarchy is perhaps most obvious in institutions such as the military and the Catholic Church, but it manifest in some way every time more than one primate is present. All one need do is go to a public place such as a coffee shop and watch the interactions within a group of people. This observation is most effective either when the group being watched is far enough away that one cannot hear what they are saying, or if they are speaking a language one cannot understand. Then one has nothing to focus on but body language, which is quite revealing of social hierarchy. If a couple is carrying on a conversation, chances are very good that one of the pair will be doing most of the talking; the other may or may not be listening. In a crowd of three or more people, most likely one person will be a de facto leader, a maker of suggestions and decisions. (Some people made fun of George W. Bush when he said “I’m the decider,” but in fact when more people than one are present, it will soon be evident that one of them is the decider.) This is a tendency one can see even in very young children. There are a few leaders, and the rest, whether they like it or not, are followers. As is the case with chickens, so with it is with us taller bipeds: we have a pecking order, and whosoever gets out of order will soon be pecked back into the proper position. This is a process we call socialization.

Anyone familiar with the academic world will know about the administrative hierarchy of president, vice presidents, provost, vice provosts and a battery of deans, and all the faculty rankings from professor to down lecturer. What some students may not realize is that if the salaries of the instructors were divided by the number of classroom hours, some of their most effective instructors turn out to be paid considerably less than others, have no vote at faculty meetings (and may not even be invited to attend them), are rarely consulted on matters of policy and may be sharing an office with several other instructors at the bottom of the totem pole. There is very little justification for this setup other than that this is how universities were organized in the fourteenth century, and by the time somehow has risen to a position of privilege, there is little incentive to make the system more equitable. People at the top of totem poles see no virtue in horizontal poles. I recall one senior professor commenting on a petition for better working conditions that came from seriously underpaid graduate student lecturers, “They want to be where we are, but they don’t want to be where we have all been.” In other words, he had to suffer substandard wages for several years, so why shouldn’t they? After all, being at the bottom of the dog pile builds character, no? How else will one learn how to behave when one gets to the top of the pile if one does not spend time at the bottom?

It could perhaps be argued that there are situations where a hierarchical structure serves a purpose. When confronted with a raging fire, for example, it is no doubt to everyone’s advantage to have a captain who assesses the situation and assigns specific tasks to others who then follow orders without question or complaint. An emergency is no time to have everyone sit in a circle and to wait until the talking stick is passed to him so that he can venture a suggestion that will be carefully and respectfully weighed along with other suggestions and eventually decided by consensus. Fire brigades, police departments and battalions probably work better when there is a hierarchy and everyone in that hierarchy knows exactly where his or her place is. But not every situation is emergent. In most of the ordinary situations in life, there is no need for a hierarchy. And in some, a hierarchy can be a real obstacle.

The one enterprise in life that least needs hierarchy is the very one from which the word “hierarchy” comes, namely, religion. The word comes from two Greek words, hieros (sacred) and arkhein (to lead, to rule), and it originally meant a system of government in which the ruling was done by priests or holy people. Although few countries these days are hierarchies in that original sense of the word, most religious organizations evolve into hierarchies in which those deemed most spiritually advanced are the deciders. This fact, I would argue, helps account for why most religious organizations end up being a grotesque caricature of the very doctrines and values they were founded to propagate.

Many years ago, I was on the board of directors of a Zen Buddhist temple in North America. As a registered charitable organization with tax-exempt status, the temple was required by law to have a board of directors and a constitution. Our constitution specified that the Zen master was president for life of the board and that the president had sole authority to decided all spiritual matters, while the board had the authority to decide secular matters. At one meeting of the board, the order of business was to renew the constitution—another procedure that was required by tax laws to be done periodically. I was unprepared to vote for approval of our constitution until I could be helped to understand what exactly differentiated “spiritual” from “secular” matters. What eventually became clear to me was that whatever decision the Zen master wanted to make, even down to the color of napkins at a potluck dinner, was automatically spiritual. Anything he did not want to be bothered with was secular. It became clear that the entire structure of the organization was designed to preserve the absolute power and authority of one man and that the principal task for everyone else was to learn to be subservient and deferential. Once that was clear to me, it was also clear to me that I must resign from the board of directors and leave that entire organization. As much as I enjoyed, and perhaps even benefited from, the practices of Zen, I did not undertake those practices for the purpose of learning to accept the absolute and often arbitrary power of a fellow human being.

Over the decades I have given a good deal of thought to the question of how best to organize a spiritual community. The more thought I have given to the matter, the more clear it has become to me that the best interests of a spiritual community are served by having no organization at all. Jesus of Nazareth was reported by Matthew (18:20) to have said “For where two or three gather in my name, I am there in their midst.” Now, I have never been a Biblical literalist, but my understanding of this passage is that when a fourth person shows up, Jesus finds somewhere else to go. Four is a good number for a barbershop quartet or a game of bridge, but it is one too many for a spiritual community. When numbers grow, so do perceived collective needs, and before one knows it there is a building and grounds committee, a fund-raising committee and a hospitality committee—not to mention a spirit of rivalry among the committees and hard feelings on the part of those unfortunate congregants who are overlooked to serve on them. In astonishingly short order, all vestiges or spiritual practice have vanished in the ensuing chaos of primates jockeying for position in a social hierarchy.

Institutions have a way of providing a constant supply of distractions. They tend to promote what Indian Buddhists called habitual distraction (abhyasta-vikṣepa), which in turn promotes delusional thinking, a condition that obstructs peace of mind. Distraction (vikṣepa) is a name given to having one’s thoughts scattered (vikṣipta-citta). Each time one allows oneself to be distracted, the tendency to be distracted again is reinforced (abhyasta), and eventually distraction becomes the usual state of one’s mind. Distraction makes it more difficult to be aware of the constant flow of changing perceptions, internal dialogues, judgements and motivations, which in turn hampers the process of stopping unproductive thinking before it leads to troublesome behavior.

Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.
(Søren Kierkegaard)

The Buddha said in a number of places that the social condition most conducive to having a focused mind (samāhita-citta, also known as samādhi) is isolation from other people. Being around others, especially others who talk much and scurry about getting things done, makes mental focus difficult and makes distraction easy. Given that a good deal of what people collectively set out to accomplish is simply not necessary, and given that this is no less true of spiritual communities than of mahjong clubs, the best way for most people to keep their minds safe and sound is to avoid congregating, even into spiritual communities and organized institutions.

My conclusion, then, is that not only is the best organizational structure of a religious community no organization at all, but the best spiritual community for an individual serious about spiritual practice is no community at all.

What I have said here has been based on my experience. Others may not be similarly constituted, so their experiences may be different; I cannot know for sure, since the only mentality available to me to observe directly is my own. I offer these reflections in the spirit articulated well by Śāntideva:

atha matsamadhātur eva paśyed aparo ’py enam ato ’pi sārthako ’yam

If another whose constitution is like mine should see this, then this person may benefit from it. (Śāntideva, Bodhicaryāvatāra 1.3)

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, June 26, 2015 at 16:12

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Genetic mutation as a spiritual practice

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clinicians have long known that there are plenty of people who experience anxiety in the absence of any danger or stress and haven’t a clue why they feel distressed. Despite years of psychotherapy, many experience little or no relief. It’s as if they suffer from a mental state that has no psychological origin or meaning, a notion that would seem heretical to many therapists, particularly psychoanalysts.

An article in the New York Times reports that neural scientists have discovered that a genetic mutation that occurs in approximately 20% of the population results in an abnormally high production of a molecule called anandamide in the brain. Anandamide, named after the Sanskrit word ānanda, which means bliss, results in lower-than-normal levels of anxiety and higher-than-normal feelings of well-being. Anandamide also occurs naturally in cannabis, which could account for some of that plant’s popularity. Interestingly enough, people with the genetic mutation that produces abnormally high levels of anandamide typically have little interest in marijuana; they don’t feel a need for it, and many find that cannabis actually decreases their pleasure and feelings of happiness and well-being.

If the clinicians are correct that a naturally-occurring chemical is a significant condition in subjective feelings of well-being—and in a culture with very high levels of legal and illegal mood-altering drug consumption, who would doubt it?—then it is not only psychoanalysts who might be challenged by these findings. Also challenged should be some religious traditions, such as Buddhism, that claim that people can change the quality of their experiences of the world simply by learning new patterns of thinking and by taking up certain contemplative practices.

Buddhist teachings tend to place an emphasis on the importance of studying causal relationships, and especially learning what kinds of thinking result in unhappiness so that one can eliminate those kinds of thinking and replace them with patterns of thinking that result in more happiness. That sounds much more easy to achieve than it in fact is. First of all, given that (as Buddhists universally acknowledge) every event and state is the consequence of innumerable conditions, it is in practice at best very difficult and at worst impossible to isolate which internal and external conditions are producing the frame of mind that one is currently experiencing. Without being able to identify the most significant conditions, one has no ideas which conditions to eliminate and replace with others. And even if one could identify the offending conditions, replacing them may not be possible. (What if, for example, it should turn out that genetics plays a significant role in how happy one is capable of being? Does one then just replace one’s grandparents with better ones?)

I have written before about how difficult it is to know whether a contemplative practice is a factor in one’s overall psychological health. For my entire life I have wondered whether I have a sanguine temperament and have a tendency to be alarmingly cheerful because I meditate regularly and practice Buddhism. It has always seemed a real possibility that in fact I meditate and feel an affinity with Buddhism because I was born with a sanguine temperament.

When I look at my own temperament, I see a great deal of my father’s mentality. He was rarely discouraged, almost never depressed, remarkably resilient, hardly ever sad, almost never exhilirated, rarely excited and yet prone to moments of unpredictable angry impatience. That also describes me (as I see myself at least, but also how at least a few others have reported that they see me). In trying to account for the similarity in my temperament to my father’s (which, incidentally, I see in a good many of my blood relatives), one set of conditions that we do not have in common is our diet or our religious beliefs and practices. Put perhaps a little too simply, my father had very little interest in religion. He did not read religious texts, never (that I knew of) meditated or prayed, and he showed no inclination to study the biographies of saints in translation or in their original languages. In short, he never did, even in a casual way, the things I spent my entire adult life doing. Very few days went by in which he did not consume a moderate amount of alcohol, whereas I often go months at a time between one glass of wine or beer and the next. He had very little interest in paying attention to diet, whereas I have been almost obsessively interested in getting a balanced diet of organic foods sold by fair-trade merchants. He lived to the age of 89, as did most of his close relatives, who collectively held a remarkable variety of religious beliefs and followed very diverse lifestyles. All of this evidence predisposes me to think that I am as I am largely because of genetic factors that I could not change even if I wanted to. Fortunately, there are few genetic factors I would be even momentarily tempted to change, aside perhaps from wishing for better eyesight.

Talking about all this recently with other Buddhists, I was asked whether I think that my religious practice has been a waste of time. I gave the somewhat feeble answer that calling anything a waste of time presupposes that one can think of other ways that one wishes time had been used; I do not wish I had done something with my time rather than meditate, read Buddhist texts and think about them and study Sanskrit, and therefore I do not consider any of that a waste of time. But that dodges the real question that was being asked, which was probably this: Do I give meditation and Buddhist practice any credit for bringing about the fortunate mentality I enjoy today? I think my answer to that would have to be negative. I had pretty much the same mentality that I have now even when I was a child, long before it ever occurred to me to meditate or think about the Buddha and his teachings, let alone go to them for refuge. If I had the courage to speak frankly of my experience, I might even say that going for refuge to the Buddha and the dharma has hardly had any effect on all on me, other than perhaps to allow me to remain the rather sanguine, calm, even-keeled, uninspired and uninspiring, rather plodding and occasionally irritable person I have always been.

Having said all this, I am inclined to say that doing contemplative practice for the sake of bringing about positive changes in one’s mentality may be the wrong way to go about it, if only because one is bound to be disappointed. Rather, I am inclined to see my own contemplative practice as an expression of gratitude for the fact that there is not much about my mentality that I feel inclined to change. (I am minfdul that this may sound smug, but like it or not, it happens to be true.)

In Buddhist technical terms, I suppose this places me rather squarely in the camp of those who believe in what the Japanese Buddhists called tariki (他力), that is, the conviction that whatever blessings one has have all been caused not by one’s own efforts but rather have been brought as gifts from others over whom and over which one has no control or influence. One could also call it blind luck. Or one could call it by the Sanskrit term śūnyatā, usually translated as emptiness, a term that succinctly expresses the conviction that if one were to subtract from one’s “self”—that is, from one’s body and mind—every single element that was produced by something outside oneself, there would be absolutely nothing left that one could rightly claim to be one’s own.

I have that conviction of the correctness of the doctrine of “emptiness” myself, but I have no idea whether I came to it through careful thinking (yoniśo manaskāra) and study or through the accidental mutation of a gene that has resulted in a generous helping of the insentient molecule anandamide.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 at 17:21

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Christmas in a Buddhist context

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Most Buddhists of my generation who were born to parents of European descent in Europe or the Americas had either a Jewish or a Christian upbringing. This is true even of those whose upbringing was essentially secular in nature. A secular Jewish upbringing is not, from what I gather talking to friends, quite the same as a secular Christian upbringing. December is a month of holiday celebrations that invariably awaken all kinds of memories and evoke all kinds of emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. For some Western Buddhists I have known, December is a confusing month. It is not always clear where all the Jewish or Christian vāsanās (the lingering aromas of previous experience) fit into the Buddhist frame of reference.

Some years ago I recall hearing about an English-born Buddhist teacher who encouraged Western Buddhists to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment on December 25. I do not know how successful that experiment was, but I know it would not have worked for me. December 25 for me is a time to recall the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Having grown up in what could be called a secular post-Christian family, I had a positive view of Jesus of Nazareth. He was, in my family’s perception, a great man who set a positive example that it would be good for people to follow. He cared for the poor, the sick, the weary, the downtrodden and the marginalized; the world would be far better off if we all did that. Christmas time is a time to be reminded of all that. Putting that in the background and celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment instead seems to subdue an opportunity to pay adequate attention to the special characteristics of Jesus and what he had to offer the world. December is a time when many Mahāyāna Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment, which is also important. Why not celebrate both Jesus and Śākyamuni in the same month, setting aside a time for each? There is no good reason I can see to let the celebration of one of these men diminish the celebration of the other.

Some Buddhists I have known accommodate Jesus into their frame of reference by regarding him as a bodhisattva. That is another tactic that has never worked for me. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi whose teachings and example have universal appeal. One needn’t be Jewish to appreciate his teachings, but there is no need to let one’s appreciation change his job description. He was a rabbi whose virtues overlapped with the virtues of a bodhisattva as understood by Buddhists, but he was still for all that a rabbi. That he had some bodhisattvalike virtues no more makes him a bodhisattva than having some rabbinical virtues makes Mañjuśrī a rabbi. Judaism and Buddhism are both wonderfully positive traditions, but they are distinct, and there is no need to try to meld them into a single tradition or to meld their spiritual models into a single model of excellence. So for myself I am quite content to be a gentile who loves Jesus as a rabbi and to be a Buddhist who strives to emulate the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. Doing both does not confuse me, nor does my doing both in any way diminish my doing either one in the proper season.

I sometimes wonder what people think when they visit my home. As they come down the driveway, they’ll see an image of Amitābha Buddha fashioned in the style of the Kamakura era in Japan. Proceeding a little farther, they’ll see a figure of the Hindu god Ganesh, which is very meaningful to me and my wife. As they walk around the house, they’ll see a figure of Saint Francis. Inside the house they’ll see images of the virgin of Guadalupe, some Tibetan votive paintings, some Navajo and Pueblo religious symbols, some photographs of saints from India and some sumi-e renderings of Bodhidharma. At this time of year they will also see a traditional crèche scene. It is, after all, Christmas. Every one of these images and symbols has a religious significance to the residents of this house. They are all votive, not decorative, in nature. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that each of these votive symbols has a slightly different significance to each of the residents of the house. That has never seemed important to discuss. Some—perhaps most, and maybe even all—matters of devotion, worship, contemplation and reflection are best left private and personal.

A few minutes ago, as I was writing this, the winter solstice took place. 16:03 MST. It is now winter. Winter solstice is an excellent time to reflect on the dependency that everything here on Earth has on the sun. In my way of seeing things, there is exactly one way in which we are all one: we are all made of star stuff. In all other ways—culturally, religiously, linguistically, genetically, temperamentally—we are many. At this time of year more than any other I celebrate both our oneness in stardust and our plurality in human conditioning and our unique and irreducible individuality.

Happy solstice, everyone! And may you have joyous celebration of whatever else moves you and inspires you.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 14:37

Posted in Buddhism

How were Buddhists ethical?

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In recent years there has been a good deal of discussion of the nature of Buddhist ethics, On August 1, 2014 Jayarava wrote a post about ethics in the Pali canon. My aim is not to add anything new to the discussion of Buddhist ethics but simply to recapitulate positions that modern philosophers specializing in Buddhism have taken on why and how Buddhists, especially Buddhists in India, were ethical. It is well known that Buddhists recommended avoiding taking life, stealing property, violating societal norms on sexuality, lying and becoming intoxicated. What is less clear is why. Answering this question takes us into the realm of meta-ethics, that is, the discussion of the criteria by which one may know that something is or is not ethical, and the classification of various ethical theories.

What everyone writing about Buddhist ethics these days seems to agree upon is that Indian Buddhists themselves said almost nothing about why it is a good idea to avoid killing and so forth; they seemed content just to recommend against doing certain things. If modern philosophers wish to talk about Buddhist meta-ethics, they cannot simply do scholarship on ancient texts and report what the texts say. Rather, they must try to infer on the basis of what is said explicitly in ancient texts what the authors would now have to say about meta-ethics if they were made aware of this field of inquiry.

Some modern authors, such as Damien Keown, have placed an emphasis on the virtues that Buddhists recommend cultivating. Indian Buddhist literature, both scriptural and commentarial, offer advice on how to cultivate carefulness, friendliness, generosity, kindness, responsiveness to the afflictions of others, impartiality, equanimity and other positive mental states. The Buddha himself is usually taken as a model human being, and when his mentality is described, it is described as one that is unfailingly furnished with the positive mental traits just mentioned. The precepts—avoid killing, avoid taking what is not given etc—are given as descriptions of the behavior of a man whose mind is furnished with those virtues. The emphasis is therefore not so much on rules of conduct as it is on the mentality behind the conduct.

Other modern authors, such as Charles Goodman, make the observation that virtue ethics normally presupposes the reality of a self or a soul in which the virtues reside and that Buddhism is based firmly on the doctrine that there is no self, there is no personal identity that can be said to own the virtues, but instead there is a constantly changing series of conditioned events upon which a notion of self or person is superimposed. A virtue ethic with no self is, according to Goodman, an anomaly, and therefore it is better to look at Buddhist ethics as a kind of consequentialism, that is, an ethical theory that identifies good actions as those that have desirable consequences and bad actions as those that do not have desired consequences. Goodman, following contemporary meta-ethical custom, distinguishes between act-consequentialism and virtue-consequentialism or character-consequentialism. In the former, the emphasis is on discerning the consequences of a particular form of behavior, such as taking life or making someone comfortable. In the latter, the emphasis is on the advantages of kindness or the undesired consequences of cruelty—in short, on the good consequences of having a character as much as possible like the Buddha’s. 

Jayarava, who was mentioned above, has made a case for early Buddhist ethics being a kind of moral particularism, which is the view that a moral value can be attached to a particular concrete action but that it is impossible to derive general rules of what kinds of action are good ones which are bad. A moral particularist can take the view that there is a fact to the matter of whether, say, the hanging of Saddam Hussein was a morally good or a morally bad action. What the particularist says cannot be done is to arrive at a rule that can be applied to other cases. Even if we can determine the truth of whether it was good to hang Saddam Hussein, we cannot necessarily determine in advance whether it would be good to hang some other head of state.

In contrast to the moral particularist is the moral skeptic who argues that there is no fact to the matter of whether any action is moral or whether any mentality trait is a virtue as opposed to a vice. I myself have stated in an essay called Moral murk ethical skepticism as a position I accept but do not know how to defend. My contention that at least some forms of Buddhism, such as the Mādhyamaka school of classical India, entails moral skepticism is not widely accepted, but so far no one has managed to convince me that my claim is indefensible, even if many people find it unpalatable.

There is yet one further position on the nature of Buddhist ethical theory that some modern philosophers, such as Mark Siderits, have taken up for discussion, which is that some Buddhists, such as the Mādhyamikas, deliberately avoided theoretical discussion about what makes some actions or mental states good. In the same way that these Buddhists carefully avoided theorizing about metaphysical matters, Siderits suggests, they may also have avoided theorizing about what moral right and wrong consists in. Theorizing, the story goes, often leads to attachment to a particular view, which in turn often leads to having contempt for those who have opposing views, which eventually contributes to the suffering in the world.

So far, no one has been able to make a compelling case that one of the positions outlined above is better than the others. What is more to the point is that no one that I am aware of has made a compelling case that any of this really matters. Indeed, some have hinted at the possibility that Indian Buddhists had no meta-ethical theories, not because it never occurred to them to develop any, but because they saw meta-ethical discussions as a distraction and a waste of ineffectual resources that could better be put to other uses. I tend to take that position myself, which makes me wonder why on earth I wrote this blog post.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 14:22

Posted in Buddhism

Does Buddhism actually work?

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On the July 15, 2014 issue of Skeptoid, Brian Dunning discussed 12 Step Programs . After giving a brief account of the indebtedness of the 12 Step Program to an evangelical Christian organization known as The Oxford Group, Dunning delved into the important question of whether 12 Step Programs actually work. This turns out to be, in principle at least, a fairly straightforward question. The claim is made that 12 Step programs help people to break addictions of a various kinds, such as addictions to alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, gambling, shopping, hoarding behavior or overworking. Answering the question of whether these programs work is simply a matter of compiling statistics how what percentage of people who resort to these groups are actually able to spot the addictive behavior they sought to stop. One possible complication in the seemingly straightforward task of gathering these statistics is at what point does one collect them. If someone manages to stay free of the addiction for, say, fifteen years and then “falls off the wagon,” does that count as a success or not? If a person is in the program for twenty years and has seventy relapses but eventually happens to die in between relapses, do this count as a success or not? Supposing it can be determine (even if only arbitrarily) what counts as an example of the program working, one can come up with at least an approximate answer to the question “Do 12 Step Programs actually work?” (It is worth either reading or listening to Brian Dunning’s report and conclusions.)

After listening to Dunning’s podcast, it occurred to me that Buddhism is usually described as a program (although its followers tend to describe it as a mārga or pratipad, both of which Sanskrit words mean method of course or path, or as a dao (道), which also means path or way or course or method). A legitimate question to ask, therefore, is whether the program actually works. Does the path actually lead to the destination indicated on the roadsigns? Not only does this seem a reasonable question to ask, it seems to be the most important question for someone to ask about any path before embarking on it. Does this path actually go to where one would like to go?

Answering the question of whether Buddhism works should be quite simple. First, one determines what the destination of the path is said to be, and then one determines how many of the people who embark on the path actually reach the destination. The claim is that Buddhism is a path of getting to nirvāṇa. So all we need to do is collect statistics on what percentage of the followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvāṇa. If a very high percentage (once we decide how high a percentage needs to be to count as “very high”) does reach the goal, then Buddhism works. If only a very few people who follow the Buddhist method manage to reach nirvana, then we must conclude the path does not work very well.

No sooner is the method of determining the answer to the question of whether Buddhism works stated, however, than it is obvious that there is a problem. Suppose one were to use a similar method to determine whether highway I-25 works. According to the maps, this highway extends from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Buffalo, Wyoming. Now to determine whether the highway works, all we need to do is determine what percentage of the people who set out from Las Cruces make it all the way to Buffalo. I don’t know the answer, but I would suspect relatively few users of the highway manage to make the entire journey from Las Vegas to Buffalo, or from Buffalo to Las Vegas. Quite a few probably end up getting only as far as Denver or Albuquerque, or perhaps even only as far as Truth or Consequences, NM. This being the case, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that I-25 does not work very well. But that conclusion is obviously silly. Surely, one might observer, the criterion of success needs to be modified such that anyone who manages to use I-25 to get from somewhere on the highway to somewhere else on the highway counts as having made a successful journey. Using this criterion, we would have to say that I-25 works if someone manages to drive the thirty miles from Trinidad to Walsenburg, Colorado.

In applying the analogy of determining whether I-25 works to the matter of determining whether Buddhism works, we could either use the very strict criterion of determining what percentage of followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana, or the more lenient criterion of determining how many followers of the Buddhist path manage to get somewhere other than the place where they started out. Let’s begin with the stricter criterion. What percentage of Buddhists reach the destination of nirvana? To answer this, we must first know what exactly nirvana is. Traditional Buddhism offers two definitions. Nirvana is either the cessation of rebirth or the complete elimination of greed, hatred and delusion from one’s mentality, with no possibility of their returning. How many Buddhists arrive at either one of those two destinations?

The problem of determining how many people achieve nirvana turns out to be at the very least difficult, and at the very most impossible in principle. Let’s begin with the latter. Given that it is not even possible to know whether anyone is ever reborn in the first place, how can one know whether anyone has stopped being reborn? For all we know, we all have only one life anyway, in which case we all succeed at not being reborn, whether we wish to or not. In that case, it would be trivially true that everyone who follows the Buddhist path avoids future rebirth; so does everyone who does not follow the Buddhist path, including every squirrel and every Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). Even if it were granted that some or all beings are reborn, there is no easy way of knowing which beings stop being reborn. The Buddhist tradition claims that the Buddha himself had the ability to see what happened to everyone upon their death, so he could know who had stopped being reborn and who had been reborn in some other realm. There is, however, no way of knowing whether those stories of the Buddha’s powers of clairvoyance are true or whether he simply claimed he could do what no one else could do, or whether his admiring disciples made this claim on his behalf. While I think it would be safe to dismiss these claims, it might be better simply to conclude that there is no known way of determining whether they are true, and hence no way of knowing whether anyone achieves nirvana.

If we take the other definition of nirvana, the definition that says that nirvana consists in the complete eradication of the very possibility of being greedy, hateful or delusional, we are still left with something that it is impossible to determine. At the very most, we might be able to say that a person has not been angry for a very long time; but does it follow from that that there is no circumstance whatsoever that would provoke that person to anger? Are we ever in a position to know that some psychological event that is currently not taking place will always and forever be absent from a given mentality? Here again, Buddhist tradition helpfully offers the claim that when a person has attained the complete eradication of greed, hatred and delusion, then that person knows that there will never again be greed, hatred or delusion in successive moments of mentality. That claim, however, cannot be tested. It is not at all obvious what kind of evidence one would even look for to determine whether it is true or false.

Trying to apply the strict criterion of determining what percentage of followers of the Buddhist path reach nirvana gets us nowhere. Unlike the question “How many people start in Las Cruces, New Mexico and drive all the way to Buffalo, Wyoming?, the question “How many people who begin the practice of Buddhism attain to nirvana?” turns out to be unanswerable. But what happens if we apply the more lenient criterion, the counterpart of deciding that I-25 works as a highway if anyone manages to get on the highway at one point and end up at another point thirty miles, or two centimeters, down the road? It may be easier to apply this test. One might give a battery of psychological tests to a person to determine a mentality profile, have the person practice Buddhism for a period of time, give the battery of tests again and see whether the results of the first set of tests differed from the results of the second set of tests. Any difference in mentality profile could be attributed to Buddhist practice.

Well, yes, but that would still be a sloppy methodology. As described, it commits the fallacy of the form “If x precedes y, then x is the cause of y” (the Latin name for which fallacy is Post hoc ergo proper hoc). The difference in mentality profiles between the earlier and the latter battery of personality tests could very well have been caused by something other than the intervening Buddhist practice. The changes may have taken place simply because the subject grew older, or for any number of other reasons. To get anywhere at all with this question, one would have to have a group of people take personality tests before and after doing some Buddhist practice, and then have a control group taking the tests before and after not doing Buddhist practice for the same amount of time, and then compare changes in the two groups. If the Buddhist practice group changed in statistically significant ways differently from how the control group changed, then one might be able to attribute the difference in change to Buddhist practice. No doubt someone somewhere has done such an experiment and published the results, thereby claiming to have shown that Buddhist practice changes mentalities in some way. Do such tests results really indicate that Buddhist actually works?

Let us return for a moment to the Brian Dunning report on 12 Step programs. His conclusion is this:

So even though there are a lot of studies with a high noise level from the past half century, we can still form a pretty good answer to the question of whether twelve step programs work. If you have an addiction, then you are probably better off seeking a treatment program than you are doing nothing. You’re probably better off starting with a full medical intervention. And from there, the road forks: If you’re an evangelical Christian, your best chance at recovery is to enter a twelve step program; and if you’re not an evangelical Christian, then your best chance is to go with a community support program that is not a twelve stepper.

Without having done any research on the topic, my guess is that something similar to what Dunning said about 12 Step programs could also be said of Buddhist practice. If one wishes to change one’s mentality (presumably to a more positive mentality, however one defines “positive”), then it may be better to do something than to do nothing at all. The more attractive one finds a program, the more likely one is to stay with it, and the longer one stays with a program, the greater the likelihood the program will have some kind of results. If one finds Buddhist statues attractive and likes hanging out with people who identify themselves as Buddhists, then there may be a sense in which Buddhist practice works for one. If, on the other hand, one resists the very idea of accepting guidance from an allegedly enlightened master who lived twenty-five centuries ago and if one does not find Buddhist images aesthetically pleasing and inspiring, then one is unlikely to benefit much from Buddhism. In that case, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other programs that may work for one. Buddhism is by no means the only program in town.

There is, of course, also the very real possibility that nothing whatsoever works and that whether the changes in one’s mentality are positive or negative is a result of nothing but blind luck. If that is the case, then doing nothing may be every bit as effective as doing nothing. Ladies and gentlemen, please place your bets.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, August 3, 2014 at 21:08

Posted in Buddhism