Discussion of rebirth with Jim Tucker

This interview is quite good and well worth reading no matter what your perspective. (link to interview)

Tucker’s “main research interests are children who claim to remember previous lives, and natal and prenatal memories.” He is based at the University of Virginia.

I myself have past-life memories and understand that experiences like that can be difficult and/or frustrating to talk about with others, a point made in the linked interview.

In my view, it is impossible for a science which requires strict reproducibility to deal fully with memories of this type, which are specific to individuals and which obviously cannot be reproduced any more than any memory specific to an individual and contingent on them can be reproduced. Science can only reproduce phenomena that everyone can see.

I am fully cognizant of the materialist scientific paradigm and work. live, and reason within in it a great deal. At the same time, I cannot honestly tell myself that my own life experiences and memories, none of which are reproducible, have no value.

My guess is that redefining “materialism” to mean “physicalism,” a point not made in the interview, can help people who feel deeply rooted in the scientific world-view entertain other possibilities.

In a nutshell, physicalism means simply “obeying the laws of physics.” Since we can never be sure that we know all of the laws of physics and do not today even understand how the laws we do know hold together, physicalism can work as a sort of mind-opener for materialists, an avenue of unknowns that includes more of the deep realities of sentient existence without always consigning them to fantasy or superstition.

Repost: The five skandhas and modern science

A recent study on emotional response—Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces—indicates that the Buddha’s five skandha explanation of consciousness has it right.

From the study’s abstract:

The findings demonstrate that the amygdala can be influenced by even high-level facial information before that information is consciously perceived, suggesting that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.

Note that all important phrase “…before that information is consciously perceived.”

The five skandhas are form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation, which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness. In the Buddha’s explanation, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of discrete or discernible moments. A form arises or appears, then there is a sensation, then perception, then activity, then consciousness.

Advanced training in meditation and mindfulness is probably necessary for most people to be able to observe the five skandhas individually, as they are actually “firing,” but it can be done. A good deal of Buddhist practice is based on being able to do that.

Though all brain imaging studies must be taken as provisional since the technology is not completely reliable, they still are providing us with some very interesting information worth considering.

The amygdala study cited above seems to confirm that people form significant emotional reactions to faces without being conscious of their reactions at all. In Buddhist terms, their reactions are (or take place at) the second skandha—sensation.

The skandha of sensation is defined as a reaction to a form that is either positive, negative, or neutral. That is, we either like, dislike, or don’t care about the form. In the amygdala study the form is the face that is flashed very briefly on a screen. The face appears so briefly, for just a few milliseconds, that it is not possible to actually “see” or be aware of having “seen” it.

I think it is fair to extrapolate from this study that we humans are forming sensations all the time without being aware of what we are doing. As the authors of the study say, the study “[suggests] that the amygdala’s processing of social cues in the absence of awareness may be more extensive than previously described.”

“…processing of social cues in the absence of awareness” is pretty good description of what the Buddha called delusion, especially if we realize that the delusions we “process” from forms arising outside of us are entwined with and not very different from delusions we process from forms arising within us.

The Buddha’s five skandha explanation, thus, provides a way to observe and analyze our minds to prevent our becoming deluded by the tug of sensations that happen in the “absence of awareness.”

A few days ago, I reposted an essay that touches on this subject from a different angle and a different study: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots.

Here is a pretty good article on the study cited above: Friend Or Foe? Even When Faces Are Not Clearly Visible, Your Brain Unconsciously Makes Judgments.

Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya (On Right Speech)

….[1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”

Source

translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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.”

______________________

* 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.

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.