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 ! 🙂

Dōgen’s advice

This is the easy way to become a Buddha:

Not to create the various evils,

Not to cling to life and death,

To have deep compassion for all sentient beings,

To venerate superiors and to sympathize with inferiors,

To hate nothing,

To desire nothing,

Not to reflect on anything,

Not to sorrow about anything—

This is what I call the Buddha.

Do not seek anything else.

The finger, the ladder and the label

“Zen does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems. It is meant to get at the fact at first hand and not through any intermediary. To point to the moon, a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon.”

This is a quote from Daisetsu Teitaru Suzuki – the man who brought Zen to the West. It comes out of one of his Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927). However, this saying is an old Oriental proverb and, hence, it should not be attributed to any author in particular. In fact, associating it with Zen only is somewhat preposterous.

In any case, the quote makes it clear that, while Zen is taught by teachers (Roshis or masters), it is really not about thinking and writing. The quote goes even further, as it actually implies that the role of the teacher or the master should not be exaggerated either. Getting at the fact at first hand is like learning how to ride a bicycle: in the end, you just have to do it – and you have to do it all by yourself.

Suzuki. It makes one think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, isn’t it? Maybe. Modern Suzuki motorcycles do not require much maintenance though. 🙂

I actually checked it out. Suzuki is a very common family name in Japan. So common, in fact, that it does not refer to any particular family. Indeed, family names do not mean all that much in Japan: families were forced to adopt a surname during the Meiji restoration, but they could choose it at will and, for some reason I don’t know, the name of Suzuki, which literally means bell tree (suzu = bell and ki = tree) was quite popular in certain regions of Japan. In any case, Teitaro Suzuki and Michio Suzuki, the founder of Suzuki Motor Corporation, were surely not related. They were born in very different families on opposite sides of the Honshu island: Michio Suzuki was the son of a farmer, while Teitaro Suzuki (Daisetsu is like an epithet he received later) was a scion of a samurai family. It was an impoverished samurai family (all samurai families were suddenly poor, as the samurai class was abolished during the Meiji restoration, and so they had to re-invent themselves), but samurai nevertheless.

Class surely mattered during those turbulent times (as it does today). Samurai families were generally well-educated and, hence, Teitaro Suzuki’s karma was much more likely to lead him to become a professor (a professor in Buddhist philosophy, in fact), rather than a shrewd businessman. [As for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, please don’t be offended, but the author, Robert Pirsig, would probably agree that it’s neither about Zen nor Motorcycle Maintenance. To be frank, I am not ashamed to admit I never quite got through the book. I tried to read it some twenty years ago but put it down after a few days, wondering why the author needed so many words (more than 400 pages!) to write what he wrote.]

Names and words. I often think that, to some 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, non- or non-native speakers of the language, associate with them. We often don’t even know how to pronounce them correctly (just try to guess, and then check, the meaning and pronunciation of Daisetsu and Teitaru, for example). Those new meanings suit our purpose, which is to understand what we’ll probably never understand. In my view, the Laughing Buddha epitomizes the approach. Life and death are not meant to be understood: life is meant to be lived, and death… Well… That’s why we should live life to the fullest extent possible. By using strange foreign words, we invent a new language so to speak.

Back to Suzuki. So Teitaro (Daisetsu is a sort of epiteth he received and adopted later) was born into an impoverished samurai family and, while he is widely known as “the man who brought Zen to the West”, I should set the record straight. D.T. Suzuki’s own Zen master, Soyun Shaku (1860–1919), had already traveled to the United States to participate in the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions (Chicago). That gathering is generally referred to as “the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions” and as “the birth of formal world-wide inter-religious dialogue.” Hence, his appearance there was significant (another ‘significant’ representative of world religions was Swami Vivekananda, but I shouldn’t digress here) and Soyun Shaku returned to the US afterwards to teach Zen there just before World War (1905–1906). However, his knowledge of English was poor, and so he didn’t write as much as D.T. Suzuki did: Soyun was an abbot, while Suzuki was a professor in Buddhist philosophy. On top of that, D.T. Suzuki was married to an American theosophist, who surely stimulated him writing even more. So that’s why Soyun Shaku is much less remembered – if at all.

Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, was just one of the many influential people who took an interest in Suzuki’s writings in-between the two World Wars. Jung actually wrote an elaborate 30-page foreword to Suzuki’s 1934 Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and thereby gave it instant recognition. However, despite the interest of such prominent people, Zen never really made it in the West, unlike Tibetan Buddhism. I am not sure why.

Frankly, I am not attracted to Tibetan Buddhism because of its eclecticism (anything goes really), its excessive monasticism (just think about the disputes between Red and Yellow Hat orders, for example) and, finally, its tantric and shamanic core that continues to permeate everything (examine some of its symbolism, for example, and you’ll know what I mean). In fact, I’ve concluded that Tibetan Buddhism is far removed from the original Buddhist teachings. Of course, that’s my own viewpoint only, and it’s obviously a minority point of view. In any case, my own views don’t matter here.

Why is it that Western intellectuals took to Tibetan Buddhism, rather than Chinese or Japanese Buddhism?

One obvious reason is that Zen is associated with Japanese nationalism and, hence, with Nazism (see, for example, Zen at War, 1997). While Tibetan Buddhism has (or has had) its violent strands too, in particular in regard to the question of the Chinese occupation of the Tibetan homelands (see, for example, Buddha’s Warriors, 2004), Tibetan nationalism is obviously more acceptable to us. Or should we say more romantic? I note, for example, that associating Zen with the samurai or warrior culture is not very problematic for a Western audience.

All major religions or philosophies are obviously tainted with blood and violence: when one’s homeland is threatened, one has to take a stance in this life, not in the next, and then it’s unavoidable that some choose to accept that the doctrine of nonviolence may not be unconditional. In regard to Shaku and Suzuki, it is said that, at the occasion of the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905), Leo Tolstoy wrote Shaku and asked him to join in denouncing the war. Shaku refused, concluding that “…sometimes killing and war becomes necessary to defend the values and harmony of any innocent country, race or individual.” (quoted in Zen at War, 1997) Just for the record, the Japanese victory in that war surprised the world, and underscored Japan’s emergence as a new world power, and Shaku attributed the victory to Japan’s samoerai culture. Likewise, some comments from Suzuki suggest he sympathized with the German Nazi views on the question of the Jews. It’s sad, but it’s the truth.

Another reason why Zen never became as popular as Tibetan Buddhism in the West, may be that the pioneer, D.T. Suzuki, actually moved away from Zen himself. Indeed, Suzuki, in his later life, turned to the more popular religion which his mother (and many of his compatriots) practiced: plain Shin Buddhism. While a somewhat more encompassing approach should not be a problem as such, it’s obvious it’s never a good thing for the followers if the master suddenly distances himself from his own teachings: we like to identify ourselves with a particular group, or a particular school of thought, and if our teachers say that it doesn’t matter all that much, we’re confused. We shouldn’t be, because it doesn’t matter indeed: when everything is said and done, we should get at the fact at first hand indeed.


By now, you probably wonder what I want to get at here. Nothing much. I just started a blog documenting my own spiritual journey. This blog is surely not about Zen. And – believe it or not – it’s not about Buddhism or Orientalism either. I quoted the warning above as a warning indeed: when everything is said and done, finding truth and living a ‘good’ life is not about knowledge but about practice, and so that’s what that quote above is about really. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Let me conclude this introduction by making a few more remarks about labels, and about this ‘finger pointing to the moon’ expression in particular. Fans of Bruce Lee will probably remember the reference to a finger pointing to the moon from the 1973 Enter the Dragon movie, in which he slaps one of his pupils while teaching him Kung Fu: “Don’t think! Feel! It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger… Or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” [Note, once again, that associating Zen or Buddhist thought with violence is, apparently, not something that antagonizes the Western mind, as long as it’s in the sphere of martial arts. It’s only when it becomes associated with a nation fighting a war with some other nation, that we apparently take sides or, else, invoke the  ‘separation of church and state’ principle. I find that somewhat strange. It is just like we seem to fail to acknowledge that all religions in the real world are tainted with blood and violence. I can’t think of any exception here. Indeed, as mentioned above, Tibetan Buddhism has or had its warriors too – literally.]

Enter the Dragon was Bruce Lee’s last movie: he died the same year, aged 32 only, and his religious beliefs – if any – were vague. In fact, Bruce would not associate himself with any particular school of thought but, in his posthumously published Tao of Jeet Kune Do, he did jot down things like: “In Buddhism, there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water and when you’re tired go and lie down.” Is that Buddhist, or Zen? The booklet also quotes literally from D.T. Suzuki’s publications.

So what? 

Well… Nothing. I just underscores what I wrote above: expressions like this finger pointing to the moon saying are universal wisdom. In fact, I’d say the ‘finger pointing to the moon’ expression is very similar to the metaphor that Wittgenstein used to describe what his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was all about. He saw it as a sort of ladder, which you can kick away once you’ve used it to climb up the roof. In other words, we should go beyond the words.

OK, you’ll say – but what about that quote of Dōgen Zenji above? Dōgen is the founder of the Sōtō school of Zen, isn’t he?

Maybe. We now label Dōgen as such, as the founding father of Sōtō Zen. However, Dōgen himself would never have claimed that label. Now that we are talking labels, let me quickly try to dot all the i’s and cross all of the t’s in this short introduction. Let me first note that, while Shaku, as the abbot of a Rinzai temple, was definitely a purebred Rinzai roshi, D.T. Suzuki was, as a professor of Buddhist philosophy, much less explicit in his affiliation. What’s the difference? In practice, nothing much: both Sōtō and Rinzai Zen are, by now, calcified traditions or – if you prefer a more upbeat term – beautiful gardens. That being said, Rinzai is usually associated with a more impregnable approach to enlightenment, involving difficult games such as the kōan, which are designed to achieve ‘lightning-like enlightenment’ – as Dumoulin puts it. In contrast, the Sōtō school does not attach all that much importance on ‘sudden enlightenment’. In contrast, as can be seen from the quote, Dōgen advised against consciously seeking Buddhahood, stressing that “practice and enlightenment are one and the same.” I like that – a lot – so let me repeat it: practice and enlightenment are one and the same.

In any case. We should not attach much importance to these labels. As mentioned above, Dōgen himself did not think he belonged to a specific school or sect. He actually even rejected being referred to as a master. I sometimes like to think all of the founding fathers (why are there are few or no founding mothers?) of the world’s greatest religions rejected labeling. They were all revolutionaries, creating something new from the old and, hence, they would surely reject the current labeling. None of them believed in any ‘transmission principle’ when it came to truth, knowing God, or leading a ‘good’ life. None of them claimed to be the ‘master’, or to be entitled to tell others what to do or what to believe. In many ways, they were loners attracting a crowd.

I said this blog is not about Buddhism, but let me note that there’s quite a ‘tradition’ of Buddhist loners as well. [Note the contradiction is the use of the term ‘tradition’ here: there is none.] Just think of the Zen master Dokuan Genko (1630-1698), for example, who broke with tradition indeed by openly questioning the ‘transmission’ principle and, hence, his own role as a ‘master’: “The only genuine transmission is the individual’s independent experience of Zen enlightenment, [which is] an intuitive experience that needs no external confirmation.” And while Suzuki himself does not do away with the principle of ‘transmission’ (he also confirms the role of the master on the road to ‘getting to the fact at first hand’), he does point out that Zen stands apart because “the direct method of Zen is to see straightway into the truth of Enlightenment and attain Buddhahood without going through so many stages of preparation prescribed by the scholars.” (Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series), Essay IV (History of Buddhism), p. 176).

These loners are usually dismissed because, as mushi-dokugo (‘independently enlightened without a teacher’) or jigo-jisho (‘self-enlightened and self-certified’), they do not adhere to the lineage, or because they left ‘no transmission’. Of course not: if they would have created their own ‘independent transmission’ or lineage, they would not be what they are: loners. The freethinker in me makes me respect them more than any of those great abbots or rinpoches. When everything is said and done, I’d think most of them are just monks in straitjackets. Also note that doing some exercise today, by going out for a ride on your bike, for instance – or just sit and breathe – is probably better for you than reading this blog, because it’s practice and, remember, practice is the only way to ‘get at the fact at first hand.’ 🙂