Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

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Buddha as the Designer of a Religion

December 4, 2017

One way to look at a religion is to look at its beliefs, or its behavioral guidelines, or its structure, or its facilities, or its members, or many other aspects. One way that does not seem to be very common is to ask what was the founder or founders trying to do with his religion. Religions accrete many things as time goes on, but if a founder can be identified, or hypothesized, it can be asked how did he manage to set up the critical parts of the religion.


Like any other organism, a religion must survive and reproduce in time and space. Survival for a religion means it has to hold together over the short term. It might face oppression, or competition for members, or discrimination by the governance of the time. Reproduction in time means it has to have a way for younger members to be brought into it and captured as permanent adherents and reproduction in space means it must somehow diffuse beyond its original boundaries.


Buddha must have understood how to organize this, perhaps only intuitively, but certainly effectively. Members contribute their time and efforts to a religion because they get a good feeling from it, most likely from a dopamine pulse connected with different aspects of it. Dopamine squirts out into our brain when as association with something positive in our younger years is made. Much of the youth of people, certainly in Buddha’s time, was spent with their parents. Buddha behaved in the image of the good side of everyone’s father, and so being with him subconsciously reminded people of this, and they felt the happiness that comes from a positive association. Buddha told everyone who attended his lectures or who became a monk with his retinue how to behave, just as fathers tell their children how to behave. More reminders of that association, one which almost everyone has.


Buddha was a planner, able to see how future events might work out. He was not working for personal honor or award, but to accomplish something that lasted longer than his life. He therefore established a group of higher level monks who might take his place when he died, and trained them. His idea was not that they would become Buddhas who also authored new behavioral codes, but that they would become teachers of his moral code, so it would be preserved and disseminated. Interpreters of the code for new applications, perhaps, but not inventors. That meant he had to be able to discriminate among the monks under his charge, to find some who were not innovators and did not want to find their own way and found their own sect, but who were instead good followers, intelligent enough to understand what he was doing but without the ambition to do the same themselves.


The father association that Buddha caused in other people who likely not carry over so well into the next generation of Buddha’s leaders, so other associations designed to make people happy enough to be involved in the sect had to be initiated. This might be the melding of the family, or brothers and cousins, together with peers. Buddha taught the monks who came with him how to behave toward one another, as well as how to conduct their daily lives. The relationship of the monks living together is akin to that of a family, and might generate the positive associations that we learn in childhood if we are lucky enough to live in a large family. Any family or group of close peers has negative events, generating negative associations, and Buddha’s rules for living together served to mitigate these, so the positive feelings would dominate and there would be good feelings driving the monks to stay with him.


When Buddha lived, about 2500 years ago, there had not yet been invented a convenient writing technology in his area, so he would have expected that his words would only be remembered for a long term if they were part of a codified oral tradition. For this reason, he needed a large body of monks to do the memorization and to teach it to newer monks. If he had lived two thousand years later, he might have designed his religion completely differently, using the technology of writing to preserve his ideas. This is an important fact. Technology determines the form of religion, just as the form of society influences the form of religion. Buddha had to tap into the positive childhood associations to make people feel good when supporting or learning about his teachings, and in an era where family life is very different, different forms of religion would be necessary to provide the same capture of emotion that is necessary to have robust adherence.


Buddha also structured the time of the monks in his retinue. They knew when to arise, when to wash, when to meditate, when to beg and when to sleep. Just as a parent controls the time of a very young child, Buddha did the same. Thus, the associations embedded deep within the brains of the monks, connected with their early mothering, large positive, were snagged by Buddha’s use of a daily time structure. Do older children like to have their time wholly structured? There is usually some rebellion, but that is a small fraction of the interaction of parent and child. Instead, there is, in an older child, the same positive association with having time structured for them that arose in very early childhood. Buddha’s tapping into this assisted in forming positive feelings in his monks, and aided in keeping them attached to him.


Reassurance and the dispelling of uncertainty is also something that parents do for their children. Reassurance comes in many varieties for a small child, with perhaps the simplest and earliest being the feeling of being protected from whatever perils there are by parents. Buddha might have provided some of this feeling, but a second variety, which occurs when a child begins to be independent, involves parents encouraging the independence and assisting in the actions taken. Learning to walk is an example of this. All children go through this, and there is undoubtedly good feeling generated. Buddha could take advantage of this by encouraging monks in their activities, albeit in a moral sense. Having right thoughts and right behavior and so on takes encouragement, and while providing the behavioral code is an important component, being reassuring about the monk’s eventual success also taps into these positive early childhood associations. While completely invisible, this is another way in which Buddha provided monks with positive feelings about being attached to him.


When one mentions uncertainty and Buddhism in the same sentence, the thought is reincarnation. Uncertainty regarding the existence of some essence within or around a person, which bounces from living creature to living creature is addressed by Buddhism, actually only echoing the reincarnation myths of Hinduism. This is certainly not the only uncertainty addressed by Buddhism, and may be one of the less important ones. Everyday life is all about interacting with other people, and Buddha provided guidelines for doing this. Instead of wondering how to approach a government official, or to talk to a streetsweeper or to deal with a shopkeeper or to accept a gift of charity from someone, a new monk can learn from Buddha’s teachings or imitate the example of more experienced monks. This area of uncertainty, revolving around interpersonal interaction, may provide more of a lift to spirits than any discussion of the essence of life.


Thus, Buddha, in the design of his religion, built into it multiple causes of positive feelings arising from associations with the mostly positive childhood experiences of his believers, supporters and monks. Buddhism has not lost these associations, and as far as modern childhood experience mirrors that of Buddha’s era, they will still lead to fervent membership. Understanding how Buddha arranged his religion to appeal to a wide variety of people by using almost universal childhood associations as deep triggers of positive reactions provides us with some clues as to how to improve Buddhism. One way is to look at how current experiences in a family setting or its equivalent produces good feelings, and then see how existing Buddhist thought evokes that, and how it might better be matched to produce a stronger evocation. Families nowadays are not too similar to those of 2500 years ago, but biologically the same steps have to be taken, which does provide some commonality. Perhaps nowadays there is much more diversity in family arrangements and roles, and so some thought as to how to accommodate that diverse set of arrangements and evoke positive feelings from them within Buddhism needs to be done.


One thing that has not been mentioned is the need to quiet down negative associations, as they will serve to drive away potential members. Along with a catalog of the positive associations in modern-day families, there needs to be a catalog of potential negative associations, so that they can be avoided as much as possible in designing the improvements to Buddhism. Perhaps also a catalog of personality types needs to be done, so to be able to more quickly pick potential candidates for Buddhism.

The Meaning or Purpose of Life

November 29, 2017

Philosophers have been discussing their versions of the purpose of life for as long as philosophy has been recorded. Almost all of them grew up in an environment of beliefs in magical creatures, and while any particular philosopher might have abdicated his belief in them, they set the background for philosophical discussions. Perhaps now, in an environment where scientific beliefs are becoming more prominent, and perhaps dominant in many minds, some different thoughts can be found.


Life is the collection of life forms present on planet Earth, Having a purpose for life does not mean having a specific purpose for every single amoeba, virus, insect and crustacean, but for some fraction of them, perhaps a negligible fraction. People are a part of Life. Having a purpose for human beings, or some portion of them, would constitute a purpose of Life, even though the mass of protoplasm included is fairly small compared to the total.


Purpose is a goal involved in the design, production, manipulation, use, or even disposal of an object or collection of objects, as stated or implied by the designer, producer, manipulator, user, or disposer of whatever is under consideration. An obvious place to start is with this person, although if a computer were smart enough, it might develop a purpose for something. Any intelligence should be sufficient to create a purpose.


Finding a purpose when the originator of the purpose is mum on that account might be done if there is only one thing that the object can do. A subway train is only good for moving people from one stop to another, so it is a safe bet that its purpose, as dreamed up by the original person who though up the concept, and likely everyone else involved with any subway anywhere, that this is what its purpose is and was. When something has more than one purpose, the question becomes more difficult. Pick-up trucks might be used by one owner to haul building materials, by another to commute to work, by another to race other pick-ups, by another to bring to car shows, and so on. The purpose of a multi-purpose object is defined by the person using it, which might be the owner, or renter, or inheritor, or thief. Since many things might be involved with many actions, finding out who is entitled to dictate the purpose is a good first step. This requires fleshing out the definition of purpose a little better.


If an object can be possessed in some legal sense, according to the laws present contemporaneous with the validity of the determination of purpose, we ask the possessor what the purpose is. If the owner of a particular pick-up truck says it is his goal to use it in auto shows, then that is its purpose. If the renter of a pick-up truck says he rented it to carry drywall from the store to his home under construction, then clearly its purpose, for the duration of the rental, to haul drywall. This is fine as long as there is some social construct which focuses down on one individual who can be asked what the purpose is, or observed in using it so that the purpose can be deduced. We have essentially passed off the question of purpose to another person.


Someone might simply answer that a particular object has two or more uses, and then it has two or more purposes. There is no one-to-one relationship between a useful object and a purpose.


Things get slightly more tricky if there are multiple owners for the object. If two partners own a pick-up, one can have one use for the time he has it, and the other, another use or purpose. If it is a large group of people who own something, then there must be an executive in charge to define the purpose or purposes of the object. This problem melts away for something like a subway, which has only one conceivable use. Its purpose to move people from one stop to another, no matter who owns it. The reason for this is that no matter who it was who has ownership of it, or who designed it or came up with the concept, there is no getting away from the fact that it only has one use.


Let’s now begin the descent into the nether world of non-owned things. Without an owner, or some other person or intelligence able to define a use, does anything have a purpose? This is tautological, as we define purpose as the design goal or goal of the current controller. It is a meaningless question, and cannot be answered without altering the definition of the word purpose. All the aeons of philosophizing has been about carefully redefining the word without actually explicitly defining it clearly enough to recognize what has happened.


There is simply no purpose for anything that does not have someone entitled to present it with its purpose. That may be a collective entity such as a corporation, as long as someone with it has been given the task of using or controlling it. Other things have no purpose. One could ask, what is the purpose of the moon? There are many things that the moon does, such as tides, moonlight, a destination for Apollo astronauts, serving as a target for asteroids, gravitationally slowing the Earth, and so on, but none of these was used in the process of creating it, as it was not created by an intelligence, but by complex physical processes.


If someone were to come up with a creation myth involving magical creatures, one could say that within the context of this fantasy, there is a purpose, but outside of the fantasy, there would be none. It is certainly possible to do the same with the sun. The fact that the sun is responsible for the energy source that drives photosynthetic creatures and creatures which feed on them, which incidentally is almost all of what we defined as Life above, has no bearing on the definition of a purpose for the sun. One could pretend to forget about the fantasy of someone creating the sun and say that its purpose was to provide energy for Earth’s life, but this can only be done by altering the definition of the word purpose. The purpose of a nail is not to give the hammer something to strike. It is to accomplish something subsequent to its use. The word to use for what the sun means to life on earth is to say the utility of the sun for life on earth is to provide the large majority of its energy.


Utility is not purpose.


What is the purpose of Life? For Jadav Payang, an Indian who has spent about four decades planting trees on an island in the Brahmaputra river for the purpose of preventing further erosion of the island, the purpose of life is to prevent erosion, or at least of one island. He has been remarkably successful at it, and he has used living organisms for a purpose, even though he does not own them and has not created them. He has become the controller of the trees involved to a limited degree, and although he relinquishes control of the trees once they are planted, he has them when they are being put to a use, and that is the critical time for the definition to function.


One could say that a farmer or a rancher puts life to use, and therefore provides a purpose to life, by using it in the process of providing food for humans and domesticated animals. A cell biologist uses life for his own purposes. One could say that people use themselves, and therefore give themselves purpose. In times of slavery, the owner of a slave might provide purpose to the slave, thereby providing purpose to one small bit of Earth’s life. The developer of a vaccine utilizes live bacteria to make the vaccine, at least some vaccines, so he provides a purpose to an even smaller bit of life.


So, it can be said that life has multiple purposes, and many individuals are involved with providing these purposes. However, there is no generalization possible. Just because some small bit of life is given a purpose by human individuals, there is no overall purpose that can be derived from it. Perhaps one could argue that serfdom is a type of ownership, and the Russian czars provided purpose to the millions of serfs in the Russian Empire. One could even stretch that argument and say that any empire has a leader who provides purpose to the empire’s subjects. Perhaps a general can be said to be providing purpose to the soldiers under his command.

These political and military hierarchy examples weaken the definition of purpose, however, in that the leadership only provides broad orders to those underneath, and then these are all elaborated on as the order is implemented downward. It is becoming fuzzy, but one could also say that the empire or army is collectively providing purpose to itself.


There have also been theological hierarchy which have held sway over large numbers of humans, but without a military or political hierarchy to provide the means to enforce an order given by a theological leader, it so further weakens the definition of purpose that it is becoming almost meaningless. There must be some means of control, and if the control is exerted by other means, that means must be the author of the purpose involved.


Thus, there really is not simple answer to the question of what is the purpose of Life, except that there is no answer that is very useful in any sense of the word. In short, we could say there is no purpose to the question.


What is a Religion?

November 24, 2017

If we are trying to offer improvements to an existing religion, it would be good to know what the limits are. If there is to be a suggestion for removal of some concepts, does that push what is remaining beyond the bounds, leaving what is left as something other than a religion, a set of concepts that doesn’t make the grade? If something is to be added, is it a concept that turns a religion into a non-religion? If some concept is modified, does the new concept qualify as something in a religion.


Recall that definitions are the task of the speaker or writer. Words can mean anything one wants them to mean, and common meanings get modified with time, or with some social change, or possibly via other ways. This means we need to choose just what we want to be the definition of religion, and then we can compare the novelty of whatever improvements are suggested against this.


One attribute that would seem to be necessary in order to fit into anyone’s definition is persistence. A religion is something that lasts, not day to day, but generation to generation. That means it must include some means of teaching children the religion and securing their membership, or else some means of proselytizing. Both can coincidentally exist in a religion.


The children involved in this process can be the descendants of the existing members, or children under guardianship of the members, or they can be ones chosen by a government agency or other organization, such as the judicial system, a ministry, or a corporation with strong control over its laborers. New adult members can likewise be volunteers recruited by the existing membership, or those ordered to be inculcated by some entity, such as a government agency. In the first one of each of these pairs of situations, the religion institution receives no membership support from the government or any other powerful organization, one able to compel people of some category to have their children inculcated or to go through it themselves. In the second one of both of the two pairs, it does receive this type of support. This can be an initial categorization of religions, specifically, what is the source of new members?


Other candidates for mandatory features in a religion, in order to earn the label, could be a set of explanations of certain phenomena in the world, and a set of behavioral guidelines. Science is the rigorous body of theories and data regarding explanations of the world in general, so religion’s occupation of this arena would mean that it serves as a source of explanations of areas that have not yet been satisfactorily subjected to scientific research. It might be that the members do not have all of the complete story so far deduced by science, so in this case, the boundary between scientific explanation and religious explanation could be enlarged on the religion side as compared to a full-information situation.


For another candidate, law is also a set of behavioral guidelines. For both the religion and for the body of laws, there can be more mandatory behaviors or more prohibited behaviors. Clearly, a government that promulgates law might have the option of doing both, and certainly the designer of a new religion or another functionary with influence over the religious set of behavioral guidelines could also choose to have more prohibitions than requirements if he/she chose. In a situation where there are both a set of laws and also a component of religion which prescribes behavioral guidelines, there might be conflicts, where laws say to do one thing and the guidelines another. Perhaps the laws would have exclusions for those bound or acting in accordance with religious guidelines or the religious guidelines would have an escape clause saying the guidelines must be subordinate to the current set of laws.


There might also be, in the society where the religion exists, be other sets of explanations for the world, excluding those of science, and other behavioral guidelines, competing with religious and legal ones, or operating in areas of behavior where neither of them have specifics. This sounds like a recipe for confusion.


There must also be mechanisms for these three mandatory items to exist and function. This means a structure, i.e., an organization, and procedures for those in the organization to follow to make sure that there is intergenerational transmission of the whole body of the religion, together with means for preserving the structure, by replacement of people who have roles to play. There must also be procedures for both the explanatory body of information and the behavioral guidelines to be interpreted, by those within the structure or possibly by others within a different type of structure.


This set of features represents the external view of the religion, and allows religions to be classified as and how their structure is built. The various procedures might also serve in the classification. By external view, we mean the view that someone not a member might have after examining it. Members would have their own individual views, limited by their experience within the religion.


Membership is a very complicated designation. It can be simply a self-appointed label, but the motivation for the labeling can be diverse. For adults who are required to be members, it can be nothing more than conformance to some demands of a government agency. A religion can also define what it means as a member, and this could involve some action or sequence of actions required of members, or it could be the exact opposite, defining members as some group, independent of whatever actions they take or how they appreciate such labeling. These two definitions of membership can coexist. If a government wants a census of religious affiliations, then the self-labeling might be utilized. If a religion’s behavioral guidelines involve the term, then the religion’s definition would be invoked.


One aspect of membership involves interaction with the explanatory body of materials. Does the member take actions which indicate concordance with these explanations of reality? This might be a manner of degree. For example, if reincarnation is part of the body of explanatory materials, and the religion gives guidelines for improving the next life of an individual’s essence, seeing if the individual follows these guideline provides a measure of their membership.


Interpersonal guidelines might play an even larger role. If a religion’s guidelines involve members ostracizing non-members, this might provide an impetus for becoming a member or maintaining one’s membership. If a religion’s guidelines involves members using nepotism or favoritism, directed toward members only, this might also provide an impetus for becoming a member. If a religion provides some charity or defacto insurance to members, this again might be such an impetus. In short, if being a member provides benefits because of behavioral guidelines of the religion, this could be another means by which the religion preserves itself.


For religions which have their own definitions of membership, they can be divided according to the barriers imposed. Is membership connected with actions taken, or only with identity? Can membership be assumed by a non-member, and what might be the procedure? Can membership be renounced, or is it permanent? What are the procedures for renunciation, and what benefits might fall to someone who renounces, as opposed to staying a non-active member?


Another aspect of membership is the existence of a caste system, perhaps only within the structure of those taking positions of authority within the religion, but perhaps more widely. Do different castes have different membership requirements? Is there a hierarchical order to them, or is the situation more complex than a linear arrangement? If there is an involved procedure for transitioning from non-member to member, are the various stages labels as different classes of members, and if so, do the behavioral guidelines discriminate between classes?


Buddha, in the founding of his religion, was a universalist, meaning anyone could join at the lowest level. At that level, a member could learn the body of explanatory knowledge and could hear how to follow the behavioral guidelines. One might say that a Buddhist monk in this early era was a higher class. Buddha himself devised classes based on some internal mental processes, but there was no way to test what level anyone was in, so it was all self-observed and therefore not very relevant to the membership question. In keeping with his times and the paucity of scientific knowledge then, Buddha utilized reincarnation as part of his explanatory body. Reincarnation gives a member a number of happiness-inducing feelings, and if it is dispensed with in an improved Buddhism, what would take its place as a way of increasing and solidifying membership? Would devising a barrier to entry, and discriminatory guidelines for interactions between members or with non-members?


One way to do this would be to preserve the behavioral guidelines but restrict them to members only, and between member interactions. A second set of guidelines would have to be devised for member interactions with non-members. The degree of benefit provided would be an indicator as to how good a replacement for reincarnation membership rights might be.

Goals and Improved Buddhism

October 12, 2017

Let’s clearly define what is meant by goals. When the founder of a new religion puts the time in to record or spread his teaching, he is doing it for some personal goal. It could be benevolent or malevolent, rational or irrational, selfish or altruistic, clear or vague. He may know it or not know it. Let’s call that the founder’s goals. Of course, a religion can be founded by a group, but that’s not an important detail. No need to distinguish founders’ goals.


The founder doesn’t get the religion started by himself. There has to be a flotilla of early adopters, who have their own reasons or goals. They are not simply adherents to the religion, but of course there may be many of them. The adherents are simply there for the ride. The early adopters who make it their business to lay the groundwork for the religion, nail down details of doctrine, figure out how to make it self-propagating if the founder didn’t do that, start expanding the circle of proselytes, and maintain the headquarters of the whole shebang are the important people. Each of the early adopters has goals, personal ones, that are supported by the spread of the religion. Let’s call this collection the motivators’ goals, as their task is to ensure that some huge number of people will be motivated to both join the religion, however that is designed to happen, and to spread it to others. Motivators might sign onto the religion at different times during the founder’s career or visibility, or even shortly afterwards, but they are all working toward the goal of turning the founder’s ideas and sayings into something that is understandable by large numbers and which will cause them to spread it further.


The motivators are not shoe-leather types, but thinkers and planners and writers and organizers. One of their tasks is to enlist some devotees. These are the shoe-leather types, who don’t just say, “What a fine religion, count me in” but instead “This is the most important thing in my life, what should I do to help?” They are ready to spend their lives spreading the message because their goals are quite different from the founders and the motivators. The motivators did their job quite nicely, and there is a certain class of individual with whom their ideas take deep root. The devotees can be people with no goal in life, and the motivators give them one. They can be people who considered themselves unimportant, and becoming a devotee is their first and maybe only chance to become someone important, to be listened to, to be appreciated.


Motivators and devotees are not people who were successful or happy with their pre-conversion existence. They may have been externally happy, but they were looking for a new role to play, and the founder’s ideas provided that. Devotees’ goals are clear. They are to become somebody important, by sharing a message that has a great appeal to a particular class of people. The class depends on the religion, but it must be a substantial fraction of the population. Being a devotee has some sort of aura, and may lead others to adopt the creed and become devotees as well. This is an important part of the motivators’ message: “Help others to become like you!” which is what a devotee has been longing to hear.


Outside the devotees’ circle are less involved adherents. These are people who feel good thinking about what the motivators’ message is, and sign up to be supporters of the new religion. The message has to be appealing to those who already have normal lives, but who have been seeking something beyond their own activities to become part of. They have goals, and they might be social, such as seeking to be a member of an enthusiastic band of others, or philosophical, in an escape from nihilism and materialism, or many other things. Someone has to be the leader of the adherents, and these people should be called the hierarchy of the new religion. There only needs to be one level to start, but any organization needs a structure, and if the numbers involved keep growing, one will have to be invented. The motivators might do this, or some adherent might just see how to take on the role himself.


So, when we talk about the goals of the religion, we need to be careful and talk about the goals of the religious. An organization does not have a brain, and a thing without a brain cannot formulate goals. Averaging out over all the types of people within the organization does not produce any useful results, at least not compared to understanding the roles involved and what the spectrum of goals are for the people in each of the roles. That collection will allow us to understand how the religion functions and how it might be changed or improved.


The founder’s goals, if there is one and if there are any, do not represent anything other than one small piece of the goals of the people in the organization. The founder could simply be someone who spouts off curious sounding things, which are modified by some motivators into a serious belief system. The founder could be a historical figure or an imaginary figure or a remote figure, and if the motivators know how to do their job correctly, that will not matter. Alternatively, the founder could be one of the motivators, switching roles after developing the insights he wants to promulgate.


Later on in the history of a successful religion, there can be figures akin to the founder, but who serve to modify the teachings, either explaining them better, or adding new components, or perhaps devising a scheme to eliminate some contradictions and inconsistencies. This can happen over and over again. These modifiers, to give them a name, can have regional effect, or can affect the whole religion, depending on the communication methods used. Modifiers need motivators and devotees in order to get their teachings spread widely. A modifier could be simply an intelligent devotee, who transforms from someone who chose to spend his life aiding the religion, to a person higher or lower on the hierarchy, in either a leadership or a staff position. Intelligence and a commanding personality might be necessary in order to be heard and listened to, and remembered. A modifier might be schismatic or simply keep in line with the existing hierarchy. Modifiers have goals which are unlike those of the founder. The founder comes out of nowhere, but a modifier is typically deep within the religion, having put much of his life into it.


The most interesting figures in this whole process are the motivators, principally the founder’s team, but also those of modifiers to a lesser extent. The founder’s motivators pick up the message of the founder because they have some goal to satisfy, and the goal is not the goal of the founder necessarily. The motivators might speak as if they had the goals of the founder, in order to obtain closeness with the founder, but they did not come from the same background except coincidentally, and have developed their own goals independently. These goals caused them to want to push the religion from one person’s ideas into a widely accepted belief system. They have a high degree of flexibility, as the body of statements from the founder’s life might have inconsistencies and they can choose the desired option. There may have been gaps, and after the death of the founder, who could say what was in the private conversation between the founder and a motivator? The meanings of somewhat vague pronouncements can be clarified in the direction desired by the motivator, in order to accomplish what they hold as hidden goals, or goals only shared with other motivators.


We also have some imputed goals that can play a role in the religion. The founder may have foreseen that some goals that his devotees and adherents had were not spoken of, or even recognized, and lay under the surface of consciousness. He and his motivators can have addressed these goals, to make the religion even more appealing. It is certainly true that many people do not enunciate their goals, but simply operate with them, leaving them only discoverable through intuition or clever observation.


Buddha was a unique figure, certainly historical, and he produced a voluminous body of oral teaching, which, after five centuries or so, became recorded. In the hierarchy of this very early Buddhism, there must have been some leaders who emphasize some teachings and downplayed others. There is no way to go back and try to figure out exactly what was said. What was recorded was recorded, and that is all there is.


To improve Buddhism, there would have to be a good understanding of what the goals, explicit and imputed, that potential members of a new sect might have. These would have to be answered. To adopt a founder’s position or a modifier’s position, and just produce some body of literature is likely to end with no result other that some written words, soon forgotten.

Improved Buddhism and Governance

October 11, 2017

There are many ways that a religion can interact with a governing body. One way is simply tolerance, where the governing organizations put no restrictions on what a religion group does. This, of course, is impossible in some situations, as competing religions complain about the activity of a new religion, or they object to the use of public spaces, or they object to specific activities, and so on. The general public may object, such as to obsessive proselyting. So, there might be a discussion which resolves issues, or there might have to be a law or regulation passed.


Another issue is taxation. How much tax is there, is it property tax or use tax or sales tax or some other, and are religions exempt, or only some religions, or only organizations which have certain aspects of a religion?


In a situation like this, where there is a new religion such as an improved Buddhism, what should be the stance of the religion and its leaders towards interaction with government? There are many ways in which the interaction can be much more than simply taxes and regulation of public activities. Let’s consider some of them.


There can be a state religion. Should an improved Buddhism strive to become the official religion of some nation or region or the whole world? As an official religion, it might be the only religion allowed to practice, or simply be the only one which is exempt from certain taxes. There are many stages in between these two extremes. One is where everyone is registered as a member of a religion, and those who do not register as members of the state religion are subject to additional taxes, or cannot vote, or cannot take certain positions, or might not occupy certain professions, or have other restrictions or requirements on them. Another situation is where the religion is taught in state-run schools, and school attendance might be mandatory or voluntary, by the parents or guardians. Another role is a ceremonial one, which is also a very mild role. The state religion gets to participate in certain state ceremonies, and no other religion can. It could be a very stringent requirement, stating that long-term residency is contingent on registering as a member of the state religion. There could be economic requirements, such as everyone’s taxes being donated to the state religion headquarters.


These types of interaction might be categorized as those which involve registration as a member, and those which do not. The ones which do not solely involve the interaction of the religion with the government, and include the ceremonial role and the educational primacy role. They also include state support of a religion. If support for a religion is not enshrined in the laws of a nation, then the religion is forced to seek funds from other sources, and most likely the largest component would be contributions from members. It would be easier for a religion to concentrate on its religions functions if fund-raising were simplified by it becoming a state-supported religion. It does come to mind that there might be several state-supported religions, and this condition clearly involves controversy over how much each gets.


The depth of the support is also a question. Is only the upper hierarchy supported by the state, or is every single religious facility also on the list for state support? There could be different stages between these two extremes as well. This is obviously a way for a new religion to prosper, but there may be trade-offs which come with the support, like government influence on activities of the religion. Government actors change with time, and a pleasant arrangement might turn into a unpleasant one. Being a religion does not prevent someone from attempting to corrupt the higher positions.


The other type of relationship that a government may have with a religion is one of cooperating in the task of recruitment. Once a government decides that a certain religion provides advantages, perhaps altruistically for the population as a whole, or for the preservation of the government, two opposite reasons, the government can impose regulations on the population concerning their membership in the state-supported religion. This cannot work unless there is some sort of census, in which members of the population register as members of the religion. The registration could perhaps be perfunctory, just a signature on a form, but it could also be more serious and more involving. It could serve as a means for excluding other religions from functioning openly and freely. If some other religion was acting as a center for opposition to a government, the government may respond by mandating membership in a state-run or state-approved religion, to the exclusion of all others. This is where the government acts in its own interest, as opposed to seeking to provide the benefits of the best religion, as they evaluate it, to all citizens.


The other situation, where the government is truly beneficent, they may have the ability to comprehend the benefits that a particular religion offers to the average member of their population, and simply decide that the best one should be promulgated. Exactly how they compute the benefits doesn’t matter so much for this discussion, but the fact that they are able to come to such a conclusion gives them the opportunity to act. A beneficent government is interested in all aspects of their citizens’ lives, and they may also be aware that there is tremendous inertia in beliefs, so that it might be centuries before the best religion was universal, unless they do something about it. This has been the action taken countless times in the past, when, for example, an absolute monarch converts to a new religion and compels all his subjects to do it. Another example is when a nation or group of nations conquers another, and decides that all the population of the conquered nation must convert to the religion of the conquerer. The details of the conversion process can be somewhat arbitrary, ranging from taking an oath or signing a form, to going to classes to learn about it and then performing some ritual or participating in some ceremony. These details are not pertinent to the discussion here, which is about whether a new and improved religion, such as an improved Buddhism, should seek assistance in recruitment from a government. Should it only seek this from a truly beneficent government, or should it take advantage of a government which is seeking its own self-interest. The latter would be an alignment of interests and not necessarily something derogatory about either the government or the religion.


With a new religion, such as an improved Buddhism, the utilization of state support would reduce the implementation time from generations to years. If an improved Buddhism were truly beneficial for its members, providing better mental health, focus, resistance to depression, concentration, goal-making and goal-seeking, cooperation with others, self-reliance, self-confidence, or other good mental attributes, then perhaps a primary mission of the new religion would be to seek state support.


In a country like the United States, which was founded by religious refugees from countries that had state-supported religions, there is a tradition for no state support of religion. Most other countries do not have that tradition, and indeed there are many countries with a state-supported religion. The process of convincing the government of a country which already has a state-supported religion to change that religion might be a difficult task, but if the new religion is designed to provide measurable benefits without any irrational spiritual baggage, then it might be possible. Changing a country which has a long tradition opposing state support of religion, or which has never had one, or which had one but after long strife abandoned it, will be correspondingly more difficult. The key point is that there would have to be good reasons for state support.

There might also be some attributes of a new religion that would appeal to a government which was seeking its own interests. The danger of having state support in this situation is that if the government changes, what would that mean for the state-supported religion? If the change of government was associated with a great deal of acrimony or even worse, even if the new religion provided clear benefits to its members, having been associated with the repudiated government might overwhelm these benefits and have the new religion not only lose state support, but possibly even be banned and replaced with another religion, maybe an older one.


This is a risky situation, and would likely have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Understanding the situation within such a nation would be mandatory, and figuring out the future prospects for such a government would also be. Would it be possible to find a way to make a new religion appealing to a government which was self-interested, but which would also not be so closely associated with it so as to be able to navigate the turmoil that might surround a government change.


So, a clear conclusion is that a rapid accession of a new religion might be done in some places with state support, provided that the government is beneficent and has no tradition against state support, and that the new religion can demonstrate clear benefits for the members of the population. We live in a scientific era, and so such a demonstration would have to be qualitative, measurable, and repeatable. This seems like a hard task for a religion, but Buddhism may be up to the challenge, if properly improved.

Anatta and Karma

September 25, 2017


Buddha was raised in a time of conflicts in metaphysics. Some Hindu philosophers preached the doctrine of reincarnation, which meant that there was some essence that moved from body to body when the first one died and a new one was born or conceived. This philosophy included the idea of karma, which was that if someone lived according to certain rules, they would accumulate karma and get to migrate to a better living condition in the next life. Other Hindu philosophers preached materialism, that the body dies and that there is no ‘self’, no essence, no spirit, which survives that death. This is labelled anatta. He accepted both of them and neither of them.


Many Buddhist practices and traditions follow the karma path, which is remarkably similar to that of Hinduism, except that the rules to be followed are different. Buddha in the Pali canon, the Theraveda sacred text, describes six levels of existence into which one might be reborn. There are two heavenly ones and one hellish one, in addition to human and animal existences. As noted elsewhere, this type of philosophy pushes people into a style of life that is conducive to social harmony, but also to social oppression. It teaches passive acceptance of what life offers, in the hope of a better deal in the next life.


For monks, the whole philosophy was different. They learned that there is only a non-self, no self at all, not in anyone or anything. The proper thing to do was to meditate, let go of any desires for selfish benefits, follow a stoical existence, and try to become enlightened, a state where one is calmly happy or at least not unhappy, while waiting for death at which time one could achieve nirvana, which is a state of nothingness.


Buddha was asked, in the Pali canon, if there was a self, and he declined to answer. His opinion was that both answers, yes and no, lead to suffering and Buddhists should not ask this question, even of themselves, and should not think about it. Better would be to follow the Buddhist rules for living.


We now know via science that the proper answer is no. There is no self, no essence, no spirit. One sect of Buddhism tries to posit that there is a tiny self, a ‘seed of consciousness’ that goes from body to body, but clearly that is not a solution to the scientific objections to the existence of any essence. By the way, Buddhists who do discuss karma and rebirth do not seem to discuss the other objections to the concepts, such as why anyone should bother with what happens to a ‘seed of consciousness’ or a spirit or whatever other elaboration is made of the concept of a long-lasting essence.


The Buddhist doctrines of anatta, as well as others about impermance, everything passes, and suffering, everyone suffers, clearly push the follower toward nihilism, both moral nihilism and existential nihilism. Buddha probably understood this, and tried to substitute some form of happiness for the goal to be sought. Some sects of Buddhism eschew the concept of rebirth or reincarnation and instead substitute the concept of seeking individual happiness via personal success in the world, which is what the Buddha was complaining of. He opined that meditative happiness was the desired form of happiness, not that which comes from worldly success, as worldly success dies away, leaving the possessor with a bit of that universal suffering, which was anathema to the Buddha. In one branch of Buddhism, the goal would be to educate everyone to Buddhism. This branch accepts rebirth, but as an option for those who attain high levels of excellence in Buddhist practice. They should choose to be reborn so that they can help others to attain Buddhist excellence as well; the reborn who do this are referred to as bodhisattvas.


Thus, Buddhism today offers a menu of beliefs, which in the broadest sense are all prescriptions for following a set of rules, but which offer different benefits. One benefit is calm happiness, another is an end to rebirth and personal suffering, another is rebirth in a better station in life, another is rebirth as a bodhisattva, another is worldly success within the limits of Buddhist rules. In today’s modern scientific era, only the first and last stand up to inspection, and this limited repertoire seems to be all that is possible. They are not even exclusive. One can spend part of their time meditating for calm happiness and the rest of their available effort on striving for worldly success. An improved Buddhism would therefore emphasize the development of methods for achieving a calm mind and also for self-motivation so that worldly success can be at least sought for. The calm mind would also serve to reduce any unhappiness with the lack of immediate achievement of worldly success, and this would in turn allow the motivation to succeed to stay unblocked.


How does this two-pronged approach deal with the dilemmas of both moral and existential nihilism? There is really only one way to overcome them, and that is the recipe advocated by Nietzsche, the will to power. One simply must make a conscious choice to accept the Buddhist rules for behavior, and then adhere to them. Moral nihilism clearly shows there is no supernatural origin for these rules, that there is no mysterious surveillance that watches over us and monitors whether we follow them or not, no reward system so we get a better rebirth in the next life, and no other reason why they should be accepted. They just are accepted or they are not. Existential nihilism tells us that there is no reason to seek worldly success, and no reason not to. It also tells us that the varieties of acceptable success can be anything, and only by accepting voluntarily some set of limitations and choices is the ambiguity dispelled. There is no universal order governing humanity, says nihilism. Accept this one, says Buddhism.


Now that the deep philosophical framework for an improved Buddhism has been laid down, as a stripped down version of the cacophony of Buddhist thought circulating today, it might be appropriate to go on to the next layer of details. These details govern meditation and behavior, separately and possibly linked.


The earliest and simplest form of scientific measurements of meditating people has revealed that the three characteristic forms of brain waves are differently affected by different forms of meditation. This helps classify meditation into three bins. One type is related to ceasing brain activity, in other words, to reduce neuronal processing in the cerebellum. This is done by concentrating on breathing, for example. This allows the brain to become quiet, and certain people may be highly benefited by a technique which allows their brains to rest and recover. Life is difficult and congested for some of us. Another type is related to using a part of the cerebellum as a monitor for the rest, in the sense of watching or detecting what thoughts pass through the brain and simply labeling them. The labeling process is an aid to organization of thoughts, and may assist those of us who are beset with too many confusing questions and options. The third type involves chanting some mantra or phrase, with the idea of building up our strength to tackle real-world problems afresh, and not give in to despair or excessive grief. This third type is a means to focus on a particular problem, as the chanting tends to pull other thoughts aside, leaving only one to focus on. Solutions or choices may appear during this third type of chanting.


Two things are important relating to meditation for an improved Buddhism. The first is that all three of these techniques are worth having available. Buddhist sects almost universally choose only one to espouse. The second is that improvements in these three types of mediation should be sought, using whatever experimental, anecdotal, and scientific information can be obtained. This covers both the technique itself, but also the means by which such a technique can be taught and perfected.


The other aspect of an improved Buddhism, the behavioral code, is a more ambiguous problem. If one asks a group of other people to simply jot down what they regard as the most important items for a moral code, the lists they provide will not be identical, but will have many differences. That is because we learn a moral code as small children, by either being taught it or by observing what others whom we respect or trust do. There are also lessons learned by interaction with other children, or even with adults other than parents or guardians. The moral rules we come up with in such a situation reflect what our brains have sorted out when they were very new. The experiences are likely completely subconscious, so the actual reasons we have them are obscure. In place of these memories, we may have some invented reasons, or else simply have a memorized list from later in life, which may not correspond with our deeper feelings, but are something we have been taught is the acceptable answer.


Coming up with a moral code is a difficult problem. Buddha made a great effort in that, and certainly his thinking provides a good starting point. However, it is worthwhile looking at it to see how it might be improved after 2500 years of learning. It may well be that the moral code should be affected by the society we live in, meaning that a moral code for medieval times and one for highly technical eras might be different in some aspects. This remains to be done.

The Utility of Reincarnation

September 23, 2017

Reincarnation wouldn’t be a popular concept within Buddhism unless it provided some utility. As a matter of fact, it provides utility in multiple ways. Replacing it with something more acceptable to rational people in some scheme of improved Buddhism requires us to understand how it is useful, and why.


Utility is a transitive concept, and involves something, here the concept, training, and acceptance of reincarnation by someone or someones, providing some value or benefit to those who accept it or to someone else. That someone else may be the certain individuals in positions of power or authority, or it might be all individuals in the society, be it a village or a tribe or a city-state or a larger entity.


The first clump of utility that comes to mind must be the comfort in expecting that death is not what it appears. There may be unpleasantness associated with death in the mind of someone, and it can come in many forms. The brain is almost totally plastic, and can associate any one thing with any other thing. The process of dying painfully might have been observed, and leads to an apprehension. Thinking about reincarnation does not extinguish this aspect of dying, as whether one is reincarnated or not, the passage from alive to dead stays the same.


Another of the many ways that death can be associated with anxiety is for someone who otherwise believes in the existence of some spirit or essence of himself that continues to exist after his death, and is likewise for some reason concerned with what happens to it. The idea of reincarnation fills in the void of knowledge in this area, and may serve to relieve the anxiety. Yet another unhappy feeling about death might be the thought of the deprivation of the pleasant experiences that may have occupied the life of the individual. The idea that all this will cease can cause anxiety, and again, the concept of reincarnation can serve to relieve this, as there would be some expectation that the next life would provide a resumption of these pleasant experiences.


The same relief of anxiety can happy with individuals grieving over the death of someone they value. They would have been interested in the welfare of the individual, and if they believe in the existence of this spirit or essence, thinking that reincarnation will happen may help mitigate the grief. There are undoubtedly many, many other associations between death and anxiety that the brain can form, and certainly some of them are alleviated by the person thinking about a reincarnation.


Clearly, any deep thought about the nature of reincarnation will reveal its impossibility as well as other less important flaws, but forgoing such thought provides the positive feelings or reduction in negative feelings, and would therefore be unlikely to happen. So, reincarnation plus a reluctance to delve into the details of the construct would produce reinforcement of the idea.


Thus, the first and most obvious utility is to individuals concerned about their own death or the death of those valuable to them. By reducing this anxiety, the individuals would be more able to be productive, in the many ways that an individual can. This is an important secondary benefit, both to the individual but also to the social unit that can share in the spin-off benefits of an individual member’s production.


A more subtle benefit to the social unit is that of motivation. The concept of a final termination of life can lead to a nihilistic philosophy, which might reduce motivation for an individual to be productive in someone who was not trained to be altruistic. For those individuals, there is yet another benefit of increased lifetime production to be reaped by the social unit. The idea does not make sense, but it can be simply accepted without questioning. This means, if the social unit does not have the capability of raising its members to all be completely altruistic, or if social units simply do not work if this training were to be used, then a benefit of reincarnation is that it is a component of the motivation for individuals to be productive.


The details of the concept might provide other benefits. Reincarnation can be packaged by itself, and the sole concept there can be trained into those too young to reject it or too uninformed to dispute it. This would provide little benefit to the structure of a social unit. If instead, it was used to provide a type of ‘induced altruism’, where individuals would do something, such as be productive, because of some imagined benefit that the spirit or essence currently associated with their body might receive, then spin-off benefits would accrue to the community. The concept of spirit or essence is very ill-defined, as it must be to avoid the inconsistency of it becoming obvious, so the benefit can only be connected with some aspect of reincarnation that is mentioned, specifically, reconnection with some other body, either human or from some subset of the animal kingdom. If there are cultural values associated with different animals, it might be a benefit or a diminishment to have the spirit or essence currently associated with an individual wind up in a certain type of animal. Alternatively, there can be a gradation of human beings, either discrete steps such as castes or classes, or in quantitative terms such as healthier, smarter, stronger, richer, or some other measurable aspect.


There does not seem to be any benefit that an individual is stated to receive, either in Buddhism or Druidism, two religions with reincarnation, from having a spirit or essence connected with them. It does not seem to be an option to have the spirit or essence simply depart early, before death, to find a different body to connect to. If there was, it might become obvious that those who bid goodbye to their spirits or essences at an early age fared just as well or better than those whose spirits or essences lingered around until the body died. All the benefit seems to flow from the individual to the spirit or essence, and the principal benefit seems to be having a better body the next time around. If individuals are trained to believe this is an important thing for them to do, then they become open to being used to promote various social objectives by the entire social unit or by certain individuals within that social unit.


So, if the package of beliefs that a young child or an uneducated adult is trained to believe includes two components: that there is some spirit or essence, invisible, unmeasurable, and undetectable, associated with their body for the duration of their life, and that one of their life goals is to see that this spirit or essence bounce into a new body after their death which is somehow better than the one it now associates with, then there must be a great demand for a third component. What is missing is the method for having the spirit or essence bounce successfully.


That method can be anything. It could be something blatantly in favor of those who are doing the training or who support intergenerational training, such as tithing some fraction of one’s production to them, providing corvée labor to them, tolerating serfdom to them, or serving as military conscripts for them. These benefits to the trainer faction of society can also have spin-off benefits to the individuals providing them, such as better roads or a stronger defense of the community, city-state, tribe, empire or other unit. It could also be something to promote the orderly conduct of social interactions, in the nature of the Eight-fold Path, the Edicts of Ashoka or the druidic virtues. A society which has well-known rules for behavior or at least some guidance for what constitutes desirable behavior would be more cohesive and more able to be productive. The alternative, where there were continual squabbles between members of a social unit, would cause disruption, and necessarily less production. Thus, reincarnation can be thought of as a vehicle for both social control by elites or for social harmony via the propagation of understandable rules for how to relate to others.


If one were to try to remove the concept of reincarnation from Buddhism, the immediate question arises as to why should anyone follow the guidance of Buddha or any improved version of it. What benefits arise, both to the individual for selfish values or to the social unit for altruistic ones?


There is a sharp contrast between a legal system of laws and regulations and a moral system with general rules for behavior. In a legal system, the selfish person would seek to find loopholes in the laws, or to influence the law-writers to write them so that he might obtain large benefits at the expense of others. In a moral system, selfish values have to be kept in check. In a legal system, deception as to one’s motives is a possible way for the selfish to prosper. In a moral system, deception is against the code. Thus, replacing a moral system with a legal one opens up the floodgates for corruption, nepotism, false facades and the twisting of arguments to favor the higher up elements of society. So, a very important task for any improvement in a religion is that of deciding how a uniform moral code can be adopted and followed universally. Having a moral code that is followed only by a subset of the society leads to exploitation of them, so the requirement is for universal adoption.

Reviewing Reincarnation

September 21, 2017

By a stroke of luck, shortly after the previous post on Reincarnation and Science was published, another blogger, John Michael Greer, an official in the Druidic Religion, posted an article on druidic views of reincarnation. There are similarities between that and Buddhist ones, so that text might be used to check on the thinking done there.


Let’s first amplify the thinking on reincarnation and science. There are two main categories of consistency flaws with reincarnation. One is based on information theory and the other on physics. For the information theory stream, consider the interaction of the ‘spirit’, which is what the Druids call what we have referred to as the ‘essence’, with the body. What information flow is there from one to another? We need to consider all possibilities to prove a failure of consistency. One is the spirit communicates with the brain of the body of the person with whom it is linked. There are two ways to communicate with a brain. One is wideband, meaning that somehow large amounts of information are transmitted and received, such as with vision. The brain processes the photon input streams from the eyes, and there is no recognizable image formed on some neural screen in the brain. There are simply neurons which fire when the retinal nerve cells are hit with a photon. These neurons are not arranged in a smooth surface, but wind through and around each other. Is the spirit somehow getting a transmission from these cells? After this, the brain processes the image, first in a elementary way, noting where edges and contrasts are, and later in an interpretive way, so that a view of a shovel triggers the concept that there is a shovel in the field of view. For the spirit to get the encoded interpretation would be even harder to describe. The brain does have layers, but they are not neat unified layers as existed in the early neural nets simulated on computers. Instead, they are a convoluted mass of millions of neurons, each with many inputs and outputs.


Another view might be that there is only narrowband communication between the spirit and the human to whom it is associated. This might be words, uttered or otherwise encoded. Even this is difficult, but the concept of feeding signals into the auditory nerves of the human might be more understandable. If the communication is two-way, there would have to be some pickup of signals from the speech muscles, or possibly a stage before that. There might be some possible pick-up from the speech centers of the brain, in the left hemisphere.


If there is narrowband signals only, the spirit would have only poor recognition of the world. Even with vision from its associated human, there would be quite limited understanding of the world, especially beyond the visual range of the human. In order for the spirit to interact with the human, it would require a much larger transmission of data. How would it get that?


Switching over to the physics side, to transmit information requires energy. There is a minimum amount, which is limited by the quantum nature of states of atoms. If there was energy disappearing from somewhere in the real world, in order to provide this communication channel or multiple channels, it would be detectable. There is no non-conservation of energy that has been detected in any physics experiment, meaning there is no evidence of a new force that might do this, nor any evidence of any of the known forces dribbling energy into any spirit world.


On the physics side, one question to ask is, does this hypothesized spirit exist in the three-dimensional world as we experience it, or is it in some parallel universe, or a region of existence with no dimensions at all. If it is in the three-dimensional universe, it somehow has to keep up with the motion of the human to whom it is attached. What pulls it along? There would have to be some force necessary to move it, just as there is a force which moves our heads along when our feet walk forward. But there is no force left for a spirit. Is it self-propelled? Then there would be some energy expended, meaning some heat produced, but none of it has been observed.


If the spirit is in some parallel universe, then the communication problems are exacerbated. How does information about the real world get into the parallel universe so the spirit is not totally unaware of everything happening there?


Let’s look at a different part of the information problems that beset the spirit concept. How does information about spirits, such as any details about their existence or non-existence, get to humans, such as Greer? Perhaps Greer gets his information from other humans, so we can ask about the track back to the first person with the concept of a spirit. Call him ‘Source’. How did Source get the information about the spirit world. Perhaps there is not one such person, but a group of them each getting part of the information, which was then shared to make up the total picture that Greer now possesses. Whether there was one or many, the communication problems are equally impossible. Do the spirit entities understand their world, and its interaction with our world, well enough to simply formulate this information in whatever language Source spoke, and then they simply used narrowband communication to tell him about it?


The first difficulty with this is validation. How does Source know what he heard was from something other than a part of his own brain? How does he know if it was correct or if the spirit voice was from a confused, mistaken spirit, who didn’t have good information? How does he know he wasn’t being made a joke of in the spirit world? How does he know if there are not glaring errors in what was told to him? How does he know he interpreted it correctly? All these questions are solved by some validation, meaning a scientific experiment to corroborate what was conveyed to him, but how does someone from a time long, long before Francis Bacon invented the scientific method figure out how to do it?


Validation might occur anywhere along the time path from Source to Greer, but it doesn’t seem to have been done, or if tried, it failed. Any proof, in the sense of a repeatable experiment to detect the existence of a spirit, would have had very great impact, and would have likely opened up a new branch of physics or of science. Nothing happened for however many centuries there were in this gap.


To summarize, there are two objections to reincarnation, relating to energy flow, which are discussed above. One is that there is there is no energy pathway to carry information from any human body to any spirit or essence. This means no information flow, and therefore a very knowledgeable spirit. The other is that there is no way to validate any information flow that did happen between the spirit and the human. None. This means the information is not useful for any purpose whatsoever.


How does Greer deal with this issues? He does not mention the first issue, that of information transfer. He does not discuss how he has dealt with the validation issues for his own particular beliefs, but he does attempt to blur the issue somewhat. The hidden trick is that he makes human knowledge of something like a binary choice. You know it or you don’t. But knowledge is subject to a probability, rather that being discrete. He mentions that someone might be able to identify a picture of his mother from a set of mug shots, but cannot describe how the reasons they have for choosing that picture. He does not at all describe what he means by reasons, and there is no actionable question that he asks, just vague words. Science does have some insights as to how the human brain recognizes faces, but that would not apply to a specific, particular recognition event. It makes no sense to state that since the brain operates with billions of neurons, whose specific actions are unknowable, that knowledge of whether reincarnation is consistent with science is impossible. They are not connected.


He then proceeds to say that members of the Flat Earth Society might deny that Antartica exists, no matter what evidence was shown to them. Perhaps this is a subtle jab at scientists, pretending that there is some parallel between Flat Earth Society members and scientists is their unreasoning beliefs. This may make non-scientist readers of his blog feel better, but the comparison has no substance, just a set of ill-defined allusions.


He lists one reason for his beliefs as the work of Professor Ian Stevenson, who spent several decades collecting stories from children, mostly in India and between the ages of two and eight, who claimed some knowledge of a previous life. The methods of data collection and other aspects of his work have been criticized in depth by others, but to summarize the points made, the work simply was naive and non-scientific. Virtually all children, 99.9999+%, do not have these memories, and in those who claimed to, the knowledge they had was minimal, perhaps a few names of relatives of the supposed previous life person, the existence of a building or a train or something similar. Even if there was such a thing as reincarnation, the connection between lives is so negligible one wonders why it would be of any importance. Stevenson’s work might be summarized by saying that reincarnation has virtually zero effect on anyone. If that is the case, why would anyone care about whether there was some spirit or essence floating around somewhere in a parallel universe? Why would anyone care about what happened to a spirit, as the connection to any human’s future life is almost nil?



Types of Buddhists

August 27, 2017

Buddhist is a bit of a suitcase word today, containing many different things within it. The label is used for people with widely disparate reasons for calling themselves Buddhists, and moreover, widely different practices. This does not refer solely to the various sects of Buddhism that exist in the world, which are indeed diverse, but to the use of the term for other reasons.

One group might be called psychological Buddhists. These are the people who were attracted to Buddhism because of the promise of a method of calming the mind and improving focus. Buddhism inherited meditation or chanting from its ancestor substrata, early Hinduism, in which many expert practitioners had developed means of controlling the noise in the brain via physical techniques, even more than three and a half millennia ago. Chanting is one of these techniques, and it was incorporated in Buddhism as an obvious benefit.


Other methods were developed by the early Hindu adepts, and are usually classed as forms of yoga. There are physical position forms, breathing ones, and many others. These were not adopted by Gautama for some reason, but certainly many of his early adherents were already familiar with them and may have practiced them on their own. There is now widespread use of some of these yoga techniques, especially the physical position ones, but no one who learns them and uses them for physical or mental benefits calls themselves a Hinduist for that reason. Yoga and chanting seem to have gone down slightly different paths, in that chanting stayed linked somewhat longer with Buddhism while yoga was separated from Hinduism and could easily be adopted by anyone, no matter what their religious or philosophical beliefs were. Now the same process of separation is happening with chanting and other forms of meditation, as it becomes a commodity in the market of ideas for improving one’s life.


he different Buddhist sects developed different methods for chanting, but they all have the same basic theme: the repetition of some sounds while in a stationary position, with attention focused on an object of some religious or symbolic importance. Japanese Buddhists of the Nichiren Shoshu sect might chant sitting in front of a scroll with some particular characters on it, repeating “Nam myo ho ren ge ko”. Tibetian Buddhists of the Gelug sect might chant sitting in front of a visage representing the Buddha, repeating “Om”. Other variations exist, and in many sects chanting is only one aspect of meditation.


These techniques can be practiced by someone who is not particularly involved with other aspects of Buddhism, solely to achieve the psychological benefits of meditation. They can refer to themselves as Buddhists, and hence fit within the wide range of people using that term, but their concentration is on the methodology of meditation. They believe they benefit from it, and therefore continue its use after they have learned it. There can certainly be schools concentrating on the meditation technique, with little attention to the other beliefs often connected with Buddhism. There has been some definitive work done on the different forms of meditation, but it is clear that there is much more which can be done. There seems to be little research or investigation on the teaching techniques, other than the experience gained by those teaching it.


An improved Buddhism might certainly contain meditation techniques, and one direction in which the improvement might go is to understand more deeply the neurological basis of chanting, how it works with the brain, and why it works well for some people. Neurology is a rapidly expanding area of science and medicine, and deeper understanding of the brain’s mechanisms seep into common knowledge frequently. There has been some work on assessing the effect of meditation on brain waves, but new technology has been developed to examine the areas of the brain which are active at any time, and this could assist in understanding better how the brain processes information and creates responses to events or observations.


A second tribe of people who can and may call themselves Buddhists are the philosophical Buddhists. Buddhism has many sects which have all the trappings of any other religion, temples, a hierarchy of officials, sacred writings and objects of veneration. However, it also is amenable to an interpretation of the teachings as a source for moral philosophy, the study of how to live in this world. Buddha was an expert teacher who coated his teachings with the concepts of his day, understandable to his disciples, but it is certainly possible to abstract principles from them, and distill away the supernatural solution in which they are immersed. As time goes on and technology improves and disperses throughout the world, these supernatural aspects drift lower and lower in importance in the eyes of those who practice Buddhism or teach it. But the moral principles that Buddha devised were written in such a general manner that they can be translated into behavioral choices for today’s situations.


Each culture has had its own version or versions of moral principles. The Incas had three: do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy, which are found in the Quechua. The Zoroastrinians have three as well: good intentions, good words, good actions, but these are of a broader scale than those of the Incas. The Incan commandments are fairly easy to interpret, but for a Zorastrinian, it is necessary to know the Asha, the proper order of things, which includes large amount of ritual and specific behaviors, as well as many more commandments of the Incan variety. Buddha came up with his eight-fold way, which imitates and expands on the earlier Zoroastrinian general guidelines, and also allows for knowing a great amount of detail before they could be implemented. Buddha’s strictures are: good knowledge, good intentions, good words, good actions, good livelihood, good efforts, good concentration and good meditation. Each of these eight would need to be explicated by a teacher in any complicated situation.


This high a level of abstraction for commandments allows them to be interpreted in the context of the society in which the individual lived. Thus, good actions might be differently interpreted for a Buddhist in an Indian city-state and for a Buddhist in Imperial China. This would make it more likely to spread as there would be fewer conflicts between the existing behavioral norms and those which Buddhism proposed. However, for a modern moral philosophy, in an era with mass global communication, there is no single interperter or interpretation. Thus, for a moral philosophy, a modern Buddhist would have to be his own interpreter, and that is difficult. An improved Buddhism might seek to have a universal interpretation of the over-arching commandments that Buddha left behind. This would allow the creator of such an interpretation a tremendous power to impose his own personal preferences for behavior rules on anyone seeking to use Buddhism for that purpose. The interpretation would have to be specific to an economic system and to a mode of governance, meaning that any improved Buddhism would become an exponent of one of these possible systems, and even worse, might work toward freezing in some forms of economics and government which might better be left to die away.


A third category of Buddhist is the legacy Buddhist, who would be someone raised in the Buddhist tradition or converting into it. This involves on the mental side, a belief in supernatural concepts such as re-incarnation, which cannot be supported, given our increased scientific knowledge. It also involves theological political hierarchies, revered places and things, and ritual activities. None of these is easily justified as being suited for the modern world. What might be extracted from all this of relevance to a modern person? What benefits could be offered?


It might be a good tactic to step back from these categories of existing Buddhists and ask just what in general might be accomplished by having an improved Buddhism, or by having an improved religion of any kind? There have been many new religions founded, and many sects split off from previous religions in our modern era, and just what do they accomplish? They often are simply reflect the tenets of the founder, chosen seemingly arbitrarily from a wide variety of possible choices, most of which existed somewhere and sometime in the past. Founders often simply encode their own feelings or motivations, possibly tempered with an intuition of what will be popular or could be marketed successfully. Each individual with the capability to found a religion would have had a different upbringing, leading him to have somewhat different preferences for what commandments he believes would produce an improved world.


Is it possible to avoid personal preferences somehow, and come up with an improved Buddhism that is indeed popular and marketable, but which provides benefits for the population? To do this, meaning to create a synthetic moral philosophy, there would have to be some choices made, which are indubitably arbitrary. Even advising on a particular meditation form involves some personal preferences, although there is hope that enough neurology will lead to a way to prescribe meditation forms that produce certain results, and someone seeking those results could adopt that form. Meditation is an individual thing, but a moral philosophy involves population-wide choices, so no individual is equipped to derive a choice based on neurology or any other scientific deductions. Where to go might possibly involve a smörgåsbord of choices, but how to implement this remains to be seen.


Nirvana and Psychology

July 13, 2017

Nirvana in Buddhism is the state of nothingness, either non-existence or simply bliss. For an essence to be in nirvana, they have nothing left of their identity, no desires, no events, no change. Is this something that should be in an improved Buddhism, should not be, or only in a modified state?

Because of the difficulty in conceiving of the reality of any immaterial essences, the object which travels between incarnations, this is almost a moot point. However, there might be something to be learned from its nature and role in Buddhism.

Why would a Buddhist, or a Hindu sharing the same afterlife beliefs, want to go into nirvana? Buddha revolutionized the Hindu process for achieving it, by stating that it was possible to achieve it in one lifetime, not only after a long series of reincarnations. With this modification, some of the unpleasantness in the definition of the immaterial essence seems to be reduced. Buddha’s teaching was that meditation was the key to achieving nirvana, but this means that those who die young, before they have had time within their lives to master meditation, would have to be reincarnated and try again.

Perhaps an approach to the difficulties of self-consistency and agreement with physical laws might be to assume that nirvana is a goal to be sought during one’s lifetime, and, while not achievable in full, can be nearly achieved by the use of Buddhist techniques such as meditation. But does not wanting anything at all seem like a goal that works for most possible practitioners of Buddhism? Buddha seems to have accepted this ancient Hindu goal, but it seems more like a goal for those who are oppressed and deprived, to make their state more acceptable, if not changeable.

Some Buddhist sects use meditation not for a highway to eternity in nirvana, but instead as a technique for either improving their mental state in the present, or for focusing their intentions on improving some aspects of their life or the lives of others close to them, in the future. Buddha’s direction for those who wished to improve their lives consisted in having them follow his Eightfold Way, a set of very simplified guidelines for how to make decisions when confronted with difficult choices. The first set of worldly goals involves something that seems very congruent with today’s society, in which individuals are concerned with how to succeed and to improve their economic, health, or other situations, while the Eightfold Way seems to be something more akin to recent past times, when moral questions might dominate the horizon for an individual. What goals might be incorporated in an improved Buddhism: improve your standing in society, follow a prescribed moral path, or prepare for some afterlife? Perhaps these correspond to phases of life, with young people being intent on achieving whatever they can while they can be filled full of enthusiasm, either naturally or by the influence of religion, middle-aged people interested in living a just and fair life after they have achieved some station, and old people thinking about an afterlife or at least a calm and quiescent old age. There was, at least at Buddha’s era, a Hindu tradition dividing life into these three periods.

Buddha’s biography has him passing through the first two periods, of youth and education, and family and career, very rapidly. He was born and schooled as a prince, and married young and had a child, but left them early to meditate and understand life somewhat better. He had lived a sheltered life, free from deprivation or suffering, either in his own personal experience or in what he observed inside his family palace, and was taken aback upon seeing examples of it when he first travelled outside the palace grounds. It is no great surprise that he later stated his goal was in teaching others how to mentally handle suffering, specifically by avoiding and eliminating desires and longings. Since he had hardly witnessed it prior to his initial departure from the palace, after marriage and child, it could easily be seen as something to completely capture his attention and demand his focus on, seeking some way to incorporate this into his rather insulated prior learning. What he came up was, in essence, a prescription for marching toward nirvana, specifically by meditation, similar to what was being practiced by other great teachers of that era on the Indian subcontinent.

Buddha apparently mastered the art of training his immediate followers to memorize his teachings, almost word-for-word, and transmit them to the next generation. This means that other teachers, who did not do this, had teachings that were lost to the future, where Buddha’s were not. Only several centuries after his death were they recorded and transmitted in written form, rather than oral tradition. This particular trait might be more important to the preservation of his teachings than its competition with those of others in his era or later. Having a good message is certainly critically important, but ensuring its preservation and dispersion is as well. This is yet one more reason not to be hesitant about striving to improve these teachings and make them more appropriate for our later era.

Nirvana provides a less disturbing picture for family and associates of a person who dies, than simple material decay and dissolution. As a comfort, it might have some role in an improved Buddhism, even if no one takes it too seriously. Grief can be very difficult to handle in the short term, and in this role, perhaps thinking about nirvana can bring some relief. However, for intelligent people, there might be too much disconnection from reality for it to play a large role. It does provide a way of speaking that might cause less emphasis on the loss, so a terminology or set of euphemisms might be the proper role for nirvana.

Without nirvana and without immaterial essences for reincarnation, Buddhists have no long-term individual goals, only the goal of having a satisfying and fulfilling life. Buddhism, via meditative techniques and the intra-religious support that social networks can provide, can certainly aid members in achieving this, both in dealing with setbacks and sadness and in facing challenges. Having a controlled mind, calm and able to concentrate, is a tremendous benefit, and is perhaps the instrument by which life changes can be effected.

These two features of real-life Buddhism, meditation and the community of adherents, are not completely disconnected. To be part of a social network and to benefit from that connection implies something about the mental state of the adherents. Meditation affects that. So also does the more general rules for living that Buddha left behind. Meditation assists the members to live according to Buddha’s suggested rules, which are not very different from the rules for living in other religions. However, these rules are often broken, and the phenomena connected with breaking them is often the emotional state of the person. In some situations, it is what Buddha called ‘grasping’. This is an emotional state leading to intensely seeking benefit that overwhelms any sense of fair play. Other emotional states which lead to rule breaking include revenge and hatred. Meditation quiets the emotions, and leaves the mind more free to make decisions based on the consideration of others. Emotions result from neurochemicals and hormones being pumped into the brain from one of several glands, and one aspect of meditation is learning the control of these, although it is not taught as such.

Another benefit of meditation is that it allows the noise in the brain to subside, again, another biofeedback training exercise. This allows the practitioner to think more clearly and focus on planning for some future activity. Both emotional control and focus are ideal attributes for community members to have. Thus, meditation, with its dual benefits neurologically, has a very serious long-term benefit in training members of the Buddhist community to be suitable individuals for interpersonal relations. Of course, it is possible to have jealousy, hate, rage, suspicion, plotting, ambition, and other emotions within a Buddhist community; nothing is perfect. However, the use of meditation should relieve much of these if done properly.

Buddhism, and its predecessor Hinduism together with its other offshoots, has as a core technique, meditation, which has both intrinsic benefits for the individual practitioner an. These might also be considered to be tailored for the individual, as it allows each person to calm their own mind. Since our minds can have multiple emotional problems, meditation has to be a general technique for dealing with them all. It might be considered self-controlled biofeedback, as the individual practitioner monitors his own state and perhaps continues or modifies his practice to make progress. It also has wider effects on the Buddhist community, turning most individuals into, at least emotionally, people with psychologies well suited for interaction, support, sharing and commiseration. Nirvana is not necessary at all for this to work, and is somewhat surplus to an improved Buddhism, except as a way of expressing support at a time of loss of an individual to those who were close to him. Thus, Buddhism can become more compact in its message, and not lose anything valuable for today’s world.


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