What conversation are we in?

In a large sense—macrocosmically—are we engaged in a Buddhist conversation? In a semiotic one? A psychological one? An anthropological one? An uncategorizable, open, Internet one?

In a small sense—microcosmically—we would do well to ask ourselves this question every time we interact with anyone. Points to consider in these cases are: how much time do we have; what factors are we considering and how are we weighing them; are we understanding each other well; why are we talking at all, and so on?

The URL of this site is americanbuddhist.net, so I suppose we are engaging in a Buddhist conversation. With American characteristics, whatever that means.

We’ve had this site for a few years, and in the early days got so many comments about how there is no such thing as “American Buddhism” that I felt the need to define it as a largely geographical term.

Most “modern Buddhists” living outside of traditional Buddhist areas would probably agree that Buddhism itself is really a conversation, an ongoing research project, a way of actively thinking, a participatory tradition that is not written in stone and never has been written in stone.

This is surely the position of American Buddhist Net and I am all but certain the Buddha himself would agree with us. Maybe he would not agree with the specifics of everything we say, but he would surely support our wish to think for ourselves and apply the Dharma to the world and lives we are now living.

So, I suppose this is largely a Buddhist-oriented, open Internet conversation that often brings up semiotics and, to a lesser degree, psychology and anthropology. The more I think about semiotics, the more I see it as a very valuable modern angle on Buddhism. More on that in a moment.

The more I think about Buddhism and semiotics, the less I seem to think about psychology. For example, I hardly use the term personality anymore because it just doesn’t say much from either a Buddhist or a semiotic point of view. In the first place, from a Buddhist point of view, anything we might call personality is always changing; it’s impermanent, empty, transformable. True, Buddhism does recognize “persistent traits,” but this term is not used often and it is rarely, if ever, used to define someone in the way our current sense of personality defines people.

FIML practice will show partners fairly quickly how much of their thinking about each other is based on unsupportable notions concerning personalities and what they are and how they function.

From a semiotic point of view, especially one informed by Buddhism, we can see much the same thing—as soon as you try to say what someone’s personality is, you will generate a new sign that needs further analysis, and so on ad infinitum. The fact that we will be faced with an “infinite interpretation,” an “infinite continuum,” where we will never be able to find an “absolute individual” very much recalls Buddhist thinking on emptiness.

I first encountered the idea that semiotics shows us that there are no “absolute individuals” in Umberto Eco’s excellent The Limits of Interpretation, which I recommend.

In place of personality, I now see individuals as more or less manifesting cultural or anthropological characteristics which they communicate as semiotic signs, symbols, and “meanings.”

When you talk to close friends or partners, you have to do a good job at microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analysis. If you don’t, you will make many mistakes and soon come to feel estranged from your friends and/or be forced to relate to them in static ways. If you don’t do FIML or something very much like it, you will be all but forced to cling to static semiotics. FIML could be defined as “microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analysis” between friends.

So far, in my readings on semiotics, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, or Buddhism, I have not seen anything that asks people to engage in “microcosmic, real-time, semiotic analyses” with each other. Nothing like FIML.

Maybe there is something, but I haven’t seen it. That’s the reason I started this post the way I did. What kind of conversation are we having? Is it possible for one person to read that widely in so many subjects? I don’t think it is. I probably know more about Buddhism, or have read more widely and thought more about it, than the other subjects. So, for me, this conversation is centered in Buddhism more than the other subjects. I like the way Buddhism is grounded in morality, so that’s another reason.

Semioticians tend to talk a lot about philosophy and literature, while Buddhism centers us more in the lives we are living as we perceive them, however fallibly.

Here are a few terms from semiotics that will be helpful to Buddhists: fallibilism, synechism, vaugeness or indeterminacy.

Fallibilism is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world.

Synechism holds that the essential feature in philosophic speculation is continuity. It denies that all is merely ideas, likewise that all is merely matter, and mind-matter dualism. To my understanding, synechism denies in principle the “absolute individual,” or in Buddhist terms the “own being” of anything, which is another way of saying all things are empty.

Vagueness or indeterminacy, especially with regard to speech acts, mean that we can never be completely certain of what others mean or what we are hearing.

Semiotics is at the center of some other modern major innovations in how we think, such a deconstructionism, relative frames theory, and the vague, propositional indeterminacy that underlies multiculturalism. I often wonder how much semioticians and modern philosophers have been influenced by Buddhist ideas.

Taken together, the study of semiotics and Buddhism deeply changes the way we see the world and live our lives. They affect how we understand what it is to be human, how we communicate, and what we communicate. Buddhism is an excellent foundation for semiotics, while semiotics can extend Buddhist concepts into a more detailed, modern idiom.

How social rejection can help those who think independently

This article is interesting: Social Rejection Can Inhibit Cognitive Ability Or Fuel Imaginative Thinking.

Lead author of the paper, Sharon Kim says:

“For people who already feel separate from the crowd, social rejection can be a form of validation.Rejection confirms for independent people what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like others. For such people, that distinction is a positive one leading them to greater creativity.” (Source in above link)

The actual paper can be found here: Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?

In the Buddhist tradition, there is the idea that “negative conditions” can inspire us to move forward. For people who tend to think independently, having  a few doors slam can be a good thing.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams (c. 1603—1683) was an English Protestant theologian who was an early proponent of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In 1636, he began the colony of Providence Plantation, which provided a refuge for religious minorities. Williams started the first Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church of Providence. He was a student of Native American languages and an advocate for fair dealings with Native Americans. Williams was arguably the very first abolitionist in North America, having organized the first attempt to ban slavery in any of the original thirteen colonies. (Source)

This Wikipedia article is worth reading. Williams was a strong and early advocate of freedom of religion and separation of church and state. His ideas probably influenced the principals expressed in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Buddhists, and others, would do well to reflect on the great importance of the First Amendment, which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“Religion” means something different today than it did during Williams’ life, but Williams’ underlying belief that each individual must be free to follow their own religious convictions is as fundamentally important today as was back then.

American Buddhists obviously benefit from these protections, but even hard atheists and those who dislike all religions should ponder the profound importance of the individual right to believe what you want and to profess your beliefs without interference from the state.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

…the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates. (Source)

This declaration was made on July 7, 2012.

Here is a report on the declaration: Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings.

Suñña Sutta: Empty

Then Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?”

“Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty. And what is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self? The eye is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Forms… Eye-consciousness… Eye-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.

“The ear is empty…

“The nose is empty…

“The tongue is empty…

“The body is empty…

“The intellect is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Ideas… Intellect-consciousness… Intellect-contact is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self. Thus it is said that the world is empty.”

©1997 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Transcribed from a file provided by the translator.
This Access to Insight edition is ©1997–2012.
Terms of use: You may copy, reformat, reprint, republish, and redistribute this work in any medium whatsoever, provided that: (1) you only make such copies, etc. available free of charge; (2) you clearly indicate that any derivatives of this work (including translations) are derived from this source document; and (3) you include the full text of this license in any copies or derivatives of this work. Otherwise, all rights reserved. (Source)

Retail semiotics

This short interview is worth reading: ‘What About Tutoring Instead of Pills?’

A quote:

Kagan: I share your unhappiness. But that is the history of humanity: Those in authority believe they’re doing the right thing, and they harm those who have no power.

Semiotics—what we take to have meaning and how we perceive it symbolically—is generally driven by “those in authority.” They may be academics, doctors, media personalities, corporations, politicians, and so on.

We structure our understanding of ourselves and the world around us based on the semiotics we have accepted. Ordinary people accept, almost always unconsciously, “retail semiotics” that are fashioned, marketed, and sold by “those in authority.”

For example, what has happened to our retail understanding of child development and the treatment of mental illness is the semiotics of these categories is dominated by Big Pharma, which pushes expensive drug treatments while at the same time funding research which has been compromised by that funding.

You can see similar retail-wholesale arrangements in many other areas in any society in the world.

Rather than thinking of people as developing psychologically, it can be very helpful to think of them as developing linguistically, emotionally, and semiotically.

Semiotics is not the same as linguistics, but it does develop in rough parallel to linguistics. As our capacities for language mature, so also does our understanding of meaning and the signs and symbols that bear meaning.

If we decide on a practical career and have few other interests, our understanding of the semiotics of other fields (art, sociology, Buddhism, etc.) will probably suffer. If we are raising a child who is doing poorly in school, we may very well just follow along with what is recommended by “experts” who are themselves retail consumers of the “child development semiotic.”

If those “experts”—a pediatrician, say, and a couple of teachers—claim our child “needs” drugs to perform well in school, we will probably accept what they say with few reservations.

It is very difficult not to do this in many areas of our lives.

The Buddha is famous for saying we should not blindly believe him or anyone else but that we should discover for ourselves what is true. In modern terms, this can be restated to mean be careful of retail semiotics, be skeptical of them and where they originate, look to the evidence and who is providing it.

As Kagan says, if your kid is having trouble in school “…what about tutoring instead of pills?”


Edit: The reason we use the term semiotics on this site is when FIML partners do a FIML query, the data in their minds at the moment(s) in question is best described as raw semiotics. That is, it is the raw material that makes up the composite of consciousness at the moment(s) in question. This material, or data, can be sharply focused, vague, irrelevant to the subject at hand, emotional, associative, organized, disorganized, and so on. When partners get good at observing this data accurately and describing it to each other, they will find that much of it, if not all of it, is connected to a psycho-semiotic network that underlies awareness and gives rise to it. Understanding this network is extremely valuable and will provide partners with great insights into how and why they feel, think, and behave as they do. It is very difficult (and I think impossible) to understand this network through solitary pursuits only. The reason for this is a solitary mind will fool itself. In contrast, two minds working together will be able to observe this network with much greater accuracy. Language, semiotics, and emotion are fundamentally interpersonal operations, so it is reasonable to expect that deep comprehension of these operations will be best achieved through interpersonal activity.