Brain Wiring

big picture stuff, Religion

There’s a fascinating article on morality by Steven Pinker in the Sunday New York Times magazine. Research on brains and behavior is revealing that morality has psychological and neurobiological foundations. Here’s a snip:

The starting point for appreciating that there is a distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing how moral judgments differ from other kinds of opinions we have on how people ought to behave. Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).

The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal. Prohibitions of rape and murder, for example, are felt not to be matters of local custom but to be universally and objectively warranted. One can easily say, “I don’t like brussels sprouts, but I don’t care if you eat them,” but no one would say, “I don’t like killing, but I don’t care if you murder someone.”

The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to “let them get away with it.” People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell.”

This was particularly fascinating to me:

We all know what it feels like when the moralization switch flips inside us — the righteous glow, the burning dudgeon, the drive to recruit others to the cause. The psychologist Paul Rozin has studied the toggle switch by comparing two kinds of people who engage in the same behavior but with different switch settings. Health vegetarians avoid meat for practical reasons, like lowering cholesterol and avoiding toxins. Moral vegetarians avoid meat for ethical reasons: to avoid complicity in the suffering of animals. By investigating their feelings about meat-eating, Rozin showed that the moral motive sets off a cascade of opinions. Moral vegetarians are more likely to treat meat as a contaminant — they refuse, for example, to eat a bowl of soup into which a drop of beef broth has fallen. They are more likely to think that other people ought to be vegetarians, and are more likely to imbue their dietary habits with other virtues, like believing that meat avoidance makes people less aggressive and bestial.

I suggest that the “moralizers” here have formed an ego-attachment to their vegetarianism. It isn’t just something they do; it’s something that defines who they are. And from there they set up the ol’ Us-Them dichotomy and designate all meat eaters as the Other.

It reminds me of a wise woman I met years ago at a Zen center. Her diet was mostly vegetarian, she said, but she ate meat now and then just so she couldn’t call herself a vegetarian. Way Zen.

Anyway, Pinker goes on to explain how we as a culture moralize and un-moralize various activities. Smoking has been moralized, for example. Divorce has lost its stigma and has been un-moralized. But the list of things we get sanctimonious about seems very arbitrary.

I’ve noticed that as a culture we often will fixate on one activity and blow it up into a big bleeping deal disproportionate to the actual harm it does. Disposable diapers come to mind. When they first came out they were met with outrage by baby butt purists. They were bad for babies and taking up too much space in landfills, the purists said. But they weren’t bad for babies, and there are all sorts of other non-biodegradable items taking up even more space in landfills that no one gets outraged about. (And, anyway, washing cloth diapers puts phosphates into lakes and rivers!)

Dozens of things that past generations treated as practical matters are now ethical battlegrounds, including disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls and research on breast cancer. Food alone has become a minefield, with critics sermonizing about the size of sodas, the chemistry of fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee beans, the species of fish and now the distance the food has traveled from farm to plate.

… But whether an activity flips our mental switches to the “moral” setting isn’t just a matter of how much harm it does. We don’t show contempt to the man who fails to change the batteries in his smoke alarms or takes his family on a driving vacation, both of which multiply the risk they will die in an accident. Driving a gas-guzzling Hummer is reprehensible, but driving a gas-guzzling old Volvo is not; eating a Big Mac is unconscionable, but not imported cheese or crème brûlée. The reason for these double standards is obvious: people tend to align their moralization with their own lifestyles.

By means of thought experiments that Pinker explains in detail, psychologists have shown that moralization often is irrational.

People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

Yep, ain’t it the truth?

Researchers have found a few themes or “spheres” universal to human cultures that determine whether something is “moral” or not. These are whether an act causes harm; whether it is fair (although cultural ideas about “fairness” vary widely, I suspect); whether it shows loyalty or disloyalty to one’s designated group; whether it respects authority; and whether the act is “pure” — “they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.”

There’s all manner of evolutionary biology figuring into this, of course.

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

Pretty much what George Lakoff has been saying for a while.

Reassigning an activity to a different sphere, or taking it out of the moral spheres altogether, isn’t easy. People think that a behavior belongs in its sphere as a matter of sacred necessity and that the very act of questioning an assignment is a moral outrage. The psychologist Philip Tetlock has shown that the mentality of taboo — a conviction that some thoughts are sinful to think — is not just a superstition of Polynesians but a mind-set that can easily be triggered in college-educated Americans. Just ask them to think about applying the sphere of reciprocity to relationships customarily governed by community or authority. When Tetlock asked subjects for their opinions on whether adoption agencies should place children with the couples willing to pay the most, whether people should have the right to sell their organs and whether they should be able to buy their way out of jury duty, the subjects not only disagreed but felt personally insulted and were outraged that anyone would raise the question.

I’m skipping big chunks of this; you really ought to read the whole thing, if you have time. I thought this paragraph fascinating:

The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

Maybe it’s because I think like a Buddhist, but I don’t understand how something that’s a product of brain wiring is less “real” than something that’s not a product of brain wiring. And I think pretty much all aspects of human culture are a kind of collective hallucination. Economies, for example, are created by our thoughts, are they not? Money only has value because we all agree it does.

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Moral reasoning can be rational:

Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the interchangeability of perspectives — keeps reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.

This resonates nicely with the Buddhist view of morality, which basically is that true morality is based on compassion, and true compassion comes from the wisdom that dividing the world into self-and-other is delusional. Morality that is based on an external set of rules is, to me, a crude and flawed kind of morality.

The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always putting the self on the side of the angels.

Craving and ego-attachment are the source of all evil and suffering, the Buddha said.

Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

I have a lot of thoughts about this, but I think I will save them for tomorrow.



  1. jf  •  Jan 12, 2008 @11:19 pm

    Borrow some copy why don’t you. This immoral abuse of fair use practice leaves me indignant! Then again, thank you for a very thoughtful post. I really enjoyed it.

  2. wmr  •  Jan 13, 2008 @1:09 am

    I’ve seen the trolley questions before and I’ve always wondered why they don’t include the choice of diving in front of the trolley myself, or jumping off the bridge instead of pushing the fat man.

    Same loss of one life and noble self-sacrifice, too, but that option is never mentioned.

  3. lucidity  •  Jan 13, 2008 @1:09 am

    Ooh, I’m a big fan of Pinker — thanks for linking this! Btw, if you’re into podcasts, there are some interviews of him at

  4. jvh  •  Jan 13, 2008 @1:40 am

    For some more thoughts on brain wiring and morality as well as some interesting”thought problems” check out the Radiolab podcast on “Morality” from WNYC. Available on iTunes or from the WNYC website. Enough pluggin’
    I am not qualified to speak to the aspects of ego attachment but I agree that ‘moral’ attitudes may have immoral dimensions. At the very least I acknowledge the wisdom of the female Zen practitioner who occasionally ate meat to avoid attaching herself to vegetarianism.

  5. idlemind  •  Jan 13, 2008 @6:49 am

    This is fascinating stuff. Along with “mirror” neurons that are likely responsible for empathy, the idea that morality is tied up with how our brains are wired can help shed light on who we are and why we perceive and behave as we do.

    It’s a slight tangent (though it ties right into the malleability of the moral sense you write about), but I’ve been having a mental dialog on morality recently, brought on by the fact that many — and if the question is asked a certain way, a significant majority — of Americans support the use of torture. Having been brought up as a Christian (though long since abandoning its theology) I simply couldn’t understand why this was such a widespread view. Are we a people so fallen from the virtues preached by our cultural faith, or am I simply misunderstanding what being a “Christian” means to most Americans?

    The Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have done to you — is universally known. If people know nothing else from The Sermon On The Mount (e.g. “Love your enemies” seems to be largely forgotten by most who call themselves “Christian”) they know the Golden Rule. But thinking back to my discussions with Christian Fundamentalists, I think I see just what is going on, here. You see, the core Biblical aphorism for a lot of folks seems to be “An eye for an eye,” and somehow they have convinced themselves that the Golden Rule is entirely compatible with this belief (even though their scripture implies otherwise). And by their thinking, just as long as we convince ourselves that we will never perform an act, we can treat those who do any way we want. The Golden Rule allows us to say “If I ever did that (and, of course, I never will just so long as my evil nature is kept in check by fear of the dire consequences) I’d want to be tortured/killed/whatever, too.”Thus simply doesn’t apply, since we will never be like the other guy (and are dependent on our fear to stay that way).

    This belief in the fundamental evil nature of humanity, to be kept in check by any means of deterrence which might be effective (of which hellfire is the ultimate example), is a core belief of most Fundamentalists. Since human powers of rationalization are so great (such that Fundamentalists effectively can be moral relativists as much or more than anyone), it is easy to say “I am not that” and render the Golden Rule null-and-void.

    Or, put another way, the ability of humans to treat the “other” as non-human is boundless. Although I believe that a careful reading of the New Testament should show Christians just how wrong this is in light of their own religion, tribalism triumphs.

    Perhaps a pointless exercise (and one that probably has only added to my cynicism) but I’m no longer puzzled by how people who believe themselves to be on the side of the angels can approve of such evil practices, and why their accusations of secularist immorality due to “moral relativism” are, at root, the height of hypocrisy.

  6. maha  •  Jan 13, 2008 @7:44 am

    This immoral abuse of fair use practice leaves me indignant!

    Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I figure that if I’m calling attention to the article and urging people to read the whole thing, then I’m increasing its value in a way that benefits the New York Times. But, yeah, if this were a commercial print publication I would owe the Times big bucks in permissions fees for quoting that much of an article.

  7. erinyes  •  Jan 13, 2008 @8:07 am

    I was at another web site reading Pinker’s article just before arriving at the Mahablog, what a co-inkidink.

    In a recent conversation, a man was telling me how evil Islam is, how the Muslims want to take over the world, how the Quran is full of violence, how killing is part of their religion, how “those people ” have been fighting since time began. I reflected on the behavior of The Europeans from England, Spain, Portugal,France, and Holland (in particular) who scoured the globe plundering and killing in the name of God and royalty. Not much has changed, except for the weapons and the medicines, and instead of God, it’s freedom.
    The great about Buddhism is that is encourages one to think, not just obey. The other evolution.

  8. erinyes  •  Jan 13, 2008 @9:04 am

    To clarify, I didn’t mean “Holland” in particular, but the Europeans in particular. Need…….to wake up brain….

  9. Marshall  •  Jan 13, 2008 @12:40 pm

    To me, the trolley experiment misses a very real difference between the options. If I flip the switch, the guy on the other track isn’t dead yet. He may see the trolley coming, he may jump if I yell at him, the conductor may regain consciousness, etc. So, I may have killed him, but I may not have. Whereas, if I throw the guy off the bridge, I have killed him. There is a big difference between potentially killing someone, and actually doing it, so it stands to reason that people’s reactions would be different to these two scenarios. (The experimenters may say that the guy is sure to die, but if they want us to treat this as a real-world example, they don’t get the ability to perfectly predict the future, as you can’t do that in the real world.)

  10. MonkeyBoy  •  Jan 13, 2008 @1:09 pm

    Pinker says: People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

    Sorry, but this is true for reasoning in general not just moral reasoning. Most reasoning involve “evaluation” – is something “good” or “bad”. Usually when people are asked whether X is good or bad and Why, they already have some pre-existing evaluations that pop up. Then they look for things that who’s evaluations support that position.

    Say for example the question is “should gasoline taxes be raised”?

    Gut reactions might be “taxation is tyranny”, “I pay a lot for gas already and don’t want to pay more”, “higher gas prices may cut gas consumption”, “high gas prices will encourage public transportation”, “gas taxes pay for roads and bridges which are need more money for repairs”, “let those who most use the roads contribute the most for them”, etc.

    People rarely engage in general reasoning – mostly they try to rationalize their gut instincts.

  11. Michael  •  Jan 13, 2008 @5:09 pm

    By accurately explaining the consequences of cannabis prohibition, it has been possible for us to change the terms of the discussion and place them in a moral context. By then further stating the benefits of cannabis for medicine, and the consequences of patients being literally martyred (like my friend Robin Prosser, aka mbc) by the government, we place a moral imperative on ending cannabis prohibition at least for medical patients. By respecting the sincere religious beliefs of those who use cannabis as sacrament, we express the moral requirement of tolerance.

    I think morality is a good thing if honestly used for good, but that’s kind of tautological. It’s a tool for our mental conditioning, and can be very beneficial. But when someone else tells you their morality (and that includes anything that I say), take it seriously but don’t follow it blindly. Never follow anything blindly, except your own inner conscience — and question that too on occasion, so you make sure you’re doing the right thing.

    It doesn’t seem like it should be hard for people to do this.

  12. Batocchio  •  Jan 13, 2008 @5:47 pm

    Great stuff, Maha. Thanks.

  13. lucidity  •  Jan 13, 2008 @5:52 pm

    As to how American “Christians” could approve of torture — seems they weight the group loyalty moral sphere over everything else. Whatever we do is right, because we’re the ones doing it.

  14. Bill Ganzel  •  Jan 14, 2008 @11:32 am

    Fascinating article and replies. For what it’s worth, there is a free, non-profit educational web site that has several full interviews with Dr. Norman Borlaug — who is featured in the original article — about his work in agriculture. Go to and click on the “Media Resouces” for video podcasts of his interviews. Or go to the “Farming in the 50s-60s” section and click on the “Crops” subsection to see longer articles about the history and debate about the Green Revolution. Again, it’s totally free and non-profit.

  15. James  •  Jan 14, 2008 @12:40 pm

    “…ego-attachment are the source of all evil…the Buddha said.”

    That doesn’t strike me as something that the Buddha taught at all. Granted, my knowledge lies with the Theravada tradition and I’m not well schooled in Zen ideas. It doesn’t seem like he taught that the ego was evil, but that the concept of ego could be used in either skillful or unskillful ways. I recommend the following essay:

  16. maha  •  Jan 14, 2008 @1:41 pm

    “…ego-attachment are the source of all evil…the Buddha said.”

    That doesn’t strike me as something that the Buddha taught at all. Granted, my knowledge lies with the Theravada tradition and I’m not well schooled in Zen ideas. It doesn’t seem like he taught that the ego was evil, but that the concept of ego could be used in either skillful or unskillful ways.

    Oh, dear, James, this is Basic Buddhism 101, Lesson 1, in all schools of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths. Remember those?

    The truth of suffering (dukkha)
    The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
    The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
    The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)

    Put into English: (1) Life is suffering (also imperfect, unsatisfactory, temporary). (2)This suffering is caused by thirst (tanha) or grasping, and this includes physical and emotional thirsts or desires or greed, and at the root of the thirst is ignorance of the nature of the self (a lot gets packed into the Second Truth). (3) There is a way out of this suffering, and (4) that way is to follow the Eightfold Path.

    The Four Noble Truths are the entirety of the Buddha’s teaching. The rest is pretty much commentary.

    The Buddha taught in his very first sermon that tanha grows from ignorance of the self. We go through life grabbing one thing after another to get a sense of security about ourselves. We attach not only to physical things, but also to ideas and opinions about ourselves and the world around us. It is this grasping that is the source of dukkha The ENTIRE POINT OF ALL SCHOOLS OF BUDDHISM is to resolve this ignorance of the nature of the self..

    The essay you linked to is, IMO, bizarre, and not at all in line with Theravada teaching, much less Zen. Note also that I did not say the ego was evil, but any Theravadin should tell you that the ego is a by-product of the skandhas (or khandhas in Pali; I tend to use the Sanskrit names of things) therefore, ego is dukkha.

    The skandhas should come up in Basic Buddhism 101, Lesson 2. And this is right out of the Pali Canon; it’s not a Mahayana thing. Very briefly, the skandhas are form (body), senses, conception, volition, and consciousness. When these elements come together, they make a being. But the being is void of intrinsic permanent self (anatman).Needless to say, there are entire libraries of commentary on all this. This is just the intro to the intro.

    Now, Theravada and Mahayana do understand the doctrine of anatman somewhat differently. Indeed, it is the point that most sets them apart. Very basically, Theravada considers anatman to mean that an individual’s ego or personality is a fetter and delusion. Once freed of this delusion, the individual may enjoy the bliss of Nirvana.

    While the skandhas are still together and functioning there will be an ego or personality clanking around in them, but the point of Theravada is to perceive that the ego/personality is not your true and unchanging self, but just a temporary creation of the skandhas.

    (Hence, the essay you linked to was extremely weird, and I wonder if the person who wrote it was even a Buddhist in spite of the Buddhist-sounding name. To claim that the point of Buddhism is to create a well-integrated ego and personality is something like saying that the point of carpentry is to start fires.)

    Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of intrinsic self (a teaching called shunyata, which means “emptiness”) and individual autonomy to be a delusion. Therefore, according to Mahayana, individual enlightenment is not possible. The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion, but because all beings are One Being.

    Ego-attachment is kind of a Zen term, but Theravada teaches the same thing. Any kind of grasping — mental, emotional, or physical — comes under the heading of samudaya, which is the cause of dukkha.

  17. S.U.  •  Jan 14, 2008 @2:29 pm

    “I suggest that the “moralizers” here have formed an ego-attachment to their vegetarianism. It isn’t just something they do; it’s something that defines who they are. And from there they set up the ol’ Us-Them dichotomy and designate all meat eaters as the Other.”

    Fascinating! You’ve managed to perform psychoanalytic diagnostics on millions of people you’ve never met, simultaneously. And it is totally sad and myopic how They are always setting up Their “ol’ Us-Them dichotomy”, isn’t it? Oh well…that’s just the way They are.

  18. maha  •  Jan 14, 2008 @4:11 pm


    You’ve managed to perform psychoanalytic diagnostics on millions of people you’ve never met, simultaneously.

    It’s not psychoanalysis. It’s Buddhism. (See comment #18)

    But if you live long enough, you notice patterns. Pretty much whenever somebody goes off the wall on some issue, ego-attachment is involved.

    And I don’t have to know you very well to diagnose that you are an asshole.

  19. Tak Kak  •  Jan 14, 2008 @8:42 pm

    Interesting stuff. One of the main reasons I enjoy your blog is because you bring the Buddhist perspective to bear on so many things.

    Without benefit of yet having read the Pinker, it seems like it could dovetail with the following website (through which, alas, I’ve only skimmed); maybe you’ll find it interesting:


  20. James  •  Jan 15, 2008 @3:39 pm


    You completely misrepresented the essay and my post. I know full well that the sense of self is due to the activity of the khandhas. The point of the essay is that in Buddhism you’re trying to refine your sense of self until you’re ultimately ready to adopt the phenomenological mode of dependent co-arising and move beyond perceptions of self/not-self. Most Buddhists try to turn Buddhism into a philosophy instead of realizing that it is a graduated practice so they completely misconstrue the Buddha’s teachings and take them out of context. Moving beyond self/not-self is reserved for people who have thoroughly mastered a phenomenological mode of perception, not for beginner Buddhists or everyday people:

    “As §195 states, this clear knowledge is based on knowledge of the four noble truths. These truths are best understood not as the content of a belief, but as categories for viewing and classifying the processes of immediate experience. In §51, the Buddha refers to them as categories of “appropriate attention,” a skillful alternative to the common way that people categorize their experience in terms of two dichotomies: being/non-being, and self/other. For several reasons, these common dichotomies are actually problem-causing, rather than problem-solving. The being/non-being dichotomy, for instance, comes down to the question of whether or not there exist actual “things” behind the changing phenomena of experience. This type of questioning deals, by definition, with possibilities that cannot be directly experienced: If the things in question could be experienced, then they wouldn’t be lying behind experience. Thus the being/non-being dichotomy pulls one’s attention into the land of conjecture — “a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views” [MN 72] — and away from the area of direct awareness where the real problem and its solution lie [§186].

    As for the self/other dichotomy, there is the initial difficulty of determining what the self is. Any true self would have to lie totally under one’s own control, and yet nothing that one might try to identify as one’s self actually meets this criterion. Although the sense of self may seem intuitive enough, when carefully examined it shows itself to be based on confused perceptions and ideas. If one’s basic categories for understanding experience are a cause for confusion in this way, they can lead only to confused, unskillful action, and thus to more suffering and stress. For example, when people view the source of their problems as poor relationships between themselves and others, or inadequate integration of the self, they are trying to analyze their problems in terms of categories that are ultimately uncertain. Thus there is a built-in uncertainty in the efforts they make to solve their problems in terms of those categories.

    A second problem, no matter how one might define a self, is the question of how to prove whether or not it actually exists. This question entangles the mind in the unresolvable problems of the being/non-being dichotomy mentioned above: Because the problem is phrased in terms that cannot be directly experienced, it forces the solution into a realm that cannot be experienced, either. This fact probably explains the Buddha’s statement in §230 to the effect that if one even asks the question of whether there is someone standing outside the processes of dependent co-arising to whom those processes pertain, it is impossible to lead the life that will bring about an end to suffering. Regardless of whether one would answer the question with a yes or a no, the terms of the question focus on an area outside of direct experience and thus away from the true problem — the direct experience of suffering — and actually make it worse. If one assumes the existence of a self, one must take on the implicit imperative to maximize the self’s well-being through recourse to the “other.” This recourse may involve either exploiting the “other” or swallowing the “other” into the self by equating one’s self with the cosmos as a whole. Either approach involves clinging and craving, which lead to further suffering and stress. On the other hand, if one denies any kind of self, saying that the cosmos is totally “other,” then one is assuming that there is nothing with any long-term existence whose happiness deserves anything more than quick, short-term attempts at finding pleasure. The imperative in this case would be to pursue immediate pleasure with as little effort as possible, thus aborting any sustained effort to bring about an end to suffering.

    These problems explain why the Buddha regarded questions of existence and non-existence, self and no-self, as unskillful, inappropriate ways of attending to experience.”

    “It is important to note that dependent co-arising makes no statements as to the existence or lack of existence of any entity to which these events pertain or to whom they belong [§230]. As we noted above, such terms of analysis as “being,” “non-being,” “self,” or “other,” pertain properly to the modes of cosmology and personal narrative, and have no place in a radically phenomenological analysis. Questions and terms that derive from the conventions of narrative and the construction of a world view have no place in the direct awareness of experience in and of itself. This is one reason why people who have not mastered the path of practice, and who thus function primarily in terms of a world view or a sense of their own personal story, find the teaching of dependent co-arising so inscrutable. Even though the Buddha’s phenomenological approach answered his questions as to the nature of kamma, it also reshaped his questions so that they had little in common with the questions that most people bring to the practice. As with all insights gained on the phenomenological level, dependent co-arising is expressed in terms closest to the actual experience of events. Only when a person has become thoroughly familiar with that level of experience is the analysis fully intelligible. Thus, although the detailed nature of dependent co-arising is one of its strengths, it is also one of its weaknesses as a teaching tool, for the subtlety and complexity of the analysis can be intimidating even to advanced practitioners.”

    “The first step is simply to identify the hindrances and factors for Awakening as they are experienced, noting their presence and absence in the mind — a movement toward what the Buddha called “entering into emptiness” [II/B]. As III/D makes clear, there are several preliminary steps in concentration practice leading up to the ability to do this. When these are mastered, one can focus on, say, the hindrance of ill-will not in terms of the object of the ill-will, but on the quality of ill-will as a mere event in the mind. The question here is not, “What am I angry about?” or “What did that person do wrong?” but simply “What is happening in my mind? How can it be classed?” Given the well-known Buddhist teaching on not-self, some people have wondered why the questions of appropriate attention at this step would use such concepts as “me” and “my,” but these concepts are essential at this stage — where the mind is still more at home in the narrative mode of “self” and “others” — in pointing out that the focus of the inquiry should be directed within, rather than without. This helps to bring one’s frame of reference to the experience of mental qualities as phenomena in and of themselves, and away from the narratives that provoked the anger to begin with. Only when this shift in reference is secure can the concepts of “me” and “my” be dispensed with, in the third step below.”

  21. James  •  Jan 15, 2008 @3:44 pm

    “And, in the most general terms, the fact that skillfulness leads ultimately to a dimension where skillfulness is transcended, accounts for a paradoxical dynamic common to all seven sets that form the Wings: the meditator must intentionally make use of qualities from which he/she wants to escape, gaining familiarity with them in the course of mastering them to the point where they are naturally stilled. There the transcendent paths and their fruitions take over. This is the sense in which even the path of right practice must eventually be abandoned, but only after it has been brought to the culmination of its development. Many people have misunderstood this point, believing that the Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment require that one relinquish one’s attachment to the path of practice as quickly as possible. Actually, to make a show of abandoning the path before it is fully developed is to abort the entire practice. As one teacher has put it, a person climbing up to a roof by means of a ladder can let go of the ladder only when safely on the roof. In terms of the famous raft simile [§§113-114], one abandons the raft only after crossing the ocean. If one were to abandon it in mid-ocean, to make a show of going spontaneously with the flow of the ocean’s many currents, one could drown.”

  22. James  •  Jan 15, 2008 @4:03 pm

    Hmm…seems like my responses have been deleted. Not interested in a reasonable discussion…eh?

  23. maha  •  Jan 15, 2008 @4:13 pm

    James — I’ll leave your comments up, mostly because I don’t think many people will wade through all that anyway, but I won’t discuss this further except to say that you’re making a big pseudo-intellectual mess out of dhamma, and if you didn’t recognize that “Craving and ego-attachment are the source of all evil and suffering” was but a simple restatement of the Second Noble Truth then perhaps you need remedial classes.

  24. maha  •  Jan 15, 2008 @4:15 pm

    Also, James, your comments didn’t appear right away because I have comment moderation turned on to weed out spam — mostly links to porn sites. However, I don’t have time to debate whackjobs. You are banned.

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