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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Making sense using Eastern logic

I’m not sure whether posting this in the way I have makes any sense.

The reason is that long postings must reach only a very small and diminishing audience. I truly believe that I, like most people, have lost the capacity to concentrate for long periods unless totally engrossed in what I’m reading, like a great novel in which I can lose myself. When people send me long documents, like a 5000 word article I promised to assess for publication in a journal like South Asia, I wilt. This is in spite of being interested in the subject, and even if it’s written well.

I decided to post it as a whole, but broke this into just five parts so that if you also wilt, you might manage a bit at a time. These five parts are each about the right length for a single blog posting.

What it’s about.

I was challenged to give a public lecture in which I could show that the original philosophy of Buddhism was entirely rational in its approach to life.

I accepted this challenge, long ago, in the days when I was foolish enough to take such things on. Here is the gist of it. I still hold to it as a fulfilling way of viewing life, fueled by a ruthless and satisfying logic. Ruthless as in consistent, of course. There is no philosophy more about compassion than Buddhism.

OK. Let's see if it flies.



In a public talk like this one, I always have to try to guess at what sort of audience I might have.

Some of you might be practising Buddhists. Others may be people firmly committed to another faith, yet others may be atheistic or agnostic, and others yet again may simply be curious about what someone like me can do with a topic like this. I haven't come here tonight to convert you to a new religion, or if you claim to be a Buddhist, I'm not intending to challenge the pathway that you're now treading. But Buddhism is an intensely practical and sensible philosophy, ideal for intelligent skeptics and philosophical vagabonds, so perhaps I might try to make some tenuous connection with my topic along those lines.

You might say, with good reason, that Buddhism already makes sense without the least help from me. What I'm trying to do is to talk about Buddhist philosophy using only terms that are acceptable to ordinary people like myself, trying to live a fairly ordinary life without taking too much out of the world and hoping that when we leave it behind, the world will be at the very least, not too much injured by our presence.

The most basic propositions of Buddhism

We're told that the man who we call the Buddha subjected the human condition to a rational, dispassionate analysis. The Buddha was reputed to have lived around the Sixth Century BCE, which incidentally puts him round the same time as some of the greatest thinkers from the ancient world - Greece, India and China. He subjected himself and the experiences of those around him to this ruthless investigation - ruthless not in the sense of being cruel and heartless, but in the sense that he applied a clear and unshakeable logic to human beings and their psychology and place in the world.

For a start, let's say what he wasn't trying to do. Firstly, he wasn't trying to analyse the world in terms of a theology - by which mean, he wasn't trying to get people to believe that there was the sort of god up there somewhere who you could get a mental picture of and ask for favours, or even to thank when things were going right in your life.

Defying the Brahmins

He lived at a time when the brahmins had a stranglehold on the Hindu religion, and they were often telling people that they had the gods in the palms of their hands, so to speak, and that they could intercede for ordinary people with the gods.

This wasn't the sort of religious idea that appealed to the Buddha. He was much more concerned with principles that would give people some control of their own destiny through their own actions.

That's why he subjected the world to this rational analysis, and that's why in the end his ideas dealt fairly and squarely and directly with the issues in people's lives, and what they could do by their own efforts to find contentment. He wasn't interested in anything that would take responsibility away from individuals for their own lives and actions. He wanted people to accept what they could understand, and not rely on blind faith. The only faith he asked people to have was in themselves and in their capacity to improve their level of contentment with this life.

This analysis is about living life and finding genuine happiness in this world - because he believed that truly contented people had no need to fear anything that anyone else could do to them. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.



The first idea that he put forward was that the essential characteristic of all existence was what he called dukkha, a word that's usually translated as ‘suffering.’ The essential characteristic of the human condition is suffering.

Now, does that cause your hackles to rise immediately? Doesn't it sound a pretty morbid proposition? Suffering, all around.

Think about it. Maybe he’s right, even if we ignore the myriad of terrible things that happen to other life forms on a daily basis. You could start by taking a fairly close look at the world today, with the overwhelming majority of its seven billion people getting too little too eat, having little or no shelter and few medical facilities. You could look at the planet groaning under the stress of the seething mass of humanity that's just about out of control in some ways.

You could see the wars going on, the sufferings of humans, animals and other creatures, and you would find it undeniable that misery and degradation are all around. And where it doesn't seem to be the dominant characteristic, that place is the exception rather than the rule. People are born amidst suffering, and die in that state. Just by being in the world today, you caused vast suffering to a myriad of creatures, from what you ate at dinner tonight to the ants your car may have run over or were crushed under your feet as you walked from the carpark to your workplace.

Now all that might be true, and you can't deny it, but that wasn't the essence of what the Buddha was getting at when he put forward the proposition that life was suffering. Or at least, that was only a part of it. In any case, you might say he was around 6 centuries before Christ - they didn't have seven billion people in the world then. And I have a right to live, don't I? If I have to watch out for every living creature, I couldn't eat, couldn't drink, couldn't move a muscle.

The Buddha, to my way of thinking, understood this very well.

Although he would still maintain that the outstanding characteristic of existence still is suffering in that sense, that wasn't the main thrust of his argument at all. He appears to have seen that suffering in that sense is a normal part of the way of the universe - the suffering of an animal killed by the lion is not evil, or the suffering which accompanies illness and death - these are simply part of the process of life - the flow and change that is the characteristic of the universe. The transience of all things - he was quite accepting of that.

In fact, he understood that one of the things that caused the most suffering to human beings was failure to accept transience as a characteristic of life. But I'll come back to that in a moment.

We have a problem with the term "dukkha". He seems to have accepted that even the natural world, which can hardly be described as sinful or careless or immoral, the natural world was one in which killing was inevitable, and dying was an unavoidable consequence of life.


A more inclusive idea of dukkha

That wasn't what he was on about, essentially. "Dukkha" can be translated in various ways, and we don't have to accept that “suffering” is the only term we can apply to it.

What it really means is something more like "off-centred-ness" - like a wheel that isn't centered on its axle, so as soon as things start to happen and the wheel moves, it is awkward and inefficient and just plain looks and feels wrong - and by its very action generates off-centredness.

If you apply that to human beings, it has real meaning then, because we often say that we have to focus ourselves; we have to centre ourselves - we have to find our true centre - our selves - whatever terminology you want to describe the process that allows you to escape from the condition of frustration where you never feel at peace.

What he was really saying here was that most people feel frustrated and dissatisfied so much of the time they live, to a greater or lesser degree. He's not saying that everyone's suicidal about this; he's saying that we tend to experience this off-centredness just about every day of our lives. He had certainly experienced this himself - it was the very thing that made him set out on his journey of understanding of the true nature of the world and himself.

So, he accepted that dukkha, or off-centredness, is part of the human condition, and his next step then had to be to identify what it was that caused the sort of suffering that we seem to bring on ourselves.

This was the second part of his analysis, and in it he said that suffering of this sort is caused by desire. So what did he mean by that?

He was talking about the things that we think we need. Let's leave aside the essentials for the moment: things like enough food to eat, comfortable enough houses and clothes and basic health. In a society like ours in particular, these basics are easy enough to attain for most people.

Yet the fundamental fact appears to be that there are vast numbers of people out there with more than enough to eat, more than adequate shelter, and enough money to get by on - and yet they are still unhappy.

These are the people that interest us for the moment, because if you want to deal with the other sort - the starving and the homeless and the diseased - you're talking about a different part of the problem that deserves to be tackled in a different way. The ones I'm talking about now are the ordinary people who find that large chunks of their present existence make them unhappy, even when they have a comfortable lifestyle.

The Buddha himself was one of these sorts of people - you might say he epitomises their existence - he is a caricature of it, in fact. At least, the stories about his life certainly are. Brought up in a palace, the son of a raja or ruler, he had everything that life could give him - wealth, luxury, beautiful wife and family. He knew perfectly what it was like to have everything and yet feel utterly miserable.


What he came to realise was that people had been trained in their lives from the moment they were born to desire certain things and to fear others, and it was the nature of the things they learned to desire that trapped them.

What are we taught to desire? It would be interesting to see what you were taught to search for as the things which are to be valued more than anything else. Possessions, wealth, excitement, love, friendship, success, some sort of immortality. I daresay there are a few others you could add, but how do we identify the successful person in our community? Aren't these the very things by which we identify the successful person?

When we look at the objects of human desire, we see that there is one common element - they all relate to ego in some way.

This was the next logical step in the Buddha's analysis. The primary characteristic of the world is frustration, caused by desire, caused by ego. All our lives we are taught to enhance our egos. The best birthday present, the prettiest dress, the smartest car, the cleverest in the class, the most beautiful girl of them all, the strongest boy on the beach, the sexiest partner or partners, the biggest diamond, the biggest boat, the most fantastic wedding, the most prosperous business....

Of course, these are the crassest and most obvious things, and you might argue that you aren't entirely seduced by these attractions. Most of us are. And why - because every one of them relates in some way to the ego. The bright red sports convertible is a startlingly clear example of the extension of the ego of the guy on the move in more ways than one. The man who wants a beautiful wife draped over his arm is sending the message to the world that he is so attractive that he gets the best. Ego! The woman who flaunts the expensive bracelet is getting a great boost to her ego by being the chosen one. The billionaires of the world usually ooze power, ooze ego.

The problem with all these things is that they are symbols only and if all they do is to inflate the ego, they will never achieve any ultimate purpose. It’s a trap to believe it.


Ego is insatiable, and if it constantly needs the stimulus of possessions to satisfy it, however temporarily, then it will never be satisfied in the long run, and the time will come when no amount of possessions, power, money - anything that feeds the ego - none of that will be enough.

It becomes so frighteningly not enough that people who have everything often feel the need to risk it in order to prove to themselves what it really means to them. So disillusioned might they become that they search for meaning in artificial things that push the ego back further and further. Out of sight, obliterate it - in drink or drugs - anything that makes them forget the self that they're supposed to have created. Those who find refuge in drink or drugs betray the contempt they now harbour for the ego built from a lifetime of conditioning - the collapse of that paper self. They have everything possible in the world that feeds ego, and it fails to satisfy.

That must be a frightening realisation.

This sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It is and it isn’t.

Losing the problems of ego

The Buddha's analysis does in fact identify that the person who has things and is still unhappy is trying to do exactly what they should when they resort to drink and drugs - to lose the ego. Clearly, if his analysis so far is right, then losing the ego will eliminate desire, which will eliminate frustration.

But according to the Buddha, the booze and the pills are not the solution. All they will do is destroy and numb the mind and the body without touching on the root of the condition - and that's what will come back to haunt you when you're sober again. What we must understand is that we are all drugged up to a greater or lesser extent in our understanding of the world, deluded by the incapacity of words and ideas to really express true meaning.

The tyranny of ignorance

By the Buddha's analysis, the other condition that pervades the human environment is ignorance. Most of our suffering is caused by ignorance of one sort or another. Ignorance and lack of mindfulness - too much concern for our own egotistical desires, and ignorance of what real happiness is about.

Surely ignorance is the one staggeringly obvious characteristic of humanity. The challenge that the Buddha set the world was to come to terms with our ignorance and to try to clarify and set our minds straight so that we would not destroy our selves and others by our ignorance - because ignorance is more dangerous and more seductive than open hostility. Open hostility - ours, or someone else's - is something we can recognise and which we are often forced to face. Ignorance lies there and quietly destroys us and those around us.

I was watching a story on TV about a woman who had spent much of her life under the mistaken impression that her son-in-law had taken her daughter away from the family and had caused the deaths of her other two sons by encouraging them to join up to fight in the war. The story revolved around ignorance and prejudice (which is ignorance by another name) and the destruction of entire lives which it had caused. She learned the truth in the end, and discovered that she had twisted and distorted her entire life around an untruth resulting from ignorance.

When we understand something after being ignorant about it, often we don't even want to let go of our ignorance because it becomes the very stuff of which our lives are made. We want to believe in the reality we make for ourselves, because of the investment in ego that we've put into it.

The Buddha had worked through all these stages of understanding, and he had come to the conclusion that if we could only correct our perception of life, then we would find peace and contentment. We'd know what we needed to change and how to change it, and if something couldn't be changed, then we'd know how to accept it and live contentedly with it. The AA motto asks for the wisdom to know the difference between things that can be changed and things that can't. The AA philosophy is pure Buddhism in that sense. This is nothing more than being practical and sensible yet we fight against it all the time.

There's a great story about the Buddha visiting a monastery and finding that one of his disciples there was limping. “What's the matter,” asked the Buddha? “I was practising simplicity in my life,” said the monk, and because I was walking in the heat of the sun, the soles of my feet became blistered. What should I do?” he asked.

“Wear sandals,” said the Buddha.

It’s another way of saying that we need to understand the problem, so that we can consider the best solution.


You may be wanting more substantial answers. Understanding the problem isn't enough, though there's no doubt that it’s essential. What's the good of all this if you don't get a solution?

Do it yourself!

The Buddha said several things about this. One was that ultimately, all people had to work out their own pathways to happiness for themselves. No-one else could really do it for them, because it involved decisions only they could make.

But he didn't simply leave people to their own devices from that point on. He gave offered a guide to the process of freeing ourselves from the bondage of our own ignorance and desires and egos, and this is what has come to be known as the Eightfold Path.

I'm going to tell you what the Eightfold Path is, but I'm not going to go through the eight bits one by one and I'm avoiding that for a couple of good reasons. Most important is that they have such an archaic, prescriptive and moralistic tone that I'm sure you're going to get a distorted conception of what he was really on about.

Listen to them:
1. right views2. right intent3. right speech4. right conduct5. right livelihood6. right effort7. right mindfulness8. right concentration
What do they mean? Two things.

The Eightfold Path

This Eightfold Path is firstly a set of preconditions for the right way to look at things, and secondly, it's a method of correcting that perception. It's a discipline, and like all disciplines, it's something that usually comes over time and with a good deal of training.

It's not a like a recipe or a packet cake mix. It's an environment in which release from ignorance and unhappiness can be achieved. It's not about extremes or damaging your body. It's a pointer to leading a contented life and a peaceful exit from life at the end - but you've got to take responsibility for it.

The Eightfold Path encourages us to get ourselves in the right mental and physical condition to correct our perception of the world, and then practice a technique that will help us get better and better at seeing things for what they are and making ourselves content. The technique is usually called meditation.


Meditation is a much misunderstood term. Some of you may tune out the moment you hear it. We may think of rows of people - or maybe just one person - sitting in a lotus position, eyes half closed, apparently half asleep or possibly comatose. What are they doing?

Mostly what they're doing is nothing more - but it's a big nothing - nothing more than stilling their minds so that they can experience things directly instead of through the fog of words, thoughts, concepts and sensations that constantly interrupt our chance to be directly conscious of what we are and what the world is.

This is where the eyes of some of you are going to glaze over. Get rid of words? Ideas? Why?


Because we have lost the art of experiencing things directly, except in the few times in our lives when we become ecstatic for some reason or another. Our football team just won the premiership.... Or we fall in love, or win the lottery. These are ecstasies - the kind where you forget your self in the primal scream or moment of passion. These are hardly the stuff of self-realisation.

This is because these aren't the only ecstasies. There are quieter ecstasies in the world with more profound meaning than waving the winner’s cup.

Here we have to bear in mind the true meaning of the word ecstasy - ex = “out of” and stasis = “the self”. Out of self. Free of self. There are the quiet ecstasies of total absorption in something, where you lose that troublesome sense of self and maybe even experience a moment or two of mystical bliss - total identification of the experiencer and the object of that experience - a form of perfect if fleeting serenity and happiness where you want nothing more and you’d like it to go on forever.

Supposing you accepted as a hypothesis that there was a way to prolong, more or less permanently, that blissful state of quiet ecstasy - that state of total absorption. That state in which you know intuitively how to deal with the world and all the challenges that it poses for you daily? A state that would put life and death and fear and happiness all into such crystal clear clarity that nothing in life could ever trouble you again?

Would you buy some of that? Or is it such a fearful proposition that you want to cling to ego and selfish pleasures, even though you know that they ultimately end in suffering and pain and humiliation?

Buddhism challenges you to test that hypothesis. It has a word for that state of total absorption, total awareness and mindfulness, and that word is nirvana.


Let's suddenly change the setting. Instead of me here persuading you to begin to observe the preliminaries to the practice of meditation, let's pretend that I have become transformed into a Baptist preacher. I have just convinced you that you've got to let Christ into your life, that you can be blissfully redeemed from your lives of wickedness by God's forgiveness and you can be reborn as a new, spiritually perfect person. You'll get down on your knees and pray to a loving God and thank Him for His salvation.

Why did I suddenly switch scenes and persona? The reason is twofold.

Identity and Difference

There is a strong identity between the ecstasy of meditation and the joy of freedom for the saved sinner, or the joy of prayer. But there’s a vital difference in one aspect of it and here is where all the Eastern religions part company, superficially at least, with the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I want to make a contrast between that point of spiritual bliss that the Christian or the Muslim might reach on the moment of surrendering to God. In Christianity, for example, you can have your sins washed away by an act of genuine contrition, expiated by the love of God.

Buddhist philosophy doesn't have a parallel to that, except perhaps in the later Mahayana tradition, and I don't want to get into the sects of Buddhism. Let's stick with what I see as the pure philosophy for the moment.


What Buddhism says is that contrition for sins is a wonderful thing and certainly a step in the right direction, but that you can't undo the consequences of your action. You might make amends, but you can't wipe the slate clean because you simply can't go backwards. In the great computer program of life, there is no UNDO command!

You have to come to terms with the consequences of your actions and you have to see yourself as a part in a gigantic link of causation - of cause and effect. No-one can deny that that is exactly what we are - we're here on this earth because of all the events that have occurred since the beginning of the universe, and we're making waves, however small they might seem to be, that will reverberate to the end of time. The butterfly that flutters its wings in Beijing may set off a chain reaction that has immense consequences for the world, if I might borrow an analogy from some fundamental principles of chaos theory.

What have fluttering butterflies got to do with saving your soul? Well, Buddhism has some rather mind-boggling interpretations of the soul too, but let's not confuse the issue more than we have to for the moment. Buddhism is all about taking responsibility for your actions, because you are in control of your destiny to an important extent. You make decisions and you take responsibility - that's what the law of karma is all about.

It’s the moral law of cause and effect, that neither you nor I nor anyone can escape from, because you can't escape from the consequences of action.


Karma literally means action. To early Buddhism as it comes to us, there is no God sitting up there somewhere who takes a paternal interest in you or me. There is no god to whom you can pray for forgiveness and who can intercede on your behalf. To Buddhist philosophy, such an idea of godhead - or ultimate reality or ultimate salvation - some father-like figure - is a rather child-like conception, just like the vision of a heaven where the streets are paved with gold, or the cool green and water-filled paradise of the Muslims might be regarded as a childlike one in spiritual terms.

Whatever godliness or heavenliness there is, it is within you - within us all - it is to be realised. And that is the goal of meditation - to realise truth and to act upon it. Through this discipline, of meditation, it loses its selfishness in the superficial sense and becomes a kind of mantle of loving kindness radiating from you to all creation. 

And I've only just got started!


  1. A friend of mine recently asked me to explain what Buddhism is about. She'd been to a one-day retreat with Thich Nat Hanh and figured it was just all about being a better person, nothing about liberation or transformation of consciousness as she understood it.

    Where do I start? I think I'll refer her to this section of your blog, Denis. It's a very good blending of the ethical teachings of Buddhism and the transformation of self/consciousness that is the goal of Eastern religious traditions.

    I don't find the 8 fold path moralistic. They prevent the unnecessary accumulation of bad karma and offer opportunities for productive self discipline if done in the spirt of compassion for even oneself. It's hard work being mindful of your speech, actions, and intentions. Easy to fall into gossip, undermining people, being critical, and secretly rejoicing in the failures of others. As Carl has said too often to me, "Would you like someone else to say that about you?" That shuts me up and gets me thinking about my motives for some of the things I say and do.

    I fall down on the 5th precept, but find the other 4 to be vastly useful as guides to daily living, #1 "not harming", in particular.

    For me "dukkha" means "unsatisfactoriness". The Sanksrit meaning, according to my dictionary, is "uneasy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, difficult". Nothing from the realm of samsara can satisfy the existential urge for freedom and realisation of the true Self, which is usually the underlying motivation of all our craving. Ultimately anything we do in the realm of samsara to satisfy this basic instinct, will be, in the end, unsatsifactory, no matter how promising it seems at the beginning. However, even the craving for liberation can be an obstacle on the path.

    On the recent Census form, both Carl and I put Buddhism down as our religion, regardless of our lack of intention to adhere to the 5th precept, which we frequently enjoy breaking, especially with good friends.

    All this without a demanding, wrathful, irascible, unpredictable God to lord it over you. If one has to have a religion, what better one than this?

    1. I very much regret having found this again only after nearly a whole year, while looking for something else. It's the sort of comment that deserved thanks and a real response. I can't tell now why I didn't get back to it, but it's probably too late now.

      Of course I don't need to respond to every comment, but I surely intended to on this. Apologies. All I'll say is that it's a compliment that you might have referred someone to the piece, and that I agree very much with what you have said otherwise.

      This belated response is a good demonstration of dukkha! I very much agree with your translation of the term and in fact it was one of the first things I used to impress upon students when lecturing on Buddhism. I never was keen on translating it purely as suffering, though sadly it surely means that too.


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