Was David Hume Enlightened?!

Hume needed all that fat to fuel his ginormous brain.

So, I’ve been sitting meditation for a long while.  It’s an interesting pursuit – the more one tries to just stay with whatever is here now, the more strange things seem to pop up.  Anyway, I was thinking about Hume today because of something that made itself so blindingly obvious during my meditation practice that I couldn’t help but make the connection.  Basically, whenever you have a sensory input (say, a fly passes through your field of vision), that input will be followed extremely shortly thereafter by an involuntary mental reproduction of that sight-event.  This comes almost immediately after the original sensory input and is noticeably different in ‘feel’ than a memory of the same event after the fact.

Now, you can’t force yourself to notice this – indeed, trying to force it will either entirely prevent it from occurring or will cause too much mental noise to allow you to notice it (I’m not sure which it is) – but it definitely happens.  And now I think I understand where Hume got his notion about ideas.  Or at least I think I do – my suspicion is that he was up to some sort of what today would be recognized to be meditation (granted, he probably didn’t sit full-lotus).  Which makes me wonder – where in God’s name did he get the idea to do that from?  For goodness sake, he even appears to have figured out anatta!

And so I’m seriously freaked – was David Hume… enlightened?


Buddhizing Halloween

As Buddhism left India it came into contact with other, sometimes remarkably different cultures.  The result is that there is a religion that incorporates and expresses itself through images (and the concepts they represent) as colourful, complicated, and symbolically laden as this:

Now that’s busy! (Click to embiggen some)

… but also as simple as this:

Enso. (Go ahead and embiggen if you want to, but I’m not sure what the point would be)

The point here being, of course, that as Buddhism has moved into new cultural spaces it has adopted the forms of those cultures, using them to express peculiarly Buddhist themes and sometimes supplanting their original meanings entirely [1].  Naturally, as Buddhism becomes rooted in the West we should expect the same treatment to be applied to Western cultural forms, even though by all accounts it appears to be appalling to many culturally conservative Buddhists that Westerners should want to practice and celebrate Buddhadharma in ways that resonate for their own cultures.  But, speaking for myself, I see this as a good thing – I am not Tibetan/Japanese/Chinese/Thai/etc. and I do not wish to be [2].

Which brings me to an upcoming and super-fun holiday: Halloween [3]!  If there is any holiday that I want/is a good candidate for being Buddhized, this is it.  There are several reasons why this is so:

  • Although the broad outlines of the origins and meaning of Halloween are known, they are not believed in.  The holiday is widely celebrated by Western (at least, North American) society, but is largely devoid of meaning.  Indeed, the actual meaning of “trick or treat” never occurred to me until I was an adult – it had always just been a phrase that got you candy (which was good enough).
  • More specifically, Halloween has no Christian content, which makes Buddhization much easier for two reasons.  First and most importantly, to Buddhize Halloween will not cause outrage among/backlash from the Christian community.  Secondly, there’s no metaphysics that will need abandonment or difficult reworking in order to fit with Buddhist thought.
  • The West needs to take the dark side of life more seriously.
  • There are tantalizing hints of existing traditions that could, by mere suggestion, be transformed from simple fun into meaningful ritual.
  • It’s so so so fun.

I can think of a few obvious ways this could be done:

  • Teachings about hungry ghosts/hell realms.
  • Pointing out the emptiness of ‘external’ perceptions (what’s behind the mask?).
  • Transforming emotional reactions, demonstrating purity of the world (the old peeled grapes as eyeballs, spaghetti as brains, etc.).
  • Chod practice!
  • Death and rebirth teachings/meditations.

I know that I’m not the only Buddhist to be thinking about this holiday specifically or about similar themes, so what does everyone think?  Western Buddhists, what are your ideas and suggestions?!

Getting in the *spirit* of things (har)!

Update:  The pic of the grim reaper on the lotus comes from here.  I wanted to give the artist any traffic that might flow through, ’cause I think that’s a pretty awesome pic (but sorry everyone, I bought the last print!).


[1] Buddhism is not the only religion to have done so – Christianity has done so for Christmas and many of its saints.

[2] Which has just now inspired a thought vis-a-vis the Christianizing of old Pagan traditions throughout Europe.  Modern historians generally talk about this in negative terms (since there is a palpable anti-Christian bias in academia) but I wonder how much of this really was imposed by the Church.  If I as a Westerner want Halloween Buddhized, couldn’t former Pagans have wanted their festivals Christianized?  Food for thought.

[3] I know it’s a little early yet, but I’m thinking about it because I’m thinking about costumes!

There Is No Such Thing as ‘Progress’

Humans, being creatures that seemingly can’t live without meaning, [1] have always invented for themselves mythologies [2] that serve to provide the sort of meanings that the world doesn’t provide them gratuit. ‘Progress’ is just such a myth, operative in the political sphere that, like many myths, is taken to be literally true and which informs the sense of purpose, direction, and self of those who cling to it.  However, it is ultimately a false mythology – there simply is no such thing as ‘Progress’ – and its mistakenly being taken for gospel truth is something that strikes me as potentially dangerous [3].  So on this basis [4] I have decided to provide an argument why there is and never has been Progress or Progressives.

[NB: I am not making any arguments about the validity or value of those political parties, policies, or goals that are commonly identified as being ‘Progressive’.  This is not an argument against left-wing politics.]

How do you do that anyway?

Progress is an inherently teleological concept, a goal-oriented one.  Consider that what we commonly mean when we say we are making progress is that we are moving closer towards achieving some goal, destination, or desired state, whether that is reaching a desired level of physical fitness, getting closer to our destination on a road trip, or satisfying graduation requirements in our schooling.  The teleological aspect is no less true for, is in fact central to, the myth of Progress – that is, that we as a society are traversing the distance between where we are and some more (or ultimately) moral or desirable social/political order.  The trouble for the myth of Progress comes from how we determine that there is such a goal and in what it consists.

There are two seemingly obvious ways of going about doing so.  The first is to employ some sort of philosophical realism.  One could argue that Progress is possible because there is an objective moral order and Progress occurs whenever we (re)structure society and its laws to better conform to this moral order.  Similarly, one could make the case that there is an ideal (Platonic) Form of society and Progressiveness is measured by how closely our own society approximates this ideal.  The weakness of such arguments is, of course, that it is impossible to demonstrate that they are true.  If there really is an objective moral order, why is it so easily violated unlike, say, the law of gravity?  If there is only one true morality, what are we to make of moral disagreement between individuals and societies (more on this below)?  Plainly, such justifications are only convincing to those who are already on-side and, even then, only if one buys into the brand of realism on offer.

In light of the deficiencies of the above, the second route is to justify the myth of Progress on the basis of historical experience.  The narrative is (crudely) as follows:

In the past people were either ignorant, deluded, or evil and so were their societies.  Fortunately, history demonstrates that people and society have been growing in wisdom, justice, compassion, and morality and consequently human life has been improving across the millennia.  There remains much work to be done but the trend is unmistakable – future generations of humanity will be even more compassionate, wise, and moral than our own and it is our duty (and privilege) to facilitate this process.

Here, Progress comes to be seen as something of a law of history, the goal and its contents revealed as and through an inexorable marching forward and unfolding of “wisdom, justice, compassion, and morality.”  But there are two important reasons to reject this account of Progress.

We’re just lucky things didn’t go this way.

One is that history is, of course, strongly contingent.  Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War gives us good reason to think that, had cooler heads prevailed, Athens’ devastating war with Sparta might have been avoided or that, had the plague not routed Athens’ population, it might have ended very differently.  And looking to recent history, there is no reason to believe that, had Hitler’s inner circle been better strategic thinkers, Nazi Germany should not have been master of Europe to this day.

The other reason for rejecting this account of Progress is a corollary of the first.  Simply put, whatever Progress we see in the workings-out of history only appears to be such because of our particular historically embedded vantage point.  Our views on democracy, justice, racism, sexism, etc. by which we judge the historical process are the products of that selfsame historical process!  If one is a modern, liberal democrat, then of course history looks like Progress because it is that history that engendered one’s modern, liberal democratic values.  It is useful to think of it in this way: placing rocks one on top of the other only builds a pyramid if one is actively following a blueprint, otherwise it’s just a heap of rocks.  Historical processes build heaps, not pyramids.

No pyramid, this.

Note also that this means that to the medieval Church the early history of Christianity looked like Progress and that to radical Islamists the growing adoption of the burqa and niqab across historical time look like Progress.  If historical processes can offer up different value-sets from which one can make judgements about history, then there can be no one historical trend that counts as Progress unless it leads to the end-of-history: a static, global society containing a universally assented to morality.  But since, as I have suggested, history is contingent, the historical process resulting in such a  society is no more goal-directed than a rudderless ship at sea – wherever it washes up, there the winds have blown it.  Moreover, even were the end-of-history actually possible (a questionable proposition), why should we conclude that its values are therefore better than our own?  Most large-scale societies throughout human history have more-or-less taken the view that democracy is fundamentally flawed.  Perhaps they are right – maybe the end-of-history will be governed by an eternal monarchy (or something yet undreamt of).  If we are to insist that it is our values that represent Progress, then we will have to do so on grounds other that those of historical necessity – that is, retreat to realism (with all its problems) or adopt a sort of values-chauvinism.

Not by design did it arrive here.

‘Progress’ is a flawed concept.  This isn’t to say that we can’t make progress toward our individual or collective goals, only that we must not assume that our goals have the imprimatur of reality.


[1] Nor, frequently, with meaning, e.g.: Jonestown, suicide-bombings, martyrdom.

[2] The meaning of which I must define myself since the Wikipedia article is a holy mess of missing the forest for the trees (no concise definitions for this topic). Myth, in the context of this piece, does not carry the popular definition of ‘story that is untrue’ but instead means ‘story that provides meaningful context for real-world happenings, whether or not that story itself is factually true’. By this definition all of the death and resurrection of Christ, the history of the American or French Revolutions, the self-made man, and “Yes, we can!” are equally mythological.

[3] I don’t believe that I need to elaborate too much upon why that might be (that would be a whole other discussion), but I can spare a couple of words here.  The quick-and-dirty is this – when people believe that they are on the side of the inevitable march of history/good/God/whatever, it tends to make them self-righteous at best (very annoying) and, at worst, complete, raging assholes willing to railroad others to implement their vision.  Examples: Nazis, Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, Jacobins, Democrats, Republicans, Zionists, anti-Zionists, medieval Roman Catholicism, Puritanism, residential schools, Richard Dawkins, the Black Panther Party, etc.

[4] And, not to mention, also on the basis that false beliefs deserve to be challenged, whatever they are – accurate knowledge of reality counts as a moral good, in my eyes.

Thinking About ‘Enlightenment’

A discussion has erupted over at David Chapman’s blog about that most important of Buddhist concepts – namely, enlightenment.  More specifically, he took as his subject matter the following set of questions:

  • What is enlightenment?
  • Is there such a thing?
  • How can we find out?
  • What is it good for?
  • Why should we care?
  • Who is enlightened?
  • How can you tell?

He also asks what do we want Buddhism for?

These are, naturally, very important questions for Buddhists to ask of themselves and their sanghas since the whole point of the Buddhist path is to take us from wherever it is that we are toward enlightenment (even if enlightenment wasn’t anywhere else to begin with). Buddhism without enlightenment seems a lot like coffee without caffeine – sure, it tastes sorta the same, but what’s the point? Unfortunately, it is a question that very few Buddhists actually pause to give much thought to.  I’ve been thinking about this myself and have concluded that people really are confusing/conflating enlightenment as epistemic event/state, as metaphysical event/state, and as worldly-pragmatic state.

Enlightenment as an epistemic event/state:

This version of enlightenment-as is constituted by some sort of knowledge-that/of or the moment of the acquisition of such knowledge. In Buddhist terms it is relatively straightforward what might count as ‘enlightened’ knowledge: emptiness, universality of the Three Characteristics, dependent origination, karma and its workings, rebirth, etc.  However, there are other possibilities here too – God-like omniscience is surprisingly frequently thought to be gained at enlightenment.  At bottom, any realistic idea about Buddhist enlightenment will necessarily include some epistemic aspects – non-enlightenment for Buddhism just is ignorance about not-self, etc. – but need not include all of these.  For example, Mahayana traditions maintain that arahantship (a sort of enlightenment) is possible without having fully comprehended the emptiness of all phenomena (a point which Theravada disputes).

Enlightenment as a metaphysical event/state:

Metaphysical enlightenments-as are characterized not by knowledge but by a change in the being of the enlightened person.  On such conceptions enlightened beings are freed from the birth-death-rebirth cycle, have gained magical powers, replaced their material bodies with immaterial ones (!), merged with God, etc.

Enlightenment as a worldly-pragmatic state:

Though not as colourful as metaphysical enlightenment-as, this is perhaps the most broadly inclusive category as it can include all sorts of different things.  There is the old Buddhist stand-by of enlightenment as freedom from suffering.  There is enlightenment as moral or ethical perfection.  Enlightenment can be imagined as the total absence of negative mental states and the continual presence of pleasant ones.  It has even been suggested that enlightened beings will have become the ultimate learners, able to learn new languages (or other such novel tasks) with great ease.

Any of these could comprise a reasonable definition of enlightenment (singly or in combination)[1] but one nevertheless has to be really clear with oneself about a few things.  First, one must be clear about when there is some mixing-and-matching happening between different enlightenments-as.  What is important here is that while any picture of enlightenment will likely cobble together different aspects of each of the categories given above, there will generally be something that is thought of as being the core ‘essence’ of enlightenment (say, it’s epistemic but emotional good times follow, or emotional stability is the aim but knowledge is a step on the path to that).  Second, it may be that in reality there is no connection whatsoever between these different enlightenments-as – for all we know, knowledge of the emptiness of external phenomena may be just as likely to lead to a complete lack of regard for others’ well-being as it is to lead to ethical perfection.  Third, one should not be under the impression that it will necessarily be the case that the methods that produce one sort of enlightenment will lead to the production of some other sort.

Based upon what I’ve seen in my investigations, it strikes me that Vajrayana Buddhism (in general?) tacitly acknowledges this – at least, this seems to me the most probably useful way to gloss the three-yana/nine-yana approaches to the path. It seems to me the instructions are to hit stream-entry, defined as epistemic insight into emptiness, as quickly as possible and then to move on to cultivating real-world usefulness and compassion, although not totally ignoring other stuff either [2] – full enlightenment, Buddhahood, being a blending of insight and worldly efficaciousness.  This is very different from, say, Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk’s brand of Theravada, where the point is to pound emptiness through the skull as completely and as quickly as possible and then worry about everything else after arahantship, which one will have to do since the method isn’t designed to produce e.g. compassion (this is cartoonish but good enough).  This sort of approach is based on enlightenment as purely epistemic (albeit, with the real-world consequence of suffering being eliminated).

Obviously, these paths are going to appeal to different types of people. Vajrayana (as it is presented to Western lay-folk) makes much hay about compassion and so those with an empathic or ‘real-world’ sort of bent are going to be strongly attracted to that sort of practice. Ingram and Folk are much more INTP in their orientation and so will naturally appeal to those like myself (pure episteme, “knowledge for its own sake”). But if one spends all his time doing compassion practices (e.g. tonglen, metta) he should not expect to ‘get’ emptiness, nor should someone who spends all her time breaking down reference points expect to become temperamentally different from before merely because she sees that her anger is dependently arisen. Of course, most Buddhist teachers either don’t know or won’t say what their brand of enlightenment is aiming at – so we enter Dharma centres and get talks about cutting through self-clinging but are given metta practices, or about cultivating compassion but are given vipasyana/vipassana practice. And since most students aren’t clear about the difference between these or even what they’re after, they can’t get whatever it is that they really need.


[1] Rather, some of these could present a reasonable definition of enlightenment – flying cross-legged across the universe is unlikely to be truly possible.  By “enlightenment” here I mean, of course, ENLIGHTENMENT!!!‘ – i.e. something that is suitably desirable and non-ordinary that it would be a satisfactory aim for a spiritual practise.

[2] Major caveat: I have a suspicion that in monastic settings the aim of Tibetan Buddhism is to produce arahants first and then move along to other things (hence the decades of training).

Blog Direction Question & BDSM and Politics

First, I have to apologize for having gone AWOL for the past while.  I was both busy with work and tied up in the evenings such that writing slipped down the list of priorities.  Also, my mind has mostly been a vacant expanse of uninterestingness and unoriginality.  I only post thoughts that, while not necessarily being the first instance of their having-been-thought in the history of the whole universe, nevertheless are made chez moi.  I haven’t had (m)any of those lately and those I have I can’t decide whether to post or not – they are mostly of a political nature and I more-or-less want to avoid politics on this blog.  Should I set up a different site for those, expand this blog’s mandate, or just let them be?

But here’s a cute one that occurred to me the other day.  I was thinking about the nature of sexual fetishes and BDSM came up (natch).  Anyway, it occurred to me that there are people in this world who actually prefer to be subordinate to others.  Similarly, there are those that prefer to be dominant.  We have all met people of both types.  So the question is: where does this leave egalitarianism?  Presumably, those who would like to follow want to be led (and so shall be led) but egalitarianism requires that people become self-led.  Isn’t this sort of harmful to would-be sheep (also, would-be shepherds)?  Doesn’t taking their interests into account sort of necessitate creating structures of dominance?

Now THIS Was A Politically Motivated Shooting


Just Because It Sounds Science-y Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Faith-Based*

Beyond the limits of reasonable expectation.

There is a perception out there that whatever issues from the mouth or pen of one who wears a white coat is completely rational, reliable, evidence-based and trustworthy.  While this is more probably true when the white-coat is discussing some matter of little social or political import – electron spin, say, and not neuro-physiological differences between the sexes, etc. – we shouldn’t be too certain that this is always the case.  Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the failings of reason and intelligence that goes along with being a member of our species.

This all comes to mind as I was flipping through the latest edition of Scientific American (cover pictured to the left).  This ‘special issue’ includes a number of essays by some far-out looking people about the future of ‘Science’ and where it’s going to take us.  Of course, the contents of these essays are interesting (entertaining, to be more exact) but fundamentally have no real basis for some of the claims they make – rather they are expressions of faith that Science will continue to uplift, enlighten, and transform the human race into whatever the authors of these pieces would like for humans to be.

Here’s a guy who looks like he has predictions you can trust. Just look in his eyes.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong about that per se – we all have to have faith in something, after all – but we should recognize religious-style beliefs for what they are, even if they come with the trappings of Science, because Science/science has a place of privilege among powerful decision-makers [1].  And when powerful people can be convinced that something is a good idea on the basis of Science, a lot of money, effort, and time can be wasted on pointless endeavours.

SETI is a paradigm example of this dynamic in action.  A number of scientists got together and convinced important people in the US government that there is a high enough probability that alien life is somewhere out there that it would be worthwhile to set up (at grand cost to the taxpayer) a series of listening-stations to see if we couldn’t pick up ancient signals travelling across the void.  Presumably they used math to help bamboozle the decision-makers in question. Now, there are a number of practical problems with the program [2] but there are even nastier issues on the purely conceptual side of things.

Specifically, the program only makes sense if one has a reasonably high estimation of the probability of there being other intelligent beings out there, but at the time that the program was being set up there was really no (good) reason to think that such is the case.  Sure, there were inferences and assumptions drawn from what we knew/know about how the world actually is – paraphrase: “it is simply inconceivably improbable that in a universe this vast in which intelligent life has arisen once, intelligent life should not have arisen multiple times” – but none of this constitutes any reason to think that it is so.  Perhaps it is improbable that a universe with laws and a history such as our own should only have intelligent life emerge once.  OK, so perhaps we happen to live in a really improbable sort of universe?

“But we can’t know if we don’t check!”  Ah, yes, true, but here’s the difference between SETI-fans and myself: I don’t expect (or hope) to discover anything and, moreover, I don’t think that a failure to find evidence would demonstrate anything about the universe we inhabit (remember those practical difficulties I mentioned?).  But if one believes without evidence that there must be life out there – or that it’s inconceivably improbable that there isn’t – it does raise the question of why this is believed.  Perhaps, like me, they find the grandeur of a well-populated universe appealing or, also like me, they find the prospect of human solitude infinitely depressing.  But those are not scientific reasons, to be sure, and today, after the program has been running for several decades without any positive results, it seems ever more probable that we are alone.  “But we can’t give up!  What if we do and we miss our chance to know?  It would be horrible!”

No, it wouldn’t.

USA! USA! (They’d’ve actually mooned Russia too, if it weren’t for decompression-related issues. This seemed the next best thing.)

Granted, this does not comprise reason not to engage in the program.  For all the bluster about the advancement of science that has flowed from NASA, the real point of the thing was never really about ‘Science’, was it?  It was more about having the best vantage point in the universe from which to flip Russia the bird (also, something about weaponizing space).  The science stuff has been a nice bonus but I sincerely doubt that it was what was foremost on JFK’s mind when he decided that humans would set foot up there.  And this is fine because we don’t need to have Science decide what our every act, individual and collective, should be – what more reason do we need for landing on the moon than “because it’s awesome” (awesomeness, I note, is not a property of objects/events measurable by ordinary scientific methods).  But pretending that because SETI might have some scientifically valuable side-effects means that it is principally a scientifically driven enterprise is simply misleading – it’s a(n ugly) Hail Mary for those who wish that ST:TNG was a documentary film.

An ugly cathedral of sorts. Did I mention ugly?


* Not the catchiest title ever, so perhaps I ought to have gone with the alternate title for this entry: “SETI Is a Waste of Time, Effort and Money and Should Be Shut Down.”  That one is a bit on the blunt side, though.  Oh well.

[1] Despite much upset about the “War On Science” being perpetrated solely by those nasty Republicans (after all, who else could possibly have any non-scientific reasons for rejecting scientific findings) there really isn’t anyone (important) who is actually against science as an endeavour, just findings that are inimical to his or her particular agenda(s).  Whenever I hear the phrase “War On Science” trotted out I immediately start wondering whose research agenda is being impeded or whose political agenda stands to gain by painting the other guys as low-brow, fundamentalist rubes.

[2] I can think of a few off the top of my head.  First and most simply, there is no guarantee that any radio signals that an alien civilization might have sent into space would reach Earth without having degraded in pure noise.  Second, there is the matter of timing.  Could such signals even have had the time to reach us if they did exist and if so, how do we know they haven’t already gone by and we’ve missed our chance?  Heck, maybe we are the first intelligent lifeform to develop technologies that would send signals out into space (in which case, listening stations: no dice).  Third, why should we assume that any alien civilization will be using media enough like our own that we could even recognize their communications for what they are – alien tv broadcasts may just look like noise to us (and vice versa).