31 October 2014

A Library is My Temple

Books and stories have always played an important role in my life. One of my early memories is a battle of wills with a librarian over how many Asterix books I could take out. Policy said only three at a time, but I wanted them all. Later when I became a librarian I understood the policy was designed to ration a limited resource. That was the small-town library in Taupo (pop. 12,000 in 60s & 70s) where I grew up. Before we left I had discovered science-fiction and began checking out Asimov and Arthur C Clark books. We had a small book case at home with books collected mostly by my mother, since my father was unable to read well (I think he had what we'd call dyslexia these days). Some of those books became companions and guides.

I recall libraries in all the places where I've lived. The magnificent Wellington City Library with it's curving glass wall and matching curved shelving. The first cafe in a library in New Zealand I think. The ugly functionality, but massive size of the Auckland City Library. For a few years I had keys to the stacks of ACL as a result of my job and I would explore the catacombs. I discovered unbroken runs of Popular Electronics and built circuits based on designs from them. There was a complete set of Max Müller's Sacred Books of the East series gathering dust in a gloomy corner. Libraries in Taupo, Hamilton, Northcote, and Glenfield too. School libraries, university libraries (Waikato, Auckland, Victoria, AUT, Unitec), and private libraries too. I owned very few books until I was in my late 20s. Books were expensive and anyway, Libraries made owning them unnecessary. I spent my money on buying records. Then I discovered second-hand books and the Hard to Find Bookshop (but that's another story).

One of the important libraries I got to know was at Waikato University where I studied chemistry in the mid 1980s for four years. This was a large purpose-built university library on 4 floors with views overlooking the extensive grounds of the campus. Chemistry was on the fourth floor. They use Library of Congress call numbers, so science was Q and chemistry was QD. I got to know the QDs pretty well. But I did other sciences as well so the whole Q section was where I spent most of my time. However some days I would stop off at the 2nd or 3rd floor and just wander amongst the stacks. Trailing through sections on sociology or literature, marvelling at the titles of the books. Trying to imagine the scope of the knowledge that the books represented. All that knowledge! I was spell bound. 

My first job in a library was at what was then the Auckland College of Education, now absorbed into the University of Auckland. I was lucky to get the job in many ways. My forays into rock 'n' roll were not paying the bills and I was bored. I'd been out of work long enough to qualify for a subsidised placement and my boss was canny enough to take advantage of that while giving the job I applied for to someone else. The staff there were all educated, urbane, friendly and talkative. They talked about literature in such a way that for the first time in my life I wanted to read it. I started on Nobel Prize winners, reading Hemingway, Steinbeck, Updike. I got into John Irving and D H Lawrence. I even read James Joyce. I've read his Ulysses, but prefer the original. 

Importantly I learned about being a librarian and liked it enough to go to Victoria University in Wellington in 1991 for a post-graduate Librarianship course. In the process I did a research project using citation analysis on the New Zealand Library Journal that became my first academic publication. My main finding was that the local librarians were influenced by reading the New Zealand Library Journal. I did research in and around the Victoria University library and learned about writing essays (something I'd never done much of). I learned to type my essays on a computer. And in 1991, two years before the world-wide-web launched, I created my first hypertext document. 

Most of my professional life was spent in engineering libraries. I became more of an information consultant, a specialist in database searches and document supply. My favourite thing was identifying a book for an engineer that was precisely what he needed and the only thing like it, finding it in a library in Canada, checking the online catalogue (this was 1995 so it was one of the very first online library catalogues that was web-searchable), and requesting the book be sent to us in NZ. A week later we got it. I also recognised the potential for the WWW to save libraries money (a feature of my approach to online information).

I gave up working in libraries in 2002 to come to Britain and immerse myself full-time in a Buddhist life style. But one of the first things I did was join the local public library (which is rather small and disappointing considering where it is). I got my readers card for the Cambridge University library about 2006. A Triratna Order colleague is a fellow of Trinity College and kindly wrote a recommendation. It costs very little and gives me access to all the collections, including electronic and to some extent manuscripts. The "UL" as everyone calls it was built in the 1920s. It's probably what you'd call "monumental". With a large tower over the entrance way and a forbidding exterior. The inside seems to be modelled on a monastery - with central courtyards and wings surrounding them. 

The UL has the oddest filing system I've ever come across. Books are filed in order first of decreasing size (a,b, c or d); then by a broad subject based on a home grown system (Buddhism is 2:3-2:5); then by acquisition order, with a number indicating century and decade, then a running number. So all the middle-sized books on Buddhism are together at one end of the south wing, 3rd floor, but from the point of view of browsing they are randomly jumbled together: one gets Tibetan Tantra, followed by a meditation manual, a history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, a treatise on Pureland Buddhism all next to each other. 

The atmosphere inside is also monastic. Quiet industry. Scholars working behind piles of books. I feel the incessant tapping of computer keys detracts somewhat, but I might just be jealous of the wafer-thin laptops that scholars here all seem to have. Because the central spaces are courtyards and the books and study spaces are distributed around the edges of a large building, one can walk a very long way during a day at the library. Going from Buddhism, to where the Sanskrit books are, to the nearest photocopier is about 200m of walking and four levels of stairs! 

The internal architecture is a weird mix of 1920s art-deco based utilitarian and at times rococo decoration with carved wooden panels. Mostly the former. It's pre-brutalism fortunately, but still quite stark in places. The sixth-floor North  Front wing has nothing much going for it - a concrete bunker with books. And yet closer to the entrance way there is light and space and attention to detail, along with art exhibitions. 

Here I have access to the literature of Buddhism in manuscript form, and published in many languages. The Tripiṭaka can be found in Pāḷi (three versions), Tibetan (two versions) and Chinese (only the Peking ed.) Published editions of Indian literature from the beginnings of Western engagement with it, and editions of ancient texts in Sanskrit and other Indic languages are comprehensively collected. Secondary literature is held in a separate area, but is also fairly comprehensive, despite the demise of Buddhist studies at Cambridge. Being a legal deposit library one of book published in the UK must be deposited there. I also have access to the entire range of their electronic collections of databases and article aggregators like JSTOR.

As a professional librarian I was often involved in discussions about the role of the library in the age of computers. In my last library job I managed projects that shifted our reliance from print and CD based indexes and sources to web-based products. I negotiated with, or translated for, suppliers, IT staff, senior management and Librarians. The UL makes full use of all these electronic resources. In the mean time many journals of free to read online (though let's not forget that someone pays to host them, they are not free). Google Books is becoming an increasingly useful tool for finding info in books - even books I already own. Scanned articles and books abound, though they are of dubious legality. And many scholars either maintain an online bibliography (e.g. Michael Witzel, Bhikkhu Anālayo, Richard Gombrich) or they upload their work to academia.edu (Jan Nattier, Harry Falk, Geoffrey Samuel). But despite all the wizardry I still need to visit the library from time to time. Sometimes I leave with burning eyes and running nose from the paper dust having handled some book that has mouldered on the shelf for decades. Very often what I want is in storage and must be retrieved by a library assistant (this is a consequence of the demise of Buddhist studies). But the service is efficient and seldom takes more than half an hour. 

Book Inscription
To Isaline B. Horner
colleague and friend
Nov 1937
There are not many libraries in the world that are so well funded, so comprehensive and so accessible. The UL is a place I can go to commune with the many scholars on whose shoulders I stand. And if I want to read the original Robin Dunbar article on neo-cortex size correlations with group size I can just get it off the shelf (I have done). Sometimes I come across little gems: books previously owned by I B Horner or books signed by Edward Conze or C.A.F. Rhys Davids (reminding us that Cambridge was once an important centre for Buddhist studies who's star has faded). I may not be a member of the university, but I know that I belong there. I may not be a world-class scholar with a lifetime of achievement and honours, but I am part of that milieu. My few publications are a contribution to the quest for knowledge to which the UL is both monument and cathedral.


24 October 2014

When Did Language Evolve?

This question is one of the most interesting and most difficult to answer of all the interesting questions that scientists seek answers for. Language is one of the defining characteristics of humans. Yes, some animals do have relatively sophisticated signs they use with each other, but language in all it's glory – phonology, morphology, syntax and grammar – is something that sets humans apart. Robin Dunbar's recent book Pelican Introduction to Human Evolution (2014) has a nice little essay on the subject (235-244) that I'll attempt to précis here.

In fact the question when did language evolve devolves into two questions:
  1. When did humans evolve the capability for language?
  2. When did humans begin to use language. 
Before we examine the evidence we need to quickly outline Dunbar's main themes. The book draws on two main fields of research other than anthropology and paleo-anthropology. Dunbar's main work is on what he calls The Social Brain Hypothesis. Dunbar found a correlation between the ratio of neo-cortex to brain size (volume) and the size of groups in social animals. Taking certain other factors into account, the correlation allows Dunbar to accurately predict the average group size for any social animal. In fact social animals occupy the centre of a series of concentric groups of increasing size. For humans it turns out that the numbers are (approximately): 5, 15, 50, 150, 500, 1500. These numbers correspond to structures within human groups. The community has 150 and this is the most famous Dunbar Number. 150 is the mean size of communities in the Doomsday Book for example. (see 70-71 for a range of other correlations). The SBH says we can only keep track of the business (mates, kin, alliances etc) of about 150 other people. We might know 500 by name and 1500 or more people by sight, but we won't know about their likes and dislikes or their relationships with other group members. Chimpanzee's by contrast live in communities of about 50 and don't have the larger groupings. Using this correlation Dunbar is able to calculate what size of groups our distant ancestors lived in. And this leads to the second field of research. 

Social animals have an extra time pressure that solitary animals do not. As well as feeding, resting and mating, social animals have to socialise, or put effort into maintaining social links. Primates do this primarily by grooming each other (though bonobo chimps also use sexual activity). Grooming causes both partners to produced endorphins, thus creating a sense of well-being. By studying living primates we can see how much time they spend doing various activities and build up models called Time Budgets. In groups of 150 there is simply not enough time to do everything. In order to maintain these large groups we need to do more than eat raw vegetation and pick fleas of each other. Dunbar explores how we might have responded to the time pressure of larger groups. For example cooking food increases the calories available and decreases the amount of time needed for feeding. Singing and dancing together also create a sense of well-being in a group, and do so far more efficiently than one-to-one grooming.

Some physical changes associated with language use occur at the same time as changes in our brain size that coincide with living in larger group sizes. So there is no doubt that language use is correlated with changes in the brain, but we're not sure yet whether it was causal and in which direction.

The Evidence

Dunbar considers a range of evidence in trying to answer the question of when humans began to use language. Some of it does not tell us much in the long run. For example the lateralisation of the brain—into left and right, with the left side slightly larger—was once seen as an important development. However, it's not language specific. For all we know it might be related to right-handed spear throwing (in humans) and in fact the same lateralisation is present in prehistoric sharks. The emergence of symbolism—as in cave painting and grave goods—has also been seen as significant. The use of symbolism starts around 40,000 bp which is interesting, but post dates some of the other developments (below) very considerably. 

There is also genetic evidence. But again the genes cited—FoxP2 and MYH16—lack specificity. Because mutation in FoxP2 is associated with speech and grammar difficulties, it's still sometimes called "the language gene". However, for example, mice were recently implanted with the FoxP2 gene and did not start talking. What they did do is learn better, in particularly they found "...it easier to transform new experiences into routine procedures." FoxP2 is now known to be shared with Neanderthals and thus to be at least 800,000 years old (the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and Archaic Modern Humans). MYH16 is even older at 2.4 Million years. Inactivation of MYH16 decreases the size of the jaw and associated muscles. The argument being, though this cannot be substantiated, that it made speaking possible. Thus the genetic evidence is also, to date, inconclusive. Language use being such a complex task suggests that no one gene is going to be more than a tiny part of a larger story.

In terms of anatomy we can look at the thoracic nerves, the hypoglossal canal in the skull, the position of the hyoid bone, and the ear canals. Thoracic nerves control the chest and diaphragm and since breath control is required for speech we expect to see significant enlargement of these nerves in modern humans. The hypoglossal canal is where cranial nerve XII, which "innervates the tongue and mouth" emerges from the skull. Both are significantly larger in modern humans than in apes. Sketchy fossil records suggest that Homo Heidelbergensis, Neanderthals and Archaic Modern Humans (AMH) all had human-like values for these nerves. The hyoid bone connects the base of the tongue to the top of the larynx and in humans is positioned low allowing us to make certain sounds, particularly the vowels. Neanderthals also seem to have had low hyoid bones. Finally the ear canals, as well as providing us with balance also allow us to hear. We know that chimp and human canals differ in ways that affect how we hear speech. 500,000 year old AMHs had similar ear canals to humans. 

The physical evidence suggests that many of the key anatomical changes were in place for humans (and Neanderthals) to start speaking roughly 500,000 years bp. Dunbar notes that this coincides with when the time demands for grooming would have risen above 20% of available time. 
"it is very likely that a more complex vocal repertoire evolved quite early on in hominin evolution in response to increasing group size." (241).
In fact we see parallels in the complexity of some bird calls (chickadees). There is also direct evidence that primate facial and gestural repertoires increase in complexity with increasing group size (241). 

A key ability some social animals have is the ability to form impressions of the intentions of another animal. This is called mentalising. Social animals need to know the disposition of the other members of their community and have developed the ability to infer this from clues such as posture, facial expressions and tone of voice. One of the main things we do with language is report on other people. If I tell you "Brian likes Mary" you must understand your own mind, my mind, and Brian's mind: that's 3rd order mentalising. No doubt you'd probably wonder whether Mary knows that you know that I told you that Brian likes her, and how she would respond to this and that's 4th order. Humans average out at being capable of 5th order mentalising. This ability to mentalise bares "an uncanny resemblance to the embeddedness of clauses in the grammatical structure of sentences" (242): e.g. Shakespeare attempts to have us, the audience, believe that Othello thinks that Iago is telling the truth when he says that Desdemona returns the love that Cassio has for her. Understanding this play requires the audience to use 5th order mentalising. Shakespeare is revered as a story teller partly because he must have been able to sustain 6th order mentalising. He must have been able to see the 5th order story from our point of view. 

It turns out that we can estimate mentalising capability from neuro-imaging studies of various primates. We think that Australopithecus would have managed 2nd order mentalising on average. Homo erectus and heidelbergensis averaged 3rd order, but certain members might have reached 4th order. Neanderthals averaged 4th order, but some individuals reached 5th order. And modern humans average 5th order and some reach to 6th order. So it's possible that Neanderthals had language, but it would not have been as sophisticated as ours. We also know that Neanderthals had large brains, but their increase in brain size was mainly in the occipital lobe concerned with eyesight (and their eyes were also larger than ours), whereas as Homo sapiens' increase in brain size was more in the frontal lobes, so Neanderthals may not have been capable of quite the same levels of abstraction as modern humans, but could see well in low light levels. 

Putting it all together.

It seems that by 500,000 years ago we had all the physical and mental equipment for using language in place. Archaic humans and (probably) Neanderthals, were anatomically capable of using language. Physical evidence suggests language use at least by 40,000 years ago. Language being a complex phenomenon, we must look for complex conditions related to its evolution. Michael Witzel's study in comparative mythology (See: Origins of the World's Mythologies) suggests that story telling and mythology dates from at least 70,000 ybp. By the time modern humans left Africa they had well developed mythic narratives which involved abstractions and metaphors. I think this points to Modern Humans (ca 250,000-100,000 ybp) using speech in symbolic ways from very early on.

Some suggest that language developed alongside hunting of large animals, but just because we hunted together does not mean that hunting was a driver of language, as Dunbar points out: many animals hunt as packs without language. Wolves, orca, humpback whales, and dolphins all use sophisticated, coordinated hunting strategies without the need to sit down and explain everything first. More likely is that complex tool making and use was accompanied by more sophisticated communication, if not fully developed language. 

We might also usefully consider work by George Lakoff into the nature of metaphor and abstraction. Both are rooted in our experience of interacting physically with the world. I think, but cannot prove, that our hand gestures as we speak are related to the metaphors of interaction we are invoking, that is to say our hands act out the interactions underlying our abstractions and metaphors. Gesture can be powerfully communicative as anyone who knows sign language will attest, and infants can learn to communicate with gestures long before they learn to speak (though the jury is still out on whether this facilitates later language development). The way signers convey metaphors also gives us potential insights into the process of using language to communicate. Language is not simply or only speech. The nature of it must be understood within paradigms of the embodied mind. Presumably at first we talked mainly about our physical interactions with the world and each other. Then we discovered the use of similes: "the man can run fast, like a cheetah"; and then the use of metaphors: "the man is a predator". This progression is creatively explored in literature in China Miéville's novel Embassytown. Presumably this all took a long time. Along with mentalising, this ability presumably also evolved in sophistication over time producing changes that any one generation might not have noticed. 

Finally out of left field I would like to highlight research into "conversational grunts", these are the non-language sounds (mmm, uh, huh, ah, etc) that we make when we listen to others speaking to let the talker know we are listening. We can actually signify a great deal simply by intonation of a sound like /mmm/: affirmation, disagreement, disapproval, happiness etc. Other research into this kind of area, e.g. sound symbolism, show that communicating, especially our emotional state (and this is extremely important in socialising) can be done without semantics. 

Language is not simply about communicating abstracts, though fully fledged language has this facility. Through language we communicate our disposition and socialise more effectively: language use allows us to use our time more efficiently. Language seems to have evolved alongside our larger brains and group sizes; alongside tool use and other indicators of increasing sophistication of our minds. It seems the capability was anatomically in place long before we began to use it. The communication of even archaic humans was likely a good deal more sophisticated than modern day apes.

Once language did evolve note that it constantly and rapidly changed. Language was almost certainly never a universal. Each language group (unconsciously) adapted language to reinforce group membership and identity. In the extreme we find 1000 of the worlds 7000 languages on the island of New Guinea. Language differences make inter-community communication difficult. Until the advent of civilisation language would have been a defining feature of one's identity. And this might explain why some languages developed very complex grammar that is difficult to learn except from growing up with it. Some of the changes in grammar might be explained by expanded worldviews. Trade links and the possibility of travel outside the range of one's tribe made possible by civilisation and empires, exposed us to strangers. It's worth reading Dunbar's theoretical book in conjunction with something like Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday which describes the day-to-day reality of hunter-gatherer life.

Dunbar's book is unique in its approach to human evolution. The combination of the Social Brain Hypothesis and Time Budget modelling allow Dunbar to draw a compelling picture of how our distance ancestors might have lived and also when they might have adopted new technologies like fire for cooking, and of course language use. A good deal of the time he is drawing directly on his own research or research conducted by members of his research group at Oxford. While we will only ever be able to infer how pre-historic humans lived from such evidence as has survived the millennia, Dunbar shows that we can obtain much more detail than before. His book takes us from SVGA to HD. Language use is in fact only a small part of the book, but it highlights the kinds of inferences that can be drawn, and of course language use is iconically human (Koko et al notwithstanding). Understanding where we came from and how we developed over time is a key task for understanding who we are now.


17 October 2014

Anicca, Dukkha, Anattā

This essay discusses the Aniccavaggo (the Section on Impermanence) in Saṃyutta 35 (Saḷāyatanā the six sense bases) in the fourth book of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN iv.1ff). The key words nibbindati, virajjati and vimuccati mark these passages as relating to the third stage of the Spiral Path, the stage of paññā (Skt prajñā) which I will translate here as "understanding". These texts lay out, in a very accessible way, some important ideas with regard to what Buddhists are seeking to understand. At least for the early Buddhists, understanding has a specific domain and content. 

I'll present my translation the first text of the section (with notes on the 2nd and third which differ only by substituting dukkha and anattan for anicca) and then discuss the texts afterwards. There are 12 texts in this section, but we can easily summarise them because there is considerable repetition with minor variation. Each text is presented with more or less identical wording focussing first on impermanence (anicca), then on disappointment (dukkha), and finally on insubstantiality (anattan); and each of these is repeated from the "subjective" (ajjhatta) and "objective" (bāhira) points of view; and finally with respect to the past, present and future giving twelve variations on the basic text. Only the first text in the section has a tradition nidāna or framing narrative.

1. Ajjhattāniccasuttaṃ ~ 2. Ajjhattadukkhasuttaṃ ~ 3. Ajjhattānattasuttaṃ
The Suttas on Subjective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification. (SN 35: 1-3)
1. Evaṃ me sutaṃ. Ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sāvatthiyaṃ viharati jetavane anāthapiṇḍikassa ārāme. Tatra kho bhagavā bhikkhū āmantesi – ‘‘bhikkhavo’’ti. ‘‘Bhadante’’ti te bhikkhū bhagavato paccassosuṃ. Bhagavā etadavoca –
Thus I heard. One time the Bhagavan was staying in Sāvatthī in the Jeta Grove or Anāthapiṇḍika's park. Right there the Bhagavan addressed the bhikkhus: "bhikkhus!"
"Sir?", the bhikkhus replied.
This is what the Bhagavan said:
‘‘Cakkhuṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Sotaṃ aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… ghānaṃ aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… jivhā aniccā. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Kāyo anicco. Yadaniccaṃ…pe… mano anicco. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā. Yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. 
The eye is impermanent [2. disappointing; 3. Insubstantial]. What is impermanent is disappointing. What is disappointing cannot be identified with a Self. Of that which cannot be identified with [we say] "It is not mine; I am not this; this is not my Self." Just this is to be seen as it is, with perfect understanding (samma-paññā). The ear is impermanent, etc The nose, etc, The tongue, etc. The body, etc
Evaṃ passaṃ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako cakkhusmimpi nibbindati, sotasmimpi nibbindati, ghānasmimpi nibbindati, jivhāyapi nibbindati, kāyasmimpi nibbindati, manasmimpi nibbindati. Nibbindaṃ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati; vimuttasmiṃ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṃ hoti. ‘Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī’’ti. 
Seeing this way, bhikkhus, the educated insightful disciple, is disenchanted with the eye; disenchanted with the ear, disenchanted with the nose, disenchanted with the tongue, disenchanted with the mind. Being disenchanted they can disentangle themselves. Having disentangled themselves, they are freed. Being free there is the knowledge "I am free". They know: "birth is ended; the religious life is fulfilled; the task is completed; I'll never be reborn."

The other texts in the section are:

4. Bāhirāniccasuttaṃ ~ 5. Bāhiradukkhasutta ~ 6. Bāhirānattasuttaṃ

The Suttas on Objective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.

7. Ajjhattāniccātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 8. Ajjhattadukkhātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 9. Ajjhattānattātītānāgatasuttaṃ

The Suttas on Past and Future Subjective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.

10. Bāhirāniccātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 11. Bāhiradukkhātītānāgatasuttaṃ ~ 12. Bāhirānattātītānāgatasuttaṃ.

The Suttas on Past and Future Objective Impermanence, Disappointment and Non-identification.


I've made the point about the domain of application for paṭiccasamuppāda many times, but not for a while. So to reiterate, these texts confirm the summary found in the Sabba Sutta. The domain of application of paṭiccasamuppāda is the sensory world; that is to say the domain of experience.

Here we focus on the two aspects of sense experience: the "subjective" (internal = ajjhatta) aspect in terms of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind; and the "objective" (external = bāhira) in the sense of forms, sounds, odours, tastes, tactile sensations and mental-activity. This is a relatively unsophisticated view of sensory perception in which the eye does the action of seeing as well as all the processing that we now associate with the brain. The eye passes on the seen to the manas which carries out the other functions, such as naming (saññā) and attraction/repulsion (saṅkhārā), etc. Both subjective and objective aspects of experience are treated identically.

I'm usually wary of the terms subjective and objective for reasons I've spelled out in previous essays (See esp. Subjective & Objective). The term here is purely epistemological. The experience of seeing a form has two aspects: the seen and the seeing. No ontological conclusions can be drawn from this. From the mere experience of seeing a form we cannot know the nature of the form nor of the eye. Where form is defined, it is defined in experiential terms: colour, resistance, shape, texture. In the Buddhist description of experience both form and eye—i.e. both sense object (alambana) and sense faculty (indriya) —are necessary for the arising of sense cognition (viññāna) and the three together give rise to a sensory experience (vedanā "a known", "a datum"). There are no pure forms or ideas as in Plato's account of phenomena and noumena. Indeed noumena are implicitly denied here and elsewhere. 

Later Buddhism insists that the subject/object distinction is just something we impose on experience, an argument which is itself based on deep meditative experience. But even when the distinction is acknowledged, as it is here, there is no difference in treatment, no suggestion of ontological speculation or position taking. Even in form etc., there is nothing in experience to identify with. 

The object of knowing and seeing (ñānadassana), then, is the process of sensory perception. It is not "reality". When we say that we see "things" as they really are (yathābhūta), we do not mean "things" in the the general sense of "everything" (reality) but specifically we mean the things experience. We may choose to generalise this into a Theory of Everything, but this generalisation creates many philosophical problems of the kind that Buddhist philosophers are still arguing about. As a theory of why experience is disappointing the traditional account is still quite workable and based on sound foundations that will make it relevant for the foreseeable future. The rest, the arguments about the nature of reality and all that (all ontological arguments), are already anachronistic and irrelevant. 

It is evametaṃ 'just this' relation to sense experience that is to be seen with perfect understanding (samma-paññā; Skt. samyak-prajñā). In Buddhist jargon, right-view consists in correctly seeing experience as it is. To take this statement in context, we know that a similar analysis is carried out with regard to the khandhas (the factors of experience). So neither the factors of experience, nor the content of experience, nor any aspect of experience, is permanent. And what is impermanent is disappointing; and what is disappointing cannot be our Self. This logic is almost certainly drawn from the Brahmanical sphere. It represents a direct contradiction of the Vedantic ideal of saccidānanda. These are the three characteristics (trilakṣaṇa) of brahman/ātman: being (sat < √as), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ānanda). But we know that the early Buddhists denied that experience has being. In fact neither existence (astitā < √as) nor non-existence (na-astitā) apply to the domain of experience. And because experience is anicca it is dukkha rather than sukkha; sukkha being a synonym for ānanda. Nothing that is dukkha can possibly ātman or brahman. This parallel between Buddhist and Vedantic thought was established by K R Norman (1981). 

The Buddhist analysis blocks identification with any aspect of experience as our essence, self, soul or any enduring entity - which is why I'm suggesting "non-identification" as a translation of anattan (Skt. anātman). If ātman means 'myself' (reflexive pronoun) then an-ātman can be seen as a bahuvrīhi compound: "without a myself", "non-self-referential". Since absolutely every experience is impermanent, disappointing and non-self-referential even if we did have a soul, we'd never have access to knowledge of it, since knowledge is mental and thus an aspect of the experiential domain. If we can know something permanent, then if we do not presently know it, we'll never know it; or if we presently know it, we've always known it and always will. Ignorance of a soul is either impossible or absolute, precisely because the soul is defined as permanent. Thus if we don't know now, we never will. This is the essence of the argument that Nāgārjuna went on to make about dharmas having svabhāva (See Emptiness for Beginners). 

Note also that, though many Buddhists claim that bodhi has no intellectual content, this text and countless others like it, ascribe a very specific content to the experience of vimutti. Firstly one knows that having become disenchanted with the sensory world and losing interest in the froth of the play of thoughts and emotions one has disentangled oneself from it all. We cease to suspend our disbelief in the play of senses and see sense experience as it is (yathābhūta). There is nothing here about seeing reality. And being free from entanglement, free from the automatic moving towards attractive sensations and automatic moving away from repulsive sensations, we know that we are free. Interestingly this is expressed in the first person: vimuttami (i.e. vimuttaṃ asmi) 'I am freed'. But then there are a series of realisations related to the ending of rebirth. Being free from automatic responses one cannot carry out the kind of actions that contribute to rebirth. One is free in the precise sense of being free from rebirth

Those who do not believe in rebirth have yet to propose an alternative understanding of this process of disenchantment and what it signifies. This maybe because so few of the proponents of a no-rebirth (apunabhava) Buddhism have experienced liberation for themselves. We won't have a truly modern Buddhism until we have a number of credible first-hand accounts of liberation in rationalist terms. As far as I know most people who have insight still resort to traditional narratives to describe their experience. This may be because the traditionalists are more motivated to practice with sufficient intensity. 


Norman, K. R.  (1981) 'A Note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama Sutta.' Studies in Indian Philosophy LD Series, 84 – 1981
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