Eat Peas! Thinking About the Ethics of Veganism

world map made form  peasA recent article in the Guardian (that I read via a post about Buddhist Action Month) shares some new research about the environmental effects of meat and dairy farming compared to growing cereals and plants. The results are stark; “even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing”. In short, growing peas has a comparably miniscule environmental impact compared to raising beef. And the opening words of the article sum up the implications: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” So should we eat peas?

I decided to try being a ‘domestic vegan’ 18 months ago, following a hunch that it was time to give a predominantly plant-based diet a go. By ‘domestic’ I mean vegan at home, but not strictly outside. Previous attempts at veganism had been idealistic but short-lived, though overall I have maintained a mainly organic vegetarian diet for 32 years. This time round veganism is easier: it’s more popular, so there are more vegan dishes on offer in restaurants, and more vegan burgers in shop freezers. The invention of Oatly Barista means that vegan coffee drinking is actually pleasant. Still, as the narrator in Simon Amstell’s film on veganism, Carnage, jokes: “a breakthrough in the quality of nut cheeses” would really make a difference.

So I find myself wanting to encourage others to shift to a plant-based diet. As part of doing so, I’d like to present a way of thinking about the ethics of veganism, as it is important to pitch this appropriately. I will conclude that veganism is not an ethical obligation, but rather a reasonable consequence of valuing universal welfare.

From a Buddhist point of view, there is nothing wrong with eating meat. It is well known that the Buddha himself was not vegetarian. On occasions, I get offered cooked meat. If the alternative to my eating it is that the meat gets thrown away, I sometimes eat the meat. Buddhist ethics is based on the principle of not harming living beings, and having an attitude of kindness. What follows from that principle is that one should not act in such a way that animals are knowingly harmed. This precludes buying meat or choosing it on the menu. Vegetarians also avoid fish and seafood since these creatures are harmed by being caught.

Blacknose SheepBut what if the cow or chicken or salmon has been reared with care on an organic farm, and has been killed in a humane way? My brother has started breeding his own sheep for meat, on a very small scale. A lot of petting of happy lambs goes on. My feeling here is that eating carefully-sourced meat is much better than eating meat produced on big industrial farms which are indifferent to animal welfare. The maximisation of animal welfare should be an ethical priority. However, this leaves a residual ethical issue regarding what one might describe in terms of assenting to the intentional deprivation of life. No animal wants to die, but prefers to live and flourish in its own way, just like us. If there is an alternative to eating meat, is it right to kill an animal against its wish? However, the argument here is not straightforward, since domestic animals by definition come into existence by being useful to humans. One might therefore argue that it would be better if domestic animals did not exist. However, in terms of practical ethics, it is still good to maximise animal welfare, even if in theory it would be better still if animals reared to be eaten did not have to exist at all.

This way of thinking about Buddhist ethics does not directly entail veganism, though veganism is a way to contribute to animal welfare. A common argument for veganism among Buddhists has been an ethical perfectionism: that one ought not harm living beings, hence one ought to avoid eating meat and dairy. This argument does not convince me. Ethical perfectionism may be admirable, but the environmental impact, and hence harm to living beings, of human life on this planet is complex. I would rather understand Buddhist ethical perfectionism in terms of working on deep-rooted mental states, as well as on speech and action. Dietary perfectionism is too narrow.

To put it more practically, one of the things that has held me back from turning to a plant-based diet was uncertainty about whether it was any better to eat imported soya beans than local cheese. The environmental impacts on rain forest life are unknown, whereas the positive effects of local organic farming are tangible. My scepticism about dietary perfectionism, together with uncertainty about environmental impacts, meant I had insufficient reason to become vegan. However, the new research presented in the Guardian is completely unambiguous. The evidence is clear that it is would be much better for the planet for human beings to be vegan.

This shifts the ethical emphasis away from animal welfare, and towards the health and diversity of the whole natural world. The human population is heading inexorably towards 10 billion, every one of us wanting to be well-fed. There is a corresponding pressure on land-use entailing environmental changes that are mostly detrimental to biodiversity. With this, the consequences of our continuing to eat meat and dairy will be the impoverishment and degradation of non-human habitats.

The ethical argument for becoming vegan that follows from this perspective is not based on dietary perfectionism, nor even from an ethical obligation not to harm living beings. It is simply an appeal to the welfare of all beings. The welfare and flourishing of the whole planet is good in itself. Human actions that diminish this welfare will harm humans too, for we exist as part of the living whole. From this positive appeal to universal welfare some simple practical reasoning follows. If we believe that human activities are responsible for global warming and environmental change (for which there is plenty of evidence), and if we value the earth’s biodiversity and flourishing (essential for our long-term welfare), then it is reasonable to shift to a plant-based diet, and we ought to do so. Whatever changes we make to our diets, away from meat and dairy, will be good ones to make.

It could be tempting to turn this into a Buddhist ethical argument. Since it is wrong to harm living beings, but right to practice kindness and compassion, then the wholesome or ethically skilful course of action, based on what we now know about the effects of farming practices, is to choose and to promote a vegan diet. But I don’t find it personally helpful to relate to food in terms of right and wrong. I would prefer to promote the positive value of universal welfare, and to invoke the ideal of the bodhisattva, who seeks the well-being of all. From these positive commitments, together with new evidence regarding farming, the practical conclusion rationally follows: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” Eat peas!


The Beauty of Surfaces

Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences

Bristol Museum until 24 June 2018

The six tapestries that make up the exhibition currently in Bristol have been touring the country for some years, since the 2012 Channel 4 series on taste that inspired them. I was converted to Grayson Perry’s art by an exhibition at the Arnolfini, here in Bristol, last autumn. A variety of Perry’s stuff was on display – his pink motorbike (with travelling shrine for Alan Measles, the teddy bear); his bike (hanging in the stairwell); various big fired pots exploring Brexit, fame, masculinity, etc.; and a Kate-Middleton-brass-rubbing-themed skateboard (‘kateboard’). The exhibition was entitled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! and it was totally, unreservedly populist. I watched children under ten talking among themselves about how to interpret certain works. I heard the most unlikely people getting interested in the wide-open images and ideas – the significance of the internal physiology of a giant bear (personifying the financial system), or the collected detritus of lost empire around a steel skull (skeletal Great Britain). Grayson Perry, with his eye-shadow and big dresses and opinions, is a great ambassador for art.

Then there were the tapestries: big, colourful, computer-woven tapestries, incredibly detailed, textured, inviting, intriguing. My favourite piece from the Arnolfini exhibition was an enormous (3m x 7m) tapestry called Battle of Britain 2017, a portrait of modern Britain inspired by a Paul Nash painting. Perry manages to capture the mood of a south-east English rural-industrial landscape in winter; it is bleak but pulsing with life, drama and hope: a young man on a BMX looks out over a blighted landscape that is blessed (ironically?) with a rainbow. Despite looking at it closely on each of my visits, it was only during my fourth that my niece pointed out the dead body.

Battle of Britain 2017

The six tapestries of the Vanity tour are smaller – 2m x 4m. They make up a series, inspired by Hogarth’s prints of The Rake’s Progress (reproductions of which, along with David Hockney’s series on the same theme, hang nearby). But whereas Hogarth’s Rake comes into his inheritance and spends it on gin and women, and Hockney’s art student discovers homosexual liberation in New York, Perry’s Tim Rakewell is a clever kid who makes good, crossing class boundaries, making a fortune – but finally dying in a car crash. That’s the apparent narrative, anyway, the meaning of which is quite hard to fathom, and not exactly ‘moralising’ in the way Hogarth’s prints are. But that’s part of what I like about Perry’s work: the way it takes you into myriad associations, without an Apollonian intention. It’s more like life: ambiguous, detailed, unpredictable, but recognisably about something, though the something never stays still.

The first tapestry is called The Adoration of the Cage Fighters. Two battered old male survivors present Tim, dandled by his blond-haired young mother, with a football kit and a miner’s lamp. Women neighbours watch and smoke. A photo of a man on a motorbike might be Tim’s absent father. The living-room is full of the kind of kitsch found in many working-class homes. Perry reflects simultaneously on class, masculinity, community, heartbreak and hope. The thematic elements are each familiar, but brought together they create the particular drama of the fictional Tim Rakewell.

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters

And on it goes. In the second tapestry, The Agony in the Car Park, Tim’s step-father sings like Elvis, as if to a Saturday crowd in a working-class social club. Tim and his mother cringe at his feet. Outside club buildings, young people pimp their motors. An older man stands proud outside his pigeon loft. The shipyards are desolate and the sea is full of doom.

The Agony in the Car Park

In my personal favourite, The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, student Tim and his middle-class girlfriend leave the empty achievements of Tim’s upwardly mobile mum and stepfather, incongruously represented as dwelling in rainbowed Eden, to enter the confident, articulate world of the girlfriend’s Tonbridge parents, whose books and music and ethnic giftware show off their outward-looking attitudes. I could relate to certain themes in that image.

The Expulsion the Number 8 Eden Close

That, of course, is part of Perry’s attraction – that most people can directly relate to his works, in one way of another, and thus they can feel part of Perry’s intelligent reflections on life. But then again Perry’s pots and scultures and tapestries are all very much about the narrative surface of things. They are popular because they are all celebrations and questionings of consensus social reality. So then I start wondering about a Buddhist critique of Grayson Perry: his work is all surface, an art-party, a play of tattoos on the skin of the world, with neither depth nor transcendence. It is a celebration of everything that the Buddha went forth from, and nowhere does it even question the world. From a Buddhist point of view, it might seem to be mere chatter; it is a machine-made entertainment distracting its viewers from the truly beautiful. Once one has started down this path of criticism, Perry’s work unravels. The titles of the tapestries each refer to famous themes from Christian art, but these are vacuous references, going nowhere. The various visual gestures that Perry makes within his images – the postures of the cage-fighters like those of the adoring Magi; the mirror-image in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal echoing Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding – are knowing and witty, but turn out to be mere echoes that die into the wilderness of reflections.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal

And then in meditation, pondering why I just liked these tapestries so much, I realised that it is their very rejection of depth and transcendence that is intriguing. Nowhere in Perry’s work is there any fantasy suggesting the possibility of successful escape from the social and quotidian. To enter his world, you have to own your class, gender, bias, skin and Britishness, and admit where you stand amid diversity. You start to feel the pullings on the surface of things, a surface knitted and knotted by time and family and class and whatever our own personal traumas have been. Since there is no hint of an elsewhere to escape to, you feel into the actuality of your being, the texture of what has made you.

But just as there is no transcendence, there is no depth either; no neurotic production of psychological narrative about why you feel so bad and why it went so wrong. Instead you have to stay woven into the big picture, at the frayed end of a never-ending process, tangled with everyone else everywhere in the world.

Tim Rakewell does well. Having made his fortune, he buys a big house, like George Harrison or Madonna, the kind of place which the old upper-classes can’t afford to run anymore. In The Upper Class at Bay, he looks like Mr Andrews in the Gainsborough painting, but his estate has been taken over by an Occupy camp, the young people protesting about inequality. Although most Buddhists will neither buy a stately home nor fight a class war, I can see that, for all that we seekers after awakening might disdain social class, there is no escaping social and historical processes. Converting to Buddhism is itself a theme in post-Christian post-youth-revolutionary western culture, and by learning to meditate you don’t forget your accent or your schooling. At best, you identify with it less, maybe, and learn a different kind of mobility.

The Upper Class at Bay

The car crash ending is unexpected and disturbing. Tim seems to have had a middle-age crisis, got another, younger, wife (called Amber), but lost control of his car in some kind of male-ego situation on the road. Amber’s alive, but Tim died in the arms of the paramedics. His stretched-out form is pietà-like, but with his white underpants and bulging belly he is no saviour, just another corpse, made of the wastage of ambition and hubris. But Tim didn’t deserve this; nor does it look like it was his karma. It was just an accident, bad luck, on the back of some personal crisis. Lamentation

Without depth or transcendence, there’s neither meaning in nor explanation of Tim’s demise. You can’t work out if you were supposed to feel anything, though the crash-gore was horrible and shocked you. What did Perry mean to communicate? My gaze fell on the nurse, in whose arms Tim has died. She has not tried to escape her fate, but gives herself to her work. Likewise, the green-clad paramedics, with their machines, attending with patience and professionalism. On the tangled surface of things, among the snapped threads, there are points of relaxed tension, patches of smoothness and order, whose meaning is found only in relation to everything else. So one might imagine the bodhisattva, taking her place in the weave, not identifying with some small part of it, but working to manifest whatever beauty might be possible.

The Vanity of Small Differences is in Bristol Museum until 24 June 2018, before going to Scunthorpe 7 July–8 September, and then Blackpool 27 September–15 December.


Buddhists and Stoics in the Philosophy Café

More Than Happiness

More Than Happiness: Buddhist and Stoic Wisdom for a Sceptical Age

by Antonia Macaro

Icon Books, London, 2018. £12.99 hb

I met the author of More Than Happiness, Antonia Macaro, at a mindfulness retreat in 2016 led by Ven Anālayo,[i] and then again in November 2017 at a Bodhi College weekend on ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’. An encouragingly large number of us listened to Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock talk on philosophy and Buddhism, before ourselves engaging in informed, lively discussion on the theme of the relationship between philosophy and Buddhism as ‘ways of life’. The kind of ‘philosophy’ we are talking about here is not the kind of analytic enterprise taught in modern universities, which is concerned mainly with abstract philosophical problems and arguments. Rather, it is philosophy (‘love of wisdom’) as the actual thinking and living and striving towards the best kind of life for human beings. This sense of ‘philosophy’ was brought to widespread attention by the scholar Pierre Hadot in his pioneering book Philosophy as a Way of Life.[ii] Macaro’s book is a very down to earth and practical introduction to Buddhism and Stoicism as two specific philosophical traditions of thought and practice, bringing into view their common features and concerns, and highlighting the value of a philosophical life.

We could regard More Than Happiness as a contribution to what appears to be an emergent cultural engagement with what we might call ‘secular wisdom’. Western culture has become so post-Christian that there is a big hole where religion used to be; and meanwhile human beings have as great a need as ever, in the midst of scientific and secular culture, for ideas that might guide their lives. The steady growth of Buddhism in the west is one response, but another is a smaller-scale but significant resurgence of Stoicism. This philosophical tradition goes back to 4th c. BCE Greece. A philosopher named Zeno founded the Stoic school, named after the stoa poikile or ‘painted porch’, where they first met in the middle of Athens. The Stoicism that is resurgent today, however, is based on that of the Romans, especially of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, whose works have survived in a more complete form. When, in modern English, we say someone is ‘stoic’ or ‘stoical’, we mean that they endure pain and hardship without complaining. Such an attitude is not untrue to the what Stoics actually valued (while the word ‘epicurean’ is merely a caricature of the Epicurean school of philosophy), but there is also a complex ethical and metaphysical world-view behind Stoicism, of which a level-headed resilience is a useful outcome.

As a summary and comparison of two practical traditions of thought, Macaro’s book is excellent. It is very clearly written, without technical detail but never vague or unclear. Chapter 1 is a scene-setting, in which she gives an overview of Buddhism and Stoicism and explains her approach. I am not a scholar of Stoicism, but judging from her presentation of Buddhism, which I know more about, she has an exact and accurate sense of what recent scholarship reveals about the earliest phase of the traditions. She addresses the knotty problem of the degree to which traditions like Buddhism and Stoicism are religions. In their historical forms, both involve what we would call religious claims; but, for the sake of this book, she extracts useful teachings from each that are compatible with a secular or naturalistic worldview. She presents with an admirable economy the way both traditions have developed philosophical methods and frameworks for their account of the human condition and how to flourish in it.

In Chapter 2, she sets out the starting problem for any philosophy of life: the existential problem we face, called dukkha by the Buddhists, simply mortality for the Stoics. Buddhists and Stoics agreed that false conceptions about the sources of happiness and a misleading tendency to seek satisfaction in the wrong places leads to suffering, and that an attitude of renunciation is the beginning of a spiritual life. In Chapter 3 she explores the shared idea of philosophy as healing, and spiritual practice as therapy. While the Buddhists proposed a deep transformative insight of our wrong views and emotions to be the basis of health, the Stoics proposed an examination of our faulty beliefs, which are the basis of emotions and decisions. In Chapters 4 and 5, she presents the goals of each tradition: the ideal of nirvāna for the Buddhists, and the particular kind of eudaimonia, ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing’ cultivated by the Stoics, specifically, ataraxia or ‘tranquillity’, a state of emotional calm brought about by completely reclaiming responsibility for one’s own thoughts and beliefs.

In Chapter 6, Macaro turns to the theme which lends her book its title: how the goals of these traditions is ‘more than happiness’. Both traditions stress discipline and tranquility, but also ethics, meaning that the ideal for each is a way of living in relation to what is good. Chapter 7 turns to what each tradition proposes as the kind of appropriate view for the living out of their respective ideals. Macaro does not entirely accept the value of renunciation, as taught by both traditions, emphasising rather the ‘seeing clearly’ that allows us to see things in a correct perspective. In Chapter 8, she discusses the human ideals presented by each tradition: that of the ‘sage’ for the Stoics, and the ‘Buddha’ for the Buddhists. She notes the perfectionism of both traditions, and the difficulty of their ideals, but also how adherents can move incrementally towards emulating these impossibly far-off figures of the Buddha and the sage. Then in Chapter 9, Macaro turns to the kind of practices and spiritual exercises through which Buddhists and Stoics develop and grow. Both traditions involve training, through such disciplines as mindfulness. Chapter 10 summarises ‘10 meditations inspired by Buddhist and Stoic insights’ that we could take into our lives. Here we see what is really meant by ‘philosophies of life’: pithy themes for reflection, such as the advice to ‘consider the bigger picture’. Such themes are easily memorised, but are also tied into well-argued systems of thought, so that we can use them in day to day life, and also develop our understanding of what they entail through study and reflection.

I’ve summarised all this to give a sense of what the book covers. For someone new to the idea of philosophy as a way of life, More Than Happinessis a clear, accessible and accurate guide to both Stoicism and Buddhism. It doesn’t aim to raise too many questions, but rather to gather from both traditions what seems most useful for the contempory spiritual seeker. I would like now, however, to step back from the what the book says, to what it assumes and doesn’t say. In this way I hope to place the book in a bigger context.

The Buddhism that Macaro has chosen to discuss is, as she describes in Chapter 1, what is now called ‘early Buddhism’, which is the kind of Buddhism that is evident in the discourses of the Pāli canon. However, this kind of Buddhism is also something of an abstraction,  because it is a reconstruction by modern scholars and teachers of a way of thought preserved in early Buddhist literature. Since it exists as a reconstruction in the minds of modern western readers, it is a form of Buddhism that is especially attractive to those wishing to develop a secular form of Buddhist spirituality. But one might wish to contrast this construct called ‘early Buddhism’ with some actual Buddhist traditions, such as modern Theravāda, which revolves around the living tradition of monastic practice; or Tibetan Buddhism, with its extraordinary devotionalism and its philosophical debating culture; or with a modern Buddhist movement like Triratna, with its distinctive emphases on friendship and the arts. This contrast reveals how the ‘early Buddhism’ that Macaro assumes to be Buddhism in her book is a somewhat thinned-out and de-materialised version of the various existing traditions of Buddhism.

This, however, may be a little unfair. Perhaps the version of Buddhism that Macaro evokes is nowadays quite alive in the contemporary flourishing of insight meditation retreat centres, such as Gaia House, which are not tied to particular lineages of Buddhist practice, being more eclectic as well as oriented quite specifically to modern secular culture. But, even granting that ‘early Buddhism’ is alive and well in the form of insight meditation teachings, Macaro’s version of it stops short of exploring the crucial role of community or sangha for spiritual life. The versions both of early Buddhism and of Stoicism described in her book assume a reader interested in a sort of personal and private spiritual life, consonant with the privatization of religion in contemporary secular culture. It might be, however, that this misses out on how participation in spiritual community is the condition for personal transformation. When Buddhists ‘go for refuge’ to the Sangha, they acknowledge the role of the spiritual community in their Dharma lives. From what one can gather, the tradition of Stoicism was more of a personal and private philosophical orientation, but then again (especially in its Roman phase) the Stoic outlook was often most popular among those involved in public life, immersed in the social and political, such as the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

By drawing attention to the assumptions the author makes in her presentation of Buddhism and Stoicism, I do not particularly mean to criticise her aim or method, which is perhaps to address the contemporary reader in the comfort (or discomfort) of their secular homes. But I would like to prompt anyone who reads Antonia Macaro’s book on towards a deeper considerations of how either Buddhism or Stoicism might be successful philosophical ways of life – actually effective in ending dukkha or healing the soul. In this respect there is another factor, both for Stoicism and Buddhism, that Macaro does not discuss, which is that of commitment. It would not be unfair to say that More Than Happiness presents Buddhism and Stoicism as potentially useful traditions of thought and practice, from which a contemporary person might try to benefit.

Jules Evans, author of Philosophy For Life, an exploration of Greek and Roman philosophies as practical guides to life, distinguishes between two models of contemporary philosophical engagement. In the ‘liberal’ model, authors and teachers present ancient philosophies in their strengths and differences, to be considered and reflected upon.[iii] In this respect, Macaro’s approach represents a liberal model of philosophy as a way of life. But there is also the ‘committed’ model. In this model of philosophy, one may be attracted to some school, and then make a commitment to practice that philosophy (perhaps within its community of practitioners), and it is the existential choice and commitment that is the condition for the transformation and healing that the philosophical life promises.[iv] The role of commitment is central too to Buddhism. Having heard the Dharma one may commit oneself to practice it, and this emotional commitment becomes (along with participation in spiritual community) a condition for success. One commits to practice the precepts, and perhaps to a daily meditation practice. Commitment is important in Stoicism too. I will end by mentioning two recent books, part of the resurgent ‘neo-Stoic’ movement: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine and How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci.[v] These books represent less the ‘liberal’ model of philosophy, and more the ‘commited’ model: they are each by authors who have made the existential choice to live by Stoicism. In this respect, they communicate the philosophy of Stoicism in a living way.

[i] Anālayo is a Buddhist monk and scholar many of whose books are published by Windhorse Publications. Ālokadhāra reviewed Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna (2013) for Western Buddhist Review, and Sarah Clelland reviewed Emptiness and Compassion (2015).

[ii] I reviewed Hadot’s subsequent book Ancient Philosophy, and a related exploration of Hellenistic philosophical schools by John E. Cooper, on this blog.

[iii] Jules Evans, Philosophy For Life And Other Dangerous Situations, Rider, London, 2012, p.191.

[iv] Hadot explores the various existential choices involved in the different Hellenistic schools of philosophy: see Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy? trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002, ch.7.

[v] William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life, Oxford University Press, 2009; Massimo Pigliucci,How to be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, Rider, London, 2017. Pigliucci also blogs on ‘How to be a Stoic’.

The Fire Sermon

Fire WorshipAn Introduction to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon

We owe the translation of the title of the discourse known as ‘The Fire Sermon’ to the American translator Henry Clark Warren, whose Buddhism in Translations was one of those pioneering Victorian works that brought the spirit of Buddhism into the west. Someone who read Warren’s translation was the poet T.S. Eliot, who studied Sanskrit from 1911–14, at Harvard. And Eliot’s reading of Warren’s translation resulted in his naming the third section of his 1922 poem The Waste Land ‘The Fire Sermon’. I’m sure the Buddha could never have guessed that he would get quoted in modernist literature.

The title ‘The Fire Sermon’ has a great ring to it. More literally, the title (āditta-sutta) is ‘The Discourse about What is on Fire’, or simply, ‘Burning’. And, while the so-called ‘second sermon’ is more like a Socratic dialogue than a sermon, this ‘Discourse on Burning’, is more rightly called the ‘third sermon’ – the third teaching of the Buddha. A problem of course with the English word ‘sermon’ is its connotation of a tedious long talk in a church. But all of the Buddha’s discourses were delivered out-of-doors, and they are all records of the Buddha’s attempt to directly get across his awakening experience, to the extent that it can be put into words. The Pāli canon gives us a vivid sense of how the Buddha’s teaching was always delivered to a specific person or group, always tailored to his audience’s interests and expectations. The Dharma was never primarily a set of lists or doctrines, but rather the familiar ways in which the Dharma came to be expressed were the result of the Buddha’s teaching experience to specific people over a long period.

Once again I invite you to consider the early Buddhist discourses as literature – not as any kind of more-or-less accurate record of what the Buddha said in ancient India, but as the way that the early Buddhists, after the time of the Buddha, tried to re-create in a literary form the style and impact of their teacher. This involved the development of stories, which have the look of historical accounts, but are really later reconstructions of events. One these stories is that of what the Buddha did after his awakening experience, under the Bodhi tree. It is a long and detailed story, and is preserved in the Vinaya (the book of monastic discipline). Two episodes of this story are the Buddha’s ‘first sermon’ to his former five companions, given at the Deer Park at Sarnath, and then the ‘second sermon’, which brings them all to awakening. Let me give a summary version of what happens next.

We hear about a spoiled young man called Yasa, who becomes disgusted with his superficial lifestyle, whom the Buddha converts, in a story that later is switched to the Buddha himself. Then we hear that, once there are sixty arahants, the Buddha sends them out in all directions, exhorting them to ‘wander for the well-being and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well-being and happiness of gods and human beings’.

The Buddha then wanders eastward, towards Uruvelā (where he had gained awakening). On the way he meets a group of thirty young men with their twenty-nine wives. The girlfriend of the unmarried man has stolen their things and they are looking for her. ‘Which is better for you?’ the Buddha asks them; ‘seeking a woman or seeking for your self?’, and he converts them too. Arriving at Uruvelā, the Buddha meets three fire-worshipping dreadlocked ascetics, each called Kassapa, with their thousand followers. By performing a series of miracles, starting with the taming of a fierce nāga (python) living in one of the fire-huts, the Buddha converts the ascetics. Now follows the Buddha’s third sermon, to the former fire-worshipping ascetics (my translation can be found here).

The later Theravādin commentary adds that the Buddha thought, ‘What might be an appropriate dharma talk for these people, who tend the sacred fire in the mornings?’ And he came to the conclusion, ‘I will teach them about the six senses and their objects, comparing them to what is burning and blazing, and in this way they will be able to obtain arahantship.’ Then he spoke this formulation of the Dharma in order to teach the Dharma to these people.

The commentary can be a bit dry and literal in its interpretations of early Buddhism, but in this case it is very helpful. It points out that this particular discourse was delivered to a particular group of people, fire-worshippers, so that the Buddha tailored what he said to meet their interests and preoccupations. This is an example of what the later tradition called the Buddha’s ‘skilful means’ (upaya-kauśalya), his ability to teach people appropriately. The fire-worshipping ascetics believed that tending the sacred fire, performing fire-rituals every morning, pouring ghee into the flames to feed the gods, was the way to salvation. The Buddha gets their attention by saying, everything is burning, everything is on fire. One might imagine that they would have responded by saying, or at least thinking, no it isn’t. But nevertheless he has their attention.

What is supposedly burning and on fire? What follows is another analysis of the whole of experience. In the second sermon the Buddha used the framework of the five constituents of experience (khandhas, ‘aggregates’). In this discourse, he uses a different framework:

  • The five senses-organs plus the mind.
  • The five sense-objects plus the contents of mental experience – ideas.
  • Sense-consciousness.
  • The contact between the senses, including the mind, and the world.
  • Experience arising from contact.

I find this a fascinating analysis. Elsewhere, having used this same framework, he asks, is there anything else in experience apart from this all this? Of course, it is a quite reasonable and sensible belief that there is a world independent of our sense-experience, but all we ever have to go on is the experience of our senses. This is it – what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought – this is the whole world. Anything else is an idea in our minds. And ideas are already included.

So everything, the whole of our experience, the whole world, is burning. Now comes the twist. Burning with what? With the fires of compulsion (rāga, ‘greed’), hostility (dosa, ‘hate’) and confusion (moha, ‘delusion’). This group of three bad guys is very common in early Buddhist discourses. It is a way of characterising our basic psychological afflictions. Compulsion and hostility are emotional – they characterise attraction and aversion reactions to experience – while confusion is intellectual – characterising basic lack of understanding of what is happening. The early Buddhist teachings stress that awakening or nirvāna is the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion. In a way, you can say, that’s all awakening is. But it’s perhaps preferable to say that the ending of compulsion, hostility and confusion is a way of describing awakening in negative psychological terms. More positively, we could add that awakening can also be described in terms of contentment, love and wisdom.

Everything is burning. It’s a way of putting the Dharma – a dharma-pariyāya, a formulation of the Dharma. Does this speak to us? I once lived in a community of men (four of us, in a half-renovated house, with two cats and a dog, and a lot of dope-smoking), and one of the men was obsessed with sex. Whatever one might say, he brought it round to sex. Beds, beaches, lawns, woods, floors, bicycles, breakfast, dinner, tea – it all triggered compelling ideas of various sorts in my friend’s mind. Everything was burning for him – burning with a specific kind of compulsion. Then there was the mother of a dear friend. Any topic of conversation one might bring up was an opportunity to be gloomy. I was once visiting with my friend, and we’d been to the park. So I said, ‘the park here in town is big, isn’t it?’; to which the response came, ‘oh, the parking in town is terrible, so terrible’. Everything was burning for her – burning with a particular kind of gloom, of negativity.

Now we can make sense of the links between the Buddha’s Fire Sermon and T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Eliot quotes the Fire Sermon like this:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


The allusion to the Fire Sermon (‘Burning burning burning burning’) is sandwiched between allusions to the Confessions of St. Augustine, who went to Carthage as a teenager and was embroiled in ‘unholy loves’ – Augustine was burning too. Earlier in section III of The Waste Land, we read:

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing…

These lines allude to Eliot’s own recuperation from a nervous breakdown in the seaside town of Margate in Kent. Perhaps Eliot evokes another way in which the whole of our experience might be ‘burning’ – or tingling or hurting – with the inability to connect with, or find meaning in, what is happening; a symptom of the dissociated modern sensibility, one that perhaps many of us can relate to, at least occasionally.

But the Buddha’s Fire Sermon is an invitation to overcome burning, obsession, gloominess or dissociation, by identifying it as such. The truth is that sense-experience isn’t just what happens to us – it is how the world appears as a result of our active involvement with it. The world shows up according to what we want, what we care about, what we believe, according to the quality of our attention. It strikes me that these days not many of us might be fire-worshippers, but a lot of us pay attention to the news as it is represented on the internet. In fact, it is rather easy to pay a great deal of attention, not only to the news, but to the opinions people have about the news, and then to think about our own opinions about those other people’s opinions. It’s not so much that the world is burning, but that the world is a drama. The world of our experience is a constant drama, driven by the plot-lines of compulsion, hostility and confusion.

But what happens when we notice this, and begin to pay attention, not to the contents of our experience, but to how it shows up for us? The first thing we might notice is that we ourselves are largely responsible for how the world appears and shows up. If everything reminds you of sex, or everything is terrible, or the world going to the dogs, that tells you something about your own psychological tendencies. After all, it is we ourselves who choose what to pay attention to, and how to respond or react. Of course, we are talking here about deep-rooted habitual tendencies. But they can change, and that is the point of engaging in Buddhist practice. Hence the discourse goes on to identify three stages of positive change – disenchantment, self-possession and liberation. These summarise an insight process.

In another discourse (Itivuttaka 93), the Buddha teaches the overcoming or quenching of the three fires of compulsion, hostility and confusion through three distinct methods. Compulsion is quenched by attending to the unattractive qualities of our experience. Hostility is quenched by developing kindness (mettā). Confusion is quenched by developing wisdom. If we can imagine our experience as being on fire, in terms of a metaphor of burning, then to practice the Dharma is to quench the flames:

Those who practice, day and night,
the teaching of the perfectly awakened one:
they put out the fire of compulsion,
constantly noticing unattractiveness.

Those excellent people put out
the fire of hostility through kindness,
and the fire of confusion through the wisdom
that leads to piercing through.

Those mature beings, having put out the fires,
indefatigable day and night,
are completely quenched, remainderless;
they have entirely overcome suffering.

Based on a talk given at Bristol Buddhist Centre, 14 November 2017.

The Not-Self Characteristic

Light Gets In

An Introduction to the Buddha’s ‘Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic’

The ‘Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic’ (Anatta-lakkhaṇa-sutta) (my summary translation can be found here) goes by another title in Sri Lanka – the ‘Discourse to the Group of Five’ (Pañca-vaggiya-sutta); and the alternative title gives us another clue to what it’s about. The Buddha is shown as being in conversation with his five former companions in the ascetic life, so that this discourse is traditionally regarded as the Buddha’s ‘second sermon’, following the famous ‘first sermon’, the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma (my introduction to which is here). At the end of the first sermon, Koṇḍañña had the insight that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease’, and this insight was a breakthrough for him. It was also a breakthrough for the Buddha, who for the first time had managed to communicate something of the Dharma to someone else, enough at least to induce the kind of insight that leads to ‘stream entry’ – an irreversible engagement with the path that leads to nirvāṇa, the end of dukkha. In this second sermon, the Buddha goes on to give the ‘group of five’ a direct and specific teaching, on the ‘not-self characteristic’ – a teaching which leads all of them all to see through any confusion they might hold about who they really are, and move them on and into a liberating knowledge of how things actually are.

In my introduction to the first sermon I made the (possibly unfortunate) comparison of the Buddha’s teaching with the Abba song ‘Waterloo’– a song that announced the sudden, brilliant, appearance of soon-to-be-world-famous talent. My point was that the four ‘ennobling truths’ taught in the first sermon were like a universe-wide hit, like a memorable tune that could get the Dharma into everyone’s heads. By contrast, in the second sermon the Buddha might be said to abandon jumpsuit and boots, and put on the dark clothes and hat of Leonard Cohen, and sing something that goes straight to the heart.

This might not be so obvious from the bare words of the discourse, which, as usual, is replete not only with repetition but with a somewhat forbidding technical vocabulary. Let us once again think about the discourse as literature. It is almost absurd to suppose that this discourse represents in a literally historical way the words of the Buddha to his first five disciples. The Buddha would have been at the very beginning of his teaching career, and he was yet to develop the many ideas and methods that have been preserved in the Pāli canon. It makes more sense, I think, to suppose that the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic represents  a way of putting the Dharma that the early Buddhists considered to be especially characteristic and typical of their teacher. And by imagining the Buddha as putting the Dharma in this way to his very first disciples, the Buddhists, who composed these early discourses, were in their own way doing justice to the memory of the Buddha. In this way, one might suppose, they managed to put into this discourse a kind of condensed version of one way in which the Buddha taught.

There is hardly any scene-setting. The Buddha addressed the group of five monks while they were living together in the Deer Park at modern-day Sarnath, near Vārāṇasi. But rather than telling them something ­– as he had done in the first sermon, when he told them about the middle way and the four ennobling truths – he simply asks them questions. This is reminiscent of the Buddha’s teaching strategy when he was talking to the Kālāmas (my introduction to the Discourse to the Kālāmas is here). The Kālāmas had had enough of being told by religious teachers what the truth was, and how any other truth-teaching was rubbish. The Buddha understands this and gives them a method by which they can decide for themselves what should count as a wholesome mental state and the advantages of developing such a state. But here, talking to the group of five monks – experienced spiritual strivers, intent upon liberation – the Buddha can assume a shared understanding of ethical conduct and meditation practice. Within this framework of commitment, he leads the monks through a set of analyses of experience, designed to get them to question their assumptions and re-think their views.

Any of you who have read any Plato might recognise this method of questioning – it reminds us of Socrates, who always claimed he knew nothing except that he was ignorant, and who proceeded to cross-question his poor interlocutors until it became apparent to everyone that they didn’t know anything either. Have you ever had the experience of having your assumptions pulled out from beneath you? I had always thought Leonard Cohen was one of those hippy crooners who’d smoked too much cannabis to make sense. But then Maitridevi played me his greatest hits in the car five years back, and I saw the truth… And probably anyone who meditates regularly has had the experience that our usual way of looking at things suddenly cracks and crumbles, to be replaced by a new perspective – that perhaps our breath is not actually boring at all, or that there is in fact no obligation to hold onto our resentments. I would say, though, that the Buddha is not exactly like Socrates. He always claimed to definitely know something about awakening. On the other hand, awakening is not an idea and cannot be put into words. We each have to discover it for ourselves, and hence the Buddha’s method of leading his hearers.

So he engages the monks in a process of destructive cross-questioning. The method turns on a way of dividing up our experience of ourselves into five khandhas or ‘constituents’, sometimes translated ‘aggregates’ or even ‘heaps’:

  1. physical form (rūpa), that is to say, our bodies, the physical stuff that our bodies are made of, the attributes of our bodies, its abilities and characteristics;
  2. feeling-tone (vedanā), that is, the bare hedonic tone of our experience, whether pleasant or painful or somewhere in between;
  3. perception and cognition (saññā), that is, the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch sensations and thoughts, memories and fantasies that are going on;
  4. habitual tendencies (saṅkhārā), which are the more dynamic aspects of our experience, the familiar patterns and dispositions that we sometimes love and sometimes hate; and
  5. consciousness (viññāna), the awareness of ourselves as being a body, having feelings, cognitions and perceptions, prone to habit, and aware of being aware.

This might sound complicated, but in practice it is relatively easy to keep these five aspects of experience in mind. Is our experience made of anything else besides these five constituents? It might be useful for us to consider how we might naturally describe our experience. I’ve always noticed that there is a body, there is thinking (in the head), there is feeling (more in the heart), and there is willing (which seems to be everywhere). The five khandhas may be a useful abstraction, that’s the point.

The Buddha then gets the monks to carefully consider whether any of these constituents is the self. By ‘self’ or attā (or ātman) the Buddha means ‘who you really are’. He presents two arguments for the monks to chew on. In the first he gets them to consider how they are not in fact able to control body, feeling tone, perception and cognition, habitual tendencies or consciousness. Is this true? If you are like me, it would be truer to say that we have some control, but not much, and not when it counts. Experience mostly just happens, and we find ourselves carried along, hoping for the best. So who are we really? I think that the most likely candidate for who we really are is consciousness. Thinking this way would mean deciding that who I really am is a deep awareness of being this same person over many years. My body changes slowly, feeling tones come and go, perceptions and cognitions change all the time, habitual tendencies unfortunately have a life of their own, but my consciousness is pretty steadily me. If I can’t control consciousness, that might be because I’m busy, or life is going badly, and a holiday or retreat might bring me back to myself. However, the Buddha will not let us rest with a conclusion like this.

The Buddha then gets the monks to consider whether the constituents are permanent or impermanent. Of course, they’re not permanent at all. So can any of them be truly satisfying? That’s quite a question. Of course, there is some satisfaction to be got from bodies, feeling-tones, from consciousness. But there is an invitation here to consider whether it is really OK that there is some satisfaction in experience. Finally, the Buddha asks the monks whether it is appropriate to say of any of a changing and partially satisfactory set of constituents that ‘this is mine, I am this, this is myself’? Of course, the way the discourse puts it, this is almost a rhetorical question. But clearly what is being suggested isn’t that the monks gave the right answers because they were good Buddhists, but that they were rehearsing a set of deep considerations about what it means to be a human being. For me, when I ask of consciousness whether it is really who I am, it soon becomes clear that after all what appears to be my self is this constant welling up of awareness which I simply continually identify with, as if I hoped it was me, as if I simply kept saying to myself, ‘this is who I am’.

But if in fact one cannot find within experience anything of which one can truly say, ‘this is myself’, this is what or who I really am, then one is free to let go of any idea that one’s experience should be a certain way, and all the emotion reactions that go with such a view. The Buddha describes this process as having three stages. There is the stage of disenchantment – no longer being under a spell, a false impression. There is the stage of becoming self-possessed – ‘dispassionate’ is the usual translation, but that might give the wrong idea of being disconnected from the heart. And there is the stage of liberation – no longer being pushed and pulled by views and emotions.

And the group of five monks gets it. Each in their own way, presumably, through their own individual process of consideration and enquiry. Their hearts and minds are freed and they are understandably pleased. They too have gained awakening and the end of dukkha. So this ‘second sermon’ gives us not so much a historical record of the awakening process of the first five disciples, but a kind of paradigm example of how the Buddha taught, and how the insight process might unfold. In fact the Buddha taught many methods and in many ways, in accordance with who he was talking to, but the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic tells it like it is: ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.

The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic is to be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 22:59. This introduction is based on a talk given at Bristol Buddhist Centre 7 Nov 2017.

Turning the Wheel of the Dharma


A commentary on the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta

The introduction and the conclusion of this discourse imply that the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma was the very first discourse taught by the Buddha; his opening performance, as it were, like Abba’s ‘Waterloo’; it represents the Buddha bursting onto the scene, the world’s greatest spiritual teacher making his debut. But, from a scholarly point of view, it is unlikely that this discourse is any kind of record of the Buddha’s first sermon. Firstly, it presents the doctrines of the four noble (or ennobling) truths and the eightfold path in sytematic ways, but we know from other early Buddhist texts (most notably, the Chapter of the Eights and the Chapter of the Way to the Beyond, the last two chapters of the Sutta-nipāta) that earlier presentations of the Buddha’s teaching were unsystematic and did not involve lists. One might well imagine that the Buddha developed his teaching style, involving lists and systems, over his 45-year teaching career. Secondly, the discourse presents the eightfold path as if everyone is familiar with it already. So it would seem that, in fact, the Buddha’s first sermon is a later literary construct, an idealisation – the first great teaching of the Awakened One. But this is not to demean it. Indeed, the very opposite – it is to say that this discourse presents, in a vivid literary form, the Buddha’s signature teaching; a first sermon in the sense of what the early Buddhists thought the most typical of their teacher.

The discourse is set in a deer park, known as Isipatana (which means ‘Deer Park’, in an older dialect) outside Vārāṇasi, where his five former companions are continuing their life of austerities. The place is now known as ‘Sarnath’ – it is one of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and has an ancient stupa, remains of old monasteries, and guest houses for modern pilgrims. 2,500 years ago, of course, the place would have been just a clearing in the jungle. Another early Buddhist discourse, the Discourse on the Noble Quest, explains how the Buddha managed to get the attention of the five ascetics. It was difficult, because they believed that he had given up the practice of austerities, that he was a back-slider and had reverted to a life of indulgence. But he invited them to examine his words and, having done so, make a decision about whether he was a loser or not. This is another version of the argument the Buddha makes in the Discourse to the Kālāmas – stressing the importance of deciding for oneself about a teaching, not just taking someone’s word for it.

The Buddha first teaches them what he calls the ‘middle way’ between two extremes. We have to remember that the five ascetics were hardened spiritual warriors. They would have had no problem agreeing with the Buddha that the life of indulgence in sense-pleasures was not going to lead to insight and freedom. I guess none of us would be here if we really believed that a thoroughly hedonistic lifestyle was the best kind of life. We would be down the other end of the Gloucester Road in one of those restaurants for which Bristol is noted, planning a winter getaway to a Sri Lankan beach resort. But here we are. But the ascetics would have been surprised to hear the Buddha say that the life of self-mortification was the other extreme. These ascetics were a bit like the body-builders or iron-athletes of today, who seek to control the body with the mind, to be a pure will, a sort of living chisel with which to carve a way to the truth.

By contrast, the Buddha’s middle way is an alternative to both these extremes. Firstly, it is a way ­– it is a means for making a journey, from here (from this situation) to there, to awakening, freedom. Secondly, it is eightfold – in brief, it consists of wisdom (right vision and resolve), ethics (right speech, action and livelihood) and meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration). In short, it is way of life, a way of living here and now which is beneficial and which conduces to our well-being. By the standards of asceticism in the Buddha’s day, his teaching was a soft option – it involves actually cultivating the profound pleasures of meditation. From our point of view, however, the Buddha’s teaching also involves the systematic development of ethics and meditation – it involves a definite commitment.

The Buddha then goes on to present this middle way from another angle: the four noble truths. The Pāli here is ariya-sacca, and although we have got used to the translation ‘noble truth’, this can give the misleading impression that what is being taught is somehow super-true because is is noble. But really the point is that the truths are facts, or ways things actually are, and they are spiritually ‘ennobling’; this is a better translation really.

The first ennobling fact about things is that there is dukkha. This word has a broader connotation than ‘suffering’. It includes the sense of unsatisfactoriness, frustation and imperfection. The Buddha characterises this dukkha in three groups: there is physical suffering (sickness, birth and getting old), there is experiential suffering (association with the unloved, separation from the loved, not getting what you want), and there is a deeper structural suffering involved in our appropriating and holding on to our experience. This world, our lives, are not perfect, they involve frustation, as well as suffering and pain – this is the fact of dukkha. Later in the discourse, the Buddha goes on to characterise the significance of this fact – the ‘task’ it implies. This dukkha is to be fully known. What this means is that we should turn towards this dukkha, get to know it. This, of course, is completely against the grain of our usual strategy, and is the open secret of mindfulness meditation – we turn towards what is happening in immediate experience, with awareness and positivity.

The second ennobling truth or fact about things is that this dukkha has an origin, a causal condition, and that that cause is taṇhā, a word usually translated ‘craving’ but which could also be rendered ‘desire’, ‘wanting’. But how can this desire or wanting be the cause of dukkha? Surely, our desires represent ways to make ourselves feel better. The answer is that this ‘wanting’ is something much deeper. The word represents not so much our conscious strategies for cheering ourselves up, but the nearly-unconscious tendency to react to pain with avoidance and to pleasure with a kind of compulsion. Hence the Buddha indicates three kinds of wanting. There is wanting sense-pleasures; there is wanting to become someone, to hold on to our identity; and there is wanting to not become, to get out of the whole situation. The problem is that this reactive tendency, of whatever kind, doesn’t really work, or only works up to a point. The ‘task’ that the fact of our reactivity implies is this origin of dukkha is to be given up, let go of. Easier said than done, you might well say.

But the third ennobling truth is that there is cessation, nirodha, the fact that this dukkha has an ending. Thank goodness for that – if there were no ending to dukkha, it would hardly be worth engaging in the task of giving up wanting. But there is nirvana, the complete stopping of dukkha, the stilling and calming of reactivity. The task here is that this cessation is to be personally experienced. This is important. If we do not actually experience some calming and insight then why should we believe the Buddha’s teaching? It is important to notice whether our practice of ethics and meditation actually results in a personal experience of some calming of unsatisfactoriness, some resolution of our problems.

The fourth ennobling truth is that there is a path, magga, to the ceasing of dukkha. The idea of a path is a metaphor for a way to get to where you want to go. The eightfold path, involving wisdom, ethics and meditation, is a way of life, and this way of life is to be developed. An important point here is that this path does not really get anywhere. It’s more that fully developing the eightfold path is the end of dukkha – it is a life of awareness, of care for ourselves and others, of mental and emotional calm and insight.

The discourse ends with one of the five ascetics, Kondañña, having a breakthrough – that ‘whatever is of a nature to arise is of a nature to cease’. This is a way of saying that Kondañña had the insight that everything in experience is in a process of change. So we can change. We can learn to lean in to the dukkha quality of life, learn to give up reactivity, bit by bit, build on our personal experience of when and how dukkha ceases, and develop an awakened way of life. At this point, at the conclusion of the discourse, a shout goes up through the ranked hierarchy of deities – layer upon layer of sublime beings, up through the imaginary vastness of the Buddhist cosmos, each deity delighted that the Buddha has set rolling the ‘Wheel of the Dharma’. Again, like Abba with ‘Waterloo’, the Buddha’s first teaching is a big hit throughout the entire universe. Nothing will be the same again.

The Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma is to be found in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, 56:11. My summary translation; other translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi and by Ṭhanissaro and others

This commentary is based on a talk given at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 31 October 2017.

The Veil of Love: Schopenhauer and the Upaniṣads

Schopenhauer's Compass

A month ago I gave a talk to a group of philosophers who had gathered for an Open University research day. My paper was an attempt to analyze, using some conceptual tools from contemporary analytic philosophy, the Buddha’s second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering. In this course of giving this talk I said that we should distinguish the Buddhist concept of taṇhā, translated ‘craving’ or ‘desire’, from more metaphysical concepts such as Plato’s eros or ‘passionate love’, Freud’s libido or ‘sexual desire’ and Schopenhauer’s Wille or ‘will’. I wanted to argue that the Buddhist concept was quite a practical one – pointing to the fact that certain kinds of desire, the ones that involve an ego or self who tries to appropriate the object of desire, always run the risk of frustration, and such frustrated appropriative desires are certainly a kind suffering. I wanted to use Epicurus’ very practical distinction of kinds of desire to show what the Buddha might have meant, in line with my recent interest in Epicurean philosophy as a way of life. But one of my philosophical colleagues thought I had mis-represented Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics of suffering and will was in fact, he thought, not much different from the Buddhist account I had given. So had I got done Schopenhauer a dis-service? Had I unfairly mis-represented him as explaining his pessimistic view of life as suffering through a quite speculative metaphysics of will? How did his thought relate to Buddhism?

Rather than re-reading The World as Will and Representation,[i] which is very long, and re-visiting where I stood in relation to what Schopenhauer writes there in his main work, I looked at a new book by Schopenhauer scholar Urs App called Schopenhauer’s Compass,[ii] which explores how Schopenhauer’s engagement with Indian thought informed the development of his metaphysics of will; of how the universe as it appears to us is the diversified manifestation of an underlying reality, which somehow wants to become diversity and multiplicity. The book turns out to be so good that I wanted to write about it.

It’s a book of what one might call ‘philosophical scholarship’ – not in itself a philosophical engagement with Schopenhauer, but rather a carefully researched account of where his philosophical views came from. The book’s thesis is that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will come from his reading of the Oupnek’hat, a late 18th-century translation into Latin of a 16th-century translation into Persian of the Sanskrit Upaniṣads. It is well-known that Schopenhauer was a devotee of this version of the Upaniṣads, but it seems that nobody up until now had studied its very particular foibles, nor the very many markings and annotations he made on his copy of the Oupnek’hat. App’s study of all this is a revelation.

Up until 1814, Schopenhauer had not yet formulated the fundamental idea of his philosophy. He had found many clues in the mystical theology of Jacob Böhme, and in the philosophy of Schelling. He wrote his doctoral dissertation, on The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in 1813. Then, on 26 March 1814, Schopenhauer borrowed the two volumes of the Oupnek’hat from a library in Weimar (he later bought his own copy and wrote all over it – always a good sign). From the present point of view, the Oupnek’hat is a very bad translation of the Upaniṣads, not just because it came via Persian into Latin, but also because it introduces ideas which don’t belong to the original. But it’s also an example of a ‘creative mis-translation’, whose very mistakes became the seeds of Schopenhauer’s own forming vision.

The central message of the Upaniṣads themselves is that there is an essence of consciousness, called the Self (ātman), which in its essence is identical with the essence of reality, which is called Brahman. Hence, ‘you are that’ (tat tvam asi). The Upaniṣads were set down in Sanskrit and are regarded among Hindus as preserving the final teaching of the Vedas (hence they were called Vedānta, ‘end of the Vedas). Meanwhile, Prince Dara was the eldest son of the 16th c. Moghul emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal). Prince Dara was a Sufi, of a universalist and mystical bent, and gathered Sanskrit scholars to help him translate the Upaniṣads into Persian (the language of the rulers), which he published as Sirr-i Akbar (The Secret of God). Prince Dara, however, added some commentary, which interpreted the essence of the Vedas in terms of Sufi mysticism. Two novel interpretations stand out in Dara’s commentary.

First, he translated the concept of maya or ‘illusion’ as ishq or ‘love’. The term maya, as it is used in Advaita Vedānta to interpret the Upaniṣads, names the result of the superimposition of desire out of ignorance onto the unity of brahman, to create the familiar appearance of multiplicity. The term ishq, in Sufism, points to the mysterious way the unity of God becomes, through emanation, the multiplicity of creation. The concept of ishq was itself the result of the Sufi theologian Ibn-Arabi’s incorporation of Neoplatonic ideas about the emanation of the world from the One, which had by the 16th c. become part of Sufi thought in India. Second, Prince Dara understood the return to brahman, the lifting of the veil of maya, which is everywhere the aim of the Upaniṣadic sages, in terms of fanā, the self-annihilation of the ego in Sufi mysticism, and of the realisation of tauḥīd or divine One-ness. Hence the Persian version was already quite a work of cultural translation.

Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron was one of the first European ‘orientalists’; his translation of Prince Dara’s Persian translation of the Upaniṣads into Latin as Oupnek’hat was his main contribution. But not only did he not distinguish in his text between the translations of the Upaniṣads themselves and translations of Prince Dara’s commentary upon them, but he also added a huge amount of his own commentary and interpretation. So this was what Schopenhauer encountered in 1814: what sounds like a mash-up of Upaniṣadic thought and Sufi mysticism in a translation steeped in Neoplatonism. Late in life the philosopher was to write:

“How entirely does the Oupnekhat breathe throughout the holy spirit of the Vedas! How is everyone who by a diligent study of its Persian Latin has become familiar with that incomparable book, stirred by that spirit to the very depth of his soul!”[iii]

And in his philosophical notebooks from 1816, just before composing The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer wrote:

“I confess that I do not believe that my teaching could ever have come into being before the Upanishads, Plato and Kant cast their rays simultaneously into one man’s mind.”[iv]

From Kant’s philosophy, Schopenhauer derived the basic critical framework for his ‘transcendental idealism’ and for the distinction of a world of objects and appearances (or ‘representations’, Vorstellungen) from a world of things-in-themselves, as they exist independently of subjects. From Plato, Schopenhauer took the concept of the Ideas or Forms, those archetypes of experience such as goodness, truth and beauty, which are like doorways from the world of multiplicity into the reality behind it. And in the Oupnek’hat, Schopenhauer discovered an account (which he believed to be extremely ancient and an authentic expression of Vedic thought) of the way this world of appearance has manifested – as that love (ishq) or will which is the world of illusion (maya) we take to be real. And (according to Schopenhauer) it is through the self-negating of the will (through participation in art, through the ethics of compassion, and through mystical vision), a seeing-through of the ego, that there is some access to truth, and there is salvation for humanity.

Such is the background to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will as sketched out by App in Schopenhauer’s Compass. One pole of the compass points south, to appearance, to illusion and to will; the other pole points north, to reality, wisdom and the quieting of the will. What Schopenhauer meant by ‘will’ is not really there in the Sanskrit Upaniṣads, nor in Sufism, nor in Neoplatonism, but is rather part of Schopenhauer’s own visionary metaphysics. But Schopenhauer’s vision depended, in its actual genesis at least, upon this particular encounter with a bad Latin version of a Persian Sufi interpretation of the Upaniṣads. Thus from great mistakes does the creative mind leap. It is tempting to think of Schopenhauer’s devotion to the Oupnek’hat as another symptom of the veil of love.

Urs App tells this whole story with economy, precision and enough sympathy and depth to draw the reader in. The book is also an excellent introduction to Schopenauer’s philosophy, for a certain sort of person, who likes to mix their philosophy with a little Indian wisdom and a lot of mysticism. Going back now to my philosophy talk in Milton Keynes back in July, another comment made in response to what I said about the Buddha’s second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering, was that my attempt to analyze the Buddha’s teaching in a very practical and empirical way had its limits. Given that the life of desire goes so deep in human experience, the kind of transformation of desire that the Buddha recommends does seem to need some kind of metaphysics, some account of what is going on in the experience of desire, and how it is connected with life, sex and the universe. I am not sure I believe that Schopenauer’s metaphysics of will is exactly what the Buddha had in mind when he said that desire was the cause of suffering; but I am beginning to think that there is more room for visionary metaphysics in my account of Buddhism than I had previously supposed.

[i] The new translation of The World as Will and Representation, by Judith Norman and Alistair Welchman, edited Christopher Janaway, published by Cambridge University Press, 2010, is standard. But there is a nice abridged version, The World as Will and Idea, translated by Jill Berman, published in the Everyman library by Dent, 1995.

[ii] Urs App, Schopenhauer’s Compass, University Media, Wil (Switzerland), 2014.

[iii] From Schopenhauer’s collection of essays, Parerga and Paralipomena, §184, in App, Schopenhauer’s Compass, p.4.

[iv] Also from Schopenhauer’s Compass, p.4.