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On Incrementality

By Robert Ellis, originally written for Shabda magazine


“Just as the great ocean, bhikkhus, gradually shelves, slopes and inclines, and there is no sudden precipice, so also in this Dhamma and discipline there is a gradual training, a gradual course, a gradual progression, and there is no sudden progression to final knowledge.” (Udana 5.5)


Following my earlier discussions of the Middle Way, I would like to give fuller expression to one particular crucial aspect of the case I was putting forward there. This aspect is that of incrementality, which might alternatively be called gradualism or continuity. I want to put forward the case that this is an important aspect of the Middle Way with far-reaching implications. The case will inevitably be compressed, and I apologise in advance if this makes it difficult to understand at any point, but I am happy to enter into dialogue with anyone who wants clarification.


Let me first explain what I mean by “incrementality”: I mean the idea that in order to overcome illusion, we should interpret the objects of our experience in terms of sliding scales, spectrums, and shades of grey in preference to dualities such as yes/no, existent/non-existent, or true/false. Many things that we are accustomed to interpret in terms of duality can be seen in a more sophisticated way as matters of degree, and when we see them in this way we engage more closely with conditions and overcome habitual patterns of illusion. Appreciation of incrementality is part of a contemplative phase, which precedes one of action when we once again have to focus our experience in terms of dualities, but the dualities that we use as the basis of action will be closer to “real” conditions for us having reflected on incrementality.


To give a clear example of this, supposing I’m trying to give up some addictive process such as smoking. If I think about smoking in relatively crude dualistic terms, I might just think of not smoking as an alternative to smoking. But if I simply decide not to smoke and resolve to give up, I will probably not succeed because my decision has been made with too little appreciation of the conditions at work, particularly the ways in which my addiction can create unintegrated decision-making which I will subsequently go back on. However, if I think incrementally about giving up smoking, I will think in terms of smoking fewer cigarettes, perhaps with the eventual goal of giving up altogether, rather than all or nothing. However, to turn this into action I would have to go back to a duality of either acting in a particular way or not doing so. So to start with I might decide to smoke 39 cigarettes a day instead of 40. But it’s only because I went through a phase of reflecting incrementally that I managed to make my action more adequate to the conditions.


In reflecting incrementally in this way, I am also following the Middle Way because I am avoiding the extremes of either following an absolute rule inadequate to the conditions (eternalism), or not bothering to address the issue at all and just accepting the status quo (nihilism). Incremental thinking is thus a vital tool in practising the Middle Way.


The example of cigarette-smoking is a fairly obvious one to start with, but the challenge is to apply incrementality to more complex dualities in our experience. Common dualities like mind-body, masculine-feminine, real-unreal, free-determined, good-evil etc can all be re-conceived incrementally. In complex matters incrementality also has to be accompanied by analysis. For example, in considering what is really meant by racial difference (as an alternative to the crude dualities of racism) we would have to consider numerous different incremental differences such as skin pigmentation, hair colour, gregariousness etc. Some of these in their turn would have to be analysed further to actually get down to something clearly adequate to the variations of characteristics in different individuals. The implications of really thinking like this are immense: if, for example, instead of automatically classifying people as “male” and “female” we were alternatively able to think of them as “more masculine” on a spectrum to “more feminine”, let alone thinking about specific aspects of the bundle of features labelled as masculinity and femininity, huge numbers of unhelpful generalisations could be swept away to make way for more helpful and skilful specific conceptualisations about gender. This would not mean that we would lose the straightforward, definable senses of “male” and “female” that can be applied unproblematically in many situations, but it would mean that we would have the awareness of an alternative incremental model to be drawn on when this would help us get to grips further with the variety of what people are really like.


So far, this may not be particularly controversial. Further challenges arise, I think, when one applies incrementality to various elements of traditional Buddhist teaching and realise that they fall foul of it. I want to argue that incrementality, as an aspect of the Middle Way and therefore of the most basic practical dharma, should take precedence over other traditional teachings where there is any doubt about their compatibility.


One example to start with is rebirth, where incrementality can be used to slightly reframe the old problem about the compatibility of anatta and rebirth. Seeing oneself incrementally (according to anatta) involves recognising that one is not a fixed quantity but a lot of incrementally variable qualities. My awareness and consciousness, for example, are not fixed quantities, but processes of variable strength which I attribute to “me”. If one carries this forward to apply to any kind of idea of a movement between lives, one might imagine variable scraps of consciousness perhaps somehow arriving in other bodies, with others fizzing out and yet others starting up, but the identification of a new person with a past person as a quantity becomes indefensible.


But probably the most important feature of traditional Buddhism which is incompatible with incrementality is that of discontinuous states of insight, including the grand insight of enlightenment itself, apparently creating sudden total understanding. I don’t want to question the genuineness of the experience of such sudden breakthroughs, but I would want to argue that conceptualising them in discontinuous ways creates a dangerous problem in the Buddhist tradition, and is commonly justified in ways that are external to those experiences themselves. Talking of discontinuous states of insight creates a contradiction in which insight or enlightenment experiences are expressed in the terms of the very dualistic tendencies they are supposed to have overcome. The contradiction then has to be further defended through appeal to paradox, or to religious authority, or to a new superior type of logic.


However, the practice of the dharma does not need a new logic, but a better use of existing logic. Incrementality does not require us to change our dualistic logical structure, only to look beyond the particular sets of concepts we have assembled with it at present. Nor do we need to appeal to any type of revelatory religious authority to speak to us from a quantitatively different level: we just need spiritual friends to help us increase our objectivity and empathy, and so move gradually up the scale we are on already. Paradoxes of the type beloved by the Zen tradition may provide entertaining puzzles, but they are signs of an epistemological failure in which we desperately seek release from a logical prison which need not constrict us at all.


So, there seems to be no justification for interpreting states like insight, stream entry or enlightenment as discontinuous from ordinary experience. They are up the scale, perhaps a very long way up the scale, from ordinary human experience, but they’re on the same scale (or the same scales: there may be many of them). Talk of “transcendental” states or insights by its very nature contradicts the supposed nature of these insights. It may be from our perspective that experiences like those of the Buddha seem so much up the scale that they are off it, and perhaps we can’t even conceive of a higher state than that of enlightenment, but nevertheless if we wish to try to think in accordance with an enlightened perspective, one of the first things we need to let go of is a discontinuous description of it.


A further example of a discontinuous description is a metaphysical belief, like the belief in universal pratityasamutpada. Universal truths are off anybody’s scale of increments, because they involve infinite claims about an endless number of eventualities. Nobody could ever verify them by any form of gradual, finite investigation of experience. As I have argued previously, this means that the only possible function of universal beliefs like this is dogmatic. The Middle Way, by contrast, is a principle that can be incrementally verified as valuable through experience.


A common response to this type of argument about incrementality is to point out the supposed inevitability of dualistic thinking, and to apparently give it full licence, on the grounds that, unless and until we make that big breakthrough, we will be tied to it. But this argument arises only from discontinuous thinking about dualism. Dualism is not a condition we’re condemned to, it’s a relative tendency in human thinking that can be applied at a variety of levels in a variety of ways. If we think of dualism as a habit rather than as a type of logic, it is not something we have to suddenly break out of but something we have to chip away at. It is also not inevitable (another discontinuous idea). The discontinuous view of dualism seems to me to involve a similar avoidance of responsibility to that found in the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. The thinking in both cases goes along the lines that as we cannot be perfect, our imperfections should be seen as inevitable until the big event in the future that will suddenly overcome them. In the meantime, if we take this seriously, our progress is undermined and devalued.


This kind of discontinuous thinking is common in eternalistic and nihilistic philosophies, taking a whole host of forms: some common ones are belief in a perfect God, belief in the inevitable progress of history, belief in the eternal existence of the soul, belief in the completeness of material explanation, belief in inevitable scientific progress, belief in the absolute and unqualified nature of human freedom…I could go on. All of these beliefs vary in practice according to the function they actually serve in a concrete situation, but in all of them the element of discontinuity is decisive in making those beliefs open to dogmatic and hence manipulative use. If we interpret Buddhism as a revelation from a Buddha or from other teachers who have reached states which are discontinuous to ours, our beliefs are likely to have similar functions to those of eternalistic philosophies and religions, for similar reasons. However, if we really want the Middle Way to enable us to think differently, incrementality seems one of the first things we should apply consistently.


I believe that it is not a distant enlightenment, nor a sudden breakthrough, that provides liberation, but rather the practical ability to apply incrementality both conceptually and experientially. For most of all we need to be able to develop confidence that we can actually make progress, and address the conditions around us, whatever they are. In both of these, incrementality is indispensable.



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