Despite My Previous Anti-Christian Assertions…

A Google search on christian buddhism brought me to this and this and this.  There’s both a lot of relief and negativity in evidence in the comments to these articles.  Personally, I understand both sides of the equation.

I don’t think it’s possible actually to be a 50/50 Christian-Buddhist or Buddhist-Christian, even if you are one of the mystical sorts of Christians.  Fundamentally, Buddhists and Christians differ pretty strongly in respect to that which is of transcendental concern and the differences between the two families of views cannot really be papered over.  Buddhism generally denies a metaphysical ground or source, which denial marks a huge non-starter for anything that reasonably could be categorized as ‘Christian’.  Having said that, however, there are some Buddhist sects that view the ultimate reality as being Mind (huge contentious discussion, I know, but let’s not get into it now) and so actually approximate something like the theism that they are doctrinally required to reject – even so, their ultimate reality of Mind is worlds apart from the God of Christianity, even in His more mystical articulations.  For instance, the Buddhists’ ubiquitous Mind/Awareness/etc. remains decidedly impersonal, while even the mystical Christians’ God has elements of volition, personality, etc. (granted, of distinctly different kind than those of humans).  These are particularly sticky problems and cannot simply be brushed under the rug.

Stained glass Padmasambhava (click to embiggen).

Moreover, there is obviously a lot of hurt that motivates the negative comments on these posts.  People who perhaps had bad experiences with Christianity or its representatives but who retained their spiritual hunger (which is being fed by Buddhism) would, quite naturally, view the entire religion with a jaundiced eye (indeed, most atheists are of this sort too).  Then there are those who simply have great distaste for what is familiar or a mild-to-extreme valuing of what is foreign, whatever the genesis of these feelings (see la wik: cultural cringe, oikophobiaxenophily, xenocentrism).  To such people, any attempt to forge a synthesis or bring Jesus into Buddhism pushes all the wrong buttons – Buddhism was supposed to be their escape from all that.

And then, of course, there are fervent, fundamentalist convert Buddhists as well (Namdrol of E-Sangha comes to mind).

Tibetan-ish Jesus in Gethsemane (click to embiggen).

But the negative comments seemed also to be missing the point of what the author was getting at, which really wasn’t that Christianity and Buddhism ought to merge into some perfect synthesis of the two.  Rather, his point (which I thought was fairly obvious) is that as Westerners we will have some degree of resonance with the morals, myths, and cultural containers (e.g. art, architecture, music) of our heritage and that this is something that Buddhism will have to accommodate itself to if it is truly to become rooted in Western soil.  I fully agree with that thesis even though I, raised in an atheist household, do not and never did believe Jesus to be God or any of the other stuff that goes with Christian belief.  Still, as an archetype of forgiveness and compassion, Jesus speaks far more powerfully to me than Tara and John the Baptist may speak to some Westerners as a more appropriate meditational figure for purification than Vajrasattva.  Nor does the process necessarily need be entirely about Christianity, either.  I have elsewhere expressed some interest in buddhizing Halloween (which I have been meaning to do a follow-up on).  And the Grim Reaper surely must be capable of being put to meditational use?

I love this so much, my print looks awesome on the wall (click to embiggen).

The ironic thing about this is that both certain Western xenophiles and Asian cultural conservatives will fight tooth and nail against such a process taking place, even though it is exactly the same process (insofar as history does not repeat, it rhymes) as the synthesis of pre-Buddhist Tibetan folk-religion with Buddhism or of Kwan-Yin’s transformation from goddess to Bodhisattva.

My Conversation With Kenneth Folk

Today I had the good fortune of spending several hours shooting the breeze with Kenneth Folk. He just happened to be in town and was game to have lunch with me and a fellow dharma geek (though lunch got long). If I had had the presence of mind to think ahead, I probably would’ve made a point of taking mental notes, but (alas and alack) I did not!  But it was a most fascinating and enlightening (ha!) conversation, ranging from fMRI studies of meditators’ brains, to meta-models of enlightenment, to our individual practices (thanks for the advice, Kenneth!) and much else besides.  It’s not every day that an opportunity like that crops up.  I haven’t much to say about it right now – I need to give time to my subconscious to grind away until something good comes out of it – but I think this will provide fodder for this space, in any case.


EDIT: I posted this before I was finished, so I added a little more.

Arguing Idealisms: Epistemological

I have been having a whole bunch of fun thinking about idealism lately (and then immediately putting on my unoriginal theologian’s hat) [1].  Of course, there is a raft of meanings that people attach to the term idealist and obviously I can’t be meaning all meanings all the time, so I will only be speaking here about those that I find particularly compelling.  First, there is epistemological idealism, a family of views [2] that concerns itself with the contents of experience and which asserts that we cannot know objects in a mind-independent way (how this washes out is somewhat different for each theorist).  Then there is ontological idealism, which makes the much stronger assertion that reality is, in one way or another, at base fundamentally mental, not material.  I am going to present, across an indeterminate number of posts, some arguments for each that I have cooked-up myself.  I make no claim that these arguments are original to the history of philosophy – I wouldn’t know because during my undergraduate degree idealism wasn’t a big topic of discussion, due to too much worrying about free will in light of the obvious fact (?!) of causal determinism – but at least they are my own.  On, then, to…

Epistemic Idealism:

Of the two, epistemological idealism (henceforth: EI) is by far the easier to argue for and is actually, I have found, a quite common, if very much implicitly held, belief among scientifically literate people (and others besides) [3].  To put my cards on the table, I take EI very seriously – I haven’t encountered an argument yet that seriously threatened idealist skepticism of knowledge about the external world.  Although I may deal with such criticisms in some future post, at present I am interested in presenting my own reasons for accepting EI.  As such, I present the following argument:

Say I have two apples (yum!) and I want to know what colour they are.  No problem, I just look at them – “oh, one is red and one is green” – and that would count as sufficient evidence for most people that one of the apples is red and the other is green.  They could repeat the experiment and confirm my results.  If there was a large enough group of people, however, there would inevitably be a few colour blind people who would insist that “there are two green apples and what the heck is this ‘red’ thing you people are always on about?”  They would be doing the same experiment and actually getting different results.

A simulation of how the colour sighted and the colour blind would see the apples.

We cannot merely dismiss the colour blind as being wrong about the colour of the apples simply because there are fewer of them – after all, if we were in a hypothetical colour sighted minority we wouldn’t accept that red doesn’t exist simply because most everyone else couldn’t recognize it.  So what becomes obvious is that we have a problem, which is that the apples seem to be differently coloured (red and green) only within certain frames of reference (i.e. those including organisms with perceptual apparati like that of colour sighted human beings), while they are identically coloured within other frames of reference (e.g. those of colour blind human beings).  With this recognition it becomes easy to imagine further frames of reference in which the apples seem to be multi-coloured, or to have no colour at all, or even to be visually absent (e.g. worms don’t have eyes).

Still, the question stands: what colour(s) are the apples?  What is obvious is that we cannot answer the question by piling up a list of the apples’ seemings-to-be across the complete set of possible and actual frames of reference for the apples.  That such a piling-up of seemings will bring us closer to the facts of the matter is difficult to believe, particularly since in only a trivial number will they even have colour, let alone be red and/or green [4].  What we want to know is what colour the apples are independent of how they seem – that is, what colour are they from no frame of reference?  Unfortunately, this is impossible to answer.

For example, we might try to resolve the issue by use of science.  We know that our perceptual apparatus works in particular ways and acknowledges different colours in response to certain wavelengths of light reflected from the surface of objects, so we could simply measure the reflectivity properties of the apples.  But if that is what we choose to do, although we would be learning something potentially interesting and useful about them, we nevertheless wouldn’t have ascertained what colour they are, merely something about their light-reflective properties.  Or we could measure the wavelength of the light reflected from the apples, but again we will not have identified what colour the apples are.  We could note what is going on in our nervous systems when the light reaches our eyes, but certainly whatever that research reveals would definitely not tell us anything about the apples!

This argument, while familiar to any who have spent much time learning about human perceptual systems, is still, however, one step away from full-blown EI.  I will now take us the rest of the way.

In a deeper sense, the question of what colour the apples are is incoherent.  Remembering that we cannot identify the colour(s) of the apples except from some frame of reference, for there to be the seeing of a red and a green apple requires the presence of both the apples and of a perceiver capable of the perception of red and green alike.  I can see both colours but colour blind people can’t, even if we are looking at the same objects.  The apples are able to cause different perceptions of colour in different organisms on the basis of those organisms’ perceptual faculties being of the sort that are capable, in conjunction with the right external causes, of producing ‘red’- and ‘green’-experiences.  Were there no such organisms, there would be no such thing as experiences of ‘red’ or ‘green’.  So to ask what colour the apples are from no frame of reference in particular is to ask what the non-experience of experiential qualities – as caused by some object(s) – must be like, which is an obvious non-starter.

The implication of this is that colour is not a property of the objects at all!  Rather, colour is a perceptual experience that may be said to have been caused along the lines explained above, so the very most we could say about the apples is that they have the property of being the sort of things that can cause ‘red’- or ‘green’-experiences (under the right conditions).  Now, the same holds true for all properties and all objects.  A challenge for the reader: identify even a single property of some object that is not relative to some particular frame of reference.  I believe that there is nothing – nothing – that may be posited as an observer-independent property of any perceived object whatsoever.  In fact, we do no not perceive objects at all – there are only our perceptions.  This is EI.


[1] What can I say?  I was always kind of weird – definitely never much of an outdoors kid (sorry, Dad).

[2] Just assume from here on that I am speaking about families of views.  It’s too much work to provide an in-depth and subtle comparison between, say, Berkeley and Kant.  In addition, I would have to understand Kant.  Ha! :S

[3] Which brings me sharp jolts of Schadenfreude any time it becomes apparent.  The irony of my sciencey friends making idealist arguments about perception when the very thought of idealism itself is repellent to them… it’s just too delicious.

[4] I suppose one could say that God could clear it up, that if any frame of reference is objective, it’s his.  To  which I would respond: “what, does God have eyes?”

Anatta and Sunyata: Substantially Different Concepts?

(Did you get the joke?)

Perhaps someone out there with deeper knowledge of the doctrinal subtleties of this can help clear this up for me, but I have to admit that I’m hard pressed to find a big, hairy difference between the two.

Anatta can be interpreted strictly to mean that there is nothing whatsoever that arises in perception that is or is a property of a self, soul, me, etc.  This would be a completely accurate interpretation.  This is also exactly identical to the emptiness of ‘the self’.  So far, so good.  But if we allow a somewhat greater degree of freedom in interpretation, we could say that anatta also applies to all phenomena, not simply the putative self – all things are without their own self-nature (that is, there is nothing that is or is a property of a self of those objects).  How do we know this?  Anicca: if things had their own self-nature, they would not change, now would they?  Which is precisely the evidence brought out to support the supposedly different (and putatively superior) Mahayana doctrine of emptiness.

Now, of course, anatta is (almost?) always used in Theravada parlance to refer to one’s own self, soul, me, ‘I’ (etc.) as a matter of training.  Theravada theory and practice aims to  produce arahants through the clear perception of the emptiness of their own selves – it is not entirely clear whether it follows from this that arahants must therefore have overcome the misperception of inherent existence (or self) in external objects as well.  Regardless, this seems much less different than the sectarian cheerleaders for ‘higher’ yanas seem to suggest – it seems as though Theravadins do not talk about emptiness much because it’s not really relevant to their aims.  Does it boil down to this, or is there a real distinction that I’m missing here?

Rebirth: A Buddhist Doctrine That Doesn’t Quite Make Sense

This is not what Buddhists are talking about.

When people are introduced to Buddhism, one of the first things they are told is that Buddhists believe in rebirth, which is that after death one will live again and again in countless, innumerable bodies (of various sorts, human, godly, and demonic).  Most people don’t really get any further than this but, should they ask more questions, they will have it explained to them that this is not the same thing as reincarnation – how so?  Buddhists, it will be recalled, accept the doctrine of anatta, or ‘no(t)-self’, that there is nothing anywhere in existence that can be pointed to or identified as ‘me’ or ‘mine’ – that is, there is no soul.  Now, reincarnation is the notion that oneself, the soul, moves from body to body and life to life, but since for Buddhists there is no soul, there cannot be anything literally moving from life to life – you cannot literally be reborn since you, properly speaking, don’t exist.  What to make of all this Buddhist talk about past lives, then?

The Buddhist notion of rebirth is bundled with the notion of karma.  Without going too deeply into details, the story is this.  Whenever we act intentionally, through those actions (karma) we are creating metaphysical causes that will have future results (vipaka).  However, since we act constantly and we only live for so long, by the time we die we will have created a bunch of causes that still have to manifest their results.  So what happens then is that these effects do come about by conditioning the psychology/life history of some yet to be born entity –  in a very important sense they are the causes of the existence of that being [1].  Rebirth is not of a person but of a causal process – what makes past lives mine is that they are the ones that directly conditioned the life I am now living.  Similarly, what will make future lives mine is that they are the results of the actions I take in this one.  But this account has some pretty big pitfalls (whatever one thinks about the metaphysical plausibility of the whole affair).

First off, there’s the problem of establishing diachronic identity conditions (which becomes even more complicated across lifetimes).  This is a very familiar problem to philosophy, especially when souls are abandoned – even if my actions cause a future being, in what meaningful sense is that being me if it is entirely different?  Say I am ‘reborn’ as a frog – what about the frog and its mind is similar enough to my own that we can be thought of as being the same in essence?  I should say nothing – the fact (if it is one) that I caused the frog and its mental states to come into being is irrelevant to identifying the frog and this human person as the same thing.  Consider that our parents also caused our existence but they are definitely not us [2].  I cannot see how being the source of the mental causation of some yet-to-exist entity qualifies me for identification with that being any more than its parents are so qualified for being the source of its physical causation.

It says it all.

Which brings me to the next trouble for the rebirth hypothesis – there are innumerable causes for features of my mental life that come from outside of myself.  Perhaps I watch an extremely sad film or I read a profound passage in a book that forever changes my life: in either case, my system of mental causation (and hence my future-life trajectory) will have been irrevocably altered by mental causation arising in other minds.  Similarly, my parents, genetics, and cultural environment all helped to mould my mental ecology.  Why should only one source of mental causation (i.e. ‘my’ past lives) be privileged over all the others in any analysis of future-life causation?  I can’t think of any non-tautological or non-overdetermined reasons to do so.

And looking to causation across lives, there are problems related to that just raised:

The first is that rebirths are presumed to be serial, never simultaneous.  This would, of course, be simple common sense were there a soul or self that travelled from life to life, body to body (“of course it can’t be more than one person at a time because it defines what it is to be a person and it is singular”).  Buddhists, however, deny that there is such a thing as a soul but still maintain that rebirth is serial.  I can see no reason for this – in the absence of a soul it is difficult to see why actions should produce results only within a single body-mind instead of several.  It would be like two billiard balls being struck simultaneously by the Cue Ball but only one of them reacting to the impact.  Surely everyone has committed enough intentional acts to build several future lives out of, so why shouldn’t they happen at the same time?

The second is that, having given reason to believe that multiple-source mental causation is active within one lifetime, there is no reason to rule it out across lifetimes either –  that is, perhaps I am not a consequence of just one individual’s actions, but of the actions of many.  Again, the soul hypothesis would preclude this possibility, but this is not a live option for Buddhists.  Similarly, future lives may in some sense be conditioned by one’s mental acts, and so in that sense are one’s own, but also be conditioned by other people’s mental acts, and so be theirs as well.  Again, I cannot think of any reason why this should not be the case.


[1] Indeed, whereas we consider the causes of pregnancy to be the presence and joining of the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm, Buddhists consider there to be three causes, the third being the existence of karma which must ripen.  Without such karma, mommy and daddy could try all they want but no pregnancy would result.

[2] At least, not at first – there is this utterly appalling tendency to ‘turn into’ one’s parents as one matures.

I considered tagging this piece under ‘travel’. 🙂