Thursday, 23 February 2017


No philosophy or religion would be complete without a detailed list of the punishments we feel other people deserve. "Give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" to punish offenders (Exodus 21:23) or the Buddhist hell (Naraka) where the anti-social will be brutalized for hundreds of thousands of years (cf, Devaduta Sutta) due to karma or the eternal punishment taught by the mono-theists.

It could of course be true that people though the ages have seen this hell in visions, but many modern thinkers have assumed that there is no hell but rather humans project their subconscious desires on the world and imagine hell. For example, the philosophers Hume (171176) and Hobbes (15881679) suggested that belief in gods arose when primitive people personified nature and offered worship in an attempt to placate them.
Likewise Feuerbach (180472) argued thatGodrepresents humans qualities which they regard as ideal and the sociologist Émile Durkheim (18581917) thought religion provided a mythological representation of social structures whereby affirming the values and rules of society in a quasi-objective form.

Freud (18561939) suggested that the idea of God is a magnified version of the image of the human parent unconsciously produced as hope in a rough and unjust world. [11; 25] The modern cognitive science of religion has similar projection theories whereby humans to project agency onto inanimate objects and see supernatural beings that don't exist.

So, hells in Buddhism exist either as an insight into what will happen to people for their transgressions or as a human projection of their human obsession with punishment, but either way it is clear, I think, that the desire to see others punished is very human (we see it in our society past and present such as 'Crime Stoppers' TV shows and 'lock-em-up' documentaries and 24 hour TV news showing the latest crime, the latest high speed chase, the latest indictment, and the latest ruling or prison sentence.) We call it justice - punishment is beneath us, of course - but whatever we call it it is clear we as a species love it. That punishment is limited in this imperfect world means we project our desire onto a cosmological scale and assume God, or karma will do our bidding for us and punish those people we feel deserving, or on the other hand the cosmos could really share our desire to punish.

Friday, 17 February 2017


This beautiful dialogue between Dighanaka and Gautama the Buddha is the teaching that Buddhism is neither 'philosophy' or 'doctrine' and to think otherwise is to mistake ‘the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself’. This story is retold by Master Thich Nhat Hanh [1] originally found in the Dighanaka Sutta (MN 74):

Dighanakha asked the Buddha, "Gautama, what is your teaching? What are your doctrines? For my part, I dislike all doctrines and theories. I don't subscribe to any at all."

The Buddha smiled and asked, "Do you subscribe to your doctrine of not following and doctrines? Do you believe in your doctrine of not-believing?"

Somewhat taken aback, Dighanakha replied, "Gautama whether I believe of don't believe is no importance."

The Buddha spoke gently, "Once a person is caught by belief in a doctrine, he loses all his freedom. When one becomes dogmatic, he believes his doctrine is the only truth and that all other doctrines are heresy. Disputes and conflicts all arise from narrow views. They can extend endlessly, wasting precious time and sometimes even leading to war. Attachment to views is the greatest impediment to the spiritual path. Bound to narrow views, one becomes so entangled that it is no longer possible to let the door of truth open."

...Dighanakha asked, "But what of your own teaching? If someone follows your teaching will he become caught in narrow views?"
"My teaching is not a doctrine or a philosophy. It is not the result of discursive thought or mental conjecture like various philosophies which contend that the fundamental essence of the universe is fire, water, earth, wind, or spirit, or that the universe is either finite or infinite, temporal, or eternal. Mental conjecture and discursive thought about truth are like ants crawling around the rim of the bowl -- they never get anywhere. The things I say come from my own experience. You can confirm them all by your own experience...My goal is not to explain the universe, but to help guide others to have a direct experience of reality. Words cannot describe reality. Only direct experience enables us to see the true face of reality."
Dighanakha exclaimed, "Wonderful, wonderful Gautama! But what would happen if a person did perceive your teaching as a dogma?"
I must state clearly that my teaching is method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. An intelligent person makes use of the finger to see the moon."
[1] Thich Nhat Hanh (1991). Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Berkley, California: Parallax Press.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017


Buddhism is very different from other religions because it refuses all dogma and embraces, promotes and teaches doubt. Buddhism goes even further and insists that advanced right-views are to have no-view and even denies that it is itself teaching the truth about the world and remains a faithful enterprise working towards 'enlightenment' by embracing doubt and rejecting all dogmas.


In some religions certain teachings become Dogmas. For example, Papal infallibility is the idea that the Pope can, when speaking for the Church, speak the infallible word of God. Other religions have different versions of where their infallibility comes from (eg, the Qur'an in Islam and the Tannaim and Amaraim in Judaism).

In contrast Zen denies the possibility of Infallibility and it insists that doubt is a good thing. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh put it [1]:
In Zen Buddhism, the greater your doubt, the greater will be your enlightenment. That is why doubt can be a good thing. If you are too sure, if you always have conviction, then you may be caught in your wrong perception for a long time.”
Buddhist doubt is not the 'systematic' doubt of the western philosophical tradition and it is not concerned with whether a thing exists or not (eg, is there a heaven or the nature of atoms), but is an attempt to break away from intellectual pontification with the aim of attaining Bodhi or enlightenment. Right view in Buddhism means to see directly the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas, and to do this one must dispense with dogma and practice meditation and compassion.

The often misquoted Kalama Sutta (Angutarra Nikaya 3.65) says that revelation, tradition, hearsay, sacred texts, pure logic, and appearances should be rejected as sources of knowledge. It says that you should not believe in something because it seems logical or agreeable to you or even because your teacher told you it is so. Elsewhere we are told that we should not seek any external refuge but must be ‘islands unto ourselves' [2]:
“ islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge...[Contemplate] the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge;”

We are told that we must contemplate on the Dhamma which in this sense means cultivating the knowledge of laws of natural phenomena that exist in dynamic interdependence and harmony. In other words, we must use meditation to find the truth for ourselves and not rely on the words or teachings of others. We are also warned that accepting wrong views are both a waste of time and actually stop you reaching Enlightenment [3]:
"[T]here are countless philosophies, doctrines, and theories in this world. People criticize each other and argue endlessly over their theories. According to my investigation, there are sixty-two main theories which underlie the thousands of philosophies and religions current in our world. Looked at from the Way of Enlightenment and Emancipation, all sixty-two of these theories contain errors and create obstacles… A good fisherman places his net in the water and catches all the shrimp and fish he can. As he watches the creature’s try to leap out of the net, he tells them, ‘No matter how high you jump ,you will only land in the net again.’ He is correct. The thousands of beliefs flourishing at present can all be found in the net of these theories. ...don’t fall into that bewitching net. You will only waste time and lose your chance to practice the Way of Enlightenment."
The Buddha is recorded as stating that the teachings of other sects contained many erroneous theories, and that falling into those errors would prevent one from attaining permanent liberation from suffering. For example, wrong views about the universe included:

1. The universe is infinite.
2. The universe is limited.
3. The universe is horizontally limited but vertically infinite.
4. The universe is neither infinite or limited, nor not infinite or limited.

In other words to hold a view on the universe is the wrong thing to do. Rather we should get
on with the important business of finding out who we really are through meditation. It is worth remembering that when Buddha outlined the sixty-two wrong views he did not offer a sixty-third that was then correct view.  Correct view is 'no-views' or rather a state of mind where one overcomes all views by 'non-clinging' and 'non-attachment' to them.  The state of mind of complete 'non-clinging' and' equanimity' is to 'see things as they really are?'


Every Buddhist knows about 'right-view' as it is contained in the Four Truths and Eightfold Path.  However, what is less emphised, if at all is that 'right-view' occurs in stages and all stages are not the same.

In other words all 'right-views' are not the same.  For example, ditthi-sampanna (Mundane-right-view) is used to describe a 'right-view' of stream-attainment.  In the Anguttara-nikaya it explains that at this low level of'right-view' one has abandoned identity (sakkaya-ditthi), doubt (vicikiccha), clinging to vows and precepts (silabbata-paramasa), greed (raga), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha) A III 438.

It is said repeatedly that one should not be attached to the 'purified and bright-view' (ditthi parisuddha pariyodata) as that is just a form of craving (Ps II 109) and 'supermundane-right-view' (lokuttara-samma-ditthi) represents that which is 'neither defiled nor defiling' (dhamma asankilittha-asankilesika). In other words, knowledge of the dharma that is associated with 'supermundane-right-view' is completely free from craving and attachment of any kind.

As the Buddha said (sn480):
"One who has knowledge (vedagu) does not become proud because of view or thought … He cannot be influenced by action or thought … He cannot be influenced by an action of learning: he is not led into cling to views.”
Don't get me wrong I'm not suggesting for a second that Buddhists should not have views, but one should not be attached to them at all which is what Buddhism calls an advanced 'right-view.'  It's an important but subtle difference.  For example, the Buddha says in the Mahaviyuha-sutra:
"[do] not submit to figments.Do not follow views andhave no association with knowledge and knowing common-place opinions. Rather be indifferent to them (saying) 'Let others take them up."
The Buddha's teachings are a path to be walked with a destination in mind.  One starts cultivating 'right-views' from the start taking baby steps and ultimately the cessation of stress is the end of clinging.  The whole path is the end of clinging, aversion and ignorance.

The danger is, that one gets attached to 'right-views' or 'emptiness' when it's not about conceptual thinking at all, but rather going beyond and transcending that.  It is so easy to think about 'right-views' on an abstract level but giving up clinging is bloody difficult.  


The aim of Buddhism is to find the true self through meditation. In other words there is only one question that a Buddhist is trying to answer and that is, Who am I?” As Master Seung Sahn put it [4]:
"Correct meditation means understanding my true self. The path of this begins and ends by asking, 'What am I?' It is very simple teaching, and not special. When you ask this question very deeply, what appears is only 'don't know.' All thinking is completely cut off, and you return to your before-thinking mind. If you attain this don't-know, you have already attained your true self. You have returned to your original nature, which is mind before thinking arises. In this way you can attain your correct way, and you attain truth, and your life functions correctly to save all beings from suffering. The name for that is 'wake up.' That is the experience of true meditation."


Zen teaches that even Buddhism can not help you find the answers, and Buddhism is not truth but rather you must find it for yourself. As Master Dae Kwang put it:
"When the Buddha left home he didn’t go to a library to try and find the answer to his great question. Instead, he started looking inside himself to find the answer. We are the same. Just like the Buddha, no outside source, even Zen teaching, can’t give us the answer."
Master Seongcheol explained why there were so many Buddhist teachings and why despite them pointing at the one truth they could not be considered truth themselves [5]:
"There is an old saying that you have to regard the Buddha and all the Zen predecessors as enemies before you can begin to study....To become enlightened, and thus free-flowing, you must transcend the Buddha and you must transcend the records of the masters. If you feel that you have to listen to this person talk or that person talk, or if you get tied up in this expedient or that expedient, you will continue to do nothing but fail in your quest and you will not live eternally. To come to know genuine truth, rather than just knowing about it, we must rid ourselves of all expedient...We have to look beyond the finger to see the moon.
The Buddha spoke to meet the needs of the occasion and to meet the needs of whoever he was addressing. He spoke like a child to children, like a student to students, to commoners like a commoner, to royalty like royalty so that whoever was listening would understand him. Consequently, we have the 84,000 Dharma Teachings to meet the needs of so many kinds of people. So these are not the real truth, but expedients for coming to an understanding of the One Truth."

In addition to doubt Zen also teaches we need faith. This is not the faith in gods, or heavens, or the scriptures, but faith that through determined effort one will reap the fruits of the Zen practice. There is a famous Zen saying:
"To achieve enlightenment you need faith, determination and doubt.
To achieve great enlightenment you need great faith, great determination and great doubt."
This Great Faith is the one and only necessary belief in Buddhism.  This one necessary belief is that the practices of Buddhism are worthwhile and lead to 'enlightenment.'  This one belief, of the worthwhileness of Buddhist processes is the only dogma, if you will, of Buddhism. As such there are teachings and understandings in Buddhism but no dogmas, and no scriptural authority.  Buddhism teaches instead for us to let go of all views and seek the answers for ourself by practising meditation and compassion.


[1] White Collar Zen, Steven Heine, 2005, Print ISBN-13: 9780195160031
[2] Mahâ Parinibbâna Sutta
[3] Brahmajala Sutta
[4] Seung Sahn, (1997). The compass of Zen. Boston, USA: Shambala. 8.
[5] Master Seongcheol. General Dharma Lecture, Full Moon of the 5th Lunar Month, 1982, Haein-sa

Thursday, 9 February 2017


The Buddhist tradition has tended to hold a contradictory position on morality by simultaneously maintaining a type of nominilism and ethical realism. Buddhist nominilism means that values such as 'true' and 'false' are rejected as abstract objects along with 'good,' 'evil,' 'right' and 'wrong' and all other universals. Thus the parts of the Buddhist tradition that have accepted nominilism seem on the face of it to hold two contradictory positions:

1) there are no moral actions (no good, evil, right or wrong)
2)  moral actions have consequences (Ahetukavāda).

This seems to be a logical paradox since there could be no ‘moral actions’ if there is no good, evil, right or wrong.  This is in stark contrast to western traditions that have tended to see morality as a natural-law which was described by Whitehead as “the most confused ideas in the history of Western thought” (Whitehead, 1982, p 181). For a fuller discussion of Natural-law see 'Appendix I.'  In the following essay a solution to this contridiction is outlined.

Since there is scant evidence of a moral law then where does morality come from?  One answer is “expressivism” which claims that the meanings of claims in a particular area of discourse are to be understood in terms of whatever non-cognitive mental states (ie, feelings) those claims are supposed to express (Sias, n.d).   Some common examples of non-cognitive states are desires, emotions, pro- and con-attitudes, commitments, and so forth.  Truth for an expressivist holds the sentence (i) “p is true” expresses a certain measure of confidence in, or agreement with, p, and that (ii) whatever the relevant mental state, for example, agreement with p, that state just is the meaning of “p is true”. In other words, when we claim that p is true, we neither describe p as true nor report the fact that p is true; rather, we express some non-cognitive attitude toward p (Strawson, 1949) (Sias, n.d). Similar expressivist treatments have been given to knowledge claims, probability claims, claims about causation, and even claims about what is funny (Sias, n.d), but here we are only concerned with moral expressivism.

Moral expressivism is sometimes called ‘yay-nay’ or ‘yay-boo’ morality as they claim that making an affirmative moral claim is nothing more than saying that they approve of it (saying yay!! to it).  For example, saying (1) “stealing is wrong” is nothing more than saying, "stealing-nay!!"  It is argued that there are no trans-cultural judgement about the rightness or wrongness and that given the same set of facts different individuals and societies will have a fundamental disagreement about what is the right thing to do (they differ in their yaying and naying).

“Ethical expressivism,” then, is the name for any view according to which (i) ethical claims like “x is wrong”, “y is a good person”, and “z is a virtue”—express non-cognitive mental states, and (ii) these states make up the meanings of ethical claims.  In other words the meaning of (1) “stealing is wrong” means nothing more than (2) “stealing-nay!!” and (3) “generosity if good” means nothing more than (4) “generosity-yay!!”

A commonly raised objection ot expressivism is that ethical claims seem to be different from non-ethical problems which philosophers have called the Continuity Problem.  For a discussion of this problem see 'Appendix II.'  The conclusion reached in the Appendix is that a moral statement such as ‘stealing is wrong’ means nothing more than “stealing upsets me and therefore I assert it must be wrong.”

Even if we are tempted to accept some version of expressivism then one still has to explain why we
have moral feelings (ie, why is it that ‘stealing upsets me?’).    An obvious candidate is an evolutionary biological adaption that supported a connection with social coordination, cooperation and stability. In this view the state of accepting a moral-social-norm is a standard part of human moral psychology and its capacity for “linguistically infused motivation” (Gibbard, 1990, p 55).  In this view the reason (1) ‘stealing is wrong’ is because stealing discouraged working in groups which is the one great advantage humans have when dealing with nature.  Cooperation gave humans a massive evolutionary advantage and stealing is often a clear disadvantage and so evolution punished the act of stealing and rewarded generosity.  Our biological ancestors did not discover the existence of external moral truths but rather the pressures of natural selection favoured the development of capacities, tendencies and traits that supported biological fitness.  On this view there are no moral truths and no possibility of moral knowledge independent of our evaluative attitudes (Joyce, 2006) (Joyce, 2013) (Street, 2006) (Street, 2008).

This neatly explains why moral feelings are to do with justice, sympathy, cooperation and doing fair by other people since they all aid the survival of the human species.  These attributes are not unique to humans and all the attributes we associate with morality such as fairness, reciprocity, empathy, cooperation and caring about others are found in the animal kingdom (Rowlands, 2012) (Waal, 2015) (Peirce, 2009) although animals don’t sit around wondering the why and wherefore of them. And furthermore, if we take the ‘survival of the species’ or ‘survival of your family’ as a moral action in the consequentialist sense then it clear evidence that one does not need a theory of morality to act morally.    It also indicates that one does not need a principle of universalizability since as long as most animals (human and non-human) don’t steal most of the time it is still acceptable for the greater moral purpose (eg, survival of the species, survival of a family, protection of the weak, etc).

Beyond the survival of the species humans have other moral aims.  One example is the goal of enlightenment found which like emotivism is related to moral relativism and does not require the principle of universalizability to be consistent.

Buddhist ethics are often taken to resemble the ‘natural law’ theory of Aristotle (Kweom, 2001, pp 18 – 20)  which claims that certain rights or values are inherent by virtue of nature and therefore assert universal truths (Kweom, 2001, pp 21) and this is largely because "eschewing hypothetical speculation in ethics as in other matters the Buddha formulated his definitive normative response to ethical questions within the framework of a Path or Way” (magga) Kweom, 2001, pp 5). Nevertheless Buddhist ethics is largely consequentialist since it derives from the effects an action, state, or thought has on oneself (and those around you).  For example, in the Kalama sutra the Buddha gets the Kalama's to agree that greed, hatred and delusion are states which are harmful to a person when they arise (A.1.118-93). This is because of the action and reactions associated with karma which will have effects in this, and the next life (Harvey, p10).  In essence Buddhism strives towards the greatest good with the theory of karma describing how moral actions lead to enlightenment.  (for an explaination of what is karma and why it punishes greed, hatred and delusion see Appendix III).

Buddhist ethics, then, is relative to each and every one of us as far as gaining enlightenment is concerned and normative ethics needs to determine under what conditions one can become enlightened. The Buddha was clearly a very sensitive person who was disturbed by high-beds, politics, and idle gossip (see appendix IV) and many other things, but it doesn't follow that everyone is equally sensitive and will need to do the very same thing to achieve enlightenment. The path to enlightenment an empirical question as Buddha pointed out when he said, "you should not accept the teachings through tradition, speculative reasoning, personal preferences, what one thinks should be true, or respect for a particular teacher" but rather you must "know for yourself" that these states are conducive to harm and suffering (A.1.118-93).

And since the astute practices of Buddhists monks is not the only way to enlightenment one must ask which way is the best way for me.  It might even be that that some people can break all the precepts, join the army, eat meat, drink wine for their whole life and yet reach enlightenment whereas a bad conscience could cause another to hell for sleeping on a high-bed. After all it all depends on how disturbed about the suffering caused by the wars and high-furniture. Put like this then normative ethics becomes an empirical question about what course of action causes people to become enlightened.

Therefore, following Buddhism and assuming that enlightenment is the highest good the question becomes what I need to do, or refrain from doing to become enlightened?  There is no requirement in Buddhism for one’s moral actions to be universal but rather one is required to save not just themselves but all beings (human and non-human) and the whole of ethics becomes an empirical question based on gaining enlightenment for oneself and all other living beings.

Despite much of the Buddhist tradition holding a type of nominalism that asserts there is no right, wrong, good and evil existing independently of our thoughts and feelings it is right to say that our actions have moral consequences.  This seeming contradiction rests on that fact that we have moral goals such as getting on on society, being good citizens, good parents, good children, and becoming enlightened and so on which are guided by moral actions and their real consequences.  For example, although it is not a moral law of the universe that playing loud music all night is wrong in itself it could nevertheless be wrong if we have the moral goal of getting on with our neighbours (Ok, that example assumes you have neighbours, and you didn’t invite them to the party, etc, etc, etc, but you get the point). To keep with this example of the neighbors then being moral is about knowing your neighbors and arranging your business such that you get along with them.  There is no list of ten commandments or noble-eightfold path that every neighbour needs to follow to be a ‘good-neighbour.’  The key to being good is individual and depends on many things (your house, your neighbours, etc). 

Natural law theory suggests that certain rights or values are inherent in the universe, and universally cognizable through human reason.  Natural-law theory then an empirical matter which contains moral facts to be deduced.

Natural law theory has been a mainstay of western philosophy and is especially associated with Aristotle.  Western religion agreed but added that this universal law was inprinted on our hearts by God and accessible to anyone who looked hard enough.  For example, according to Islam, "every individual has been bestowed a clear standard of judgment of 'good' and 'evil'" (Surah Al-Shams" (91: 7 - 10)) and it is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that "the natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie" (Cathicism 1954).

Despite its attraction moral-law theory has its problems and as Whitehead noted, “the concept of natural law is one of the most confused ideas in the history of Western thought” (Whitehead, 1982, p 181).  The problems it faces are many such as its various conceptions and the lack of even basic agreement on the particulars.  One such problem with natural-law is moral acceptability varies between place, time and culture.  Slavery, for instance, was considered moral for much of human history and now is almost universally declared as morally abhorrent. In fact, it has been argued that natural-law theories lead to relativism since each person need only look to her own version of it imprinted by God or nature to find out what is the good (Rushdoony, 1970, p122). 
And since is indisputable that people disagree about moral issues this has led philosophers to conclude that terms such as "good", "bad", "right" and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions at all but depends rather on one’s own personal views, culture, customs and so on (Gowans, 2015). 

The obvious problem expressivism faces is that ethical claims seem to be different from non-ethical problems which philsophers have called the Continuity Problem.  For a discussion of the Continuity Problem and a solution see Appendix II).  For example, they want to claim that (1) above is meaningless, or at least means nothing more than “stealing nay!!” but as a sentence it behaves in a way that is just like a non-ethical counterpart such as (5) “it is snowing”.  In fact, it appears that both claims are (a) embeddable into unasserted contexts, like disjunctions and the antecedents of conditionals, (b) involved in logical inferences, (c) posed as questions, (d) translated across different languages, (e) negated, (f) supported with reasons, and (g) used to articulate the objects of various states of mind, for example, we can say that Jones believes that lying is wrong, Anderson regrets that lying is wrong, and Black wonders whether lying is wrong, to name just a few. Historically this criticism of expressivism was formulated as the famous Frege-Geach Problem and the general problem that this expresses has been called the Continuity Problem.

One solution to the Continuity Problem is to deny traditional propositionalist semantics according to which sentences mean what they do in virtue of the propositions they express and claim instead that they are to be understood in terms of the mental states they express.  As an example, let’s revisit the cases (1) and (5)

(1)        Stealing is wrong.
(5)        It is snowing.

The meanings of both (1) and (5) are to be understood in terms of the mental states they express.  For example, (5) expresses the belief that it is snowing, as opposed to the proposition that it is snowing.   Similar approaches are called hybrid expressivist theories which say that ethical claims express both non-cognitive and cognitive mental states.  After all it is clear that a single statement can contain two mental states as do slurs and pejoratives (Hay, 2013).  An example of a sentence containing two mental states would be Ben stating that “Man United lost 6:0” in which the speaker both believes that (a) Man Utd lost and also feels (b) joy at the score.  It is easy to see that the sentence expresses both of these states—one cognitive, the other non-cognitive. This is similar to how hybrid theorists in meta-ethics suggest that ethical claims can express both beliefs and attitudes. In fact, a single sentence can express a huge range of complex and sometimes contradictory mixture of beliefs and attitudes including disbelief and humour and is in reality far away from the traditional idea of a sentence containing a single proposition.

In this view, someone who sincerely utters (1) ‘stealing is wrong’ communicates two things: (a) she either expresses a belief, or asserts a proposition that stealing is wrong and (b) she has some sort of non-cognitive attitude toward lying.  Therefore, a moral statement such as (1) means nothing more than “stealing upsets me and therefore I assert it must be wrong”.

This of course begs the meta-ethical question: what is karma and why does it punish greed, hatred and delusion?

The answer takes us to the Buddhist theory of consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna). In a nut-shell, the ālaya-vijñāna is pure undefiled consciousness of which the search for enlightenment is aimed at. The ālaya-vijñāna is often termed the 8th consciousness whereas ordinary, suffering consciousness that we are using to debate and we are trying to control and subdue is called the kliṣṭa-manas (disturbing emotions or attitudes) or 7th consciousness.

If then we take this rather simplified explanation then we can use a metaphor to explain why such an action is good or bad. If we take the ālaya-vijñāna as a large and peaceful lake and it's the winds of the kliṣṭa-manas which disturb the lake and create unruly waves (karma). This metaphor has its limits, but it shows why unskilful actions are bad - since they disturb your consciousness. The store-house consciousness receives impressions from all functions of the other consciousnesses, and retains them as potential energy, bija or "seeds", for their further manifestations and activities. Since it serves as the container for all experiential impressions it is also called the "seed consciousness" (種子識) or container consciousness.  This being the case, when we are talking about 'normative ethics' we are really asking to what extent will an action effect one’s ability to subdue and control the kliṣṭa-manas and allow one to become enlightened and so ethics would be to not to ask if fighting war is wrong, but rather to ask if one would one be more disturbed by shooting people, or feeling guilty for not standing up for those your friends, family, community, country and so on.

Although the Buddha is famed for finding the so-called Middle Way the regime he set out for himself and his followers is quite difficult including singing, dancing, gossip, watching shows and using high beds and seats.  Below is a summary of the five, eight, and ten precepts of Buddhism.

The five precepts (not taking life (panatipata); not taken what is not given (adinnadana); sexual misconduct (kamesu-micchacara); lying (musvada); taking intoxicants (sura-meraya-majja-pamadatthana).

The eight precepts (eating at the wrong time (vikala-bhojana); dancing, singing, music, watching shows, using garlands, perfumes, cosmetics and personal adornments (naccagita-vadita-visukadassana-malagandha-vilepana-dharana-mandana-vibhusanatthana);
The ten precepts (using high beds or seats (uccasayana-mahasanyana); accepting gold and silver (jatarupa-rajata-patiggahana))
The ten good paths of action (absention from slanderous speech (pisunaya-vacaya-veranmani); abstaining from harsh speech (parusaya-veramani); abstaining from idol speech (samphappalapa-veranani); non-covetousness (anabhijjha); non-malevolence (avayapada); right-views (sammaditthi);

One should avoid talking about "kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not.”     In fact, what Buddha said monks and serious meditators should talk about is "modesty, contentment, seclusion, non-entanglement, arousing persistence, virtue, concentration, discernment, release, and the knowledge & vision of release."   AN 10.69

Foucault, M. (1992). The Hermeneutics of the Subject. Lectures at the College de France. New York: Picador.
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Tuesday, 24 January 2017


Meditation in Buddhism is not about experiencing the ‘present moment’ as some people claim but rather it is the gateway to enlightenment and other mystical experiences. This can be demonstrated by looking the descriptions given by the Buddha and his disciples of meditative states including mindfulness and the claims of the masters regarding the power of meditation and its mystical fruits.
Contrary to the secular idea that mediation is solely about being 'present in the moment' we find in the scriptures meditation is an otherworldly experience (cf, A.IV.430) constituting another world in the both the psychological and cosmological sense (cf, D.III.215 and S.V.56). It is a 'superbly extraordinary state' (cf, M.I.159; M.I.147) beyond reflection and conceptual though.

It might be objected that the jhana’s are about concentration whereas in mindfulness mediation we are aware of the ‘present moment’ but Buddha warned us not to reify the present saying “let go of the past, and future” but also "let go of the present” (see appendix one). We must further recognize that the present moment is an illusion since all phenomenal appearances are not ultimate but rather dreamlike illusions and persistent projections of one's own mind. Furthermore, the Buddha did not declare any sharp distinctions between mindfulness [sati] and concentration (Thanissaro, 2010).
In fact the Buddha explained that mindfulness (sati) includes a process of retrospectve observing or both retospection and observation. In the words of the Buddha (SN 48:10):
 And which is the faculty of sati [mindfulness]? There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones has sati, is endowed with excellent proficiency in sati, remembering and recollecting what was done and said a long time ago. He remains focused on the body in and of itself—ardent, alert, and having sati— subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves... the mind in and of itself... mental qualities in and of themselves—ardent, alert, and having sati—subduing greed and distress with reference to the world. This is called the faculty of sati.”
Furthermore, it is possible to be mindful of things that will occur in the future such as death. From the Pali-cannon (AN 6.19):
The Blessed One said, "Mindfulness of death, when developed and pursued, is of great fruit and great benefit. It gains a footing in the deathless, has the deathless as its final end. Therefore you should develop mindfulness of death."
The reason one can be mindful of future events is because sati is best described as remembering and thus bringing to mind in remembrance inevitable future events is a legitimate mindfulness [sati] practice. In the Satipațțhāna-sutta the term sati means to remember the dharmas, whereby the true nature of phenomena can be seen (Sharf, 2014, p 942) and is what causes the practitioner to "remember" that any feeling she experiences exists in relation to a whole variety of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultlessness, inferior or refined, dark or pure (Sharf, 2014, p 942) (Gethin, 1992). In other words mindfulness (sati) has almost nothing to do with ‘bare awareness’ or ‘living in the moment’ and many have bemoaned the dangers of conflating of ‘bare attention’ with sati (Thanissaro, 2010) (Garfield, n.d.).
It can not even be argued that living in the present is a distinctly Zen teaching since the masters also teach that we should reject the phenomena before us. In the words of Changhwa kunsunim (Changhwa, 2003, p187) :
[It is] truly deplorable that [we] only see the external appearance of things, only [see] the phenomena, not the ultimate reality or essence” (Changhwa, 2003, p186) and that “Meditation practice is the realization of the truth that mind itself is the Buddha, the Buddha, the mind.” 
In fact it’s not unusual for Zen masters to sound quite mystical about awakening such as Changhwa kunsunim insisting that “the true-thusness, the Vairocana Buddha is itself the universe” (Changhwa, 2003, p191) and that the universe is literally the mind of the Buddha and that rocks and clouds are literally alive with the mysterious Buddha-mind. Dogen likewise argued for the universality of Buddha nature and claimed that "fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles" are also "mind" (,shin). Dogen also argued that "insentient beings expound the teachings" and that the words of the eternal Buddha “are engraved on trees and on rocks . . . in fields and in villages(Parks [1], 2009) (Parks [2], 2009) (Parks [3], 2009) ( Heisig, 2010) (OUP, 2013) (OUP, 2005)
And it might be tempting to write this mysticism off as a metaphor but other contemporary masters talk in ways that leave no doubt that the meaning is mystical (DaeHaeng, 2007, p26):
The speed of light is considered to be the fastest thing in the universe, but it is not faster than mind. The ability of mind is such that if you awaken there is nothing you cannot know, and there is no place you cannot reach. The Buddha knew that displaying this ability tends to confuse people, without helping them, so he was careful about doing so. If you sincerely believe in the power of mind and awaken, then, while continuing to practice, you will be able to clearly see all the things that are invisible to ordinary people. The ability of our fundamental mind is the most profound and mysterious thing in the entire universe.”

It is extremely hard to take this kind of talk as a metaphor and the Zen master continues on talking about life on other planets and its clear she is talking about spiritual beings rather than beings made with carbon atoms. Many of the seemingly impossible promises that are found in Buddhism such as saving all beings seem literally possible from the enlightened perspective. As DaeHaeng kunsunim put it (DaeHaeng, 2007, p64):
Through the mysterious and profound truth that is the Buddha-Dharma, you can hear the needs of all unenlightened beings and you can save all unenlightened beings. You can do all this with hands that are not hands and feet that are not feet. All of this is possible because through the power of the Buddha-Dharma anything can be done, even in the material world. The great meaning of the Buddha-Dharma is so vast and complete that it is almost beyond comprehension.” 
It is clear from the words and the contexts above that these contemporary Zen masters are not using metaphors and do not think they are exaggerating. And furthermore on close inspection it is even impossible to take as metaphors the celestial Buddha and Bodhisattva when enlightened contemporary masters write in English their experiences of meeting Cosmic Beings (Jongil,1990):

In Daein Cave on the side of Mt. Youngchook, the Vairocana Himself prophesied that I would be a Buddha in the near future (in this life or the next). He touched me on the forehead, saying, “Buddhist Nun, you are a student of mine forever” and “for three months he taught me how to get Buddhahood.” ”
The simplification of meditation to a secular cult of the 'present moment' is rather to miss the point. Meditation requires 'right aspiration' (Samma sankappa), 'right views' (Samma ditthi), 'right livilhood' (Samma ajiva) and the rest of the path. Buddhism is about mind-training that is deep and difficult and does lead to otherworldly and mystical experiences which illuminate the commonly unseen. Meditation is about the great matter of life and death - a bit more than a walk in the park to listen to the birds! Although, I do love a walk in the park and the birds are very pretty...
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APPENDIX ONE (Dhammapada 348)
Munca pure munca pacchato
majjhe munca bhavassa paragu
sabbattha vimuttamanaso
na punam jatijaram upehisi.
Bodhipaksa’s translation:
Let go of the past, let go of the future.
Let go of the present. Having gone beyond becoming,
with mind completely freed,
you will never again come to birth and aging.
Buddharakkhita’s translation:
Let go of the past, let go of the future,
let go of the present, and cross over to the farther shore of existence.
With mind wholly liberated,
you shall come no more to birth and death.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017


A common intuition among Buddhists is that there is no-self (anattā), that things are empty (sunyata) and that real things are in some way an illusion.  What is not usually recognised is that this same idea has resurfaced time and time again in western philosophy since the time of Plato.  Another unrecognised aspect of no-self is that it potentially causes some problems for some teachings related to Nirvana. 

In order to understand the problem of emptiness (sunyata) and nirvana it is instructive to briefly (we'll do it very briefly -in a single paragraph) look at the historical debate in the West.  Plato was a realist and taught that abstract things such as numbers were actually real.  He taught that somewhere in the realm of forms (εἶδος or eidos) abstract forms, such as numbers exist in a state more real than the particular things we can see.  Plato thought that forms are the most pure of all things being transcendent to our world and super-ordinate to matter and true knowledge is the ability to grasp the world of forms by ones mind.  Plato’s forms were, he taught, a blueprint of perfection, a perfect non-material realm that really exists somewhere.  The rejection of these Platonic forms became known as the ‘problem of universals’ and the rejection of ‘universals’ and ‘forms’ became known as ‘nominalism’ meaning ‘name’ in Latin.

No-self (anattā) is a type of nominalism because ‘self’ has no independent existence except as a name. Emptiness (sunyata) is an example of Buddhist nominalism because both reject abstract concepts, general terms or universals insisting they have no independent existence but exist only as names. Therefore, various objects labelled by the same term have nothing in common but their name. This whole thing will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever looked at Buddhist teachings.

William of Ockham
There are different types of western nominilism such as 'conceptualism' which explains things as conceptualized frameworks situated within the thinking mind (Strawson, 2006). The conceptualist view approaches the metaphysical concept of universals from a perspective that denies their presence in particulars outside the mind's perception of them which again will be very familiar to Buddhists.  They argue that universals exist only because the human mind observes the natural world and creates categories (names) for the many individual objects it sees. None of these ideas, concepts, categories, or “names” exist apart from the specific objects to which they are attached.

These particulars are not a separate reality but only a creation of the human mind. Thus, when we observe fire we ignore the differences such as size, shape, colour, fuel, heat, or smokiness, and concentrate on what we believe are the similarities. We create the phonomena “fire” which helps us bring order to our world. There is no separate “fireness” in which the variety of individual objects we label “fire” participate.

Nominilists claim that values such as 'true' and 'false' are abstract objects as well which are rejected.  The same goes for 'good,' 'evil,' 'right' and 'wrong' and all other universals.  Related to this nominilistic insight is the realisation that things are on analysis ineffable for in order that things be readily describable we need some kind of realist theory of universals (not going to go into why here, but trust me on this one – ask me or do research if that intrigues you).  That things are conceptualist and thus particulars are ineffable will be found explicitly amongst Buddhist philosophers and implicitly among Buddhist teachers.  

From the earliest times Buddhist philosophers were nomonilists and we find it in taught in the Abhidharma (Siderifts, 2007, p 213) but it was not until Dignāga (c. 480 – c. 540 CE) that Buddhist philosophy became consistent on this point (Siderifts, 2007, p 213).  In this respect some Buddhist concepts can sometimes betray the intuition of nominilism such as some understandings of Nirvana as 'unconditioned' and 'eternal'. 

Nirvana is sometimes described as being a 'pure' thing in itself much like Plato’s forms.  Nirvana is often said to be “unconditioned” (asamskrta),  “devoid of cause and effect" (visankhara/asankhata), “the unconditioned element” (asankhata-dhatu), “the unborn” (ajāta) or “the unarisen” (abhūta), “uncreated” (anutpattika) and so on.  This description of Nirvana certainly doesn’t sound like it has been created by the thinking mind due to a matrix of 'cause and effect' as standard Buddhist philosophy would suggest.

As such Buddhists potentially have their own version of the ‘problem of universals’ since they have to explain what on earth the unconditioned (asankhata) means when describing Nirvana and Buddha-nature.  There are however nominilistic explanations of Nirvana such as the Lankavatara sutra describing four types of teaching of Nirvana which were meant for different types of people on the path (Suzuki, 1932, p 169):

1) people who are suffering, or who are afraid of suffering, and who think of Nirvana;
2) there are the philosophers who try to discriminate Nirvana;
3) there are the class of disciples who think of Nirvana in relation to themselves;
4) the Nirvana of the Buddhas.

The Nirvana of the Buddha’s is to recognise “that there is nothing but what is seen of the mind itself; ...recognising the nature of the self-mind, one no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination; is where there is no more thirst nor grasping; is where there is no more attachment to external things. Nirvana is where the thinking-mind with all its discriminations, attachments, aversions and egoism is forever put away; is where logical measures, as they are seen to be inert, are no longer seized upon; is where even the notion of truth is treated with indifference because of its causing bewilderment...”

The Lankavatara sutra recognises that there are many different ways in which the ‘unconditionedness’ of Nirvana can be understood but teaches that the Nirvana of the Buddha’s is one of ‘conceptualist nomonilism’ and thus Bankei kununim (1622-93) advised us to “abide as the Unborn” or in other words don’t start making conceptual universals such as “me,” “Buddhism,” “enlightened,” “unenlightened,” “young,” “old,” "good," "evil,"  and so on.

The upshot of this is that nominilism applies even to 'emptiness' (ie, emptiness is empty) and to claim that 'enlightenment' or 'Buddhism' can be defined and said to be 'X, Y or Z' runs contrary to the core insights of the Buddhist tradition.

Mark Siderits, 2007, Buddhism as Philsophy, Ashgate Publishing Ltd

Strawson, 2006, "Conceptualism. Universals, concepts and qualities: new essays on the meaning of predicates." Ashgate Publishing, 2006

Suzuki, 1932, Lankavatara,  George Routledge & Son, London