Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Outsider


     This post is the 105th weekly installment on this blog, thereby making it the de facto Second Anniversary Issue. I enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to communicate ideas with others like you. May you derive some benefit from it. Be happy.

     In retrospect, I suppose it would have been more appropriate to have named this blog "The Bahiya Blog." I named it Nippapañca because it's my favorite synonym for Nirvana, and because my website and email address were already called that. But nippapañca means something like "non-differentiation," and what can one write about that? The more one writes, the more differentiated everything gets. Writing about non-differentiation can get rather complicated actually.  
     But bāhiya means "outsider"; and that description seems to fit the contents and the author of this blog much better. Even though I was born and raised in America, I'm certainly an outsider to the modern American way of life, even to the modern American Buddhist way of life. But I don't think like a native-born Asian either, and probably wouldn't even if I could, so I'm an outsider in the East as well as in the West. I'm pretty much of an outsider in the Sangha also, and pretty much always have been. But being an outsider definitely has its advantages, and so I'm not complaining. For one thing, an outsider to any system can see it from unusual and interesting angles; and I especially like unusual and interesting angles with regard to Dharma.
     Also, as it turns out, one of my favorite discourses in the Pali Canon is the Bāhiya Sutta, a strange sutta about a non-Buddhist philosopher (hence the name "Outsider") who was so eager to learn, so sincere, and so in tune with what the Buddha told him that he became enlightened almost immediately, despite the fact that he wasn't ordained into the Buddha's dispensation. Anyway, here is a translation of the text. I'll follow up with some unofficial commentary afterwards. 
   
~   ~   ~

The Bāhiya Discourse (Udāna 1:10)

     Thus have I heard: One time the Blessed One was residing at Savatthi, in Jetavana, in Anathapindika's park. At that same time, Bahiya the tree-bark wearer was staying at Supparaka, near the seashore, being honored, respected, venerated, adored, and worshipped, receiving the requisites of robes, alms food, lodging places, and medicines for the sick. Then to Bahiya the tree-bark wearer, having gone off alone, while in seclusion, the thought arose to his mind: "Whoever there are in this world who are Worthy Ones (arahanto), or who have attained the path to the state of being Worthy Ones, I am one of them."
     Then a deity who had formerly been a close relative of Bahiya the tree-bark wearer, compassionate and desiring Bahiya the tree-bark wearer's welfare, having understood in his mind the thought which arose to the mind of Bahiya the tree-bark wearer, approached him. Having approached Bahiya the tree-bark wearer, he said: "Bahiya, you are neither a Worthy One nor one who has attained the path to the state of being a Worthy One. That way is not yours, by which you might become a Worthy One or someone attained to the path to the state of being a Worthy One."
     "Then who in the world with its deities is a Worthy One, or one attained to the path of being a Worthy One?" 
     "Bahiya, in the northern districts there is a city called Savatthi. Now the Blessed One resides there, a Worthy One, a truly, fully Awakened One. That Blessed One it is, Bahiya, who is Worthy, and who teaches the Way to the state of being a Worthy One."
     Then Bahiya the tree-bark wearer, being stirred in spirit by that deity, immediately left Supparaka, sleeping only one night at every stopping place till he arrived at Savatthi, Jetavana, Anathapindika's park. At that time there were several monks doing walking meditation in the open air, so Bahiya the tree-bark wearer approached those monks. Approaching those monks, he said, "Venerable Sirs, where is the Blessed One who resides here now, the Worthy One, truly, fully Awakened? I want to see that Blessed One, that Worthy One, that truly, fully Awakened One." 
     "Bahiya, the Blessed One has entered among the houses for alms."
     So then Bahiya the tree-bark wearer, in a great hurry, left Jetavana, and, having entered Savatthi, he saw the Blessed One walking for alms in Savatthi: serene, inspiring serenity, with peaceful faculties, with peaceful mind, having attained the ultimate restraint and tranquillity, a Great One (nāga) restrained, watchful, and with secured faculties. Having seen the Blessed One he approached him, and having approached him he bowed his head to the Blessed One's feet, and said this to the Blessed One: "Venerable Sir, Blessed One, teach me the Way. Let the Fortunate One teach the Way which will be for my benefit and happiness for a long time." 
     This being said, the Blessed One said to Bahiya the tree-bark wearer, "This is not a good time, Bahiya. I am entered among the houses for alms."
     A second time Bahiya the tree-bark wearer said to the Blessed One, "It is difficult to know, Venerable Sir, when the life of the Blessed One will come to an end, or when my own life will come to an end. Venerable Sir, let the Blessed One teach me the Way. Let the Fortunate One teach the Way which will be for my benefit and happiness for a long time."
     And a second time the Blessed One said to Bahiya the tree-bark wearer, "This is not a good time, Bahiya. I am entered among the houses for alms."
     But a third time Bahiya the tree-bark wearer said to the Blessed One, "It is difficult to know, Venerable Sir, when the life of the Blessed One will come to an end, or when my own life will come to an end. Venerable Sir, let the Blessed One teach me the Way. Let the Fortunate One teach the Way which will be for my benefit and happiness for a long time."
     "Well then, Bahiya, thus should you train yourself—In the seen there will be only the seen, in the heard there will be only the heard, in the felt there will be only the felt, in the mentally sensed there will be only the mentally sensed. Just so, Bahiya, should you train yourself. And since, Bahiya, in the seen there will be only the seen, in the heard there will be only the heard, in the felt there will be only the felt, and in the mentally sensed there will be only the mentally sensed, from that you, Bahiya, are not thereby. And since, Bahiya, you are not thereby, you, Bahiya, are not therein. And since, Bahiya, you are not therein, you, Bahiya, have no here, no hereafter, no between the two. Just this is the end of unease."
     Then, when Bahiya the tree-bark wearer had heard from the Blessed One this concentrated teaching of the Way, right then and there his mind was liberated from the encumbering influences, without uptake.
     Then the Blessed One, having exhorted Bahiya the tree-bark wearer with this concentrated exhortation, departed. And then, shortly after the Blessed One's departure, a cow, a yearling heifer, charged Bahiya the tree-bark wearer and deprived him of life.
     Then the Blessed One, having walked for alms in Savatthi, after his meal and returning from alms round with many monks, upon leaving the town saw that Bahiya the tree-bark wearer was dead. And having seen, he said to the monks, "Take up the body of Bahiya the tree-bark wearer. Put him on a cot, carry him away, and cremate him. Monks, it is a fellow liver of the Holy Life who has died."
     "Even so, venerable sir," those monks replied to the Blessed One; so having taken up the body of Bahiya the tree-bark wearer on a cot, having taken it away and cremating it, and also having erected a burial mound over it, they approached the Blessed One. Having approached the Blessed One, and having paid their respects, they sat down to one side. And sitting at one side, those monks said this to the Blessed One: "Venerable sir, the body of Bahiya the tree-bark wearer has been burned, and a burial mound has been erected. What is his fate? What has become of him after death?"
     "A wise man, monks, was Bahiya the tree-bark wearer. He entered upon the Way in accordance with the Way, and he did no violence to my dispensation of the Way. Completely blown out, monks, is Bahiya the tree-bark wearer." 
     Then the Blessed One, having understood this matter deeply, on this occasion he uttered this inspired utterance: 

     Where water and earth, fire and wind gain no foothold,
     There the stars do not shine, the sun does not blaze,
     And there the moon does not glow; yet darkness there is not to be found.

     And when a sage, through sagacity, a Holy Man, has known this for himself,
     Then from form and formlessness, from ease and unease, he is freed. 

     And this inspired utterance was spoken by the Blessed One; and thus have I heard it.
     
     ~   ~   ~

     Thus the discourse. The Udāna Pali, of which this sutta is a part, is considered by Western experts on such matters to be a relatively very ancient text, common to many ancient schools of Buddhism; although the prose and verse parts are not considered to be necessarily contemporaneous in origin. It appears that if a sutta contains both verse and prose, the verse is typically older, with the prose material being a sort of commentary which was later incorporated into it. But with the Udāna, some of the prose appears to be very old; and the narrative of the Bāhiya Sutta appears, if only because of the unusualness and freshness of the subject matter, to be possibly even older than the inspired utterance itself. At any rate some of it is arguably at least as profound as the inspired utterance. But enough of theorizing about how ancient things are.
     I've read some comments by a person named Leigh Brasington saying that Bahiya (I leave out the macron over the first "a" for convenience's sake) was probably a Brahmin ascetic who followed the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Brasington's reasons for coming to this conclusion were that a garment made of tree bark was common to these Brahmins, and that the Buddha's statements were reminiscent of teachings of the Brihadaranyaka itself, for example:
"The unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the uncognized cognizer….There is no other seer but he, no other hearer, no other thinker, no other cognizer. This is thy self, the inner controller, the immortal...." (—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.7.23), 
and
"...that imperishable is the unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the ununderstood understander. Other than it there is naught that sees. Other than it there is naught that hears. Other than it there is naught that thinks. Other than it there is naught that understands...." (—ibid. 3.8.11).
So the Buddha apparently modified the message of the Upanishad to emphasize anattā, No Self, presumably because Bahiya's interpretation of the upanishadic view of Self was interfering with his spiritual development. Thus this discourse may present some of the strongest evidence in the Pali texts that the Buddha was familiar with Upanishadic literature. No evidence is conclusive though.
      The garment of bark probably consisted of fibrous inner bark material woven into a rough fabric, like burlap.
     Supparaka was a seaport very near to what is now Mumbai (Bombay); so it would have been roughly a thousand miles away from where the Buddha was residing. So Bahiya's march was a very long one.
     I used "Worthy One" as a rendering of arahant because that is literally what the word means. Apparently it was used for dignitaries in general in ancient India, and was adopted by the Buddhists and turned into a technical term meaning "enlightened being." The ancient Buddhists did a lot of that kind of adopting and adjusting of terms. But araha meaning "worthy" was not even necessarily a positive word in ancient times. For instance, in the Pali texts someone worthy of punishment can be called araha, worthy, of that punishment.
     Most of the story is self-explanatory, so I won't insult your intelligence by explaining it. The Buddha's cryptic, Zen-like admonishment to Bahiya at the climax of the tale, however, is unusually deep for a Pali text. It's not just hard to understand, it's downright mysterious. But the profundity of the statement lies in its utter simplicity. The meaning seems to be something like this: If we experience mindfulness in such a way that we are totally in the present moment, not relying upon memory and associations at all to interpret what we are experiencing (unless of course it happens spontaneously, in which case we don't elaborate on this natural process but leave it exactly as it is), then the relations which entangle us in this world (thereby) fall away, causing "us" (therein), without support, also to fall away. Nothing can exist without relations. And this dissolution of an illusory self through being wide awake in the present moment, not clinging to an autobiography and a metaphysical interpretation to hold our psychological world together, is enlightenment. 
     Interestingly, it seems like most meditation teachers, at least in Burma, use the Buddha's instruction to Bahiya as support for their own method…and in my opinion every one of them uses it incorrectly. For example, teachers of the Mahasi method cite "in the seen there will be only the seen…" in support of the Mahasi method, despite the plain fact that the Mahasi method certainly does not teach only the seen. The Mahasi method and every other such method I've come across teaches noting or some other mental action or reaction in addition to the seen, the heard, etc. And if you are noting the seen, then you no longer have only the seen, do you. You have the seen AND the noting of the seen. With the Buddha's instruction in this text, the mind is essentially in a state the Christian mystics would call high contemplation, and the mind would be like a mirror, clearly reflecting whatever is set before it, but not reacting at all, not even focusing on this instead of that. The mirror clearly reflects, but does absolutely nothing, effortlessly. (Since writing this a monk ordained into the Mahasi tradition has informed me that the late venerable Mahasi Sayadaw himself did in fact teach such "panoramic mindfulness" to his very advanced disciples, although some teachers of the Mahasi method assert that one never stops noting in the practice.)
     At the part where Bahiya becomes enlightened, I rendered the word āsava, usually rendered as "taint" or "canker" or some such, as "encumbering influence." This is because the Pali word literally means something that flows inward, towards the subject, which is what influence literally means also. I have read that the early Buddhists borrowed this term from the Jains, who considered karma to be a kind of sticky substance that flows into or onto our soul (jīva) and weighs it down, keeping it in this world. Thus an āsava is an influence that holds us down, so to speak. It keeps us from being free.
     Also, I rendered the term upādāna, which is usually translated as "clinging," quite literally as "uptake," since that's what it actually says, and because it seems to me slightly more descriptive of what really happens. We take something up, even if only in our desires, and make it "ours," which of course messes life all up. According to the classic formula, craving leads to uptake, and uptake leads to the motive force of existence (bhava). I have read that in ancient India upādāna could also mean fuel, firewood; and of course it is the blowing out of the fire which is nibbāna, Nirvana.
     It may seem strange that almost immediately after Waking Up, Bahiya is killed by a cow. Not even by a bull, or even a big cow, but by a little, female cow. There are two themes involved in this. First there is the idea, found in the commentaries and ignored by most Western laypeople, that although it is possible for someone not ordained in the Sangha to become enlightened, they'd better find a bowl, robes, and an ordination hall immediately, because no enlightened being who isn't an officially ordained Buddhist monk or nun will survive for more than one day. It may be, though, that this rather strange notion arose after stories like the one about Bahiya. Bahiya may have helped to set the precedent, and to give birth to the idea.
     Again according to the commentarial tradition, there is another reason why Bahiya was killed by a (female) cow. In a previous life Bahiya was one of a group of four friends. One day, in a fit of criminal rascality, these four friends hired a prostitute to accompany them to a pleasure garden. They gang-raped her there, or committed some similar atrocity anyhow, which resulted in the girl's death. Her spirit longed for vengeance as a result of this, causing her to be reborn in demonic forms which sought revenge on her erstwhile murderers. In the case of this sutta she had assumed the form of a cow to wreak her revenge on the man who was now Bahiya. All four of the former friends eventually were killed by the being who had formerly been the prostitute. 
     When the Buddha says that Bahiya is "completely blown out" (parinibbuto) he asserts that Bahiya died in an enlightened state; and the final verses are also a "description" of that which cannot be described, i.e., Nirvana. No elements there. No light, and no darkness. No form, no formlessness. No ease, no unease. In short, Nirvana is beyond duality, and also beyond differentiation. Which brings us back to nippapañca, and the impossibility of really describing it, so I'll stop here.






Saturday, May 24, 2014

Dilemmas of Spirit


"No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent."
(—Bertrand Russell)
     Over the course of many years, starting when I was a kid practically, I have accumulated a non-definitive list of spiritual dilemmas that just about anyone seeking to live a religious or spiritual life must face. I've intended to write them down systematically for years, and I'm just now getting around to it. The list is indicative of the fact that the inhabitants of this world live in a system that is biased in favor of our staying unenlightened, despite the ultimate fact that the Spirit of Enlightenment is the underlying essence of the whole system. That in itself is more of a paradox than a dilemma. Anyway, without further ado, I'll begin the list (which is still necessarily incomplete after all these years), beginning with some of the more elementary ones that I became aware of when I still had long brown hair (it's grey stubble now) and wore tight blue jeans.

     ~Following our own idea vs. Following someone else's idea. From a samsaric point of view, from the perspective of "the system," we are unenlightened. If this were not the case, we wouldn't feel the urge to seek out a more spiritual way of being, or a happier one. So right off the bat we are faced with an inevitable dilemma: Do we follow our own idea in our attempts to become enlightened, or do we follow a teacher and/or an established spiritual system?
      On the one hand, we probably know ourselves better than anyone else, in most respects, and have a pretty good feeling for what inspires us and what doesn't. On the other hand, we are unenlightened and not fully conscious, and thus, in a sense, insane. We are trying to use an insane mind to cure itself of its own insanity. It's like a badly programmed computer being used to reprogram itself—using its own bad programming in its attempts to create a perfect program. So the attempts would seem, in all probability, to be futile.
     Getting back to one hand again, a spiritual teacher would presumably have more developed wisdom than us, and an established religious system presumably has already helped many others before us to cultivate advanced wisdom. On the other hand, some teachers are charlatans, including some very famous and highly respected ones; and religion in general seems designed more to perpetuate itself than to guide people out of the system. So in choosing a teacher or a spiritual system we must use discretion if we are to avoid spending our lives following a bogus system, or following a bogus guru.
     And this is where the two horns of the dilemma balance: We must use the very same unenlightened mind, with its unenlightened choices, either way! Even if we choose to follow a teacher, this very same unenlightened, foolish mind is choosing the teacher. And apparently most people who choose a teacher do not choose the best one. Either way, we are gambling with our lives. And if we let someone else, like our family, choose for us, we are choosing to do that too. If we are fortunate enough, i.e. if our karma is good enough, we will be guided towards, or blunder onto, a really enlightening path.

     ~Easy, worldly religions that almost anyone can follow vs. Difficult, unworldly religions that almost nobody can follow. As mentioned above, many religious systems are not all that profoundly wise—even though almost all religious systems endorse goodness, generosity, and so on. Any spiritual system that becomes a popular religion must appeal more to the worldly masses than to the relatively few who are more developed and ripe for enlightenment. Furthermore, as already mentioned, the people who choose a path to follow (not to mention those simply born into a system) may lack the wisdom to tell the difference between an enlightening path and one that is simply superstition laden with arbitrary rituals. And of course, just about everyone considers their own religion to be the True One.
     Considering the appeal-to-the-worldly-masses factor that all established spiritual systems are subjected to, there is also the additional sub-dilemma that wise systems tend to degenerate into the easier and less wise type. So it seems to be a law of this world that any religion that is successful is very probably much more foolish than wise. But if we use this as an excuse to work out our own liberation independently, we fall back onto the first dilemma mentioned above.
     So in this case, assuming that we are looking for outside guidance on our spiritual path, we can trust our intuition in finding an inspired teacher, or else we can rely on the fact that most established religions have a more or less esoteric wisdom tradition, since there are wise people (albeit a minority of them) all over the world, and they prevent their system from degenerating completely into sheer dogma, superstition, and nonsense. So perhaps the safest route to take in this case is to seek out the wisdom traditions within one's chosen religion that few people practice, and perhaps, as in Roman Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, that few people even know about. But even those esoteric wisdom traditions are bound to have their fair share of superstition and arbitrary ritual. So it goes.

     ~A rational, philosophical approach vs. An irrational, religious one. Western people especially prefer to follow a system that makes sense, and that follows more or less rational principles. Consequently they tend to prefer reason to faith, a philosophical approach to a traditionally religious one. This makes perfect sense, naturally. The trouble is, though, that reason without faith leads to lukewarm rationalism or lukewarm skepticism—in either case lukewarm, too lukewarm in fact to inspire determined, sustained spiritual practice. The kind of spiritual practice most likely to produce significant results is more religious and more saintly, and thus more faith-oriented and even more irrational. The greatest saints and spiritual leaders tend to have at least a tinge of wild-eyed fanaticism about them, at least while they were still seeking. After they find what they are seeking they may become much more "laid back" and even rational; but this relaxed attitude did not get them where they are.
     So we are left with what to many would seem an unpalatable choice: A system that is reasonable, or an unreasonable one, one perhaps laden with superstition and mythology, which nevertheless can actually get us to Wake Up. Logic and enlightenment seem not to get along well together. If we want to wake up we may have to become more irrational, maybe even a little wild-eyed and fanatical. Many philosophical Westerners may prefer to make sense, even if they sacrifice Liberation for the sake of it. Worshipping Hanuman the monkey king or wearing a brown toga and bowing a lot may seem too far out to be worth it.

     ~Objective dogma vs. Subjective inspiration. This is a dilemma which came to a head relatively early in the history of Buddhism: The second great council, which (setting aside the less successful schism of Devadatta) led to the first great schism, was largely based upon it. The Thera side of the controversy endorsed strict adherence to an established system of doctrine, or "Right View," while the Mahasangha side of the rift emphasized individual intuition and inspiration in the interpretation of Dharma. As Paul of Tarsus said with regard to the inspiration side of a rather different system, "The letter killeth; the spirt maketh alive." 
     However, history has shown that while, on the one hand, dogmatism can indeed result in dead, dry words and rituals revered as somehow sacred in and of themselves, following one's inspiration can result in the riotous growth of a bewildering jungle of strange ideas and practices, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, with the ridiculous claiming most of the territory. Returning to the example of Buddhism, Theravada became rather dry and dogmatic very early in its history, yet remained relatively close to ancient Indian tradition (at least scripturally, on paper); while Mahayana took the inspiration ball and ran with it, coming up with systems that in all likelihood bear little resemblance to what the historical Buddha originally taught, ranging from Tantric sexual techniques (including imagining copulating Buddhas) to reciting "Homage to the Lotus Sutra" over and over again for the sake of being reborn in a Pure Land in the West somewhere. So we seem to have a choice between rigid, medieval-style dogmatism or such a full spectrum of beliefs and practices that finding true Dharma in it may be comparable to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. But then again, some may find the needle of Dharma more easily in the jeweled haystack of Mahayana than in the gold-encrusted skeleton of Theravada.
     A sub-dilemma under this heading would be the no-win choice of dogmas in Western Buddhism: A Dharma adjusted (and thereby practically disemboweled) to fit the Western religion of Scientism (with plenty of Consumerism mixed in besides), or a more ancient, more traditional, and more far-fetched Dharma based upon the way ancient Asians interpreted the world. Modern Western materialistic "Dharma" is certainly more easily accepted by modern Westerners, and is more supported, yet it cannot accept some of the most fundamental and important tenets of Dharma; and the more idealist, magical, traditional approach is seen by Westerners as "woo woo" or as laden with pathetic superstition. Yet the modern Western approach is just as dogmatic in its own way, and thus just as superstitious, and, spiritually, perhaps much more limited. But I have discussed this sub-dilemma elsewhere—in fact it's one of the central themes of this blog—so I'll leave it here for now.
     Another way of considering this overall dilemma of religion is the rigidity of being locked into a system vs. the amorphous chaos of "no rules." I suspect different temperaments would do well under different horns of this dilemma.

     ~Extraversion, service, and "heart" vs. Introversion, seclusion, and "head." I consider this one to be a dilemma only in appearance, since Liberation can be found on either path; ultimately both paths lead to the same unimaginable state. However, some people see the choice between heart and head to be one with only one best path to take. Some say that with the world as messed up as it is, Karma Yoga of some sort, i.e. spiritual practice based upon compassionate service to others, is practically mandatory. 
     On the other hand, I think Saint John of the Cross may have been right when he said that even if one dedicated one's whole life to feeding the hungry, tending the sick, and alleviating the hardships of the poor, with a smile and a kind word for everyone no less, this person still wouldn't be helping the world nearly as much as a person sitting alone in a cell practicing high contemplation (which, in Buddhist jargon, would probably be called "at least 2nd jhāna"). What the world needs even more than heartfelt philanthropy is a high level of consciousness; and if one can contribute higher consciousness to the cumulative field by sitting alone in a cell or cave, then one can help the world more that way. But if one can cultivate a high level of consciousness and serve one's fellow beings, then of course so much the better.
     Incidentally, one person was telling me recently that with the world as messed up as it is the wisest and best spiritual path would be one of self-purification and the perfection of goodness, since the world needs as much goodness as it can get. But, on the other hand, it may be that we just don't have time for the old-fashioned way of gradual self-perfection and saintliness. It may be that for some at least, the wisest path would involve a more "tantric" detachment and disidentification from the "self," regardless of how pure or impure that self seems to be. Perfection doesn't exist on the samsaric level anyway, so if we can wake up without being "pure," then why not? But with our higher consciousness we're inevitably going to be gentler and more compassionate, so still there would be an advantage for everyone, not just for the tantric yogi. Plus of course, there's the higher cumulative consciousness issue already alluded to.

     ~"Everything is already perfect" vs. "We must strive to become perfect." The preceding discussion leads to the dilemma, or paradox, that from the Ultimate perspective everything is already perfection, or God, or the Dharmakāya, or whatever you prefer to call Ultimate Reality, yet from the unenlightened perspective, perfection simply doesn't exist. If Reality is perfect, then it can't be improved; and if we are somehow already perfect and enlightened, then there's nothing for us to do. But, strangely, it seems like we have to do a lot of hard work to realize this extraordinarily simple fact. The idea that everything is already a manifestation of Perfection would seem to render unnecessary any kind of spiritual practice; yet if everything is not already perfect, then trying to attain the unattainable may also seem futile. The samsaric "I" can never go beyond the imperfections of Samsara. The dilemma appears to be that either way, Reality perfect or imperfect, spiritual practice seems useless—at least for the sake of becoming perfectly Enlightened. As William Blake's devil once said, "He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star." Maybe this is why so many Buddhist philosophers have interpreted Nirvana as simple non-existence: In an imperfect world, only absolute zero is perfect. But Nirvana really doesn't mean zero.
     So in a way spiritual practice itself is a dilemma. Another way of looking at it is that effort will not liberate us, since effort is doing, and doing is karma, and karma is what keeps us tangled up in Samsara anyway. So enlightenment must be effortless. But still, we may have to work like hell finally to realize this. So, ironically, spiritual practice may require not only an unenlightened point of view but some sloppy, irrational thinking besides. We can't wake up by trying, but still we must try.

     It would be nice if, in conclusion, I were to resolve all these dilemmas, to explain the way through the labyrinth of logical complications and contradictions. But if there were such a resolution, then they wouldn't really be dilemmas, would they. The best advice I can give is Be Careful, and never be too sure you've found the truth, or the way. Have a clear mind, and the place on the path where you are will be clear, even if the path directly in front of you is not, and even if you can't explain the situation in words. Be Here Now. Do good, keep a clear head, and good luck to you. But "you" will never become enlightened, because "you" and "I" are the essence of unenlightenment. 



     



Saturday, May 17, 2014

Abhidhamma Studies III: Bradleyan Logic and Bulletproof Baby Vultures


     Logic is little tweeting bird. (—Mr. Spock)

     At the time of writing this, I still haven't finished reading F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality. If you are ever stranded on a desert island, or maybe living alone in a cave or hut in tropical Asia somewhere, it would be an excellent book for you to have, because 1) it's crammed full of strange, interesting, and challenging ideas, and 2) it takes practically forever to wade through the thing. 
     A few nights ago I encountered a strangely intriguing idea: Bradley claims that the smaller and simpler something is, the fewer, relatively speaking, are the relations which condition its existence which are internal to it. In other words, the smaller and simpler something is, the more the causes of its continued existence lie outside of its own boundaries, and thus the less it is self-causing, self-conditioning, or self-sufficient. And thus, according to Bradley, the less self-consistency it has, and so the less reality as an entity. So going with this idea, he asserts that, all else being equal, the bigger something is, the closer to totally self-consistent reality it is—the more real it is. This strikes me as mighty peculiar, yet I don't see the flaw in his logic.
     He elaborates by stating that any object of finite (non-infinite) size cannot be entirely real, since anything with boundaries necessarily has external relations which condition it, "infecting it with externality," and thus it is not entirely self-conditioning and self-contained. Only what is infinite could possibly be fully real, still relatively speaking, since all of the conditions of its existence would lie within itself. This is still just relative though, because F. H. Bradley, like the mystics, asserts that Ultimate Reality, "the Absolute," is unconditioned, with no qualifying relations whatsoever.
     The reason why I mention this in my useful and profound course in Abhidhamma Studies is because of what happens if we move in the opposite direction from infinity, toward an object that is completely elemental, simple, and small. According to our friend Bradley, such an object would contain none of the conditions of its own existence, they would all be external to it, and thus the self-essence of such an object would be completely "dissipated" and non-existent. A completely simple elementary particle would have no intrinsic reality, even in terms of relative truth. It would be purely imaginary.
     More or less ironically, the scholar-monks who developed the Abhidhamma philosophy held essentially the opposite point of view, and constructed an entire phenomenal universe out of completely simple elementary particles (mentioned nowhere in the suttas), plus the spaces between them, plus, sort of, the conditional relations between them. (Modern physicists may be in a similar situation with their never-ending search for the ultimately elementary particle.) The Abhidhamma philosophers were aware of some of the same logical paradoxes that F. H. Bradley perceived, such as the self-contradiction of an "individual" object or subject composed of a multiplicity of constituent parts, thereby constituting the seeming impossibility of mutually contradictory unity and plurality occupying the very same space and time. They tried to avoid this impossibility by claiming that what is ultimately real is that which is completely indivisible and elemental, and then postulated a minimum possible size in space and duration in time—then, letting alone those wiseguy Mahayanists, along came a 19th-century British logician, probably completely unaware of Abhidhamma, who declared what is ultimately elemental and simple, without being infinite, to be unreal and impossible, a mere appearance covering up an essential void. The question of how real something can be if all the conditions of its existence are completely external to itself, completely other, is worthy of consideration, even if we have no use for the likes of F. H. Bradley.
     It may be valid to say that the entire phenomenal universe IS composed of ultimately simple elements, more or less as Abhidhamma asserts, but that they are without self-essence and thus ultimately unreal; so that each elemental "particle" is caused by something else and is causing something else in accordance with what in Buddhism is called Dependent Co-Arising—which the Madhyamaka Buddhists, at least, identify with Emptiness.
     Before moving on to the vitally important subject of indestructible baby vultures, I will sum up the foregoing discussion with a moral: If what is big is more real and true than what is small, then you can't trust little people. (No doubt this is why elves, fairies, and leprechauns have acquired such a reputation for capriciousness and unreliability.) Also, generally speaking, all else being equal, men would be more real than women. Then again, elephants would be more real than humans of either gender. And I still fail to see the flaw in Bradley's logic here. I don't agree with everything he says, though.
This brief account, however incorrect to the eye of common sense, may perhaps, as part of our main thesis, be found defensible. (—F. H. Bradley)
~   ~   ~

     The final text in the Pali Tipitaka is the Patthāna, an Abhidhamma text consisting of five thick volumes in the Burmese Sixth Council edition. It is so complicated and abstruse that even some Abhidhamma scholars consider it to be unreadable. The Buddhistic scholar A. K. Warder declared it to be "one of the most amazing productions of the human mind." Patthāna, almost needless to say, is a towering monument of dogmatic intellectuality. (The whole thing, as far as I know, has never been translated into English.)
     The purpose of Patthāna is to describe all the ways in which phenomena can interact and condition each other. Orthodox Theravadin tradition asserts that a thorough understanding of these conditional relations is essential for a thorough understanding of dependent co-arising, and thus of Dhamma, and of Reality.
     According to this text, there are 24 possible ways (called paccayo) in which phenomena may condition each other's existence. Strangely, despite the extreme intellectuality of the system, some of these 24 paccayos are synonymous and redundant. For example, of the last four paccayos on the list, atthi-paccayo ("presence condition"), natthi-paccayo ("absence condition"), vigata-paccayo ("disappeared condition"), and avigata-paccayo ("non-disappeared condition"), the first and fourth are essentially identical, as are the second and third. I once asked a Burmese monastic scholar why some of Patthāna's paccayos have exactly the same meaning and function, and he explained, according to tradition, that the redundancies are for helping people of different temperaments to understand difficult concepts—if they don't understand it under one name, they may understand it under another. But it seems to me that presence and absence are fairly straightforward concepts (a tripod stands if its third leg is present, and falls if it is absent), while some of the most mysterious and inscrutable paccayos have no redundancies to help us. So I still don't know why some paccayos on the list have exactly the same meanings as others. Maybe the ancient formulators just liked the idea of a total number of 24.
     Interestingly, the Abhidharma referred to by ven. Nāgārjuna, and by Mahayana philosophy in general, which I guess originally came from the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism (a school closely related to Theravada, which split away from it around the time of the third council, and which, I have read, still exists in vestigial form in southern Japan), in its analogous text to the Theravadin Patthāna, lists only four conditional relations to account for all phenomenal reality—"efficient condition," "percept-object condition," "dominant condition," and "immediate condition" (hetu, ārammaa, adhipati, and anantara paccayos in Pali). But my purpose here is not to describe or summarize all possible conditional relations, much less their convoluted combinations.
     Mainly I want to discuss a particularly strange and interesting one: pacchājāta paccayo, "after-arisen condition" or "post-nascence condition." This refers to a condition which occurs after the phenomenon that it conditions—or in other words, a cause which happens after the effect that it causes. One might imagine, as a possible example of this, a precognitive dream or genuine premonition which modifies our present behavior. But Abhidhamma says that true precognition is impossible; not even an omniscient Buddha can really see the future, for the simple reason that the past and future do not really exist. According to Abhidhamma, only the present moment is real…then the next present moment is real…then the next one. So from this perspective it would seem like pacchājāta paccayo would be totally impossible. For that matter, even purejāta paccayopre-nascence condition—would appear to be an impossibility, since something that just doesn't exist cannot cause or condition anything in the present moment. But of the two impossibilities, a cause coming after its effect would seem to be even more impossible, if that means anything at all. 
     Venerable Nyanatiloka's Buddhist Dictionary, a very useful and valuable book (although tending toward some rather rigid dogmatism), defines the paccayo in question as follows: 
Post-nascent-Condition (pacchā-jāta-paccaya) refers to consciousness and the phenomena therewith associated, because they are—just as is the feeling of hunger—a necessary condition for the preservation of this already arisen body.
It seems that all the venerable author is saying here is that "after-arisen condition" implies a condition or cause which sustains, or helps to sustain, a continuing ("already arisen") chain, or momentum, of events. But this is certainly not the same as a condition coming after what it is actually conditioning. I fail to see how a feeling of hunger now could condition my pre-existent (and therefore non-existent) body of yesterday, or how a (non-existent) feeling of hunger tomorrow is conditioning my body today. It would seem, rather, that hunger now conditions my body (or rather the grouping of elemental particles cumulatively called "my body") now, and that hunger tomorrow will condition my body tomorrow. It may be that ven. Nyanatiloka was hard put to make sense of an idea that does not make much obvious sense. His interpretation of the condition relies upon a figurative manner of speaking, on conventional truth; but from the perspective of Abhidhammic "ultimate truth" there simply is no pre-existent body. All that is real, and all that is conditioned, is Now.
     The medieval commentarial tradition of Theravada goes farther out onto the limb, yet closer to the apparent meaning of the term, with its standard example of pacchājāta paccayo. The example involves baby vultures. According to the commentary, mother vultures do not feed their chicks. Instead, the babies grow because they are going to eat after they reach maturity. Thus the cause of their growing now is the food they will consume in the future. If we interpret it to mean that the chicks' hunger, or the intuitive appreciation of the fact that they will eat someday, is what causes them to grow, then we are back to a present cause for a present effect, and a genuine post-nascence condition once again falls to the ground.
     Of course, skeptical modern wiseacres with some knowledge of science could argue that the monks who concocted this example were laughably ignorant of principles of elementary biology, let alone ornithology. But devout traditionalists could argue back, and with some reason, "What! Do you wiseacres think you are wiser than venerable renunciants who dedicated their lives to the cultivation of wisdom? Have you seen a specimen of every species of vulture actually feeding her chicks? Maybe the venerable Theras who composed the commentaries knew something that you don't. Besides, some of the most central tenets of Abhidhamma philosophy are derived from these same commentaries." So let's give the medieval commentators the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were right. (Let's assume that there's an obscure species of vulture inhabiting a remote area of the Himalayas…) It turns out that baby vultures are, potentially, an invaluable resource, and extremely great benefactors to the human race.
     It seems to be simple logic that, if a baby vulture has grown at all, if its mass has increased by so much as one milligram, then it simply must reach maturity, in order to eat, in order to have grown. If a vulture chick has grown because it's going to eat after it reaches maturity, then by golly it's going to eat after it reaches maturity, and nothing can stop it from doing so. Thus it follows that any baby vulture that has grown at all must be absolutely unkillable before it reaches maturity. I assume there would be two main possible explanations for the unkillability of vulture chicks: 1) they are bulletproof, bombproof, fireproof, poisonproof, and, in short, completely indestructible; or 2) they are necessarily lucky. The form of their unkillability would determine their potential value to humankind.
     It would be a simple matter to determine which of the two possibilities above is the actual fact. All it would require is for a qualified scientist (or, if he is prudent, one of his graduate students) to attempt to kill a baby vulture—say, by shooting it with a high-powered rifle. If the bullets all ricochet off the defiantly cheeping bird, then it may be presumed indestructible. (There is also a theoretical possibility that the bullets would pass through, and the flesh would simply close up again behind them, leaving the chick unharmed, but I consider this unlikely. For instance, the baby vulture could then be completely vaporized, and it would then have somehow to reconstitute itself, like the legendary Phoenix. But, maybe the Phoenix itself was a juvenile vulture, which would be interesting, but somewhat of an unwelcome complication.) On the other hand, if all attempts to shoot the bird fail—for example the shots always miss, or the gun misfires, or some disabling calamity suddenly befalls the shooter (hence the prudent use of disposable grad students)—then we may conclude that it is necessarily lucky.
     If vulture chicks are physically indestructible, then they could be extremely useful. They could be used to cover the nose cones of reentry vehicles in the space program, for example. Or, more importantly, they could be grouped together and formed into containment vessels for nuclear fusion, thereby practically ending the world's energy problems, including our dependence on fossil fuels. But the following thought experiment causes me to doubt their superman-like indestructibility: If this were the case, then a baby vulture could be launched by rocket into the sun—where it would roast, without dying, for perhaps billions of years; and after the sun ceases to exist it would then have to float through space, probably for many, many more billions of years, until inevitably landing on an earth-like world where, after reaching maturity, if it had not reached it already, it could find some suitable carrion to eat. So it seems more plausible that they are just necessarily lucky. Even Jungian synchronicity could account for extreme luck, without necessitating any appeals to unknown laws of the Universe, as the indestructibility hypothesis requires. 
     Absolutely lucky vulture chicks could also be invaluable to the space program; one baby vulture brought along on each mission would ensure that the vessel it was on would not explode, or crash, or be lost in the depths of space. At least one vulture chick aboard every commercial airline flight would similarly prevent crashes and other fatal disasters. And if, through repeated bizarre coincidences, the bird simply could not be placed aboard the vessel, then that would be obvious, sufficient grounds for aborting the flight. Thousands of lives could be saved.
     I have urged several scientists to study this potential goldmine of unkillable baby vultures; but despite the potential huge benefits for the human race, only one scientist so far, at a small institute in California, has shown any interest—yet nowadays he is more interested in acquiring funding for a space mission to land on the sun. Instead of relying on as-yet untested lucky vulture chicks to avoid incineration, he plans to go at night. Perversely, NASA has shown no interest at all in the potential effect of baby vultures on the exploration of space. I assume they've lost all enthusiasm for such things since funding that study which determined that American civilization has reached the stage of irreversible collapse anyway. (For more information, do a Google search on "NASA civilization irreversible collapse." It's not funny though. It's rather a buzz kill actually.)

~   ~   ~

     During the writing of this article my Burmese friend ven. Iddhidaja has cautioned me that, if I were to study Abhidhamma more extensively, I might realize that it is true. I admit that sometimes what appears ridiculous on the surface may turn out to be profoundly true, or at least logically viable—the idea that big things (or people) are more real than small things (or people), for example. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that prolonged, intensive study of the Koran or the Book of Mormon would result in me acknowledging it as Divine Truth, and converting accordingly (although I will say that the Koran, at least, has some wisdom in it). Sometimes what appears absurd at first, stays absurd. I do like absurdity though. Nonsense is the beginning of wisdom.





Saturday, May 10, 2014

Elementary Buddhist Ethics: Wrong Speech Is Wrong


     And now for something completely different—a post on elementary, non-controversial Buddhist ethics. 
     To refrain from mūsavāda, alias "wrong speech," is the fourth of the standard five moral precepts which any practicing Theravada Buddhist is expected to take upon himself or herself. It doesn't simply involve the telling of deliberate lies, but also includes harsh speech (i.e. verbally abusing another person for the sake of hurting that person's feelings), divisive speech (i.e. badmouthing another person behind that person's back for the sake of causing others to have a lower opinion of that person), and "idle chatter" or gossip (i.e. talk which is of no benefit to anybody). I would interpret this last variety of wrong speech to mean primarily gossip, such as who's doing who in the neighborhood, or in Hollywood, etc., rather than simply hanging out and "shooting the crap," avoiding which would seem contrary to human nature, and it seems to me unnaturally strict for laypeople, or maybe even for monks. Such extreme strictness reminds me of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the so-called "Temple Scroll," which asserts that nobody should have sex within the city limits of Jerusalem, and that all toilets should be at least a mile away from the sacred city! Purity is nice, and may justifiably be rather strict for professional renunciants, but for laypeople especially such restrictions are simply inviting broken rules. Ethical conduct among relatively worldly laypeople should still allow a certain amount of having a good time, and talking about unessential things, maybe even silly ones.
     But getting back to wrong speech…the reason I have singled it out is because it is arguably the most dangerous of all broken precepts, even worse than murder or stealing. Consider: In tropical countries like Burma, the most dangerous wild animal in the forest is not a tiger or elephant, or even a poisonous snake. The most dangerous animal in the jungle, by far, is the anopheles mosquito which is the vector for malaria—a tiny, fragile little thing. We might not even notice when it bites. Yet millions of people die every year from the bite of this mosquito, while more tigers are killed by humans for Chinese herbal Viagra than people are killed by tigers. I would guess that the number of people killed by tigers worldwide nowadays is down in double digits, per year, maximum. Tigers are more afraid of people now than the other way round. So the mosquito is much more dangerous than the tiger because there are lots more of them, and because one is much more likely to be fatally bitten by one.
     Similarly with wrong speech: It is more dangerous than, say, stealing because it is so much easier to do it. Opportunities abound. One doesn't even have to get out of one's chair or lift a finger for it. And, unlike killing and stealing, one is practically required to tell at least small lies in order to get along in "civilized" society. But regardless of politeness, saying "I'm sorry" if you're not really sorry, or saying "I'd like to, but I can't—um, I'm busy" when you're not really busy but just don't want to, or saying "It's so nice to see you again!" when it isn't nice at all, is still lying. It happens all the time.
     But I've said enough about polite, civilized lying in other posts. So I'll point out a couple of very common forms of wrong speech that many people may not even recognize as such.
     One is sarcasm, which is of course usually a way of expressing thinly veiled hostility. It may be that sometimes it's not harsh speech; but if one is not saying it lovingly, then it probably is. Be careful.
     Another one seems to run rampant in this world, and I've even seen world famous Dharma teachers doing it—and that is carelessly breaking promises. We say we'll do something, and then don't do it. "We'll talk about that next week." Maybe something comes up, or maybe we change our mind, or sometimes we simply space it off and forget. But if we say that we'll do something and then don't do it, we have just broken a promise. And breaking a promise is not as serious as telling a deliberate lie (we don't know that the statement is false while we're saying it), but it is still a volitional deviation from truth. A Theravada Buddhist monk who breaks a promise is, according to tradition, required to confess it as an act of wrong speech. So it's presumably wrong speech for laypeople too. Deviations from truth are deviations from truth, regardless of who speaks them.
     Making a promise does not require the words "I promise" added to the deal. Simply to say "I'll be there" is already a promise; so regardless of why one isn't there at the appointed time, the promise has been broken. So…just as it is better to keep silent than to tell a lie, or to say as much truth as possible if silence is not a viable option ("Well, I can't say I'm sorry I did it, but I am sorry that you are unhappy right now"), it is better not to make a promise if one is uncertain of keeping it; for example, it is a good practice to qualify one's promises with "I'll probably do it, if nothing comes up which prevents it," or "Insha'allah," or some such. 
     For most of my adult life I've been sensitive to this issue of broken promises. To this day I still remember a promise I broke many years ago: I was in a big forest in upper Myanmar, standing near a creek, and I told a man who was with me that I would take a bath there. He went away to let me bathe alone, and I stood there, looking at the water. It was cold, and deep, and had big fish in it that might bite a wormlike appendage dangling around in the water…so I chickened out and didn't take the bath. I confessed my lapse from truth to another monk afterwards. This sensitivity is largely because my father, who was a pagan barbarian, had a moral code of only three precepts: Don't kill an animal unless you figure you've got a good reason (i.e., don't kill an animal for entertainment or target practice); Don't hit women; and A promise made is a debt unpaid. He was no saint, but he kept his promises, in accordance with his barbarian code of honor. He was a very reliable person in that sense. All one had to do is to remind him, "You promised," and he would have to give in, regardless of how inconvenient it was to give in.
     Anyway, it is important to hold truth as sacred, even in little things—maybe even especially in little things, since little ones far outnumber big ones. If you cannot be true to conventional, worldly truth, then it's hardly likely that you'll ever come to meet Ultimate Truth. So tell the truth, even if you get into trouble for it. Or keep silent, even if you get into trouble for it. But don't lie, and don't break promises…and if you find yourself in a position where you have no choice but to break a promise, tell the person you made the promise to and ask to be absolved of the promise. Unilateral backing out of a promise is not only somewhat dishonest, it is uncool besides.
     Being honest involves levels upon levels, and it may be an uphill climb, especially at first, because we may have decades-long habits of exaggerating, putting a subjective spin on a story to make ourselves look better than the other guy, or carelessly saying "I'll do it," and then, for whatever reason, not doing it. Even forgetting that one made the promise is no excuse; for if truth is sacred, sacredness is important enough not to forget. That goes for one's own virtue as well. It's not something negligible. Pay attention.
     Before leaving the issue of deception, I'd like to mention the strange phenomenon called "self deception." This used to be a paradox to me, and to some degree it still is; in the past I couldn't understand how anyone could possibly lie to oneself. Obviously, in order to lie, one has to know that one is lying—if one doesn't know that one isn't telling the truth, for example if one is making an honest mistake, then one certainly is not lying. Right? So how can one lie to oneself? We'd have to know that we were doing it, so that we couldn't possibly deceive ourselves. Or so I used to think. As I get older and become less reclusive I see more and more people somehow paradoxically lying to themselves, and believing it. I'm still not sure how it works, I suppose it's through dissociation, but it obviously happens.
     So don't be too sure of your motives, especially in emotionally charged situations. And if someone who knows you well informs you that you are being a hypocrite, or a jerk, or whatever, pay attention. They may be wrong, but at least they are telling you how at least one person sees you, and there is probably at least a grain of truth to it. Be careful.
     One other thing—and I got this one from a talk by ven. Ajahn Brahm that I happened to hear recently—the main reason why children lie to their parents is fear of being punished, even if the punishment is nothing more than reduced affection. So if you have children, it may be wise to make a deal with them: Tell them that if they honestly tell you the truth, they won't be punished, and you will be on their side, regardless of how badly they've messed up. Make it a promise, and don't break it. Just a suggestion. Hopefully it won't inspire them to go on a crime spree.
     To repeat myself, perhaps totally unnecessarily, if we don't revere and honor small, worldly truth, then it's hardly likely that we'll ever graduate to big, Ultimate Truth. Beware, because we're all born with an axe in our mouth that can hurt others, and also ourselves.


This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with wrong speech,
but I like it.

"APPENDIX:" Here's a moral question that I've occasionally pondered. First of all, it is obviously possible to lie through writing, or, if one knows sign language, through signing with one's hands. Thus "wrong speech" is not necessarily spoken aloud. So consider this situation, which maybe most of you have been in at some time or another: Let's say a dog is angrily barking at you in a menacing way, and you stoop down and touch the ground as though you were picking up a rock to throw at it—where there may not even be a rock in sight to pick up. (This usually works like a charm, by the way, and causes the dog to back off.) Well, have you just "lied" to that dog? In such a case one has deceived a dog into thinking that one picked up a weapon that one hasn't really picked up. Is this unskillful ("bad") karma? But maybe wondering about whether or not one is deceiving a dog is getting too technical and picayune even for Buddhist ethics.



Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Subject is a Subject for the Object: Buddhism Meets F. H. Bradley


     This post may be of little interest to most readers, as it is rather philosophical, and discusses how a little-known British philosopher destroyed the world. After that it moves in a more obviously Buddhist direction by regarding a rather interesting aspect of No Self. It's interesting to me anyway.

     Many years ago I read Clearing the Path, by ven. Nyanavira, a very intellectual, philosophically oriented British bhikkhu who was ordained in Sri Lanka around 1950, and who died there in 1965. The book consisted of a smaller book, Notes on Dhamma, that Nyanavira had written, plus many of his letters. I must admit that his letters made much more of an impression on me than his Notes. One effect they had on me was that, since ven. Nyanavira mentioned that he was reading F. H. Bradley's Principles of Logic, it inspired me to read something by F. H. Bradley. I'm not exactly sure why this is; it seems largely an intuitive thing, since Nyanavira hardly mentioned Bradley, and seemed to be much more impressed by people like Kierkegaard. But I've never been moved to read Kierkegaard.
     However, finding books in Burma written by relatively little-known British Idealist philosophers can be next to impossible, especially in the days when I had very few international connections, and had never heard of Amazon.com. Actually, finding any good English books in Burma can be a challenge.
     I did find out more about Bradley here and there though. He is important and famous enough to merit his own chapter in some histories of Western philosophy. Possibly the one thing he is most noted for is that he is the foremost champion of the coherence theory of truth. Most humans, mostly without realizing it, adhere to what is called the correspondence theory of truth. Scientism is based upon it. In fact the correspondence theory seems practically the default epistemological setting in humans, and probably in all vertebrates intelligent enough to have an epistemological setting. Stated simply, the theory affirms that a judgement is true if and only if it corresponds to an objective matter of fact. For example, the judgement "The apple is on the table" is true if and only if the apple really is on the table—obvious, especially if one doesn't think about such things much. But Bradley says there simply are no such objective matters of fact. There are no apples, and no tables; such things are mere appearance, and not ultimately true or real. According to the coherence theory, a judgement is true if and only if it does not contradict itself or any other judgement already acknowledged to be true. In fact, Bradley considered non-contradiction to be the only criterion for truth. According to him, "The apple is on the table" (or, for that matter, "The particle is in the atom's nucleus") cannot possibly be true, since the very existence of an apple (or a particle) is logically self-contradictory. This may seem far-fetched, but two things should be considered: 1) F. H. Bradley was a brilliant logician, and backed up everything he asserted with rigorous, ruthless logic; and 2) Buddhism teaches pretty much the same thing, even though most Buddhists may not study Dharma enough to be fully aware of it. We live and function as individuals in a world of mere appearance, not reality. (And Scientism does not rectify this situation at all, except superficially.)
     And then, a few months ago, a generous fellow in Canada donated me up a copy of Bradley's Appearance and Reality. The book is literally an antique, printed in 1906. Despite its ancientness, nobody has ever read the whole book, as it is so old that the pages have to be cut with a knife, and when I got it only about half of the pages had been cut. This is a little sad, considering that, opposite the title page, there is a quote from the International Journal of Ethics stating, among other things, "It is hardly too much to say that the book is altogether the most important independent work on Metaphysics that has ever been written in English." The last attempt to read it was apparently around 80 years ago, as I found a bookmark consisting of a hotel bill for telephone service, amounting to 10¢, and dated June 20, 1933.
     America is just too distracting of a place for me to read a book like that, so I waited till I was chilled out in the seclusion of a Burmese cave before attempting it. It is a bit hard to read in places, mainly because I'm unused to the language, but I've been reading it eagerly, yet with a mild thrill of dread, as though thinking, How will his ruthless logic destroy my point of view? But destroying points of view can be very good Dharma. Fear is the mind killer.
     Appearance and Reality begins with the systematic destruction of the entire phenomenal world. All forms of materialism are logically dismissed in chapter I (although Bradley continues occasionally to flog the dead horse for several more chapters). One of his main logical arguments for destroying just about everything is that just about anything—an apple, a particle, extension in space, duration in time, a sequence of causes and effects, etc.—may be seen as a unity and as a plurality. But simultaneous unity and plurality are mutually contradictory. Is a person an individual being, or an assemblage of parts? If both, we have contradiction and mere appearance, not reality. In practical life we deal with this muddle of shifting identities by emphasizing what is most useful and ignoring the rest—but ignoring things is not the way to see reality as it is. And if we say that something is an assemblage of parts forming a unity, then we have the further problem of relations between these parts. Are the relations real? Are similar to and different from real essences, or just imaginary? Even a solitary object disappears into an unthinkable void without these relations, at least the relation of difference between figure and ground. We can't have relations without things to relate, but apparently we can't have things without relations either, and they seem, somehow, paradoxically, to cause each other. Furthermore, how is a particle related to a relation that relates to it? What is the relation between the particle and the different from which surrounds it? One may require an infinite regress of relations to relations to relations. Things get paradoxically complicated.
     I'll spare you the messy details. If you're interested, you can try to read the book, if you can find it. If you're in America, you might consider taking the book to a different country where philosophy books are easier to read. I will mention, though, that those of you who are familiar with Buddhist philosophy may have noticed a resemblance between the discussion above and Buddhist arguments favoring the doctrine of anattā, No Self. The dissonance between an individual unity and its total of constituent parts is well-known to ancient Buddhist thought. Yet Bradley never mentions Buddhism, and may have been almost completely innocent of it, although it's extremely likely that he had read something about it, at least in the writings of Schopenhauer. So it's interesting to me that Bradley arrived at many "dharmic" ideas almost totally independently of ancient Indian Dharma. 
     For several years I've been semi-intending to write an article discussing a certain aspect of self and No Self, for the purpose of pointing out a weird aspect of No Self that we experience all the time in everyday life, namely, the psychological subject as distinct from the object. But now I have found that Bradley has already written most of the article for me; in chapters IX and X of his book he demolishes (or at least attempts to demolish) every conceivable interpretation of "self," taking special care to do this apparently because in the late 19th century many Western philosophers, no doubt influenced by Christianity, considered the individual self or soul to be the only thing we could be sure to be Real. Modern Western philosophy practically began with this idea—"I think, therefore I am." Following is Bradley's description of the psychological subject.
     We are now brought naturally to a most important way of understanding the self. We have, up to the present, ignored the distinction of subject and object. We have made a start from the whole psychical individual, and have tried to find the self there or in connection with that. But this individual, we saw, contained both object and subject, both not-self and self. At least, the not-self must clearly be allowed to be in it, so far as that enters into relation with the self and appears as an object. The reader may prefer another form of expression, but he must, I think, agree as to the fact. If you take what in the widest sense is inside a man's mind, you will find there both subject and object and their relation. This will, at all events, be the case both in perception and thought, and again in desire and volition. And this self, which is opposed to the not-self, will most emphatically not coincide with the self, if that is taken as the individual or the essential individual. The deplorable confusion, which is too prevalent on this head, compels me to invite the reader's special attention….
     Now that subject and object have contents and are actual psychical groups appears to me evident. I am aware that too often writers speak of the Ego as of something not essentially qualified by this or that psychical matter. And I do not deny that in a certain use that language might be defended. But if we consider, as we are considering here, what we are to understand by that object and subject in relation, which at a given time we find existing in a soul, the case is quite altered. The Ego that pretends to be anything either before or beyond its concrete psychical filling, is a gross fiction and mere monster, and for no purpose admissible. And the question surely may be settled by observation. Take any case of perception, or whatever you please, where this relation of object to subject is found as a fact. There, I presume, no one will deny that the object, at all events, is a concrete phenomenon. It has a character which exists as, or in, a mental fact. And, if we turn from this to the subject, is there any more cause for doubt? Surely in every case that contains a mass of feeling, if not also of other psychical existence. When I see, or perceive, or understand, I (my term of the relation) am palpably, and perhaps even painfully, concrete. And when I will or desire, it surely is ridiculous to take the self as not qualified by particular psychical fact. Evidently any self which we can find is some concrete form of unity of psychical existence. And whoever wishes to introduce it as something (now or at any time) apart or beyond, clearly does not rest his case upon observation. He is importing into the facts a metaphysical chimera, which, in no sense existing, can do no work; and which, even if it existed, would be worse than useless.
     The self and not-self, as discoverable, are concrete groups, and the question is as to the content of these. What is the content, if any, which is essentially not-self or self? Perhaps the best way of beginning this inquiry is to ask whether there is anything which may not become an object and, in that sense, a not-self. We certainly seem able to set everything over against ourselves. We begin from the outside, but the distinguishing process becomes more inward, until it ends with deliberate and conscious introspection. Here we attempt to set before, and so opposite to, self our most intimate features. We cannot do this with all at any one time, but with practice and labour one detail after another is detached from the felt background and brought before our view. It is far from certain that at some one time every feature of the self has, sooner or later, taken its place in the not-self. But it is quite certain that this holds of by far the larger part. And we are hence compelled to admit that very little of the self can belong to it essentially. Let us now turn from the theoretical to the practical relation. Is there here anything, let us ask, which is incapable of becoming an object to my will or desire? But what becomes such an object is clearly a not-self and opposed to the self. Let us go at once to the region that seems most internal and inalienable. As introspection discloses this or that feature in ourselves, can we not wish that it were otherwise? May not everything that we find within us be felt as a limit and as a not-self, against which we either do, or conceivably might, react. Take, for instance, some slight pain. We may have been feeling, in our dimmest and most inward recesses, uneasy and discomposed; and, so soon as this disturbing feature is able to be noticed, we at once react against it. The disquieting sensation becomes clearly a not-self, which we desire to remove. And, I think, we must accept the result that, if not everything may become at times a practical not-self, it is at least hard to find exceptions.
     Let us now, passing to the other side of both these relations, ask if the not-self contains anything which belongs to it exclusively. It will not be easy to discover many such elements. In the theoretical relation it is quite clear that not everything can be an object, all together and at once. At any one moment that which is in any sense before me must be limited. What are we to say then becomes of that remainder of the not-self which clearly has not, even for the time, passed wholly from my mind? I do not mean those features of the environment to which I fail to attend specially, but which I still go on perceiving as something before me. I refer to the features which have now sunk below this level. These are not even a setting or a fringe to the object of my mind. They have passed lower into the general background of feeling, from which that distinct object with its indistinct setting is detached. But this means that for the time they have passed into the self. A constant sound will afford us a very good instance. (Another instance would be the sensations from my own clothes.) That may be made into the principal object of my mind, or it may be an accompaniment of that object more or less definite. But there is a further stage, where you cannot say that the sensation has ceased, and where yet it is no feature in what comes as the not-self. It has become now one among the many elements of my feeling, and it has passed into that self for which the not-self exists. I will not ask if with any, or with what, portions of the not-self this relapse may be impossible, for it is enough that it should be possible with a very great deal. Let us go on to look at the same thing from the practical side. There it will surely be very difficult to fix on elements which essentially must confront and limit me. There are some to which in fact I seem never to be practically related; and there are others which are the object of my will or desire only from occasion to occasion. And if we cannot find anything which is essential to the not-self, then everything, it would appear, so far as it enters my mind, may form part of the felt mass. But if so, it would seem for the time to be connected with that group against which the object of will comes. And thus once again the not-self has become self.
     Next come two paragraphs in which he discusses the possibility of some quality in the subjective "self" that cannot be distinguished and attended to as the object, or "not-self," like something deep and obscure in the subconscious mind; and also of some quality that can only be a conscious object, like an emphatic, deliberate thought. He consents to the idea that such is possible, but that "The main bulk of the elements on each side is interchangeable," and that any deep residue of undistinguishable subject/"self" would be too narrow in scope to constitute and characterize an essential self. And it may be that the "deliberate and conscious introspection" by which "with practice and labour one detail after another is detached from the felt background and brought before our view" that he mentioned previously, if refined by advanced mindfulness meditation, could access the entire subject, little by little, or possibly even all at once. Bradley continues: 
     If at this point we inquire whether the present meaning of self will coincide with those we had before, the answer is not doubtful. For clearly well-nigh everything contained in the psychical individual may be at one time part of self and at another time part of not-self. Nor would it be possible to find an essence of the man which was incapable of being opposed to the self, as an object for thought and for will. At least, if found, that essence would consist in a residue so narrow as assuredly to be insufficient for making an individual. And it could gain concreteness only by receiving into its character a mortal inconsistency. The mere instance of internal volition should by itself be enough to compel reflection. There you may take your self as deep-lying and as inward as you please, and may narrow it to the centre; yet these contents may be placed in opposition to your self, and you may desire their alteration. And here surely there is an end of any absolute confinement or exclusive location of the self. For the self is at one moment the whole individual, inside which the opposites and their tension is contained; and, again, it is one opposite, limited by and struggling against an opponent. 
     And the fact of the matter seems this. The whole psychical mass, which fills the soul at any moment, is the self so far as this mass is only felt. So far, that is, as the mass is given together in one whole, and not divisible from the group which is especially connected with pleasure and pain, this entire whole is felt as self. But, on the other side, elements of content are distinguished from the mass, which therefore is, so far, the background against which perception takes place. But this relation of not-self to self does not destroy the old entire self. This is still the whole mass inside which the distinction and the relation falls. And self in these two meanings coexists with itself, though it certainly does not coincide. Further, in the practical relation a new feature becomes visible. There we have, first of all, self as the whole felt condition. We have, next, the not-self which is felt as opposing the self. We have, further, the group, which is limited and struggles to expand, so causing the tension. This is, of course, felt specially as the self, and within this there falls a new feature worth noticing. In desire and volition we have an idea held against the existing not-self, the idea being that of a change in that not-self. This idea not only is felt to be a part of that self which is opposed to the not-self,—it is felt also to be the main feature and the prominent element there. Thus we say of a man that his whole self was centred in a certain particular end.
     So we arrive at the weird conclusion that what we feel to be our self, all we are experientially, is the semiconscious background of whatever we're attending to! And that subconscious background is constantly changing; although enough of it stays the same that we feel like the same me from one moment to the next. That strikes me as delightfully weird.
     It also backs up one of the most important things I have learned in all my years as a meditating monk. It doesn't matter what it is: if you can observe it, you may know it's not you. This is because if you are anything at all, you are the one doing the observing, not whatever it is that is being observed. If you can look at your hand, you know your hand is not you. Similarly, if you can look at anger or fear, you may know that this anger or fear is not you—and thus you can detach from it and let it go, instead of identifying with it and being its slave. Even just observing is already detaching. I consider this to be of fundamental importance in Dhamma. 
     I would tentatively disagree with Bradley on one point though (and disagreeing with logicians can be scary). He seems to think that only the object is perceived, and that the subjective self is only felt. But I tend to agree with George Berkeley's dictum, "To exist is to be perceived." Or, as the medieval Indian Buddhist logician ven. Dharmottara has written, "Pure sensation without any perceptual judgement is as though it did not exist at all." In fact in Buddhism generally it is taught that, in ordinary consciousness at least, we cannot be aware of anything without perceiving it. So I would be inclined to hypothesize that all of the background of the object, everything that is not specifically focused on, would be part of the subjective "self," not of the "not-self." And what Bradley says is felt, I would say is vaguely or semiconsciously perceived. And vague emotions and ideas evoked by the object would no doubt be a major aspect of the subject, although Bradley barely mentions this.
     If, through meditation, the object is reduced to zero, as in some forms of advanced samatha, or else the object expands outward and becomes all-inclusive, as may perhaps happen with very advanced mindfulness practice, then the dualistic relation of subject and object would collapse, and the illusory feeling of an individual self conditioned by it would evaporate, at least temporarily. Try it, and find out for yourself.
     As a kind of illustration, or summary, of the main idea of this article, we may consider the example of a carpenter pounding nails. His mind is focused intently on the nail he is pounding. That is his object, for the moment. Everything else—his arm swinging the hammer, the pressure of his feet against a rung of the ladder, the breeze and the heat of the sun on his neck, the tweeting of a bird in the distance, the sound of his own pounding, a hungry feeling in his belly, a fleeting memory of his wife's voice, even perhaps all the blurry images in his peripheral vision—adds together into his subjective feeling of ME. Then, suddenly, he hits his thumb with the hammer, and with lightning speed his thumb, which up to that point was part of the background of ME, now becomes "my messed up thumb that hurts like a son of a bitch." The nail is no longer in his world. The thumb is now the object, and is not him any more, until he exclaims to a friend about it; whereupon what he is saying or who he is saying it to becomes the object, and his throbbing, bleeding thumb instantaneously becomes part of him again, although now rather a larger and more important part.
     I may as well add here that some of the Mahayana Buddhists, and maybe some Hindus also, have another explanation for the subjective feeling of "self." According to them it is a matter of "misplaced absoluteness." Ultimate Reality necessarily pervades the entire Universe, and thus it pervades each person's subjective experience; and we are all semiconsciously aware of this unconditioned infinity, to some degree. So we mistakenly apply this deep awareness of Reality to the idea or feeling of an individual being's self. I'm not sure what Bradley would say about that. I'm not even sure what a Theravadin Abhidhamma scholar would say about it. 
     I usually don't flip ahead to see how a book ends. If I were reading a novel, such behavior would be anathema. But I flipped ahead to see what the last sentence of Appearance and Reality was, and this is what I found:
Outside of spirit there is not, and there cannot be, any reality, and, the more that anything is spiritual, so much the more is it veritably real.
It's good to know that ruthless logic can arrive at such conclusions.


 F. H. Bradley...




...no, wait a minute. This one is F. H. Bradley