Buddhist morality and signaling

The five precepts of Buddhism are no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or irresponsible use of alcohol.

These moral guidelines are for non-monastics.

I think most of us tend to think of the five precepts as being about the material world. After all, killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and getting drunk are all rooted in actions of the material body. Even lying issues forth from the mouth of the body.

But what if we look at the precepts differently? What if we view them as fundamentally signals that issue forth from the mind?

If we look at them that way, then lying, which is often glossed as the least important of the five precepts, becomes the most important.

The reason is that lies send bad signals forth from the mind. And surely killing, stealing, misconduct, and getting drunk are the baddest of bad signals. Each one is a form of lying.

In a post I put up just yesterday, Ethics, morality, I outlined a simple way to understand morality as that which reduces error and increases efficiency of mental signals, both internal and external (those sent to others).

In Buddhism, the great barrier to enlightenment is a confused, deluded mind. Anything that generates delusion or confusion, which lying surely does, is counterproductive. While anything that reduces delusion is good.

Buddhism, of course, recognizes the need for occasional lies—such as sanitizing the truth for children—but we really do not need to lie very often. We do not always have to say everything we think or tell anyone anything they want to know; we can easily and truthfully sidestep issues like that by simply saying we would rather not say.

In a very important way, clear signaling—honest signaling—is the foundation of all morality.

Psychedelics, human rights, and Buddhism

People have used psychedelics in spiritual practice for at least 5700 years, pre-dating all major organised religions. (Source: Protecting the human rights of people who use psychedelics)

My guess is early Buddhists used psychedelics as these substances were clearly available at that time and well before. A careful reading of the fifth precept indicates to me that the Buddha is talking only about alcohol, either fermented or distilled, and not psychedelics. I am not advocating the use of illegal psychedelics, but rather agreeing with the author of the linked quote that they have a long and respected place in religious practice and are not nearly as dangerous as is generally assumed among lawmakers. I also agree that it is not the business of government to legislate plants or tell people what they can or cannot put into their bodies, especially when far more good than harm arises from many of these substances.

Mindfulness and FIML

Here is one definition of mindfulness from the Buddha himself:

And what, monks, is the faculty of mindfulness? Herein, monks, a noble disciple is mindful and is endowed with the highest prudence in mindfulness; he is one who remembers and recollects even what is done or said long ago. This, monks, is called the faculty of mindfulness.

— S V 197 (Source)

This short film illustrates another definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness can mean many things, but central to the definition is deep and abiding awareness of what is actually going on, what is actually being thought and perceived, what is being said and what is being heard. Buddhists practice basic mindfulness in ways shown in the film, but we can also be mindful of how we communicate, how we listen and how we speak.

How can we be mindful of how we listen and speak? One way is to pay attention to ourselves. But if we only pay attention to ourselves, we will become solipsists or narcissists. We can also pay attention to others, but how do we normally do that?

Most people pay attention to others by using heuristics as Anderson Cooper does in the film linked above. He is very sophisticated, smooth, pleasant, and surely a good listener. But what that really is is an act, a professional mixture of American semiotics and American heuristics, slightly individualized in Cooper.

Cooper is not deeply aware of the people he is interviewing, though he may be moved by what they say. At best, he can only be aware of what he hears and how he interprets that. Similarly, the mindfulness master in the film, Jon Kabat-Zinn, is not a mind-reader. He cannot be any more deeply aware of others than Cooper can, or than others can of him. Yes, some people have more life experience or are smarter than others, but this only increases their deep awareness a little bit, if that. It might even lead them to worse deep awareness.

The only way to be deeply aware of another person—to be deeply mindful of what they are saying or hearing—is to ask them. And the only way to do that deeply is to do FIML.

If you just ask in the usual ways and they just answer, you will experience an exchange like the one in the film. Interesting, but there is no profound subjective data coming from either Cooper or Kabat-Zinn.

If we rely exclusively on cultural heuristics like those in the film to interact with our closest friends, we will succeed in interacting with them solely on that level*. And when we are restricted to that level, as most of us are, we cannot be deeply mindful of any other human being.

We can be mindful of what they are wearing what we think they said or meant or felt, but not them. Only FIML gives us deep access, mindful access, to others. And in the sense that how we communicate with others affects how we communicate with ourselves—how we understand ourselves—we can only become deeply aware of ourselves if we practice FIML with at least one other person. FIML might even be called “dynamic mindfulness.”

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* Adding quantity—many exchanges with another person—does not fix the problem. Your relationship will look and feel more complex, but it still is not one characterized by deep awareness.

Sex, desire, and the meditation on “uncleanness”

This article—The Problem With Sex According to Buddhism—provides a good overview of how traditional Buddhism has viewed sexual behavior. Generally, the modern way of looking at it is sexual behavior should not harm anyone and should not lead to unwanted entanglements.

Overcoming excessive or obsessive desire for anything, not just sex, is an important part of Buddhist practice. Most of the time most of us know what is excessive in most situations. Guidance from a “wise friend” can help when there is doubt.

Contemplating the “uncleanness” of any excessive desire has been praised through the centuries by countless Buddhist practitioners. Contemplating the “uncleanness” of something means to contemplate its negative aspects. If you cannot get over your obsession for motorcycles, for example, contemplate their expense, danger, the trouble of maintaining them, etc. This kind of contemplation will tend to decrease desire by balancing it with real-world considerations.

The “uncleanness” contemplation is intended to be used to overcome excessive desire or greed. It is not advised for anyone experiencing depression or despair as it may worsen these conditions. More on this topic can be found here.

Buddhism does not have anything approaching the counsel “greed is good.” It could be reasonably argued that traditional Buddhist teachings on greed hindered material and political development in Buddhist societies, while the celibacy of Buddhist monastics kept some of the smartest people from procreating and thus lowered the genetic quality of those populations.

I am not sure what the best answers to those arguments are, though I don’t find them very compelling. Surely traditional monasteries also kept many people who were not fit, psychologically or otherwise, from having children and thus improved the gene pool. There is nothing in Buddhism that should keep anyone from being a scientist or businessperson or studying anything they want, as long as their motives are wholesome.

One thing we can see is that even early Buddhist thinking was better at getting to the core of how the human mind works than most twentieth century psychology in the West. Since Buddhism is a tradition that is open to change, we can and should consider all of these ideas and use the best ones.

Saving lives versus releasing captured animals into the wild

The Buddhist practice of releasing captured animals into the wild to gain merit (for the one doing the releasing) is generally a bad practice. Captured animals are often fatigued or not suited to their new wild environment.

In Buddhist countries animals are sometimes deliberately captured just so practitioners can release them (after paying for them). Clearly, that is a preposterous activity.

Most American Buddhist are aware that thoughtless release does more harm than good, but the basic idea is appealing. Why not save a life if you can?

If you want to save lives without doing any harm, a cat collar might be a better choice than releasing goldfish into the East River (this has happened), where they promptly died.

Here is an article about a collar that seems to work well: Study finds cat collar can save songbirds.

You can get one for your own cat or get a few to give to others. BTW, I have no economic interests in these collars and do not know the people involved in making them. It just looks like an easy way to save precious songbirds.

Morality and mistakes

Moral growth requires mistakes.

Ikkyu, the Zen poet monk, wrote: “Satori is mistake after mistake.”

“You” are not your worldly biography, which is unknowable, but rather the moral being that has learned through worldly experiences.

“You” are not your moral mistakes, which can be worn like shackles, but rather what you would do now if you were faced with those decisions again.

You cannot have gotten to that point without the mistakes you have made.

7 reasons not to feel bad about yourself when you have acted immorally

…We feel so bad about ourselves when we think about the injustices and tragedies to which we are likely to be contributing to with our actions or omissions that we prefer not to think about it, and distract our attention with more pleasant matters… Guilt makes people associate morality with negative emotions, and these do not draw us closer to ethical behaviour, they distance us from it. If we associate everything that has to do with ethics with negative emotions, it is not surprising that so many people seem to feel aversion to any speech or argument that mentions ethics. Morality can be pleasurable, it can draw us closer to others, and it can contribute to having a more meaningful and happy life, but for this to be possible we must learn how to enjoy it, and feeling bad about ourselves will not help. (7 reasons not to feel bad about yourself when you have acted immorally)

This excellent piece is aimed at a Western audience conditioned by centuries of religious guilt. The Buddhist tradition carries much less of a burden of guilt but also comes to similar conclusions about morality and ethics. In Buddhism, an appropriate sense of shame is considered essential for moral behavior. But the word shame as it used in the Buddhist tradition does not carry the same sense that it would in the Western tradition. Shame in Buddhism means the feeling and awareness that one has done wrong. The linked essay uses the word regret instead of shame, and from there follows a formula similar to the Buddhist one:

the desire to have acted differently, the intention to repair the damage done, and the determination that in the future one will not act similarly.

In Buddhism, once one has experienced shame (regret), one should apologize if possible to the person(s) or animal(s) one has offended, explain (but not excuse) to them why one did the offense, make amends to them if possible, and vow not to repeat the same action again.

I linked the essay above because it is well-done, is similar to Buddhist thinking, and because it makes a good case for people to see morality as a happy thing, a thing that frees us from lower subjective and self-righteous states. The real you is not the bad thing(s) you have done but what you would do today if faced with the same decision.

Are We Misunderstanding the Fifth Precept?

While poking around on the web, I came across some old pages from the original American Buddhist Net. The post below caught my eye and I thought I would repost it here. A link to the old post can be found here. That link loads somewhat slowly but it does load. Some comments at the end of the original page may be of interest to some readers. Please remember that the fifth precept is for lay Buddhists, not monastics who live by stricter rules. ABN

Some people say the fifth precept is concerned with alcohol. Some say alcohol and other intoxicants. Some say alcohol and other intoxicants that lead to “heedlessness.” Some say all intoxicants lead to heedlessness and that thus the fifth precept asks us to refrain from all of them.

A very fine Sri Lankan translator and Buddhist scholar personally told me that the fifth precept should be translated thus: “I take it upon myself to refrain from the irresponsible use of alcohol which can cause heedlessness.” I may have the words slightly off, but his point was refraining from “irresponsible use” of alcohol and that “irresponsible” means becoming “heedless.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi has this to say: The fifth precept reads: Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” The word meraya means fermented liquors, sura liquors which have been distilled to increase their strength and flavor. The world majja, meaning an intoxicant, can be related to the rest of the passage either as qualified by surameraya or as additional to them. In the former case the whole phrase means fermented and distilled liquors which are intoxicants, in the latter it means fermented and distilled liquors and other intoxicants. If this second reading is adopted the precept would explicitly include intoxicating drugs used non-medicinally, such as the opiates, hemp, and psychedelics. But even on the first reading the precept implicitly proscribes these drugs by way of its guiding purpose, which is to prevent heedlessness caused by the taking of intoxicating substances.

This reading gives two possible interpretations but then blends them into one by saying that however you look at it “the precept implicitly proscribes these drugs by way of its guiding purpose, which is to prevent heedlessness caused by the taking of intoxicating substances.” And this means that the Buddha was saying that all intoxicants should be avoided.

This all leads me to ask a few questions:

1. Do all “intoxicants” (loaded word) lead to heedlessness?

2. If the Buddha meant all “intoxicants,” why did he specify only alcohol? We all know that the Buddha was an extremely careful and precise speaker. Why then did he phrase the fifth precept this way–“I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.”? Why didn’t he say: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from all intoxicants”?

3. Were other intoxicants available in the Buddha’s day? I believe the answer to this is yes. We know that soma was considered as a God in the Vedas, and we can guess that soma was a drug of some kind, possibly the psychedelic mushrooms amanita muscaria or psilocybin. It could have been a mixture of those and other plants including Syrian Rue, cannabis, and/or opium. We may never know what soma was exactly, but we do know that it was highly praised and that it probably was some kind of plant or a mixture of plants. Widespread use of soma may have died out before the Buddha’s day, but that does not mean that soma, or something like it, was not used during his lifetime. We can be quite certain that amanita muscaria or psilocybin grew in that region (amanita in the woods, psilocybin in cow dung). We know that amanita is used today in Siberia, Mongolia, and probably Tibet. We know that psychedelic drugs were and are widely used throughout the Americas in traditional cultures. Wherever they are used traditionally – whether in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas – they are described as teachers that lead to wisdom if used properly and only as “intoxicants” that lead to “heedlessness” if used improperly.

4. Would the Buddha have had access to these kinds of plants? I think it is almost certain that he would have.

5. Would he have used them? If he had access, which as a prince he must have, and if he were curious about his mind and the world (which surely he was), and if he lived at a time (which he did) when psychedelics were seen as wisdom plants, I think it is more than likely that he would have used them.

6. Now we are back to the first question with a little more oomph. If he did use them, why did he not specifically tell his followers to abstain from them? With less oomph, even if he did not use them, why did he not specifically tell his followers to abstain from them?

7. When Ashoka purged the Sangha, was the use of psychedelic drugs one of the practices he purged? Are the roots of esoteric Buddhism to be found in psychedelic plants? How far back in time do those roots reach?

Repost: Consciousness, Big Data, and FIML

Modern neuroscience does not see humans as having a discrete consciousness located in a specific part of the brain. Rather, as Michael S. Gazzaniga says:

The view in neuroscience today is that consciousness does not constitute a single, generalized process. It involves a multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes, the products of which are integrated by the interpreter module. (Source)

Computer and Big Data-driven sociology sees something similar. According to Alex Pentland:

While it may be useful to reason about the averages, social phenomena are really made up of millions of small transactions between individuals. There are patterns in those individual transactions that are not just averages, they’re the things that are responsible for the flash crash and the Arab spring. You need to get down into these new patterns, these micro-patterns, because they don’t just average out to the classical way of understanding society. We’re entering a new era of social physics, where it’s the details of all the particles—the you and me—that actually determine the outcome.  (Source)

Buddhists may recognize in these insights close similarities to core teachings of the Buddha—that we do not have a self; that all things arise out of complex conditions that are impermanent and changeable; that the lion’s share of “reality” for any individual lies in being attentive to the moment.

Notice how similar Pentland’s insights are to Gazzaniga’s—the whole, or the common generalities (of society), can be far better understood if we can account for the details that comprise them. Is an individual mind a fractal of society? Do these complex systems—societies and minds—both use similar organizational processes?

I am not completely sure how to answer those questions, but I am certain that most people are using similar sorts of “average” or general semiotics to communicate and think about both minds and societies. If we stick with general averages, we won’t see very much. Class, self, markets, personalities don’t give us information as sophisticated as the detailed analyses proposed by Gazzaniga and Pentland.

Well then, how can individuals cognize Gazzaniga’s “multitude of widely distributed specialized systems and disunited processes” in their minds? And how can they understand how “the products” of those processes are actually “integrated” into a functional “interpreter module”?

And if individuals can cognize the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter,” how will they understand traditional psychological analyses of the self, personality, identity, biography, behavior?

I would maintain that our understanding of what it is to be a human will change deeply if we can learn to observe with reliable clarity the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter.” That is, we will arrive at a completely new understanding of being that will replace the “self” that truly does not exist in the ways most societies (and people) understand it.

FIML practice shows partners how to observe with great clarity the “disunited processes” that “integrate” into a conscious “interpreter.” Once these process are observed in detail and for a long enough period of time, partners will realize that it is no longer necessary to understand themselves in the “average” terms of self, personality, identity, biography, behavior, and so on.

Partners will come to understand that these terms denote only a more detailed version of a naive, static view of what a person is. Most psychology is largely a more detailed version of a naive, static view of what a person is.

We see this in Gazzaniga and Pentland’s findings that are derived from complex analyses of what is actually happening in the brain or in the multitude of real transactions that actually comprise a society. We can also see very similar insights in the Buddha’s teachings.

It is my contention that FIML practice will show partners the same things—that their actual minds and actual interactions are much more complex (and interesting) than the general semiotic averages we normally use to understand them.

From a Buddhist point of view, when we “liberate” ourselves from “attachment” to “delusive” semiotic generalities and averages and are truly “mindful” of the “thusness” of the ways our minds actually work, we will free ourselves from “suffering,” from the “ignorance” that characterizes the First Noble Truth.

The Diamond Sutra section 6: The Rarity of True Belief

Section Six of the Diamond Sutra has been added. A link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page.

This section starts with Subhuti’s direct question: “World-honored One, can sentient beings, upon hearing these words, really be expected to believe them?”

In his answer, the Buddha emphasizes morality and goodness: “Even after I have been gone for five hundred years there will still be people who are moral and who cultivate goodness.”

Morality or “goodness” (without modern semiotic baggage) is the foundation of the “three trainings” which are essential to attaining enlightenment. The three trainings are morality, meditation, and wisdom.

Morality is the foundation because only when we are behaving morally and have a clear conscience can we meditate properly. Meditation can also be understood as concentration or mindfulness. An impure or immoral mind is confused and distracted by lies and harmful behaviors. The Buddha emphasizes this point when he says just below the line quoted above that “…if someone has so much as a single pure moment of belief concerning this teaching… they will be intimately known and seen by the Tathagata.”

Buddhist teachings often stress the importance of “belief,” “faith,” or simply having “confidence” in the Dharma. Belief alone or blind faith is not what is called for. But having enough belief or faith in the teachings to pursue them and continue learning from them is.

If you enroll in a school to learn some skill, it is important to believe that the school will teach you that skill and it is important to have faith in your teachers and confidence in the course material. It is also very helpful if you really want to learn that skill. It is in this sense, that “belief” and “faith” are stressed. In different times and places, this sort of faith or confidence will manifest in different ways. In some cultures, a scientific “coolness” will seem right. In others, reverence and warm acceptance will seem better.

“…if someone has so much as a single pure moment of belief concerning this teaching… they will be intimately known and seen by the Tathagata.”

To be “intimately known and seen by the Tathagata” is to awaken the Buddha mind in yourself, to sense your Buddha nature.

The Buddha then says: “And what is the reason that these sentient beings will attain so much infinite goodness? These sentient beings will not return to the laksana of self, the laksana of human beings, the laksana of sentient beings, the laksana of souls, the laksana of laws, or the laksana of non-laws.”

Laksana means “mental dharma” or “mental thing.” It is often translated as mark or characteristic. Readers of this site might appreciate that laksana are quite similar to semiotics. Semiotics are communicative signs that operate in the mind both internally (when alone) and externally (when communicating with others). If we do good deeds while dwelling on the semiotics of our selves, our actions are less pure than if we have no semiotics that reify the inauthentic “self.”

In section three of the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha said: “Subhuti, if a bodhisattva has laksana of self, laksana of human beings, laksana of sentient beings, or laksana of a soul, then he is not a bodhisattva.”

In this section, the Buddha says that the goodness attained by “a single pure moment of belief” will keep a sentient being “from returning to the laksana of self…” The purity and clarity of insight will be great enough to turn the sentient being away from confused and false semiotics toward enlightened Buddhahood.

The Buddha adds “laksana of laws, or the laksana of non-laws” to his statements on laksana. In this case, “laws” means the Buddha’s basic teachings on the five skandhas, the eighteen realms, the twelve nidanas, and so forth. “Non-laws” mean his teachings on emptiness.

To be clear as a bell, the Buddha repeats his point saying that a Bodhisattva “…must not cling to laws or non-laws, and this is why I have often said to you monks that even my teachings should be understood to be like a raft; if even the Dharma must be let go of, then how much more must everything else be let go of?”

We can see that the Buddha is not asking for belief alone or blind faith, but rather clear comprehension that the enlightened mind cannot be found among laksana/semiotics. At the same time, he also recognizes that laksana/semiotics are necessary at many stages of our development. This is what the raft metaphor means—you use a raft to cross a river, then you leave the raft and keep going. Similarly, you use laksana/semiotics/ideas/concepts/beliefs/confidence to get you further along and then you leave these “mental things” once they have served their purpose.

The Diamond Sutra and moral idealism

Most Buddhists know that a bodhisattva is someone who helps others through their understanding of “enlightened practice” or “enlightening practices.” The Buddha is called a bodhisattva when referring to the time before he became a Buddha.

A bodhisattva uses wisdom to do compassionate work or “generous” work, to use the terminology of the Diamond Sutra. Strictly speaking, “generosity” in the Diamond Sutra means sharing the Dharma with others, but in practice this concept can, of course, take many forms. For example, maybe just being nice to someone will help them more than an extensive Dharma talk.

It is possible when studying the Diamond Sutra to experience a kind of spiritual ecstasy or meditative ecstasy as one contemplates the fulsome purity of mind that attends the selfless generosity discussed in the sutra. At such times, you know without doubt that this is a higher state of mind, a better way to be; it feels like a genuine glimpse of Buddhahood, of the enlightened state of a Buddha.

I for one have no doubt that those states are higher and realer than the mundane states of mind we so often are consigned to. But it is important to understand that the Diamond Sutra is not only about being generous. It is also about being wise.

In all Buddhist traditions at all times, the highest virtue is always wisdom.

A well-known analogy is often used to explain this. If you want to save someone who is drowning you must know how to swim. If you can’t swim and you jump in the water, you will not help and probably only lose your life, too.

So a bodhisattva must be wise enough to know what they can do and what they can’t. This is not generosity with strings attached. It is wise generosity. It is wrong to have good motives but destroy yourself without even helping others. It is not even wise to destrpy yourself even if you do help others. I suppose there are degrees at this point. If you give your adult life to help some children, it might be a wise move.

But the basic point should be clear—generosity must be tempered with wisdom. The Diamond Sutra is not about moral idealism, or the belief that “individual rights and responsibilities are universal, regardless of outcome.”

Buddhist teachings are all about good outcomes. The point of Buddhist practice is to become enlightened. When we glimpse the bliss of pure selfless generosity, we are glimpsing Buddhahood. But at that point we are still merely bodhisattvas, at best. In this world, absolutely pure, selfless behavior will get you robbed and killed. So you need some smarts, a sense of what really can be done to get real outcomes. Even terrible reprobates can be helped and can change, but don’t be foolish about your chances for success or the methods you use.

The Diamond Sutra section 5: Seeing the Truth That Lies Beneath Perception

The fifth section of the Diamond Sutra has been added. A link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page or here.

In this section, the Buddha continues his discussion of laksana (marks, characteristics) by asking, “Subhuti, what do you say, can you see the Tathagata in his bodily laksana?”

In this context, Tathagata means an “enlightened Buddha,” with an emphasis on enlightened. This question could reasonably be interpreted to mean, “…can you perceive the enlightened state of a Buddha through mundane (bodily) characteristics or marks?”

Subhuti answers, “No.” He then explains himself by negating “bodily laksana,” which are essentially delusive and thus not profoundly real.

The Buddha confirms his answer and emphasizes its import by saying, “All laksana are delusive. If you can see that all laksana are not laksana, then you will see the Tathagata.”

Thus, enlightenment and the generosity and wisdom upon which it is based or of which it is a manifestation cannot be perceived by mundane (bodily) laksana. In fact, the Buddha says, to become enlightened you must be able to see that “all laksana are delusive.”

A common interpretation of this section is that that the word laksana refers to the thirty-two marks of a Buddha. Since these thirty-two marks are discussed later in the sutra, it probably makes more sense to interpret them straightforwardly as “bodily laksana,” indicating mundane perception of the enlightened state.

The thirty-two marks or signs are also know as the thirty-two marks of a great man.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on the thirty-two marks says the twenty-ninth mark is “Eyes dark brown or deep blue.” A few other pages I checked on Google claim the eyes are are “clear” and the pupils dark. Traditionally, this laksana has been translated as “blue” or “very blue.”

The Dhammawiki page linked above has this:

He has very blue eyes (Pali: abhi nila netto). Note 1: “very (abhi) blue (nila) eyes (netto)” is the literal translation. Nila is the word used to describe a sapphire and the color of the sea, but also the color of a rain cloud. It also defines the color of the Hindu God Krishna. Note 2: “His lashes are like a cow’s; his eyes are blue./ Those who know such things declare/ ‘A child which such fine eyes/ will be one who’s looked upon with joy./ If a layman, thus he’ll be/ Pleasing to the sight of all./ If ascetic he becomes,/ Then loved as healer of folk’s woes.'” (Lakkhana Sutta)

In Chinese, the Buddha’s eyes are described as “blue” or “jade-like.” Some years ago, I had a discussion with a very capable Pali translator on this point. He wanted to know what I thought (as someone who knows the Chinese) about describing the Buddha’s eyes as “clear.” I said I did not think that that was what the Chinese was saying and that, furthermore, that would be a strange meaning for ancient Chinese, as “clear eyes” is not the kind of thing they would have written. He agreed with what I said, and being an intelligent man, was amused by the whole controversy.

Whatever the case, I suppose it’s inevitable that PC sensibilities will enter even the history of Buddhism. It does seem likely that the Buddha, who is frequently referred to as an “Aryan,” was born into an actual Aryan family. We know he spoke an Indo-European language (Magahi) and that he could easily have had blue eyes. Alexander the Great had blue eyes as did many other people in those days.

A major interpretation of the thirty-two marks is that they are mystical and only an enlightened being can see them anyway. They are not a very important part of Buddhism. As the Diamond Sutra itself says, “All laksana are delusive.”

Still, it is fascinating to observe how people react to imagining a blue-eyed Buddha. In my experience, most Westerners who have not studied much Buddhism, imagine the Buddha to have looked Chinese. Some imagine he looked Indian. Just as Christ gained blond hair and blue eyes in some European portrayals of him, so possibly, a blond-haired blue-eyed Buddha gradually morphed into having a Chinese visage in the northern tradition and a darker Indian one in the southern tradition.

The Diamond Sutra and modern thought

Modern thought is characterized by physicalism and atheism.

The forerunner of physicalism was materialism. Basing everything on matter doesn’t make good sense so materialism became physicalism. Physicalism, very simply, means that everything obeys the laws of physics, and thus physicalism has an open-ended definition because the laws we understand today will surely be different in the future.

Criticisms of physicalism claim it is vague since, as of today, we can’t say what the ultimate laws are and we are unlikely to ever be able to for how do you know when you know all there is to know?

I have no problem with physicalism and would be happy to call myself a physicalist. I think physicalism fits well with Buddhism and if you push at it a bit it can easily include many aspects of religion and the “supernatural,” which just means that which has not yet been explained by the laws of physics. See The invented God argument for more on this angle.

Another interesting way to connect modern thought with Buddhism is to look more closely and with different eyes at the Diamond Sutra or any other major wisdom teaching within the Buddhist tradition.

The Diamond Sutra is a long answer to a single question: “…when good men and good women commit themselves to complete, unsurpassed enlightenment, on what should they base themselves, and how should they subdue their minds?”

The Buddha’s answer is that they should be generous and not base their generosity on anything. That is, no phenomenal thing, nothing material, nothing conditioned. To say it another way, they should be generous but not base their generosity on any transient thing or material calculation.

Doesn’t that sound like the Buddha is indicating a higher level of understanding not unlike the laws of physics? Consider some questions: Where are the laws of physics? What holds them together? Do the inhere in matter, do they spring from matter, or do they “reside” at some other level?

I don’t know what it would mean for them to inhere in matter or spring from matter. Are the laws “out there?” Are they  more fundamental than matter? Higher than matter? We don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but there is nothing wrong with the questions.

The Buddha’s answer to Subhuti also contains this: “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

In Buddhist thought, our senses are sight (form), sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. These, of course, can be expanded to include proprioception, balance, and much more. The important point here is that the Buddha uses the six senses mentioned to categorically exclude all phenomenal input including thought.

It takes time if you are coming from a modern language to see thought as being a sense. But look at how materialism has transformed into physicalism and how we can’t be sure even today which of our thoughts is really good and will be viable in a hundred years and which of them will look outdated in ten years. Psychoanalysis and materialism, to name just two thoughts, have suffered complete falls from grace over very short time-spans.

Consider again the six senses of Buddhism. Sight depends on light, something outside the body system. And so does sound, smell, taste, and touch. We see and perceive via our senses because those things are “out there.” Birds fly because air supports them. Fish swim because the water allows this. The fish are adapted to water and have evolved within it.

But what about thought? Is thought material? An epiphenomenon of matter? Since materialism is a weak philosophy, we should ask instead is thought physical? Does it obey the laws of physics?

One answer is reductionism, which goes down deeply into matter to find what we may already know. But another answer is that thought is “out there.” It exists independent of our bodies and brains. Just as the laws of physics do not inhere in matter, so also does thought not inhere in the body. As a bird’s wings are supported by the air, so our thoughts are supported by a reality that is different than the material world and probably superior to it.

If that is so, our capacity for thought is shaped by the laws of physics as much as our bodies are shaped by matter. Birds crash, make mistakes and die due to their mistakes. So also, we humans make mistakes in our thoughts and crash and die due to those mistakes. To glimpse a higher source for thought and being is not to say that our thoughts cannot be horribly mistaken.

Glimpsing a level of reality, profound physicalism, that is “superior” to the reality apprehended by our senses is not to say that we are enlightened or that we have reached the end of the road. We have, rather, caught sight of a way of understanding our lives that is fuller and probably truer than anything on the current spectrum that lies between materialism and spiritualism.

Is this what the Diamond Sutra is indicating when the Buddha adds generosity to the emptiness of the self? As sentient beings, we are capable of being generous. But we also tend to want to have our actions confirmed by our lower senses, our material senses, thus reducing them in much the same way that materialism can reduce higher sensibilities by binding them to a lower calculus.

Is this why the Buddha makes his point so explicitly? He says, “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

Profound wisdom (prajna) means being generous without basing that consciousness on anything material or any understanding we have (so far) of physicalism. Now, does this mean that generosity is itself an element of the deepest laws of physics? Do we perceive unconditional generosity because it is already “out there?” Is the universe as we know it generous or is it cold, as so many materialists claim?

The Buddhist answer is that the universe is generous. We know it is vast, abundant, and creative. We k now it “obeys” the laws of physics such as we know them. We know birds fly due to there being air. Is the Buddha saying we can grok profound, unconditioned generosity because it is already “out there?” It’s part of what an enlightened being knows?

In this respect, can we say we have made some progress in analyzing whether maths are “out there” or are mere constructs of our minds? The answer would be both, with an emphasis on maths being “out there.” Surely some of them are wrong, and some are not deep enough, but like the laws of physics or the generosity of a Buddha, maths are also very importantly “out there” and that is why we can find them.

Similar things can be said about other uses of the mind that rise above materialism—music, in this respect, is far more than mere “pleasing sounds,” art more than pretty pictures, poetry more than good sounding words.

Another way to look at this is consider what you mean by your “self,” your “personality,” “ego,” “autobiography,” etc. Can your personality, such that it is, handle detailed analysis of active communication as in FIML practice? I am all but certain it can’t. So what good is it if it cannot even analyze its own listening and speaking while they are happening?

In Buddhism, the self, the personality, the ego are fictions. They obscure reality rather than reveal it. If your personality or self is a touchy little thing inside your head that loses control of its emotions every time it hears anything out of the ordinary, how can it be true? Why would you want it? Why do we organize our senses and beings around such bankrupt concepts as self or personality?

The small answer is we don’t know any better and everyone else does it so we can’t be different. The big answer is the Buddha’s answer. The self is a narrow organizing principle that relies on base sensory calculations to maintain itself and as such is subject to the selfish delusions of greed, pride, anger, and ignorance, to name just a few.

The answer the Buddha gives in the Diamond Sutra to Subhuti’s question is a supreme “physicalist” answer which indicates that just as birds can fly humans can soar.

The Diamond Sutra section 4

Section four has been added to the Diamond Sutra. A link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page or here.

In this section, the Buddha continues to answer Subhuti’s question by emphasizing the importance of generosity. Generosity and wisdom are two of the most important behaviors or aspects of Buddhist practice. In the language of the Diamond Sutra, they are two of the main virtues of a bodhisattva.

Wisdom is always the preeminent Buddhist virtue because without wisdom, all other virtues can be misdirected. And yet, wisdom without generosity can be cold and stale.

But what is generosity and how does one do it? How are we to be generous? The Buddha answers, “…Subhuti, within this phenomenal world, a bodhisattva ought to practice generosity without basing it on anything.”

Then he continues, “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

Form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought are the six basic senses recognized in Buddhism. In this context, form indicates sight and also anything that gives rise to the skandha of sensation. Again, the Buddha is making an unambiguous  statement: “…within this phenomenal world…a bodhisattva…ought to practice generosity without basing it on anything.” And that means neither sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.

The Buddha could not be clearer or more emphatic. Generosity subject to phenomenal attachments, definitions, or rewards is not the sort of generosity he is talking about.

“Subhuti, when the generosity of a bodhisattva is not based on laksana, his goodness is… immeasurable. Subhuti, a bodhisattva should base himself on this teaching and this teaching alone.”

What teaching is that? Being generous without basing it on any laksana, any phenomenal sense or form.

(If you click on the Diamond Sutra tag on the right side of this page, you will find explanations for the parts of the sutra that have already been posted.)