Embracing Physicalism in Buddhism (Siderits)

Embracing Physicalism in Buddhism (from Buddhism and Techno-physicalism: Is the Eightfold Path a Program?, by Mark Siderits, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu 2001)

If embracing physicalism [i.e. that all that exists is physical in nature] means leaving open for the present whether or not to accept the doctrine of karma and rebirth, then we must ask how crucial this doctrine really is to Buddhism. What I would suggest is that while this doctrine has played an important role in many Buddhist cultures, it is not crucial to the central project of Buddhism. Indeed, if I take myself to live only one life instead of the indefinitely many lives promised by rebirth, then the fact of my own mortality takes on even greater significance, for I cannot then defer seeking a solution to the problem of suffering to some future life. Now within many Buddhist cultures it has been thought that some persons are unable to seek and attain Nirvana in this life. The doctrine of karma and rebirth holds out the promise to such people that if they perform karmically meritorious acts in this life, they will be reborn in more auspicious circumstances in which the attainment of Nirvana will be easier. So if karma and rebirth were rejected, then since Nirvana would not be open to all, this might make the Buddhist path seem less appealing. (Of course this would not show that the Buddhist analysis is itself false.) But we must ask why Nirvana is thought to be unattainable for some individuals in this lifetime. If this is simply because they find the path too difficult compared to the attractions of mundane life, then perhaps Buddhist need to redouble their efforts to convince these people of the truth of suffering. If, on the other hand, Nirvana is unattainable for some due to such life circumstances as extreme poverty and degradation, then it would seem incumbent on Buddhists to work to eliminate such social evils and thus make Nirvana genuinely available to all.

One sometimes hears it said that in the absence of the doctrine of karma and rebirth (or some other doctrine promising ultimate retribution for immorality), people would have no reason to obey the dictates of conventional morality. But even if this were true, it is not clear why this would constitute a reason for Buddhists to espouse the doctrine. And in fact, Buddhists have good reason to reject this claim. On the basis of the doctrine of nonself it is possible to construct an argument for a general obligation to seek to prevent pain regardless of where it occurs. That is, the doctrine that is central to the Buddhist project may itself be used to support a basic duty of beneficence, arguably the core of all forms of conventional morality. So if it is essential for a spiritual path to provide some support to conventional morality, Buddhism can do so without reliance on the doctrine of karma and rebirth.

So far we have been discussing the central project of Buddhism as taught in early Buddhism and Abhidharma. I said earlier that the Mahayana teaching of the essenceless of the elements might complicate matters. In Madhyamaka this doctrine is taken to mean that the very notion of how things ultimately are is empty. So there is no ultimate fact of the matter as to whether reality is wholly physical, both physical and mental, or only mental in nature. According to Madhyamaka we should, however, embrace at the conventional level whatever account of the world best accords with successful practice. So if physicalism should turn out to cohere better with our going theories, then Madhyamaka would grant it the status of conventional truth.

It is with Yogacara [Vijñanavada] that real difficulties arise. For this school the doctrine of the essenceless of elements is taken to indicate their ultimate nature, specifically their ineffability. And while it would of course be a mistake to say that ineffable elements are mental in nature, Yogacara does claim that it would be nearer the truth to say that they are mental than that they are physical in nature. (Note: This is because for Yogacara the path to the realization of the ineffability of the real goes through the doctrine of impressions-only as a key stage: one first realizes that there could only be inner impressions and not external objects, then sees that the notion of the mental relies crucially on the distinction between “inner” and “outer”, and thus one abandons any attempt at characterizing the reals.) So this school’s views are incompatible with physicalism. And Yogacarins claim that their idealist teaching of impressions-only represents the most effective way of realizing the truth of nonself. If this is correct, then the Buddhist project is indeed incompatible with physicalism. But Abhidharmikas and Madhyamikas deny that embracing an idealist metaphysics is required in order to attain the fruit of the Buddha’s teachings. And there are interesting and complex arguments developed on all sides in this dispute.

More Questions and Answers

question Was it not Kierkegaard who said that one must be content to be a human being? Is this what Advayavada Buddhism strives after, to be pleased with being alive?

answer Yes, you might indeed put it that way. The Advayavadin is a happy Buddhist and he seeks the happiness of all other living beings. He is happy to be alive and he makes no bones about it. B.C. Law already tells us in his 1937 Concepts of Buddhism that duhkha or suffering is nowhere postulated in the Buddhist scriptures as a “permanent feature of reality” and is only “admitted and entertained as a possible contingency in life as it is generally lived”. He explains duhkha or suffering thus: “The problem of dukkha is essentially rooted in the feeling of discord or disparity. Birth, decay or death is not in itself dukkha. These are only a few contingencies in human experience which upset the expectations of men. From the point of view of mind, dukkha is just a vedana or feeling which is felt by the mind either in respect of the body or in respect of itself, and as a feeling, it is conditioned by certain circumstances. In the absence of these circumstances there is no possibility of its occurrence. Whether a person is affected by dukkha or not depends on the view he or she takes of things. If the course of common reality is that being once in life, one cannot escape either decay or death, and if the process of decay sets in or death actually takes place, there is no reason why that person should be subject to dukkha by trying to undo what cannot be undone. Thus dukkha is based upon misconstruction of the dhammata or law of things or their way of happening in life.” We do not agree, however, that duhkha is a feeling felt by a mind somehow separate from the body, as Law implies. Duhkha (existential suffering, i.e. to suffer existentially) and mind (i.e. to think) are simply both events: formally duhkha belongs to the vedana (sensations or feelings) cluster, and mind (to think) groups a number of events of the samskara (mental formational forces) cluster.

question What is, then, your understanding of duhkha?

answer The concept of duhkha or dukkha does not include, in Advayavada Buddhism, emotional grief nor physical pain. It refers solely to the existential suffering, angst and regret non-enlightened human beings are prone to. The enlightened person accepts with understanding and compassion the sorrow and pain which are part and parcel of human existence.

question How do we know about the world? Via the body, perception, sense consciousness and so on, all dependent on this embodied state. But how seldom our awareness rests within this body; how seldom the body and mind are at ease with themselves. We seldom think about our bodies; they are something given. When they work well and provide us with pleasure and happiness, we are satisfied with them and then ignore them. Only when they stop working properly, do we attend to them, and then only as a teacher to an errant pupil; we are angry and disappointed that they have failed us. We have a strangely ambivalent attitude to something so vital to us. It’s not like our relationship with a car; we can’t go out and hire or buy another one when it breaks down; yet we often treat our cars with more care and consideration.

We are born into this body, and when it dies, we die. But does one choose this body or decide its dimensions? Is one even able fully to control it? Can one choose when one wakes, goes to sleep, is ill, is healthy? No, most of what occurs with respect to the body is involuntary. We know, for example, that the body has various repair mechanisms, but it is very rare that we can set these in motion ourselves. Is this what we are, these arms, these legs, this head, eyes, teeth? With modern techniques, an awful lot of it can be made prosthetically. And so what are we? The bit that remains? The brain, two ears and so on? Or is this perhaps not how it is at all, not what we are at all? If the body were simply us, we would have a great deal more to say in the matter!

answer The lion’s share of our body’s activities is fortunately under the control of our peripheral nervous system, which includes the autonomic nervous system. ‘The sensory nerve fibres of the peripheral system carry impulses from e.g. the ear or the skin to the brain, and its motor nerve fibres carry impulses from the brain to e.g. our skeletal muscles. The autonomic nervous system comprises a sympathetic and a parasympathetic system which counterbalance each other. Together they run, for example, our heart rate and the flow of blood through our blood vessels, the contractions of our digestive tract, the ever-changing size of the pupil of the eye, the dilation and constriction of our bronchii, etc.’ We do not think that you would want to have a conscious say in these matters.

You will agree that these nervous systems carry out very complicated and, above all, indispensable and irreplaceable functions. But the relevant fact in the present context is that the systems are things (that belong to the rupa skandha) and what they carry out are not things but activities, processes (that belong to the arupa skandhas). A thing and what that thing does are not two things; they are a thing and an, its, activity or function, and an activity is an event, not a thing. It is for this same reason that Advayavada Buddhism stresses again and again that the mind is not a separate thing but one more function of the body; the mind is to think (and consciousness is to know) and to think is not a thing but an activity, a process, which is an event, not a thing. A mind that is in any way a thing separate from the body, and moreover carries out activities on its own and by itself, is an atman or pudgala, or a soul. To propound that such a thing exists, as you seem to do, contravenes the Buddha’s most basic anatman teaching.

Bearing in mind that the traditional khandhas or skandhas theory is but a very rudimentary presupposition of the actual physiological processes, earlier on we had this to say about the skandhas in this respect: The skandhas in fact do nothing – they are the doing. The cluster of physical existence is the rupa skandha. Also this cluster does nothing – it is physical existence in all its aspects. The four or so non-physical skandhas [traditionally sensations or feelings (vedana), perception (samjña, sañña), mental forces or formations (samskara, sankhara), and consciousness (vijñana, viññana)] are clusters or aggregates of functions, which are events – they denote how the rupa skandha is over time. The rupa skandha does not cause these events, it is them. Like when we say that a tree grows. The tree does not do the growing; it is the growing. This is how the tree is, how it exists in space and time. The growing of the tree is quite obviously an event, and not a thing, let alone a separate thing capable of in turn doing other things by itself. We owe the cohesion and activity of the rupa skandha to the spontaneous incessant dynamic principle of existence: the interdependent and conditioned co-arising or interdependent origination or universal dynamic relativity of all phenomena, called pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit.