Some Thoughts on the Buddhist Ethical Precepts

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It might seem as if the Buddhist ethical precepts–the basic injunctions against killing, stealing, lying, sexual misbehavior, and heedless intoxication–are relatively straightforward. You know: just don’t kill, steal, lie, screw around or get drunk. What could be clearer? But, alas, things are never so simple. As soon as we try putting the precepts into practice, we encounter difficulties in how to interpret them.

To begin with, there seem to be three different ways of viewing the precepts. The first is to interpret them as absolute rules—they’re what we mustn’t do if we’re to make progress along the path. Thanissaro Bhikkhu  exemplifies this approach when he writes, “the precepts are formulated with no ifs, ands, or buts. This means that they give very clear guidance, with no room for waffling or less-than-honest rationalizations.”

The second way is to view them as “training vehicles”: We follow them as best we can, taking notice of the consequences of both observing and violating them. As we do so, we gradually acquire an increasing faith in their value. This approach is exemplified in the story of the Quaker George Fox who, when William Penn asked him if he should continue to wear his ceremonial sword in contradiction to his Quaker pacifist beliefs, replied “I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.” After a while, Penn stopped wearing it. “I have taken thy advice,” he told Fox. “I wore it as long as I could.”

The third way is to view them from a non-dual perspective. Eihei Dogen does just that when he comments on the Zen Precept against indulging in anger, saying “Not advancing, not retreating, not real, not empty. There is an ocean of bright clouds. There is an ocean of solemn clouds.” While we may not fully grasp what Dogen means, one thing is for certain: we probably shouldn’t to take the precept too literally. A non-dual perspective can help us be less judgmental and more compassionate—neither wrongdoers nor sufferers are different from or separate from ourselves. On the other hand, a non-dual perspective can be misinterpreted to mean that since everything’s “empty,” there are neither perpetrators nor victims. This certainly isn’t what Dogen intended. A non-dual perspective requires a simultaneous awareness of both the non-reified interconnectedness-of-everything and the genuine suffering of and harm caused to real and specific individuals.

But let’s shift focus from considering general approaches to the precepts to considering their specific content. Let’s start by examining the Third Precept, the precept against sexual misconduct. While we’re all against sexual misconduct, the precept begs the question of how sexual misconduct is to be defined. What is it, and how can we recognize it when we see it?

Peter Harvey reviewed the way traditional Buddhist cultures define sexual misconduct in his An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000). At different times in various traditional Buddhist cultures, masturbation, oral and anal sex, homosexuality, and overly frequent sex have all been designated as forms of misconduct. Many modern Buddhists tend to dismiss these traditionalist designations, replacing them with abstract Western principles relating to harm, consent and duties to third parties. They generally take a more benign view of sexual relations, so long as they occur between consenting parties and cause no harm.

Buddhist modernists make the assumption that traditional Thai, Tibetan or Japanese sexual ethics are really more Thai, Tibetan, or Japanese than Buddhist. They compare different traditional Buddhist cultures, observe the variations between them, and assign the particularities of these differences to the specific features of the local cultures. Once one decides that traditional Buddhist sexual ethics are no longer authoritative, however, what does one base a more modernist Buddhist sexual ethics on? What many modern Buddhists tend to do is to take pre-existing liberal secular ethics and import them wholesale into Buddhism. This may, in fact, not be all that different from the way that traditional cultures arrived at their designations of  misconduct. The Pali Nikayas have nothing to say about homosexuality or oral sex, and traditional Asian societies probably just took their pre-existing cultural taboos and incorporated them into their understanding of the Third Precept in the same way that modernists are now doing.

To be fully justified in calling these new ethics “Buddhist,” however, one needs to check them for consistency against one’s core Buddhist commitments. For example, one can reason that designating homosexuality as “misconduct” is non-compassionate and causes suffering; that homosexual acts are, in and of themselves, no more harmful than heterosexual acts; and that there is social benefit to be gained from giving one’s imprimatur to loving relationships of all kinds.

While this argument seems about right, it raises questions about other kinds of sexual behaviors that may also require reconsideration. What does one think about pornography, plural marriage, or solitary fetishes? What about sex in exchange for money between consenting adults? The modernist Buddhist criteria for discerning which sexual behaviors promote and which degrade human well-being require further elaboration. In the process of that elaboration we may discover instances in which modernist Buddhist ethics are in accord with liberal humanist ethics, but also instances in which they diverge.

Let’s take another example: the First Precept against killing. At first glance, it seems less problematic than the precept against sexual misconduct. We all know what killing is, and we’re against it. Against it, that is, until we discover that termites are eating away the foundations of our house or we come down with streptococcal pneumonia. Then we’re all for calling in the exterminator or taking antibiotics. I’m not aware of any Buddhist authorities who forbid the use of antibiotics even though antibiotics necessarily involve killing living beings—an issue which the Buddha, living long before Pasteur, could not have anticipated. If we believe the precept permits using antibiotics, then we can no longer interpret the precept as categorical. It no longer forbids all intentional killing, but only most types of intentional killing under most circumstances.

The problem is: which types does it permit, and under which circumstances? Does the precept just mean something like “try living with as little killing as possible and see how it goes?” Should we draw distinctions between killing creatures with lesser degrees of sentience and creatures with greater degrees of sentience? This is a question that could keep Buddhist ethicists quibbling for centuries.

Let’s set the question of sentience aside, however, and limit ourselves to addressing the killing of other human beings. For many years I lived in the small town of Cheshire, Connecticut. In 2007, two ex-convicts invaded a family home in Cheshire and proceeded to rape, strangle and set a mother’s body on fire. They also raped her eleven-year-old daughter, tied her and her seventeen-year old sister to their beds, doused their bodies with gasoline, and set their rooms ablaze. As you can see, I have picked the most horrible case in point that I can imagine.

Here is my hypothetical question: If that was your family and you stumbled upon the crime in progress, what would you do? Do you have even the slightest doubt that you’d use any force necessary to protect your family? Do you believe that Buddhist ethics ought to require you to allow the crime to proceed if you couldn’t stop it through less-than-lethal means?

I suspect that most of us agree that there are extreme circumstances under which resorting to violence might be permitted. Where we might disagree is on the specific circumstances under which it may be permissible. Categorically saying “killing is never permitted” doesn’t accord with what most of us truly believe. We see the ideal of never killing as aspirational, but we wouldn’t feel necessarily bound by it under certain circumstances.

Let’s take this one step further. Traditional interpretations of the First Precept also forbid abortion, assisted suicide, and the euthanasia of suffering pets. According to the Vinaya, for example, a monk who intentionally destroys an embryo is to be permanently expelled from the sangha. This traditional view is at odds with liberal humanist ethics, and this creates a certain degree of dissonance for Buddhist modernists. How do modernists, who may support euthanasia or abortion under certain circumstances, resolve this dissonance? One way is by invoking the principle of upaya or “skillful means” and asserting that when one’s goal is the compassionate ending of suffering, killing may be permitted.

There are traditional Buddhist stories that support this interpretation. The Upaya Kausalya Sutra contains the fable of a bodhisattva sea captain whose ship is carrying five hundred merchants who are on the path to becoming bodhisattvas. There’s a robber aboard who intends to rob and kill the merchants. The captain rules out warning the merchants because they might be tempted to throw the robber overboard, and the resulting bad karma would delay their becoming bodhisattvas. This would be very bad because, more than anything else, the world needs bodhisattvas. Instead, the captain kills the robber himself, accepting a consequent rebirth in hell for “a hundred thousand eons,” but helping all beings in the process. Along the same lines, there’s an historical account of Pelgyi Dorje, the ninth-century Buddhist monk who assassinated Langdarma, the reviled Tibetan king who put Tibetan Buddhadharma in jeopardy.

These tales suggest that, under certain circumstances, the motivation of compassion can trump the prohibition against killing. But we can also readily see what a slippery slope this is. As philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe notes, “a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things.” Robespierre, Lenin, and Pol Pot were all idealists who did unconscionable things in order to allegedly remake the world for the better.  As the saying goes, “If you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs.” Once we allow for the possibility of “compassionate” killing as “skillful means,” we’re stalked by the ghosts of the reign of terror, the gulag, and the holocaust. The doctrine of skillful means hopes to elide this difficulty by emphasizing compassion, but the notion of compassion isn’t an entirely unproblematic one.

For example, one might rightly ask whether compassion can ever be excessive. Are there any limits, for example, on the degree of generosity that bodhisattvas (and by bodhisattvas I mean practitioners who’ve taken their Bodhisattva vows–not celestial bodhisattvas) ought to express? The Jatakas are folk tales that are intended to teach us moral lessons, much like Aesop’s Fables. There’s one particular tale–the tale of Vessantara, one of the Buddha’s earlier incarnations–that makes me cringe. Out of his boundless compassion for a greedy beggar, Vessantara gives his children away to be the beggar’s slaves. The moral seems to be that a bodhisattva is attached to nothing, willingly giving everything—even his children—away.

Consider the implications of unlimited compassion in your own life. Imagine that you have $20 to spare and learn of a charity helping starving children. You gladly donate the $20 and feel the positive aftereffects of generosity. You then realize that you could donate even more money. You don’t really need to read a newspaper every day or watch television. You promptly cancel your subscription and sell your TV, donating the proceeds to charity. Next, you realize you don’t really need to live in a modest house. You sell your home, donate those proceeds, and rent a single room. And so it goes. Do you really need more than a single change of clothes? Do you really need two kidneys? At what point have you given enough? There are always more children to save.

The West makes a distinction between ethical acts that are required and those that are merely “supererogatory,” that is, are admirable but not required. There seems to be no such distinction in Buddhism, and we may ask if Buddhism holds us to an impossible standard. Buddhists sometimes address this question of an “impossible standard” by suggesting that we owe compassion to ourselves as well—that we ought to include ourselves on the list of sentient beings to whom we owe compassion. But, this formulation doesn’t really resolve the question of where to properly draw the line. Vessantara, after all, showed no such compassion, either to himself or his children. Neither did Prince Sattva, in another Jataka tale, who threw himself from a cliff so that hungry tiger cubs could feed on his body.

As Buddhists, we probably agree it would be better if everyone valued compassion highly and if everyone tried extending his or her compassion to an ever-wider range of recipients under an ever-broader set of circumstances. We probably also agree that learning generosity means sensing our current limits and pushing against them, exploring the edges of what’s possible. Our most common problem isn’t extreme altruism at all, but excessive complacency and self-satisfaction. We all need to open our hearts wider than they are. Still, the question remains: ought there to be limits to our generosity, and if so, what are the guidelines for those limits?

A second problem related to compassion is whether we fully endorse the idea of compassion without attachment or preference. While there’s real value in a universal benevolence directed towards everyone without exception, if we see two children drowning, one our own and one a stranger’s–and if we can only save one–is it reasonable to think that we show no preference towards saving our own? There’s something deeply unsettling about the idea of complete and radical equanimity. While we may agree that we owe a duty of care to all sentient beings—and perhaps even to all plants and inanimate objects—it seems inhuman to think we ought to strip ourselves of all attachments to family and friends and feel exactly the same way towards everyone. In classical Chinese philosophy, this is the criticism that the third century Confucian scholar Xunzi leveled against the Mohists who argued on behalf of jian’ai or “impartial concern.” It seems as if the Buddhist ideal of complete equanimity and detachment reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature, both in terms of how it is and how it ought to be. In following Buddhism, most of us want to become the best human beings we can possibly be. We don’t want to lose our humanity in the process.

We could have picked any of the precepts and discovered exactly the same sorts of questions. How literally are we to interpret them? Does Buddhism make extreme demands that push us towards a semi-divine apotheosis, or is it a middle way for deepening and enriching our humanity? To what extent are modernist Western values compatible with traditional Buddhist teachings? As we strip away at what seems inessential to Buddhist practice, what do we risk losing in the process? May we find ourselves rejecting ideas that –precisely because they are discordant with modernity—have the capacity to serve as invaluable correctives to the one-sidedness of our present lives?

What’s clear is that the meaning of the precepts isn’t simply a “given.” Every practitioner must read them anew and breathe new life into them. The ethical life isn’t a matter of following rules, but of committing to a particular line of inquiry–of asking which choices exemplify the skillful, the right, and the good in each moment.

Despite their interpretive difficulties, the precepts are the living heart of Buddhism. They help us to enact and refine our understanding of our interrelationship with all beings, and serve as antidotes to the fragmented individualism, self-centeredness, and acquisitiveness that are the scourges of contemporary life. They point towards the engaged, compassionate regard for others that is the hallmark of the Enlightened Way.

 

 

 

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Thoughts After Shukke Tokudo

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I recently ordained as a novice Zen priest in a ceremony officiated by Sensei Daiken Nelson at White Plains Zen. The traditional Soto shukke tokudo ceremony included some textual emendations courtesy of the Zen Peacemaker Order along with a priest’s pledge Daiken and I cowrote that was loosely based on an earlier pledge that originated with the High Mountain Crystal Lake Zen Community.  Our version read:

“To be a priest is to serve sangha and world in accord with the Buddhadharma. I pledge to care for the Sangha, manifesting and maintaining practice and places for practice; transmitting and renewing its liturgy, rituals, and values; acting as a celebrant and mourner for rites of passage; and offering pastoral care in moments of need. I will study, embody, and share the Dharma. Taking the backward step, I will turn the light and shine it inward. As my robes signify the potential for awakening available to all, I will wear them with dignity. I will strive to actualize the fundamental point in each moment, practicing whole-heartedly, cultivating an intimate, careful attention to all things, bearing witness to the world’s cries of suffering, and fulfilling my vow to help all beings awaken. This is the way of the priest.”

The role of the American Zen priest is—like everything else—in flux. It’s clearly different from that of the traditional Japanese Zen priest who inherits a family-run temple and conducts funerary rituals. It’s also different from that of the Sensei who’s recognized for having achieved a certain level of spiritual attainment and is authorized to offer teisho and daisan. The novice lacks the full priest’s authority to teach, offer jukai, or preside over marriages and funerals. What the novice priest essentially has is the authority to chop wood and carry water—the exact same authority one had prior to ordination—that, and the right to wear the inner and outer robes of the priest and to learn how to conduct onself with menmitsu no kafu—the exquisite, careful, considerate, and intimate attention to detail that uniquely characterizes Soto Zen activity. In a culture addicted to fame, competition, consumption, and acquisition, the robes are reminders of the Enlightened Way to all who wear and witness them.

In American Zen, the path of the priest opens up opportunities to engage in pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, interfaith collaboration, presiding over rites of passage, and promoting social justice. It’s a means of both transmitting Japanese liturgy, ritual, protocol, and etiquette and also of thoughtfully adapting them to American needs. The priesthood embodies the Bodhisattva ideal of service to all beings. Since retiring from psychotherapy, I’ve sought to use the skills I acquired as a therapist—listening, presence, holding a space, using language to unlock potentiality—in some new role unconstrained by the dictates of professionalism, the medical model, the fifty-minute hour, and the insurance industry. It’s my greatest hope that the priesthood will prove to be a path that allows me to offer my skills in the service of wisdom, compassion, and awakening.

My Buddhist journey is a fifty-year arc: the adolescent student attending Alan Watts lectures in the 1960s; the psychologist on internship at the Center for Mindfulness in the 1990s; the yogi on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society and the Springwater Center; my jukai and shukke tokudo in the White Plum Asanga lineage and Zen Peacemaker Order. I went from being a Westerner interested in Buddhism, to a Buddhist sympathizer, to a lay Buddhist, to an ordained Buddhist—each of these stations on a journey towards greater commitment to a path that has continued to enrich my life beyond words, and for which I am profoundly grateful.

I have some concern as to how my fellow sangha members may react to my robes. Robes have the potential to signify something else for others than they do for me. It’s possible that the robes may be experienced—subtly or unsubtly—as somehow putting a separation between me and others. I hope that concern proves to be unfounded. While fully dedicated to zazen and awakening, many of my sangha members do not identify themselves as being “Buddhists,” and some are skeptical of and even averse to Japanese tradition and ritual. They lean towards a modern, American Zen—spiritual, but not necessarily religious—rather than towards preserving Zen’s Japanese heritage. I’m sympathetic to that—I’d have never found my own entry into Buddhist practice through more traditional Asian Buddhist forms. I’d probably have run the other way. My first teachers, like the late Toni Packer, stripped sitting and awareness down to its barest essentials, making it possible for a skeptical Westerner like myself to relate to them. 

On the other hand, I’ve become more of a traditionalist over time, worrying about what may get lost in translation. I find traditional Japanese forms of practice beautiful and inspiring, and find great value in an etiquette based on infinite respect for all things, the spare Zen aesthetic, and a careful, intricate attention to detail. They remind me of my interdependence with and gratitude/respect for all-and-everything. They also serve as an antidote to the modern Western overemphases on individualism, the network of “me-ness,” and our focus on forever trying to arrange things closer to our preferences and desires. As the saying goes, “only don’t pick and choose.”

We’re all beneficiaries of an ancient flowing tradition. I’m grateful for that tradition and wish to continue to honor it as we step into the future. Not every aspect of it—not the authoritarianism and sexism, for example.  But much of it. The dialectical tension between traditionalism and modernism affects every aspect of Buddhist metaphysics, ethics, and practice. It always has and always will as Buddhism has historically crossed and continues to cross cultural and temporal boundaries. I’m glad to be deeply rooted in and a part of an evolving tradition, and to be intimately engaged in the never-ending dialogue over how to shape its future. 

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Photos courtesy of Bunny Solomon

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No End to the Sky

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“When a bird flies, no matter how high it flies, it cannot reach the end of the sky.”

—Eihei Dogen, Genjokoan (Okumura trans.)

The metaphor of an arhat’s or bodhisattva’s path being like that of a flying bird is a familiar Buddhist trope, recurring in the Dhammapada, the Ten Stages Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, and Dongshan Liangjie’s Recorded Sayings.  When Eihei Dogen put his own specific spin on this avian metaphor, he was doing so to illustrate that there’s no end to practice/realization.  In Theravada Buddhism there’s a path with a final destination: complete and perfect Enlightenment. In Dogen Zen there’s no path, no end to delusion, no end to realization, no end to practice.  In Dogen’s non-dual universe realization is already present in our practice, and delusion is inseparable from it — separating delusion from enlightenment is itself a subtle form of dualism. When we sit zazen, we express an enlightenment that’s already present and always “ours” given our Buddha-nature, but there’s no end to practice and our expression of realization. 

In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir describes another kind of endless process when she says of human aims, “the goal toward which I surpass myself must appear to me as a point of departure toward a new act of surpassing.” This idea of existence as a continuous act of self-surpassing is relatively new in Western thought—something rooted in the nineteenth-century philosophies of Nietzsche and Hegel.  A similar idea is carried forward in the twentieth-century philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead who describes a process of “concresence” in which, in each and every moment, we create ourselves anew.

A complete description of any process—and process is all there is—includes an implied next step, a place where the process is heading, which in turn creates a new state of affairs and, along with it, a new next step. My lifting my leg and shifting my weight implies the step to follow.  Feeling hungry implies the next step of searching for food. Oxygen combined with iron in an acidic environment implies the next step of an exchange of electrons. Seeds, soil, water, and sunlight have plants as their next step; Plants have seeds as their next step: the arrow of time points one way.

This endless self-surpassing, this forever taking of a next step, is a metaphor for how we live. Each moment reveals new possibilities, allowing Being to disclose itself in new ways. Each accomplishment opens up new horizons, and along with them, new questions, new disequilibria, and new abilities.

Buddhist practice changes us.  Each time we sit, each time we exercise compassion, we’re subtly changed, and the odds of how we’ll act in the next moment have subtly shifted. Just as our ability to appreciate music and art changes with our increased experience of them, so our appreciation of zazen changes with experience.  Our understanding of the limits of our compassion changes with experience, as does our understanding of what to do with our lives. Other things change too: our enchantment with material things; our understanding of sickness, old age, and death; our ratio of self-centered to altruistic thoughts; our emotional reactivity to adverse events.  The opening words of the Heart Sutra dharani—gate, gate, paragate — “gone, gone, gone beyond” — express this self-surpassing movement: we’re always going “beyond.”  Only there’s no final, complete end to this beyond — only an endless movement towards the horizon. 

There’s no end to the sky.

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Buddhism and Moral Coherence

MetaethicsWhat do we mean when we say that something is morally wrong? Theists have no problem answering this question: morally wrong acts are those that contravene God’s intentions for how human beings ought to behave. Non-theists, however, are stuck with more of a problem in defining what “morality” and “ethics” (I’m using the terms interchangeably) are. Our conceptions of morality need grounding in some larger conception of what life is all about, and it’s here where contemporary non-theistic attempts to ground ethics are most likely to founder.

Some post-Enlightenment Western philosophers (e.g., David Hume) have argued that statements about morality are really just statements of personal sentiment and preference rather than statements of fact. In other words, the statement that “murder is wrong” means nothing over and above the statement “Ugh! Murder. Don’t do it.” This belief that moral statements are merely sentiments is called “emotivism.”

Other post-Enlightenment Western philosophers, seeking a more solid ground than emotivism in which to root moral statements, have successively tried — and failed— to ground morality in either rationality (Emmanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative”) or utility (Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number”). Contemporary Scottish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, however, that all philosophical efforts to ground morality in something other than sentiment are doomed by our modern commitments to a secular, scientific view of Nature which excludes meaning, purpose, or telos from its materialist description of the way things are.

MacIntyre argues that David Hume’s famous dictum that there’s no way to logically get to “ought” statements from “is” statements is, strictly speaking, not true. For example, if a watch always tells the right time we can reasonably conclude that the watch is a “good” watch. We can conclude that the watch is “good” because the very definition of a watch tells us what a watch is for. Watches, by definition, have a purpose; they are “for” something. Things that conform to and fulfill their aim can be said to possess “goodness” in a way that’s based on more than sentiment.

Classical philosophers like Aristotle, and medieval philosophers in the Aristotelian tradition like Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas thought that human beings, too, had a purpose. For Aristotle it was a telos or “final end” intended by Nature — man’s telos was fulfilled by developing one’s intellectual and moral virtues so as to achieve a state of eudaemonia, often translated as “human flourishing” or “well-being.”  For St. Thomas, man’s purpose was to live in accordance with God’s intentions for who we are to be and with Natural Law as established by God. Modern science, however, doesn’t countenance the belief that Nature possesses final ends, purposes or intentions. Within the confines of science’s world-view, moral statements are left hanging in air, ungrounded in anything that might make them intelligible. Moral statements, to mean anything, must have some standard that lies beyond mere sentiment and preference because different human beings believe and express a diversity of conflicting sentiments and preferences, and this diversity of sentiments precludes any rational means of resolving moral disputes. Without an external standard, Hitler’s moral judgments are no better or worse than your own.

Contemporary American philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that the consensus scientific account of how we came to be cannot account for three essential human qualities: consciousness, reason, and value. He suggests that only some combination of panpsychism and telos can account for how we humans got to be the way we are. He believes that consciousness must originate in some form of panpsychism, and that, additionally, something about the laws of Nature must not only permit, but also encourage the timely emergence of increased complexity, consciousness, reason, and value. Nagel believes that Nature has a story to tell, and that it’s something like “the universe is waking up.” Nagel’s controversial book, Mind and Cosmos (2012), was widely criticized, but it’s really a modest exploration of the kinds of problems the current scientific paradigm is incapable of successfully resolving.

As humans we’re, first and foremost, conscious beings, and our consciousness is riddled through-and-through with intentions, purposes, motives, and reasons; the kinds of things that Nature is allegedly devoid of. Value is an immediate property of consciousness. We immediately perceive a sunset as “beautiful”; we don’t need to think it over. We immediately understand that the statement “there’s no unicorn in this room” is “true”; we don’t need to reason it out. We immediately know that rescuing a child who’s fallen into a well is “right”; we don’t need to morally deliberate over it. While reason shapes and extends our immediate intuitions about beauty, truth, and goodness, and while we seek logical grounds for resolving value conflicts, our initial perception of value is inherent in consciousness itself. It’s a phenomenological given. That’s not to say that morality existed prior to human consciousness. No one accuses lions of immorality for killing their prey. But once human consciousness arises, beauty, truth, and goodness come along for the ride. While our specific apprehensions of what’s beautiful, true, or good change from culture to culture, era to era, and across one’s lifespan, the value realms of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness universally persist, in much the same way that languages may vary from culture to culture and era to era, but Language itself is a human universal.

Evolutionary biologists wrongly believe they’ve a good candidate for a mechanism that can account for the emergence of morality. They point out that social animals like ants, wasps, and humans are among the most successful species on our planet. They say that sociality conveys evolutionary advantages that allow Nature to pay a premium for the modulation of in-group competition and the enhancement of in-group altruism. As compelling as this argument is, it can only explain why acts of cooperation and mutual aid are “useful,” but never why they’re “right.” When we say that something is “right,” we intend something different than saying that it’s beneficial for survival. We rescue that child drowning in the well, not because we hope others will do the same if it were our child, but because it’s the “right” thing to do. Moral underpinnings that emphasize reproductive fitness take us only so far. We need an explanation for “rightness” that goes beyond social and biological utility. For example, the history of our own culture suggests an evolution in moral values marked by a gradual process of inclusion of “others” onto the list of those to whom moral duties are owed, e.g., people of color, women, infidels, homosexuals, transexuals, unborn children, cetaceans, primates, elephants, endangered species, factory farmed animals, and so on. This gradual extension involves the spread of a standard of rightness that’s utterly divorced from in-group fidelity and reproductive fitness. It marks, in fact, the slow abolition of the very distinction between in-groups and out-groups, a distinction that’s necessary for any successful genetic account of evolution. While the spread of this evolving morality may eventually save us from extinction by nuclear holocaust, climate change, or some other unforeseen Anthropocene disaster, its salutary effect for our future can’t account for its present-day emergence. Evolution doesn’t permit the future to influence the present or the past.

But if science as currently construed is incapable of giving a coherent account of the-way-things-are that includes what we know best and most intimately, namely consciousness, purpose, value, and meaning, and if we’re no longer capable of or willing to believe in a Deity, what options are left to us? I want to address the question of whether Buddhism can provide a framework in which moral statements can again make coherent sense. In doing this, I’m not claiming any superiority or exclusivity for a Buddhist solution, only exploring whether a Buddhist solution is possible, and if so, what if might be. In a series of provocative essays, David Chapman has recently argued that mainstream Western Buddhism is incapable of providing any such framework. I think he’s wrong, and I see this essay as part of an ongoing conversation about whether and how Western Buddhism can, in fact, address ethical issues.

There are a number of possible strands within the Buddhist tradition which might allow for such a solution. The first is the classical Buddhist idea of karma as the determinant of the realms of rebirth and of sila (ethics) as part of the triumvirate of sets of practices (along with meditation and wisdom) leading to liberation and enlightenment. This is an idea that is already present in the earliest known strata of Buddhist thinking as preserved in the Pali canon. In this scheme, moral behavior plays a role in both determining more desirable rebirths and, ultimately, in attaining enlightenment, or freedom from future rebirths. This scheme answers the question of “why behave morally?” with an appeal to freedom from suffering in this and future lives, and to a final release from any and all suffering that is our natural ultimate destination if only we knew it. Actions are moral if they create good karma and lead us towards these ends. This formulation is somewhat problematic for moderns who no longer believe in rebirth and freedom from rebirth, but it retains some attenuated force as a kind of Aristotelian path towards eudaemonia, if not to complete and perfect enlightenment.

There are two other strands of Buddhist thought, however, that suggest a different sort of Buddhist solution to the issue of contemporary moral incoherence. The primary Buddhist elements in this second framework are the twin notions of Dependent Origination and the Bodhisattva Path. These are notions that only reach their fullest expression in historically later strands of Buddhist thought within the Indian and Chinese Mahayana traditions.

Dependent Origination, especially in its Madhyamaka (i.e., “emptiness”) and Huayan (i.e., “interpenetration”) formulations, emphasizes the process-relational nature of reality. All “things” (I use the word “things” advisably because there are no “things” in this model, only seamlessly interrelated processes, mutually affecting and transforming each other over time) immediately and intimately co-participate in the emergence of each moment of reality. Dependent Origination implies that the human qualities of consciousness, reason, and value are inherent in Nature, the outgrowth of the integral functioning of the universe, and not simply ghostly flukes residing somewhere between our ears and behind our eyes.

The Bodhisattva Path offers a telos, a final end, for us and Nature: we’re here to help all beings awaken, and because of Dependent Origination, the whole of reality supports us in this endeavor. It’s not just our endeavor, it’s the Universe’s. As the 13th Century Japanese Buddhist monk Eihei Dogen might say, “earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles” co-participate in our enlightenment, our enlightenment transforming space and time as we co-awaken with the whole of reality. Within this non-dual framework, our purpose is to cultivate wisdom and compassion. It’s this purpose that provides an external standard for judging the morality of actions: Actions that help ourselves and others to actualize wisdom (i.e., the realization of emptiness, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, non-self, and non-duality) and facilitate mindful awareness, non-harming, compassion and non-grasping are moral. Actions that detract from it are immoral. We instantiate this moral process in all of our activities, e.g., in meditating, raising and educating children, dealing wisely and compassionately with others, being mindful in speech and behavior, exercising restraint in our desires, and so on. In After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre argues that morality achieves coherence through embeddedness within a cultural matrix of supporting practices, narratives and traditions. Buddhism happily provides all three.

Unfortunately, these general Buddhist principles fail to provide a means for resolving conflicts between specific moral intuitions. What if, in saving the baby drowning in the well, we’ve saved the baby Hitler? What if a compassionate action helps one person but disadvantages another? What if an act of mercy towards a perpetrator leaves an injured party aggrieved? What if saving an endangered species creates economic hardship for people living nearby? The answers to these sorts of questions often entail a resort to some kind of moral calculus, as if all goods could be measured against each other on the same scale, when in fact they are, often enough, incommensurable. While in Buddhism compassion trumps everything else, the primacy of compassion can’t resolve the question of “compassion towards whom?” when people are differentially affected by actions. All philosophies face this problem of what to do when “goods” conflict. Sometimes we just have to face the tragic implications of how life is structured with something approaching resignation or grace. Buddhist principles can anchor our ethics in a telos, but in and of themselves, can provide only minimal guidance on how to settle these disputes. Since Buddhism never developed its own tradition of critical ethical investigation, it may sometimes have to allow non-Buddhist philosophers to come to its aid with their ungainly mix of consequentialist, utilitarian, deontological, and virtue ethics to help think things through. Deciding what’s right is often complicated, but that doesn’t have to mean that the notion of “right” itself needs be incoherent.

The problem with this second Buddhist solution is that one has to buy it’s premises for it to work. Not everyone can do so. Materialists, for example, could never buy into the premise that we have a purpose, or that our purpose is part of a larger narrative of everything “waking up.” As a result, Western Buddhism has secular adherents who try to fit significant portions of the Buddhist project into a materialist frame. For secularists, the end point of Buddhist practice is again some version of eudaemonia, and the active Buddhist ingredients contributing to this eudaemonia include elements of mindfulness and compassion. Their answer to the question, “why be mindful or compassionate?” needs be a utilitarian one: it contributes to one’s feeling happier and facilitates one’s capacity to make others feel happier. This probably provides sufficient reason for many people to engage in secularized Buddhist practice; after all, who wouldn’t want to be happier? What it doesn’t provide is a reason why the Buddhist path to happiness is superior to everyone just taking some Valium. The secular response to this requires a theory of why some types of happiness are superior to others, and this requires a theory of what human beings are for, and how they’re supposed to be—just the sort of thing that secularists tend to shy away from.  For example, in his book Flourish (2011), positive psychologist Martin Seligman posits a model of eudaemonia that includes the five factors of positive emotion, engagement, accomplishment, relationship, and meaning. It’s not a bad list, but it begs the question of “why these factors and not others?” since it lacks a larger theory of what human beings are for. Seligman defines meaning as “belonging to and serving something you believe is bigger than oneself.” This definition suggests that we’re all free to find our own meaning — that one person’s meaning is as good as another’s, whether one is a Bodhisattva, a Fascist, or an acolyte of the Islamic State. Whatever makes you feel you’re part of some larger story. You can see the inherent problem: we’re left with no way to establish a hierarchy of goodness within the universe of possible meanings. Secularized accounts can never adequately address questions of goodness without grounding the concept in some larger theory of what our lives are all about. That means acknowledging that human lives are, in fact, about something.

Everyone, knowingly or not, has a metaphysics. A materialist metaphysics can’t account for consciousness and value, and leaves our lives devoid of meaning. Materialism suggests our lives aren’t about anything — they’re just accidental byproducts of physical processes. Materialism can’t be empirically proven or disproven, any more than pan-psychism or teleology can. It’s just more or less useful, and depending on your point of view, more or less credible.

I think the Buddhist story has something special to contribute to our survival as a species. It clarifies our deep interrelationship with all beings and with Nature, clarifies our moral duties towards all beings without exception, and encourages us to move beyond the fragmented individualism and consumer mentality that are the twin scourges of modern Western society. As our fragile species lurches toward the possibility of extinction, we moderns are increasingly the inheritors of a conflicting set of historical grievances and irreconcilable world-views, while simultaneously the possessors of technologies that extend our ability to inflict exponentially greater harm on each other. Our current moral incoherence will not let us muddle through. Something very much like Buddhist ethics seems increasingly urgent if we’re going to make sufficient progress in resolving these conflicts to survive as a species. The Buddhist solution, however, requires us to think differently about Nature and our place in it. It also requires us to assume something very much like the Bodhisattva ideal — the belief that there’s a more enlightened way to be than the way-we-are-now (however we construe “Enlightenment”) and that an engaged, compassionate regard for others is an indispensable component of that enlightened way.

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Authenticity and Zen

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I just finished reading Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler’s excellent Two Shores of Zen, a searingly honest personal narrative comparing his experiences in American and Japanese Zen practice settings.  Rather than review the book (which I highly recommend) I want to explore its chief theme, the search for Buddhist “authenticity:” What is real Zen?  Above all else, we want our Zen to be “authentic,” and we want to practice “authentically,” whether these two are the same thing or not — the first having to do with whether our Zen is really the Zen of our ancestors, the second with whether we can wholeheartedly practice without some inner division, false consciousness, or “as if” quality.

The first question — “Is this the Buddhism/Zen of our ancestors?” — seems to be a perennial question which some of my earlier posts (Tokugawa Zen; Greek Buddha; Everything Changes, Buddhism too; Buddhism Learns to Stand on Its Head) have touched upon in piecemeal fashion.  Every Buddhist school makes its own claim to authenticity and plays fast and loose with history in service of this goal, but every successful Buddhist movement to restore an idealized past inevitably ends by re-creating a new Buddhism for its own historical era. These Buddhisms can’t help but reflect the consciousness of their time. If, by some miracle, they could somehow resist infection with the Zeitgeist (even while, at the same time, heroically opposing it), they’d be of no real value to their practitioners who, prisoners of their own place and time, would be incapable of genuinely inhabiting the consciousness of a previous era. This relates to the issue of the second type of “authenticity”—one’s ability to fully inhabit and embody a practice.

Dogen’s thirteenth century journey to China to find the “real” Zen is but one example of the process of recreation through “looking backwards,” as is Menzan Zuiho’s eighteenth century rediscovery of Dogen’s Zen.  In addition, innovations in Buddhism have historically tried to justify their “authenticity” by invoking mythological pasts. Zen “lineage charts,” Nagarjuna’s “recovery” of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, and Tibetan “revelations” of esoterically hidden termas are all examples of this tendency, and Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha suggests a similar process may underly Theravada claims to having “preserved” the Buddha’s “original” teachings. Buddhism has always looked forwards by looking backwards. It’s always decaying, dying, dead and gone and then—presto-chango!— reborn again, the same but different. This, perversely, is one way the doctrine of rebirth turns out to be literally true.

As the narrative of Two Shores of Zen begins, Rutschman-Byler, a resident practitioner at California’s Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, finds himself increasingly repelled by certain features of American Zen. He is an exceedingly — one might almost say “painfully” — earnest practitioner who finds himself questioning the authenticity of what he sees as a vitiated American Zen with its diminished promise of genuine awakening.  He is scornful of non-celibate monastics, the democratic weakening of monastic hierarchy, comfortable monasteries with heated rooms and gourmet meals, and Zen teachers who act as spiritual friends and who encourage one to find one’s own answers rather than inspiring wholehearted devotion as enlightened beings.

He goes to Japan searching for a purer, more authentic Zen practice, but what he finds are the twin aspects of a declining Japanese Zen: on the one hand, a nearly moribund family-temple “funeral” Buddhism, and on the other hand, an austere, demanding practice with an “enlightened” master who — while possessing all the hallmarks of “authenticity” — is aging and infirm and has left no Dharma heirs; whatever tradition he represents is dying with him.  His temple is populated by Japanese students who, failing to duplicate the master’s enlightenment, sneak off in the night, and Westerners attempting to devote themselves to an ascetic ideal that’s no longer possible for postmodern Westerners and which is complicated by the fact that they’re practicing within an alien culture that stubbornly resists understanding.

Rutschman-Byler struggles with the austerities and politics that characterize monastic life along with the unruly resistance of his own human nature—cravings for sex, romance, carbohydrates, and protection from the bitter winter cold—trying to sincerely apply himself to a practice that eventually threatens to undermine his sanity and harden his heart. He returns home at the end, as all journeyers must, more or less reconciled to an imperfect American Zen, concluding:

“Whichever path is better, or more traditional, or more conducive to real spiritual understanding and compassion, the basic fact that I’m left with is that simply I am a Western Buddhist, and that try as I might, my… Western Buddhist values underlie my practice.  I have tried, and failed, to force myself to think that [Japanese-style] monastic practice is better than, or finally even necessary at all for meaningful, everyday worldly practice.  Have I lost anything in that?  Yes. Have I gained something?— indeed, my whole life, just as it is, reclaimed and renewed as precisely the territory of unsurpassed enlightenment.”

This search for authenticity — to be authentic, to find something authentic to cling to — is an inevitable aspect of postmodernity: we feel adrift amidst competing traditions which have lost their compelling authority, and competing visions of ourselves that call out for embodiment and enactment.  Which path constitutes a genuine movement of the “true” self in its unfolding and actualization, and which is mere play-acting and posturing — something ill-fitting, ugly, ungainly, and grafted on?  Is there a “true self” to develop and express, or is “emptiness” and “formlessness” our real home? If nothing is genuinely “authentic,” how are we to fashion ourselves? What are the goalposts and guidelines? What do we even mean by “authentic?”

We Western convert Buddhists find ourselves in an awkward position. We’re postmoderns par excellence —doubters, questioners, and searchers — rejecting our birth religion and setting ourselves adrift.  We want to ground ourselves in something authentic, but are incapable of the kind of faith and trust in our new religion that we rejected in our old. 

There are, however, aspects of this new Buddhism that are uniquely suited to our postmodern sensibilities—most specifically the Zen ideal of “not knowing.”  In addition, the doctrine of emptiness fits hand-in-glove with the process-relational aspects of postmodernism, the understanding that at bottom there is no bottom: no unchanging essence that stands behind us or anything else.  It’s process and flux all the way down, and the bits and pieces we borrow to create ourselves are not “ours” but borrowings from the detritus of our culture, memes afloat in our hive mind. The question is, which borrowings and adoptions carry something valuable forward — liberate and actualize potentials in a positive way—and what criteria should we adopt in evaluating our progress?  Western Zen reinforces and develops a number of criteria — presence, awareness, whole-heartedness, integrity, openness, and  interconnectedness — that resonate with Western romanticism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology and existentialism — and weds them, as (David Chapman rightly points out) to contemporary Western liberal ethics with its emphases on empathy, mutual understanding, compassion, fairness, justice, and liberation.

Is this an “authentic” Buddhism?  Thanissaro Bhikkhu doesn’t seem to think so, as he makes clear in his cogent historical analysis of the genesis of Buddhist romanticism, but he’s an apologist for the Theravada agenda, shoring up arguments in support of his own existential commitments.  Of course he’s right in a sense: It’s not your grandfather’s Buddhism.  It’s not Theravada. It’s not Bodhidharma Zen. It’s not Dogen Zen.  But Western Buddhism is completely authentic in another sense.  It’s authentic in that we can completely get behind it. It’s a platform on which we can authentically practice without pretense, without cutting off or eliding what we, as postmoderns, sense deeply and irrevocably in our bones. 

Will it take us to the other shore? Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi, Swaha?  Thanisarro Bhikkhu argues that it won’t, but do we really believe in that other shore anymore?  Something wholly transcendent, a final destination, permanent, beyond all suffering?  Does it make any sense? Does it ring true to postmodern ears? Do we really need it? Have we met anyone who’s attained it?  Not someone who said they attained it, but someone we genuinely believed actually did? Do we live in Mappo, the degenerate Third Age of Buddhism, when attainment is no longer possible? What good is an “attainment” no one ever ever actually attains?

What Western Buddhism can do is move us continually beyond our old selves, breaking the chains of habit, prejudice, and character, opening us to deeper levels of interconnectedness and Being, opening our hearts, lessening our clinging and egocentricity, developing our equanimity and acceptance, and enabling the continual questioning that makes our never-ending journey an adventure worth living. That’s not another shore exactly, but it’s a process we can sincerely believe in.

This isn’t the final Buddhism; its just ours. The next historical era will require something new — something drawing different water from the Buddhist well and blending it with the insights specific to its own time and place.  Alfred North Whitehead wrote that “philosophy can never revert to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher.” Every great philosopher changes the world so that we can never quite see things the same way again.  We can’t live as if Hume, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger never existed — whether we’ve read and understood them or not, our culture has already been changed by them, and we’ve been changed along with it. In the future some new philosopher will no doubt think new thoughts and change the possible ways our descendants can understand and use the Dharma.  As a 2,500 year old conversation on awakening and liberation, the well of Buddhism is deep. It will always have something valuable to contribute.  And once again, it will be reborn, the same but different.

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Book Review: Greek Buddha

IMG_7923Four centuries lie between the time the Buddha lived and the time the earliest known Gandhari and Pali Buddhist texts were committed to writing. Since religions are never static affairs, these texts undoubtedly diverged to some extent from the Buddha’s original teachings, but exactly how far and in which ways is uncertain; our knowledge of the gap between the earliest Buddhist teachings and early canonical Buddhism is basically a vast, empty chasm. Unfortunately for us, the Buddha’s Indian contemporaries lacked both a written language and an understanding of how history differs from mythology and hagiography.

Indulge me in a thought experiment: Imagine that you and I live in a preliterate society. Imagine that nothing Abraham Lincoln ever said or did was written down, either at the time or subsequently. Imagine that there are no photographs or drawings of him. Imagine that there were no documents pertaining to the Civil War – no quartermasters’ inventories, no Mathew Brady photographs, no slave diaries, no rosters of those who served, no records of Lincoln’s speeches. Imagine too that there is no written record of the presidents who served before or after Lincoln.  All that exists is our memory of what our parents and teachers told us face to face, based on their memory of what their parents and teachers told them.

If this was so, how accurate would our knowledge of Lincoln be today? How much of what he said would be accurately remembered and generally agreed upon?

Think of all the apocryphal Lincoln “quotes” that currently float through the Internet in all their glorious inaccuracy.


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Now imagine that another three hundred years passes before the orally transmitted “knowledge” of Lincoln is finally set down on paper.  How much more inaccurate would those ideas about Lincoln be?

This is the state we find ourselves in when in comes to the Buddha.

Christopher Beckwith’s new book, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (2015, Princeton) is a fascinating attempt to fill this historical void with educated speculation. Beckwith urges us to make his own mental experiment. He suggests that we bracket off almost everything we think we “know” about early Buddhism from canonical sources, and instead invites us to follow him as he attempts to reconstruct early Buddhism from sources closer in time to when the Buddha actually lived, namely the stone edicts and pillars of the Mauryan kings, the records of ancient Greek travelers, recent archeological findings, and the earliest Chinese Taoist texts.

Beckwith pays special attention to one such Greek traveller: Pyrrho of Elis, a young artist who travelled with Alexander the Great to Gandhara in the years 327-325 B.C. where Pyrrho met with and was influenced by a group of early Buddhist practitioners. Pyrrho returned to Greece espousing a radical new philosophy—“Pyrrhonism”—which bore more than a surface resemblance to the Buddhism he encountered in Gandhara (as has been noted previously by scholars like Georgios Halkias). For example, Pyrrho cultivated apatheia (passionlessness) in order to develop ataraxia (inner calm). He made explicit use of the fourfold negation of the tetralemma [five centuries before Nagarjuna!]. He was celibate, lived in simplicity, engaged in meditation, and was regarded by his neighbors as a holy man. He recommended  an attitude of “not-knowing” in regards to pragmata, ordisputed ethical questions.” Pyrrho viewed pragmata as having three primary characteristics: they were inherently adiaphora (undifferentiated by logical differentia—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “anatta”), astathmeta (unbalanced—possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “dukkha”) and anepikrita (indeterminate — possibly a parallel to the Buddha’s “annica”). The degree to which Pyrrho’s three qualities of pragmata actually map one-to-one onto the Buddha’s three marks of existence is a question I’ll leave to better philologists and philosophers than myself, but I found Beckwith’s argument intriguing. 

Beckwith then takes his argument a step further. He notes that concepts like “karma” and “rebirth” are mentioned by neither Pyrrho nor Megasthenes (another traveling Greek who served as Seleucus Nicatator’s ambassador to Chandragupta from 302 to 298 B.C.). Based on this, Beckwith asserts that these ideas weren’t a part of early Buddhism. This seems like an awfully big assumption to make, especially since Pyrrho himself wrote nothing—we only know of his thoughts through the writings of his contemporaries and students.  In addition, while Pyrrho’s philosophy may have been based on Buddhism, he may not have adopted all of Buddhism’s tenets; he may have picked and chosen those ideas that were most consonant with his Hellenic background.  While Beckwith is correct that we’ve no hard evidence that karma and rebirth were Buddhist beliefs prior to 100 B.C., absence of evidence is not the same thing as evidence of absence. The most we can say is that he may be right.

Beckwith also speculates on the Buddha’s ethnicity. He argues against the canonical assertion that the Buddha was a native Magadhan born in Lumbini, and argues instead that the name “Śākyamuni” (“Sage of the Śākyas”) suggests that the Buddha was a Śākya, i.e., an ethnic Scythian (a Central Asian people who dominated the steppes). Of course the epithet “Śākyamuni” doesn’t necessarily imply that the Buddha himself was actually “foreign-born.” Alternatively, the Buddha could have been descended from Scythians who migrated to Magadha somewhat earlier, perhaps as early as 850 BC as Jayarava Attwood has speculated. One interesting implication of the Buddha’s possibly Scythian origin is that he may have developed the Dharma, at least in part, in response to Zoroastrianism, the religion of Darius’s Achaemenid Empire which stretched from the Balkans to the Indus Valley. If so, Buddhism can be understood, in part, as a rejection of Zoroastrian monotheism and cosmic dualism.

Beckwith suggests, following the controversial chronology suggested by Johannes Bronkhorst, that early Buddhism preceded the Upanishads and, then goes off on his own to suggest that it also preceded Jainism. He believes that these allegedly later religious traditions adopted aspects of Buddhist teachings and then projected their own origin stories into an imaginary pre-Buddhist past to lend them greater authenticity, in much the same way that the Mahayana would later claim greater antiquity for its own sutras. Beckwith can find no support for the early existence of Jainism in the kinds of data he deems acceptable. The Greek travelers, for example, fail to mention it. The earliest datable references to Jainism are found in the post-100 B.C. Pali literature. Beckwith believes that those Pali Suttas that treat the Buddha and Mahavira as contemporaries are useful fictions designed to address Buddhist-Jain disputes that were current during the era in which they were actually composed.

Even more fascinating is Beckwith’s speculation that Laotzu and the Buddha were one and the same person, and that Taoism grew out of very early Chinese contact with Buddhism. Beckwith does a linguistic analysis of Laotzu’s “actual” name (“Lao Tan”) as recorded around 300 B.C. in Chuangtzu.  He argues that “Lao” is the same as “K’ao,” and that K’ao-Tan could plausibly have been pronounced “Gaw-tam” in certain old Chinese dialects, making it intriguingly close to “Gautama,” with the final /a/ being dropped due to canonical monosyllabicization. This is a linguistic argument far beyond my powers to evaluate.  If true, it makes for a wonderful story of how Buddhism first influenced the formation of Taoism, and then several hundred years later, Taoism returned the favor in coloring how the Chinese translated and understood the Mahayana Sutras. What goes around comes around. In any case, Beckwith believes it to be no accident that similar theories arose nearly simultaneously in Greece, India, and China during the Axial Age, and that there was a greater degree of intercourse between these cultures than has previously been thought. 

There is much more to Beckwith’s book, including discussions of Pyrrho’s influence on David Hume, the provenance of the Mauryan stone edicts and pillars, the linguistic facility of Alexander’s entourage, and Pyrrho’s place in the stream of Greek philosophy.  Beckwith’s discussion of the connection between Pyrrho’s quasi-Buddhist philosophy and David Hume’s examination of the problem of logical induction serendipitously coincides with Alison Gopnick’s recent speculation about how Hume may have become familiarized with Buddhist thought during his stay at the Royal College of La Flèche. Like the parallel emergence of novel philosophies during the Axial Age, the parallels between Hume’s philosophy and Buddhist insights may be due to more than mere coincidence.

There are problems with the Beckwith’s book, to be sure.  As mentioned above, it’s impossible for a non-scholar like myself to evaluate Beckwith’s claims. While some seem plausible, others seem more of a stretch. I suspect it’s better to think of them as hypotheses which can spur future research than to think of them as strongly supported facts. I should also note that  Beckwith could have benefited from a better editor to help him eliminate some of his repetitiveness—he can, at times, worry a point beyond all endurance.

Some readers might be tempted to dismiss Beckwith’s theses as being largely irrelevant to Buddhist practice.  They might think, “What does it matter, in the end, whether the Buddha was really a Scythian or one-and-the-same person as Laotzu?  What matters is how one is coming along in one’s practice and realization.”  While I’m sympathetic to that point of view, I think it’s a mistake.  Our hypotheses about who the Buddha actually was and what the Buddhist project is ultimately about deeply inform our approach to practice. Consider, as one example, Stephen Batchelor’s recent historical reimagining of early Buddhism and his proposal that doctrines of karma and rebirth weren’t nearly as central to it as some contend. Beckwith’s arguments buttress Batchelor’s, and together their ideas  have the potential to significantly inform the future dominant direction of Western Buddhist practice.

Even if Beckwith’s arguments turns out to be deficient in many of their particulars, Beckwith successfully points to the limitations of taking the Pali Canon’s account of Buddhist history at face value. Buddhist texts need to be read with a certain degree of suspicion. They need to be read alongside contemporaneous Greek and Chinese sources, checked against emerging archeological findings, and understood within the context of our growing understanding of Central and Southern Asian history. I’m incapable of doing this myself and I have no way of judging the ultimate worth of Beckwith’s arguments.  On the other hand, I look forward with interest to whatever lively discussion ensues.

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Getting Out of Our Own Way

IMG_7948It sometimes seems that so much of the Buddhist path is simply learning how to get out of one’s own way.  It’s the Self — that tangled web of attachments and aversions constituting the network of me-ness — that complicates even the simplest of human transactions, making life more difficult than it needs be.  Nine times out of ten, “I” am my own worst enemy.

The other night as I was washing up after dinner, cleaning some baked-on mozzarella that had hardened on the ceramic cookware, my wife pointed out that I needn’t struggle so and poured some baking soda into the hot rinse water.

“Try it this way,” she suggested — and the cheese came off like a charm. 

You’d have thought I’d be grateful, but “I” got in my way. 

Instead, my initial reaction went something like this:

“I’m sixty-seven years old. I’ve washed cheese off cookware hundreds of times.  I’m perfectly satisfied with my old elbow-grease intensive method. Why’s she trying to improve me?”

Only she wasn’t “trying to improve me.”  She was only trying to make my life easier.  The thought running through my head was basically a screwy variation on a two-year old toddler’s way of thinking, namely: “I can do it myself!”

Later, when my wife asked how it went, I stopped myself before grumblingly acquiescing that “it went okay” and said — somewhat more appreciatively, I hope — “it worked great!”  It took a moment of mindfulness — the ability to stand back and see how my old reactive pattern, my stale old story about “me” and “my way,” failed to capture the reality and essence of “now” — to catch myself in mid-knee jerk, and avoid (just barely) a fleeting emotional disconnect with my wife. Our lives are a tapestry made up of such tiny moments  — moments in which we either honor or betray our deepest connections to those we love.

It’s a just a small example of something that probably happens to us many times each day. The imperial “I” reasserts itself in ways large and small, imperiling our capacity for intimacy and warmth.  “I” want credit and appreciation.  “I” feel hurt or wronged. “I” want to do things my way.  “I” feel superior or envious.  “I” feel included or excluded, wanted or ignored.  “I” get puffed up or deflated.  “I” deserve more or better.  Who, exactly, is this “I” who seems to be the center of the universe and interprets everything in terms of itself?  Buddhism teaches that this “I” is a fundamental mistake, the reification of an ever changing inter-relational process. The more we can see this Self for what it is, the more transparent it becomes, the more we can learn to get out of our own way.

It’s easy to see how this mistaken view of self comes about. Young children think they’re the center of the universe: their immediate needs are their ultimate concerns and it makes no sense to them that others are equally preoccupied with their own needs.  Developmental psychologists tell us that very young children believe the the sun and moon follow them home as they walk down the street, and that they can’t visualize or imagine how things look from another’s point of view.  The ability to understand that there are other ways of seeing the world and that everything isn’t about us takes a certain degree of maturity.  Some of us never quite get there. 

The Buddhist view is that nothing is about us. Things happen according to causes and conditions, not because we like or desire them.  Other people, for the most part, are preoccupied with their own wants and needs; they don’t spend all day thinking about ours.  Other people’s reactions to us often say more about themselves than they do about us.  While we create our own karma, it too is an impersonal process.  When negative consequences ensue from our actions, it’s not because the universe wants to punish us.  It’s just cause and effect.

The more familiar we become with our own reactive patterns and decenter from our personal preoccupations, the more we’re able to open to the reality of the moment as it is, fostering our capacity to live relationally, and connect to and collaborate with others.  It’s just a matter of getting over ourselves.  It’s just a matter of getting our “selves” out of the way.

 

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Shine As Brightly As You Can

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A friend read my recent post on Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead in hopes of finding reason for hope.  Dogen and Whitehead posited meaningful universes fit for humans to dwell in — Dogen’s universe nudging us towards Enlightenment and Whitehead’s towards greater novelty, complexity, and beauty. That sounds pretty hopeful, doesn’t it?  My friend worries about his mortality and about the future his children will inherit.  He wonders whether we humans have a future.  He wants to hope so.  He wants to believe, like Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” that our lives are a journey into a better future.

Is there reason for hope?

Maybe not.

In the short term, we’re all mortal; in the longer term, all things are impermanent — things fall apart.  Astrophysicists say our sun has a limited shelf life.  Cosmologists tell us our universe will eventually succumb to entropy or collapse.

The intermediate term isn’t much rosier.  There’s the so-called Fermi Paradox — the contradiction between the fact that our universe contains an astronomical number of potentially habitable planets and our failure to detect signs of intelligent life elsewhere.  There are many possible reasons for this, including economist Robin Hanson’s notion of the Great Filter — a theoretical barrier which reduces the odds of any evolving intelligence surviving beyond a critical point.  Whenever a species reaches a certain level of technological sophistication, they — like the unfortunate Krell in the 1956 Sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet — unintentionally create the conditions leading to their own extinction.  We humans seem well on our way towards a multitude of Doomsday scenarios of our own devising: environmental catastrophe, nuclear holocaust, genetically engineered plagues, or potentially hostile artificial intelligences, just to name a few.  The odds of our inadvertently causing our own demise seem fairly high. While the universe may, as Whitehead thought, be generally evolving in the direction of greater complexity, intelligence, and beauty (at least in the short-to-intermediate term), it’s not placing all of its bets on us. We’re one of an almost infinite set of variations on an evolutionary theme, and the universe may well be indifferent to our specific success or failure. 

So hope may be unwarranted.

Except for this.

I once worked in a rehabilitation program for people with spinal cord injuries and other neuromuscular impairments.  All of the clients — without exception and against all medical evidence — believed they’d one day walk again. Their doctors sometimes advised them to “get real.”  It wasn’t going to happen.  One of the clients — a former dancer, now both quadriplegic and blind — responded to doctors’ attempts to disabuse her of her “unrealistic” hopes by educating them that “hope is what gets you through the day.” Hope is what gets you through a dark time to a better time when nothing else sustains you.  I learned never to discourage hope, however unrealistic, unless I’d something better to offer in its place.

Yet for me personally, hope for the future seems somehow unnecessary.  I prefer “not knowing” to “hoping.”  Not the “not knowing” of ignorance, but the “not knowing” of understanding that all ideas, conjectures, predictions, and expectations about the future are just that — merely ideas, conjectures, predictions, and expectations and nothing more — a gossamer web of thought.  The future is unknowable, yet to be born. We all have our ideas about it — we’ll moulder in the grave, or live in Heaven, or be reborn; the universe will keep on expanding or will collapse; the laws of physics are immutable or impermanent; the human race will become extinct or we’ll survive as space travelers, dwelling in the light of foreign suns.  We may have strong or weak convictions about all this, but really, who knows?  How many of your past strong convictions have already proven to be incorrect?

Suzuki Roshi once said that life was “like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.”   I like his perspective.  We don’t need assurances about rosy futures.  We’re here briefly and then we’re gone.  That’s it.  What use are we to make of our brief but precious lives?  If there’s to be a future, it will be due to the collective effect of our individual actions. There are no assurances that what we do will matter in the end — but what difference does that make? If we survive it will be because we’ve acted with sufficient awareness of our interconnectedness, sufficient intelligence, and sufficient compassion and love. If we don’t survive, if we’ve just one brief moment to strut upon the stage, why not make that brief moment one of presence and awareness, of love and connection?  Why not shine as brightly as we can? 

Regardless of our hopes and fears, every one of our actions is a vote for or against the future.  Every action we take, every dollar we spend or invest, every word we speak, ripples throughout time, changing the world in some small way, tilting the balance in one direction or another. Shine as brightly as you can!

Change happens. The last two centuries have given birth to a gradual extension of rights to people of color, women, and the gay and transgendered.  We’ve seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and an end to Apartheid. We’ve seen the emergence of new concepts of international law and universal human rights.  We’ve seen fragile, tentative movements towards international cooperation through institutions like the United Nations and the European Union.  We’ve seen sixty years of relative “peace” between the competing great powers who, while testing each other through gruesome proxy wars, have — so far— resisted direct combat and global catastrophe. 

There’s reason for hope.

On the other hand, we’ve endured the two world wars, genocides in Turkey, Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia, and Rwanda, fratricides in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, the Soviet Gulag and the Ukrainian famine, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, endless enmity between Pakistan and India, repression in Tibet and saber-rattling in the South China Sea, bloody American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam and Cambodia, the spread of Jihadism, and a thousand other failures of humanity. 

There’s reason for despair.

Are things getting better?  Are they getting worse?  Flip a coin.  Hope and despair are both “something extra” — projections of thought into the unknown.

Let thoughts drop away.

All we have is this moment; use it well.

Shine as brightly as you can!

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Synchronicity

Dancer/Choreographer Sally Gross (1933-2015)

Dancer/Choreographer Sally Gross (1933-2015)

Sally Gross, the acclaimed minimalist avant-garde dancer and choreographer, passed away last week at the age of eighty-one.  If you’ve never seen one of Sally’s live performances, you might have seen her in the 1959 “beat” film Pull My Daisy (together with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) or in the 2007 documentary, The Pleasure of Stillness, that noted filmmaker Albert Maysles made about her work. Sally was the friend of a friend, and I’d the good fortune to see her dance live over a decade ago at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio. I also had the good fortune to have Sally accompany me on a journey five hours up to and five hours back from Toni Packer’s Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry where we’d gone together on a seven-day silent retreat.

Sally wasn’t in the best of moods for our trip. Her long-term boyfriend, art dealer Richard Bellamy, had passed away in 1998, and if I remember correctly, there had been some dissension between Sally and his family in the wake of his death.  While my memory about the particulars is somewhat fuzzy, I distinctly remember Sally as still actively angry and grieving a she talked about Richard all the way up to Springwater.  At the time of his passing, Richard served as an art dealer for the work of only one artist, the abstract expressionist sculptor Mark di Suvero. I wasn’t familiar with di Suvero’s work, but I’d learned of his existence only a few months earlier when he received a Governor’s Art Award from New York Governor George Pataki in an impressive ceremony alongside the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur

I happened to be there because noted photographer Milton Rogovin, the father of a friend, was also receiving an award that night. Mark di Suvero gave a memorable acceptance speech that made a lasting impression on me, and as a consequence, when Sally mentioned his name, the name meant something to me.  At the time I thought it was interesting — I’d never heard of di Suvero before, and here he’d “turned up” twice in just a matter of a few months. Life’s funny that way. I decided that I’d have to familiarize myself with his work once I got home.  As a curious aside, di Suvero’s name came up for me once more a decade later when my daughter completed an artist’s residency at his Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City.

On the road back from Springwater, Sally told me that her entire retreat experience had been permeated, haunted, and dominated by Richard’s “presence.” She spent the entire week processing her complex feelings about their relationship and his death. We were still caught up in talking about this when I noticed with some alarm that I’d missed my exit off Route 17 where it intersected with Route 84. I had gone to Springwater several times in the past, and had never missed my exit before!

I got off the next exit, and rather than doubling back, tried making my way to Route 84 along some back roads.  Along one of those roads, we passed a country inn. The Inn was familiar to Sally —  she and Richard had stayed there once and she reminisced with me about it.  A little further along, we found ourselves passing the Storm King Art Center — an outdoor sculpture garden which I had never seen before — and Sally began pointing out an impressive series of giant di Suvero sculptures that were clearly visible from our car along the length of the road. Suddenly, missing my exit didn’t seem a mistake, but deeply connected in some mysterious way to Sally’s unrequited grief, as if Richard’s ghost was somehow guiding us.

Collection

di Suvero sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined a word for these kinds of seemingly meaningful coincidences — synchronicity — by which he meant temporally coincident occurrences of acausally connected events. Jung thought that events could be meaningfully connected through some principle of simultaneity distinct from the usual connectivity of sequential cause-and-effect. He believed that meaningful coincidences like these revealed something profound about the deep structure of the universe — something akin to the “spooky action at a distance“ in quantum entanglement.  In Synchronicity (1952), Jung provided an example of synchronicity at work in psychotherapy:

Psychiatrist Carl Jung

Psychiatrist Carl Jung

“My example concerns a young woman patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible. The difficulty lay in the fact that she always knew better about everything. Her excellent education had provided her with a weapon ideally suited to this purpose, namely a highly polished Cartesian rationalism with an impeccably “geometrical” idea of reality. After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself. Well, I was sitting opposite her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab — a costly piece of jewelry. While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane from outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, “Here is your scarab.” This experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.”

Of course, skeptics will dismiss this as “just coincidence.” In a universe with an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, coincidences like these will inevitably appear, but they’re ultimately meaningless.

But then there are stories that seem so remarkable, they seem beyond mere coincidence.  Like the time my friend Victoria from Nigeria had the eerie feeling that something awful had happened to her brother back home.  Alarmed and disturbed, she called her parents in Nigeria, who assured her all was well. Several days later, however, she received another phone call from her parents.  Her brother was dead.  Unbeknownst to them, he’d died days earlier in a car accident while far from home — the very day Victoria had first called them. The police had just brought them the news.

The eminent psychologist, Charles Tart, posted one of the most convincing examples of synchronicity I’ve ever read on his T.A.S.T.E. (The Archives of Scientists’s Transcendent Experiences) website.

Psychologist Charles Tart

Psychologist Charles Tart

In 1974, Tart drove to pick up an East Coast psychologist named “Terry” who was visiting Berkeley California and staying at an address at 2924 Benvenue Avenue. They were going to go out for a cup of coffee.  As he was driving to pick Terry up, Tart’s mind was suddenly overcome by thoughts of violence:

“…I lost track of what I had been thinking about and instead found myself thinking about bad neighborhoods with criminal gangs in them…. The thought not only persisted, it quickly built into a frightening set of obsessions about being beaten up, about gangs of people with guns, shooting, violence, and the conviction that I would be mistaken for a burglar and shot when I walked between the houses to meet Terry at the kitchen door. I became very frightened and wanted to turn the car around and drive away as fast as possible. The closer I got to Benvenue Avenue, the worse I felt! … I felt intensely ashamed and embarrassed: I had to be crazy to feel like this! There was absolutely no reason for any normal person to feel this way! The psychologist part of my mind diagnosed me as having a paranoid schizophrenic attack of high intensity…”

When he finally reached Benevenue Avenue, Tart searched for a parking space, then walked back to where Terry was waiting for him.

“I was still quite frightened and I looked into every shadow and parked car, and between houses, looking for gangs or an ambush….  Much to my relief, Terry was waiting out in front of the house… We said hello, chatted as we walked back to my car, and drove off to a coffee shop…”

Tart didn’t tell Terry about his weird experience.  They were still in the process of just getting acquainted, and Tart didn’t want Terry to think he was crazy.  A week later, Tart received a letter from Terry, who’d subsequently returned back to the East Coast.  In the letter, Terry wrote that he’d had an almost identical paranoid experience to Tart’s while waiting for him to arrive.

“…While he was waiting for me in front of the Institute, he started feeling paranoid, worrying about people with guns and getting shot! He too felt pretty silly and ashamed. He was relieved when I arrived and we left for the coffee shop.”   

And then — the most interesting part of Terry’s letter!  As it turns out, at the very moment when Tart and Terry were experiencing their simultaneous paranoid episodes, several cars with members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were parked alongside Benvenue Avenue. They had already kidnapped mathematician Peter Benenson who was crouched on the floor of one of the vehicles, and they were preparing to kidnap Patty Hearst who lived at 2603 Benvenue:

“…Armed with their automatic rifles and pistols, they went down the walkway between the apartment and the adjoining house that leads to the apartment entrance and knocked. When Patty’s boyfriend, Steven Weed, opened the door, they rushed in, threw him to the floor, and began beating and kicking him. Patty Hearst was grabbed and carried screaming from the house. Weed finally managed to get loose and ran screaming from the apartment, while one of the men kept pointing his rifle at him with a cold smile on his face. A neighbor came to see what was happening: he was grabbed, beaten, and knocked unconscious to the floor, a floor that was already soaked with Steven Weed’s blood. Two women who came out of the next apartment were driven back inside as automatic rifle fire splintered the shingled wall beside them. Patty’s captors threw her in the trunk and fled in Peter Benenson’s car, with Benenson still crouching terrified on the floor, expecting that the next shot would be for him….”

One could perhaps say that Tart’s paranoid episode — one he had never had before or since — was just a panic attack and that its simultaneity with the Hearst kidnapping was mere coincidence, but then how can one account for Tart and Terry having simultaneous paranoid experiences?  A skeptic might say that the odds of these things coinciding by chance are infinitesimally small, but that given a nearly infinite universe, coincidences with infinitesimal likelihoods randomly occur from time to time.  I personally believe that occurrences like these reflect more than just mere coincidence, however. Whatever their explanation, synchronicity is a good label for them. They point to the incompleteness of the physicalist account of the universe, and remind us to keep our minds open about the ultimate nature of things. They point to a deeper interconnection between events that goes beyond sequential cause-and-effect — the kind of interconnection I’ve written about recently in my postings on Dogen and Whitehead.

In the meantime, here’s a link to Albert Maysles’s film about Sally Gross. 

I remember her fondly.  She’ll be missed by all who knew her.

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Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead

wordcloud (3)I can’t remember a time when I really believed in God.  Maybe as a small child when I still pictured him as a bearded old man in the clouds.  Even then, however, God was a stranger to me.  My parents never talked about Him, my father was a closet atheist, and I was the kid in Hebrew school who asked questions about the things I couldn’t wrap my head around—issues like the problem of theodicy, or how God’s omniscience conflicted with human free will.  As an adolescent, the hypothesis of God seemed increasingly unnecessary and lacking in credible supporting evidence. Scientists seemed to be doing just fine accounting for the universe without Him, and Occam’s razor rendered Him superfluous.

Even if I could convince myself that He existed, what was He like and what exactly did He want from me?  Which religion got Him right? Was he a God of love, or a God of hell-fire? Did He want me to avoid shellfish, stone adulterers, and put homosexuals to death? To offer burnt sacrifices? To love my neighbor? To wage jihad? To fight for justice and equality? To ban abortions? To prevent climate change?  Was there one God, or many? Was He everywhere, or did He exist in some extra-spatial realm? How could one even begin answering these questions? 

One could depend on holy texts or religious authorities, but which ones? The Torah? The Koran?  The Upanishads? The Book of Mormon?  Why believe one over the other?  One could rely on mystical experiences, but how could one tell if they were veridical or merely the result of brain chemistry gone awry?  Science, at least, provided intelligible criteria for discerning truth. Science had discovered genetics, nuclear energy, black holes, chemotherapy, and computers. Science was transforming the world.  Science was the place to go for answers.  At the age of thirteen I gave up thoughts of becoming a rabbi and decided to become a scientist instead.

But science has its own limitations. For one thing, science is unable to tell a coherent story of how consciousness fits into the material world.  Scientists tend to believe in physicalism, the belief that the world is only made of one thing — physical stuff. Where does consciousness come from? Consciousness is said to be the product of the integral activity of the brain.  And how does consciousness arise from the brain?  We have to wait for that answer. Science has only been studying the brain for a relatively short time, and the brain is very, very complex. But don’t worry.  Science will provide a full account of consciousness once it better understands the brain. When that happens, consciousness will be revealed to be—tada!—an “emergent” process.

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Emergence is the idea that as systems become more complex they display novel properties which couldn’t have been predicted from their simpler components.  A typically given example is that oxygen and hydrogen atoms lack “wetness,” but when combined to form H2O, voilà! — wetness “emerges.” It’s always been unclear to me why this is considered to be a good metaphor for the emergence of consciousness.  What does the fact that water, oxygen and hydrogen become liquid at different temperatures have to do with “emergence?” Wetness, on the other hand, as opposed to liquidity, is a phenomenological property, a quale, a conscious experience that derives from human-chemical interaction. It isn’t a property that inheres to H2O itself.  I’m not sure what’s emergent about wetness, either.

A better example of “emergence” involves insect colonies. Individual insects go about their business without any intention of serving a “higher purpose” in the colony or comprehending their role within it, nevertheless, the aggregate sum of their individual actions creates an emergent hive society, much as human free market economies emerge under the aegis of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”  Similarly, simple electrical circuits, each of which are “dumb” in their own right, yield “smart” calculations when aggregated together in computers. Intelligent behavior arises from components which lack intelligence on their own. These are much better examples of “emergence,” but the premise that intelligence may be emergent is not the same thing as consciousness being emergent. Intelligence is an adaptive response to environmental circumstances, whereas consciousness is a felt experience. What the metaphor of emergence doesn’t do is offer any insight as to how non-conscious neurons, silicon chips, or any other non-conscious material, can produce the raw feel of consciousness. The experience of “redness” arises when humans interact with certain wavelengths of light, but there’s no raw feel of the quality of “redness” within the brain itself.  When you look inside the brain, all you see are moving electrons and secreted neurotransmitters. Computers can calculate, but they aren’t conscious. Brains aren’t conscious either; we are. This explanatory gap between non-conscious brain processes and conscious human experience is what philosopher David Chalmers has anointed “the hard problem.” Now, there are some philosophers who don’t think this explanatory gap is as unbridgeable as I seem to think it is. They don’t see it as being “the hard problem.”  Either there’s something they’re not getting that seems intuitively obvious to me, or there’s something I’m not grasping that seems obvious to them. Maybe the unbridgeable gap is not in the brain at all, but between us.  In any case, I find “emergent” arguments for consciousness singularly unpersuasive. Emergence is a metaphor that gives the outward appearance of solving the problem of consciousness without really solving anything at all.

But there are more problems with the physicalist model than just the “the hard problem.” First, the standard neurological model also treats thoughts as the mere effluvia of neurological happenings, and since “mental” events can never have an impact on “physical” events, thoughts can never play a causal role in the physical brain.  All the causal work is done by physical processes, not by thoughts. Thoughts, then, are something extra, like legs on a snake; they serve no identifiable purpose.

Second, the physicalist model is deterministic.  Every brain event is determined by a prior chain of physical causes, so that the appearance of “making a choice” is illusory. Given a particular chain of circumstances, one can never behave any differently than one does. It’s meaningless, therefore, to assign credit for blame for behavior, or to ever employ the conditional tense.

Third, science holds that while things happen due to causes, they don’t happen for a reason. There is no meaning inherent in things, no ultimate grounding for human values, morals, or aesthetics other than in human preferences. While what you do may matter to you, it doesn’t matter to the indifferent universe. Today many people in advanced societies accept this notion that the universe is devoid of inherent meaning and that meaning is a human invention. Since Jean Paul Sartre, it’s been a basic existentialist premise — although Sartre, unlike physicalists, believed in the reality of human freedom and choice.  But the reader should be aware that the meaninglessness of the universe is a metaphysical proposition, and that there’s no empirical evidence either for or against it.

Now, it’s all well and good to assert that consciousness is epiphenomenal and that choice is only apparent. These are defendable metaphysical propositions. Not provable, but defendable. The problem is, try living your life as if they’re really true. Try living your life as if you don’t have the power of choice, and that your thoughts have no causative power. Just try it. These propositions violate our deepest intuitions, and while it’s possible to verbally attest to them, it’s impossible to authentically live as if they were true.  In addition, the scientific process itself requires scientists who are conscious and make decisions. Science presupposes consciousness and choice, then turns around and questions their existence. Can any determinist, epiphenomenalist philosophy truly be  “adequate?”  If the story the physicalist model tells us about the world isn’t adequate, what would be?

In the past six months I’ve been reading writers who tell a very different story about the universe: Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth century Japanese Zen monk, Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century Dutch Jewish philosopher, and Alfred North Whitehead, the twentieth century British-born mathematician and philosopher. Each of these original thinkers challenges the standard physicalist account of reality in his own unique way. While there are profound differences between them, there are also threads of commonality.  I intend to focus on those threads, but first I need to describe their individual metaphysics.

Eihei Dogen

Eihei Dogen

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) was not what we in the West would call a “philosopher.”  He was a Buddhist monastic devoted to the training of Zen monks, and his interests were matters of practical soteriology. He wasn’t interested in creating a metaphysics, and he interpreted the philosophy he drew upon from its Chinese T’ien T’ai and Hua-yen sources in his own unique way. He was a conjurer of words, and his metaphysics has to be wrestled from his difficult, enigmatic, and densely poetic prose.

So what is Dogen’s metaphysics like?  As I’ve described in a previous post, Dogen’s universe is one in which space and time is fully integrated, and where every point in space and every time is immediately and intimately connected with every other.  It’s a chiliocosm — a multiverse of infinite Buddhas and infinite worlds, even within a single atom or blade of grass. It’s a universe that makes no distinction between animate and inanimate, where mountains “walk” and walls, fences, tiles, and pebbles endlessly teach the Dharma. It’s a universe where all things are in a constant process of change and derive their being from their interrelationship with everything else. It’s a universe where all things conspire to encourage us to wake up and recognize our true nature: our non-dual, compassionate relationship with all of reality.  There’s no God in Dogen’s world, but there are an infinite number of Buddhas. His multiverse is co-extensive with Buddha Nature, all of reality the Buddha’s dharmakaya, or “truth body.” Dogen’s universe is an integrated, benevolent, purpose-laden home for human beings.

Baruch Spinoza

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Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) lived in an entirely different culture than Eihei Dogen, and in an entirely different historical era with a different set of concerns. Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew who was born and lived in Protestant Amsterdam at the dawn of the modern scientific revolution.  Although they neither met nor corresponded, Spinoza and Isaac Newton were contemporaries, and the nature of physical laws, cause-and-effect, and the relationship between mind and matter were topics of intense interest and debate.

Spinoza wrote his Ethics, in part, as a reaction against Rene Descartes’ claim that the world was divided into two substances, matter which has extension in space, and thought which has none. Spinoza thought there was only one substance in the universe, and that the one substance had both material and mental properties, which he called “attributes.”  In Spinoza’a system, everything has both a material and mental side to it. You can describe events in physicalist language (e.g., as events occurring in the brain), or in mentalist language (e.g., as thoughts and experiences) but you have to stay consistent within whatever language frame you start in. Physicality and mentality are two poles of the same process described in different languages.

It’s “easy” to talk about the dual physical and mental properties of matter when we’re talking about the human brain, but what is the mental process of a rock like?  We don’t know how it is to be a rock, but we can say that rocks, like living organisms, change in responsive ways to their environment. If we throw a rock, for example, its atoms and electromagnetic fields realign themselves to changes in gravitational force as the rock rotates through space, and its potential and kinetic energy undergo momentary changes throughout its arc of flight. There’s a lot going on. The rock isn’t inert. It responds in some genuine way to the world. It’s possible that these physical changes in relationship to changing external circumstances are in some way meaningfully analagous to whatever physical changes are occurring in our brains when we “have” experiences.  Or maybe not.  When we speculate that electrons, atoms, molecules, inanimate objects, and one-celled organisms have “experiences,” a question arises about whether we’re stretching the meaning of the word “experience” beyond recognition.

Spinoza’s universe was a true “uni”-verse.  His “one substance” was identical to what he called Deus sive Natura, or “God or Nature.”  Spinoza’s “God or Nature” was very different from the Abrahamic God.  Spinoza’s “God or Nature” manifests everything imaginable out of His/Its infinite potential, the appearance of the many out of the one. “God or Nature” is infinitely creative.  Everything that exists is perfect, since “God or Nature” is perfect, and He/It has no choice but to cause everything to be exactly as it is. Everything that is follows the laws of nature by inexorable cause and effect. God is as bound by the laws of causality as humans; neither have free will.

Spinoza’s “God or Nature” is not a supernatural Being. The natural universe in Spinoza’s system, depending on how you interpret his writings, is either coextensive with “God or Nature,” or resides within “God or Nature,” but “God or Nature” is immanent in the world, not transcendent to it. God is the logos, the underlying order of the universe, the generative force behind it.  We are natural expressions of God’s infinite, endless creativity. 

The reason why it’s uncertain whether Spinoza’s “God or Nature” is fully coextensive with the universe is because Spinoza defines “God or Nature” as having an infinite number of attributes, whereas Spinoza’s universe has only two: extension and thought. This leaves Spinoza’s system open to the possibility (although he does not say so) that our universe is one of an infinite number of possible universes, some of which might have more or different attributes, however unimaginable they might be. Spinoza’s universe, like Dogen’s chiliocosm, is friendly to speculative physics about the universe’s being a multiverse.

Spinoza’s “God or Nature” is not a God of love, however, and the universe wasn’t created with us in mind. God is indifferent to us, caring neither more nor less for us than for viruses or tornados. The universe wasn’t created for humankind’s benefit, but out of God’s infinite imagination. Nevertheless, Spinoza says that the person who is wise will love God and seek to gain adequate ideas about Him/It.  Adequate ideas give us the power to overcome our passions, thereby increasing our ability to maintain and enhance our being.  According to Spinoza, increasing one’s power to maintain and enhance one’s own existence is the prime directive of all being. Ethics flows from it as a consequence, since maintaining and enhancing our existence depends largely on optimizing our relationships with other people.

Alfred North Whitehead

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Writing early in the 20th Century, at the dawn of the age of relativity and quantum mechanics, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) wanted to create a metaphysics that was compatible, not only with newly emergent scientific facts, but with the things human beings are most certain of: that we have conscious experiences, that these conscious experiences have causal efficacy, and that we make meaningful decisions in the world.  Whitehead wanted a metaphysics that found a place for consciousness and choice within the very heart of reality.

Whitehead’s philosophy shares certain features with Spinoza’s. Like Spinoza, he believed that mentality inheres in matter, and in the necessity of a God whose creative force is immanent in the world.  But there their similarities end.  Spinoza’s world is a deterministic one running entirely on a chain of causation, whereas decision and choice are real for Whitehead.

Whitehead’s philosophy is often called “process-relational” because it holds that the world isn’t made of substances, but of processes and relationships.  Everything interacts with everything else in a constant process of transformation, only the “things” that are interacting aren’t really “things” at all. “Things” are abstractions from temporal slices of ongoing process. The “thing” we happen to designate a “flower,” for example, is an abstraction from a process occurring over time: seed becoming seedling, seedling becoming flower, flower becoming compost, compost becoming soil, ad infinitum. This beginning-less, endless process occurs within a web of mutually unfolding relationships with other processes, solar, meteorological, geological, ecological, and atmospheric. The flower’s existence is unfolding process and relationship. The same is true of everything without exception, from the smallest elementary particle to God Himself.

Whitehead was also a pan-experientialist. Not only does process and relationship go all the way down and all the way up, but every event within a process is also a “drop of experience.” Even elementary particles have experiences of some kind, whatever they might be. The future, in Whitehead’s view, does not yet exist. Unlike deterministic philosophies that decree the future a forgone conclusion given the constellation of causes set in motion at the moment of original creation, Whitehead’s future remains unwritten. Processes draw on their past experiences and their experience of current influences, but use them to creatively generate the next moment.

Complex processes have more choices in generating the future than simple processes.  Humans, for example, have considerable choice; elementary particles, only a little. The reason why the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle accurately characterizes the quantum world, according to Whitehead, is that elementary particles, in some meaningful sense, “choose” their location within their probability matrices. In Whitehead’s language, all processes “prehend” their past and the ways the world impinges on them to create the future out of the array of relevant options. We, and everything else, are forever at that moment of creation when past manifests as present.

Whitehead saw the necessity of including God in his metaphysical system. Like Spinoza’s God or Nature, Whitehead’s God is neither supernatural nor anthropomorphic. For Whitehead, God is that which transforms creativity and infinite potential into something concrete and definite, giving value and organization to an otherwise inchoate set of indeterminate possibilities. He is a kind of anti-entropic force encouraging greater complexity, interrelationship, and creativity.  He is a patient persuader, guiding us towards love and mutuality.  Whitehead calls him “the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.” He co-experiences the experiences of all processes, past and present, “the great companion; the fellow-sufferer who understands.”  He provides the universe with an Aristotelian telos, a general direction for the course of its unfolding evolution, as He gently nudges it in the direction of greater freedom, complexity, creativity, and mutuality. 

While Whitehead’s evolving universe bears some resemblance to the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin’s (1881-1955) evolving universe, de Chardin’s universe evolves toward a final, fixed end, whereas Whitehead’s universe evolves as an undetermined, open-ended process. Although Whitehead’s God co-experiences all the experiences of all processes past and present, he isn’t omniscient. He doesn’t know the future, which remains uncreated possibility. Since He dwells in time, His co-experience of all experiences past and present changes how He meets the future. In a universe that’s process-relational all the way up and all the way down, God changes us, and we change Him. God and the universe co-evolve together.

Threads of Commonality

There are four crucial ideas expressed in Dogen’s, Spinoza’s, and Whitehead’s writings that hold my interest. The first, found in both Spinoza and Whitehead, is that of panpsychism—the idea that experience and materiality are both attributes of the same substance or process. The second, found in both Whitehead and Dogen, is process-relationality—the idea that reality is woven out of processes and relationships rather than our of “substances” and “things.”  The third, found in Whitehead and Dogen, is the idea that values are inherent in the universe and not merely projections of the human mind. The fourth, found in Spinoza and Whitehead, is the idea of the existence of something that may best be labeled “God.” 

Panpsychism

I’m intrigued by descriptions of reality that find mental activity woven into the essential fabric of being and becoming. That’s not to say that Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s “panpsychist” or “pan-experientialist” views aren’t problematic. The strengths and weaknesses of these views are a matter of active debate by contemporary philosophers like Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, and their critics.  Panpsychism’s first problem is the fundamental unknowability of what the experience of elementary particles, nonorganic processes, plants, and simple animals such as protozoa are like.  Second, there are explanatory gaps in how one gets from the proto-experience of elementary particles to the consciousness of human beings, or how human beings develop a unified consciousness when all of their cells and elementary particles are busy having their own experiences. Despite these significant problems, there seems to be something intuitively appealing about rooting consciousness deeply into the warp and weft of the world. In a way, there shouldn’t be any mystery to consciousness. It’s what we know best about the world; we understand embodied consciousness from a more intimate perspective than we understand anything else. We know what’s it like to be conscious; it’s matter that’s opaque and mysterious.

As a lengthy aside, it’s unclear how Dogen would weigh in on this controversy.  Buddhism’s metaphysical stance on the ontological status of mind and matter is both complex and confusing, tending to muddy the waters rather than resolve problems.  While the particular rabbit hole Buddhism goes down is slightly different from Descartes’, it’s a rabbit hole nonetheless.  Buddhism views consciousness and physical form, under “usual” circumstances, as two tightly interacting, mutually affecting streams of momentarily arising processes. There are times and instances, however, when these mental and material processes separate out, e.g., during the formless jhana meditative states, in the “formless realm” where subtle mental beings reside, in the “astral” travels of the “subtle body,” during the bardo states and process of rebirth, and through the mind’s ability to manifest simulacra of the body (manomayakaya) in space. Dogen inherited this tradition and did little to question or clarify it.  While Dogen makes frequent use of the Japanese word shinjin (“body-mind”) which implies a body-mind unity, it’s unclear what the deep ontological underpinnings of that apparent unity are. The best one can say is that Western ontological categories are completely irrelevant to Dogen’s soteriological project.

Process-Relational Metaphysics

I’m strongly drawn to process-relational descriptions of reality that clarify our mutual interdependence with all things. The crises of our era are essentially crises of failures in relatedness, whether with our biosphere or with our neighbors as we tribally-oriented humans— in other words, all of us—are necessarily confronted with the difficulties of living cheek-to-jowl with strangers-turned-neighbors in the global village. Beyond that, process-relational thinking helps us to understand identity and personhood in ways that accord with fundamental Buddhist insights into the nature of selfhood. Whitehead’s process-relational thinking precisely mirrors Dogen’s metaphysics of impermanence and radical inter-relationship. In Mahayana Buddhism, all dharmas (phenomena) are not only anitya (impermanent) but also śunya (empty), meaning lacking in “inherent self-existence” and deriving their momentary being from an evolving flux of inter-relationships. This is what Mahayana Buddhists call “dependent origination.”  This natural affinity between Whitehead’s philosophy and Sino-Japanese thought is one reason why there is a growing interest in Whitehead’s philosophy in contemporary China.

The Value Laden Universe

I’m charmed by descriptions of reality that have moral and aesthetic values baked in from the get-go, and that argue for a universe that’s not morally or aesthetically neutral, but naturally inclined in the direction of goodness and beauty. Whitehead believes God moves the universe towards greater beauty, while Dogen believes the fabric of reality encourages us to realize our Buddha nature and awaken together with all things. The idea that in maximizing the good, the true, and the beautiful we’re living more in accord with reality, helping things to flow in their intended direction, makes for a wonderful story.  Much nicer than the story that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and that we’re either sharks or sardines.  Much nicer, also, than the story that nothing matters, so we can do whatever pleases us. I’m not sure I buy these nicer stories; there are plenty of reasons not to.  But I find myself increasingly willing to at least consider them.

Spinoza, on the other hand, isn’t a member of the Inherent Values Club.  He’s the father of our modern hard-edged “realism.” He denies the universe is flowing towards greater perfection; it’s  already perfect — meaning the only way it can be — as it is. “Good” and “bad” are just categories the human mind projects onto nature:

“After men persuaded themselves, that everything which is created is created for their sake, they were bound to consider as the chief quality in everything that which is most useful to themselves, and to account those things the best of all which have the most beneficial effect on mankind. Further, they were bound to form abstract notions for the explanation of the nature of things, such as goodness, badness, order, confusion, warmth, cold, beauty, deformity, and so on; and from the belief that they are free agents arose the further notions of praise and blame, sin and merit. 

But:

….things are not more or less perfect, according as they delight or offend human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind. To those who ask why God did not so create all men, that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or, more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence…  — Spinoza, Ethics

God

Which brings us back to the start of this post — my inability to believe in God. I could never believe in a supernatural, anthropomorphic God, an omniscient autocrat standing outside of creation, judging it, and miraculously intervening in accordance with our prayers and petitions—in other worlds, the kind of God that Whitehead describes as having the attributes of “a Caesar.” “God talk” doesn’t interest me or turn me on. As I’ve mentioned in another post, when I hear “God” mentioned in a Dharma talk, my mind wanders off.  But how different — really — are Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s naturalistic, creative, immanent Gods from Dogen’s understanding of the dharmakaya? How different is Whitehead’s God who experiences the experiences of the world and nudges us towards love and beauty from Dogen’s compassionate Avalokitesvara who hears the cries of the world and awakens us to wisdom beyond wisdom? Even if one dispenses with Gods and Buddhas, if mentality, morality and aesthetics can be features of reality right down to the bone, why can’t reality also include some non-supernatural “spiritual” dimension as well? Some beneficial principle that encourages us and the world towards greater love and compassion, beauty and understanding, and our own best selves? I’m not convinced, like Whitehead and Spinoza, that God is either necessary or tenable, but I’m more open to consider it than I once was. That’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist; it’s what keeps me from joining the secularist camp.

Final Thoughts

Of course, metaphysical speculations like these lie well beyond the realm of proof or falsifiability. They’re not scientific questions. That’s why they’ve fallen out of favor in contemporary philosophy.  But to say they’re unprovable is different from saying they’re meaningless or useless. They’re stories, narrative devices, that help us to organize our behavior and orient us towards the future. They have their own realms of utility.

For a moment, let’s look at this from the Jamesian pragmatic perspective: Which description, if tentatively adopted as-if-true, would most likely enhance human flourishing? Where does a deterministic, physicalist, purposeless universe take us, and where does a pan-experiential, process-relational, value-laden world take us?  I invite you to take some time and try to imagine the moral and social consequences of each.

It’s possible that a physicalist framework might be more useful for the purposes of certain scientific investigations, but that a pan-experiential, process-relational, value-laden perspective might be more useful for rearing children and good citizens, organizing social, political and economic relations, preserving the planet, and cultivating the beautiful and the good.  And it just might be — it’s possible— that there are even certain scientific questions — ones related to ecology or quantum events, for example — where a process-relational perspective might prove more fruitful.

It’s something worth thinking about.

Many thanks to cosmologist, cousin, and Whitehead scholar Matthew David Segall who kindly reviewed an earlier draft of the Whitehead segment of this post and helped me avoid some errors.  Any new errors in interpreting Whitehead that crept into this essay during the revision process are solely my own.  Thanks also to Bob Brantl who commented on an earlier draft and helped this to become a better essay than it otherwise would have been — although I suspect he will still not be happy with what he considers to be my caricature of theism in the opening paragraphs. Thanks also to Susan Mirialakis for her many helpful suggestions to improve the readability and flow of this dense essay.

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