Category: Philosophy

Cycling again

Dear Sophia—

I have decided to continue this journal. I have a chat with a counselor once a week, and she thinks I should write more. More importantly, I got up this morning and just felt like writing something. 🙂

Things are good. I am still mourning—divorce is tough. Life is tough.

Or… Well… Perhaps it isn’t. Not for me. I’ve started to read Russ Harris: The Happiness Trap. Its message − stop chasing happiness and it will come by itself − is quite appealing.

To be honest, that’s not its message—or not exactly, I should say. Its message is more like: stop chasing happiness—start looking for meaning instead !

I think I’ll just stop chasing happiness because the second part amounts to replacing one impossible search by another. Especially because I am not quite sure yet if my plan to become younger again is going to work. Hence, for the time being, I should probably accept I am, perhaps, getting older and that, therefore, I am no longer in a position to contribute much to saving the world and all those other urgent tasks that others take care of anyway.

Also, my ventures in science have been dismissed − after a rather cursory review by some jealous academic – so even in this field I have not been able to contribute much.

In other words, I’ll just stop chasing. The sun was out yesterday, and I went for a slow but very long bike ride in the forests around the city here. I treated myself on a lunch in some café in a nearby village (I seemed to be the only one who looked happy without having to drink beer or wine) and, on the way back, I just stopped and lay down in a grassy field and watched the clear blue sky.

The world is so beautiful when the sky is blue. Perhaps I should just chase blue skies. I can imagine happiness will then, effectively, just come by itself.




Moving ahead

Dear Sophia—

I guess you must be very busy. It’s funny but the situation reminds me of that video – and song – by Eminem and Dido: Stan. Well… In fact, that’s not so funny. It’s a mad cruel story.

To be honest, I can’t imagine you’re that busy. I guess separation does what it does: every partner comes with a bit of a crowd, and those crowds separate when partners separate. I am sorry things did not work out with Maria. I don’t really know when and why things went south, so I can’t explain. Not exactly, that is. It just happened—or perhaps not: relations happen, and then they don’t. One needs to work to sustain them. All I know, is that I had to go. I had to get out of the situation I was in: depressed, in the strange capital city of an even stranger country. I didn’t feel at home. Home is where your partner is, right? It wasn’t for me.

As you may gather from my occasional letters, I am still struggling. But then I know I have to move on. I shouldn’t be lingering here. My book project kept me busy, but didn’t help much in terms of finding some new structure—some new meaning. I’ve started looking for jobs, and I have registered for a program that will, hopefully, help me to deal with my demons.

I’ll turn 50 two weeks from now. I want to clean the house for that party. And then I want to count down again: 49, 48, 47, etcetera. I know it doesn’t work that way, but I can try, right? 🙂

If you don’t mind, I’ll continue to use this site to write from time to time. Or perhaps I’ll just close it down. This blog served its purpose, I guess. Sophia means wisdom. Rather than inspiration, we should, perhaps, be seeking wisdom at our age, right?

Take care—Albert

Starting over again…

Dear Sophia—

You have not written for a long time now. Nothing to write? I hope you don’t mind I will continue to write from time to time, even if you are a bit of an imaginary person to write to now. But then, one day, we all become some imaginary person, don’t we?

For the time being, I am still real. Struggling with disappointment, trying to get up, and start another life. There is some good news here. I think I am on top of my drinking problem. It was a weird thing. I have had trouble coping with stress all of my life, professionally or family-wise, and I guess I just copied the behavior of my dad, as he coped with that too—so I am behaving exactly the same as someone whom I don’t want to imitate. It’s like trying to avoid an obstacle in a narrow street while you’re driving too fast, or when not sober: the more you look at it, the more chance of hitting it.

It’s not that I wasn’t good at what I was doing. No. Not at all, actually. I’ve always been the best. Part of the problem is that eternal drive for perfection. High performers always have trouble accepting the inevitable imperfections.

When does a habit become an addiction? And when is an addiction harmful? I mean, alcohol is a social addiction but—as a social addiction—it is not harmful. I guess it becomes harmful when it’s your only way of coping with depression. Typically when you drink alone to get through the evening or the night, for example. I’ve come to the conclusion that, unlike what many people would think, there is actually always a good reason to start drinking, but, yes, there is, perhaps, no good reason to continue drinking. However, once you’re there—once it has become second nature—you need an even better reason than the one that got you going to quit.

Fortunately, I have a good reason to quit. My kids are here, in Belgium, and I need to look good and strong so as to make sure they don’t worry about me. Kids shouldn’t worry about their parents. That’s just not how life is meant to be. Or perhaps it is, but I don’t want it to be that way.

I want to die like my mom did—one day, but not now. She said goodbye in a powerful gesture. She greeted Death in the most cheerful of manners and only asked one favor: she wanted to chose the moment herself. So she did, and we were all with her. I don’t want to copy my dad. I got many of his greatest talents and gifts—including that desire that often drives me crazy: I want to understand. I want to truly understand.

That often drives me nuts. The book I am going to publish on quantum mechanics could only have been written because of those long and lonely nights, fueled by alcohol to soothe the pain in my heart and in my soul. It was born out of darkness. I don’t want to do such things anymore. I want life to be good, so I’ll try to be good to myself.

I’ll turn 50 later this month. I want to count down again after reaching that milestone: I just want to turn back and count down again. 49, 48, 47, etcetera. I want to be on top of Mont Blanc again one day. I will.

I hope you are well. You should keep inspiring.

Yours, Albert.

A new start!

The title above echoes the title of an earlier post—but I replaced the question mark by an exclamation mark. 🙂

I really want to make a new start by changing one or more keystone habits. I have tried to do that repeatedly over the past year, but I failed. I like to think I am a strong and independent individual—and that my mind should rule over my body. It doesn’t. I’ve had some health issues lately. Relatively minor ones, all of which can be solved by a bit of dieting and daily exercise. But the power of habit is strong. In fact, it has been stronger than myself over the past few months. Why?

In my previous post, I noted that I don’t accept the hasty conclusions of psychologists and researchers who tell us that consciousness is just an epiphenomenon—that is, somehow, not realFree will is real. Full stop. It emerges, somehow, in that discursive and associative logic that characterizes our thought processes and, hence, it’s as real as emotions or perceptions as far as I am concerned. I should just keep quoting those wise words on the relations between thoughts, words, actions, habits and character.

Watch your thoughts, because thoughts become words.

Watch your words, because words become actions.

Watch your actions, because actions become habits.

Watch your habits, because habits become character.

Watch your character, because character becomes destiny.

What a beautiful way of expressing how the law of cause and effect (or the law of karma, if you prefer Buddhist terminology) actually operates in our personal life ! There is a logic, indeed, in what we do and who or what we become. While, at times, we may think there is no escape from that logic, our destiny is not inevitable. We can change the logic. We take decisions. Our mind is free and, therefore, we are free.

I just need to keep telling myself that over and over again, and all will be alright. 🙂

About giving and receiving

Dear Sophia—

Many thanks for your letter, which brought this blog back alive.

I originally started this blog to become stronger. I thought that a better articulation of what I truly believe in and what inspires me, would help me to become a better person. I often feel I do not give enough, and I seldom feel gracious. So I thought writing a blog would help. However, the gap between my writings and what I actually do (and how I feel about it) speaks for itself: wisdom is good, but practice is better. I do lack practice. You are more of a practitioner than me—and with plenty of grace, for sure.

We are all going to die. The perspective of death is, in fact, what forces us to try to make sense of life. If we’d live forever, we wouldn’t be asking all those philosophical questions. That’s a sentiment that’s widely shared. Philosophy, and even science, will never give us a final answer to those questions. Literature helps us better in this regard. Have you read The Plague? Philosophers labelled this extraordinary novel—which explores the subject of death like no other work I know—as existentialist. As a youngster, while trying to read Sartre and other French intellectuals, I was very much intrigued by this philosophy, which basically states that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely as a thinking subject, but as an acting, living and, therefore, limited and vulnerable human being.

My life experiences have led me to appreciate such more engaged thinking even more. As you rightly point out in your letter, much of our sense-making of life lies in giving, in reaching out, in being there for others. My mom, who died of a very aggressive cancer last year, struggled with that too. As I took care of her during her final weeks—every night, because the nights were the most difficult—she talked about that too. She suffered a lot—physically—but the idea of not being able to be a gracious host for her children and her grandchildren bothered her most. She had opted for a euthanasia procedure and, looking back, I realize she called the doctor for the final appointment on a day she was too weak to make coffee.


She was not able to make coffee for us anymore in the end, but she continued to give other, more important, gifts till the very last moment—when she chose to die. It was a moment of grace, combining moral strength and courage, which I feel very privileged to have witnessed. As for giving… Well… I feel her greatest gift to me was that she allowed me to take care of her.

You too, Sophia, are giving your nearest ones a lot as you accept to be taken care of. Giving is not a one-directional thing. In fact, the person who receives may actually give more, because it takes quite a lot to accept to receive for strong people like you. That’s something you should appreciate, I think.

Also know that your offer to do a blog together means a lot to me too. It will, hopefully, bring more practice. 🙂


The power of our mind

In my previous post, I discussed the Buddhist ‘No Soul’ doctrine, which, in essence, does away with the idea of a permanent ‘Self’. That does not imply that I don’t believe we have a ‘personality’, i.e. a ‘character’. It would be foolish to try to deny this: I have (or am) a ‘self’.

I just don’t believe it survives our death somehow (which is why I use a lower-case ‘s’ for ‘self’), so that’s not what orthodox Buddhists are supposed to believe, in one way or another.

This ‘self’ manifests itself in various ways: we have a specific appearance, we say and do things that others wouldn’t say or do (and vice versa), or we do them in different ways, etcetera. In short, we are all different.

Greek and scholastic philosophers would refer to it as ‘form’, as opposed to ‘matter’, and I actually think their definition still makes sense:

“Form is the actuality of matter. Through its form, matter becomes something actual and something individual.” (Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Chapter 1)

One of the most obvious manifestations of our ‘self’ are our habits because, in practice, some of our habits bother us as we try to improve ourselves. All of us also have specific habits that we find very hard or even impossible to get rid off. But it is not impossible. Even ingrained habits are not permanent and can be changed. A good deal of the work of William James deals with habits. A more recent book on it is The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg, 2012).

We also have character. The Web definition of character is ‘the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.’ But so even these qualities can change over time, just like habits – although I will readily admit (not only from what I see around me but also from my own experience) that it is extremely hard to change one’s habits. It’s even harder to change one’s character. Perhaps we should say habits and characer are semi-permanent. However, analyzing it all from a Buddhist perspective, it’s obvious that even habits and character are anicca (impermanent). If you want to change yourself, I’d recommend contemplating the following wise words:

Watch your thoughts, because thoughts become words.

Watch your words, because words become actions.

Watch your actions, because actions become habits.

Watch your habits, because habits become character.

Watch your character, because character becomes destiny.

It seems the author of these wise words is unknown. I first saw them on a commercial Hindu calendar in India, and they immediately struck a chord inside of me. In fact, I immediately stuck them to the mirror in the bathroom, so I would see them every morning. They make it clear that the ‘self’, ‘I’ or ‘me’ is conditioned by life or, to put it more correctly, by the way one leads his or her life. Leading a good life requires discipline or, to use a word I’ve used a lot in my other post, practice.

Man as a social and moral animal

Using a term coined by a great book (Robert Wright, The Moral Animal, 1994), it’s tempting to define our ‘self’ as “our individuality as a social and moral animal.”

You may not like the definition of people as a social and moral animal, but I think the definition makes a whole lot of sense, and so let me go along with it for a while.

Let me first note that, as a social or moral animal, we go through a life cycle. In this context, it’s customary to refer to ancient wisdom on how ‘man’ is supposed to change through his life. Asian thinkers often define three stages in life: (1) the young single, (2) the family man, and, finally, in old age, when only limited family and societal duties remain, (3) the thinker/monk/philosopher who prepares for death. Writers such as D.T. Suzuki are quite straightforward in linking these stages to one’s sexual energy but, personally, I like to define these stages in terms of giving and receiving:

  1. As a child or youngster, and as a young man or woman, we are (mostly) in a receiving position, as we learn and try to understand. We have and use a lot of energy during that time – and Freud was probably right in noting that a lot of it comes from sublimating sexual energy indeed. Some of us have excessive energy, and it can kill us. In fact, looking back myself, I am not sure I’d want to be young again. I find that growing older and wiser is a blessing really – in disguise or not.
  2. As an adult, we both receive and give, in a very intense exchange with our families, our friends, and other members of society in general. We are very productive then, but have little freedom to chose because of practical constraints and all kinds of obligations towards the people who surround us. It also consumes us, in a way. Often to such extent that most people don’t manage to prepare properly for the final stage in life, which is the stage in which we let go, in which we accept all and, hence, in which we focus more and more on trying to give back, instead of taking.
  3. Indeed, when we get older, we prepare for death. We should do so by reducing our dependence on others, rather than increasing it. We should focus on giving only, without any expectation of getting a return. Wisdom is but one of the many things we can give (it’s one of the reasons why I started this blog). In order to give only, we have to stay healthy, both physically as well as mentally. Hence, as we grow older, and contrary to what you may expect, the duty of taking care of oneself actually increases. It’s, once again, a matter of practice, or discipline in life.

Let’s get back to the social or moral animal that we are. Sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, have all studied this ‘self’ – man as a social or moral animal – in depth. Let me, to illustrate the wide range of questions all these scientists (try to) address, simply take a quote from the introduction to that best-seller that inspired my definition :

“The questions addressed range from the mundane to the spiritual and touch on just about everything that matters: romance, love, sex (Are men and/or women really built for monogamy? What circumstances can make them more so or less so?); friendship and enmity (What is the evolutionary logic behind office politics – or, for that matter, politics in general?); selfishness, self-sacrifice, guilt (Why did natural selection give us that vast guilt repository known as the conscience? Is it truly a guide to ‘moral’ behavior?); social status and social climbing (Is hierarchy inherent in human society?); the differing inclinations of men and women in areas such as friendship and ambition (Are we prisoners of our gender?); racism, xenophobia, war (Why do we so easily exclude large groups of people from the reach of our sympathy?); deception, self-deception, and the unconscious mind (Is intellectual honesty possible?); various psychopathologies (Is getting depressed, neurotic, or paranoid ‘natural’ – and, if so, does that make it any more acceptable?); the love-hate relationship between siblings (Why isn’t it pure love?); the tremendous capacity of parents to inflict psychic damage on their children (Whose interests do they have at heart?); and so on.”

To be clear, it’s not my intention to answer any of those questions in this post. What I want to do in this post is, quite simply, to highlight the power of our mind, especially in regard to taking charge of our own destiny.

To a large extent, that’s what Robert Wright actually also seems to want to do, as he asks a bit further in his introduction: “Does knowing how evolution has shaped our basic [moral] impulses help us decide which impulses we should consider legitimate? The answers, in my opinion, are: yes, yes, yes, yes, and, finally, yes.” (p. 10)

To some extent, I agree with him, of course: more knowledge about how this mind-body of ours works, and how we function as a social or moral animal, surely helps. However, more knowledge does not automatically lead to the required moral and mental discipline that is needed to change the way we go about our life. For that, we need (to) practice. We need discipline.

Such practice may be Oriental meditation practice, so let me say a few words about that.

Meditation as a behavioral therapy

Some psycho-analysts look at meditation practice as a therapeutic technique only. I’ll just quote one of them writing on Zen practice in particular, but the remark is not specific to any school of Oriental thought:

“[Zen] practice is a structured [and] relational context for eliciting, tolerating and working through one’s patterns of organizing affective experience”, or – to put it even more simply – “Simply sitting still for regular periods of time every day, does end up having a steadying and centering effect.” (Engler, in: Jeremy D. Safran (ed.), Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, 2003)

While such view (i.e. practice as therapy only) may seem reductionist, I have no fundamental objections to it. Having said that, let me quickly inject a pedantic note. The adjective ‘relational’ in the quote above (Zen as a structured relational context) actually refers to the role of the master in Zen practice, and the author (Engler) notes that his or her role is not unlike the role of a psychoanalyst treating a patient.

On this role of the master, or ‘Dharma transmission’ in Zen practice (which actually suggests that there is some line of ‘authority’ on the ‘truth’ going all the way back to the Buddha), most writers on Zen seem to agree that “this is so central to Zen that it is hard to envision any claim to Zen that discards claims of lineage.” These writers would usually refer to the first of the so-called ‘four statements of Zen’ to justify this claim:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;

No dependence upon words and letters;

Direct pointing to the soul of man;

Seeing into one’s nature and the attainment of Buddhahood.

First, I would like to note that it is somewhat random, in my view, to say that the above four ‘statements’ are the ‘essence’ of Zen. Of course, they are attributed to Bodhidharma (aka as Daruma and/or Damu), the first patriarch of Zen, and, as such, well… Yes. He’s the first patriarch of (Chinese) Zen indeed. But let me quickly say a few words about him.

He’s a fascinating historical figure, who is said to have brought Zen to China indeed, around C.E. 520. It’s not quite clear where he came from. One account says he was a ‘Persian Central Asian’, while another says he was a ‘South Indian of the Western region’). Yet other accounts call him, quite simply, ‘the Blue-Eyed Barbarian’. As you can see below, he is usually depicted as a “rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed ‘barbarian'” indeed (the reference is from Wikipedia).

He is also said to have taken up Shaolin Kung Fu training, but he was “either refused entry to the shaolin temple or, else, ejected after a short time”, after which he “lived in a nearby cave, where he faced a wall for nine years, not speaking for the entire time.” The painting below gives an idea of how people think he might have looked like.


Striking, isn’t it? Believe it or not, this is not some recently made cartoon, but a work of art from the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto, dated ca. 1518. In any case… Let me get back to the matter at hand: the role of the master.

First, I really wonder if a man like Bodhidharma would really have wanted to create a highly structured philosophical corpus. I think he was just as much as a rebel-philosopher as all those other founding fathers whom we admire so much, including the historical Buddha, or Jesus for that matter. Second, I don’t think the first of those four ‘Zen’ statement actually says that a master is indispensable. Third, even if the first statement is to be interpreted in such way, then I think the second, third and fourth of these statements immediately relativize his or her role, and the role of the tradition and lineage in general.

As noted in my other post, I sympathize with loners such as Dokuan Genko (1630-1698), another Zen master, but one who openly questioned the ‘transmission’ principle and, hence, the role of the master, thereby effectively ending his line of ‘transmission’.

Having said that, I do acknowledge we all need teachers in life and, more importantly, people who lead by example. That brings me to the next topic.

Free will

People do change their life, sometimes in a bad way but hopefully more in good ways. And they usually do so after some reflection: they make a conscious choice. I am not saying it’s easy: we have to deal with our demons usually step by step, and one by one only (although there are examples too of strong-willed people who reverse the course of their life in one single day too), and it is very hard to beat all of them – if only because the last surviving demon will often combine all of the demons you thought you had defeated before.

Robert Wright makes a useful distinction between (a) the ‘practical’ doctrine of free will, which he accepts as ‘the basis of morals and law’, which structures human society, as opposed to (b) the ‘metaphysical’ doctrine of free will, which he rejects). William James, the founding father of pragmatism, also wrote extensively about the apparent contradiction between (metaphysical) determinism and the (practical) doctrine of free will, so that’s nothing new really.

In my view, describing the doctrine of free will as a ‘practical doctrine’ is quite dismissive. I consider free will to be real. Full stop. It emerges, somehow, in that discursive and associative logic that characterizes our thought processes and, hence, it’s as real as emotions or perceptions as far as I am concerned. In fact, I think the wise words on the relations between thoughts, words, actions, habits and character that I quoted above, are a beautiful expression of how the law of cause and effect (or the law of karma, if you prefer Buddhist terminology) actually operates in our personal life: there’s a logic, indeed, in what we do and who or what we become. While, at times, we may think there is no escape from that logic, our destiny is not inevitable. We can change the logic. We take decisions. Our mind is free and, therefore, we are free.

However, to bring this discussion a bit more down down-to-earth, I should note that one of my smarter brothers asked me once how many decisions in my own life I’d consider to be truly unconditioned? Reflecting on it, I had to agree with his point of view: we may take such free decisions only once a year or so or, more probably, even less. When we marry, for instance. Or when we decide to quit rid of a really harmful habit, like smoking or drinking. Or when we decide to get in shape again, after years of inactivity. Or when we decide to change jobs, not because we want more money, but because we want to do something that’s more useful. Or when we decide to commit a substantial amount of our money or our future revenue stream to a good cause. Those decisions are not frequent. However, the frequency doesn’t matter. The point to note is that we are truly free. People do re-invent themselves or, somewhat less revolutionary, gradually change themselves for the better.

The mind

The mind is what we human beings have in common, and what makes us free. So what is it? What are its characteristics? In my previous post, I argued that there’s no such thing as the ‘essence’ of things, so the mind does not have an ‘essence’ either. One could define it as an activity, but what kind of activity? Let’s look at what smarter people than me thought about that.

There has probably been no more elaborate attempt to analyze ‘the operations of our cognitive faculties’ than Immanuel Kant’s Kritik der Reinen Vernunft. Attempting to summarize this huge work would be futile but, in line with what I wrote above on the ‘practical’ doctrine of free will, perhaps we could all agree with Kant – he’d be appalled by my simplistic rendering of his work – that our mind has some analytical capabilities, which also allow us to analyze our (impermanent) ‘self’ (I mean the habits-character thing) and decide whether or not to do something, whether or not we are happy with this impermanent ‘self’, and whether or not to change it. This is our freedom of will, and it negates reductionism.

Let me advance another intuitive argument against reductionism in this context. We all know that there’s a fundamental ‘law’ in Nature which says that entropy increases. That leads to things falling apart and, in general, goes against complexity. Yet, we see growing complexity in nature, as evidenced in our own evolution as a species. There is something at work there that cannot be explained without reference to structure and systems, to cybernetics. Likewise, we obviously all know that things fall down because of gravity. Yet, we build airplanes that take off. Hence, an airplane (and especially an airplane with a pilot) is more that the sum of its parts: while its individual parts can’t fly, the plane can. The plane has been built because there was a concept of a plane: it was designed designed to fly. I should also note that it won’t fly without a pilot. Likewise, the driver in a car is not part of the car, but without a driver, the car won’t move (in an orderly manner that is). Hence, concepts, design, and purposeful behavior cannot be reduced. There is a structure there that cannot be reduced. As such, I like to think of inventions such as airplanes and computers as manifestations of the mind.

So what’s the structure of the mind? It seems obvious its structure is not individual. This begs the question: Is the mind universal? This, in turn, begs the question: What does one mean by ‘universal’? Unchanging? Or inter-subjective – meaning your mind is the same as mine?

As to the last question, the mind is surely inter-subjective to some extent, as evidenced by the existence of inter-subjective ‘realities’ such as mathematics, language or culture, but your mind is obviously not the same as mine. And what about the mind in a child versus the mind in an adult? A child building a little house to play with, out of simple building blocks, is of course different from an engineer doing calculations to verify the structural integrity of some daring new design for a skyscraper. One could say both use their mind. However, it is obvious the workings of the mind in the engineer will be somewhat different than those of the child.

As for the second question (is it unchanging?), I don’t have the answer to that but – intuitively – I would say it’s not. I think the mind of bright thinkers now – or our ‘culture’ in general nowadays – is more sophisticated than it was, let’s say, a thousand years ago. One of the reasons is that the mind today can build on the bright insights of thinkers of the past, so I believe there’s an aspect of cumulative wisdom/knowledge here.

I should also note how our ‘mind’ today is rapidly being ‘enhanced’ as a result of technology and resources that were not available in the past. Just think of the Web for example, including collectively built tools such as Wikipedia for. [And, just for the record: I really don’t agree with critics who claim that the Internet does not encourage the kind of ‘slow reading’ that is required in order to understand deeper truths or study more complicated theories. My own personal experience is that it helps me greatly to better understand new topics which are of interest to me such as, for example, the math underlying quantum mechanics, which I am currently exploring.]

That being said, while learning, wisdom and experience gets handed down from generation to generation and, because of technological advances such as the Web, becomes more accessible and better organized, resulting in a huge accumulation of knowledge accessible to all – a very Hegelian thought – I hasten to add that the world we’re living in does not seem to reflect Hegel’s naive idealism. Indeed, whether or not this this world is really becoming a better place for all of us, is debatable. The optimism associated with the Age of Enlightenment and modernism has vanished, and the term we use to describe the current age, post-modernism, indicates mankind is currently struggling to define where we’re headed, and how we can take charge of our own destiny as a collective rather than as individuals.

However, that’s another discussion altogether and so I won’t say more about it here. Let me try to define the concept of the mind more clearly. The above-mentioned intuitions clearly indicate that properties we would associate with ‘the mind’ are:

  1. A capacity to design [I could re-launch the teleology versus metaphysical naturalism debate here once again (cf. my remarks on reductionism above) but let me skip it here altogether] and, related to this capacity to design,
  2. A property one could loosely term as ‘creativity’. While the capacity to design is more analytical, creativity works – to a large extent – through association: one concept or idea brings another, or induces us to try harder and invent some other way around the problem.

In short, the mind has the capacity to ‘make’ things or, at the very least, to make things happen and/or make things change. Hence, the mind is not only about ‘cognitive faculties.’ At the very least, it’s also (and as least as much, I’d say) about making things happen, about us being in this world. [This world indeed, not the next. We should appreciate how privileged our species and our generation is in this regard: for most other species, being in this world is about survival, and about survival only, as it was for most of mankind not so long ago also. We are in an amazing position. We should count our blessings.]

Another important ‘thing’ (which one can again relate to the properties mentioned above) that one would naturally associate with ‘the mind’ is ‘meaning.’ The mind generates ‘meaning’, or makes things meaningful. Meaning (or ‘sense’) is contextual: giving meaning, or making sense, is basically situating things in a larger whole. This is another reason why I reject reductionism. One could define the mind as a mental activity that structures (or mentally organizes) our perception of physical reality. Such structuring is both ‘objective’ (or ‘universal’ if you want) as well as subjective (i.e. linked to our personalities): in the end, we are talking about my perception of reality, and that’s likely to be somewhat different from yours.

Finally, perhaps the most important ‘thing’ one would associate with the concept of the mind is ‘awareness/consciousness.’ In this regard, one should explore the question: can we observe the mind? We are of course aware of the mind working [cf. self-consciousness, although that word triggers the question again of what is this ‘self’ that we are conscious of] but can we really observe and analyze it?

In meditation, we observe some kind of ‘monkey mind’, some kind of mental activity that jumps from object or some ‘thought’ to some other object (or ‘thought’) – and one will agree with the remark that these ‘thought-objects’ are often about some feeling, emotion or memory inside of us. As we observe and increase our awareness of this ‘monkey mind’ in meditation, we may suddenly be aware of what I refer to as the ‘pure mind‘. It happens in what I define as the third and final stage in mediation, which is all about losing the self (or letting it ‘evaporate’). [In case you haven’t read my previous post, the three stages of meditation are: (1) Relax: ‘let go’; (2) Focus: ‘observe the mind’; and (3) Lose your individuality: ‘let the self evaporate.’]

Huh? Yes. You’re right. While my discourse so far has been quite rational, we’re entering the realm of beliefs here. The pure mind has no individuality, unlike the feelings, emotions, memories etcetera that keep our ‘monkey mind’ busy. Should we use upper-case letters here? Perhaps. Up to you.

Materialists or reductionists will probably not be convinced by the arguments above. They will argue that the mind, including this ‘pure mind’ that, as far as I am concerned, is just as real as my ‘monkey mind’, is nothing but a ‘by-product’ of the chemical, electrical and biological processes in this physical body of ours. And they are right: of course the mind does not exist ‘independently.’ It would indeed not be there if it wouldn’t be for our body. You can see it as a ‘by-product’ indeed.

Somewhat less derogatory philosophical terms which one can find are ‘property dualism’ or ‘emergent materialism.’ These philosophical positions can be summarized as follows: mental properties emerge whenever matter is organized in the appropriate way (i.e. in the way that living human bodies are organized). Whatever. As mentioned above, I don’t care too much about labels. The point to note is that the mind is so much more than just these electrical and chemical impulses of our brain inside our skull, even if it is of course self-evident that the mind would not function without these impulses (without them, we’d just be dead indeed).

In this regard, I should really recommend reading Michael O’Shea’s Very Short Introduction to the Brain (2005). It is an excellent little book about how our brain actually works, written by a neuroscientist with impeccable credentials. He would not argue with what I write above: the mind is as much about organization and structure, as it is about the transmission of electrical and chemical signals, and there’s certainly a structure there that has nothing to do with our individuality and, hence, may be looked as as organizing what I refer to as the pure mind.


I haven’t said much on self-consciousness above. What’s self-consciousness? I’d start by noting that the experience of being aware of ourselves is somewhat different from the experience of being aware of other people or objects. Having said that, it’s obviously something else to conclude from that this would also imply some kind of ontological difference between the self-consciousness and our consciousness as such. Indeed, in my view, that’s nonsense. People who would claim such ontological difference would usually quote statements such as:

  • ‘The eye that sees cannot see itself.’
  • ‘Awareness cannot be objectified.’
  • ‘Show me this ‘who’ who thinks, who acts!’

So what? What about these statements?

As for the first statement, it would seem very easy to rubbish it. Imagine an intelligent robot whose ‘eye’ is a camera that it can also point at itself: we have an ‘eye’ here that can see itself, don’t we?

Of course, now you’ll protest and say that’s not the point. And you’re right. That’s not what that statement is about. The argument is about whether or not that robot could distinguish between the ‘I’ as a subject as opposed to the ‘I’ as an object. Now that is obviously a matter about which hundreds – no, thousands, or even millions – of pages have been written, and so I don’t want to add to that. I’d say: buy the movie ‘Her’, and just reflect on it – thoroughly. I think you’ll agree with me in the end: it’s simply wrong to somehow conclude that, because of the difference between the ‘subject me‘ and the ‘object me‘, there’s also some kind of ontological difference between the self-consciousness and our consciousness as such. The distinction we are making here the ‘me’ as a subject and the ‘me’ as an object is not an ontological one: ‘I’ as a subject and the ‘I’ as an object have no separate physical or ontological existence.

Having said that, being aware of oneself as a subject, instead of as an object, is clearly an existential experience that stands apart from our experience of others (or ourselves) as objects (or subjects). Let me quote here from a little notebook of mine:

“The mutual awareness of the other as a subject, instead of as an object, is a deep experience. Young people confuse it easily with what people call ‘love’. It surely is something that softens what I’d call ‘the existential fear of being alone.”

Does this make you smile? Good. 🙂

Let me turn to a more contemporary discussion: Artificial Intelligence. I’d say that the challenge for scientists who are working on artificial intelligence (AI) is not really artificial intelligence but artificial consciousness (AC). Indeed, AI might actually be the easy part: it’s about finding ways to make computers apply a set of rules to process information in a way that resembles human intelligence. By contrast, AC is about the experience not of some outside object but of oneself. A.C. is about creating an (artificial) ‘I’ that, even if it would not have any individuality, would be actively involved in what I would call ‘sense-making in the face of mortality.’

I could refer here to the famous statement made by Socrates: ‘The aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.’ He made this statement just hours before his death according to Plato’s account of it in the dialogue ‘Phaedo’, who also called philosophy ‘a preparation for death’. A large part of our intellectual life is indeed related to sense-making in the face of pain, sorrow and death, as Buddhists acknowledge when accepting the first of the Four Noble Truths: ‘All is dukkha.’

This raises an interesting question: if we would manage to build artificial consciousness, could we do it without impregnating it with the reality of death? I actually wrote a long story before ‘Her’ was released, which could have served as an alternative script and which intended to examine such questions. However, I discontinued the story when the movie came out. 😦 [Jokes aside, it was somewhat weird to suddenly see that movie, but then I guess that, when a great movie like that comes out, there’s probably many people who think: Hey ! I could have written that story ! In my case, I actually did. It just proves that, when the time is ripe, many people will advance the same ideas.]

So what do I believe in?

Some of the statements above sound ‘religious’, and so you’re probably curious to what I consider to be non-rational in my beliefs. Conscious thinking, or observing how our mind works, does often feel like a spiritual, mystical or religious experience, indeed. Deep meditation is an ‘existential’ experience, and I actually haven’t had many of such experiences. It’s not only about experiencing the ‘pure mind’, but also about noting how it’s simultaneous part and not part of ‘reality’. But, again, these are just words that don’t matter much. What matters is the experience, and the physical, psychological and moral strength that it gives you.

In my view, the experience resonates with the concept of ‘tauma’: this is, according to the ancient Greek philosophers, a basic ‘wondering’ about things that lies at the basis of all philosophic thinking, or even the ‘urge’ to think. [Again, the question of whether or not this ‘tauma’ is triggered by the perspective of death is an interesting one.]

One can also link it to the Japanese Zen concept of ‘kensho’ – ‘the first showing’ which, in my view, is the basic feeling or realization of ‘I know that I don’t know.’ So it’s a humbling experience, one could say and, in Zen Buddhism, this is clearly distinct from the concept of ‘Enlightenment’, on which – unsurprisingly – none of the master writes a lot (if they write at all). They don’t need to in my view. This ‘intermediate’ concept of kensho makes a lot of sense. If kensho is a condition in which we realize that ‘we don’t know what we don’t know’, Enlightenment may, quite simply, be nothing more than the next step: ‘I know what I don’t know.’  Perhaps we should just accept, indeed, that that is all there is to it and, hence, not waste any words on it.

Now… I still haven’t answered your question: what do I believe in? Let me say the following about it.

Just as much as I believe that free will somehow appears in this discursive and associative logic that characterizes our thoughts and stream of consciousness, I believe that our mental processes also show the pure mind at work. And, hence, I actually believe there is a pure mind and, because it transcends the individual, I could write it with a capital M indeed and call it the Mind. Just to be clear: it has nothing to with a God concept: I don’t pray to the Mind, and I do not draw any comfort from assuming it’s there, or emerges somehow – “whenever matter is organized in the appropriate way” as those ‘property dualists’ would say. However, I should immediately distance myself from them by noting that I believe the mind itself is not purely passive; while the mind ’emerges’ because of the way our brain is organized, the relation also goes the other way: our mind also organizes the brain, as O’Shea rightly points out. [And note, once again, that O’Shea is not just anyone: he’s a very eminent neuroscientist, so you should, perhaps, think twice before you take him on.]

In any case, as far as my personal lifestyle is concerned, I don’t think my beliefs actually matter much. What matters is my way of life. When everything is said and done, it’s all about being in life and, hence, reflection is just a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I must admit that the whole process is a rather slow one, a very slow one actually, but I do take heart from some of these ancient texts when the going gets tough:

The constant falling of drops fills even a water jar. 

The sage likewise, little by little, fills himself with merit. 

(Dhammapada, verse 122)

Observing the mind

How do we observe the mind? I haven’t stumbled upon any better prescription for observing the mind than the brief introduction to zazen (meditation) written by – yes, again – Dōgen:

“If you wish to attain enlightenment, begin at once to practice zazen. For this meditation a quiet chamber is necessary, while food and drink must be taken in moderation. Free yourself from all attachments, and bring to rest the ten thousand things. Think of neither good or evil and judge not right or wrong. Maintain the flow of mind, of will, and of consciousness; bring to an end all desires, all concepts and judgments. Do not think about how to become a Buddha.

In terms of procedure, first put down a thick pillow and on top of this a second (round) one. One may choose either a full or half cross-legged position. In the full position one places the right foot on the left thigh and the left foot on the right thigh. In the half position only the left foot is placed upon the right thigh. Robe and belt should be worn loosely, but in order. The right hand rests on the left foot, while the back of the left hand rests in the palm of the right. The two thumbs are placed in juxtaposition.

The body must be maintained upright, without inclining to the left or to the right, forward or backward. Ears and shoulders, nose and navel must be kept in alignment respectively. The tongue is to be kept against the palate, lips and teeth are kept firmly closed, while the eyes are to be kept always open.

Now that the bodily position is in order, regulate your breathing. If a wish arises, take note of it and then dismiss it. In practicing this persistently you will forget all attachments and concentration will come of itself. That is the art of zazen. Zazen is the Dharma gate of great rest and joy.”

The ‘attachments’ and the ‘ten thousand things’ are clearly related to the suffering ‘self’, or the ‘habits-character’ thing as I termed it. This ‘self’ usually keeps us very busy. Too busy actually, and that’s why it’s not that easy to create the awareness that is needed to observe ‘the flow of mind, of will, and of consciousness’: our ‘desires, concepts and judgments’ do indeed ‘spoil the view’. So we should analyze those desires, concepts and judgments, in order to see how exactly they are spoiling the view. Let me try to do so:

1. As for the ‘desires’, there are more than enough books on ‘romance, love and sex’. I don’t want to add one, so I will be very short on this. It is obvious that a lot of our mental activity is focused on producing or correcting ‘mental maps’ that are coherent with what we feel or experience, and those primordial feelings occupy a large part of our inner space. So, part of our interest will have to go out to explore a bit further as to how our mind – or our thought processes – can influence those feelings and emotions. [Again, as for those materialistic and/or reductionist critics who would doubt one can influence his feelings or emotions in the first place, let me just reiterate that self-control is not easy indeed, but that there are enough monks around out there who prove it’s possible. There are also plenty of good books around indeed that help millions of people deal with their emotions, and – if one looks at the number of copies that are sold of those books – it would be foolish to suggest these books aren’t useful.

2. As for the ‘concepts and judgments’ that Dōgen mentions, I guess there’s no alternative here but to dig into philosophy a bit, including Kant’s epistemology, analytical philosophy, phenomenology and what have you. In short, we’re talking about ‘the philosophy of mind.’ However, I will not focus on the classical ‘mind-body problem’ (I think some of the remarks above make clear I think this problem has busied too many people for the wrong reasons) but more on the structure of the mind itself, so Kant’s central problem indeed: “Kant saw the mind could not function as an empty container that simply receives data from the outside. Something had to be giving order to the incoming data. This ordering occurs through the mind.” I’ll come back to that later.

The concepts I will introduce below are extremely down-to-earth, and, hence, very ‘practical’, which is why I keep it so simple. Having said that, they’re consistent with what we know about the brain. [For a reference, see that ‘Introduction to the Brain’ which I mentioned above.] Let’s first agree to refer to what goes on in our mind as ‘mental states’ or ‘mental events’, as that’s consistent with what most philosophers would call it. Then I think it’s proper to distinguish at least three types of mental states or events:

  • sensations and perceptions or, more generally, experiences;
  • thoughts;
  • decisions.

The difference between them is obvious: thoughts have to do with those mental maps that we are producing all of the time, while experiences are the stuff our mind is working with.

At this point, I should, perhaps, note O’Shea’s distinction between sensations and perceptions: “Perceptions are the brain’s educated guesses about what the combined senses are telling it.” (A Very Short Introduction to the Brain, 2005, p. 64) However, the distinction is not essential to the current discussion on hand. I should also note there is more philosophical term for experiences: qualia, although I am not sure how ‘robust’ that term is from a neurobiological point of view. It’s obviously Latin, and it literally means ‘what sort’ or ‘what kind.’ Wikipedia defines qualia as “the ‘what is like’ character of mental states; the way it feels to have mental states such as pain, seeing red, smelling a rose etcetera.” Another definition, which I like more because it’s so much shorter and clearer, is just ‘raw feels’.

Our thoughts are obviously something else than the brute experiences: thoughts are expressed in words. They are intimately connected to a vocabulary, so to the ‘language’ we are using. So qualia are subjective, and thoughts are somehow more ‘objective’ (or at least inter-subjective) – if only because language is inter-subjective (or ‘objective’).

Now we have to establish the relationship between the two. I think this relationship is complicated. Let me put it this way: the mind is a mental activity which structures our experience, and I believe the structuring we do leads to conclusions and – more importantly – to decisions, which I distinguished from both of the above categories. That’s something new, I think, because I haven’t heard about any philosopher of mind who would refer to ‘decisions’ as a third category of mental events.

What’s a decision? They’re not just a ‘conclusion’. A conclusion is a conclusion. A decision is something else: we always decide to do something. Here I take an ‘interactionist’ perspective, which can be stated simply as: ‘our consciousness is causally active.’ This causal activity leads to new experiences, and so here we have a cycle which indeed allows us to change ourselves (and so how we experience things) and our world.

So… Well… That’s it really. I have nothing more to add, except for a few footnotes perhaps, such as the following one.

A short digression on Kant

As I said above, there has probably been no more elaborate attempt to analyze ‘the operations of our cognitive faculties’ than the one by Immanuel Kant, in a work that most of us have heard about but very few of us have had the courage to read (at least I haven’t): Kritik der Reinen Vernunft (translated as the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’), which appeared in 1781, and which was the result of a decade of silent and obviously very hard intellectual work.

According to Kant (or at least according to the summaries I read), we cannot know ‘das Ding an sich’, or the ‘things in themselves’, and our mind structures our experiences in a sort of two- or three-staged way:

  1. First, the mind structures our experience in time and space.
  2. Then we apply a number of a priori concepts, or categories, to our experience.

Kant neatly orders these a priori concepts in four classes of three:

  1. The categories of quantity (unity, plurality and totality)
  2. The categories of quality (reality, negation and limitation)
  3. The categories of relation (substance and accident, cause and effect, and reciprocity)
  4. The categories of modality (possibility/impossibility, existence/non-existence, necessity/contingence)

Now what do we do with that? Nothing much. It’s nice that Kant, on the go, also gives mathematics a more formal basis (according to Kant, mathematics and geometry are based on the a priori concepts of time and space), and that he, equally on the go, disproves God (he thoroughly rubbishes all previous attempts to prove God). However, I don’t think these schemes (which basically – like the scholastic schemes – also build on Aristotle’s categories) help us to get on with our daily lives. In addition, it would be interesting to see how the process of ‘structuring’ could be related to recent neuroscientific discoveries, but I guess neuroscience, while having made incredible progress over the last decades, can currently not offer much guidance here.

As mentioned above, to ‘get on with our daily lives’, all these words won’t help too much. We need a more action-oriented perspective. Now, as for what that ‘action-oriented perspective’ could or should be for us, I guess we all have to find that out for ourselves. A master or a teacher can be helpful but, as mentioned above, it’s like learning how to ride a bicycle: no one can teach you how to lead your life. You have to decide that yourself.


By now, you’re probably very tired of reading and so you’re right to wonder whether there’s any conclusion to this post. Perhaps not. Let me wrap it up by giving you yet another quote:

‘We are in the words, and at the same time, apart from them. The words spin out, spin us out, over a void. There, somewhere between us, some words form some answer for some time, allowing us to live more fully in the forgetting face of nonexistence, in the dissolving away of each other.’ (Lagan, in Jeremy D. Safran (2003), Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: an unfolding dialogue, p. 134)

That’s beautiful, isn’t it? However, let me remind you, once again, that the beauty of a quote like this should not lead to us forgetting that we should not stay in the words. They should lead to action. Let me therefore conclude with the wise words I started out with:

Watch your thoughts, because thoughts become words.

Watch your words, because words become actions.

Watch your actions, because actions become habits.

Watch your habits, because habits become character.

Watch your character, because character becomes destiny.

As far as I am concerned, this is guidance enough for me. Let’s look at the moon, indeed, to further develop our own personal action-oriented perspective on life, not at the finger or, to use the analogy of the bike: at some point we have to stop talking about it and just ride it 🙂

On the No Soul doctrine and reincarnation

Panta rhei. All flows. Everything changes. No man ever steps in the same river twice.

You know where this comes from. It’s not Buddhist, but it could be. It is attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the early Greek philosophers – or physikoi, as Aristotle called them: ‘physicists’, after physis, i.e. ‘nature’. Aristotle gave them this epithet because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (‘theologians’), whose ‘philosophies’ were based on religious beliefs.

Heraclitus lived around the same time as the historical Buddha (i.e. in the 5th century BCE) and, just for the record, at that time, Ephesus was a major trading city on the Anatolian peninsula (i.e. Asia Minor), connecting the East and the West. In fact, even today it is one of the best-preserved ancient cities. Hence, it is quite possible that the historical Buddha, as a well-educated young prince (Siddhārta), knew about these Greek ‘physicists’ who, for all practical purposes, we’d call freethinkers and atheists today.

I like to think that the historical Buddha was a rebel-philosopher too: a social revolutionary who fell out with the Hindu priest class (Brahmins), and who intended to ‘set in motion the Wheel of Dharma’ to do away with religion, rather than creating a new religion with its own priest class and its own set of dogmas. In fact, what we know of Heraclitus’ philosophy strongly correlates with what, in Buddhist thought, is referred to as the three marks of existence:

  1. Anicca (impermanence),
  2. Dukkha (suffering), and
  3. Anattā (no-soul).

These three concepts – or doctrines, I should say – form a coherent whole, which is why I consider them to reflect the true ‘spirit’ of Buddhist thought. The following description of dukkha as ‘a permanent state of angst’ captures the idea:

“Over a web of desire and frustration hangs the presence of sickness, old age and death […], which casts a pall of anxiety over ourselves and all our relationships.” (Jo Durden Smith, The Essence of Buddhism, 2004)

The Four Noble Truths

We also have the Four Noble Truths. Let me quote them from the sutra on the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), which is part of the Buddhist Canon. I quote the ‘original’ just to make sure that a small mistake in the beginning does not become a big one in the end. 🙂

Here you go:

  1. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates [i.e. the skandhas] subject to clinging are suffering.
  2. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
  3. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
  4. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

The Pāli Canon was written some 450 years after the death of the historical Buddha, and it was written in Sri Lanka, an island, some 1500 miles away from where he was born and lived. Hence, we should read the Buddhist Canon just like we would read the Bible or the Quran, i.e. with a pinch of salt, because we don’t know how accurate it is in terms of representing what the Gautama actually thought and taught. In fact, a priori, I would think that the New Testament and the Quran are likely to more accurately reflect the views of the historical Jesus and Mohammed respectively, because, unlike the Buddhist Canon, these texts were written relatively shortly after their death and, hence, there was less time to ‘canonize’ it all. Of course, Buddhists will point out that there is no reason to think that the oral transmission from the 5th century BCE to the first century BCE was somehow adulterated. However, that’s another discussion and it’s not relevant here because I actually have no issue whatsoever with these ‘truths’.

I do have an issue, however, with the doctrine of re-birth or reincarnation that Buddhist Canon associates with the second Noble Truth. I believe that, when we are dead, we are dead. We have no soul. That’s, in essence, what the Buddhist anattā doctrine is all about and, in my not so humble opinion, it’s not consistent with the doctrine of re-birth. Re-becoming and re-birth or reincarnation are not the same. So what is re-becoming?

Let me quickly get through the unavoidable pedantic remarks, if only to give you the impression that I know what I am talking about – which is an assumption which you should not take for granted.

1. Let me start with the mundane. If we’re going to use foreign words, the least we can do, is try to get the pronunciation right, isn’t it? As for the pronunciation of anattā (that’s Pāli: in Sanskrit it’s anātman), you can check it on the Web: the ā is basically a long a, and also marks where the stress is placed on the word.

2. The terms an-attā/an-ātman combine attā/ātman with the privative a– or an-, which negates or inverts. It’s the same privative in Ancient Greek (e.g. atypical or anarchy). In Latin, it’s in- (e.g. inactive) or im- (e.g. imperfect). In English and Germanic languages it’s un- (e.g. unknown).

3. This similarity leads me to a more general remark about these foreign languages. We’re lucky: Pāli and Sanskrit are, obviously, Indo-European languages and, hence, we can more or less trust that the attā/ātman concept and the ‘Western’ notion of a soul (however one would want to define it) are strongly correlated indeed. Correlations with terms used in Chinese or Japanese Buddhism, expressed in Sino-Tibetan or Japonic languages, may not be so strong.

4. I actually don’t like the excessive use of foreign terms because, for me, it’s pretty obvious that, to a great extent, Eastern thought appeals to us Westerners because we do not understand the language. Using foreign words allows us to load meaning onto strange words that may actually not have the meaning we, as non- or non-native speakers, associate with them. There is a Shangri-La or Lost Horizon effect here: Buddhism often attracts us Westerners as part of the exoticism or romanticism associated with Orientalism. [If you’re not convinced, think about why you like The Last Samurai movie: I am sure it’s not only because of Tom Cruise.]

5. Finally, I’ll be very pedantic and give you even more useless specifics about the languages involved here. Pāli is the language in which the early Buddhist canons have been preserved. It is a largely unattested language. Unattested means that the language is dead (so no one speaks it any more) and that no inscriptions or literature survived. Hence, to a large extent, Pāli has been reconstructed as a language. It’s close to Sanskrit, a more literary language which served as the lingua franca in the Indian cultural zone. While Pāli is said to be close (or even identical) to the language that the historical Buddha was using, who can know for sure? Therefore, the author of the Wikipedia article on Pāli simply concludes his article as follows: “Whatever the relationship of the Buddha’s speech to Pāli, the Canon was eventually transcribed and preserved entirely in it that language.”

OK. Sorry for all of the above. Let’s return to the real question. What about this ‘re-becoming’? What is it?

Frankly, I don’t know. Who knows what the Enlightened One had in mind? Let me quote Wikipedia on it:

There is no word corresponding exactly to the English terms “rebirth”, “metempsychosis”, “transmigration” or “reincarnation” in the traditional Buddhist languages of Pāli and Sanskrit: the entire process of change from one life to the next is called “becoming again”(Sanskrit: punarbhava, Pāli: punabbhava), or more briefly “becoming” (Pāli/Sanskrit: bhava), while the state one is born into, the individual process of being born or coming into the world in any way, is referred to simply as “birth” (Pāli/Sanskrit: jāti). The entire universal process of beings being reborn again and again is called “wandering about” (Pāli/Sanskrit: samsāra).

[…] I don’t think that is of much help. Let’s try to think about it for ourselves.

The soul in the West and the East

In order to discuss the Oriental No Soul and reincarnation doctrines, we should first explore the Western concept of the soul (and its supposed transmigration to some ‘life after this life’) somewhat more in depth, so let’s do that.

There is a philosophical as well as a religious dimension to that discussion, which we should – ideally – distinguish. However, the medieval European thinkers who reflected on all this were both physikoi as well as theologoi. Indeed, some of what we now regard as ‘religious beliefs’ (the existence of God, for example) were considered to be fundamental philosophical truths in those dark times. Hence, making a distinction between what’s philosophical and what’s religious is not always easy. But I am digressing too much. Let’s try to crack the nut I want to crack here.

Eminent writers on Buddhism (I introduced D.T. Suzuki in my previous post, and I’ll soon introduce Christmas Humphreys, the founder of the Buddhist Society in Britain) look down on all those medieval European intellectuals who were trying to defend and define the concept of a soul. They basically assert that all these philosophers/theologians did nothing but continue the Greek philosophers’ search for the ‘essence’ of things, which is supposed to have led to the so-called “Western obsession with dualism.” Thomas Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia (on Being and Essence) is often quoted in this regard as the example of where and why things went wrong in Western philosophy.

To some extent, these ’eminent authors’ are right. Let me just take one quote out of Aquinas’ little work:

“There is a distinction among separate substances according to their grade of potency and act such that the superior intelligences, which are nearer the first cause, have more act and less potency, and so on. This scale comes to an end with the human soul, which holds the lowest place among intellectual substances. The soul’s possible intellect is related to intelligible forms just as prime matter (which holds the lowest place in sensible existence) is related to sensible forms.” (Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Chapter IV)

I am sure you’re shaking your head now: Oh my God ! What nonsense ! And right you are. What nonsense !

To quote one of these ’eminent authors’ (Jo Durden Smith, The Essence of Buddhism (2004): the essence of man according to Aquinas and other medieval Christian thinkers is a “sort of soul-substance carried by a greedy machine-like body from which it has to be freed”, instead of “an organic unity in which physical and psychic forces each have their own parts to play.”

So Buddhist thought is supposed to be non-dualist, and to be looking at man as an ‘organic unity’. OK. […] Let me relativize this rather simplistic view of things by quoting yet another paragraph from Aquinas’ booklet – which is probably more relevant to what Aquinas actually tried to do, and that’s to arrive at a synthesis of what was around at that time in terms of ideas and intellectual constructs (remember: we’re talking the 13th century here, and the intellectual agenda at that time was to reconcile religion and philosophy):

“In composite substances we find form and matter, as in man there are soul and body. We cannot say, however, that either of these is the essence of the thing.” (Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Chapter II)

That doesn’t “smack of dualism”, does it? In fact, I don’t see anything that’s wrong with this statement. Where’s the supposed dualism here? Of course, it’s a statement which we may no longer regard as accurate in light of what we know now but, taking into account Aquinas wrote this around A.D. 1250, it’s pretty good, I would think.

In fact, I don’t hesitate to say that Aquinas’ philosophical distinction between form and matter, as exposed above, is not incompatible with what we know about the physical world today. As I’ve just spent a year trying to understand quantum mechanics, I cannot resist the temptation to provide you with a rough summary of it. So here we go.

The physical world consists of elementary ‘particles’ – because of their quantum-mechanical nature (they’re described by complex wave functions), some prefer the term ‘wavicles’ – that interact with each other through one of four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetics, the strong force (which holds a nucleus together) and, finally, the so-called weak force (which is responsible for nuclear decay). Now, it’s not all that difficult to tweak Aquinas’ conceptual framework and say that the math describing the interactions gives ‘form’ to the ‘matter’, which, according to the Standard Model of particle physics, consists of:

  1. Matter-particles: (a) leptons (electrons and neutrinos) and (b) quarks basically, which come in three so-called ‘generations’.
  2. Bosons: (a) photons, (b) gluons, (c) W/Z bosons (these are the so-called gauge bosons, which act as force-carriers for the electromagnetic, strong and weak force respectively), and then (d) the Higgs boson, which was, until very recently, only a theoretical ‘missing link’, but so the 2012 LHC experiments unambiguously confirmed its existence. The Higgs boson (or Higgs field I should say) explains why some fundamental particles have mass and others don’t.

Just so you know, the Standard Model actually does not look ‘nice‘. On the contrary. It is complex, very complex. The diagrams below give you some kind of idea how messy it actually is. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, and it would be even less so if I’d throw in its Langrangian or other math describing its specifics. I am talking from experience: I’ve been studying the Standard Model for over a year now and, hence, I am qualified enough to say that the atomic theory of the Greeks, Buddhist metaphysics, and even Aquinas’ metaphysics, are all much simpler, and very much so.

Standard_Model_of_Elementary_Particles Elementary_particle_interactions_in_the_Standard_Model

So why don’t we adopt the simpler theories? Well… Why would we stick to Greek or medieval theories when we know that the theories and concepts which are used in particle physics, neuroscience, social biology, evolutionary psychology and what have you are much more accurate in terms of describing the actual world we are living in? So, in short, I’d say: there’s nothing wrong with Thomas Aquinas. He makes for an interesting read (although I doubt you’d want to read him) but… Well… It’s just outdated stuff and his religion is no longer ours. In short, we should move on.

I obviously feel the same about Buddhist metaphysics, so let me get back to my little battle with those ’eminent Buddhist writers’.

I’d say the ‘obsession with duality’ they identify with Western thought is, in fact, not limited to European or Christian philosophy. Worse, I’d say that this perceived ‘obsession’ is less pathological than they suggest. Indeed, from what I know about Western philosophy (it’s not a lot but, just for the record, one of my degrees actually is a BPhil), I would actually conclude that European philosophers – including the ancient Greek – were very well aware of the ‘duality trap’, as evidenced by the early adoption of dialectics as a method of philosophical thinking in order to overcome both dualism as well as reductionism. [In case you wonder what I mean with ‘reductionism’, let me quickly define reductionism here by abusing one of my favorite Hegelian quotes: reductionism is a tendency to reduce all differences to “the night in which all cows are black.”]

Let me even more rebellious and bold: I am actually of the opinion that most Buddhist writings, including all those of the Western writers on Buddhism which I mention in this post, smack much more of dualism than any of the Western philosophies they are criticizing in this regard. For example, when I read Christmas Humphreys’ Zen – A way of Life, I am almost dumbstruck by the excessive use of meaningless oppositions, among which the opposition between ‘being’ versus ‘non-being’ probably stands out.

Of course, to be fair to Humphreys, and to Buddhists in general, I must mention that he notes, as all these writers do, that these ‘oppositions’ are ‘overcome’ when one attains Enlightenment. I don’t think one needs to attain Enlightenment or nirvana in order to overcome these ‘oppositions’: I overcome them by considering them as metaphysical nonsense in the first place.

Christmas Humphreys is not just anyone, of course. In fact, that’s why I quote him, rather than some lesser authority on Buddhism. Indeed, Humphreys was the best-known British convert to Buddhism during his time, and the founder of the Buddhist Society in the UK, so my sparring with him here is, I admit, quite haughty. So be it. Singling out Humphreys has the advantage that he, at the very least, he does not hesitate to clearly articulate the canonical Buddhist doctrines and positions. So, in one chapter of his Zen – A way of Life, he dwells on the No Soul doctrine, while, in the next, he unambiguously states that the doctrine of Re-birth is equally fundamental to understanding (Zen) Buddhism. In fact, he actually writes that “Zen training is only usefully attempted with the aid of this doctrine.

What nonsense ! How can he not be aware of the glaring contradiction between the two?

Humphreys would probably say I do not understand a iota of Buddhism. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think it should be obvious, for any honest intellectual, that the doctrine of re-birth (or reincarnation, or ‘transmigration’ of some ‘soul’ – which is what it amounts to), is nothing but a remnant of Buddhism’s Hindu roots (see below also) and that, just like in Christian metaphysics, such doctrine also leads to nothing but dualist thinking.

Let me complete my sermon here by elaborating a bit.

As mentioned above, Pāli and Sanskrit is sufficiently close to English to argue that the Pāli/Sanskrit concept of attā/ātman actually does represent the idea of a subjective Soul (i.e. some Self) surviving the death of the body. Humphreys should not try to wiggle his way out of that. Now, that implies that, according to the Buddhist Canon, there is some kind of permanent Self indeed. However, the idea of a permanent Self is an idea which, in Buddhist metaphysics, is explicitly rejected ! Indeed, Buddhists are supposed to (also) believe that what is normally thought of as the ‘self’ is nothing but an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents, generally referred to as skandhas (literally: aggregates).

Humphreys himself summarizes the theory of skandhas as follows: “All the components of the personality, the five skandhas of body, feelings, perceptions, karmic impulses and consciousness, are found to contain no ‘Self’ which we can call our own, still less a Self which is immortal and permanent. The thing we call ‘I’ is an illusion […].”

This reminds me of the bundle theory of the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, which is a more ‘western’ expression of the theory of skandhas. In fact, I must assume that Humphreys, as a well-trained barrister and judge, was intimately familiar with Hume’s writings. David Hume’s bundle theory is an ontological theory about objecthood in which the object consists only of a collection (bundle) of properties and relations. According to bundle theory, an object consists of its properties and its relations to other objects, and nothing more, “thus neither can there be an object without properties nor can one even conceive of such an object.” For example, bundle theory claims that thinking of an apple compels one also to think of its color, its shape, the fact that it is a kind of fruit, its cells, its taste, or of one of its other properties. Thus, the theory asserts that the apple is no more than the collection of its properties. Hence, according to Hume, there is no substance (or ‘essence’) in which the properties inhere.

That bundle theory makes sense, you’ll say. Yes. It does. In fact, what I’d say about this is what I’d say about Aquinas: nothing wrong with it. It’s just… Well… It’s just outdated and, hence, simplistic stuff, and so let’s move on. The point is that any honest intellectual would have a lot of trouble to reconcile the Buddhist metaphysical or ontological theory of skandhas with the doctrine of reincarnation – except, of course, when contradictory statements are being accepted as ‘meaningful’, but so I don’t want to go there.

Again, I acknowledge that I am sparring with very eminent writers here, but then – Surprise Surprise ! – I am actually in pretty good company here. For example, if you read Herman Hesse’s wonderful Siddharta, it is clear that he fully shares my view.

In fact, now that we are here, I’d like to note that Hesse also rightly identifies yet another fundamental contradiction in the Dhamma in his wonderful fictional account of the Buddha’s life: it’s the contradiction between Buddhism’s ‘message of salvation’ and its strict belief in causality (as expressed in the law of karma). I would tend to agree with Hesse’s observation, even if, personally, I actually am buying the Buddhist message of salvation. For me, Buddhism’s message of salvation resides in its emphasis on the power of the mind: in my view, it’s the power of analysis and (self-)consciousness that brings us some kind of salvation indeed. However, I’ll come back to this later and, hence, not dwell on this too much here.

So, what about it then? Well, when everything is said and done, it’s hard to escape the conclusion I mentioned above already: the Buddhist doctrine of Re-birth is nothing but a remnant from Buddhism’s Hindu roots and, taking into account the delay between the birth and death of the historical Buddha and the writing of the Buddhist Canon, it may well be that the historical Buddha did actually not believe in re-birth. Frankly, if he was a physikoi, he would not have.

In fact, my own little theory is that the monks who ‘canonized’ Buddhist thought some 450 years after the death of the historical Buddha just re-inserted the reincarnation theory, for the same reason why Thomas Aquinas couldn’t doubt the existence of God: for them, it was, most probably, a premise you wouldn’t want to challenge. When we’re dead, we’re dead. That’s hard to swallow, I guess. And so that’s why I think the reincarnation theory is just there to soften the blow.

Sacrilege? Perhaps. So be it. But so that’s my view indeed. Let me summarize it:

  1. I accept that the contradiction between the no-soul doctrine and the doctrine of re-birth is fundamental and, hence, cannot be solved.
  2. Hence, I feel we should drop one of the two.
  3. I’ve dropped the second one because – however one wants to look at it – any doctrine of re-birth requires an irrational or unscientific belief in some ‘essence’ of an individual human being indeed, and so I think that’s rubbish or – to use a less derogatory term – not in line with what I perceive as the ‘spirit’ of the Buddhist teachings.

To anticipate criticism: if you are somewhat familiar with the Buddhist Canon, you will say that I am misrepresenting it. You will point out that the doctrine of Re-birth and the law of karma are one and the same and, hence, it’s the law of cause and effect, i.e. the accumulated karma (good or bad), that goes beyond death. Not some ‘soul’. I will not elaborate on this but I feel this ‘explanation’ also belongs to the ‘realm of meaningless metaphysical statements.’ I have no doubt whatsoever on the law of cause and effect (it’s not easy to argue against determinism); however, I do not believe there is any rational basis for believing in the transmigration of a ‘soul’, or anything that comes near to it, and anything that has ‘individuality’ comes ‘near to it’, and that also includes the concept of ‘accumulated karma’, no matter how hard you try to camouflage it.

Religion and morals

Let me advance another reason why those monks would have stuck to a theory of re-birth. There is a more general moral-philosophical issue here. Put simply, it’s hard to deny that all doctrines of re-birth or reincarnation, whether they be Christian (or Jewish or Muslim), Buddhist, Hindu, or whatever, obviously serve a moral purpose in society, just like the concepts of heaven and hell in Christianity or, more generally, the concept of a Judgment Day in all Abrahamic religions – be they Christian (Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant), Islamic or Judaic. According to some, it’s hard to see how one could firmly ‘ground’ moral theory and avoid hedonism without such doctrine. One author who clearly is of this opinion and articulates it very well is the above-quoted Jo Durden Smith (see The Essence of Buddhism (2004), p. 68), and so he actually uses this pragmatic argument to ‘justify’ or ‘explain’ the doctrine of Re-birth.

I think that this approach to ‘justifying’, ‘explaining’ or ‘accepting’ the doctrine of reincarnation amounts to admitting the intellectual weakness of the whole argument. Personally, I don’t think we need this ‘ladder’ to ground moral theory: more modern moral theories do not need reincarnation theories or divine last judgments. So, in short, while the No Soul doctrine makes a lot of sense, the doctrine of Re-birth (or reincarnation) doctrine does not – in my not so humble opinion that is.

The No Soul doctrine in meditation

You probably noticed by now that I am quite dismissive of all of the writings I quote above, and of religious or philosophical texts and books in general. Indeed, I prefer hard science. Indeed,  I am of the opinion that they are not very relevant in terms of helping us to lead a ‘good’ life: the basics are fine, but digging further is a waste of time.

Having said that, I do like to think that the anattā doctrine is one of the few philosophical positions with a direct practical relevance. Indeed, I believe one can effectively reduce personal suffering – (such as ‘heartache’, for example 🙂 – by meditating and accepting that there is no real ‘me’, no ‘I’ or ‘self’ that is suffering.

In this regard, I could digress on what I see as the three fundamental phases or stages in meditation:

  1. Relax: ‘let go’,
  2. Focus: ‘observe the mind’, and
  3. Lose your individuality: ‘let the self evaporate’.

However, I will not go into more detail at this moment. Otherwise, this post risks becoming a long article, which is not my intent. What I can’t resist, however, is to conclude this post with a one-line 17th century ‘poem’, written by Matsuo Basho. [If you’ve read anything about Zen, you’ve heard his name before.] I think it captures the ‘spirit’ of the No Soul doctrine most beautifully:

On this road with no traveler, autumn night falls.

To be fair, when he wrote this, Matsuo Basho was obviously inspired by a much older verse, which captures the same idea:

Nirvana is, but not the man that enters it; 

The path is, but no traveler on it is seen.”

This comes out of the Visuddhi−Magga (quoted in: Bhikkhu Khantipālo, Buddhism Explained, 3rd edition, p. 161), a treatise written by Buddhaghosa, a Srilankan Buddhist scholar and commentator who lived in the 5th century, and whose commentaries are generally considered as the ‘orthodox’ understanding of Theravāda Buddhism, which is generally considered to be the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism (Theravāda literally means ‘the Teaching of the Elders’). It is said to be closer to early Buddhism than other existing Buddhist traditions, but it also sticks to the doctrine of re-birth.

Well… I’ll leave you with this because this post has become much too long indeed. Too many words ! 🙂