27 January 2012

Rebirth is Neither Plausible nor Salient.

My Great-great Grandmother (96)
with my Father (6 months)
ca. 1936
I'VE NOW WRITTEN a number of Raves on the subject of afterlife beliefs. I've looked at the notion from a variety of perspectives: phenomenological, historical, and taxonomic. Along the way I have been drawn to a particular conclusion which is this:
The idea of anything surviving the death of the body, and in particular the death of the brain, seems so incredibly unlikely that I no longer find any afterlife theory plausible.
I no longer find the idea of rebirth plausible, mainly because I don't believe in the metaphysics which underlie the idea. Following David Hume and his criteria for judging testimony, I find the falsehood of rebirth considerably less miraculous than the truth of it. More crucially I no longer see rebirth as salient or relevant in my approach to the Dharma. After a few introductory remarks I'll deal with plausibility first, and then salience. This Rave is rather longer than usual and I hope readers will bear with me. The argument is not difficult to follow, but it's best seen in a broad context.

On face value, in rejecting rebirth, I am adopting an annihilationist view (ucchedadiṭṭhi) which I imagine will please my so-called secular Buddhist readers and appal my more traditionalist readers. Coming out as an annihilationist (ucchedavādika) might be seen as rather contrary for someone who claims to be a religious Buddhist. After all Buddhism quite distinctly positions itself as a middle-way between eternalism and nihilism. However I think I can justify my position with reference to Buddhist doctrine, and show that not believing in rebirth is not necessarily heterodox, even if it goes against the received tradition! In doing so I will invoke some ideas that have become my guiding lights in this blog. Chief amongst these is the "hermeneutic of experience" the idea that we should always interpret Buddhist doctrines as referring to experience and never to the question of what exists. I define "experience" quite generally as that which arises on contact between sense object and sense faculty in the presence of sense consciousness. A key text is the Kaccānagotta Sutta which denies the applicability of 'it exists' (atthi) and 'it does not exist' (n'atthi) when discussing the world [of experience] (loka).


When I criticised the Abhidharma recently I said that the Abhidharmikas shifted their attention away from experience as the sphere of interest, towards existence and problems like trying to determine what exists (in other words they ignored the Kaccānagotta Sutta). A related change was the move to see paṭicca-samuppāda as a Theory of Everything: i.e. a single, simple explanation for every 'thing' and/or 'phenomena' in the universe. In an unpublished essay I have argued at some length that paṭicca-samuppāda was not intended to explain everything, and that it's proper domain is precisely the world of experience where ontological thinking is not relevant. [1] Experiences arise and pass away without anything substantial coming into being and nothing going out of being. It follows from this that the Middle Way itself properly applies only in this same domain.

However before the Canon was closed paṭicca-samuppāda was applied to rebirth. Rebirth, or some variation on it, was and is the most common afterlife belief in India. Some form of rebirth eschatology can be seen as far back as the later strata of the Ṛgveda [2]. I've outlined these afterlife views in my taxonomy.

In order to have any kind of rebirth something of my current psycho-physical organism must survive the death of my body. Rebirth is generally predicated upon the idea that one can recall past lives, or that at the very least one inherits habitual tendencies from a previous being. Buddhists typically reject the idea that the reborn being is either identical with, or entirely different from, the being who has previously died. But at the very least memories must be preserved in some medium for recall, and every scrap of evidence we have ties human memory to our living brain. Habitual tendencies are habits of thought and emotion both of which require a living brain, and a living body. Can an experience even be called an emotion without a body in which to experience it? In which case even the Buddhist theory of rebirth posits some form of dualism: a part of us survives death to convey our memories and habits across multiple life-times. But this aspect of us cannot be the mind which is so closely tied to the living body, and it cannot be the body since it unequivocally ceases at death (and decays back into its constituent elements. So what is it? If we are not to answer that it is a soul (of some description), then how do we answer? I don't think there is a satisfactory answer to this question. Some of this material was covered in Rebirth and the Scientific Method where I outline the kind of evidence that would cause me to change my mind on this.

By the way I also believe the question of whether the Buddha believed in rebirth to be unanswerable. Buddhist texts are almost universally acquainted with some form of rebirth. It is true that there are some minor ambiguities and contradictions, but the texts reflect the views of early Buddhists, not the views of the Buddha, and there's no reason to expect them to agree on everything. There is no objective way to extract the Buddha's actual views from the early Buddhist texts. So it is facile to insist that the Buddha either did or did not believe in any particular idea.

We also need to consider the Theory of Mind. This is the special characteristic of self-consciousness that enables us to see other beings as self-aware individuals like ourselves, i.e. to develop a theory about other minds. Theory of Mind underlies our ability to empathise. It also allows us to perceive and meet the needs of other beings, even at the expense of our own needs at times (altruism). It is true that other primates have this ability to some extent, but humans have developed it to a far higher degree. It is Theory of Mind that informs the Golden Rule about how to treat other beings. We know what is is like to suffer, and so we should not inflict suffering on others (see also None Dearer than Myself). Now our Theory of Mind errs on the side of caution in most people. The possibility that our dog or cat is self-aware in the same way that we are is moot, but we may also attribute self-awareness to trees, to mountains, and to physical processes like storms. We have a tendency to see self-awareness where it is clearly not present. This allows us, even encourages us, to imagine the consciousness of the dead person continuing without their body!

Neuro-anatomical investigation shows us that mental activity is inseparable from brain activity. Even in the case where mental activity does seem disembodied—e.g. the out-of-body experience (OBE)—scientists have shown that electrical stimulation of the angular gyrus, on the tempero-parietal junction, will create this precise effect. We now have plausible explanations for how the sense of self may be disrupted in such a way as the ego is perceived to be connected to the felt sense of the body, but disconnected from visual sense, all the while remaining tightly correlated with brain activity. Thomas Metzinger, however, has observed that having had an OBE the overwhelming temptation is to conclude that consciousness is not tied to the body: i.e. to believe in a strong form of mind/body dualism. I would add that even those who haven't had the experience personally are tempted by the testimony of those who have. The conclusions of neuroscientists, however, are profoundly non-dualistic: there is no separation between brain function and consciousness, they are manifestations of the same process.

Now Buddhists will be tempted to trot out the old charge of materialism, or arguments against epiphenomenalism at this point. However I am not making an ideological argument; I'm not arguing for strict materialism or epiphenomenalism (and anyway: I'm not a materialist). I am only arguing that the evidence shows us that mental activity and brain activity are so tightly correlated as to be inseparable: i.e. that mental activity without brain activity, while not inconceivable, has not yet been observed, and seems unlikely ever to be observed. The evidence is certainly not complete, but each observation reinforces the others and points in the same direction. What's more the testimony that points towards dualism is shown to be false, or biased. I think we've reached the point where this conclusion is inescapable.

It will be useful to review why afterlife beliefs are so potent (from my rave The Abyss of Death). All organisms are characterised by, amongst other things, an over-riding imperative to survive (apparently Schopenhauer made this observation, but I take my cue from Thomas Metzinger). Even the single-celled amoeba acts for its own continued survival. Even plants with no nervous system compete with neighbours and fight to dominate their space, and to repel invaders and pathogens. Life strives to continue. However while life itself continues, individual living organisms all eventually die. Self-awareness has given us the certain knowledge of our own inevitable death. Thus, in the mind of a self-aware living being, an irresistible force (survival) meets an immovable object (death). The result is cognitive dissonance so strong that we simply deny death - in most cases the imperative over-rides the facts.

When reasoning we use emotion to assign value to facts. Antonio Damasio describes a patient with damage to the emotion centres in the pre-frontal lobe, but whose intellect is otherwise intact. Asked to make a decision they cannot do so because they cannot assign value to facts, they get caught up in an endless exploration of the available facts without ever coming to a conclusion. [3] The strength of emotion around death makes us weigh facts in a biased way: for instance we see the corpse of a loved one, but cannot accept that they have simply ceased to be, so we imagine that their consciousness (or their soul) lives on in some disembodied state.

When we combine all of these observations we can begin to see the dynamic that is at work:
  • We believe a priori that self-awareness is not tied to the body,
  • so the idea that 'something' survives death and continues to 'live' seems plausible,
  • emotional weighting of facts makes this seem probable, and the finality of death improbable,
  • and since we don't want to believe in death, post-mortem survival seems preferable.
  • We make the leap from preferable to actually true, and it feels satisfying because we have resolved the dissonance and been consistent with our other beliefs.
The problem is that the plausibility of post-mortem survival is undermined by rigorous observations of life and living organisms and how they function. It becomes clear that the afterlife is simply a metaphysical narrative with no real-world correlates - there is no other reason to believe it other than it feels right, but it only feels right because of pre-existing biases and unbearable tensions. Whatever contradictory facts are presented, they are not assigned much emotional weight, so post-mortem survival still seems preferable however irrational. Even when it is acknowledged to be irrational.

Now the scientist is often a materialist, though not in the simplistic sense of the 18th or 19th century Natural Philosopher. Studying science makes materialism compelling because it actually explains a huge amount, and the method has produced sustained progress in knowledge for 200 years now. I say sustained, but scientific progress is a punctuated equilibrium. A lot of the time we're just collecting data, filling gaps, and concerned with details. But from time to time observations are made that force a shift in the way we see the world. We probably all know about these because the most famous scientists are associated with paradigm shifts: e.g. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Marie Currie, Albert Einstein, and Crick, Watson & Franklin. All of these people were studying the world with the explicit notion that stuff really exists independent of our minds. In the traditional Buddhist analysis they are therefore eternalists. However the same scientists usually conclude that there is no afterlife and this is traditionally a nihilist view. Eternalism and nihilism are mutually contradictory positions. A logical contradiction like this is a sign that the terms of the discussion are flawed and we need to take a step back. And this brings us on to the issue of salience.


In my critique of the so-called Two Truths I pointed out that the only reason we needed to introduce the idea of two truths was because Buddhists began to apply paṭicca-samuppāda outside its natural domain. What I argue here is that something similar has taken place with the notion of life after death. To be explicit I am saying that the idea of rebirth is outside the natural domain of paṭicca-samuppāda. This is big claim given the history of the Buddhist tradition, but the essays I've been writing in the last couple of years have built up a case for it. My position is that paṭicca-samuppāda only really applies to the arising and passing away of experiences, especially in our unawakened state to the arising and passing away of dukkha (disappointment). This is in fact explicit in a number of texts, but specifically the Vajirā Sutta (SN 5:10; S i.136) which I have written about.

Being born is certainly an experience—though one that none of us have any memory of it precisely because at birth our brains are not fully developed. This is always the case because our head must get through the pelvis of our mother and that means leaving the womb with an underdeveloped brain. For most people our earliest memories (of this life) date from around age 3 or 4. This is also, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, about the time that Theory of Mind develops and allows us to see ourselves as an individual amongst other individuals.

The idea that we are reborn after death with memories of former lives (potentially) at our disposal, and inherited habits of mind and body, is not an experience. Rebirth is a interpretation based on anecdote which tries to explain why things happen the way they do. It's common enough to believe that beings come back after death, but certainly far from universal or obvious. Repeated death and rebirth is simply the predominant afterlife theory of India, though it is also found, for example, in African, indigenous American, and ancient Greeks socities. [4] In Christian or Islamic societies, by contrast, they subscribe to a different afterlife theory. So far as I can tell there is no objective criteria to decide between these views: we tend to just believe whatever people around us believe. Or we believe what feels right and I have already pointed out the potentially over whelming bias as far as the afterlife is concerned.

On the other hand ghosts and disembodied spirits are very much a part of the landscape in Christian countries. Friends of mine live in a "haunted" house and many people have experienced a close encounter with a "ghost" there. Most of these hauntings were actually classic sleep paralysis experiences, which highlights the distinction between an experience and how we explain and/or interpret it. Someone experiencing sleep paralysis has without doubt had a freakish and disturbing experience, but they have not experienced a disembodied conscious agent.

When Buddhists began to apply paṭicca-samuppāda to everything they did not leave out rebirth. However, like other forays outside the narrow application of paṭicca-samuppāda to experience, it caused contradictions and paradoxes: such as eternalists with nihilistic afterlife beliefs. These complications were generally accepted, though not without some juggling and competing interpretations, because Buddhists wanted (desperately) to see their most important idea as explaining everything. They still do. Speculating why this is so would take me too far from my topic, but perhaps I'll come back to it in another rave.

There is one more consideration here. Rebirth is intimately linked to the Buddhist doctrine of karma. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago (Son of the Śākyas) that the idea of being judged on the basis of your actions is one that might have come into Buddhism (and Hinduism) from Zoroastrianism. All large scale cultures seem to have a metaphysical overseer. In most cultures it comes in the form of a god who monitors your behaviour. Why do we need monitoring? In ancestral small scale societies we all knew what everyone was doing because we spent all of our time together. Privacy did not really exist. But as we became civilised and started living in larger scale communities it became impossible to keep everyone under surveillance to make sure they were keeping to the rules. Society is predicated on the idea that most people follow the rules most of the time, and if we catch someone breaking the rules we punish them somehow. One of the harshest non-fatal punishments is shunning which was practised in the early Buddhist Saṅgha for some offences (it still is). So gods like Indo-Iranian Mitra/Mithra, developed to keep a celestial eye on everyone and keep order. In non-Vedic India however the function was not divine, and not anthropomorphised, but became an impersonal built-in property of the universe, i.e. karma. However the function of karma is no different to the function carried out by judicial gods (e.g. Mitra or Zeus), or the oversight function of a mono-gods (e.g. Jehovah), and that karma is still a supernatural agency. Karma was invented to make sure that private actions have public consequences, though the astute reader will notice that the consequences are mostly private—that is divorced from the society in which the action was done—as well, since they are put-off till a future life.

Michel Foucault understood this surveillance function very well, and it forms one of the main themes of his work. In the West responsibility for oversight has passed from God and his priests, onto doctors (priests of medicine), and to the government via police and CCTV cameras. Though interestingly individuals with cell-phone video cameras are keeping tabs on us now as well! The oversight function of our society is being decentralised via technology! (Here is a fantastic example on YouTube, with commentary here) Rebirth and karma work together: karma affects the quality of our post-mortem destination (hence heaven and hell) and rebirth means that death is no escape from consequences. Interestingly the inescapability of consequences doesn't survive later developments in Buddhist doctrine and there-in lies a story!

Coming back to the main point: my rejection of an afterlife is not anihilisationist when considered within the hermeneutic of experience. I do not claim that dukkha (aka the five khandha; aka experience) does not arise and pass away; in fact like the Vajira Sutta I claim that only dukkha arises and passes away. Alongside this I argue that any afterlife belief is actually eternalistic, and problematically dualistic. Rejecting all of forms of afterlife—as talking in the wrong way and/or about the wrong thing—is the only way to keep to the middle. Hence rebirth is no longer salient, no longer relevant when considering how to live.


These arguments are not mere sophistry, or at least not only sophistry. If Buddhists do not accommodate the observations of scientists we will inevitably find Buddhism being dismissed along with other religions (and rightly so). Buddhist cosmology, eschatology and ontology is not based in fact or "reality", but in myth and superstition. Our soteriology is not much better. As inspiring as some of the myths are, we need not allow Buddhism to be sidelined as mere superstition, or to revert to anti-intellectual fundamentalism. If we accept the hermeneutic of experience, then so far as I can see Buddhists can happily co-exist with the mainstream of science and make a valuable contribution through introducing our awareness enhancing, anxiety and conflict reducing practices to people everywhere.

Some will see the death of Buddhism in my suggestions. By contrast I see a reinvigoration on a scale not seen since the 7th century Tantric synthesis in India where the collapse of civil society drove the evolution of an entirely new approach to religion that continues to thrive in India, Tibet and Japan. The synthesis of Buddhism with scientific rationalism is perhaps the most exciting cultural development the world has ever seen. As I envisage this synthesis the emphasis will be on understanding and working with experience; and belief in metaphysical processes or entities will not be required or encouraged, though, of course, people will continue to have extraordinary experiences.


  1. Jayarava. 'Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?' July 2011. Unpublished.
  2. Jurewicz. Joanna. 2006. 'The Ṛgveda, ‘small scale’ societies and rebirth eschatology.' [A revised version of her conference paper from the 14th World Sanskrit Conference, July 2006] Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.
  3. Damasio, Antonio. 2006. Decartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. (Rev. Ed.) Vintage Books, p.192ff.
  4. Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2002. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press.

In this post I also refer directly to these previous raves (and indirectly to a few others) in chronological order:
I point this out to show that I've been giving it some serious thought over some years, and that most of the points I make here are explored in greater depth elsewhere in my oeuvre.

Thanks for Sabio Lentz for drawing my attention to the writing of Michael Blume, especially the lecture on Darwin's evolutionary approach to religion. I appreciate his ideas on how religious thinking and practice came into being. However it came too late for inclusion in this essay which has been in preparation for some months now, but I don't doubt that Blume's work will feature in subsequent raves.

20 January 2012

You say you want a revolution?

DemmingJohn Lennon asked this question and concluded that the way to have a revolution was not to change the world, but to "change your mind instead". In this he was probably influenced by his Hindu guru. Behind the idea that we should give up trying to change the world and focus solely on changing our mind lies a fatalism about the world on a larger scale, and indeed a fatalism about what any one individual could achieve. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita (3.35)
śreyān svadharmo viguṇaḥ,
paradharmat svanuṣṭitāt.

Your own duty performed badly is more auspicious,
Than the duty of another performed correctly.
i.e. don't mess with the order of things.

This is not a sentiment I share and in this essay I'm going to assume that some of us still want to change the world. If you don't then look away now. In 1991 I studied library management at Victoria University in New Zealand. In my studies I read about the quality "revolution" in industry especially in Japan in the 1970's. I went on to participate in quality circles in service organisations (mainly libraries) and even went through an ISO 9000 registration, so I saw the theory put into practice. In this essay I'm going to compare some observations about the so-called "quality revolution" in Japan in the 1950s, with some observations about the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century. Finally I'll use these disparate case studies to try to illuminate a problem that Western Buddhists face. Inevitably this will be too large a task to do justice to in this format, and I'm relying on my memory of books read decades ago. But here goes...

In the aftermath of World War II, the USA poured money into Japan to rebuild its economic base. Some politicians had learnt the lesson of post-WWI Germany, and, despite having bombed Japan into submission with weapons of mass destruction, the Allies were keen not to leave a ticking bomb in Japan as they had in Germany in 1918. So they rebuilt Japan with a constitutional democracy and an economy based on manufacturing. This proved to be quite successful. However, Japanese goods initially had a deserved reputation for being shoddy. When I was growing up in New Zealand there was a certain amount of racism influenced by the bitterness of our parents after WWII (many of us had relatives who'd spent time in Japanese POW camps). We unselfconsciously referred to Japanese cars as "Jap crap". But the fact was that, despite our bias, their manufacturing standards were much lower than the Brits or the Americans at the time. Indeed in NZ in those days we prized British engineering, but that is another story, and one that did not end happily.

How the Japanese turned this around and became the world's leading manufacturer of automobiles, and in the process more or less destroyed the British, and crippled the US car industries is a fascinating story. I want to focus on the contribution of W. Edwards Deming. He was a management theorist and academic who thought a lot about how to improve manufacturing. His ideas initially received a lukewarm response in the USA. After all no bombs had fallen on the mainland and they did not need to rebuild. As Bill Bryson has observed they simply switched from making tanks and bombs to making cars and fridges over night and continued on at the same rate. The USA was enjoying the first of many post-war booms, and was milking it. So industry leaders would send their middle managers to Deming's seminars, while they themselves never got to hear his ideas directly. Without the involvement of senior management America's corporate culture could not and did not change.

However in Japan the situation was different. When Deming started going to Japan not long after the war, it was soul-searching chief executives, fresh from having lost a quest for world domination, who went to his seminars. This lead to a change of culture in Japanese companies, and by the late 1970's to the emergence of Japan as an industrial giant: they still have the 3rd largest economy in the world (after the USA and China) despite the vicissitudes of the last two decades. Deming's big idea was quality control. Building quality into the process, and using quality control meant that they created fewer defective items, and shipped fewer to their customers. In my lifetime the reputation of Japanese cars, for instance, went from execrable to excellent. In my childhood virtually all the cars on the roads where British or Australian made. By the time I was an adult one in four cars was a Toyota with a fantastic reputation for reliability, and most cars were Japanese.

Deming was not solely responsible for this transformation, but the way that Japanese business leaders took on his ideas and changed their organisations is in direct contrast to what happened in the USA. The Americans eventually caught on and took up his ideas, but the damage had been done to US industry by then. It is now a shadow of its former self, and will probably never recover. The British car industry just died, helped on by Victorian labour relations. Although some UK luxury brands are still in business they are no long British owned. Land Rover is now owned by India's Tata motors, and Bentley by Germany's Volkswagen Group! (Oh the irony!)

My other case study occurred in the same country, but many centuries earlier. In the 6th century the Japanese nation as we know it was still being forged. The Japanese national identity was in its formative stages and they still looked to China for the lead in cultural matters. The ruling elite were educated according to Chinese models: they studied Chinese language, classical Chinese poetry, and the works of Kǒngzǐ (aka Confucius). The conversations of the literati were peppered with allusions to Chinese poets. The Japanese court was modelled on the Tang Chinese Court, both in the layout and architecture of the building, and in the structure of the government. Government officials even dressed according to Chinese models.

In about 552 a Korean King presented the Japanese Emperor with a statue of the Buddha, and some monks who told him about Buddhism. While it was initially divisive Buddhism became the state religion with patronage from Empress Suiko (592-628) and her regent Prince Shōtoku (573-621). Japan was in crisis with loss of territory and allies on the Korean Peninsular along with a flood of Korean refugees. Behind this was the aggressive expansion of the Chinese who also threatened to invade Japan. Now the Buddhism being transmitted at this time was not a religion of personal salvation. Though they may have found it attractive personally, the aristocracy of Japan adopted Buddhism mainly for political reasons. In texts like the Golden Light Sutra and the White Lotus Sutra, Buddhism promised magical protection for rulers and nations that supported it by propagating the sutras.

In outlook the Japanese ruling class were distinctly Confucian. The Emperor was Emperor by divine right, hence his title (copied from the Chinese): Tenno 'Son of Heaven'. And in this worldview the physical world would be ordered only if the political world was: if the Emperor was good and just (by the standards of Kǒngzǐ) then the nation would be protected from natural disasters and the people would be happy. The Chinese imperialism of the day (and both Chinese and Japanese imperialism in modern times) was seen in terms of extending the benevolent order of the Son of Heaven to chaotic barbarians. Which is not so different from Western imperialism.

Order in the royal court equated to order in heaven, and therefore order on earth generally. Keep in mind that then, as now, Japan was particularly susceptible to natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami (itself a Japanese word), floods, and typhoons were (and still are) common. Added to this the Japanese were almost constantly at war with the aboriginal people of the islands, the Ainu, whom they were displacing from Honshu Island toward the far North. With the added threat of invasion they needed protection, and Buddhism promised it.

Anyone familiar with Mahāyāna texts will be familiar with the offers of protection in them for anyone who recites, copies, or upholds the sutra. And this is what the Buddhism of aristocratic Japan consisted of. The Buddhist monasteries were employed to recite and copy sutras. A later emperor more or less bankrupted the state with his temple building program following a series of famines and natural disasters, and the recovery took centuries.

The upshot of this was that Buddhism became a national religion with the Emperor as sponsor. To be sure it continued to co-exist and syncretise with Shinto, and Confucianism remained at the heart of their political philosophy. We know a lot less, in English publications anyway, about how Pure Land Buddhism became absorbed at the popular level, but by the 9th century it was common for the eclectic wandering holy-men and healers to include elements of Buddhism in their spiels. Had it only been a religion of individuals, making their own personal revolutions, and raising themselves beyond the circumstances of their birth, I have no doubt that the Japanese ruling classes would have ruthlessly stamped it out. Their idea of order was strictly and inflexibly hierarchical and everyone stayed in their place. One could only become a monk with state approval, and the clergy and monasteries were a government department from the beginning. I haven't space to explore it more fully, but the pattern was repeated when Kūkai and Saichō introduced esoteric Buddhism into Japan in the 9th century. It was the interest of the royal family which secured the place of esoteric Buddhism in Japanese history.

The moral I am seeking to illustrate is that by converting leaders rather than followers, both Deming and the Koreans who introduced Buddhism into Japan, ensured the successful establishment of Buddhism in new domains. My understanding of Buddhist history is that this story is repeated down the years in India, China, Tibet, Sri Lanka Thailand etc. Except in the last 200 years and the introduction of Buddhism into the West. Here Buddhism was introduced not to the ruling elite, but to an intellectual elite. It was subsequently spread to the middle classes, but has not made much impression either amongst the leaders and decision makers, nor amongst working class people. I've lived in the UK for the last 10 years so my view is particularly informed by this still class-ridden (and -riven) society, but I think this observation holds true in New Zealand as well, and from what I can gather something similar has happened in the USA, and across Europe.

The only place I know of that has been different is the reintroduction of Buddhism to India, initiated mainly by Dr Ambedkar and his followers, which has taken root in the lowest socio-economic groups: the Dalits. However in India Buddhism has remained largely a religion of the oppressed classes, making little headway outside that group. And they are largely dependent on help from Europe and Taiwan to fund their activities because they are typically amongst the 400 million Indians living in poverty.

So though Buddhism has steadily grown in Europe and America, and helped by the exiled Tibetan community generated lots of good publicity, the possibility of a Buddhist revolution seems as far off as it ever has. After 200 years just 0.3% of the British population called themselves Buddhist in the 2001 census (results of the 2011 census come out this year). Most of our politicians and economists still seem to be in the grip of neo-conservative ideologies, often inspired, directly or indirectly, by the mad ideas of Ayn Rand and her disciples who denied the good of altruism, and elevated self-interest to the status of a sacrament. They dressed their ideology up as 'rational' though clearly Rand herself was at times highly irrational. Neo-cons persuaded many leaders and decision makers that perusing self-interest leads to the greater good - a philosophy that tends to appeal to ruling elites. As a result the rich are certainly richer, but sadly the poor are poorer. There really is no sign that the self-interest of the rich benefits society as a whole, and plenty that it is detrimental.

Buddhists, practising Buddhists, remain a tiny minority in the west. Probably less than 1% of the population even with the explosion of interest in our techniques. We have very little influence. So when some of my colleagues say that they teach mindfulness in a corporate setting I am both cheered and suspicious. If we are going to make a difference to the world, then we must influence decision makers. But I suspect that those corporate settings are middle-management with influence down the chain and not up. Just as with Deming in American they probably won't make a difference. We need to be teaching CEOs not middle managers. And we do not have a successful competitor to spur us on.

There are those who recoil at the idea of politically engaged Buddhism. The arena of politics is one that seems to taint and corrupt everyone who enters it, or even watches from the sidelines. I am dismayed at the stupidity and self-interest of politicians across the spectrum of political ideologies. There is no politician I can think of that I do not see as part of the problem. And yet we Buddhists toil away teaching (on the whole) the middle-aged and middle-classes. Their concerns are typically: stability, financial security, family, career, and so on. By the time they come to our centres they are heavily encumbered with obligations related to these concerns. It is not that they are unworthy, or unwelcome, they aren't, but history shows that a vigorous core of unencumbered men and women is required to lead Buddhist movements lest they become overly concerned with stability and security (this appears to be true of monastics as well!)

One of the responses to this acknowledged problem is to try to reach out to "young people". Though I notice that the current definition of "young" is stretched to the point of near meaninglessness. In my mid-forties I only just don't qualify. The phrase puer aeternis keeps floating through my head. While I agree that the obvious response to an ageing saṅgha is to recruit youngsters, I think we have to take a wider perspective. Reaching out to youngsters (and I think of people younger than 30 at the outside) may well help us survive the inevitable decimation as the Baby Boomers generation fades away. But we want to do more than fill our meditation and Buddhism classes. We want to change the world, we want all living beings to be well and happy. Don't we? Buddhism in all it's forms is revolutionary and has transformed most of Asia (though the continued enthusiasm for Buddhism is not assured) so why not the world?

One question we might want to ask ourselves is why the children of Baby Boomers have not taken up Buddhism with the same enthusiasm as their parents did? In Britain the summer of love was replaced by the winter of discontent (and reading about it you wonder how we can not have learned the error of spending more than we earn!). Donovan gave way to Johnny Rotten. Vote buying Labour governments capitulated to Neo-conservatism. And so on.

I believe that we must change ourselves, that I must change myself. It is imperative that we make ourselves exemplars of the good life. But I'm not convinced that we will create a revolution this way. I may (at a pinch) inspire my little circle, but the reach of my influence is limited. I think we must learn from history and reach out to people with wide spheres of influence, people who make decisions, who create policy, who are widely trusted. We must make them aware of how our ideas can contribute to everyone's well being. Opposing leaders in the West is probably important, but ultimately it achieves little. What we need to do is convert our leaders, and we stand a better chance that other kinds of ideologues such as eco-activists because our interest is not limited to ideology or single issues. In 10 minutes of sitting quietly we can demonstrate that a different approach to life itself is possible.

This is not to say that popular movements aren't useful, though Buddhism is not that popular compared to say bird watching in the UK. We have a problem in that the compromises we make for Buddhism to appeal to a wider audience often strike serious practitioners as counter productive. There's a lot of criticism of "Buddhism lite" for instance, or "Consensus Buddhism" as David Chapman calls it. Buddhism at the popular level has always appealed to the concerns of the masses and focussed on virtue rather than transformation - though a (re)focussing on virtue would be a positive thing for contemporary British society! Buddhism as a practice leading to transformation and freedom has always appealed to a much smaller audience because it is so demanding - traditionally it has demanded renunciation for instance. In the West where everyone is an elite of one, we might have a chance of getting everyone to practice towards freedom with all of the benefits that accrue along the way. I think this would make the world a better place, and provide an environment where the more dedicated and determined practitioners would be supported to pursue liberation, and provide leadership.

Our predecessors sought audiences with kings and emperors and convinced them of the benefits of Buddhism. This more than any other factor is why Buddhism became established in Japan, and China, and Tibet. So every time I see a world leader meeting with the Dalai Lama, I smile. I'm not one of his followers; I don't always agree with his doctrines or his aims; I'm not particularly inspired by Tibetan forms of Buddhism. However he gets to meet presidents and prime ministers. And that is precisely what we need to be doing if we're going to change the world. Perhaps in Britain, since no one trusts politicians any more, we should be thinking in terms of talking to the monarchy about how we can improve the lives of their subjects?


My thinking in this essay is also influenced by Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. And by the Adam Curtis's TV documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

13 January 2012

Arising in Dependence on Conditions

FOR SOME YEARS NOW I have been interested in the the question: what is it that arises in dependence on conditions? I treat the question as a kind of koan, digging deeper though textual scholarship, and using it as a focus for reflection on my own experience from moment to moment, hoping to see through it. My studies have led to the conclusion that the important thing is that experiences arise in dependence on conditions. This may not exhaust the possibilities, but it's the most useful thing to focus on.

Recently I came across a short text, the Selā Sutta (SN 5.9; S i.134), which gives an interesting answer to my koan. This analysis seems to anticipate later developments in Buddhist theory - particularly the elaborations of the Abhidhamma.

Yathā aññataraṃ bījaṃ, khette vuttaṃ virūhati;
Pathavīrasañ cāgamma, sinehañca tadūbhayaṃ.

Evaṃ khandhā ca dhātuyo, cha ca āyatanā ime;
Hetuṃ paṭicca sambhūtā, hetubhaṅgā nirujjhareti.

Just as a kind of seed, sown in the ground will sprout,
Resulting from both nutrients in the earth, and moisture

Thus the masses, elements and six sense spheres
Are produced from a condition, and cease when the condition disappears.
So here the answer to my question is that what arises (sabhūtā) in dependence (paṭicca) on conditions (hetu) is threefold: the 'masses' (khandha), the elements (dhātu) and the sense spheres (āyatana). I will deal with them in the order: khandha, āyatana, dhātu for reasons which will become obvious.

I have dealt with the khandhas before now (see: The Apparatus of Experience), so I'll be brief here. I follow Sue Hamilton in seeing the khandhas as analysing experience into the most important factors. The five khandhas are: 1. the living body (kāya) which is the locus of experience, sometimes more specifically referred to as 'body endowed with cognition' (saviññāṇa kāya e.g. M iii.18; S ii.252); 2. feelings (vedanā); 3. apperception (saññā); 4. volitions (saṅkhārā); and 5. consciousness (viññāṇa). Hamilton emphasises the collective nature of the khandhas - they do not represent a lasting self either singly or all together. As far as I am aware the khandhas always occur in this order, but are not treated a sequence in the Pāli texts.

The six āyatanas are the six sensory 'spheres' - āyatana is from ā√yam 'to reach out, to extend'. We often read about the 12 āyatanas which are the 6 internal (ajjhatika) and 6 external (bāhira) spheres. The internal āyatanas are the sense organs: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind; while the the external āyatanas are the respective objects: forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and mental activity (also confusingly called dhammas). It is this set of 12 that is referred to as "everything (sabbaṃ)" in the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23 PTS: S iv 15). Here we have a resonance with Vedic texts which refer to the cosmos as idaṃ sarvaṃ 'all this' meaning all of the created world. The Buddhist Sabba Sutta seems to be explicitly contradicting the ontological and cosmological implications of the Vedic texts such as Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (e.g. BU 1.4.1) or Ṛgveda (8.58.2):
éka evā́gnír bahudhā́ sámiddha
ékaḥ sū́ryo víśvam ánu prábhūtaḥ
ékaivóṣā́ḥ sárvam idáṃ ví bhāti
ékaṃ vā́ idáṃ ví babhūva sárvam

Only one fire kindles many times
One sun penetrates everything
Dawns as one, shines on all this
From this one, unfolds the whole
I read this aspect of Buddhist doctrine as saying something very important about epistemology. In saying that "everything" is the senses and their objects what the Buddha is doing is articulating limits on what we can know about. Although it feels real to us, our experience is a construction which relies equally on the thing being observed and the observer. And note carefully that this is a statement about the nature of experience, not a statement about the nature of reality. Reality remains at arms (or more accurately eye's) length from us, because our cognitions are constructed (saṅkhata) from sense impressions and mental activity.

The next set categories for analysing experience take the 12 āyatanas and add the 6 corresponding kinds of consciousness to make a set of 18. This brings together two basic ideas about the processes of consciousness. The first is that when cognition (viññāṇa) arises it is always associated with the sensory modality.
Yaññadeva, bhikkhave, paccayaṃ paṭicca uppajjati viññāṇaṃ, tena teneva viññāṇaṃtveva saṅkhaṃ gacchati.

Whatever kind of condition gives rise to cognition, it is known as that kind of cognition. (M i.259)
With the eye (cakkhu) and form (rūpa) as condition, eye consciousness (cukkhuviññāṇa) arises, and so on so up to mind cognition (manoviññāṇa) which gives us six kinds of conscious. The second important idea is that the process of having an experience is always constructed from at least three elements:
Cakkhuñca, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti, yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, , yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti,... (M i.111)

With the eye and form as condition arises eye cognition, the three together constitute contact; with contact as condition there is feeling. What one feels one comes to know. What one knows one thinks about, and what one thinks about proliferates...
Each of these groups of factors (dhammas) - khandhas, āyatanas and dhātus - is a way of analysing experience. One of the key practices in relation to experience is examining it for any permanent, satisfying or substantial content of which one could truly say "this is mine" or "I am this", or "this is me" (etaṃ mama, eso'haṃasmi, eso me attā). Variations on this practice remain central to many forms of Buddhism from Theravāda to Madhyamaka.

As I suggested above these categories were foundational for the Abhidhamma which endlessly analysed them and their relationships. I have complained that the Abhidharmikas lost sight of the experiential nature of all this and at least some of them started to speculate about the reality or otherwise of the dhammas. (The Post-Abhidharma Doctrine Disaster) Such speculation was a dead end. I also think Buddhists are wasting their time trying to apply this analysis outside the sphere of experience. The sphere of experience is "everything" in the sense both of what we have to work with, and what we can know about the world. These categories acknowledge the pragmatic and epistemological limitations on human experience, though liberation from dukkha is still an option from within this framework. It's not illogical to argue that this idea has broader implications. For instance the Buddha sometimes used examples from nature to illustrate the principle of dependent arising, which suggests that we see analogues of dependent arising in nature. However I believe the Buddha, especially in texts such as the Sabba Sutta, warned us to stay focussed on experience as the most fruitful course.


06 January 2012

The Son of the Śākyas

Scythian Horseman
Lessing Photo Archive
IN 2009 WHEN I WAS writing about the name of the Buddha I mentioned in passing that some people thought that marriage customs attributed to the Buddha's family in the Pāli Commentarial tradition pointed to the Buddha being Dravidian rather than Aryan. Someone asked for references and at the time I didn't have them to hand. So three years later I'm interested in this again...

The idea seems to go back at least to 1923 when A. M. Hocart tried to use observations from the traditional genealogies Śākyas and Koliyas to explain the relationship between the Buddha and his cousin Devadatta (Cited in Emeneau 1939: 220). The story of the origins of the Śākyas (Pāli Sakya) is found in several places, but particularly the Ambaṭṭha Sutta (DN 3). "The Śākyans regard King Okkāka as their ancestor" (Walsh 1995: 114). This story itself is explored in more detail by Silk (1973). In the version in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī (the 5th century CE Theravāda commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya) there is some evidence that cross-cousin marriage occurred at the origin of the Śākya and Koliya clans (Emeneau 1939: 222). In addition there are extensive genealogies in the Mahāvaṃsa which show cross-cousin marriages (Trautman 1973: 158-160).

A cross cousin marriage is one in which a boy would marry his mother's brother's daughter, or a girl would marry her father's sister's son. This is one of the preferred matches in South India amongst the Dravidian speaking peoples, and also practised in Sri Lanka. However Good (1996) has been critical of the idea that cross-cousin marriage is the only or most preferred kin relationship, and shows that other marriage matches are made. Be that as it may, cross-cousin marriage is a feature of South Indian kinship, and the Brahmanical law books (the Dharmasūtras) make it clear that cousin marriage is forbidden for Aryas. (Thapar 2010: 306). The perception, then is that if the Buddha's family practised cross-cousin marriage, they cannot have been Aryas and were likely Dravidians.

Already in 1939 Emeneau saw the main flaw in the argument. The earliest sources we have for these propositions are Theravāda commentarial texts. They were written in about the 5th century CE in Sri Lanka. To a great extent they reflect the society of 5th century Sri Lanka. Indeed there is no corroborating evidence from the suttas or Vinaya that cross-cousin marriage took place at all. The obvious conclusion is that when the authors of the Mahāvaṃsa and the commentaries upon which the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī was based sat down to compose a genealogy for the Buddha they used familiar figures from the old texts, but arranged them in a way which seemed natural. In other words they unselfconsciously modelled the Buddha's family on their own. So I concur with Emeneau that the story is not plausible.

In my essay on the Buddha's name I posed the problem of the Buddha having a Brahmin gotra name. The gotra name was a paternal lineage name which in the case of Gautama stretches back to the Ṛgveda. Gotama, the ancestor of the Gautama clan, complied the 4th book of the Ṛgveda and is mentioned in several sūktas. [1] The Gautama clan continued to be prominent before, during and after the time of the Buddha, for example the name appears in lineages in the (pre-Buddhist) Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and there is a (post-Asoka) Gautama Dharmasūtra.

Some authors have suggested that the name Gautama was adopted by the Śākyas from their purohita (hierophant, or ritual master). (Kosambi 1967: 37; Karve in Patil 1973: 42). This appears to be based on a later tradition whereby a kṣatriya king would adopt the gotra name of his purohita. The implication is that the Buddha's father Suddhodana must have employed a Brahmin purohita. This suggestion has several weaknesses. Firstly there is no mention of any Brahmins in relation to the Buddha's family in the earlier texts - later on we do find a Brahmin in the court, but he is part of a hugely elaborated hagiography in which the Buddha walks and talks immediately after being born. During the time of the Buddha the Brahmins were a presence but not a dominant presence. Secondly although Suddhodana is called a rāja and this is usually interpreted as king in later hagiographies, in the context of the Śākya tribe it was probably more akin to 'chief' or 'head man'. Thirdly the Buddha never has a good word to say about Brahmin ritualists, and often has bad words to say about them - he likens them to dogs in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. The Buddha's attitude, especially with respect to class (varṇa) or caste (jāti) is often taken as evidence that the Śākyas found the is often taken as indicating they these were novel ideas that he found peculiar. Finally the tradition itself is attested in the "post-epic period" (Karve in Patil 1973: 42), and it seems very likely that the compilation of the Epics out of the pre-existing oral traditions was at least partly a response to the success of Buddhism.

Although the Buddha is almost always represented as a kṣatriya I see no sign in the Pāli texts that he felt he lacked prestige such that taking a Brahmin name would improve it. There is also no hint of it happening further back in his line. In fact neither the Buddha's father nor any of his male relatives, is ever called Gautama in the suttas. So on the whole this idea of adopting a Brahmin gotra seems unlikely to me.

Very few other Gautamas are met with in Pāli. However both the Buddha's mother (Māyā, or Māyadevī) and his aunt (Mahāprajāpatī) are called Gotamī. The simplest explanation is that the Buddha was a Gautama on his mother's side, and that like several other male figures in the Pāli Canon—notably Śāriputra, the son (putra) of (his mother) Rūpasārī—the Buddha went by his mother's gotra name. I plan a longer essay pulling all this together with a more in-depth argument, but this is an outline and shows the kinds of sources that the ideas draw on.

One more note on the Śākyas. For many years sensible people have been telling overly enthusiastic amateurs that the Indian name for the Scythians (Śaka) is only similar to the name Śākya by coincidence. Recently I found some rough notes on an Indology forum by Harvard Professor Michael Witzel who's work I hold in very high regard. Witzel says that the similarity is not a coincidence, though we still have the solid historical fact that the Śaka did not enter Indian until 140 CE. However he also suggests that the Śākyas, like the Mallas, Licchavis, Vṛjis and other tribes that are found in Great Magadha were not originally from there but migrated only shortly before the lifetime of the Buddha.
"The Malla are a Rajasthan desert tribe in Jaiminiya Brahmana, and are still known on the Middle Indus as Malloi in Alexander's time."
Witzel suggests Iranian links for the Śākyas including their building of funeral mounds (aka stūpas), the names of some of their kings, marriage patterns (based on the origin story in the Ambaṭṭha Sutta [DN 3] and elsewhere, which is better attested than cross-cousin marriage), and also
"Then there also is the new idea of weighing one’s guilt after death. This was first an Egyptian, then a Zoroastrian and Iranian concept. It is connected with the idea of personal responsibility for one’s action (karma). "
The latter is very intriguing indeed. Some of this material, has made it into Witzel's published oeuvre, but it has yet to receive a detailed treatment. Long time readers may recall that I have noted some Persian Influences in Buddhism (20.6.08), and this seems to make the case quite a lot stronger. I would just add that a lot of crazy stuff can be found on the internet regarding the Scythians, and most of it cannot be taken seriously. We even find the suggestions that the Buddha was a Scythian or an Iranian, which are facile. Whatever their origins the Śākyas had lived in India for probably 500 years before the Buddha, and were thoroughly naturalised Indians with very little memory of their background.


  1. There is a potential confusion here. In Sanskrit the ancestor's name is Gotama (he who has the most cows). When the word becomes an adjective describing those associated with Gotama the root vowel o is stretched (vṛddhi) to become au. So Gautama means 'of or associated with Gotama. However in Pāli the vowel au is condensed back down to o, so Gautama becomes Gotama. We need to distinguish between Gotama the Ṛṣi of the Vedas (in Sanskrit), and Gotama the Buddha (in Pāli).

  • Emeneau, M. B. 1939. 'Was There Cross-Cousin Marriage among the Śākyas?' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 59( 2): 220-226.
  • Good, Anthony. 1990. 'On the Non-Existence of "Dravidian Kinship".' Edinburgh Papers In South Asian Studies. 6. Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh.
  • Kosambi, D. D. 1967. 'The Vedic "Five Tribes".' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 87 (1): 33-39.
  • Patil, Sharad. 1973. 'Some Aspects of Matriarchy in Ancient India: Clan Mother to Tribal Mother.' Social Scientist. 2 (4): 42-58.
  • Silk, Jonathan A. 2008. 'Incestuous Ancestries: The Family Origins of Gautama Siddhārtha, Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20:12, and The Status of Scripture in Buddhism.' History of Religions. 47 (4): 253-281.
  • Thapar, Romila. 2010. Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations. 2nd Rev. ed. Orient Blackswan.
  • Trautmann, Thomas R. 1973 'Consanguineous Marriage in Pali Literature.' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 93(2): 158-180.
  • Walsh, Maurice. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Wisdom Publications.
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