The essence of all religions?

Some people think it goes something like this:

“Through social and cultural conditioning, we each build a false self—an ego—and imagine that is who we really are.

This ego is a harmful illusion that prevents us from perceiving reality as it truly is.

Meditation gradually strips away the layers of ego. Buried deep within, we find our true selves.

This true self is radiant, pure, undivided, perfectly simple.

Our true self is none other than Ultimate Reality itself—or is directly, intimately, organically connected with that Eternal Absolute Infinite, which is the entire universe.

The essence of all religions is the transformative perception of that magical connection to all beings. It is the profound, non-conceptual experience of the Oneness of the universe.

This is heart and the path and the goal of Buddhism: the mystical experience of enlightenment.”

This is an attractive story, with a compelling logic. It is accepted without question in “Consensus Buddhism.”

I think it’s entirely wrong. It’s also almost right—so it’s a bit hard to see how wrong it is.

I think it matters that it is wrong. This is not just a matter of definitions, or sterile intellectual debate.

Here’s a really short version of why it’s wrong:

  • There isn’t a true self. (This is as close to an essence as most versions of Buddhism have got…)
  • There isn’t an Absolute Infinite, either. (That’s not what emptiness, or nirvana, or other Buddhist abstractions are.)
  • Most Buddhists, for the past couple thousand years, would have disagreed that mystical experience is the essence of Buddhism. Most would probably not have recognized it as being Buddhist at all.

Here’s a really short version of why it matters:

  • This story leads to meditating in a particular way. Other stories lead to other ways of meditating.
  • If your meditation aims at perceiving and unifying two things that don’t exist, you’ll be disappointed.
  • Worse, you are likely to miss what meditation actually can provide.
  • And, this misunderstanding leads you to dismiss valuable parts of Buddhism because they don’t produce mystical experiences.

This may take a whole lotta ’splainin’. The next several posts in this blog series will look at how different understandings of meditation have shaped Consensus Buddhism.

The mystical story is a modern, Western one. The reason many find it attractive and compelling is that it seems to solve the fundamental “problems of modernity.” It can also be found in some Buddhisms, which is part of why Buddhism is popular in the West.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to explain the “problems of modernity,” and why mystical experience seems like a solution. I’ll end by saying just a little about a better alternative.

The disenchantment and reenchantment of the world

1. Tradition: meaning is external and eternal

Before modernity, there was tradition. The traditional world was full of magic and meaning. Meaning was out there: in gods, demons, spirits, sacred places, idols, and saints. Meaning was unquestioned and unchanging.

In the traditional world, your identity was automatically defined by your fixed place in the eternal cosmic order.

In traditional Christianity, there was God, who was a bad-tempered guy in the sky; and people had souls, which survived death.

Traditional religion—in Christianity and Buddhism—consisted of ethics, rituals, and beliefs. No doubt people “had religious experiences,” but that was not what religion was about.

2. Modernity: meaning is internal and insecure

In the modern world, science and rationality leached the magic and meaning out of the material world. According to science, there is no awesome guy in the sky. The mind is the activity of the brain, and ceases at death. There’s no evidence of any afterlife.

Religious beliefs were all proven false. Ritual—an external activity—became meaningless. Waving your arms about and chanting gibberish did nothing.

The sacred, the numinous, the transcendant—they died. The glory of God’s creation was reduced to commodities to be bought and sold. The cosmic order collapsed. Humanity was alienated from nature and the universe-as-a-whole.

Meaning retreated from the external world to the internal world. Meaning became subjective, psychological. That meant people gave the world meaning, rather than the world giving us meaning.

Without an external cosmic order, people had to give each other meanings. Your own meaning—your self—was no longer given by God. You had to construct it out of partial meanings given by family, school, culture and society.

The traditional world had known only one, local, unquestioned culture. The modern world brought disagreement: diverging beliefs about what was true, what things meant, and what was right or wrong.

The defining feature of modernity was the search for a way to resolve those disagreements. Some foundational truth, some solid ground, was wanted to provide certainty.

Unfortunately, none could be found. Increasingly people realized that subjective meaning was no meaning at all. The threat of nihilism loomed: maybe reality was completely meaningless, ethics were just pointless social rules, and there was no purpose in living.

Meanwhile, the self, conditioned by increasingly complicated, dissonant social and cultural forces, became complex and divided against itself. This self, this ego, could not provide any stable meaning for the world. Increasingly it became itself a problem, an obstacle.

This lead to a search for a way to overcome, to transcend, the ego. Only by escaping social conditioning could one become a true individual.

These were the “problems of modernity.” They produced a pervasive, diffuse anxiety and alienation; a sense of lack, which led to constant questing.

I’m using the past tense here because, for some, the modern world ended late in the last century. For us, the problems of modernity are no longer compelling. Others feel them as keenly as ever. This explains a lot about Buddhism in 2011. But, we mostly won’t get to that until near the end of this blog series.

3. Mysticism: restoring certainty to meaning

Mysticism offers a way out.

Mysticism finds certainty in direct experience, which cannot be contradicted. This experience is non-conceptual, non-rational, ineffable, so it cannot be challenged with rational logic.

Psychology can probe the false self. Science can say things about thoughts, beliefs, cognition, even emotions. The true self, the deep self, cannot be found by external science. It has no characteristics. It is immune to empirical criticism.

The Absolute, the Ground of Being, cannot be found by science either. It is too pervasive, too ethereal, too simple. You cannot find it with a microscope or telescope. But you can experience it. And then you know. In the union of the true self and the Eternal Infinite, all doubt ends.

Because the Absolute is none other than the entire universe, it animates all things. It gives all things meaning. With mystic insight, you realize that everything is sacred. The magic of the world is restored. This magic is not the gross external violations of physics that science denies. It is the shimmering numinosity that can be perceived only with the awakened eye.

Because each of us is totally connected with this cosmic source, we never need to feel alienated from the natural world, or from each other.

In discovering your true nature, you are freed from the arbitrary fetters of society and culture. You become the limitless individual that you always really were.

There’s just one problem. How do you make all that stuff happen? Perhaps some rare, special people realize their true nature spontaneously. But for most people, this seems an unattainable fantasy.

No ordinary method will do. What is needed is some kind of magic that, like an electric spark jumping a gap to complete a circuit, connects the true self to the Absolute. Some method that—like the true self and the Absolute—is perfectly simple, profoundly internal yet encompassing the universe, devoid of characteristics.

In the late 1800s, the West discovered Hindu and Buddhist meditation with huge excitement. Here, it seemed, was the missing method.

Christian salvation without talking snakes and telepathic zombies

The mystical interpretation of Buddhism makes sense because it is an abstract version of Christian salvation.

To be a Christian, you have to believe that you suffer because a talking snake convinced your ancestors to eat a magic fruit, and that the way to end suffering is to communicate telepathically with a zombie.

By 1800, it had become impossible for educated people to believe this mythology. The German Romantic Idealists invented an influential form of mysticism as a demythologized version of Protestant Christianity.

The “true self” is the soul, which yearns to find the Absolute. The Absolute is a God which is no longer a guy in the sky, but which remains all-powerful and all-knowing, and is the source of everything that is good.

For Protestant Christianity, your job is to bring your soul into the right relationship with God. If you succeed, your soul returns to God after death. Mysticism wants to accomplish that before dying. Then the true self will be found to be eternal—because it is none other than the Absolute itself.

In Christian contemplation, you search your soul for for hidden impulses to sin, and for signs of God’s grace. In Protestant Buddhism, meditation is also taught as a close examination of one’s self. You examine your experience to find the kleshas, and hope beneath them to discover the luminous true self.

Protestant Buddhism bases its understanding of powerful meditation experiences—kensho, sotapatti, whatever—on the experience of radical conversion or “rebirth” in Christianity, in which you find God within yourself.

Buddhism without mysticism

I reject the mystical interpretation of Buddhism. Not because it’s not Buddhist; you can find something like it in some traditional brands of Buddhism. I reject it because I don’t believe there is a false self, a true self, or an Absolute.

That’s because we never were divided from the world. The chasm between self and other, which mysticism tries to leap, was never there.

When meditation is thought of as an examination of the self, of inner experience, it creates the problem it is supposed to solve.

There are other ways of understanding meditation.

Meditation can show that meaning is neither external nor internal; the self is neither infinite nor bounded; purposes are neither ultimate nor illusory; reality is neither One nor divided.

More about that later.

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46 Responses to The essence of all religions?

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    Meanwhile, the self, conditioned by increasingly complicated, dissonant social and cultural forces, became complex and divided against itself. This self, this ego, could not provide any stable meaning for the world. Increasingly it became itself a problem, an obstacle.

    In my model of multiple-selves, the selves manifest as a clustering of skills and perspectives depending on setting. But I can imagine this in any era. In the Middle Ages, certainly people felt different when with family, in their church, drinking with friends after combat, or having sex with a partner. I can’t imagine self stable then too.
    The part of self that is defined by submission in society and defined afterlife may have been more secure, but the rest fluctuated too.
    So, I can’t imagine the folks in this “Traditional” period as totally different than us “Modern” folks. But I get the emphasis as themes you are making.
    Do you think I am mistaken?

  2. Acutia says:

    Excellent post. I’m looking forward to the series. Have you seen Thanisssaro Bhikkhu’s take on the lenses that unwittingly shape Western Buddhisms . It covers ground you’ve dealt with in detail elsewhere but an rather cogent way. Though I sense underneath his analysis an undercurrent of doctrinal fundamentalism that favours his tradition only.

  3. @ Sabio — Yes, talking about “traditional” and “modern” is always a simplification. The difference is a matter of degree, not a radical rupture.

    @ Acutia — Yes, that article by Thanissaro Bikkhu was one of the main inspirations for this blog series! Thanks for posting the link to it. I’ll probably come around to discussing it explicitly later in the series. I agree that some of what he says applies only to Theravada, and perhaps only to a scriptural-fundamentalist interpretation of Theravada. But I think his overall analysis is right on target. This post is, in a way, my attempt at summarizing his article.

  4. roni says:

    Hi, David,

    I think setting Christian Mysticsm (most frequently Meister Eckhart) in a Buddhist framework has also played a great role in this interpreatation of the Buddhist practice. See: Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist D.T. Suzuki, The Christian-Buddhist Dialogue in America. For me what makes the Absolute similar to Nirvana is that it’s beyond (whatever that means) concepts, beyond everyday language. And here you can also find parallels between Buddhist text an those of the mystics. Surely there are more, but one similarity is their emphasis on silence that can be heard beyond (hm…) the phenomena (see: sound of silence – meditation method by Ajahn Sumedho, Saint John of Cross and his emphasis on ‘divine silence’). I may go too far with this assumption, but this quest for internal and external silence might be the undetlying idea of (silent) reatreats for lay Buddhists – also something that can be found in the Christian tradition, but only in monastic settings.

    Keep on writing, it is very inspiring. Greetings,


  5. Jayarava says:

    I didn’t get past the first part about ego. I can’t buy into the Buddhist demonisation of the ego. While I agree that we make mistakes about the nature of our selfhood, becoming a self clearly held evolutionary advantages for our ancestors. Without the sense of selfhood this conversation would not be possible – there would be no language, no communication beyond the simple emotional grunts of animals, no learning, no ability to reflect. We see this in people with under-developed egos, those who lack what R.D. Laing called Ontological Security cannot fully function and would find Dharma practice difficult if not impossible. Lack of all ego reduces the person to a vegetable. So I cannot imagine that this is what the Buddha had in mind for us, and I think we either need to talk about it another way, or refine the language we do use. Preferably the former in my opinion.

    In more Buddhist terms the ego is what makes us human, and it is only from the human realm that awakening is possible. That awakening includes a better understanding of the nature of our selfhood I would not quibble with. But to demonise what makes us human cripples us from the start. Demon worship not withstanding ;-)

    I don’t often disagree with what you right, but I’ve always found this a sticking point in traditional Buddhist narratives.

  6. Sabio Lantz says:

    (1) “Ego” has lots of uses in English. I’d love to see that word go away. “Ego” seems to carry many Freudian connotations and common uses implying “pride”. In common use Ego is always “bad”. “Self” is loaded too, but why complicate things. Agreeing with Jayarava, I think “self” evolved adaptively and is not a Gouldian spandrel .
    [Note: I just read a little on Laing -- he's from the "anti-psychiatry" crowd and had a torn-up personal life.]

    (2) David said:

    Without an external cosmic order, people had to give each other meanings. Your own meaning—your self—was no longer given by God. You had to construct it out of partial meanings given by family, school, culture and society.

    Is it common to equate “meaning” with “self”? I think of “self” as a temporary clustering of functions and relationships to operate in the world. I look at it as mechanical — it happens before we think of it. “Meaning” is only a post-hoc phenomena. Also, “Meaning” is not something many folks think about — it seems a bit modern to me. But I have not thought much about it.

  7. @ Jayarava — Oh dear, I’m afraid my introductory sentence may have misled you into reading as far as you did with exactly the wrong impression. The point of this post is to criticize and reject the Romantic/mystical (mis)interpretation of Buddhism. I think we agree strongly about that… All the indented stuff at the beginning is in scare quotes, because I think it is wrong. I’ve updated the title of the post and the first sentence to help prevent this mis-reading. [If this is not why you disagreed, I'd very much like to understand why.]

    @ Jayarava and Sabio — I agree that the word “ego” has no place in Buddhism. Western explanations of anatman have conflated “ego” and/or the Cartesian cogito with atman or svabhava, and that is seriously misleading. I also agree that “self” is probably an evolutionary adaptation (although the English word probably doesn’t correspond exactly to anything biological).

    @ Sabio — Concern with one’s own identity, and what that means, is said to be characteristic of the modern age. Modern people often have “identity crises”, which are crises of meaning; traditional people mostly don’t.

  8. @ Roni — Thank you very much for the links! I’ve read a little of Suzuki’s book just now.

    I am wary of “what makes the Absolute similar to Nirvana is that it’s beyond concepts, beyond everyday language.” Two things that have one thing in common are not always the same thing! There might be many quite different things that are beyond concepts and everyday language.

    Although nirvana and the Absolute are both supposed to be impossible to speak of, people do say a lot about both of them. So we can look to see whether they say the same things.

    I am glad you are finding the series interesting!


  9. Noah says:

    @ David

    “When meditation is thought of an examination of the self, of inner experience, it creates the problem it is supposed to solve.”

    Yeah, I just was looking at “The Fallacy of the Stolen Concept” on the Wikker-pid-a-tron:

    It seems related.

    AND I was just reading the Q&A with Guenther at the end of The Dawn of Tantra by Trungpa Rinpoche. Guenther talks about how the Madhyamikas undermined the Yogacharins’ view that a “self” even existed.
    Guenther says:

    “But the Yogacharins’ view, for all its sophistication in relation to the earlier schools, remained naive. In dealing with mind, they concretized and affirmed it as a particular existent. The odd thing is that when we make positive statements, we exclude. If we want to be inclusive, we must make negative statements; we must continuously say ‘not this, not that.’ If I say ‘horse,’ I exclude everything that isn’t a horse. But certainly there are also cows. So in affirming as ultimate a particular existent we fall into this trap. This is precisely the point at which the idea of shunyata as openness enters. Shunyata is an absolutely positive term in a negative form.”

    I know that this is Tibetan Buddhism, but it seems pertinent.

    Oh, and this was golden:
    “…the way to end suffering is to communicate telepathically with a zombie.” :D :D

    It’s amazing how things look from a slightly different perspective.
    Maybe I’ll go as Zombie Jesus for Halloween this year.:)

    Thanks, David.

  10. roni says:

    @ David: Sorry, my wording was misleading. I did not intend to support the view that the Absolute and Nirvana are identical, just would have liked to add one more aspect (that is language or rather the shortcomings of language) where this identification can (and is) made.

  11. @ Noah

    The core issue here is how to reconcile emptiness/no-self with Buddha-nature. There seems to be something importantly right about the claim that we have no essential nature, and also something importantly right about the claim that we are all always already Buddhas. (Both of these can be confirmed experientially in meditation practice.) But, they also seem to contradict each other.

    So a lot of the history of Buddhist philosophy is people trying to figure out how to reconcile them. The Yogacharins emphasized Buddha-nature, and the Madhyamikas emphasized emptiness. [Guenther's bit about positive and negative statements has to do with the Prasangika vs. Sautrantika distinction within Madhyamaka; personally I think that's mostly a technical red herring.]

    The view of Nyingma philosophy is that mainstream Madhyamaka is nihilistic (it denies too much), and Yogachara is eternalistic (it thinks that mind is a concrete thing). Naturally, the official Nyingma view is that Dzogchen philosophy synthesizes the two in a way that is just right. For years I’ve been trying to figure out whether I agree, and I’m still not sure!

    The view of both mainstream Tibetan Madhyamaka and Dzogchen would be that Suzuki’s version of Zen is way too eternalistic. Other versions of Zen, probably not so much!

  12. Noah says:

    Thank you for fielding all these very different questions from people with very different communication styles/intelligences than you.

    Not sure how you do it.

    We should all pitch-in and get you a gift certificate to T.G.I. Fridays or something. :)

  13. Karmakshanti says:

    Interesting to see your new series. While a lot of these issues can be teased out into verbal philosophy, or mystical theology, it has always seemed to me that Buddhism is praxis and most of the time any verbal philosophy and mystical theology simply gets in the way. Maybe it does “matter”, but what does it’s mattering actually have to say about what happens when you sit, what happens when you walk, what happens when you start to try to really pay attention to things?

    At the swimming pool, you can listen to the weather report about how hot it is, to judge how cool the water might be, you can look to see how much of the pool is in direct sunlight or is rippled by a breeze to adjust your guess, and you can bring along a thermometer to stick in the water to confirm it or deny it.

    But you don’t know whether you’ll enjoy it until you jump in.

  14. ~C4Chaos says:


    i agree with you that there’s no need to bring in mysticism to one’s practice of Buddhism. my teacher Shinzen Young has a technical term for this: “mystical schmystical”. however, he does point out that the “No Self” and “True Self” terminologies are just *synonyms* for the same experience.

    see: “Return to the Source” –

    so when you say “There isn’t a true self”, imho, you’re just actually shadow-boxing and missing the point. you’re confusing the limitation of language with the actual experience. virtually all accomplished sages in their respective traditions maintain that the experience is *ineffible*. so whatever we call it is just at best a *metaphor*. so True Self, No Self, Zero, Absolute, Nature of Nature, God, Nirvana, they all work, imho. as long as we have a ballpark definition of the terminology.

    you said: “Meditation can show that meaning is neither external nor internal; the self is neither infinite nor bounded; purposes are neither ultimate nor illusory; reality is neither One nor divided.”

    what you said above is one of the crown jewels (if not *the* crown jewel) of Buddhist Madhyamaka Philosophy (aka Middle Way). it’s the famous Buddhist tetralemma. see:

    note, however, that Ramana Maharshi came to the same conclusion, and he was not a Buddhist.

    “there is neither creation nor destruction,
    neither destiny nor free-will;
    neither path nor achievement;
    this is the final truth.”

    this is a case in point that, however we label the experience: True Self, No Self, or what not, we roughly arrive at a similar conclusion. T.S. Elliot, a mystic poet, put this very succinctly:

    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”

    my point: there is no one size fits all awakening technology. we groove with what tickles our fancy.


  15. John Eden says:

    I find all this fascinating, mostly right-on accurate, and intellectually stimulating. I’m really looking forward to the “more later.”

  16. Greg says:

    Regarding “Ego” in Buddhism, I recently posted to Dharma Wheel – I’ll repost here in case it is of interest:

    The loanword “ego” is used often in English-language books on Buddhism. It shows up often in books by Zen teachers, and Chogyam Trungpa in particular used it often. In his books he characterizes ego as a sort of active, strategizing agent, as seen in the following examples:

    “In the third stage, ego develops three strategies or impulses with which to relate to its projections: indifference, passion and aggression.”(The Myth of Freedom)

    “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.”(Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, pg 15)

    My question for the scholars on the board is, is there any equivalent term in Tibetan or Sanskrit that would be used in this way in a traditional context? In looking into it myself, the following terms seem to be candidates:

    ātman (bdag), asmimāna, ātmamāna, māna, asmitā, ātmadṛṣṭi

    However, as far I can tell, traditionally none of these terms is ever used in the same way that CT uses “ego.” His use of ego seems to be more similar to ahaṃkāra as used in the Samkhya system – a more volitional, active (but mistaken) agent. Is that correct? Was this usage in the Buddhist context an innovation of Zen teachers and CT, or are there traditional texts describe ātman/bdag as a sort of scheming agent rather than just a nonexistent, falsely imputed thing?

  17. The game of trying to figure it all out is an engaging one, and takes quite a bit of time.

    “Meditation can show that meaning is neither external nor internal; the self is neither infinite nor bounded; purposes are neither ultimate nor illusory; reality is neither One nor divided.”

    Perhaps not bothering to force, by an act of will, any subdivision of “meditation” and just enjoy it when it happens to come up is a possibility.

    It seems there is an awareness of meaning being neither external nor internal, the self neither infinite nor bounded, purposes neither ultimate nor illusory, and reality neither One nor divided simply as the obvious status quo. Labels, words, concepts…tricky. So many nuanced and subtly differing definitions to wade through. However, that is the fun of the game.

  18. roni says:

    @ Greg: Maybe (I’m not really sure) something like this can be found in the Pali suttas concerning the aggregates (khandhas) that construct the individual(‘s cognitive processes). The stock phrase is this: “‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am.” This process of grasping and clinging is also called ahaṃkāra (I-making) and mamaṃkāra (my/mine-making) in the sutta commentaries and by modern theravada teachers (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Bhikkhu Bodhi).

  19. Greg says:

    Thanks Roni. I have only seen ahaṃkāra used in a Sāṃkhya context. If you have a reference for Bhikkhu Buddhadasa or Bhikkhu Bodhi using it that would be much appreciated!

  20. roni says:

    @ Greg: Bhikkhu Bodhi — I was wrong, though, it does occur in the suttas (see in the linked book, p. 296, 341 (also online e.g.: MN 109, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). I will look for the Buddhadasa Bhikkhu source, too. But the point is, this ahaṃkāra & mamaṃkāra combination exists in the Pali Canon/Tipitaka.

  21. Jayarava says:

    Hi David
    Thanks for your clarification. On re-reading I see where I went awry. I do like your approach to this subject after-all :-)

    As a scientist I must make one small complaint. Scientists did not destroy all notion of cosmic order. They replaces the traditional notions of cosmic order with modern ones. Indeed you could say that scientists – physical scientists – are precisely concerned to observe and elucidate the cosmic order as it actually is: hence they seek harmony, symmetry, and regular mathematical expressions. And the order they discover, for all that it is not Absolute, is beautiful and inspiring. To me anyway.

    But it is an order which people angrily reject for some reason. The mystic crowd aren’t just dismissive and condescending, but actually angry about the results of following the scientific method.

    Just to pick a sentence at random: “In the union of the true self and the Eternal Infinite, all doubt ends.” Yes. So the Upaniṣads say. And I could have chosen any of many sentences which betray an Vedantic influence. Why Vedanta should have take root in Buddhism is a puzzle.

    Although it’s clear that Vedanta influenced later Buddhists, I’m no longer convinced that it had a major influence in the composition of the Pali Canon. One can of course find echoes in the canon, but the authors of the Pali texts do seem to be largely ignorant of the ātman as it is conceived in the early Upaniṣads. I’ve written about this – the conclusion I came to is that the Pali ‘atta’ is in fact usually just Freud’s ‘Ich’ or our ‘ego': negatively our concern with ourselves, and especially with our personal continuity.

    BTW the idea of interconnectedness is at least as old as the Ṛgveda which I take to the ultimate source of the idea in India and in Buddhism. It was 2000 years old by the time the idea was taken into Buddhism in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, so Buddhists were almost certainly not taking it directly from RV, but it had infiltrated the culture and become a kind of pan-Indian belief by then. It pervades tantra, both Buddhist and Hindu for instance.

    I’m struggling to keep up with your output at the moment, but very much enjoying your clarity of thought and expression.

  22. Why Vedanta should have take root in Buddhism is a puzzle.

    Yes… I’m working on the implications of that for a future post in this series.

    Prominent present-day Buddhist teachers are continuing to actively import Advaita Vedanta into Buddhism. I think this is a scandal, and will jump up and down about it :-)

    Fortunately, some of them talk openly about why they do that. (This interesting article has some examples.) I suspect the motivations 1800 years ago were the same.

    Compared with Buddhism, Advaita seems easy. Buddhism is hard work and hard to understand and the goal is vague. Advaita requires no work, anyone can understand it, and the goal is clear and simple.

    Its only defect is that it can’t deliver. But, some Advaita teachers apparently have a trick of putting students into an altered state of consciousness where they think they’ve “got it.” H.W.L. Poonja a/k/a Papaji was the master of this, and he was a big influence on many current Consensus Buddhist teachers.

  23. Karmakshanti says:

    @Jayarava & David

    Who are these “some people” you are quoting? Who are these “consensus Buddhists”?

    Just to pick a sentence at random: “In the union of the true self and the Eternal Infinite, all doubt ends.”

    Just pick a sentence at random from where?

    Now, I’m something of a naive homeboy, with just one root guru and one Vajrayana lineage. There is probably a whole world of Buddhism out there that has all sorts of crazy ideas that I’ve never heard. And what David has been describing are crazy ideas that I’ve never heard in 28 years of listening to my own lineage’s teachings.

    But I’m beginning to become very uneasy at this “some people” business, particularly when David puts direct quotation marks around “some people’s” philosophy. And when somebody else, who apparently knows whom David is quoting, remarks that these “some people” being quoted are absorbing ideas from Vedanta. I’m beginning to suspect that I am reading about a straw man.

    While I can follow the links and find a few names of teachers at places like: Spirit Rock Center, Omega Institute, and Stephan Bodian’s School For Awakening, it is very ambiguous just who they are and what they are teaching. Do any of them have a “lineage”? Can any of them trace their teachings back to an actual source, other than the few contemporary “masters” they have studied with? Can they say anything about what the history and important concepts of these sources are?

    And even though I get a name or two, the links still largely remains in the netherworld of “many Avatins believe”, “from the Buddhist point of view”, “some Buddhist practitioners”, “most Buddhist schools”, “the mainstream of Buddhist tradition”; a crowd of indefinite people sitting on cushions somewhere with their backs to us, probably near Redwoods and waterfalls, who never seem to be practicing anything in particular or studying with anyone in particular while they are doing it.

    Where is the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha in all this? Really.

  24. Hi, Karmakshanti,

    Well, if you have only studied in your own traditional Tibetan lineage, you may not have come across “Consensus Buddhism.” Do you ever read the mainstream Buddhist magazines? (Shambhala Sun, Tricycle.) Those are the Consensus house publications, and you won’t have difficulty finding these ideas there.

    This blog series is, in part, tracing the history of the Consensus, and working forward in time. We’re up to the early 1900s now. The Consensus teachers went to Asia in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I may or may not go into detail about that. In short, they studied with many different Asian teachers; most studied with Hindus as well as Buddhists.

    I’m reluctant to do a whole lot of naming names, because I don’t want to attack anyone personally. I’m criticizing intellectual trends, not people. However: Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Lama Surya Das are key leaders of the Consensus. You can read about their teachers on their web sites (or the Wikipedia).

    I’m not sure whether you are complaining that I’m inventing imaginary evils, or complaining that the actual evils lack lineage. Most Consensus teachers acknowledge and honor their Asian teachers, while simultaneously stating clearly that they do not consider themselves to be part of a specific lineage. They consider that they are combining the most useful parts of many different Asian Buddhisms. You’ll find this in the bios of the Insight Meditation Society teachers, for example.

    I will be referring to two texts as definitional for “Consensus Buddhism”: Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart and Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma. You could read those, if you really want to understand where they are coming from and what they teach. Or you can probably get the gist from reading reviews on the web.

  25. Karmakshanti says:

    I’m sorry I appeared so crabby. Those are exactly the references I need. I have to remark parenthetically that I was not speaking as a Buddhist, particularly, in the post above, but as a scholar from the Humanities [Religion of any kind is not my field]. Sometimes I think those in the Sciences believe we have no standards because we don’t have the same standards. But I know that’s ungenerous of me.

    From my viewpoint, the issue is the integrity of the text and the clarity of the separation of the text from the scholarly commentary. First of all, you should have an actual text: anything you put quotation marks around should be somebody’s specific statement and the who, the where, and the when should be identified. If you don’t have a text it should be completely clear that this is your scholarly summary and not anybody’s text, and though you don’t need to answer who, where, and when, if you are summarizing, you need to be clear about what is being summarized. You really aren’t up in the post, but you are quite clear in paragraph 4 of your last comment:

    Most Consensus teachers acknowledge and honor their Asian teachers, while simultaneously stating clearly that they do not consider themselves to be part of a specific lineage. They consider that they are combining the most useful parts of many different Asian Buddhisms.

    One of the reasons we envy scientists is that they get to be “nice” in the work they do and speak either of the data or the hypothesis, neither of which can take offence. Humanists, however, have to point fingers and name names, risking the resentment of the people named, their decendants, their friends, or their followers. As a consequence, I have observed that very few humanists I have met are “nice”. Including me. It probably does make me a worse Buddhist than I could be.

    Under the circumstances, do you really need to be “nice”? Weren’t you telling us that that’s part of the problem?

  26. Karmakshanti says:

    Now that I have had a chance to dip a little into the references, this series of posts makes a lot more sense:

    I don’t know what you will say directly about these teachers, but I would say that this remark, at least, contains the “consensus” refutation of what you have written so far:

    A genuine Western Buddhism is now taking birth. Its defining characteristic is neither an elaborate philosophical system nor an attachment to any particular sectarian viewpoint. Rather, it is a simple pragmatism that harkens back to the Buddha himself, who pointedly questioned the established tenets of ancient Indian thought. It is an allegiance to a very simple question: “What works?” What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to engender a heart of compassion? What works to awaken?” Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma

    Anyone who takes a stance of pragmatism automatically undercuts virtually every attempt to question the substance of what they are teaching by dissolving that substance entirely into technique. Tantrikas have better techniques, you say? Well, jump on in the water’s fine!

    Skimming through Kornfield’s The Eightfold Noble Path For The Householderin pdf, it strikes me that the weakness I would pin down in the approach is not a problem of technique [Buddhist meditation has been evicerated and bowdlerized] nor is it a problem of wrong goals [self-examination creates the problem it is supposed to solve], but a matter of intellectual disorder. Much of the stuff that my lineage teaches is in ENPFH, but in no particular order and sandwiched between the carefully selected references to everybody from George Gurgieff to R. Crumb [It's such a twee period piece that I can almost smell the Panama Red smoke coming from behind the bushes!].

    Dispense with “an elaborate philosophical system”, and what you get is Buddhist Vegetarian Hash. It leaves you with “what works”, with some good tips on how to meditate, but has nothing intelligible to say about why you should bother. The first thing the Buddha talked about, I’m told, wasn’t a critique of ancient Indian thought. It was a very systematic and lucid explanation of why you should bother called The Four Noble Truths.

    Back In The Day in the Counterculture, everybody thought they knew why. I’m not so sure how many of us think so now.

  27. Jayarava says:

    Karmakshanti – the sentence chosen at random was from Daivd’s post. And yes I agree with much else that you say. I’ve been thinking along the lines that Buddhists seem to think they have all the answers, but I’m not convinced that many of us even know the questions.

    David: I look forward to more jumping up and down. :-). One of my colleagues – since resigned from our Order – was very keen on talking in Advaita terms, but I found he just stopped making sense. It was a bit like Zen bullshit, but far more extreme. A real reluctance to use language for communication and a pretension to speaking from a non-dual point of view – which apparently consists of talking non-sense, while insisting that everyone who tries to make sense is being dualistic (and therefore deluded). Of course one has to ask which non-dualism one is talking about. Vedanta, as I understand, it refers to the non-dualism between ātman/brahman. Pāli Buddhism in many respects is deeply dualistic – in its clear distinction consistently maintained between sense faculty and sense object for instance. This is not a distinction that disappears with bodhi!

    You seem to be moving towards an issue that interests me which is the idea of there being “two truths”. Have you given any thought to this? I’m sketching out argument that the need for two truths arises out of a fundamental error in how and where pratītya-samutpāda is applied – in explanations of the so-called “nature of reality”. If one takes a step back from ontological applications, only one truth – regarding the nature of *experience*, is necessary. And it clarifies much else.

    Also I’d love to see you do an indepth critique of Tibetan Buddhism along the same lines as you have done for Theravāda. You’d most likely upset a lot of people though.

    Best Wishes

  28. @ Karmakshanti — Ideally, to criticize ideas rather than people, one starts with a “strong text”: the best possible presentation of the wrong ideas. Then you can engage with the ideas themselves, rather than dealing with the distractions of poor presentation. Unfortunately, for Consensus Buddhism, there is no strong text. The books written by the most influential people are meant as pop spiritual self-help. “Intellectual disorder” is a perfect description.

    So, to make a coherent argument, I need to do their work for them. I have to make their underlying belief system explicit, and make as good a case for it as I can, before explaining what is wrong with it. This is hard work, and it also does risk creating straw men. I hope that if I do that, defenders of the Consensus approach will say “no, that’s not what we meant.”

    So, the indented material at the beginning of this post was written by me. It would not be difficult to find each of the statements there in Consensus texts; but I cannot find a short, coherent presentation like the one I put together. I put it in quotation marks to try to prevent the misreading Jayarava (understandably) made, of assuming this was something I agree with.

    In this blog, I’m trying to address a general audience, for whom footnotes and other academic apparatus are a big turn-off. At the same time, I’m trying to be rigorous enough that people who disagree have something well-defined and concrete to disagree with. It’s a fine balance, and maybe in this case I got it wrong.

    About “niceness”: By “nice” I meant pretending to agree in public while bad-mouthing others in private, for instance. It’s not “nice” to disagree about religion, in particular. On the other hand, I think it’s important to disagree constructively. Personalizing an argument usually results in defensive, dug-in positions. I think I’m going to do a post later about how to argue about religion in a way that is most likely to have a useful outcome.

    @ Jayarava — Yes, there’s a strong tendency now to run together all “non-dualisms,” particularly the Advaita, Buddhist, and German ones. But the several Buddhist non-dualisms are different from each other, and very different from Advaita. And those distinctions matter, I think! The hard part is explaining why they matter in a non-academic way, so practicing Buddhists don’t get seduced into Advaita woo-woo.

    Two truths: My frame of reference is Dzogchen (although I can’t claim to necessarily understand it correctly, nor necessarily to agree with it). Dzogchen does relativize, or outright reject, the Mahayana absolute-truth-vs.-relative-truth distinction. It does say that there’s only one truth, and yes that is roughly speaking the truth of experience. On the other hand, it rejects a sharply-defined inside/outside distinction. “Experience” and “external reality” are not clearly distinct. This makes Dzogchen susceptible to woo-woo interpretations. The next major thing I’m going to do in the Meaningness book, when I get back to it, is to give a rigorous, causal, non-woo explanation of the nebulosity of the self/world boundary.

    You might also find interesting or helpful Robert Sharf’s “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience” paper. He suggests that interpreting Buddhism in terms of experience leads to many misinterpretations. I find some of what he says convincing, and other parts not.

    “I’d love to see you do an indepth critique of Tibetan Buddhism along the same lines as you have done for Theravāda”: Hmm. I don’t think I’ve critiqued Theravada! I’ve suggested that using its renunciative methods for non-renunciative ends is dubious; and I’ve pointed out that it Westernized itself extensively in Asia in the 20th century. These points do seem to have surprised some people… I will probably have some things to say about Tibetan Buddhism, but I’m not sure quite what.

  29. Jayarava says:

    Hi David.
    I did mean ‘critique’, i.e. comment in a way which does not buy into the internal narratives, or world-view of the system; not ‘criticise’. I think this thing of having to make explicit the assumptions and presuppositions of modern Buddhism before commenting on it is quite important. This seems to be a task of the first importance (and how I wish more people in our Order would be interested!). I also like the ‘woo’ terminology: woo-woo, and non-woo. Your woo-fu is great!

    I’ll try to make time to look at Sharf’s article. Though we may differ on what we mean by experience of course. I also reject a sharply defined inside/outside distinction, though I maintain that without some kind of distinction it’s very difficult to make sense of physics and the like. To me experience is all that we can know, and experience arises out of the interaction of sense faculty, sense object and sense consciousness. We only have access to the level of vedanā which arises out of contact of the previous three; though I suspect that meditation could be interpreted as taking us into the workings of the arising of vedanā. So I can only talk about how things appear to me, not about reality per se – and I don’t think Awakening changes this. What changes is how we respond to vedanā. Or so I think, and so I think the Pāli texts say. I think science scores through observing regularities in how things appear and using those observations to triangulate how the external world might be in order to give that kind of consistent appearance.

    I appreciate the way you take time to thoughtfully answer all comments.

  30. Jayarava says:

    A look at Sharf’s abstract suggests that by experience he specifically means “religious” or “mystical” experiences, and I am using ‘experience’ very much more generally (and vaguely) to refer to dharmas of all kinds – whatever we think, feel, sense, remember, do, etc. I’m not particularly interested in religious or mystical experiences as such.

  31. I also reject a sharply defined inside/outside distinction, though I maintain that without some kind of distinction it’s very difficult to make sense of physics and the like.

    Yes. You can’t get reliable regularities otherwise. That’s a problem with Idealism… which George Berkeley fixed with God:

    There was a young man who said, “God
    Must think it exceedingly odd
    If he finds that this tree
    Continues to be
    When there’s no one about in the Quad.”

    Dear Sir:
    Your astonishment’s odd:
    I am always about in the Quad.
    And that’s why the tree
    Will continue to be,
    Since observed by
    Yours faithfully,

    I look forward to reading your analysis when you write it up.

    On religious vs. ordinary experience: oh, yes, of course, sorry for the useless pointer, then.

  32. Greg says:

    @Roni – very interesting – thanks for the reference!

  33. Karmakshanti says:

    @David and Jayarava

    I also reject a sharply defined inside/outside distinction, though I maintain that without some kind of distinction it’s very difficult to make sense of physics and the like. To me experience is all that we can know, and experience arises out of the interaction of sense faculty, sense object and sense consciousness…..I’m sketching out argument that the need for two truths arises out of a fundamental error in how and where pratītya-samutpāda is applied – in explanations of the so-called “nature of reality”. If one takes a step back from ontological applications, only one truth – regarding the nature of *experience*, is necessary. And it clarifies much else.

    The current thinking in physics seems to tell us that only 4.6% of what is in the universe is actually accessible to observation as atoms and electromagnetic energy. The other 95.4% is thought to be made up of “dark energy” and “dark matter”. Nobody knows what it is, nobody knows where it is, and nobody knows what it’s doing. Not only is it dark, it apparently must be totally transparent to any electromagnetic phenomena, so it could be right here with us without our knowing about it, and there is a distinct possibility that we might never know these things.

    I think we should be taking this into account when we priviledge physics as a means of knowledge. Though you have not said so, I presume your point of view is the reductivist one: human experience can, at least potentially, be completely reduced to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics. Were this not so, soft agnosticism [like that about the Tooth Fairy] concerning things like karma, past and future lives, siddhi, and so on would not be defensible, since human experience would then have a component beyond the purview of any science. And the demand that it be accessed by the “scientific method” would be highly suspect. We would have no information to frame a testable hypothesis about that extra scientific component, and no way to test it by observation or experiment.

    So, if we only have a single “truth of experience” without an ontological component we are reduced, as far as I can see, to potential access of less than 5% of what we actually have science telling us is out there. And the other 95% also appears to inaccessible to hypothesis and experiment.

    I don’t know about you, but that makes me very uneasy that any single “truth of experience” can be anywhere near complete or the scientific method completely comprehensive as a means to knowledge. Even though I have been taught about the Two Truths, I am in no position to defend this view in any detail, but it seems to me that asserting that everything is “mere appearance” with no clear distinction between inside and outside, or self and other is no handicap to these appearances having “reliable regularities”. And I think any dismissal out of hand of the Two Truths view is a little premature.

  34. Jayarava says:

    Hi Kshantikarma,

    I think lay people often mistake the uncertainty which remains in physics as rendering the whole of physics useless. Dark matter and energy have no practical day to day implications on the surface of the earth – they only come into play on the scale of galaxies of 100’s of billions of stars. So the fact that we can’t (yet) see it matters very little except to cosmologists trying to get the maths right. When they do, nothing in my day to day life will change. Physics is a very, very reliable guide to the everyday world. You could use Newton’s equations to send a person to the moon and back, and the errors would be measured in fractions of millimetres. But scientific theories have always been open to refinement – scientists themselves, unlike theologians, are constantly seeking to prove their own theories wrong. Science, according to Richard Feynman, is the mistrust of experts. Religion is the polar opposite to this.

    If I privilege science over superstition in guiding my life I hardly think that remarkable. I wouldn’t even offer a defence of it.

    Buddhist explanations of the universe are far more reductive, and Buddhists far more resistant to counter examples, than scientific theories and scientists – which is why what I say is controversial. I think to compare Romantic views of experience to dark matter is to stretch an analogy beyond it’s breaking point. Because actually there is *evidence* that something like dark matter must exist – even though we can’t see it, we can *measure* the effects of it. The term “dark matter” is just a place holder for the thing that is causing observed angular momentum in galaxies to vary from our current predictions; just as “dark energy” is a place holder for whatever is causing galaxies to accelerate away from each other as a measurable rate faster than we predicted. Whereas for Buddhist metaphysics there are no observations which precede the theory of rebirth, and no creditable evidence for it, and in fact no creditable explanation for how it works (I’ve written a brief for anyone who wants me to take their rebirth theory seriously on my blog).

    The difference is that these Buddhist ideas are from pre-scientific, Iron Age India. And given that other cultures came to entirely different conclusions why is one theory more creditable than another: why rebirth, and not heaven? Why link rebirth to ethics? Hindu’s don’t. Why believe a Buddhist instead of a Hindu? Can you come up with a single argument that does not begin with the presupposition that Buddhism is simply superior to other religions?

    The agenda of Iron Age Indians was entirely different from contemporary physicists. Religious ideas are to enable and/or enforce morality and promote social cohesion. They do this well enough when we know nothing about physics, but even basic physics calls the metaphysics into question – without any necessity for an absolute reduction to physical processes. I would argue that scientific theories of consciousness, because they reject Romantic waffle about the nature of consciousness and just pay attention to the phenomenology, are often less reductive than modern Buddhist theories,

    David and I, and others are asking a series of related questions: “why do we believe what we believe?” And: “Where do these beliefs come from?”. And “is it actually helpful to believe these things?” We are both honest about our objectives, and open about our methods – the same can not be said for most religieux who seem confused about their objective (when it is not outright obfuscation) and at best unclear about their methods – Buddhists are often simply *against science*, and resort to deus ex machina arguments depressingly often..

    I hope you will find food for thought in my destruction of the theory of the Two Truths which will appear on my blog on 5 Aug.

  35. Karmakshanti says:

    What makes science possible is the regularity of how things appear. The question is whether or not there is anything “behind” appearances that make them behave regularly. So is scientific knowledge merely correlative and descriptive of that regularity or does it lead to identification of “causes” beyond it?

    In the same fashion, our experience of appearances appears to also be [relatively] regular and presenting a specific location in space and time. The question is whether there is their any such thing as an “observer” to whom things appear.

    Western Idealism states one possible interconnection between these two problems: esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. I’m no Latinist, but it has always seemed to me that it actually should be translated as “perception is being” since Latin is very unfussy about word order. In the English formulation, at least, an observer, or a “perceiver” is unquestioningly assumed. Hence the little bit of doggerel verse above. But it is also equally assumed in science. “God” and “me” are essentially the same assumption, but located in different places. Sometimes this is called the “hypothetical observer”, but this is an hypothesis no one ever seems to get around to testing.

    So there we have the problem: Who experiences appearances and why do things appear in the first place? These question have nothing much to do, really with whether appearances are regular or not. When we actually go looking for an observer, all we find are more appearances, and when we go looking for causes all we find is more interdependent regularities of appearance based on the mechanical extension of our ordinary senses. We use conceptual tools to keep all this straightened out, and science is the fine tuning of these tools, but, as far as I can see, these tools have no more objectivity than the huge letter H over Nebraska on a weather map.

    Now I can’t match your Buddhist erudition, but what I have been taught is that the notion of the Four Extremes To Be Avoided, stated shortly by Buddha and elaborated by Nagarjuna identifies these questions as a conceptual problem rather than an actual one–that nothing can be predicated about any appearance except the tautology that it appears: not being, not non-being, not neither being nor non-being, and not both being and non-being. Appearance is merely appearance, with no start or end to the [conceptual] causal chain. And the conceptions [all of them] are but linguistically convenient and are also mere mental appearances.

    The Two Truths are often stated in English as, How things appear, and How they really are. But I think this is also somewhat inaccurate like the translation of esse est percipi. The Relative truth is the regularity an order of everything that appears, including our concepts, which are also appearances. The Absolute Truth is simply inaccessible to language ot

  36. Karmakshanti says:

    Whereas for Buddhist metaphysics there are no observations which precede the theory of rebirth, and no creditable evidence for it, and in fact no creditable explanation for how it works…

    Since the past no longer exists, at least on the microcosmic level, a demand for observational evidence about rebirth is simply out of order, just as a demand for evidence of the future life is out of order because it hasn’t yet happened. Not to mention the fact that the notion of “metaphysics” itself makes the issue irrelevant; if there were observational evidence, it would be “physics”. Rebirth, by definition, is after death and prior to birth and conception. Self-evidently these are the limits of what we can observe, but that doesn’t mean they are the limits of what is happening. Negative propositions are unprovable in the absence of omniscience, and knowledge is infinite.

    Skimming your blog, I note you are at pains to refute past life narratives. This is also relatively useless. At the absolute best, regular and unshakable past life narratives, would be merely a sufficient condition [if that] to prove rebirth, but they are not a necessary condition. Any past life “memories” are suggestive only, and such memories are neither routine, nor so rare that the fact that some people have them neither proves rebirth nor proves that any such memories are abnormal variations of the ordinary human condition.

    Consider the following. I don’t in the least remember being born, you probably don’t, and most people certainly don’t. I have to take the entire narrative that I was born at Clark County Hospital, in Wilmington, OH on a given day 59 years ago, on non-observational evidence and a priori argument. Now I don’t doubt it in the least. But in the absence of such evidence, my remembering it would really add nothing to the believability of the story.

    I don’t know what your standards of “explanation” might be [other than that metaphysics should be convertible in every case to physics], but there are certainly detailed descriptions of the death and rebirth process in the Tibetan literature. These descriptions echo, at least in part, narratives in other cultures. But, again, this is only suggestive and not proof.

    I take it, as I mentioned on your blog, as an unprovable axiom because it renders a set of coherent and internally consistent answers to an entire set of questions that I find important. I make no claim to any absolute and objective importance to these questions, or provable truth to the answers, but they are the ones that interest me, and, for the most part, physics has little to no answers for them at all. So I’m patient, and content to wait for death to clear the matter up.

  37. Jayarava says:


    As I say I will explore my ideas on Two Truths on my blog, and I don’t see any point in rehearsing them here. But I would say that most scientists, and certainly I, see science as descriptive: it is rooted in observation and seeking to explain observations in a way that accurately predicts future observations. Hence the scientific community, contra the religious community, is constantly open to, and actively seeking, new and better descriptions of what they study. As far as I can tell the Buddha was not interested in “what is”, or what we can know about what is. He was interested in why we suffer and how we can alleviate suffering – he is quoted as saying this over and over again, particularly in the face of metaphysical and ontological questions! Hence it is arguable that Buddhism is not, or perhaps was not originally, a religion at all.

    With regard to your other comment: I don’t think you are reading my ideas carefully enough. You attribute to me an absolutism that I do not profess or argue for. You seem to think that I’m a materialist, and I can only suggest you seek out and read the post I wrote in response to people who make this charge. I am not a materialist.

    Actually I quite explicitly say that I think it may be better to believe in rebirth – pragmatically provides a motive for morality that is lacking in secular accounts of human life. My argument with proponents of rebirth is when they try to put their belief on the same level as physics. They continually try to use “science” and “evidence” to “prove” their beliefs are True and Real. I argue, like you do, that this is pointless. Science, as a descriptive enterprise, probably cannot prove or disprove rebirth – though I do outline some forms of evidence that would make rebirth more plausible if they could be produced. Memories of past lives are the least convincing evidence! This summarises my recent writing (last two years or so) on the subject – so what have you been reading?

    I’m not against the idea of rebirth per se, though I am sceptical precisely because it is not descriptive but prescriptive. I’m particularly sceptical about the way people accept rebirth as a good thing, filling it with positive mystical significance (influenced I think by Romanticism and spiritualism). The orthodox Buddhist opinion would be that rebirth is a disaster to be avoided, and the goal (in Pāli anyway) is often talked about in terms of the cessation of rebirth (e.e. the last line of the Karaṇīya Mettā Sutta: na hi jātu gabbhaseyyaṃ punar etī ti = “never to lie in a womb again!”). I’m also sceptical because having examined a number of afterlife beliefs I found no way to chose between them – what you believe about the afterlife seems to depend on your religious affiliation alone. I can see no logical argument that makes rebirth more or less likely than, say, going to your ancestors or to heaven after you die – afterlife beliefs depend on what you already believe to be the case. It’s just opinions, founded on opinions (“turtles all the way down”). And very often we have discovered that religious opinion contradicts physics – the earth is *not* the centre of the universe for instance. Like the Dalai Lama I argue that *where there is a conflict* that physics is more reliable than religion. No one accuses the Dalai Lama of being a materialist!!

    So please, if you are going to argue with me, at least argue with the ideas that I put my name to. Otherwise it’s just you arguing with yourself.

  38. Karmakshanti says:

    Oh. I’m sorry I misrepresented your views. I know very well what it means to fight shadows and it is fruitless. I look forward to what you have to say next. You are closer to what original sources we have and I respect that greatly.

    The practical, predictive, capacity of science is certainly not a matter for dispute, though the Problem of Induction remains, I think, unsolved. Science addresses very well the problems that it set out to address.

  39. Joshua Jonathan says:

    Hi David,

    Did you ever read something about Hjalmar Sunden and his role theory? According to him people learn te enact certain religious roles bij endorsement in religious/spiritual traditions, for example Paulus’ coversion – which was the phd-subject on Nicolette Hijweeghe, a dutch psychologist of religion
    In Dutch, and Google translator is only patial helpful in that respect, but it still might be of interest to you.

  40. Thank you—that does look interesting! The Wikipedia article contrasts his view with the “perennialist” mystical one, which I will criticize soon.

  41. alexhubbard says:

    Hi David,

    after searching around I *think* this might be the best place to post this, either way I’m done scanning for a better alternative. So, a book released earlier this year entitled ‘Distinguishing the Views and Philosophies’ by Bötrul (a sort of successor to Mipham), has a comment on this True Self/Buddha-nature business; here it is, from page 23:

    ‘ [a] source commonly cited to support the interpretation of the empty quality of Buddha-nature is found in Candrakirti’s autocommentary on the Madhyamakåvatåra (VI.95). In this citation, originally found in the Lankåvatårasutra, Mahåmati asks the Buddha how Buddha-nature is different from the Self proclaimed by non-Buddhists, and the Buddha answers as follows:

    Mahåmati, my Buddha-nature teaching is not similar to the non-Buddhists’ declaration of Self. Mahåmati, the Tathågatas, Arhats, and completely perfect Buddhas teach Buddha-nature as the meaning of the words: emptiness, the authentic limit, nirvårna, non-arising, wishlessness, etc. For the sake of immature beings who are frightened by selflessness, they teach by means of Buddha-nature.

    Bötrül states that from the empty aspect, Buddha-nature is not like the Self of the non-Buddhists because it is inseparable from the great emptiness distinguished by the “three gates of liberation” (i.e., empty essence, signless cause, wishless effect). He says that from the aspect of appearance, Buddha-nature is not without qualities because it has a nature with the qualities of luminous clarity, distinguished by knowledge, love, and powers.
    Thus, Buddha-nature is not like the Self of the non-Buddhists due to its empty aspect.’

    Hope this proves useful at some point,

  42. Hi, Alex,

    Thank you very much! I didn’t know about Bötrül; after looking at the book on Amazon it sounds like I need to read it (as a Nyingmapa interested in Madhyamaka).

    I’ve read elsewhere that the Lankavatara Sutra is the most important long one for Zen. It includes an attempt to reconcile Madhyamaka and Tathatgatagarbha, which is the key to sorting out the Buddhist attitude to “true self” ideas.

    I had intended to read it, and the main commentaries on it, as part of sorting out how 20th century Zen went off the rails and dived into monism. But then I decided no one would care, and it would be a big job, so I’ve postponed it (probably permanently).

    Bötrül seems worth reading anyway, however. Have you found him useful in other ways?



  43. alexhubbard says:


    I’ve only read a small part of the book; I have deadlines ganging up on me left right and centre. Good luck with the rest of the series.


  44. Laurence says:


    Found this quote form a chinese buddhist text in a book comparing islam/buddhism: ‘Only seeing that all are empty without seeing the non-empty side- this cannot be called the middle Way. Only seeing that all have no self without also seeing the self-this cannot be called the Middle Way’

    Any thoughts? And also (not to be too cheeky!) do you ever think of your quite clear-cut, non-perennialist viewpoint as a slight over-rebellion against nicey, nicey over-accepting consensus Buddhism?

  45. Hi Laurence,

    Hmm. It’s hard to know what that text is trying to say without knowing more about the context.

    It’s not clear what “self” means, in different contexts, Buddhist and otherwise. I suspect that a lot of complexity and confusion around “self” in Buddhism has to do with people not speaking clearly because they implicitly assume that when they say “self,” everyone knows exactly what they mean by that.

    Over-rebellion: I’ve no idea… it sounds like you think the answer is “yes.” Why?

  46. Laurence says:

    Yes thats true, what is this self? I almost see the Buddhist concept as if we actually look at that concept of self we dont find anything, therefore it was never really there, whatever it is….

    I do really appreciate your frankness in writing. “Over-rebellion”, just a (slightly cruel) dig based on something my brother said, sorry about that!

    Got me thinking about how humility can often be confused with passivity, and how sometimes staying quiet and accepting of all viewpoints can be an arrogance in itself in order to feign humility.

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