Episode 201 :: Linda Blanchard :: Dependent Arising In Context

| June 7, 2014 | 40 Comments

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Linda Blanchard

Linda Blanchard joins us to speak about her new book Dependent Arising In Context.

Dependent arising, or co-origination, is one of the more complex concepts in Buddhism, probably because it encompasses so many things and how they relate. Some take this chain of events as literal truths, irrevocably and unquestioningly about a literal rebirth from one life to the next. Others, like today’s guest, do question, and through that exploration find some very old validation for more contemporary interpretations.

Linda Blanchard is well known to our community as one of the original bloggers on the Secular Buddhist Association site. Linda has studied Pali with Dr. Richard Gombrich of Oxford, and has brought her interest and passion for the canon into new ways to find material meaning to their contents. Linda can be found on her own blog, Just A Little Dust.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Strawberry malt.

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The music heard in the middle of this podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. You can visit his website to hear more of his music, get the full discography, and view his upcoming tour dates.

Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA's official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. His background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture.

Comments (40)

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  1. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Wonderful interview. I really enjoyed listening to Linda speak about what sent her on this course of research, and how it eventually made it into book form. I remember reading through the blog series here on the sight, and how deeply I connected with it, because she beautifully jdescribed what I experienced.

    I hope more tradiationalists will consider reading Linda’s book, and contemplating in their own practice how dependent arising occurs.

    For those you who buy and read the book, I hope you will write reviews on Amazon. I noticed there was a thread regarding a reviewer who was a bit negative, but who had a reaction we are well familar with.

    I very much enjoyed the blogs on this topic. I’m really glad it went into book form with additional information.

    Linda, I wonder if you’ll do a sutta translation or two in the future. It would be nice for those of us how don’t know Pali to be able to read the puns and sense of humor you have come to know in the Buddha.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Dana. I have worked on translations but when it comes to puns, it’s pretty difficult, since they depend on knowing the language the pun is in. Patrick Olivelle gets around this sort of thing in his translations of the Upanisads by putting the original words in parenthesis after his translation, so we can sort of see where the author was heading. Do you think that might be a viable option?

      The puns he uses are often very subtle — and sometimes they aren’t so much puns as points being made (connections, even) by using the words of the Vedic system of thinking to apply to his. For example he often uses the word “loka”/world when he really means “self”. This works because in the Vedic worldview, the self is a slice of the world, in the way that atman is a slice of Brahma. So when he answers a question about whether or not we can “walk to the end of the world” and he says that we can’t but we must do, in the first case he is being literal, and in the second he is talking about getting to the end of the self.

      One of my favorites suttas based on a play on language that even we can understand is the one about Dona, who, stunned by the Buddha, asks him (imagine an Irish brogue as he wonders aloud what sort of being the Buddha might be) “Will you be a god, then?” and the Buddha says no he will not be a god. “Will you be a sprite?” No, he will not be a sprite. This goes on and he is asked, “Will you be a man?” and he says no, he will not be a man. Dona gets exasperated by all the negative answers and begs clarification. The Buddha answers that he *is* awake (buddho). Notice that the original tense is future — Dona meant “Are you a god” but was using a figure of speech, as the Irish do, that had the future tense, and the Buddha answered him literally: in the future he will not be any of those things, not even a man. When the Buddha decided to quit messing with poor Dona and answer the question that Dona was trying to ask, rather than answering the language Dona was using, he finally answered in the present tense.

      We have that story in more than one language, and in each the tense change is maintained, telling us that it really is the key to what’s going on. But this is very hard to convey in a literal translation because, if the reader isn’t familiar with the way a dialect like Dona’s might use the future tense but mean the present, the joke will be missed.

      So I’m finding that it’s not possible to do a good job of translating, per se. I suppose the context can be provided with footnotes, but my preference is to do something like they do with Bible Stories for kids — rewrite the whole damned thing to provide the context. But that somehow seems sacrilegious to me. Does it to you? I mean, I used to feel that Bible Stories were dumbed down too much, so I’m probably overlaying my feeling of rejecting those onto my concept of rewriting the stories rather than translating.

  2. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    Linda, what about translation with commentary, just like you did in the above, which I found very helpful!

    Interesting you bring up bible stories as a comparison. Children’s bible stories were what made me doubt that religion, because what came through loud and clear for me was that god lacked ethics and kindness in a huge way. When I was older and I read the bible, it confirmed my feelings. I don’t feel children’s bible stories are dumbed down. The problem is the stories themselves. But, of course, that is my reaction and opinion.

    What I would love to see you do is a translation with a few paragraphs of commentary to open, and then a few paragraphs of commentary to close. I have found Buddhist books that are formatted like that very helpful. I was able to read the translation with the author’s commentary in mind. I need that because straight translation is so different than contempary wording, and I tend to be very literal.

    So I don’t see it as dumbing down, but rather bringing it forward with a modern voice. It was really helpful for me to listen to you explain how you came to the view that you did. I really enjoyed your blog series because I found it to be the way my practice had rolled out and you explained the process so well. Your input is wonderful:-)

  3. David S says:

    Linda, congratulations on your book. Your ideas are seeping in to my head!

    And of course, it gets me wondering more. With your idea that the Buddha was using the audience’s ideas as a frame to work his ideas within, and whereby rebirth then becomes a particular audience’s reference point but not necessarily the Buddha’s belief, I was wondering if you know of any suttas where he talks with an agnostic or atheistic audience? I’d like to see how he talks to that audience. Can you give me a couple to check out?

    Not having read your book yet, but having read many of your comments here to know a bit about your ideas, one thing that I would find interesting to hear more about is which texts you think are later conflicting additions and why. This would give me a clearer understanding of how you are approaching the texts. Maybe you do this in your book. Also, you once in a while mention that some parts of certain suttas are still not clear to you. This sort of thing makes me wonder if there are indeed places in which the Buddha’s point of view does appear to reinforce rebirth. Or, if not that, maybe more a case of the difficulty in translating terms, and which then makes it difficult to determine their intended meaning, creating biased readings of the translations.

    I have some other questions. Do you think that even if the Buddha’s point was not rebirth itself, could he have just as well believed in it, as many in his day did? Or if you think he was agnostic, why did he incorporate the sequence of D.A. with rebirth while at the same time talking of realms where people ended up after death? Wouldn’t he understand that talking of such would reinforce the belief in rebirth? Doesn’t this make him more accepting of this belief, than its opposite atheistic view? Here is where some sutta addressing other audiences would help me see what he was doing as he spoke. And by speaking of where people ended up in next lives was he just positioning himself to be the superior and authoritative one, all while being a show-off, nobody could “surpass”, sort of braggart , and willing to make false claims of knowledge? Would he do that? And would he fuel such beliefs in others just to get himself into a position of authority where he would be able to reinsert his point? I guess I’d believe it if he went as far in the opposing direction of flat out talking in ‘anihilistic’ terms as well, but did he ever go there?

    An Aside: The SBA site has not been updating the comments in strange variations lately. Today for this podcast, the home page shows that Dana and Linda have been posting comments, but all I can access is Dana’s first comment and when I do the other comments do not show up. So, sorry to not be able to be part of the discussion and to come in to it late with these thoughts.

    And Another: I wrote my thoughts in Word, copied them and finally signed in, and NOW I can access all the comments!

    • Linda Linda says:

      Thanks for the congrats. I’m answering your post from yesterday last today because you have a lot of great questions, and I want to devote time to it. Thanks for this continued conversation, David.

      “I was wondering if you know of any suttas where he talks with an agnostic or atheistic audience?”

      If you’re hoping for a sutta that directly addresses agnosticism or atheism while speaking to agnostics or atheists, I can’t say that I have encountered one that is overt. I’ll keep an eye out though. Meanwhile, my reading of MN 117 – just discussed at some length in the forum in the “Incorporating traditional texts” thread in the “Buddhist Texts” area – would be that it speaks (albeit subtly) to the need to give up views. What I don’t say in the forum, that I will say here, is that in distinguishing between what the Buddha calls a “tainted right view” (one focused on ritual, on the fruits of karma, and on what happens after death) and his own “supermundane right view” the essential difference is that in the former one simply tries to be a better person, and in the latter, one actively thinks about and applies mindfulness, and otherwise applies the path. The sutta is subtle, though, and it takes careful study to understand what’s being said and why — but it rewards that effort.

      “… one thing that I would find interesting to hear more about is which texts you think are later conflicting additions and why.”

      I would too; I don’t do it in my book — it would be a massive project. But I haven’t made any concrete effort to sort them out. Right now I’m working on finding and writing about the suttas I feel are authentic and fit together well. In the distant future I might make an attempt at finding corruptions, but the basic rules are pretty simple: if the content is pure bragging without a dharma lesson within, I tend to set it aside as likely after the Buddha’s lifetime. If what I am reading seems to directly contradict the bulk of what is already clear, I set it aside as possibly either corrupted or (as likely) that I have yet to understand what it is saying. Ditto both the above if the logic seems badly mangled, or the numbering system is off (a sutta in the Book of Fives that has points about five, five, five items and then ends with one about six would be suspect).

      (– more in a bit –)

    • Linda Linda says:

      “Also, you once in a while mention that some parts of certain suttas are still not clear to you. This sort of thing makes me wonder if there are indeed places in which the Buddha’s point of view does appear to reinforce rebirth. Or, if not that, maybe more a case of the difficulty in translating terms, and which then makes it difficult to determine their intended meaning, creating biased readings of the translations.”

      There are lots of little things still not clear to me: all the various uses of “without remainder” – what that meant in the Vedic view, how he is applying it; what the “at most seven more lives” corresponds to in the Vedic and his way of seeing things. And at least one large item is still on my list: I am looking for any good and clear statement of why the concept of “there is no separation between subject and object” (formlessness) is, while preferred over the idea of separation (form), still not quite good enough in the Buddha’s logic — I have suspicions but no solid evidence yet. But no, I don’t think my uncertainty on these sorts of points undermines how well all the rest of my hypothesis that he didn’t endorse belief in rebirth fits together. They aren’t going to affect what he’s saying about rebirth as a belief system. And there’s just too much that works well and is visible in our daily lives.

      As for “creating biased readings of the translations” I can well understand your doubts. From my earliest days of seeing the teachings a bit differently than most do, I have been well aware of the degree to which I could be influenced by my existing worldview, and by the vagaries of language (especially of translations) into giving the texts an interpretation that was modern in a sort of anachronistic way. I am a practicing Buddhist and that problem is, pretty much, what the Buddha teaches us to notice, so of course I am paying attention to the possibility. It remains disturbing to me to be able to see how well the Theravadan view of the teachings fits together while simultaneously being able to see how well this alternative understanding does — it’s like having double vision, or bug-eyes or something — dizzying! But… but…

      There are many factors that have slowly over time convinced me that I’m not making this up; I am not, in the Buddhist sense or any other sense, deluding myself. The first is that what I see is totally and completely visible in our daily lives. The Buddha says it should be, and what I am finding him saying *is*. Doug Smith poked fun (http://secularbuddhism.org/forum/secular-buddhist-community-group3/buddhist-texts-forum5/background-issue-on-metaphysics-thread102.0/) at the idea that the Buddha would have a modern worldview, but what I’m seeing isn’t “modern” in any sense: it’s human, a description of human nature, which someone who was bright would be able to see as well 2,000 years ago as we can see it now because we humans don’t change fast. We moderns just have different ways of describing what’s going on than Gotama did. Whereas the understanding of traditional (e.g. Theravadan) Buddhists around karma as an infallible cosmic justice system and rebirth as its mechanism is not something anyone I have ever met can convincingly say they have direct experience of (and the ones who are unconvincing are rare in the world). So while the Theravadan take has internal consistency, for me and, I think, most of us secular types, it fails the “Come and see” test in the real world.

      Beyond that, when I think I see structure in the suttas and set it aside as “possible” then find a good match for it in Vedic texts, a match that not only explains why the structure would be there, but makes what the Buddha is saying far, far clearer than it was before — and visible in our lives — I call that “outside confirmation”. And, for me, the fact that this new reading of dependent arising is not only visible in our lives but that understanding it makes practice clearer and stronger through being a terrific insight into human nature tells me I cannot possibly be making it up, because I am not that kind of smart or insightful into human nature — apparently the Buddha was.

      “Do you think that even if the Buddha’s point was not rebirth itself, could he have just as well believed in it, as many in his day did?”

      Could the Buddha have believed in rebirth? I rather suspect he did exactly as his insight taught him to do: set the question aside, neither believing nor disbelieving in it but accepting that there is just not enough evidence to go on. If he leaned one way or another in his heart-of-hearts, it would have undermined everything he taught to say so, and seeing what he’s teaching the way I do, I find no evidence that he ever said what he believed.

      • David S says:

        Thanks for your thoughts Linda! I’d like to clarify something. When you wrote,

        “As for “creating biased readings of the translations” I can well understand your doubts. From my earliest days of seeing the teachings a bit differently than most do, I have been well aware of the degree to which I could be influenced by my existing worldview…”

        I wasn’t intending that to be directed at you. I was thinking more along the line of how you’ve seen trouble in translations of specific terms which can create differing understandings. I don’t have an example of what you’ve said like this elsewhere, but my thoughts were going along lines of reasoning you’ve discussed. I thought you might have some more thoughts about this being why you have questions still. But you answered my question’s main point by saying that what you’re finding to be still unclear hasn’t added any conflict with your understanding the Buddha’s relation to rebirth.

        As for translation issues, I have one example that I wonder about, that is in regard to D.A. and the use of the word ‘consciousness’. In D.A. this word bears no resemblance to our use today, and this I would think is a mistranslation, or at least a poor choice, given that the current word’s association contains many of the other links in D.A.’s chain than just the one in which it has been used in the English translation. This seems problematic to understanding its more limited role within D.A. as only one link in the chain. Such a conflict seems to make it a poor choice for conveying meaning.

        “…what I’m seeing isn’t “modern” in any sense: it’s human, a description of human nature, which someone who was bright would be able to see as well 2,000 years ago…”

        Yes, I think that is correct. Isn’t that why “the Dhamma” is called The Dhamma?

        I do not study the suttas and really appreciate your studies and am glad to see your thoughts coming out in writings. I still wonder though about the Buddha’s beliefs in rebirth as possibly something he did hold as true, but he found that his view surpassed that view in his practice. He could have held that his understanding merely stood upon rebirth and built upon it for his final desire to escape this mass of suffering here and now. Do you think that this is possible?

        • Linda Linda says:

          I added a considerable amount of comment today — responding to your first post — after this post. Probably what I’ve added mostly answers this post, but if I missed anything key, please let me know.

          “As for translation issues, I have one example that I wonder about, that is in regard to D.A. and the use of the word ‘consciousness’. In D.A. this word bears no resemblance to our use today, and this I would think is a mistranslation.”

          Good observation. Yes, what they are discussing is not what we call consciousness. For us consciousness turns on at some point in the womb, and usually continues uninterrupted until death, with maybe the occasional coma stopping it for a while for the rare few. Though we also count sleep as unconsciousness, in another way of looking at it. But the Buddha is talking about how eye consciousness arises in contact with a physical object, and changes, and passes away when it is replaced by another sensory (including “thought”) contact, so it’s clearly not the same thing.

          And it does cause confusion.

          That’s why I prefer the term “awareness” but even that’s really not good enough, because the awareness being described as active in DA isn’t, for example, the open, non-labeling awareness we get from meditation — quite the opposite! — it is a specific kind of awareness that is being driven by the sankharas to seek specific information (about the self). Open, meditative awareness is its replacement (as in Ron’s description of it below).

          • David S says:

            Thanks Linda, for your thoughts on the word ‘consciousness’ in D.A.. Yes, awareness fits, and yes it’s not really good enough, as you say. I think of it as sensory awareness. It separates out what is being known in this way from other ways. Interesting term sankharas. I think of it as the movement of desires and associations and sometimes as the underlying dis-ease causing the movement. When moving about, thoughts and associations can take over one’s attention and place sensory awareness into the background. Yes, meditative awareness is its replacement, and counter balances such reactive tendencies by also sensing the resulting emotional feelings with equanimity so as to not mindlessly react, and hopefully end the cycle forward. Thanks for your thoughts on this. And Ron’s. It is really interesting to hear others thoughts like these. How each of us talks of it.

    • Linda Linda says:

      (- continued from yesterday -) (blog software isn’t liking how wordy I am)

      Really, really good questions there, David.

      Above you asked a question about “texts that are later” and I addressed the question as if you had said “texts that came after the Buddha died”. I did that very intentionally because the term “late” gets bandied about without defining what is meant by it. The divisions I find most useful are “later: after the Buddha died” vs “later in his life”.

      It does appear to me as though he started with a dependent arising (DA) that was not as firmly anchored in rebirth as it later became. I have another paper in the Journal* on a discourse from the Sutta Nipata that dissects what seems to be one of the earliest complete renderings of DA, and while it still touches on rebirth, and uses some of the same language, it isn’t structured in the same way as the classic 12-step that I talk about in my book. I’m pretty sure that the 12-step is a version he adopted “later” — in his own life — as being the most successful way of getting the points across.

      It may well be — seems at least half-likely to me — that the sheer volume of 12-step versions in the suttas comes about because the school that maintained those texts developed what I call “boilerplate” (and Prof. Gombrich taught me are “pericopes”) to improve the texts. They may well have replaced older versions with the 12-step. But the 12-step is so very elegantly developed *for its time* to make the points it makes, that I cannot agree with the popular hypothesis that all this talk of rebirth is “later: after the Buddha died” corruptions of subsequent generations of disciples trying to convert Brahmins.

      (-more-)

    • Linda Linda says:

      (- continued -)

      So in answer to your first question, I am saying that he used the 12-step DA because it worked on so many levels. The structure is beautifully designed to, firstly, take a common understanding of the world and say “This is what most people believe” and then use that same structure to say, “And this is what’s really going on.” Only by implication does he say that “what most people believe” is problematic — and he never says it is wrong. Secondly, and perhaps more important, is that it allowed him to live his life teaching in a society where rebirth was the dominant belief system and put into practice exactly what he was preaching: disputing no one. He had the great advantage of living in a time and place where teachers were famous for making tricky statements that the students had to work out for themselves (gurus from that area are still doing it). Having a system that allowed him to be encouraging to those who believed in rebirth — rather than going around telling them they had to let go of those beliefs — would have been a great boon. Especially since it was a system that simultaneously, if understood deeply, through observation in one’s own life of the deepest teachings, provided the difficult-to-see lessons that were actually liberative. It allowed him to not be divisive — which was central to his teaching — be consistent in his lessons, be helpful even to people who would never convert, and all the while give people the tools they could use to gain the insight they had *for themselves* because, after all, that’s the only way anyone ever sees anything.

      He’d talk of realms-after-death because it is simultaneously consistent with the dominant belief, so he doesn’t alienate believers; and it can teach them useful concepts that fit with his teaching; and it is a great metaphor for what we go through in our daily life; and it points to the exact spot in DA where we start experiencing our problems.

      (- more -)

    • Linda Linda says:

      (- continued -)

      He does, by the way, say why he tells friends and family of the dead where their loved-one went, even though in reality, he doesn’t actually know. In MN 68 we find:

      “What do you think, Anuruddha? What purpose
      does the Tathāgata see that when a disciple has
      died, he declares his reappearance thus: ‘So-and-so
      has reappeared in such-and-such a place;
      so-and-so has reappeared in such-and-such a
      place ’? [Anuruddha doesn’t have the answer, so
      the Buddha tells him:] ‘ … it is not for the
      purpose of scheming to deceive people or for
      the purpose of flattering people or for the
      purpose of gain, honour, or renown, or with
      the thought, ‘Let people know me to be thus,’
      that when a disciple has died, the Tathāgata
      declares his reappearance thus: ‘So-and-so
      has reappeared in such-and-such a place;
      so-and-so has reappeared in such-and-such
      a place.’ Rather, it is because there are faithful
      clansmen inspired and gladdened by what is
      lofty, who when they hear that, direct their minds
      to such a state, and that leads to their welfare
      and happiness for a long time. ‘ **

      Notice that he says “not for the purpose of scheming to deceive” which would make no sense as a denial if what he was doing wasn’t a sort of deception. If he was telling the truth, wouldn’t he have said, “Because I know it for a fact?” Instead he gives his reason here as one that is consistent with what I have been saying, that he did this simply to encourage people toward “lofty” teachings.

      (- more -)

    • Linda Linda says:

      (- continued -)

      I imagine he did understand that speaking the way he did reinforced belief in rebirth — he sure had examples of this happening in his own life (like Sati’s story in MN 38). On the other hand, I suspect if he had just straight-up told us all to be agnostics, we’d have never heard from him again. Which would you choose? To get the message passed on so that those who did apply themselves to the path, and come to see what he’s really saying for themselves get use out of it (not to mention the great value in the teachings even for those who don’t get all the way through to awakening) or let it get lost?

      If he is more sympathetic to adherents of rebirth than to materialists, it seems to me from my reading that this is because those who believed in rebirth appear to be most concerned with their own actions and not much concerned with telling the heretic-materialists that they are wrong. Whereas the “nihilists” aka “materialists” are portrayed as denying what the rebirthers believed. As in my post on MN 117 on the forum, I believe that the point here is how dogmatic and argumentative one is, not the content of the beliefs.

      * “Anatomy of Quarrels and Disputes”. It’s in Volume 5, which might be freely available in a year or so. http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/issue/view/7
      ** [pts M ii 464] Translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2005-06-10). The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Wisdom Publications.

      “Here is where some sutta addressing other audiences would help me see what he was doing as he spoke.”

      I suppose I should get it together and write a post on MN 117 for this blog, since it really is central to both my argument, and the one made by Theravadans who believe the Buddha taught rebirth.

      (- end of answers to your first post! -)

      • David S says:

        Thanks Linda for your thoughts. I am following what you are saying and find it very interesting. Thanks for the references too. I’m looking more at them and will take some time doing so. Thanks too for revisiting the aspect of the Buddha’s leading people on with making claims, and that reference was really great. I think a long time ago we went around this before, and it is helpful for me to understand a bit more, what’s in the texts and what you are seeing. I appreciate that.

        • David S says:

          I have been reading about MN 117 and I have posted my thoughts on another discussion thread. It looks to me that the Buddha did take sides regarding rebirth given his statements in MN 117. Rebirth is given the status of something which can be directly known and has fruitful benefits, whereas its opposite does not and is considered wrong view.

          [url=http://secularbuddhism.org/forum/secular-buddhist-community-group3/buddhist-texts-forum5/incorporating-traditional-texts-thread667.4/]Click here.[url]

  4. Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

    Thank you for writing this book. To me, the question is: How can dependent arising be helpful in a person’s everyday life?

    If I’m ignorant (mindless), sankhara arises (you’ve translated “sankhara” as drive). I have certain unconscious drives or inclinations that have come into being before there is contact of any of the six senses. Very quickly after contact, feeling (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral) arises followed by craving (reactivity), clinging, becoming, birth, death. I like to think of this process as one complete cycle of how I’ve come to be in this moment. It’s happened because I’m not awake, not being mindful. The result is being inclined to unskillful actions that are neither helpful to myself or others.

    With mindfulness and concentration, mindlessness is put aside temporarily. Choice is possible and skillful action more likely to come about. Therefore, the cycle can be broken. I’m awake, emancipated from the cycle of dependent arising.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Yes, exactly, Ron, you’ve got it — both in your description and your observation that what’s important is how we see it in our lives (far less important than how dependent arising came to be described as it is).

      When we are ignorant of how the problems in our lives are generated, then the sankharas — our natural drives, our tendencies, and the social forces that shape us — just get to do what they do, including directing our awareness (“consciousness” in the usual Buddhist parlance) to objects and events and thoughts that continue to support those drives. It is by replacing those drives-from-ignorance with a choice (intention being the replacement for the sankharas) to do something different — learn (knowledge replacing ignorance) and practice (mindfulness replacing our default drives) that our lives change.

  5. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Great job, Linda! You are so articulate and have such a nice voice.

    For those who want an interim between hearing the podcast and reading the book (which you should do with all alacrity), I offer the review I did shortly after the book was published: http://secularbuddhism.org/?p=7479

    Having praised you once again, I feel justified in pointing out that, in your discussion on the Pali Reader, you make the point that the tool helps us read “the words of the Buddha” in “the original language.” It is easy to slip into this kind of verbiage, but it is, as you know, misleading. Gotama did not speak Pali; the language he did teach in would have been one or more prakrit version of Sanskrit. The Nikayas, then, were translated into Pali, which may have been a language created to sound like an archaic prakrit. The fact that such a massive editorial undertaking took place is one more bit of evidence that we can never be certain that what we are reading in the Nikayas are actually the “words of the Buddha” or whether they were composed by someone else who may have not been on the same dharma page as Gotama at all.

    • Linda Linda says:

      I was reading the Wikipedia articles on Pali and the Prakrit languages just yesterday, and found there that the Prakrits can be perceived as dialects:

      “Prakrit is the name for any of several Middle Indo-Aryan vernacular languages, derived from dialects of Old Indo-Aryan languages…”

      They call them “vernacular languages” and there may well be Prakrits that are different enough to be designated as different languages from each other — there’s a very fuzzy line in there. But because I don’t see dialects within a language group as different languages, and since what I do see in the suttas is very careful use of language — tense, gender, compounds, puns and plays on words that are very Vedic in their style, and so on — which, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, even acidly, make points about Vedic society and the applicability of the dharma, I do not perceive that Pali can have been a different *language* from that which the Buddha spoke, though I can see that it would be a different (probably artificially created) dialect.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        The point is not whether a prakrit is a language or a dialect. The salient point is that what we have is not the original “words of the Buddha”, and that the translation into Pali demonstrates that somebody at some point was not satisfied with the oral texts they had and felt they needed to be revised on a massive scale. The apparent insertion of pericopes in various texts is another bit of evidence that significant revision of the suttas was possible and did happen. And if Pali was in fact generated as a language that would sound antique to people of the day, the question arises as to why such antiquity had to be simulated. We can only guess at which statements attributed to Gotama in the Nikayas are his actual word — if indeed any of them are– or whether the specific language they are expressed in has anything to do with the words he actually used.

      • Linda Linda says:

        I (half) accept your quibble over my use of “the words of the Buddha in the original language” — they were not the words of the Buddha but I still maintain that they are, effectively, in the same language. And the *most* salient point is that reading the suttas in Pali is going to be far, far more helpful in understanding what the Buddha was saying and why, than reading it in English translations.

        “And if Pali was in fact generated as a language that would sound antique to people of the day, the question arises as to why such antiquity had to be simulated.”

        That’s an interesting supposition. Where did you pick that up from? I have heard Pali described as “Sanskritized” but I didn’t take that to mean that someone was trying to make it sound more ancient, but that someone was trying to make it more comprehensible to the many who were familiar with Sanskrit.

        • Mark Knickelbine says:

          Then why not simply translate the texts into Sanskrit, as in fact later happened? Why essentially create a new prakrit? Why do as we know Buddhagosa did, translate texts from Sanskrit into Pali? It reminds me of Joseph Smith whipping up his Book of Mormon out of whole cloth, using the archaisms of King James Bible English to make his invention appear legitimate. Or medieval European authors writing in Greek and attributing their work to Aristotle. The existance of Pali suggests anxiety over whether new material would be accepted as authentic, an anxiety which can only have occurred because new texts were continuing to be composed long after Gotama or anyone who could give an eyewitness account of his teaching were long gone.

          • Linda Linda says:

            Are you suggesting that all the Pali texts we have are translated from the Sanskrit? I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, but I do want to have that clarified.

            Why not simply translate them into Sanskrit? I’d assume because Pali is closer to the language the Buddha used, and you would lose a lot of information he intended to be in the words by moving the word plays over into Sanskrit.

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            No I’m not suggested they were all in Sanskrit at one point. I’m just saying that the creation of Pali and the translation of the teachings from whatever prakrit they originated in to Pali indicates there were more forces at work than a single minded devotion to preserving the Words of the Buddha. The Pali texts are certainly the earliest evidence we have of what an historical Gotama may have taught, but even at that they may only be presenting echoes filtered through the agenda of people who needed the Buddha to have taught what they believed.

          • Linda Linda says:

            No disagreement with you at all on the other historical forces at work. But I think you and I disagree about what those historical forces were. You find Brahmins trying to convert people to the Buddha’s school, I find Buddhists trying to convince other Buddhists (and outsiders) that the Buddha taught rebirth as the accurate Cosmic Order.

            I will disagree with the phrase “only be presenting echoes” which sounds to me like you’re suggesting that what we have is mostly inaccurate. But there again, this is a place on which we have perennial disagreement — how much of the texts are likely authentic, and much changed or added later.

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            “You find Brahmins trying to convert people to the Buddha’s school . . .” Where did I make myself misunderstood in that manner? I’m not sure what I find, but what I see is consistent with the situation Bronkhorst depicts — Buddhism revising itself to better compete with Brahmanism as the latter becomes the dominant force in Northern Indian society. That sutta we like to quote with the Great Brahma gag at the end of it makes perfect sense in that context. Why don’t the arahants demonstrate their magic powers (i.e., like Brahamins do)? Because, Gotama says, it’s vulgar and doesn’t really convert anyone. Then he lists a whole series of occupations bhikkhus should avoid (which include all the the kinds of soothsaying and spells that Brahmins purveyed). Then he lists the magic powers that arahants do have (lest anyone think they’re not as good as Brahmins). Then he makes a joke about the Vedic creator god who ends up telling the bhikkhu to ask Gotama for cosmic knowledge Brahma himself can’t provide. All the passages that essentially say, “The real Brahmin isn’t a member of a certain caste who does certain rituals, but someone who has achieved awakening” also support this view. And then there are the Marks of a Great Man suttas which are clearly nothing but propaganda designed to make it clear that Gotama met the Brahmin criteria for greatness. Is this how Vedic concepts began to become engrained in Buddhist doctrine? (Note the Fox News style question there.)

          • Linda Linda says:

            “You find Brahmins trying to convert people to the Buddha’s school . . .” Where did I make myself misunderstood in that manner?
            ————–
            I was short-handing. To be more specific I should have said “You find disciples of the Buddha…” I assume those who would do the best job of it would have been those most familiar with Brahmin beliefs — ex-Brahmins. And that, you seem to say immediately after:

            “I’m not sure what I find, but what I see is consistent with the situation Bronkhorst depicts — Buddhism revising itself to better compete with Brahmanism…”

            “That sutta we like to quote…”

            We’ve gone around that one before, I think. I find the Buddha playing with language in subtle ways in it; you don’t — you see it as, I guess, contradicting itself, saying “these skills are vulgar and useless, but we do them”? Anyway, I think we’ll just need to agree to disagree on that one.

            “Then he makes a joke about the Vedic creator god who ends up telling the bhikkhu to ask Gotama for cosmic knowledge Brahma himself can’t provide…”

            All of that also consistent with the Buddha himself being familiar with the myths of his time, and having enough of a sense of humor to make fun of them. I don’t see why we need to add another layer of folks into the timeline to do what he could easily have done himself — Occam’s Razor.

            And what he does with the term “Brahmin” is totally consistent with — what Jeff N points out I’m not saying clearly enough — his repurposing of words. He redefines what a Brahmin is repeatedly, and he uses the redefinition without explicitly reminding us he has redefined it, too — and he uses it in its original context as well. His use of language was complex and subtle and that was normal for great teachers in his society.

            “And then there are the Marks of a Great Man suttas which are clearly nothing but propaganda designed to make it clear that Gotama met the Brahmin criteria for greatness.”

            Now on this, I agree with you. It is in my “set aside” category, in case I ever encounter a way — which would probably be some reference outside of Buddhism — that it is actually appropriate, but as far as I can see the Marks of a Great Man bits have no value in terms of teaching us anything — pure braggadocio which, as I think I said somewhere in this thread, is something I expect to be later/after the Buddha’s death, corruption.

            “Is this how Vedic concepts began to become engrained in Buddhist doctrine? (Note the Fox News style question there.)”

            Yes, Billy O, I think it is, that the Vedic concepts were in the texts early — very, very early, like “Gotama put them there” early, because that was a large part of the audience he was speaking to.

            At least we both agree that we weren’t supposed to take those Vedic concepts as “what the Buddha taught” though it seems enough of his followers did that they became integral to Buddhist doctrine.

  6. Jeff N says:

    Hello Linda, I found your interview extremely interesting and I am now looking forward to reading your book.

    I don’t tend to worry myself too much with ideas like literal rebirth that seem to conflict with “naturalistic thinking”, I’m more interested in the practise itself. To me trying to reconcile the Buddha’s teachings with the modern western world view seems to be fraught with exactly the kind of peril of holding view based on one’s preferences that the Buddha warned against.

    However, your suggestion that the belief in literal rebirth might be getting in the way of us understanding dependent arising made sense to me. It seems obvious to me that the Buddha was a very piratically minded fellow and wouldn’t want to bog down his students with metaphysical concepts than were unnecessary, yet if a belief in rebirth was necessary for Right View he would have taught it as a prerequisite to those how didn’t believe in it, for example the Kalama people of the Kalama Sutta as Stephen Batchelor has pointed out.

    At first I thought your argument that the Buddha was re-purposing the concept of rebirth to teach something new and unfamiliar was reaching a little, but then I realised that you where just applying a commonly recognised idea about how the Buddha taught from one part of his teaching to another and itn so doing it made more sense when trying to practically apply his teaching. That is, it’s well known that the Buddha was using the team “noble ones” not to mean those born into the Brahmin caste, but instead anyone who had fully understood and applied the meaning of the Four Noble Truths to completion. Once I realised that, what you were saying was only that he was also re-purposing rebirth in the same way, you made so much sense to me. What you are saying it seems to me is that it would be hard to understand the Four Noble Truths if we hold onto the idea that he was talking only about Brahmin as we find DA because we are confused by him mentioning rebirth.
    Maybe you feel this is an obvious conclusion to draw or it’s one you make clear in your book, but I am left wondering why you didn’t point out other places in the suttas where it’s obvious ( or less controversial ) that the Buddha is re-purposing Vedic ideas and language in your interview with Ted? It seems to such a powerful argument.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Wonderful comments, Jeff, and thank you very much for them.

      The answer to your question is probably, foremost, that I am a bit myopic because all of the bits seem so clear to me that I quite often overlook the places where I may have failed to state something. So I am really, truly, grateful for you pointing out that this is a very useful argument that I should be making but am not.

      It *is* part of my understanding — that he repurposed just about every word he touched! He did it with karma, for example, redefining it from “action” to “intention”, and that is well accepted, and well understood by most Buddhists. I believe he is doing this, not because he invented the idea, but because it had a long tradition in Vedic thinking, long before he came on the scene — it’s why he can use “world” to mean “self” because that was an already established repurposing done in the Vedas, and pretty much everyone will have been familiar with it.

      I argue in my paper “Anatomy of Quarrels and Disputes” that he is doing it with the word “piya” (“the dear”), too, though in that one he uses both the plain-vanilla meaning and the repurposed meaning, because he is speaking about both kinds of dearness, external and internal. He can get away with it because that repurposing, too, was already familiar from Vedism.

      A lot of my problem with conveying the arguments I have is that there are so darned many supports for this hypothesis that I can’t fit them all in — or even, in any given moment, remember them all. Which is why I need to keep working on a book that lays out all the pieces.

      Thanks again.

    • Linda Linda says:

      I also wanted to say something a little tangential about this:

      “I don’t tend to worry myself too much with ideas like literal rebirth that seem to conflict with “naturalistic thinking”, I’m more interested in the practise itself.”

      I agree that, as far as my practice goes, I am not much worried about literal rebirth. I am also not, really, too, too terribly worried about finding the Authentic Teaching of the Buddha — for myself, and my practice. Or for the practices of those who are already good at questioning, and who apply the test of clearly seeing things for themselves to practice. As long as we are doing a good job of seeing what works, none of the rest really matters much.

      The primary reason I keep after this subject is because when I look at Buddhist practice *in general* what I see is a pattern of people being told (A) the Buddha taught belief in rebirth as necessary (B) and if you can’t see it for yourself, you’re just not far along the path yet/you’re not doing it right. Heck, even if people are not told that outright, they come to believe it anyway. But whichever, they then go around trying to fit what they see in the world around them *to* karma and rebirth, and that is *precisely* the opposite of the most key and central point the Buddha was trying to get across to us.

      And it’s not that I’m bothered by us doing the opposite of what he taught and then saying, “The Buddha made me do it,” but that what he taught us *to* do (stop imagining we have the facts that fit our theories) is so very important in the world. This error we make is so fundamental to so many things that bring unnecessary suffering into not just our individual lives but the world-at-large that it makes me want to cry to see his solution to the problem so badly undermined.

      If I can show that he taught genuine agnosticism for multiple reasons, he taught clear-thinking, and a lack of reliance on “belief” but an acceptance that we just won’t always find the answers, then maybe there will, someday, be fewer people in the world being taught to go fit facts to theories, instead of the other way around.

      If I can convincingly show that this is the most likely answer to all the puzzles posed by the suttas — and the fit is so neat on so many levels, that I personally don’t doubt it is what he was teaching — then as more and more people come to see it, as it (I hope) becomes accepted that the man was actually very, very consistent in this teaching, those who do rely on Authority will try the methods he taught that teach us to see more accurately, be more tolerant of others, and this will reduce suffering in the world.

      That’s why I care.

  7. jak42 says:

    Hi Linda,

    I read your book and I agree with your premise about the Twelve Links of Conditioned Arising. I think that once the original context was lost, the monastics layered a rebirth theme on top of it which resulted in the three lifetimes interpretation that is taught as canonical today. Whereas originally the Twelve Links were about how the mind creates suffering as you say, the rebirth reworking resulted in it becoming a kind of metaphysical template for how the cosmos works. I don’t think that is what the Buddha originally intended. I think the monastics did this because, as Richard Gombrich points out in his book “What the Buddha Thought” conditioned arising was the one concept which united all Buddhists and the monastics wanted to ensure that rebirth was firmly embedded into the doctrine.

    However, I think it is going too far to propose that the Buddha only taught rebirth as a metaphor. There are many places in the suttas where the Buddha talks metaphorically and where he does so he says so, like for example comparing karma to a mango seed. As you point out in your podcast, there are a few places where the Buddha does say that he is talking metaphorically about rebirth, but in most places he doesn’t say that. I think that the Buddha did teach rebirth and I think like most people of his time, he believed in it. I think he also believed in devas and daemons, and at times he talks about these in a way that is not metaphorical.

    In fact, I think he not only believed in them, he experienced all of these metaphysical constructs because he believed in them. As Michael Shermer points out in his book “The Believing Brain”, belief itself acts as a kind of drug, causing us to filter our sensory experience so that we see and hear things that are consistent with our belief. The Buddha was a master of concentration meditation. Concentration meditation results in a kind of altered state of consciousness that can cause visions. I think that he saw devas, daemons, and the past lives of himself and others during concentration meditation when his beliefs manifested themselves. As you say in your podcast, I think he used these experiences to comfort those grieving over lost love ones, and also (if the deceased was a scoundrel) to point out the consequences of unethical conduct.

    Now, it is one thing to experience something and another whether that experience is grounded in objective reality. People today report experiencing UFOs and alien abduction and there is really no proof that their experiences are grounded in objective reality. But people in the past were not so picky about what was objective reality and what wasn’t. Reality was a bit squishy before modern times.

    There seems to be a thread of argument in the Secular Buddhist community that the Buddha was a kind of Indian Aristotle or Socrates. This argument ignores the fact that the Buddha was a meditation master (perhaps the most accomplished meditation master of all time) which Aristotle and Socrates weren’t and that meditation sometimes has powerful psycho-physical effects. Experiences of rebirth (and devas, daemons, and other nonphysical beings) is an important part of advanced Tibetan meditation, and I think it was a part of the Buddha’s meditation experience too. But it doesn’t mean that these metaphysical constructs have any objective existence and it also doesn’t mean that we should dismiss the Buddha’s teachings because he taught rebirth. Rebirth, devas, and daemons were really only peripheral to the core teaching of how an over emphasis on the self causes suffering for oneself and others. It is unfortunate that the monastic tradition after the Buddha pushed rebirth to the center of the teachings, and I am glad that you and others in the Secular Buddhist community are working to counterbalance that.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Well, that is certainly one way to look at it, jak, and you are far from alone in seeing it that way. My objections are, firstly, based on the observation that what the Buddha teaches — what we tend to notice it’s about as we apply it to our own lives — is how to see through our delusions, yet the theory you lay out has him being (as far as we skeptics see it) pretty darned deluded. I find it a bit far-fetched that someone who was that good at teaching us to see all the way through couldn’t, himself, see all the way through.

      And secondly, he says over and over again that we will see for ourselves, and even in his own time there were disciples who became arahants (the ones honored for being awakened) who make no claim to seeing devas or rebirth, so it is clear that even back then being awake didn’t mean one would see the “cosmic order, rebirth”.

      And finally, if we drop all the *interpretations* done by the centuries of monastics and teachers who *tell* is it’s about rebirth, and just take a fresh look at the texts without making those sorts of assumptions, and see it in terms of the context of his day, there are many, many clues to tell us he didn’t teach belief in rebirth — quite the contrary, he taught that we should not hold views about *anything* that wasn’t obvious upon examination. That is, really, the essence of what he teaches, in a nutshell.

  8. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    I’m wondering if we can explore a bit the concept of Gotama as a human being, very insightful, but nonetheless dependent on human experience. The most insightful person still shares a common neurological base, and all that entails.

    For example, are we suggesting that Gotama would not see the Magic Eye style optical illusions, simply because they are not really in three dimensions? Probably not, he would see things like we would. Why would he not also be subject to the visual and narrative hallucinations as everyone else under the extenuating conditions of jhana?

    My thought is that he would, and regardless of how brilliant he is, to suggest he can’t ever be mistaken under any circumstances isn’t one I find beneficial. Openness to the potential of imperfection allows us to grow.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Well, sure, he was a human like you and I. I don’t think there is anywhere that I have ever suggested that he could not ever be mistaken under any circumstances — in fact, I have been known to point out places where he points out his own mistakes, and I have pointed out mistakes I see him making that he didn’t, himself, observe (like building a meme to carry his teachings that was so virulent that it overrode his teachings).

      And, being a human, like you and I, I don’t find any reason why, if he followed the practices he set out, that you and I follow, he wouldn’t have seen the same things you and I see, including the fact that the things one observes in the higher states of meditation are unique to those states — and he dismissed them as not being the answer.

      Further, in the suttas he is pointing out that holding views of things one cannot, themselves, find evidence for is at the root of our problems. Why would he then teach people to take on faith things that they have not seen for themselves? It contradicts what he says about not taking a teacher’s word for it. You can have one or the other — he teaches that we need to take rebirth on faith (or confidence in a teacher, or logic, or… whatever) if we don’t already believe in it, or he teaches that we should not — but I see no way to reconcile the two without doing some serious tap dancing.

  9. jak42 says:

    Hi Linda,

    My theory is not based on a reading of the texts but on my experience in meditation. I’ve experienced these metaphysical constructs as real and I think based on those experiences and the statements he made about them in the canon that the Buddha did as well. So have other people, the aforementioned Tibetans for example. And, as anybody who has had these experiences can tell you, they seem quite real. In fact, in many ways they seem more real than objective reality, which is why these beliefs have persisted for so long. Unfortunately, people today who don’t have these kinds of experiences in meditation find it hard to actually understand how someone could believe in rebirth, devas, and daemons.

    So from the viewpoint of his society 2500 years ago, I don’t think the theory I’ve laid out has the Buddha being deluded, quite the contrary. At that time, people believed these metaphysical constructs were real. People back then didn’t have 600 years of science and philosophy since the Western Renaissance behind them to anchor their perceptions in objective reality. But I do think the reading of the canon shows that he held these beliefs quite lightly, and they were really not a core part of the teachings but rather a kind of teaching tool to emphasize the core teachings. And not a particularly important teaching tool at that, because, as you say, most people didn’t experience them. That, in and of itself, is quite extraordinary, and is an indication of his not clinging to fixed views.

    As you point out in your book about conditioned arising, I think we need to be careful not to decontextualize the Buddha. He lived in an agricultural society, quite primitive, where the technology of brick making had not yet been invented. His society didn’t have the sophisticated philosophical tools to analyze subjective experience in the way we do today, to say nothing of the technology such as FMRI that allows us to view the physical basis of such subjective experience.

    • Linda Linda says:

      “My theory is not based on a reading of the texts but on my experience in meditation. I’ve experienced these metaphysical constructs as real and I think based on those experiences and the statements he made about them in the canon that the Buddha did as well.”

      Your argument is that since you have experienced these things, the Buddha may well have, also — a logical basis for a theory. Can I take it, then, since you find the Buddha to have been able to believe these things, and not question them enough over the course of a lifetime to change his mind about their reality, that you, too, believe them, which gives you basis for being certain he did? (I think you do not — so much for your experience as a sound basis for determining what his experience was. I do realize your argument depends on the bits+ below.)

      “Unfortunately, people today who don’t have these kinds of experiences in meditation find it hard to actually understand how someone could believe in rebirth, devas, and daemons. ”

      You certainly aren’t including me in those “people today”, right? because even though I haven’t experienced meditative states in which rebirth, devas, daemons and so on become apparent and can be taken for real, I can easily understand how someone could believe — such beliefs dominate the world we live in.

      “So from the viewpoint of his society 2500 years ago, I don’t think the theory I’ve laid out has the Buddha being deluded, quite the contrary. At that time, people believed these metaphysical constructs were real. ”

      We have a problem with definitions here. You are suggesting “he wasn’t deluded because people believed these things” but in our consideration of delusion we are not comparing our worldview now to theirs then, and defining their worldview as undeluded because it was what everyone believed, no, we’re comparing what those of us here on this site accept as real (because verifiable), against the delusions people make up that don’t match what’s verifiable — and the two things are *exactly* the same in our time as theirs. If it is delusion now to come to belief in rebirth etc based on meditative experiences, then it was delusion then — unless reality has changed over time and there were demons etc then (and I don’t think you believe — or are saying — that, either).

      “As you point out in your book about conditioned arising, I think we need to be careful not to decontextualize the Buddha. He lived in an agricultural society, quite primitive, where the technology of brick making had not yet been invented. His society didn’t have the sophisticated philosophical tools+ to analyze subjective experience in the way we do today, to say nothing of the technology+ such as FMRI that allows us to view the physical basis of such subjective experience.”

      But, jak, the methods the Buddha taught, when applied right here, right now, don’t require “sophisticated philosophical tools” to work, at least not for me and many of the people I know who follow this path, and know very little of philosophy. You seem to be leaning hard on accumulated knowledge to explain how someone back in the Buddha’s day would *reasonably* be able to be deluded into mistaking meditative experiences for reality, but the fact is, it doesn’t take an education in modern sciences and philosophy to utilize the very simple techniques the Buddha taught, to see through such delusions. The straightforward and elementary nature of his methods are, I believe, one of the reasons why the dharma is “good in the beginning, middle, and end”. Unless you’re suggesting that people were substantially stupider 2,500 years ago than they are now — and I don’t think modern science would support that — then there is no reason to assume that the techniques that work now, without the need for modern knowledge, would not have worked just as well then.

      I still find the argument that the man who invented techniques we use to see through delusion could not use them well enough to see through them himself, very weak.

    • Linda Linda says:

      I would be tempted to lean towards your interpretation, jak — I did, when I started my studies — if it weren’t for this, that I said above:

      “…he taught that we should not hold views about *anything* that wasn’t obvious upon examination. That is, really, the essence of what he teaches, in a nutshell.”

      It is very clear to me that this is what he says over and over throughout the canon, and I can’t reconcile him saying that with him believing in — and suggesting others must believe in — gods, demons, and even rebirth.

  10. jak42 says:

    Hi Linda,

    Well, at the time I experienced these things (visions of other realms, rebirth, devas, daemons, etc.) I did in fact hold open the possibility that they exist. I don’t anymore, which is perhaps an example of practicing “not holding to fixed views”. With respect to whether the Buddha’s views changed over his life, I didn’t say that he didn’t change his mind over his life; his teaching career spanned 40 years after all and he taught “not holding to fixed views.” I think that he taught rebirth and the rest during enough of his teaching career (but like I said, it wasn’t a big or core part of his teaching) for him to get a reputation. I think there is some evidence that he may have changed his views near the end of his life, viz. Sunakkhata’s address to the Vajjian Assembly in the Mahasihanada Sutta. Sunakkhata basically says that the Buddha doesn’t teach any superhuman states and later the Buddha confirmed this. But by that time it was too late. The Mahsihanada Sutta takes place, I think, just before the Buddha died.

    With respect to deluded, I think the problem with definitions is what your definition of delusion seems to be (please correct me if I am wrong). It seems to be “lack of adherence to the Western Scientific worldview”. That’s not my definition and I don’t think it is one most Buddhists would subscribe to. I think the Buddhist definition is “lack of deep understanding of the Four Nobel Truths”. From that standpoint, if the culture validates experiences of these metaphysical objects, then experiencing them would not be a cause of suffering, at least not immediately. In fact, like as not they would result in the person reporting them being held up as having special powers, like the designation of Maha Moggallāna as being “foremost in special powers”. This would naturally have resulted in an enhanced reputation for the person reporting on seeing these metaphysical objects, so people would be more likely to listen to what they say. And if what such a person says has value in daily life, as you indicate and as I also believe and have found of the Buddha’s teachings, then people would be more likely to practice it. You can see the countervailing position in the scorn Sunakkhata heaps upon the Buddha in his address. Today, such a person is likely to be designated as crazy or a religious fanatic. Therefore, they are a source of suffering (again, based on my experience).

    There is ample evidence that people from different cultures attend to their sense experience differently. For example, when viewing a picture or photo, Japanese tend to focus on the background and the relationships between objects whereas Europeans and Americans tend to focus on the faces and hands of the people in the picture. Since belief in and experience of these metaphysical objects was, if not common, then occasional enough in most premodern societies, I think it safe to say that premodern people accepted them as in some sense “real” if not physical. Note that in all cases, the experiences reported line up with standard religious (including shamanistic) symbols and myths of the society, that is, if reported on by someone in a Christian society, the experiences involve angels, etc. whereas in a Buddhist society they involve devas, etc. Hence my theory that what is experienced in deep concentration meditation derives from one’s beliefs.

    So I think that, yes, people in premodern times viewed the world differently and I don’t view them as having been “stupid” any more than I would view Japanese as stupid for looking at paintings differently. I would not go as far as Julian Jaynes (author of “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”) does in saying that consciousness is a learned phenomenon but I think there are definitely differences between how we view the world and how they did. Heck, there are differences in how I view the world today (with its cellphones, Internet, and high quality chocolate) than I did 20 years ago.

    Anyway, I think we will need to just agree to disagree on this topic. But unfortunately, because, like all religious traditions, the Buddhist tradition has put such central focus on these metaphysical objects, it will be an uphill struggle trying to convince people that they are not really relevant to the teachings. Most Buddhists believe them because they are told so by the monks, traditional Buddhist teachers, and Western teachers who simply accept what they are taught, but there are others, like me and the Tibetans, who actually have experienced them in deep concentration meditation, even if these experiences are simply driven by belief and not reflective of an underlying reality. I believe having an explanation based on the neuroscience of belief is more likely to make headway than judging people’s experience or criticizing it.

    jak

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