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.)

Israeli soldiers from elite wire-tapping unit refuse to use ‘extortion’, ‘blackmail’

“I’m worried that Israeli society will see us as traitors, as people who are trying to harm Israel, while in reality it’s the opposite. We’re doing this because we feel a sense of urgency, a sense of responsibility for the place we live in,” another captain said.

“The continuous cycle of violence is something that has to be stopped and something we can’t be a part of.” (Source)

A person can do great moral good by just stopping. Sometimes what is stopped is a “cycle of violence,” one that goes back and forth and on and on. Sometimes the good comes from just stopping reacting badly. For example, a tree falls on your car, making you feel bad, so you yell at your wife who then is sharp with a colleague who then goes home and drinks too much….etc.

The Diamond Sutra section 3

Note to readers: It will probably take a month or more to put up the entire sutra. If you read along as we go, section by section, you will absorb the sutra slowly and easily and be able to get much more out of it than if you read it quickly.

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

Kumarajiva’s translation of the Diamond Sutra was divided into thirty-two sections by Prince Zhaoming of the Liang Dynasty (502-587). The sutra has been divided in different ways by others, but the Zhaoming division has remained the most widely used to this day. The titles of the sections are also his.

Section Three is called “The Heart of the Mahayana” because it contains the basic Mahayana vow to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment. In a word, to “save” them. The version and explanation of the vow in this section is the “heart,” or deepest explanation of the vow, because it includes both the helping part and the empty part.

As the Buddha says in this section, “All great bodhisattvas…should realize as they vow to save all sentient beings that in truth there are no sentient beings to be saved.”

This is both an answer to Subhuti’s question and a rephrasing of it. In the last paragraph of this section, the Buddha answers with more detail: “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.”

Laksana is a Sanskrit word meaning “characteristic,” “mark,” “symptom,” or “mental thing (dharma).” It is often translated as “characteristic,” “mark,” “thought,” or “idea.”

The basic meaning of laksana is “dharma of the mind” or “thing of the mind.” Thus, if a bodhisattva has any “thing at all in their mind about there being selves, human beings, sentient beings, or souls” when they are generous, they are not truly a bodhisattva. This describes the ultimate selflessness of self and other.

In this translation, the word “soul” has been used. A more literal translation would be an entity that “takes rebirth” or lives after this body is gone.

Word choices are fascinating and need to be discusse, but to avoid getting lost in them, it is best to remember that in this section, the Buddha is categorically saying that no matter what kind of sentient being you can conceive of, in truth, there are no sentient beings, there is no saving them, and if a bodhisattva has an iota of a sense that they are doing that or that they have a self, then they are not truly a bodhisattva.

In other posts we have discussed fractals in the humanities. This concept may help in understanding the meaning of this section and in glimpsing the meaning of the sutra itself. Surely all of us at one time or another have acted with a pure heart and a pure mind to give to or help another with no thought of ourselves or even of them. For at least a moment we dwelt within a pure state of mind and feeling that was utterly selfless, sublime.

Rather than say that state is the Diamond Sutra, let’s say that it is a state that points toward the meaning of the sutra. That state is a small fractal of the larger fractal set described by the sutra. Altruistic consciousness freed from the marks self, other, calculation, design.

The Diamond Sutra sections 1 and 2

Section two of the Diamond Sutra has been posted here. The sutra can also be accessed from a link at the top of this page.

The first section of the sutra, which was posted yesterday, tells us who heard the Buddha’s talk, where the talk occurred, and who was there. The “I” of the phrase “Thus have I heard…” is Ananda, one of the Buddha’s main disciples.

The second section tells us why the Buddha gave this talk. It is a response to a question asked by Subhuti. Since Subhuti is a senior monk, who is well-versed in the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness, we know that the questioner is asking for a deep answer.

Subhuti’s question is “…when good men and good women commit themselves to anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, on what should they base themselves, and how should they subdue their minds?”

Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi means “complete, unsurpassed enlightenment,” which is the ultimate goal of all Buddhist practice.

Since all “conditioned things” are empty (including us), Subhuti is asking how does an empty being attain enlightenment? Or, as he put it, “…on what should they base themselves?” (“…and how should they subdue their minds?”) An important sense of this question is how does an empty being “base” itself on anything?

The Buddha repeats Subhuti’s question word-for-word. This repetition is common in Buddhist literature as it avoids ambiguity. The rest of the sutra is the Buddha’s answer to Subhuti’s question.

Tathagata is one the ten names of the Buddha.

The Diamond Sutra

I am going to start putting up a translation of the Diamond Sutra. The link to the sutra can be found at the top of this page or here. To share the sutra we are going to use the Creative Commons license which allows copying and sharing but prevents commercial use of the material.

I will put up the whole sutra gradually as I want to reread it and make changes where necessary. At first I am just going to put up a plain translation. Eventually I will add a translation with notes, explaining in some detail what terms mean or why something has been translated as it has.

The Diamond Sutra is a concise Buddhist teaching that emphasizes wisdom and generosity. The translation of the sutra presented here was made from Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation, which was completed in 401 CE. It is the oldest known complete version of the sutra.

I apologize for the need to use the Creative Commons license at all, but suppose it will make sense to most readers. In the beginning, I am afraid the license will be quite prominent, but as the page grows it will just be a small paragraph at the end.

In my view, the Diamond Sutra is one of the world’s great texts. It provides a view into the past and into the Buddha’s teachings that inspires readers to this day. It describes a very high level of awareness, or conscious wisdom, concerning giving help to others. The giving is generally understood to be the giving of the Buddha’s teachings, but it can also be understood as giving of yourself, what you know, giving the best of your own unique and indescribable awareness.

A great advantage of the Buddhist tradition is there is no “word of God” that has to be followed exactly forevermore. Nothing in Buddhism is written in stone. Rather than being the start of an unchangeable tradition, the Buddha’s teachings are best seen as the start of a living, growing tradition that can and should be worked and reworked by every generation.

As the Diamond Sutra itself says:

All conditioned things

are like dreams, like illusions,

like bubbles, like shadows,

like dew, like lightning

and all of them should be contemplated in this way.

Fractals in the humanities

“A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale.” (Wikipedia)

Most of us know what math fractals look like and understand that shorelines and trees exhibit fractal patterns that display at different scales.

I think we can also see fractal patterns or sets in the humanities.

For example, the five skandha explanation in Buddhism to be fully understood must be conceived of as a fractal pattern that repeats at different scales. The normal explanation of the five skandhas is as follows:

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. (Ibid.)

This explanation describes the most basic fractal pattern or the smallest one. “…the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly.”

A simple example of this rapid movement of the five skandhas might be the experience of having something suddenly touch your neck. Your first awareness of this is the form. Your next awareness is the sensation; at this point you react with aversion, attraction, or neutrality. If you are outside, you might react with aversion as you perceive (third skandha) the touch to probably be an insect. Following that, there is often rapid physical activity (fourth skandha) as you involuntarily reach to brush it away. After that has been done, you will determine what actually happened, you will become conscious (fifth skandha) of what happened.

If it was an insect you might shudder or feel relieved. If it was a leaf on a tree branch you might feel a bit foolish. Your consciousness of the event comes after the first four skandhas have arisen or occurred.

A larger fractal version of the above might be the feeling (form, or first skandha) that you are ignorant about something. This form gives rise to an aversive sensation (second skandha), which leads you to perceive (third skandha) that you ignorance is probably something you should correct. This leads to mental activity (fourth skandha) which may require months of your time. At last, when you are satisfied that you are no longer ignorant on that subject, you will experience a new state of consciousness (fifth skandha).

In the above example, your ongoing feeling of ignorance as you study the subject might also be described as the fifth skandha, consciousness. Understanding that the five skandha explanation is a fractal pattern to be used to help you understand yourself will allow you to apply it where it can do the most good. As with so many things in the humanities, you will do better if you see the pattern and use it to aid understanding without letting yourself get trapped in a quasi-logical net that hinders understanding.

FIML practice can be seen as a fractal pattern as well. The smallest, or most basic level, is the basic FIML query which interrupts normal communicative processing to insert rational thought and more accurate information. The FIML query interrupts the mind as soon as the second skandha, sensation, arises. Whenever partners question a sensation, they will immediately change all of the five skandhas associated with it. Rather than follow a semi-conscious sensation down the same associative path as usual, partners gain an entry point to their deep psychology and an awareness of how their communications are affected by it.

A larger fractal pattern of FIML, might be hearing about it (form); feeling interested in it (sensation); perceiving what it is; learning the system (activity); and lastly gaining a new consciousness about how language can be made to work much better than without FIML.

FIML is a tool that helps partners leverage communicative details to gain great insight into how their minds work. Since FIML is not (yet) the rule for how people speak to each other, a non-FIML fractal pattern can be seen in society at large: since most people do not have a way to access the highly important details that FIML can access, they do not expect anyone else to access them. Thus, by default they accept horribly sloppy reasoning and lies from politicians and others who make important statements in public.

The fractal pattern of non-FIML communication in society at large is all but defined by lies, secrets, and hidden motives. At a smaller fractal level, so are the personal lives of most people. The world goes on. It is my guess that brain scans and better computers and computer programs will one day make it easier for people to see that having the ability to perceive and manipulate communicative details greatly enhances communication. And that communication so enhanced greatly enhances our understanding of ourselves and others. And that this sort of understanding will help us see that we do not have to live in a society that is all but characterized by lies, sloppy reasoning, and partisan nonsense.

In the humanities, fractal patterns can be seen at many levels. By changing the details of very significant communicative patterns between ourselves and our partners, we will change both ourselves and our perceptions of others, and this will gradually lead to better concepts of what society is and how it can function.

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.

Repost: we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots

This report–Brain oscillations reveal that our senses do not experience the world continuously–supports the core activity of FIML practice, which entails noticing the first instant(s) of the arising of an emotional jangle (that is typically tied to a much more involved “mistaken interpretation” within the brain). By interfering with the first instant(s) of arising, FIML practice forestalls the habitual wave of neurotic interpretation that normally follows. Instead, new information–better data obtained from the FIML partner–is used to replace the cue that led to the initial jangle, thus redefining that cue.

Professor Gregor Thut of the University of Glasgow, where the study was conducted, says of its results: “For perception, this means that despite experiencing the world as a continuum, we do not sample our world continuously but in discrete snapshots determined by the cycles of brain rhythms.”

I would further hypothesize that the same holds true for our “perceptions” of inner emotional states. In this context, recall the five skandhas of Buddhism–form, sensation, perception, activity, consciousness. A form can arise in the mind or outside of the mind. This form gives rise to a sensation (a FIML jangle is a type of sensation), which gives rise to perception, followed by activity (mental or physical), and lastly consciousness.

In Buddhist teachings, the five skandhas occur one after the other, very rapidly. They are not a continuous stream but rather a series of “discrete snapshots”, to use Thut’s words. In FIML practice, partners want to interfere with what has become a habitual “firing” of their five skandhas based on (neurotic) learned cues. FIML practice strives to prevent full-blown neurotic consciousness (the fifth skandha) from taking control of the mind by replacing the source of that consciousness with a more realistic interpretation of the neurotic cue. The cue corresponds to form in the five skandhas explanation. The more realistic interpretation of that cue is based on the true words of the partner.

The five skandhas can also help us understand how FIML is different from more or less normal psychological analysis. In normal, or traditional, analysis we use theories and schema to understand ourselves. In FIML we use a specific technique to interfere with habitual neurotic “firings” of the five skandhas. FIML partners are encouraged to theorize and speak about themselves in any way they like, and it is very helpful to do this, but the core FIML activity cannot be replaced by just theorizing or telling stories.

Here is a link to the study itself: Sounds Reset Rhythms of Visual Cortex and Corresponding Human Visual Perception.

Kevin MacDonald

I am a huge supporter of free speech, both in public and in private. I mention this because I am dismayed at how little can be said in private even among close friends, while even less can be said in public.

I am also terrified at the idea that the USA may eventually enact hate speech laws. As a linguist, I know from study and practice that limiting speech to pre-approved topics and emotions is the bane of social and intellectual progress.

As a Buddhist, my main complaint against the Dharma as we have received it is its emphasis on “right speech” with no mention of right listening. Over-emphasizing speech while ignoring the importance of good listening gives all power to the listener to interpret what they hear without analyzing it.

Having grown up in a community that was about 40% Jewish and having spent many years in China and East Asia, I am very used to how these groups speak about themselves and others. Editorials that would be deemed “racist” in the USA or Europe are common in East Asia where discussions of race and racial/ethnic interests are normal.

Kevin MacDonald is a scholar of Jewish history and Jewish “group strategies” as interpreted from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. It is refreshing to read MacDonald’s work because it is clearly referenced and argued and because he is not Jewish.

Not being Jewish gives him an objective point of view that frees him from some bias. One bias that affects the way many Americans perceive Jews today is the great prominence of the Holocaust in our understanding of Jewish history coupled with almost complete ignorance of the prominent role played by Jews in the Great Famine (Holodomor 1932-33) in Ukraine. Here is a piece by MacDonald on that subject: Stalin’s Willing Executioners: Jews a a hostile elite in the USSR.

Here is an essay posted by MacDonald just today: Žižek, Group Selection, and the Western Culture of Guilt. In this piece, he defends and explains himself better that I can. I highly recommend both of his linked essays.

When he is not being completely ignored, MacDonald is often called a racist or even a neo-Nazi, words strong enough to scare most listeners away. What is conspicuously absent is reasoned refutation of his well-argued ideas. Either he is right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong. But no one who has read his Culture of Critique could in good conscience dismiss it out of hand or conclude that MacDonald is racist or anti-Semitic.

I admire MacDonald for his scholarship, much of which I accept as adding to our understanding of the past and present. And I also admire him for his courage to speak publicly and to make his views known to a wider audience through The Occidental Observer, which promotes “white identity, interests, and culture.”

If those last few words make you shiver, go live in China where the promotion of Chinese identity, interests, and culture is the rule, not the exception. Or read any of scores of Jewish publications that do the same. Or Japanese, or Korean, or Mongolian, or pretty much anywhere in the world.

But white. Why white? Why not Irish, or French, or Polish, or Italian? Why white? The reason is the genes and culture(s) of European-derived peoples are mixed together. So if you want to preserve or promote the interests or culture(s) of those people you probably should use a simple word like white.

I have spent much of my life supporting civil rights, first for blacks, then for women, then for everyone. Then I became involved in promoting the interests of Chinese immigrants, followed by the interests of Tibetans in Tibet (now a largely lost cause, I fear). But only recently did it ever even occur to me to support the interests of white culture.

I got this way due to time and growth but also due to my painfully slow realization that the non-white groups I was supporting virtually never supported my group, the white people group. Yes, they sometimes supported me, but only if I were supporting them, often against real or imagined white oppression.

I don’t for a second deny that white people have done horrible things, but so have all the other groups, including Jews. When we don’t have free speech and we allow the listener to decide what can be said or not, we tend always to emphasize one side of things while leaving out other facts and interpretations.

Speech is always suppressed by those with the power to do it. There is much truth in the saying that you can tell who rules over you by what you are not allowed to say. This is as true in a Chinese Buddhist monastery, as it is in a Japanese classroom, as it is in American media.

I do not believe this is good for anyone. We should be open and free in what we say, how we reason, and how we think. Open discussion promotes a safer and better world for everyone. Kevin MacDonald is either right or wrong or partly right and partly wrong. He should be read and discussed widely and not simply ignored or dismissed with ad hominem attacks.

Empathy’s evil twin and our need to understand it

Empathy literally means the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by another sentient being.

It is almost always bound up with sympathy and compassion. Empathy as we normally think of it is a good thing, a liberal thing, a Buddhist thing, a kindly thing. But is that a good thing?

William Blake wrote the wonderful book of poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience. When I first read Blake in my late teens, I adored the poems and illustrations of the Songs of Innocence and largely disliked or ignored the Songs of Experience. I liked the joy, innocence, and passion of the Songs of Innocence but not the sober truths of the Songs of Experience.

Culturally, as far as I can tell, America is infatuated with the innocence of empathy, but not the sober truths that should go hand in hand with it.

If all people were nice and kind and never did bad things, it would be good to be innocent about empathy. But not all people are good. Indeed, most of us are only good sometimes and some of us are really bad a lot of the time.

Do you have the capacity to recognize the emotions being experienced by a person intent on doing harm? Doesn’t our current sense of what empathy entails leave out empathy’s evil twin, the bad emotions and intentions of other sentient beings?

I don’t know if it is still true today, but Japanese tourists visiting the USA used to get mugged and raped at levels well above their percentage of the population. The reason was, and maybe still is, they were too innocent and could not perceive the evil intent of their new “friend” or the cool dude asking them for the time.

This happened because Japan has less violent crime than the USA and because Japanese tourists were not able to imagine or read American situational exchanges. And this shows that empathy for evil is based both on expectation and culture, which are close in nature.

The Buddha said that we can only really know another human being after long association. Even he cautioned about being innocent and empathizing only with the good we see in others while failing to recognize the bad.