Monday, October 5, 2009

Dharma and Evolutionary Psychology VI: the Show Mustn't Go On

By what track can you reach him,
the Buddha, the awakened one,
free from all conditioning?
How can you describe him in human language
–the Buddha, the awakened one,
free from the net of desires and the pollution of passions,
free from all conditioning?

In Blade Runner, the futuristic dystopia that has now become a cult film, a posse of replicants (androids created through genetic engineering to take care of the dirty work for humans) returns to Earth on a desperate mission: to find out who designed them and force him to alter their program so they can live beyond the four miserable years that now inexorably mark the limit of their existence. Though peppered with the usual dashes of violence, romance, and special effects typical of Hollywood studio productions, the movie revolves around issues of great depth: life and death, free will and predestination… in a word, what it means to be human –something about which the last survivor in the rebel commando (Rutger Hauer, featured above) teaches an unexpected lesson to a battered and helpless Harrison Ford in the desolate, rain-swept rooftop where the replicant foray is finally resolved.

I bring up this modern cinematic myth because it almost seems as if Robert Wright had it in mind when fashioning his interpretation of the effect that the discovery of the survival of the fittest as the prime motor of evolution had on Darwin. To anyone who has seen it in action, it is obvious that Nature is the least sentimental thing there is; but this feeling must have been multiplied to horrific proportions for Darwin –who was, let us not forget, a man of grave moral concerns living in the heyday of Victorian England– once he saw that raw, unabashed, and blind natural selection was the mechanism that best explained the development of species. Indeed this theory, increasingly supported by available data, came to enthrone ruthless struggle for survival as the supreme criterion for life: an endless process, devoid of any apparent meaning, fed by the constant death, in fearful numbers and with sickening recurrence, of the weakest organisms across the biological scale, whose sacrifice seemed to have no sense beyond perpetuating a game whereby Nature, trapped in an endless cycle, devours itself so as to be reborn time and again.

It is no surprise that Darwin himself, dismayed like many of his contemporaries at the brutal threat the new view posed to the moral underpinnings of his society, felt undisguised scruples about the new ideological landscape he had ushered in and devoted part of his subsequent efforts to try and mitigate its more dramatic implications (in that sense, Darwin was perhaps the least “Darwinist”, as popularly understood, of all those who embraced his theories). Perhaps that’s why, like the android Roy Batty facing his designer Dr. Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner, Robert Wright depicts Darwin virtually confronting his own creator in one of the climactic moments of his ambitious enquiry –except in the naturalist’s case, this creator is not a person but rather an impersonal and relentless process responsible for having created all living organisms on the planet:

It is remarkable that a creative process devoted to selfishness could produce organisms which, having finally discerned its creator, reflect on this central value and reject it. More remarkable still, this happened in record time; the very first organism ever to see its creator did precisely that. Darwin’s moral sentiments, designed ultimately to serve selfishness, renounced this criterion of design as soon as it became explicit.

It’s conceivable that Darwin’s values, ironically, drew a certain strength from his pondering of natural selection. Think of it: zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with each other: “My hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death.” And you are one of those organisms, living your life in the thrall of a logical absurdity. It’s enough to make you feel a little alienated –if not, indeed, out and out rebellious.

Darwin’s rebellion, as interpreted by Wright, basically meant trying to salvage from the shipwreck values with a long moral and religious tradition such as altruism, solidarity, and empathy toward one’s fellow men, shattered by the tidal wave of the recently discovered biological selfishness. Too bad Wright had not read or at least did not take into account the Dhammapada as he wrote these pages, which might have led him to a more qualified and accurate judgment on Darwin’s gesture. Lest this seem an unwarranted sectarian claim based on a glaring anachronism, let us return once again to the Buddha’s own words. In the light of what has been said before, how can we read this description of his own predicament without undermining Darwin’s claim to originality?:

I have gone through many rounds of birth and death,
Looking in vain for the builder of this body.
Heavy indeed is birth and death again and again!
But now I have seen you, housebuilder,
You shall not build this house again.
Its beams are broken; its dome is shattered:
Self-will is extinguished; nirvana is attained.

Here, at long last, we come to the heart of the Buddhist path. Instead of engaging in absurd polemics as to who spotted his creator first, from this vantage point it makes a lot more sense to draw together the new insights revealed by the striking parallels we have reviewed in order to fully understand what’s at stake in the path of Dharma and assess its significance.

Thanks to our previous discussion, we are now in a position to explain the path opened by the Buddha in a manner acceptable to those who tend to be put off by any religious overtone. Let us state it simply thus: Siddhartha Gautama’s great contribution was threefold. First, he discovered the “creator” of our human condition as apparent individuals separate from everything else (in Buddhist terms, the process of dependent origination: the twelve-linked chain responsible for generating the identities, which are a sham and yet constitute the greatest impediment to experimenting our own nature). Second, he confronted this process, probably by recourse among other methods to a self-devised meditation technique called vipassana. And third, he found out how to put an end to this “creation” by means of the systematic integral practice he called the Noble Eightfold Path. Having done all that, he awoke to the truth as it is here and now and became “the Buddha” –the awakened one.

The parallel with Darwin’s findings puts in perspective the full import of these steps –something that Buddhist literature, when not too concerned with making itself properly understood, tersely describes as the path that frees human beings from suffering and leads them to nirvana. The great advantage afforded by EP in this regard is that it exposes on the one hand the magnitude of diverging drives that beset human beings –that half-choking, half-sedating stranglehold of the three unwholesome roots and their grim companion, suffering (dukkha)– while at the same time reducing the grounds for interpreting the release of nirvana as a kind of stupendous cosmic orgasm whereby one gains access in this life to a Buddhist paradise –a fantasy we will do well to undermine.

The main virtue of one who has crossed the river and awakened is that he/she is free from all conditioning, that is, has cleaned his/her mind of obsolete commands that are out of joint with respect to the natural order Buddhists call Dharma and Daoists, Dao. After that, a residue of the old habits may still remain but, basically, as its name indicates, liberation has to do more with letting go than with gaining. What is then left is a natural system that is free to interact with its environment in accord with the real needs of the moment, and nothing more. It’s just that, by comparison, our previous state resembles a puppet subject to the wrenching pulls and spasms caused by what we could describe as psychologically and socially noxious capsules of evolutionary remains distorted in the course of our evolution as a species.

In concluding, let us allow the Buddha himself to answer with his customary sobriety the question posed at the beginning of this section, “How can you describe him in human language –the Buddha, the awakened one”?

He has reached the end of the way; he has crossed the river of life.
All that he had to do is done: he has become one with all life.

Or, to put it in the first person:

One who conquers himself is greater than another who conquers
a thousand times a thousand men on the battlefield.
Be victorious over yourself and not over others.
When you attain victory over yourself,
Not even the gods can turn it unto defeat.

I have conquered myself and live in purity

This ends the series of articles on Dharma and Evolutionary Psychology, written with the sincere desire to benefit all beings.

May all be filled with joy and peace.
May all beings everywhere,
The strong and the weak,
The great and the small,
The meek and the powerful,
The short and the long,
The subtle and the gross:
May all beings everywhere,
Both seen and unseen,
Dwelling far off or nearby,
Being, or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.

Let no one deceive another,
Let no one anywhere despise another,
Let no one out of anger or resentment
Wish suffering to anyone at all.
Just as a mother with her own life
Protects her child, her only child, from hurt,
So within yourself let grow
A boundless love for all creatures.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dharma and Evolutionary Psychology V: the Path to Liberation

At a certain point in The Moral Animal, after completing his summary of the main hypotheses and findings of EP, Robert Wright alters his course for a moment and briefly surveys the teachings of several spiritual traditions as a prelude to proposing his own answer to the human dilemma. It is in those pages where, after mentioning some ideas shared by diverse religious currents, he devotes a few glowing paragraphs to Buddhism and describes with seeming approval the Buddha’s project as implying a “fundamental defiance of human nature”.

Has Mr. Wright “gone Buddhist” all of a sudden? No, not at all; in fact, this brotherly embrace conceals an implicit jab. As Buddhists, we shouldn’t accept this judgment on its own terms, heroic though it may sound, without taking note of its polemic content regarding the Dharma, lest we overlook an absolutely crucial disagreement. Indeed, although Robert Wright highlights the enormous transcendence of the Buddha’s contribution –portraying him as a kind of Prometheus assaulting the Heavens out of love for mankind–, in so doing he takes for granted a notion of human nature far apart from what the Buddha himself claimed to have discovered through his own direct experience. What is human nature? That is the question; there lies the discrepancy; this is where we can best perceive the chasm that separates two methods whose criteria for truth are radically different.

The main problem with this verdict is that, contrary to what Robert Wright may assume, the real defiance of Buddha Dharma is not directed at human nature but rather at views of human nature such as that espoused by EP. Sure, the Buddhist path is full of challenges if we choose to thus understand its constant invitations to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of our habits, cravings and fears (no small feat, indeed); but none of that can compare in importance with the challenge the Dharma poses to the programming accumulated in our minds in the course of our eventful evolution –precisely because, unlike EP, it denies that it is an inherent part of human nature and sees much of it as an accidental and undesirable accretion. So, instead of defying human nature, Buddha Dharma poses a challenge to our self-complacency, to any idea that we cannot go beyond our inherited conditioning, because it is based on the experience of someone who did manage to break through; and, as long as one member of the species has done so, that same achievement falls within the realm of possibility for the entire species. Consequently, the Dharma declares itself available to all those who wish to try it for themselves, like so many others have done in the past, since it grants supreme value to first-hand experience (without which nothing in Buddhism makes sense, really) over any type of cognitive science. This and none other is the true spirit of Dharma, which explains the defiant tone of many of the Buddha’s expressions:

Better to live in freedom and wisdom for one day
than to lead a conditioned life of bondage for a hundred years.

as well as its refusal to compromise and its continuous encouragement to shed the chains that keep us bound to repetitive and harmful patterns of behavior. This is therefore Buddha Dharma’s starting point, an ambitious program within the reach of anybody with enough conviction and resolution to try it:

Cut down the whole forest of selfish desires, not just one tree only.
Cut down the whole forest and you will be on your way to liberation.

Here, on the thoughtless obedience to craving for pleasure, is where the Dharma concentrates its artillery in the first stages of the path to liberation. But it is important to realize that, contrary to religious and social systems, the Buddhist prescription does not operate via commandments dictated by and followed with the cognitive mind, but only advises to restrain the impulses of identity, firmly but gently, with determination, composure, and patience –just like one would restrain a wild galloping horse steadily and without jerking at the reins to avoid pulling horse and rider down to the ground. These are not peremptory commands issued from a higher authority, but advice transmitted to whoever may want to put it into practice, based on the experience of thousands of people who have been down this path before and have found out that sheer repression does not work.

For the Buddha, the problem exists in the human mind and is quite serious but, contrary to EP, there is also a total and definitive solution to it instead of a contract negotiated between individuals and groups trying to accommodate their diverging interests, as in the utilitarian stance. In the light of these observations it makes more sense now to read in full a passage from the Dhammapada, quoted before only in part, that completes the picture of the Buddhist restraint on pleasures:

Like a spider caught in its own web
is a person driven by fierce cravings.
Break out of the web,
and turn away from the world of sensory pleasure and sorrow.
If you want to reach the other shore of existence,
give up what is before, behind, and in between.
Set your mind free, and go beyond birth and death.

Such is the Dhammapada: under the guise of an innocent handbook for beginners, there lurks a subversive manifesto full of urgent calls to dethrone the three false kings (i.e., the identities) who have usurped the mind’s functions and the direction of our lives along with it. This image of crossing a river is quite frequent in Buddhist teachings, whose practical criterion is manifest in the Parable of the Raft: when all is said and done, Buddha Dharma is nothing but a means to cover that distance, after which, being as it is a disposable method, one can forget about Buddhism and all its paraphernalia unless he/she wishes to assist as a guide others who are making the same journey. Before that, however, he/she must have completed the course that separates this shore, stained Samsara (our experience of the world with identities and suffering), from the other shore, where human nature can unfold free from the impediments of inherited conditioning.

If you long to know what is hard to know
and can resist the temptations of the world, you will cross the river of life.

Cross the river bravely; conquer all your passions.
Go beyond your likes and dislikes and all fetters will fall away.

Cross the river bravely; conquer all your passions.
Go beyond the world of fragments, and know the deathless ground of life.

None of this is a quixotic call to embrace lost causes or to get bogged down in hopeless struggles. Although strenuous, it falls within the reach of human beings:

[The saint] has completed his voyage; he has gone beyond sorrow.
The fetters of his life have fallen from him, and he lives in full freedom.

Once again, the voice resounding in these fighting proclamations is light-years away from the numbed-out and ashen image of Dharma some divulge in their ignorance. Nobody says the journey is easy; in fact, perhaps no other method shows a deeper and more detailed understanding of the difficulties involved. On account of that lucidity, Robert Wright acknowledges a hefty dose of wisdom in the advice of those who, like the Buddha, mistrust the alluring charms of pleasure:

In all these assaults on the senses there is a great wisdom –not only about the addictiveness of pleasures but about their ephemerality. The essence of addiction, after all, is that pleasure tends to dissipate and leave the mind agitated, hungry for more. The idea that just one more dollar, one more dalliance, one more rung on the ladder will leave us feeling sated reflects a misunderstanding about human nature; we are designed to feel that the next great goal will bring bliss, and the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly after we get there. Natural selection has a malicious sense of humor; it leads us along with a series of promises and then keeps saying “Just kidding”. As the Bible puts it, “All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled”. Remarkably, we go our whole lives without ever really catching on.

The advice of the sages –that we refuse to play this game– is nothing less than an incitement to mutiny, to rebel against our creator. Sensual pleasures are the whip natural selection uses to control us, to keep us in the thrall of its warped value system. To cultivate some indifference to them is one plausible route to liberation. While few of us can claim to have traveled far on this route, the proliferation of this scriptural advice suggests it has been followed some distance with some success.

On re-reading these paragraphs, I sometimes wonder if they’re not the most explicit validation of Dharma I have ever seen coming from the pen of a non-Buddhist. And this is so despite Robert Wright’s implication that such a course of action, no matter how valuable it may be, is uncertain in the long run and therefore impractical on a large scale. The silence of The Moral Animal when it comes to recommending a Dharma-like path is eloquent; still, that does not diminish one bit the light it sheds, almost willy-nilly, on the Buddhist project. In my view, few interpretations, even those of renowned masters, are able to underscore so efficiently the Dharma’s true wager. Nevertheless, if we choose to uphold Buddha Dharma, it is still essential to supplement this newly gained cognitive awareness with deep teachings, timely practices and a sustained day-to-day attention in order to match it with the warmth of inner transformation. Only thus may we further the blooming of the compassion and wisdom which for the Dharma are the truest expression of our hidden human nature.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Dharma and Evolutionary Psychology IV: the Anusota Sutta

Now, as a short break in our ongoing attempt to appraise the similarities and differences between Buddha Dharma and EP by comparing the Dhammapada with Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, let us refer to another source (Anusota Sutra, Anguttara Nikaya IV.5) for a few additional words by the Buddha which bring into sharper focus his teachings on pleasure, habit strength, and the path to free oneself from conditioning:

“These four types of individuals are to be found existing in the world. Which four? The individual who goes with the flow, the individual who goes against the flow, the individual who stands fast, and the one who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman.
“And who is the individual who goes with the flow? There is the case where an individual indulges in sensual passions and does evil deeds. This is called the individual who goes with the flow.

“And who is the individual who goes against the flow? There is the case where an individual doesn’t indulge in sensual passions and doesn’t do evil deeds. Even though it may be with pain, even though it may be with sorrow, even though he may be crying, his face in tears, he lives the holy life that is perfect & pure. This is called the individual who goes against the flow.

“And who is the individual who stands fast? There is the case where an individual, with the total ending of the first set of five fetters, is due to be reborn [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world. This is called the individual who stands fast.

“And who is the individual who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman? There is the case where an individual, through the ending of the mental fermentations, enters & remains in the fermentation-free awareness-release & discernment-release, having known & made them manifest for himself right in the here & now. This is called the individual who has crossed over, gone beyond, who stands on firm ground: a brahman.

“These are the four types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”
People unrestrained in sensual passions,
not devoid of passion, indulging in sensuality:
they return to birth & aging, again & again
— seized by craving, going with the flow.

Thus the enlightened one,
with mindfulness here established,
not indulging in sensuality & evil,
though it may be with pain,
would abandon sensuality.
They call him one who goes against the flow.

Whoever, having abandoned the five defilements,
is perfect in training,
not destined to fall back,
skilled in awareness,
with faculties composed:
he’s called one who stands fast

In one who, having known,
qualities high & low have been destroyed,
have gone to their end, do not exist:
He’s called a master of knowledge,
one who has fulfilled the holy life,
gone to the world’s end,
gone beyond.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dharma and Evolutionary Psychology III: the Trojan Horse

In a famous episode from the myth of Troy narrated in Vergil’s Aeneid, the priest Laocoön tries in vain to persuade his fellow citizens –mad with joy and relief on seeing that the Greeks have finally lifted camp and sailed back to their country– not to bring into the city the uncanny wooden contraption their vanished foes have left behind:

equo ne credite, Teucri.
quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

that is,

Do not trust the horse, men of Troy.
Whatever it may be, I fear the Greeks even when bearing gifts.

The Trojan Horse is a highly suitable metaphor to illustrate from an evolutionary viewpoint the origins of the malaise of modern individuals, turned into battlefields where genetically inherited primary drives clash with variable force against the need to conform to a prevailing material and social reality extremely at odds with the primitive milieu which gave birth to those impulses.

Indeed, our bodies and minds are living in the 21st century, in a society where, among other changes, practically nobody ever hunts, gathers or grows by themselves what they eat; where the threat of predators (other than humans) has been almost entirely eliminated; where monogamy has triumphed by and large as a compromise solution for the asymmetrical and frequently conflicting demands of either sex; and where all vestiges of belonging to a tribe beyond one’s immediate family have disappeared and most of us live in large cities, surrounded by total strangers. Nevertheless, the “software” we have at hand to navigate this scenario was designed by a blind (or at best short-sighted) programmer called Natural Selection, based on trial and error over hundreds of thousands of years among cave- or forest-dwelling populations confronted with the exactly opposite conditions on a daily basis.

Briefly said, the difference in the speed at which our environment and our minds have changed has left us off balance on a very fundamental level, because an important segment of our programming is now outdated. What’s worse, the primitive drives in our genes are as active as ever, operating like a fifth column within the reasonable and socialized citadel of the “I” we have worked to hard to construct, and tirelessly conspiring to achieve their single purpose: to pass on to the next generation by all means, come hell or high water. The resulting picture, according to Robert Wright, is anything but edifying:

Humans aren’t calculating machines; they’re animals, guided somewhat by conscious reason but also by various other forces. And long-term happiness, however appealing they may find it, is not really what they’re designed to maximize. On the other hand, humans are designed by a calculating machine, a highly rational and coolly detached process. And that machine does design them to maximize a single currency –total genetic proliferation, inclusive fitness. (....) We live in cities and suburbs and watch TV and drink beer, all the while being pushed and pulled by feelings designed to propagate our genes in a small hunter-gatherer population. It’s no wonder that people often seem not to be pursuing any particular goal –happiness, inclusive fitness, whatever– very successfully.

This may sound cold and mechanical, but it’s the way things are from the viewpoint of a discipline that acknowledges no creator other than an impersonal biological process, speaks of “selfish” genes, and pits their project of survival and transmission at all costs against the more socially acceptable plans individuals tend to devise in order to reach happiness, however they may fancy it. The result is an inevitable collision where personal satisfaction usually holds the losing hand –which is one of the reasons why Robert Wright devotes a sizable part of his study to articulating mechanisms that may bring into line the apparently irreconcilable interests of both genes and individuals.

To what extent does the Dharma share in this view? To my mind, significantly in substance but not so much in every single detail. Leaving aside speculation on the origin of this apparent divergence in interests and impulses, the notion of a Trojan Horse is often latent in Buddhist texts, only there it appears under the guise of the three identities (the “unwholesome roots” of aversion, greed, and confusion) who have implanted in the subconscious mind commands that are at odds with the natural and correct order of things. For the Dharma, as the Buddha explained in his famous Parable of the Arrow, it is immaterial to know how, when, why or at those hands we have arrived at this predicament; suffice it to know that there is, within all human beings who have not liberated their own pure nature, a tendency to satisfy certain basic drives that bring pleasure on the short run but in the end produce little but suffering –a realization based on the honest and upfront close examination of one’s own experience that is generally prerequisite for the path of Buddha Dharma. Only by coming to terms with this understanding, which the Buddha called the First Noble Truth of Suffering, do we begin to promote the restoration of our pure natural system.

So, despite partially endorsing its diagnosis of the human condition, the Dharma parts ways with EP in its attack on the problem, which is where the distance between both approaches can be best appreciated. Instead of a rational program meant to harmonize to the highest possible degree the pleasure of the largest number of individuals, as proposed by utilitarianism and embraced by Robert Wright (following Darwin, among others), the Buddha’s way entails taking to the same personal path of purification of the mind that he followed until it is confirmed by an experience beyond the mind itself. And that road begins with a potent and effective, albeit demanding, antidote to the problem: awareness, achieved through the deliberate application of attention to several phases of the mind’s functioning that are generally concealed from our view. This is the Buddha’s great weapon, the universal dissolvent for the chains of obsolete programming that keep us bound and estranged from our own nature: the lucid awareness that comes from right attention and right energy.

The immature, in their ignorance, lose their vigilance,
but the wise guard it as their greatest treasure.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dharma and Evolutionary Psychology II: Temptation and the Mechanisms of Addiction

Could it be that the Buddha’s cautions regarding hedonism were unfounded and/or grossly exaggerated? In his support, Robert Wright justifies in logical terms the language we have just seen in the Dhammapada, however backward it may sound, when thus explaining a dilemma inherent in the human condition:

The concept of “evil”, though less metaphysically primitive than, say, “demons”, doesn’t fit easily into a modern scientific worldview. Still, people seem to find it useful and the reason is that it is metaphorically apt. There is indeed a force devoted to enticing us into various pleasures that are (or once were) in our genetic interests but do not bring long-term happiness to us and may bring great suffering to others. You could call that force the ghost of natural selection. More concretely, you could call it our genes (some of our genes, at least). If it will help to actually use the word evil, there’s no reason not to.

What light, if any, does this explanation cast on the Buddha’s attitude toward pleasure? Enough to unveil certain implicit assumptions in his analysis of the unconscious mechanisms at work in the process –something which he didn’t go into in detail in his teachings, perhaps because he deemed it superfluous for an audience like his, brought up in a culture that had long studied and contemplated these matters.

Beyond the experience of pleasure itself, the great danger the Buddha denounces time and again in the Dhammapada is careless distraction, due to the automatic consequences it brings about: the fixed stimulus-response loops we repeat in our minds, which bring about compulsive behavioral patterns that tend to escape our notice.

All human beings are subject to attachment and thirst for pleasure.
Hankering after these, they are caught in the cycle of birth and death
[the constant rebirth in the mind of the “three unwholesome roots” or identities].
Driven by this thirst, they run about frightened like a hunted hare,
suffering more and more.

How could that be? Because in daily life one is often faced with a choice between alternatives, one of which holds a visible and instant reward, while the other offers no apparent recompense; and it is the seductiveness of that reward, in the form of pleasure, which generally leads us to choose the easier path until it becomes a habit. Such is the underlying analysis in the Buddha’s admonishments, which on occasion are compressed to the point of seeming bland truisms unless we care to “unzip” them in a way that makes sense:

Evil deeds, which harm oneself, are easy to do; good deeds are not so easy.

What kind of picture of human motivation emerges from this Buddhist psychology? As loaded with Christian connotations as it may sound, it too hinges on the dicey concept of temptation. There is no need, however, to understand the term in a religious sense: all that “temptation” really means is that human experience often occurs in the form of a crossroads, with one option that promises instant gratification but is sterile or even harmful in the long run, and another that is difficult and presents no obvious recompense but is correct and subtly nourishing for oneself and others. Whether we are on a spiritual path or not, this predicament constitutes a meaningful part of human experience in all cultures and eras.

According to this view, were are enmeshed in the psychological dynamics of our various addictions and the great danger the Buddha warns against is living heedlessly on auto-pilot, because this particular pilot has very clear ideas of its own that nevertheless seldom promote our long-term well-being –and, furthermore, has access to a veritable arsenal of candies with which to entice us on our road to perdition and then keep us numbed out in our ill-fated detour. This pilot, who is really nothing but an impersonal process, is what Buddhism personifies in the figure called Mara, whose mastery over our lives has devastating consequences:

The compulsive urges of the thoughtless grow like a creeper.
They jump like a monkey from one life to another, looking for fruit in the forest.
When these urges drive us, sorrow spreads like wild grass.

Contrary to what is often claimed, the problem for Dharma is not so much desire as such but craving, due to the compulsive element it contains. There is in craving something external that overwhelms and subdues its host, so to speak, to its wishes; it does not tolerate opposition well nor does it gladly suffer questioning or deferral. In fact, it’s an unwholesome inertia that drags us to those behaviors we have reinforced through assiduous practice, turning them into ever deeper ruts which become increasingly difficult to break away from. Whether we call it “Mara” like Buddhists do or “the ghost of natural selection” like the Darwinists, it is a typical example of a vicious circle in which each wrong step increases the likelihood that the next step will also being incorrect –and thus a good example of how mundane karma works:

If a man is tossed about by doubts, full of strong passions,
And yearning only for what is delightful,
his thirst will grow more and more,
and he will indeed make his fetters strong.
Like a spider caught in its own web is a person driven by fierce cravings.

So this, in a nutshell and in plain English, is what the Buddha is saying: beware of the subconscious programming that leads you to seek pleasure, because in the end it does not defend your interests but others that are alien to you, harmful to your ultimate well-being, and moreover invalid in the overall scheme of things.

Is the Buddha’s message more acceptable when clothed in these terms? Hopefully, yes, insofar as it is more understandable. In the end, the great advantage of applying an evolutionary approach to the Buddhist perspective is, in my opinion, that it makes moralizing superfluous; it is enough to explain temptation as a set of instructions reinforced in the human mind through repetition (that is, conditioned) along the many millennia of our evolution as a species, despite being prompted by and adjusted to circumstances widely different from those we enjoy today. That, in large measure, is the tragedy of the modern human being: that the material and social conditions we live in have superseded our genetic programming, and yet that obsolete program is still up and running: a seemingly inexhaustible source of friction and suffering for all, men and women, elderly and young, rich and poor; in a word, for all human beings, precisely because they are human.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dharma and Evolutionary Psychology I

Sometimes the most insightful commentaries to the Buddha’s teachings are not to be found in the sayings or writings of his acknowledged followers but rather come from indirect sources wholly unrelated to institutional Buddhism and thus unencumbered by the constraints of doctrinal orthodoxy. Such is the case in my opinion with evolutionary psychology (henceforth, EP), a relatively recent discipline that interprets the mechanisms of the human mind in view of our development as a species, stressing the tenacious imprint left on it by the hundreds of millennia our ancestors lived in primitive conditions. Anyone who is familiar with the central ideas of Buddha Dharma can now expand his/her perspective with an evolutionary appreciation of its psychological basis thanks to the compelling overview of EP presented by Robert Wright in his The Moral Animal. Why We Are The Way We Are –a study of great interest on its own merits that also happens to bring to light unsuspected parallels between both fields.

Obviously, coincidences between Dharma and EP, however conspicuous, are limited and do not constitute any kind of definitive scientific endorsement of the former’s ideas. After all, EP is a “soft” science that draws its conclusions about human nature from analysis and induction applied to behaviors and attitudes observed in substantial numbers, whereas the Buddha based his insights on a direct experience beyond the mind –an enormously consequential event, indeed, albeit statistically insignificant and only verifiable by reproducing it oneself. As a result, both outlooks on human nature cannot but differ. That being said, in order to properly approach the Dharma it is nevertheless highly advisable to keep science handy as a touchstone: although it does not follow the scientific method, Buddha Dharma must be compatible with the truths unveiled and confirmed by science over time. In this particular case, the theories of EP seem doubly useful, as they indirectly reinforce certain premises of the Buddha’s teachings while contributing a (pre-)historical explanation of how and why things came to be that way –something which Buddha Dharma, being a practical not speculative discipline, does not deal with explicitly.

In order to evaluate how far EP supports or disputes the Dharma, perhaps the best place to start is with their respective analysis of the mechanisms and consequences of pleasure, an area where both methods show a great deal of mutual agreement in the form of a shared reticence. It is well known that this reserved outlook is one of the hallmarks of Buddhism, where the call to moderation is accompanied by constant warnings on the risks intrinsic to running after pleasure for pleasure’s sake. The Dhammapada, an old Buddhist primer, abounds in such exhortations:

Do not indulge in thoughtlessness.
Do not become intimate with sensual pleasures.
He who lives looking for pleasures only, his senses uncontrolled,
immoderate in his food, idle, and weak,
Mara (the tempter) will certainly overthrow him,
as the wind throws down a weak tree.

He who lives without looking for pleasures,
his senses well controlled, moderate in his food, faithful and strong,
him Mara will certainly not overthrow,
any more than the wind throws down a rocky mountain.

Death carries off a man who is gathering flowers,
and whose mind is distracted,
as a flood carries off a sleeping village.

Death subdues a man who is gathering flowers,
and whose mind is distracted,
before he is satiated in his pleasures.

Because of our culturally shared Christian background, statements like these can easily surprise and mislead us. Could there possibly be a place in Dharma for visions of a Hell where the devil hounds the damned with his trident amidst searing flames and clouds of sulfur? Not at all; however, it is entirely natural to sense an all too familiar Puritanism in such language if one doesn’t understand where it’s coming from or where it leads to. Fortunately, it is precisely here that the evolutionary perspective is helpful in bringing out the true dimension of the Buddhist path, which has nothing to do with the imposition of moral commandments. The question, therefore, is why this insistence on the dangers latent in sensual pleasures?

Well, just to make sure we’re walking on firm ground, let us begin by discarding a few possible but unlikely reasons. In the first place, it was not simply out of inexperience or envy that the Buddha chose to play party pooper in this regard. According to traditional accounts, he was well acquainted with sensual pleasures himself insofar as his father the king was determined to lavishly display before his first-born child all the perks of following in his footsteps and inheriting the throne; thus the young prince Gautama had known full well the charms and rewards of power, money, sex and revelling by the time he renounced his kingdom and started off on his arduous journey to awakening. Secondly, he did not formulate these ideas to serve as an instrument of social control intended to buttress the privileged position of the dominant priest class, because he elaborated them based on his own pioneering experience, having left behind all established groups, and after a search he had begun as an implicit challenge to the Brahmins of his day and age. And, lastly, it is hard to believe that he wished to wrest religious supremacy from the Hindu priests so as to hand it over to his own converts by instituting a new and revolutionary code of conduct. After all, advice against pleasure posed no threat to the Hindu creed, whereof it was part and parcel since time immemorial; and, moreover, the original Buddhist community was for many years little more than an unstructured tribe of nomads devoid of mundane ambitions.

All we know for now is that, if this defense of moderation is in line with the bulk of the Buddha’s teachings, it must be relevant to each person’s experience here and now. That’s why we must first examine the meaning of such claims under this light and check whether or not they are consistent with the rest of the Dharma. It may seem little, but if we eliminate the possibility that the Buddha’s reticence regarding sensual pleasures had anything to do with personal motives, political maneuvers or other external factors, we come closer to grasping their real subject: the human being’s inner realm and, more specifically, the application of his/her mind. And that’s no trifling matter.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A wide-open refuge

Taking refuge in the so-called “triple jewel” is the traditional formula whereby one becomes a Buddhist: “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”, generally meaning the historical Buddha, his teachings understood as a closed canon, and the community of monks and lay followers. It’s nothing new; in the early sutras, taking refuge is the expression of choice every time someone becomes convinced of the truth of the Dharma –usually, after discussing or debating with the Buddha– and affirms his intention to live according to that standard from then on. Today, it is still used both in traditionally Buddhist Asian countries and in the diverse Buddhist communities that have sprouted in the West over the last fifty years or so. It is, in theory, something one can only do freely and willingly as an adult in full possession of his/her mental powers. And yet it is obvious that things aren’t always that way in reality: in many Asian cultures Buddhism is handed down from parents to children much like traditional religions are, as part of the family heritage, and in many cases its meaning is not well understood, which totally voids its potency.

Once again, there are several levels of understanding to this concept and popular usage may confuse us if we don’t look beyond the surface of things. What is this refuge, really? In Pali –the language of the older sutras– the word is sárana, which some relate to Latin terms such as salvus and serenus; unfortunately, Indo-European linguistics does not support these enticing etymologies but rather relates sárana to the idea of hiding. It would thus seem as if this refuge were a hiding place, an escape, as the Buddha himself seems to imply when discussing the concept:

“Driven by fear, men take refuge in several places –in hills, jungles, forests, trees and sanctuaries.”

An interpretation, however, he only offers so as to immediately belie it:

“These are truly not a safe refuge; these are not the supreme refuge; it is not by resorting to such refuges that one is liberated from all suffering.”

Of course; how could it be otherwise? Escaping is never a safe refuge for something we bear inside –in this case, suffering; no matter where we go, it will always go with us unless we make a resolute effort to rid ourselves of it. If we keep on reading the Buddha’s words, we realize this notion of refuge as an escape simply has to be discarded:

“He who has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha penetrates with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths –suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering. This is indeed the safe refuge, this is the supreme refuge. By turning to this refuge, one is liberated from all suffering.”

What is the main idea here? It’s certainly not to run off in search of protection, but rather “to penetrate with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths”; there is a world of difference between both. The Buddhist refuge isn’t therefore a place to take cover; contrary to what its name seems to suggest, it’s not a cubbyhole where we can escape the world and its problems like we take shelter from the rain. It’s rather a state of mind where one realizes there is no rain or calamity that can harm him/her. True, one may still prefer not to get wet, but any apprehension, anxiety or displeasure –i.e., any shade of mental suffering– will be absent from the experience. Why? Not because the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha magically extend their protection over us in recompense for our gullibility, but on account of an inner change that takes place to the extent that we have penetrated the Dharma’s foundations with transcendental wisdom –an undertaking which, if properly done, is never ever an easy way out.

That’s why the true refuge is not a passive act or something that’s good once and for all; nor is it a place to seek asylum or the herd’s comforting warmth; it’s more like a constant reference point against which to measure all our attitudes, intentions, and actions -like a lodestar or like the standard A note orchestras adjust to before every concert for all their instruments to play in tune. Whichever image you find most inspiring, it is a yardstick to be consulted repeatedly, not a wonder-pill that will secure our salvation in exchange for uttering aloud some words whose meaning eludes us.

But there’s still more, because in true Buddhism one doesn’t seek an external refuge, but rather learns to become his/her own refuge. The Buddha himself made that clear:

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, betaking yourselves to no external refuge (...) Dwell on the Dharma as if it were your island, with the Dharma as refuge, without looking for any other refuge”.

If that is so –and the Buddha’s words on the matter seem unequivocal– any Buddhist master who interprets refuge as usual, i.e., as taken in the historical Buddha, the Dharma as his teaching, and the Buddhist community, should also explain why the Buddha discarded all refuges except that in the Dharma and reconcile the master’s advice with the traditional formula.

To my mind, there is only one possible explanation: insofar as each apparent individual bears within, as it were a genetic code of correct behavior, the Dharma that is the natural law of all things in harmony and balance; knowing that, as part of that Dharma, every human being has hidden beneath his/her everyday masks a true nature that is the very same Buddha in whom we take refuge; and with full awareness moreover that all human beings (and not just the monks and laypersons who declare themselves Buddhists) have the same Buddha and the same Dharma within and are thus united in a natural Sangha.

Do you see the difference? The Buddhist refuge is not a place where some celestial being manifests to offer you protection against all pain and suffering, or where you go to confess and be forgiven. The Dharma is something you already have within, and taking refuge means opening the door to enter it. This is the real refuge in the Dharma. It is your natural heritage. It is your home. And it is open to all who care to make the journey laid out in the Buddha’s teachings and exemplified in his life.