When I was a graduate student learning to read ancient philosophical texts written in Sanskrit, there were two schools of thought on how best to approach these old texts. One school advocated the view that the best way to understand a text is to read all the commentaries that have been written on the text in later generations, including all the translations (which are, after all, also commentaries of a sort) of the source text into Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Italian and English. The other school advocated the view that the best way to get an insight into the mentality of an author is to read as much of possible of what that author had probably read; reading later commentators and translators, said partisans of this school, is anachronistic. Surely a commentator like Candrakīrti, writing some five hundred years after the time of Nāgārjuna, lived in an entirely different world from Nāgārjuna’s and would therefore be a poor guide to Nāgārjuna’s thoughts. Both of these schools of thought made sense to me, so my own tendency was to do both—learn as much as possible about the author’s worldview and then be open to hearing whatever insights subsequent generations might have had into the text in question. This makes the study of any given text an endless task. No matter how much one may learn about a text, the amount one has not learned, and can never learn, about it is incalculably greater.
There was yet another approach to classical texts that none of my own teachers explicitly advocated but that made a good deal of sense to me, probably because of my years of being influenced by Quakers. George Fox, the founder of what eventually came to be called Quakerism took the view that no one could possibly understand Biblical passages unless they opened themselves up to the same Spirit that had inspired the authors of those passages in the first place. This contemplative approach involves sitting quietly until all the chatter of one’s own thinking subsides and then reading a passage and letting it speak to one’s own particular condition. Spirit, the person who wrote inspired words, and the reader of those words all collaborate in the composition of a new text. This approach, I concede, would probably not make for very good academic scholarship—Spirit is rather difficult to footnote—but it is still the only way of reading a text that makes sense to me when the goal is to be inspired by a text, a goal that is quite different from the goal of writing something about a text for a publication destined to be vetted by highly critical academic referees.
Now that I have retired from professional life and have little interest in submitting my writing to academic referees before making it available to the public, I find myself doing far more reading in the Quaker manner than in either of the two academic approaches that I learned as a graduate student. Nowadays when I read a Sanskrit text, I like to read just a few verses, or perhaps a paragraph or two of prose, then close the book and just let the text percolate through my memories and random thoughts and half-baked speculations and unexamined assumptions to see whether all this percolation makes any lights go on. Sometimes they do. Often they do not. I am equally content either way.
My fear of cliché is not as robust as it used to be, so I don’t mind saying that life itself is rather like a text. The task of making some sense of it may be approached by reading commentaries, listening to the wise counsel of elders, studying it methodically and analytically, forming hypotheses and testing them or reading blogs written by wild and undisciplined conspiracy theorists. There is no lack of material out there that can be used to put the experiences of life into convenient containers filled with predigested pap. As I get older, however, I find myself not wanting to avail myself of any commentaries at all. It is not so much that I want to make sense of life all by myself without any help form others—an attitude that is quite common among us off-the-scale introverts. Rather, it is that I find myself not feeling a need to make sense of life at all. Life needs no commentary; it goes on quite well whether sense is made of it or not. When sense is added to it, often quite artificially, I find it does not enhance the flavor very much. Indeed, it often masks the subtle flavors that raw experience delivers up.
I love to watch the birds that come to our feeders. There are days when I crave to know the genus and the species of every visitor and to read about their mating habits and the way they make nests and care for their young and their migration patterns. Knowing as much as possible about what others have learned by observing birds can add a dimension of pleasure to watching birds. Some days I crave that kind of pleasure. Other days, I just like to sit quietly and watch the birds eat and chase rivals away from the feeder and dart around in the branches of nearby trees. They do not care what names human beings have given them, nor do they care what generations of human observers have recorded about their lifestyles. They care only about eating and not being eaten in this very hour, an hour to which they have no need to attach a number.
As much as I may learn about birds by reading what other human beings have observed about birds, I think I learn more about how to go about being human by listening to the teaching of the birds—without a commentary.
I apologize for disturbing your day with my thoughts.
A while back I went to see a performance of Shen Yun, the dance group associated with Falun Gong. The dancing, singing and music were all polished and impressive, but despite the skill of the performers, I left the theater feeling that some important dimension was missing from the spectacle. There was nothing in the evening that really engaged me intellectually, emotionally or aesthetically. In thinking about it afterwards, I realized that what had left me feeling unsatisfied was the moral certainty of many of the segments, the theme of which had been that perfectly good and innocent people were being persecuted by thoroughly malicious people for no reason other than that malevolent people cannot tolerate good people. There was nothing at all subtle about it. The good people wore white and pastel clothing, while the villains who were tormenting them wore black clothing with prominent red hammer-and-sickle designs on their backs. The good and innocent people were without guile or flaws, and the villains were without redeeming qualities. The final effect was as two-dimensional and unwittingly comical as any piece of emotionally manipulative propaganda. Whenever art is put to the service of political or religious dogma, it ceases to be artistic and becomes merely crafty.
There is no disputing that different people have different tastes, so I cannot speak for anyone but myself in matters of morality. What I can say about myself is that my soul craves moral murkiness. This may be nothing more than a particular application of a more general aspect of my character, namely, that I love questions far more than answers, and love above all those questions that cannot be answered. Since most moral questions fall into the category of unanswerable questions, it is no surprise that I am drawn to thinking about morality and am especially attracted to situations of moral complexity, ambiguity and indeterminacy.
My own default position, which I admit I am unable to defend, is that there is no such thing as a moral fact. People have personal preferences in how they would like others to behave, but these preferences are essentially groundless and therefore indefensible. There is nothing whatsoever that I like about war. I find it distasteful, and my preference would be for disputes to be settled without recourse to violence, coercion, destruction of lives and property and to threats of violence and destruction. My preference would be to live in a world in which there were no weapons of any kind and in which no human being imposed his or her will on any other living being. As strongly as I prefer that, however, I have never been able to defend the claim that a peaceful world is more moral than a world of bellicosity. That peace is better than war is, in other words, a personal preference that I happen to have. It is not a moral fact. There is probably a name for the view that there is no such thing as a moral fact—perhaps it is what some people mean by the term “moral nihilism”. What the view is called does no interest me very much. What interests me more is that it is a view I would prefer not to have, but have been driven to having for lack of sufficient reason to hold the view that there are, or may be, moral facts.
Most situations that create a craving for moral certainty—that is, for clear answers to the question of what ought and what ought not to be done—create that craving precisely because no clear answers are evident. Most situations that make one even think in moral terms are situations characterized by ambiguity and indeterminacy. These two features are closely related, but let me try to explain how I would distinguish them.
- Moral indeterminacy. Moral theories that assess the rightness of actions on the basis of the goodness of the consequences of those actions lend themselves to indeterminacy; that is, the consequences of an action cannot be determined for a couple of reasons. First, given the complexity of events, it is seldom possible to know for certain whether any given circumstance that occurs after an action is the effect or direct consequences of that action. This is so because no circumstance has only one cause. This is especially the case when the putative effect in question is an abstract notion such as happiness, flourishing or well-being. Well-being is such a nebulous concept that it is almost impossible to define it with any kind of precision, and even if it could be said definitively whether a particular state of being qualified as being well, that state would have so many variables that it would not be possible to identify any given action or personality trait as its cause.There is another reason that the consequences of a given action or personality trait cannot be determined, which is that the consequences of anything at a given time continue indefinitely into the future. In the year 2014, for example, the consequences of the signing of the Declaration of Independence are still unfolding, and they will continue to unfold long after the nation that got its beginning after that action has ceased to exist. It is possible that the consequences of the Declaration of Independence in 1825 were better than the consequences in 1848 and slightly worse than the consequences in 1935. So at what point does one take a sounding of the long chain of consequences of an action to determine whether the consequences were better or worse? (There is an often-told Zen story that illustrates this point.)
- Moral ambiguity. Moral theories that focus not on actions but on personality traits tend to classify personality traits as either virtues or vices. A person with good character is one whose virtues outnumber or outweigh that person’s vices. It is usually said that virtue conduces to the person’s happiness or well-being, while vices conduce to a deficiency of flourishing. As was pointed out above, the abstractness of those notions militates against our being able to determine whether a person’s being is well or ill. Even if this could be determined in some way, it would turn out that any given personality trait has a mixture of results, some of them instances of well-being and others of doing poorly. If one examines one’s own patience, for example, one can probably think of situations in which patience turned out to be conducive to well-being and of other situations in which patience was an obstacle to well-being. So is patience a virtue or a vice? For most of us, the answer is Yes. It is both. Its valence is ambiguous. The same would be most likely turn out to be true of such traits as attentiveness to detail, curiosity, optimism and so forth. Even the qualities of wisdom and compassion, which tend to have a good reputation among philosophers as virtues, and faith, hope and love, which tend to be favored by Christian theologians, cannot claim to be unambiguous.It is a commonplace to say that everyone, with the possible exception of perfect saints, has a mentality that is a mixture of virtue and vice and that therefore there are no perfectly innocent victims, perfectly virtuous heroes or absolutely vicious villains. That is no doubt the case, but the problem is even deeper than that. At its most fundamental level, the problem is that there are no personality characteristics that are pure virtues or pure vices. There are personality traits; nothing more than that need be said.
Moral nihilism in a Buddhist context
Throughout the history of Buddhism, the claim has been made that the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination steers a middle course (madhyamā pratipad) between the two extremes of claiming that there is an eternal self that survives the death of the present physical body and claiming that there is a self that endures from conception to death but is cut off or annihilated when the physical body dies. These two extreme views are therefore often called eternalism and annihilationism in English, approximate translations of the Sanskrit śāśvatavāda and ucchedavāda. Each of these two extremes is said to be a poor foundation for an ethical life. The view that there is a self in this life that fails to survive the death of the body is said to lead to a kind of moral nihilism. The usual reason given for this association is that if one does not continue existing beyond the death of the body in this life, then one is not accountable in the future for actions done in this life. One might, for example, commit a heinous act at the very end of this life and not live to experience the painful consequences that are supposed to follow heinous acts. One might, for example, strap a bomb to one’s body and detonate it in a crowded place, thereby killing both oneself and scores of other people, and if that is the end of one’s conscious existence, then one would not go to hell or be reborn as a rabbit in a realm of hungry coyotes. Buddhists, not alone among purveyors of religious ethics, worried about the injustice of crimes going unpunished. They also worried about the injustice of good deeds going unrewarded. Someone might, for example, run into a burning building to save the life of an invalid, succeed in saving the helpless invalid’s life and then die of smoke inhalation. If that heroic act is the very final episode in the hero’s existence, then there is no chance of reaping the rewards of the heroism. That a hero and a suicidal sociopath might have exactly the same fate—oblivion—hardly seems fair. So cosmic justice, the argument goes, demands that we survive into another existence long enough to experience the rewards of virtuous behavior and the miseries engendered by vicious conduct. Unless there is a difference in the consequences of vice and virtue, then vice and virtue turn out to be indistinguishable, and to say that there is nothing that distinguishes vice from virtue (or bad deeds and good deeds) is to espouse moral nihilism.
Let me begin by accepting, just for the sake of argument, that the Buddhist claim that denying an afterlife would lead to moral nihilism is correct. What I would now like to argue is that moral nihilism is in no way incompatible with having an effective Buddhist practice. This amounts to arguing that two and a half millennia of Buddhist teachers, and even the Buddha himself, were mistaken in saying that denial of an afterlife is a false or unproductive view (mithyādṛṣṭi) and therefore an obstacle to liberation from the root causes of discontent. Before presenting a case for my contention that the Buddhist tradition is mistaken in this matter, let me try to understand what I think the worry is. The Buddhists who adhere to their traditional teachings are worried, I think, that if someone is a moral nihilist, then that person will automatically behave in ways that are harmful to self and others. If one is convinced that trying to make a rational or pragmatic distinction between right and wrong and between vice and virtue is a futile pursuit, then one is sure to break all the Buddhist precepts. That is, one is bound to go around killing, stealing, being a sexual pervert, lying, gossiping and harboring greedy and hateful ambitions. Why? Because, I think the Buddhist is likely to respond, there is nothing to prevent one from acting in all those ways that are supposedly destructive to self and others. So if I am to show that the Buddhist tradition’s collective fear of moral nihilism is ungrounded, I must show that a it does not follow that a moral nihilist would necessarily violate the Buddhist precepts. One way of doing that is to explain why it is that I, being a moral nihilist, have strived (and for the most part succeeded) to follow the Buddhist precepts.
First, it may be helpful to say something about the nature of what are usually called the precepts in Buddhism. In the Sanskrit language these so-called precepts are called śīla, a word that simply means a habit or a propensity to act in a particular way. Liquid water has the habit of flowing downhill, while solidified water has the habit of staying stationary and gaseous water has the habit of rising. Buddhas have the habit of being mindful of how their thoughts and words and physical actions affect other living beings. There is not necessarily anything moral about śīla; it is simply a propensity to be predictable in one’s actions. The verbal formula for the five, or eight or ten śīlas of Buddhism can best be translated as “I undertake the training principle of abstaining from….” It is noteworthy that the formula does not say that one has a duty to abstain from a given action, or that doing a given action is offensive in the eyes of God, or that performing the action in question will lead to rebirth in hell. There is nothing suggesting that abstaining from the actions is obligatory. On the contrary, the abstention is purely voluntary. The abstention is simply something that one undertakes. One undertakes it as a training principle. In other words, if one wishes to be part of the community of people undergoing Buddhist training, then one voluntarily undertakes to abstain from taking life, taking property, reckless sexuality, lying and so forth. In much the same way that if one wishes to drive a car in England, one agrees to drive on the left side of the road, but if one wishes to drive a car in Canada, one drives on the right side of the road, if one wishes to consider oneself a disciple of the Buddha, one agrees not to take life or property and not to act in various other ways.
Surely, I can imagine someone saying, there must be something more involved in practicing abstention from certain acts than simply wanting to be a member of the Buddhist club and knowing that some kinds of behavior would be frowned upon by the doormen. And I would readily admit that successfully abstaining from those actions probably requires some motivation other than the fear of disapproval. In my own case, fear that I might be considered unworthy to be a member of the Buddhist club plays no role at all. My own adherence to the Buddhist precepts preceded my knowing anything about the teachings of Buddhism. What motivated me was, as was mentioned above, simply a strong sense of distaste for taking life and for the various other things that Buddhists undertake to abstain from. So while my own practice of the precepts has been far from perfect—rest assured that I am no candidate for sainthood—it has not taken much more effort to practice the recommended abstentions than it has taken to abstain from eating beets. I don’t like beets. I find them distasteful. I also don’t like killing, taking what is not given, being sexually careless and lying. I also don’t enjoy being around loud and boisterous people, so I also try to minimize my contact with them. All these preferences are purely a matter of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. There is no arguing about tastes.
Now, if my principal motivation in abstaining from the kinds of actions that made the Buddha frown is my own idiosyncratic sense of taste, does that not limit me as a Buddhist practitioner? I would say not. It does not limit me as a practitioner (unless my tastes unaccountably and unexpectedly change, which could happen if something very dramatic happened to me). At most, it may limit me as a Buddhist preacher, because I cannot preach what I practice. I am incapable of coming up with rational arguments for why I or anyone else ought to follow the Buddhist precepts. If someone does not already think it is a good idea not to take life, I cannot persuade him. If someone does not already think it is not a good idea to take someone else’s property, I cannot dissuade her from theft. I am completely unfurnished with rational arguments to support why one kind of behavior is better than another. But in this, I am not so unique. In fact, I would claim that in this respect I am exactly the same as Buddhist preachers, for they are also incapable of coming up with rational arguments for following the precepts. Telling someone that if they take a life then they will be reborn in hell is not a rational argument. Telling someone that the Buddha did not like theft is not a rational argument for abstaining from taking property. My claim is that all putative arguments for morality turn out to be, on closer examination, nothing more than statements of personal taste.
It is possible that there are disadvantages of being a moral-nihilistic Buddhist, but so far the only one I am aware of is that my distaste for moral absolutes and black-and-white depictions of good guys versus bad guys may have diminished my enjoyment of the Shen Yun troop.
My father had a sign on the door of his office that read, “Those who freely share their opinions are operating on the assumption that the demand for them is brisk.” Little did I know it at the time, but my father was preparing me for the interest in Buddhism that has haunted my entire adult life. The sign on the office door was, in my opinion, a bit too wordy, but I never shared that opinion with my father, because he never asked for it. (He did ask for my opinion on a number of things, but not on that sign.)
In one of my favorite dialogues in the Majjhima Nikāya (The Middle-length discourses), the Buddha is reported to have told one Prince Abhaya how he decides what is worth saying;
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has sympathy for living beings. Abhaya Sutta
Some people of our times have boiled the essence of those criteria down to a mnemonic: “Before speaking, THINK.” That is, ask whether what you are about to say is
Speaking, according to traditional Buddhist authors, is a manifestation of what one is thinking. All speech acts and physical actions are preceded by mental actions. When Buddhists speak of karma, they are speaking primarily about one’s thoughts, for it is from thoughts that verbal and physical actions arise. Buddhists have a good deal to say about thinking, and they have numerous categories by which they analyze different kinds of thinking. This is not the place to go into those details. There is, however, one kind of thinking that Buddhists never recommend. It is called prapañca, a term that will be left untranslated for now.
The fact that prapañca is never recommended is a sign that this kind of thinking is regarded as unhealthy or unwholesome (akuśala). But what exactly is this kind of unhealthy thinking, and how can one know that one is indulging in it? How can one take precautions against it? In looking for answers to these questions, we encounter a variety of interpretations.
Early translators of the Pali canon sometimes rendered the term papañca (the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit prapañca) as “obsession”. While it is true that there is an obsessive dimension involved in the kind of thinking called prapañca, that translation does not tell the whole story. What the term often means outside of Buddhist contexts is something more like elaboration. If, for example, one states an idea briefly and the idea is misunderstood, then one can offer a more elaborate account of the idea. Alternatively, if one makes a claim, and someone else disputes the claim, one might then counter the dispute by offering a more carefully qualified version of the claim. That more carefully qualified claim is called a prapañca. In this context, prapañca is a verbal action, whereas in Buddhist contexts prapañca tends to be the thinking underlying the speech. If a person making a claim is too attached to the claim being made and defends it against all criticism, no matter how reasonable, then the verbal prapañca may be characterized as intellectually obsessive in nature. An idea of which someone simply will not let go, no matter how good the reasons may be for dropping it, may generate a good deal of verbal prapañca. The verbal prapañca is not the obsession per se but rather the verbal manifestation of the obsessive clinging to the idea; clinging to ideas tends to make one rather talkative.
In Buddhist contexts, the mental prapañca that is so often warned against is, I am inclined to think, the making of unnecessary narrative. It is generating explanations above and beyond the mere observation of what is happening. Not being content merely to observe what is taking place, one may well try to tell a story about why something is taking place. For example, if I see someone behaving in a particular way, I may be tempted to try to explain the behavior by telling some story about the hidden (to everyone but me) motives of the person whose behavior I have observed. But attributing motivation to a mind I cannot directly observe is gratuitous in the sense that it oversteps the limits of observation. It is this overstepping the limits of observation that is the root cause of what Buddhists in India called prapañca. It is telling stories of the kind that no one can be sure whether they are true or false.
People who imagine that they have figured something (or someone) out often have a difficult time keeping their hypotheses to themselves. And so gratuitous thinking often gives rise to gratuitous speaking, for example, sharing one’s opinions with those who have not asked for them. (In really extreme cases, gratuitous thinking may even result in writing posts on a blog. When the disease has developed to that degree, the prapañca may well be incurable).
Prapañca is one of the principal ingredients in modern culture. Indeed, it is probably one of the principal ingredients in any human culture, for much of what we call culture is simply common agreement on which stories deserve to be told and called true, despite their overstepping the limits of observation. Nearly all of religious doctrine is prapañca that has come to be accepted by a community of people, despite being neither verifiable nor falsifiable through experience. Nearly all political conviction is prapañca, for very few political disputes can be settled by an impartial appeal to evidence collected through careful observation. Most philosophy is prapañca, and I would hazard the guess that one can also find traces of prapañca in other academic disciplines as well.
The Buddha reportedly said that there were a good many topics of conversation that he avoided. He did not like to talk about current events, sports or what people were doing and saying. He did not like to offer speculations about how the world came about or how it might come to an end. He did not like to speculate about how big or how old the universe is. All such topics of conversation were regarded as what in Pali was called samphappalapa, usually translated as “idle chatter” or “pointless speech.” Pointless speech is based in prapañca, which might therefore be called pointless thinking or generating pointless narrative or telling unnecessary stories.
No one asked me what my opinion is about the meaning of the Buddhist term prapañca. I shared it anyway. I obviously failed to absorb the lesson on the sign on my father’s door. So my advice to you is not to read this post.
“One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window.”—J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
A recent PBS American Masters documentary on the life and influence of J.D. Salinger reported that in the 1980s there were three assassinations or assassination attempts in which the assassins cited Catcher in the Rye during the trials by way of explaining why they had decided to take, or try to take, someone’s life. Mark David Chapman, the young man who shot and killed former Beatle John Lennon, reportedly said that he thought John Lennon was a phony. Chapman read some of the many quotes from Catcher in the Rye showing contempt for phonies. John Hinkley, Jr, the young man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan reportedly had a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his hotel room and also cited passages from it at his trial. A third shooting in the late 1980s of a Hollywood actress also reportedly involved a shooter enamored of and perhaps motivated by the book.
Like many young people in the early 1960s, I was fascinated by J.D. Salinger’s writings and read almost everything he published before he stopped submitting his work for public scrutiny. Like most young people of all times, I went through a judgmental phase in my late adolescence and early adulthood, during which I was hypersensitive to people I regarded as phony. One time I made the fortunate mistake of denouncing some acquaintance as a phony in the presence of my mother. In her college years my mother had been active in campus theater productions, and throughout my elementary and high school education she had taken a keen interest in dramatic productions I was involved with at school. When she heard me denounce someone as a phony, she drew upon our shared interest in theater and reminded me that most people put a great deal of effort into creating a character that they wish to present to the world. Rather than denouncing them, she suggested, I might try admiring the results of the efforts to present a persona. Perhaps the character they are pretending to be is not really who they are, but it really is who they are sincerely trying to be, or at least sincerely trying to convince others that they are. A good performance by anyone is nothing to decry, and even a mediocre performance can be entertaining in its own way. A façade is no less who a person is than what is behind the façade. So sit back, my mother suggested, and enjoy the show.
My mother’s advice was one of those parental interventions that had the effect of immediately changing my attitude, and it turns out that the change in attitude has lasted for more than fifty years. What she said had the effect of making me look more deeply into the distinction between authenticity and phoniness. Like a good many distinctions, this one does not stand up very well under close scrutiny. Although human beings are often inclined to see some people as more authentic than others, it is not at all clear what the criteria are by which one can make an informed judgment as to which actions are sincere and which are not, or whose character is genuine and whose is not. It is not even clear what the point is in deciding who is authentic and who is not.
In Jungian psychology, the persona (or ego) is considered to be an archetype of the unconscious. To make that claim is to suggest that few of us are fully aware of all the times we are striving to present ourselves as being a particular kind of person; we do so unconsciously. The Jungian theory also suggests that the persona one is striving to be is only part of the totality of who one actually is. The persona is a selected subset of our entire psychological performance. It is but one character in a complex drama with a good many dramatic personae. When one acts in ways that the persona does not fully approve, the unapproved action is deemed “out of character” and the persona is quick to think “That was not really me.” Others may see what we do as being fully in character and quite predictable, while the persona remains quite sure that the disapproved action was a puzzling aberration and a deviation from one’s true self.
My mother loved to quote the line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Louse”:
“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”
Over the years I have often wondered how much of a gift it would really be to see myself as others see me. Perhaps I am not alone in having been surprised a number of times by how others have characterized me, and when other people’s characterizations take me by surprise, my tendency is regard the characterizations as inaccurate. Surely, I like to think, I am not as mean-spirited and misanthropic as some people seem to think, nor as kind-hearted and accepting as some others seem to think. The truth (if there is such a thing) is probably that I am sometimes mean-spirited and misanthropic and at other times a bit more kind and accepting, sometimes demanding and critical and sometimes permissive and lenient. Given enough time and varying circumstances, I am quite capable of being just about everywhere on the map at one time or another.
Are there any of the regions of that map that deserve to be called who I really am? Are there any areas on the map that when entered mark me as a phony? To both questions I am inclined to say I think not. But I am so often mistaken about so many things, that I could well be wrong about this as well.
One of the most difficult of all Buddhist doctrines is anātman, which literally means non-self. A typical way of framing this doctrine is in contemplative exercises in which one is instructed to pay attention to the incoming and outgoing breaths. Paying attention to breathing requires deciding to focus attention on that one thing, and remembering to return to the breathing when attention drifts to some other topic (as it almost always does). Typically, when this exercise is done in a Buddhist context, one is told to make a mental note that paying attention is just a mental process; it is not the self, nor is there a self to which paying attention belongs. Similarly, deciding is just a mental process, remembering is just a mental process, distracted drifting off topic is just a mental process. None of these is the self, nor is there a self to which these processes belong.
It is easy to say all those words, and not especially difficult to follow the instructions for that particular contemplative exercise. Less easy is to know what is gained by disowning all those mental processes and not letting oneself see a self in any of them. The standard answer is that seeing all those processes in impersonal terms is conducive to wisdom, the antidote to delusion, and that delusion is one of the three mental processes that result in dissatisfaction (the other two principal causes of dissatisfaction being desire and aversion). But that is simply a claim. To say that looking at mental processes in personal terms is delusional and that looking at them impersonally is wise is to beg the question. Why should anyone believe such a claim? Why should one deem any thought to be either wise or delusional?
I do not have an answer, at least not one that I find satisfactory or am willing to try to defend. At this stage in my life, all I have is the question: What warrants the claim that thinking in personal terms causes dissatisfaction?
In the past I have experimented with several different ways of talking about the dogma of anātman. My approach has been to answer the question what exactly is being denied when one denies that something is the self or part of the self or a property of the self. Three possible answers have suggested themselves to me. One possible reply is that what is really being denied is individuality. Another possible reply is that what is being denied is identity. And a third possible reply is that what is being denied is autonomy.
The word “individual” literally means that which is not divided, that which remains a single thing, no matter how many aspects it may have. Denying individuality could be seen as affirming our internal dividedness, acknowledging and perhaps even accepting the fact that some of our motivations are in conflict with some of our other motivations and that our psyches are not always in the same mood. Jungian psychologists sometimes say that the healthy psyche is not so much an authoritarian government in which the Supreme Leader (the ego) directs all decision-making and banishes all dissidents to dark dungeons; rather the healthy psyche is a round-table discussion in which the ego is but one voice among many, and not always the voice that prevails. Delusion might then be the feeling that we somehow should be consistent, always on course, never wavering from a single point of view. Since it is impossible to be that way, striving to be that way and then failing is a recipe for dissatisfaction.
A second possible interpretation of the dogma of anātman is that what is being denied is identity, again in the etymological sense of the word. “Identity” literally means sameness. To say that one has an identity is to say that there is something essential that remains the same when accidental properties change. If one had this sort of identity, then the temporary angry or grumpy moments are aspects of an enduring self that is at other times calm and cheerful. An abiding identity of this kind would have no abiding qualities; it would make no sense to say, for example, of a person in a fit or rage that he is not himself today. On the contrary, he is very much himself at all times, whether drunk or sober, pleasant or unpleasant, careful or reckless. It is not obvious what is gained by believing in a self of that kind, nor is it clear what is gained in denying it. It is not obvious whether belief in an abiding sameness that is essentially unaffected by temporary association with different properties is delusional or wise, whether it engenders contentment or disappointment. Something that can be said about identity in the sense of something that remains stable as its aspects change is that denying it flies in the face of how nearly everyone experiences the world. It is a very unusual person who wakes up in the morning without feeling that she is the same person as the one who went to bed to night before. What could the point be of denying the validity of experiences that seem so very intuitive?
There is another sense of identity, that which attends the phrase “to identify with” as when we say that a person identifies with being of a particular ethnic group or nationality or political party or profession or religion or gender or lifestyle or that someone identifies with being a hapless victim or a successful entrepreneur or a no-nonsense pragmatist or a far-sighted visionary or a compassionate vegetarian. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist proponents of anātman were making the observation that identifying too strongly with particular candidates for selfhood entrains the dissatisfaction that naturally comes from feeling alienated from all those things perceived to be contrary to what one strongly identifies with. To insist that I am this and not that may make me uncomfortable with those who insist they are that and not this; it may also serve as an obstacle to recognizing that no matter how much I may insist on being only this, I can’t help also being a little bit of that. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist was saying, “the more you can desist from identifying with this to the exclusion of that, the less frustrated you will be with life.”
There is one further thing that the doctrine of anātman may be denying, or at least questioning: autonomy. Different cultures seem to have different attitudes toward the notion of autonomy, to being one’s own law and master. Generally speaking, in post-Enlightenment European culture, autonomy is more highly prized than it is in more traditional cultures. Perhaps the traditional Buddhists deserve credit for observing that the perception of autonomy is largely an illusion. We are all conditioned by the actions and attitudes of people around us, by the environment in which we live, by the indoctrination we have received from family and friends and social institutions, by the health of our physical bodies, and by countless other determinants over which we have very little or no control. We are all like corks being tossed this way and that in a maelstrom, and it may be no more than a fantasy to think we are steering our own course. In most Buddhist contemplative exercises, the instruction is given to observe things as they are, to accept them to whatever extent that is possible without passing judgment. In short, the instruction is to relinquish the conceit of autonomy.
Whatever it may be driving at, the doctrine of anātman is worth thinking about. One way to avoid thinking about it (or anything else) is to have too-ready an answer, too glib a reason for taking on the habit of saying that thinking is just a mental process, not the self and not a property that belongs to the self.
Having grown up in a family of scientists, at a very early age I acquired the notion that science is interested almost exclusively in the investigation of nature for the sole purpose of discovering what there is and formulating hypotheses about how what there is works and why it is as it is. This investigation, I was taught, is ideally carried out with no contamination from commercial interests, political or social agendas, moral considerations or aesthetic tastes. I was also taught that in practice quite a bit of scientific investigation falls short of that ideal. Now I am well aware that this essentially Peircean notion of what science is all about has been critiqued by many worthy philosophers of science and is considered by some to be hopelessly naive. Nevertheless, I cling to that vision of science and admire all scientific investigation that comes anywhere close to that ideal.
Having come to Buddhism as an adult (insofar as any young pup at the age of twenty-three can be considered an adult), I no doubt misinterpreted a great deal of what I encountered, because I interpreted what I encountered on the basis of the prejudices I had acquired through the system of indoctrination that in the United States of America is mistakenly called education. To be more specific, I saw Buddhism as being an entirely different sort of project from the scientific project. Buddhism, as I saw it, is not at all interested in acquiring an understanding of what there is and how it works but is rather interested in reducing eliminable forms of human unhappiness. Unlike science, Buddhism is ideally dealing in morality and in political and social agendas and in aesthetic taste—the very factors that are absent in ideal science.
My conclusion from all this was that, because people are multifaceted, it is possible for one person (and yes, I do believe in the reality of persons and selves and all those other realities that Buddhists try to dismiss as being merely conceptual) to be a scientist and a Buddhist, but that it is impossible to be doing good science at the same time that one is practicing good Buddhism. In much the same way that one person can be both a tightrope walker and a Grand Prix racing driver, but that it is impossible to be walking a tightrope at exactly the same time one is driving a racing car, it is impossible for a person to practice science at exactly the same time as one is practicing Buddhism. The practices are incompatible. At any given moment, one must choose which of the two to be doing.
Now insofar as a person takes on the completely foolish project of trying to be consistent in all his beliefs and practices, a person may decide that he has to choose between accepting prevailing scientific hypotheses and the very well-thought-out and purposeful dogmas of Buddhism. In my own early life, I foolishly strove for consistency and therefore jettisoned about 95% of the dogmas of Buddhism on the grounds that I deemed them scientifically false, or at least untestable and therefore lacking scientific meaning. And so I jettisoned karma, rebirth, hell realms, celestial realms, and nirvāṇa for starters and moved on from there to empty the entire medicine cabinet. As more than one person pointed outl, I pretty much discarded all of Buddhism, except for the haircut.
In my latter years, as I have grown less concerned with intellectual integrity and logical consistency, I have come to see that there is a great deal of value in the aspects of Buddhism I formerly discarded. This is not to say I believe the dogmas I once rejected. I just see a real value in acting as if I didn’t not believe in them. Buddhist dogmas are very good at doing precisely what they were designed to do. They make life uninteresting and boring, and that makes one less resentful and afraid of one’s inevitable mortality. We are all going to die. But given that life is so insipid and devoid of meaning and utterly lacking in fun anyway, who will miss it? Nothing could be much better as death approaches (as it does with every breath we take) than the studied indifference to life that Buddhist dogmas instill in those who allow themselves to entertain them.
We live these days in a world in which the incompatibility of the scientific project and the religious project has led to increasing jettisoning of scientific method rather than of religious dogma. Fundamentalism (which began in the Christian world as a conscious rejection of scientific method and has found its way into every other religious tradition) is growing in cultures all over the world with the result that people build their lives, and dare to try to compel others to build their lives, on ideas that have proven themselves throughout history to be intellectually and morally bankrupt—such as the idea that the creator of the entire universe gave a particular parcel of land to one small group of people to own and rule until the end of time, or the idea that women ought always and forever to be subservient to men, or the idea that homosexuality and abortion are offensive in the eyes of the creator, or the idea that the world can be saved only by a savior with a particular name rather than through the collective efforts of human beings who have learned from their experiences and shared their insights with one another through respectful dialogue. The human race could very well perish because of its attachment to the kind of rigid adherence to religious dogmas and practices that we now call fundamentalism. (Of course, none of this matters. If people wipe themselves out, something else will come along to take our place, and then something else after that until eventually the sun explodes without any consciousness that any of us who are made of star dust ever existed.)
When I heard the Dalai Lama say in an address to a small group of scholars and political activists in Montreal in 1993 that he thought the time had come to replace (yes, he used that word) much of Buddhist abhidharma with scientific hypotheses that have not yet been defeated, I was the first to jump to my feet in thunderous applause. A few moments later, a much more reflective voice spoke up quietly and said directly to the Dalai Lama: “Don’t be so quick to discard the tradition that has produced a man of your caliber.” My reaction in 1993 was to think to myself, “Oh God, another cloying uncritical devotee of His Holiness.” Now, twenty years later, I have come to see that the gentle, reflective voice, which belonged to the philosopher Charles Taylor, was saying something rather important to heed.
I fear that the mixing of two incompatible projects—science and Buddhism—is likely to weaken and ultimately undermine both. The only way I can see to keep them both vibrant is to keep them separate, to let each of them be the right tool for the task it was designed to accomplish, and to recognize that it has never been the case and never can be the case that life can ever be reduced to just one legitimate task. Gathering knowledge impartially without any political, commercial, social, moral or aesthetic motivations is important. That is the task for which the tool of scientific method was developed. Learning to switch narratives from those that inflict pain and suffering to those that heal and enable peoples to live peacefully with one another is also important. That is a task for which the tool of Buddhism was developed. Using each tool to do the task for which it was designed strikes me as wise. Choosing only one of the two tools and discarding the other strikes me as foolish. Allowing oneself to think that the two tools are both designed to do the same task also strikes me as foolish, even dangerously so. I do not have confidence that the Dalai Lama fully comprehends what the consequences of replacing fourth-century scholasticism with cognitive science and quantum mechanics are likely to be. I would therefore recommend learning to use scientific method when it is appropriate, and to study classical abdhidharma when it is appropriate.