01 August 2014

Ethical Modes in Early Buddhism

In the texts of early Buddhism we find several kinds or modes of morality. One of which is mainly aimed at being a good community member and one of which is aimed at preparation for meditation. In this essays I will outline the main approaches to Buddhist ethics that I see in the Pāḷi suttas. This line of reasoning first occurred to me in responding to a comment on my essay: Ethics and Nonself in relation to the Khandhas. (21 Mar 2014). I also argue that this variety of approaches to ethics argues against a single origin for Buddhism. As with other areas, Buddhist ethics is composite with some aspects not being completely integrated.

Being Good. 

This is the aspect of ethics that most of us are familiar with. The representative set of precepts is known as the pañcasīlāni or just pañcasīla. In this formula we undertake to refrain from certain actions: killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication. When I've written essays on these topics (see links), they generated many comments and often sharply polarised responses! 

In the Triratna Order we follow a related set of precepts traditionally known as the dasa-kusala-kamma-patha or 'the path of the ten good actions'. In this set of precepts we undertake to refrain from killing, taking the not given, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, harsh speech, divisive speech, covetousness, ill will, and confusion. And we also undertake to cultivate the opposites of each of these.

One of my colleagues has just published a book which she titled It's Not About Being Good. But I'm afraid I disagree. These precepts are about being good, where good is defined in Buddhist cultural terms which, I argue, can be traced back to the Śākya tribe. The Śramaṇa religious cultures synthesised Zoroastrian (via the Śākyas), Vedic, autochthonic animistic and shamanistic ideas to produce a new set of moral values and rules that transcended the local community and situation. These rules are largely about getting on with people and creating a harmonious community, i.e. norms of behaviour for a community that have become formalised and normalised.

In my article on the possible origins of some aspects of Buddhism in Iran I cited the fact that in the region only Zoroastrians and Buddhists have a morality which applies to acts of body, speech and mind. And in both cases it is acts of body, speech and mind that determine one's afterlife destination. In Zoroastrianism there were only two possibilities, Heaven and Hell; while Buddhism came to see many possible rebirth destinations (gati) of five or six kinds (loka) contrasted with nirvāṇa which meant the end of being reborn altogether (a feature of Buddhism repudiated 500 years later by Mahāyānavādins who couldn't bear the thought of the Buddha leaving them behind). Buddhist morality is probably based on Zoroastrian morality and was transmitted to the Central Ganges Valley by migrating peoples including the Śākya tribe. 

We might therefore see this kind of social-norm morality as simply the morality of the Śākya tribe writ large. This is how the Śākyas treated each other and expected to be treated, and with the influence of Zoroastrianism and the experience of migration it's possible they already saw their values as universal. This should not be seen as an attempt to trivialise Buddhist ethics. Clearly community was very important to the early Buddhists and a whole genre of texts, the Vinaya, was created with the intention of regulating the monastic community to try to create a harmonious and positive community. And the way examples are given it's clear that the community was often far from harmonious.

This code was then used to transform the Theory of Karma. The earliest versions of karma occur in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad where it probably still refers to ritual actions. However there was a right way and a wrong way to perform the rituals necessitating at least two afterlife destinations. With the application of ethics to karma—a process Richard Gombrich calls ethicisation—the Śākyas created a unique combination of morality, eschatology and soteriology, which all revolved around the intentional behaviour of the individual. The key statement of this principle occurs just once in the Pāli texts (AN 6.63) but it is picked up by Nāgārjuna in his Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (chp 17) a s representative view. The statement is cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave, kammaṃ vadāmi  cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti – kāyena vācāya manasā. "Intention is what I call an action, monks. Having intended one acts with body, speech or mind." (See also Action and Intention)

We say that the precepts are part of the three fold path, i.e. śīla, samādhi, and prajñā or ethics, meditation and wisdom. And it is true that the five precepts are referred to as sīla. However the precepts call themselves sikkhapāda 'training steps'. And note that the dasa-kuasala-kamma-patha don't include the word sīla either.

Preparation for Meditation.

A friend and I were discussing Ayya Khema's approach to meditation recently. My friend mentioned her admonition that if you want to meditate you need to get out of the hindrances and stay out. And this brought to mind something I quoted from Ayya Khema in my article about the Spiral Path texts for the Western Buddhist Review. That for meditation to be possible it was necessary to experience some pāmojja. The two statements amount to much the same thing: pāmojja is the state of no (gross) hindrances. 

One of the discoveries that came out of surveying the Pāli and Chinese texts on the Spiral Path was that as a whole they present the threefold path as a series of progressive stages, illustrated by the image of rain filling smaller streams which fill larger streams, smaller rivers and larger rives until larger rivers fill up the ocean. This fact had been obscured in books about the Spiral Path by both Sangharakshita (1967) and Ayya Khema (1999) because they focussed on the Upanissā Sutta. In that sutta the sīla section of the path is replaced with just two steps dukkha and saddhā as a result of a rather clumsy attempt to link the two forms of dependent arising. As my article showed getting from dukkha to saddhā is not simple - typically commentators introduce three sub-steps to get from one to the other. This isn't clear until one looks at all the other texts which share a similar structure (eg. AN 10.1-5, AN 11.1-5, for a complete list see my 2012 article). Generally speaking saddhā arises on the basis of hearing the Dharma, and seems to precede sīla in the texts that include it. 

The Spiral Path texts describe a path. That path has three sections with two junctions. The first section is sīla leading to the liminal experience of pāmojja. Pāmojja ushers us into the second stage, samādhi or meditation (the word literally means 'integration'). Samādhi is one of the steps on the path with various other steps leading up to it. My conjecture is that each of the single words on the Spiral Path represent one of the four rūpajhanas. The junction between meditation and the next stage of wisdom is "knowledge and vision of things as they are" (yathābhūta-ñānadassana). With knowledge and vision we can see sense experience for what it is, we become fed up (nibbidā) with it, turn away (virāga) from it and experience liberation (vimokkha) and the knowledge of liberation.

But the sīla section of the Spiral Path is entirely unlike the precepts. Each text has a different selection from a series of related terms. Some of them, including the Pāli DN2 and many of the Chinese versions in the Madhyāgama, include the whole list. That list is:
sati, sampajanñña, yoniso-manasikāra, hiri, ottapa, saṃvara, and indriyesu gutta-dvāratā.

mindfulness, awareness, wise attention, shame, scruple, restraint, and guarding the gates of the senses.
I mentioned that saddhā is included in this list at times. In fact saddhā might be said to be the junction between non-participation and practising ethics. Typically saddhā arises when someone listens to a Dhamma discourse by the Buddha. On the basis of this faith one begins to practice sīla.

If we look at these terms we can immediately see that they represent something very different from the precepts. This really isn't about being good. This set of terms, with the possible exception of hiri & ottapa, is all about preparation for meditation: for getting out of the hindrances and staying out of them. And there is almost no overlap with sets like the five precepts (pañcasīlāni). One might argue that the "mind precepts" from the dasakuasala-kammapatha do overlap with these. However the kammapatha are general and the Spiral Path ethics are specific. The former are about the commitment to managing one's own mental states, and the latter constitutes a program for achieving that goal.

Hiri and ottapa are about one's own knowledge of what constitutes ethics and being cognizant of the opinions of respected group members. In truth they could be relevant in either of the two contexts I'm outlining here. But the fact is that they are associated with the Spiral Path so that may incline us to see them as natural to this context. One of the things we must constantly do is catch our minds wandering off and returning them to the object of meditation. It is hiri which facilitates this. And if our own sense of appropriateness fails us we can always imagine explaining to our teacher how we spent our meditation.

So there are these two very different approaches to ethics in early Buddhist texts: one for community life, and one for meditation. I don't recall seeing this distinction made before and I'm certainly aware of presentations that confuse the two modes. But there is at least one more aspect to Buddhist ethics, the quest for a good rebirth.

A Good Destination.

It's difficult to know exactly where to place this approach to ethics. It might not even be ethics, but it is an aspect of karma so it is at least related. This approach to ethics is as condition for a better rebirth and ensuring the livelihood of renunciants. It involves cultivating puṇya through good ritual acts such as generosity to renunciants. It seems to relate to the idea of rebirth in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.

Puṇya (Pāḷi puñña) is a term drawn from Vedic ritualism but the practice of supporting renunciants seems to have been a widespread practice in Indian in the Iron Age. Puṇya is contrasted with pāpa and pāpa seems to straightforwardly mean "evil". So puṇya is the opposite of evil, or "good", though we often translate it as "merit". I suppose it is merit in the sense that if you collect enough of it, then you merit a good rebirth. A bit like Buddhist loyalty points. A surplus of puṇya leads to a good rebirth destination (suggati). 

With the ethicisation of karma getting to a good rebirth destination becomes an ethical issue. At best supporting renunciants might be seen as cultivating generosity which is one of the qualities one cultivates to be a good community members. As Reggie Ray has shown in Buddhist Saints the various lifestyles of Iron Age Ganges culture (householder, settled monastic and forest renunciant) all relied on each other in a variety of ways.

Buddhists took the Vedic notion of puṇya and married it to sīla so that puṇya comes to be seen as having soteriological value (though this change may well have happened in pre-Buddhist Vedic milieu as well). However they were care to limit the possibilities of merit to sotāpanna or stream entry. As Thanissaro says in his Study Guide on Merit:
"For all the rewards of meritorious action, however, the concluding section serves as a reminder that the pursuit of happiness ultimately leads beyond the pursuit of merit." 
And that said almost the quotes on puṇya evinced by Thanissaro promise a good rebirth destination as the primary result of cultivating merit.


Thus we have these various modes of ethical practice evident in early Buddhist texts and persisting (though without an explicit distinction) into the present: being a good community member, preparation for meditation, obtaining a good rebirth. It may be that Buddhaghosa anticipated this distinction. Buddhaghosa cites a traditional classification of sīla in the Visuddhimagga which makes almost the same distinction I am making here. "What is virtue?" he asks and quotes the Paṭisambhidā (a commentarial text included in the Khuddaka Nikāya) as responding:
cetanā sīlaṃ, cetasikaṃ sīlaṃ, saṃvaro sīlaṃ, avītikkamo sīla 
virtue as volition, virtue as mental concomitant, virtue as restraint, and virtue as non-transgression. 
I'm following Ñāṇamoḷi's translation of sīla as 'virtue' in his translation of the Visuddhimagga (p.7). My first category might be seen to take in virtue as non-transgression; while my second category takes in virtue as volition, virtue as mental concomitant and virtue as restraint. Being a good community member is a matter of conforming to the norms of the community; while preparation for meditation means actively working on hindrances in an effort to eliminate them from one's mind, even if only temporarily. However, my reading of Buddhaghosa is that he doesn't see these different types of virtue as aimed at different goals. He doesn't quite acknowledge that being a good community member is a good in itself. However, the observation that there are different modes of ethics is not original. 

I haven't said much about the Vinaya in this essay. This is deliberate. I'm mostly interested in the suttas (I've been called a Sautrāntika for this reason). The Vinaya is certainly an expression of the moral principles found in the precepts, but primarily concerned with the minutiae of how to encode values as rules and then enforce them in a large and disparate community which has to live within a wider community that is not bound by the same values or rules. I've written about the law making process in an essay called: The Mad Monk and the Process of Making the Vinaya. The Vinaya is important in the history of Buddhist ideas, and I would say significant in the world's development of legal codes since it records the processes by which laws were made and enforced. But it was only ever intended to apply to the monastic community.

This is another case of distinctions being hidden by imposed unity. The desire to see Buddhism as a unitary phenomenon, at the very least springing from a single individual overwhelms our ability to see the evidence clearly. We're taught that Buddhist ethics has a single mode that covers all the bases;  that for example, the precepts for being a good community member are sufficient also for meditation. I think this simplification is probably an error, and that for meditation we need another, solitary, mode of ethical practice that is much more intensive. We're also taught that Buddhist ethics all grew out of the Buddha's awakening, though historically this simply cannot be true. The Buddha, if he lived at all, grew up in a community, the Śākyas, and must have absorbed the values of that community and expressed this in his teaching. And then at a later time Brahmanical values were super-imposed over Śākyan values. And then Mahāyāna overlaid yet another set of values.

So that this idea that as modern Buddhists bringing our values to Buddhism we are somehow doing something novel is simply ignorant and anachronistic. No adult convert can ever arrive in the Buddhist fold without a set of values and other baggage. 


Jayarava. (2008) 'Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?' Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 15.
Jayarava. (2012) 'The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda.' Western Buddhist Review, 6. 
Jayarava. (2013) Possible Iranian Origins. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3. 
Khema, [Ayya]. (1999) When The Iron Eagle Flies
Ñāṇamoḷi. (1956) The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga). Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre, 1997. 
Ray, R. (1994) Buddhist Saints in India. Oxford University Press. 
Sangharakshita. (1967). The Three Jewels. Windhorse.

25 July 2014

Demonising Our Religion

Thai Buddha Amulet
for warding off evil spirits
I started writing this essay before my series on Vitalism and it got overtaken by that project and so comes a little too long after the publication of the article which sparked it. Sometimes a break for digestion is useful however. One of the fascinating aspects of Buddhism in the present is how Buddhists are negotiating the collision with modernity. In a way modernity is too vague a phrase. It refers to what is happening how, but it also suggests the changes in European society and its colonies that have been happening for centuries. Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter in 1610 establishing Scientific Rationalism (or Naturalism) as a transformative force. Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses which led to the formation of the Protestant movement in 1517. Romanticism by contrast emerges only in the 19th century. For a while we seemed to have transcended modernity and become post-modern, but the death of modernity was much overstated and modernity seems to be reasserting itself.

In an interview in Tricycle Magazine, titled Losing Our religion Professor Robert Sharf expresses considerable reservations about Modernism. I'm not in agreement with most of the views expressed in the interview. I'm not convinced by his arguments against "Buddhist Modernism", as he calls it. We're certainly not losing our religion as Buddhism continues to gain ground in the West, and also often unnoticed by Westerners, in India where millions of Dr Ambedkar's followers have formally converted to our religion. But we are in danger of demonising innovations within our religion and stifling the changes that modernity necessitates. 

Sharf has that unfortunate tendency of Americans to think of American Buddhism as Western Buddhism ignoring the rest of the Western world. So his archetypal modernist is D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), a figure who was hugely influential in America from the 1950s onwards. The weakness of a US-centric, even Zen-centric, view of Western Buddhism become apparent in some of Sharf's complaints about "Western Buddhism" since they clearly do not apply more generally. 

Buddhist Modernism.

The term "Buddhist Modernism" is a problematic one. It gives priority to Modernism and suggests that the contribution from Buddhism is a minority. It seems to say that although I call myself a Buddhist, I am in fact merely a modernist who flirts with Buddhism. This is not fair to Buddhists. Modernist Buddhism would be much more like what we actually do. The Tricycle introduction tells us that Buddhist Modernism is:
"a relatively recent movement that selectively places those elements that are consistent with modern sensibilities at the core of the tradition and dismisses all else."
This is a caricature and a rather cynical one at that. Is it even a movement per se, or is it just Westerners getting interested in Buddhism in all it's varieties? Modernist Buddhism takes in the entire span of Western engagement with Buddhism: from 19th century Sri Lankan so-called Protestant Buddhism, the Pali Text Society, the first European to become a Theravāda bhikkhu, and Edwin Arnold's poetic adaptation of the Lalitavistara Sutra (a best seller in it's day); via 20th Century events such as the founding of the Buddhist Society in London, mass conversion of Ambedkarites in India, and the Triratna Buddhist Order; through to 21st Century breakaway groups like the Secular Buddhist Association, politically active bhikkhus in Burma and renegade Theravāda Bhikkhus ordaining women in Australia. The American scene is a bit over-rated by Americans. Modernist Buddhism begins when people living in the modern world (around the world) begin actively engaging with Buddhism. 

The complaint that Modernist Buddhism is based on a true observation, though others criticise Modernist Buddhists for being too eclectic. Seen in context this complaint tells us nothing whatsoever. All Buddhist movements throughout history have "reduce[d] Buddhism to a simple set of propositions and practices". Partly because the whole is incoherent and partly because there's too much of it to be practically useful anyway, increasingly so as time went on and the Canon of Buddhist writing inexorably expanded. We're all interested in subsets, and disinterested beyond that subset, and this has always been true. Partitioning is the only way to make Buddhism manageable and practical. We're all selective, we're all dealing in simplification. Even the complicated Tibetan forms of Buddhist doctrine are simplifications and in practice most Tibetan Buddhists focus on a subset of their own teachings - usually based on popular commentaries which synthesise and simplify rather than the too-voluminous source texts they managed to preserve. Buddhists are selective. So are scholars of Buddhism. So what?

Sharf may well have coined the term "Buddhist Modernism" in his 1995 article for Numen: 'Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.' His argument in this now dated paper is that contemporary commentators have "greatly exaggerated the role of experience in the history of Buddhism". Contextualised, this point is uncontroversial and even passé. We know that for most of Buddhist history the majority of Buddhists, and even the majority of Buddhist monks, have not meditated. Thus in Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon meditative experience has played only a small role. The problem for Sharf is that modern Buddhism emphasises meditation. Something he resists explaining in positive terms and apparently see as a distortion. I find this attitude incomprehensible. 

Throughout Buddhist history meditation has been seen as essential for liberation. It's just that a lot of the time most people, and all lay people, were convinced that liberation was impossible for them (or indeed anyone). For instance when Kūkai returned to Japan from China in 806 bringing Tantric Buddhist meditative rituals (sādhana) for the first time, he confronted a Buddhist establishment that not only did not meditate (chanting texts was about as close as they got), but which believed liberation to require three incalculable aeons of assiduous practice. Thus for any given person, liberation was always infinitely far off. Kūkai countered this with his slogan "Attaining Buddhahood in this very life" (sokushin jōbutsu) and he met with initial confusion. But he went on to establish the practice of Tantric meditative rituals at the heart of elite Japanese society in a way that lasted for 400 years, until it too was replaced by a reform movement, Zen, which also stressed meditative experience.

The vast majority of Buddhists have always been outside the monastery walls and no society ever seems to have expected lay Buddhists to do much, other than materially support monks. Thus, throughout the history of Buddhism the majority of people who we might identify, even nominally, as Buddhist, have been non-meditators. But reform movements throughout Buddhist history have almost always been about re-emphasising the personal practice of meditation and often involved something of a cult of personality based around one gifted meditator. The major exception being Pure Land Buddhism. Buddhism as a cultural phenomenon has not always emphasised the pursuit of liberation, but where liberation is a concern, with the sole exception of Pure Land Buddhism, it is intimately connected with meditation. Of course meditation requires a context of ethical and devotional practice as we see in most Buddhist groups. 

I note that Sharf seems unaware of the UKs largest Buddhism movements (Trirtana, Soka Gakkai, and NKT), none of which emphasise meditation at the cost of other contextualising practices (SG don't meditate so far as I'm aware). Triratna see meditation as indispensable, but in the context of developing the other "spiritual faculties" as well through devotional practices, study and reflection, the arts, social engagement and even environmental activism. Nor do I see this one-sidedness, for example, in Shambala in the USA (I have a friend involved in Cleveland, OH and know people who've spent time living at Gampo Abbey). So, who is it that is advocating meditation and nothing else, and why are they getting more attention than those much larger and more successful groups that constitute the mainstream of Western Buddhism (at least in the UK and as far as I can tell in Europe too)? 

It seems to me that Sharf's focus is on the wrong aspects of history. He is asking the wrong questions. Instead of complaining that historically Buddhist societies have not emphasised meditation generally, he ought to be taking the time to investigate why this age is one in which liberation again seems possible, and how it relates to previous cultures where this has been true: such as early Heian or early Medieval (1200-1400) Japan; Tang China and Tibet, 1st century Gāndhāra and so on. 

Unprecedented Social Change.

Modern Buddhism, like many reform movements before it, insists that liberation is a reasonable goal for everyone and that therefore everyone ought to take up the practices aimed attaining liberation, in particular meditation. Another aspect of this has been a Protestant-like rejection of the religious institution of monasticism. Just as with Christianity this is largely based on perceptions of corruption and hypocrisy amongst the priestly elite. Sangharakshita's trenchant polemics against the monastic Sangha are as good a representative of this sensibility as any, and he saw the institution from the inside. See for example:
His account of the life of Dharmapala (1980) is also revealing of the habits of Theravāda monks (at least in the mid 20th Century). Like European Protestants of the 16th century, modern day Protestants are sick of the flabby corruption of the priests. Some of this mistrust is also directed at academics despite their role as translators and interpreters of history. Of course there are now Modernist reform movements within the monastic Sangha and many admirable bhikṣu(ṇi)s (Ānandajoti, Anālayo, Bodhi, Hui Feng, Pema Chödrön, Robina Courtin, Sujato and Thanissaro come to mind). 

Although Sharf's academic complaint is against other academics who over-emphasise experience he seems to have generalised this to include Buddhists who do so. Compare the work of Dr Sue Hamilton which has decisively shown that the primary concern of early Buddhist ideas about liberation were tied up with the nature of experience. It's not only moderns who are concerned with experience. Ābhidharmikas of many varieties went into great depth cataloguing experience and trying to understand the mechanics of it. My reading of the early Perfection of Wisdom texts is that they share this preoccupation. The constant return to experience goes alongside interest in meditation in reform movements. Meditation is nothing more or less than the examination of the nature of experience. 

Sharf seems to consider that Modernist adaptations of Buddhism are not legitimate because he does not see the historical precedents for them. As though precedent was the only form of legitimisation. Apart from the fact that there are historical precedents for interest in meditation everywhere we look, we have to ask where he does find relevant historical precedents for Buddhism's encounter with modernity that might inform alternate responses? As far as I understand modernity in the West it is unprecedented anywhere in history. The sheer scale and pace of technological, social and political change we are currently experiencing is unprecedented and we have been saying this for at least a century and a half. Arguing that precedent is the only form of legitimation in times of unprecedented events means that no adaptation to modernity will ever be legitimate. But clearly adaptation is required. And clearly buddhism has adapted to circumstance and culture time and time again. There is that kind of precedent. 

Ronald Davidson has outlined what seem to be the social and political changes that resulted in the only other event in Buddhist history that might even come close to Modernism - the Tantric synthesis of the 6th century. Davidson describes how the collapse of civil society as a result of Huna attacks on the Gupta Empire resulted in a chaotic situation. Law and Order on the wider scale broke down. Trade routes became untenable. Certain regions became too dangerous to live in, causing large scale migrations. The reach of civil order shrank and withdrew behind city walls, leaving the countryside exposed to banditry. In the resulting milieu a new religious sensibility was required and did in fact develop. As society broke down, religion compensated by bringing together disparate elements and synthesising them into an entirely new approach to liberation that we call Tantra.

In the face of unprecedented challenges Buddhism was always going to need to come up with unprecedented responses. However Sharf seems to be resistant to the changes that are emerging. So, what is wrong with modernity?

Critiquing Modernism

Sharf urges "a willingness to enter into dialogue with what is historically past and culturally foreign." This is itself a Modernist attitude. Buddhists have ever been reluctant to see themselves as historically conditioned or to acknowledge the culturally foreign. Innovations are almost inevitably attributed to the Buddha (or to the most impressive historical figure to whom they can plausibly be attributed), and assimilation of non-Buddhist ideas - such as when a Bodhisatva named Avalokita-svara absorbs some of Śiva's attributes (e.g. blue throat) and iconography and becomes Avalokita-īśvara - are never acknowledged but presented as a fait accompli.

The Rhys Davids were very influential at the beginning of the modern engagement with Buddhism in the 1870s and 1880s and seem to get lost in the American versions of modern Buddhist history (Which apparently begins with Suzuki's visit to San Francisco). It is because of RDs that we translate bodhi as "enlightenment" for example. The RDs and some of their contemporaries were consciously trying to align European Buddhism with the European Enlightenment; and the Buddha with (British) figures like Newton, Hume, and Berkeley. They lived in the immediate Post-Darwinian era and saw Christianity in crisis, but could not imagine life without religion. They saw Buddhism as a "rational religion" that might replace superstitious Christianity. And this was half a century before Suzuki began to influence American Buddhist thought in the 1950s. The Pali Text Society was founded in the UK in 1881. The Buddhist Society in 1924. Suzuki seems to have been influenced by his training under German-American theologian Paul Carus. Carus himself is described as "He was a key figure in the introduction of Buddhism, to the West" (where again for "West" we have to read "America"). Suzuki is important in America, no doubt, but he was influenced by Carus and others, presumably his Theosophist wife Beatrice (who doesn't rate a separate Wikipedia article or any mention in Tricycle and seems to be absent from history as women often are). Even in American the roots of Buddhism go back to the 1850s: see Buddhism in America.

The idea that Buddhist Modernism is necessarily ontologically dualistic is partial at best. More and more Buddhist modernists embrace ontological monism as the most likely situation. I've been arguing against mind/body dualism for years and regularly get accused of being a Materialist for that reason. I've written an extended critique of Vitalism which is one of the most important varieties of dualism. However the idea that duality is foreign to Buddhism is also misleading. Just look at the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is deeply dualistic. The interim state (Skt. anatarabhāva = Tib. bardo) between death and new life is widely accepted in Buddhism. Just read any Jātaka story for another form of dualism - they clearly depict souls transmigrating and retaining their identities. All the disembodied spirits that haunt our stories also suggest ontological dualism. Buddhism is full of it! And the standard Buddhist critique of dualism is not an outright denial, but a hedge which allows a disembodied consciousness to arise when the conditions are right, even in the interim state (which is neither here nor there).

Early Buddhists appear to accept, or at the very least not to offer any challenge to, the idea of an external, observer independent reality. They're just not interested in it because the content of experience is of only minor interest in the bid to understand the mechanisms of experience. Which specific object happens to be stimulating desire at present is of no particular interest. Sense objects are a requirement for experience, but never the focus of investigation. What version of Buddhist epistemology is Sharf working with?

In answer to the question "But to get back to your point, what gets lost when primacy is given to individual spiritual experience?", Sharf's response is that "The sangha gets lost! The community gets lost." If the Sangha has been lost in Modernist Buddhism then someone ought to tell the various large Sanghas that span the Western World. We in the Triratna Sangha must have missed that memo because our sangha is growing and getting quite large now. Indeed some of the problems we are wrestling with are due to an overly large sangha. In particular how do we maintain consensus decision making in an Order of 2000+ members who are distributed around the world and have no common language (many of our members are monoglot in their mother tongue). How do we cultivate that sense of involvement in something that transcends the local situation? In contradiction to what Sharf says we're very much alive to the third jewel! Even the very Modernist Secular Buddhist Association is clearly trying to build a Sangha.

I'm not sure of the details of the situation in America is, but my impression is that, even in the home of libertarianism, sanghas are flourishing, even though a few people chose to operate outside of sanghas (and even they tend to habitually haunt online forums as ersatz communities). I simply see no evidence whatsoever that an emphasis on spiritual experience has led to sangha being "lost". 

Seeing Modernism in a Positive Light

What are we to make of these scholars who decree that Modernist Buddhism is not a legitimate adaptation of Buddhism to the present? Are these the same kind of thinkers who once saw Tantra as a "degeneration" of pure Buddhism? On one hand it is useful to identify how we Modernists are responding to Buddhism and the state of the world. But on the other if all our innovations are seen as illegitimate then Buddhism may as well be dead right now.

In fact my reading of Robert Sharf's criticisms of American Buddhism is that they are hardly different from generalised liberal criticisms of American culture: viz, Individualism at the expense of society; engineering at the expense of architecture (literally and metaphorically); and a confusion of values leading to relativism and hedonism. Sharf sounds like he might be just a(nother) liberal academic complaining "O tempora o mores". In general terms, sure, I find Utilitarianism ugly as an ideal and ugly in terms of the results it produces. I deplore Neolibertarianism and its effects on society. But the vast majority of Buddhists are also against those values, primarily because of other streams of Modernity especially Romanticism. As much as I dislike Romanticism, it is at least opposed to Utilitarianism! And the majority of Buddhists I know give expression to these values in how they live, even when they live what might be relatively conventional lives. Radicals are always few in number and require the support of followers.

Must we join Sharf in seeing Modernist Buddhism or even Buddhist Modernism in negative terms? Protestant Buddhism, like Protestant Christianity, was and is a progressive movement. It criticised corrupt and bloated (often state controlled) ecclesiastical power bases. In a place like Sri Lanka where the term was coined, protest was an absolute necessity (though arguably that pendulum has swung too far). The Sri Lankan monastic sangha was, and not for the first time, moribund and merely formalistic. The extreme conservatism of the monastic establishment in South East Asia is also obvious. Witness the response to Western bhikkhus ordaining women. They were kicked out of their organisation. Certainly we must protest against such practices as institutionalised sexism. If we are not Protestants in this respect, then we are part of the problem.

On the other hand the bhikkhu sangha in Sri Lanka is once again infected with Nationalism and politically active monks who don't meditate, but use hate speech and call for violence against Tamils and anyone else who opposes their ideas of racial and religious purity. Sri Lanka is struggling against a powerful fascism inspired by Buddhist monks. That's the downside of collectivity, of sangha divorced from a personal commitment to the religious ideals of Buddhism. Without the personal engagement with practices like meditation, a group may well drift into this kind of quasi-madness. The advantage of the Protestant-like personal engagement is that each person feels they can be held accountable for their actions and not simply go along with the crowd. 

Scientific Rationalism meant the end of being ruled by superstition (or at least the beginning of the end). That's clearly a good thing. Charles Darwin's daughter, Ann, died at least in part from the Water Treatment, based on four humours theory, that she was subjected to when desperately ill. She probably had tuberculosis and would have been cured by antibiotics had she lived a century later. That is progress. Reconciling Buddhism entirely with scientific rationalism is obviously going to be slow and painful, and perhaps eternally incomplete, but I think we're making progress on that front also.

Why cannot we be proud of being Modern Buddhists, proud of the changes we are making and excited about the new 21st Century Buddhism? I certainly am. I love it. Although we're seeing a burgeoning of conservative apologetics for good old-fashioned Buddhism, we're also seeing a continuing stream of innovations and exploration of potential new avenues for Buddhism. The UK now has a mindfulness class for MPs and senior civil servants in parliament. This may well be the most significant event in the last 500 years of Buddhism, since historically Buddhism only takes root when adopted by the social elite. 

I welcome open discussion of the role of Modernism in our Buddhism and wish to see the critiques developed further, so that we're more aware of the cultural influences we operate under. I'm appreciative of McMahan's efforts in this direction. And for instance of Thanissaro's critique of Romanticism. But I compare McMahan's descriptive approach with the conservative, prescriptive approach of Sharf and I find the latter much less attractive. The fact that McMahan does not seem to have a vested interest is an interesting observation on the perils of emic scholars - people of a conservative religion, studying their own religion, tend to come to conservative conclusions.

It's my belief at this time that conservatism with respect to Buddhism will be deeply counter-productive. Conservative Buddhists are obsessed with authenticity, authority and legitimation. And this leads to the view that if we don't already have it, it's not worth having. Conservative Buddhists seem to see science as a kind of fad that we'll grow out of; and innovations like mindfulness therapies as dangerous threats to the authority of Buddhism (when in fact it's more like a threat to conservative power-bases within existing hierarchies). And this too seems counter-productive to me. 

I am a Modernist. I was born in 1966, how could I be anything else? Even growing up in small town New Zealand we had Modernism. Like all cultural phenomena, Modernism has its pros and cons. We can't afford to be one eyed about it. I'm also a Buddhist. If my studies have shown me one thing it's that Buddhism changes. We Buddhists change with the times. We always have. Sometimes the changes have amounted to upheaval. We regroup, refocus, and re-invent ourselves.


18 July 2014

Buddhism and the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics

This essay is a follow up to one I wrote in 2010 called Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. It might be worth refreshing your memory of that one first. Plus I've continued to add notes since writing the original article.  The subject of Buddhism and quantum mechanics keeps coming up. Quantum mechanics seems to draw Buddhists like moths to a flame. Of particular interest seems to be the observer effect that Schrödinger used to critique the Copenhagen interpretation. Google "Buddhism Quantum Mechanics and the Observer Effect" and you'll get a raft of webpages talking about how observers interact with the physical world.  They say things like:
"Basically, what quantum theory says is that fundamental particles are empty of inherent existence and exist in an undefined state of potentialities. They have no inherent existence from their own side and do not become 'real' until a mind interacts with them and gives them meaning. Whenever and wherever there is no mind there is no meaning and no reality. This is a similar conclusion to the Mahayana Buddhist teachings on sunyata." Buddhism and Quantum Physics.
This is not quantum mechanics or Buddhism either. It's Idealism combined with the strong form of the anthropic principle. It's very misleading. Buddhism is talking about mental events and quantum mechanics about subatomic particles. At best the relationship is metaphorical, because subatomic particles don't behave like mental states and vice versa! In this blog post I will explore what the observer effect is and why it has very little or nothing to do with consciousness and also why it does not support Idealism.

I have to confess there is a great deal that I don't understand about quantum mechanics, not least of which is the maths involved. No one likes to admit they are ignorant, but I know that I don't understand this stuff to any great degree. I know that most of the Buddhists writing about it don't understand it either. I just wish they'd admit it.


Mass of the electron

In this essay I'll focus on the electron. Electrons have reasonably well defined properties and are all, so far as we can tell, identical. For example electrons have mass of approximately 9.10938291 × 10-31 kilograms. This is literally an unimaginably small number. As far as the human imagination is concerned this is zero. Protons have almost 2,000 times more mass than electrons and that's still an unimaginably small amount. Clearly there is some measurement uncertainty in this figure, we can only measure it as accurately as our experimental design and measurement device allow, but it's precise to an extremely fine degree. Similarly, electrons have an electric charge of approximately −1.602×10−19 coulombs, or a billionth of a billionth of the current that comes out of your wall socket.

Most relevant to our topic, an electron has an intrinsic angular momentum of either +½ or -½. Electrons seem to behave as though they spin on their axis, though in fact there is no classical phenomenon which the "spin" of an electron is exactly like. Seen from above the angular momentum of a clockwise spinning top points up, and for an anticlockwise spin it points down. So conventionally we speak of spin up and spin down.

Classical objects (roughly speaking, objects perceptible by our unaided senses) obey the classical laws of physics. A spinning top is a classical object. As it spins it has momentum: it will keep moving unless a force acts on it. Since it experiences friction as it spins it gradually and smoothly slows down, shedding kinetic energy as heat and sound. Even the solar system is gradually slowing down, the rotation of the earth is gradually slowing down. However, an electron just 'spins'. Always. Without ever slowing down. I presume that even at absolute zero, an electron has spin.  Additionally, though a spinning top tends to orient itself, the axis of spin need not be in any particular direction, and can even wobble around. So the 'spin' of an electron here is a metaphor for an incomprehensible underlying reality.

Curiously if you rotate an electron with spin ½ through 360° then you would expect that the angular momentum would be the same, but it is in fact -½. To get back to spin ½ we have to rotate the electron through a total of 720°. Again there is no physical analogy that can explain this, no real process to compare it to. And this is partly why the great genius Paul Dirac said: "The fundamental laws of nature control a substratum of which we cannot form a mental picture without introducing irrelevancies." (Principles of Quantum Mechanics. 4th Ed. 1958).

If a spinning top had an electrical charge it would generate a magnetic field. This is more or less how an electric engine or generator works. Moving electric charges produce magnetic fields and moving magnetic fields induce electric currents. Electrons, having an electric charge do produce a magnetic field as they 'spin'. However looking at the electron as a classical spinning object with electric charge causes some problems. It turns out that in order to generate the measured magnetic field an object the size of an electron, considered as a classical object, would have to spin so fast that a point on its surface would be going several times faster than the speed of light. And the answer to the problem in fact turns out to be that the electron does not seem to have a size. This is deeply counter-intuitive. To have mass but no size suggests infinite density. I'm not even sure how the physicists deal with this problem.

We're starting to see that a single electron does not obey the classical mechanics (aka the "laws of physics") and this is where quantum mechanics comes in. Quantum mechanics is a series of equations which describe the behaviour of sub-atomic particles, like the electron. They were the first physical laws to be derived theoretically rather than through observation, but on the whole they do describe the behaviour of sub-atomic particles (though there are still competitors waiting in the wings - see article on bouncing oil drops at the end of the essay). 

In the quantum world there are restrictions on everything: every quantity is a multiple of some constant with no in-between values (hence quantum). Transitioning between quantum states is instantaneous and discontinuous. For an electron there are just two possible spin states (i.e. two states of angular momentum): spin up and spin down. An electron can be made to flip states, but the action is instantaneous with no transition and no in-between states. Something one never observes in the macro world. 

In my description of water I noted that electrons move around an atomic nucleus in well defined orbitals or shells. In hydrogen for example the single electron occupies the s shell which is spherical. Helium has two electrons in the s shell. Now Linus Pauli discovered that if two electrons are in the same orbital then they must have opposite spin (called the Pauli Exclusion Principle). The next shell, p, can accommodate 8 electrons, but they in fact occupy four separate orbits that each accommodate 2 electrons of opposite spin.


This quality of spin is an important one because it was this quality that Schrödinger was referring to in his famous thought experiment. A consequence, an unbelievable consequence from Schrödinger's point of view, of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics was that an electron could be either spin up or spin down and we wouldn't know which until we measured its angular momentum. Niels Bohr argued that before being measured the spin state would effectively be a super-position of both states. Schrödinger's example of the cat was intended to show that the conclusion was untenable because the idea of an object being in two states at once was ridiculous. As it happens the Copenhagen Interpretation won the argument and now advocates use Schrödinger's complaint to illustrate the point about super-position.

It's the spookiness of this metaphor that seems to attract Buddhists. They latched onto this idea of the necessity for the "observer" to break the symmetry of superposition and force the electron to take up one spin state or the other, because it looked like the Idealist end of the Yogacāra spectrum of thought in which objects are brought into existence by an observing mind. That Yogacāra is inherently Idealistic is hotly disputed by scholars, but for many Buddhists what cittamātra means is that only mind exists and as one Idealist Buddhist put it to me recently:
"I agree with Schopenhauer - objects only exist for subjects. Without a subject who brings to the picture, a sense of relatedness, some proportion, a point of view, there are no objects whatever." (Dharmawheel.net)
Tying Buddhist Idealism into Western Idealism is a popular pastime amongst Western Buddhists and Schopenhauer is a favourite exponent of this kind of thing. But just because an 18th century philosopher thought this or that about the universe tells us nothing. The fatal flaw is that this kind of Idealistic ontology has no possible supporting epistemology - there's no way to gain this knowledge about the nature of objects from a Buddhist point of view. In this view we have no way to know what happens to objects when we stop observing them, because we are not observing them! It's simply a theological position. And as I said in the post on ineffability we can easily infer that it's not true simply by comparing notes. Those who fail to compare notes come to ridiculous conclusions that are hard to shift. One of the logical consequences of this anthropocentric Idealism, a variant of the Anthropic Principle, is the the entire universe goes out of existence and then comes back into existence when we blink our eyes. And if you believe that you'll believe anything.

There's rub...

Part of the problem with employing the words of science without understanding them is that one makes silly mistakes. So for example when we say the mind of the observer is involved in determining the physical state of the electron, this is simply a mistaken understanding of what is meant by "observer". No electron has ever been seen by a human being. We need to be very careful about what we mean by "observe" and "observer". As physicist Sean Carroll says re "the observer":
"It doesn't need to be a 'conscious' observer or anything else that might get Deepak Chopra excited; we just mean a macroscopic measuring apparatus. It could be a living person, but it could just as well be a video camera or even the air in a room." [Emphasis added]
Schrödinger's observer, like Schrödinger's cat, is a metaphor. Given that no one can actually see an electron and 'spin' is only a notional quality with no classical analogue, how would we go about measuring the spin-state of an electron, one way or the other? Remembering that a single electron takes up more or less no space and weighs as close to nothing as makes hardly any difference. Usually we deal with electrons in amounts like billions of trillions and in such numbers they collectively behave classically. It is possible to assemble a set up that will shoot out one electron in a known direction every so often, but they travel near the speed of light. If your detector is 1m away from the emitter then it takes about a billionth of a second to get there. And since they're all identical there's no way to find our electron afterwards. So good luck observing an electron with your senses and comprehending it in your mind!

Actually it is possible to trap individual electrons, but as I think will be clear, the interaction needed to so do, involving magnetic fields, make them useless for testing the observer effect. However, thankfully it's not very difficult to measure spin-states in practice. We just need to construct a macroscopic measuring apparatus known as the Stern-Gerlach experiment

In the Stern-Gerlach experiment a beam of electrons is passed between two magnets like those shown right (we'll ignore the shapes). The path of electrons with spin up is bent up as they pass through the magnets, electrons with spin down will bend down. So we then know the spin of the electron. We can measure the numbers that are bent each way by using an electron detector. And what we find is two very small spots - the up-spin electrons all hit the same upper spot, and the down-spin electrons all hit the same lower spot. There are never any in-between and any blur we see is due to fluctuations in the experimental set up itself, not in the electrons. At this level of sensitivity the tiny fluctuations caused by Brownian motion become noisy enough to drown out any signal. The amount by which the electron is deflected is related to it's mass and magnetic moment. 

Now assuming we can use this to measure the spin of individual electrons what is going on here? An electron leaves the emitter and travels for a billionth of a second in an indeterminate spin state before passing through the apparatus and hitting a detector. An electron detector might be a loop of wire with an ammeter on it. As the electron hits the wire a very small, but measurable current flows (this is more or less how an old-fashioned vacuum tube works). Or we use a device like a TV screen that emits light when hit by a fast-moving electron and a photo-detector to record the light. As an electron travels through the apparatus and interacts with the magnetic field, it takes one or the other spin-state and enters one or other detector. It's the interaction of the electron with the experiment, with the macroscopic measuring apparatus, that forces it to adopt one or other spin and it does so at random.

And where in all of this is the "mind of the observer"? In fact the "observer" here, the experimental apparatus, has no mind. Why do we think of a person observing things and influencing them? It's because we understand Schrödinger's metaphor (man watching box) but we have no idea what underlying reality is being described. But this is a dangerous illusion.

The mistake that almost every Buddhist makes is to assume that because they understand the metaphor of Schrödinger's cat, they understand the underlying reality. This problem pervades Buddhist thinking. In the case of quantum mechanics no one understand the underlying reality, not even the people who understand the fiendish maths that predict the behaviour of particles. The reality of the quantum world is literally unimaginable, even when the theories make accurate predictions.

In fact when scientists talk about "observing" a subatomic particle (something with unimaginably small vital statistics) they really mean causing it to interact with something in a way that can be amplified and signal to us humans, on a scale we can comprehend, that something or other has happened. So all this stuff about consciousness and the observer effect in quantum mechanics is bunk. It's based on a reified metaphor and a false analogy.

The false analogy is with the observer effect in anthropology. When an anthropologist studies a culture they cannot help but see through cultural lenses. And they also change the behaviour of the people they study by being there. Famously teenage Samoan girls told Margaret Mead a bunch of lies about their sexual habits which for them was a huge joke, but wrecked the anthropologist's reputation. (Her work was debunked by Derek Freeman after she died, though his book Margaret Mead and Samoa set off a heated debate in the field of anthropology). Another variation on this is seen in the Hawthorne Effect which describes how workers modify their behaviour in response to conditions, especially whether or not they are being observed by management.

Observing humans does
change their behaviour.

There is also some contamination from post-modern literary criticism which emphasised the role of the reader in the "creation" of the text and called into question the very possibility of objectivity. Amongst the influential contributions to this discourse was Edward Said's work on so-called Orientalism which sought to show that Western views of Asia were constructs that were often only loosely related to Asia itself and were more revealing of the prejudices of Western scholars than of Asian culture and custom. At the same time the very idea of objectivity was called into question in the sciences, though this critique consistently failed to take into account the collective nature of scientific enquiry. The metaphors of quantum mechanics were conflated with these other issues and for many poorly informed people came to represent the nature of the problem of objectivity and subjectivity.

Quantum Nonsense.

Buddhists who know a little about quantum mechanics and a little bit about litcrit or anthropology are apt to fall into error. The temptation is to think that because we understand one or two metaphors or allegories that we understand the whole field. Almost no one does. Richard Feynman, another genius, was more bold:
"I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." (The Character of Physical Law, 1965). 
And if he didn't understand it, then probably no one could. The map is not the territory. And we Buddhists are not even using quality topographical maps. We're mostly using the cheesy, massively oversimplified, tourist maps that are given away for free in Hotel lobbies, all covered in advertising.

Too many Buddhists see in quantum mechanics a confirmation of their Idealism: the idea that there is no reality independent of the observer. I hope I've shown that such claims have misunderstood the word "observer" in Schrödinger's complaint. The conclusion drawn from quantum theory by many Buddhists, that the world only exists as and when we perceive it, is simply wrong. Indeed one of the consequences of quantum mechanics is that there must be an observer independent reality. (See Sheldon Goldstein, Department of Mathematics, Rutgers University: Quantum Theory Without Observers; and also links below).

This problem pervades Buddhist doctrine. It is full of empty metaphors. Karma is described almost entirely of such empty metaphors for example. However unlike in physics, Buddhist metaphors are not linked to mathematical models that make accurate predictions. Karma is linked to moral theories that are intended to ensure compliance with Buddhist behavioural norms. In other words Buddhist metaphors are set to prescriptive purposes, whereas physics metaphors attempt to be descriptive. This is a fundamental different between religion and science. 

I doubt quantum-nonsense will ever go away. Too many people are desperate to consume what purveyors of quantum-nonsense are selling and not equipped to make a good judgement, or unwise in whose judgements they rely on. If our teachers are also non-scientists hungry for some quantum-nonsense too, then we are in deep trouble. Buddhists have the unfortunate habit of seeking and finding confirmation of their views everywhere they look. The most trivial or banal coincidence of wording becomes a hidden "Dharma teaching". Buddhists Tweeters endlessly repeat platitudes as though they were profound. Buddhist bloggers give over inordinate amounts of space to celebrity Buddhists as though having someone famous adopt Buddhism makes the world a better place. It's all so tedious. Next thing you know we'll be knocking on doors asking people if they have accepted the Buddha into their lives.

The fact is that science is not proving what Buddhists have known all along. It is doing the opposite. Science is tearing apart the articles of faith of Buddhism;  leaving karma, rebirth, heaven & hell, and dependent arising as a Theory of Everything, in tatters. It's only blind faith and massive bias that prevents people from seeing this. We have a lot of work to do if Buddhism is going to survive this collision with modernity. Presuming of course that we do not fall back into another dark age, and looking at nominally Buddhist countries like Tibet, Korea, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand that possibility seems all too likely.


Some real Quantum Physics:
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