Anthropology through Buddhist Lenses

Anthropology through Buddhist Lenses: Interplays among the Self, the Other, and Buddhism


Soraj Hongladarom, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University


“Formerly, in effect, one believed in ‘the soul’ as one believed in grammar and the grammatical subject: one said, ‘I’ is the condition, ‘think’ is the predicate and is conditioned—to think is an activity for which one MUST suppose a subject as cause. The attempt was then made, with marvelous tenacity and subtlety, to see if one could not get out of this net,—to see if the opposite was not perhaps true: ‘think’ the condition, and ‘I the conditioned; ‘I,’ therefore, only a synthesis which has been MADE by thinking itself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter III, Section 54


Academic disciplines are similar to other things in that they are also subject to change; they are born, and then their lives may be long, or quite short lived. During the time of their lives they may prosper, attracting a lot of attention, research grants, graduate students, star professors, and so on, or their fortunes might not be as good, and they just linger on, living in a neglected corner of the university. Some disciplines even died; that is, they are abandoned by their practitioners who take up some new endeavors. Philology, for example, prospered for a while a century or so ago, but then hardly anybody is taking it up nowadays, and the discipline has almost entirely been replaced by modern linguistics. Most other disciplines, however, manage to adapt themselves and hang on. Philosophy is, or seems to be, a great survivor. It is recognized to be the oldest of all the disciplines. At first it contained many areas of study which would later branch off and form their own turf. Natural science, for example, was known as “natural philosophy” and thus was considered part of philosophy even in the time of Newton, and the general recognition that there was a separate discipline of natural science which was independent from philosophy did not take shape until early in the nineteenth century. Psychology branched off from philosophy some time around the turn of the twentieth century. Now moral philosophy or ethics threatens to do so, when some practitioners argue that the best method to study ethical behavior lies more in the social science rather than the traditional conceptual analysis method of philosophy. Nonetheless, philosophy hangs on, and seem even to prosper despite many pundits, including stellar names like Steven Hawking, who are announcing its demise.

However, this paper is rather about anthropology, or more accurately how anthropology and philosophy interact. Anthropology, as with most other disciplines, branched off from philosophy around the middle of the nineteenth century. The study of human beings had been a concern of philosophical reflection for as long as there was philosophy. Philosophers such as Kant wrote a book on the subject (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View – Kant, 2006), but anthropology in the modern sense took off with the use of the scientific method. So the birth of modern anthropology was quite parallel to that of psychology. In both cases the traditional philosophical endeavor (studying human beings and the mind) was infused with the new scientific method, and there arose a consciousness that a new discipline was needed. Thus while traditional philosophy remained a staunchly humanistic discipline emphasizing documentary research, reading and interpreting of texts, and writing, the new disciplines tried out new ways of investigation, consisting of laboratory study, field research, analysis of bones and skulls, and so on. In short, empirical means of study were directly and fully employed in psychology and anthropology. Instead of reading ancient books, commenting on them and producing even more texts, modern anthropologists go out into the field and see for themselves what things are like. Of course they just cannot report just the bare fact that they see. They have to analyze and interpret the data collected and observed, trying to fit the data with the theoretical framework that they already subscribe or even use the data as a foil to challenge the commonly accepted frameworks. In any case, they have to start with the “bare facts.” This is simply not available in the old philosophical method.

What I would like to do in this paper is to reflect on the method of anthropology, and I would like to argue that insights gained from Buddhism could play a significant role in how anthropology should be studied. Since I am not an anthropologist and am not thoroughly familiar with the theoretical works that are in vogue among scholars in the field today, I will stay with the literature I know and the problems that I am more familiar with. However, I believe that the literature and the problems here would shed much light into anthropology itself. In this case I consider myself not unlike an anthropologist himself, who, as an outsider, claim to have a better look at the culture and way of life of an alien tribe better than what the members of the tribe describe themselves. By allowing a philosopher to have a look at anthropology, perhaps anthropologists might get some useful insights than what can be obtained by themselves looking back at what they do alone.

More specifically, this chapter proposes a fresh look at anthropology as an academic discipline through the lens provided by Buddhist thought. What is unique in Buddhism is that it denies the objective existence of the self, arguing instead that what is commonly known as the self is a construction, in much the same way as a rainbow is a construction made by the mind out of light which is reflected by the water droplets. As there is in objective reality no such thing as a rainbow, so is the self, according to Buddhist thought. I propose this view of the self (and by extension the other) as a theoretical underpinning that could inform how we understand the basic way anthropology deals with the self and the other. Corollary to this is the distinction, often made by philosophers when they approach anything anthropological, between the descriptive and the normative. In a naïve sense, the descriptive is aligned with the other and the normative with the self. This can be seen when one, taking the cultural relativist stance, declines to judge the value systems of the other, taking instead a descriptive stance. On the contrary, one who studies the other tends to assume that one’s own point of view or theoretical framework is normatively correct. According to a key tenet in Buddhist philosophy, the Doctrine of Emptiness (sūnyatā), the boundary between the self and other is also a construct, implying that there is always self in the other and the other in the self. As a result the Doctrine seems to call all boundaries and reifications into deep conceptual confusion. But it is my contention that this is a beneficial confusion, one which stirs up old ways of thinking and potentially comes up with a new way of looking at how cultural phenomena should be studied. When the line between the self and the other becomes confused, then one does become the other while at the same time remaining oneself. This should be beneficial to anthropology.


We begin by reflecting on the two terms that all anthropologists are familiar with, ‘emic’ and ‘etic.’ As is well known, Kenneth Pike (1967) coined the term, referring to point of view originating from within the culture that the anthropologist is studying, and the one that the anthropologist herself uses in order to describe the culture in question, respectively. According to Pike, who is a linguist, the term ‘emic’ comes from ‘phonemic,’ which refers to sounds of a language in so far as the sounds represent meaningful units within the language itself. On the contrary, ‘etic’ comes from ‘phonetic,’ and is a scientific and objective description of the sound itself without referring to the meaning within any language. Thus, in English the phonetic sounds [p] and [ph] are phonemically the same, meaning that both are parts of the same English phoneme. The [p] is unaspirated; in English one would normally hear that when a typical English speaker says words such as ‘Spanish’ or ‘spend’ or ‘sprite’. On the other hand, in words such as ‘perky’ or ‘Peter’ the typical English speaker would start the syllable with the aspirated [ph] sound. However, if one says ‘perky’ using the unaspirated [p] sound, the English speaker would still recognize the same word (with the same meaning), although she may think that the speaker may be a foreigner. This is totally different in another language such as Thai, where the [p] and the [ph] are phonemically distinguished. That is, they represent different units of meaningful sounds in the language. Thus the word [paa] in Thai means ‘to throw’, but the word [phaa] means ‘to lead’. The words give totally different meanings depending on whether [p] sound is aspirated or not. Thus what Pike is after in his characterization of the etic and the emic is that the former describes the outer aspects of an object or an event, while the latter describes the inner ones. In other words, the former deal with those aspects that are couched in the language that is used to describe, whereas the latter deals with those aspects that are couched in the language used by the natives themselves.

A logician is thus reminded of the distinction between the object language and the metalanguage when a logical system describes another system of language within the former system. A definition that is well known among logicians and philosophers of language is the definition of ‘truth’ proposed by Alfred Tarski (1983). According to him, a statement S in a language L is true if and only if the content of S obtains. For example, suppose S is the statement “The sun rises in the east.” Tarski’s definition would have it that the statement “The sun rises in the east” is true in English if and only if the sun rises in the east. So since it is indeed the case that the sun rises in the east, then the statement or the proposition (we don’t need to go into the details of how the two are similar or different in this paper. I am using the two words interchangeably) “The sun rises in the east.” is true. Do this for every statement in a language then you get a definition of ‘true.’ In other words, for any proposition, p, ‘p’ is true in L if and only if p. Here the metalanguage is the language we used to make the definition itself, in this case English, and the object language is the language that we would like to describe and find truth conditions for (which happens also to be English). In the same manner, we can also say that the statement “Die Sonne geht im Osten auf” is true in German if and only if the sun rises in the east. Here we find more clearly the different between the metalanguage (English) and the object language (German).

The parallel between the metalanguage/object language and the etic/emic distinctions is as follows. Pike would like the etic/emic distinction to do the work of distinguishing between points of view from outside and from inside. For example, when an anthropologist observes a behavior of a native tribe and ask for explanation from a member of the tribe; suppose further than she knows the language of the tribe, the description and explanation of the behavior offered by the member then belongs to the emic. But when the anthropologist translates the explanation back to her academic audience she uses the etic stance. The emic is the behavior seen from the inside, and the etic is the opposite. Thus the emic description belongs to the object language, and the etic one belongs to the metalanguage.

A problem with the emic and the etic is how to jump from the one to the other without loss. That is, when you have an emic description, or a set of statements in the native language, how can you translate that set into the language that someone from outside of the circle of the native speakers can understand it fully? The key word here is ‘fully.’ Is it possible to translate a sentence from a native language into another without any loss? This is only possible, according to the philosopher of language Donald Davidson (2001), if both languages share the same truth conditions such that whenever a statement in one language is true, a material and objective condition corresponding to that statement being true can be obtained and that condition becomes the condition that makes the statement in the other language true also, and the same goes for false statements. However, in cultural descriptions, or in a language of the natives, including ourselves, there are bound to be those statements that are imbued with meanings which are not transparent and do not refer directly to material conditions outside, but to certain beliefs and practices that are endemic to that culture. In that case Davidson’s truth condition as the basis of translatability does not seem to work. The situation is well known as the ‘hermeneutic circle’, where in order to translate a sentence from one language into another, one has to know all the words in the source language (since meanings are always interconnected), but in order to know all the words one has to know the meanings of each word in that language.

The problem, I believe, must be familiar to anthropologists. Faced with the practice and belief of an alien tribe, the task of the anthropologist is to describe those in a language that is understood by the global community, or at least the community of fellow anthropologists. But the problem of translatability and the hermeneutic circle always stand in a way. There must be a gap which is unbridgeable, so the task of the anthropologist is always, necessarily, an interpretive one, meaning that it is not a foregone conclusion that a description of one anthropologist must be identical with another description of the very same native belief and practice offered by another.

This interpretive nature appears to be in direct conflict with the scientific face of anthropology itself. After all, if a description is to be scientific, it should not matter who is doing the description. The description should or must be the same since it is the objective nature of the phenomenon that is being described, and the language used to describe is one and the same. So there is a fundamental tension within anthropology, and contributes not insignificantly to the contested nature of the discipline.

So how can Buddhist thought contribute to this? I believe the fundamental tension mentioned in the last paragraph is a symptom of a dichotomy between the inside and outside that is necessarily embedded in the very nature of anthropology itself. The distinctions between the emic and the etic, the object language and the metalanguage, and the source language and target language within the hermeneutic circle, all arise out of the more fundamental distinction between self and other. What we have in all these distinctions is the tension between the inner and the outer, the inside and the outside, and most fundamentally this reflects the basic distinction between the self and the other.

This is a very familiar picture that I believe are also well known to all anthropologists. According to Descartes, there is a fundamental distinction between the self, who perceives the world and is constituted by running conscious thoughts, and whatever is being cognized by the consciousness. Philosophers are deeply familiar with the distinction between the subject and the object, which is about the same thing as the self and the other. Descartes’ problem is how to jump from the realm of the subject, the cogito, to the realm of objective reality of rivers and trees. And he does this through an invocation of the benevolent God who by His nature cannot deceive him or anybody else for that matter. It is also well known that Descartes’s reliance on God is essentially an untenable one, and without God there is a big problem of how to bridge the subject and the object which continues until today.

Descartes’ predicament stems from his belief that there is an ego, his own self, which governs all the running episodes of his conscious thoughts. Nietzsche sees this very clearly when he argues against Descartes’ cogito argument in Beyond Good and Evil in the passage quoted at the beginning of this paper that one cannot conclude the existence of an objectively enduring self from the fact that one is aware of all the running episodes of conscious thoughts that appear “before one’s eyes,” so to speak. The fact that I wrote “one is aware …” and “before one’s eyes” does not have to imply that there is actually a one who is an objectively enduring self in the sense required by Descartes. This is a very important insight from Buddhist philosophy. According to Buddhist philosophy, the self as is typically understood, an objectively enduring, metaphysically inherent entity, just does not exist on its own. This is known as the Doctrine of the Non-Self (sūnyatā). The self only appears to exist, just as a rainbow only appears to exist since it arises out of certain reflections created by sunlight and water droplets. So we can say that there are only sunlight and water droplets, but no rainbows. Certainly rainbows appear before our eyes, but then they are only appearances. In the same way, according to Buddhist philosophy, the self only appears to exist. At this level of analysis only our bodily and mental constitutions do exist, but not the self. The self only appears to exist when we become self conscious and refer to ourselves using the first-person pronoun. And when we refer to ourselves using the pronoun, what is being referred appears to exist only to the extent that enables the talk or the language use to go on. When I say to the nurse at a clinic, for example, that I weigh 86 kilograms, I refer to my physical body, but when I say “I am thinking of myself on top of a mountain,” I am perhaps referring to an event in my brain which is interpreted as having this particular meaning. According to Buddhist belief there is no enduring, objectively existing self. Just as the rainbow is not an enduring, objectively existing entity, so too is the self.

When the self itself is problematic, the distinction between the self and whatever is not the self is problematic too. Thus the whole edifice that gives rise to the conundrum in anthropology alluded to earlier becomes problematic. A positive outcome of all this is that, when the line between the self and the other cannot be clearly drawn, there is a sense in which everything become the self and for that matter everything also becomes the other. The line between the subject and the object, usually thought of as absolute, begins to crumble, with the result that the line between the emic and etic, and so on also crumbles. This crumbling down is positive because it frees us, both philosophers and anthropologists, from the binary mindset that locks us in the vision that there always has to be the inner and the outer, the inside and the outside, and so on. When the self can be anywhere and everywhere, the inner and the emic can also be anywhere and everywhere. A description of the belief and practice system of a group of people, then, does not have to depend on a conception of objectivity that characterizes the scientific worldview. The very concept of objectivity itself depends on this dichotomy between the subject and the object; when the dichotomy crumbles, so is the concept that is dependent on it.

However, what crumbles down is only the concept of objectivity as it is dependent on the subject/object distinction. This is an important point because if we are not careful, then we could slide down the slippery slope toward epistemological nihilism where no knowledge is possible. The outcome that we can find “objectivity” everywhere is positive simply because there is a sense in which we can find knowledge from everywhere, and not only when it crosses the subject and object divide. In describing the belief and practice of a native tribe, for example, we don’t need to get inside their minds and try to describe what we found in the scientific language found in academic journals. That is not fully possible anywhere as we have seen. Instead the inside of their minds is not exactly speaking on the inside; since there is absolutely speaking no inside nor outside, then what we used to believe to reside inside could be found also on the outside. Here we have to be always aware that language itself is deceiving us all the time. Even if we are now saying that there is no outside and inside, we still have to use words such as ‘outside’ or ‘inside’ (or ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ or other dichotomic words) in order even to make sense to one another. However, if we are always conscious of the fact that the self and the other are but our own constructions for convenience’s sake and do not exist in absolute reality (in the same way as the rainbow does not exist in absolute reality), then we could still use the words ‘self’ or the first person pronoun to do the things we use these words to do, while, as I argue, avoiding the problem of bridging the gap between the subject and the object.

Let us imagine what would happen to an anthropologist when she encounters an unfamiliar practice of a native tribe. She has to understand the meanings behind it and report on it to the academic community using her own anthropological jargons. But the meanings of the native behind their practice could well be a reflection of her own view and reaction as well as her own understanding of the phenomenon after having studied and lived with the tribe for a period of time. This can be as objective as it can be because when the absolute boundary between the inner and outer is done away with, there is no barrier against her delving into the minds of the natives through introspectively looking at her own minds. This may sound very strange, but an analogy is in Buddhist thinking of how one can achieve full empathy with another through a basic understanding that one’s own mind and the mind of the other are in fact essentially interconnected. It is the conception of the distinction between the self and the other that creates a wall separating the two from each other. Thus, without the barrier, the anthropologist both become one with the native and detached from them at the same time. In this case the anthropologist interprets what is there inside her own mind, her own native understanding of the practice and then, as an anthropologist, broadcasts that understanding in the scientific language. Full empathy is a way in which a mind achieves a union with the mind of the other. Achieving empathy and union in this way is very important for the Buddhist, and the most important practices in Buddhism, such as meditations on loving-kindness and compassion and the powerful practice of “Giving and Taking” (tonglen), where the practitioner imagines that he soaks up all the sufferings of others while at the same time sending out his own happiness to all others, are designed just to prepare the practitioner toward achieving this union of oneself and others. The goal of the Buddhist practice is nothing but achieving this union, which is an aspect of becoming a Buddha. One then realizes that one is there in all the others, and that all the others are within oneself. In more practical terms this means that one shares all the feelings of joy, sorrow and happiness in others as if they were one’s own, and that one sends out one’s own feelings to others as if others belong to the same self as oneself too.

Thus, when the anthropologist studies the beliefs and practices of a native tribe, the goal would then be for her to become one with the native, thinking and acting like them. In this way the anthropologist shares in the feelings of joy, sorrow and others felt by the natives as if they were her own. Here the eventual goal is for the self or the mind of the anthropologist to dissolve into the selves and minds of the native. This may sound far-fetched, but the real meaning is quite down to earth. It means that the anthropologist empathize with the native, trying to think and feel just like they do. And since there is no boundary between self and other, when the anthropologist reports back to her academic community, she can just report on her own experiences and feelings, as if she were a native herself reporting to the academic community in their name. In this sense there is, absolutely speaking, no etic or emic, no object language or metalanguage, no representational scheme and reality; all dichotomies break down and appear only to be maintained because our language itself still works only when they appear to be upheld.

A typical scientific spirit, on the one hand, would emphasize that the observer has to detach herself from the object of her study. But this detachment only accentuates the gap between the self and the other that I have been trying to criticize. A Buddhism-inspired anthropology would, on the other hand, view the gap as only an illusion created by a faulty belief in the metaphysical reality of the self/other dichotomy. The scientist might object to my proposal here saying that it would destroy the objectivity of the report. After all, if the anthropologist imagines herself to be the native telling the latter’s story to the outside world, then what is the use of field research and all the points in research methodology courses that form a foundation of an anthropological education? However, dismantling the self/other dichotomy (and, of course, with it all the other dichotomies all of which depend on it) does not mean that there can be no standard of excellence in research. In Buddhism there is a clear standard of excellence for the practitioner, so that one can tell clearly how advanced one’s practice has been at any moment. One knows this by measuring how close or how far one’s condition at the moment is compared to the Goal, which of course is Liberation or nirvana. Thus in the text we find a difference between the Stream Enterers, or those who have just achieved the first step toward Realization, and the Arahats, who have destroyed all defilements and achieve the state of total extinguishing, meaning the Arahat will not return to samsara in any form, which is known as nirvana. The Goal, then, is nirvana; the Arahat has achieved it, but the Stream Enterer has not. In the text there are clear indications as to why the Stream Enterer is at the stage they are at; on the one hand, they are distinguished from the mere layperson in that they understand some important tenets in Buddhism and they have a correct understanding of the reason for practice, but on the other they still retain a number of defilements, including greed, anger and lack of more advanced understanding. The Buddhist path then could be laid out as a textbook where the more simple material are at the beginning for those who have just started, and then the material become more advanced and difficult as the student or the practitioner move on. Hence there is a clear indication of excellence. In anthropology there could be something along the same line. If the anthropologist reports to her academic peer without having sufficiently immersed herself in the native’s culture and only pretend to speak for them, or if she lacks the skills deemed necessary for an effective anthropologist, then she deserves to be censured. But if she does the reverse then obviously she deserves to be praised. Whether she is praised or censured by her academic peer does not have anything to do with the idea that the self/other dichotomy is taken to be merely an illusion.

Moreover, the view I propose here does not qualify as a species of relativism. The issue of relativism is perhaps the most contentious one between philosophers and anthropologists. In Available Light, Clifford Geertz argues for what he calls “anti anti-relativism” (Geertz, 2001, pp. 42-67). That is, what he is against is not the philosophical viewpoint that sets itself up as the opposite to relativism (which some may call universalism), but the stance of some who rail against relativism, proclaiming that the latter will inevitably lead to nihilism or the loss of everything we have held dear. Basically what Geertz is after is those who make a strawman out of those who favor cultural relativism. Those who espouse relativism does not have to be nihilists or anti-establishment, nor do they entertain that child eating is an acceptable behavior, and so on. I will not enter into the details of Geertz’s argument in this essay, but would like merely to point out that Geertz himself appears to be sympathetic, through a reading of his argument against anti-relativism here, to the view that I am proposing. What he is particularly arguing against is the tendency by those who criticizes relativism of relying on concepts such as the “Human Nature” or the “Human Mind,” which while they may sound appealing nonetheless are very difficult to pin down. When one is hooked on the Human Nature, Geertz argues, one tends to view anything with which one is unfamiliar as a “deviancy.” An implication is of course that what is included in human nature is too varied to be put under one umbrella of “Human Nature” as if there is only one. Here Geertz does not talk about human biological functions, such as breathing and eating; those are not so interesting from the anthropologist’s point of view. Instead what is much more interesting is human culture, those beliefs and practices that are imbued with meaning, which makes it almost impossible to get any handle on scientifically. The strawman argument offered by those who criticize relativism, then, belongs to the same type as those who rely on a strict dichotomy between the self and the other, or the inner and outer. A strict scientific worldview where the observer detaches herself completely from what she studies cannot result in a finding that would be satisfactory as a piece of anthropological knowledge, if that knowledge focuses on asking questions about cultures and tries to understand those beliefs and practices that together comprise a culture. Philosophers usually would argue that my proposal here would result in relativism, as if relativism is always something bad that has to be avoided at all cost. But then the charge of being relativistic itself presupposes the kind of dichotomizing which I have argued to be ultimately untenable. If the Buddhist viewpoint is to be taken seriously, then the distinction between relativism and universalism also goes the same way as that between the etic and emic discussed above. Ultimately the relativism/universalism dichotomy also depends on the self/other dichotomy: What is agreeable to me is labelled ‘universal’ and those who emphasize the other too much are then labelled ‘relativist.’



The distinction between self and other, then, is fundamental to the distinctions that create a gap that look at first sight to be unbridgeable. However, when the self itself is deconstructed in the Buddhist sense, then the whole dichotomy breaks down. A consequence is that there is no longer an objectively existing gap that creates the problem any longer. The anthropologist is then free to pronounce the weightiness of her research findings without having to worry about the gap. The gap, furthermore, underpins the oft mentioned philosophical distinction between relativism and universalism. Without the distinction being seen as a serious one, there is then no need for the kind of “anti anti-relativism” that Geerts talks about in his paper. The dissolution of the self, then, appears to be a rather significant contribution of Buddhism in the methodology of anthropology.



Davidson, D. (2001). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, C. (2001). Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kant, I. (2006). Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. R. B. Louden and M. Kuehn, transl. Cambridge University Press.

Pike, K. L., ed. (1967). Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of Structure of Human Behavior. 2nd Ed. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.

Tarski, A. (1983 (1956)). Logic, Semantics, Metamathematics: Papers from 1923 to 1938. Tarski, A., Corcoran, J. Eds. Hackett. (1st edition edited and translated by J. H. Woodger). Oxford University Press.

Substance and Emptiness

One of the questions I got from my paper on Spinoza and Buddhism on the Self that I gave at the symposium on “Philosophies in Dialog” the other day was that how could I compare Spinoza’s Substance and Nagarjuna’s Emptiness. The issue is a very large one and by itself it deserves a whole project of its own. But here in this blog I can only give a very brief sketch of what I am thinking at the moment.

First a little bit of background, Spinoza’s Substance is the totality of everything. It’s the only thing that exists by itself without being dependent on any other. In fact there is no *other* because Substance is the only thing that exists. Other things are just parts of Substance. Another name of Substance is God; another one is Nature. This is the ultimate reference point in Spinoza’s system, the starting point where everything in his thought follows.

Nagarjuna’s Emptiness, on the other hand, is not so straightforward. In fact Buddhist philosophy does not seem to want to say anything directly about this totality of all things taken as one big entity. In fact “Emptiness” is strictly speaking an aspect, or one could perhaps say at “attribute”, of this ultimate reality. Reality is by nature “empty” – this is a basic tenet of all schools of Buddhist philosophy. But even though it is considered as an attribute, then I think something interest could emerge when we compare it with Spinoza’s Substance.

When Buddhists talk about ultimate reality, it is usually couched in terms of its main characteristics; that is, that ultimate reality is interdependent, always changing, lacking in substance, and so on. This seems to point to a strong contrast with Spinoza’s Substance. If ultimate reality in the Buddhist views “lacks substance” then how could it even be comparable to Substance in Spinoza’s system? Aren’t we then comparing light and darkness, a pair of totally opposite qualities? But things are not that straightforward. For Spinoza’s Substance also cannot be directly described. This is not possible because for a thing to be describable (as, for example, a car is described as a vehicle with four wheels) there has to be a more general concept which is then qualified down to the level of the thing to be described. This is simple Aristotelian logic. But Spinoza’s Substance is the whole totality and “there is nothing greater” (Spinoza’s own words from the Ethics). So it can only be understood through the two possible “Attributes” that we can conceive, namely extension and thought. And even thought it cannot be described we know that it necessarily exists.

The Buddhist is not so metaphysical in this respect. Of course there are things like rocks and chairs, but their identity depends on others. I think Spinoza would agree on this point. So the problem boils down to: How would a Buddhist, or Nagarjuna himself, say anything about the totality of everything? What is the equivalence of Spinoza’s Substance in Buddhist philosophy?

The Buddhist talks about reality in this sense too. This is clear from the fact that Buddhists often talk about the whole totality of things when they characterize it as being always changing, lacking in substance, and so on. So ultimate reality is whatever that lacks substance, always changing, being such that any part of it is always dependent on others, and so on. This “whatever” is one and the same as rocks and chairs in one way of looking at it, but in another it is not the same because rocks and chairs are always parts of it. One way to look at this is to conceive the totality of everything here as whatever that consists of rocks, chairs, stars and also all mental episodes. This has to exist because there has to be something that possesses those characteristics of always changing, lacking in substance, and so on. And then we need to bear in mind that when we talk of this whatever we are not reifying it. This whole totality also share the same characteristics as all its parts.

However, that it is the totality of all things – this is not changing. Or to put it in another way, that it is a fact that all things do change all the time, this fact does not change. And in this point we can, I think, still compare this ultimate reality according to the Buddhist with Spinoza’s unchanging Substance. After all Substance for Spinoza is nothing more that a collection of all things, and all things do also change continuously. It is the whole collection, taken by itself, that does not change.

ไม่ตึงเกินไป ไม่หย่อนเกินไป

เมื่อเช้าผมนั่งสมาธิหลังจากที่ไม่ได้นั่งมาหลายวัน ปกติผมจะเริ่มจากนับลมหายใจ หายใจเข้าออกนับหนึ่ง แล้วก็สอง สาม ไปจนถึงยี่สิบ แล้วก็นับถอยหลัง ยี่สิบ … สิบเก้า … สิบแปด จนถึงหนึ่ง แล้วก็นับแบบนี้ใหม่ พยายามให้จิตจดจ่ออยู่กับการนับ พอทำแบบนี้ใหม่ๆจะนับแล้วหลุดบ่อยครั้ง เพราะจิตมัวไปคิดเรื่องอื่น พอหลุดแล้วก็ไม่เป็นไร ก็เริ่มนับหนึ่งใหม่ พอทำแบบนี้ไปได้สักพัก จิตก็จะเริ่มชินกับการนับ แล้วก็จะเริ่มเป็นสมาธิมากขึ้น


วันนี้พอนั่งไปได้จนจิตเริ่มนิ่งพอสมควร ก็คิดถึงคำสอนหนึ่งของพระพุทธเจ้าที่สอนพระภิกษุรูปหนึ่งที่เคยเป็นนักดนตรีก่อนจะมาบวช พระภิกษุท่านนี้พอฟังคำสอนของพระพุทธองค์ไป ก็นำไปปฏิบัติ แต่ก็มีปัญหาคือ ปฏิบัติเท่าใดก็ไม่ได้ผลซักที จนเพื่อนๆบรรลุธรรมกันไปหมดแล้ว ท่านก็ยังไม่ไปไหน ท่านก็เลยไปทูลถามพระพุทธเจ้า พระพุทธเจ้าตรัสถามว่า ท่านเคยทำอาชีพอะไรก่อนจะมาบวช ท่านก็ตอบว่าเคยเป็นนักดนตรี

พระพุทธเจ้าก็ตรัสถามว่า เคยเล่นพิณหรือไม่ ท่านก็ตอบว่าเคยเล่น พระพุทธเจ้าก็ตรัสถามต่อไปอีกว่า พิณนั้นหากสายตึงไปหรือหย่อนไปจะเป็นอย่างไร ท่านก็ตอบว่า หากสายตึงไป มันก็จะขาด แต่ถ้าหย่อนเกินไปก็จะดีดไม่ดัง มีแต่สายที่ขึงตึงพอดีเท่านั้น ที่จะดีดแล้วดังไพเราะ พระพุทธเจ้าก็ตรัสตอบว่า การปฏิบัติก็เช่นเดียวกัน พระภิกษุรูปนั้นได้ฟังแล้วก็นำไปใคร่ครวญและปฏิบัติ จนไม่ช้าไม่นานท่านก็บรรลุเป็นพระอรหันต์

ควมหมายของคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าคืออะไร? การทำความเข้าใจเรื่องนี้อย่างถ่องแท้ เป็นเรื่องเฉพาะตนที่จะต้องเอาคำสอนไปขบคิดใคร่ครวญในการปฏิบัติของตนเอง ที่ทำไม่ได้แน่ๆก็คือว่า เอาคำสอนนี้ของพระพุทธเจ้ามาตีความเฉยๆ ราวกับว่าเป็นปริศนาคำทาย ถ้าทำอย่างนี้ รับประกันได้ว่าจะไม่สามารถเข้าถึงความหมยของคำสอนนี้ได้อย่างแน่นอน

Faith and Reason

I am attending a seminar organized by the Thousand Stars Foundation, and the topic being discussed by the panellists concern the role of faith in society. One speaker talks about faith in Buddhism. He used to travel to Kailash mountain in Tibet and experienced the tremendous faith shown by the Tibetans many of whom prostrated their ways for thousands of kilometers from their hometown to Kailash. He said that faith cannot be described in words. One has to experience it oneself; it is a kind of feeling. You believe that Kailash is the abode of the gods; Tibetan Buddhists believe that the mountain is the center of spiritual power of the world; Hindus believe that the Great God Shiva resides there; Jains believe that their liberated saints–those who have attained nirvana–take up their eternal residing place on top of this mountain. He tried to describe this undescribable feeling with tears welling up in his eyes when he did so. His main point that he would like to carry across is that one cannot get at the main message of Buddhism if one is not touched by the kind of faith that he is trying to describe.

They also talked about the role of faith and religious beliefs in modern society. How can today’s youths experience the kind of devotion and faith that the panellist talked about? Then I was reminded of the traditional question in philosophy concerning faith and reason. Is it really necessary that one has to have the kind  of faith described by the panellist in order to fully understand the Buddha’s message?

I don’t think faith and reason cannot be separated. That is, one cannot rely on faith alone without making any effort at cognitive understanding and using logic to a certain extent. On the other hand one cannot rely on logic a nd understanding alone either. This is why the Buddha’s mesage can be exceedingly difficult. If either logic or faith is reequired then we would have much more “stream enterers” or “those who have totally defeated all defilements” than we do. The trick is to find a right balance. In fact not even a right balance, for that presupposes that faith and reason stands on the opposite sites, so to speak, and the right balance is where the two maintain an equilibrium.

That would be a good metaphor or heuristic device for teaching. But that might not be a totally accurate picture. Instead faith contains reason within itself and reason contains faith within itself too. The kind of faith that leads you to understand, to become one with the Buddha’s message, would have to be the kind that is already imbued with right understanding and reason. And the cognitive reason that we have about the Buddha’s message would not be complete if we did not have the right kind of faith, or in other words, the kind of feeling that arises within ourselves when one fully understands something right down to the core.

I said this is a difficulty, but alternatively this can be a strong point of Buddhism. There can be so many different ways to arrive at what the Buddha wants us to achieve. You can arrive at this end point through faith at the beginning, or you can start with reasoning and cognitive understanding. Or any mixture of the two in any measure. No matter. If any of these lead you to the final destination, then it is all right.


เมื่อวันศุกร์ที่แล้วผมได้รับเชิญจากช่อง ThaiPBS ให้ไปออกรายการเรื่อง “เถียงให้รู้เรื่อง” ที่ได้ออกอากาศไปเมื่อสักครู่ในวันอาทิตย์นี้เวลาเที่ยงๆ บังเอิญผมไม่ได้ดูอีกตามเคย แต่คราวนี้ตั้งใจจะไม่ดู เพราะไม่ชอบเห็นตัวเองในทีวี แล้วอีกอย่างเรื่องที่ออกก็พูดกันไปแล้ว จำได้หมดแล้ว ก็ไม่รู้จะดูไปทำไม

หัวข้อในการพูดก็ได้แก่ “พระพุทธศาสนากับโลกาภิวัตน์” โจทย์หลักของการสนทนากันก็คือ พระพุทธศาสนาจะปรับตัวให้ข้ากับโลกสมัยใหม่ได้อย่างไร จะเห็นได้ว่าโลกปัจจุบันกำลังเปลี่ยนไปอย่างรวดเร็วมาก มีเครื่องบินเจ๊ตส่วนตัว มีสมาร์ทโฟน มีเฟสบุ๊ค มีอะไรหลายอย่างที่ในสมัยพุทธกาลไม่มี ก็เลยเป็นเหตุให้มาถกกันว่า เมื่อโลกเปลี่ยนไปรวดเร็วเช่นนี้ พระพุทธศาสนาควรจะปรับตัวอย่างไร

แต่เวลาออกรายการจริงๆ โจทย์ที่ตั้งไว้ก็ไม่ได้พูดถึงกันจริงๆจัง แต่ไปพูดถึงเพียงแค่ประเด็นหนึ่งในนั้นแทน คือบทบาทและความประพฤติของพระภิกษุ จริงๆแล้วพระภิกษุเป็นเพียงส่วนหนึ่งของพระพุทธศาสนา ไม่ใช่ทั้งหมด แต่บังเอิญว่าในระยะนี้มีข่าวเกี่ยวกับพระภิกษุเกิดขึ้นหลายข่าวติดกัน ก็เลยพูดกันเรื่องนี้เป็นธรรมดา เริ่มตั้งแต่เณรคำ แล้วก็อดีตพระมิตซูโอะ แล้วก็หลวงปู่พุทธอิสระที่มีกรณีโต้เถียงกับหลวงพ่อเกษม แล้วก็กรณีพระภิกษุกลุ่มหนึ่งไปเที่ยวสหรัฐฯแล้วถ่ายรูปมา ทำให้บางฝ่ายเดือดร้อน เป็นต้น

ผมไม่ค่อยอยากจะพูดเรื่องความประพฤติของพระสงฆ์มากนัก เพราะคนพูดกันมากแล้ว ปัญหาหลักก็คือว่ามักมีการมองว่าเรื่องพระเป็นเรื่องของพระเท่านั้นที่จะพูดกันหรือจัดการกัน คนที่ได้รับเชิญมาออกรายการ “เถียงให้รู้เรื่อง” ในวันศุกร์ที่ผ่านมาก็มีแต่ผมคนเดียวที่ไม่เคยบวชเรียน หรือผ่านการศึกษาแบบพระๆมา ทำให้การพูดกันเรื่องพระเป็นเรื่องของคนในวงการเป็นหลัก คือคุยกันว่าทำอย่างไรจึงจะให้สถาบันสงฆ์เป็นที่ยอมรับนับถือของประชาชนอยู่ต่อไป และทำอย่างไรให้สถาบันนี้ยังคงได้รับการอุปถัมภ์ค้ำชูอยู่ต่อไป การพูดกันก็เลยใช้เวลาพอสมควรไปกับประเด็นเกี่ยวกับความสัมพันธ์ระหว่างศาสนากับการเมือง รวมทั้งรูปแบบของการสนับสนุนสถาบันสงฆ์โดยรัฐ เรื่องพวกนี้พูดกันมามากแล้ว ท่านที่สนใจรายละเอียดก็สามารถหาอ่านเอาจากที่อื่นๆในอินเทอร์เน็ตได้ไม่ยาก นัยยะของการคุยเรื่องศาสนากับรัฐก็คือว่า มีความเชื่อว่าหากรัฐสนับสนุนหรือ “เอาจริง” กับพระแล้ว ปัญหาพระประพฤตินอกรีตนอกรอยก็จะไม่มี ทั้งหมดนี้เป็นไปภายใต้ความเชื่อที่มีมาแต่โบราณที่ว่า ปัญหาอะไรในประเทศไทยนี้ เป็นหน้าที่ของรัฐที่จะแก้ทั้งหมด ประชาชนไม่สามารถ หรือไม่มีความประสงค์ จะแก้ปัญหาเหล่านั้นด้วยตนเอง ซึ่งผมเห็นว่าเป็นความคิดที่ไม่ถูกต้อง

ประเด็นที่ผมอยากจะพูดมากกว่าเป็นประเด็นนี้พูดกันนิดเดียวในรายการ แต่ก็เป็นประเด็นหลักที่จั่วหัวไว้ในตอนแรก คือพระพุทธศาสนาควรจะปรับตัวอย่างไรในโลกยุคใหม่ที่มีสมาร์ทโฟนกับเฟสบุ๊ค ผมอยากจะเสนอว่า อะไรจะเกิดขึ้นในวัดก็เกิดไป แต่ที่น่าสนใจมากกว่าคือ เราสามารถบรรลุเป้าหมายของการเป็นชาวพุทธ โดยไม่ต้องพึ่งพาพระภิกษุกับวัดได้หรือไม่ คำตอบคือได้แน่นอน เป้าหมายที่ว่านี้ไม่จำเป็นว่าต้องบรรลุเป็นพระอรหันต์ แต่เป้าหมายของการเป็นชาวพุทธมีหลายระดับ และหลายระดับนั้นฆราวาสผู้ครองเรือนก็สามารถบรรลุได้ อันที่จริงเราไม่จำเป็นต้องพูดเรื่องเป้าหมายที่บัญญัติไว้ในคัมภีร์เลยแม้แต่น้อย แต่อย่างน้อยการพูดถึงเป้าหมายก็หมายความว่า ผู้ปฏิบัติธรรมรับเอา “คำมั่นสัญญา” ของพระพุทธเจ้าที่บอกว่า หากทำแบบนี้แล้ว จะได้ผลอย่างนั้นอย่างนี้ หากชาวพุทธไม่สนใจเรื่องเหล่านี้ ก็ไม่อาจเรียกว่าเป็นชาวพุทธจริงๆได้

เป้าหมายหลักของคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าก็คือ การพ้นทุกข์ แน่นอนว่าการพ้นทุกข์มีหลายระดับ นับตั้งแต่พ้นโดยสิ้นเชิงเป็นพระอรหันต์ และก็มีระดับรองๆลงมาอีกหลายระดับ เนื่องจากการไปเป็นพระภิกษุไม่ใช่ทางเลือกที่เป็นไปได้สำหรับคนรุ่นใหม่จำนวนมากที่ยังต้องทำงานหาเลี้ยงครอบครัว ก็ไม่น่าจะเป็นว่าเขาถูกตัดขาดจากการบรรลุเป้าหมายทางธรรม ลักษณะสำคัญของพระพุทธศาสนาในโลกสมัยใหม่ก็คือ เส้นแบ่งระหว่างพระภิกษุกับฆราวาสเริ่มจางลง หมายความว่าฆราวาสก็สามารถปฏิบัติธรรมได้แบบเดียวกับพระภิกษุ ถึงแม้ว่าอาจจะไม่สามารถบรรลุเป้าหมายสูงสุดได้ก็ตาม ในโลกของเฟสบุ๊ค มีความพยายามเกิดขึ้นจากหลายกลุ่มมากที่รวมตัวกันจากกลุ่มคนที่สนใจเรื่องธรรมะ ซึ่งก็เป็นคนรุ่นใหม่ธรรมดาๆที่ไม่บวชเป็นพระแต่อย่างใด ข้อดีอีกประการก็คือว่า การไม่บังคับว่าผู้ปฏิบัติธรรมต้องเป็นพระภิกษุ ทำให้ผู้หญิงสามารถปฏิบัติธรรมได้เท่าเทียมกับผู้ชายในทุกมิติ ซึ่งเป็นเรื่องสำคัญมากสำหรับโลกสมัยใหม่

ไม่ว่าโลกจะเปลี่ยนไปอย่างไร หัวใจของคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าก็ไม่เคยเปลี่ยน เพราะไม่ว่าจะมีไอโฟน หรือการติดต่อรวดเร็วแบบสามหรือสี่จีก็ตาม แต่คนก็ยังมีความทุกข์อยู่ และเมื่อเป็นอย่างนี้ คำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าก็ยังมีประโยชน์อยู่เสมอในแง่นี้ โจทย์ของคนรุ่นใหม่ก็คือว่า ทำอย่างไรให้คำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้า เข้าไปสัมผัสจิตใจของคนรุ่นใหม่ เพื่อให้เขาเข้าถึงแก่นของคำสอน และกลายเป็นเนื้อเดียวกับคำสอนได้ ซึ่งจะทำให้เขาเห็นทางที่จะรอดพ้นจากความทุกข์เหล่านี้ไปได้ การทำอย่างนี้หากมีพระภิกษุมาร่วมด้วยก็จะดี แต่เนื่องจากพระภิกษุกับสถาบันสงฆ์ยังติดยึดอยู่กับอดีตและประเพณีต่างๆ ซึ่งอาจมีคนบางกลุ่มยังให้ความสำคัญ แต่เนื่องจากคนรุ่นใหม่หลายกลุ่มเริ่มเหินห่างออกจากประเพณีดั้งเดิมเหล่านี้ ปัญหาก็คือว่าเราจะต้องทำอย่างไร เพื่อให้คนกลุ่มนี้เข้าใจและซาบซึ้งกับคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้า เพื่อให้เขาเกิดการเปลี่ยนแปลงภายในในทางที่ดีขึ้นมาได้ ผมเชื่อว่านี่คือโจทย์ที่สำคัญที่สุดของเรื่องพระพุทธศาสนากับโลกาภิวัตน์


Žižek and Buddhism

I came across Slavoj Žižek’s critique of Buddhism, which he delivered in a lecture at the University of Vermont some months ago and thought about writing a reply to it for some time. But I think now is the time actually to sit down and write it out. There is a nice blog posting on the background and actually criticism of Žižek’s talk. The blog also has a good summary of Zizek’s rambling talk, which is almost two hours long. You can watch the talk here:

Before coming to my main critique of Žižek, there’s an academic joke which is so typical of him. In the talk Žižek talks about the prayer wheel, which Tibetan Buddhists use to send out mantras by the thousands through its turning. For Žižek this is not a substitute technology for those whose mouths may be too busy talking to do the mantras, but the prayer wheel actually does the recitation and sending out of mantras for you. It is like the canned laughter in sitcom programs. You watch the sitcom and there are laughs. The laughs are there, according to Žižek, not to provoke your laughter, but they do the laughs for you. You don’t have to laugh. Although it’s a comedy and you are supposed to laugh. If you are too lazy, the canned laughter sounds will do the laughing for you. Isn’t that neat? In the same way, Žižek says that when Tibetans turn the prayer wheels, the purpose is not to actually do something which result in sending out the mantras. But the turning is an ersatz; it churns out mantras for you. You don’t have to do anything.

A Prayer Wheel

But Žižek is quite mistaken here. There are now two kinds of prayer wheels. The traditional kind is something you have do put some effort to make it work. You have to hold it in your hand and move it so that the wheel turns, and you have to keep it turning and turning. Although it does not require much effort in turning the wheel — this is something you can hold easily in one hand, and you only need to turn the wheel, which is usually well oiled, by flicking your wrist — if you keep on doing it for hours as Tibetans do, it can be quite an effort. So the analogy with the canned laughter is not accurate. You still have to do some work with the traditional prayer wheel. However, there is a newer type of prayer wheel which is automatic. You put in some batteries, and there’s a motor inside which automatically turns the wheel without any exertion of your muscle power. Some prayer wheels are so advanced as to utilize solar power to do the work. You can sit and watch the wheel turns. This kind of prayer wheel might be closer to the canned laughter.

But back to my main criticism. Toward the end of his talk Žižek has the following to say. His purpose

is not to criticize Buddhism, but merely to emphasize [this] irreducible gap between subjective authenticity and moral goodness (in the sense of social responsibility): the difficult thing to accept is that one can be totally authentic in overcoming one’s false Self and yet still commit horrible crimes — and vice versa, of course: one can be a caring subject, morally committed to the full, while existing in an inauthentic world of illusion with regard to oneself.

This is why all the desperate attempts by Buddhists to demonstrate how respect and care for others are necessary steps towards (and conditions of) Enlightenment misfire: [D. T.] Suzuki himself was much more honest in this regard when he pointed out that Zen is a meditation technique which implies no particular ethico-political stance — in his political life, a Zen Buddhist may be a liberal, a fascist, or a communist.

Again, the two vacuums never coincide: in order to be fully engaged ethico-politically, it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity. [135; paragraph breaks and emphases added]

The passage is taken from page 135 of his recent book, Less than Nothing, which is quoted in the blog I mentioned above. I think this is the core of Žižek’s criticism of Buddhism. The Buddhist’s intent on realizing nirvana, on achieving the state of selflessness, is regarded by Žižek as being separate from the state of moral goodness. That is Žižek sees that it is possible for one to achieve nirvana according to Buddhism’s guideline but remain an immoral person. Presumably what he think is that: If you realize the state of emptiness and non-self, then it is your own realization, your own deluded attachment of the self that has now been overcome, this does not seem, for Žižek, to have anything to do with being loving and caring and compassionate. One can be in nirvana but can commit really horrible crimes. Perhaps Žižek thinks that when one realizes emptiness of all things, perhaps the lives of other people become empty too. When those are empty, one does not have to have any qualms in destroying those lives. Nevertheless, Žižek realizes that Buddhism does recognize this pernicious tendency; that’s why he says immediately afterwards that that is why Buddhism so vehemently affirms that compassion is very important and is indispensable. But then his point remains: When one is in the state of Nirvana, one is (as per Žižek) cut off from the breathing, living world, so much so that a possibility opens up of (gasp!) committing really horrible crimes.

Žižek’s point here is not lost on the ancient Buddhist thinkers. Śantideva has a famous passage (I have to go and look it up) to the effect that when one realizes Emptiness, one still has to remain compassionate, and he takes great pains in emphasizing that one cannot even function or remain viable without the other. In the chapter on wisdom, Śantideva has his imaginary opponent raise a question: “Since everything and everyone is empty, then to what or to whom is our compassion directed?” — a very important and profound question — to which Santideva replies that the compassion is directed to any who has not realized Emptiness, in other words to all beings who are still wandering in samsara. The connection with Žižek’s criticism is that he seems to believe that it is possible to separate realization of Emptiness from that of compassion, but in fact that is not possible at all. Total realization of Emptiness not only opens up your vision so that you see the total, exceptionless interconnection of all things, it urges you to do something about it too. This is the reason one aspires to become a bodhisattva in the first place.

Moreover, one does not have to already be a bodhisattva to see the point Śantideva is making here. Emptiness does not mean that you cut yourself off from everything surrounding you. That is just not Emptiness or its realization. There is no you to be cut off in the first place. So when Žižek talks about the “irreducible gap between subjective authenticity and moral goodness,” the presupposition is that authenticity can be achieved independently of goodness, but that is just not happening. You realize Emptiness when you see yourself in others and others in yourself, not only persons but all things whatsoever. It’s a crazy vision, much crazier than Žižek’s craziest moment. He is right when he says “in order to be fully engaged ethico-politically, it is necessary to exit the “inner peace” of one’s subjective authenticity,” but the “inner peace” he is talking about consists in being fully engaged from the beginning.