Epicurus: Matter and Moderation

The term ‘Epicurean’ has now been associated with indulgence in pleasure. The name of a well-known caterer in for the school that my son used to study is “Epicurus.” This is perhaps due to the fact that the Greek philosopher Epicurus is known as one who teaches that pleasure is the most important thing in life. Perhaps not too long after he lived and taught in ancient Greece more than two thousand years ago, his name has been connected with a philosophical viewpoint known as ‘hedonism.’ The idea of hedonism is that one should spend one’s life, if one can, indulging in pleasure. This idea is thus in stark contrast with the prevailing Christian idea that pleasure in itself is sinful, something that one should avoid in order to get closer to God.

In fact, Epicurus did teach that pleasure is the most important thing, but he did not teach that sensual pleasure or indulgence of bodily pleasure at all cost was something to be sought after at all costs. His writings were rather few and far between, but from those that were left to us, it is clear that Epicurus did not emphasize the completely hedonistic idea that bodily pleasure is of supreme importance. The reason is not difficult to understand. If you indulge too much in bodily pleasure, for example, if you eat too much, then you suffer afterward. You might feel bloated or discomfort due to too much food in your system. It is possible that your food will have difficulty being digested and you suffer from heartburn or indigestion, which is not very pleasurable. After that, if you continue to eat too much, you could suffer from various illnesses such as diabetes and the like, and your weight will increase a lot. All of this does not translate to great happiness at all. Thus, Epicurus teaches that it is pleasure that counts, but it is moderate pleasure that is more important, since if you eat too much then you suffer from its effects. But if you don’t eat too much, but moderately, then you don’t suffer from the ill effects, you don’t suffer from diabetes and other illnesses either, then you gain more pleasure.

Epicurus lived between the bottom half of the fourth century and the first half of the third century before Christ (341-270 B.C.E) in Athens. This put him around eighty years after Plato and around forty years after Aristotle. He led a simple life, and it is said that his way toward happiness, the goal of living according to his teaching, consisted of very simple meals of bread and water, and a company of his friends. In fact, he valued his circle of friends the most, believing that they were the ones who brought him the greatest joy. So even though he thought that pleasure is the most important thing in life, it is a very simple kind of pleasure. Even a poor man can have all the pleasures that he needs. As long as he enjoys his friends and has something to eat to sustain himself, then he is all set. If he is satisfied with what he has and enjoys it to the full, then he has attained the best that life can offer him. In this sense, he is better than a very rich man who is not satisfied and who always seeks more and more things to satisfy his endless search for pleasure.

Epicurus’ philosophy has been neglected for more than two thousand years. His philosophy became very influential for a few centuries after his death. His outlook in philosophy is materialistic. This means that he believes that all things are made of matter and there is nothing to the world than its composition of various forms of matter. Even the soul is understood to be a delicate form of matter. Since everything is material, there is no question of life after death. This was a big deal in ancient times because most of everybody else believed then in some form of life after death. For Epicurus, however, as the soul consisted of this delicate matter, the soul thus dispersed into the material world when the body dies. Hence no life after death. Epicurus is well known for his saying that death is nothing to us, meaning that it has no relation, no bearing, to us who are now living at all. When we are living, death is so far away from us, so alien to us, that it has no relation whatsoever in our lives. But when we are actually dead, then we are nothing because we are already dead, so death cannot matter to us because there is no ‘us’ for death to matter too! This is a famous argument that has been cited and discussed throughout the ages.

Furthermore, in contrast to most of his contemporary philosophers, Epicurus believed that the gods did exist, but they were so remote from us that they did not have any relations with us at all. The gods did not care a bit about our welfare or our sufferings on this earth. They were like the stars in the sky. This did not provide any comfort to those who continued to believe in the gods, but it gave those who followed his philosophy a kind of inner strength to cope with any misfortunes that may come in our way.

Thus, we in Thailand who are interested in philosophy would then benefit to study Epicurus’ thought. His philosophy can be fruitfully compared with the Buddhist philosophy that most of us are familiar with. His emphasis on moderation in all things resonates well with Buddhist teaching. His materialism, on the contrary, might not resonate too well, especially because he teaches that there is no life after death. But at least studying his thought helps us broaden our horizon so that we can see beyond what is perhaps set for us, intending that we believe that there is nothing beyond it at all. And who knows? Perhaps Epicurus might have been right all along.


bioethics Buddhism ethics

Buddhism and Abortion

Buddhism, as with most other religions and spiritual traditions around the world, do not generally approve of killing. The Buddhist teaching consists of a series of guidelines that the follower is expected to follow in order to achieve the ultimate aim, which is Liberation or nirvāna. An important aspect of the practice is that one refrains from killing sentient animals. This, on the surface, seems to imply that abortion goes against the teaching of Buddhism. However, Buddhism is not only a purely spiritual religion in the sense that it deals exclusively with spiritual matters and not mundane ones. It is not expected that all adherents of Buddhism become arahants or those who become Liberated from the cycle of births and rebirths in their own lifetimes, and more mundane moral teachings play a large role in all Buddhist societies. Nonetheless, as for the content of these more mundane moral teachings it is largely up to the members of the society themselves to decide, as long as the decision does not conflict with the basic tenets of Buddhism itself. My argument in this paper is that in order to live relatively peacefully in a particular concrete social setting, perhaps abortion needs to be allowed. This does not mean that Buddhism allows abortion, but it means that, in the specific social circumstances that we find ourselves in, abortion performed by medical professionals in a modern and hygienic setting may be needed. On the one hand, this goes against the purely spiritual teaching of Buddhism, but on the other hand, it is also in accordance with the tendency of Buddhism to leave social issues to the people to decide within certain limits. If they think that some form of abortion is best for a particular type of society, one that they prefer, then so long as this does not violate the very basic orientation of Buddhism itself, it is up to them to do so while still being good Buddhists. The challenge certainly lies in how to reconcile the two.


Abortion is one of the most controversial issues not only in academic bioethics but also in the world outside. The issue has given rise to fierce polarization and debates which can be found not only in the west but also increasingly elsewhere. In the US it is well known to have become a hot political issue which can make or break a candidate for a political office. The Buddhist world is not immune to these debates either. In this chapter we look at the general position of Buddhism on abortion. As is the case with all other major religious traditions of the world, Buddhism encompasses a large variety within its fold, making any attempt to summarize it a difficult task. Nonetheless, I shall attempt to do just that and will present a general picture of what Buddhism has to say on the issue. A distinctive characteristic of Buddhism, perhaps, (which could well be shared by some other religions) is that it is highly adaptable. Buddhism tends to adapt itself to whatever cultures and practices it finds itself in, as long as its core teaching is not threatened In its original place in India, Buddhism has very much the characteristics of an Indian religion, but in today’s more globalized and increasingly secularized world, Buddhism tends to assume those features of the modern world that we are familiar with, and the trend is mostly visible in the west, where Buddhism is a recent import. This tendency of being adaptable results in Buddhism being flexible on many social and ethical issues. I will show that one can find textual support for this point in the Buddhist text; however, it is to me not sufficiently appreciated by Buddhist scholars. This adapability and flexibility of Buddhism implies that, on the topic of abortion, Buddhism can follow whatever agreement or consensus there might be on the issue. This means that we need to find an independent set of argument on the moral value of abortion, argument that is actually intended to persuade members of the society one is a part of. All things here depend on the doctrine of the Skillful Means (upāya), where any means can be used and can be equally good if they equally succeed at bringing people to realize the core teaching and thus eventually to arrive at the final Goal.

Having laid out this methodological issue, I then proceed in the chapter to provide a view on abortion which I believe does not conflict with the core message of Buddhism. I argue that in the modern world with the modern way of life and modern values with which people in the west are familiar, abortion cannot be avoided in certain cases, and it would be best to provide women with safe and hygienic abortion rather than forcing them to go underground. In the eyes of the Buddhist allowing the women to have abortion in this way is less than ideal. In the ideal world there would never arise a chance for the woman to have to have an abortion. After all, the first precept of the familiar Five Precepts of a Buddhist says, “I undertake the practice of refraining from killing sentient beings.” The precept takes form of a vow, which one makes in order to promise to oneself not to do this or that as a step in training oneself so that one eventually arrives at the Goal, which is liberation of oneself from samsara, or the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Here it suffices to note at an outset that, having said this, I do not intend Buddhism to be in favor of abortion. The point I am making is that in certain conditions it would be preferable for the woman to have a choice available to her rather than not. In these social and historical conditions having this choice open to the woman would be better for her and also everyone else. This does not only follow the principle of the Skillful Means as I said earlier, but it is also in accordance with one of the most central aspects of the Buddhist teachings, that of compassion. By allowing the woman a choice to have a safe and free abortion, society is performing an act of compassion toward her, as it reduces her suffering as well as the general suffering that would befall the society too.

Definition and Conceptual Clarification

Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. This means that Buddhism recognizes no supreme God who is the creator of all things and is the ultimate source of morality. Furthermore, Buddhism is also different from polytheistic religions such as Hinduism in that, even though Buddhism recognizes the existence of numerous gods, these gods are merely beings who are wandering around in samsara and are not the source of morality or the creators of all things as in Hinduism. Instead of God Buddhism recognizes the existence of a supreme law that governs all aspects of nature. This law is the source of normativity in morality. It is part of nature itself and is wholly outside of time, having no origin or end. Basically speaking, the content of the supreme law is all things happen as a result of causes and conditions. In Buddhist terminology, a cause is something that is changed into something else. Thus when milk is turned into cheese, it is said that milk is the cause of cheese. On the other hand, conditions are those that need to obtain in order for the cause to transform itself. For example, certain kinds of microbes need to be there in order for milk to turn to cheese; otherwise the transformation would not take place. Since Buddhism recognizes no supreme God, no one creates the Supreme Law.

Some say that this Law is the Law of Karma. This is only partly correct because the Law of Karma concerns only action, which creates its chain of consequences. However, action can be performed only by a sentient being capable of having intentions. Thus, the Law of Karma is only a subset of the Supreme Law, which is concerned with the relation of cause and effect for all things. The text says “Because of this, that arises.” So the idea is that nothing arises without a prior cause, and this extends both ways into the infinity of the past and the future. In fact time itself is also subject to the Law of Cause and Effect (not only of karma which is about human action only), as its existence also depends on causes and conditions.

The goal of the teaching of Buddhism is to help the practitioner become free from the clutch of samsara, or the cycle of life, death and rebirth. According to this familiar doctrine, one’s lifetime is only one among a countless number of lifetimes that one endures when one wanders around and around in samsara. To be free from samsara is known as to achieve Nirvāna, namely the state of complete and perfect freedom where one does not have to wander around in samsara again. To be a Buddhist, then, means one practices so as finally to achieve Nirvāna; once that is achieved, it is said in the texts that one has completed one’s task; there are no more tasks to do of this kind. The way toward achieving the Liberation is laid out in three main aspects, namely moral practice (sila), concentration or meditation (samādhi), and wisdom (paññā). In the first stage one takes a vow which guides one along on the correct path. For example, one takes up a vow of not killing a sentient being because killing creates a wave of negative energy around oneself which is a considerable impediment against Liberation. Then in the second stage one trains one’s own mind through meditation. The mind is stilled and not distracted by external factors. The text says that the process is comparable to letting cloudy water set still so that the dirt falls to the bottom, leaving the water clear and pure. This clear and pure mind is necessary for achieving the last stage, wisdom, which is capable of cutting through ignorance thereby arriving at full understanding and Liberation. What concerns us here in this chapter is naturally the first step, that of moral practice. In a nutshell, making a vow to oneself not to kill any animals is a key ingredient in practicing compassion, an essential quality for Liberation. However, when necessity arises in such a way that killing in some form is not avoidable, Buddhism, being a flexible religion, would set no rigid rules against doing what is beneficial and necessary in certain circumstances.

The vast teachings of Buddhism could be summed up in a few words, namely to avoid committing unwholesome action, to do wholesome action and to purify the mind. An action is “wholesome” or “unwholesome” depending whether that action leads to the final Goal or not. Action that causes harm to oneself or to others would be generally unwholesome, and the action that does the opposite would be wholesome. Thus giving and helping others would generally be considered to be wholesome; however, there is an exception. If the act of helping others is done with an impure motivation, for example, with the motivation of gaining fame for oneself, then the action is not fully wholesome. In Buddhism the intention is of paramount importance. The same kind of action can be wholesome or not depending on the intention alone.

Thus, Buddhism views normative questions in a purely teleological and naturalistic term. That is, the final arbiter of the value of action is whether and how well the action leads to nirvāna, and it is naturalistic in the sense that no supernatural beings are involved in this process. Achieving nirvāna is completely an individual effort of the practitioner. Having faith in the Buddha and praying to him is of some help because it calms the mind of the practitioner and provides him with confidence, but in the end it is the practitioner herself who is responsible. This is one of the strongest contrasts between Buddhism and the theistic religions such as Christianity or Islam, where salvation depends ultimately on God’s grace or at least on being faithful. Thus, Buddhism does not view questions in ethics in the same way as the theistic religions. For the Buddhists, the question of what makes an action right or wrong (in the soteriological sense) is solely the matter of whether it leads to the Goal or not; however, in the West one undertakes the investigation into the theoretical question concerning the source of normativity independently of whether the action leads to the desired Goal or not. In other words, Buddhism always assumes that the goal of attaining nirvāna is the only goal worthy of making an effort to realize; whereas in the West there are debates as to which goal is the worthy one or even whether an ethics actually needs a goal to begin with (such as in Kantian ethics). This view in Buddhism has led some scholars, such as Damien Keown, to claim that Buddhism does not actually have an ethics (Keown, 2005, pp 27-28). This is a startling claim from one whose reputation rests on the face that he is a very well-known scholar of Buddhist ethics. In Keown’s view, the fact that there is no or very little discussion in Buddhism on the theoretical nature of ethical norms shows that when we talk about “Buddhist ethics” in the context of the modern West, one always puts in one’s interpretation, as if Buddhism is contributing an original position in the ongoing debate among philosophers in the West.

Another point that I have to add here in this section is that Buddhism is a highly adaptable religion. This point will be crucial for my argument that abortion is not an entirely black and white issue. In the Mahāyāna tradition there is the argument of Nagarjuna to the effect that what is said directly is subservient to the true realization of ultimate reality. The issue is highly complex and there is no space to discuss this in full here. But the point is that for Nāgārjuna the truth of a statement is not sufficient to help one directly arrive at the Ultimate Truth, so to speak, of nirvāna. Nāgārjuna concludes his major work, Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Nāgārjuna, 1995), that one should “relinquish all views” in order to arrive at the final stage of realization. One could claim that for Nāgārjuna all statements are not entirely true, but another interpretation would be that all views, i.e., all uses of language, would be equally useful if they succeed in bringing the learner to see the ineffable Truth in her own way. That is just another way of putting the doctrine of upāya or skillful means. The point I am making is that if this is the case, then the ultimate realization of the Final Goal is more important than any content of any statement. This is a very sensitive point in Buddhism and one has always to bear in mind that the final seeing of the Goal cannot be put directly and exhaustively in words. Moreover, one can also find support for this view in the Theravāda texts. In a sutta one disciple of the Buddha had trouble meditating and progressing along the Path, the Buddha asked him what he did before he entered the order, and he replied that he was a musician, playing the lyre. The Buddha then told him that meditation was just like playing a lyre—if the strings were too tight then they would break, but if they are too lax, then there would be no sound. The monk then applied the Buddha’s advice to his practice and eventually arrived at the Goal (The Book of the Disciplines, 1951, p. 240). And for monks with other backgrounds the Buddha then always adapted his teaching and advice accordingly. The point, then, is that the pointer could be anything, but it works as long as it succeeds in pointing the practitioners on the correct path.

Ethical considerations could also be regarded as such skillful means. When Buddhism is planted in another culture, elements of that culture could be adapted in such a way that they serve to point to the Way too. Hence, in an environments where abortion has become a necessity for a certain way of life, there has to be a weighing of benefits: If by forbidding any act of abortion it would be harder for members of that society to live their lives in a way that fits with the goals and values of that society than allowing it to a certain degree, then it would be more prudent to allow it. The values and goals mentioned here naturally include those that provide women with power and equality characteristic of our modern society. If those are impaired as a result of a total banning of abortion, then it would be more advisable to open up some space where abortion is allowed.

Buddhist Perspective on Abortion

Most scholars of Buddhist ethics hold that Buddhism in general is opposed to abortion. Damien Keown, for example, holds that the First Precept of Buddhism means that abortion is morally wrong (Keown, 1995; also Keown, 2005, p. 86). As it is believed that life begins at fertilization, abortion is always wrong in this view (Keown, 2005, pp. 84-85). Keown also lists a number of ‘pro-choice’ Buddhist argument, such as one relying on the notion of the Five Aggregates and the status of the person. The idea, roughly, is that a person is made up of “aggregates”, or skandhas, and as these aggregates do not accrue to the person at the same time, there is a time at which the embryo does not have all the characteristics sufficient for being a person. Moreover, the idea of rebirth, according to Keown, affords some pro-choice scholars to claim that abortion is permissible in Buddhism during an early stage of development because the embryo still has not become a new person, but instead it is still carrying karmic traces of the previous person in the previous lifetime (Keown, 2005, pp. 89-91). Moreover, a number of bioethicists, such as William LaFleur (1992), claim that in Japan the attitude toward abortion is more liberal, as in certain circumstances it is necessary to have an abortion. Barnhart starts from this and argues that in Buddhism there does not have to be an equation of the fetus and embryo (Barnhart, 1998, p. 293). The position of LaFleur and Barnhart is rather similar to the one advanced here in the paper. My emphasis, which is not in either LaFleur or Barnhart, is on the flexibility and adaptability of Buddhism when it is implanted in a foreign soil and especially when the time surrounding it inevitably changes. It is not the case that ending the life of the fetus is free from being morally wrong at all according to Buddhism; on the contrary, the perpetrator incurs rather serious karmic consequences as a result of doing so. Nonetheless, the negative karmic consequences of performing an abortion, in certain circumstances, could be outweighed by those incurred by not doing it, especially when the well-being of the woman is in question as well as wider social repercussions. The adaptability of Buddhism, its willingness to adopt the mores of any social milieu it finds itself in so long as doing so does not conflict with the core teachings, contribute to Buddhism opening up a space within which abortion is permissible to a certain degree.

A rather superficial look at Buddhism would seem to show that the religion has a stance against all acts of abortion simply because abortion involves ending the life of a sentient being, that of the human fetus.1 I have said earlier in the chapter that one of the pillars of Buddhist practice is sila, or taking moral vows. These are collected in sets of precepts and number one in these precepts is the vow one takes not to end the life of a sentient being; this is the first step in practicing loving-kindness and compassion, which is necessary for the practice. Abortion obviously involves killing; it certainly involves harming another creature, depriving it of a chance to continue living. As such it runs directly against both the precept and the practice of loving-kindness and compassion. It seems, then, that Buddhism has every reason to condemn abortion. In Buddhist terms, one who commits abortion would be committing a grievous sin, incurring seriously bad karma which will reflect strong negative consequences in the life of the perpetrator. And since such negative consequences run in the opposite direction from realizing the Goal, then abortion appears to be clearly wrong for Buddhism.

The kind of Buddhism I discuss in this chapter is intended to cover all schools of the religion. Scholars usually emphasize the differences between the Theravāda and the Mahāyāna traditions. Keown, for example, emphasizes that the two traditions even have two distinct systems of ethics (See, for example, Keown’s discussion of abortion in Keown, 1996, pp. 100-102, and in Barnhart, 1998). The difference between the two main traditions here is not the same as the difference, say, between Catholicism and Protestantism in Christianity. There are irreconcilable differences in the doctrines of the two Christian sects, and Protestantism originated as a protest against the former. In other words the identity of Protestantism is achieved through the distancing of itself from Catholicism. The Mahāyāna tradition, on the other hand, being the later tradition, did not see itself as altogether distinct from the earlier tradition. On the contrary the Mahāyāna could be more accurately seen as a collection of a series of increments from the early tradition, adding layers and layers of additional practices and supplemental doctrines time goes by, but never refuting the core teaching of the Buddha himself. In fact, the core doctrines of the Mahāyāna tradition, the bodhisattva ideal, can be seen within the Theravāda itself, and the ideal of the arahat, so central to the Theravādins, is also recognized as an ideal worthy of respect by the Mahāyāna adherents. This shows that there is no conflict between the two traditions on the core teachings, namely those that can be found in the original canon itself. Since my analysis of Buddhism in the chapter is focused only on the core teaching in this sense, the analysis is thus applicable to both traditions.

Nonetheless, this is not the whole issue. The judgment that abortion is entirely wrong is usually done outside of any context. Assessments of ethical value, including those done from within a religious tradition, tend to focus only on the specific action itself and insufficient attention tends to be paid to the contextual relations that the action always has with the other elements within the society.. In the case of abortion, we can certainly find a whole host of connections that it bears with these other factors. For one thing, abortion is closely related to gender issues. After all, only women can have an abortion. In many cases, the question whether abortion is right or wrong tends to be mixed up with the question of women’s status in society. In a society where women enjoy a status relatively equal to men, abortion happens to be less of an issue, since the women have more power to control their reproductive choices. In a society where women and men are equal, women tend to have the power to influence the passing of legislation that promotes their health and their ability to control what happens to their bodies. Moreover, abortion is also closely related to the status of women as she appears in public. In many traditional societies, pregnancy out of wedlock brings shame not only to the woman herself, but also to her family. This shows that abortion is not an issue for the woman alone but also a serious issue for the whole family or the whole clan. As a consequence, evaluating the moral value of abortion needs also to take these related factors into account. Most ethical judgments on abortion, however, tend to focus on the act itself as if it happened in a vacuum. Scholars and philosophers debate whether the fetus is a person, at what age of gestation the fetus should be considered to have a soul, at what age the fetus has a viable nervous system, and so on. Or they consider whether the right of the mother trump over the right of the fetus, whether the mother has a choice to control her body and what is happening inside. These considerations focus exclusively on the fetus and the woman, but not on how both the woman and the fetus are related to the wider social and cultural contexts. A teenage girl who is pregnant and is contemplating whether to have an abortion is not alone in the world. She has her parents, her friends, her teachers and all others forming a complex web of relationships around her. One of the key teachings of Buddhism is that of interdependence of all things, meaning that all things are interconnected with one another, so much so that the very identity of a thing cannot be ascertained without its relation to all other things. If that is the case, then to evaluate the moral value of abortion cannot be done by focusing on the fetus and the mother alone, but the wider social context needs essentially to be taken into consideration too.

This means that even though abortion involves ending a life, thus making the act technically a wrong one in Buddhism, there could be cases where not performing an abortion would be even more wrong than doing it. Since everything is interconnected with one another, performing the abortion might well be the “lesser evil” that a society needs to take in order to avoid a bigger one. Here I am in broad agreement with the philosopher Somparn Promta, who argues for this point (Promta, B.E. 2535) If this is so, then Buddhism would suggest that the lesser evil be chosen. For example, a woman has to decide whether to have an abortion or not. If she decides not to do so, her life would be miserable for a long time because she would have to raise the child alone by herself (suppose that the father disappears and is not around to help her). She might have to drop out of school and find some low paying job to help herself and her child. Society has to pay for her welfare costs, as well as those of the baby. She may bring shame to her family, causing much distress to her parents and their loss of status within their own social circles. In this kind of situation, it would be more advisable for the woman to do the abortion. After all, the very Buddhist principle of compassion would appear to demand it. (Compassion, or karunā, is the desire that suffering sentient beings be completely relieved of their suffering, as well as the action to do something to relieve those sufferings.) Furthermore, the decision to have an abortion should be with the woman herself. Furthermore, many women in Thailand do perform Buddhist rituals dedicating merit to the aborted fetus after they have had an abortion. This is due to the belief that performing an abortion incurs serious karmic consequences on the part of the women and the rituals are designed to alleviate them. This seems to be the practice of Buddhist women in other countries too, such as Japan.

In short, then, if by refraining from having an abortion one would cause more harm than good, then according to Buddhism one should do the abortion. However, one has to realize that this does not absolve the one who decides to have the abortion, as well as the doctor who does perform the act, from negative karmic consequences. There will be bound to be such negative consequences because after all abortion involves greatly harming the fetus, in fact killing it outright. However, if not doing the abortion would cause even greater negative karmas and sufferings, then one has to choose the lesser evil. In the case of the woman mentioned earlier whose family would have to endure a lot of shame, the suffering of all the members in her family circle and her loss of a chance for an education would cause more harm than for her to have an abortion early on. In this case, then, Buddhism would suggest that one perform the abortion.

We can also look at the attitude of Buddhism from another perspective. As I just mentioned earlier, one of the most important concepts in the Buddhist teaching is that of compassion. The word ‘compassion’ is a usual English translation of Sanskrit karuna, which means the wish to eliminate sufferings in sentient beings and the action that follows the wish. One who is compassionate would feel a strong empathy toward those who are suffering, as if she is suffering the same pain herself, and will do everything within her power to help alleviate and eliminate the root cause of that suffering. Thus, if the fact of the matter is that there would be more suffering if the woman were forbidden to do an abortion than otherwise, then the principle of compassion would say that aborting the fetus would be the more compassionate act. (This, by the way, is not only Mahāyāna thinking, as is suggested by some scholars, but compassion lies at the core of Buddhism itself.) Certainly, saying something like this is controversial. How could it be that aborting a fetus is the more compassionate act? However, in aborting the fetus it is only the fetus who “suffers.” It might be said that the fetus is born in a wrong place and at a wrong time. Clearly it does have an interest, as every sentient being has an interest in living and going on living. However, if it is indeed the case that the suffering of all those around the woman, and the woman herself, is greater than that of the fetus, then abortion seems to be acceptable in Buddhism. This is, of course, an imperfect solution in an imperfect world.

Specific Issues

In this section we explore some of the specific issues surrounding abortion. The general idea, as we have seen, is that Buddhism outwardly does not concern itself with how the actual living of a person should be organized. This is left to the discretion of the person herself and of her society. The only requirement is that, if one decides to take up the vow of walking the Buddhist path, one follows the guidelines laid out by the Buddha. These guidelines, however, put a lot of emphasis on individual practice; social and political arrangements are paid attention to only when they impede or promote individual practices.

Family planning: Buddhism does not have anything against this at all.

Contraceptives: Contrary to some other religions, notably Catholicism, Buddhism does not have anything to say about contraceptives in particular. The idea that contraceptives could be regarded as a unethical because it prevents potential life from being actualized does not occur in Buddhism because it recognizes that life begins with conception. This is shown in the Scripture where there are three necessary requirements for a new life to occur—the mother must be ovulating; the father has to engage in sexual intercourse and release the semen, and there must be a gandhabba, a soul waiting to be reborn.2 However, Buddhism does not believe in the soul in the same way as other religions; that is, it does not believe that the soul is an independent entity capable of existing by itself. On the contrary, whatever is “waiting to be reborn” according to the text could be seen as a result of some chains of events leading back to the karmic action of some person who has died earlier. In any case, for the sake of convenience I will refer to whatever is waiting to be reborn here as a soul.) Preventing the soul to be reborn through the use of contraceptives is not a cause for negative karma because by doing that one is merely preventing a possibility of a soul being reborn only. The soul is not harmed by being denied this particular channel of being reborn because its status as a soul, its integrity as a soul, is not harmed. If using contraceptives were to harm the soul, a couple who do not engage in sexual intercourse must be harming the soul too because not doing that prevents the soul from being reborn too. As a result, couples have to make love all the time without any pause because by letting up they deny a chance for the soul to be reborn. That, patently, is absurd.

Morning-after pills: The same argument that applies to contraceptives does apply to the morning-after pills also. Even though the intercourse results in contraception, the use of the pill does not cause any negative karma because at this stage the embryo is just a collection of a few cells, not enough to constitute a sentient being.

Request for abortion in case of rape, unwanted pregnancy, minors, late pregnancy, single woman, married woman: Since Buddhism allows for society a range of freedom to organize their own affairs as they see appropriate, request for abortion is acceptable to the religion as long as it is done to relieve the suffering of the mother and those who are involved. The suffering must be genuine, and not an excuse for merely getting rid of the fetus for convenience. Furthermore, since abortion invariably incurs negative karma, one has to remorseful and attempts to do good deeds so that one has in store positive karmas in order to alleviate the effect of the negative ones. Cases of rape show most clearly that the mother (the one who has been raped) suffers the most; hence in these cases abortion is always allowable and does not incur much negative karma. In general, if the mother suffers a great deal in case she has to carry the pregnancy then the more allowable abortion would be in the Buddhist’s eyes.

The role of the husband: In case of rape, this is obviously a non-issue, so is the case where the man disappears after the woman gets pregnant. In the case of married women, it is more nuanced. Ideally the couple should talk with each other and make the decision together. However, if the husband does not agree, the final decision should rest on the wife because it is her body that is at issue. Buddhism does not have anything to say about the role of the husband and wife and the question whether who should make the decision. What the Buddha has to say about this issue is only that husbands and wives should respect and honor each other.3 Moreover, as I have said earlier, Buddhism leaves these matters to the discretion of the people themselves, who have to make up their own ethical rules and their own laws. This is a key point in Buddhism, because the overall aim of the religion is that one becomes released from the bond of the cycle of births and rebirths, and ethical rules are justified in Buddhism when they are conducive to this goal. As for social and cultural matters, including the role of husbands and wives, usually the Buddha leaves it to the prevailing custom of the place. For example, the Buddha gives an advice to the ruling elites, or the Senate, of a state of Vajji,4 and also many advices to his friend Bimbisara who is a monarch.5 This shows that the Buddha is neutral as to which form of government is the best, and in fact early Buddhist teaching is silent on the issue, which means that it is up to the preference or the custom of the people themselves.

Author’s Reflection and Conclusion

Abortion is certainly a difficult and emotional issue. Ideally no rational person would agree that destroying another human being, even in the form of a zygote or an embryo, is something one should refrain from doing if one has a chance. However, we are not living in an ideal world, so the question about abortion comes up. Also ideally, the couple having sex with one another should do so out of love for each other; they should know full well that their action will lead to the possibility of having a baby, unless they have made a precaution. But many couples engage in sex act without taking any precaution—that is part of the non-ideal world too; hence the need for abortion.

Scholars in Buddhist ethics such as Keown and Barnhart seem to think that there is a hard and fast separation between the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions, and they seem to believe that the former is more conservative than the latter. What I have shown, on the contrary, is that the so-called liberal elements that they find in the Mahāyāna are also there in the Theravāda also. The reason why Theravāda countries such as Thailand have a very conservative legislation against abortion is not entirely due to the teaching of Buddhist per se, but to the complex web of historical and social relations that serve the interest of the patriarchal order rather than reflecting sincerely and accurately on the true Buddhist teaching. Japan, on the other hand, being more advanced society economically is thus more open toward abortion. In discussing ethical problems, especially those pertaining to Buddhism, one cannot isolate a problem from its social and cultural environments (See Keown, 1998 and LaFleur, 1994). After all a core teaching is that everything is interconnected, and this should mean in this context that a problem such as whether abortion is right or wrong is a complex one and cannot be answered by looking at the Scripture alone.



Barnhart, M. (1998). Buddhism and the morality of abortion. Journal of Buddhist Ethics 5, 276-297.

Keown, D. (1995). Buddhism and Bioethics. London: Palgrave.

Keown, D. (1996). Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford.

Keown, D. (2005). Buddhist Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford.

Keown, D. Ed. (1998). Buddhism and Abortion. London: Macmillan.

LaFleur, W. (1994). Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nagarjuna. (1995). The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Translated by Garfield, J. Oxford University Press.

Promta. S. (B.E. 2535[1992AD]). Buddhism and Ethical Problems: The Perspective of Buddhism on Prostitution, Abortion, and Euthanasia. (Bangkok: Putthachart Press [in Thai].

The Book of the Disciplines, Vol. IV. (1954). Translated by Horner, I. B. London: Luzac. Retrieved from


1 Here the term ‘sentient’ is used as a technical term in Buddhist philosophy, which talks a lot about sentient beings. The idea is that these beings are capable of pain, and that they are the ones that wander around in the cycle of births and rebirths. Even though the fetus at this stage does not have a fully developed nervous system and hence may not be able to feel pain, but the text is clear in maintaining that the fetus must have been born from another being which has already died. Being sentient in this sense means being afflicted by suffering, a condition which makes the being wander in the cycle.

2 The key text here is the Mahatanhasankhya Sutta: The Greater Craving-Destruction Discourse, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, available at

3 Sinkhalaka Sutta, available at [in Thai].

4 Bhikkhu-aparihaniya Sutta: Conditions for No Decline Among the Monks, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, available at

5 See, for example, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Getting the Message,” available at

Buddhism philosophy

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.

Bodhisattva Uncategorized


เมื่อสองสามวันก่อนผมได้รับเอกสารเล่มหนึ่งจากหน่วยงานด้านธรรมะของมหาวิทยาลัย ในนั้นมีอยู่หัวข้อหนึ่งพูดเรื่องแนวทางการปฏิบัติธรรม ซึ่งบอกว่ามีอยู่สองแนวใหญ่ๆ คือแนวที่เน้นศรัทธา กับแนวที่เน้นการศึกษาด้วยตัวเอง แนวแรกก็คือว่าผู้เรียนหรือผู้ปฏิบัติไปศึกษากับครูโดยตรง และจุดเน้นของการศึกษากับครูแบบนี้ก็คือศรัทธาที่เรามีในตัวครูรูปนั้น ส่วนอีกแบบหนึ่งคือการศึกษาและปฏิบัติธรรมด้วยการอ่านหนังสือธรรมะด้วยตนเอง หนังสือที่ผมได้รับมาบอกว่า แนวทางที่สองออกจะดีกว่าแนวแรกเพราะแม้ว่าการศึกษาธรรมะด้วยตนเองจะเป็นเรื่องยาก แต่หากศึกษาจนเกิดความเข้าใจก็จะ “สามารปฏิบัติธรรมได้อย่างอิสระ และพึ่งตนเองได้อย่างแท้จริง” ในขณะที่การปฏิบัติกับครูในแบบแรก หากได้ครูที่ไว้ใจไม่ได้ และเน้นที่ศรัทธาในตัวครูมากจนเกินไป โอกาสที่จะปฏิบัติไปในทางที่ผิดก็จะมีอยู่สูง ต้องเฟ้นหาครูที่ไว้ใจได้จริงๆ ต่างจากแนวที่สองที่เปิดโอกาสให้ผู้เรียนได้คิดค้น ไตร่ตรองใคร่ครวญด้วยตัวเอง ก่อนที่จะตกลงใจเชื่อและเข้าใจจริงๆ


อย่างไรก็ตาม ข้อเสียของการปฏิบัติธรรมโดยอ่านหนังสือคนเดียว ที่หนังสือเล่มนี้ไม่ได้พูดถึงมากนัก ก็คือว่า หากผู้อ่านอ่านแล้วเข้าใจไปในทิศทางที่ผิดไปจากที่ผู้เขียนต้องการ ก็จะเข้ารกเข้าพงไปได้ง่ายมากๆ เนื่องจากไม่มีใครคอยชี้แนะ เราอาจคิดว่าการอ่านที่ผิดไปจากความต้องการสื่อสารของผู้เขียนจะเกิดขึ้นได้อย่างไร คำตอบก็คือเกิดขึ้นได้ง่ายมาก แม้แต่งานเขียนที่เป็นเรื่องพื้นๆธรรมดาๆก็ยังเกิดเหตุการณ์ว่าคนอ่านอ่านแล้วเข้าใจผิดไปจากเจตนาของผู้เขียน เช่นผู้เขียนตั้งใจจะสื่ออย่างหนึ่ง แต่ผู้อ่านอ่านแล้วเข้าใจว่าอีกอย่างหนึ่ง ที่เป็นเช่นนี้ส่วนมากก็มาจากว่าตัวหนังสือที่ปรากฏอยู่ในเล่มหนังสือนั้น ไม่มีอะไรที่เป็นหลักประกันได้เลยว่า จะสื่อความจากผู้เขียนถึงผู้อ่านไปได้ครบหมดร้อยเปอร์เซนต์ ยิ่งหากเป็นงานที่ยากมากๆมีความเป็นนามธรรมซับซ้อนอย่างคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าด้วยแล้ว โอกาสที่จะเข้าใจผิดก็ยิ่งมีมากขึ้น ดังนั้นการเรียนธรรมะแล้วไปปฏิบัติด้วยตนเอง จึงเป็นอะไรที่ต้องระวังมากเป็นอย่างยิ่ง ด้วยเหตุนี้การเรียนธรรมะกับครูที่มีชีวิตจึงมีภาษีมากกว่าในแง่นี้ เพราะเปิดโอกาสให้มีการแลกเปลี่ยน ซักถาม ซักซ้อมทำความเข้าใจ ซึ่งเป็นไปไม่ได้เลยในการเรียนและปฏิบัติธรรมะจากการอ่านเพียงอย่างเดียว

ในบทสนทนาเรื่อง เฟดรัส ของเพลโต โสกราตีสได้เสนอเหตุผลให้เฟดรัสฟังว่า การพูดมีน้ำหนักมากกว่าการเขียน เพราะในการพูด ผู้ฟังสามารถซักถามและโต้เถียงกับผู้พูดได้ทันที ทำให้การศึกษาปรัชญามีชีวิต ไม่เหมือนกับการอ่านงานเขียนที่มีนักปรัชญาเขียนเอาไว้ เมื่อมีข้อสงสัยหนังสือก็ไม่สามารถตอบอะไรได้ เพราะเป็นแค่กระดาษกับน้ำหมึก ในทำนองเดียวกันการอ่านธรรมะก็เหมือนกับฟังความอยู่ข้างเดียว ไม่มีการโต้ตอบสนทนา ซึ่งยากมากที่จะเกิดความเข้าใจอย่างถ่องแท้ขึ้นมาได้

นอกจากนี้ การเรียนกับครูที่มีชีวิตโดยเฉพาะในการเรียนและการปฏิบัติตามคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้า ยังมีประโยชน์มากที่สุดตรงที่ว่า ผู้เรียนจะได้สัมผัสใกล้ชิดกับผู้ที่ได้เรียนและได้ปฏิบัติตามคำสอนนี้มาจนเห็นผล และมองเห็นด้วยตาของตนเองว่า ผลของการปฏิบัติตามคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้านั้นเป็นอย่างไรจริงๆ และผลนั้นก็ปรากฏตัวออกมาเป็นรูปธรรมในตัวบุคคลของผู้ที่เป็นครูของเราที่เราศึกษาอยู่ด้วยอย่างใกล้ชิด ในยุคของเรานี้มักมีเรื่องเกิดขึ้นเกี่ยวกับวงการของพระสงฆ์ ที่ทำให้ผู้คนมักเกิดความสงสัยว่าพระที่แท้จะยังเหลืออยู่อีกหรือ คำตอบก็คือว่า มีอยู่อีกมาก เราไม่จำเป็นต้องมีความสามารถในการมองเห็นได้ทันทีว่าใครเป็นพระอรหันต์ ใครไม่ใช่ เพราะมีแต่พระอรหันต์เท่านั้นที่ทำได้เช่นนี้ แต่ที่เรามีก็คือศรัทธาในตัวครูของเรา และจากศรัทธานี้เองที่จะนำไปสู่่ความเชื่อมั่น และการเห็นผลอันเป็นรูปธรรมที่ปรากฏอยู่ในตัวครูของเรา

เมื่อพูดเช่นนี้ คำถามที่เกิดขึ้นทันทีก็คือว่า แล้วเราจะแน่ใจได้อย่างไรว่าพระภิกษุรูปนี้ ที่เราคิดว่าควรจะฝากตัวเป็นศิษย์หรือไม่ มีคุณสมบัติตามที่ได้กล่าวมาข้างต้น? เรื่องนี้ก็เป็นวงจรกลับไปกลับมา คือหากเราไม่สามารถมองเห็นคุณสมบัติในตัวครู เราก็จะไม่รู้ว่าควรเลือกครูรูปไหนดี แต่ถ้าเราไม่ยอกเลือกเรียนกับครูรูปใดเลย เราก็จะไม่มีโอกาสที่จะเริ่มต้นปฏิบัติธรรมกับครูเป็นๆที่มีชีวิตเลือดเนื้อได้เลย เพื่อทำลายวงจรนี้เราจำเป็นต้องอาศัยความเชื่อมั่นเป็นตัวนำไปก่อน ซึ่งก็คือศรัทธา ในประเพณีพระพุทธศาสนาของทิเบต มีหลักอยู่ว่าครูจะเลือกผู้ที่จะมาเป็นศิษย์ คือไม่ใช่ว่าใครมาขอเรียนวิชาด้วยครูจะรับหมด เรื่องนี้เกิดขึ้นได้ยากมากๆในทิเบต ที่เกิดขึ้นเป็นประจำก็คือว่า ครูจะพิจารณาบุคคลที่จะรับเป็นศิษย์อย่างละเอียด บางทีใช้เวลาเป็นปีๆกว่าจะตัดสินใจ และในทำนองเดียวกันศิษย์ก็จะเลือกผู้ที่จะมาเป็นครูของตนเองด้วย บางทีก็ใช้เวลาเป็นปีๆเช่นเดียวกัน ประโยชน์ของวิธีการแบบนี้ก็คือเป็นการคัดกรองคุณภาพของทั้งผู้ที่จะมาเป็นศิษย์และเป็นอาจารย์

ในบริบทของไทยเราก็ไม่ต่างกันมาก ปัญหาของคนไทยที่สนใจปฏิบัติธรรมก็คือว่า มีทางเลือกให้เลือกเป็นจำนวนมาก แล้วผู้จะเรียนก็มักจะเดินท่องไปสำรวจสำนักต่างๆ เข้าที่นั่นที ที่นี่ที แต่ไม่มีการสร้าง “ความผูกพัน” และ “การตกลงปลงใจ” (commitment) ที่จะศึกษาปฏิบัติกับสำนักใดสำนักหนึ่งอย่างจริงจัง ผลก็คือปฏิบัติธรรมไม่ก้าวหน้าไปไหน สิ่งที่อยากจะแนะนำผู้ปฏิบัติในท้ายที่สุดนี้ก็คือว่า หลังจากที่ได้ศึกษาทางเลือกของสำนักต่างๆมาระยะหนึ่ง ผู้เรียนต้องตัดสินใจเลือกและตกลงปลงใจจะใช้ชีวิตทางธรรมกับสำนักใดสำนักหนึ่งที่ตนเองพิจารณาแล้วเป็นสำนักที่เหมาะกับตนเองที่สุด หากไม่ทำเช่นนี้แล้วโอกาสที่จะปฏิบัติธรรมได้ผล เช่นจากการอ่านด้วยตัวเอง ก็แทบจะเป็นไปไม่ได้เลย


meditation Uncategorized


ผมตั้งใจว่าจะเขียนอะไรเกี่ยวกับวันอาสาฬหบูชาตั้งแต่เมื่อวันเสาร์ที่ผ่านมา หลังๆนี่ไม่ค่อยเขียนอะไรเกี่ยวกับธรรมะมากนัก มัวแต่ไปพูดกับเขียนเรื่องอื่นๆ เลยต้องกลับมาที่ธรรมะก่อนที่จะห่างออกไปเรื่อยๆ

ผมจำได้ว่าเคยเขียนเกี่ยวกับวันอาสาฬหบูชามาแล้วในบล๊อกนี้ แต่เนื่องจากเป็นวันสำคัญก็เลยต้องคิดหาหัวข้อใหม่ที่ไม่ซ้ำกับหัวข้อเดิมมาเขียน แต่เราก็คิดได้ว่าหัวข้อธรรมะไม่เคยล้าสมัย เรื่องเดียวกันสามารถเอามาพูดใหม่ได้ตลอด เพราะหัวใจอยู่ที่การทำซ้ำๆ พูดซ้ำๆ จนกว่าจะซึมซับเข้าไปในกระแสเลือดกับในกระดูก หัวข้อธรรมะต่างจากหัวข้อพูดคุยเรื่องอื่นๆตรงนี้แหละ ฟังธรรมต้องฟังซ้ำๆบ่อยๆจนกว่าความหมายของถ้อยคำจะซึมเข้าไปเปลี่ยนแปลงตัวเราจากภายใน

วันอาสาฬหะเป็นวันที่พระพุทธเจ้าทรง “หมุนกงล้อธรรม” เป็นครั้งแรก พูดอีกอย่างก็คือเป็นวันเกิดของพระพุทธศาสนา ผมอยากจะมองว่าวันนี้สำคัญกว่าวันวิสาขะเสียด้วยซ้ำ เพราะวันวิสาขะเน้นที่ตัวบุคคลของพระพุทธเจ้าเพียงคนเดียว แต่วันอาสาฬหะเป็นวันเกิดของ “ศาสนา” ใหม่ของโลก อันเป็นศาสนาที่มุ่งเสนอว่าไม่ว่าใครก็ตาม ไม่ว่าจะเป็นไพร่หรือผู้ดี พราหมณ์หรือศูทร ผู้หญิงหรือผู้ชาย คนรวยหรือคนจน ต่างก็สามารถบรรลุธรรมขั้นสูงสุดได้ทั้งสิ้น เพียงแต่ขอให้เขาปฏิบัติตามคำสอนอย่างเข้าใจและอย่างมีความเพียรเท่านั้น

ลักษณะนี้ทำให้พระพุทธศาสนาแตกต่างจากศาสนาพราหมณ์ที่มีมาแต่โบราณของอินเดียอย่างสิ้นเชิง หลักของคำสอนของศาสนาพราหมณ์อยู่ที่ว่า คนที่จะบรรลุเป้าหมายสูงสุดของศาสนาได้ จะต้องเป็นวรรณะพราหมณ์เท่านั้น เพราะเป็นผู้ที่ได้รับอนุญาตให้อ่านและศึกษาพระเวท แนวคิดพื้นฐานก็คอว่า ไม่ใช่ทุกคนที่จะบรรลุธรรมได้ ต้องเป็นบุคคลที่มีสิทธิพิเศษ สิทธิพิเศษนี้ก็มาจากชาติกำเนิดเป็นหลัก ศาสนาพราหมณ์เชื่อว่าการแบ่งคนออกเป็นวรรณะต่างๆ เป็นพื้นฐานความจริงของโลกและจักรวาล พราหมณ์มีหน้าที่สาธยายพระเวทและประกอบพิธีกรรมเพราะถือกำเนิดมาจากปากของพระพรหม ส่วนวรรณะอื่นๆก็มีหน้าที่อื่นๆในสังคมเพราะถือกำเนิดมาจากอวัยวะส่วนอื่นๆของพระพรหม ความจริงพื้นฐานของจักรวาล (พระพรหม) เป็นตัวกำหนดว่าใครจะบรรลุธรรมหรือไม่บรรลุธรรม โดยที่เจ้าตัวไม่มีบทบาทอะไรแม้แต่น้อย ถึงคุณจะขยันทำความเพียรจนสิ้นใจ ถ้าคุณไม่ได้รับอนุญาตหรือไม่มีสิทธิจะไปฟังหรือไปจับคัมภีร์พระเวท ก็ขยันไปเท่านั้น ไม่มีประโยชน์อะไร ยิ่งไปกว่านั้นหากคุณขืนไปจับคัมภีร์เข้าทั้งๆที่ไม่มีสิทธิ์ ก็จะเป็นการทำบาปอย่างรุนแรง เทพเจ้าจะไม่ให้อภัยแน่ๆ

เราจึงเห้นว่าคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าเป็นการปฏิวัติสังคมอย่างรุนแรง และก็อาจเป็นสาเหตุหนึ่งที่เหล่าพราหมณ์ต้องปรับตัวสู้กับพระพุทธศาสนามาเป็นเวลายาวนาน จนในที่สุดพระพุทธศาสนาก็สูญสิ้นไปจากอินเดีย แต่ไปเจริญงอกงามในดินแดนแถบอื่นๆแทน สาเหตุที่ผมคิดว่าวันอาสาฬหะน่าจะสำคัญมากกว่าวันวิสาขะก็คือว่า หากพระพุทธเจ้าไม่ทรงสอนสิ่งที่ทรงค้นพบในคืนวันตรัสรู้ โลกก็จะไม่มีพระพุทธศาสนา ก็ไม่รู้ว่าผู้คนจะมืดบอดกันต่อไปอีกกี่ร้อยกี่พันปี เราเป็นหนี้พระมหากรุณาธิคุณของพระพุทธเจ้าเป็นอย่างยิ่งตรงนี้

การสอนพระธรรมมักจะเปรียบกับการหมุนกงล้อธรรม คำสอนแรกของพระพุทธเจ้าก็คือ “ธัมมจักกัปปวัตตนสูตร” ก็แปลตรงตัวได้ทำนองว่า “คำสอนว่าด้วยการหมุนกงล้อธรรม” นี่เอง หัวใจของพระสูตรนี้ก็คือหัวใจของคำสอนของพระพุทธศาสนา ได้แก่เรื่องทางสายกลาง อริยสัจสี่ กับมรรคมีองค์แปด ซึ่งก็เป็นส่วนหนึ่งของอริยสัจสี่ ในระดับต้นๆมักจะสอนกันว่าทางสายกลางได้แก่การละเว้นจากสุดโต่งสองข้าง ได้แก่การทรมานตนเองมากเกินไป กับการบำรุงบำเรอความเพลิดเพลินทางกายมากเกินไป คนที่เพิ่งเริ่มศึกษาก็เลยอาจเข้าใจไปว่า เป็นเรื่องของการแสวงหาทางเดินตรงกลาง เหมือนกับนักไต่ลวดที่พยายามอยู่ตรงกลาง ไม่หล่นไปข้างซ้ายหรือขวา แต่หากเราพิจารณาให้ละเอียดยิ่งขึ้น จะพบว่า การปฏิบัติตามทางสายกลางมีอะไรมากกว่านั้น หลักการไม่ใช่แต่เพียงว่าไม่ทรมานตัวเองมากไป แล้วก็ไม่ตามใจตัวเองมากไป ราวกับว่าต้องเอาสองข้างนี้มาบวกกันแล้วหารสอง (เช่นไม่กินมากไป แต่ก็ไม่ใช่ว่าไม่กินเลย) แต่อยู่ที่ว่าเราเข้าใจหลักการพื้นฐานของคำสอนเรื่องนี้ การไม่ทรมานตัวเองมากไป กับการไม่ตามใจตัวเองมากไป มาจากว่าหากเราทำสุดโต่งทั้งสองข้าง จะเท่ากับว่าเราไปยึดถือหรือไปจับเอาสิ่งใดสิ่งหนึ่งแล้วไปยึดว่าสิ่งนั้นมีอยู่จริงๆ หรือการไม่ยึดถืออะไรเลยเพราะเชื่อไปว่าไม่มีอะไรอยู่เลย การทรมานตัวเองก็หมายความว่า เราเชื่อว่าการอดข้าว หรือทรมานตัวเองแบบอื่นๆ เป็นเหตุให้บรรลุธรรมได้ พระพุทธเจ้าทรงทำมามากแล้ว จนเกือบเอาชีวิตไม่รอด ก็เลยพบว่าทางนี้ไม่ใช่ทางที่ถูกต้อง จริงๆแล้วทางนี้ก็คือการไปยึดเอาว่า มีวิธีการหรือมีสิ่งของบางอย่างที่จะนำพาเราไปสู่การพ้นทุกข์ได้ เช่นการอดข้าว แต่จริงๆแล้วไม่ได้เป็นเช่นนั้น อีกแนวทางหนึ่งก็คือการบำรุงบำเรอตัวเองจนมากไป ซึ่งพระพุทธเจ้าก็เคยทำมาแล้วเช่นเดียวกัน ตอนยังเป็นเจ้าชายอยู่ในวัง ได้รับการปรนเปรอมากมายจากบรรดาข้าราชบริพาร จนไม่รู้ว่าจะทำอะไรมากกว่านี้ได้อีก ก็ไม่ใช่หนทางพ้นทุกข์เช่นเดียวกัน จุดที่ทรงค้นพบก็อยู่ตรงนี้เอง คือแทนที่จะคิดว่ามีอะไรให้ยึดมั่น หรือไม่มีอะไรเลยแล้วเลยไม่ยึดมั่นอะไรเลย (หรือไปยึดมั่นเอาความไม่มีเข้า) ก็คิดใหม่ว่าสิ่งต่างๆก็เป็นเช่นนั้นของมันเอง แต่สิ่งต่างๆเหล่านั้นต่างก็ขึ้นกับเหตุปัจจัยทั้งสิ้น การไปรับเอาสิ่งเหล่านั้นเข้าไปเต็มๆ หรือการปฏิเสธหันหลังให้สิ่งเหล่านั้นอย่างสิ้นเชิง ต่างก็ไม่ใช่ทางที่ถูกต้องทั้งสิ้น คำสอนเช่นนี้ไม่เคยมีมาก่อนในศาสดาผู้ใด นอกจากพระพุทธเจ้าเท่านั้น

ในพระสูตรมีบอกว่า ทางสายกลางนี้ก็ได้แก่มรรคมีองค์แปดนั่นเอง “มรรค” แปลว่า “เส้นทาง” ก็คือเส้นทางไปสู่ความดับทุกข์ตามอริยสัจสี่ ใครก็ตามที่เดินตามทางที่พระองค์ทรงชี้ไว้ให้ จะถึงเป้าหมายแน่นอน ไม่มีผิดพลาด หน้าที่ของชาวพุทธ (ลูกศิษย์ของพระพุทธเจ้า) ก็คือเดินตามเส้นทางนี้ แต่พระพุทธศาสนาก็มีลักษณะพิเศษอีกอย่างหนึ่ง คือไม่บังคับให้ใครเดินตามทางที่ชี้เอาไว้ ไม่ใช่ว่าใครไม่เดินตามแล้วจะถือเป็นบาปเพราะไปขัดโองการของพระพุทธเจ้าที่ “สั่ง” ให้ผู้คนเดิน อย่างนั้นไม่ใช่คำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าแน่นอน ทางมีอยู่แล้ว ใครเห็นว่าสำคัญแก่ชีวิตตน ก็เลือกเดิน ใครยังเห็นว่ายังไม่อยากเดิน ก็เป็นเรื่องของเขา แต่ศาสนาพุทธเป็นศาสนาของคนมีปัญญา คนที่มีปัญญาใคร่ครวญด้วยตนเอง ไม่ช้าไม่นานก็จะเห็นว่า ต้องเดินตามทางนี้เท่านัน ถึงจะบรรลุเป้าหมายสูงสุดของชีวิต


ก่อนจบ ก็มีคลิปวิดิโอเพลง “ธัมมจักกัปปวัตตนสูตร” สำเนียงอินเดีย เอาไว้ฟังให้ชื่นใจ

Bodhisattva chant

Om Mani Peme Hum

Here is the full length rendition of the Mantra of Compassion – Om Mani Peme Hum. The literal version is “Om Mani Padme Hum” but it is usually chanted the other way. The energy of the mantra will be channeled to you, linking you up directly with Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, directly:



The Place of Religion in the Technoscientific World



At first glance religion on the one hand and science and technology on the other do not seem to have anything in common. Religion, according to some viewpoints, is a holdover from a bygone era, an era which was full of superstitions and irrational beliefs. Science, on the contrary, is a product of reason and truth. The only way for religion to show that what it offers is worthy of belief is that it is the word of God, that its pronouncement comes from Ultimate Reality in one way or another. Followers have to take these claims on faith, since there is no other independent way of proving whether God or Ultimate Reality really exists or not. Science, according to this common viewpoint, challenges everybody to prove its content. Those who do not believe, for example, that the Moon’s gravity is responsible for the tides are invited to offer their own alternative explanation as to why the tides behave the way they do without referring to these familiar concepts. Science does not rely on faith; everything can be proved and shown to be true or false objectively. As for technology, the challenge for religion is to come up with any solutions that could even remotely rival technology in effectiveness. Medical technology, for example, has progressed very rapidly, resulting in many people living longer than before. We can also think of the results of other types of technology. On the contrary, religion does not seem to offer any similarly concrete solutions. The promise of religion lies mainly in the afterlife, but without relying on faith it is impossible to prove that the afterlife exists. Thus for many in the world today the promise of afterlife offered by religion is nothing more than a false hope designed for the deluded, unenlightened mass. Technology offers solutions for the here and now, for today’s world, not for the world beyond death, which no one actually knows exists or not.

That is certainly a familiar picture. It does not matter which specific religion is there on the side of religion in the dichotomy. Many have claimed that Buddhism fares better on the whole than theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but there are many elements in Buddhism which do not go along with the modern scientific mindset either. For example, the belief in life before birth and after death is central to Buddhism. It does not seem to be possible to have a coherent teaching on moral responsibility without the belief in these things. If everything in one’s life is totally annihilated after one’s death, then what is the point of trying to be a morally better person? Buddhism also has its fair share of superstitions; the Buddha performs many miracles as told in the canonical text; the worlds are arranged according to the moral quality of the inhabitants. It is very difficult to reconcile these to the modern scientific worldview. Owen Flanagan, a philosopher who has recently developed an interest in Buddhism, is clear in saying that the kind of Buddhism he would like to have is the kind that is totally cleansed of all that to him are “superstitions” (Flanagan 2011). To him superstitious elements in Buddhism are those that cannot be explained by science, such as the story that the Buddha travels to one of the heavens to meet his mother who died when he was only seven days old, or the belief in reincarnation. But the problem of stripping these elements from Buddhism is that what is left is only a set of abstract teachings, precisely the kind of thing that is amenable to modern science. As the belief in the afterlife is central to Buddhism’s stance on morality and responsibility, it cannot be eradicated without thereby affecting the whole fabric of Buddhist philosophy all together. What this means is that these so-called “superstitious” beliefs play an important role in Buddhism. Thus the belief found among many scholars that Buddhism is somehow different in this regard from other, theistic religions may be unfounded. Here Buddhism and the theistic religions are in the same boat.

The estrangement between religion and science appears be indicate that religion has become alienated to the modern world. This is because the modern world is so deeply influenced by science and technology that it is very difficult to imagine what the modern world would be like without the two. Thus the main problem facing all religions today is how religion can maintain its relevance in today’s world, a world which is founded upon science and technology. How can religion find its place in the social world when this world is being shaped more and more by science and technology? If science and technology do not need religion and if science and technology are also what is needed in today’s world, then religion appears to be superfluous. Would the belief in God or in Nirvana, which has founded the religious faith for millennia, be replaced by a new religion, that of science and rationality, and the belief that technology can fix every problem that is facing us? These questions have become all the more important when the role of religion in modern society is being usurped by science. Religion used to play the role of providing meaning and consolation to the people, but now that many are turning to drugs and medical help instead of religion, then what is left for religion to do?

It is my contention that the problem of relevance facing religion today is based on the belief that religion and science inhabit totally different world where there is no coming and going between the two. This belief is misguided. Religion still has quite a lot to share with science, something that science cannot find on their own. This is because there is bound to be something that is missed out by science because its own methodology prevents it from the beginning. Furthermore, religion also has quite a lot to learn from science too. It is only by opening the two up so that each can learn from the other than the place for religion in the technoscientific world can be assured. Moreover, it is more important perhaps that science learn from religion. In this way science can then find the kind of meaning that cannot be found otherwise, especially if science insists on proceeding with its own methodology alone.

In fact there are three domains in which religion and science can fruitfully interact, namely ethics, new possibilities for science, and new understanding of religion. Let’s discuss each of these topics in turn.



The usual methodology of science does not leave a room for ethics. But this is where religion can make its strongest contribution. Science and technology have become so dependent on each other than it makes more sense to put them under the same word, “technoscience.” Technoscience is a unique development of the modern world; in fact the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century owed very much to the development of technology in that period. Galileo would not have been able to put forward his new scientific knowledge of the heaven had he not able to use the telescope which was an invention in that period. Technoscience certainly carries with it ethical implications. This is the case not only in today’s world where technoscience has become so pervasive in every aspect of our lives. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when modern science was at its formative stage, it was clear that technoscience was destined to be the instrument that Europeans used to conquer the rest of the world. To conquer the world, however, is not the stated objective of science, but this was inevitable when science became coupled with technology to produce immense power to those who knew how to harness it. The ethical implication is clear: To use the power of technoscience to conquer the world, as the Europeans certainly did in their colonization of the rest of the world, carries with it strong ethical values. And today when technoscience has become much more powerful, its ethical implications and values are as strong as ever.

It is quite ironic that though technoscience contains within itself strong ethical values, its own methodology does not permit of treating those values as constitutive of its practice in itself. That is, ethical considerations always come from outside of the technoscientific practice. When the scientists in Nazi Germany performed a series of experiments on their prisoners to see how tolerant the bodies of human beings were to extreme cold, they did a meticulous job which was perfect according to the scientific methodology. However, what they did was a blatant violation of ethical standard, for actually what they did was to put these prisoners under various degrees of extreme cold and measured how long they lasted until they finally died. It did not come into the minds of these scientists that these prisoners were human beings and that being put under such a condition would be extremely painful. In the minds of the scientists being in pain could actually be part of the experiment. If they had a way of measuring the pain suffered by these prisoners objectively, then this would have been a part of the experiment because that would contribute to their goals of measuring the threshold of endurance to extreme cold. However, what did not occur to their minds was that these prisoners were human beings, and human beings do suffer when put to the cold. The scientists did not know, or did not care to know, that they themselves could have been put under the same condition, and if they did not want to be in that situation (no one would) then the prisoners did not want so either. That is the crucial aspect of ethical consideration of their experiment, but their scientific methodology told them that this was extraneous to the science, and such feelings needed to be avoided.

If the scientists who were to perform these experiments were the least religious, they would certainly have not performed them. They would realize that both they themselves and the prisoners were not only human beings, but were creatures of God, created in His image, and thus deserve some respect. This realization would prevent the scientists from performing such horrific experiments because they would judge that the suffering of those who are put under these conditions is not compatible with the respect that any human being deserves. Here we see how religion contributes to ethical considerations in science. Nowadays we have strong regulations in using human subjects in research, regulations that stem directly from the horrors performed by Nazi scientists. Even though the regulations look secular, there is no denial that religious consideration could well be the foundation on which these regulations depend.

In other areas of scientific research and experiment, ethical considerations are also needed. Perhaps the hottest topic in technoscientific research and development today is in robotics. The US has developed drone airplanes that can fly far into hostile territory and seek out and destroy targets. In the works are robots that could one day replace human soldiers, with far more lethal consequences. The ethical problem for the drone airplane is: Is it ethical to send such airplanes to hostile territory and bomb targets? If the war is unjust, then the question is closed because in an unjust war every action by the one who starts the war cannot be ethically justified. But if the war is a just one, then should drone airplanes be considered to be an unacceptable means of engaging in warfare, in the same way as the use of chemical or biological weapons are so considered nowadays? What seems to be wrong about drone airplanes is that warfare is supposed to be a conflict between humans, but when drones travel thousands of kilometers into the enemy’s territory and destroy targets there, the human element on the attacker’s side is missing. Warfare then becomes utterly dependent on technology in a way that has not been seen before. It is true that warfare has always depended on technology, but what separates drones from all previous uses of technology is that with the drones fighting can be done remotely. The person who controls the drone can sit in a comfortable room half the world away from the site of the conflict. He or she then is not involved in the conflict in any manner, because for him or her engaging in the war is nothing different from engaging in a simulation game on the computer, something every child today is very good at. This conflation of a real war where real people are killed and a computer simulation game in which everything is happening as blips on the screen, exemplified by the drone aircraft, points to an urgent need for further ethical consideration of the whole thing.

In addition to the remotely controlled aircraft, military researchers today are working on a version of robot soldiers who in their vision would one day take the place of human soldiers in combat situation. What is scary about this development is that the robots are envisioned to function autonomously. This is where ethical considerations come in very poignantly. To function autonomously means the robot does not have to be remotely controlled; instead they can function independently by themselves. For example, a robot that is armed and programmed to destroy targets would be able to travel on their own and seek out the targets by themselves. What makes this particularly scary is that the robot will have to make its own decision as to which exactly is the target and which is not. But what would happen if it fails to make the distinction? What would happen if the information fed into the robot before entering the combat zone is a wrong one so that the robot is misled from the beginning? How could the robot distinguish between civilians and combatants? In real life combatants do not always wear a sign telling the world that they are indeed combatants; they would like to blend with the civilians for obvious reasons. How can then the autonomous robot know which one is actually the combatant? This is still an unsolved problem in military robotics.

Religion can be of great help in instilling a sense of ethical responsibility in robotics. It is right now not possible to engineer a robot who is as fully conscious as a human being. That scenario is still the stuff of science fiction. What is available, however, is a robot which has in it a set of algorithmic commands which allow them to function more or less autonomously. Thus the crux of the matter is not with the robot itself, but with the designers and the whole complex of operations surrounding the robot, the whole human and social context in which the robot develops. It is these systems that are in great need of religious sensibilities. It may be far-fetched to talk about the role of religion in military technology, but the core idea is that in any kind of technology, the military hardware discussed here being only an example, there is a need of religious perspectives and sensibilities, because it is these sensibilities that instill a sense of ethics in the design and implementation of a technology, no matter how crude or sophisticated. In the case of the autonomous military robot, it has to follow the rule of warfare. It must be able to distinguish civilians from combatants in a sophisticated manner, and it has to be virtuous in that it won’t shoot any combatant who has already surrendered. A key ingredient in the religious sensibilities is the realization that all human beings are sacred and deserve respect. Even if a human being is one’s enemy in war, the enemy still deserves respect and when the combat has ceased the enemy is to be treated like the human being that he is. This is a realization that stems ultimately from religion, and it shows how important religion is to such a sophisticated and advanced technology such as military robotics.


New Possibilities for Science

Apart from ethics, science itself benefits from religion because religion can provide science with new possibilities and insights which cannot be obtained through scientific methodology alone. For example, the works of such scientists as Francesco Varela, Richard Davidson and others have shown that ancient wisdom from Buddhism could shed light that offers new possibilities for scientific research. Buddhism has offered detailed first-person descriptions of what is going on in the mind. It has cataloged a large variety of emotive and other mental states which have proven to be useful when scientists use the new technique of imaging the workings of the brain and try to interpret what they actually mean. This incorporation of first-person report based on Buddhist terminology is known as “first-person science,” an idea which has started to receive more serious attention from behavioral and cognitive scientists.

Traditional scientific methodology believes that one should prevent elements from the “first person” to come in to play in the process of finding and building up scientific knowledge, because such first-person elements will distort the truth and the validity of the results. For example, scientists are taught to avoid the “secondary qualities” of objects and focus instead of their “primary qualities.” Secondary qualities are those properties of objects that depend on the perception of individuals for their existence. For example, the feelings of warmth or coldness that the hands have when they are immersed in warm or cold water are clear examples of the secondary qualities. The problem, according to traditional methodology, is that feelings felt by the hands are too inexact to be admissible as scientific evidence. Some persons may tolerate heat better than another, so the former may report the same water as being less warm than the other, who is more sensitive to heat. For the report to be scientific, the thermometer is used instead. Instead of relying on the sheer tactile feeling of warmth or coldness, the thermometer reports how much or how little the heat in the water causes the mercury inside the tube to rise up. The thermometer does not report the feeling of heat or coldness in any way. Heat as shown by the rising of the mercury inside the thermometer is an example of the water’s primary quality; whereas the feelings of heat or warmth or coldness felt by the hands are secondary qualities. The key here is that since primary qualities do not depend on the subjective feelings of the observer, they become the foundation for constructing scientific knowledge. This has become the dominant methodology in science for centuries.

However, what Varela is proposing is that, instead of relying exclusively on what is objectively verifiable in the primary qualities, scientific knowledge could advance more if one also brings in the first-person, subjective dimension. Buddhism does not distinguish between the objective and the subjective; instead it assumes that the two are both aspects of the same reality. In other words, when Buddhism describes reality, it does not divide the reality into the subjective, inner realm of private thoughts and sensations of an individual, and the objective, outer realm of publicly verifiable qualities. The so-called “inner” qualities are also publicly verifiable because anyone who follows the same procedure will experience those “inner” qualities in the same way as others. The Buddhist text states, for example, that when one attains the first level of meditative absorption (jñana) one will experience a sensation known as “vitaka,” which is a necessary factor in attaining the first-level absorption. The text describes vitaka as “hitting the bell.” This refers to the act of meditation where the meditator recalls and repeats what she is focusing her attention on. The recalling and the refocusing are known as “vitaka.” The text says that this is a vital ingredient without which no meditative absorption can take place. One knows that one has vitaka by comparing what the text says. It is like hitting a bell. When one is focusing one’s attention on something in the process of meditation, one has to keep repeating and bringing oneself back to the object of one’s meditation. This bringing oneself back is then compared to the action of hitting the bell over and over. What is happening inside is taken to be on a par as an element of reality as what is outside. In fact it is an implication of Buddhist and its main contribution that the inner and the outer eventually break down.

Another example that shows how the inner and the outer is broken down and merged together is that Buddhism has a very elaborate theory of the self and self-formation. This can be a resource for scientists who are studying consciousness and how the idea of the self is formed in a person, or whether there can be located a locus (or several loci) of the self in the brain of the person himself or herself. Buddhism teaches that what is commonly known as the self, i.e., the one who is the initiator of action of an individual, who makes the decision for the individual, who feels and thinks as that individual, ultimately does not exist as an objectively existing entity. Instead what is taken to be the self is a result of various factors, chief among which is upadana, or grasping. What is taken to be the self is a result of various forms and instances of grasping, resulting in various elements being brought together under the illusion that those elements belong to one and the same objectively existing entity known as the self. But the Buddhists ask us to examine this process in order to help us realize that the self does not objectively exist; instead it is only formed out of many elements which would not be related to one another if not for the action of grasping.

What the analysis of the self in Buddhism can offer modern science is that Buddhism has already a very detailed and systematic description of the self and the various processes by which the self come to be formed. This becomes a reference point against which modern neuroscience can conduct their experiments. Modern science has operated on the belief that first-person report should be filtered out, but as the analysis of the self shows, the inner and the outer are in fact aspects of one and the same reality. And if this is really the case, then to take the inner out believing that it is not part of the scientific process would mean that scientific knowledge would miss an important aspect which could have brought much in terms of our understanding of the world. According to Francisco Varela, one of the most prominent pioneers in bringing Buddhism and scientific research together, “… we foresee in the future that the mind sciences will evolve into a form of experiential neuroscience, bridging the gap between external and internal descriptions. Such a unification of our understanding of the world, a new frame for a mind science, is one of the major contributions Buddhism is capable of offering” (Varela 2012).


New Understanding of Religion


The relation between science and religion does not limit itself only to creating new possibilities in science. The relation goes the other way too. Science and technology can contribute to the many ways that religion can be transformed in order better to respond to challenges of the contemporary world. For example, the Internet and social media can promote religious teachings and create groups of faithfuls and practitioners who can always get in touch with one another through the social media. They can share the teachings and set up real world events where they can meet; they can also engage in discussion on the social media site and so on. A welcome development in how the practice of religion has been transformed by technology is in what is known as “Islamic computing.” An example of this is a software program, which can be downloaded onto a smart phone, that tells the exact time that Muslims have to pray to God. Another application facilitates online banking according to the Islamic system. These are just some of the current applications of modern technology to religious practice. In Thailand, many also use the social media to propagate teachings and to coordinate real world activities such as merit making ceremonies.

The use of technology is not limited to facilitating religious practice, however. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said that if the findings of science happen to contradict some of the content by past masters, then he would be willing to forego the masters’ teachings and embrace the scientific findings instead. He says: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview” (Tenzin Gyatso 2005). For example, Buddhism has an elaborate cosmology which claims that there is a central mountain that acts as the core at the center of the world and that the core is ringed by seven smaller mountains. The pillar also supports many layers of heavens and hells. According to the Dalai Lama, this belief has to change in light of the findings of science that show the geographical nature of the world as well as the place of the planet earth in the solar system. This shows that the idea of the world being supported by a central mountain is untenable. One can still be a good Buddhist without believing in the central mountain. Thus the teachings of Buddhism can then be enriched by these findings from science. Instead of believing that the earth is supported by a perfectly straight central pillar, something which cannot be supported by empirical evidence, Buddhists can believe instead that the earth is not supported by anything but float in space and orbit the sun as the third planet of the Solar System.




Such a belief, I would like to add, does not interfere with the main message of Buddhism, and in the case of other religions, this appears to be true also. A true believer and practitioner of a religion does not have to shut himself or herself off from the advancement in science and technology. Instead he or she finds a congruence, a harmony between science and religion such that the main message of the religion remains intact while becoming part of the scientific world. Becoming a part of the scientific world does not mean that one becomes “scientistic,” i.e., one who blindly follows everything in science and totally believes that science is superior to all other intellectual or spiritual endeavors. Such a person is indeed entirely ignorant. Integrating science and technology into our lives does not have to mean that we become scientistic in this sense. On the contrary, as our discussion on the ethics of science and technology shows, we stand in a real need for religious insights which would help us see the potentially disastrous consequences of technoscience. By doing that we do not become religious fanatics either. In fact religious fanatics, those who blindly believe in the content of religious teachings without reason, and those who are scientistic are but two sides of one and the same coin—they blindly believe in what they want to believe without proper investigation and examination through reason. Today’s world does not need those mindsets, but we need a way in which religion and technoscience to engage in meaningful dialogs so that we human beings can really flourish in both material and spiritual senses.



Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. (2005). Our faith in science. New York Times. November 12, 2005. Available at [Retrieved December 16, 2012].

Varela, Francisco J. (2012). Buddhism and modern science: the importance of the encounter with Buddhism for modern science. Available at [Retrieved December 16, 2012].

Flanagan, Owen. (2011). Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.









การประชุมเรือง “พุทธธรรมกับการเปลี่ยนแปลงภายใน” คณะอักษรศาสตร์ จฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย



วันเสาร์ 27 ตุลาคม 2555 เวลา 09.00-17.30น.
ห้อง105 อาคารมหาจุฬาลงกรณ์ จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย

จัดโดย มูลนิธิพันดารา ร่วมกับ ศูนย์จริยธรรมวิทยาศาสตร์และเทคโนโลยี
คณะอักษรศาสตร์ จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย

มูลนิธิพันดารา องค์กรส่งเสริมภูมิปัญญาทิเบต/หิมาลัยและสร้างความเข้าใจอันดีระหว่างนิกายต่างๆในพระพุทธศาสนาและศาสนาต่างๆ โดยความร่วมมือกับศูนย์จริยธรรมวิทยาศาสตร์และเทคโนโลยี คณะอักษรศาสตร์ จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย ได้จัดกิจกรรมประชุม เสวนาและบรรยายธรรมมาอย่างต่อเนื่องนับแต่ปี พ.ศ. 2547 โดยมีวัตถุประสงค์เพื่อให้เกิดการแลกเปลี่ยนความรู้และประสบการณ์ระหว่างนักวิชาการ ผู้ปฏิบัติธรรม กับประชาชนผู้สนใจทั่วไปและเพื่อให้เกิดการตื่นตัวในสังคมเกี่ยวกับความสำคัญของความรักความกรุณาและมิติทางจิตวิญญาณในชีวิตสมัยใหม่

เนื่องจากในปีพุทธศักราช 2555 เป็นปีมหามงคลเพราะครบรอบการตรัสรู้ธรรมของพระพุทธเจ้าสมณโคดม 2,600 ปี คณะผู้จัดจึงเห็นความสำคัญของการจัดเสวนาเรื่อง “พุทธธรรมกับการเปลี่ยนแปลงภายใน” เพื่อมอบความรู้ให้เป็นวิทยาทานแก่สังคม เพื่อให้เกิดการสนทนาเกี่ยวกับสิ่งที่พุทธธรรมนำมาให้กับชีวิต ตลอดจนการประสานธรรมะกับการดำรงชีวิต

นอกจากนี้ ในเสวนานี้จะมีการสนทนาเกี่ยวกับภูเขาไกรลาศ ซึ่งนอกจากจะเป็นสถานจาริกแสวงบุญของศาสนาฮินดู ศาสนาเชน และศาสนาพุทธ (ทั้งนิกายพุทธทั่วไปและนิกายพุทธเพิน) แล้ว ยังเป็นสัญลักษณ์ของสันติภาพและความปรองดอง คณะผู้จัดจึงเห็นสมควรให้มีการสนทนาเกี่ยวกับข้อคิดทางธรรมที่ได้จากการเดินทางไปจาริกแสวงบุญที่ภูเขาลูกนี้ โดยประเด็นหลักของการสนทนาจะเน้นการเดินทางภายในและการเปลี่ยนแปลงจิตใจอันมีผลต่อการดำเนินชีวิตหลังการจาริก

ทางการประชุมจะมีอาหารว่างและเครื่องดื่มบริการ ส่วนอาหารกลางวันผู้เข้าร่วมประชุมสามารถรับประทานได้ที่โรงอาหารคณะอักษรศาสตร์ จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย ซึ่งอยู่ติดกับห้องประชุม

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วันเสาร์ที่ 27 ตุลาคม 2555
8.45 น. ลงทะเบียนและรับเอกสาร
9.15 น. เปิดงาน
อาจารย์โสรัจจ์ หงศ์ลดารมภ์ (อาจารย์ภาควิชาปรัชญาและผู้อำนวยการ ศูนย์
จริยธรรมวิทยาศาสตร์และเทคโนโลยี จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย)
9.30 น. “ปรัชญาปารมิตา”
อาจารย์ประมวล เพ็งจันทร์ (อดีตอาจารย์มหาวิทยาลัยเชียงใหม่ ผู้จาริกแสวงบุญ
10.30 น. ซักถาม/พักรับประทานเครื่องดื่ม
10.50 น. รายงาน “ความก้าวหน้าในการดำเนินโครงการพระศานติตารามหาสถูป”
11.00 น. “พุทธธรรมกับการเปลี่ยนแปลงภายใน”
คุณรสนา โตสิตระกูล (สมาชิกวุฒิสภา กรุงเทพมหานคร)
12.00 น. พักรับประทานอาหารกลางวัน
13.00 น. ธรรมะจากทิเบตกับมุมมองของชีวิต
อาจารย์กฤษดาวรรณ หงศ์ลดารมภ์ (อาจารย์ด้านทิเบตศึกษา ผู้จาริกแสวงบุญ)
14.00 น. แนะนำวัฒนธรรมชาทิเบตและชวนชิมชา
อาจารย์มิว เยินเต็น/ Mr. Meu Yonten Tongdrol (อาจารย์ด้านวัฒนธรรมทิเบต)
15.00 น. เสวนาเรื่อง “ไกรลาศ : ธรรมะจากการจาริก”
อาจารย์สิริเกียรติ บุญวรเศรษฐ์ (อาจารย์มหาวิทยาลัยมหิดล ผู้ค้นหาปรมัตถ
สัจจะจากทั้งภายนอกและภายใน), คุณวราวุธ ศรีโสภาค (นักเดินทาง
-ถ่ายภาพ), อาจารย์กฤษดาวรรณ หงศ์ลดารมภ์ ดำเนินรายการโดยคุณกุณฑ์ สุจริต
กุล (นักศึกษามหาวิทยาลัยนาโรปะ ผู้แสวงหาภูมิปัญญาทิเบต/หิมาลัย)
17.30 น. จบกิจกรรม


รศ. ดร. ประมวล เพ็งจันทร์
อาจารย์ประมวล เกิดที่เกาะสมุย จังหวัดสุราษฎร์ธานี จบการศึกษาตรี-เอกด้านปรัชญา จากประเทศอินเดีย เคยเป็นอาจารย์ประจำภาควิชาปรัชญาและศาสนา คณะมนุษยศาสตร์ มหาวิทยาลัยเชียงใหม่ (พ.ศ. 2532-2548) เป็นนักวิชาการมหาวิทยาลัยเที่ยงคืน อาจารย์ประมวลเดินเท้า 66 วันเพื่อแสวงหาสัจธรรมและประสบการณ์ด้านจิตวิญญาณจากเชียงใหม่ถึงเกาะสมุย และได้ถ่ายทอดประสบการณ์นั้นเป็นหนังสืองดงามชื่อว่า “เดินสู่อิสรภาพ”

คุณรสนา โตสิตระกูล
คุณรสนาเคยเป็นนักพัฒนาองค์กรที่ทำงานเพื่อสาธารณประโยชน์ ได้ดำเนินโครงการเกี่ยวกับการทุจริตยา การสกัดกั้นการแปรรูปการไฟฟ้าฝ่ายผลิตแห่งประเทศไทย งานพัฒนาสมุนไพรและสาธารณสุของค์รวม ปัจจุบันเป็นสมาชิกวุฒิสภา กรุงเทพมหานคร คุณรสนายังเป็นนักคิดคนสำคัญของประเทศไทย มีผลงานแปลและเขียนหลายเล่ม อาทิ “ปฏิวัติยุคสมัยด้วยฟางเส้นเดียว” โดยมาซาโนบุ ฟูกูโอกะ “เดิน : วิถีแห่งสติ” โดย ติช นัท ฮันท์ “จุดเปลี่ยนแห่งศตวรรษ” โดยฟริตจ๊อป คราปร้า เป็นต้น

รศ. ดร. กฤษดาวรรณ หงศ์ลดารมภ์
อาจารย์กฤษดาวรรณ เคยเป็นอาจารย์ประจำภาควิชาภาษาศาสตร์ คณะอักษรศาสตร์ จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย เป็นเวลา 14 ปี ลาออกใน ปี พ.ศ. 2550 เพื่อทุ่มเทเวลาให้กับมูลนิธิพันดาราและเพื่อการปฏิบัติธรรม ได้เดินทางจาริกแสวงบุญด้วยการกราบอัษฎางคประดิษฐ์ในทิเบตสองครั้งรวมระยะทางกว่า 100 กิโลเมตร งานสำคัญของชีวิตคือการสร้างพระสถูปแบบทิเบตและจัดอบรมภาวนาเพื่อพัฒนาจิตใจของผู้คน ณ ศูนย์ขทิรวัน หัวหินอันเป็นบ้านเกิด อ.กฤษดาวรรณมีงานเขียนหลายเล่ม อาทิ “ทิเบต : ขอบฟ้าที่สูญหายไป” “แสงจันทร์เหนือยอดสนกับความทรงจำอันงดงาม” “แทบธุลีดิน 18 วัน 80 กิโลเมตรกับการจาริกบนหลังคาโลก” และงานแปลเรื่อง “ประตูสู่พุทธเพิน : แสงธรรมจากทิเบต” โดยลาตรี ญีมา ทรักปา ริมโปเช

อาจารย์มิว เยินเต็น (Aj. Meu Yonten)
อาจารย์เยินเต็น เคยบวชเป็นพระภิกษุเป็นเวลาถึง 27 ปีที่วัดตกเต็น เมืองงาวา แคว้นอัมโด ทิเบตตะวันออก ซึ่งปัจจุบันอยู่ในมณฑลเสฉวน ประเทศจีน ในขณะที่บวชเรียน ได้ทำงานเป็นบรรณาธิการนิตยสารชื่อ “แสงธรรมจากภูเขาหิมะ” ต่อมาได้มีโอกาสไปเรียนภาษาจีนและภาษาอังกฤษที่มหาวิทยาลัยชนชาติกลุ่มน้อย นครเฉิงตู ตัดสินใจลาสิกขาเพื่อให้สามารถทำงานเพื่อสังคมได้มากขึ้น อาจารย์ เยินเต็น ทำงานกับมูลนิธิพันดารามาตั้งแต่ปี พ.ศ. 2548 จนถึงปัจจุบันโดยทำหน้าที่เป็นครูสอนภาษาและศิลปวัฒนธรรมทิเบต และผู้จัดการโครงการ ศูนย์ขทิรวัน

อาจารย์สิริเกียรติ์ บุญวรเศรษฐ์
อาจารย์สิริเกียรติ์ อาจารย์ มหาวิทยาลัยมหิดล ใช้เวลาหลายปีที่ผ่านมาศึกษารากฐานของศาสนาสำคัญหลายศาสนา รวมถึงการไปเยือนสถานที่สำคัญของศาสนาหลักของโลก ทั้ง กรุงเยรูซาเลม กรุงโรม กรุงปักกิ่งและอินเดีย/เนปาล รวมถึงใช้เวลาส่วนใหญ่ศึกษาพุทธนิกายมหายาน แบบทิเบต ได้มีโอกาสศึกษาพระธรรมจากสมเด็จองค์ดาไลลามะและท่านรินโปเชสำคัญของทิเบต ล่าสุด อ สิริเกียรติ์ เยือนภูเขาไกรลาศเมื่อสิงหาคมที่ผ่านมา

คุณวราวุธ ศรีโสภาค
นักเดินทาง-ถ่ายภาพ (มือสมัครเล่น) จบการศึกษาด้านโบราณคดีจากมหาวิทยาลัยศิลปากร เคยทำงานเป็นนักเขียนบทและโปรดิวเซอร์รายการสารคดีโทรทัศน์ด้านศิลปวัฒนธรรมและการท่องเที่ยว และครีเอทีฟงานออกแบบพิพิธภัณฑ์ รักการเดินทางไปในโลกกว้างเพื่อเปิดโลกทัศน์ สะสมประสบการณ์ที่แตกต่างหลากหลายให้คุ้มค่ากับที่ได้เกิดมาบนโลกใบนี้ และถ่ายทอดเรื่องราวสิ่งที่พบเห็นลงในภาพถ่าย เชื่อว่าการเดินทางท่องเที่ยวช่วยสร้างความเข้าใจและทัศนคติที่ดีต่อกันระหว่างผู้คนในท้องถิ่นต่างๆ ของโลก

คุณกุณฑ์ สุจริตกุล
นักศึกษาด้าน Contemplative Education มหาวิทยาลัยนาโรปะ ประเทศสหรัฐอเมริกา ช่วยงานพุทธเพื่อคนรุ่นใหม่ที่หอจดหมายเหตุพุทธทาสฯ พร้อมกับเป็นไกค์มือสมัครเล่นพาผู้คนไปเรียนรู้ภูฐาน เพราะหลงรักดินแดนพุทธหิมาลัย


(Infinite) Extension of Human Lifespan – What Would a Buddhist Say?

I have just returned from Rotterdam where the World Congress of Bioethics was held. It is a big event, with almost 1,000 participants coming from all over the world. The names of the participants look almost an international Who’s Who in bioethics, a broad field that comprises philosophy, sociology, law, medicine and many others. Among the many sessions at the congress were quite a few on the ethics of lifespan extension. This is a new phenomenon at the World Congress of Bioethics because aging and lifespan extension issues have not figured this prominently. Perhaps this is a reflection of the time. When the technology is there, or somehow promises to be there, bioethicists will surely take it up and talk about it.

At this World Congress Aubrey de Grey, one of the most famous advocates of technology of lifespan extension presented his view on the topic. De Grey is very well known for his championing the cause, and he would like us to believe that the technology that could potentially extend human lifespan significantly is on the horizon. Not only that, but the kind of technology that could eliminate all causes of aging is no longer a fantasy. Before too long, according to him, we would have the means to eliminate aging from our life, with the result that each of us could, potentially, stop of age, so to speak, and decide whether we can stay at the age of our own choosing. One might choose to stay 24 for a very, very long period of time; or one might choose to remain 36. The bottom line is that, once the biological and pathological causes of aging are eliminated, then human beings can stay young for as long as they like, and there is nothing in principle to hold us back from becoming, say, 1,000 years old or more. De Grey is more of a scientist by training, but he presents his talk to the group of bioethicists by saying that all this is a good thing. We human beings are standing on the threshold of a huge transformation that promises to bring very long lifespan, if not immortality itself, to ourselves.

De Grey giving the talk
De Grey giving the talk

This demands a response from a Buddhist. What de Grey is talking is nothing less than the promise that technology could well realize immortality for us humans! Immortality. No less. Humans have dreamed about immortality for a long time. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, was well known for his attempt to become immortalized by searching for the elixir of life, but ironically what he thought to be the elixir in fact shorted his life considerably because it contained a very high amount of mercury. People have come to believe that all human life is limited. Death is always upon us. There is no escaping it. But de Grey came all the way from Britain to tell us that we humans can actually become immortal. It is rather hard to believe. Furthermore, when he says that we should all celebrate the likelihood that we will be able to expand our lifespan very considerably, I myself feel a bit uneasy, not only because it runs directly against my Buddhist sentiment, but also because of the confidence that he shows and his total belief that this possibility of very long lifespan extension is upon us.

According to Buddhism, as is well known, all created things undergo birth, decay and dissolution. Every thing has its own time limit. The limit can be long or short, but it is always finite. This is the fate of all created things, human beings included. So when de Grey came in and delivered this talk that humans could in the near future achieve something like the beginning of immortality, this was shocking to say the least. So this demands a response.

I will not talk about the scientific or technical aspect of the technology of lifespan extension here. Let us grant that what de Grey is talking about is true, that technologies will shortly be developed that will eliminate all causes of aging and can rejuvenate our bodies in the same way as certain species of jellyfish do. Let us suppose that humans can really become immortal. Now the question is: What would a Buddhist say to all this? Is it a good, or bad thing?

We have to admit that there are no immortal creatures in Buddhist cosmology. The longest living samsaric creature, Brahmas, live for a very large number of aeons, but still they die. If humans really do become immortal, they would certainly disrupt the system of rebirths and reincarnations. So this situation does have no precedence in Buddhism. If humans do in fact become immortal, we cannot find any case in Buddhist cosmology to use as an example. There is just no immortal creature in all of samsara. So we have to do some interpretation here.

However, one might object that even in de Grey’s most optimistic scenario, people die anyway. Some may die of accidents (being run by a truck – de Grey’s own example) or being murdered, or committing suicide, for example. So at least some of de Grey’s immortal creatures do actually die. But in principle if one avoids these causes one can stay on forever. Is that a good thing? Many participants at the conference believe so. Some say that the increased lfiespan brings them more chance to do whatever they wanted to do and did not have a chance. But I think that if you have an infinite lifespan, all things that you wanted to do because you did not have a chance would then become rather tedious. Things have value to us because they are hard to get, and the fact that we have a limited time in this world shows that we have to make a choice, an irreversible choice. This is important. The fact that our choice is irreversible makes the choice a meaningful one. The choice will stick with us throughout our lifetime. There is no way for us to go back in time and change it. But if our lifespan becomes infinite as de Grey says, no choice of ours will be really irreversible. We would be in the situation of someone with an infinite amount of money to spend who is in the midst of a very large shopping mall with all the goodies that a human being can possibly want. With an infinite amount of space and time, we might delude ourselves thinking that all the choices — all those things that we want but could not get — will be finally available. But the value of things diminish the easier they come by to us. And if infinitely many things are available for us through an infinite amount of time we have, those things will cease to be valuable. They will just look and feel the same. What makes we think that those things we could not get now are valuable is our expection and our desire for them — it is the fact that they are not there for us that makes it desirable. But if everything is there for our taking and picking, then certainly we will lose interest. And I am afraid that this will be our lot should we really become immortal. I would perhaps prefer a life situation where there is a frame, a clear demarcation of the beginning and the end. This somehow gives me a sense of a meaningful life.

There is quite a bit of Buddhism in the idea above, but this is not unique to Buddhism at all. I have more points to discuss, but this is too long already. So those points have to wait.