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Spiritual I: The Life's Breath

I've been arguing against using the word spiritual in relation to Buddhism for a while now. My
contention is that the word has all the wrong connotations for Buddhism, we don't believe that
humans have spirits, do we? One of the frequent counter-arguments is that spiritual simply
doesn't mean what I say it does. In what I consider one of the most important essays I've written
(Metaphors and Materialism) I identify the word spiritual with a tradition of ontological dualism
and now I would link it another in the form of Vitalism. So is this fair?

Ancient Indian Buddhists had a practice of adding prestigious adjectives to names. It's still goes
on today. VIPs, especially religious VIPs affix r to their names, sometimes more than once, e.g.
Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and Sri Sri Sri Nirmalanandanatha Swamiji.

In early Buddhist texts one common prestige word, curiously, was brahman: brahmavihra,
brahmacarin, etc. It's curious because it's a word which can only have come from the Vedic
context and derives it's meaning from Brahmanism. It refers to the cosmic essence with which
the theologically minded Brahmin hopes to merge at death (a new idea introduced by the
Br hadranyaka Upanisad). Alongside brahman was rya 'noble'. Before long Buddhist started to
prefer rya. Avalokiteavara becomes ryvalokitevara; Tra becomes ryatra. The
Prajpmithr daya becomes then ryaprajpramithr daya. And so on. And we know that
mature tantra substituted vajra: vajraguru, Vajrasattva, vajra-everything. Nowadays the adjective
is spiritual: spiritual tradition, spiritual community, spiritual practices, spiritual teachers, spiritual
experiences, and spiritual awakenings.

The key adjective in all cases is used to mark out a conceptual space. It is not merely linguistic,
does not merely rely on denotation, but also defines social and political roles and relationships. A
spiritual teacher is a very particular type of teacher for example, with a very particular
relationship to a student and a particular kind of role in an organisation.

In this and two subsequent essays I will try to excavate around this word spiritual to see how it
became the religious prestige word of the moment. My argument is that just as the Dalai Lama
has adopted the ecclesiastical title of a Pope, i.e. His Holiness, the word spiritual is one we
Buddhists have adopted from Christianity and because of this it comes with all the connotations
and entailments of the Christian world view. However the word spiritual had already begun to be
used independently of the church when Buddhism started to become popular, particularly in
spiritualist circles: the space defined by spiritual was already contested allowing us to stake a
claim in it.

Part I, this essay, will begin with the etymology of the word, showing how the word draws on
various words for 'breath' as a metonym for 'life' and is intimately tied up with Judeo-Christian
ideas on the animation of inanimate matter (which I've already shown to be an anachronistic
view). I'll show that 'life's breath' is very common way of understanding life in the pre-modern
world, but is ultimately based on misunderstandings about how the world works and in particular
how the human body works.

Part II will look at the word in terms of frames as described by George Lakoff and try to analyse
the web of images and ideas invoked by the word. Part II will critique the applicability of these
frames to the Buddhist project.

Having looked at how the word is used Part III will shift the focus onto who uses the word.
Influenced by Michel Foucault Part III will look at the power relations implicit in the domain
marked out by spiritual, or what we might call the politics of spirituality.


Our usage of the word "spiritual" is tied up with translations of the Christian Bible, especially
Genesis and the story of the creation of Man:

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the
breath of life; and man became a living soul. Genesis 2:7, King James Bible (Bible Hub)

Here, breathed and breath of life are distant translations of Hebrew words: wayyippah and
nima hayym respectively. (Note that "God" here as elsewhere is lhm which is the plural of
El 'God'). (Bible Hub) In Biblical Greek "breath of life" was translated pnon zos from pneuma
'breath' and zs 'life'. Biblical Latin at first translated the pneuma part with words derived from
anima, which also derived from a root meaning 'to blow, to breath' and is also equivalent to
Greek psykh (meaning something like animating essence) which itself comes from a from PIE
root *bhes- 'to blow, to breathe'. In Augustan times translators settled on the Latin spiraculum
vitae from spritus 'to breathe' and vita 'life' (from vivare 'to live' and cognate with Sanskrit jva).
After being animated Adam is described as animam viventem 'a living soul'.

The word spritus has a range of meanings:

'a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath; breath of a god,' hence 'inspiration; breath
of life,' hence 'life'; also 'disposition, character; high spirit, vigor, courage; pride, arrogance.'
Of course we also find spritus sanctus 'the Holy Spirit' playing an important role in Christianity.
Spritus derives from a Latin verb spirare 'breathe'. It can be further related back to a Proto-Indo-
European verbal root: *(s)peis- "to blow, to fizz". If we start from the root and work forwards we
find it at the base of a relatively restricted range of English words. The Indo-European Lexicon
lists 'fart, fizz, fizzle' all via Germanic and 'spirit' via Latin.

Words derived from the Latin spritus begin to appear in English in about the 13-14th century
and may either have come more or less directly from ecclesiastical Latin or via Norman French.
This period coincides with mature Middle-English as the language of most of England,
representing the final merging of Norman French vocabulary into Old English (Anglo-Saxon) to
produce a single language. It left English with a rich vocabulary for many domains, for example
(see also table below):

breath (Old English br), quick

inspire, expire etc. (French)
spirit; anima (Latin)
pneumatic, pneumonia; psyche (Greek)

The noun spirit first meant 'animating or vital principle in man and animals' and derives from a
French usage meaning 'soul'. Compare the modern French esprit. Online Etymology Dictionary.
Thus we see that from the beginning spirit in English is a metonym for spiraculum vitae 'the
breath of life', that which makes us animam viventem 'a living soul'. Our word spiritual is an
adjective deriving from spritus and primarily meaning 'of or concerning the spirit'. Spiritual is
also used in the sense of 'pertaining to the church'.

There are several subsidiary senses of 'spirit' that help to shed light on what the word meant in
Medieval times. From about 1400 spirit began to mean ghost - the disembodied spirit of a dead
person; often in the sense of a spirit that has not (yet) ended up in either heaven or hell. The
word ghost comes from PIE *gheis- "to be excited, amazed, frightened" (c.f. German geist).
From about 1500 the word was used to suggest "a nature, character". This line of connotation
developed so that spirit as 'essential character' appears by the 1680's and becomes common in
the 1800s. Thus I can write in the spirit of Enlightenment scholarship or comment on the
zeitgeist (the spirit of the times). The sense of 'divine, related to god' is attested in the 14th
century. When we say someone is "spirited" we mean they are lively, energetic, courageous.
This sense is attested from 1590, though Milton uses it to mean "possessed by a spirit." OEtD

This takes us close to the crux. For pre-modern people the difference between living and dead
matter was breath. I think we've come such a long way that it's difficult to get our heads around
this nowadays. What God did in creating Adam was gather up some dead matter, some dust,
and "breathe life into it"; he animated it - indeed he inspired Adam. The metaphor is BREATH IS
LIFE. Breathing is the activity par excellence of living beings. This metaphor is quite widespread
in the ancient world.

The Life's Breath

In pre-scientific times to live was to breath; and die was to stop breathing. However, the ancients
came to a very different understanding than we have today. We now know that when the
diaphragm muscles contract it draws air into the lungs where oxygen molecules cross the
membranes to enter the bloodstream and be captured by haemoglobin molecules for
transportation around the body. At the same time carbon-dioxide crosses the membrane in the
other direction so that our our breath contains less oxygen and more carbon-dioxide than our in
breath. In the mitochondria of our cells oxygen takes part in creating an energy transfer
molecule, adenosine-triphosphate (ATP) and is converted to CO2 in the process.

In ancient India by contrast the arrow of causation between the bodily movements of breathing
and the air entering the body was reversed. For them the movements of the air element
(vyudhtu) caused all bodily movements, particularly the movements associated with breathing
and not the other way around. Vyu takes in the movements created by the wind (leaves rustling
in trees), the movement of the bodies limbs, and the movements associated with breathing.
Vyu in the body is called na 'breath' and comes in various forms indicated by the prefixes:
apa, ud, pra, vi, and sam. We have:

apna 'down-breath' (aka fart; Monier-Williams resorts to Latin at this point: ventris crepitus);
udna 'up-breath' the breath involved in speech;
prna 'fore-breath', but used in the sense 'breath of life';
vyna 'diffused-breath' (spread throughout the body);
samna 'complete-breath' (?) circulates around the naval and essential for digestion (though
digestion itself is a kind of fire, the food must move through the body);

The Buddhist practice of na-apna-sati (Skt npnasmr t i) involves watching the in and out
breaths (though note the connotation of apna in Sanskrit!).

In China we find a similar idea in q (Japanese pronunciation ki) The Chinese etymology is
blowing q (may have been a man blowing) on rice m. (Another more in-depth
interpretation via Language and Meaning). The character has a wide range of meanings: "air,
gas, the atmosphere, weather; breath, spirit, morale; bearing, manner; smells, odours; to be
angry, anger; provoke, annoy." In our context means 'vital energy'. It is this energy which gives
the martial artists their control and power and which the acupuncturist believes they are

It's possible that the Sanskrit reflexive pronoun tman 'myself; the body; soul') may derive from
either an 'breath' or at 'move' though this is unclear. The Proto-Indo European Lexicon puts
tman alongside a very small group of Germanic words (e.g. Old Saxon om 'breath, vapour')
that may derive from a form such as t-mn-. Monier-Williams links tman to Greek (=
autm) 'breath'. However these etymological connections look tenuous and t-mn- is too
complex to be a root. So what is the primitive? (PIE) t- > (Skt) at > (Grk) aut > (Old Saxon)
'breath'? It's not entirely clear what lexicographers had in mind here. We might see tman as
at-man 'animate' where the -man suffix forms neuter action nouns, e.g. karman (< kr ),
dharman (< dhr ) , though why has the root vowel been lengthened in tman? This would link
tman to the PIE root *at- 'to go' which gives Latin annum (dental plus nasal gives rise to a
double nasal) and Germanic anam 'years'. I don't see how we can derive tman from an and
there are no suggestive PIE forms either. Clearly there is considerable overlap in the semantic
field, especially when we consider that movement is product of vyu, but the etymology here is
ambiguous at best.

Note 11 June 2014. Just discovered that in Rgveda the word tman signifies both breath of life
and self. This suggests that tman is not t-man but -tman. And this also makes it unlikely to
derive from either an or at. Also the use of tman is not common in early Vedic and predated
by the possibly cognate tan in RV. Tan is thought to derive from tan 'stretch, extent'.

Thus spirit, and many related words and concepts are references ultimately to the spiraculum
vitae or the lan vital of ancient Vitalist views on the nature of living things.


Despite being demonstrably mistaken with respect to human anatomy some people still take
ancient views of what animates the body as accurate and relevant. There is nothing wrong with
doing yoga, daiji or any of the other ancient techniques which purport to manage or manipulate
the breath qua life-force. Most are beneficial in some way and thus may be recommended.
However, while breathing and respiration is certainly essential to sustaining life, the view that
breath, as an entity, animates the body is demonstrably false.

The view that breath causes the bodily movements and not the other way around is also
demonstrably false. Ancient Vitalist views of bodily processes are false. If we are genuinely
concerned with reality and want our views to align with reality, then we must reject these ancient
Vitalist views, at least in the terms they present themselves.
The history of our word spiritual is inextricably tied up with ancient Vitalist views. In the next
essay I will look more closely at what it means in the present day using a method drawn from
Lakoff's analysis of language. I will try to show that modern usage is still tied up with Vitalism
and will argue that this ought to make us think twice about identifying Buddhism as a "spiritual

Spiritual II: Frames.

In order to better understand the word spiritual I want to try to look at it in terms of frames.
George Lakoff defines frames as "mental structures that shape the way we see the world."
(2004, p. xv). Frames unconsciously structure of our thoughts, our intentions, and our memories.
We each have thousands of frames. We develop them partly through exploring our physical
environment and partly through interacting with our social environment. So my frames will be
similar to yours to the extent that our physical and social environments are similar. The resulting
structures are encoded in physical structures in the brain.

Words are defined with respect to frames. A word like "mother" doesn't just just refer to the
woman who gave birth to us, but invokes the frames of all the attributes we associate with all
mothers and mothering: birth, nurture, fertility, gestation and so on. But the particular
associations are based on social conventions. When we use a word we automatically invoke
frames associated with it.

"Don't think of an elephant"

Most people can't see or hear this statement and help thinking of an elephant and associated
images and ideas. The words we use in a discussion or debate are not neutral. Because of
frames. There is an ongoing discussion over how to define Buddhism which is largely concerned
with marketing. Typically the argument is quite one dimensional.

Buddhism is a religion and thus offers solutions to traditional religious problems, i.e. "Where
did we come from?" or "What happens after we die?" or "Why is life unfair?"
Buddhism is a philosophy and concerned with traditional philosophical questions, i.e. "What is
there?" or "What can we know about what is there?" or "What should we do in hypothetical
Buddhism is a way of life and concerned largely with moral questions, i.e. "How should we
Frames also make it possible to sum up arguments in slogans. And it's against this background
that I want to look at the word spiritual. What would it mean, for example, to say that Buddhism
is a form of spirituality.

I've shown that spiritual is historically rooted in the Vitalist idea of the 'breath of life'. However, it's
safe to say that spiritual invokes a large number of frames, of which 'breath of life' is now
relatively unimportant. So if we say that we are spiritual beings, living spiritual lives, doing
spiritual practices, from a spiritual tradition, in order to have spiritual experiences that culminate
in a spiritual awakening, just what are we saying? What frames do we invoke? Obviously we
can't deal with every detail of thousands of frames, so I want to cover some of the main ones.


In an exchange with me on one of his blogs Bhikkhu Sujato recently expressed the view that for
him "spirituality" referred to wholeness and integration for example. I think that this frame comes
from thinking of human beings as having three parts: body, mind, and soul. (Hence the
bookshop classification). Soul, or spirit, completes the trilogy. The Catholic Encyclopedia argues
this heretical tri-partite view of the human being is partly due to a clarification of the distinction
between psych and pneuma by St Paul:

"Body and soul come by natural generation; spirit is given to the regenerate Christian alone.
Thus, the "newness of life", of which St. Paul speaks, was conceived by some as a superadded
entity, a kind of oversoul sublimating the "natural man" into a higher species." (Catholic
Encyclopedia sv Soul)

This is related, I think, to the Pentecost, which was originally a Jewish harvest festival. In the
Book of Acts the followers of Jesus are assembled for the Pentecost Festival when something
miraculous happens and in the famous line:

"And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the
Spirit gave them utterance." Acts 2:4. (Bible Hub)

Here the New Testament Greek word translated as both "Ghost" and "Spirit" is pneuma (see
previous essay for the etymology). People with bodies and souls were completed by the descent
of pneuma into them. In this day and age where the two basic divisions of the person are mind
and body, many people feel that something is missing. They feel that we are more than either
mind or body, more than a combination of the two. And what is missing is spirit and part of the
spiritual province. This feeling comes about because of a conviction about the truth of Vitalism.
Wholeness might have another sense that derives from psychoanalysis. We all know that rather
than having a single "will" we are in fact usually in a state of conflicting desires and urges that
battle for our attention and often move us in unexpected directions (what Harold Bloom has
mockingly called "the Hamlet Complex"). At worst we suffer from what early psychologists
conceived of as schizo-phrenia 'a divided mind' (schizo is from Greek skhizein 'to split'). In the
psychoanalytic view we integrate our disparate inner parts by gaining knowledge of our own
unconscious. This is achieved indirectly through analysis of dreams, slips of the tongue,
associations and so on; or directly (in psychodynamic approaches) through introspection and
confessional reporting of thoughts and emotions. Our unconscious is revealed through analysis
of patterns over the long term.

Some Buddhists argue that meditation achieves this psychological goal of resolving
psychological tensions without the need for introspection or analysis. However in the Buddhist
process, outlined in the Spiral Path, integration (samdhi) precedes knowledge (jna) rather
than the other way around.

Buddhists also divide the person up into parts: body, speech and mind; five skandhas, six
elements. And we mostly do this to try to show that we are simply the sum of our parts. Unlike
Christians who believe that we are more than the sum of our parts because we have an
immaterial, immortal soul. Thus "wholeness" for Buddhists ought to have something of an empty
ring to it. Yes, it is good to be a whole person, with our faculties intact and our will undivided, but
there is nothing beyond that, nothing more. As the Buddha says to Bhiya: "in the seen, only the
seen". Some take this to be a reference to the Upanisadic teaching about the tman as the seer
behind the seeing as found in the Br hadranyaka Upanisad. As always Buddhists are keen to
deny any kind of metaphysical self or soul.


Sujato also says: Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a
sense of the highest good. This frame is linked with the metaphor GOOD IS UP/BAD IS DOWN,
which itself has a number of entailments that I've already explored at some length with respect
to religious language in my essay Metaphors and Materialism. This spatial metaphor is perhaps
the most important in the context of spirit and spirituality.

If "ways of being" and "goods" can be higher and lower, then there is a hierarchy of being and
goodness. Christians, following influence from Neoplatonism, refer to this hierarchy as the Great
Chain of Being. Pure being is entirely immaterial, the realm of pure spirit, in later Buddhism the
dharmakya. Because it is a frame, we know transparently and unconsciously, that spirit, being
immaterial is not weighed down by the earth, it naturally floats up (the Jains invoke precisely this
metaphor in their version of the soul). Good spirits go UP to heaven to be with the Sky Father (in
Biblical Greek 'Heaven' is ouranus = Ancient Greek Uranus, the Sky Father and husband of
Gaia, the Earth Mother).

The association of highest good with the highest way of being is important. In the Great Chain of
Being, God is at the pinnacle: the highest being is infinitely good. In Buddhist cosmology the
highest state of being is an absolute disconnection from the worlds in which one can be reborn,
even the pleasant ones. One cannot say anything about the state of being of a Tathgata after
death; the post-mortem Tathgata defies the very categories of being and non-being and even
the most refined gods, in states of beings almost off the scale, cannot compare.

Kkai had a great deal of difficulty getting his 9th century Mhynika colleagues to believe that
the dharmakya teaches, because in their view the dharmakya is absolutely abstract and
disconnected from realms of rebirth. This reality, lying beyond any kind of knowledge, is
sometimes referred to using terminology drawn from German Idealist philosophy, such as "the
Absolute," or "the Transcendental" (with capitals and the definite article). Later Buddhist
philosophy swings between a transcendent ultimate reality and an immanent realisation of reality
(though early Buddhism is not concerned with reality at all).

In this view it's axiomatic that rebirth is bad. Rebirth is what we are seeking to escape from. This
means that the world one is born into cannot have any absolute value. All that seems valuable
about the world is simply a product of our ignorance. The best things a spiritual person can do is
renounce the world and focus on religious practices that temporarily take one higher in pursuit of
a permanently higher state of being. As with many of forms of mind/body dualism, this
detachment from the world does make us rather ineffective in the world. At a time when we see
the environment being destroyed for example and need to mobilise feelings of engagement,
Buddhism councils disengagement. Despite this some Buddhists are engaged in social and
environmental projects. But this is a new departure for Buddhism, a product of Buddhist
Modernism, and more Modernist than Buddhist. And given the consequences of disengagement
it must be seen as a highly positive move, albeit not fully integrated yet.


The vertical spatial metaphor can work in another way. Above ground HIGHER IS MORE, but
below ground DEEPER IS MORE/SHALLOWER IS LESS. Verticality is with reference to the
(flat) surface of the earth. Early Buddhists used reductive analysis, i.e. they went deeper, to end
the rumour of tman and to show that human beings are simply the sum of their parts, though
this includes physical (kyika) and mental (cetasika) parts. There is no soul, spirit or anything
resembling them lurking inside us as other religions would have us believe. Reflection on the
skandhas is probably the representative practice for deconstructing satkyadr s t i (the idea of a
true substance, aka 'personality view'), but the foundations of recollection (satipat t hna) or
recollection of the elements (dhtvanusati) perform a similar function.

Deeper also invokes psychoanalytic ideas. After Freud we understand that much of our thought
goes on in an unconscious realm. We may delve into our own unconscious with difficulty, but at
times shine light on it's workings in order to gain in-sight. In those areas of knowledge where a
literal spirit was not entirely credible, this dark inner-world began to take it's place. Of course the
fact that we have inner-lives was not lost on the pre-Freudian world. Harold Bloom has made
much of the fact that Freud read Shakespeare incessantly and appeared to be jealous of the
Bard's greater insights into the Human psyche, especially in the story of Hamlet (See the Freud
Chapter in The Western Canon). But recall that the word psyche itself meant something like
'soul'. C. G. Jung also chose words from this domain, i.e. anima/animus in his account of our
inner life.

Michael Witzel has shown that Jung's ideas about a collective unconscious are less good at
explaining common themes in myth than the idea that story telling is much older and more
conservative than we thought possible. Widely dispersed people have the same stories because
once they lived closer together and shared a common storyline. In Witzel's mythological scheme
the "Laurasian" story arc involves a first generation of humans who are heroic and perform
miraculous deeds aimed at benefiting human-kind rather than the gods. Again Prometheus is the

Freud, Romanticism and burgeoning Spiritualism (see below) made common cause. In The Hero
With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell reminded us that the new Western story of a dark
inner realm visited to gain truths that set us free or make us whole, was tapping into the re-
occurring myth epitomised by Orpheus who defies the gods by journeying to Hades realm to
reclaim his wife. We are intended to equate the psychological unconscious with the mythic
underworld, and process of psycho. The implication being that we will find treasures in dark
aspects of our own minds. Thus in psychoanalysis Vitalism found another dark corner in which it
could continue to exist. Introspection became one of the chief tools gaining access to this
"underworld". The Romantic hero explores their own depths like Orpheus seeking Eurydice.

By the time Westerners dropped their early prejudices against heathen religion and came into
more substantial contact with Buddhism, some Buddhists had come to a similar belief about
their inner self. This theme is more apposite in the USA since it was there that Zen took root. In
Europe Theravda Buddhism, with it's strong emphasis on anatt, was influential earlier and for
longer. Zen can be problematic because it embraces tathgatagarbha doctrine and in English
expresses it in terms like "Original Mind" or "True Self" (with capitals). Without the sophisticated
critique of tathgatagarbha that is contained in Madhyamaka thought, and lacking in popular
presentations of Zen (the kind that people dip rather than take seriously), it is easy to tip over
into Vitalism without the help of psychoanalysis. The two combined make it almost inevitable.

The word spiritual also invokes the idea of sacredness, though these days "sacred" is a rather
degraded idea despite attempts to rehabilitate it. Nothing is sacred any more. That said, for
many people the loss of a sense of sacredness is a serious problem and they are busy trying to
install Sacredness 2.0. Very often the target domain for modern sacredness is "nature". Not
the "red in tooth and claw" nature, but the more tranquil nature typically associated with the
English countryside (a giant landscaped garden). Not wilderness, which can easily kill the
unwary, but the tame versions of nature that are non-threatening and easily accessible. Old
trees are sacred. Certain hills. Stone henge and other archaeological sites that are presumed to
have been religious in nature are rebooted as modern sacred sites, even though no one really
knows what makes them sacred.

We're not quite sure what sacredness means, but the tribal people our ancestors colonised put a
lot of store by it. Our word taboo comes from the Pacific Islands (tapu in Mori). A tapu is a
restriction placed on a person, place or object that prevents every day interactions and allows
only specialised ritual interactions. Similarly sacredness puts the labelled thing outside the
grasping of Utilitarianism and this can only be a good thing. The value associated with
sacredness is nothing to do with money or utility. It's important in this banal age to be reminded
that some things cannot be valued in economic terms. Often it is not nature per se that we value,
but how we feel when we are in a natural as opposed to an artificial setting.

The sacred designation, if plausible, can help to protect "natural resources" (an economic term)
from exploitation and destruction. Given the destructive effects of large scale industrialisation on
the environment across the planet, it might not be a bad idea to extend the sense of sacredness
to all living things. However invoking the sacred via the word "spiritual" is problematic because of
the other associations, particularly with organised religion and paranormal hoaxes. By confusing
sacredness, in terms of non-utilitarian values, with spirituality, we in fact make it a little more
difficult to defend those values.

For Buddhists the world accessible to the senses is not sacred. It's not until we get fed-up with
the world and turn away from it that we are liberated. Thus for Buddhists something is sacred
only to the extent that it points, and leads, away from the world. A stupa, for example, might be a
sacred monument, but only because it reminds us of the Buddha who transcended the world. At
the level of popular religion or superstition Buddhism is happy to acknowledge that sacred sites
have some value, but they are not seen as a true refuge. We see this sentiment expressed for
example in Dhammapada (188-189)

Many people seek refuge from fear;

In mountains, forests, gardens, trees and shrines
This is not a secure refuge, not the ultimate refuge;
Going to this refuge, they aren't delivered from all misery.

Nature is not sacred in early Buddhist thought. So, as with engaged Buddhism, what we seem to
be seeing is a new departure. A necessary, but quite a radical departure.


Spiritualism is a complex of ideas that particularly involve interacting with the spirits of the dead
in the afterlife. The movement owes a great deal to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688
1772) which communicate his visions of the afterlife. In turn his version of the afterlife seems to
owe a great deal to Dante. In fact Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost, especially via art
inspired by them, are two of the most influential religious works in the Western World.

Unfortunately spiritualism has always been rife with hoaxes. Early and prominent hoaxers were
the Fox sisters who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, but one of them later
confessed to having faked it. However, like the admission of the crop-circle hoaxers, the
repeated exposure of fakery and fraud does not dampen enthusiasm for spiritualism. We want to
believe that the dead are still with us, and not simply metaphorically.

Most of mediumship depends on a technique called cold reading. This skill can be extremely
effective and yet entirely fake. One modern master of the technique is Derren Brown, who
openly acknowledges that he is using cold reading techniques, but is able to seemingly evince
information that he could not have access to except through psychic powers. It's possible to be
entirely convincing to even a sceptical audience. (See e.g. this video explaining cold reading).
Brown's performance in Messiah is a remarkable display of how to dupe an audience.

One spin off from Spiritualism and its interaction with Eastern religion is the phenomenon of past
life regression and mundane memories of past lives. Ancient Buddhist texts suggest that if we
develop certain psychic powers through spending a lot of time in the fourth dhyna, we ought to
be able to remember past lives. This ability to remember past lives gradually declines in
importance over time in Buddhist texts and is hardly mentioned in Mahyna texts. I've dealt
with this aspect of spirituality in an earlier essay: Rebirth and the Scientific Method. So I won't
dwell on it here. The Skeptic's Dictionary response to "research" into this field is a useful
counterpoint. One very important point for Buddhists is that all this past-life research confirms
the Hindu view of reincarnation, not the Buddhist view of rebirth. So we ought to be marshalling
all our criticisms of it, not embracing it. It's spiritual in the best sense of the word, i.e. concerned
with spirits and eternal souls.

The success of Spiritualism, despite the exposure of so many frauds, forms part of the
background against which modern Buddhists assess the relevance of Buddhist ideas. Modern
Buddhists are almost all converts from Christian societies, even if the converts themselves were
not Christian. Beliefs like rebirth and universal fairness (karma), subtle bodies, and the life's
breath (prna) are easy to assimilate if we already believe in ghosts, communication with the
spirits of the dead and the other phenomena associated with Spiritualism. In fact for some
people it's almost as if the Enlightenment never happened.


Certain relatively uncommon experiences are referred to as spiritual or mystical. These include
so-called out-of-body experiences, or near death experiences and other experiences that seem
to point to a clear mind/body dualism or more precisely to a consciousness that is able to exist
independently of the body. This taps into the idea of the spirit as distinct from the body and thus
points to a strong version of mind/body duality. Thomas Metzinger has decisively showed, in The
Ego Tunnel, that the out-of-body experience is not what it seems. In fact a better explanation can
be found in the way that the brain constructs our sense of self and how that process can
breakdown. I've also dealt with this in Origin of the Idea of the Soul.

Another kind of experience often associated with meditation is important (though also associated
with potent hallucinogens like LSD). It seems to have two poles. At one pole the subject-object
distinction breaks down and leaves one with a sense of nothingness or no-thing-ness. In the
traditional Hindu description there is just saccidnanda 'being, consciousness and bliss'. One is
entirely disconnected from the world of sense experience, from mental activity as normally
understood. There is no sense of self, nor of being located in space or time and thus no other,
no world. In Buddhist terms experiences of this kind are referred to as the arpa or formless
dhynas. At the other pole the subject-object distinction breaks down leaving one feeling
connected to everything. One feels that one is the universe, that there are no distinctions
between self and other. Again there is no sense of self, but one feels located everywhere in time
and space, one feels one is the world. and the world is oneself. It is the feeling that "all is one".
Both of these seem to have a profound impact on the person experiencing them and can
radically alter one's perspective on everyday waking experience.

Almost inevitably the person who has this experience believes there is "more". More to life; more
than meets the eye; "more than is dreamt of in your philosophy". And the "more" is spiritual. It
can also be associated with the idea of a transcendental, ineffable reality. This hard-to-reach
reality is higher, better, deeper, etc than everyday life. In fact compared to reality, everyday life is
hardly worth living. Some people get a glimpse of this kind of experience and spend the rest of
their lives trying to get back to there. This kind of story is high reminiscent of the story of the Holy
Grail, particularly as it is outlined by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz in The Grail
Legend. Often what Buddhists seek is the Holy Grail, the transformative experience that will
leave them in a state of grace.

Visions of "higher" beings are also sought-after mystical experiences, especially if they are
accompanied by a sense that the vision is more real than reality. Often visions are of human
figures, anthropomorphisms of values we hold dear, or saints. Usually visions are culturally
specific. Hindu's see iva, Visn u or Kli or one of the 33 million other deities; Christians see
Christ, Mary or angels; Buddhists see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And so on. It's not unusual for
Western convert Buddhists to see visions of Christ, simply because they grew up Christian and
our culture is saturated with images of a Westernised Christ. We notice this with imagery, visions
and icons take on the regional characteristics of the people they appear to. Monastics have
often used extreme techniques to achieve such visions: starvation, sleep deprivation, extremes
of heat and cold, flesh wounds (from self-flagellation) that become infected, and other painful
austerities. Meditative techniques are a more humane way of approaching having a mystical
experience, but still require considerable dedication to repetition and duration of practice.

What is interesting about mystical experiences is that the individual phenomena can now be
reproduced in the laboratory using a variety of techniques that physically affect the brain (be it
accidental damage, surgery, drugs or electro-magnetic stimulation). Thus the arrow of causality
points from brain to experience. There is no doubt that the experiences are significant to those
who have them, but also little doubt that the significance is imposed on the experience by the
experiencer. Mystical experiences are not what they seem. On face value they are what the
mystics have always said they are; but we can look beyond the face value now. And we see that
the value we place on such experiences is a human value. And this is not to say that the
experiences are not valuable or transformative. But they do not always mean what they are said
to mean in a pre-scientific worldview.

Another caveat on discussing such experiences is that they are difficult to distinguish from
hallucinations. An hallucination is when someone sees, hears, smells, tastes or feels things that
don't exist outside their mind, but which nonetheless have a vivid realness about them and are
mistaken for things which do exist. Hallucinations and spiritual experiences have very different
valuations, but how we determine which is which may be entirely context dependent.

In 2009 the Pew Research Group reported at about half of all Americans had had a "religious or
mystical experience. This is more than double the number recorded in a 1976 Gallup Poll. In
their analysis the bulk of the increase seems to come from Christians and those who regularly
attend religious services, with as many of 70% of some evangelicals claiming some kind of
experience and a clear correlation with frequency of attendance at a religious service. The level
is also fairly high (30%) amongst unaffiliated religious people (SNBR?). About 18% of people
with no religious inclinations report experiences of this time.
Mystical experiences are much more likely amongst people who expect to have them: people
with strong religious beliefs, who regularly participate in religious activities. But even non-
religious people appear to have mystical or religious experiences fairly commonly (one in five


In an essay like this, one can only touch on the main points of a complex argument. Clearly the
frames that help to define the word spiritual are many and varied. Each of us works with
thousands of frames. We can see that some of the main frames activated by the word spiritual
involve a Vitalist worldview or mind/body dualism. There is a possible defence against this
charge which is similar to the one that sparked this analysis. One may argue that even when, for
example, the higher frame is invoked (along with the various associated metaphors like GOOD
IS HIGHER) that one is not intending to invoke religious ideas from Christianity. However we
don't have a lot of control over the frames we use. Frames structure our thoughts, but do so
unconsciously. And even if we ourselves use words with more than average deliberation (and as
a writer let me assure you that this is much more difficult than it might appear) we have no
control over what happens in the minds of our readers/listeners.

The question of whether Buddhism is or is not a religion is moot, though if it is not a religion then
what is it? The idea that Buddhism is spiritual or concerned with spirit is just wrong. Most of the
main frames invoked by spiritual just don't fit very well if at all. In some cases, as in the revaluing
of nature are helpful and in other cases not so much.

When Nixon went on TV and said "I am not a crook" it was probably the first time most people
thought of him in terms of being a crook. But from that time on, most people thought of Nixon as
a crook. For the group of people who believe that Buddhism is not a religion, the statement
"Buddhism is not a religion" only reinforces the Buddhism/religion connection in the minds of
hearers because the word invokes the frame. As "spiritual but not religious" simply reinforces the
connection between spiritual and religion. The desire to contradict an argument in yes/no terms
is strong, but if one wants to define Buddhism in a certain way, then one can only use words that
are consistent with that definition else the message is mixed.

People who invoke spiritual when referring to Buddhism probably do so because it's familiar. It
taps into centuries of religious ideology. I see it rationalised in a variety of ways. But my view is
that the choice of words lends advantages to certain sections of society. The next essay will shift
the focus from how the word is used to who uses the word; the politics of spirituality. Who wins
by linking Buddhism to the various spiritual frames? Who loses?
Spiritual III: Demesnes of Power
Caged or Fleeced?
from right-wing journal The Spectator,
arguing for more individualism.
So far we've looked only at what the word spiritual means and what frames it is associated with.
In other words we've been focussed on the conceptual space delimited by attaching the
adjective spiritual to various nouns and verbs. Now we need to think about who is using the
adjective to make their nouns and verbs special. And how those people operate within the
conceptual space. In other words we need to look at the politics of spiritual. As a first step this
essay will outline a view of contemporary Western politics in which modern ideas of identity play
an active role in shaping individuals into subjects. This leads into a consideration of the impact of
Romanticism on the political landscape and Foucault's view of the subject as a construct whose
purpose is subjugation.

Politically spiritual is tied up with notions of authority, and authority is an expression of power.
The essay will argue that spirituality is concerned with channelling power in religious
communities. In the Buddhist context we take on to surveil and police our own inner life as a
service to the community, and as long as we are seen to be doing so, the community repays us
in belonging.

Apologies, but this essay is long. I hope not too long that people won't read it, but I can't see
how to split my treatment of spritual into any more parts. And in any case I want to move on to
other subjects. So to begin with we need to look at the modern idea of selfhood and identity and
to see how it is shaped by the discourses of power which have dominated the Western World for
some centuries now.

The Modern Self.

"... history is read narcissistically to reconfirm one's present sense of identity and any
potentially disruptive awareness of alterity is suppressed." - Lois McNay. Foucault: A Critical
Introduction. (p89)
Individualism is one of the guiding lights of modern Western Society. Philosophically it seems to
stem from 18th century Utilitarianism and the associated attitudes of Mercantilism. It is
epitomised in the trade-fuelled Libertarian governments of the 18th and 19th centuries and more
recently in the Neolibertarian governments (conservative and progressive) that have dominated
the Western world since at least the 1970s. It's the mentality that, for example, enslaved Indian
peasants to grow opium and then went to war with China to make certain of continued profits by
ensuring that Chinese peasants consumed the dangerous drug. These days the East India
Company has been replaced by the IMF and World Bank, but the bottom line is still profit.

Present-day individualism benefits the rich and powerful in two main ways. Firstly by telling
everyone to pursue their own good (their own desires) it divides the population and prevents
effective opposition to Neolibertarian aims of creating the perfect conditions for businessmen to
become rich and powerful. Secondly it justifies the means used by businessmen to become
more rich and more powerful (e.g. political economies based on mythological "market forces";
use of ultra-cheap labour abroad; evasion of taxes; etc.). Individualism gives the illusion of
freedom. We are more free to choose our religion in the West than at perhaps any time in
history. We have greater choice of breakfast cereals or TV channels too. But we are enslaved to
an economic system that regards us as units of production, that characterises every human
being as perfectly self-centred, manipulative and ruthless in pursuit of their own best interests.
From the point of view of those in power, the religion of the masses and their breakfast cereal
have the same value, or at least the same kind of value.

The more we exercise our individual choice, the more society fragments. And the more society
fragments the less effective we are as a collective. We out-number the rich and powerful by at
least 100 to 1. So we could stop them if we wanted to, just by acting in concert. We've seen a
number of successful revolutions in the last few decades where the people simply gathered and
demanded change in sufficient numbers that they could not be ignored. Former Soviet Eastern
Europe went this way. But because we feel free we don't resist our slavery. "Spiritual but not
religious" is one of the most exquisite examples of this pseudo-freedom. We have complete
freedom of religious belief because it has no longer has any economic implications. We are
encouraged to have our own individualised religion, partly because organised religion is what
bound communities together for centuries (perhaps forever). If being spiritual was a real threat to
profits, it would be illegal. Where collective action is perceived as a threat, as ironically it is in
communist China, then religion is tightly controlled and rouge groups persecuted.

Tom Toles
Meanwhile we work hard for minimum wage and 2 or 3 weeks of holiday a year, in a world of
absolutely astounding productivity and unimaginable wealth. And yet we never have enough.
This is a deeply rooted feature of Merchantilism: the poor only work hard enough to meet their
needs, so the rich make it almost impossible for them to meet their needs, despite vast
surpluses and enormous waste. Think, for example, of all the food going to waste! Estimates in
the UK are that 30% of food produced is wasted. All that wasted food helps to keep food prices
high, while those who grow it over-supply and cannot earn a living on the prices they get. House
prices (in the UK at least) are kept artificially high to hoover up any extra wealth we might
accrue. The point at which we might feel we have enough, and might thus stop working so hard,
is kept out of our reach.

Merchantilism is predicated on everyone working as hard as they can all the time in the
knowledge that worn out workers can easily be replaced. When you accept payment for work,
you are expected to give everything you have in return, however low the wage. Of course the
system is imperfect, but measurement techniques have become ever more intrusive in recent
decades. In addition one of the main messages of the school system is conformity: "do as
authority tells you". Schools are able to enact and enforce arbitrary rules such as dress codes
and to exclude pupils from eduction is they refuse to conform. In Britain school children routinely
wear ties (I still find this shocking). University education is gradually changing for the worst as
well, becoming more and more oriented to the demands of Merchantilism.

In addition, government policy consistently encourages high unemployment levels

(unemployment is an invention of the Merchantilist system) in order to keep wages down. And
while real wages continue to fall, executive salaries rise exponentially. An executive may earn
more in a single year than the average employee earns in a lifetime. Of course governments
regularly promise full-employment, but they simply cannot afford anything like it. Without high
unemployment wages would sky-rocket and severely impact profit. In addition we are constantly
encouraged to want more, to buy more by the representatives of companies than make things
we don't even need. Thus the goal is always moving, and the game is rigged so that we could
never reach it if it was. And yet few of us consider quitting the game. Most of us are not
equipped to function outside of society, even the outcasts depend on society.

Many of the gains won by a century of concerted action by labour unions have been eroded or
completely lost. The adversarial relationship between labour and capital led to excesses where
labour was able to seize power. The UK seems to be firmly on the road back to Dickensian
relationship between capital and labour in which all power in the relationship is held by
capitalists. Only this time the capitalists are vastly more wealthy than they were in Dickens's
time. Wealth has certainly been destroyed by the repeated economic crises since 1973, but the
1% are wealthier than ever.

Most Western states have implemented some kind of "safety net" that were initially conceived of
as offsetting the damaging social effects of Merchantilism. The impulse behind the welfare state
grew out of humanitarian urges of the late Victorian period and a recognition of the hardship
caused by industrialisation and the unemployment that was built into the economy to keep
wages low. But in the UK it has grown into a vast control mechanism. The economy is structured
so that whole sections of society must rely on welfare payments - which are called benefits. The
benefit being the up side of an economy which can simply shut down the industries that provided
employment for whole towns and industries, creating long-term, generational unemployment for
which the poor are blamed. To take the state pound nowadays is to invite the state to surveil and
scrutinise one's life to a degree that would make Catholic priests envious. The state can for
example, examine one's bank accounts and engages in regular interrogation of recipients and
draconian examinations of "fitness". Despite endemic unemployment the unemployed are seen
as morally reprehensible. Taking money from the state is seen in moral terms as incurring a
debt, especially by conservatives (the reasoning behind the "moral accounting" metaphor is
explored by George Lakoff in Metaphor, Morality, and Politics).

For an alternate view on the modern self see Adam Curtis's documentary The Century of the
Self. Curtis explores Freudianism in relation to the rise of democracy. Democracy is seen as
releasing the primitive Id of the masses producing the horrors of WWI. The irrational masses
required control via the manipulation of their unconscious via propaganda (rebranded as "public
But it's not only the unemployed who are tempted with "benefits". Housing is now so expensive
in the UK that a clear majority of new claimants of Housing Benefit (a welfare payment provided
specifically for housing costs) are in work. Housing Benefit is a 17 billion annual subsidy to
landlords to allow them continue to gouge unreasonable profits from the market and to restrict
the supply of housing to keep prices high. At the same time British society promotes the ideal of
home-ownership as the acme of individual identity. The agony the average British wage earner
is going through is exquisite, and many of them are convinced it is because of bogus reasons
such as immigration.

Meanwhile the media don't just sell us things we don't need. Apart tax payer funded
broadcasting, all media is paid for by advertising, including most internet content. The media has
a vested interest in shaping our behaviour towards consumerism, towards views which promote
the goals of Merchantilism. The media began employing psychologists to make their
presentations more effective back in the 1920s. (See the Adam Curtis documentary for an
account of this). They use subtle techniques to "nudge" our behaviour in a direction that is good
for business. For them it was a problem that social conventions were against women smoking
for example. So Edward Bernays cooked up a publicity stunt which linked smoking to the
suffragette movement and painted cigarettes as "torches of freedom". Great result. Women felt
more free by becoming addicted to a harmful poison, and began to die in their millions from
tobacco related illnesses. Again the illusion of freedom disguises the reality of bondage.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I don't think that dark cabals are meeting behind closed doors to
arrange it. I think its a dynamic of civilisation, an emergent property of the kind of social system
we have based on a huge number of factors. And for the most part it's happening in the open.
Governments are open about their beliefs and about their methods. The media are less open,
but investigations like Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (a book and a film) have left us
in no doubt about how they operate.

So individual identity in modern times is shaped to fit into this worldview, not simply Vitalist and
Dualist, but Utilitarian, Merchantilist and (pseudo) Libertarian. Spirituality is no threat to this
because it is focussed on the spirit and the immaterial and leaves the body emeshed in the
world and subject to market forces.
The Curse of Romanticism

If we look more closely at the referrants of "spiritual" we see a considerable overlap with the
concerns of Romanticism. A concern with the immaterial over the material; with the unseen over
the seen; with nature over culture; with experience over reason; with eternal life, even eternal
childhood conceived of terms of in spontaneity and innocence, over death and the loss of
naivete. The material world is less interesting than the afterlife; human beings less interesting
than spirits (the higher and less material the better). According to French mystic, Pierre Teilhard
de Chardin:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a
human experience.

The goal of the spiritual is escape from the material world where we inevitably die and, in the
Indian worldview, die repeatedly. We escape (even if only in imagination) the material, relative,
contingent worldi.e. sam srafor an immaterial (outside space and time), absolute, eternal
worldi.e. nirvna. And when someone like Ngrjuna tries to point out that the dichotomy is
meaningless, we simply invent some new transcendental escape route: e.g. the dharmakya.

By the beginning of the 20th century most Westerners were politically aware enough to have
good reason to distrust authority figures, both spiritual and secular. The wealthy and powerful
collude against the poor and oppressed to keep them divided, poor and oppressed. This was
made easier by the rise of the middle-class, the administrators and facilitators of the rich and
powerful, aspirational with respect to security and comfort and instilled with aristocratic contempt
for working people. The popularity of Romanticism also worked to the advantage of business
people. A few drug-addled, spoiled brats from the upper-classes who wrote sentimental poetry
that made individualism seem desirable for the masses. The kind of freedom from responsibility
or the need to work for a living, the kind of freedom that only comes with inherited wealth and
privilege, became a thing for everyone to aspire to. Partly as a result of this, people have
drowned their awareness in intoxicants and particularly the middle-classes have Romanticised
this as a kind of freedom, though as before it leaves their bodies in bondage to profit. After a
weekend "on the lash" as the Brits so eloquently call it, Monday morning means a return to
bondage. Or after a lifetime of bondage we retire to freedom in old age. Except old age has
been consistently redefined to make it less accessible.

At it's worst the hippy movement encouraged everyone, though in effect mainly the newly
wealthy middle-class progeny of the post-war baby-boom, to disengage from politics and society.
Like their Romantic heroes, the baby-boomers were sexually promiscuous, leading to a huge
upsurge in sexually transmitted diseases. They were intoxicated, leading to drug and alcohol
addiction with massive impact on families and society, and many new cases of psychosis and
early death. And they were free of social conventions which boiled down to political
disengagement, allowing conservatives to set the social and political agenda by exploiting the
subsequent breakdown in the value of collectivity. Conservatives simply acted in concert and
over-whelmed the divided progressives.

After decades of letting conservative business interests set the public agenda, we've got to the
point where even the Left implement Neolibertarian economic policies. Sometimes the Left are
even more assiduous in pursuing these policies, because they are trying to prove themselves on
terms set by conservatives.

Romanticism might have started off as a necessary correction to the mechanistic views of
scientists flushed with success as the beginning of the Victorian Era. But it has simply become
another way in which we play into the hands of those who would economically enslave us.
SBNR is the perfect religious view for a Neoliberal ideology. The political disengagement that
typically goes along with individualistic spirituality is perfect for the powerful. Escapism relieves
the frustration and tedium of modern work, leaving us resigned to wasting our best years for
men who earn more in a year than we will in a lifetime. Contemporary spirituality is escapism. By
focussing on the immaterial it denies the value of the material, and this plays into the hands of
those who control the material world. We end up fighting Mra's battle for him.


Michel Foucault argued that to be a subject is to be subjected - thus providing an important

counter-weight to Romanticism. The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external
forces. Reflecting on my own life I see that my self-view has been shaped by many institutions:
schools, church, medical clinics, hospitals, government departments, workplaces, unions, clubs,
secret societies, professional associations, the news/entertainment media; by people playing
their own social roles: family, in-laws, friends, peers, colleagues, romantic and sexual partners;
by people playing various official roles such as doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, priest, politician,
police, lawyer, accountant, psychologist, guru; by abstract institutions such as time, wealth,
money, wages, taxes, property; by abstract issues such as gender politics, sexual politics,
national and international politics, national identity, post-colonialism, multiculturalism; by the fact
that I emigrated twelve years ago and had to retrain in many of these areas and add class
awareness. The list goes on and on. My personal input into who I am is rather minimal. Virtually
every I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being.
Sure, my basic psychology is broadly speaking nature; but my identity is almost pure nurture.

Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity
so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls
and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant
threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules
are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be
sanctioned and excluded. The veneer of civilisation on how we treat others is very thin indeed.
One sees all this play out in simpler forms in primate societies. It's well worth reading Jane
Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man, in order to get a sense of how human society is an
extension of basic primate society. The fundamentals are all similar.

Our very subjectivity is a construct which we have built in concert with society from birth. Forget
the metaphysics of self, we don't even understand the politics of self. And Buddhism also plays it
part in creating an acceptable subjectivity. We use "precepts" as a way of reminding other
Buddhists about what is acceptable behaviour: we surveil and police each other. We emphasise
that a Buddhist must take on to be ethical, rather than allow ethics to be imposed on us (with
explicit comparisons to other ethical systems). When we criticise each other, it is often not for the
act itself, but for the failure of self-control, the failure to conform. We explicitly invite others to
subject themselves to Buddhist values which we extol as the most sublime set of moral values
ever enunciated. Who would not want to subject themselves to sublime taboos, especially when
part of the narrative is that no evil thought goes unpunished? Buddhism channels the power
inherent in social groups in a particular kind of way, with particular kinds of narratives. It is not
exempt or outside this social dynamic, despite all the transcendental narratives, Buddhist
humans and still just humans.

Buddhism uses carrots to make obedience seem attractive, and sticks to make disobedience
seem frightful. Just like every other primate group. This is how primate groups ensure collective
survival. But it is open to exploitation. Even amongst chimps, as the story of monstrous Frodo of
Gombe Stream suggests. Frodo used his size and aggression to cow the Gombe stream group
and to terrorise neighbouring groups. The usual social controls, often operating through the
"person" of the alpha-female, failed with Frodo.

Along with conceptions of subjectivity which are aimed at controlling individuals, Foucault points
out the role of institutions which institutionalise social forms of control. We are shaped, but
imperfectly and so society creates conditions in which it can exert control over any stray desires
and urges that pop up. Religion is a partly a formalisation of certain social controls, aimed at
subjecting and controlling the tribe. This has clear survival value. For Buddhists this manifests as
belief in karma and enforcing of precepts. Karma is, like God Almighty, a supernatural
surveillance agency that knows whether you've been bad or good. Karma makes the Panopticon
seem an amateurish fumble. Be good or go to hell, has always been religion's trump card.

Today we don't see ourselves as dependent on friends and neighbours. We see them as
accessories, as optional. The average person has just enough individual wealth, and is so
steeped in the rhetoric of individualism that they are convinced they can go it alone, or at least
with their mate and children in tow. Communities are bound by mutual need. If we assume that
we don't need anyone, then we are not part of the community. And divided we are conquered by
the more powerful. These days they make our captivity pretty comfortable, and a lot of the time
we can forget we live in bondage. We lap up the narratives of virtualityvirtual friends, virtual
pets, virtual communitieswithout seeming to notice that they are virtually useless compared to
the real thing.

Authorities and Adepts

Despite rampant individualism, we cannot override the fact that we are a social species. We
arrange our society in a uniquely human way, but still retain some features in common with other
primates. And I think this insight may point to a weakness in Foucault's attempts to problematise
society. We can't really live without it. Which is why we accept virtuality as ersatz society.

Many of us accept authority figures (alpha-individuals) and feel more secure having one around.
In effect we like someone to tell us how to be individualistic, like teenagers who dress alike to
symbolise their rebellion against conformity. Some of us prefer to try to unseat authority figures
whether in an attempt at wresting actual power from them (pretty rare) or in a kind of impotent
passive rage against authority generally (pretty common). Some of us have an ideology which is
against authority figures on principle, like eternal teenagers. There's a lot of pressure on us to be
neotonous, to remain childish because, like children, people with childish ideologies are easy to
manipulate. A surprising number of Buddhists seem to be against any authority figure and any
form of collectivity.

Every domain has it's authorities and adepts. And the spiritual domain is no exception. Spiritual
long referred to that which pertained to the church. 200 years ago adding the adjective spiritual
to nouns and verbs was how the Church marked out its demesne. In that tradition becoming an
authority in the church was relatively arduous. Priests were often the only educated people in
their milieu. The great universities were founded to educate priests during the so-called Dark
Ages. However with the modern decline of the power of the church to impose standards and the
rise of religious alternatives (particularly the freelance gurus of India), the adjective spiritual has
been co-opted by non-church groups. The demesne of spiritual and all it's power and resources
is now hotly contested. Anyone can become a spiritual authority or a spiritual adept with no effort
or qualification. The demesne is haunted by frauds and hoaxes, but this seems not to slow down
the commerce in all things spiritual.

In Buddhism we have a great deal of anxiety over authenticity and authority. We see a lot of ink
spilt over whether our scriptures are authentic while modern scholarship, including my own, is
constantly casting doubts. If the texts are authentic, then just what authentically are they?
Similarly Buddhists enunciate lineages at great length in the hope that this guarantees the
authoritativeness of authorities. However, Sangharakshita has shown that lineage is no
guarantee of anything: see Forty-Three Years Ago.
This is not a new priority, but visible at all stages of Buddhist literature. The question of who is a
spiritual authority and who is a spiritual adept, and just what that entitles them to say and do are
constantly under review. It's always difficult to tell. (See How To Spot an Arahant). And of course
Western Buddhism has been more or less constantly dealing with the problem of authority
figures who defy norms and break rules. It is notable that commentators seem to fall back on
Judeo-Christian notions of justice when this happens. A crisis of behaviour almost always
becomes a crisis of faith and the faith we grew up with very often shapes our opinions more than
our convert beliefs.

Even the individualist tends to have a "spiritual teacher" someone who is both spiritual
themselves in some exemplary fashion and who who is an expert in spiritual practice and thus
able to oversee the practice of others. This relationship may be personal or be at arm's length
through books and videos. And we may hedge our bets by picking and choosing from spiritual
teachers of various kinds. But we still look to someone to define what is spiritual: what we should
believe, and what we should do about it. And this gives those who play the role of teacher
considerable power. Indeed with direct disciples who abdicate personal authority and decision
making to a guru, the problem is even more acute. It's interested that despite early flirtations with
spiritual masters, we now tend to follow teachers instead. The obedience implicit in the
disciple/master relationship doesn't sit well with individualism and has been famously disastrous
on a number of occasions. Being a celibate teacher in a sexually promiscuous society seems to
be an especially fraught situation.

I've already touched on the Foucaldian critique of the inner self as envisaged by the
Enlightenment. My take on this is that the Enlightenment self, characterised especially by
rationality, is a feature of Neolibertarianism via its Utilitarian roots. Utilitarianism is caught up in
the Victorian over-emphasis on a particular kind of rationality. We see it in the "rational choice"
models of economics, which let the developed world's economies fall into a major recession with
(almost) no warning in 2008. I've been critical of this view of rationality in my writing e.g.
Reasoning and Beliefs; or Facts and Feelings. Foucault's study of the fate of the irrational
person in post-Enlightenment society traces the ascendency of this view. and particularly
examines the power exercised over those who seem to be unreasonable or irrational. We can
contrast this with the Romanticisation of spirit and the self in reaction to an overly mechanical
view of the universe.

The political side of spiritual can be seen in this light: that it represents an exertion of power to
control the individual, and that individual consents to be controlled. By obeying norms we find
belonging. Belonging is essential to the well-being of human beings, and has always provided
one of the strongest levers against the individual: conform or be excluded. In a hunter-gatherer
society conformity conveys benefits that outweigh the costs, but in a settled society (with cities
etc) the dynamic is far more complex.
In Libertarian ideology this is turned on it's head. In the Libertarian view no benefit can outweigh
the cost of conformity. The Neolibertarian ideology is one adopted by the 1% of rich and
powerful. It says that everyone is free to make a profit. The fine print however is pure
Mercantilism: the person only has value to the extent that they contribute to profit making. Self-
employment is fine, even admirable, but unemployment is immoral. In this ideology arguing for
more taxation on profit is irrational since it interferes with profit making; in the jargon it's anti-
business. The purest form of profit making is the effortless increase in wealth obtained from
owning land that goes up in value due to external factors. Profit without effort. It's almost a
religion in the UK and almost completely exempt from taxation (compared to wages and profits).
To some extent the individualism of SBNR partakes of this ideology. Let no one interfere with my
spirituality. Magazines are full of ads promising spiritual attainment with no effort. And there is a
spiritual 1% living in relative luxury on the proceeds of this economy.

Attempts to break out of this thought control often take the form of what we in the Triratna Order
call therapeutic blasphemy, where one deliberately breaks taboos, such as prohibitions against
blasphemy, in order to loosen the grip of a lifetime of conditioning in Christian values.
Sangharakshita used this example of positive blasphemy in his 1978 essay Buddhism and
Blasphemy (Reprinted in The Priceless Jewel [pdf], 1978), written in response to conviction of
the editor and publishers of the Gay News for "blasphemous libel" in 1977 (see BBC summary of
the case). The use of antinomian and transgressive practices in Buddhist tantra dating from
perhaps the 8th century onwards appears to have a similar purpose.

One might think that Buddhism at least would inform a better kind of government, that countries
where Buddhism is the state religion would tend to exemplify Buddhist values. However, the
opposite is more often true.

Buddhist Politics

Think for a moment about the forms of government associated with nominally Buddhist
countries. Traditional Asian Kingdoms and Empires have been, like their Occidental
counterparts, harshly repressive, imperialistic, racist and rigidly hierarchical. There is nothing
particularly attractive about the forms of government that have developed in the Buddhist world.

Today the three main Theravda countries, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, are all run by
authoritarian, repressive governments. Either military governments as in Burma, or militaristic.
Thailand declared martial law last month.

Mahyna countries have not produced more compassionate forms of government on the
whole: China, North Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet. Bhutan might be the only exception, but the
peasants there really are brainwashed into seeing their royal family as deities to whom they owe
fealty, obedience and obeisance. A form of political control once employed by the Tibetans as
well. There's nothing particularly admirable about virtually enslaving the peasant population in
order to support a huge number of unproductive men. A system that produced a major shortage
of marriageable men, and yet such poverty than brothers often clubbed together to share one
wife. Of course one cannot condone the Chinese invasion of Tibet on those grounds. The brutal
repression of the Tibetans and the widespread destruction of their culture has been
heartbreaking. But pre-invasion Tibet is Romanticised by Westerners (this is the theme of Don
Lopez's Prisoners of Shangrila which is worth reading).

For those who hope to implement Buddhist control of Western countries the question is this:
based on which historical precedent do you see religious government of our countries as a good
thing? Churchill did say:

"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No
one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is
the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to

The governments of nominally Buddhist countries are amongst the most repressive in the world,
no matter what period in history we look at. In fact Buddhism makes for poor politics precisely
because it is traditionally disengaged. And the engaged part of engaged-Buddhism is coming
from external sources. A Green government might be a good thing, but one that values the
natural world would mostly likely be better than any form of Buddhist government. No one who
denies the reality of people or suffering should have access to power over people.


We'll probably never get rid of spiritual in Buddhist circles, certainly not on my say so. Religious
people use the religious jargon of the day, just as the authors of the early Buddhist texts used
Brahmanical and Jain jargon. Some times the re-purposing of a word works out, sometimes not.
Brhmana retained its Vedic meaning and caste associations despite attempts to assimilate it,
while karman or dharman became naturalised and have now even been Anglicised. The
argument over whether or not Buddhism is a religion, or a philosophy, or a spiritual tradition, or
whatever, goes on.

And old habits die hard. Spiritual is a word we use partly as a lure, a familiar term for those who
are dissatisfied with ordinary life. "Mundane life sucks? Try our all new/old spiritual life,
guaranteed 25% more satisfying! We're so confident that you don't get your money back."
Spiritual is a handle on what we do that outsiders can grasp and given the jargon laden claptrap
some of us come out with, something familiar comes as a relief. It provides what Frank Zappa
used to call Conceptual Continuity.

But all of this goes on in an economy of power. Spiritual discourses aim to shape a particular
kind of subject for a particular kind of purpose. And the explicit purpose, spiritual liberation, may
mislead us into thinking that by taking on the discourses of spirituality we are becoming more
free. In fact very few people achieve liberation and most of us are in bondage. Unfortunately the
politics of the day is easily able to exploit the myth of liberation to better enslave us. Power
exploits our naive dualism and over-concern with the mental or immaterial, to enslave our

To some extent we suffer from "the world that has been pulled over our eyes to distract us from
the truth." This line from The Matrix draws on Gnostic ideas about the world. In fact the rampant
escapism of spirituality does make it easier to create compliant, obedient subjects who work
hard to create obscene profits for the 1%. Like the middle-classes who facilitated Merchantilism,
the cadre of disciples channel power within communities.

But it's not the end of the world. There are benefits to being religious and a member of a
religious organisation. Buddhism's lessons on life are actually pretty helpful a lot of the time. The
practices are worth pursuing in their own right. It's just that ideally we'd all think about our lives a
bit more. And especially reflect on where our views come from.