Buddhist morality and merciful lies

Amod Lele recently asked whether there is an emic Buddhist morality or whether this is only a Yavanayāna invention

from http://sebersole.wordpress.com

(i.e., an invention of contemporary Western-trained Buddhists). The question is in itself interesting, but the discussion it triggered is even more, since Jayarava (who blogs here) added the problem of the possible inconsistency of the doctrine of karman if one denies the continuity of the self. That there is a problem cannot be denied: Why should we care about the karman our actions accumulate, if it is not going to affect “us”?

Now, I am tempted to answer that we should care, just like we should care for global warming, although it is not going to affect us. We should start thinking altruistically about future human beings and their well-being. Similarly, if I were a 5th c. Buddhist, I would want to avoid accumulating bad karman, since this would lead to bad consequences, although not for me (since I do not exist). Incidentally, one might add that I do not care for the consequences of global warming on future generations just because I am deluded and think of them a substantial selves very much different from my self. Once I realise that there is no continuity in what I consider to be my self, I will probably cease seeing the discontinuity as so sharf. Jayarava replied to the above point by saying that this would not motivate anyone to be moral —in fact, global warning does not seem to motivate most people to act for the benefit of other people in the future. I agree that it does not motivate normal (i.e., deluded) people, who only act for the sake of their non-existent self, but I think that it could motivate people who have undertaken the Buddhist path and are becoming aware of the reality of anātmatā. I agree with Jayarava that normal people will need to think of karman as something regarding themselves and that in this sense there are two parallel narratives in Buddhist texts (one about anātmatā and one about morality—which presupposes an enduring self). However, as someone who methodologically tries to make as much sense as possible of the texts she reads, I feel compelled to try to find a possible way to avoid the contradiction —and the global warning parallel comes to my mind as a suitable one.

However, another commenter, Jim Wilton, takes a different line of defense, namely, he says that the idea of a permanent self as a support for the continuity of karman is a sort of a merciful lie, needed for us, deluded people, although its falsity is clear to the Bodhisattva who utters it. Jayarava replies that he does not want a patronalising Bodhisattva treat him like a child. This is an interesting (and appealing —at least to me) reaction. Thus, I wonder:

Does the doctrine of upāyakaśalya imply or at least justify merciful lies?

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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70 thoughts on “Buddhist morality and merciful lies

  1. Anatman teachings do not deny continuity (santana) or interbeing (vijnaptimatrata), so these are false arguments. The point of anatma is the denial of conceptual reductionism to static reals or subsistents.

    • thanks, thomas, for this addition on anātman as referring to substantialism. As a boring philologist, though, let me ask what you mean when you translate vijñāptimātratā (which I would translate literally as ‘representation only’) with “interbeing”?

      • Beginning with a philological understanding of terms is fine, but we must also place them within the context of philosophical usage. For example, Plato and Aristotle both employ the Gk. term ‘eidos’, but with opposite ontological meanings. As for vijñapti as ‘cognitive experiences’ (Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought, A complete introduction to the Indian tradition. Routledge: London and New York, 2000, p 156) and vijñaptimātra as ‘interbeing’ or ‘cognitive closure’, see the following two excerpts from a work in progress, plus some sources (3):

        (1) Whereas vijñapti (Skt; Pāli, viññatti) had previously meant ‘information, gesture, communication’ (Guenther 1976 A p 162) in both general usage and Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāsika abhidharma, the yogācārins employed the term to mean immediate conscious experience prior to any separation of subject and object (B. C. Hall 1986 p 13). By placing the emphasis upon immediate experience, the yogācārins were describing vijñāna (‘consciousness’ or ‘perception’) as vijñapti-mātra (‘cognitive experience only’, or ‘cognitive closure’), which means that the so-called “external world” is inseparable from our psychological projections (Lusthaus in McGreal 1995 p 191). The result is a view of the basic stratum of consciousness as transpersonal.

        (2) There are different theories (vāda) of intentionality within Buddhism to account for objects being directly and immediately present to consciousness. The differentiation between sākāravāda and nirākāravāda pertains to the difference of whether or not immediate experience constitutes an ‘aspect’ or ‘feature’ (ākāra), as opposed to pure hacceity (of particulars) and direct knowledge of svabhāvas (intrinsic meanings). Although ‘aspect’ and ‘feature’ are commonly accepted translations for ākāra, I should like to immediately qualify my remarks by stating that this term is variously interpreted and is the subject of much dispute. The Sautrāntikas interpreted ākāra as arising spontaneously, without active mental processing, hence for them ākāra takes on the sense of either an image of the object or a pre-objective configuration. The Vaibhāsikas, on the other hand, interpreted ākāra as a feature or image which is the product of mental processing, and they generally equated ākāra with prajñā. As already mentioned, prajñā can be a discriminating faculty for discursive investigation, or it may function intuitively (pratibhāna-prajñā). When the Vaibhāsikas identify ākāra with prajñā they are referring to mental processing. When they identify prajñā with pratyaksa (direct perception), they are mainly referring to buddi-pratyaksa as the direct apprehension of svabhāvas (intrinsic meanings).One theory (sākāravāda, sākārajñānavāda) affirms that immediate experience constitutes an ākāra (interpreted as spontaneous but not substantive), and the other (nirākāravāda, nirākārajñānavāda) denies that immediate experience constitutes an ākāra (interpreted as involving mental process but essentially substantive). Since they’re not completely speaking the same language, the disputes can be confusing.

        The Vaibhāsika school will embrace nirākārajñānavāda, the view that consciousness (vijñāna) is wholly referential insofar as it passively receives and directly (immediately) knows or wholly possesses the object which transcends consciousness. The dissenters at the fourth council who became Sautrāntikas will come to embrace sākārajñānavāda, the view that consciousness (vijñāna) directly (immediately) knows or possesses the aspect (ākāra) which acts like a reflection “within consciousness” of the transcending object. Both of these theories accept the assumption that particular objects exist outside (bāhya) consciousness, and that the particular (svalaksana) is directly apprehended (either noetically or as bare hacceity). However, whereas the Vaibhāsikas took the position that the particular is essentially a real entity, the Sautrāntikas gradually came to realize that the particular is, in the words of Lipman, “an ontological plenum” – a possibilizing source of meaning-vectors (pure processes of open-ended directionality), rather than constituting a static, definable entity (Lipman 1979 pp 29-30). Hence some Sautrāntikas will take the next step and come to the cittamātra view of the yogācārins – but this leaves open the subtle issue of what constitutes the actual before a mind and in what sense it might be said to be external (bāhya) to consciousness. Categories like ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ become inadequate at this point (Guenther 1977 pp 110-112). For the Vaibhāsikas, the direct object of perception (bare hacceity) is a particular (svalaksana) as substance, the indirect object of perception is the sensory object as an external (bāyha) object; the direct object of inference is the general meaning (sāmānyalaksana) as experiential, the indirect object of inference is the concept as perceptual judgement. This theory is known as pratyaksavāda, the theory (vāda) of direct perception or immediate knowing (pratyaksa) of the external (bāhya) object. For the Sautrāntika, the direct object of perception is a particular (svalaksana) as an ākāra, the indirect object of perception is the concept as perceptual judgement (recall that in Buddhism introspection is considered a form of perception); the direct object of inference is the general meaning (sāmānyalaksana) as experiential, the indirect object of inference is the particular (svalaksana) as an external (bāyha) sensory object. This latter theory is therefore termed bāhyānumeyavāda, the theory (vāda) of the inference (anumāna) of the external (bāhya) object.

        (3) Sources:

        Hall, Bruce Cameron

        1986. “The Meaning of Vijñapti in Vasubandhu’s Concept of Mind”. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Volume 9 1986 Number 1 7-24.

        Guenther, Herbert V.

        1976 A. Philosophy and Psychology in the Abhidharma. Berkeley & London: Shambhala.

        1977. Tibetan Buddhism In Western Perspective. Emeryville, CA: Dharma Publishing.

        Lipman, Kennard.

        1979. “A Study of Śāntaraksita’s Madhyamākalajkāra”. PhD Thesis, Department of Far Eastern Studies. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan © Kennard Lipman.

        McGreal, Ian P.

        1995, ed. Great Thinkers Of The Eastern World. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

        • Thank you for this detailed explanation, Thomas. I am still not completely convinced by the following passage from the indistinguability of perception and things to vijñāptimātra referring directly to the “transpersonal”:

          “By placing the emphasis upon immediate experience, the yogācārins were describing vijñāna (‘consciousness’ or ‘perception’) as vijñapti-mātra (‘cognitive experience only’, or ‘cognitive closure’), which means that the so-called “external world” is inseparable from our psychological projections (Lusthaus in McGreal 1995 p 191). The result is a view of the basic stratum of consciousness as transpersonal.”

          As I already wrote, I am not an expert, but “transpersonality” presupposes the existence of persons, which is exactly what is denied. The existence of a continuum does not mean that this is transpersonal, does it?

          • The term ‘transpersonal’ does not presuppose the existence of persons in any substantive sense, such as ātman. In Western philosophy you only have to refer to such thinkers as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, or the late writings of Whitehead (process philosophy) and Wittgenstein. The modern mathematical conception of continuum is based upon the idea of points with zero extension (in order to address paradoxes like those posited by Zeno), and this is an interesting parallel to Buddhist analysis. Other interesting comparisons can be made with quantum theory. In transpersonal psychology, see S.I. Shapiro et. al., “The Essence of Transpersonal Psychology: Contemporary Views”, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Vol. 21, 2002 pp 19-32 (available online). Here is a quote (p 20): “Many transpersonal psychologists believe that the ego or self is a useful fiction. For these psychologists, ego formation is an important stage in development, but in later developmental stages can be transcended, and more globally encompassing modes of consciousness are possible.” The problem, therefore, with many of the postings on this subject of ātman vs. anātman, is that of “straw dog” arguments. People first misrepresent Buddhist philosophy (and there is no single school of Buddhist philosophy) then attack their own misrepresentations. For example, there are comments which assume that consciousness is not possible without a “self”, or that anātman makes a continuum impossible. If continuity was impossible, then no one could attain Buddhahood. Once Buddhahood and nirvana have been attained, neither existence nor non-existence can describe what is attained. All of the further misunderstandings of Buddhism regarding the “noble lie” and the distinctions being made between bodhisattva and Buddha flow from these faulty reasonings. People who wish to comment on such matters need more training in philosophy, since these are philosophical issues. In fact, many Buddhists don’t understand them either. Fortunately, recent scholarship has been making tremendous strides forward

          • Thank you. I’ve especially enjoyed your previous explanations regarding Viśistādvaita Vedānta. That helped me to clarify some of my thinking.

    • Hi Thomas,

      You’re answering the question from a sectarian point of view (your Mahāyāna jargon is a bit of a give away). But whatever your sectarian affiliations, and sectarian concepts aside, anātman teachings cannot be construed in isolation. Anātman is one of three lakṣanas, so anātman always implies the other two lakṣanas, and thus entails non-continuity. But this is assuming we accept your definition of anātman, which I am inclined not to.

      In the general Indian view, the ātman is what provides for continuity in a changing world. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, for example, it is the essence that is not affected by the surface changes that occur to the body or the world. Being real ātman is what underlies being and thus provides the continuity from life to life, and the connection brahman in the liberated afterlife. It is “what is ultimate in use responding to what is ultimate in the universe”.

      The early Buddhists were at pains to deny the possibility that we could perceive anything unchanging through our six senses, precisely because all we perceive is arising and ceasing. Arising and ceasing deny the possibility of an ātman being found within the sensorium or within the khandhas. But this idea exists within a complex web of related ideas. So to my mine Elisa is not wrong to invoke anātmatā in the way that she does.

      However, your answer points to a deeper problem with this kind of discussion. You assert that a proposition is false based on an parochial sectarian view, seemingly unaware that your understanding of Buddhism is not the whole of Buddhism, that your understanding is sectarian. So this is not a scholarly discussion, it is a religious discussion. Different rules apply in these two domains. One is ideally seeking truth through examining evidence; the other is sifting evidence and selecting that which supports a truth accepted on faith. These two approaches are incompatible.

      And in my opinion there is very little value in religious discussions, especially where sectarianism is already evident, except amongst people who already share the same view and can reinforce each other’s faith, excluding doubt and along with it the possibility of critical enquiry into belief and the nature of belief. The last thing religieux want is to discuss the possibility that what they believe is wrong or fundamentally flawed. And for my part, this is exactly the proposition that I was putting forward in the discussion with Amod et al.

      • I disagree that I’m answering from a sectarian point of view. My special interest is in philosophy, and therefore the terms must take into consideration the fact that they are employed differently by different philosophers. My lengthier response explains this in part.

        • You are, of course and unsurprisingly, right about the general usage of the term vijñaptimatra.

          “Interbeing” is a term specific to the Thich Nhat Hanh movement, aka the Order of Interbeing. Perhaps you ought to be looking there for an explanation?

          • Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the scholars who has appreciated the meaning of vijñaptimātra as used by some Sautrāntika, Yogācāra and other philosophers. He’s not making up a new conception. This is why I mentioned the important term ākāra, which is defined differently by different schools, especially the Sarvāstivādins and Sautrāntikas. The Yogācārins took things one step further in order to be consistent in their thinking and true to the implications in Buddha’s original formulation of sarvam asti (‘everything exists’) as consisting of the āyatanas (12 fields of sense). Thich Nhat Hanh derived his understanding from them, and makes this clear in his writings. See Bruce Cameron Hall, “The Meaning of Vijñapti in Vasubandhu’s Concept of Mind”. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Volume 9 1986 Number 1 7-24.

        • Hi Thomas.

          When I said you was taking a sectarian point of view it was not an opinion. It was a statement of fact. You are using sectarian jargon like vijñaptimatra and interbeing. They have no place in other forms of Buddhism. And any argument which selectively privileges one jargon over another is sectarian by definition.

          It may well be the case the some terms are used differently by different authors, but since they are not used at all by other authors you have a problem. The number of terms that a universally understood is minuscule.

          Not only that but you used this sectarian jargon to make dogmatic assertions that are only true from that sectarian point of view.

          You may not have intended to take sides, but you have.


          • It’s not a matter of “sectarian jargon”, but of explicating what the earliest sources are stating. This requires critical and philosophical analysis, and an attempt to interpret in a manner which is consistent.

      • The Buddha defined ‘everything exists’ (sarvam asti) as the twelve āyatanas, therefore the Buddha took an approach which is termed ‘phenomenology’ in modern Western philosophy. See the Sabba Sutta (Pāli) and the Samyukta Āgama (Skt.). Schools of Buddhist philosophy may be criticized in terms of how consistently they have maintained a phenomenological approach, but these postings which do not understand Buddhism as phenomenology are completely “off the mark”. In fact, it was only recently that scholars, such as Herbert Guenther, Nyanaponika Thera, and D. J. Kalupahana, brought this understanding to bear. See, for example: D. J. Kalupahana, “Sarvastivada and its theory of Sarvam Asti”. University of Ceylon Review Vol XXVI No.1 & 2 1966, pp 94-105. Also: Nyanaponika Thera, Abhidhamma Studies, Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1998), ed. with intro. by Bhikkhu Bodhi. This phenomenology also applies to the concept of time as ‘temporality’ in Buddhism, for which see: Michel Gauvain, “Time and Temporality in Indian Buddhism”. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Academic Year 2008/2009.

        • Whoa there. We have no idea what the Buddha defined. We only know what later Buddhists jotted down and attributed to a founder, for whom there is no other evidence. There’s no possibility of an appeal to authority here.

          I can assure that neither the Sabba Sutta nor its Chinese āgama counterpart ever use the phrase “sarvaṃ asti” or “sabbam atthi”. What the text does define is a term borrowed from the Upaniṣads: idam sarvaṃ. “All this”. Or just sabbam in Pāḷi. Or 一切 “all” in Chinese.

          You are confusing this with sarva-asti from the Sarvāstivādin School which argued that in order for karma to connect consequences to long ceased actions (in contravention of the Paṭiccasamuppāda axiom “imassā nirodhā, idam nirujjhati”) it was necessary for dharmas to be always existent (sarva-asti) but only be “active” in the present. A theory which held sway in parts of Northern India for a few centuries and was then eclipsed by the Theory of Momentariness.

          I have explored the relationship between the Sarvāstivāda and the Sarva Sūtra in an essay, which may help you untangle yourself. It includes my translations of both the Pāḷi and the Chinese texts and some discussion about any relationship between this text and the Sarvāstivāda such as it is. http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/sarvastivada-and-chinese-sarva-sutra.html

          Once you get yourself properly oriented, maybe we could try to get back on topic?

          • I shall reply with a quote from A.K. Warder, 2004. Indian Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass p 5: “However, there is a central body of sūtras (dialogues), in four groups, which is so similar in all known versions that we must accept these as so many recensions of the same original texts. These make up the greater part of the Sūtra Pitaka, one of the three sections or traditions which make up the Tripitaka…. It may be noted here that whatever textual discrepancies are found hardly affect the doctrine.”

          • Thomas, you’re citing out of date authorities rather than responding from your own experience of reading the texts.

            AK Warder is simply wrong. But how would you know if you didn’t read widely in the suttas, but only read these dated authorities? You seem to feel you’re on safe ground because you can find quotes to back up your presupposition. But that doesn’t interest me at all. There is no substitute for actually reading the texts. And if you must cite some authority then at least cite one that takes into account the latest research. Did you even bother to read my essay? Or are you not interested in facts that undermine your views?

    • I’m surprised that you are so easily misled. I don’t have a problem with real Pali scholars.

      Sāvatthi-nidāna . “Sabba vo, bhikkhave, desessāmi. Ta su ātha. Kiñca, bhikkhave, sabba? Cakkhuñceva rūpā ca, sotañca saddā ca, ghānañca gandhā ca, jivhā ca rasā ca, kāyo ca pho habbā ca, mano ca dhammā ca — ida vuccati, bhikkhave, sabba . Yo, bhikkhave, eva vadeyya: ‘ahameta sabba paccakkhāya añña sabba paññāpessāmī’ti, tassa vācā-vatthu-ka-mevassa; pu ho ca na sampāyeyya, uttariñca vighāta āpajjeyya. Ta kissa hetu? Yathā ta , bhikkhave, avisayasmin”ti.


      SN 35.23 PTS: S iv 15 CDB ii 1140

      Sabba Sutta: The All
      translated from the Pali by
      Thanissaro Bhikkhu
      © 2001

      “Monks, I will teach you the All. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

      “As you say, lord,” the monks responded.

      The Blessed One said, “What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this All, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.”

      • Oh *please*, Thomas! We’ve established that you *do not* speak or read Pāḷi. You are no position to judge who is a good translator and who is not, or indeed who is a “real” Pāḷi scholar (whatever that means). You don’t fool anyone with this tedious, empty posturing. You are *not* an authority on this subject.

        Thanissaro’s translation is just another unevaluated source you’ve got from the internet (do you have access to a library?). Worse, he’s another rather idiosyncratic translator and must be read with caution. This text is quite a good example, for Thanissaro here, by introducing a pronoun “the” that doesn’t exist in the Pāḷi, he has reified the concept of sabbaṃ and mislead you once again. “The all” is quite wrong in this context. It’s not even good English, which is one thing that *even you* can look out for in a good translation.

        To get a better idea of what sabbaṃ might mean check out these two articles by the great Dutch philologist Jan Gonda.

        Gonda, J. 1955. ‘Reflections on Sarva- in Vedic Texts’. Indian Linguistics 16(Nov) : 53-71

        Gonda, J. 1982. ‘All, Universe, and Totality in the Śatapatha-Brāhmana’. Journal of the Oriental Institute 32(1-2): 1-17

        If you’re going to bluff your way in Indian Philosophy then Jan Gonda is a key scholar to read. His essay on “loka” is also excellent. And, I cannot emphasise this enough, if you want to impress people with the translations of Pāḷi that you cut and paste, then don’t choose random translations from the internet and at least quote someone who is universally respected in the field, like, for example, Bhikkhu Bodhi. Or Rupert Gethin. Anyone who hasn’t self-published their work will be a better bet than someone who has.

        • I will definitely put Gonda on my reading list, but your prattling on about being able to read Pali ignores the fact that many disciplines are involved here. Besides, I’m reading a range of Pali scholars. It is obvious to me that you have no real understanding of critical philosophy, and many of the controversies in early Buddhism involve languages other than Pali. Your notion that the Pali texts are empirical in approach and simply “ignore” the object as object is a totally unfounded prejudice. As I’ve been studying the debates among the Buddhist schools it is clear that NONE of them adopted this position — not even the forerunners of the Theravada. ALL of them began with interpretations of ‘direct perception’ (pratyaksa), therefore they ALL take a phenomenological approach to varying degrees of consistency. Being able to read Pali is useless without having a capacity to recognize philosophical issues.

      • So, I take it you’re not yet a huge fan of that “great Dutch philologist” Gonda J? Wait though… wait for it… Gonda J never set foot in India even once …oh my – now in terms of an appeal to authority – that’s what I call audacity !!

  2. It’s worth noting that the idea of a “merciful lie” is an innovation in Buddhism. The concept is absent from the Pāḷi Nikāyas and Chinese Āgamas. So one of the questions we need to think about, is *why* such an innovation came about. What problem was the merciful lie invented to solve that did not exist in the first 5 or 6 centuries of Buddhism?

    I believe this has to do with the down-grading of what you call the “normal” person and the deification of the Buddha. I’ve shown in a couple of publications now that there is a gradual change in the relative status of human beings and Buddhas. By, say, the 5th century (to take your reference point) awakening is something that takes three incalculable aeons of time. Not one infinite period of time, but three! In other words awakening is impossible for ordinary people. At the same time the conceptual Buddha becomes more and more potent, magical, and god-like. And again at the same time the historical Buddha is seen as a kind of traitor – he has gone to nirvāna and thus can take no more part in our lives, He was the way-finder, but is now entirely irrelevant. Enter the new superhero, the bodhisatva, who has all the magical powers of a Buddha, but has chosen not to leave the sphere of human activity. And the living Buddha from another universe, Amitābha, who also steps in to fill the void left by selfish Gotama and his selfish Arahants. Of course this is mostly implied and Buddhists don’t openly disrespect the Buddha. They target the Arahant and leave the rest unsaid.

    At this point we have a picture dramatically at odds with earlier depictions of the Buddhist world, where even committed Buddhists are stupid and incapable of awakening. The magical super-hero bodhisatva does whatever is necessary to save us stupid ordinary people from ourselves, because in this worldview we are incapable of saving ourselves. An epitome of this is the image from the Lotus Sutra which portrays people as too stupid to get out of a burning building. By the 5th century Buddhists had developed delusions of grandeur (that never left them) and the ethos had changed so the Buddhism was now a panacea to save the whole world. That’s why I think bodhisatvas can lie to people with impunity even though it is a grossly unskilful act in an ordinary person to knowingly lie. 5th century Buddhists see and treat ordinary people with contempt and disdain. There’s a great deal of unacknowledged self-hatred in Buddhism.

    But this is not the point I was making in response to Amod. It seems to me that you’ve overlooked the most important point I was trying to make. It’s not so much about what I think about morality, but about what I have observed in Buddhists moral discourse. In all forms of modern Buddhism that I’m aware of, and in the Nikāya/Āgama texts, Buddhists in fact maintain *two different* discourses regarding this issue.

    In metaphysics, Buddhists deny any real continuity. The axioms of sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā and sabbe dhammā anattā deny the possibility of any unchanging component of a person and any essence or ultimate aspect. Pratītysamutpāda allows only conditional relations between any two events in time. The person who acts is neither the same, nor different from, the person who suffers the consequences. Actions but no actor – as both Buddhaghosa and Nāgārjuna insist!

    I’ve argued that this doesn’t seem to be motivation enough to be moral because the sufferer of consequences does not seem closely enough related to me for it to feel like me. Furthermore I have argued that this is silently, but openly acknowledged in the other discourse, the moral discourse.

    In Buddhists texts which focus on morality (e.g. the Jātakas) and in many modern books and lectures on the subject, it is openly stated, often with no qualification, that *I* will suffer the consequences of *my* actions or that “I” may come to regret “my” own past actions. Here a strong form of continuity is stated. The “I” who acts, *is* the same “I” who suffers. Morality demands this kind of continuity and Buddhism provides it on one hand, yet denies it on the other.

    The contradiction is hiding in plain sight. Now I think of it I have watched this seguing between two contradictory points of view as though there were no contradiction for more than two decades and had not even noticed it. However, having seen it, I cannot unsee it.

    Why is the Buddhist karma doctrine still treated as coherent by the majority of academics when it is not, even on the tradition’s own terms? My impression is that too many academics are Romantically in love with their subject and unable to see its faults.

    My many blog essays on Buddhist Karma can be found under this link: http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/p/afterlife.html

    See also my article: Attwood, Jayarava. (2014). Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 21, 503-535. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2014/06/04/changes-in-buddhist-karma

    • Dear Jayarava,

      to begin with, thanks for engagin wholeheartedly in the discussion. I see your point concerning the evolution of the Bodhisattva ideal and the (implicit, yet unavoidable?) condemnation of the historical Buddha for not having become a Bodhisattva. My understanding of this development more or less agrees with yours:
      1. It is clear that in the Pāli Canon the attainment of awakening is possible (Ānanda is said to have reached it and many other monks after the historical Buddha), whereas this became a remote goal thereafter.
      2. It is also apparent that in the early Mahāyāna (sorry for the generic term) there has been a glorification of the Bodhisattvas alone (over the historical Buddha, so to say).
      3. In some currents of later Buddhism it seems that the historical Buddha can regain importance, but he is revered as a cosmic principle or as a saving entity.
      (In this scenario, by the way, Tenzin Gyatso’s words about the Buddha as an exceptional and admirable human being seem to constitute an interesting exception.)

      Now for the second point (whether Buddhist belief in karman can be logically understood): I think that our main point of disagreement here is due to the fact that I am not trying to pick up a religion to follow. In this sense, I am looking at Buddhism “from the outside” and am focussing on its theology, not on its sociological aspects. When I try to see whether the belief in anātman can be reconciled with the doctrine of karman and karuṇā, I try to see whether this is theologically possible, not whether concrete Buddhists think that way. To use a different example: In Catholic and Orthodox Christian praxis, many people revere the saints as if they had autonomous powers —which is nonsensical from the point of view of both theologies. I am, at the moment, not interested in what people do when they revere saints, but in whether and why the cult of saints can make theological sense.

      Back to Buddhism: I have written long ago about the paradox of the Bodhisattva (he knows that no one exists, yet he helps them!) and I agree with you that it is a paradox. I am not yet convinced, though, that this must just mean that it is non-sensical. In that writing I suggested something like the fact that your right hand helps your left hand (and not someone else’s one) because it is limited by the concept of ātman and that removing this would free its ability to help in general.

      This being said, I will now re-read the articles you point to!

      • To Jayarava:

        The term “lie” is a very poor choice of words. If one acclaims that truth is saha (ungraspable), there are no truths or lies in the ordinary senses of these words. Truth may be described as ‘open-ended’, or as an ‘ontological plenum’, implying that there are infinite aspects to be unfolded. Hence I reject the notion of “merciful lies” as being a superficial distortion. The Buddha had profund insights which modern Western ‘process philosophy’ and ‘existential phenomenology’ have discovered in their own ways. I would also point to the profound implications of quantum theory. To refer to the Heisenberg principle as a “merciful lie” is ridiculous.

        I’m currently researching and writing on such topics, but they cannot be done any justice within the context of brief comments, and require a very challenging degree of critical analysis. It is also my conviction that a multi-disciplinary approach is best, but the proof of that will only come in the larger presentations of the evidence.

        • Thomas

          You appear to be confused about many issues and relying on very dated scholarship. And yet you still write as though you are an authority on the subject. You seem unwilling to acknowledge that others might know something about the subject. And I do. I would ditch all those books you are relying on and replace them with material published this century. Almost nothing from last century is reliable any more.

          The term “lie” is entirely apposite to, for example, the Parable of the Burning House, where the Bodhisatva tells a lie to the children inside the house in order to lure them out and save them from burning. He states a fact that is untrue, appealing to the base desires of the children, because it is for their own good. This lie has been widely discussed as a lie in the literature of kauśalyaupāya.

          What’s in question is whether it can be skilful to break the precept against lying for someone’s own good. It’s part of a pernicious trend in Buddhism that I touch on in my article in the JBE on Buddhist karma (mentioned above).

      • Meh. Everyone seems to gloss over the problematic issue of translating dhamma/adhamma – in this podcast translated as “teaching”. There is no scholarly consensus on this. I looked at the controversy in an essay: http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/the-simile-of-raft.html

        Ironically, Jonardon Ganeri, who is mentioned at the beginning of the podcast has attempted to problematise the idea of abandoning the teachings (thus *contradicting* the narrator). I would also argue against this. After all, the Buddha is never portrayed as abandoning the Dhamma himself, indeed he is famously portrayed as taking the Dharma as his refuge post-awakening. Nor are any arahants/arhats portrayed in this manner. So the idea that one abandons the Dharma seems like nonsense, both intuitively and historically. But then what do dhamma/adhamma mean here? I’m still unsure. Thus the authority of the text is undermined by an unresolved ambiguity.

        The raft simile occurs in Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22; M i.130) .

        And the narrator is conflating the later Mahāyāna teaching with early Buddhism. It’s confused. As he says the early Buddhists did not accept the idea of merciful lies. So hinting that they might have as a way of explaining the simile doesn’t really make sense. That’s done rather poorly. One cannot project later concepts into earlier phases of development and produce coherent explanations. It sometimes, not not always, works the other way. There seems to be no early justification for lying.

        The narrator suggests that the Buddhist tradition “continued to flirt with the compassionate lie”. But this distorts history. The Buddhist tradition doesn’t even invent the compassionate lie until well into the Common Era (to the best of my knowledge), so early Buddhists can hardly be said to “flirt” with it. It’s a concept strongly associated with the odd cult of the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra – a text which may have had minimal influence in India, but was very influential in East Asia (which is why we know about it). As the Mahāyāna consolidated from the wide range of diverse sects that made it up initially made it up, many different ideas were co-opted into a kind of general mishmash of teachings.

        A shame that the person does not cite the texts he’s using. I think the text featuring Prince Abhaya is the Abhaya Sutta (MN 58 PTS: M i 392). This text appears to show that early Buddhists had no concept of a compassionate lie. Compare the Piyajātikā Sutta (MN 87 PTS: M ii 106) in which the Buddha is portrayed as not hesitating to tell a grieving father the hard truth about life, i.e. that misery comes from those we love!

        “evametaṃ, gahapati, evametaṃ, gahapati piyajātikā hi, gahapati, sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā piyappabhavikā”ti.


        The podcast then segues into the Burning House Parable. One of the least attractive Buddhist stories there is. We are apparently all idiots that can only be saved by a messiah in the form of a bodhisatva who lies to us to save us from being so stupid that we can’t help ourselves. At this point Buddhism has lost its collective mind, abandoned its founding principles, and become a completely different religion with a completely different soteriology that requires an *external* saviour rather than one liberating oneself through effort. The fact that we still call it Buddhism is incidental. This is something entirely new. And in this new religion the end justifies the means.

        After this I stopped listening. I would not recommend this podcast.

        • Thank you, Jayarava. As you might have seen, I raised a similar problem in the comments to the podcast (that the Lotus Sūtra should not be mentioned in a podcast about the historical Buddha). Thanks for your much more thoughtful remarks on the strange parable of the burning house (again, in the Lotus Sūtra). The move from the emphasis on awareness and sad-dṛṣṭi to being saved is strange. Perhaps the intermediate step is the case of the Buddha’s brother, Nanda, who starts moving in the Buddhist path because the Buddha has captured his attention with the sight of the beautiful apsaras? (The earliest source I know about this story is Aśvaghoṣa, but you can surely correct me.)

  3. Jayarava, I forgot to answer one point you had mentioned in Amod’s blog, namely: “In your answer you invoke the “reality of anātmatā” as if this is an uncontested concept. Whose definition of “anātman” or “reality” are you invoking? There are many to choose from! What can “reality” possibly mean in a discourse which denies the possibility of a reality in the modern Western sense of the word, such as we find in early Buddhist texts? ”

    Yes, that’s right. Luckily enough, I am no expert in Buddhism, but I would say that Abhidharmic Buddhism sees the world as made of instantaneous elements and claims that any substantialisation of them into single entities, including personal entities, violates one’s original experience of it —which can be the only guide through the erroneous superimpositions.

    • But in your example, the 5th century, Abhidharmic Buddhism existed in many flavours , each of which was inconsistent with the others. For example the Pudgalavādins expressed the opinion that karma was carried forward by a pudgala or a real person that lived within the individual. The Sarvāstivādins by contrast argued that karma was carried forward because dharmas always exist (sarva-asti). Whether or not this constitutes dravya is a moot point. The Sautrāntikās and Yogacārins argued that karma was carried forward as a metaphorical seed in a metaphorical storehouse, though by this time Yogacārins were beginning to reify the metaphor and think of the ālayavijñāna as real. And of course the Mādhyamikā (to the extent that anyone can understand what they were on about) seemed to argue that karma, kātṛ, and vipāka are ultimately just illusions. And those are just the mainstream views. Most likely Dozens of different views existed.

      So, no, it’s not that simple and I can’t let you get away with this one 🙂

      • I didn’t say it was simple. Quite the contrary, there are many different philosophical understandings and subtleties to be explored. However, not all Yogacārins were reifying, and the Buddha did not teach that the world was illusion, but only ‘ungraspable’ (saha).

  4. Greetings, I don’t think I have ever read an entire comments section on Buddhist morality before, usually because such and such a query has been poorly posed and there’s a complete lack of goodwill (and calibre) in the responses. Elisa’s question I think is pertinent to a lot of committed Buddhists and “Buddhist lurkers”, which is why I am here. My first impression is Thomas is working very hard to untangle himself from tertiary sources that are very likely to be full of Red Herrings. Jayavara also seems to have done a great amount in terms of reframing some of the discourse that academics (due to their elite kind training) are commonly preoccupied with, and again often leads to a confusing degree of reflexivity where the discussion ends up in an argument about “contemporary views” rather than the originating material – in this case anatman and karman. I think Elisa has done well to keep the discussion (mostly) on course. The astonishing and putative claims about the (Buddhist) “logic” of “the self” and of the (presupposed) structural continuity underpinning the concept of Palingenesis is fascinating. Jayavara flies close to the wind with ad hominem in places, but doesn’t quite fall over the edge because it seems to be more a question of honest debating style rather than meaning offense. Thomas shows remarkable resilience here and comes out well despite Jayavara’s compelling push-back on Thomas’ enthusiasm to excavate a consistent and intelligible narrative from any of this – at times forgetting that the best we can hope for is just that – a narrative – not brute facts. Personally, I am drawn to Foucault’s methods since I suspect that consistency won’t be forthcoming without some further consideration of the possible discontinuities in both the history, the texts and in our own cognitions. The temptation to veer off and disrupt the central concern with variety of side-discourses on “self” and theories of path dependence also seems to have been attenuated and thus the thread has not ended prematurely in a textual and cognitive “ball of mud”. My question is, if I am persuaded that there **is** a (problematic) discontinuity in the claim of “anatman” and “karman” (and there might be), does the suggestion that these claims are nothing but a pedagogic “trick” deny the common sense reading, which is it is entirely consistent in all cases, and permissable only under Buddhist logic for atman to be discontinued (in all respects) only in the exceptional case of parinibbāna, (the ultimate paradox perhaps in Buddhism?) and in all other cases the point is surely moot? If this reading is true, then the true concern is how to contextualize the exceptional case of parinibbāna in terms of karman, and thus leave the “doctrine” of anatman unopposed?

    • Welcome to the blog, Mat, and many apologies for the long waiting queu (your comment was held on as if it were spam). Thanks also for the careful analysis of the structure of the dialogue so far (speaking seems easy, but discussing is hard, and —as Gadamer explained— most people never grow up from the level of chatting).
      As for your question, I am just wondering, but can’t one imagine parinirvāṇa as being just a negative state, one in which there is no longer pain (and which thus does not need a subject to be experienced, since it is only an absence), rather than a positive one (a blissful state, which would need a subject to experience it)?

      • “…I am just wondering, but can’t one imagine parinirvāṇa as being just a negative state, one in which there is no longer pain (and which thus does not need a subject to be experienced, since it is only an absence), rather than a positive one (a blissful state, which would need a subject to experience it)?”

        Hi Elisa

        Part of the problem we have here is that we are discussing purported states of being of which we cannot, by definition, have any knowledge until we are in them. The status of the tathāgata after death is axiomatically avyākṛta. It’s a given that a tathāgata is not reborn and thus cannot suffer, since suffering is a function of rebirth in a body. But equally there can be no experience *as Buddhists understand it* (i.e. based on sense object, sense faculties, and sense cognition coming together) for a tathāgata for the same reason. There’s really not much one *can* say. To say that it is a positive or a negative state is to go beyond the epistemology that Buddhists allowed – at any stage of development of Buddhists doctrines. There are of course a number of similes and metaphors for nirvāṇa, but it’s vitally important not to reify these.

        Equally, there never is an experiencing subject in the first place. This too is axiomatic for Buddhists. Meditators will tell you that one can quite easily see through the illusion of an experiencing subject in meditation – it disappears quite quickly. I have some small experience of this. Some go further and eliminate the experience of being an experiencing subject permanently. They go about their business without any sense of being someone going about their business. It’s becoming more common for my colleagues to report having this happen.

        So another part of the problem is that the denial of self comes from an experiential base that is hard to critique theoretically if one has no conception of what it is like to not interpret the world through the lens of an experiencing self. We need to be cautious about drawing conclusions about an experience we haven’t had.

        • Yes, it is hard to question experiences we never had and it is hard to use experience as a criterion, since they run the risk to be interpreted along the lenses of one’s theory (anātman in the case of a meditating Buddhist, being part of Christ’s body in the case of a Catholic one).
          This might be a good reason for refraining from using experience as the ultimate judge of the validity of a given theory. However, what else are we left with? Buddhist philosophers like Nāgārjuna seem to have chosen the path of rationalism at the expenses of accounting for everyday experience. But does not it run the risk of creating a possible explanation of the real with no clear link with our experience of it?

      • Yes, of course. But it is nirvāṇa par excellence nonetheless! What I am proposing (and I have no idea and no interest if this can be argued from an academic distance) is: I don’t see any contradiction between anatman and karman. *IF* we accept the concept of karman as being the more established and stable (less controversial across closely related schools) idea that it *was* and *is* then the problem is with the way we are interpreting anatman – or perhaps the way we are interpreting “What the Buddha/Buddhism says about” anatman. So, my focus here is not about the concept of anatman according to a presupposition that we have clear and unfettered access to the Buddhas own mind (or for the secular taste: “the mind of an enlightened Buddhist”), but about its *place* in the scheme of Buddhist logic. Given what I believe is a fairly skeptical attitude in large swathes of the most relevant literature to both epistemology and ontology, I would suggest that anatman is put forward as an EXEMPLAR rather than a “thing”. I suppose what I am saying is that I want it to have the status much like the Black Hole does today in the sense that the theory and methods predict them, but not one has never been found. This is the way I interpret anatman, I think the literature may bear this reading out but I’m not sure. In other words, given the scheme of Buddhist logic, karman and anatman are inconsistent in a first order propositional sense (I think… I am not a great logician either!) but they are – if we allow anatman the status not of empirical (brute) fact from some presupposed (absolute) vantage point – but rather the kind of fact within what I believe to be a demonstrably relativist Buddhist cosmogony. So, anatman isn’t something that is empirically or absolutely tru for all sentient beings – but rather something we would expect to “see” having attained parinirvāṇa. So, the question going begging to my mind is: how can we argue for “complete cessation”, “non-return” – or something similar (parinirvāṇa) within the “paradigm” of karman? This to me is the harder problem since it seems on the face of it to entail some form of nihilism which (as far as I know) is not the Buddhas/Buddhist “way”. What I suppose I am thinking about is less about the anatman / karman dichotomy (because as I explained – I don’t believe there is one necessarily) – but how could something like karman be construed so as allow for something like parinirvāṇa in a logically consistent way? hmmm…

    • Hi Mat, Regarding your very long question:

      “My question is, if I am persuaded that there **is** a (problematic) discontinuity in the claim of “anatman” and “karman” (and there might be), does the suggestion that these claims are nothing but a pedagogic “trick” deny the common sense reading, which is it is entirely consistent in all cases, and permissable only under Buddhist logic for atman to be discontinued (in all respects) only in the exceptional case of parinibbāna, (the ultimate paradox perhaps in Buddhism?) and in all other cases the point is surely moot?”

      The discontinuity between anātman and karma is not a matter of opinion. It’s there for anyone to see. All it takes is reading many Buddhist texts with an open mind.

      I would be happy for you to draw a common sense reading of Buddhist doctrine as long as you were clear that this was your procedure. But this is not what Buddhists do. They make a truth claim, as Thomas has been doing. But there is no possible basis for that truth claim. Religious people deserve to be mocked rather than indulged in this persistent foible.

      Since no two Buddhist groups in history have precisely the same understanding of either anātman or or karma I find it difficult to imagine a one-size-fits-all interpretation. And even if one could be constructed on the basis of Buddhist truth claims, so what? Who would change their mind about karma? It seems likely that it would move few Buddhists to change their religious doctrines. But worse, it’s not that hard to show that many Buddhist truth claims are simply not true. What does common sense tell us to do in this case?

      You cannot discontinue something that has no existence. Or to be more precise, the nature of ontological claims made about ātman in pre-Common Era India preclude any knowledge of ātman. There is no possible epistemology that can support the notion of an ātman – it is a contradiction in terms. Knowledge comes through experience, experience is ever changing, and ātman is never changing. If we could know ātman we would, by Nāgārjuna’s logic always and only know ātman; or we would never know it. An unchanging thing cannot be the subject of changing knowledge. Ātman is by definition an all or nothing proposition (in ancient India) and the early Buddhists had already made it quite clear that *all* experience is conditional and transient. One cannot have a conditional and transient experience of a permanently existing entity. So the discontinuity of ātman is a non-subject.

      On the other hand Buddhists, like all moralists, needed some way of linking morally significant actions to moral consequences. And they did this by sneakily introducing a notion of personal continuity over time. This is explicit in every single Jātaka story and in many suttas. When pressed they switch discourses to the metaphysics and deny a self. But with moments, or in the same paragraph, they will often switch back to asserting that actions have consequences for the individual who acts. Having seen this in action, I find I cannot unsee it.

      • Jayavara,

        I’m really not interested in whatever foibles you see in Buddhists, I did not see this thread as an open invitation to pour judgement over the commitments other people want to make. I saw it as an opportunity to engage in good faith with others that seem to have unearthed a dichotomy with anatman and karman – and on this I contributed a suggestions that anatman may be left unopposed if we see anatman differently to the way many people like you do – in other words as an *exemplar* rather than as a truth claim. There are plenty of spaces on the Internet for criticising Buddhists and I am here because that doesn’t interest me and wanted to avoid it – personally – I find it boring, juvenile and thought-terminating.

        Although that’s not to say that I disagree with all your conclusions and sentiments – only to suggest this is may not be the best place for that? Of course that’s up to you – but like Thomas – I’m not interested in refining thought-terminating polemic about Buddhists. If you persist then the converstation will end sooner than perhaps it ought – I’m sure.

        I certainly won’t be indulging you in your rhetorical thrusting.

        Moving on, the discontinuity I am refering to is not intended to be taken quite as literally as you perhaps take it to be, my comment was in how we are interpreting (and comparing) the texts, textually and cognitively – and if that sort of work doesn’t interest you then again – I would respectfully suggest this might not be the best place to discuss Buddhist ontology – well – specifically – in the Boolean way you seem to like to go.

        On my part, I admit I have assumed much – I have assumed Buddhism is very weak, ontologically – and that is also something I have gathered in from reading the texts, sorry if your experience is different and believe the literature is more absolutist but I just don’t see it (in fact, that’s what maintains my interest in the logic – the refreshing lack of what you see as “truth claims”)

        I don’t think it serves anyone by reading too much into the ontological status of anything the Buddha allegedly taught – including anatman – of course – it’s up to you – but I find that reading these texts in a platonic or pythagorean voice in the way I pick up here far too… conflicted.

        Instead, I prefer to disassemble the sort of propositional logic you prefer, because to me this misrepresents the main philosophical thrust of Buddhism and on this I concur with Thomas – a phenomenological reading I think is a much more sympathetic route to take.

        On the point of epistemology too, I think you are demanding far too much here, and I really don’t get a sense of any magesterial language in terms of the epistemic status of what’s written.

        It’s possible your own standards of certainty in this regard are bound to be flouted in every Sutra, and that’s not I think a fault of Buddhism per se but more a fault in our demand for ontological obedience and epistemic consistency.

        In short, I believe close scrutiny of the texts should be undertaken more in keeping with literary criticism than establishing axiomatic theories of truth.

        For those arguments, I tend to prefer to talk using the language of mathematics than the language of poetry.

        If you don’t agree, that’s fine – but it’s very difficult to continue a meaningful dialogue with an opponent if we cannot at least stick to a fairly tight domain of discourse – and to be frank – bad mouthing imaginary Buddhists isn’t something I would agree to discussing here.

        So for me, (and possibly Thomas from what I gather) the phenomenological reading is more fertile – and if that is agreeable to you too I think things will work out.

        As it stands, your interpretation of Buddhist logic as a series of “truth claims” I believe misses some important context – not least the putative relativism of the statements being made – and this is where I disagree – in that our “opinion about” a statement may well be more important and relevant to Buddhist logic than assuming the symbols on the page map directly onto our experience of anatman, let alone that each persons experience of it could be expected to be invariant.

        Hope this makes sense?

        • Most (not all) Buddhist philosophers take the view that the terms avyākrta and saha should be applied to both parinirvāna and samsāra. There are profound insights within Buddhist texts, when read and interpreted carefully, which can only be explained by an extremely gifted individual (ie, the Buddha). The phenomenological method is elaborated centuries before anyone else, and the rejection of hypostatic entities has been confirmed by modern physics (both Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics). There was further debate within Buddhism as to whether purely ideal concepts were an exception to the doctrine of anātman, as supposed by some Theravādins and the dGe lugs pas (and by some interpretations of Relativity Theory), but the majority of Buddhist schools, following the Prajñāpāramitā literature, have opposed this view. The latter view has also been confirmed by Russell’s failure to reduce mathematics to logic by way of set theory, and the demonstrations of limitative theorems (especially Gödel’s theorem, which stands to the present day). Gödel’s theorem demonstrates that even such a relatively simple system as elementary arithmetic is too rich to be encompassed by any set of axioms. Given that hypostatic existence of entities has been ruled out, and would be dependent upon concepts for their entitative being in any event, and the complete definability of concepts has also been ruled out, the ātman theory is a total non-starter. The current status of these discussions within Buddhism are the subject of a recent book: Mipham’s Dialectics and the Debates on Emptiness: To Be, Not to Be or Neither, Karma Phuntsho (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005). I haven’t yet ordered the book, as it’s expensive and I’ll have to save up for it (I’m on a modest pension). However, you can get a good sense of the main issues from the excellent Book Review written by Robert Mayer in Buddhist Studies Review, 2007 pp 267-270 (published online / Academia.edu).

        • For the record I am not only a Buddhist, but an ordained Buddhist with a lifelong commitment to practising Buddhism. I also publish my thoughts in peer reviewed academic journals from time to time. I think you may have misunderstood the drift of my argument through not understanding this. Also as far as I know there are no venues in which professional scholars/philosophers critique Buddhism – plenty where the authors are in love with Buddhism, but none where any genuinely critical dialogue is undertaken – hence my spending quite so much time on my answers.

          “I certainly won’t be indulging you in your rhetorical thrusting.”

          Who are you trying to kid? That is the most rhetorically thrusting statement I have read all week.

          “I contributed a suggestions that anatman may be left unopposed if we see anatman differently to the way many people like you do – in other words as an *exemplar* rather than as a truth claim. ”

          But what is the point of this kind of suggestion? Can we rescue conflicted Buddhist doctrines by introducing ad hoc rationalisations and artificial hermeneutics that make apparent conflicts disappear? Sure we can. Why not? Buddhists do this all the time, which is why it took me 20 years to notice that karma can’t work if anātman is accepted the way Buddhists mean it.

          The question to my mind is rather, “Why would we?”. When are we going to start being honest about the conflicts instead of trying to make them disappear? Why do we even feel the need to make sense of something that *does not make sense*? Let’s just say it: karma does not make sense. It doesn’t explain anything or predict anything because it’s based on an Iron Age worldview that was based on faulty generalisations from experience in the first place. As a committed, ordained Buddhist I’m keenly aware of the problems this raises – there are many of my colleagues who would feel deeply uncomfortable with the situation were they ever to admit that it *is* the situation. But this is the problem that our generation of Buddhists faces. More apologetics and revisionist readings of dead texts in dead languages will provide no benefit to anyone. Even if they were comprehensible.

          We don’t have to continue to come up with new ways to fit reality to the theory (like economists). The theory never did explain the quintessential Buddhist experiences, e.g. samādhi, nirodha. And one can see this reflected in the constant bickering over how to understand everything. If we look at texts like the Katthāvatthu or the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, or even the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, we can see that even ancient Buddhists thought that each other’s theories did not work. And they helpfully pointed out the flaws in each others interpretations, only to be largely ignored by modern exegetes with no interest in thinking critically about Buddhism!

          BTW I personally make no ontological claims whatever when discussing Buddhism in this kind of context. My argument as always is epistemological. There is simply no way, *from the Buddhist point of view*, to make valid ontological claims. And this is more or less why such claims are absent from early Buddhist texts. I’m mainly drawing of the Katyāyana Sūtra (in it’s Pāḷi, Sanskrit and Chinese versions) in taking this position. No doubt you are also familiar with this text that denies the applicability of astitā ca nāstitā ca to experience. The same idea was taken up by Nāgārjuna. I’d certainly be interested to see you anchor your strange rhetoric in some kind of Buddhist discourse.

          Almost nothing of what you write makes any sense to me. I cannot understand where you are coming from or where you think you might go. I’ve no sense that anything you say is in any way related to Buddhism ancient or modern. I’ve responded to the bits that do make a modicum of sense. The rest of it seems like nonsense to me. Maybe you are operating in a different “domain of discourse” to me. In which case we really ought to just call it quits.

          • Thankyou for your last response, Jayavara. I wish you well, and good luck with your continued studies. Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude or unkind but I think it’s unlikely I will respond to you in this thread again. If you do decide reply to me for whatever reason, I hope you can respect my decision not to involve myself in the kind of claims you make here. I would also appreciate it if you would not insert yourself into any direct replies I may want to make to Thomas or Elisa but I know I have nothing more to appeal to than your goodwill here and I have no wish or means to control your output since it seems very sincere and faithful and disrupting peoples faith is not my M.O. I have no idea how much goodwill you have towards me, Thomas or Elisa – or other Buddhists -but just from the way you expose yourself here – probably not much? Anyway, that’s only an impression from what you’ve said. I’ve either read or heard enough of this type of to and fro before – and I’m at least old enough and wise enough to know I’m not interested in the kind of discussion based on unearthing what is “true” and what is “false” – my interest is in salvaging a practice that I can make sense of – from what remnants we have. I understand your particular interest is in finding an authoritative voice from the texts and in trying to extract something absolute from them in the way you are doing, I also followed that route for about ten years and for me, seeking that authoritarian voice didn’t lead to anything that made any sense, although that’s not to say it won’t work out for you or anyone else. In the meantime, I believe a phenomenological reading does more justice to the texts than the Boolean type of reasoning you prefer. If you don’t understand how the way we approach the texts can lead to very different outcomes then an introduction to relativism (and specifically phenomenology) and it’s limitations and problems isn’t something I’m prepared to contribute here – mainly because there isn’t any demand for it and other philosophers have done a great job with most of that already, and I suspect relativism isn’t something I would expect you to take any interest in. Thanks for your time, and all the best. :))

          • Mat, Jayarava does not need my defense, but since I happen to know him, let me say that he might seem harsh, but only because he is not wanting to hide the dust under the carpet, in the spirit of Amicus Plato… I, for one, try to focus on his arguments (which are never superficial) while answering to him, and I like the fact that he makes me struggle and have a hard time whenever I have only a superficial opinion about something.

          • Elisa,

            Thanks, but as I said, I don’t think the work we have to do is about discussing Jayarava and I don’t wish to either deny voice to, or indulge people whose M.O. is based on their own faithful reading. Generally speaking, I have found a common cause for the “harsh” tone encountered in some places, and more often than not is a combination of internecine harassment and inconsistent logic exhibited in places where a magesterial perspective is favoured. However, there is I believe a less harmful way to rake up the muck from under the carpet. In other words, pointing the finger at imagined Buddhists wouldn’t be the first, or even the thing I would do if I was interested in “clearing up the mess” (which I’m not). I’ve heard arguments from the pythagorean perspective before, and as I said – it’s great for maths and natural science but does very poorly when it comes to matters of faith – and there’s the rub I think. I am unable to focus on the arguments or work out if they are superficial or not when people are (for reasons which are never made clear) bellicose and disagreeable in tone, and also sometimes in substance. I don’t think it’s necessary to beat ourselves up about these issues, in fact rhetoric and polemic almost always indicate an underlying fault in thought – but I am not even sure if what Jayarava is saying makes any sense because he seems far too harassed about what other people are doing, all of which is none of my business and is of no concern to me – well only as far as it inserts bad feeling into what could be quite a fruitful discussion. So, I have no problem with Jayarava only that I am unable to work out if he is even wrong, mainly because of the way his work is being done – and maybe that’s the point? Science is to an experiment what faith is to practice, and whenever we try to swap things around we end up with bad science and bad faith.

          • Mat, I agree with the final distinction. As for Jayarava, let us stop the discussion here. I see your point and disagree with it —but perhaps only because I am sensible to different types of aggression.

          • Mat,

            I think pouring out your bile about me to Elisa counts as a response to me. And that response seems to be more passive aggressive, ad hominen attacks, and blaming me for doing what you yourself are doing. A lot of projected anger there. A lot of the kind of thing you seem to think I’m doing. It suggests a lacuna in your self-knowledge.

            But at least when you resort to personal abuse I can understand what you write and even to some extent empathise with it. This angry you is you at your most straight-forward.

            And since you open up the subject of personal failings…

            I have not understood you, but equally you have not understood me. And you are blaming me for your failure to understand and acting as though you understand all too well. You don’t. Eg. you accuse me of seeking an “authoritative voice” but this is not what interests me at all. It never has. I’m more interested in finding the unacknowledged fault-lines and undermining authoritative voices. Yours included. And you do seem to opt for an authoritarian, even snobbish and dismissive tone. If talking to me is beneath you, then just stop. But also stop talking *about* me as though I’m not going to read what you’re written. And don’t pretend that you are not being extremely rude as well. Because you are.

            I set out to establish that there is a problem that needs facing. I’m hardly the first to do this. Nāgārjuna made precisely the same observation almost 2000 years ago. I’m unsure what you found so difficult about the proposition that there is a problem with karma and anātman. Personally I find this and other anomalies fascinating. So, apparently does Elisa. If you do not then I wonder why you got involved in a discussion about this anomaly?

            I can only repeat that there is an apparent problem with karma and anātman. What is often called The Problem of Continuity, which emerges directly from this problem, is one of the key drivers of innovation in Buddhist doctrine and is thus a key theme in the history of Buddhist ideas. Several sects were in fact named for their solution to this problem, not least of which was the Sarvāstivāda. The problem was quite openly acknowledged in the pre-modern era, but is now hidden behind faux certainty. My aim is to reintroduce some uncertainty into the picture. You seem to understand me to be doing the precise opposite – but I cannot think why. I’m certainly not offering any solutions. If, as you say, I’m concerned with “faith” then it is the faith that something is broken.

            It seems to me that you are prejudging me. In particular you seem to be judging me based on past experiences of other people, rather than engaging with what I actually write. You seem to be saying that you “know my type”. I’ve noticed this with people brought up in a society strongly divided by class, a tendency to treat individuals as though they represent a class of people – and not to acknowledge individual differences. That’s what you seem to be doing here, writing me off as the wrong *kind* of person. You definitely seem to have your nose in the air, sniffing.

            What would your contribution actually be if we deleted the barrage of projection, double speak, and aggrieved accusation coming from you?

          • Dear Jayarava,

            Thanks for your comments, I’m sorry but I decided not to read your last comments that were addressed to me, because it looked to me as if it was something that I would probably not help – but as I said – I didn’t read it so I’ll never know – sorry!

            You are free to read into and respond to whatever I post online of course, but my comments here are not intended to be for your attention, let alone to cause you any harm or be a nuisance, and I hope you can trust that.

            I wish you well and refer you to the comment I made earlier about prefering if you didn’t insert yoursdelf into responses I wish to make to other people. It may have looked as though I was replying to you but this may be caused by a limitation of the blogging software in which case I apologize for any misunderstanding.

            In the meantime I will try not to implicate you directly in my activity on this thread which is becoming much more focussed on the contributions of other participators. My comments to them hope only implicate what you have written and shouldn’t be taken as a comment about your character.

            I am clear I don’t know you, and am responding only to the general tone of your contributions here which I don’t like and generally prefer to ignore.

            I have not (as far as I am aware) made any negative judgement about you personally, only about your contributions here which are, in my opinion:

            1) Pedantic
            2) Authoritarian
            3) Contradictory

            You may of course in life be a wonderful exposition of Buddhist humanity but I’m afraid, that doesn’t come across here, but I am clear that YOU AREN’T THE ISSUE for me here.

            I am not interested in you Jayarava, sorry – but I am very interested in the way you like to expose your thinking and ideas, which to me lacks the sort of coherence and circumspection I can trust and I which find more persuasive.

            Thank you for your time.

            With best wishes

          • Fantastic, this helps. I don’t wish to condemn or excuse anyone, including myself from the charge of being “aggressive” in debate – I think that’s not a problem as it is. Your comment here has helped to clarify my thinking on this, and in tems of being senstive to the way aggression can play out in a debate between (say, two or three) individuals is not a simple matter of who is and who’s not being aggressive – agreed. But for me, the tipping point is when hostility between consenting participators becomes displaced into large and imagined populations – in this case it’s “the Buddhists”. A hard problem in a discussion about Buddhist texts is not improved by scapegoating “the Buddhists” as the cause of, or even related to the problem in question. Even less can I recommend that the *solution* lies in trying to convert the Buddhists (aggressively or otherwise) to our way of thinking, or our ideas. In a similar way, a sane and proper analysis of the struggling German economy after the first world war couldn’t (with any less barbaric ideology) be expected to eventually lead to what actually happened, which was the implication that Jewish shopkeepers were the *problem*?

    • I have been less than enthusiastic to carry on the discussions because of the time it would take to address the multiplicity of issues – especially given what I perceive to be a lack of philosophical analysis. My own approach is primarily philosophical and multi-disciplinary, but also keenly interested in the implications for practical meditation training. I am not fluent in the languages but am very careful to investigate the connotations that are present when a particular writer employs a given term in that particular language. Resources for this, particularly in Sanskrit and Tibetan, are easily accessible, and I’m immersed in analyzing numerous books and articles for elaborations. The first example I gave was the Greek word eidos, whose literal translation is practically useless without an understanding of the ontologies or Plato and Aristotle (or the Stoics, for that matter). I also mentioned that the term ākāra has very different meanings depending upon which writer uses the term. Many of the differences in opinion stem (implicitly or otherwise) from the issue of whether or not Buddhist philosophy should be interpreted as phenomenology – which I insist is the case – although I would be quick to point out that Buddhist phenomenology is not eidetic (as in Husserl). I don’t know why scholars took so long to discover that Buddhism is phenomenological (to various degrees of consistency, depending upon the individual, or philosophical school), but once this is understood we can dismiss many misinterpretations. Herbert Guenther was the pioneer in this regard, but others, including Keiji Nishitani, Nyanaponika Thera, D. J. Kalupahana and Jay L. Garfield have followed. As to whether the sarvam asti (Skt.) / sabbam atthi (Pāli) / i ch’ieh yu (Chin.) equation to the twelve āyatanas is reflected in the Taishō, I would refer to “Sabba Sutta. The Discourse on the All”. Translated & annotated by Piya Tan ©2003. http://dharmafarer.org (7.1-Sabba-S-s35.23-piya.pdf). A related and important phenomenological theme in Buddhism is that of ‘temporality’ (as opposed to ‘time’, understood metaphysically), which is explored in an essay by Michel Gauvain, “Time and Temporality in Indian Buddhism” (2008/2009), and can be downloaded from the internet.

      • You can’t read Pāḷi can you Thomas? A bit of a liability for someone trying to pass themselves off as an expert on Pāḷi Buddhist doctrines, wouldn’t you say? Here it the sutta in its entirety:

        “Sabbaṃ vo bhikkhave desissāmi taṃ suṇātha. Kiñca bhikkhave sabbaṃ: cakkhuñceva rūpā ca sotañca saddā ca ghānañca gandhā ca jivhā ca rasā ca kāyo ca phoṭṭhabbā ca mano ca dhammā ca idaṃ vuccati bhikkhave sabbaṃ.

        Yo bhikkhave evaṃ vadeyya: ahametaṃ sabbaṃ paccakkhāya aññaṃ sabbaṃ paññāpessāmīti, tassā vācāvatthurevassa. Puṭṭho ca na sampāyeyya, uttariñca vighātaṃ āpajjeyya, taṃ kissa hetu yathā taṃ bhikkhave avisayasminti. ”

        Even without being able to read the language, one can use pattern recognition to confirm that the words “sabbam atthi” *do not occur* in this text. The same is true of the Chinese text.

        Even in translation one ought to be able to see that the concept is quite unrelated. It is however related to the Vedic idaṃ sarvaṃ which is something else entirely.

        • There is more than one wording. For the Chinese: yún hé míng yíqiè / Said what call “all” [91a25]. Read Piya Tan. As for my other points, you don’t understand philosophy. That is your problem when attempting to translate philosophical texts.

          • There are two of us arguing about this text, but only one of us can actually *read* it. The Chinese text you cite doesn’t even support your argument. It’s totally unrelated to your assertion that “The Buddha defined ‘everything exists’ (sarvam asti) as the twelve āyatanas”


            i.e. The buddha answered the Brahmin, “‘All’ is namely the 12 āyatanas: eye & form, ear & sound, nose & smell, tongue & taste, body & touch, mind & dharmas. This is called ‘all’.

            The Chinese is identical to the Pāḷi at this point. It says nothing at all about “sarva-asti” – the argument that dharmas exist in the past, present and future, but are only active (karitvā) in the present. This text does not argue that dharmas exist; it does not use the phrase sarvaṃ asti or any variation on it in any language; it doesn’t mention dharmas (except as objects of manas); and it does not mention the three times. This text is unrelated to the sarva-asti doctrine.

            So when you originally said,

            “The Buddha defined ‘everything exists’ (sarvam asti) as the twelve āyatanas”

            You were wrong. You are wrong. Plainly wrong. The text itself is evidence of this. The text, both in Pāḷi and Chinese shows that you are wrong. There’s really no argument here.There’s no valid appeal to a higher authority, though you’ve yet to cite one of those in my opinion. For whatever reason you misunderstood and made a false assertion. It’s a mistake that could easily be corrected. The question now is will you correct it?

            If you are genuinely interested in this subject, then look up the work of Collett Cox on the Sarvāstivāda Dharma theory. Cox is the leading expert in this field and one of the few people actually worth citing. The other thing worth reading is the late David Bastow’s article on the first use of Sarvāstivāda. Bibliographic details of these are available at the end of my essay on on the Chinese Sarva Sutra. These more relevant sources will help you to clarify your apparent confusion about many of the issues we have tried to discuss.

          • You have entirely misunderstood my point, as I was not directly addressing the debate over whether a dharma exists in the past, present and future. That and related debates stem from the immediate issue at hand, which I will make one last attempt to explain. In the Pāli Sabba Sutta, Buddha poses the question “What, monks, is the all?” (Kiñca, bhikkhave, sabbaj?) In answer, the Buddha describes the twelve āyatanas. The text doesn’t actually use the term ‘āyatanas’, but it describes them as the five faculties and senses, plus mind and thoughts. The reference is obvious. Then the text states that to posit a different explanation of the ‘all’ would lead to grief “Because it lies beyond range” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation). Now this is a text-book definition of phenomenology, and that is the point which must be understood. There is no division of primary and secondary qualities (as in Locke), or positing of any ‘thing-in-itself’ (as in Kant): the ‘all’ is defined in terms of living experience, and any metaphysical positing is “beyond range”. All attempts at speaking about hypostases lead to confusion and suffering. That is why the metaphysical understanding of ‘time’ must be rejected (time as a “container” of phenomena) – it is beyond the range of experience – and the Buddhist understanding of time as ‘temporality’ follows. Temporality is not something outside experience, it is not some entity existing independently of phenomena. As the Buddhist philosopher Nishitani explains: “Even to say of something merely that it lies outside of subjectivity is still an act of subjectivity. An object is nothing other than something that has been represented as an object, and even the very idea of something independent of representation can only come about as a representation. This is the paradox essential to representation (and hence to the “object” as well), an aporia inherent in the field of consciousness itself.”

            Now, I’m fully aware that there are other Pāli texts which SEEM to extend this list of ‘the all’ to include nibbāna, infinite consciousness (vinnanam anidassanam), or the Buddha’s omniscience (such Pāli terms as sabbannu, sabbavidu and sabbadassavi). But to begin the discussion by assuming that these terms apply to separate entities (hypostases) over and above ‘the all’, makes any genuine understanding impossible because it negates the principles being conveyed by the Sabba Sutta. Most readers, including most Buddhists, lack the philosophical training to perceive the profound insights being conveyed by the Buddha’s teachings, and they read into the texts their own empirical and metaphysical biases. That is a problem of historicity. Literalist translations are worse than useless because they create a false understanding in place of simple ignorance.

          • Jayarava, thanks for the explanation of the Chinese text. Yet your discussion with Thomas confuses me a bit: do you take the Sutta worldview to be that of direct realism? With subject-independent realities existing “out there”? If so, would you say that this applies also to the Abhidharma stage?

          • These are the best comments you’ve made that I’ve seen. We will still disagree, but I can understand where you’re coming from. Part of our disagreement is when you use word like epistemology and phenomenology as if they were synonymous. Epistemology begins from the premises of subject and object and attempts to bridge them. This is an implicit ontology — one which is rejected by most Buddhists and by phenomenology. Again, you need to be careful when speaking about “ontology”, since phenomenology rejects traditional ontology pretty much wholesale. Existential phenomenology explores a non-traditional or non-metaphysical alternative ontology. When Heidegger pronounced the “end of philosophy” he was referring to the end of this traditional ontology, which has no legitimate place in Buddhism either. (Many of Heidegger’s creative ideas were inspired by Dao De Jing.)

  5. I’ll restart the thread so we have room to respond. Elisa asks,

    “Yet your discussion with Thomas confuses me a bit: do you take the Sutta worldview to be that of direct realism? With subject-independent realities existing “out there”? If so, would you say that this applies also to the Abhidharma stage?”

    There’s no short answer to this, so this answer is really long. It is quite an interesting question, which means doing it justice requires some effort.

    There’s real problem with talking about existence and non-existence in this context. Existence in Buddhist texts is always a reference to a permanent, unchanging entity. Non-existence is the same, permanent and unchanging. The Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) argues that neither astitā nor nāstitā can apply to the world (loka); where loka is understood to stand for the visible (i.e. experiential) world (which is more or less what Jan Gonda concludes that the word means in his long essay on the word in Vedic). So we need to be aware that we English speakers (and the intellectual descendants of ancient Greece) use the word “exist” somewhat differently. An existent but changing entity is an oxymoron in Pāli or Buddhist Sanskrit. I think too little has been made of this distinction by philosophers to date. To an early Buddhist, to the composers of the suttas, the suttakāra, the question of whether objects are existent, means are they permanent and unchanging? And I don’t understand you, Elisa, to be asking this question. It’s a matter of view point. In this kind of argument I try to take the side of the early Buddhists themselves – though I do not necessarily agree with them, I think they deserve to be heard.

    The way I understand this is that no valid ontological conclusions can be drawn from experience. And the suttas never do draw ontological conclusions. But they are also quite unsophisticated and thus uninterested in the Realism/Idealism dichotomy. One might imagine they’d find this discussion quite puzzling, as they would have almost all Greek philosophy. Ancient Indian Buddhists would constantly be asking Greeks, “But, how do you know?”

    Now, all Buddhists agree that experience arises when the conditions are in place. The conditions being a sense object (ālambana), a sense faculty (indriya) and a sense cognition (vijñāna). This is our starting point.

    The suttas (in any language) say almost nothing about the object side of things. Traditionally we have the six ālambana: rūpa, śabda, ganda, rasa, spraṣṭavya and dharma. This probably draws on Nyaya, but who knows? The only extra comment is that rūpa is composed of the mahādhātu: pṛthavī, apo, tejas, and vāyu. But the suttas also define the dhātus in experiential terms. “Earth”, for example, is characterised by resistance – it’s an experience in other words. Similarly with the other dhātus. That’s it. That’s the whole discussion of Realism in the suttas.

    And yet objects are essential to experience. Sometimes experience is described as a “disturbance” (dharatha) due to the presence of an object. So yes, objects are required, they do seem to exist independent of the mind. Sort of like Kant (but unlike him in that the view is totally unsystematic and never justified), the suttakāra seems to think we cannot know objects because of the nature of experience. All we know is what arises, i.e. dharmas, or experiences. Buddhists did not even allow (as I would) that one can make inferences about objects from the patterns of experience, or by comparing notes on them with other observers. There was simply no interest in objects per se. No philosophy of them. Not even generalisations about them. Not even a prohibition against talking about them. Objects are just ignored.

    We also learn almost nothing about the nature of the indriya: cakṣu, śrotra, ghrāna, jihvā, kāya and manas; or about the corresponding vijñāna or “cognition” (though the longer I look at this issue the less sure I am of how to translate this word). These three: ālambana, indriya, and vijñāna are all required for an experience to arise, but how they work is not discussed. The āyatanas, which Thomas mistakenly defines, are the six ālambana and the six indriya. This is “everything” (sarva) according to the sutta. And here we have to read “everything of interest”. It’s certainly *not* an ontological statement. I’ve shown this elsewhere. The implication is what we would call epistemological – it’s about what we can know and what a source of knowledge is. The issue of the validity of the knowledge is not one that Buddhists are yet being drawn into – all knowledge of the unawakened is invalid; all knowledge of the awakened is valid. The main criteria is about the nature of experience – if knowledge is consistent with the nature of experience, then it is valid. The nature of experience is summed up as: anityā, duḥkha, and anātman. Though definitions change over time, the idea here is basically to deny the possibility of knowledge of any unchanging permanent object. What can become “permanent” (asāmayika) is the state of cessation, i.e. of not having experiences arise and cease. One attains this state in profound meditation (I know people who say they have experienced cessation in meditation, so I find it quite credible as an idea).

    The suttakāra just doesn’t seem interested in the central questions of Greek philosophy. They’re not interested in what exists or doesn’t. They don’t even think this is a sensible question. There’s certainly no answer to this question in the early Buddhist texts.

    The focus of the suttas is on experience itself, expressed within a framework which is pragmatically focussed on renunciation of sense experience and meditation in order to experience the state of cessation or emptiness: i.e. a state in which there is no experience (what the Brahmins called saccidānanda – I think). This experience re-orders the mind so that how we perceive the experiential world is consistent with the nature of the experiential world. No ontological statements emerge from this exploration of experience, at least not in the early texts. The original focus is what we might call phenomenological or epistemological if we were going to impose modern categories on it (which may or may not be a valid approach; I use both terms without any regard to the technical meanings of them in different schools of Western Philosophy).

    So the suttakāra is not looking to validate any theory (i.e. ontology) on the basis of experience. On the contrary the insights that one has in meditation, and that are described in the texts, are insights into experience itself. This is brought out quite strongly in Sue Hamilton’s exploration of the skandhas (P. khandha), Early Buddhism: A New Approach.

    Now, the Abhidharma project was, by its very nature, almost inevitably drawn into ontological speculation (this process is described from a Theravāda point of view by Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics, and by Collett Cox in various articles, particularly “From Category to Ontology” (J of Indian Phil. 32: 543–597, 2004). Note that all the thinkers who have made the critical observations that inform my understanding are women 🙂

    The Ābhidharmikas wanted to categorise experiences in order to facilitate the exploration of them. First they broke experiences into “atoms” which they (unhelpfully) referred to as “dharma” (the word is massively overused) or (better) “citta”. These are indivisible aspects of experience, as it were. To do this they described categories defined by individual characteristics (svabhāva). But of course categories are only useful in a taxonomy if they have clear and fixed boundaries, so svabhāva had to be quite rigidly defined. Thus the categories themselves are prone to reification. When one is characterising dharmas into categories in terms of characteristics, then it is inevitable to see the dharmas themselves as possessing those same characteristics. From here it is a short step to think of the characteristics as having being that is not contingent on experience (svahbāva!). But the definition of astitā still hasn’t changed at this point – hence to say that Dharma’s exist, as the Vaibhāṣikas did, was tantamount to intellectual suicide. I’ve gone into why they did this – to solve a deep and long running conflict within Buddhist doctrine – so I won’t go into again here. The mainstream opted for the Doctrine of Momentariness instead though.

    So the Ābhidharmikas drifted into drawing ontological conclusions about experience, despite the antipathy to this approach in the suttas. Not immediately, but from 2000 years of hindsight, with a kind of sickening inevitability that I have described as like a train-wreck in slow motion. The real disaster for Buddhist philosophy was the *canonisation* of these ontologies. This meant that those who saw the problems of the Abhidharma, such as Nāgārjuna, could not simply chuck all that rubbish out and start again. The best they could do was mitigate the problem of incipient Realism with ad hoc theories, especially the so-called “Two Truths”. However, this ad hoc theory (with no basis in experience) was also effective canonised and so the problem snowballed.

    Eventually Buddhists argued about ontology as though this were not deeply problematic and in fact disastrous. And this period of Buddhism is a favourite of Western philosophers because Buddhists at last start having opinions that can be directly related to Greek philosophy. To my mind this ability to engage Western philosophers is a final damning indictment of Buddhist philosophers. At this point they are lost to unbridled metaphysical speculation and the definition of a “Buddhist” has been substantially altered to mean almost the opposite of “disciple of the Buddha” (something that has occurred multiple times I might add).

    Fortunately some Buddhists continued to be focussed on experience and describing the experiences that arise in meditation and so reform movements continued to emerge which tried to mitigate the Abhidharma’s mistake and the ad hoc legacy theories invented to fudge it. But even Buddhist reform movements tend to be conservative. They make grant statements like rejecting “all texts”, but then go on to stupidly deify texts like the Heart Sutra. We could not, until now, free ourselves of these wrong turns. Now, we are able to just say “It doesn’t make sense” and stop taking it seriously. The European Enlightenment is (more or less) what enabled this unburdening.

    Unfortunately, some Western philosophers are still in the process of discovering Buddhist “philosophy” and their presuppositions draw them into engagement with the least interesting parts of Buddhism, precisely because those are the parts that they most readily understand and relate to. So the metaphysical speculation disaster is self-perpetuating. And this is partly why I see people like Thomas as a positive menace and refuse to indulge him.

    In the end categories like Realism and Idealism don’t apply. Or at least they come with so much cultural baggage that they are unhelpful, like a British tourist in Indian talking to everyone they meet with exaggerated slowness and loudness, but only communicating their sense of social superiority. In Buddhist terms Realism and Idealism are two wrong views about experience. And wrong views are to be avoided as an intellectual exercise until such time as one can realise emptiness and understand experience yathābhūta, “just as it is”. I’m reminded of Harold Blooms Shakespearean critique of Freud in The Western Canon, which was written in response to Freud’s famous assigning of various psychopathologies to Shakespeare’s characters.

    • thank you for this long explanation, Jayarava. From my point of view, I would say I sympathise with most of it, although the Abhidharma approach still seems to me to be not necessarily one of reifying realism (again, I was convinced by Pjatigorskij’s arguments concerning its being a phenomenology, due to the omnipresent reference ot citta and caittika elements).

      I hope you will bear with me if I keep being interested in Buddhist ontological attempts —exactly for the reasons you mention, namely my interest in that Glasperlenspiel known as philosophy.

  6. So, is this the summary?
    1) Does the doctrine of upāyakaśalya imply or at least justify merciful lies?
    a) Jayarava: No, (because there’s no basis for that in Buddhist literature)
    b) Thomas la Porte: No, (because there is no obvious philosophical precedent for it that we may call upon)
    c) Elisa: It may do, but it looks as though we would need to do some more work to make sure
    d) Mat: Of course, because in teaching practice – pretty much anything goes and YMMV

    2) (Is there a) possible inconsistency of the doctrine of karman if one denies the continuity of the self?
    a) Jayarava: Yes, absolutely – no argument, (because it makes no kind of logical sense)
    b) Thomas la Porte: Yes, (but moot if we deflate it’s categorization from an ontological claim to something else)
    c) Elisa: Yes, on the face of it but it looks as though there’s some hefty theology out there we can import to do some very heavy lifting for us if we like
    d) Mat: No, because again, we are firmly in the domain of (at best) an exhaustive sounding pedagogy – nothing more, nothing less.

    • My views are still not being understood and represented accurately because there are too many implicit ontological and epistemological assumptions in the posted comments. These lead to many false inferences regarding fundamental interpretations, and that is also why I haven’t said much on the ethical issues. In my view, Nagarjuna (among others) did an excellent job of identifying and making these problems explicit, and articulating them in a more systematic manner. The problems of continuity are among them, and several of the paradoxes of Zeno are addressed by Nagarjuna. There are also hints within early Buddhist writings concerning teachings which were more advanced than the popular training methods (one example being the kasinas, or ‘totality fields’) which indicate that the suttas may not be as disorganized and unsophisticated as they seem. This, however, is not a subject to be pursued at this time as it is very complex.

      • Well, I might be naive Thomas but I believe I do understand your views, and very broadly at least, from what I understand they concur with mine, although we are I think coming from slightly different backgrounds – which makes it all the more credible that (at least) two individuals are pursuing similar material independently.

        With your project I am interested in what you want to achieve. Are you looking to tie up some of these loose foundations in some way, for example the apparent conflict between karman and anatman?

        Continuity? yes… also the subtle difference between eternalist ideology and simpe invariant conditions maybe?

        How are you going to present this work?

        Online, a series of essays or talks or something else?

        I’m interested thus far… thanks

    • Mat, thanks for the handy summary! As for my part, the answer to 1) would sound like “Possibly not in the Pāli Canon, but already in Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundarananda the idea is there, thus we need to do more research to make sure”.
      And the answer to 2): “Yes, if one adopts the standpoint of a realist, but I am willing to follow Dharmakīrti etc. in their attempts to show that there was no contradiction, but rather a paradox” (and yes, as usual, more homeworks to do).

  7. Hi Elisa,

    I felt my points were being lost here and in reflecting on the phrase “merciful lies” I realised I had a lot more to say on the subject that your present readers would probably find even more objectionable than my efforts so far. I have restated and expanded my argument against merciful lies on my own blog. If you are interested it’s here: Against Merciful Lies. My own summary is:

    “To my mind there are three main arguments against merciful lies. Firstly the scenario [in the Lotus Sutra] itself is stupid and offensive; secondly there’s no need to construct a religion which lies to us, either on historical or moral grounds; and thirdly we all need to take responsibility for our actions and merciful lies by authority figures undermines this imperative.”

    All the best

    • Jayarava, thanks again for your further blogpost. As for your summary, the problem I can see is: Are you talking about what Buddhism is or about what Buddhism should be? Your attack to merciful lies seems to regard more the latter than the former. Now, we (dual) cannot but agree that Buddhism at least in part became a salvific religion in which recalcitrant youngers can be seduced into Buddhism by experienced elders (think of Milaraspa’s story). The problem is rather: When and how did this happen? Is Aśvaghośa’s Nanda the first case? Or are merciful lies really foreseen also in the suttas as preserved in Pāli?

  8. From a purely selfich point of view I would **really** like to reach a small milestone in this discussion because I think it’s too important to let it end up in an irascible ball of mud.

    So, this is what I have understood so far – and if so – I wonder if there’s anything we can revisit or salvage at all FROM THIS IN PARTICULAR – perhaps in this new thread?

    1) Does the doctrine of upāyakaśalya imply or at least justify merciful lies?
    a) Elisa: Possibly not in the Pāli Canon, but already in Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundarananda the idea is there, but we need to do more research to make sure
    b) Thomas la Porte: There are too many implicit ontological and epistemological assumptions in the posted comments. These lead to many false inferences regarding fundamental interpretations, and that is also why I haven’t said much on the ethical issues.
    c) Jayarava: No, I have written a blog on this (link belwo). TL;DR: Because the scenario [in the Lotus Sutra] is stupid and offensive; there’s no need to construct a religion which lies to us and we all need to take responsibility for our actions and merciful lies by authority undermines this.
    d) Mat: Of course. If we accept teaching practice (esp. in cases of “recalcitrant youngsters”) and Buddhism are BOTH founded on the concept (idea) of situational knowledge asymmetry, (and I do accept that) then it’s hard to see why arguing for anything else is being done.

    2) (Is there a) possible inconsistency of the doctrine of karman if one denies the continuity of the self?
    a) Elisa: Yes, if one adopts the standpoint of a realist, but I am willing to follow Dharmakīrti etc. in their attempts to show that there was no contradiction, but rather a paradox” (more research to do)
    b) Thomas la Porte: Not necessarily. In my view, Nagarjuna (among others) did an excellent job of identifying and making these problems explicit, and articulating them in a more systematic manner. The problems of continuity are among them, and several of the paradoxes of Zeno are addressed by Nagarjuna. There are also hints within early Buddhist writings concerning teachings which were more advanced than the popular training methods (one example being the kasinas, or ‘totality fields’) which indicate that the suttas may not be as disorganized and unsophisticated as they seem.
    c) Jayarava: The discontinuity between anātman and karma is not a matter of opinion. It’s there for anyone to see. All it takes is reading many Buddhist texts with an open mind. Religious people deserve to be mocked rather than indulged in this persistent foible. Since no two Buddhist groups in history have precisely the same understanding of either anātman or or karma I find it difficult to imagine a one-size-fits-all interpretation. You cannot discontinue something that has no existence. Or to be more precise, the nature of ontological claims made about ātman in pre-Common Era India preclude any knowledge of ātman. There is no possible epistemology that can support the notion of an ātman – it is a contradiction in terms. Knowledge comes through experience, experience is ever changing, and ātman is never changing. If we could know ātman we would, by Nāgārjuna’s logic always and only know ātman; or we would never know it. An unchanging thing cannot be the subject of changing knowledge. Ātman is by definition an all or nothing proposition (in ancient India) and the early Buddhists had already made it quite clear that *all* experience is conditional and transient. One cannot have a conditional and transient experience of a permanently existing entity. So the discontinuity of ātman is a non-subject. On the other hand Buddhists, like all moralists, needed some way of linking morally significant actions to moral consequences. And they did this by sneakily introducing a notion of personal continuity over time. This is explicit in every single Jātaka story and in many suttas. When pressed they switch discourses to the metaphysics and deny a self. But with moments, or in the same paragraph, they will often switch back to asserting that actions have consequences for the individual who acts. Having seen this in action, I find I cannot unsee it.
    d) Mat: No, because again, I am placing Buddhism firmly in the domain of (at best) an exhaustive sounding pedagogy – deflating anatman from an ontological claim towards an epistemological one (and I prefer a phenomenological reading) – possibly even as limited as upāyakaśalya – means the inconsistency is a moot point.

  9. It is not important whether the doctrine of upāyakauśalya justifies or not merciful lies. It is important to awake, or am I wrong? I’m sorry for being simplistic, but I really like the sūtra of the man hit by a poisoned arrow.