How do you know who you’re talking to?

A few questions for theists: How do you know to whom/what you pray? Even if you feel that some kind of God exists, how do you know He/She/It isn’t a malicious, malevolent being misrepresenting Itself as a kind, benevolent being? If everything is left to faith in traditions, institutions, prophets, etc., how can you confirm the identity, nature, agenda, extent, etc. of what you call “God(s)”? If there is an all-powerful creator God, shouldn’t that being be able to make all humans clearly understand Her/Him/It, and what might it say about God that all humans haven’t been made to clearly understand Her/Him/It (e.g., is God not all-powerful, not always loving, etc.)? If God changes (i.e., takes actions to create or affect this world or people), to what extent can God be eternal?

A conversation about truth between a natural scientist and a Theravada Buddhist

Scientist: If it can’t be measured with an objective, mechanical instrument, it didn’t happen.
Buddhist: Everything you’ve ever thought, seen, made, or done — including hypotheses, instruments, experiments, results, and theories — are constructs of the brain/mind. Everyone’s experience of life is inherently subjective; objectivity is impossible. Even one person cannot truly understand another person.
Scientist: But humans have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Under Earth-like conditions, our constructs are probably very accurate.
Buddhist: Under land-dwelling, great-ape-like conditions, the constructs are probably very accurate. But can a human really fathom the experience of something like the underwater echolocation experience of a dolphin, or the “rapid-pink” (Varela, Rosch, & Thompson, 1991, p. 183) combined temporal-visual sense that allows small birds to fly through dense bushes? Minds are embodied, and different species’ brains and bodies seem to be configured differently.
Scientist: Under ape-like or aquarium conditions, humans can observe dolphins and see what their echolocation abilities seem to allow them to do (e.g., navigate in the dark). Then we can create instruments (e.g., sonar), with which we can interact, that seem to us to allow us to do the same things as dolphins.
Buddhist: We can mentally construct a perception of physical instruments….
Scientist: Agreed.
Buddhist: So the goals of science are conceived from a human perspective. Humans see something they want to understand, or a challenge they want to overcome, so they set about finding a way to feel like they’ve understood or overcome it. What bothers me about this is that, earlier, you claimed “it didn’t happen,” in an absolute sense. How can a research project that was conceived in a species-biased way lead to an impartial, unbiased realization of absolute truth?
Scientist: When research is done on extremely large scales, and involves extremely brilliant people, I think the results approach absolute truth.
Buddhist: I will grant you that it approaches an intersubjective truth, which may be all that most selfish/greedy/angry humans really care about (i.e., a human-serving truth), but not absolute truth.
Scientist: Then on what grounds would you say that absolute truth has been found?
Buddhist: With practice, the human mind has the capability to internally turn upon, observe, and go progressively deeper into itself. Eventually, we think it can go to such a basic level that it is no longer human, and some Buddhists think no longer subjective. From such a perspective, we think that one is in a less biased, or possibly unbiased, position to observe reality.
Scientist: How could that be verified? How could a human, from their everyday state of consciousness, confirm that a Buddhist meditator has gone to such an unbiased state?
Buddhist: Well, we don’t know whether you scientists could think up a way to measure states of consciousness, but we think that people who can achieve such a state are able to tell whether other people have attained it. “Enlightenment,” as we call it, is like a club with very difficult entry requirements. Western science also has quite high entry requirements: a high degree of cognitive abilities, often many years of school, a controlled laboratory environment, etc.
Scientist: How much practice are we talking about here?
Buddhist: For most people, it takes about three years of vigorous practice in solitude (i.e., few external distractions), with a good teacher.
Scientist: So it’s independently, empirically verifiable, but very hard to verify. Most people aren’t going to spend three years sitting out in the woods, in order to gain the ability.
Buddhist: Right. It would be wonderful, if more people would make the effort, but not many are willing. The Buddha suspected that it would always be that way.
Scientist: Can anyone do it, or only certain, privileged people?
Buddhist: We think pretty much every human being has the mental capability. Brain-damaged or severely mentally handicapped people might not, but most people can. It’s easier for some people than others (e.g., people with a calm temperment who live a peaceful life), for many reasons, but it’s just a learned/developed skill, like playing the piano.
Scientist: So it’s transcultural and dissociated from things like personality, gender, and social position.
Buddhist: Yes.
Scientist: It sounds like Buddhist meditation, at least at a very advanced level, might be the doing of science from a more basic or simple, and possibly less biased, state of consciousness.
Buddhist: We would agree. Unfortunately, in order to communicate the findings of enlightened people to humanity, it is difficult to avoid the trappings of languages, cultures, institutions, and so forth. But, like Western natural/positivistic science, we think that there is basically one truth about one reality.
Scientist: Must one worship Buddha statues, wear charm bracelets, and so forth, to practice Buddhist meditation?
Buddhist: No. Monastic Theravada Buddhists think that the Buddha was just a man who accomplished something great. He is highly respected, but not worshipped. Westerners often mis-understand bowing as worship; in the Buddha’s case, it is only supposed to indicate deep respect. However, pop-culture and later Buddhist traditions sometimes take the Buddha in more religious, folklore, magic, astrology, etc. of directions. Buddhist monks are not supposed to participate in such things. It seems like some scientists also have faith in things like the scientific method and the capability of the discursive part of the human mind to understand everything. And then there is science fiction.
Scientist: Thank you. This has been very enlightening.
Buddhist: Not really, but please find a good teacher and practice meditation. Meditation is not the same as talking or thinking about things. Don’t take your discursive, human mind for granted.
Scientist: I’ll think about it.

Reference: Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press.

O ye religious studies scholar, to what degree is Buddhism a religion?

First, what is “religion”? The word has many meanings around the world, far beyond how Americans often equate it with the three largest Abrahamic religions. People usually mean some kind of everyday/mundane expressions or representations of faith in, or past experience of, “numinous” (i.e., somehow going beyond everyday experience) things. The expressions often include traditional concepts, stories, institutions, rules, practices, rituals, relics, statues, images, talismans, etc. To the degree that one actually experiences numinous states of consciousness, it usually is not called religion, but instead is called spirituality, attainments, visions, feelings, trips (if drugs are involved), exploration, or just experience. Religious expressions often have as much to do with mundane things (nationality, culture, history, politics, etc.) as they do with numinous things, and experiences that people call numinous sometimes feature mundane religious elements (e.g., Christians sometimes see visions of Jesus or angels, Buddhists sometimes see visions of the Buddha, etc.). To what degree that back-and-forth is accurate, or is people’s brains/minds constructing what they want to see to some degree, is hard to say. Arguably, like much of science, the mundane vs. numinous distinction assumes a conventionally “normal” or “healthy” human perspective. Some people’s everyday experiences may include what others would consider numinous. Also, what humans call everyday experiences are the result of specific evolutionary processes in land-based environments only on this planet, so other species might consider different experiences normal.

Buddhism is often said by Western scholars to have a philosophical or psychological monastic core, which is similar to (and much more developed than) phenomenology in the West, as well as a more religious pop-culture periphery. People usually encounter the pop-culture periphery first, so get the impression that Buddhism is quite religious. Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s (monks and nuns) are the people who most often and seriously study, engage, and experiment with the Buddha’s theories and methods in empirical or intellectual ways. Lay (non-monastic) people can be anywhere on the spectrum of more experience- or knowledge-oriented to more faith-oriented. Whereas a monk might only deeply revere the Buddha, a lay person might worship and pray to the Buddha. Like many religions, the pop-culture periphery probably has become increasingly embellished with dramatic folklore, ornate artwork, etc., as non-monastic people have elaborated upon Buddhism over more than 2,500 years. There can be quite a stark difference between a spartan forest monastery, which can feel more like a psychology laboratory, and an ornate city temple, which can feel like a shrine or art gallery. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, etc.) seem to have drifted the monastic core in more religious of directions, with the Buddha(s) being made more god-like and salvation-oriented.

Q&A on karma

Q: As you understand it, from an early/Theravada Buddhist perspective, what is karma (Pali: kamma) and how does it work?
A: First, some history and definitions.
The Buddha’s apparent innovation on the Vedic concept of karma was that it is not only physical action/deeds, but it begins with the most basic mental action possible. “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect” (AN, 6.63). This is in line with Buddhism’s very phenomenological character. “Phenomena [i.e., everything one experiences] are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation). “Heart,” in that famous sentence, is the Pali word “mano,” which is “the intellectual functioning of consciousness, while viñnāṇa represents the field of sense and sense — reaction (“perception”), and citta the subjective aspect of consciousness … it [mano] ranges as the 6th sense in the classification of the senses and their respective spheres (the āyatanāni or relations of subject and object…). These are: (1) cakkhu (eye) which deals with the sight of form (rūpa); (2) sota (ear) … (6) mano, with the sensing (viññāya) of rational objects or cognisables (dhamma). Thus it is the sensus communis (Mrs. Rh. D. Buddh. Psych. 140, 163) which recognises the world as a “mundus sensibilis” (dhamma). Both sides are an inseparable unity: the mind fits the world as the eye fits the light, or in other words: mano is the counterpart of dhammā, the subjective dh. Dhamma in this sense is the rationality or lawfulness of the Universe (see dhamma B. 1), Cosmic Order, Natural Law. It may even be taken quite generally as the “empirical. world” … i. e. the material world), as the world of “things,” of phenomena in general without specification as regards sound, sight, smell, etc. — Dhamma as counterpart of mano is rather an abstract (pluralistic) representation of the world, i. e. the phenomena as such with a certain inherent rationality; manas is the receiver of these phenomena in their abstract meaning, it is the abstract sense, so to speak. … As regards the relation of manas to citta, it may be stated, that citta is more substantial (as indicated by translation “heart”), more elemental as the seat of emotion, whereas manas is the finer element, a subtler feeling or thinking as such. … In the more popular opinion and general phraseology however manas is almost synonymous with citta as opposed to body…. So in the triad “thought (i. e. intention) speech and action” manas interchanges with citta” (from the Pali Text Society’s Pali dictionary’s definition of mano/manas).

In the centuries following the Second Buddhist Council in approximately 334 BCE, the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika early Buddhist schools tried to reconcile the idea of karma with the idea that people’s minds and bodies are a continuum of momentary particles/atoms/energies (for more on humans’ so-called “mindstreams,” see my 2016-06-12 post), specifically how an intention in one moment could lead to an effect in another moment. “Sarvastivadins argued that there exists a dharma of “possession” (prapti), which functions with all karmic acts, so that each act or thought, though immediately passing away, creates the “possession” of that act in the continuum of instants we experience as a person. This possession itself is momentary, but continually reproduces a similar possession in the succeeding instant, even though the original act lies in the past. Through such continual regeneration, the act is “possessed” until the actualization of the result” (Hirota, 2004; p. 5100). The Sautrāntika school developed the metaphor of karmic seeds (bija) and fruits (phala), or perfuming, to indicate that intentions in one moment leave some kind of impression on future moments, so that the seed eventually comes to fruition. Later Mahayana schools developed yet more elaborate ideas, such as the Yogācāra school’s concept of a store-house consciousness (Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna).

However it happens, the idea is that, in each moment, the self-other world we experience is an automatic/unconscious result of karmic seeds that our more-or-less conscious intentions planted in the past. In every moment, we are presented with these fruits, and we plant new seeds for future becoming. It is a one-to-one process; one intention plants one seed, which leads to one fruit, but people continuously plant karmic seeds. Hence, what we experience in the present is heavily biased by the intentions we have made in the past. For example, those who often cultivated anger in the past might now perceive a more hostile world than really exists.

There also is a debate about to what degree a person’s feelings about their body and surroundings are karmic fruits, and to what degree there might be other forces (Pali: niyama) at play, such as a natural environment, genetics, etc. Even if there are other forces at play, there also is an argument that the contents of one’s mindstream cause one automatically to seek rebirth in a certain place, with certain parents, etc. And there are arguments that mindstreams might be limited in how far they can (or are likely to) travel between lives, which might constrain their options, and that it is unclear how the process of unconsciously or automatically matching minds with bodies occurs (e.g., does it happen according to physical laws, or can the mind between lives (called a gandhabba) see/know something about its options?). This leads some Buddhists to avoid traveling to places where they would not want to be reborn.

Q: Must one always only have faith in karma, or can one ever see it directly?
A: Supposedly one can see it directly, beginning at the fourth level of jhana. As I understand, the Buddha asked people to have provisional faith/trust in only two things, before they attain enlightenment or a high level of meditation: that karma exists, and that the Buddha’s teachings and techniques can/might lead one to liberation.

Q: To what degree might the universe have a kind of built-in criminal justice system? What might that mean for police officers, court judges, soldiers, etc.? What about merit?
A: As a part of nature, karma is instantaneous and automatic, and the outcome is causally connected to the action that prompted it. How fair, or proportionate to the action, that outcome is seems unclear. Karmic fruits arise as they can, given the sensory input that the mind receives. It is hard to say whether the heavenly or hellish world that someone might perceive as a result of some intention/action would be as vivid or affecting as the original action. It might be possible that a karmic seed lays dormant for a very long time, such that, when it comes to fruition, the circumstances hardly resemble the original circumstances.

Karma probably is specific to individuals; it probably can’t be deferred up a chain of command. If one person even wishes to harm or punish another, that individual must live with the karmic fruit of that intention/action. In this way, a soldier who kills to defend their country, or a judge who punishes people in order to protect society, might make a kind of personal karmic sacrifice — accepting an unpleasant future for themselves, in order to serve what they think is a greater good.

The concept of merit — that positive karma can be accumulated, can counteract negative karma, or that positive karma can be transferred to other people — is popular in Asia. Like with empty vs. emptiness, there appears to have been a noun-ification of its meaning from earlier to later Buddhism, where it initially seems to have meant just the positive effects on a person of living a virtuous life, but it came to mean a kind of spiritual/karmic currency. My understanding of the early Buddhist notion of karma is that it is momentary, it is tied to an individual’s mind, and it just is what it is (i.e., it itself is not good or bad, positive or negative). For example, a soldier who is willing to kill because they love their country can plant karmic seeds of both the willingness to kill and the love for their country in two separate, but perhaps closely combined, moments. It is unclear to me whether one seed can affect another seed, and it seems unlikely to me that people could share seeds.

Q: If karma is intention, what might that imply about the entertainments (music, TV, movies, etc.) that people watch? For example, would Buddhism say that listening to violent music, or playing violent video games, can cause physical violence?
A: The Buddha warned people about becoming too involved in the strong emotions one often finds in entertainments. “Any beings who are not devoid of passion [or aversion or delusion] to begin with, who are bound by the bond of passion [or aversion or delusion], focus with even more passion [or aversion or delusion] on things inspiring passion [or aversion or delusion] presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. … Thus the actor — himself intoxicated & heedless, having made others intoxicated & heedless — with the breakup of the body, after death, is reborn in what is called the hell of laughter. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb” (SN 42.2).

One’s intentions set the stage for how one will experience the future. Listening to a lot of violent music may not actually cause one to use harsh language, to join a gang, or to do physical violence, but it sets the tone of one’s future states of mind, so that using harsh language and making violent choices will seem more natural, correct, necessary, not so bad, etc. in the future. Similar things are true for any kind of media, from greedy, lustful, or fearful media to loving, peaceful, etc. media. As I understand the Buddhist notion of karma, how one keeps one’s mind in the present sets the stage for how one will experience the future.

Q: Can karmic seeds be destroyed before they come to fruition?
A: Enlightened people supposedly can see how to destroy karmic seeds, and can choose not to make any new seeds, so that they will not be reborn again into samsara. They supposedly can do this either suddenly or gradually: they can choose to cut their karmic/mental stream completely and immediately stop existing in samsara (i.e., through force of will, stop their hearts from beating, their brains from even unconsciously thinking, etc.), or they taper off the stream slowly, perhaps in order to stay around awhile to teach or to say goodbye to people in samsara. Supposedly, only fully enlightened people can commit suicide without negative consequences, because only they can completely stop their karma/mindstream.

Q: Is it fair that enlightened people can destroy their karma? Does that mean that they are not held accountable for negative intentions/actions they did in the past?
A: Only a very pure mind — free of anger/hatred, greed/lust, selfishness, etc. — can attain the meditative states necessary to attain enlightenment. The karma that is left in such a mind probably is quite minimal and harmless, such as attachment to the body and to family and friends.

Q: Might the orderliness, fairness, morality, etc. of the law/system of karma suggest that it was designed by some being outside of samsara (e.g., a non-interactive God)?
A: Maybe. The beginnings and boundaries of space, time, and life as we know them are among the 14 unanswered questions. Whether the Buddha did not know the answers to those questions (e.g., how could even a very old mind that arose in this universe know what came before this universe?), or whether he merely thought they were not worth spending one’s short human life pondering (e.g., see the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow), is unclear to me.

People don’t just speak a language…

… they think in terms of a language. Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman ideas and histories are so intricately a part of the thought-world(s) of English speakers that it is usually imperceptible to them. Even atheistic scientists often unwittingly use such concepts and words when speaking and thinking in English. Societies form as internally coherent bubbles, based on old ideas and events, expanding over time to incorporate new things. To really understand a society, one must learn its history from its perspective and think/speak/live as an insider. For example…

Ancient Greek and Latin still are often taught in British and some American schools, because many English words and grammar constructions derive from them. “An entire mythology is stored within our language” (Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough). “If a lion [or even humans with different thought-worlds] could talk, we could not understand him” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations).

The notion that human thought (e.g., in mathematics) and experience are capable of accessing or fathoming absolute/universal reason, logic, truth, and reality may come from the Eleatic, Plotinan/Neo-platonic, and physicalist mainstreams of ancient Greece and post-Greco-Roman Christian civilizations. These ideas have been mainstream during most of Europe’s history, and continue to be a core part of many contemporary Western institutions (governments, laws, non-profits/NGOs, science, etc.).

The monistic and essentialistic views of those schools of philosophy often tend Western seekers/explorers of world religions towards other monistic and essentialistic traditions (e.g., Islam; Bahá’í; Vedanta, Vaishnava, and Tantra Hinduism; Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism; etc.).

Words like spirituality, animism, numinous, gaia, etc. usually suggest that people/things have spirits, souls, or essences and that non-mundane experiences must involve a soul/spirit/essence, though there are non-essentialist traditions around the world.

The word “creatures” appears often in science and science fiction to describe living beings in general, and it apparently implies that which was creat-ed (by God, presumably).

Judeo-Christians often refer to people of other “faiths.” Non-theistic traditions often emphasize personal development or experimentation (e.g., lifestyle modifications, meditation, or scientific experiments) over faith in divine mysteries and either do not have concepts of theos/God(s); limit those concepts to beings who are not all-powerful, omniscient, always loving, creators of everything, etc; or argue that people often invoke God(s) out of convenience, fear, or avoidance. For example, it’s easier to put a word on a complex and variable phenomenon (e.g., “depression”) and give the impression that one understands it than it is to actually explore and understand the phenomenon. Also, it can be easier to invoke God(s) in order to deny one’s own capabilities, or to defer responsibility, for solving hard problems (e.g., for controlling basic human instincts, or for living a quiet/secluded life and attaining a deep level of self-knowledge) than it is to make the effort necessary to solve the hard problems oneself.

Finally, Judeo-Christians often assume that other traditions involve prayer or worship. In much of Asia, holding the palms of one’s hands together (anjali) means a greeting/salutation, not necessarily prayer to God(s), and bowing/prostration can mean a deep respect or personal exercise of humility or selflessness, not necessarily worship (in the sense of devotion to, or dependence on, a deity). Jews can be Theravada Buddhists without giving up Judaism (see the Jewish Buddhist movement), because that tradition considers the Buddha to have been only a human who accomplished something great (i.e., who stopped karma/becoming and converted his mind from having an impermanent kind of matter as its base to having a permanent kind of matter as its base), and who is deeply revered but is not worshiped. Of course, there are people in Asia who are praying to God(s) when they hold their hands together, or who do worship the Buddha or monks as God(s) (especially Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists, and occasionally the pop-culture side of Theravada), but anjali and prostrations don’t necessarily have those meanings.