Some Images for the Buddha’s Eightfold Path

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Not only did the Buddha attain awakening, but he subsequently taught a way for others to attain awakening. The ‘eightfold path’ is a summary of what it means to practise Buddhism – eight factors, which, developed together, lead to awakening. But, when one thinks about it, the idea of a ‘path’ being ‘eightfold’ is a little strange. How can a ‘path’, a way that leads somewhere, be ‘eightfold’? It is an example, I think, of a mixed metaphor: the Buddhist ‘way’ is at the same time a path to be travelled and set of qualities to be developed, so that the path consists in developing these qualities, and developing these qualities is the path. The ‘eightfold path’ is therefore, as a concept, somewhat awkward and complex, but the Pali discourses record that the Buddha gave some memorable images for the eightfold path, and images are a very effective way to communicate complex things – as the Buddha’s disciple Sāriputta said (in a different context), ‘some intelligent people understand better through similes (upamā) what the teachings mean’.[1]

Let us first revise the eight factors that make up the eightfold path:

  1. Right view or vision: the right way of seeing, or understanding, even belief, that supports the work of spiritual transformation.
  2. Right resolve or emotion: that which moves one from within to engage with the spiritual life, the resolve, the devotion needed to change.
  3. Right speech: speech that is truthful, kindly, harmonious and meaningful, the practice of which changes the climate of one’s communication and thought.
  4. Right action: abstaining from harming living beings, from taking the not given, and from sexual misconduct – guides to bodily conduct.
  5. Right livelihood: how we make our living, how we spend our working lives, is crucial for our spiritual well being – butchery and weapons-dealing will not help.
  6. Right effort: working on the mind – developing and maintaining wholesome states, preventing and eradicating unwholesome states.
  7. Right mindfulness: practising mindful awareness, especially of bodily experience in the present moment, a rich embodied awareness of what we experience.
  8. Right concentration: working in meditation to bring the mind into an integrated, concentrated state capable of transformative insight into how things really are.

These eight factors together represent a complete path, of body, speech and mind, and they cover three areas of training: ethics (3–5), meditation (6–8) and wisdom (1–2). And now for those images of how these factors work together.

The eightfold path as a natural unfolding

The first image for the eightfold path is that of a flower naturally unfolding.[2] Each of the factors of the eightfold path represents a necessary part or ‘petal’ of a flower, representing spiritual development. A flower in bloom could be said to represent the full unfolding of our Buddha-nature – that intrinsic potential of our minds and hearts for awakening. This image is not in fact one given by the Buddha specifically for the eightfold path, although he did compare the stages of spiritual development to the stages of unfolding of a lotus flower.[3] He also compared spiritual development to the full maturation of a tree.[4] Development is thus a kind of blossoming of an inner nature. It occurs naturally when the right conditions are present. This blossoming is not the result of an effort of will. From this point of view, one practices each of the factors of the eightfold path, as is required, depending on which need cultivating, and which are already matured. One’s effort is directed to creating the conditions for the overall development of the mind and heart.

The eightfold path as a middle way

An image, or simile, that does come from the Buddha is the eightfold path as a middle way between the life of indulgence and the life of self-mortification. After the Buddha had gained awakening, he made his way to Sarnath, to teach his former companions in the ascetic life what he had learned. Having found them, and persuaded them to listen, he gave his first discourse, which starts like this:

‘Monks, there are these two extremes which are not to be followed by one who has gone forth. What two? That which is devotion to indulgence in sense-pleasures, which is inferior, vulgar, ordinary, ignoble, not beneficial; and that which is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, not beneficial. Monks, not falling into either of these extremes, the Realized One has attained complete understanding of the middle way, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stillness, realization, awakening, nirvana.

‘And what, monks, is the middle way about which the Realized One has attained complete understanding, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stillness, realization, awakening, nirvana? It is exactly this noble eightfold path, namely: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is the middle way about which the Realized One has attained complete understanding, which brings about vision, brings about knowledge, and conduces to stilling, realization, awakening, nirvana.’[5]

The Buddha goes on to present the four noble truths, but these are another topic. As for the eightfold path as the middle way, this helps understand what the path is not. On the one side is a life of self-indulgence. It is very normal for us to believe at some level that a truly satisfying life will come from getting certain sense-pleasures. However, the Buddha consistently taught that sense-pleasures are impermanent and unreliable and therefore cannot be the basis of our well-being. But neither on the other hand does the Buddha teach that the life of self-mortification will lead to true satisfaction. We can see, even these days, how people punish their bodies and control their appetites in the hope of gaining happiness, through body-building, dieting, extreme sports. The Buddha also taught that this is not the way.

If the Buddha taught the noble eightfold path as a middle way, it means that the path is not about the pursuit of sense-pleasures, but neither is it about the rejection of the body. We might think of the spiritual life as involving getting away from matter and the body, but the Buddha’s teaching is not like this. The eightfold path involves awareness of the body and right action of the body, as well as development of the mind. The middle way means development of the body and of the mind, together, in harmony.[6] The eightfold path is balanced and complete.

The path leading to the city of awakening

The middle way is however not really an image, and while there is said to be an eightfold ‘path’, we haven’t yet encountered much ‘walking’. But with the image of the path leading to the city of awakening, we meet an image of the eightfold path as a path, that requires walking:

‘Monks, it is as if a man walking about in a wooded wilderness should see an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by people of former times: that man would follow it, and following it would see an old city, an ancient capital city inhabited by people of former times, a city having lovely parks, groves and ponds, and with a raised mound around it.

‘Then, monks, that man would tell his king or the prime minister about it, saying, “Your majesty should know that, while walking about in a wooded wilderness, I saw an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by people of former times; I followed it, and following it, I saw an old city, an ancient capital city inhabited by people of former times, a city having lovely parks, groves and ponds, and with a raised mound around it. Sir, please restore it!” Then, monks, the king or prime minister would restore that city, and after some time it might become prosperous and powerful, rich and populous, as successful as it had been before.

‘In the same way, monks, I saw an old path, an unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times. And what, monks, is this old path, this unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times? It is just this noble eightfold path, namely, right view, and so on, to right concentration. This, monks, is the old path, the unwinding old road travelled by Buddhas of former times. I followed it, and following it, understood [the way to end all suffering].’[7]

This is from a discourse in which the Buddha explains a train of thought he had had before he was awakened. He eventually rediscovered the ancient path to awakening – it’s not something he invented. This image of a path that the Buddha rediscovered is one that needs thinking about. We imagine perhaps a grassy track through the jungle, perhaps paved with stones. But how can the eightfold path be a path like that? It is not something that is there, given, that we can find and walk along. Rather, it is something that we give rise to by bringing it to mind and practising it. It is a ‘path’ or way of life that is there because we are ‘walking’ or practising it: a path made by walking.

This path-made-by-walking is said to go to a city – but what can this represent? These days the word ‘city’ suggests conurbation, hectic activity, crowds, an artificial lifestyle. In the Buddha’s time, however, there weren’t large cities. Hence we should think more of a market town, a place in touch with the surrounding countryside, which is nevertheless an image of civilisation – nature humanised, or even tamed. A city is a civilised place to live, where human values prevail. Likewise, the eightfold path leads to a state of civilised harmony in our bodies and minds. If the eightfold path ‘goes’ anywhere, it ‘goes’ to the experience of harmonious civilisation, like the prosperous, populous city of the Buddha’s simile.

The path as a holistic spiritual workout

Our final image for the eightfold path is perhaps the craziest. To understand it we need to know about nāgas, creatures from Indian mythology. The nāgas are aquatic serpent-dragons, giant snakes living in water. The nāgas are powerful, non-human, impressive creatures. (The Buddha is said to be a nāga).

‘Monks, in the Himalayas, the kings among mountains, the nāgas work out their bodies and build up their strength. Having worked out and built themselves up, they plunge into ponds. Having plunged into ponds, they plunge into lakes. Having plunged into lakes, they plunge into streams. Having plunged into streams, they plunge into rivers. Having plunged into rivers, they plunge into the great ocean, the sea. There they come into the full vastness of their bodily forms. Likewise, monks, a monk, relying on virtue, established in virtue, cultivating and multiplying the noble eightfold path, fulfils the full vastness of good qualities.’[8]

Practising the factors of the eightfold path is like a holistic spiritual workout. We can plunge into the flowing waters of our lives, down and through the many currents, on a playful journey to where all journeys end, the ocean. Each of the factors is like a different spiritual exercise. We may need to build up our right speech, or our right effort, so as to prepare ourselves for the next plunge. Riding the current of life, continuing to build spiritual strength, we may experience more expansive love, deeper wisdom, in the midst of the flowing waters. And so its goes on.

These images for the eightfold path evoke the cooperation of eight factors in one overall experience of unfolding of our potential for growth and development. What is it we develop? We could think that we are developing our ‘selves’, but an important aspect of the Buddha’s teaching is that, ultimately, there is no permanent or fixed self. It might be best to think that what we develop are good qualities, a whole range of excellent human qualities that together make up the awakened personality.

Based on a talk given to the Frome Triratna Sangha in March 2015

[1] From the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse, S 12:67 pts ii.112–5.

[2] See also Sangharakshita, Vision and Transformation, Windhorse, 1990, p.159.

[3] In the episode of Brahmā’s request, in M 18 pts i.169 (and elsewhere): “Just as in a pond of blue, red or white lotuses some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown under water thrive submerged without breaking the surface; some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown underwater rest at water-level; and some lotus flowers that have sprouted and grown under water stand right out of the water, unspoiled by it – likewise the Blessed One, surveying the world with Buddha-vision, saw beings with little dust and a lot of dust, who were intelligent and dull-witted, with good qualities and with bad qualities, easy to teach and hard to teach, and some who lived seeing dangers and faults in the other world.”

[4] For instance, in the Secret Causes discourse, A 10:3 pts v.4–5.

[5] From the first discourse, or Dhammacakkappavattanasutta, S 56:11 pts v.420.

[6] In the Greater Discourse to Saccaka, M 36 pts i.237–51, the Buddha explores the true meaning of the development of body and development of mind, against the background of the Jain layman Saccaka’s misunderstandings.

[7] From The City, S 12:65 pts ii.104–7.

[8] From The Nāgas discourse, S 45:151 pts v.47.

Not Easily Repaid

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I haven’t posted anything on this blog for a while as I have been pre-occupied with my dad’s illness and death on May 9th. But here I am getting back into the swing of blogging by sharing a translation I have made of an early Buddhist discourse from the Pali canon, concerning what we owe to our parents and how we might or might not be able to repay them for what they have given us. This discourse is not unique in the Pali canon, and it helps us put into perspective the Buddha’s well-known rejection of family life, in favour of a life of renunciation. Such renunciation does not imply that we forget everything that has been given us by our families. In fact, our Buddhist practice might be very well expressed by the way we try to repay our parents, by loving actions, speech and thoughts. So this translation is an offering for my father, Richard Jones (who really liked his chickens).

Not Easily Repaid

Monks,[1] I tell you, there are two people who are not easily repaid. Which two? Your mother and your father. You might carry them about on your shoulders, you might look after them when they are one hundred years old, at the end of life,[2] by rubbing their limbs, massaging them, bathing and washing them, and though they might become incontinent, urinating and defecating right where they are, nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. You might establish your mother and father in sovereign dominion over the realm of this great earth, abounding in the seven precious things, but nevertheless, monks, you have not done enough for your mother and father, nor have you repaid them. For what reason? Because, monks, mothers and fathers do a great deal for their children, bringing them up, feeding them and introducing them to this world.

But, monks, you could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack trust, in the blessing of confidence (saddhā). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they lack virtue, in the blessing of virtuous conduct (sīla). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they are selfish, in the blessing of generosity (cāga). You could encourage, settle and establish your mother and father, if they have poor understanding, in the blessing of wisdom (paññā). To that extent, monks, you have done enough for your mother and father, you have repaid them, you have very much done enough for them.[3]

 

[1]This discourse does not have a title, so I have invented something suitable. It is from the Aṅguttara-nikāya 2:33, PTS i.61–2. Alternative translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, and by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.

[2]The text has vassasatāyuko vassasatajīvī, ‘having a life span of one hundred years, living a hundred years’, agreeing with the subject, but it hardly makes sense to think the child at such an age might be looking after their parents, so my translation here is more of an interpretation.

[3]The final phrase, translating atikatañca, is not given in the Burmese ed., though it appears in the PTS and Sri Lankan eds., and ends the discourse nicely.

 

No Need for the H-Word

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Bhikkhu Bodhi et al., The Bodhisattva Ideal: Essays on the Emergence of MahāyānaBuddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 2013, 239pp., £9.99 pback. (Available from Wisdom Books at www.wisdom-books.com).

My review of this collection of essays, copied over from the Western Buddhist Review.

The usual history of Buddhism in India goes that the Mahāyāna arose around the beginning of the common era as a reaction against complacency and scholasticism in the existing schools. It described itself as a ‘great vehicle’, which put forward the Bodhisattva ideal of complete perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all, in contrast to the ‘inferior vehicle’ (hīnayāna) of the śrāvakas, with their arahant ideal of enlightenment merely for oneself. But it turns out that this is mostly untrue. We learn from this volume on the Bodhisattva ideal that this ideal does not belong only to the Mahāyāna but to all Buddhist schools. The idea that the Mahāyāna has the monopoly on it is a misrepresentation of Buddhism.

The general picture that emerges from this book, however, is that Mahāyāna was neither a school nor an ordination lineage, but a movement within Indian Buddhism. There were never Mahāyāna monasteries, and Buddhists of this new movement and non-Mahāyāna Buddhists lived and practised together. The word ‘hināyana’ (the ‘H-word’) is a pejorative term only found in later Mahāyāna texts, and never used by any non-Mahāyāna text to describe ‘mainstream’ Buddhism. The idea presented in Mahāyāna Sūtras that Mahāyāna is a higher teaching of the Buddha, revealed only to certain disciples, and so on, is rhetorical.

The essays collected here, which have all previously appeared elsewhere, is in the first place a more specific corrective to common misperceptions about the Bodhisattva ideal. The first essay, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, sets the tone. It outlines how the Bodhisattva ideal appears in Theravāda Buddhism. The Buddha realized enlightenment, and then taught others how to gain it. At first, no distinction was made between the Buddha’s enlightenment and that of his followers, but gradually a distinction began to be made. After all, the Buddha had gained enlightenment by himself, while others did so by following his teaching. The well-known distinction of three types of bodhi, awakening or enlightenment, arose: there is the bodhi of the arahant or ‘worthy one’ who is a disciple of the Buddha; there is the bodhi of the pacceka-buddha or ‘solitary Buddha’, who gains enlightenment by himself but does not teach; and there is the sammā-sam-bodhi of the Buddha. From earliest days the Buddha was called a bodhisatta prior to his enlightenment;[1] but gradually the story evolved of the enormously long career of this bodhisatta through previous lives, illustrated in the stories of the Jātaka, and beginning from the vow to attain Buddhahood made by the brahman Sumedha in the presence of the Buddha Dipaṅkara incalculable aeons ago, as recorded in the Buddhavaṁsa. The Bodhisattva ideal is thus acknowledged and venerated in non-Mahāyāna Buddhism as the highest Buddhist ideal. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains how Mahāyānists then gave this ideal prescriptive force for the Buddhist practitioner. But this in no way necessitates any disrespect for the arahant ideal, and indeed the earliest Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Ugraparipṛccha Sūtra,[2] contain no criticism of the earlier ideal. It is only in later Mahāyāna Sūtras, such as the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra, that we find a denigration of the arahant.

An essay by Bhikkhu Anālayo reconstructs the genesis of the Bodhisattva ideal from the evidence in the Pāli discourses and their parallels preserved in Chinese translation.[3] We learn that everything said about the Bodhisattva in the Mahāyāna is derived from the common traditions of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. Essays by Jeffrey Samuels[4] and Karel Werner continue to explore the Bodhisattva ideal in non-Mahāyāna literature in complementary ways. Samuels describes how great Mahāyānists such Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga and Candrakīrti each identify the Mahāyāna with the bodhisattva-yāna, and the srāvaka-yāna with the non-Mahāyāna Buddhism of the various schools. As Samuels points out, this ‘sets up an opposition between an ideology and an institutional affiliation’ (p.33), which is quite misleading, for, as we have seen, the bodhisattva-yāna is fully part of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The question inevitably arises of what exactly is Mahāyāna, and why it arose. It has to be said that this is still something of a mystery. The last essay of the collection, by David McMahan, explores the significance of writing for the emergence of the Mahāyāna. His essay reminds us how the distinguishing features of Mahāyāna scriptures are their visionary metaphysics and cosmic extravagance. Non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, by contrast, was based on the careful preservation of earlier teaching, initially through oral recitation, though with some imaginative embellishment. With the popularisation of writing around the turn of the common era, new ways arose for reform movements within Buddhism to express themselves. One way they did this was to fabricate entirely new sūtras, and attribute them to Buddhas. The longest essay in the collection, by Peter Skilling, explores what we know about the earliest of these new scriptures, where and how they arose, and how they presented themselves. The discussion is technical but highly illuminating. We discover that there is no longer any accepted model for the arising of the Mahāyāna. It is not simply a matter of a lay movement, or a monastic movement towards forest renunciation, nor is it a matter of cults of stupa-worship or book-worship. All these ideas for the origin of the Mahāyāna have been put forward, but none seem completely to explain it. Skilling also emphasises how, even in the last twenty years, we have learned a great deal more about early Buddhism. The discovery and editing of ancient texts, including a hitherto-unknown Prajñāpāramita Sūtra, in the Gandhari dialect, is changing the whole way we understand early Indian Buddhism.

An overall theme in this collection is how both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhists look to the Buddha and his enlightenment for their inspiration. It is only through the Buddha as exemplar and teacher that we have access either to the arahant ideal or to the Bodhisattva ideal. This does not mean these ideals are in some sense ‘really the same’, but that they must each be understood in terms of complex historical processes of doctrinal development. In this sense, this book contributes to Buddhist unity in the modern world, a unity, which is also an important theme in the teaching of Sangharakshita and in the Triratna Buddhist movement.[5]

I suppose a die-hard Mahāyānist might object that this is a book written and published by Theravādins for Theravādins, like a book by Roman Catholics about Protestantism. However, this would be unfair. Although Bhikkhu Bodhi’s writing style used to be overtly orthodox, he now lives at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey, where both Pāli and Mahāyāna Buddhism is studied and practiced,[6] and his teaching is replete with references to non-Theravādin sources.[7] The other contributors to this volume, whether ordained monastics or not, are scrupulously scholarly. Nevertheless, it would not be a criticism to say that the essays in The Bodhisattva Ideal are written on the whole from a Theravādin perspective. Their concern is not primarily to understand the arising of the Mahāyāna as a reform movement, but rather how the Bodhisattva ideal is more universal in Buddhism than is usually understood, and how the concerns of Mahāyāna are continuous and entwined with much in non-Mahāyāna Buddhism. It would be fascinating to see a companion volume of essays from an avowedly Mahāyānist point of view.

[1] Bhikku Bodhi, p.29, makes the point, which has been made elsewhere, that the Pāli bodhi-satta may represent what would be in Sanskrit bodhi-śakta, ‘capable of enlightenment’, and that bodhi-sattva, ‘enlightenment-being’, may represent an incorrect Sanskrit back-formation.

[2] As introduced and translated in the excellent book by Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Enquiry of Ugra, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2003.

[3] This essay is extracted from Anālayo, The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal, Hamburg University Press, 2010; online at http://www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de/fileadmin/pdf/publikationen/HamburgUP_HBS01_Analayo.pdf.

[4] Not to be confused with Geoffrey Samuels, an anthropologist of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism.

[5] As discussed in Subhuti, ‘A Supra-Personal Force’, 2012, online at www.sangharakshita.org

[6] See www.bodhimonastery.org for details of this fascinating project.

[7] The footnotes in his new translation of the Aṅguttara-Nikāya, The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom, Boston, 2013, often draw attention to parallel passages in surviving Chinese translations of the Ekottarikāgama.

Rebirth and Consciousness

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Did the Buddha teach that consciousness continues after the death of the body? The answer to this question is important for the question of how to relate to the teaching of rebirth, since it affects what we suppose the Buddha was teaching when he taught about rebirth. In a previous blog I wrote: ‘From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said.’ I went on to write that the Buddha disagreed with a monk called Sati who said that consciousness (viññāṇa) continued from life to life, just the same;[i] the Buddha told Sati that consciousness is dependently-arisen. Some respondents to this blog post, however, have disagreed with what I had written, saying that it is not correct to take the Buddha’s words to mean that the Buddha believed that consciousness was dependent on the brain. Some people, it would seem, believe that consciousness can somehow exist without a physical basis and hence that it can survive death, and that this is what makes rebirth possible. But did the Buddha teach this?

In conversation with Sati, the Buddha tells the monk: ‘Monks, consciousness is named after whatever condition it arises dependent on. Consciousness that arises dependent on the eye and forms is just called consciousness based on the eye; consciousness that arises dependent on the ear and sounds is just called consciousness based on the ear; consciousness that arises dependent on the nose and smells is just called consciousness based on the nose; consciousness that arises dependent on the tongue and tastes is just called consciousness based on the tongue; consciousness that arises dependent on the body and tangibles is just called consciousness based on the body; consciousness based on the mind and mental objects is just called consciousness based on the mind.’ This does not give us much scope for thinking that the Buddha is saying that consciousness can survive without a body, since consciousness exists dependent on the sense-organs. Admittedly, the Buddha is here characterising consciousness as we presently experience it. But the Buddha did not say we could experience consciousness in any other way.

In the Nagara-sutta,[ii] the Buddha makes his position clearer when he says that ‘When there is name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) then consciousness exists; with name-and-form as condition, there is consciousness.’ Here and elsewhere[iii] the expression ‘name-and-form’ is explained as meaning the body made up of the four elements, and the mental apparatus consisting of feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), volition (cetanā), contact (phassa) and attention (manasikāra). Having said something similar in the Mahānidāna-sutta,[iv] the Buddha makes the point that we can only meaningfully talk about existence when there is consciousness and name-and-form. (The idea that conciousness in this discourse ‘descends’ (okkamati) into a mother’s womb might suggest a somehow pre-existent disembodied consciousness, but such an idea is contradicted by everything else the Buddha says. I suggest translating okkamati as ‘arrives’ in the sense of ‘appears’). As Sariputta says in the Sheaves of Reeds Discourse,[v] consciousness and name-and-form lean on each other like two sheaves of reeds. We see therefore that according to the Buddha’s teaching it is only meaningful to speak of ‘consciousness’ connected with sense-experience and co-arising with the body and mental apparatus.

This way of looking at consciousness is comparable to a modern scientific understanding of consciousness, in which consciousness arises dependent on the physical brain. But just as name-and-form depends on consciousness, so the physical brain is also dependent on consciousness: it appears that the rapid evolution of the human brain was connected with the advantages for survival of consciousness and intelligence. Moreover, in present human experience, it has been shown that conscious activity, like meditation, can cause the modification of neural networks in the brain.

Let us consider the Buddha’s ‘middle way’ in the light of this. Consciousness, this experience of awareness, of being a subjective point of view, arises dependent on physical matter in the form of the brain. There are in fact plenty of scientists and philosophers who are not materialists, because there is in fact no good explanation of how consciousness can be ‘produced’ from matter in the brain.[vi] But it has to be said that, as far as I know, there are no contemporary philosophers who suppose that consciousness can exist without a brain. This brain, however, is also highly dependent on consciousness for its evolution and structure. The materialist view of human consciousness, implying annihilationism, is in this sense not convincing. Moreover, we human beings, who are embodied consciousnesses, having dependently arisen, have minds capable of imagining our past and our future. We can imagine this very consciousness as having existed before and existing afterwards – we can even imagine consciousness as existing in a disembodied state, and as undergoing rebirth. The eternalist view of the substantial spiritual self depends on just this powerful imaginative independence of consciousness. But the Buddha was careful to avoid eternalism, pointing his followers towards the dependent co-arising of consciousness with name-and-form.

It seems, therefore, that the Buddha taught rebirth, but that he did not teach that consciousness could exist independent of its physical basis, which, as we now know, is the brain. He taught that consciousness, like everything else, arises dependent on conditions. Just exactly how we can explain ‘rebirth’ if it does not involve the continuity of consciousness is a problem I’ll leave for others. I’ll conclude with a thought about this teaching of rebirth. Not only was rebirth part of the accepted view of the Buddha’s day, but in those days there was no distinction drawn between what we would call a ‘literal’ teaching about what happens after death and a ‘metaphorical’ teaching. In the absence of any kind of scientific knowledge, knowledge was symbols and stories. The Buddha taught rebirth, but it is reasonable to understand this teaching as a metaphor, a story. For western Buddhists, imbued with the exacting spirit of science, it is less incongruous to hold to rebirth as a form of story-telling, while maintaining a principled agnosticism concerning its literal truth.

[i] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta 38, the Mahātaṇhākkhāya-sutta, the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’.

[ii] Saṃyutta-nikāya 12:38. Nagara-sutta means ‘The City’.

[iii] In Majjhima-nikāya sutta sutta 9, the Sammā-diṭṭhi-sutta, the ‘Discourse on Right View’. This discourse gives definitions of each of the 12 nidānas, as well as some other important Buddhist terms.

[iv] In Dīgha-nikāya sutta 15, Mahānidāna-sutta, the ‘Great Explanation Discourse’.

[v] Saṃyutta-nikāya sutta 12:67, Nalakalapiya-sutta, ‘Sheaves of Reeds Discourse’.

[vi] See my previous blog post reviewing Thomas Nagel for an example.