Remarks on Pepper’s Atman, Aporia, and Atomism
Tom Pepper recently reviewed Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic. (Thanks for the head’s up, Geoff!) Here are a few comments responding to the review, which raises a number of interesting points. I haven’t read meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic (or any of Wallace’s books), so this is solely responding to Pepper’s representation of Wallace’s thought.
Quantum Theory: Pepper criticises the tendency to invoke the Copenhagen Interpretation (although he doesn’t use that term) in support of consciousness-only theories. I think the main point here is that since interpretations of quantum theory are all dubious and contested, they cannot be used to buttress anything, especially when the interpretation has to be stretched to fit. The whole area has been cheapened by all the Deepak Chopras and What the Bleep Do We Knows, so it might be prudent to stay out of it. Nevertheless, quantum theory does remain an area that is highly suggestive, and does at least invite the speculation that the hard physical sciences and the meditative path could be somehow converging. While the traditional consensus among physicists has been that quantum events take place at a level that is simply too small to effect neural activity. recently, however, this has been called into question by Stuart Kauffman, and I think, given the open-ended status of both consciousness studies and quantum theory that an open mind is called for.
The Atman and the Original Mind: Pepper is, I think, absolutely correct to say that the radiant ‘original mind’ spoken of so breathlessly by so many Buddhist teachers is in fact an atman in all but name. Despite the countless times that the Buddha asserted that the mind is conditioned, so many teachers seem to be driven by a need to take up one or two passages that can be read to speak of an ‘unconditioned’ mind or some such. Of course the passages have to be twisted to take on such a meaning; the locus classicus is the passage in the Anguttara Nikaya, which speaks of the mind that is developed in samadhi as abandoning the hindrances – no different than countless other statements on meditation. But somehow the word ‘naturally’ or ‘intrinsic’ gets inserted into the text, and what was an exhortation to practice meditation becomes a mysterious assertion of the mind that is ‘naturally radiant’. No, the mind is not ‘naturally’ radiant. It is ‘naturally’ conditioned. If you want to make it radiant, do the work!
On James and Elitism: Pepper’s article becomes surprisingly virulent when he gets on the topic of the ‘reactionary ideology’ of James’ ‘capitalist’ empiricism. What lies behind this I do not know, as I’m not familiar with the background. But when I recently read James’ magnum opus The Varieties of Religious Experience it did not strike me as at all elitist. On the contrary, he spoke of a great variety of people and treated their experience as something valid and important. The effect on me was to realise how diverse and personal religious experience could be, and that it was not something that could or should be controlled by a religious orthodoxy.
On Consciousness and Society: Here I agree with Pepper: consciousness is dynamically constructed in and with a social context, and can’t be considered as an isolated entity. This is a concept that is embedded in early Buddhism, but which unfortunately tends to be lost in later Abhidhamma. The critical term here is nama-rupa, which is said to be the basic condition for consciousness: the two proceed in mutual conditioning. (See, e.g. the Maha Nidana Sutta). Nama means ‘name’, and it is clearly intended to point out the fact that our consciousness is conditioned at a fundamental level by language (which the Maha Nidana Sutta refers to as adhivacanasamphassa, designation-stimulus). Language being, of course, a social construct, this is pointing to the fact that consciousness is embedded from the very ground in a social reality.
On the Elitism of Karma: Pepper speaks of the widespread misunderstanding of karma, which is appropriate since he is critiquing not how the Buddha spoke of karma but of how it is in fact operative in Buddhist cultures. For the Buddha, karma was in fact a socially subversive doctrine, for it undermined the pretensions of the brahmans and other elites, insisting that how a person lived determined their worth. Accordingly the Sangha was a place of refuge, where one’s status and birth was ignored and one could start again on a clean slate. Pepper’s assertions of the elitist nature of Buddhist institutions are, I think, naive and ideologically based.
My own experience in Thailand showed me that things are much more nuanced. Sure, there is an elite of rich monks who pursue status and wealth, and which is tightly linked with the interests of the aristocracy. But there are also countless monasteries operating at the grass roots, with links not just to aristocracy but with local villagers. Contrary to Pepper’s ideas, the monks don’t just sit around in luxurious bliss while oppressed villagers slave to provide them with their whims. In fact, the presence of a good monastery is usually a catalyst for positive development and change in the local villages. Good monasteries create good villages. The poor do not resent the luxury of the monasteries (unless the monks do become corrupt) since, after all, all donations are entirely voluntary. On the contrary, the villagers love having the monastery nearby, value the community contributions, appreciate the teachings, and are delighted to help as they can. In addition, the monastery is, of course, comprised of people largely drawn from the local village, and it offers them an option to ordain and experience the monastic life if they so wish. If they stay in the village, this is not because of medieval suppression, but because that’s what they want to do. But they know that if they change their mind, the monastery offers them another option. I am not trying to say that there are no social problems associated with traditional forms of Buddhism – I’ve spoken of these at length on many occasions. What I do object to is the ideological reductionism that sees an entire spiritual movement as nothing more than a means of exploiting the workers.
It should also be noted that there is nowhere that the Buddha said that attaining jhana or other high spiritual attainments was dependent on past karma. On the contrary, he insisted again and again that such things depended on proper practice in this life. Of course advanced spiritual attainments are rare and difficult – so what? Playing the violin well is difficult, too – does that make it a capitalist plot?