Pāli Safari


This review recently appeared in the Western Buddhist Review, at http://www.thebuddhistcentre.com/westernbuddhistreview:

Bhikkhu Anālayo, Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses, Pariyatti Press, Onalaska WA, USA, 2012, 326pp., $19.95 pback

The idea of an ‘excursion’ into the thought-world of the Pāli discourses suggests a guided tour, a day trip, or, figuratively, an author’s venture into unfamiliar territory. However, Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book is more like a safari into the heart of Pāli country, with a capable guide who is not afraid to show you some unexpected features of the less well-known areas. Anālayo explores 24 different words used in the Pāli Buddhist discourses, beginning with Craving (taṇhā), and ending with Liberation (vimutti). The entries vary in length, depending on the relative importance of each topic and the difficulties encountered in exploring it, but they follow a similar pattern. An introduction to the word’s meaning and implication is followed by a survey of its usage in the discourses (and sometimes in the vinaya and in some post-canonical works). This is followed by a discussion of the implications of this term for Buddhist practice, concluding with an evocation of the successful result of such practice. But this summary of the formula for each essay does not do justice to the effect. Anālayo has a wonderfully broad and discerning knowledge of the Pāli discourses, and his essays present a formidably learned but nevertheless tremendously inspiring basic ground of clarity about early Buddhist concepts.

Bhikkhu Anālayo’s scholarship began with his PhD exploring the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta (published by Windhorse, Cambridge, 2003, as Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization). More recently he has learned Chinese and has been writing about the relationships between early Buddhist discourses preserved in Pāli and those originally written in other Indian languages, which now survive only in Chinese translation. Anālayo combines scholarship in Buddhist scriptures with actual Buddhist practice based on those same texts, and in Excursions he writes very much as a scholar-practitioner, mainly about Pāli discourses, but with the occasional reference to the Chinese parallels to certain difficult passages. The 24 essays were originally written for the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, a Sri Lankan project begun soon after the 1955 Buddha-jayanti, and only completed in 2009, in a total of eight substantial volumes. Many scholars have contributed over the years, with Anālayo evidently joining in at a late stage, since his contributions begin with rāga (among the entries under ‘r’) and run through to Yuganaddha Sutta.

Hence the apparently random selection of topics in this book, which are actually edited versions of the essays appearing in the Encyclopaedia, but here made to work together in an inter-related collection. Being of the nature of reference articles, the essays will be basically familiar to anyone who has studied Pāli Buddhism, or consulted Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary. However, Anālayo’s work takes the genre of a reference article to new levels of thoroughness, and these provide a fascinating survey of usage and nuance. There are essays on each of the five hindrances – Passsion (rāga), Ill-will (vyāpāda), Sloth-and-torpor (thīnamiddha), Restlessness-and-worry (uddhaccakukkucca), Doubt (vicikicchā); essays on four of the twelve nidānas of paṭicca-samuppāda – Volitional Formations (saṅkhārā), Feeling (vedanā), Craving (taṇhā), Clinging (upadāna); and essays on four of the twelve factors of the path – Happiness (sukha), Concentration (samādhi), Knowledge and Vision according to Reality (yathābhūtañāṇadassana), Liberation (vimutti). There are also fascinating essays on Personality View (sakkāyadiṭṭhi) and Contemplation of feelings (vedanānupassanā), as well as on lesser-known concepts in Pāli Buddhism such as Seclusion (viveka), Letting Go (vossagga) and Emptiness (suññatā). Although encylopaedia articles are not usually the place to present new research, Anālayo nevertheless also manages to bring in some illuminating new interpretations of difficult issues, of which I will mention five.

First, in his discussion of Craving (taṇhā), he suggests a very interesting way of understanding the concept of vibhava-taṇhā, ‘craving for annihilation’. This concept is usually given as the third kind of taṇhā, after kāma-taṇhā, ‘craving for sensual pleasure’ and bhava-taṇhā, ‘craving for existence’ (i.e. craving to continue as the same person). Anālayo interprets vibhava-taṇhā as not only the desire to commit suicide but also, and much more importantly, ‘the aspiration for leaving behind the sense of selfhood through a mystic merger with an ultimate reality’ (p.16). Needless to say, this suggestion is accompanied by a discussion of various discourses and an admission of conjecture. Nevertheless, it is a proposal quite in line with the Buddha’s rejection of the kind of mysticism found in the Upaniṣads. Second, in his discussion of Right View (sammādiṭṭhi), Anālayo very neatly solves the old problem of how to reconcile the admonition found in some of the suttas of the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta-Nipāta, to let go of all views, with the admonition found more widely in the Nikāyas, to have right view. He writes: ‘right view as the vision gained through deep insight is what ‘sees through’ any view’ (p.102), and hence the person of transcendent right view or perfect vision is also someone who has let go of views. Third, in his discussion of Tranquillity and Insight, samatha & vipassanā, Anālayo explains how, in the Pāli discourses, these two qualities are actually ‘two central qualities that are to be developed in conjunction with any type of meditation practice’ (p.232). There is no question, therefore, at least in the early Buddhist view, of a successful insight practice without tranquillity. Anālayo develops this theme further in his discussion of Concentration (samādhi), in which he concludes that: ‘the so-called “dry insight” approach, which dispenses with the formal development of mental tranquillity up to the level of the first absorption, may not be capable of leading to fully liberation, but might suffice only for stream-entry’ (p.256).  Such a stand makes clear the importance for early Buddhism of jhāna, and draws a clear distinction between early Buddhist doctrine and the dry insight approach of some modern Theravādins. Fifthly, Anālayo’s judicious use of Chinese parallels is apparent in his discussion of Seclusion (viveka). While in the Pāli discourses the Buddha recommends silence and seclusion, in one discourse he censures some monks who had decided to keep silence together for their rains retreat. A consideration of a parallel preserved in Chinese, however, reveals that these monks had decided ‘not to criticize each other even in the case of a breach of conduct’ (p.263), and it was evidently for this reason that the Buddha had censured them. In this way, Anālayo sheds light on Pāli discourses that are unclear, through his knowledge of parallel passages in Chinese translation.

These were simply five points that particularly attracted this reviewer’s attention, and other readers will no doubt find different points of interest. Overall, my response to Anālayo’s Excursions was delight and pleasure in the appearance of a new standard for reference articles on early Buddhist concepts. In this sense, the present book is highly recommended. It is, however, frustrating in that it covers only a few topics. One can only hope that, despite the Encylopaedia of Buddhism now being complete, Bhikkhu Anālayo will continue to write articles like the ones gathered in this book, and that these articles are eventually gathered into a more comprehensive reference work on the important terms and concepts of the Pāli discourses.

Dhīvan is the editor of the Western Buddhist Review, and author of This Being, That Becomes: The Buddha’s Teaching on Conditionality, Windhorse, Cambridge, 2011.

The Universe Is Waking Up


A review of Thomas Nagel Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Oxford University Press, 2012, 130pp.

Thomas Nagel is an American professor of philosophy, perhaps best known for his 1974 article, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, in which he argued that consciousness, as is occurs in creatures like bats and human beings, means having a point of view on things.[1] There is something it is like to have conscious experience, even if we cannot imagine exactly what it is like, as in the case of bats, which use echo-location to find their way around and to catch their food. Hence there are facts about the world, that there is something it is like to be a bat, which we cannot even imagine. This point leads to Nagel’s conclusion, which is to highlight the difficulty of supposing that we could explain the subjective nature of conscious experience in terms of objective properties, like brains and neurons. Such an attempt to explain the mind in terms of the brain would be reductionist in the sense that it would involve a reduction of mental properties to physical properties. But such a reduction is not possible in this case. Following Nagel, the mind–body problem in philosophy gained new significance. David Chalmers has argued that consciousness constitutes a ‘hard problem’ for philosophy.[2] Colin McGinn has argued that, because of human cognitive limitations, we are not able to understand how subjective experience is related to objective properties, and that consciousness will remain a mystery.[3] Other philosophers, such as Daniel Dennet, believe on the contrary that consciousness can be accommodated within a materialistic world-view.

Scientists, it must be said, are more concerned about their research than these difficult philosophical problems. Nevertheless there are plenty of neuroscientists who also admit they have no idea how the brain ‘produces’ conscious experience. Thomas Nagel’s most recent book, Mind and Cosmos, starts from these familiar conundrums of the mind–body problem, and goes on to question the whole neo-Darwinian world-view, which tries to explain nature in terms of physical matter and forces interracting to produce the world of life and of human experience. The slightly sensational sub-title for this book, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, is presumably the publisher’s way of grabbing attention, and shows that the book is aimed at a non-specialist readership. What Nagel really argues, however, is that the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is partial rather than false, because it cannot adequately explain the appearance of consciousness. What would be false, in this view, would not be the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature but the metaphysical claim that materialism can completely explain everything.

Nagel’s basic argument is this. If materialism cannot explain consciousness, then materialism cannot be a complete explanation of the natural order. This argument is more interesting than it looks. It is perhaps easy to suppose that we could fully explain the beginning of the universe in terms of matter and forces and so on. But if the arising of life and subsequently consciousness cannot be explained in terms of matter and forces – that is, that life and consciousness are not susceptible to reductionist explanations – then materialism has not explained the natural order. Life and consciousness must always have been possibilities within the natural order, even before the conditions for their actual arising were not fully present. Therefore materialism is not a complete theory. Nagel does not stop there. In a chapter on ‘Cognition’, he goes on to argue that the faculty of reason, by which he means the capacity (for a few of us) to intuit truths that are independent of the mind, such as mathematical or logical truths, cannot be explained by evolutionary theory alone. Neo-Darwinian theory must explain the appearance of faculties such as reason as somehow adaptive, but we cannot explain the capacity for insight into the truth in terms of adaptation for survival. And in a chapter on ‘Value’ Nagel argues that our capacity to make correct moral judgements is based on the objectivity of good and bad, it being an objective matter that certain actions are good and certain bad, which is similarly inexplicable in terms of materialism alone. For each of these broad areas – consciousness, cognition and value – Nagel sketches what might count as more satisfactory explanatory theories. One such sort of theory would be intentional – that God has set up the natural order is such a way that there is consciousness, that we can intuit the truth and know good and bad. But Nagel does not explore intentional theories as he does not believe in God. He plays with panpsychism – the theory that mind is somehow in everything – but does not find this kind of metaphysical theory very useful. His preferred tentative solution is what he calls ‘teleological naturalism’, meaning the theory that the natural order is biased in some way towards the emergence of life and consciousness, as more-than-likely directions or potentials of development. He does not develop this theory but merely indicates that it might at least be along the right lines.

It has to be said that Nagel’s book has received some very critical reviews.[4] This is partly because of the polarised nature of debate in the US. Nagel’s denial of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory plays straight into the hands of Creationists, who seem to eagerly seize on any criticism of evolution. It has to be said that, although Nagel clearly states that he is an atheist, he also tells the reader how stimulating he finds the work of Michael Behe and Stephen Beyer, two prominent exponents of intelligent design theories for the origin of life.[5] Sometimes intellectual openness can be a political mistake. Professional scientists and philosophers have also criticised Nagel’s book in different ways, because it does not take into account the kinds of details which are important in the disciplines in which these people work. However, Nagel’s book is meant to be a readable book exploring big issues. Nevertheless, it must be said that Nagel does not make any attempt to present or answer quite reasonable philosophical objections to some of what he puts forward, perhaps especially in relation to the idea that moral values are objective.

Nevertheless, I think Nagel’s book is of great interest for western Buddhists, because it puts forward a critique of, and ideas for alternatives to, the predominant materialist worldview of our times. Nagel’s starting point is not simply that he finds materialism partial or unconvincing, but that he himself has a metaphysical view or vision of reality that just cannot be accommodated within materialism. This vision is that the appearance of conscious beings in the universe is somehow what it is all for; that ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself’.[6] Nagel’s surrounding argument is something of a sketch, but is entirely compatible with a Buddhist vision of reality as naturalism, including the possibility of insight into reality (under the topic of reason or cognition) and the possibility of apprehension of objective good (under the topic of value). His naturalism does this while fully conceding the explanatory power of physics, Darwinian evolution and neuroscience.[7] Most Buddhists are what one might describe as intuitive non-materialists, but they have no way to integrate their intuition into the predominantly materialistic scientific world view. I see the value of Nagel’s philosophy in Mind and Cosmos as sketching an imaginative vision of reality that integrates the scientific world view into a larger one that includes reason, value and purpose, and simultaneously casts philosophical doubt on the completeness of the predominant materialism of the age.

[1] Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ in The Philosophical Review 83:4 (1974), pp.435–50.

[2] David Chalmers, ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2:3 (1995), pp.200–19.

[3] Colin McGinn, ‘Can we solve the mind-body problem?’ in Mind 98 (1989), pp.349–66. McGinn has also written a work of popular philosophy on the problem of consciousness: The Mysterious Flame: conscious minds in a material world, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

[5] Mind and Cosmos p.10, and see the footnote there for references to works by Behe and Beyer.

[6] Mind and Cosmos p.85.

[7] This point is important, however, for emphasising that consciousness depends on the body and brain, and ceases when they cease functioning. While the Buddhist tradition, in line with most non-scientific thinking, assumes the possibility of some sort of disembodied consciousness, the Buddha himself appeared to deny it, as I discuss in Dhivan Thomas Jones, This Being, That Becomes: the Budha’s teaching of conditionality, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2011, p.67f.

Auckland sunshine



Winter sunshine in Auckland is rather like a pleasant English late summer. After a final Dharma study session at the Auckland Buddhist Centre, I had a coffee on my own up the road in the suburb of Grey Lynn, and I took some time to write about what I’ve learned from this trip. Coffee has been but a small part of it, really, though my brother was right, and the cafés and the coffee have been great. My next blog post will probably be back on philosophy and Buddhism, and written on British ground, perhaps under a more familiar night sky. And I’m looking forward to that.