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.

Announcing Open Sanskrit

Here’s my first ever attempt at working with a font. I’ve called it Open Sanskrit and you can get it here.

Download Open Sanskrit

It’s a version of the free Open Sans font, expanded for use with Pali and Sanskrit. I’ve added a number of glyphs, namely ṛḷṭḍḥṣṇṅṁ (and their uppercase variants). The common Pali/Sanskrit glyphs āīūñś are already in Open Sans.

Why have I ventured into modifying fonts? Simply because I couldn’t find any good sans serif font to use in publications that would serve as a partner for my preferred text font, Gentium.

There are only a few free sans fonts that support the diacriticals necessary for Pali and Sanskrit. Most of these I ruled out for aesthetic reasons—they don’t play well with Gentium, and/or they are knock-offs of over-used designs. I wanted a workhorse companion sans that can be used for ‘everything else’, from bits of information to graphic design.

Open Sans is designed by Steve Matteson, type director of Ascender Corp, and so is fully professional in its features. It’s a humanist font, meaning that it uses a less geometric, subtly ‘hand-drawn’ feel, but is still very clean and neutral. It shares a similar design ethos to Gentium, being warm and readable, respectful of traditional design canons but not a copy of anything else.

It’s been released under an Apache 2.0 licence, which means that modifications may be freely made, as long as it is not marketed under the same name. This is why, even though I’ve only cut and pasted a few dots, I had to give the font a new name. And, you know, ‘Open Sanskrit’—cute, no?

Open Sans has almost unrivalled versatility for a free font. It includes 897 glyphs, and comes in 5 weights, each with its own italic, as well as three condensed forms—that’s thirteen variants. I have added the new glyphs to all of these.

I have omitted the ‘m underdot’ ṃ, known colloquially as ‘the Mark of the Beast’. As is well know, this glyph is an abomination, used only by those who are plotting to destroy Buddhism and delete all cute kitten videos from YouTube.

Why? Well, if you look at the glyphs used for Pali/Sanskrit, several of them have a dot underneath, and that dot always means the same thing—retroflex. That means they are pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled so that the back touches the roof of the mouth. Try it (and post the results on YouTube, please. We all need some light relief now that the kitten videos are under attack.) There is also the ‘n overdot’ ṅ, which means ‘nasal’. So when it comes to the other nasal, which sounds identical to ṅ and only formally differs, you’d think it would be logical to preserve the pattern by using ‘m overdot’ ṁ, right? Unfortunately, many Pali/Sanskrit sites and publications don’t think so. They use ṃ, the only justification for which is that they want to create confusion and darkness in the heart. The Mark of the Beast will not disappear until it has accomplished its dark task and the True Dhamma (and kitten videos) are no more.

I have also omitted the rare Sanskrit glyphs ṝ and ḹ, as my Sanskrit needs are limited and I have never used them. It would be good to add these, and possibly other glyphs used in less common Indic dialects. I might get around to this someday, but meanwhile if anyone wants to do it, please feel free. I’ve released the font under the same Apache 2.0 licence as the original, so anyone can make changes. If you just want to make a new variant, that’s fine, but if you’d like to just add some glyphs and keep it as Open Sanskrit, let me know and I’ll consider whether to update Open Sanskrit.

I made the changes using the excellent open source Font Forge. This was my first venture into font making, so I may well have messed something up. No guarantees! Nevertheless, I have been using Open Sanskrit as system font, default web font, and for most applications for several weeks and have had no problems.

There is one minor issue that I haven’t got to the bottom of. Look closely at certain combinations, such as ṇḍ, and in small sizes the underdots look like they’re at different heights. That’s not the case—increase the size or print it out and you’ll see they’re even. Perhaps this is an issue with the hinting.

Anyway, please download and enjoy!

Freud & happiness

I’m just revising an essay on Buddhism and psychotherapy, and was checking up a reference to Freud’s Studies on Hysteria. This book, co-authored with Josef Breuer, was one of the earliest texts to describe the process of psychoanalysis.

He concludes the book with an oft-quoted remark to the effect that therapy can alleviate ‘hysterical misery’, compared to which ‘common unhappiness’ was far preferable. This is usually quoted to suggest that Freud believed that therapy could only lead to ‘common unhappiness’; but that’s not quite the point he was making.

The remark came in the form of an imaginary dialogue, where a patient asks him, ‘If my problems have been caused by my history and circumstances, then how can therapy help?’

This is a crucial question, one which is faced in a different way within Buddhism: if suffering is all due to past kamma, then how can action in the present free me from what was done in the past? The answer the Buddha gave is that suffering is influenced but not determined by past kamma; we create suffering through our responses to our present circumstances. By responding differently, we alleviate suffering.

Freud, however, sidesteps a direct answer to his own question. His answer avoids the question of how an inner-directed therapy can address problems that have an external source, and simply asserts that the process works, and can be verified by the patient’s own experience.

I was intrigued by his notion of unhappiness here, and did a quick search of this book for mentions of happiness and unhappiness. The results are really rather striking, I think. Here are all the mentions of happiness in Studies on Hysteria, finishing with the ‘common unhappiness’ passage.

We must not vaunt our happiness

we do not boast of our happiness until unhappiness is in the offing

many misfortunes and not much happiness

the blow fell which destroyed the happiness

their lost happiness

their former family happiness

the happiness she had lost

the gloomy reflection that … this happiness should have come to such an end

the contrast between her own loneliness and her sick sister’s married happiness

she sat down and dreamt once again of enjoying such happiness

a doubter feels himself threatened in the matter of his happiness

to threaten his happiness

his feeling of unhappiness and his incapacity for work grow more intense

But you will be able to convince yourself that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

It’s all a bit miserable, isn’t it? There’s no real investigation of happiness. Rather than the hedonic experience of happiness, for Freud the main point seems to be a conventional contentment. But even that is far away; the words speak of loss and ending of happiness. Happiness is something hard to gain, to be envied if others have it. Even if you do have it, you fear its loss; and you cannot make a display of it to others.

Freud was a doctor, and he is concerned with curing those who are suffering. But still, this treatment of happiness is dreadfully impoverished. It is a startling point of difference with the Buddhist texts, which are equally honest about acknowledging the reality and depth of suffering, but which speak of happiness all the time, praising it, analyzing it, and showing how to reach it.

The DEVA: totally orbsome

You’ve all heard the stories of mysterious orbs of light appearing in digital camera shots. Google ‘buddhism orbs’ and you’ll see plenty like this.


While taken as evidence for divine intervention in Buddhism, the orbs themselves seem to enjoy playgounds

music

Islamic ceremonies

and Christian churches just as well.

And why not, I say.

We had lots of orbs at Santi in our cave and elsewhere: the sand here is highly reflective, kick up a little dust and there’s an abundance of orbs. One of our guests was convinced they were the spirits of arahants – and who am I to say otherwise? I won’t publish any here, as there are already far too many in Buddhism who use such things as evidence of divine connections, and far too many people willing to believe them. Meanwhile, claims go back and forth as to whether such things are real, both in Buddhism and elsewhere.

But I know what you’re all thinking: How can I stop those pesky orbs from ruining my perfect photo? Just when you’ve got it framed and focused right, there comes another of those mischievous spirits to distract everyone from the real subject. Which, it strikes me suddenly, is not dissimilar to the Buddha’s response to such things.

Never fear! DEVA is here. Yes, that’s right: Dust – Eliminating – Video – Apparatus. It’s supplied by the wonderfully-named ‘Ghost Gadgets’. These are not skeptics, but ghost hunters, and they wanted to eliminate the ‘false positives’ in their search for the supernatural. DEVA is a simple unit that fits over your camera lens and eliminates virtually all orbs, which are caused by reflections from dust and the like that fall within the camera’s focal range.

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.

How Buddhist traditions are transforming – and being transformed – through their relation with Western psychology.

The following paper was written for the upcoming Buddhism & Australia Conference to be held in Perth in Feb 2-4. Hope to see you there!

Abstract:

Modern Buddhism and psychology have been mutually influencing each other since their formation in the late 19th century. This underlies the most creative and important innovation for both Buddhism and psychotherapy in the 20th century: the mainstreaming and secularization of meditation. The future will see a similar process of creative critique and integration, as more aspects of Buddhism find their way into modern life and thought. This process should not be seen as a danger to Buddhism; on the contrary, it will be the wellsprings of the continued vitality of the Buddhist traditions, as they reflect and examine themselves in the light of new and emerging understandings.

Article:

Psychology is an academic discipline and therapeutic practice that emerged in the cracks made by religion as it disintegrated in the West. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, everything from mystical experience, to the belief in an afterlife, to sexual neurosis, to possession by spirits was unceremoniously stripped from religion and taken over by the psychologists; to the extent that Sigmund Freud was able to comment, “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”

Little wonder that religious people are often defensive when psychology is in the air, with its secularism and its scepticism. But there is a countercurrent to this seemingly inevitable process. William James is reported to have said to a Buddhist monk who came to one of his lectures: “Take my chair. Yours is the psychology everyone will be studying 25 years from now.”

This event is regularly quoted in Buddhist circles as a sign that Buddhist psychology is the direction that western psychology is headed. But notice also that the opposite is true: the Buddhist monk (who some say was Anagarika Dharmapala) was interested enough in western psychology that he wanted to hear what James had to say.

Psychology and Buddhism have much to offer each other, when they are willing to listen and understand with humility. Psychology offers a detailed understanding of psychological development and the formation and nature of mental illness that is far more detailed than anything found in Buddhism. And Buddhism offers contemplative techniques that have been repeatedly proven to be uniquely effective, not only in relieving symptoms of mental illness, but in expanding consciousness to heights unsuspected by Freud.

As the anecdote of James shows, the intersection between Buddhist and psychology, while it has taken flight in the past few decades, is much deeper than that. These two disciplines have been in a symbiotic relationship since the dawn of the modern era. Buddhist ideas were very much current in European intellectual circles in the days of Freud. And new western ideas were very much current in Buddhist lands, many of which were colonies, and all of which were forging new “modernist” forms of Buddhism that enabled their ancient faith to find a new lease of life in this new and dangerous world. Much of what we consider today to be “traditional Buddhism” was in fact invented in the early 20th century, as Buddhists responded to western critiques by developing rational, psychologized versions of ancient Buddhist practices.

The best known of these innovations is the so-called “vipassana” meditation movement. This emerged from a secularization of Buddhist practice. Stripped of ritual and superstition, meditation was henceforth to be a purely inner process of mindful awareness. In this way, the influence of modernity performed a great service for Buddhism, prompting an unprecedented re-invigoration of meditation, a practice that had previously been mostly ignored, or marginalized to the mystical experiences of dubious quasi-shamanic wild monks. This enabled meditation to flourish in “value-free”, secular contexts; to be widely adopted by other faiths; to be implemented in prisons, hospitals, and the like; and to be studied using the quantifiable methods of western science.

But there is a nagging feeling: what has been left behind? Is Buddhism to be stripped of its riches and left as a bland devotional cult while the cutting-edge is adopted by the secularists? Is a meditation technique, divorced of its context of ethics and philosophy, able to deliver the same transformation? While the vipassana movement has, without doubt, accomplished an astonishing feat in bringing meditation to the west, the task is still only beginning.

As a former practitioner of vipassana, I can attest first-hand to the fear of emotions that is often taught in that practice. Pleasure, especially, is fearful and to be shunned as a source of attachment. In this I see the unconscious influence of Buddhism’s western critics like Freud, who argued that meditative absorption was a mere infantile regression to the oceanic immersion in the womb. The vipassana schools responded by rejecting pleasure, and rejecting absorption. Whether or not this hypothesis is correct, one thing is clear: such fear has no basis in the Buddha’s teachings as recorded in the early scriptures, the Pali Nikayas and Chinese Agamas. There, pleasure is seen as, not an obstacle, but the very key to all deeper meditation experiences.

As the influence of Buddhism on psychology grows, therapists who are Buddhist meditators are becoming increasingly aware of this. The fear of pleasure is becoming more muted, and being disposed altogether. The way of approaching vipassana is shifting, becoming gentler, more accepting of emotions, more appreciative of pleasure. As therapists, they are all to aware of the damaging effects of an excessively intense or severe approach to meditation.

As this process goes on among the psychologists, meditation among Theravadin Buddhists is also changing. Three decades ago, almost no-one was teaching samatha (tranquillity) meditation internationally. Gradually, a few rebels appeared, championing the value of absorption meditation (jhanas), and speaking of the role of pleasure in leading to such deep states. One of the pioneers was the first Australian bhikkhuni, Ayya Khema, and soon after our very own Ajahn Brahm. In the US, Venerable Thanissaro, in Malaysia Bhante Dhammavuddho; and in the late 90s Burma’s Pa Auk Sayadaw emerged as one of the leading meditation teachers in that former bastion of pure vipassana.

It is quite remarkable that this movement towards a greater acceptance of samatha meditation has been happening, in parallel and with mutual influence, in both the Theravada bastion of Burmese monasticism, and in the secularist heartland of American Buddhist psychotherapy. No, they are not doing exactly the same thing, but there is a clear and strong connection.

I suggest that, as we see this connection unfold, we are merely seeing the latest chapter in a book that started at the very latest in the late 19th century, with the mutual influence of modern Buddhism and psychotherapy. This will not be the last.

What will the next chapter read like? If I was to hazard a speculation, I would say it will not be meditation. The integration of meditation in western psychology is already approaching completion. Of course, there is much to be done, but that will in terms of expanding and refining existing models and applications. Essentially, both modern Buddhism and psychotherapy agree on the topic of meditation.

What they substantially disagree on is eschatology: what happens when we die? This is a question that clearly has significant psychological impact. It changes the very orientation and meaning of life. As we have seen in the context of meditation, Buddhists responded to western scientific and sceptical critiques of rebirth by modifying or in some cases rejecting the notion of rebirth; and the rejection of rebirth is a commonplace in psychological Buddhism. Yet the vast majority of people, Buddhist or not, believe in rebirth; and it is a mere unfounded assertion to say that they are deluded by their fear of death. It is just as plausible, given that both Freud and the Buddha spoke of a death-wish, to argue that the secularists reject rebirth because of an unconscious longing for annihilation. Neither of these arguments, however, are useful: they use psychology in the wrong way, to dismiss those who are different rather than to understand them. The test of whether a belief is neurotic or not is whether it is beneficial. Clearly many people find belief in an afterlife to be beneficial, so it is unreasonable to dismiss it as a mere delusion. Psychology itself, as repeatedly emphasized by Jung, cannot make judgements about the truth or otherwise of such claims.

The evidence for rebirth, among psychologists, biologists, and others, is strong and growing stronger. In the next generation, I suspect we will see a major shift in perspective. The annihilationists will gradually fade away as the reality of rebirth becomes harder to deny. At the same time, following the pattern of mutual influence, Buddhist ideas will change; while scientific data appears to confirm certain aspects of Buddhist ideas of rebirth, there is no guarantee that it will confirm every aspect of Buddhist teachings. In fact, it is virtually inevitable that it will not. We need to stop using science merely as a tool to validate Buddhist when it is convenient, and start meaningfully considering what the intersection of Buddhism and science implies. For example, in the findings of Ian Stevenson, there does not appear to be any support for the widely-accepted Buddhist notion that your mind state at the time of death will determine your rebirth. Does this mean we must reassess our notions of rebirth? Or is it merely the incomplete state of the evidence?

Buddhists and psychologists will increasingly come to recognize that questions of ultimate meaning and human destiny are not just theoretical or abstract notions, but among the very core concerns of spiritual or psychological development. Accepting, debating, integrating, and dealing with the implications of these difficult matters will, I believe, be the next frontier in the integration of Buddhism in modernity.

One final comment. There are many who feel that Buddhism is watered down, distorted, or corrupted by its encounter with the west. This is wrong, and frankly such ideas can only be the product of someone who has never spent much time in a Buddhist country. Of course Buddhist is watered down and distorted – has it ever been the case that in any place at any time, there’s a nation of Buddhas just wandering around? Buddhist culture is no more a perfect embodiment of what the Buddha taught than Christian culture really reflects the teachings of the Jewish prophet who told his followers to give away all they possessed and follow him.

A little history teaches us that when Buddhism arrives in a new culture, it finds its way by adapting elements of the old culture, allowing those who are satisfied with tradition forms of animist worship to continue to do so, as long as they give up cruel sacrifices and the like. Bits of Buddhist philosophy make their way among the philosophers, meditation practices are undertaken by a few yogis, devotional cults spring up for the masses, simple ethical teachings are preached, stories and local art forms are adapted to Buddhist forms, and so on. This is all no different in principle from what is happening in the west today.

Of course the Buddhism that is accepted in psychology is not the complete fullness of everything that was taught and realized by the greatest sage who ever lived – how could it be? Of course the psychologists will pick and choose, leaving aside those bits they can’t digest – but maybe can later. Since modern western culture is in many ways quite different than any of the other cultures that Buddhism has taken root in in the past, the details of this process will differ greatly. The conversion narratives of Buddhism in the west do not feature the taming of child-eating goblins. It does feature the transformation of psychotherapy. And this will be something of momentous significance for both psychotherapy and Buddhism.

White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes

Finally, it’s ready to publish. This is the book I’ve been working on in the background for several years now: White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes. Now you can get it through Santipada: you can buy it from Lulu in paperback, or download the pdf file for free – I recommend get both versions. I hope to make it available in a variety of other formats, but don’t hold your breath.

White Bones is a massive project, 200 000 words. It’s been a labor of love for me, and I’ve lavished much time and effort to making it just right.

For the rest of the rains retreat, I will be visiting this blog rarely if ever, so this can be something to tide you over till next time. I’d like to engage in a conversation with you about the issues involved in the book. I’m thinking of doing something of a study course with it after the vassa – maybe a chapter per week, with excerpts and discussion.

The book is designed to be read slowly and reflectively. I took my stylistic inspiration from some of the early 20th century writers on mythology, especially James Frazer. I love the way he sets out a simple problem, and then in the course of systematically pursuing the matter at hand, he surveys a vast range of material, all while keeping the original point in mind. Mythology has this wandering, meandering quality, taking everything in as it somehow, despite all appearances, moves towards its inevitable conclusion.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Secular Buddhism discussion

So it’s over now, thanks so much to Winton and Lizzie for agreeing to take part; thanks to the Buddhist Library and Paget for hosting us; and thanks to all those who helped – and not forgetting you all, who helped stimulate the conversation.

The night was, in my ever so humble, an excellent dialogue, one of the few occasions where we really managed to actually pursue some important matters and have a real exchange of ideas, rather than simply stating our positions.

For myself, I learned that this idea of ‘enlightenment’ as a process, rather than a completed state, is central to the secular Buddhist perspective. I had heard the idea before, but didn’t realize how significant it was.

The second thing I learned was a better grasp of why they call themselves ‘Buddhists’. Often the Secular Buddhist crowd are criticized because they don’t fit some externally defined set of criteria for being Buddhist. But in our secular world, belonging to a religion is basically what you write on the census form. If I say I’m a Buddhist, that’s what I am. So Secular Buddhists feel a sense of identity that makes them want to call themselves Buddhist.

These two points are useful for me to help understand where Secular Buddhists are coming from. In addition, it’s starting to dig down to something more interesting. The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘Awakened’. It is a past participle, denoting a completed or perfected state. The finality of the Buddha’s Awakening is fundamental to the whole Buddhist literature and is, for example, a major theme of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. To say ‘the Buddha is not Awakened’ is an oxymoron.

Now we could leap up and down and say, ‘But that’s just irrational.’ And maybe it is. But how many people choose their religion for rational reasons? I certainly didn’t. And the vast majority of people believe in a religion because that’s what their parents believe. If the Secular Buddhist position really is irrational, then this is not a criticism, it is an acknowledgement that forces other than reason are at play. And so: what might those forces be?