Culture+language as humanity’s most basic echo chamber

Social scientists often celebrate the diversity of cultures and languages in the world, because taken overall/comparatively, this diversity resists the negative aspects of globalization (e.g., corporate conglomeration and monopolization, the colonialistic imposition of wealthier or larger cultures on smaller or poorer ones, etc.) and offers a wide variety of ways of thinking about life.

However, most people are not social scientists; for most people, culture means ignorance. Most people don’t travel very far from home except perhaps for a very brief vacation or pilgrimage, just do a socially acceptable job, marry within their ethnic group and possibly social class, watch their people’s TV and movies, listen to their people’s music, speak their people’s language (thinking in terms of only one worldview, using words other groups can’t understand, etc.), eat their people’s food… and generally ignore or resist other societies and the natural world beyond their people’s territory.

People’s lives are small and brief, languages and cultures are complex and time-consuming to learn (sticking with the one you were raised with is easiest), and culture and language are tied up with people’s senses of self/identity. Culture+language is perhaps humanity’s most basic echo chamber, and most people seem trapped within one or two cultures, unable or unwilling to view their own existence differently.

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The hells of strong emotion

Here are two early Buddhist quotes I don’t often hear in today’s entertainment-saturated, militaristic societies:

On one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel’s Sanctuary.

Then Talaputa, the head of an acting troupe, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Lord, I have heard that it has been passed down by the ancient teaching lineage of actors that ‘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.’ What does the Blessed One have to say about that?” …

[The Buddha replied:] Any beings who are not devoid of passion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of passion, focus with even more passion on things inspiring passion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. Any beings who are not devoid of aversion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of aversion, focus with even more aversion on things inspiring aversion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. Any beings who are not devoid of delusion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of delusion, focus with even more delusion on things inspiring 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. … (Samyutta Nikaya 42.2)

Similarly about soldiers:

“Then Yodhajiva[1] the headman went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Lord, I have heard that it has been passed down by the ancient teaching lineage of warriors that ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle.’ What does the Blessed One have to say about that?” …

[The Buddha replied:] When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle,’ 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. … (Samyutta Nikaya 42.3)

9 disgusting things about sex

Mainstream media find any excuse to make sex seem appealing, so here are 9 ways in which sex is disgusting.

  1. It’s a chemical addiction, and it’s built into most people’s bodies, so it’s very hard to stop taking the drug. If you think you’re not a sexual drug addict, just try not doing or thinking about sexual things for a few days, weeks, or months (depending on how often you usually do it). The withdrawal symptoms are similar to cocaine (anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, nightmares, obsessive thoughts, etc.). Sex is often associated with other drug use.
  2. There are few/no natural safeguards. Sexual cravings often lead people to create unwanted children, too many children, or to have abortions. There are also a wide variety of sexually transmitted diseases, some life-threatening. It’s very easy for people to be physically compatible but mentally incompatible, with short, lustful actions causing many difficult, life-long consequences for multiple people.
  3. Sex involves close, including oral, contact between parts of the body that are otherwise only associated with using the toilet.
  4. Sex-related organs of the body (e.g., women’s enlarged hips and breasts, men’s prostate and external sex organs, etc.) are quite fragile, and are prone to cancers, injuries, pain, and infections.
  5. Sex involves the body automatically creating things that are technically alive (sperm and eggs), and then destroying most of them.
  6. People’s bodies are just different configurations of skin, fat, muscles, glands, nerves, bones, etc., but sexuality causes people to get attached to certain configurations, putting pressure on people to modify their bodies, often unhealthfully.
  7. People often associate sexual thoughts with racist thoughts, preferring the physical features of their own ethnic group. Humanity probably began as a single species in Africa 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, and we keep moving farther and farther away from that genetic unity.
  8. Sex, and sexualized media, encourages people to revel/wallow in very self-indulgent, fickle, exploitive, greedy, jealous, aggressive, objectifying, shallow/mindless, etc. states of mind. Much like food advertising, sexualized media is very charged and harsh, showing exaggerated things in extreme situations. Often apparently/mostly because they are pretty, people often receive ridiculously large amounts of money and power as actors, models, or politicians.
  9. Sex has led to a variety of dangerous, exploitive, or criminal social activities: harassment, discrimination, segregation, strip clubs, sex clubs, porn, prostitution, sex slave trafficking, forced marriage, rape, genital mutilation, castration, etc. About 50% of people who have been raped develop PTSD (source).

Have we missed historical religious figures’ authenticity safeguards?

During his 50-year-long walking lecture tour, and especially if he had super-human mental powers (e.g., remembering the distant past, predicting the future, reading minds, and teaching devas), why did it not occur as worthwhile to the Buddha to write something down during his life, either himself or to have his closest disciples do it? He was supposedly a well-educated prince, and he lived in an area with plenty of trees and textiles. He easily could have written on leaves, bark, cloth, etc., and given what he wrote to local people to safeguard. People around India probably would have treasured and preserved what he wrote; they might have etched it in stone, as Emperor Ashoka later did, as the original documents degraded. Did no one, including any of the kings the Buddha visited, who probably had royal scribes and messengers, in any of the probably thousands of cities and towns he visited, take notes?

The Buddha must have known that people would use memory devices (e.g., repetitive stanzas in suttas) to remember what he said, and that memories change and get distorted over time. Fifty years is a long time to think about a problem. Even without super-human powers, he probably could have imagined the Sangha splitting, which it has many times, and unscrupulous people later writing new suttas and attributing them to him, which many people apparently have done. Yet he apparently did not create any mechanism for verifying suttas’ accuracy, completeness, or authenticity (e.g., using complex codes, signatures, or checksums). If he was relying on Ananda and his other close disciples to preserve everything after he passed into nirvana, why did he not ask them to incorporate such mechanisms into what they preserved. Or, did he do that, but we just have not yet discovered them? Was he not very concerned about precisely preserving the exact words/terms he had used and the rules he had made? Or did he actually write documents, but were they destroyed/replaced with documents that later traditions wanted to attribute to him?

Similar questions can be asked about other large religions’ central figures. If these people were so connected to universal powers and truths (e.g., God(s), karma, etc.), did it occur to any of them to include non-corruptible authenticity verification mechanisms into their teachings, so that later peoples would always know what they had truly taught?

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.