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Discourse Scholarship

Commentary on John Peacock’s Buddhism Before the Theravada Part 1

This post accompanies a podcast episode and a transcript of Peacock’s talk. I’d love to hear what you think.

Happy reading!


It is a lovely July morning. BooBear kisses me farewell and I, grinagog, board the Greyhound bus which is to spend the day ferrying me from Baltimore, MD to New York State. I trot back to an empty window seat and wave enthusiastically to BooBear; we are sickly adorable several minutes, blowing kisses and waving until we realize the bus driver is in no hurry to depart. BooBear yawns theatrically, checks his watch. I laugh; with a final flourish of an air kiss he is off and I am free to nestle in. My journey has begun.

I smile and smile and occasionally giggle aloud to myself. My destination today is Omega Retreat Center; I will be attending the first of several courses in the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) teacher training syllabus. The bus ride itself is only one step among many, but it feels momentous somehow. I am marking the beginning of my new life as a mindfulness teacher. I am excited. I am enthusiastic. I am leaning hard into this moment.

In preparation for the travel I downloaded a series of six talks by a then-unknown-to-me teacher, John Peacock. The recommendation for the talks had come from some random Reddit thread; my expectations were solidly moderate. If I had known the effect these talks would have on my future dharma-life I would have been far more excited listening to them then I was traveling to Omega. We never know, do we, what will really make the difference?

The bus driver finally turns the key and my chariot rumbles to life. I curl up in my window seat and wrap an enormous scarf round myself to ward off the icey blast of air conditioning. As the landscape of central Maryland begins to roll past, I tuck into noise-canceling headphones and press play.


It’s worth taking a moment here to interject. If you’ve not actually listened to Peacock’s talks, at least the first one, leave off this post immediately and go have a listen. If what you want is reading, the transcript is here. Co-Host (aka BooBear) and I discuss this talk in Episode 2 of the podcast, but nothing I’ve said or written is as good as what Peacock has said. It’s okay. You go ahead. I’ll wait here. :)


Welcome back!

So you’ve heard it now. I don’t need to explain the revelation that a talk like this could be to the padawan I was. Here was a person who combined several decades of deeply immersive practice with an acute academic mind. Someone articulate and experienced in religious Eastern practices, but maintaining a secular Western worldview. Someone who understood the teachings of Gotama to a depth I had not previously encountered. And having come to know the teachings in this way, his conclusion was that we should “strip … Buddhist teaching of its religiosity”.[^1] I was captivated.

[^1]: Quotes in this post are from Peacock’s talk “Buddhism Before the Theravada, Part 1” unless noted otherwise.

The series of talks, entitled “Buddhism Before the Theravada”, are ostensibly an explication by Peacock of the culture and teachings during Gotama’s time (about 500 BCE) up until when the Theravada religious traditions began. [^2] I say it’s “ostensibly” an explication because, for me, what was more important than any particular fact was the attitude that Peacock brings to the material. [^3]

[^2]: Peacock explains that the Theravada religion began after Buddhaghosa wrote the Visuddhimagga (the “Path of Purification”) in about 500 CE. So about a thousand years after Gotama’s death.

[^3]: By material, I mean the teachings, the texts of the Nikayas, and the various Buddhist religious traditions.

In this blog post I’d like to address what I think are Peacock’s two most important points in this first of the series of talks.
1, Gotama was not creating a religion, and
2, Gotama engaged intensively with his culture, and we should do the same.

I created a MindMap to prepare for the podcast episode:

1. Gotama was not creating a religion.

Peacock claims in this talk that Gotama was striving contrary to the “religions” of his time. But, he says, even using the word “religion” to describe what the other traditions (Jainism and Brahmanism in particular) were doing is a misnomer. Peacock clarifies that religions, as we understand them in the West, are based around orthodoxies. Religions are about what one believes. “They’re about what you subscribe to in belief systems. … A classic example is the Christian catechism. The Christian catechism tells what it is to be a Christian. So you subscribe to a set of propositions, which you believe in. … And that is really what marks you out as a member of that church or that religious organization. Whereas actually, in India, what we have are not orthodoxies, but ortho-praxies. Orthopraxies. They’re about what you do rather than what you believe.” (13:25)

So if Gotama was not creating a religion, what was he doing? I’m drawing on a mixed bag of scholarship here, Alan Watts, Stephen Batchelor, and John Peacock in particular when I answer thusly: Gotama was defining a path of liberation. Or, in more Western terminology, and the way I prefer to phrase it, he was formulating a pragmatic philosophy of human flourishing.

What’s the difference? I see two main differences. The first is in this notion of ortho-doxy versus ortho-praxy. A religion is a belief system, a pragmatic philosophy is something one does. And one responds to what one discovers in this doing. It is empirically based, and it is flexible; it responds to one’s experience.

In the Kesaputtiya Sutta (Kālāma Sutta), Gotama himself speaks contra belief and pro practice:

Do not go by oral traditions, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of the speaker, or because you think, ‘That wanderer is my guru.’

When you know for yourselves, ‘These things are unwholesome; these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering,’ then you should let go of them.

When you know for yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome; these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if accepted and undertaken, lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should live in accordance with them.

(Bodhi/Batchelor) (AN 3:65)

And in the Ambalaṭṭhikārāhulovāda Sutta (Advice to Rāhula), when speaking to his son, Gotama says that the only way to know if an action is skillful or unskillful is to reflect on it before, during, and after:

“Rāhula, when you wish to do an action … you should reflect upon that same … action thus: ‘Would this action that I wish to do … lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Is it an unwholesome … action with painful consequences, with painful results?’” If you believe it to be unwholesome/unskillful, “then you definitely should not do such an action…” But if you believe it to be wholesome/skillful, “Then you may do such an action.”

“Also, Rāhula, while you are doing an action … you should reflect upon that same … action thus: ‘Does this action that I wish to do … lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Is it an unwholesome … action with painful consequences, with painful results?’” If yes, don’t do it. If no, “you may continue in such … action.”

And finally, “… after you have done an action … you should reflect upon that same … action thus: ‘Did this action that I did … lead to my own affliction, or to the affliction of others, or to the affliction of both? Was it an unwholesome … action with painful consequences, with painful results?” If yes, don’t do it again. If no, then you may do it again.

(Bodhi, MN:61)

Only in experimenting and paying close attention to the results of our experience can we know if actions are skillful or unskillful. This is about as far from orthodoxy as it gets.

The second aspect of not-creating-a-religion was Gotama’s posture of “turning away from the metaphysical and bringing it to the actual.” Peacock highlights several suttas, again, this is all coming from the Nikayas, he highlights several suttas where Gotama speaks against metaphysics. “[Gotama] says that when we stray outside of our natural habitat, just like an animal that strays outside of its natural habitat, it encounters danger. And that’s when we start to go off into metaphysical thinking, that’s when we become in a dangerous situation. We are ungrounded. We are literally not grounded in anything we can know.” (1:35:17) (Sakunagghi Sutta: The Hawk, SN 47.6)

Peacock says that Gotama is, “ trying to take [the teachings] out of consolatory metaphysics. Anything that will bring you consolation, but isn’t rooted in this world at all. In fact, in many suttas, he said, ‘we stray outside of our habitat, the moment we start to look for metaphysical explanations for things.’ We literally get nowhere.” In the Tevijja Sutta, in the Digha Nikaya, “again, this is a sutta that points up the uselessness of the metaphysical. In fact, in one particular instance it’s described as a staircase to a house being built at a crossroad with no house round it. And it’s just going up into the sky and goes nowhere. Literally goes nowhere.” (57:39)

So, bringing it back around: my first point is that Gotama was not creating a religion, but rather a pragmatic philosophy of human flourishing. He was doing this by 1, turning away from a system based on beliefs and rituals and towards a close examination of personal experience and 2, turning away from consolatory metaphysics towards everyday life.

2. Gotama engaged intensively with his culture. And we should, too.

Peacock does not hedge: “the Buddha engaged absolutely intensively with his culture. And that’s what we need to do with our culture. If Buddhism is to become part of Western culture … then it’s got to engage intensively with our cultures.”

This is how Buddhism survived its major cultural migrations from India to Sri Lanka, China, Japan, East and Southeast Asia. The people who encountered it saw its application and were determined to assimilate it into their culture.

I still have much learning to do, but I am convinced by folks like Stephen Batchelor, John Peacock, and Akincano Weber who claim that Gotama’s teaching was situational. That he was interested in causes and conditions, and in situational ethics. Consider the line in the Khandhasamyutta:

“Of that which the wise (paitā) in the world agree upon as not existing, I too say that it does not exist. And of that which the wise in the world agree upon as existing, I too say that it exists.” (SN 22:94, Bodhi, pg 949)

In Secular Buddhism Stephen Batchelor says of this line, “to me it shows quite explicitly that the Buddha’s not actually interested in getting his view of reality correct. That’s not what he’s into.” If Gotama spoke of rebirth and devas, it was because that was what the wise of his time believed to be true. In the same way that today the wise believe the earth is round and that our universe operates according to relativity, many of us believe these things without, for the most part, being able to defend those beliefs.

What I’m getting at here is the notion that Gotama would probably approve of us letting go of those aspects of his teachings that are culturally dependent. I believe he would be the first to insist that we turn away from old beliefs that no longer serve, as he did with many of the Vedic and Upanishadic traditions. We might, for example, let go of the belief of Māra as a metaphysically real being and instead explore the findings of evolutionary psychology to understand the functioning of our minds.

Over in the podcast, we talked about this:

Co-Host: So if I understand correctly, Gotama engaged with the culture of his time and therefore, is the point you’re making, therefore we too ought to engage, not with the culture of Gotama’s time, but with the culture of today.

Shannon: Yeah. And not, “he did therefore we should”, but, “He did. And also we should.” It isn’t helpful to engage with a culture that didn’t have evolution as a concept and didn’t know about antibiotics.

Co-host: We can get stuck a little bit. We can create paradoxes for ourselves if we get too invested in the culture of Gotama’s time.

Precisely. We can create paradoxes for ourselves if we get too invested in the culture of Gotama’s time.

What might it mean to engage intensively with our culture? Well, for one thing, and I highlight this in the podcast episode, I agree with Peacock that we need to critically re-assess the Pāli-English dictionary. Peacock says he wants to “strip a lot of Buddhist teaching of its religiosity” (2:06). Language is a big part of that. He says in Part 2, “we can get led into a religiosity simply by the language that we use, [language] which isn’t present in the early texts.”

“And if there’s anything I’d like to do, it’s actually reform all of the words we use in Buddhism. Because hardly any of them actually ever mean what the Pāli terms mean. Or the Sanskrit terms mean. They were invented by Pāli scholars in the 19th century, and they cannot be blamed for it, because they were drawing on the only culture they knew, which was obviously Christianity, or Judeo-Christianity. And they drew upon and derived the vocabulary primarily from that. So most of the classic vocabulary we have that translates Buddhist terms is wrong. I wouldn’t even say just partly wrong, sometimes just completely wrong. And it gives a very misleading perception of what Buddhism was at this early stage. And it makes it look, and this is the reason why I’m saying this, it makes it religious.” (12:00)

One particularly modern cultural concern: I believe that the climate crisis is sufficiently threatening to human (and all other species’) flourishing that it should become a part of our discussion. I don’t wish to conjecture about whether or not Gotama would agree with me on this one. I see this as a crucial aspect of modern culture, and like the XR Buddhists, believe it is wholesome and skillful to bear witness to and bring attention to the issue.

Again, to recap: my second point is that Gotama engaged intensively with his culture. And we should, too.

I didn’t feel on the podcast that there was room to do much more than highlight these two aspects of Peacocks’ talk. We’re still figuring out this podcasting thing; but now having written this enormous blog post I have some confidence saying that, for me, this talk of Peacock’s revolves around two main points:

  1. Gotama was not creating a religion, but rather a pragmatic philosophy of human flourishing. He was doing this by:
    i, turning away from a system based on beliefs and rituals and towards a close examination of personal experience and
    ii, turning away from consolatory metaphysics.
  2. Gotama engaged intensively with his culture. And we should, too.

Frankly, that feels like more than one lifetime of work. :)


As you know, Dharma PhD is very much about a human being and a human understanding as a work in progress. In that vein, I’d like to offer my major markups of the transcript for your review here. Below are some of the highlights; you can get the entire transcript here.

  • 2:03 – What Peacock wants to do is “strip … Buddhist teaching of its religiosity. To get it back to something, perhaps, and I do say ‘perhaps’ because there’s no guarantee of this at all. So I put the perhaps even in scare quotes, perhaps to something closer to what the Buddha was actually doing.”
  • 2:50 – The Buddha engaged with his culture and we must, too. “Buddhism does not arise in a vacuum.”
  • 3:45 – “…the Buddha engaged absolutely intensively with his culture. And that’s what we need to do with our culture if Buddhism is to become part of Western culture. … it’s got to engage intensively with our cultures. This is what the Buddha actually did with his own culture. He engaged in this really deep dialectical tradition of looking at and critiquing what was going on there.”
  • 4:20 – Buddhism doesn’t mean anything. it’s an invention of the western academy. “Buddhist practice or Buddhist values, rather than Buddhism, I actually don’t like that word. I mean, what does Buddhism actually mean? It doesn’t really mean anything. It was an invention of the Western Academy. It was an invention of academics, primarily.”
  • 04:30 – “If anything … Buddhism means simply “wake up-ism”. That’s all it means. Actually, that’s not too bad. I’d actually prefer wake-up-ism to Buddhism.”
  • 06:09 – Peacock is speaking from the [Nikayas](!w link) which are, he says, is, “an absolute goldmine of material, which I think, and this is my own personal view … material which has never really been utilized by the traditions.”
  • 07:46 – The Theravada tradition is recent, fifth century. “…the Theravada tradition, let’s make it very, very clear. The Theravada tradition as we have it in all of its manifestations in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, all these places that it went to, is quite a recent product. It’s a product of the fifth century…” I’m curious to know how he knows this, what scholars are talking about this. Possibly [this book](link to The Shape of Ancient Thought) is a place to begin the exploration. “This figure called Buddhaghosa. Who writes this encyclopedic manual called the Visuddhimagga in Pāli, the “Path of Purification” or the “Path to Purity”. He really is the founder of Theravada as we know it. We know very, very little about what came before.”
  • 09:10 – “Ancient India at the time of the Buddha is a time of change. Well, you’d expect that wouldn’t you, given that’s one of the Buddha’s basic teachings.”
  • 12:00 – Peacock wants to reform the language we use when talking about Gotama’s teachings. The translations are not accurate. Shannon’s version of this claim: we need to re-write the Pāli-English dictionary. “And if there’s anything I’d like to do, it’s actually reform all of the words we use in Buddhism. Because hardly any of them actually ever mean what the Pāli terms mean. Or the Sanskrit terms mean. They were invented by Pāli scholars in the 19th century, and they cannot be blamed for it, because they were drawing on the only culture they knew, which was obviously Christianity, or Judeo-Christianity. And they drew upon and derived the vocabulary primarily from that. So most of the classic vocabulary we have that translates Buddhist terms is wrong. I wouldn’t even say just partly wrong, sometimes just completely wrong. And it gives a very misleading perception of what Buddhism was at this early stage. And it makes it look, and this is the reason why I’m saying this, it makes it religious.”
  • 12:58 – Religion, in the sense we have it in the west, isn’t what they had/have in india. It’s not about beliefs, it’s about action.
  • 14:05 – In India, we there are not orthodoxies, but ortho-praxies. (I’ve addressed this above, but here’s the time-stamp…) “Whereas actually, in India, what we have are not orthodoxies, but ortho-praxies. Orthopraxies. They’re about what you do rather than what you believe.”
  • 15:35 – Hinduism was not in the time of the Buddha; what existed was Brahmanism.
  • 50:00 – Not self is one of the two primary cultural metaphysical claims the Buddha attacks.
  • 50:35 – Brahmanical ideas infect later Buddhism.
  • 52:40 – Gotama intentionally misquotes and ridicules other “religious” teachings. The Buddha uses this in a particular text called the Aggañña Sutta, which is in the Digha Nikaya, in The Long Discourses of the Buddha. And again, you’ll find elements of it misquoted deliberately. To make fun of it. Because this is actually called the poem of creation. The Aggañña Sutta is a huge joke, by the Buddha, that the Theravada tradition takes literally. Because they’ve forgotten the context in which the joke was made, which was actually attacking this particular piece of Vedic literature.
  • 56:20 – Gotama was turning away from the metaphysical towards the actual. “this is really the way that you should hear the Buddha’s teaching. It’s in relationship, obviously, to all this cultural stuff, which I’m only giving you a very brief taste of. It’s in relationship to all of this cultural stuff. But it’s in relationship to turning away from the metaphysical and bringing it to the actual. To what and where we actually live.”
  • 57:09 – Gotama is taking the teachings of his day out of consolatory metaphysics. “This is what the teaching is. It’s not an ism, in that sense. So what he’s doing is he’s trying to take it out of consolatory metaphysics. Anything that will bring you consolation, but isn’t rooted in this world at all. In fact, in many suttas, he said, “we stray outside of our habitat, the moment we start to look for metaphysical explanations for things. We literally get nowhere. There’s a very famous text in the Digha Nikaya again, which is known, some of you might know it, called the Tevijja Sutta. And again, this is a sutta that points up the uselessness of the metaphysical. In fact, in one particular instance it’s described as a staircase to a house being built at a crossroad with no house round it. And it’s just going up into the sky and goes nowhere. Literally goes nowhere.”
  • 59:50 – Gotama never uses the word Buddha in the Sutta Pitaka (the Nikayas). “I want to question that word as well. Buddha. The word never occurs in any of the texts. Have you noticed that?”
  • 1:00:13 – The biography of Gotama is not a biography, but a hagiography. “the biography of the Buddha is not a biography. The biography is more in Western terms, what we refer to as a hagiography. … The most biographical information that you’ll find, generally, is situated in the Majjhima Nikaya, in the Middle Length Discourses, in a discourse which is known as the Ariyapariyesana.”
  • 1:01:38 – The mythology of the Buddha’s life is a mythology written down 500 years after the Buddha died. “the full blown mythology, which I’m sure you’re all familiar with, of the Buddha’s life is exactly that. It’s a mythology. The first biography was written of the Buddha five hundred years after he died. It’s something written by somebody called Asvaghosa. The Buddhacarita, which is a Sanskrit text. Just on the cusp, really, of the development of the Mahayana as a fully blown movement. And there we see changes starting to occur to the nature of the figure of this person who we call the Buddha.”
  • 1:02:19 – Gotama puns with language and culture. “When we go back to the early texts, and this engagement with the society, what do we find? We find a very, very different figure from the mythology. What is interesting about, and I encourage you to go out and read Pāli and learn Pāli, because what you get a sense of when you look at it in the original, is somebody who has a personality. A distinct personality. He makes jokes. The jokes don’t come across very well in English. He puns. Classic way of making a joke or making a point. He puns between words that are found in Sanskrit and their derivations in Pāli. To make points. Again, usually at the disparagement of the early tradition which is there. So what he is doing, what he’s engaged in, let’s put it on one level, let me put it in one level what he’s doing. What he’s engaged in is a deep level of social critique. And ethical critique of his society.”
  • 1:05:15 – Four Noble Truths is not a great translation of Ariya Sacca. “Four Noble Truths, and that’s a bad translation of it anyway, Ariya Sacca, is a joke. It’s a joke directed at brahmanical society. Ariya Sacca. Arya, “noble”. Sacca, “truth”. Well it’s ambiguous actually, in Pāli, the word Sacca. It can mean truth and “Satya”, the Sanskrit version of it, is what the Brahmins refer to as the Truth of the Vedas. But “sacca” can mean just what is. Or existence. That something is. So these are the Noble Is-nesses. And what the Noble Is-nesses turn out to be are not the immutable truths of the Vadas and of the Brahmins, the noble ones who hold them sacred. But here’s your immutable truth, or Is-ness. Dukkha.”
  • 1:07:11 – Skipping a bit, but here it is again, “this word “Arya Sacca” as well, this phrase, actually that’s appended much later, the word “Arya Sacca”. The ex-professor of Middle Indo-Aryan Dialects at Cambridge, that shows you how esoteric this is. Roy Norman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._R._Norman#Notable_works) once said, “Out of all the possible translations of this term,” and I remember hearing him say it, “Out of all the possible translations the term ‘Arya Sacca’, ‘Four Noble Truths’ is about the worst. That’s almost inscribed in, in our kind of Buddhism, isn’t it? This is where we start: Four Noble Truths. Well, actually, one way of translating this, can again, which I think takes it much more into the pragmatic, is “Ennobling Truths”. [^8] Ennobling. It’s that which we are ennobled by inquiring into.”
  • 1:06:25 – The culture in Gotama’s day was looking outward for signs for liberation. Gotama turns it inward. “he’s taken it again from the metaphysical and placed it in the real. They look, in other words, outward for signs within what later became the texts of Brahmanism, but in those days were the oral tradition, they look for it outwardly in those sayings of the rishis and the kavyas, the poets and the rishis, who supposedly invented this stuff. And it’s all based in metaphysics and is based in the metaphysics of the gods, of the devas, and the rituals that are performed around it. And the Buddha brings it right back and says: you are experiencing dukkha. That’s your nobility.”
  • 1:08:13 – We can seek nobility, but not by birth. Rather in our inquiry into the nature of existence. “So if we inquire into dukkha, yes, we can seek nobility, the nobility of the Brahmin. But not by birth. But through the nature of our inquiry into it. We find it in the ennobling action of discerning the cause, or discerning the origin of dukkha. By actually beginning to realize its possibility of stopping. “Dukkha niroda”, the third, so called, truth. The word “niroda” is a fascinating word as well in Pāli. The word literally in Pāli means “to stop leaking”. I think it brings up kind of a whole [score of] unedifying images. Which it’s meant to. It’s a kind of incontinence. That everybody is suffering from. I’m sorry, it’s there in the texts. This is not just me.”
  • 1:09:31 continuing the same, “It’s this image of leaking, incontinently, the asavas and everything that’s derived from the asavas. The fetters, the hindrances, everything that we leak out into the world. … That word literally doesn’t mean leaking; it can mean cessation; it was what was done, again, it’s the use the Buddha made of language. Because he was speaking to ordinary people. If you don’t want to lose all the goodness and all the nutriments out of a paddy field, you’ve got to shore it up. That act of shoring it up was called niroda. To stop it from leaking. So you don’t lose, actually, all of the fertilizer, which would probably have been animal manure that would have been placed in it, which is literally like the crap that’s placed in it, to stop it from leaking- out. Where we’re stopping the leaking of the crap in a different way. By visuddhi, by purity. Again, a word that’s used in the texts, but in a different way from [how] the Brahmins would use [it] about purity.”
  • 1:10:49 – Peacock prefers “way” or “way-making” to “path”. “And finally, this ennobling activity is by walking a way. I prefer the word “way” or “way-making” to the word “path”. Path seems to me a straight line, a route march from A to B. And often, unfortunately, because of the linear structure of what we refer to as the Eightfold Path, it looks like: I take this route march from view, to mindfulness and concentration, and all the rest of it. It isn’t that. It’s complete interaction and interweaving of all of these eight aspects to actually make our way through the world. There’s been a very good point made recently, you could actually even reverse the structure of the Eightfold Path and make the way-making the way-of-making is to understand the dukkha. You can actually do that as well.”
  • 1:13:22 – “I think the Buddha is far more radical than the character who’s come down to us. He’s actually far more radical than that. And by actually even using the word Buddha I think we, even in that way, sometimes de-radicalize him.”
  • 1:14:40 – Nibbana is process; Nibbana is a verb. “…awakening is process rather than big bang. This is not striking light on the road to Damascus stuff. This is little mini awakenings. We wake up from time to time and then fall back to sleep. That’s what goes on. The more you can keep this prolongation of that process of awakening is what characterizes, I think, a figure who would be referred to as a Buddha or an arahant or whatever. So it’s an ongoing process. I don’t think it’s an end. Again, I think there’s a big metaphysics behind this. We want to see Nibbana as a big place to end up at. Nibbana as I’ve often said, … Nibbana is a verb.”
  • 1:29:28 – Gotama wants us to recognize how much metaphysical thinking we do. “I think that one of the main things that the Buddha is really getting us to become acutely aware of is that whole process. Of where we begin to think outside of the actual. Every moment we start to think outside of the actual. I mean one of your great American philosophers, William James, once said, “Even common sense is the metaphysics of the masses”. Common sense is the metaphysics of the masses. Because basically what it takes in is assumptions. About the way things are. And so wherever there are assumptions, those assumptions are not actually questioned a lot of the time. A lot of our thinking is guided, for example, by language.”
  • 1:31:55 – Skipping again, but I think this goes well here, “I think what the Buddha is really trying to do is get us to engage very intensively with our assumptions. Our ways of being misled by language. Our ways of being misled by tradition. Our ways of being misled by authority. All of these things. So it’s a really really deep investigation and inquiry that we are engaged in. An inquiry, as I would put it, into the Actual. That’s what we are inquiring. Into the actuality of our lives.”
  • 1:35:03 – more jumping around on metaphysics: when we get into metaphysics we are not grounded in anything we can know. the teaching is to bring us back to the known, to the knowable. metaphysics can be very little. just when we think about things we cannot know. “He also says, interestingly, in this other sutta … It’s in the Samyutta. He says in this little sutta, I think it’s the Sutta of the Hawk and the Quail. He says that when we stray outside of our natural habitat, just like an animal that strays outside of its natural habitat, it encounters danger. And that’s when we start to go off into metaphysical thinking, that’s when we become in a dangerous situation. We are ungrounded. We are literally not grounded in anything we can know. So the teaching is always to bring us back into the known. And the knowable. Not into that which cannot be known. It’s a good little thing to do in the day. Just think how often our thought strays off into some kind of metaphysical thinking which isn’t grounded in what we actually know. Which is in a belief, a projection, a supposition… our thinking is doing this all the time. So when we hear metaphysics, we don’t have to think of big metaphysical religious or philosophical systems, we can think of just when does our thought become ungrounded in that which is an actuality? That can be smelt, tasted, touched and known in this way.”
  • 1:30:48 – The self as grammatical problem. “And that’s a question that has often gone on in even Western thought, … really up until quite recently. Even Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher, in the 1950s is saying, he says it in Philosophical Investigations, he says, “I have the strange feeling that the self is merely a grammatical problem.” Because it’s actually the way we form sentences. It has to have a subject. We believe that the subject is a real subject. It actually exists. We say, “I am happy. I am sad.” As if there’s a substantiality to the I. Now it just might be a product of the way we form English sentences, that we have to have that grammatical subject. But some sentences we are not misled by, as I often try to point out. “It is raining.” What’s the “it”? Or where is “it”?”

If you made it this far, CONGRATULATIONS! If you’d like to comment or discuss this blog post or the work at Dharma PhD more generally, I’m very eager to hear from you.

May you be well!

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