Topics:- Does Anything In This Life Matter? * The Dark Side Of Buddhism Part 1 * Zombies, Or How Is It That Matter Can Have Ideas? * The Dark Side Of Buddhism Part 2 * Does Free Will Exist? * Death And The Afterlife * The Dark Side Of Buddhism Part 3 or Why I Won’t Be Going To The Seaside * The Simplicity Of Non-Duality * Are There Enlightened People?
DOES ANYTHING IN THIS LIFE MATTER?
I recently received this question by e-mail:- “Does anything in this life matter?”
Well, firstly it depends on what is meant by the question. Nothing has any meaning beyond what it is in itself, so all the grand stories about life having a meaning or purpose are empty. Most of these stories are religious or spiritual but there are secular stories as well to do with science, philosophy and politics. They suggest that we are moving towards a future which in some way will be better than what’s happening now, a future which never arrives. This creates a problem:- as long as we are entranced by these stories, it is difficult for us to appreciate the simplicity of what is. When this is realised, we may be able to relax and value what is actually going on instead of being lost in a story in our head.
In this sense, nothing matters.
However, individuals have preferences about life so in that sense certain things may matter to us very much. It may matter to us that our children are happy, that our friends are healthy, or even that there is enough marmalade in the pot for our breakfast. In that way, many things may matter. But none of them have any meaning or add any purpose to the universe. The universe doesn’t need any meaning or purpose added to it because it is already whole and complete.
THE DARK SIDE OF BUDDHISM Part 1
In his book ‘Rebirth and the Western Buddhist’, Martin Willson includes a passage from the pravrajyantaraya-sutra describing the miserable rebirths that will be the lot of those who commit certain karmically negative acts, or “four modes of behaviour”. I’ve quoted the passage below. If you would like to have a bit of fun, see if you can guess what word I’ve omitted before you go on to read below the dotted lines.
“If, Mahanama, a householder is given to four modes of behaviour, he will have to endure adverse conditions: he will be born again and again, born either blind, dull-witted, dumb, or as an outcaste, always living in misery, always a victim of abuse. He will become a hermaphrodite or a eunuch, or be born into lifelong slavery. He may also become a (—————), a dog, a pig, an ass, a camel or a poisonous snake, and thus be unable to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice.”
The word omitted is “woman”. While you’re quite possibly recovering from a sharp intake of breath, let me reiterate this to be clear:- the sutra states unequivocally that just like being born as a poisonous snake, being born as a woman is the result of negative karma. And like a poisonous snake, a woman is unable to benefit from Buddhist teachings. The best she can hope for is to be born as a man in a future lifetime.
It has become common for apologists for religious superstitions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to offer up some kind of historical and cultural justification for the more unpalatable passages of their sacred works. “Times and attitudes have changed”, they explain, “and we have to understand that it was once quite acceptable for Buddhist monks to compare women to poisonous snakes, or in other societies for a girl to be stoned to death at the door of her father’s house if she were found not to be virgo intacta on her wedding night” (Deuteronomy 22).
But remarkably, Willson, an English Tibetan Buddhist monk born in the middle of the twentieth century, sees no need at all to gloss this toxic and misogynistic passage or to comment on it in any way. He does not regard it as exceptional but sweeps blithely on, accepting it at face value and expecting us to do the same.
In a future blog, The Dark Side Of Buddhism – Part 2, I’ll be visiting some jolly Buddhist hells.
ZOMBIES, OR HOW IS IT THAT MATTER CAN HAVE IDEAS?
Probably the most intractable problem facing science and philosophy is understanding the nature of consciousness. By ‘consciousness’ I don’t mean some mysterious effluvia which fills the universe, nor some personal quality which we can develop through assiduously following a spiritual path. I simply mean experience.
The neatest way of expressing the problem of consciousness is “How Is it that matter can have ideas?” In other words, how can the physical give rise to the mental?
Some people divide the world of experience into ‘objective’ or ‘outer’ experience and ‘subjective’ or ‘inner’ experience. They would consider a table to be objective and the feeling of happiness to be subjective. But in a very real and obvious way, all experience is subjective, because subjective experience is all we have.
Neuroscientists have certainly been making headway in their understanding of what goes on in the brain when experiences happen. They have mapped a considerable amount of brain activity in terms of electrical impulses and neurotransmitters. They have even determined in some cases which specific brain cells are firing when a particular phenomenon, such as the colour blue or the scent of a lemon, is experienced.
Philosophers of consciousness call an individual experience a ‘quale’. So when we look at an apple, we experience the quale ‘redness’. The sensation of a kiss or of a toothache, the feeling of happiness at seeing a sunset or of sadness at losing a friend, the warmth of a cup of coffee held in the hand or the coldness of an ice-cube touched to the lips, the taste of a peach or of an onion, these are all examples of ‘qualia’.
However most philosophers and neuroscientists acknowledge that they have no idea how physical brain activity gives rise to the experience of qualia. They don’t really even have any workable theories about this. No theories at all. Nada. And no way to test them if they did have.
Some scientists and philosophers have become excited about the possibility of consciousness being explained by quantum physics. Roger Penrose for example has theorised that consciousness might be caused by quantum activity in ‘microtubules’ in the brain. But as one critic has pointed out, this has about the same explanatory power as theorising that consciousness is caused by pixie dust*.
Some philosophers posit the theoretical possibility of zombies. A zombie in this sense is a being which behaves exactly as you and I do in every way, but it has no inner life. For a zombie there is no experience, no consciousness. In other words, the lights aren’t on. There seems to be no reason, at least in theory, why such zombies could not exist, nor any reason why physical brains should give rise to the experience of consciousness at all.
Actually of course, we each only have direct experience that we ourself are not a zombie. But it seems reasonable to give others the benefit of the doubt.
Some people, and I’m one of them, think that the problem of consciousness is not susceptible to a scientific explanation. By its nature any scientific explanation would have to be physical, and by its nature consciousness consists of non-physical subjective experience. Although it’s certain that consciousness is mediated by the physical – look how experience changes when the brain becomes damaged for example – the existence of consciousness cannot be explained by the physical.
In other words the existence of experience, or consciousness, could be said to be the deepest mystery of all. But most of the time it is so familiar to us that we do not recognise it for the miracle that it actually is.
*”Pixie dust in the synapses is about as explanatorily powerful as quantum coherence in the microtubules.” Patricia Churchland.
THE DARK SIDE OF BUDDHISM Part 2
For many years I had unread on my bookshelf a handsome Tibetan Buddhist volume called ‘The Jewel Ornament Of Liberation’. One day I decided to dip into it so I took it down and opened it at random. As life would have it, it fell open at a description of some very nasty Buddhist hells. There are a number of these, some of them reserved for particular kinds of sinners. For example, there is the hell of those “whose mouth is the size of the eye of a needle but whose belly is the size of a mountain”. This is one of the milder hells compared to some of the triple X-rated ones.
Clearly a great deal of exultant and salacious imaginative energy had been spent dreaming up these hells in order to terrify those who did not obey the priests’ injunctions. It was also made clear that during our innumerable lifetimes, taking incarnation as a human was almost inconceivably rare, so our chances of being born in one or another hell – or as a slug – were pretty high if we did not pay the priests their due. Almost all of our infinite rebirths were said to be non-human and each one of those involved eons of terrible suffering.
It was at this point that my long flirtation with Buddhism began to end, as I realised that one of it’s chief operating principles was no different to that of many other religions – to terrify people with threats of dire eternal punishments if they did not do as the priests said. To be fair, while the torments of Anglican, Calvinist, Catholic, and Methodist hells were eternal, the torments of Buddhist hells only lasted for a very long time. But as ‘a very long time’ was described as an unimaginably vast number of years, I didn’t feel this made much difference. In this way Popes, Princes and Priests have controlled people throughout history and Buddhists, it seemed, were disappointingly no exception.
As a general principle, if people try to force us to agree with their beliefs by threatening us with imagined tortures and damnation, it’s probably best to ignore them and go and have a nice cup of coffee instead. But to do this we need to be relatively free of superstition. And it’s interesting that Tibetan Buddhism, one of the most superstitious schools within Buddhism, is also one of the fastest growing religions in the West. So we Westerners have certainly not in general outgrown superstition. To paraphrase G K Chesterton, “When we stop believing in God, we don’t believe in nothing, we believe in anything.”
It’s also worth noticing that there is disagreement between Buddhist schools and even between Buddhists within the same school about the exact nature of rebirth. For example, Buddhists argue about whether or not there is an intermediary state between rebirths, what period of time elapses between rebirths and how long the ‘being’ taking rebirth stays in the womb. Estimates on this last matter range from eight months to sixty years! (Ref. ‘The Jewel Ornament Of Liberation’, Chapter 5.)
I thought it would be fun to invent some hells of my own, but so far I have only thought of one:- those who refuse to take the opportunity of enjoying the pleasures of the earth when available to them are condemned to several eons in ‘Ascetics Hell’ where they have to make love to beautiful women or men and eat Viennese pastries while luxuriating on velvet cushions. If you’d like to invent some suitable hells for appropriate types and e-mail a brief description to me, I might publish them in a future post.
DOES FREE WILL EXIST?
In some ways it is surprising that the notion of free will has such a hold on us, because it is very easy to dismantle it philosophically and logically. The argument, which is simple enough for a reasonably intelligent child to follow, goes like this:-
Either the universe is wholly deterministic or it is not.
If it is wholly deterministic, then there is no place for free will because all apparent ‘choices’ and ‘decisions’ are entirely determined by prior causes. For humans, these prior causes consist of inherited and cultural factors, or a combination of ‘nature and nurture’.
If the universe is not wholly deterministic, then the only other possibilities are that it is either partly or wholly random. But a ‘choice’ or ‘decision’ made partly or wholly at random does not involve the exercise of free will in any meaningful sense.
So whether the universe is wholly deterministic, wholly random, or some mix of deterministic and random, there is no possibility of free will.
(By the way, no one actually believes that the universe is wholly random. That possibility is only included here to complete the argument. As long as Newton ruled the scientific roost, the smart money was on total determinism. Since quantum physics has entered the fray the possibility of randomness, at least at some level, has been opened up.)
Many philosophers, known as libertarians and compatabilists, cling to the idea of free will and shy away from the implications of acknowledging its absence. In essence, their very complicated arguments usually come down to “I must have free will because I feel as if I do.” Another group of philosophers, known as illusionists, recognise that free will is an impossibility, but advocate that we don’t let the hoi polloi know this in case they get uppity.
Galen Strawson is an interesting philosopher who is more straightforward than many. In a recent radio interview, he acknowledged very honestly that although free will does not exist, it is impossible for him to feel this to be the case in his own everyday life.
Essentially free will is an incoherent idea. No one has ever been able to explain who or what exercises it or in what manner they do so. And once non-duality is directly seen, the philosophical and logical arguments become irrelevant in any case. When the emptiness of the self has been realised, it is simply known that there is no one who could possibly exercise free will. Life is and always has been simply unfolding.
There are some good books about free will. I’d recommend ‘The Free Will Delusion’ by James B Miles. Although it’s maddeningly repetitive and fuelled by a disturbing amount of anger, if you want the arguments spelled out it’s the business.
DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE
You might be interested in this discussion on YouTube between Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and two rabbis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlCjy52h0hc.
Sam Harris says everything sensible there is to say about the possibility of some kind of existence after death in the first few minutes of the discussion. It is unknowable. This is both obvious and the only respectable intellectual position to hold. All other positions are in some way or other a cop-out. Nevertheless there is clearly a powerful resistance in many of us to acknowledge this because we find it unpalatable.
Once non-duality is clearly seen, the unknowability of death becomes incontrovertible and is no longer simply an intellectual position. At this point the mind relaxes about death and gives it little more consideration. And as Keith Dowman writes “Relaxation is the key to buddha-hood here-and-now.”
There are two apologists for the judeo-christian death-myth on the panel. They are both charming and intelligent rabbis. One of them even quips that he recognises that his only chance of winning the argument would be if he existed in a parallel universe. Nevertheless, the rabbis’ presence on the panel is a reminder that there is nothing quite as effective as religion for getting intelligent people to say foolish things.
THE DARK SIDE OF BUDDHISM – Part 3 or WHY I PROBABLY WON’T BE GOING TO THE SEASIDE
It was almost in the bag – a nice trip to the seaside to give a talk about non-duality organised by a lady with a lovely spiritual name. And plenty of time for a walk along the beach to take in some sea air afterwards.
But then mysteriously everything went quiet and after a long delay it’s my feeling that I won’t be going to the seaside anytime soon.
I’d been told by my go-between that the spiritual lady wanted to check out my blog post about misogyny in Buddhism before confirming her invitation. I don’t think she liked it. After all, it was neither respectful nor spiritual.
The spiritual lady is a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. This is the new name of The Friends Of The Western Buddhist Order, and the reason why they changed their name, or had to change their name, is interesting.
The FWBO were involved in a big scandal some years ago. There were articles about it in the main-stream press, which is unusual as national newspapers like The Guardian don’t usually concern themselves with the goings-on of obscure Buddhist sects.
What had happened is this. The FWBO’s founder, Sangharakshita, and some of his senior teachers, were accused of pressurising reluctant young men to have sex with them. It was alleged that they had exerted the usual cultish persuasions, including the argument that if the young men refused, they would be hindering their own spiritual progress. According to the allegations, some of the teachers had bizarrely suggested that this progress depended partly on the young men acknowledging their latent homosexuality – a latent homosexuality which they did not have.
Some of these young men later blew the gaffe and the shit hit the fan. After the unwanted publicity, the FWBO found it expedient to change its name and also to refocus its energies away from England and towards India, where presumably they don’t read the Guardian.
Ironically, in view of the invitation that was probably withdrawn because of my post about misogyny in Buddhism, the Triratna Buddhist Order is also astonishingly misogynistic. Sangharakshita’s right-hand man, Alex Kennedy, under his spiritual name Subhuti, wrote what must rank as one of the most bizarre spiritual works of the twentieth century. It is called ‘Men, Women and Angels’ and purports to demonstrate why women are spiritually inferior to men. If you are interested, there is a wonderfully scathing review of it by Anita Doyle on the blog page of a Buddhist website called ‘tricycle’. This toxic book, published in the nineties, continues to embarrass the Triratna order to this day.
Meanwhile an invitation to give a talk from another woman with a lovely spiritual name seems to have evaporated since these blog posts started appearing. Ho hum.
Postscript:- Years ago I attended a meditation course at the FWBO’s beautiful converted fire station in Bethnal Green in London. I also went on one of their weekend retreats. This was long before the scandal broke. But before I went to the retreat, a friend and teacher of mine, Terry Dukes, who was very involved with the Buddhist scene in Britain at the time, said to me with a mischievous grin as he rolled a cigarette “Watch yourself, Richard! They’re a gay mafia!”
It was a dull retreat but I emerged with my virtue intact.
More recently my daughter attended a Triratna meditation course at the fire station. In view of their sexual preferences, I felt she’d be safe.
THE SIMPLICITY OF NON-DUALITY – Part 1
The mind loves complexity. Complexity keeps the mind busy and justifies its seeking. Complexity keeps the mind in control, which is where it wants to be. If there are thirty six levels of enlightenment (there are not), then the mind can be busy for a lifetime – or for many lifetimes – exploring them.
So the mind creates great edifices of non-dual and spiritual philosophies, complete with whistles and bells. Enough volumes never to have to come to the end of reading them. Enough satsangs and discourses never to have to come to the end of listening to them.
What joy for the mind! What insanity!
Meanwhile mystics, if they talk about this at all, talk in the simplest terms. Just as they always have done. Mystics know that at its heart non-duality can be summed up in four simple words.
“There is no self.”
Everything else flows from this.
Even a split second of awakening makes this clear. But then the mind can reassert itself and the stories can begin again with all the complications they give rise to.
What a pity!
Here is the essence of non-duality expressed in eight short lines in the Upanishads:-
“The scriptures even proclaim aloud:
There is in truth no creation and no destruction.
No one is bound and no one is seeking liberation.
No one is on the way to deliverance.
There are none who are liberated.
This is the absolute truth, my dear disciple.
This, the sum and substance of all the Upanishads,
The secret of secrets, is my instruction to you.”
ARE THERE ENLIGHTENED PEOPLE?
I usually make it a rule not to read the comments that people sometimes add to my YouTube videos. But sometimes curiosity overcomes me. Thus it was that I recently came across a comment announcing that I was a charlatan because “An Enlightened Person cannot suffer from hay fever.”
I do suffer from hay fever and what had happened was this; the last time I gave talks in Berlin I was overcome with some fiendish alien pollen mid-sentence and took some to recover. This was captured on video.
So let me address this proposition. Firstly, in a curious way I agree with it because there is no such thing as An Enlightened Person. Therefore there are no Enlightened People who suffer from hay fever. The story of there being enlightened people appeals to the part of our psyche that is still stuck in childhood, desperately hoping that as we don’t understand what is going on, somebody else does. So we fantasise a god or God, or a wise shaman, or an enlightened Buddha, or a resurrecting God-man, or a Goddess, or a Cosmic channelled entity or any one of ten thousand other mythical figures. Super-beings with super-powers. Superman himself is such a one. As long as we remain children on the inside although we may be adults on the outside, these figures can be immensely comforting representatives of the good father or the good mother that we may crave, someone who will both protect us and bring us salvation.
Liberation involves a shattering of these myths and stories. It reveals that although there can indeed by liberation, there can be no person who is ever liberated. This is because liberation consists precisely of the direct realisation that there is no person, self or ego who could ever possibly become enlightened.
Even a split second of seeing can bring about the loss of our comforting childhood stories and this can be immensely shocking. But it does bring with it the gift that for the first time ever we can live in reality rather than in a mist of story and belief. And it may turn out that living in reality is not all that bad after all. In fact it can be rather wonderful to be without a head full of stories, as everything is seen for what it is in its simplicity for the very first time.
Stuff happens. Sometimes shit happens. Sometimes beautiful sunsets happen. And it’s all gloriously and amazingly simply what it is.