Aside

Let peace come to you

When you meditate, just relax.

Don’t try to control your mind.

Don’t try to stop it going here and there.

Just be peaceful.

Don’t watch your breath. Just breathe.

Be at peace when your mind is still. Be at peace when your mind is wandering.

Don’t judge one state as better than the other. It is just how the mind is.

Let mindfulness settle down with the breath.

As you stop judging, stop trying, and stop controlling, peace will come to you.

Welcome it.

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 Devadatta Was No Saint

A little while ago we had some discussion about Reginald Ray’s controversial and popular idea that Devadatta was really a forest saint, unfairly maligned in later Buddhism. I read his work many years ago, and it has always bugged me, so I decided to do a bit of fact checking. Here is the essay that results. Short version: the theory is wrong.

The whole essay is a little too long for a blog post, so you can download the pdf, or read it over on Santipada. Here’s the abstract:

Devad­atta is depic­ted as the archetypal vil­lain in all Buddhist tra­di­tions. Regin­ald Ray has argued for a rad­ical reas­sess­ment of Devad­atta as a forest saint who was unfairly maligned in later mon­astic Buddhism. His work has been influ­en­tial, but it relies on omis­sions and mis­taken read­ings of the sources. Ray’s claim that ‘there is no over­lap between the Mahāsaṅghika treat­ment [of Devad­atta] and that of the five [Sthavira] schools’ is untrue. On the con­trary, the man­ner in which Devad­atta is depic­ted in the Mahāsaṅghika is broadly sim­ilar to the Sthavira accounts. Such dif­fer­ences as do exist are lit­er­ary rather than doc­trinal. The stor­ies of Devadatta’s deprav­ity became increas­ingly lurid in later Buddhism, but this is a nor­mal fea­ture of the myth­o­lo­giz­ing pro­cess, and has noth­ing to do with any ant­ag­on­ism against forest ascet­ics. In any case, the early sources are unan­im­ous in con­demning Devad­atta as the instig­ator of the first schism in the Buddhist community.

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.

10 reasons why 2012 is looking good!

The new year is upon us – and a very merry one for all sentient beings!

The doom-mongers will be out in force this year, so let me, as a died-in-the-wool contrarian, offer 10 reasons why 2012 is shaping up to be a great year.

  • EU is banning factory hens. Ok, that may be a bit overstated, as they are just being allowed some extra space and some other welfare provisions; and there will always be compliance issues, but hey, it’s a start. And provisions for the welfare of other farmed animals is following in the next few years. The appallingly cruel development of factory farming is one of the most vile products of technology, and its end cannot come too soon.
  • Bhikkhunis keep on happening. We have seen the ending of Wat Pa Pong’s policy of banning monks from Bodhinyana who had participated in bhikkhuni ordination. Next year there will be a large scale bhikkhuni ordination in Vesali. While in Malaysia, I heard many hopeful things about the setting up of a new centre there. Through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, I heard words of encouragement, gratitude, and support for the bhikkhunis. There’s over 1000 bhikkhunis now in Sri Lanka, and this is just the beginning.
  • Troops are getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not unproblematic, of course, but surely the only thing that can possibly work in the long term. Perhaps in the future our beloved leaders might reflect first on whether invading foreign countries is the most effective way of making them love democracy and freedom.
  • Kids TV show Waybuloo has got yoga and other cool stuff. Aww! Cute characters be nice to each other, share hugs and grow flowers, and float when they get happy, which is lots! It must be good, ‘cos the fundamentalists hate it.
  • After the Year of the Protestor, what happens next? From the Arab Spring to Occupy, people got out on the streets, almost always peacefully, and said, ‘Enough!’ the struggle for freedom, peace, equality and all good things is very far from over, but it is happening. A couple of years ago, who would have guessed? And what will the outcome be for the next year? Since we know that non-violent protest movements are far more successful than violent ones, I think there is a good chance that at least some of the progress will stick.
  • Fundamentalism is dead. Alright, not dead yet. But dying. Maybe not dying, but still. Pining for the fjords, at least. The unstoppable wave of ignorance and stupidity in the name of ‘religion’, which dominated global events from the time of 9/11, seems to be on the wane. The Arab Spring and other major shifts, including climate change, are driven by other concerns. The Tea Party candidates are dropping out of the US elections; it seems there is a limit to the lunacy that democracies will tolerate. We might even see a drift back to sanity-based politics. Hopefully this will accompany a more healthy relationship between religion and science.
  • Technology catches up on global warming. Even though the political response to the global warming crisis has been an almost unmitigated failure, technology is at least making some headway. This map shows how soon there will be cost parity between solar and current electricity generation in the US. Parity arrives in San Diego in 2014, according to their calculations. For more info, check out The Futuremakers, a great doco on emerging energy technologies by my old friend Maryella Hatfield.
  • More people are meditating than ever before. At least in the US: “A 2007 national Government survey that asked about CAM use in a sample of 23,393 U.S. adults found that 9.4 percent of respondents (representing more than 20 million people) had used meditation in the past 12 months—compared with 7.6 percent of respondents (representing more than 15 million people) in a similar survey conducted in 2002.” That’s nearly 25% increase in 5 years. The growth of meditation worldwide is perhaps the most significant thing ever in the history of humanity. For the first time, a large percentage of people, of all nationalities and religions, and in all kinds of settings, are consciously and deliberately making efforts to purify and expand their consciousness. No-one knows what the possible outcomes of this will be – but it will be more than just a little short term stress reduction.
  • Violence continues to decline. We have discussed Steven Pinker’s argument that violence is, on the whole, in decline. He continues to make his case, and statistics argue in favor of many of his key points. For example, homicide rates worldwide continue to decline. here’s hoping that 2012 will be humanity’s most peaceful ever.
  • The prophets will be wrong, again! Here’s counting down to Dec 20, 2012, when the world is going to end and all the usual yada yada. Me, I’ll be kicking back here at Santi with a lovely cup of coffee and a nice ‘told you so’. You’re welcome to join!

So there’s ten. What other great things can we look forward to in 2012?

The True Wonder of the Mind

I’m struck, more and more, at how strange everything is. We see: and have no idea what seeing really is. We try to ‘explain’ it; eyes, light, nerves, brain, perception, memory, consciousness – and trail off in a sequence of ever more poorly defined and subjective terms. In the end, what have we ‘explained’? Nothing, I am beginning to suspect. And in the end, we still see just the same.

Volition. I want to move my arm and it moves. But what is it, really? When mindfulness gets sharp, you can catch the moment of volition: the shcklmgh of the mind (sorry, I don’t have a better word for it) that just precedes movement. You catch it, and it hovers for a moment, a volition exposed naked in space, almost unbearable, wanting to fulfil the nature of its being, before reluctantly slinking back into its ljbhewerg (sorry again, please suggest a better word if you have one). We think it’s gone. But even with sharp mindfulness you might not notice it; it still lurks, hopeful, and when attention falters it darts out and does the movement, gleeful as a kid with his hand in the lolly jar.

What is the connection between volition and action? The concept is clear enough: a volition precedes (certain) physical actions. (Let’s not get lost in unconscious, automatic, or other even more mysterious processes here…) We will, then we do. But what is the link, really? Look, in experience, there’s nothing there. You can’t see any cause.

‘Cause’ is perhaps the most mysterious thing of all. It seems to be forever hidden, always one step away. We operate, I tend to think, on a hidden assumption of little billiard balls hitting each other. That’s what cause is: one thing ‘hits’ another, and then it ‘causes’ the other thing to change in some way. Of course, this is errant nonsense, even for billiard balls. Zoom in to a close enough resolution, and billiard balls become not solid entities (as imagined in reassuring textbook drawings) but buzzing clouds of semi-organized energies. Like this. So what is actually ‘hitting’ what? Nothing, actually. And if the interactions of mere crude matter are so arcane, so inaccessible, then what of mind, so subtle and elusive?

Perhaps, after all, truth is merely pragmatic. Scientific truth falls apart if you chase it down far enough. At school we learnt Newton’s so-called ‘laws’ – which are routinely broken at both the very small and very large scales. Did you ever stop to think about what these things really mean? What is ‘force’? What is ‘mass’? Even worse are notions like ‘velocity’, which depends on ‘time’ – one of the most indefinable concepts imaginable. Yet we think that somehow these laws ‘explain’ something. What they do, undeniably, is enable us to manipulate things. They give us power, they are pragmatic. But they are more in the nature of accurate rules of thumb than immutable laws inscribed in the universe.

What are we actually seeing when we meditate? Most obviously, the objects of the six senses. We know enough to distinguish, at least in theory, between the bare sense object (e.g. ‘light’) and the conceptual interpretation of what is seen (‘rooster’). So, what is it, then, light? We can answer from the inside, ‘Light is what we see’ (which is tautological), or from the outside, ‘Light is electromagnetic radiation in a range from about 380 or 400 nanometres to about 760 or 780 nm’. Reassuring, with that comforting, lulling precision of science – except when we note that the unit of measurement (the meter) is defined in terms of wavelengths of light, so that’s tautological again. Not to mention the somewhat embarrassing problem that physics doesn’t really know what electromagnetic radiation is, and despite generations of the best minds on the planet devoting their lives to it, they haven’t worked out how it is related to the other supposed ‘fundamental’ forces.

We circle through the incredible journey of discovery that has been humanity’s voyage, and in the end, light is, well, ‘this’. And that, pretty much, is the best we can do without committing to some kind of conceptual loop, some widening gire.

The more I dig down into experience, the less I find. The less I expect to find. And the odder I find any notion that there, at the bottom of it all, is some form of ‘ultimate’ reality; whether that is the ultimate particles that some in physics are still searching for, or the ultimate realities of the Abhidhamma commentaries, which some Buddhists believe they have found many centuries ago. The ‘ultimate realities’ of Buddhist theory are no more solid than those of physics. We know that things like, say ‘taste’ or ‘life’ or ‘faith’ or ‘greed’ are complex and many-faceted, but the (late) abhidhamma theorists treated tham as the ultimate entities of existence. We know that when we do reductionist analysis we find that things on a much smaller level are very different than on higher levels. The parts of a TV are not small TVs. So why should the parts of any of the things we experience be simply smaller occasions of the same experience? I remain mystified as to why so many people find this a vaguely plausible notion.

Reality is not like that. It’s not so readily managed into simple categories. We need to confront it, be with the sheer enormous weirdness of things. Every sense object, sense base, sense consciousness, is just plain weird. Perhaps that should be the fifth mark of conditioned things: impermanence, suffering, not-self, emptiness, and weirdness. (A concept not without its precedents…) And the weirder things get, the more they make sense.

Y’know, in a weird kinda way.

Siddhattha’s practice of samadhi

Siddhattha attained samādhi as a child, and then again under his early teachers. When he was near the night of his Awakening, he recollected the jhana he experienced as a child, and realized that that was the path to Awakening. But why did he reject the experience under his early teachers, even though he reached even higher levels of samādhi, the formless attainments? I can make sense of this only in consideration of the broader context.

When he realized the attainment of jhana as a child his mind was free of theories and control. He was alone under the tree, that is, in the realm of nature. But the event was an ‘accident’. His attainment was part of the intuitive cycle of nature, and as a child he had no way of understanding or reflecting on what had happened.

Under his teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Udaka Rāmaputta, however, he first learnt the theory, that is, the rational explanation of his mystical experiences. This point is emphasized in the original text, but ignored by most discussions of this point. It was that very theory that prevented these meditations from ripening in full Awakening, presumably because they identified a purified state of consciousness with the Eternal Self. Hence he rejected, not the meditative experiences as such, but ‘that Dhamma’, that is, the religious system which framed the meditative experience within a particular dogmatic framework. He started his practice with wrong view, and hence his samādhi was wrong samādhi: it did not lead to insight.

In each case his experience was unbalanced: the jhana as a child came from naïve playfulness with no under­standing of the deeper existential implications; while the experience under his early teachers was dominated by an abstract metaphysic in a patriarchal context.

Now he can return to the same practice on a deeper level of under­standing. He developed the stages of jhana, inspired by his childhood experience in nature, but with equanimity, not allowing the pleasure to overpower his mind. He was mature, balanced, possessed of the objectivity that allowed him to reflect on the conditionality and nature of the samādhi experience. This became ‘right samādhi’: it lead to liberating understanding.

A Swift Pair of Messengers (2)

I’ve finally got around to putting up A Swift Pair of Messengers in various formats, especially as a print=on-demand book from Lulu.com. I promised these many months ago, optimistically saying they’d be ready in ‘a few days’! The hardcover from Lulu is really excellent, I’m very impressed with their quality.

Actually, I’ve been preparing all my old books, and one new one, for publication through Lulu.com. I’m awaiting the next round of proof copies from Lulu and hopefully will get these available in… well, perhaps best not to mention a time frame.

There was some terrific discussion on this after my last post, and if anyone has more comments or questions, that can be continued here. I notice that I didn’t answer everyone’s questions, so I’ll try to get on to that. If I don’t answer your question, please post it again, sometimes I miss things!