A 21st Century Pudgalavādin? Evan Thompson and the Enactive Self

waking-dreaming-being

A Review of Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, Columbia University Press, 2015.

Evan Thompson is a philosopher working at the University of British Columbia. I am not sure if he calls himself a Buddhist, but he is a meditator and long-time participant in the Mind and Life series of dialogues between the Dalai Lama and western scientists and philosophers. He is involved with science too, especially through his work with Francisco Varela.[i] He has brought together this set of interests – philosophy of mind, neuroscience and Buddhist meditation – in his recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being, which ranges over a number of philosophical topics in a way that is accessible to non-specialists, presenting the basic arguments without underplaying the difficulties. He explores the nature of consciousness, the significance of dreaming, the nature of lucid dreaming (he is a keen lucid dreamer), the explanation of out-of-body and near-death experiences, and finally the reality of the self. Each chapter (there are ten) is self-contained, like a series of connected essays, which works well for such a wide-ranging book.

I don’t want to try to review or even summarise most of this book, but I would like to express my whole-hearted approval for his nicely balanced approach. I can give two examples. In his discussion of lucid dreaming in ch.6, he not only draws on his own experience to bring the topic alive, but he draws expertly on some neuroscientific research to highlight the extraordinary nature of how our minds construct their reality. But in doing this he avoids two extremes. Firstly, he denies that lucid dreams are hallucinations, or hallucinatory perceptions. Hallucinations, by definition, are false perceptions, but in a lucid dream the dreamer is aware that she is dreaming. Rather, he says, they are spontaneous mental simulations of sensory perceptions, ways in which the dreamer imagines a world. They are marvellous reminders of human imagination. This kind of conceptual clarity is refreshing. Second, he denies that lucid dreams are spiritually superior to non-lucid ones. (This is relief to me, as I never lucidly dream and don’t feel very inclined to try). He refers to the Tibetan tradition of sleep yoga, in which the yogi cultivates lucid dreaming as a way to become aware of the true nature of perception as fabricated. Thompson’s view is that, while lucid dreaming is fascinating, so is non-lucid dreaming, and we can become aware of the fabricated nature of perception without lucid dreams.

Similarly, in his discussion of near-death experiences in ch.9, he presents the evidence for the persistence of consciousness after the ceasing of neural activity with great enthusiasm, endeavouring to find some objective evidence for the possibility of the kind of post-mortem experiences of lights, journeys, divine beings, etc., described in the Bardo Thodöl. But after all this he subjects the best-documented cases of near-death experiences to scrutiny as to the evidence they provide for the claims made about them. And he concludes that, without exception, there is not the slightest piece of convincing evidence that the subjectively reported experience occur in the absence of objectively observed neural activity. And, further, he rightly concludes that this does not imply that consciousness depends on the brain, only that there is as yet no evidence that it doesn’t.

But here I want to present the argument of ch.10, the longest of the book, which explores the question of whether the self is an illusion. This chapter begins from the well-known Buddhist denial that there is a permanent self existing independently of the changing constituents of experience. This denial itself is, of course, difficult to put precisely into words, and even more difficult to fully understand, because of what appears to be the deep-rooted human tendency to appropriate experience in terms of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. He then makes the point that Buddhists do not thereby deny that there is a self, which would be the wrong view known as ‘annihilationism’. But some contemporary philosophers of neuroscience have come to the conclusion that the self is an illusion, that there is no self.[ii] Thompson calls this view ‘neuro-nihilism’, and describes it as a contemporary version of annihilationism, amounting really to no more than the view that there is an absence of a real existing self in the brain, so that its appearance is an illusion. He then sets out to show how the self is real but dependently-arisen, which is the Mādhyamika view within Buddhism, and to show this in a way that is consistent with contemporary science.

He does this through his own theory of the self as ‘enactive’: the self enacts its own existence as a process. The smallest units of life, cells, do this by specifying boundaries between themselves and what is not the cell, in this way implicitly defining itself as a ‘self’ in the activity of maintaining itself. Leaping to the human organism, we explicitly define ourselves through thought and action in the very enacting of thoughts and deeds along with the natural self-designating of this activity as our selves. Hence we are the subjects of experience and the agents of deeds. This can be directly experienced in sensorimotor activity, such as reading these words, when efferent nerve signals leading to action stimulate re-afferent nerve signals sensing that action, making sensory experience a self-specifying process, one’s self directly experiencing itself as, for instance, reading. Thompson presents more layers of such directly-experienced self-making processes, within the body and in a social world.

His argument now turns to an analysis of the self from the Yogācāra tradition of Buddhism. This tradition of thought relies on the distinction of three layers of mental activity, alongside the five sense spheres. There is a mental awareness (mano-vijñāna) which is aware of sense experience as well as its own states. There is a preattentive kind of awareness (manas or the kliṣṭa-manas or defiled mind). And there is a repository of tendencies called the store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). When we experience something like aversion in relation to a sense experience, we are aware of a mental state afflicted with aversion by means of the preattentive mind, which however mistakenly identifies the store consciousness (where the tendency to aversion was ‘stored’ as a ‘seed’) as a self, a substantial ego, experiencing the store consciousness as an ‘I’ that owns its tendencies as ‘mine’ and experiences its states as ‘me’. But really this substantial self is superimposed on the stream of experiences, including the manifesting contents of the store consciousness, such that ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are all mental constructed.

This view, says Thompson, though sophisticated, is rather like annihilationism and neuro-nihilism in that it concludes that the self is a cognitive error or illusion foisted upon an impersonal stream of experience. Thompson argues that this conclusion is unwarranted and unnecessary by running through an argument put forward by Candrakīrti, a 6th c. Indian Mādhyamika.[iii] According to Candrakīrti, we should rather say that the self appears in experience, for instance as averse or as the person who has the thought ‘I hate this’. While we do not attend wisely to the nature of this self as an appearance, we mistake the appearance for the manifestation of a self who exists in the way he or she appears, such that we impute existence to ourselves as someone enduring through time, and prone to such thoughts as ‘I hate this’. However, this is to mistakenly suppose the self exists as it appears, whereas in fact its appearance is dependently arisen, as a concept naturally belonging to experience. It is like an image in a mirror. According to this way of thinking, the self is not an illusion or a cognitive error, but rather it is the mistaken imputing of existence to what appears, for instance, as the thought ‘I hate this’, and the awareness of being that kind of person.

The upshot of Candrakīrti’s argument is that there is no Self, no permanent substantial underlying substance of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’, but there is a self or person who exists conventionally as the dependently-arisen ‘I’ or subject of experience and agent of action, and who experiences the mere appearance of ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Thompson puts together Candrakīrti’s extremely elegant argument with his own view of an enactive self to produce what I propose to call a 21st c. form of pudgalavāda – the view that the self or person is conventionally real. The Pudgalavādins of Buddhist India were able to explain the persistence of personality without appealing to ideas like the store-consciousness. Instead, they argued that it is the person, who is neither the same as or different to the constituents of experience, who is the locus of identity. Likewise, Thompson believes that the self is the subject of experience and agent of action who enacts his or her identity in the dependently-arisen processes of living, the self appearing as independent of those processes as a mental construction based on the enactions themselves. Since the bases of the enactive self are the biological and neural processes underlying conscious experience, Thompson does seem implicitly to argue that the self, as it appears based on the activity of the brain, has a real basis.

I find this an appealing argument, and a satisfying basis for a 21st c. interpretation of Buddhist teachings. The appearance of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are the natural arisings of a complex self-specifying enactive organism, and the unconscious tendencies of an unawakened person are preserved through time in the neural system, rather than in such supposed entities as the store-consciousness with its ‘seeds’. Maybe we should call it Pudgalavāda 2.0. I’m certainly feeling clearer for this particular update.

[i] As a young man he co-wrote The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, with Francisco Varela and Eleanor Rosch (MIT Press 1991).

[ii] He mentions Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, Basic Books, New York, 2009, p.6: ‘There is no such thing as a self’. One could also mention Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: Why there is no ‘you’ inside your head, Constable, London, 2012, which definitely argues for annihilationism as Thompson defines it.

[iii] A very good article laying out Candrakīrti’s argument in full is by James Duerlinger, ‘Candrakīrti’s Denial of the Self’, Philosophy East and West, 34:3 (1984) pp.261–72.

The Brexit: a pseudo-Socratic dialogue

The Brexita pseudo-Socratic dialogue about democracy and reason

CharactersGrexit: an Athenian, friend of Socrates; Brexit: friend of Grexit, a foreigner; and Socrates, returning from the gymnasium.

Socrates

Grexit: Hello, Socrates! I might have guessed we’d meet you here in the Agora. Anyway, I was hoping to bump into you. Let me introduce my friend Brexit. He and I were just discussing a referendum result in his city. His people have voted, by a narrow majority, to leave the Spartan League. Brexit wants this as well, but the city and its leaders are in complete disharmony about it all. We were wondering what the right thing for Brexit and his fellow citizens to do in the circumstances, and we thought you might be able to help us think it through.

Socrates: Well, Brexit, I don’t know why you are asking me, as I know nothing about politics. But, I have to say, I was surprised to hear that your city voted to leave the League. Surely it was a source of unity among previously warring city-states and a means of encouraging trade and prosperity for you all?

Brexit: Socrates, don’t say you are a supporter of our staying in the League!

Socrates: Nothing of the sort, Brexit; I was simply reporting what I have heard from others. Here in Athens, the Spartan League is held up as something of a model.

Brexit: You Athenians have no idea. Anyway, the votes have been counted and the people have decided to leave. Doesn’t that mean that our leaders should now change the law?

Socrates: That assumes that your government has an obligation to do what its people say.

Brexit: Of course! You’re not an opponent of democracy are you, Socrates?

Socrates: As far as I know, democracy is the least bad form of government, so, no, I am not its opponent. But can I ask you a question? Why is your city now leaving the League? What reason would you give for this decision?

Brexit: That’s a straightforward question, Socrates. 52% of us voted to leave the League; that’s the reason we’re leaving.

Grexit: Is that true, Brexit? You told me that 52% of the 72% of those registered to vote wanted to leave, which is 37% of the citizens, many of whom did not make their opinion known.

Socrates: If only 37% voted to leave the League, Brexit, then it would appear that not even a majority of you want this result. So I don’t think that this explains why you think the city’s leaders must now change the law.

Brexit: No, no, Socrates; that is not how our democracy works. If people don’t vote, that is their own choice. The government meanwhile has to abide by the result, which in this case was clear. It is the will of the people to leave the League.

Socrates: I’m surprised to hear you say that, Brexit. If there is any such thing as a ‘will of the people’, it is a confused faculty indeed, since it is 37% in favour of leaving the League, 35% against doing so, and 28% unsure. It is like three horses tied together, one pulling in one direction, one in another, and one not sure where to pull. If my physics is correct, Brexit, such an assembly of strength would not move.

Brexit: Surely the strongest beast would pull the other two in its preferred direction?

Socrates: The strength of the 73% who wish to stay or are unsure should be combined against the 37% who wish to leave. Since 73% is the larger amount, the horse that wants to leave will not be able to shift the horses of staying. The ‘will of the people’ is not going anywhere, my friend.

Brexit: You can’t fool me so easily, Socrates! Obviously your horses are just an analogy, and arguments from analogy, as every student of philosophy knows, can be misleading.

Socrates: I’m sure you’re right, Brexit. So let me try again. The three of us stood here talking – are we one will, or three?

Brexit: Why, three, of course.

Socrates: And the people of your city – are they totally different from us, being one will instead of many?

Brexit: No, no, Socrates. They do not literally have ‘one will’ – it is a figure of speech.

Socrates: So really they have many wills? They are like us three, each citizen having his or her own will?

Brexit: That’s right, Socrates. Each of us came to our own decision, to leave the League, to stay, or not to vote at all.

Socrates: If you each came to your own decision, please answer me this: did those of you who voted to leave the League all have the same reason for your decision, or did you have different reasons?

Brexit: That’s a difficult question to answer, Socrates. I can only guess at my fellow-citizens’ thinking.

Grexit: I have heard it said that many people who voted to leave did so because they think that too many foreigners have come to live and work among them. You yourself told me, Brexit, that this was also among your reasons for voting to leave.

Brexit: It is true that many of us hold this view, yes.

Socrates: Are you sure, Brexit, that leaving the League will reduce the number of foreigners coming to live in your city? Surely it is simply a reality of life in the civilized world that people move around in search of peace and prosperity for themselves and their families. If your city leaves the League, would you be able to stop this ceaseless movement?

Brexit: We have to do something, Socrates. Too many foreigners wish to live with us. Leaving the League will give us control over our borders, and that is sure to help.

Socrates: I asked you the reason for your city’s decision to leave the League, and you have told me that there is no single reason, but that one reason that many of you would give, when asked, is that leaving the League might help you reduce the numbers of foreigners coming to live with you. Is that correct?

Brexit: That’s correct, Socrates.

Socrates: And this reason follows from the connection between leaving the League and being able to control your borders, is that correct?

Brexit: Quite so.

Socrates: Now, Brexit, do all the citizens of your city share this thinking, that the way to reduce the number of foreigners coming to your city is to leave the League, because doing so would enable you to control your borders?

Brexit: Unfortunately, not at all Socrates. Many of my fellow citizens hold completely different views.

Socrates: So I asked for the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, and you have given me one reason that some of you hold, but it seems that not only are you not sure who holds this view and who does not, but you are certain that only a minority of citizens hold it. Surely in these circumstances it is no surprise that there is widespread disagreement about what your city should do. Brexit, is it possible for anyone to be sure that they are making the right decision if they cannot give a reason for it?

Brexit: I am beginning to see why you are so irritating Socrates! But never mind all your talk of reasons. That is quite beside the point. The result of the referendum of my city is clearly that a majority of us want to leave the League, and that should be enough for our law-makers to start work on making the changes required.

Socrates: Brexit, you asked me if I was an opponent of democracy, but now I see that it is you who wish to bring democracy into disrepute.

Brexit: What on earth do you mean, Socrates? My intention is the very opposite.

Socrates: When I asked you to give me the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, we came to the conclusion that there was no one reason, but that the democratic decision of the citizens was enough. Now, doesn’t that imply that the rule of the people amounts to doing whatever the people want, irrespective of whether their wishes are reasonable or not? Suppose that your people were asked whether they wanted to keep taxation or abolish it, what would they vote?

Brexit: That is hardly the same sort of question, Socrates. But, obviously, they would vote to abolish taxation, because they hate to have what is theirs taken away from them.

Socrates: Whereas they ought to vote to keep taxation, not because they like it or want it, but because there is a very good reason for paying taxes, which is that they support a government that arranges security, justice, education and the distribution of resources. Likewise, when it comes to politics, we all ought to vote, not for what we individually want or like, but for what makes most sense for the prosperity of the whole community. Democracy is only a good form of government when it is beneficial for the community as a whole. Otherwise, it is no better than the rule of a tyrant, who only wishes to benefit himself.

Brexit: But, Socrates, it is just because we want the prosperity of the whole community that I and most of my fellow citizens wish to leave the League!

Socrates: Just now you told me that it does not matter if you can give no reason for your city to leave the League, because a majority vote is enough, but now you tell me that your decision is reasonable after all. Are you now saying, Brexit, that whatever is best for the prosperity of the whole community is what you should want and vote for?

Brexit: Yes, of course, that goes without saying.

Socrates: And what is best for the whole community is not what is of benefit only to individuals, because they want it or like it, like paying no taxes?

Brexit: Where is this all going, Socrates?

Socrates: Well, it seems we agree that a political decision should not be the product of personal desires, and we also agree that there would be a reason for your city to leave the League, if it was the case that doing so would increase the happiness and prosperity of the whole community. But, Brexit, from what you have said, everyone in your city has voted according to their own personal opinions, which differ, so that you can only guess at the reasons many of your fellow citizens have voted the way they have. It seems to me that your city does not have a single reason for leaving the League, and the individual citizens have their own views about what will be for the greater prosperity of the whole.

Grexit: If I may interrupt here, my friends, surely one could argue that, irrespective of these fine points of reasoning, the government of Brexit’s city were elected on the promise of a referendum which, they said, would determine the city’s future membership of the Spartan League. So now they have an obligation to follow through on the result of that referendum, just as if one of us were to make a promise and were then held to it by our friends. The keeping of promises is necessary for there to be trust among human beings, and it is a foundation of life in civilised society.

Socrates: Do you agree, Brexit? Had the result of the referendum been the opposite one, would you hold, as Grexit has explained, that your government has an obligation to fulfil its promise, even though that would be the very opposite of what you yourself believed?

Brexit: I feel that whatever I say now, Socrates, I am done for.

Socrates: Please, Brexit, I am simply asking you questions. If you were to hold that your government had an obligation to fulfil its promise, and at the same time you held that if it were to do so, it would be acting to bring about the impoverishment and unhappiness of your community, wouldn’t you find yourself in a difficult situation? And by your own account you have admitted that many of your fellowe citizens, holding a view different to your own about what is in your community’s best interest, will now find themselves in just such a state. It seems to me, Brexit, that we are never obliged to do what we believe to be wrong, even though we made a promise to do so, and I am sure you would agree.

Brexit: But if you are right, how on earth can we ever come to a decision about whether or not to leave the League?

Grexit: My friend, your government could call a general election, with the instruction to the citizens of your city to elect representatives according to their stated view on membership of the League. In this way, the new government would have no doubt about whether or not it should change the law, and it would not need to ask its people by means of a referendum.

Brexit: But the people have already decided what they believe!

Socrates: I am wondering, my friends, whether referendums and elections can ever replace reason and debate for communities wishing to live together in peace. But that is a topic for another time. Brexit, I wish your city well in its deliberations; and, Grexit, do be careful to think for yourself…

Pyrrho and the Buddha: Reasons to be Sceptical

Greek Buddha cover

Christopher Beckwith, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, 2015.

my review copied over from Western Buddhist Review

Classical sources tell us that a young man named Pyrrho travelled with Alexander the Great and his army to north-west India in 324 bce. During their Indian sojourn, Pyrrho and his teacher, Anaxarchus, met Indian gymnosophists, ‘naked wise men’, and it is said that Pyrrho’s philosophy developed as a result of such meetings. When he returned to India, Pyrrho is said to have taught a philosophical ethics, in the sense of how to live the best and happiest kind of life, in terms of the ideals of apatheia, ‘being without passion’, and ataraxia, ‘undisturbedness, calm’. The way to these ideals is said to consist in a form of scepticism about the knowledge gained through sense perception and thought; rather than believe we might be able to attain certainty we should refrain from doxai, ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’, but maintain equanimity and hence undisturbedness.

The questions naturally arise of what Pyrrho might have learned from Indian thinkers, and whether his philosophy was perhaps inspired by Buddhists that he met in ancient Gandhāra. Unfortunately, answers to such questions are difficult. Pyrrho himself did not write down his philosophy, and what we know about it consists in fragmentary quotations from the writings of his pupil, Timon, plus various anecdotes and lesser fragments. Moreover, there is uncertainty about how to interpret these quotes and fragments. And there is no direct evidence at all for what, if anything, Pyrrho learned in India. Nevertheless, modern scholars like Thomas McEvilley and Adrian Kuzminski have found close parallels between Pyrrhonian scepticism and Buddhist Madhyamaka thought, with precedents in earlier Buddhist scriptures.[1] Take for example the following verses from the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta-nipāta, regarded as one of the earliest records of the Buddha’s teaching:

They do not formulate, they do not prefer:

they have not accepted any doctrines.

A brahman is not reckoned by virtue or vows.

Such a one, gone to the far shore, does not come back.[2]

In such teachings, as in later Madhyamaka, and as in Pyrrho, we see that the path of not holding to views and opinions is said to lead beyond suffering. Pyrrho, it would seem, may have brought the Buddha’s middle way philosophy back to Greece.

This is the exciting field of investigation into which Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha enters. Beckwith takes up the themes just outlined and runs with them – sometimes a very long way. The results are in my view mixed, some excellent and profound, some silly and self-contradictory. Beckwith comes across as one of those lone scholars, riding off into new territory alone and coming back with new insights, but out of kilter with everyone else.

I’ll start with the excellent bits in this book. Beckwith takes up the theme of interpreting the rather difficult Greek quotations of Timon’s account of Pyrrho’s philosophy. His book includes, as an Appendix, an article previously published in Elenchos (2011) on ‘The Classical Testimonies of Pyrrhos’ Thought’. His insights about how to understand some difficult words have evidently already become influential.[3] In Chapter One of the new book, Beckwith draws out the connection between Pyrrho’s thought and Buddhism. According to Timon, Pyrrho taught that:

As for pragmata ‘matters, questions, topics’, they are all adiaphora ‘undifferentiated by a logical differentia’ and astathmēta ‘unstable, unbalanced, not measurable’ and anepikrita ‘unjudged, unfixed, undecidable’. Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our ‘views, theories, beliefs’ (doxai) tell us the truth or the lie [about pragmata]. Rather, we should be adoxatous, ‘without views’, aklineis ‘uninclined [towards this side or that]’, and akradantous ‘unwavering [in our refusal to choose]’, saying about every single one that it no more is that it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.[4]

Beckwith notes that the usual English translation of pragmata, ‘things’, misleadingly leads us to think that Pyrrho’s point refers to physical objects, whereas in fact pragmata are ‘(ethical) matters’. Pyrrho’s thought concerns the nature and characteristics of pragmata like anger or joy, not the nature and characteristics of air or rock. Beckwith goes on to compare the concept of pragmata with the Buddhist concept of dharmas, often translated ‘mental objects’, which are said to have ‘three characteristics’ (trilakṣana). He draws out how Pyrrho’s three characteristics of pragmata map onto the Buddhist three characteristics of dharmas:

(i) adiaphora means ‘undifferentiated by a logical differentia’ in the sense of ‘without a logical self-identity’ – this is comparable to the anātman or ‘without fixed self’ characteristic of dharmas.

(ii) astathmēta means ‘unstable, unbalanced, not measureable’ in the sense of ‘unbalanced, uneasy’ – this is comparable to the duḥkha or ‘uneasy, painful, unsatisfactory’ characteristic of dharmas.

(iii) anepikrita means ‘unjudged, unfixed, undecidable’ in the sense that pragmata are not permanently decided or fixed – this is comparable to the anitya or ‘impermanent’ characteristic of dharmas.

This work of careful comparison is immensely stimulating and, as far as I know, original. Beckwith goes on to outline the apparent similarity of Pyrrho’s philosophical path and the goal of apatheia or ‘passionlessness’ to the Buddhist middle way and the goal of nirvāṇa, although a great deal more on this topic could have been said.

But just as he opens up this quite fascinating field of comparative thought through the careful study of words and ideas, Beckwith manages to veer off into scholarly fantasy of the most disreputable kind. To take a small example: in order to make his point about the similarity of the astathmēta ‘unstable, uneasy’ characteristic of pragmata to the duḥkha characteristic of dharmas, Beckwith takes to task the way Buddhist scholars have translated duḥkha: ‘the term is perhaps the most misunderstood – and definitely the most mistranslated – in Buddhism’ (p.29). Never mind what anyone else says, Beckwith proposes that duḥkha is a Prakritisation of Sanskrit duḥstha, literally ‘standing badly’, hence ‘unsteady’ and ‘uneasy’, so that, as he tells us, Pyrrho’s astathmēta is ‘in origin a simple calque [loan translation]’ (p.30). However, according to Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pāli, there is indeed a Pāli word duṭṭha (the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit duḥ-stha) that means ‘uneasy, unhappy’,[5] but nobody seems ever to have confused this word with dukkha, with its (untranslatable) range of meaning, from ‘pain’ through ‘suffering’ to ‘unsatisfactoriness’. Beckwith’s proposal is just wish-fulfilment. This does not exclude the possibility, of course, that Pyrrho might have been translating a difficult Buddhist concept into a Greek equivalent as best he could.

I’ve outlined Beckwith’s main proposal about to some hitherto-unrecognised similarities between Pyrrho’s thought and Buddhism, suggesting that Pyrrho learned about Buddhism in India. Beckwith’s book, however, concerns not only this proposal but a re-thinking of the whole nature of early Buddhism that his proposal suggests. This re-thinking depends upon his employment of a particular method of investigation:

My approach in the book is to base all of my main arguments on hard data – inscriptions, datable manuscripts, other dated texts, and archaeological reports. I do not allow traditional belief to determine anything in the book, so I have necessarily left the topic out, other than to mention it briefly in a few places’ (p.xiii).

What this method means in practice is that Beckwith ignores Buddhism as a source of knowledge about Buddhism. For Buddhists, knowledge of early Buddhism comes from the records of the teaching of the Buddha preserved in Pāli and other languages, that were preserved orally at first and then in written form. The degree to which these records are accurate is uncertain, but Buddhist textual scholarship continues to sift and argue about what might count as earlier and later doctrines. Beckwith’s method is to totally ignore Buddhist texts and base his investigation on ‘hard data’. The result is silly and self-contradictory.

According to Beckwith, the earliest reliable evidence (‘hard data’) for early Buddhism is the records of visiting Greeks, especially Megasthenes, who visited the court of Candragupta Maurya in 305 bce, and whose observations have survived as quotations in Strabo’s work on geography. Megasthenes described Brāhmaṇas (‘Brachmanes’) and Śramanas (‘Sarmanes’) and some of their habits and beliefs. Unfortunately Megasthenes does not specifically mention Buddhists, and one can imagine that as a visiting Greek he may not have easily been able to differentiate Buddhist monks from other participants in the Indian religious scene. Beckwith, however, in a marvellous feat of self-justification, proposes that Pyrrho’s philosophy (as interpreted by Beckwith) is in fact an even older piece of evidence for early Buddhism (p.62), and he goes on to solve various difficulties in interpreting Megasthenes using his own version of Pyrrho and hence early Buddhism. A taste of the silliness involved: the Buddha was not Indian, but Scythian, which explains why he was called ‘Śākyamuni’, the sage of the Śakas (i.e. Scythian). The Buddha’s Scythian (i.e. Iranian) origin involved his exposure to Zoroastrian ideas about escatology and monotheism, hence the Buddha’s introduction of his modification and rejection of these ideas into India. Early Buddhism hence has nothing to do with Brahmanism or the Upaniṣads, which are Indian. Later Buddhist tradition (which Beckwith calls ‘Normative Buddhism’ though he does not explain why) made up all the stories about the Buddha’s life in India and all the encounters with Brahmanas and other Indian thinkers.

In fact there is some interesting scholarship on the topic of the Buddha’s possible Scythian origins: Jayarava has written about how the Buddha’s tribe may have been called ‘Śākya’ just because they were ‘of the Śakas’, i.e. Scythians, who had migrated into northern India in the preceding centuries, possibly bringing with them some Zoroastrian ideas that may still be visible in the background of the Buddha’s teaching.[6] But Beckwith does not engage with this kind of scholarship. There is a sort of wilful perversity in the way he pushes on with his ideas, despite what anyone else might think. There is self-contradiction at the heart of it all too. In Chapter Four we discover that Beckwith himself is a sceptic of the Pyrrhonian sort. He values the Pyrrhonian rejection of perfectionist and absolutist thinking, in favour of the putting aside of fixed views and the embracing of a sceptical method that leads towards a calmer appreciation of what really is. Robert Ellis over at the Middle Way Society has reviewed Beckwith’s book very positively from this philosophical angle, and his perspective helped keep me reading when the book’s silliness was getting too much.[7] Nevertheless, Beckwith’s own method, far from being Pyrrhonian, is an example of dogmatic scepticism at its worst, that is, the kind of scepticism which looks at the evidence and concludes that we can know nothing. In this way, Beckwith’s method of dogmatically ignoring Buddhism as a source of knowledge about Buddhism is self-contradictory.

Buddhist texts are indeed the product of various times and concerns, and hence it is not easy to determine what in them might really go back to the time of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it is dogmatic to conclude that we should therefore ignore the whole of Buddhism in trying to understand early Buddhism. By contrast, a truly Pyrrhonian approach to the scholarly study of early Buddhism might consist in continually examining our views and beliefs as we study our texts, without supposing that we will ever really know for certain what the Buddha taught. This continual examination should involved us in questioning the dogmatism involved in our methods.

Beckwith’s dogmatic method in fact misses out on some nice evidence for what looks like Pyrrhonian scepticism in the Pāli canon. In one discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya,[8] the layman Anāthapiṇḍika talks to some ‘wanderers of other sects’ who want to know about the Buddha’s views and theories. Anāthapiṇḍika does not presume to tell them what the Buddha thinks, but gets the wanderers to tell him what they think. They hold different kinds of views: that the world is eternal, not eternal, finite, infinite, that the body and soul are the same, or different, that the tathāgata, the ‘realized person’, exists after death, or doesn’t, or both, or neither – the standard formula for a range of metaphysical views. Anāthapiṇḍika then tells them what he believes: that all these views have arisen through careless attention or another’s utterance, that these views are conditioned (saṅkhatā), a product of volition (formed in the mind) (cetayitā), dependently arisen (paṭiccasamuppannā), hence impermanent, hence unsatisfactory, and therefore those views are unsatisfactory (dukkha here has the connotation of ‘wrong’). Having clearly seen this, one will understand the non-self characteristic and the escape from dukkha.

In the following discourse,[9] these wanderers say that the Buddha is a nihilist (venayika) and one who refrains from making declarations (appaññattika). The Greeks no doubt criticized Pyrrho on similar grounds, understanding his scepticism to result in vagueness and ethical passivity. The question arises, for both Pyrrho and for the Buddha, of what is a criterion for practical judgement if all views and opinions should be put aside. Pyrrho scholar Richard Bett discusses some disputed lines attributed to Pyrrho which put forward what may record his view on this matter:[10]

For I will say, as it appears to me to be,

A word of truth, having a correct standard:

That the nature of the divine and the good is at any time

That from which life becomes most even-tempered for a man.

These lines suggest that for Pyrrho the standard for judging the good is not a matter of view or belief, it is not a based on a theory, but rather it is based on a continual empirical judgement of what helps make human life more ‘even-tempered’. Unfortunately, we do not have any further information about Pyrrho’s thought here. However, the discourse from the Pāli canon just discussed includes the Buddha’s standard or criterion for judgements about the good. In response to the wanderers’ complaint that the Buddha was a nihilist and one who refrains from making declarations, the householder Vijjamāhita tells them:

The Blessed One has validly declared, “This is wholesome (kusala)” and, “This is unwholesome (akusala)”. Thus, when he declares what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, the Blessed One makes definite declarations. He is not a nihilist who refrains from making declarations.

For the Buddha, the distinction of wholesome (kusala, what is good) and unwholesome is the basis for practical judgements about how to live, and the enquiry into what is wholesome continues into the investigation of mental states in meditation and eventually into insight investigations into the nature of things. In this way, we can see further parallels between Pyrrho’s philosophy in the surviving fragments and the Buddha’s teaching as recorded in the Pāli canon. These kinds of parallels add to those noticed between Madhyamaka, Proto-Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonian scepticism, and to those explored by Christopher Beckwith in his new book.

[1] Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Allworth Press: New York, 2002, p.450ff; and Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, Lexington Books: Lanham, 2008. Beckwith does not really discuss either of these works.

[2] Verse 803, my translation of: na kappayanti na purekkharonti / dhammā pi tesaṃ na paṭicchitāse / na brāhmaṇo sīlavatena neyyo / pāraṃgato na pacceti tādī. Louis Gomez has already discussed the apparent similarity of these early teachings to later Madhyamaka, in ‘Proto-Mādhyamika in the Pāli canon’, Philosophy East and West, 1976 (26:2), pp.137–65, which Beckwith discusses.

[3] See the references to Beckwith’s article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, q.v. ‘Pyrrho’ at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pyrrho/.

[4] Beckwith’s translation of Eusebius, p.23.

[5] Margaret Cone, Dictionary of Pāli, vol.2, PTS: Bristol, 2010, p.414.

[6] Jayarava Attwood, ‘Possible Iranian Origins for the Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2012 (3), pp.47–69.

[7] http://www.middlewaysociety.org/tag/christopher-beckwith/.

[8] Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:93 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom: Boston, 2012, pp.1464–7.

[9] Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:94 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom: Boston, 2012, pp.1467–70.

[10] Discussed in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, q.v. ‘Pyrrho’ at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pyrrho/.

Karma and Buddhist Ethics

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How does the karma relate to Buddhist ethics? Is karma the basis of Buddhist ethics? Or is Buddhist ethics one thing, and the law of karma something else that is somehow related to ethics? In an earlier essay on this blog I distinguished the psychological from the universal meaning of karma, arguing that western Buddhists very often understand karma in terms of how intentional actions leads to psychological consequences that we experience in this life, whereas Buddhists have traditionally understood karma as operating over many lifetimes. The traditional view of karma as a system of natural justice seems to suggest that Buddhist ethics is based on karma. But for many westerners who think of karma as a psychological rather than a universal law, karma does not seem to be the basis for ethics, because we tend to think of ethics in terms of doing what is right or good, whatever the consequences might be for ourselves.

The question can be phrased like this: is an action good because the karmic consquences are positive, or are the karmic consequences good because the action is good? If we think that an action is good because the karmic consequence is good, then karma is the basis of Buddhist ethics. But if we think that the karmic consequence is good because the action is good, then we think that ethics – what counts as right and wrong – has a validity which is independent of the consequences for ourselves of our actions. I want to argue that karma is not the basis of Buddhist ethics, and that our intuitions about what is good and bad are indeed independent of the consequences of actions for ourselves.

This topic is a Buddhist version of the dilemma posed by Plato in his Euthyphro. In this early dialogue, Socrates engages in dialogue with his eponymous Athenian interlocutor about the nature of piety or holiness. But what is holiness? Euthyphro says that it is what the gods love, but Socrates asks him whether the gods love holiness because of its holiness, or whether holiness is such because it is loved by the gods. This is a dilemma because if the gods love holiness because it is holy, then it is holy whether or not there are any gods; but if the holiness is holy because the gods love it, then what counts as holiness depends on the arbitrary preferences of the gods. The dilemma also translates into more familiar theistic terms. If we suppose that God wills the good, is this good good because God wills it, or does God will the good because it is good? Is goodness the arbitrary invention of God, or is goodness part of the nature of reality, independent of God?

We can similarly ask whether an action is good because the karmic consequences are positive, or whether the karmic consequences are good because the action is good. Is Buddhist ethics based on the law of karma, or does the law of karma depend on an independent moral principle? It is hard to know whether the Buddha or the early Buddhist tradition worried about this kind of question. Nevertheless the words of the Buddha implicitly but very clearly tell us that the law of karma depends on a moral principle that is independent of the law of karma: ‘I say, monks, that karma is intention; intending one does an action through body, speech or mind.’[i]

These words are well-known, but they are more surprising than they appear. By saying that ‘action’ is ‘intention’, the Buddha is saying that what matters is not what you do but your mental state when you do it. The scholar Richard Gombrich has pointed out that, in the context of his time, the Buddha was using the language of karma here in an audacious way. Instead of focussing on ritual action, which was the original Brahmanical meaning of ‘karma’, the Buddha shifted attention to the psychological processes involved.[ii] By doing so, it is clear that the karmic consequence of an action depends on the actor’s intention, so that a good consequence depends on a wholesome intention, rather than the good consequence determining what counts as a good action.

Wholesome (kusala, ‘skilful’) or good intentions are those based on generosity, love and wisdom; unwholesome ones are those based on compulsion, hostility and delusion. Being good is based on the cultivation of wholesome mental intentions. It is wholesome intentions that result in good karmic consequences, and unwholesome ones that result in bad consequences. When we understand the relation of Buddhist ethics to karmic consequences like this, it is clear that ethics is not based on karma, but the law of karma is based on ethics.

So what is the role of karma in the Buddha’s teaching on ethics? I would say that the role is one of motivation. Buddhist ethics is a very practical business. We are all familiar with the experience of knowing the right thing to do but not being able to do it, as when we hide in our corner instead of making an effort to help someone; and we are familiar with knowing that an action is unwholesome but finding ourselves unable to stop doing it, as when we turn to pornography or comfort eating to assuage our existential discomfort. This is the human sitation, and in this situation the teachings on karma give clear reasons for acting from wholesome intentions, and not acting unwholesomely. The reason is that there will be an inevitable appropriate consequence for all of our intentional actions. Such consequences may be discernable in this lifetime (psychological karma), or one may believe in karmic consequences as operating over many lifetimes (universal karma). In either case, we are reminded that our destiny is in our own hands, and we alone are responsible for our future well-being.

Two important consequences follow from the fact that Buddhist ethics is not based on karma, but that the teaching of karma is a motivation to practice ethics. Firstly, we can discuss Buddhist ethics without necessarily discussing the law of karma, either in its psychological or its universal sense.[iii] We can discuss, for instance, how Buddhist ethics is connected with empathy, with the intuition that all living beings, like us, seek happiness and wish to avoid suffering. We can furthermore appreciate how the practice of Buddhist ethics is concerned with the well-being of others as well as ourselves, which is a non-karmic perspective on why we should act ethically.

Secondly, the fact that Buddhist ethics is not based on karma helps us to better understand what the Buddha meant when he taught the desirability of the cessation of karma. It is a very common theme in the early Buddhist discourses that the disciple practises in order to put an end to karma.[iv] We can now understand that this does not mean getting beyond Buddhist ethics, somehow going beyond good and bad. Rather, it simply means getting beyond the self-centred nature of karma as a psychological motivation for ethical action. Once one gains sufficient psychological integration to be able to act from wholesome intentions, there is no need to concern oneself with the consequences of one’s actions when making ethical decisions, since those decisions will be based on an appreciation of the roots of wholesome action, not on a concern for one’s own well-being.

In conclusion, it turns out that a belief in the law of karma is not necessary for a correct understanding of Buddhist ethics, whether this belief is in the form of a belief in the psychological or the universal meaning of karma. It is possible that many westerners who take up Buddhism have already developed an acute awareness of ethics, without reference to traditional Buddhist teachings on karma. For such western Buddhists, there may be little reason to take on a form of psychological motivation which is culturally alien. Moreover, reflections on culturally western forms of ethical concern, such as those based on rights and duties, seem to be perfectly compatible with Buddhist ethics, if not part of the traditional articulation of ethics. However, I suspect that when it comes to the actual practice of ethics, a reflection on the law of karma will always have a place as a useful psychological motivation to be good.

[i]Anguttara-nikāya 6.63, the Nibbhedika-sutta: cetanāhaṃ bhikkhave kammaṃ vadāmi, cetayitvā kammaṃ karoti kāyena vācāya manasā.

[ii] Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism Began, Athlone, London, 1996 p.51.

[iii]See for instance Sangharakshita, The Ten Pillars of Buddhism, Windhorse, Cambridge, 2010; Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order in which I practise presents Buddhist ethics in this text without basing it on karma and rebirth.

[iv]See for instance the Nibbedhika-sutta cited above.

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.

Agnosticism About Rebirth

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Should western Buddhists believe in rebirth? Some thinkers, epitomised by Stephen Batchelor,[1] have come out as not believing in rebirth. For these thinkers, rebirth is part of the traditional Indian belief system that the Buddha inherited, and not essential to the Dharma. Many other western Buddhists argue that a belief in rebirth is a crucial part of being a Buddhist. They make various points in support of this traditional belief, for instance, that the Buddha taught rebirth, that the whole structure of Buddhist thought depends on rebirth, that Buddhist teachers through history have accepted rebirth, and that there is some evidence that rebirth is the case. The position I’ve come to on this matter is a principled agnosticism.

I personally would not say that I believe in rebirth, but this very idea of ‘not believing in rebirth’ is ambiguous. It can mean, to believe there is no rebirth (which is denial of rebirth), or to not be sure that there is rebirth (uncertainty about rebirth). The former equates with annihilationism, which the Buddha always describes as a wrong view, while the latter does not. The problem with annihilationism is that it tends to engender emotional nihilism, since death will be totally the end of you. So although it is unlikely that western Buddhists who have decided that they do not believe in rebirth could be be persuaded to start believing in it, they might be open to thinking about the advantages of agnosticism.

If we are agnostic about rebirth, we can fully engage with Buddhist scriptures as literature. When we read Greek myths like those in the Odyssey, we do not need to believe that Zeus, Hera and Athena are really living on Olympus in order to appreciate the stories. Instead we open ourselves to Homer’s imaginative world and enjoy Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca. Likewise, we can read about the Buddha remembering his previous abodes, and enjoy for instance how this idea allowed the early Buddhists to come up with the Jatakas, those edifying stories of the Buddha’s past lives.

I think it is important to consider what it means that rebirth was a commonly-held belief in the Buddha’s day. The Buddha clearly accepted the idea of the rebirth and often made it part of his teaching. However, he gave the cultural teaching of rebirth a new twist.[2] He said that rebirth happens in accordance with the ethical quality of one’s actions, not in accordance with one’s sons doing certain rituals, as the Brahmans believed. This ethicisation of karma is the Buddha’s real contribution. We are responsible for our own destinies. That is the important point, in my view, as it infuses our worldview with an ethical orientation.

Buddhist doctrine does not entirely depend on belief in rebirth. The Buddha talked about enlightenment in terms of the ‘deathless’ or ‘undying’ but also as the ‘unborn’, ‘unageing’, ‘unmade’, ‘unconditioned’. But these terms all signify the state of enlightenment in this life. They do not imply anything about what happens after death. The Buddha repeatedly said that it is impossible to say anything about enlightened beings after the breaking up of their body. I think it is possible to over-emphasise the role of karma and rebirth in the Buddha’s teaching. It is certainly present, but in some suttas, such as that to the Kālāmas,[3] the Buddha explains that whether or not the noble disciple believes in rebirth he or she finds reassurance in the practise of ethics. A noble disciple is someone with right view, and the most common way of describing right view is in terms of the four noble truths, which is an expression of conditionality – that there is suffering, that it has a cause, and an ending, and there is a path that leads to its ending. One can make a lot of progress towards enlightenment with such right view, while remaining agnostic about rebirth.

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. In conversation with a monk called Sati he emphasised how he teaches that consciousness (viññāṇa) arises on conditions and ceases when those conditions cease.[4] It does not continue the same after death. So how did the Buddha explain rebirth? The fact is, he did not explain rebirth. He simply stated that karma or craving or formations continue. The later Buddhist tradition attempted to explain this better, with ideas such as the ‘mental continuum’ (citta-santāna) or the ‘storehouse consciousness’ (ālaya-vijñāna), but these are obviously speculative ideas. So the Buddha and science agree that consciousness does not continue after death, and apart from that, nobody really knows what happens.

To be agnostic about rebirth is not necessarily ‘Buddhism-lite’ but is part of an authentic western Buddhism. For me as a western Buddhist the problem is not rebirth according to karma, which, if it were literally true, would be logical, ethical and consistent. The problem is our inability to say anything objectively valid about what happens after death. Scientific knowledge is a useful reminder of the limits of our knowledge. Personally I think the real task for western Buddhists is to hold to a genuine agnosticism, avoiding annihilationism on the one hand, and religious metaphysics on the other. Such agnosticism can appreciate everything about traditional teachings of rebirth but relates to them as stories or metaphors about the mystery of existence. Such agnosticism can also engage fully in trying to understand mind and brain, and we can keep reminding annihilationists that scientific materialism is just a belief and is not necessarily the whole truth. For me agnosticism is a positive emotional attitude, connected with wonder as well as dismay, like the way we feel truth in poetry.

In conclusion, I wanted to explain what I mean when I say I do not believe in rebirth. It is not because I believe that there is no rebirth (denial and annihilationism) but because I am not sure that there is rebirth (uncertainty and agnosticism). However, such agnosticism does not mean that I cannot relate to the teachings of the Buddha in the Pali canon. On the contrary, I will be reading it as literature, which will inform my imaginative engagement with the mystery of existence.


[1] First in Buddhism Without Beliefs, Riverhead, 1997, and more recently in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel & Grau, 2010.

[2] Richard Gombrich discusses this in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, 2009.

[3] Discourse to the Kālāmas, Aṅguttara-nikāya 3:65. See my blog on this at https://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/a-commentary-on-the-kalama-sutta/.

[4] In the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’, Majjhima-nikāya 38. Online at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.038.than.html

Approaching the Middle Way

A review of Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakārikā, trans. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, Wisdom Publications, Boston, USA, 2013, 351pp., $28.95 pback, also in ebook

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This is a very welcome new translation of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhayamakakārikā. Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, two seasoned scholars of Indian philosophy, explain in their preface that they have been working on their translation since 1999, and the book comes across as carefully considered. They provide a short introduction that puts Nāgārjuna’s philosophy into its intellectual context. They usefully include the Sanskrit verses, in clear roman script, with a few carefully chosen text-critical notes. Each verse is translated into intelligible English, with explanation of translation issues where required. They also include a short commentary on each verse, with some exploration of the concerns and presuppositions being made, and highlights from four Indian commentaries on the text (the Akutobhayā and those by Candrakīrti, Buddhapālita and Bhāviveka). It seemed to this reviewer, as someone who has some knowledge of Sanskrit, that the translation is an ideal combination of clarity in English and closeness to the original, with enough of a commentary to allow the reader to have some sense of the concern with which Nāgārjuna’s verses are grappling. The book is altogether to be recommended as a reliable translation of a central text of the Buddhist philosophical tradition.

And perhaps this is all that a review needs to say. But the very success of Siderits’ and Katsura’s translation brings to the fore a rather important question: just what does one make of the philosophical content of Nāgārjuna’s work? Oddly – or perhaps deliberately – this new translation does not try to answer that question. It does not try to interpret Nāgārjuna or make his work intelligible to readers educated in western philosophy. For a reader new to Nāgārjuna, and wishing to make the acquaintance of a philosophical work reputed to be of some importance to the Buddhist tradition, this book may prove not a little frustrating or even opaque.

However, this may be deliberate, in that the translators perhaps decided not to put their own interpretation on the text but to try to let it speak for itself. The trouble is that the text does speak very clearly. Not much is known about Nāgārjuna, except that he probably lived in south India in about the 2nd c. ce. Quite a number of works have been attributed to him, though scholars dispute which are authentic. The one thing for sure is that his name is attached to the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and that its 447 Sanskrit verses (kārikā) are at the root (mūla) of the middle way school of Buddhist philosophy (madhayamaka). This school was highly influential in India, was transmitted to Tibet, and continues to flourish among Tibetan Buddhists. Nāgārjuna’s work is therefore not just of historical value, but continues to be central to the philosophical side of Tibetan Buddhist culture.[1] The Sanskrit verses, however, are not self-explanatory. They pack their philosophical content into a metrical form, and rarely unpack any of the philosophical details. Indian philosophical texts were put into verse so that they could be memorised by students, and the arguments and issues would later have been explained orally. We do not have Nāgārjuna’s own commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, as we do with another of his works, the Vigrahavyāvartanī.[2] Instead we have several commentaries by Indian thinkers of some centuries later, who, although broadly agreeing about the main thrust of Nāgārjuna’s thought, engaged in dispute about how exactly to interpret it.

Apart from deciding how exactly to understand Nāgārjuna within the Buddhist philosophical context, there is the issue of how a westerner might relate to any of his philosophical concerns. Let us take as an example the concept of śūnyatā or emptiness, which, everyone agrees, Nāgārjuna wishes to establish as the ultimate truth. Emptiness is not anything in itself but is a concept that refers to how everything is empty of svabhāva or intrinsic existence. Hence to understand the meaning of śūnyatā, just as a concept, it is necessary to understand the meaning of svabhāva as a concept. But in the western philosophical tradition, there is not really any equivalent concept. And even in the Indian philosophical tradition, it is not entirely clear whether Nāgārjuna is setting up his concept of svabhāva as a kind of straw man, or whether any Abhidharma tradition really did suppose that some things had svabhāva in the way that Nāgārjuna says that they do not.[3]

All in all, most western readers of Nāgārjuna need guidance about how exactly to read and interpret his verses. In this sense, the new translation by Siderits and Katsura is not very helpful. By contrast, the 1995 translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Jay Garfield is better.[4] Garfield has not only studied the verses and the traditional Indian and Tibetan commentaries on them, but also engages with them both in terms of western philosophical parallels and Indian Buddhist soteriological concerns. Reading Garfield, one has a sense of why Nāgārjuna might be worth studying. However, and this is an important qualification, Garfield’s translation is based on the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit verses ­– it is a translation of a translation, and this shows in the relative lack of clarity and precision in language.[5] Siderits’ and Katsura’s translation is simply superior in this regard.

Garfield also offers a running commentary on how previous western translators and interpreters of Nāgārjuna have fared: while Murti read Nāgārjuna as an absolutist, positing a reality behind appearances, Kalupahana read him as a pragmatist, and Wood as a nihilist.[6] Garfield disagrees with these previous translators, and takes them to have unnecessarily read western philosophical positions into a work which ought to be understood in its own context. I think that it is here that we may find an explanation of why Siderits and Katsura have elected to provide a rather bare translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. They perhaps want readers to encounter Nāgārjuna on his own terms, without the imposition of any kind of western thought structure onto a very Indian Buddhist way of looking at things. Jan Westerhoff, in his recent book on Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, offers something of a justification of this approach.[7] He notes that western interpretation of Nāgārjuna has gone from one that makes him a kind of Kantian, to one that makes him a kind of Wittgenstein, to one that makes him a kind of William James. However, it is now possible to approach the study of Nāgārjuna on his own terms, without presenting him in terms of supposed western parallels to his thought. In this regard, even Garfield sometimes interprets Nāgārjuna as a kind of sceptic, in the philosophical tradition that culminates in David Hume. Taking Westerhoff seriously, then, we might suppose that Siderits and Katsura intend their readers to engage with Nāgārjuna on his own terms, and they do so as part of a maturing of the western philosophical encounter with Indian Buddhism. Although they do not say as much, this would at least explain why in their commentaries on individual verses they often refrain from putting forward their own interpretation even when it might have been helpful for the reader for them to have done so. If this is correct, then perhaps the hope is that readers of this new translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā will themselves be drawn into the task of a mature encounter with Nāgārjuna. Such a reader might, however, have to prepare themselves with the older interpretations of Nāgārjuna, which, even if flawed, do provide some orientation. And they might have to read around a bit, in works like Westerhoff’s introduction to Nāgārjuna. Whatever they make of it, this excellent new translation of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Siderits and Katsura is a starting point for philosophical reflection, while the bareness of its commentaries, while not exactly helpful, is perhaps a sign of how seriously the translators take Nāgārjuna as an original philosopher.

This review is reposted from http://www.thebuddhistcentre.com/westernbuddhistreview

 


[1] As evident in a recent translation of some of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: The Dalai Lama, The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason, trans. Thubten Jinpa, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2009.

[2] For which, see for instance another welcome new translation and commentary: Jan Westerhoff, The Dispeller of Disputes: Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī, Oxford University Press, 2010.

[3] This is the place to mention that some western readers of Nāgārjuna have concluded that his philosophy has been over-rated: see, for instance, Richard Hayes, ‘Nāgārjuna’s Appeal’, in The Journal of Indian Philosophy, 22 (1994), 299–378.

[4] Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Oxford University Press, 1995.

[5] And this is the place to mention Stephen Batchelor’s translation from the Tibetan, Verses From the Centre, Riverhead Books, New York, 2000; it is a kind of poetical re-working of Nāgārjuna, but of no help for engaging with what Nāgārjuna actually wrote.

[6] See T.R.V. Murti, Central Philosophy of Buddhism, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1955; David Kalupahana, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1991; Thomas E. Wood, Nāgārjunian Disputations, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1994.

[7] Jan Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp.9–12.