25 April 2008

Karma and Rebirth

The idea that we are reborn again and again in a world where suffering is ubiquitous, until through our practice of the Dharma, we are liberated, is fundamental to traditional Buddhism. Liberation is fundamentally liberation from the "rounds of rebirth". And yet for many Westerners the idea of rebirth is not one they believe in. The arguments over rebirth sound to my ears very much like the argument over creation vs evolution. Neither side is able to conclusively prove their assertions, since both are by definition beyond proof. And yet one must admit that every received tradition of Buddhism explicitly accepts rebirth on the one hand; and that any solid scientific evidence for it is entirely lacking on the other. Where does this leave us?

If we leave aside the aberrant versions of rebirth which assume any kind of continuity for the personality, we are still left with something of a quandary in how we explain why the Buddha might have taught (much less believed in) rebirth, and how it is possible to have continuity between lives. What must be posited is some aspect of the individual - entirely beyond the scope of measurement - which survives the death of the body, and becomes incorporated into a new being at some point giving them the experience of the results of the actions of the previously dead person. As someone with scientific training I feel this is well into the territory of superstition and irrational belief.

However I would argue that there is a useful Buddhist approach to this issue, that is doctrinally valid and methodologically useful. It stems from my growing belief that the Buddha was not offering an ontology, not offering us definite statements on "how things are", but only ways in which we could experience for ourselves the way things are. Yes, the Buddha, did give a series of metaphors for this experience, and did talk about having had that experience, but I am more and more convinced that his message was about how to reproduce that experience without making any definite statements about the content of it. After all the experience is repeatedly said to be beyond words. Words about the Awakening experience, then, I take to form part of the recipe, or even the exhortation to bake, but are not the cake itself.

What happens if we apply this hermeneutic to the teachings about karma and rebirth?

The fact that actions have consequences is not in dispute. This much is obvious to even the least gifted observer of human life. How we go about our lives, how we behave, has a strong determining effect on our experience of life. The Buddha famously equated karma with cetanā or intention. Our attitudes, our mental landscape, is the most powerful determinant of our experience of the world. What we can know is limited by our senses and our mind. My understanding of the Buddha's message is that we are so caught up in the wash of sensory input and mental activity that we make categorical errors in interpreting our experience. As a result the Buddha describes the senses, and the processes which make up our being, as being on fire. Being (or bhava, becoming) is like fire, and the fuel is greed for pleasure, aversion to hatred, and the categorical delusions we have towards experience. Professor Gombrich has gone into this use of the fire metaphor in some detail. He further points out that in the Nidana chain the word usually translated as "clinging" or "grasping" is more straight-forwardly simply fuel. Desire (taṇhā) is the fuel (upādāna), which sustains becoming (bhava). The Buddha, according to the professor, describes being as "a blazing mass of fuel" (upādānakkhandha). The goal of the Buddhist is to blow out that fire - nibbāna.

The way to put out the fire is to deprive it of fuel - to cut off the greed and hatred which keep bhava burning. There is nothing here which requires this process to operate over more than one life. We keep the fire burning in the moment, and can blow it out through insight into the process which creates a decisive reorientation to the experience of the senses. Although the insight is said to come from meditation, the background to meditation is ethics. How we act is important because, positively, it creates the conditions for our sustained reflection on the nature of experience.

Now suppose that we believe that when we die that we personally simply cease to exist. That we personally will never experience the consequences of our actions if they have not already manifested. This would be a major flaw in the program to restrain unethical behaviour. Ethical behaviour, let me repeat, is not an end in itself, but a necessary pre-requisite for bringing about the conditions (calm and concentration) where insight can arise. It would make more sense to inculcate a belief that there was no escape from the consequences of one's actions, not even death, because that would make for a more effective training program in ethics.

Generally speaking we only act unethically if we feel forced to by the circumstances (and therefore fully expect unpleasant consequences but accept them), or if we think we can get away with it! Surely we have all done things when we thought we could get away with it, that under public scrutiny we would not endorse - trifling infringements on the whole. As Buddhists we try to keep the bigger picture in mind, but until we have a substantial experience of insight (and even to some extent afterwards) there is always this delusion that "it won't matter". We think we can "get away with it". A most graphic example of this is found in the Vinaya considered as a whole. If we accept that a rule banning a behaviour would only have been instituted if that behaviour was found in the Sangha, then the early Sangha were a deviant bunch! Many times, of course, a rule is made simply because the local villagers complain that monastics are acting like lay people. But this refrain is so constant in the Vinaya that one suspects that very few of the disciples were serious about spiritual practice.

The Buddha is in effect acting like a parent or guardian in providing behavioural limits for a child. He does this because he knows that freedom from remorse is a necessary condition for a calm body and concentrated mind, which are in turn necessary for achieving insight into the nature of experience. (see for instance the first two suttas in the AN chapter on 10's). While we continue to make the categorical errors we are like drunks or madmen who are a danger to ourselves and others. I don't think I need to stress that we are not talking about psychopaths, incapable of experiencing remorse, here, but the "average" person.

To me it suggests that from a Buddhist perspective is it practically advantageous to believe that I personally will experience the consequences of my actions, death notwithstanding. This is not to say anything about whether such a belief is true or not true, in either a relative or ultimate sense. It may even be untrue, and yet we are better off believing it because it will help us achieve lack of remorse. It is a provisional belief that can be abandoned on the attainment of insight, because it will then no longer be necessary. This is not the same as agnosticism. It requires a commitment to taking responsibility for one's actions now, in the past, and in whatever future may come. What is true in this case is that unless we can make some kind of imaginative leap which allows us to see the consequences of our actions coming home to us, we will continue to think that some actions (of body, speech or mind) do not matter. Everything we do, say, and think matters.

This approach to belief, allowing for provisional belief in something which may not be ultimately valid but which has advantages, is foreign to Western thinking as far as I know. The "debate" between creationists (or their bastard offspring the "intelligent design" lobby) and the people advocating scientific rational humanism both seem to adopt positions which assume that belief is an absolute - you either believe in X or not (and you are either enlightened or a fool as a result). In fact I think a lot of people are better off for believing in a loving and merciful god, if only because existence might be unbearable without that belief. "Love thy neighbour" is in line with my highest aspirations.

To sum up then, I think that a Buddhist approach to belief is fundamentally different to the prevailing Western notions. Instead of asking whether a belief is true or not, and arguing from that basis, we Buddhists ask ourselves "is it helpful"? Helpful is anything in the ethical sphere which helps us achieve calm and concentration. It is axiomatic for Buddhists that anything which is harmful to others cannot afford us calm and concentration - something which is borne out by experience. "True" and "false" matter far less than kusala (helpful) and akusala (unhelpful). So any argument over whether karma and rebirth are "true" in the Western sense are kind of missing the point. It is better, ie more helpful, to believe that you cannot escape the consequences of your actions because that will make you more sensitive to how you act in the present. This approach frees us from having to explain every detail of the doctrine in rational terms, a task which I think is impossible in any case. It also means that we are not so likely to want to fight over the "truth".

image: from Sonofwalrus on Flickr

18 April 2008

Beliefs can be Heaven or Hell

I want to start this post by giving my free rendition of a Pāli Sutta, and then follow with a little commentary.

The Conch Blower
Saṃyutta Nikāya 42.8 (iv.317)

One time when the Blessed One was staying at Nāḷandā in a mango grove he was approached by Asibandhakaputta, the head man of his village and a disciple of the Jain teacher Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta. After exchanging greetings, the Blessed One asked, “how does your teacher explain the cosmic order?”

“Well sir”, replied Asibandhakaputta “he teaches that anyone at all who takes life, takes what is not given, indulges in sexual misconduct, or tell lies, is bound for a state of misery, bound for hell. Whatever state one is habitually in will determine one’s rebirth”.

“Well in that case, Asibandhakaputta, no one will ever be born in a state of misery or go to hell. Think about it: which is more frequent, how much of the time is one, for instance, taking life? A much greater time spent not taking life, isn’t it?”

“I see what you mean, sir”.

“In which case because they spend more time not taking life, they will not have a bad rebirth.”

“Imagine Asibandhakaputta that someone who had confidence in his teacher held this view. Haven’t we all at some time acted unskilfully and broken a precept? A person with that belief who breaks a precept will believe that they are bound for misery and hell, and holding to that view will be hellish.”

“Now imagine that a fully Awakened Buddha comes along to teach. He criticises and censures the taking of life and so on. He says: don’t do it! If someone has faith in the Blessed One they reflect on their conduct, and acknowledge that at times they have acted unskilfully. They know that this was not good or proper, and although they regret it, they know that evil deeds in the past cannot be undone. This reflection will help them to restrain themselves in the future and keep the precepts. He will abandon, and abstain from: taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle speech, covetousness, illwill, and, wrong views.”

“Then, purified in this manner, the disciple of the Noble One will practice the Brahmavihara meditations. Pervading the entire world in all directions with a mind imbued with loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, vast, exalted, and measureless, without hostility or illwill. Just as a strong conch blower can make his note heard in the four quarters when the liberation of the heart by the Brahmaviharas is developed and cultivated any action in the sensuous sphere does not remain or persist.”

“Excellent, Sir”, exclaimed Asibandhakaputta. “Please accept me as a lay follower from now on.”

The sutta feels a bit like a Socratic dialogue. The Buddha begins by asking what Asibandhakaputta's teacher says about the dhamma (which I am reading here as 'cosmic order' on the basis of the context, and on historical grounds), then points out the fallacy, and substitutes his own view. I'm pretty sure that what Asibandhakaputta describes is not a fair representation of the Jain Dharma, although it does resemble it.

My two main points are suggested by my title. The Buddhist position, as represented by this text, is that it does matter what we believe in. If we believe like Asibandhakaputta does originally that the slightest unskilfulness means we are going to hell, then most likely we will end up living in hell. I follow Chögyam Trungpa in taking this kind of statement as a psychological metaphor: believing that one is inevitably destined for hell is hellish.

I have already mentioned in a previous post that the literal meaning of Brahmavihara is dwelling with God. The Buddha took the goal of Brahminical religious life at the time and used it as a metaphor. By dwelling with unbounded, vast and measureless loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, one is effectively in heaven. It doesn’t get any better than this. In fact this is also the liberation of the heart (cetto-vimutti), or the goal of the Buddhist religious life as well.

Believe yourself destined for hell, and you will be; believe yourself destined for heaven and you will be.

The Buddha calls for a rational approach to ethical precepts. We cannot be absolutely pure of conduct until Awakening. Reflecting on our conduct can give us the motivation to make ethical progress. It is the remorse born of reflecting that makes us want to do better in the future. Although it is tacit in this particular sutta what we reflect on is: cause in the form of our motivations; and effect in the form of the consequences of our actions. Although the focus here is on unskilfulness there is no reason not to reflect on positive results coming from positive intentions, indeed I would say it is a necessary test of the theory.

The implication in this sutta is that we practice ethics, which I will gloss here as 'acting as though we had no greed, hatred and delusion', in order to more fully express loving kindness and the rest. We practice loving kindness and the rest in order to actually liberate our consciousness from what afflicts it: that is greed, hatred, and delusion.

11 April 2008

What is it that Arises in Dependence of Causes?

What arises in dependence on causes?I've been asking myself this question lately - it has become a kind of koan. I think early on in my love-affair with Buddhism I answered this question quite differently to how I would answer it now. Dependent Arising is the most important idea in Buddhism. Of course as Buddhists we say that mere words and concepts cannot completely encompass this central Insight of the Buddha, but in conceptual terms Dependent Arising is the sine qua non.

When we discuss this concept Buddhists often make the point by using examples from what I've been calling the objective pole of experience. That is to say we use examples from the world of objects that, from our dualistic points of view, appear to exist independent of us. I don't have a problem with positing objects in this way. There is quite a broad consensus amongst people in their right minds that there are objects, and I have no certain proof that there are no objects. So for instance we might illustrate dependent arising by using a traditional simile involving a chariot: it has wheels, an axle, a frame, a yoke, etc. Without all the parts assembled in the correct order the concept 'chariot' doesn't occur to us (there's a clue here to what I'm going to say next). Things, we say - implying objects - depend on causes, otherwise things don't exist.

One might complain, as I sometimes do, that not much change is visible in some objects. On my desk I have a sphere of polished crystal which has not perceptibly changed in many years. Some clever Buddhists answer that the crystal is busy changing at the atomic and sub-atomic level. But we must be careful about explaining Buddhist doctrine in scientific terms because such observations were not available to the Buddha. The Buddha had no knowledge of atoms or electrons or any of that. I prefer then, despite my scientific training, to try to explain the idea in terms that the Buddha himself would understand and use.

The problem disappeared for me one day when I was discussing this apparent difficulty with a friend. I observed that the huge chunk of rock towering over us had not perceptibly changed in several weeks of watching it. "Close your eyes", my friend said. Which I did. "Has your perception of the rock changed?", he asked. And of course my perception of the rock had completely and utterly changed from one of a sight experience to one of a memory experience. So here is the rub. Objects themselves may not be changing that much, but our minds our changing constantly.

The idea was powerfully reinforced for me by Professor Richard Gombrich when, during his 2006 Numata lectures, he emphasised that dhammas, the basic elements of the world from in Buddhist doctrine, are mental phenomena. I would now say that dhammas are the constituents of experience - they are to the mind, what forms are to the eye, or sounds to the ear.

So I would now say that what arises in dependence on causes is dhammas. This is to focus on what I tend to call the subjective pole of experience. I do not deny that objects are experienced, and that there is frequently a consensus about the existence of objects. But what we know about objects is mediated by the senses and the mind. There is no way around this - all information that we have about any object is via the senses and the mind. This leaves open the ontological status of objects - they may well be real, but we have no way of proving this. Equally we have no way of proving that objects are not real, and the consensus about the experience of some objects suggests that they are not particular to individuals in most cases. If two people agree that there is an object then it would seem to be independent of either person. It gets tricky however because my information about what your information comes to me via my senses. There is no way around this basic fact.

The Buddha described the unenlightened as obsessed by, and intoxicated with, the objects of the senses. In his last words he says that it is through appamāda that one attains [awakening]. My analysis of the etymology of the word appamāda, as well as how it is used throughout the Canon, is that it means something like "not blind-drunk on the objects of the senses".

The practical implication of focusing on dependent arising as referring to the arising of experience is that one can lessen the obsession, can sober up and see what is happening more clearly. When the Buddha says that all compounded things are impermanent and impersonal he is not, I think, referring to objects but to experience. He says "all compounded things are impermanent", but compounded things are known to be made up of dhammas and as I have said, dhammas are the elements of experience. It is experience which is impermanent, rather than things, although it is also true that things are impermanent. It is experience which is impersonal, and experiences which are unsatisfactory.


image: moonrise by Synapped

04 April 2008

Suffering, Nihilism, and the Buddha

A quick search on Google is sure to reveal that the idea that "everything is suffering" persists amongst Buddhists. This misunderstanding of the Four Truths of the Noble Ones* has been particularly tenacious and pernicious. It has lead some people to label Buddhism as nihilistic, though such an idea is clearly bonkers. However the fact that the misunderstanding persists amongst Buddhists does not help. The arguments usually goes that because every thing (thing in the sense of an object of the senses) is impermanent and insubstantial (anicca and anatta in Pāli) that we suffer. All conditioned things are impermanent, therefore all conditioned things are suffering.

In his Survey of Buddhism (p.142ff) Sangharakshita makes an important contribution to understanding the truths of the Noble Ones. He points out that the Buddha made a distinction between doctrine and method. The charge of nihilism is a categorical mistake: the truths of the Noble Ones are methodological rather than doctrinal. This is evidenced in Sariputta's discourse, the Sammadiṭṭhi Sutta. In this sutta the content of the first Truth is shown to be unfixed. Suffering can be replaced by food, birth and death, name and form, or ignorance. The doctrinal principle is dependent arising. The truths of the Noble Ones are an application of that doctrine to the problem of suffering. Suffering is a good starting place, Sangharakshita tells us, because as an experience it is ubiquitous. Also being a experience it is not so susceptible to being intellectualised. Meditating on a concept is far less efficacious than meditating on an experience.

The matter is made quite clear in the saṃyutta nikāya in a sutta addressed to a layman called Mahāli (S 22.60 = S iii.68ff). Mahāli has been talking with another spiritual teacher who claims that there is no cause and effect, no reason for "defilement" (saṃkilesa), and therefore, by implication, no reason for the problem of suffering. Shit happens. The Buddha tells Mahāli that there is indeed a cause for suffering.

Forms are neither exclusively unpleasant (dukkha) nor are they exclusive pleasurable (sukha). The same is true of feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness - ie the five khandhas (Sanskrit skandha). If everything was suffering then beings would not become attracted to anything. But because experience has a pleasurable aspect we do become attracted to it; and being attracted we do become captivated by pleasure; and being captivated by pleasure we are defiled, which is it say we suffer. There is good sense here. If everything was suffering then how would be become trapped in desire for experience since no one, ultimately not even the masochist, desires suffering? The charge of nihilism was never sensible, but it should obvious from this sutta that the claim that "everything is suffering" is also not sensible.

The Buddha tells Mahāli that the converse is also important. Because if everything was pleasurable then there would be no way for us to become disillusioned with experience, and to seek a way beyond birth and death. It is only by withdrawing from obsession with sensual experience that liberation becomes possible.

It's all too easy to get caught up in various kinds of literalism. This is an aspect of what the Buddha is telling Mahāli. Ideas are attractive, we become captivated by them, and we start thinking that ideas, or opinions about things are real, or true (the same word, sacca, is used for both in Pāli). Any kind of absolutism is likely to be a fallacy. In fact any kind of strongly held opinion is likely to be a fallacy, or based on one. This is why focusing on experience, as the Buddha so frequently does, is so useful. Suffering is not generally a matter of opinion. It would be nice to think that having pointed out an error, the error will be eliminated, but this is all too unlikely given our intoxication and obsession with sensual experience. Hopefully the Mahāli Sutta will at least stimulate some reflection.


There is a translation of the Mahāli Sutta on Access to Insight. In Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation: p.903f (single vol. ed.)


* The great philologist K.R. Norman has shown that "Noble Truths" is unlikely to be the correct translation of ariyasacca, and that truths of the Noble Ones is far more likely. I have therefore adopted this as my standard translation.
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