On authenticity

In the past few weeks, I’ve started a project with Bhante Brahmali, which we call “The Authenticity Project”. We have heard skeptical voices that doubt the authenticity of the early Buddhist texts, while among traditional Buddhists the question is rarely even raised. Yet we have not found any source that collects and analyzes the many and varied reasons for regarding them as authentic. So we decided to do it ourselves. The project is developing, and will possibly end up on Wikipedia, and perhaps as a journal article in some form. I’ll share it with you when it is in better shape; at the moment it’s very rough.

The problem is exemplified by the Wikipedia page on the Pali canon. I noticed that the scholars who affirmed the authenticity of the texts were all experts in the field, while the ones who doubted were scholars of later Indian Buddhism and Tibetan tantra. Yet if you are not familiar with the field, it just seems as if scholars do not agree. So I changed the page to acknowledge the backgrounds of the relevant scholars.

I am interested to hear your ideas on this topic. Clearly authenticity matters, as people in all different traditions and religions get very excited by it. But it is not so obvious why this is so: for many people, if it works, it’s good enough. The Buddha in the Sandaka Sutta even warned against over reliance on the authenticity of the texts, saying that, since the teachings may be ‘well heard or badly heard’, one’s spiritual life should not depend on this.

It’s also interesting to hear what different people regard as persuasive. When speaking to various people, almost always they will come up with some different perspective on why the texts should be seen as authentic, or not. We’re interested to gather as many such perspectives as possible, and present them with appropriate analysis and documentation. So, what do you think?

The body as metaphor

While we’re on the topic of misconstrued meditative metaphors, here’s another chestnut that well and truly deserves roasting: the body. The formula for third jhana mentions that one ‘experiences bliss with the body’. Most interpretations of jhanas say that they are purely mental experiences, based on the unification of mind-consciousness, and that it is impossible to experience anything through the five senses while in such a state.

But then, we can’t just have everybody agreeing on everything, can we, because that would be just so so dull. So others take the word body quite literally here, and say that this shows that we can experience the body (and other physical senses) in jhana.

You’re probably guessing that I’m going to side with the non-literalists here, and you’re quite right. I’ve discussed this in more detail elsewhere, but I just noticed this little sutta that brings out the metaphorical nature of the language used in higher Dhammas quite nicely. Here it is, Anguttara 4.189.

Bhikkhus, these four are things to be realized. What four?

There are things to be realized with the body, to be realized with mindfulness, to be realized with the eye and to be realized with wisdom.

What should be realized with the body? The eight liberations.

What should be realized with mindfulness? Previous births.

What should be realized with the eye? The passing away and rebirth of beings.

What should be realized with wisdom? The ending of defilements.

Bhikkhus, these four are things to be realized.

Notice especially here the use of ‘body’ and ‘eye’. Now, it is clearly quite impossible that ‘eye’ means a physical eye here; no-one would argue that one can physically see beings getting reborn. In this context of subtle, abstruse, higher Dhammas, the eye is not a physical eye, but a metaphor for a refined inner vision.

And in just the same way, the body is not a physical body, but a metaphor for the wholeness and directness of experience. As if this were not obvious enough from the context, notice that the things to be realized with the body are the eight liberations, which include the four formless attainments. These are by definition beyond any kind of physical reality. Elsewhere, the Buddha says that even Nibbana is to be realized with the body.

The body is not the body, the eye is not the eye, and thought is not thought. These are all words, inadequate, struggling, messy words, creeping up from the evolutionary slime, groping and grasping towards the light. As long as we keep them weighed down by the mundane, we can never speak of higher things. And since these higher things are things of the mind, if we cannot speak of them, we cannot imagine them. And if we cannot imagine them, we cannot realize them. And that is rather a sad state of affairs.

Why vitakka doesn’t mean ‘thinking’ in jhana

I shall give you a simile; for it is by means of a simile that some wise people here understand the meaning of what is said.

—THE BUDDHA

Here’s one of the most often contested issues in Buddhist meditation: can you be thinking while in jhana? We normally think of jhana as a profound state of higher consciousness; yet the standard formula for first jhana says it is a state with ‘vitakka and vicara’. Normally these words mean ‘thinking’ and ‘exploring’, and that is how Bhikkhu Bodhi translates them in jhana, too. This has lead many meditators to believe that in the first jhana one can still be thinking. This is a mistake, and here’s why.

Actually, right now I’m interested in a somewhat subtle linguistic approach to this question. But I’ve found that if you use a complex analysis of a problem, some people, understandably enough, don’t have time or interest to follow it through; and often we tend to assume that if a complex argument is just a sign of sophistry and lack of real evidence. So first up I’ll present the more straightforward reasons why vitakka/vicara don’t mean thinking in jhana, based on the texts and on experience. Then I’ll get into the more subtle question of why this mistake gets made.

For most of this article I’ll just mention vitakka, and you can assume that the analysis for vicara follows similar lines.

Meaning & etymology

Already in the Pali Text Society dictionary we find the combination vitakka & vicara rendered as ‘initial & sustained application’. This was taken up by Ven Nyanamoli in his translations, but was later removed by Bhikkhu Bodhi as he strove to complete Nyanamoli’s project of effectively finding one English word to translate each significant Pali word.

Etymologically, vitakka harks back to a Sanskritic term (vi-)tarka. This appears in both Pali and Sanskrit literature in the sense of ‘thought'; but more pregnantly also as ‘reflection, reasoning'; in some cases more pejoritively as ‘doubt, speculation’. The Pali Dictionary suggests it is from an Indo-European root, originally meaning ‘twisting, turning’, and related to the English ‘trick’. However, I can’t find any support for this is Indo-European dictionaries; nor can I find it in the Vedas.

In the Suttas

The primary source work is the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (MN 19). This is where the Buddha talks in most detail about vitakka specifically, and describes how he discovered and developed it as part of the ‘right thought’ (sammasankappa) of the eightfold path. Note that the terms sankappa and vitakka are often, as here, synonyms.

The Buddha describes how he noticed that thinking unwholesome thoughts leads to suffering, while thinking wholesome thoughts leads to happiness. And he further realized that he could think wholesome thoughts nonstop all day and night, which would not lead to anything bad; but by so doing he could not make his mind still in samadhi. So by abandoning even wholesome thoughts he was able to enter on the four jhanas.

A similar situation is described in AN 3.101. There, the Buddha speaks of a meditator who abandons successively more refined forms of thought, until all that is left are ‘thoughts on the Dhamma’ (dhammavitakka). Even these most subtle of thoughts prevent one from realizing the true peace of samadhi, so they must be abandoned.

Clearly, then, the right thought of the eightfold path, even thoughts of the Dhamma itself, must be abandoned before one can enter jhana.

In experience

Let’s not even worry about experience of the jhanas; then we’d just end up trying to define what a jhana is. Let me give you a test. Sit quietly, now, for five minutes. Watch your mind, and notice what happens when you think and when you don’t think.


Okay, done now? What happened? Well, let me guess: most of the time you were thinking of this or that, but occasionally there were spaces of silence. And those spaces of silence were more peaceful. Even this much, even just a few minutes of sitting quietly, and you can experience the peace of a quiet mind. And yet in jhana you’re still thinking? Impossible!

Not to mention jhana, anyone who has been on a meditation retreat will have experienced those blessed moments, sometimes several minutes or longer, when the mind is clear, still, and silent. Not all the hindrances are gone, and not all the jhana factors may be present, yet there is a degree of stillness.

How language evolves

If vitakka does not mean thinking, then why did the Buddha use such a misleading word? The answer is simple: it was the best he had. Why this is so, and how such situations can arise, is a fascinating question that takes us into areas of linguistic philosophy, specifically, how we develop words for speaking of refined topics.

My understanding in this area was sparked by Julian Jaynes, who devoted quite some time to this topic in his magnum opus, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I don’t have the book with me, so this comes from my (usually unreliable) recollections.

The basis of his ideas can be expressed in some simple axioms. The first:

  • Axiom 1: All abstract words are derived from more concrete words by way of metaphor.

By metaphor here I don’t mean, of course, the conscious use of metaphor as a poetic device. I mean the embedded use of metaphor that pervades all language; like, say, the use of ‘embedded’ in this very sentence.

The idea is that, whether considering the origins of language in history, or the learning of language by an infant, we must begin with what is concrete. We point to the earth and say, ‘ugh’, then point to the water and say, ‘erg’. I can’t point to ‘solidity’ or ‘liquidity’. We must gradually learn these abstract concepts based on the more concrete ones.

There is a universal pattern we can discern in this process:

  • Axiom 2: Metaphors move from what is better known to what is less known.

We start with knowledge that is shared. But when one person learns something that others have not, they must draw the others on from what is known towards what is unknown. Jaynes called these things the ‘metaphier’—the relatively concrete, well-known thing on which the metaphor is based—and the ‘metaphrand’—the relatively abstract, less-known thing that the metaphor is intended to illustrate.

Which leads us to our third axiom:

  • Axiom 3: A metaphrand brings something over from the metaphier, and leaves something behind.

If the basis on which the metaphor is made (the metaphier) has nothing in common with the object of the metaphor (the metaphrand), then there would be no illumination. On the other hand, if they had nothing different, they would be the same thing.

But what is it that is common, and what is lost? Since we are speaking of the movement of language from the coarse to the subtle, we can say that:

  • Axiom 4: When words are abstracted, subtle aspects of the metaphier carry over to the metaphrand, while coarse aspects are left behind.

This is all very abstract, so how about some ‘concrete’ examples. Let’s look closer at ‘earth’.

In English, we have two different words for ‘earth’ (as in the ground, not the planet) and for ‘solidity’. This is such a natural part of our language that we don’t think that it’s anything special.

In Pali, by contrast, the same word, pathavi, is used for both ‘earth’ and ‘solidity’. (There are other words for these, too, but I will keep it as simple as I can). In, say, a Vinaya text that discusses digging, it is clear that pathavi just means ‘earth’ in the ordinary concrete sense of the dirty stuff in the ground. On the other hand, in a philosophical or meditative text that discusses the contemplation of the ‘earth element’ (pathavidhatu), it is clear that a more abstract notion is meant. Parts of the body such as the skin, bones, and hair, are said to be the ‘earth-element’, so clearly this doesn’t mean ‘dirt’. In fact, pathavi is given an explictly abstract definition in the Suttas as ‘hardness, solidity’.

Both languages have a concrete idea of ‘earth’ and an abstract idea of ‘solidity’. And from the Pali it seems obvious that one rose from the other. However, from the English perspective we can’t see that in this case; the metaphorical roots of ‘solidity’ are lost in the mists of time. We no longer feel it as a metaphor. It is just a word that means what it says. In times long past, however, it must have arisen from its own metaphorical roots, which may or may not be the same ‘earth'; in fact, the etymologists say that ‘solid’ is from an ancient Indo-European root *solo-, originally meaning ‘whole’. Since ‘whole’ is itself an abstract concept it must have come from a still deeper metaphor. Interestingly enough, ‘earth’ is also an Indo-European term, meaning ‘ground'; but neither of these is related to pathavi.

So, while the general process is universal, the historical details are arbitrary. Why a language abstracts a certain word and keeps another close to its roots depends on all kinds of random factors. It is not simply that English is a more evolved language than Pali.

Take, for example, the Sanskrit term trsna. This means ‘thirst’, and the English word is indeed derived from the same Indo-European root (which originally meant ‘dry’) and keeps the same meaning. On the other hand, in Pali trsna is split in two: tasina stayed close to its metaphier, and means primarily ‘thirst’, while tanha has almost totally lost its metaphorical connections and just means ‘craving’.

Notice, also, that these words can themselve be used as the basis for further metaphors. We can speak of a ‘solid’ character, or an ‘earthy’ character; but these are not the same kind of thing. Similarly, we can have a ‘thirst’ for knowledge, or tasina can be used to mean craving, just like tanha.

But in all these cases we still feel the metaphor. The words stay close enough to their concrete roots that we know their meaning is being stretched to new forms.

This topic of how language evolves is a fascinating and profound one, and we could take it in all manner of directions. But for now let’s return to our main topic, the Buddha’s description of jhana.

How did the Buddha speak about jhana?

Following the principles sketched out above, what can we say about how the Buddha spoke of jhana?

One thing that seems clear from the historical record is that the Buddha was the first teacher to describe in straightforward, empirical terms the experiences of higher consciousness. Earlier teachings, such as the Upanishads, seemed so overwhelmed by states of transformed consciousness that they had no choice but recourse to a mystical evocation of a divine encounter.

The Buddha, in what must have been a striking innovation, used only simple, empirical terms to describe jhana and other states of higher consciousness. In common with his typical empiricist approach, this means that he used words that remained as close as possible to their ordinary meanings. He wanted people to understand these states, to refer to their ordinary consciousness, and to see how that can be developed and transformed to become something wonderful.

So there is this twofold tendency. On the one hand, the Buddha emphasized countless times how powerful and radically transformative the jhanas were. They are the ‘higher mind’, the ‘expanded mind’, the ‘unexcelled mind’, the ‘radiant mind’, the ‘liberated mind’, the ‘light’, the ‘bliss of Awakening’, the ‘end of the world'; they are ‘beyond human principles’, and are ‘distinctions of knowledge and vision worthy of the Noble Ones’.

At the same time he emphasized how attainable they were. If one is dedicated to following the full course of training that he outlined in places such as the Samannaphala Sutta, one could realize a gradual evolution of blissful consciousness eventually culminating in the full release of jhana.

Any understanding of jhana must take full account of both these aspects, neither reducing jhana to an mundane state of easily-attained relaxation, nor making them so exalted and abstract that they seem unreachable.

I should notice, incidentally, that the common expression found in Abhidhamma literature of ‘mundane jhana’ is very misleading. This has nothing to do with the experience of jhana itself. It simply means that jhana, when practiced outside the eightfold path, leads to rebirth.

What do the words in the jhana formula mean?

If we look closely at the terms in the jhana formula, then, we find that they are words that have a more coarse physical or psychological meaning in everyday language. They are common words that everyone can understand, and can relate to their own experience. And in every single case, they clearly have a more subtle, abstract, evolved meaning in the context of jhana. We have moved from the ordinary mind to the ‘higher mind’, and everything about the experience is transformed.

So, for example, the first word in the formula is viveka. This normally means physical seclusion; going away from others into the forest or a solitary spot. In jhana, however, it refers to a mental seclusion, where the mind turns away from the senses and withdraws into itself. The Pali texts make this distinction clear, as elsewhere they speak of three kinds of seclusion: physical, mental (i.e. the jhanas), and seclusion from all attachments (Awakening).

The next word in the formula is kama. In ordinary language this means the pleasures of life, especially sex, but also food, drink, luxuries, and other pleasures of the senses. In jhana, however, it has a more subtle nuance, referring to the mind that inclines to taking pleasure in any experience through the five senses.

Then there is the word akusala. Normally this means ‘unskilful’, as, for example, someone who is no good at a certain craft. One who is kusala, on the other hand, is clever and adroit. In the jhana formula, however, kusala includes any tendency of the mind that creates suffering.

Similarly there is the word dhamma, which is what akusala qualifies. Dhamma in ordinary language has a variety of meanings, such as ‘law’, ‘custom’, and so on. In jhana, however, it takes on a far more subtle meaning, that is, any object, quality, or tendency of the mind. The akusala-dhammas, or ‘unskilful qualities’, especially refer to the five hindrances which must be abandoned before entering jhana.

And so on. I could go on through the entire jhana formula and show how each word is related to, but abstracted from, its more concrete everyday basis, its ‘metaphier’. But I think that’s enough examples.

So what do vitakka & vicara mean?

Finally we are ready to return to our original question. Now we can look again at the claim that vitakka must mean thinking in jhana, because that’s what it means in everyday discourse. And I trust that this claim now appears a lot less plausible than it might have earlier.

If this is true, then vitakka (& vicara) are the sole exceptions. Every other term in the jhana formula takes everyday words and transforms them, in what the Buddha emphasizes at every turn is a special, exalted, and refined context. Only vitakka is exempt from this, and means exactly the same thing in higher consciousness as it does in lower consciousness.

This argument is not merely implausible, it is totally impossible. Words just don’t do that. And they specially don’t do that in a context like jhana, where the very point of the state of mind is that it is integrated and whole. How can such a coarse, ragged, disturbing thing as ‘thought’ continue, while everything else has become so refined?

Let us consider again our Axiom 4: When words are abstracted, subtle aspects of the metaphier carry over to the metaphrand, while coarse aspects are left behind.

Sit again for a couple of minutes. This time, don’t be quiet: have a think. Look at what thinking is like. Raise a question: what is the nature of thought? Then stop: be silent: look at the space that reverberates after the words have ended.

When you think, the most obvious aspect, the coarsest aspect, is the verbalizations. But they don’t happen alone. There is a kind of lifting of the mind onto an object. This is normally quite subtle, and we don’t notice it because we are interested in the words. It becomes more obvious sometimes when you try to think about something, but your mind is not really interested. It’s as if you keep moving the mind towards that topic, but nothing much happens. You can also feel it when the words stop. The ‘thought’ in some sense is there, apart from the verbalizations. It’s a subverbal thought, a placing or hovering of the mind in a certain way.

This is what vitakka refers to in jhana. This is the subtle aspect of ‘thought’ that is carried over into jhana, when the coarse aspect, the verbalization, is left behind.

And as with vitakka, so with vicara. Vicara is the ‘exploring’ of something, and in ordinary language refers to wandering about a place on foot. Psychologically, it normally means a more sustained reflection or examination of a thought, a keeping in mind of the topic that vitakka has brought to mind. In jhana, it follows the same process. The coarse verbal reflection is long gone, and in its place is the gentle holding or pressing of the mind with its object.

Early definitions

Unfortunately, there are no further definitions of these terms in the very early strata of texts. However, in the next strata, the late sutta/early Abhidhamma phase, we do have definitions. Our first example comes from a sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya; on text-critical grounds, however, it seems this should be viewed as a proto-Abhidhamma work. Sankappa is defined in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta (MN 117) as takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā vacīsaṅkhāro. Vitakka is included in this definition; and notice the last term, cetaso abhiniropanā, which means ‘application of the heart’.

The earliest Abhidhamma text, the Vibhanga, gives a similar definition of vitakka in the context of jhana: takko vitakko saṅkappo appanā byappanā cetaso abhiniropanā sammāsaṅkappo. This text also adds a similar definition of vicara: cāro vicāro anuvicāro upavicāro cittassa anusandhanatā anupekkhanatā. Notice the last terms here: ‘sustained (anu- application (sandh) of the mind, sustained (equanimous) observation (ikkh)’.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that these definitions include both ordinary and abstract terms. This is merely a feature of the Abhidhamma definitions in general. They are concerned to show the range of meanings that terms have in different contexts, so that one can understand what terms have the same or different meanings in various sutta passages. It is a means of referring to and defining terminology, and it is not meant to imply that they have the same meaning in all these cases. On the contrary;, the overall tendency of these definitions is exactly as we have been describing: they move from the relatively coarse to the relatively subtle.

Those who are proponents of the ‘vitakka always means thinking and nothing else’ school of interpretation will, of course, reject these texts as inauthentic. And they are quite right; I would not try to argue that these definitions came directly from the Buddha. But that does not mean that the definitions are wrong. They come from a time shortly after the Buddha, likely within a couple of hundred years, when the monks were still immersed in the early Suttas and, crucially, spoke Pali (or something very like it) as a native tongue. They had access to a far more diverse and richer linguistic context than we do, and their opinions must be taken seriously. While on a doctrinal level it is true we can see certain (minor) shifts from the Suttas to the early Abhidhamma, linguistically they belong to the same period, and we would need strong and clear grounds before rejecting their linguistic explanations.

The waywardness of language

Consider once more the process of the gradual abstraction of words from a more concrete metaphorical basis (metaphier) towards a more abstract metaphorical object (metaphrand); from the relatively coarse thing that provides the illumination to the relatively subtle thing that is illuminated. As we saw above, this process is largely arbitrary. Accidents of history, anthropology, and usage will influence which words get used in which sense, and this process will occur in different ways in different languages; and even within the same language.

One of the consequences of this arbitrariness is that there is a certain unpredictability, even obfuscation, in how abstract words are formed. The speaker intended certain aspects of the underlying metaphier to be carried across to the metaphrand, while the listener understood something else. This happens all the time, and is the main reason why, in any higher discipline, experts spend a lot of time arguing over terminology. We can’t simply agree on the meaning of a word by pointing to what it stands for and saying it.

One of the most intriguing ideas that Jaynes introduced was the notion of ‘paraphiers’ and ‘paraphrands’. These are unintended implications or connotations that are carried over from the original idea to the subsequent one. Central to Jaynes’ thesis, in fact, is the highly challenging notion that our ability to consciously reflect on ourselves as subjects arose in just such a way.

Leaving aside this intriguingly counter-intuitive idea, Jaynes’ essential point is that the paraphiers direct our attention in unexpected ways. And attention creates realities. This is not merely a matter of a kind of poetic allusion or idea. When our minds are drawn towards something—perhaps a new way of seeing or thinking—this creates a new world in our mind, and as we know from our basic Buddhism, such new mental worlds create the world outside.

In the context of jhana, the notion that vitakka always means thinking and nothing else creates realities in meditation. It encourages certain kinds of expectations and responses. By doing so it shapes the nature of the meditative experience. This in turn effects speech about meditation, and a whole range of more concrete realities: books, retreat centers, teaching careers, relationships, organizations.

This is another fascinating aspect of Jaynes’ theory. The process of abstraction creates powerful mental worlds that then become expressed in material forms, thus returning from the abstract to the concrete. The forms that emerge as expressions of the mind then serve to reinforce and validate the particular mental abstractions that gave rise to them in the first place. Jaynes discusses how this happens in religions through the creation of idols, temples, and the like. When enough people share an idea, they band together to create physical representations of their own mental world; and these physical representations in turn confirm and reinforce the idea.

It is in this way, I believe, that the innocent term vitakka has taken on a whole new life. In Pali it had a certain spectrum or flexibility of meaning, such that the Buddha could prod it out of its everyday meaning of ‘thought’ and tease it into a new meaning, ‘application of the mind on to its object in profound meditation’. The English word ‘thought’, however, lacks such flexibility, and remains stubbornly and exclusively verbal. When used as a metaphier for the less-knowable ancient word vitakka, the unexpected and unintended connotations of thought, its paraphiers, are transferred over.

The process of jhana is, at its heart, nothing more than the deepening stillness of the mind that lets go of all pre-occupations and worries. The Buddha used, as he must, everyday words to point to something that moved beyond the everyday. And it is no small irony that one of the crucial terms in this journey from perplexity to stillness, a word whose less edifying connotations include ‘doubt, speculation, the endless twists and turns of the mind’, has itself provoked such doubts and endless discussions.

Why Buddhists Should be Vegetarian

The Buddha ate meat. This is a fairly well attested fact. The issue of vegetarianism is addressed a few times in the Suttas, notably the Jivaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. The Buddha consistently affirmed that monastics were permitted to eat meat, as long as it was not killed intentionally for them. There are numerous passages in the Vinaya that refer to the Buddha or the monastics eating meat, and meat is regularly mentioned as one of the standard foods.

For these reasons, the standard position in Theravada Buddhism is that there is no ethical problem with eating meat. If you want to be vegetarian, that is a purely optional choice. Most Theravadins, whether lay or monastic, eat meat, and claim to be acting within the ethical guidelines of the Buddha’s teachings.

This position sits squarely within a straightforward application of the law of kamma, understood as intention. Eating meat involves no intention to do harm. As there is no intention, there is no kamma. As there is no kamma, there is no ethical problem.

The situation in Mahayana is more complicated. Mahayanists, especially in East Asia, embrace vegetarianism, often as a temporary measure for religious events, although the monastics are typically vegetarian all the time. The motivation is, at least in part, an expression of the greater emphasis on compassion in Mahayana. In practice, however, Mahayanists often adopt vegetarianism (as do Hindus) as a rite of purification. This is despite such texts as the Amagandha Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, where the Buddha insists that eating meat is not a source of spiritual impurity. Tibetan monastics, on the other hand, usually eat meat.

Despite the apparently straightforward situation in Theravada, the problem does not go away. For obvious reasons: eating meat requires the killing of animals, and this directly violates the first precept. Eating meat is the direct cause of an immense quantity of suffering for sentient beings. Many people, myself included, struggle with the notion that a religion as categorically opposed to violence as Buddhism can so blithely wave away the suffering inherent in eating meat.

Let’s have a closer look and see if we can discern the roots of this problem. There are a few considerations that I would like to begin with. We live in a very different world today than the Buddha lived in, and Buddhist ethics, whatever else they may be, must always be a pragmatic response to real world conditions.

Animals suffer much more today than they did 2500 years ago. In the Buddha’s time, and indeed everywhere up until the invention of modern farming, animals had a much better life. Chickens would wander round the village, or were kept in a coop. Cows roamed the fields. The invention of the factory farm changed all this. Today, the life of most meat animals is unimaginable suffering. I won’t go into this in detail, but if you are not aware of the conditions in factory farms, you should be. Factory farms get away with it, not because they are actually humane, but because they are so mind-bendingly horrific that most people just don’t want to know. We turn away, and our inattention allows the horror to continue.

The other huge change since the Buddha’s time is the destruction of the environment. We are all aware of the damage caused by energy production and wasteful consumerism. But one of the largest, yet least known, contributors to global warming and environmental destruction generally is eating meat. The basic problem is that meat is higher on the food chain as compared with plants, so more resources are required to produce nutrition in the form of meat. In the past this was not an issue, as food animals typically ate things that were not food for humans, like grass. Today, however, most food animals live on grains and other resource-intensive products. This means that meat requires more energy, water, space, and all other resources. In addition to the general burden on the environment, this creates a range of localised problems, due to the use of fertilisers, the disposal of vast amounts of animal waste, and so on.

One entirely predictable outcome of factory farming is the emergence of virulent new diseases. We have all heard of ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’; but the media rarely raises the question: why are these two new threats derived from the two types of animals that are most used in factory farming? The answer is obvious, and has been predicted by opponents of factory farming for decades. In order to force animals to live together in such overcrowded, unnatural conditions, they must be fed a regular diet of antibiotics, as any disease is immediately spread through the whole facility. The outcome of this, as inevitable as the immutable principles of natural selection, is the emergence of virulent new strains of antibiotic resistant diseases. In coming years, as the limited varieties of antibiotics gradually lose their efficacy, this threat will recur in more and more devastating forms.

So, as compared with the Buddha’s day, eating meat involves far more cruelty, it damages the environment, and it creates diseases. If we approach this question as one of weights and balance, then the scales have tipped drastically to the side of not eating meat.

Sometimes in Theravada vegetarianism is slighted, as it is traditionally associated with the ‘5 points’ of Devadatta. Devadatta wanted to prove he was better than the Buddha, so he asked the Buddha to enforce five ascetic practices, such as only accepting alms food, live all their lives in the forest, and so on. These practices are regarded as praiseworthy, and Devadatta’s fault was not in promoting these as such, but in seeking to make them compulsory. Stories of the Buddha’s childhood emphasize how compassionate he was compared to Devadatta’s cruelty to animals, perhaps because of Devadatta’s asscoiation with vegetarianism. So rather than deprecating the vegetarians as ‘followers of Devadatta’, one could infer from this passage that vegetarianism, like the other practices, was praiseworthy, but the Buddha did not wish to make it compulsory.

To argue in such a way, however, is clutching at straws. There is a wider problem, and I think the discussions of the issue among Buddhists generally avoid this. And the wider issue is this: meat eating is clearly harmful. That harm is a direct but unintended consequence of eating meat. Since there is no intention to cause harm, eating meat is not bad kamma. There are therefore two logical possibilities: eating meat is ethical; or kamma is not a complete account of ethics.

Let us look more closely at this second possibility. The notion that actions should not be done, even when they involve no harmful intention, is found constantly in the Vinaya. For example, a monk is criticised for baking bricks that have small creatures in them, even though he was unaware of them and did not intend any harm. The Buddha laid down a rule forbidding this.

In another case, the Buddha laid down a rule that a monastic must inquire about the source of meat before accepting it. The context of this rule was that someone had offered human flesh (their own – it’s a long story!) and this rule is usually said to only apply if one has doubts as to whether the food is human flesh. But that is not what the rule states – it simply says that one should inquire as the the source of the meat, and that it is an offence to eat meat without doing so. Needless to say, this rule is ignored throughout Theravada.

These are a couple of examples in the context of causing harm to beings. There are many others. Indeed, there are several Vinaya rules that were laid down in response to the actions of arahants. An arahant cannot act in an intentionally harmful manner, so these rules cannot be taken to imply that the motivation behind the acts was wrong. The acts have unintended harmful consequences, and this is why they are prohibited.

In this sense, if the Vinaya pertains to sila, or ethics, then the scope of sila is broader than the scope of kamma. This is, when you think about it, common sense. Kamma deals only with intention and the consequences of intentional action. This is critical because of its place in the path to liberation. We can change our intentions, and thereby purify our minds and eventually find release from rebirth. That is the significance of kamma to us as individuals.

But ethics is not just a matter of individual personal development. It is also a social question, or even wider, an environmental question in the broad sense. How do we relate to our human and natural context in the most positive and constructive way?

I am suggesting that, while kamma deals with the personal, ethics includes both the personal and the environmental.

As well as broadening ethics in this way, I would suggest we should deepen it. Ethics is not just what is allowable. Sure, you can argue that eating meat is allowable. You can get away with it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. What if we ask, not what can I get away with, but what can I aspire to?

When we recite the first precept, we say, ‘I undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings’. This is a challenge, and in itself is a powerful ethics. Yet it is merely a short summary of a principle. It was never meant to fully describe the virtue of harmlessness. When the Buddha spoke of this precept in more detail, this is what he had to say:

Having abandoned the taking of life, refraining from the taking of life, one dwells without violence, with the knife laid down, scrupulous, full of mercy, trembling with compassion for all sentient beings.

This is not just an ethic of allowability. It doesn’t merely set a minimum standard. It calls us out, asking us to aspire to a higher sense of compassion, an ethic that deeply feels for the welfare of all beings. More than just asking, ‘Does this act come from an intention to harm’, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this act the best I can possibly do to promote the welfare of all?’ Rather than simply escaping bad kamma, we create good kamma.

One obvious criticism of this approach is that being vegetarian does not mean you don’t cause harm. We hurt beings in many unintentional way, driving cars, buying products, almost everything we do. If we follow this principle to its logical conclusion, we end up with Jainism, and will have to walk everywhere with a cloth over our mouth to keep the flies from dying, and a soft broom to brush the creatures away. (Note, though, that even the Jains have a complex relationship with vegetarianism.) It is simply arbitrary to identify meat eating as the cause of harm. This is, after all, the point of the well-known (though apocryphal) story of Siddhattha as a young boy, seeing the plough turning up the soil, killing some worms, and leaving the others to be picked off by the crows. Even eating rice involves the unintentional destruction of life. The only solution is to get off the wheel.

The problem with this argument is that it confuses the existential with the ethical. On an existential level, quite right, any form of life, even the most scrupulous, will inevitably cause harm to some beings. This is one of the reasons why the only final solution is escape from rebirth altogether. Yet meanwhile, we are still here. Ethics is not concerned with the ultimate escape from all suffering, but with minimising the harm and maximising the benefit we can do right here. It is relative and contextual. Sure, being vegetarian or vegan we will still cause harm. And sure, there are boundary issues as to what is really vegetarian (Honey? Bees are killed. Sugar? Animal bones are used for the purification process… )

But the fact that we can’t do everything does not imply that we shouldn’t do this thing. The simple fact is that eating meat cause massive and direct harm to many creatures. That harm is, almost always, easily avoidable. Becoming vegetarian does not involve any huge sacrifices or moral courage. It just takes a little restraint and care. This is even more so today, when there is a wide range of delicious, cheap, nutritious vegetarian foods available. The choice of becoming vegetarian is, of all moral choices we can make, one of the most beneficial, at the smallest cost to ourselves.

To return to the basic problem. As Buddhists, we expect that the Buddha kept the highest possible ethical conduct. And for the most part, he did. So if the Buddha allowed something, we feel there can’t be anything wrong with it. There is nothing dogmatic or unreasonable about such an expectation. When we read the Suttas and the Vinaya, we find again and again that the Buddha’s conduct was, indeed, of the highest order.

How then, if meat eating is an inferior ethical standard, can it be that the Buddha did it? This is the crux of the matter. And I don’t have an easy answer.

Part of it is to do with the nature of the mendicant life. The Buddha and his disciples wandered from house to house, simply accepting whatever was offered. It’s hard to refuse offerings given in such a spirit. Yet this answer is incomplete, as there are many foods, including several types of meat, that are prohibited in the Vinaya. Clearly the monastics were expected to have some say over what went into their bowls.

There are other considerations I could raise. But I don’t want to press the textual argument too far. In the end, we have a partial, and partially understood record of the Buddha’s life and teachings. For those of us who have been blessed enough to have encountered the Dhamma, we have found it to be an uplifting and wise guide to life.

And yet: we cannot let our ethical choices be dictated by ancient texts. Right and wrong are too important. The scriptures do not contain everything, and do not answer every question. As Buddhists, we take the texts seriously, and do not lightly discard their lessons. Yet there is a difference between learning from scripture and submitting to it.

There are some things that the scriptures simply get wrong. The Suttas make no critique of slavery, for example, and yet for us this is one of the most heinous of all crimes.

Why are these things as they are? I don’t know. I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to studying and understanding the Buddhist scriptures, and in almost all things of importance I find them to be impeccable. But my study has also shown me the limits of study. We cannot access the truth through scripture. We can only access certain ideas. Our understanding and application of those ideas is of necessity imperfect. There is always something left over.

This being so, it is unethical to cite scripture as a justification for doing harm. If eating meat is harmful and unnecessary, it remains so whatever the texts say. Our sacred texts are sacred, not because they determine what is right and wrong, but because they inform our choices and help us to do better.

The principle of harmlessness underlies the very fabric of the Dhamma, and if its application in this context is problematic, the principle itself is not in question. It simply means our scriptures are imperfect, and the practice of ethics is complex and messy. But we knew that already. It is not out of disrespect that we make our choice, but out of respect for the deeper principles of compassion and harmlessness.

Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us

And thanks to Simon for this terrific article by Jonah Lehrer.

Regular perusers of this blog may remember that we have discussed causality on a number of occasions. I have advanced the apparently heretical notion that Hume was right: there’s no such thing.

When the Buddha spoke of causality, he spoke in terms, not over underlying mechanisms that mysteriously make things happen, but in terms of observing patterns: this being so, that is; when this arises, that arises. When we have observed these patterns consistently and often enough, we say that one thing is causing the other. But we have never seen the cause itself. It is just a trick of perception. While we are used to the idea that correlation does not imply causation, perhaps it is really much simpler: what we call causation is nothing more than reliable correlation.

Jonah Lehrer’s article discusses these issues in the context of medical science, and the apparently diminishing returns that are being realized by the reliance on reductive analysis. Having sat for a year on the Human Research Ethics Committee at Royal North Shore Hospital, I can confirm that in that facility, almost all of the serious research proposals were essentially reductive in nature. The exceptions were a few behavioral studies, such as examining how nurses actually used their time in the ward. But there was no effort to question the assumptions of reductive science, even when the proposals were specifically responding to the failings of reductive science.

In one proposal, for example, a new cancer drug was to be tested, and the rationale was that the drug currently in use, which had been introduced only a few years earlier, was no longer effective.

None of this is to say, of course, that reductive analysis is wrong. It is just incomplete. And, as I remarked in a comment a couple of days ago, the success of science in ‘soft’ areas like medicine seems far less obvious as compared to physics, engineering, and the like. Lehrer’s article shows how reductive analysis can be not just inadequate, but even harmful, and is often tripped up by the messiness and complexities of human beings.

Buddha and the Quantum

A Review of Samuel Avery’s Buddha and the Quantum: Hearing the Voice of Every Cell, Sentient Publications.

This morning I have the exceedingly pleasant task of writing a book review. This is something new for me – the good folks at Sentient Publications asked if I was interested to review one of their titles, Buddha and the Quantum, and so here it is.

Buddha and the Quantum presents Samuel Avery’s theories about the intimate connection between the inner world of consciousness as revealed in meditation, and the outer world as described by quantum theory and relativity. Like many spiritual thinkers before him, he sees a deep significance in the notion that consciousness is embedded in the very fact of quantum events.

This approach is one I have a nostalgic fondness for. In the 80s, I read most of the early generation of works exploring similar themes, most famous of which was Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. A whole generation of thinkers, it seemed at the time, was forging a deep-level bridge between philosophies east and west, and between religion and science. Theirs was a hopeful spirit, before the emergence of fundamentalism soured the whole thing. I miss it. And so I’m glad that the task is being taken up again.

Avery has moved on from the frustrating vagueness of Capra’s references to ‘Eastern philosophies’. We’ve learned a lot since then, and have practised a lot, and that practice is the basis of Buddha and the Quantum. In his koan-like, crisp poetical style, Avery embeds articulate descriptions of meditation experience among his explorations of the philosophical implications of modern physics.

Someone who is expecting, based on the title, that this work will be a serious exploration of what the Buddha taught in light of modern physics will be disappointed. That work is yet to be done. Avery doesn’t explain his background in Buddhism, other than that it is in vipassana meditation; his descriptions and terminology are reminiscent of Goenka’s style.

Some of his observations are strikingly insightful: ‘Buddhist meditation begins with breathing. Buddhism begins with morality.’ A simple point, often overlooked. He rightly emphasises that meditation is simply the extension and development of qualities found in ordinary consciousness, and that without a foundation in morality, this can include development of the unwholesome.

When it comes to the specifics of Buddhism, however, there are serious problems. Avery does not try to give an overall explanation of Buddhist meditation, but focuses on two terms that are essential for his approach: kalapas and bhanga. His use of these words, unfortunately, has little to do with their meaning in Buddhism.

He treats kalapas as an irreducible point of experience, a pixel on the photon screen. He says the word means ‘smallest things’, and that modern Buddhists often define them as ‘subatomic particles’. A quick trip to a Pali Dictionary would have shown him that the meaning of kalapa is not ‘smallest things’, but ‘bundle’, as in ‘a bundle of sticks’. It is used in Theravadin Abhidhamma commentaries to refer, not to fundamental units, but to ‘bundles’ of basic properties. Avery says that the kalapas don’t objectively exist; but they do objectively exist in the view of Theravadin orthodoxy. The closest modern equivalent would be, not atoms or sub-atomic particles, but molecules. Unlike molecules, however, kalapas include many qualities that in fact only emerge at a higher level of organisation, such as ‘flavour’ or ‘nutrition’. I believe that some modern schools of Buddhist meditation use the word kalapas in much the same way as Avery, and I presume this is where he picked it up from.

I am much less sure where he gets the term bhanga from. This is an ordinary word meaning ‘dissolution, break-up’. It doesn’t have any particular technical meaning in early Buddhism, but in the Theravadin commentaries it refers to the dissolution of momentary phenomena, especially as experienced in certain stages of vipassana. Avery, on the other hand, describes bhanga as ‘a state of perfect detachment… transcendence of the body, of the objective world, of space, and of self.’ There is a sense of dissolution about it, as he speaks of how the diversity of objects melt into a single thing, as the material world dissolves into quanta. However, the defining aspect of bhanga, if I understand it correctly, is not the dissolution, but entering into an experience of wholeness of perception, hearing the voice of every cell, feeling the body in five dimensions.

So as someone familiar with Buddhism, I found myself in the position of having to consciously edit out the ‘Buddhist’ words he uses, and treat these terms as blank ciphers that I fill in with Avery’s meanings. A useful practice in cognitive flexibility, to be sure, but not a sign of effective use of language.

The ideas he takes as Buddhist are not found at all in early Buddhism. The Buddha never talked in terms of momentariness, pixels of experience and the like. There are many interesting points of connection between early Buddhism and modern science, and these would be a fascinating basis for exploration, but that isn’t what we find here.

I’m not competent to analyse Avery’s treatment of science with the same precision. His descriptions of quantum theory and relativity as such seem fine to me; better than fine, they seem highly articulate and insightful, the fruits of long years of reflection.

However, like virtually all spiritual books on quantum physics, he ignores the fact that the interpretation of quantum physics on which he relies – the Copenhagen Interpretation – is contested, and more to the point, is not regarded by its developers as having the significance that Avery ascribes to it. Avery says that the scientists don’t understand the implications of their theories; and he may be right. Still, it’s important to acknowledge the uncertainties and not convey the impression that what you are saying is ‘quantum theory’ in any straightforward sense.

It seems to me that Avery’s theories – which I will come to in a moment – would have been better served by having the confidence to present them as is, as his theories, and then exploratory journeys could have been sent to the lands of quantum theory and Buddhism. By titling the book as he did, and by structuring it as a meeting ground between two disparate worlds, he opens himself up to criticisms that obscure the more important theses of his work.

Which are as follows. When you experience a subtle point of experience, this is the voice of a cell, specifically the leaping of electrons across synapses. This is a quantum event. By sitting, open-eyed, in ‘quantum meditation’, you can learn to directly experience the field of consciousness. That field is not happening in space, it is space, as it is defined by the speed of light. Space is the distance between photons, and photons are visual consciousness.

Avery says that aim of his meditation is not, as in traditional Buddhist meditation, to escape from the world, but to experience and understand it. Fair enough, he’s clear about what he’s doing. His work constantly presents startling and mind-bending assertions, and asks that you take them on board and actually experience what he’s talking about. It’s a big ask, and it works: I found myself paying attention in meditation in ways that I hadn’t before, noticing in new ways. Reading his work, I found myself oscillating between outrage at the more implausible leaps of logic (‘Cells aren’t quanta! They’re way too big!’) and feeling that somehow my mind was being almost, but not quite, turned inside out.

The organic treatment of relativity was the highlight of the book, and I found much less to complain about there as compared to the quantum stuff. I’m reluctant to describe it in detail, partly because I’m not sure that I understand it well enough, and partly because I’m afraid that a summary will be reductive and misleading. Avery’s style is intrinsic to his meaning; I could get around this by giving some quotes, but outside of their context, they are likely to appear simply incomprehensible.

He invokes the familiar strangenesses of relativity – the changes in mass, time, and length approaching light-speed, the unity of space-time, and so on – and relates them to the experience of consciousness. He takes visual consciousness as the foundation of all consciousness, which is interesting as sight is indeed the basic metaphor of consciousness in the Suttas. But for Avery this is not merely because eyesight happens to be an important sense organ for humans; it is because of the unique properties of photons.

At this point I felt it was rather a shame that Avery didn’t discuss early Buddhist meditation, with its emphasis on the perception of light as a basis for unifying consciousness. The experiences he describes, while serving as useful groundings for his theories, remain within the circumscribed realm of modern vipassana practice. How, I wonder, would he describe the experience of consciousness becoming a sheer mass of light, as in deep samadhi?

If you’re after a book on Buddhism, this is not for you. If you’re after a book on quantum theory, this is not for you. But if you want to explore the ways that the ideas underlying modern science can be applied to bend and twist the mind into new shapes, Buddha and the Quantum offers a challenging set of models and analogies. I really hope that there is a fundamental connection between Buddhism and science, and I hope that a work like this can help bring out this connection a little more. However, until both the science and the Buddhism become a lot more rigorous, such connections remain no more than intriguing possibilities.

Art & Ought

I was at a Buddhist gathering recently, and I heard the following exchange. A young man asked the question: ‘I’m a painter. I’ve been through some dark times, and this is expressed in my work. I don’t know whether I should put my paintings out there. I think there’s something valuable in what I’ve done, but I don’t want to just make others depressed.’ The answer, more or less: ‘Wait till you’re happy and put out happy paintings.’

This captures a deep ambivalence in Buddhism towards art. On the one hand, there is an extraordinarily rich heritage of Buddhist art, so much so that for many places in some periods the history of art is the history of Buddhist art. But there is also this feeling, often not quite articulated, that there is something untrustworthy about art. It belongs to the realm of the senses, and is merely a trap, an illusion.

Plato shared this distrust of art, treating it as a mere imitation of life, and therefore inherently inferior, a cheap knock-off of the truth. The only role for art in his imagined Republic was to hold up the values of society. Only orderly, positive, harmonious music was to be heard; dissonant, depressing, or chaotic music was to be banned.

As a former musician, I read the Republic with a kind of fascinated horror. It read like a fascist fantasy. But where, exactly, did it go wrong?

Let us start with a distinction. On the one hand we have what I shall call ‘didactic art’. This is art with a message. Plato’s kind of art, or the kind of art that is found in every Buddhist temple. It expresses an ideal and imposes a value. It is art with an ‘ought’: ‘This is the perfect (person, society, religion…), and it is how you should be.’

On the other hand there is, shall we say, ‘expressive art’. This is art that has no ‘moral’ or ‘message’, but expresses what someone feels or wants to say. It has no ought, only an is. Lou Reed was once asked whether his song ‘Heroin’ was for or against taking heroin. He said it was not for it or against it – it was about it. That is expressive art in a nutshell: not judging, but experiencing.

And that is why the moralists are afraid of expressive art. They are afraid that if everything we do or say does not contain the right kind of moral message, it is somehow an invitation to chaos. So for most Buddhists, who are primarily interested in Buddhism as a message or a moral, didactic art is fine, but expressive art is dubious. And so if you don’t have a Buddhist message, perhaps it’s best if you wait until you have the right thing to say before you say it.

I would suggest that we consider expressive art a little more carefully before writing it off. Not everything is morality; there are other, sometimes deeper matters. Sometimes art is not ethical but existential. Expressive art is not interested in judging. Compare it to insight meditation, where we objectify our feelings and thoughts so they can be dispassionately observed. I think something similar, at a more basic level, is happening in expressive art.

How does art work? In Pali, the word that means ‘expression’ is viññatti, literally ‘making known’. Think in terms of the Buddhist idea of sankhāras, all things as vibrations of energy, patterns resonating, changing. An ‘idea’ is when some of these energies coalesce into an attractive or meaningful pattern; we feel an instinctive desire to propagate, remember, make concrete, or share this idea, or ‘meme’. In ‘expression’, part of the mind is ‘pressed out’, or ‘made known’. The patterns in my mind become a part of yours.

In didactic art, the artist expresses not where they are at, but where they believe they should be. An idea is formed in time and space and mere fantasy takes on form. A Buddha image, for example, appears, and is given idealized shape by one who themselves is very far from Awakening. The sincerity of didactic art lies not in the representation of truth, but in the purity of the aspiration. Setting up something ‘up there’, an artistic image draws the mind upwards; both the artist and the viewer end up in a similar relation with the object as an imagined other, a better possibility, an aspirational possibility.

Problem is, what if I don’t share your aspiration? What if I don’t want to be a Buddha? To be frank, most religious art I find unbearably kitsch and cloying, smug in its sense of superiority and certainty. I may well agree with the ‘values’, but the work itself does nothing to me. And that is even now; if I were not a Buddhist, it would be even worse. There is no connection, so the aim of drawing the mind up simply does not happen.

So if didactic art has the function of an ‘ought’, then what of the ‘is’? How does that work?

When someone’s sad, what do they do – put on some happy-clappy music and just get over it? Maybe; but more than likely you’ll want to listen to sad music. Why is that? Are we just making things worse? Far from it.

Consider what’s happening. There you are, all sad and lonesome. No-one loves you, no-one cares. Depression is always lonely. But when you hear a sad song, the first thing it says is, ‘You are not alone!’. Bruce Springsteen captured it in perfect brevity:

Roy Orbison’s singin’ for the lonely,
Hey that’s me! And I want you only.

When you hear the song you can make a connection. There are other people like you. The sad energy patterns coursing in your brain/mind/body are not too dissimilar to the patterns found in that song (or painting or poem or whatever). So straight away, you’re a little less lonely. And this is why the character in Springsteen’s song, after making the artistic connection, immediately expresses his love. Is he limited and still entrapped in samsara? Of course, but in a (relatively) good way. Instead of despair, there is hope. The character declares himself to his beloved in a way that is so honest, simple, and direct. That takes a lot of guts; it’s more than most can do.

This why there is such adulation and love for artists. Their genius is to somehow capture a part of their humanity and express it so that others can share. When you participate in that, when your energy patterns resonate with the art, you feel, well, love. Because that’s essentially what love is, right? A genuine, heartfelt connection with another, with the ‘you’ to whom so many love songs are addressed. When we love the art work, we fall a little in love with the artist as well (which is why so many people want to be artists!)

But there’s more to it than that. It’s not just a matter of expressing emotion. Art combines feeling with form. And the form is no less significant. It is the form that makes the emotion safe. You can cry all you like, because the song will be over in three minutes. Emotion is contained and managed within a rigorous, highly formalized mathematics.

This is especially so in that most emotive of arts, music. Almost every song you have heard is some variation of an eight or twelve bar form, with four or three beats to a bar, mathematical subdivisions of the beats, and the pitches arranged using a selected eight notes from the artificial system of twelve semitones that Western music has imposed against the natural harmonics.

We express and identify with emotion in music so readily not in spite of but because of the rigidity of the form. And as a rule, the more emotive the music – think blues or punk – the more rigid the underlying structure.

So art offers, first of all, a gift of compassion, a ‘feeling with’ the artist. They are also given that essential safety net of boundaries, an order that contains and manages that emotion. This in itself is of extreme value, as it models a healthy psychological response to emotion. Rather than repress it, it needs to be felt and acknowledged, but managed so that it does not take over.

Still there is more. Great art offers not just compassion and a safe place, but the possibility of redemption. Didactic art seems to have it all figured out, it knows where it is headed; but expressive art is still lost. That’s why it appeals to the lost and the lonely, who detest the smug middle-class certitudes of didactic art. But there is something there, implied in the very lostness.

Great art is great because it holds an inherent tension in the strong arms of its form. The greater the tension, the greater the command of form that is needed to contain it. Inside that tension there is chaos, and this is frightening to those who need a moral. Now this, now that, the contradictions and ambiguities that art delights in.

But any artist knows, tension demands a resolution. The very fact of the tension, of the holding and acknowledging of contradiction, swells the heart to bursting. If the command of form is insufficient, the work crumbles into pretentiousness or dissolution. But in the hands of a master, the tension serves a greater purpose. Little tensions deal with little issues and result in little transformation. Great tensions demand a great resolution, a real transformation; ultimately a transcendence of the form itself.

A classic example is The Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Bilbo were Ring-bearers; in their intimate acquaintance with that heart of transcendent evil, they found a resolution; but the cost of that was that they could no longer stay in the mundane world. They set out over the seas, following the Straight Road, and come into no more stories.

In the heart of the most depressing or perverse work of art is the seeds of its opposite. The promise of redemption, I believe, is what draws us towards art.

Before I was a monk, one of my favorite songwriters was Nick Cave. His was perhaps the darkest music I ever heard; chaotic, menacing, drug-fuelled, death-obsessed. A moralist’s nightmare. And yet there was always something deeply redemptive about his work. He was a writhing spiky-haired screaming heroin addict who could write words like this verse of The Weeping Song:

O my father, have you been weeping?
Your face seems wet to touch.
O, I’m so sorry father –
I didn’t mean to hurt you so much.

The power of his work comes in the depth of the contradiction. There is backstory: Nick Cave detested what his father did (he was an English teacher) and wanted to be as different from him as possible. Then, when he was a 19-year-old delinquent in St Kilda gaol, his father died in a car crash. In his beautiful essay, The Secret Life of the Love Song, he speaks of how he had tried so hard to reject his father, yet his life seemed to draw him back, so that now here he is, standing in a lecture hall speaking about literature – just as his father did. In The Weeping Song, there is a confusion and an unassuming, tender intimacy; he does not see his father crying, but touches his wet face. From such a profound gulf, so many years later, comes such a moving moment. We can feel, for just a moment, something reach out and touch us.

In that essay, Cave gets at the heart of what I am calling expressive art, especially in the form of the love song. Every love must contain a tension, says Cave, and at the heart of that tension is the secret: the real object of a love song is not the lover, but the Beloved. A true love song reaches, inchoately, for the Divine.

One of the greatest of all love stories is the Persian tale of Majnun and Layla. They were archetypal star-crossed lovers. The twist was that, rather than be reunited against all odds, their love become so profound in separation that they became the very essence of Love, a life lived in yearning for the Divine. They no longer needed to be together.

In Buddhism we are not really comfortable with the idea of the Divine on a doctrinal level; nor with the notion of the soul’s yearning for a vaguely-conceived ‘Thou’. But these are just details; don’t get caught up in them. The real issue is the sense that there is a life of greater things. Call it purpose or aspiration or transformation or Awakening. The details only matter when we put on our philosopher’s hat; but as long as we wear that hat, then like Plato we will never understand art. We will use artistic forms to articulate our doctrines, and cannot get our heads around the idea that for many others, that’s just not the point. Put on the philosopher’s hat for doing philosophy, but take it off for reading poetry.

Not to say, however, that expressive art is better than didactic art. Both have their place, and both can be wonderful (even if they are usually banal). In great didactic art, there is a genuine and profound affect, no less than in expressive art. Witness, for example, the magnificent monument at Borobudur, and in the tellings of the Buddha’s life, in the countless variations of gentle, harmonious forms, in the perfect integration of form and content you will find your mind uplifted, tenderly, lovingly, and without even noticing it. A perfectly realized work of didactic art, it draws you – literally – upwards towards Nirvana.

It is just that expressive art should not be judged according to the standards of didactic art. We should not ask, ‘Does that (song, movie, book) have Buddhist values or themes’ (unless, of course, it is meant to have those things). Rather, we should ask, ‘Does that work of art call out to my soul? Does it dare to tread waters of dark uncertainty? Does it laugh at easy answers? Has it walls strong enough to contain a tide of feeling? And does it offer somehow, somewhere, a glimpse of redemption?’

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to argue that art is a path to enlightenment, or that it is superior to meditation in understanding the mind. I was a full-time artist of expression for many years, and I turned to Buddhism because I had, for me, exhausted the limits of where I could go through music. Meditation is far more subtle, and the spiritual path, properly lived, takes us beyond the reach of story. But for many people, this is not where they are at. An art of ambiguity, of tension, even of darkness, can reach places that a spiritual path cannot go. It would be foolish, even cruel, to close any door to the heart. Perhaps only a little light may peek through the crack; but in the deepest of nights even a little light can sometimes be enough.

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?

Awesome abstract tantric art

A new book called Tantra Song brings to light an extraordinary series of abstract paintings, foreshadowing European abstraction by centuries. Unlike the later European movement, however, these do not come from a dissolution of value, but from capturing the essence of ancient wisdom. Each retains the symbolism of its Indian heritage, but is expressed in a strikingly free form, one which dispenses with all conventions of iconography to reimagine its vision of the subject. A New York Times article gives some idea of the symbolism involved.

17th century tantric image from Rajasthan

17th century tantric image from Rajasthan

This image represents purified consciousness

Ten Ideas About Time

Here’s an interesting article positing ten “facts” about time, as understood from the point of view of a physicist, Sean Carroll. The ideas are taken from a conference, and attributions for the ideas are in the original article. I thought it would be interesting to see how each of these ten points reflects on time as conceived in Buddhism. Here goes:

1. Time exists. Might as well get this common question out of the way. Of course time exists — otherwise how would we set our alarm clocks? Time organizes the universe into an ordered series of moments, and thank goodness; what a mess it would be if reality were complete different from moment to moment. The real question is whether or not time is fundamental, or perhaps emergent. We used to think that “temperature” was a basic category of nature, but now we know it emerges from the motion of atoms. When it comes to whether time is fundamental, the answer is: nobody knows. My bet is “yes,” but we’ll need to understand quantum gravity much better before we can say for sure.

According to mainstream Buddhist philosophy, time does not in fact exist. Whether anything at all “exists” is debated (since things are interdependant, how can they truly be said to “exist”?) But time is even less secure than, say, matter or mind. Normally time is conceived of as merely the fluctuations in consciousness, and we speak of “time” as merely a convention to help in communication. I don’t think Carroll’s argument here, such as it is, is cogent at all: time “exists” because otherwise things would be in a mess? Not really. The observable reality is the activity of things (including the mind). An inferrable reality is that this activity is ordered (since, for example, we can observe repeated patterns of similar phenomena: day follows night, greed follows contact, and so on.) Time is no more than a meta-inference, an inference from an inference derived from our memory of changes in consciousness. I’m afraid that Carroll’s perspective is still based in a “cosmic policeman” view of natural phenomena: the laws of nature tell everything what to do. From a Buddhist point of view, this is nonsense. There is no “time” that structures events into past, present and future, there is just the observable reality, which we find useful to describe in terms of a concept of time.

2. The past and future are equally real. This isn’t completely accepted, but it should be. Intuitively we think that the “now” is real, while the past is fixed and in the books, and the future hasn’t yet occurred. But physics teaches us something remarkable: every event in the past and future is implicit in the current moment. This is hard to see in our everyday lives, since we’re nowhere close to knowing everything about the universe at any moment, nor will we ever be — but the equations don’t lie. As Einstein put it, “It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.”

Classic Sarvastivada! I’m not sure how true this is even in the arena of physics – no doubt it is true for Einstein, but what of quantum ambiguity? In any case, see the rhetorical trick Carroll is using here: if the equations of physics don’t distinguish between past, present, and future (and remember, the equations don’t lie!), then there is no meaningful distinction. Except, you know, every waking moment of consciousness of every sentient being ever. (Caveat: due exception made for deep states of samadhi…) But we can just discount that, because, since when has real experience had anything to do with the truth? Facts within the realm of physics may be neutral regarding past, present, and future, but the mind certainly is not. There are genuine differences between these things, and any description of the world that takes consciousness seriously has to account for these. This is not to say that the classic Theravadin view (that the present is real and the past and future merely illusions) is necessarily correct. I think it is more subtle than that.

3. Everyone experiences time differently. This is true at the level of both physics and biology. Within physics, we used to have Sir Isaac Newton’s view of time, which was universal and shared by everyone. But then Einstein came along and explained that how much time elapses for a person depends on how they travel through space (especially near the speed of light) as well as the gravitational field (especially if its near a black hole). From a biological or psychological perspective, the time measured by atomic clocks isn’t as important as the time measured by our internal rhythms and the accumulation of memories. That happens differently depending on who we are and what we are experiencing; there’s a real sense in which time moves more quickly when we’re older.

In this we can agree. In fact, the relativity of time is a commonplace to any meditator. Have you noticed, on retreat the minutes last a lot longer, but the weeks just whizz by? As usual, this fact of meditative experience is reflected in Buddhist cosmology, where not only is the lifespan of higher realms said to be much longer, but the subjective experience of time is said to be far slower. The Payasi Sutta says, “In the Heaven of the Thirty Three Gods, time passes at a different pace, and people live much longer. In the period of our century, only a single day would have passed for them.”

4. You live in the past. About 80 milliseconds in the past, to be precise. Use one hand to touch your nose, and the other to touch one of your feet, at exactly the same time. You will experience them as simultaneous acts. But that’s mysterious — clearly it takes more time for the signal to travel up your nerves from your feet to your brain than from your nose. The reconciliation is simple: our conscious experience takes time to assemble, and your brain waits for all the relevant input before it experiences the “now.” Experiments have shown that the lag between things happening and us experiencing them is about 80 milliseconds.

This is one of those little details that is in retrospect obvious. Bits and pieces are assembled from experience, and these take different amounts of time to be processed into the “present”. In Buddhist psychology, the factor that does the assembling is called “saññā“. It is not that different from viewing a page on the internet, where all the different elements are passed in various pathways through the web and assembled by the browser on your computer. Notice how this notion of a “continually assembled” present doesn’t sit all that well with the commonplace Abhidhamma view of an instananeous “present moment”. Actually, the Buddha didn’t speak of a “present moment’, but of the “present” (paccuppanna rather than paccuppannakkhana). Reality as experienced is not a bunch of discrete lumps of immediately present flashes of awareness, but a continually unfolding, dynamically constructed, field of awareness.

5. Your memory isn’t as good as you think. When you remember an event in the past, your brain uses a very similar technique to imagining the future. The process is less like “replaying a video” than “putting on a play from a script.” If the script is wrong for whatever reason, you can have a false memory that is just as vivid as a true one. Eyewitness testimony, it turns out, is one of the least reliable forms of evidence allowed into courtrooms.

This is a commonplace, but it is interesting to know that the way the brain constructs the past and the future are similar. (There is some research into dreams that suggests that we dream approximately equally of the past and future…) Both of them are constructed realities. But hey! Haven’t we just found out that the present, too, is actively constructed? This again tends to deconstruct the idea of rigidly separated “past”, “future”, “present”. Perhaps it’s more like a bell curve with a sharply accentuated awareness in the middle, which we call “present”, with a relatively high imposition of sense data on the reconstruction, trailing off to a dimly aware past and even more dimly aware future, where sense data is far less vivid, and reconstruction and imagination play a far greater role.

6. Consciousness depends on manipulating time. Many cognitive abilities are important for consciousness, and we don’t yet have a complete picture. But it’s clear that the ability to manipulate time and possibility is a crucial feature. In contrast to aquatic life, land-based animals, whose vision-based sensory field extends for hundreds of meters, have time to contemplate a variety of actions and pick the best one. The origin of grammar allowed us to talk about such hypothetical futures with each other. Consciousness wouldn’t be possible without the ability to imagine other times.

Very much true – pointed out 2500 years ago by the Buddha in the Mahanidana Sutta: “It is to this extent that there is birth, aging, and death, passing away and reappearing; it is to this extent that there is a means of designation, language, and description, to this extent there is the range of wisdom, to this extent that the round (of samsara) turns such that this state of existence may be discerned, that is to say, with name-and-form together with consciousness.” The role of grammar, as pointed out above, is emphasized by the Buddha in such suttas as Samyutta 22.62. The basic idea is that consciousness is actively constructed by the linguistic, conceptualizing properties of the mind (nāma). Making sense of the stream of change in experience (birth, aging, death, and so on) requires the use of grammar, dividing the world up into past, present and future, from which we derive our abstract concept of “time”. There is, therefore, an intimate link between the designation “past” and the experienced reality “past”. In other words, it is our ability to name things that draws our attention to the past, and thereby keeps us trapped in it. I remember “yesterday”, and ruminate about what “was”, and what I can do about that “tomorrow”, and as long as I remain in the realm of “consciousness”, I cannot fully escape this construct.

7. Disorder increases as time passes. At the heart of every difference between the past and future — memory, aging, causality, free will — is the fact that the universe is evolving from order to disorder. Entropy is increasing, as we physicists say. There are more ways to be disorderly (high entropy) than orderly (low entropy), so the increase of entropy seems natural. But to explain the lower entropy of past times we need to go all the way back to the Big Bang. We still haven’t answered the hard questions: why was entropy low near the Big Bang, and how does increasing entropy account for memory and causality and all the rest?

Okay, entropy increases, I get that. But how does that relate to the big(ger) picture of Buddhist cosmology? In future universes, does entropy get a reboot? The notion of entropy in a very general sense fits in with impermanence, but I am not sure if there are any more specific Buddhist ideas that connect with this. One thinks of the notion that we are in a period of decline; but entropic disorder is not social decline, and anyway, with this (still entropically increasing) universe there is supposed to be a future upopia under Maitreya. Any thoughts?

8. Complexity comes and goes. Other than creationists, most people have no trouble appreciating the difference between “orderly” (low entropy) and “complex.” Entropy increases, but complexity is ephemeral; it increases and decreases in complex ways, unsurprisingly enough. Part of the “job” of complex structures is to increase entropy, e.g. in the origin of life. But we’re far from having a complete understanding of this crucial phenomenon.

This agrees with general Buddhist notions, that there is increase and decline of complexity, whether considered in the environment, society, or an individual’s mind, according to complex interweavings of conditions. The Buddha didn’t discuss complexity as such, although he did warn against the extremes of viewing the world as irreducibly complex or simple (sabbam nānattam, sabbam ekattam). Even though it is commonly assumed today that Buddhism is all about simplicity, this idea is not found in early Buddhism (except in the sense of a simple lifestyle, of course). Buddhist ideas and philosophy have, in fact, always been complex, and this stems right back to the Suttas. I think the Buddha, in accordance with the avoidance of extremes, used complex or simple teachings as appropriate to the subject and people at hand. That is to say, simplicity and complexity are in and of themselves value free, it is just that they need to be deployed appropriately. Since the world itself displays complexity, it is sometimes appropriate to use complex language to describe it. Insisting on simplicity as an absolute value impoverishes the ways we can describe the world, and hence impoverishes the ways we can respond to it.

9. Aging can be reversed. We all grow old, part of the general trend toward growing disorder. But it’s only the universe as a whole that must increase in entropy, not every individual piece of it. (Otherwise it would be impossible to build a refrigerator.) Reversing the arrow of time for living organisms is a technological challenge, not a physical impossibility. And we’re making progress on a few fronts: stem cells, yeast, and even (with caveats) mice and human muscle tissue. As one biologist told me: “You and I won’t live forever. But as for our grandkids, I’m not placing any bets.”

I’ll believe it when I see it. Until then, I agree with the comment by Steffen in the original article: “I am glad that death exists, and when my time arrives, I will go, to make place for the young generation. They deserve their chance.”

10. A lifespan is a billion heartbeats. Complex organisms die. Sad though it is in individual cases, it’s a necessary part of the bigger picture; life pushes out the old to make way for the new. Remarkably, there exist simple scaling laws relating animal metabolism to body mass. Larger animals live longer; but they also metabolize slower, as manifested in slower heart rates. These effects cancel out, so that animals from shrews to blue whales have lifespans with just about equal number of heartbeats — about one and a half billion, if you simply must be precise. In that very real sense, all animal species experience “the same amount of time.” At least, until we master #9 and become immortal.

This is one of those little factettes that doesn’t really affect anything, but is remarkable enough in its own way. Meditate and your heart will slow down, and you’ll live longer. The yogic idea correlates lifespan with the number of breaths we take – I don’t know if there is any empirical evidence for this, but it seems sensible enough. On a philosophical level, however, this reminds us that all our measures of time, whether lifespan, heartbeats, day and night, seconds, or cycles of a pulsar, or oscillations of electromagnetic radiation, are ultimately rooted in the human experience of time, all organic, messy, and subjective. No matter how confident the physicists become in their confident pronunciations of what time “really” is, don’t let your own experience be hijacked by the High Priests of Knowledge. What you experience is what time is for you, and that is the most important thing there is.