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 A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Appendix)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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10.     Appendix: Issues of compatibility with the Buddhist tradition

This appendix should be read in connection with the rest of the thesis, and should not be taken in isolation as a comment on the Buddhist tradition. For a fuller and more recent discussion of the Buddhist tradition by the same author please see The Trouble with Buddhism.


   “It is wonderful, venerable sir! It is amazing, venerable sir! This dependent origination is deep and deep in implications, yet to me it seems as clear as clear can be.”

   “Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This dependent origination is deep and deep in implications. It is because of not understanding and not penetrating this Dhamma, Ananda, that this generation has become like a tangled skein, like a knotted ball of thread, like matted reeds and rushes, and does not pass beyond the plane of misery, the bad destinations, the nether world, samsara.”                     Samyutta Nikaya ii.92



The main part of the book has been addressed primarily to those approaching the issue of non-dualism from a perspective that does not include any study or practice of traditional Buddhism, particularly philosophers in the Western tradition. However, in this appendix I will attempt to address the likely concerns of Buddhists and students of Buddhism, for whom the relationship of my claims to traditional Buddhism may not yet be clear. As an explanation it is supplementary to the main argument and merely attempts to draw out further points which I already consider to be implicit in that argument. Read in isolation from the main argument it may well seem over-brief and dogmatic in its treatment of something as vast and rich as the Buddhist tradition, and my justification for treating it thus lies only in the detail of argument I have already passed through in the main body of the book, in which I hope the appearance of dogmatism may be dissolved. My task here is only to clarify the relationship of the claims I have made to doctrines which have often been taken as typical of traditional Buddhism, either by showing their compatibility or their incompatibility.


i)                    The epistemological starting-point


The most basic issue on which some traditional Buddhists may feel themselves in disagreement with my approach concerns the epistemological starting-point from which one attempts to ascertain the Dharma, or universally true teachings. Nearly all Buddhists would acknowledge the role of both non-dualism and moral authority as sources of Dharma, but some would not give these two sources the same order of priority I have given them here, whereby recourse to moral authority is definitely to be justified only in the context of non-dualism and not the other way around.


The opposite approach tends to place moral authority first and see this epistemological starting-point as the only source of our knowledge of non-dualism. For such Buddhists, Buddhism is primarily a revelatory religion in which the Buddha’s experience of nirvana (or in some cases that of other enlightened figures of the tradition) legitimates his recorded utterances as sources of knowledge of a non-dual reality. It is solely the Buddha’s moral authority which interprets the truths found in this absolute experience into moral prescriptions that we can apply in relative circumstances.


The choice of epistemological starting-point is interdependent with the acceptance of non-dualism itself and hence with the rejection of a metaphysical dualism between non-dualism and revelation. A revelatory approach requires an epistemological starting-point which is logically prior to non-dualism and also inconsistent with it, since it appeals to dualistic assumptions to support non-dualism. At an epistemological level, then, a revelatory approach must introduce a dualism between revelation and non-dualism and reject non-dualism.If one accepts non-dualism as a basis for an epistemology which is interdependent with ethics, however, there is, as I have argued, an important place for moral authority within this wider pragmatic framework, and for criticism of metaphysical dualisms which separate authority from pragmatic justification. But if one accepts revelation as prior there is, as I have argued in chapter 3, only dualism of the eternalist type, which may attempt to encompass non-dualism but in doing so inevitably distort it. Any attempt at a “Middle Way” before epistemological grounds consistent with that Middle Way have been established will result only in a confusion in which the epistemology of the Middle Way conflicts with the dualistic epistemology of revelation, and the priority between them is unclear.


There are also many other reasons for rejecting a revelatory approach to Buddhism. Firstly, revelation loses its authority whenever it undergoes translation or re-interpretation in a relative context. Whenever apparently enlightened speech[1] is to be interpreted (even if it is delivered face-to-face, let alone at the remove of thousands of years via scriptures), the auditor thus relies on his own level of integration to ensure a relatively correct interpretation. But once this relative interpretation occurs the epistemological justification no longer has the absoluteness attributed by the revelatory approach to enlightened speech, and the interpretation must be justified by non-dualist criteria against other possible interpretations. Whilst enlightened speech may thus still have moral authority in a pragmatic context, it can no longer operate as a justifiable epistemological criterion prior to non-dualism.


Secondly, such an epistemological starting-point runs contrary to non-dualism and its implications as I have argued them: particularly in being dogmatic and thus impeding the process of investigation which the revelation appears to be recommending. This forms a pragmatic objection to revelation which I have supported through many examples from Western history in chapter 3. Similar evidence for the pragmatically bad effects of a revelatory starting-point can also be found in the Buddhist tradition. Here one of the most striking examples is found in the Buddhist fundamentalism which has emerged in Sri Lanka, in which Buddhism has become closely interrelated with an ethnic chauvinism which has helped to provoke and sustain the lengthy and still unresolved conflict between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. As Tessa J. Bartholomeusz and Chandra R. de Silva argue, this fundamentalist tradition has adopted the mythological historical text, the Mahavamsa, in a role which is epistemologically similar to that of canonical sacred scriptures in the fundamentalism of other religions[2]. There are many other possible examples of the development of eternalistic approaches relying on revelatory epistemology in the history and sociology of Buddhism, which I do not have space to consider adequately here. However, the general argument for the link between dualism (with its associated epistemology) and pragmatic ineffectiveness should already have been well-established in Part 1 using material from Western history.


Thirdly, in a number of important scriptural passages the Buddha appears to be advocating the epistemological priority of non-dualism over revelation. Perhaps the most direct of these is the Kalama Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya, which I quoted at the beginning of chapter 3: in this sutta the Kalamas question the Buddha specifically on the problem of epistemological priority and receive a fairly unequivocal response which prioritises investigation over scripture or tradition.


Another key passage in the Pali Canon occurs in the Alagaddupama Sutta or “Simile of the Snake Sutta” in the Majjhima Nikaya[3]. This sutta begins with the Buddha censuring a monk called Ari­­ha, who appears to have adopted the nihilistic view that no ethical progress is possible by a dualistic misinterpretation of the Buddha’s incremental teachings. The Buddha then introduces the simile of the snake: the teachings resemble a snake in being dangerous unless grasped correctly. He then goes on to the well-known simile of the raft, in which a raft is said to be like the teachings in being useful for a particular purpose (crossing over the river), but to be left behind when the crossing is completed. As Keown points out[4] (in a more detailed discussion of this sutta than I can indulge in here), this sutta needs to be interpreted as a whole in the light of the censure of Ari­­ha at the beginning. Ari­­ha turns agnosticism into negative metaphysics in his interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching as saying that “those things called obstructions by the Blessed one are not able to obstruct one who engages with them”. The simile of the snake then explains how Ari­­ha’s wrong view has arisen: i.e. through a “wrong grasp” of the teachings in terms of a naïve representationalism which does not take into account their full pragmatic context. Ari­­ha has appealed to the authority of one small part of the Buddha’s teachings and given them a revelatory authority which rationalises his own narrowly egoistic desires. In this case, then, revelation is being used to support nihilism. In the simile of the raft, the Buddha then goes on to put this issue in its full context: here the pragmatic basis of the teachings is made clear and the need for provisionality prior to the authority of any “raft” is underlined.


In the Mahayana the priority of non-dualism over revelation becomes even clearer, as the Mahayana gives increasing prominence to non-dualism, making what is implicit in the Pali Canon fully explicit, especially in the Prajnaparamita scriptures. Take this passage from the Vajracchedika Sutra (Diamond Sutra):

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata conceives the idea “I must set forth a teaching”. For if anyone says that the Tathagata sets forth a teaching he really slanders Buddha and is unable to explain what I teach. As to any Truth-declaring system, Truth is undeclarable; so “an enunciation of Truth” is just the name given to it.[5]


Here the Buddha denies that he offers revelatory teaching because of the representationalist assumptions which are attached to the notion of the truth (“Truth”) of revelatory teaching. Without a pragmatic interpretation as to the nature of the truth that the Buddha does offer, such passages as these are merely contradictory: but seen in the light of the distinction between representational and pragmatic assumptions about truth and its transmission, they make the epistemological grounds of Mahayana Buddhism clear.


This is a very small selection of the passages that might be discussed in relation to epistemological priority, either from the Pali Canon or from the Mahayana scriptures. Clearly to urge that Buddhists should accept the epistemological priority of non-dualism purely on the strength of these passages would go against everything I have argued so far, since to do this would be to adopt a revelatory approach to these passages and ignore the ambiguities which exist in their interpretation. The role of such passages, then, can only be in the nature of a prompting on the part of moral authority, an indication of the epistemological advice of the Buddhist tradition, which is then considered in the light of the philosophical and pragmatic arguments. Much more detailed discussion of the interpretation of such passages would be largely useless in the light of the unavoidability of reliance on one’s own judgement in making the epistemological judgement: for if it turns out that they also bear dualistic interpretations which give stronger support to revelatory approaches, such interpretations would be practically contradicted by the very use of judgement to establish a “true” interpretation.


ii)                  Conditioned co-production (paticcasamuppada)


Many accounts of Buddhism stress the central role of conditioned co-production (paticcasamuppada)[6]. This is often understood as a claim about the interdependent nature of conditionality, including causality, which is thus implicitly metaphysical in nature.  If conditioned co-production is understood as supported by a revelatory epistemology, this implies a claim that the Buddha understood this to be the representationally true nature of the process of conditioning at the time of his enlightenment. Such a claim both contradicts non-dualism and misrepresents the pragmatic nature of the truth which the Buddha appears to have taught: for whether or not it is representationally true in any sense that the Buddha had any such realisation at the time of his enlightenment, it will not necessarily be pragmatically true for any of his followers to hold such a metaphysical belief, since the justification for holding that belief depends upon the full context in which it is interpreted. Rather, the adoption of any metaphysical view, as I have argued throughout, implies a dogmatic dualism unless there is a pragmatic context in which such a view can be interpreted. But any such pragmatic context will remove the revelatory appeal on which the belief in paticcasamuppada as metaphysical reality depends.


Instead, the interpretation of conditioned co-production must be done in a way which is in accordance with its implications, avoiding the contradiction created by the propounding of a non-dualistic doctrine with an assumed dualist epistemology. Even if it really represents the doctrine of an enlightened being, its implication for unenlightened beings begins with a recognition of our ignorance about the causal reality to which it refers, and thus the limitations of our conceptual beliefs about it. For as I shall argue, conditioned co-production interpreted in accordance with a non-dualist epistemology consists in nothing other than non-dualism itself with its attendant recognition of ignorance, provisionality, and investigatory ethic.


Joanna Macy does much to make the grounds of this clear, arguing for an interpretation of paticcasamuppada as mutual causality, in contrast to the one-way causality which has dominated dualistic thought[7]. One-way causality provides a model which sees causal change in terms of discrete events and objects, so that a hypothesis of causal change must be formulated in terms of chains of linked events which follow each other through time. According to such types of explanation, the complex interrelationships of different entities in our experience are simply very complex chains of events, and the complex interrelationship of two systems, such as an animal in its ecological environment or a particular social group in a broader society, can be analysed into chains of events occurring to discrete objects. Mutual causality, on the other hand, provides a process-oriented model of causality as the mutual adaptation of systems. General systems theory as it has developed in the West has provided an explanation of mutual causality in terms of negative feedback, which enables a system to maintain itself in homeostasis in a changing environment, and positive feedback, which enables a system to evolve and extend itself.


Mutual causality thus stresses the interdependence of systems, and simultaneously makes allowances for the differences in level at which we encounter the interactions of systems: for a given system identified at any given level (for example, a planetary system, an eco-system, a social system, the biological system known as an individual) may contain countless micro-systems and itself be part of many further levels of macro-system. The objects about which we make causal hypotheses are thus only provisionally recognisable as such because of a stability or homeostasis which enables us to form a pragmatic relationship with them, rather than because of their ontological status as objects. Since our knowledge of objects consists only in a certain form of equilibrium between two types of relatively stable system (otherwise known as subject and object), the assumption of mutual causality thus implies Sceptical agnosticism: for what we have provisionally identified as the nature of a system or its relationships may change in response to the negative feedback (falsification) or positive feedback (verification) which we receive.


The distinction between agnosticism and negative metaphysics can also be understood in terms of mutual causality. For negative metaphysics results from the combination of Scepticism with one-directional causality alone. If positive beliefs can only be gained through the assertion of one-directional causality and there is insufficient evidence for the operation of discrete chains of causal events between the mutually conditioning objects under consideration, an appreciation of Scepticism can become dogmatic as it leads to the conclusion that no progress is possible in extending our knowledge of any object. Scepticism is then often used to support nihilism on the grounds of a chicken-and-egg problem: if no progress can be accounted for in terms of one-directional causality, then whatever progress may be experienced is assumed to be illusory. We are thus led into the curious scenario in which thinkers who have themselves experienced moral progress from infancy deny that any such progress is possible, or alternatively assert the existence of a dualistic progress which is actually incompatible with what they have experienced. In response to this Scepticism together with one-directional causality, then, a dualism of dogmatic responses to claims of universal value emerges which I have accounted for as eternalism and nihilism. If the possibility of mutual causality is acknowledged, though, the possibility of incremental progress in both knowledge and values appears, not in conflict with Scepticism but reliant upon it.


That the basic Buddhist teaching of paticcasamuppada is one of mutual causality is evident from the widely quoted basic formulation of it. It is important here to quote this in the original Pali to make it clear how it is that it teaches mutual causality, and that it is not merely a trivial statement of one-way causality:

Imasmim sati, idam hoti, imass'  uppada, idam uppajjati; imasmim  asati, idam  na hoti;  imassa nirodha, idam nirujjhati.[8]


Nanamoli and Bodhi translate this passage thus:

When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases.


That we are not being presented here merely with a sequence of discrete events, but with the interdependent development of parallel events, is made clear by the grammar of the Pali. Each of the two main phrases begins with the locative imasmim, so that it reads literally “Existing in this, that comes to be” and “Not existing in this, that does not come to be”. The dative imassa is also compatible with the idea of simultaneity and interdependence, distinct from the ablative case which would have been used to express causal sequence.


This basic formula is traditionally exemplified by the more specific formula of the twelve nidanas, which apply paticcasamuppada to the specific conditionality affecting human desires, beliefs, and moral development. According to Theravada tradition, as found expressed for example by Buddhaghosa[9], these nidanas are interpreted as causal links which show the temporally separable sets of necessary conditions by which individual existence is perpetuated over three lifetimes (it has thus become linked with the doctrines of karma and rebirth, which I shall deal with in the next section). This interpretation is clearly inconsistent with the understanding of paticcasamuppŒdaas mutual causality, and it may well have developed subsequent to the time of the Buddha, since although the Buddha often expounds the twelve nidanas in the suttas of the Pali Canon, he does not explicitly link them with karma and rebirth. Nanavira Thera, however, offers an alternative structural interpretation of the twelve nidanas which makes them compatible with both the understanding of paticcasamuppadaas mutual causality and the Buddha’s presentation of his teachings as investigatory (ehipassiko), as well as logically independent of the rebirth doctrine[10].


A structural interpretation of the twelve nidanas sees them as logically interdependent rather than as temporally separate links of a causal chain. They can then be seen as occurring simultaneously and thus being available to experience simultaneously. A structural account of the twelve nidanas thus offers an incrementally verifiable theory of the interrelationship between different egoistic processes, all of which I have already described in other terms. A one-way temporal account, on the other hand, merely misleads by making metaphysical claims which are incompatible with the balanced heuristic suggested by the Middle Way. Below I offer a list of the twelve nidanas in their traditional order (though, structurally interpreted, they could be listed in any order). The most common English translations are given in squared brackets after the Pali term: though these translations, couched in terms of metaphysical realism, one-way causality, and karma, are often misleading. After these I offer a brief non-dualistic interpretation of the meaning of the nidanas, often indebted to Nanavira but given in terms of the language I have been using to describe egoistic processes throughout the book. This interpretation is not intended to allege that the nidanas “really” mean this in their “original” context, but only that they can be helpfully thus interpreted.


1. Avijja [ignorance] Representationalism (or expressivism) of meaning and belief, whereby we assume our representations to correspond to an external (or internal) metaphysical reality. This creates a metaphysical dualism between what is represented as meaningful or true and what is not.


2. Samkhara [karmic/volitional formations] Represented subject and objects, which because they are understood metaphysically are understood either as determined or as free: representationalism and belief in one-way causality thus support the separation of a “free” self from a “determined” other. (The idea of determinations created by a free self, or karma, is, as I shall argue in the next section, merely an expression of this metaphysical dualism, and is thus seriously misleading when introduced into an explanation of egoistic processes as an explanatory device rather than an object of explanation).


3. Vinnana [consciousness] Egoistic separation or discrimination between objects, the basis of dualism when combined with representationalism.


4. Nama-rupa [name and form] The mind-body dualism understood discontinuously and metaphysically.


5. Salayatana [the six senses] The selectivity of the senses, which, not taking into account the implicit beliefs which guide them, take some objects to be empirically existent and their existence to be proven.


6. Phassa [contact] The selective sensual experience, in inter-relationship with the selective disposition of the senses above. 


7. Vedana [feeling] The affective element in sensual experience, whereby we find some objects pleasurable and others painful.


8. Tanha [craving] The egoistic adoption of some supposed objects of experience and rejection of others. The limitation of our identification.


9. Upadana [grasping] Implicit belief in the existence of self and/or world, as it forms the basis of action.


10. Bhava [existence] Explicit belief in oneself, and/or the world as metaphysically existent entities.


11. Jati [birth] Belief that one came into existence at a specific point.[11]


12. Jara-marana [old age and death]  Belief that one will grow old, losing desirable features of oneself as a consequence, and that one’s existence will cease at a specific point.


To have pragmatic value this list of twelve nidanas, as an analysis of egoistic processes, needs to be seen in relation to the possibility of integrating those egoistic processes: a point which Sangharakshita has stressed by discussing these cyclic nidanas in conjunction with the twelve positive nidanas[12]. I will not here discuss the positive nidanas individually, but merely note the possibility of a similar structurally-related set of nidanas which provide an analysis of the process of the ego’s extension. As Sangharakshita writes,

Reality being ineffable, positive and negative definitions are equally out of place. By following a Middle Path between affirmation and negation the Buddha’s insight may, however, be formulated as the principle of universal conditionality, pratityasamutpada, or Conditioned Co-production. This doctrine is an all-inclusive Reality, or formulation of Reality[13], within which are included two trends or orders of things, one cyclic between opposites, the other progressive between factors which mutually complement and augment each other. The second trend is not merely the negative counterpart of the first, but possesses a positive character of its own.[14]


The progressive order of conditionality is thus an aspect of the very same theory as that of the cyclic order of conditionality described by the twelve nidanas. For though the egoistic functions conveyed by the nidanas can be readily related to experience, it would be a dogmatic interpretation of that experience to regard those functions as purely cyclic and purely egoistic. It is the very same functions, extended, which allow incremental progress as the ego extends to encompass the rest of the psyche. Whilst the twelve nidanas, each interpreted (as I have attempted to do) in the light of Sceptical agnosticism, each represent an aspect of dualism, in each case that dualism can be simultaneously reduced and incrementally replaced by non-dualism, in interdependence with a similar process in relation to the other nidanas. The cyclic order of conditionality, as Sangharakshita describes it, is thus the process of an oscillation between egoistic identification and rejection in all the interdependent areas described by the nidanas, whilst the progressive order of conditionality consists of the augmentation of the ego through its extension. Whilst Sangharakshita points to the separate formula of the positive nidanas, then, the negative or cyclical nidanas may also be thought of as providing an analysis of areas of progress just as much as they indicate the fruitless cyclic patterns of the ego.


A view of the twelve nidanas as potentially both positive and negative, together with a structural rather than sequential view of their relationship, allows dualism to be incrementally transformed in any of the nidanas; although, in accordance with mutual causality, it will also thus be simultaneously stimulated in all the nidanas. There will thus no longer be one particular point in a sequential cycle of nidanas at which progress may occur, usually given as the point where volitional activities begin between vedana (feeling) and tanha (craving). As Nanavira points out, volitional elements are already present in feeling[15], so that this point is probably no more significant than any other which can be consciously distinguished in a temporal succession. For volition to be understood as decisively intervening at a particular point suggests a metaphysical freewill doctrine with its associated discontinuity from a flow of conditions which is otherwise continuous, whereas a model of mutual causality suggests an interdependent mixture of volition and determination (the precise measure of which remains indeterminable) at any point in any possible sequential analysis of human experience. We cannot rule out the possibility of present or past volitional elements, or of their complete absence, in the determination of the sensual experiences we have, our feelings about them, our responses to those feelings, and the actions which follow to bring about desired ends in relation to experienced objects. Our experiences may be self-inflicted to a greater extent than we realise, or they may have causes beyond our own minds when we believe they are self-inflicted: but in either case it is a balanced heuristic, taking into account our degree of ignorance of the extent of volition and determinism alike, not the mere application of a volition, which is required to steer the conditioning process into a more progressive channel.


Paticcasamuppada and the twelve nidanas are a frequent object of contemplation in the Buddhist tradition, as an aid to the cultivation of wisdom either through study or vipassana meditation. To the extent that it is to be of pragmatic aid, it appears that such contemplation must be based on an understanding of the epistemological basis of the doctrine which is genuinely non-dualist and thus does not accept paticcasamuppada, in any of its forms, prior to that epistemological non-dualism. Nevertheless many insights into non-dualism are to be discovered through the contemplation of paticcasamuppadain this light.


iii)                Karma[16] and rebirth


It should already be clear from my discussions of cosmic justice beliefs and of paticcasamuppada that I do not consider the belief in a law of karma, at least as usually formulated in the Buddhist tradition, to be compatible with non-dualism. However, considerable clarification is still needed in distinguishing between different types of belief in karma.


The most basic formulation of the law of karma is that all intentional actions (karma) of a particular individual have a proportionate result (karma-vipaka) which rebounds upon that individual. If it does not rebound on that individual in one’s current life it will do so by either determining or otherwise affecting a future rebirth. In traditional Buddhism belief in this law is often perceived as fundamental to moral motivation and responsibility, since we are assumed to adopt an attitude of moral responsibility through consideration of the future effects of doing so upon ourselves[17]. This belief is reconciled with the doctrine of the impermanence and non-substantiality of the self by an account of the individual as a process, in which it is the causal continuity rather than the continued existence of any substance which ensures continued moral responsibility[18].


Any representational interpretation of this doctrine will immediately make it into a metaphysical claim. Often the doctrine is discussed at this metaphysical level, at which it cannot be resolved. As I have argued throughout, however, non-dualism indicates that such metaphysical views should be avoided, and certainly cannot justifiably be held purely through a dogmatic appeal to the authority of those who taught them. If moral authority provides us with reasons for giving credence to the doctrine, that acceptance of moral authority can only justifiably be adopted in a way which is consistent with the epistemological considerations I urged in 10.i. Yet these epistemological considerations appear to rule out any justifiable dogmatic representational belief in karma and rebirth from the beginning, regardless of the possible representational truth of such a doctrine as the Buddha is said to have experienced it.


The only justifiable reasons for believing in the doctrine must be not representational, but pragmatic. The main pragmatic justification for belief in karma traditionally advanced is that it supports morality, yet as Bruce Reichenbach points out, this claim seems to involve a confusion between moral and juridical functions.

As such, the law of karma per se does not look to our reformation. What the law of karma stresses is that we are appropriately rewarded or punished for our actions. Right actions bring their proportionate, pleasurable experiences, wrong actions unpleasurable….On the other side, the moral is less concerned with our punishment than with our becoming virtuous. With respect to our deeds, this involves remembrance of them, acknowledgement of moral accountability for what we have done, repentance for our wrongdoings, and reformation.[19]


Reichenbach’s point here can be understood in terms of the independence of karmic beliefs from any of the process of moral prompting and decision-making I have described in chapter 8. This process involves the consideration of conditions, but through incrementally-developed theories of mutual causation rather than universal theories of linear causation. It is prompted and motivated by integration as encountered in any of the types of moral authority, not by belief in karma. Even hiri  and ottappa, those canonical Buddhist terms for moral motivation, are entirely independent of belief in karma.  Whilst Reichenbach points out that belief in the law of karma does not necessarily motivate virtue and is in many respects independent of the moral process, an application of the account of dualistic belief which I have given in the foregoing chapters leads me to go further and suggest that in most circumstances belief in karma impedes the development of moral objectivity. It does this mainly by rationalising a narrow focus of identification with future events, as I have argued in chapter 3 in relation to cosmic justice beliefs in general. This rationalising function is made possible by the epistemological starting-point of the doctrine.


The pragmatic role which the doctrine appears to have played in ancient India at the time of the Buddha, and which it still to some extent plays in traditional Buddhist countries, is that of a convention created by a group which is relatively integrated by comparison with some individuals within it. As I argued in 8.a.iv, even a dualistic moral tradition may offer a perspective of relative moral objectivity to some individuals within it, by reminding them of conditions which they would otherwise neglect. Such a dualistic tradition has existed in the form of the popular and eternalistic Buddhism which belief in karma and rebirth supports. In a context in which relatively few people have even the degree of awareness and integration provided by a basic education, the substitution of this dualistic belief may perhaps have been justifiable. At a very basic level of moral practice, consideration of the longer-term effects of one’s actions, put together with a dogmatic respect for moral authority, may import some objectivity even in a context which continues to be restricted to quite narrow egoistic identification and in which dualistic beliefs continue to support that narrowness. The association of such beliefs with non-dualism may also, at least sometimes, operate to allow incremental development beyond that initial dualistic framework into a non-dualistic one. This pragmatic justification for the teaching of karma and rebirth in traditional Buddhist contexts can only be advanced tentatively, since it is dependent on a much more detailed assessment of the social and historical conditions than I can offer here. It remains a possible justification, but another possibility remains that the traditional teaching may have simply been pragmatically wrong.


In a different context, however, these pragmatic justifications cannot be offered. The association of karma and rebirth with non-dualism in modern Buddhism appears merely to create unnecessary doubt and confusion. Its pragmatic role in its original context is mistaken for a representational one, and it is thus assumed that the same representational belief should be adopted in a modern context, despite its incompatibility with non-dualism. Buddhist teachers engage in defences of the doctrine based on dogmatic appeals to the authority of the Buddha or of the tradition, which then serve only to cloud the question of epistemological priority in Buddhism as a whole. The association of karma and rebirth with a sequential interpretation of pa ´ccasamuppŒda, and the high status accorded to that teaching, only serve to confuse the issue even further.


The Buddhist teaching on the non-substantiality of the self is often appealed to in an attempt to resolve the contradiction between non-dualism and karmic theory, but such an appeal remains ineffective as long as the full implications of its non-dualism are not explored. The mere theoretical replacement of a metaphysical self with a dynamic ego does not prevent continued identification with the process which that ego is said to undergo, and thus makes little practical difference except to rationalise the egoistic function more usually served by belief in a self by making it superficially compatible with non-dualism. The theoretical process-self leads us to the type of position reached by process theology, which, as Macy points out, is still dependent on a linear account of causality[20]: in this case, seeing the self as process but moving against the relatively stable background of a universe which has not been similarly subjected to Sceptical investigation. In order for reflection to operate effectively in beginning to undermine egoistic identification with the self, that reflection needs to extend to the epistemological and moral implications of non-dualism, to the projected world as well as the projected self: but such reflections, as I have indicated, undermine the doctrine of karma itself.


In the Western context, one response to the doctrine of karma and rebirth is to re-interpret or adapt the version which is most widely accepted in the tradition. Three basic types of interpretation seem possible:


1. That all intentional actions of an individual will in future rebound proportionately upon that individual, and that all current experiences of that individual are the results of past actions.


2. That all intentional actions of an individual will in future rebound proportionately upon that individual, but that the individual’s current experiences are a mixture of the results of past actions and of other conditions.


3. That all intentional actions of an individual will have a proportionate effect, but not necessarily on that same individual, and the individual’s current experiences are a mixture of the results of past actions and of other conditions (which may include the past actions of others).


(1) is the traditional view offered by most Theravadin and Tibetan Buddhist teachers[21], even if it can also be questioned in traditional terms[22]. (2) is the position adopted by Sangharakshita, which apparently offers a partial reform of the doctrine, reconciling it, for example, with the possibility of tragedy[23]. Both of these positions, however, appear to be in conflict with non-dualism because they persist in making metaphysical claims. Whilst position (2) differs from (1) in ruling out the grosser abuses of karmic theory based on the belief that we deserve all our experiences, it does not, as I have already argued[24], give us any greater understanding of the conditions we need to understand to increase our moral objectivity, and still requires a dogmatic epistemological basis. Whilst in position (1), we cannot distinguish any experiences for which we are responsible because there is no distinction between these and other experiences, in (2) this distinction theoretically exists, but it is more specific and less universal theories, rather than the law of karma, which enable us to make it in particular cases. The adoption of a belief in karma of type (2) thus serves no practical purpose which is not better served by metaphysical agnosticism and a balanced heuristic.


Position (3), on the other hand, is so diluted as an account of karma that it appears incoherent. In effect it claims no more than Newton’s law that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction, without specifying who or what may be affected by the reaction. Though still a metaphysical claim because of its leap to universality, it is nevertheless much easier to reconcile with non-dualism because it does not assume a morally continuous, processual self which is the recipient of the effects of its previous actions. The moral function claimed for the law of karma thus no longer operates, and we are left with the incremental assessment of conditions. To call this view "karma” then, is likely to be a confused attempt to attach the authority of the traditional view to a mere appreciation of conditions of the type that I have been advocating.


If non-dualism requires us to avoid belief in a universal and metaphysical law of karma, it may appear that it also requires us to avoid belief in a doctrine which is often taken to be its corollary: that of rebirth. Certainly this is the case if one should contemplate belief in rebirth because of its claimed relationship with karma in a system of cosmic justice. Yet there may be other approaches to understanding the phenomena which surround belief in rebirth. The evidence that rebirth occurs is very far from conclusive, but should also not be dismissed too lightly given our degree of ignorance about the nature of minds and of death. Yet we cannot consider such evidence in the light of Sceptical agnosticism with any metaphysical presumptions about what, if anything, is reborn, or, indeed, about what is not reborn, nor with processual assumptions about a moral continuity or its absence.  Non-dualism only demands that we investigate these phenomena using provisional theories which are neither idealist, mind-body dualist, nor materialist, but rather find more adequate ways of describing the phenomena in accordance with an incrementality of qualities. But I shall not here attempt any more detailed account of what such theories in relation to rebirth might look like.     


iv)                “Sudden” enlightenment


Another area in which my account of non-dualism may appear incompatible with traditional Buddhism may lie in the tradition, found particularly in the Chan/Zen schools, of describing enlightenment in discontinuous terms. Rather than an incremental progression towards objectivity, this tradition speaks in terms of dramatic breakthroughs in which the dualism of all our conceptions is instantaneously transcended by some unexpected new stimulus or realisation. I can here only offer a brief argument that this type of understanding of enlightenment is not completely non-dualist.


The distinction between this type of Buddhism and early Indian Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism seems to lie in the view that temporary and permanent integrations[25] are not distinguishable. Zen Buddhism asserts the existence of a Buddha Nature (tathŒgatagarbha) in all sentient beings, the realisation of which constitutes enlightenment[26]. The Buddha Nature represents a non-dual consciousness which is said to underlie the dual, so that despite the fact that much disciplined preparation is required to break through to it, the breakthrough itself is discontinuous. As D. T. Suzuki writes:

Without the attainment of satori no-one can enter into the truth of Zen. Satori is the sudden flashing into consciousness of a new truth hitherto undreamed of. It is a sort of mental catastrophe taking place all at once, after much piling up of matters intellectual and demonstrative. The piling has reached a limit of stability and the whole edifice has come tumbling to the ground, when, behold, a new heaven is open to full survey.[27]


This experience of a breakthrough may well be compatible with incremental progress, but that it should itself constitute the goal of that process is inconsistent with non-dualism (which, as I have argued throughout, is necessarily incremental,metaphysical discontinuity being a dualistic function). If, indeed, the breakthrough marks a particular point in the incremental process of psychological integration (like that of stream-entry), then it needs to be understood in terms of that incrementality: but for Zen, satori often appears to have a stronger function than this, amounting to a leap from the ego to a position beyond it reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s[28]. The belief that the leaper has indeed suddenly transcended all dualism seems just as likely to be deluded here as it is in Kierkegaard’s case, for the same reasons.


Zen attempts to resolve this problem through constantly reiterating the paradox that the goal is not a goal, that it is only achieved when it is no longer identified with as a goal, but this does not alter the fact that when satori is conceived at all, it is conceived discontinuously, and thus that the whole conception of value in the Zen tradition, however practical its orientation, is based on this philosophical dualism. The appeal to the absolute level of thought is once again serving a rationalising function.


The implication of this metaphysical discontinuity is that not only is there thus theoretically an equivalence between all unenlightened states, but also similarly between all enlightened states. The notion of nirvana in Zen thus becomes diluted to that of a given level of temporary integration[29]. Despite the strength of pragmatism and avoidance of metaphysics in the Zen tradition, then, that tradition must be identified as subject to one important metaphysical dualism in its discontinuity between absolute and relative spiritual values. This has the effect of removing the basis for the type of distinction I have made between, on the one hand, the temporary integration which is the basis of aesthetic objectivity and of integration of meaning, and on the other hand, the permanent integration which is the basis of moral objectivity. The distinctive role of belief and rationality in the process of gaining enlightenment is thus lost, as all that is valuable about it is assumed to be discoverable through an aesthetic and intuitive route without concepts.


This aestheticisation of the ethical is a feature shared by Zen and the existentialist tradition, as found for example in Heidegger[30]. Here an authenticity in relation to experience is supported by an ethical coherentism which removes any further challenge to the conceptions of the ego from beyond the point of discontinuity. Whilst for Heidegger ethical coherentism meant the limitation of the morally relevant world to the world of Dasein, in Zen it appears to support a certain religious individualism or conventionalism whereby the broader moral implications of non-dualism are neglected. The samurai culture, which was much influenced by Zen and had a large influence in its turn over the political culture of Japan, appears closely connected with the internal feuding which troubled Japan during the medieval period and with the extreme nationalism which preceded the Second World War[31]. Here, as in the case of similar tendencies which I have pointed out in Europe, the link between commonly acknowledged evils and dualism does not consist in a specific claim about the relationship between, say, religion and war, but in a comparison of the intensity of dualism between the whole set of psycho-philosophical tendencies operative in this context (as in those of Nazi Germany and the Crusades)  and others. In the case of Japanese culture at the time of the Second World War, it was an intensity of coherentism which supported a very limited sphere of nationalist concern and an extreme rejection of what lay beyond it. The presence of theoretical non-dualism made little difference to this tendency once a metaphysical dualism had taken root and the tension between its coherentism and a countervailing universal foundationalism had been lost.


This criticism of the dualism to be found in Zen does not depreciate the real spiritual achievements to be found in that tradition, any more than my comments on the dualism of Christianity imply a depreciation of the respects in which some Christians have managed to make progress towards objectivity despite the strong dualism of their cultural context. Nevertheless in both cases objectivity has evidently been limited by dualism. In the case of Zen, particularly, the conception of “Sudden” enlightenment has continued to inhibit a balanced investigation of experience in a way that is not compatible with the non-dualist preoccupations of that tradition.


v)                  Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels


The act of going for refuge to the Three Jewels, in which one commits oneself to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, is traditionally the defining mark of a Buddhist. The formula “To the Buddha for refuge I go, to the Dharma for refuge I go, to the Sangha for refuge I go” is chanted regularly by lay Buddhists throughout the traditional Buddhist world as a symbol of commitment to Buddhism. More recently, Sangharakshita has stressed Going For Refuge “as the central and definitive Act of the Buddhist life and as the unifying principle… of Buddhism itself”[32]. Here I will conclude this appendix by offering an interpretation of the relationship between this act of commitment and the non-dualism that I have argued for.


The ceremonial act of reciting the refuges obviously has little significance unless it supports an actual commitment. The ritual may in many cases not support the commitment or even work against it, given that the context in which recitation takes place may provide an interpretation of the words (or a facility in ignoring them) which makes them entirely compatible with existing conventions. In this kind of case, the recitation of the refuge formula probably has little or no value in supporting the development of objectivity. However, the commitment which is at least theoretically referred to by the formula, interpreted in the terms of non-dualism, may support the development of objectivity whether or not the ritual successfully supports that commitment. The effectiveness of the ritual can only be judged in the same heuristic terms as any other practice which it may be suggested is conducive to non-dualism.


Often the Three Jewels are interpreted more or less dualistically: as dogmatic theory (Dharma), the dogmatic authority that reveals the theory from his enlightened state (Buddha), and the intermediaries who pass on this dogmatic teaching (Sangha). If we interpret the Three Jewels in this way, then commitment to them amounts to nothing better than many other dualistic commitments, with good intentions warped by poor epistemology.


But a non-dualist interpretation of the Three Jewels might be something like this: (1) the Dharma is the theory of non-dualism, (2) the Buddha is the practice of non-dualism as symbolised by a human figure who has achieved a high level of integration, (3) the Sangha is moral authority as symbolised by the tradition which offers spiritual advice, friendship and teaching. The Three Jewels thus constitute one way of symbolising non-dualism and its implications. As with the precepts[33], they do not offer the only possible way of doing so, but any alternative formulations would need to fulfil non-dualist criteria to at least the same extent.


The Three Jewels provide a structural analysis of three interdependent core elements in non-dualism[34]: namely, provisional theory, the practice of cultivating integration, and trust in moral authority. Without provisional theory, we have no way of advancing our understanding of experience; without practice, we have no way of checking theory against experience or of extending our egoistic desires to greater adequacy; and without any trust in moral authority, we have no way of  applying our understanding to decisions about conditions beyond the range of our knowledge. Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels in non-dualist terms, then, means having a confidence (in the sense described in 5.d.iii) in the possibility of following the Middle Way, of having provisional theories, of integrating ego with psyche, and of acting in accordance with the most integrated view available to us. Such confidence arises incrementally, through an unknowable mixture of apparent will and the apparent operation of conditions working in mutual causality, subtly supported and habitualised, perhaps, by each ritual reminder in the conceptualised and mythologised form of the refuge formula.


Such an interpretation of the non-dualistic significance of Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels need not in any way interfere with its affective power. This affective power relies on the archetypal significance of the Three Jewels, particularly of the Buddha as Wise Old Man, representing the unification of the psyche as it occurs in narrative. In this case the narratives of the Buddha and other enlightened figures as they occur both in the Pali Canon and MahŒyŒna scriptures. As I argued in 5.e.iii, however, such narratives (like other narratives relating to the same archetype) can be understood in more or less dualist or non-dualist ways. Discrimination between dualist and non-dualist approaches to the Buddha needs to be combined with an openness to the often mythological defeasibility context in which narratives about him occur. To a lesser extent exactly the same considerations apply to the archetypal significances of Dharma and Sangha: either the Dharma represented by scriptures or a group of highly integrated figures representing the Sangha may have an archetypal significance which interacts with other types of significance.


In going for refuge to the Three Jewels, then, the Buddhist may be engaging in an integrative practice of the cultivation of confidence, rather than merely committing herself to a dogma with its attendant dualism of over-certainty and doubt. The positive significance of the act appears to depend entirely on the extent to which it is attended by a non-dualist rather than a dualist interpretation both of the nature of the refuges and the nature of the commitment. Like many other aspects of Buddhism, it offers the potential for liberation from the many frustrations to which we are subject, provided that the conventions and practices it offers are interpreted with some initial reflection of the wisdom with which they appear to have been first promulgated.




[1] By the expression “enlightened speech” I include all ways in which an enlightened person may communicate, which might include gesture or example. In all these cases similar considerations apply.

[2] Bartholomeusz & de Silva (1998)

[3] Majjhima Nikaya i 130-142.

[4] Keown (1992) ch. 4

[5] Vajracchedika Sètra XXI

[6] Alternative translations of this term (Sanskrit pratityasamutpada) are “dependent origination”, ”conditioned genesis”, and “dependent co-arising”. There are numerous references to it in the Pali Canon, but many are concentrated in Samyutta Nikaya ii.1-132

[7] Macy (1991)

[8] Majjhima Nikaya ii.32

[9] Buddhaghosa (1991) ch. XVII

[10] Nanavira (1987) sect. 1 (“A note on pa­ticcasamuppada”).

[11] See ibid. p.23 for a textual argument that jati should not be interpreted to mean “rebirth”.

[12] These are found in the Pali Canon in only one place: Samyutta Nikaya ii.29-32. Sangharakshita discusses them in (1987) p.135-142.

[13] Sangharakshita’s use of “Reality” here seems rather inconsistent: but presumably in the first statement about its ineffability it must be taken to be representational and in the later uses pragmatic.

[14] Sangharakshita (1987) p.141

[15] Nanavira (1987) p.17-18

[16] I use the Sanskrit karma rather than the Pali kamma here because of its greater currency in English.

[17] E.g. Digha Nikaya ii.316-357

[18] For a classic account of this see Milindapañha 40-48

[19] Reichenbach (1990) p.161

[20] Macy (1991) p.14

[21] E.g. in the Theravadin tradition, see Van Gorkom (1990), who states explicitly “All impressions that we experience through the five senses are vipaka” (p.46-7). In the Tibetan tradition, see Hayes (1998) p.77, where a leading Tibetan teacher, Lati Rimpoche, states “I’m sure that those Tibetans who were left behind to suffer great hardships under the Chinese communists must have done something very bad in previous lives to deserve such consequences. It could be that in former lives they tortured other people or were responsible for injustice. As a result they must now live under an unjust system.”

[22] For example, by appeal to the teaching of the five niyamas found in Buddhaghosa’s commentary on the Dhamma-Sangin´: see Sangharakshita (1995) p.204 ff., (1994) ch.7, & (1977) p.69-71.

[23] See Sangharakshita (1995) p.205

[25] See 5.f

[26] See Williams (1989) ch.5 on the relationship between Zen and the tathŒgatagarbha doctrine

[27] Suzuki (1969) p.95

[29] As it is not directly relevant to my argument, I shall not concern myself here with the question of exactly what level of integration is indicated by the Zen terms kensho and satori.

[30] See 4.h.iii. The relationship between Zen and Heidegger has been much explored by Japanese philosophers of the KyotoSchool, such as Nishida, whose proposed solution to dualism is a transcendental phenomenology which they find compatible with Zen.

[31] Evidence of the complicity of many leading Zen masters with Japanese actions during the Second World War has been collected by Victoria (1997).

[32] Sangharakshita (1988) p.42

[33] See 8.a..v & vi

[34] “Non-dualism” here refers not just to the theory symbolised by the Dharma, but to a whole nexus of theory and practice extending far beyond the scope of this book. Though I have thus provided some indication of the theoretical links symbolised by the Dharma and the integrative practices symbolised by the Buddha (5.e) and the reliance on moral authority symbolised by the Sangha (8.a), the non-dualism which is thus symbolised by the Three Jewels extends far beyond this indication. The Three Jewels thus do not merely represent “non-dualism” as I have summarised it in this book (for example in 9.i) and their rough equality of importance is practical rather than theoretical.


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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