Four Levels of Truth

When reading Buddhist scriptures, especially those sutras that directly cite the historical Gautama Buddha, it can be confusing that there are often obvious contradictions and statements that downright oppose each other. Besides a few obvious mistakes that were made by ancient translators and later scholars, the majority of those result from Buddha’s conviction that it is necessary to adapt the teaching to the recipients’ capability of understanding. In this sense, a doctrine is true as long as it is appropriate to serve as a suitable means to the noble end of guiding people towards the right or the good (understanding, action, behaviour, insight, etc.). This argument was promoted in the most sophisticated manner in the later Chinese Buddhist school known as Tiantai (天台). The founder of this school, Zhi-Yi (智顗), divides all Buddhist treatises and sutras into four kinds (his famous “Fourfold Teachings”, 四教):

  • The Tripitaka Teachings (藏教): The Theravada teaching that renounces the experiential world, meant for people who have little intelligence and low ambition. Its truth is that the world is empty in the sense of being illusions. The path to Nirvana is the renunciation of the world of suffering.
  • The Common Teaching (通教): Shared by both Theravada and Mahayana schools, this teaching for people who can understand the truth of emptiness and recognise that dharmas have no real self-subsisting nature is still about emptiness, but with the notion that it means nothing other than dependent co-arising. It doesn’t necessarily advocate exiting the mundane world to reach Nirvana.
  • The Special Teaching (別教): A Mahayana teaching for people with compassion for other sentient beings. It preaches the Bodhisattva goal of attainment, based on the understanding of the Buddha-nature and the Middle Way (often referred to as the ultimate truth).
  • The Perfect Teaching (圓教): The teaching of the ultimate reality which is the Middle Way itself. It identifies Nirvana with the phenomenal world: One does not need to leave the phenomenal world to enter Nirvana. Under this teaching – in contrast to the Special Teaching – afflictions and attachments are not necessarily bad. One can gain enlightenment even in the midst of afflictions. One only needs to attain perfect wisdom with all that it entails (inner harmony, loving-kindness, pure awareness of dharmas, etc.).

I guess we can summarise it like this: The first approach is based on experiences and teaches rules on how to deal with those experiences. The second grounds on factual knowledge and teaches strategies on what to do with that knowledge. The third focuses on values and teaches virtues that preserve and cultivate those values. The fourth refers to wisdom and teaches how to attain a mindset in which perfect wisdom can flourish.

Obviously, there is a form of hierarchy in this list concerning the mental capacity of sentient beings. I don’t want to limit it to humans, since we can include animals in our reflections, as we will see. First, I think it is possible to link the teaching approaches to the different phases of development within the lifespan of one person. Second, we may group different members of society according to which kind of teaching they are best confronted with. In the first sense, I think of my ways of dealing with you (Tsolmo) as a father through the years:

Now, while you are little and without much knowledge, I will tell you rules and orders, like “Don’t touch the fire!” or “Don’t stick nails into the power sockets!”. It would be useless to explain to you that fire is the exothermic reaction of oxygen with anything organic (including your skin and the tissue underneath) and that the feeling of pain is a signal transduction of your nerve cells that triggers certain brain activities, manifesting in your consciousness as an unpleasant feeling, or that electricity is the result of a charge gradient along a conducive material like metal wires or your body (in which it causes pain, see above)… Your world at this stage is that of experience, so I guide you in your way of making experiences, keeping more serious dangers away from you.

Then you will acquire more and more knowledge about the mechanisms of this world, and simple rules and orders will not satisfy your insatiable curiosity about the Hows and Whys. You will learn a lot at school, but also at home. THIS is what happens when you expose your body to heat. THIS is what happens in a flow of charges. And THAT’s WHY you shouldn’t touch it. In this phase, however, you will sometimes learn “wrong” things in the sense of oversimplifications and half-truths. In primary school you might learn that electricity is a “flow of electrons”, but when you study physics or chemistry at university you will find out that it is not entirely “correct” to put it that way. The knowledge in this stage will help you to acquire technical skills: You will know how to switch on the gas stove and how to plug devices into the power sockets. However, you might need supervision, because you might underestimate the risks and expose yourself (and others, eventually) to dangers.

The next stage is the alignment of your choices and decisions with values and preferences: You need orientational knowledge to answer questions like “Why would I want this or that?” and “Why ought I to do this or that or maybe better not?” and “What kind of knowledge shall I look for in order to aid my decision-making?“. With this capacity you will also be able to relate your own interests to those of others and to mediate empathically in case of conflicts and dilemmas. Factual knowledge of the world won’t help in these cases, but only normative-ethical knowledge and prescriptive and evaluative modes of thinking (with subsequent action). Here you become a responsible person, so that I can stop being concerned about the risk of fire and electricity, because you will know how to deal with it properly. There is no more need to keep you away from the gas stove, because you will be skilled AND mindful enough to use it for your benefit without being in danger of its potential harms. You will be able to evaluate the outcome of your decisions, balance risks and benefits and even include the people around you in your reflections. I can trust you!

Finally, you might reach a level of wisdom. Here, it is not anymore about fire and electricity and their risks, but about the question “Why would I use gas stoves or electronic devices at all? Isn’t there an alternative?”. You let fire be fire, electricity be electricity and yourself be… well… what?… YOU. The point is not a nihilistic “Nothing really matters.”, but a visionary and clear-minded “This is how things are, and I see it!”. You see the larger picture of mundane and phenomenal conditionality and karmic interrelations. You will have inner peace and strength, resulting in a balanced mind. Yes, you will still burn yourself accidentally or make the fuse blow by improper handling of an electric device. But flawless perfection of worldly matters is not a goal anymore! The goal is: Seeing things as they are and approaching them with an unshakable clarity and momentariness. I have nothing to tell you in that stage.

The second way to interpret the Fourfold Teachings, as I mentioned, is a societal classification of mental capability. First, there are those who are ignorant. I say that without any judgment or offense. However, we need to separate two kinds of ignorant minds: Those who can’t be claimed to know it better, and those who can. Among the first are animals, small children, mentally disabled, comatose or in any other way unconscious or mindless patients, and those who have no access to proper education or even a “normal” way of life (for example, children that grow up in war zones). We simply wouldn’t expect children, dogs, people with down syndrome or Alzheimer patients to always know what is the right thing to do, so we decide for them in a paternalistic way (restrict them from access to certain things and areas, put them on a chain (I mean, the dogs!), or give them clear rules that are for the best of them). Among the second are people with a lack of intellect and with a high degree of narrow-mindedness. Now, the opinions might deviate strongly on who that typically is. My image of “common people” is rather bad, so I would put many (MANY) people into this group. Most of all, there are all the scumbags like racists, fascists, supremacists, haters, priggish and egocentric fools, but also many religious people (used to follow doctrines and dogmatic orders rather than questioning anything), mindless consumers (of all kinds of things), people with high susceptibility to addictions, emotionally incompetent people (bad-tempered, labile, or inappropriately overconfident). They all have one thing in common: They don’t know (or: are not aware of) something important (either worldly facts, or emotional self-management, or how to control themselves). It would take great effort to teach them knowledge (especially when they are adults), not to mention values or wisdom. Their picture (as in “the larger picture”) is so small that the only things that can keep them on track towards a more or less meaningful and fulfilled life are clear rules and guidelines. These are provided in the form of laws by the legal system these people live in, in the form of cultural, traditional and religious value- and belief-systems and their established ways of social sanctioning, or in the form of institutions and clubs with shallow messages and philosophies (like churches, gyms, meditation circles, WeightWatchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.). Again: There is nothing to blame, here! The only question is: What kind of approach is of any help or benefit for the people?

Then there are people who choose the way of (factual) knowledge as the best path towards a good life (whatever that means). Today, the access to such knowledge is better than ever! You don’t need to go to the library and spend hours there, anymore, but can look for and get all the knowledge you want almost everywhere with your mobile communication device. Most people know that it is not a punishment by a god when the room is suddenly in darkness, but a broken light bulb or a blown fuse – and they know how to fix it by themselves! They also know that racism has no scientific foundation, that addiction arises from certain psychological mechanism, that emotions can be managed, and that consumption of mass-produced goods (including cosmetics, smartphones, meat, and TV program) most likely has unethical implications like environmental destruction or mental decay. This knowledge increases the quality of your decision-making (but not necessarily that of each and every of your decisions!). So, what helps you to increase your quality of life? More knowledge!

Also this approach has its limits. As pointed out in other letters, factual and procedural knowledge about the world is not able to tell us what to do. This requires orientational knowledge: values, norms, goods. When realising that, your life is good when you are convinced that you made the right choice, in contrast to a correct choice as in the former strategy. Your decisions should, in this sense, be informed by possible consequences of them for you and for others. You see how orientational knowledge adds up to factual knowledge: In order to foresee consequences and implications of certain decisions and actions you will need particular factual knowledge (for example, of physics, of social mechanisms, of psychological interrelations, of values in a descriptive sense), so that you know what you need to apply your normative evaluations to. People that belong to this group – those who reflect on the question “How do I know what something is good for?” before making a decision – tend to be more altruistic, but also more hesitant and sometimes insecure, because it is always possible to make the wrong choice (which is a bad choice).

This problem is none among the very few people (if any at all) in the fourth group: Those with the farsighted wisdom similar to that of Gautama Buddha (possibly). I certainly don’t claim to be one of them! Therefore, I am actually not able to write anything here, because I (probably) didn’t really get what it means. However, let me try to explain my understanding of it: A wise person understands that it is pointless (because impossible) and unnecessary (because overambitious) to try to live a perfect and flawless life. We will never be capable of foreseeing all karmic effects of our actions, neither the physical ones (as if we were able to predict the exact position of every billiard ball on a table after knowing all the data of how the queue hits the white one) nor the personal ones (one’s position in the society, friend networks, impact of one’s actions and words on others and their subsequent actions and words, etc.). Trying to optimise our decision-making in terms of these factors has an obvious cognitive limit. Wisdom doesn’t mean to always do the right thing, but to figure out what is the best choice among given options in this moment (the moment of choosing). An important precondition for this state of mind is a complete freedom from attachments (including self-attachment) and mindless craving. A selfish choice, then, is per se not a wise choice. Pure wisdom concerning the ultimate reality leaves the self-perspective entirely and sees the world as a conditional network of karma that seeks harmonious equilibrium. Good, then, is what supports this larger scale harmony, which might often not be the direct personal benefit. There is no wrong or bad decision in this stage, because you will understand that the world is a dynamic momentary manifestation of karmic conditions and that your only choice is to take this moment to make a decision. If that is good or bad, right or wrong – who will ever know? However, a high degree of mindfulness and awareness of this moment will increase the chance that your decision will have more sustainable long-term effects on the quality of your life. All the rest (desires, interests, concerns, worries, fears, confidence, (in)security, etc.): Let it go!

This table summarises the reflections on the four levels of teaching (entirely debatable!):

Teaching Knowledge type Lifespan stage Societal group
Rules Experience Child Ignorant
Strategies/Skills Factual Teen/Adolescent Educated
Virtues Orientational/
Adult Mindful
Clear Mind Vision/Wisdom Senior Wise/Enlightened

Once more, it (hopefully) became obvious why I don’t like the term truth. Certainly, there is no absolute truth. Statements can only be true in a defined set of conditions under which communicators can agree that its content resembles a certain form of truth, for example a semantic truth, a linguistic truth, a logic truth, a historical truth, etc. Here, in this letter, I wanted to show that the notion of truth necessarily needs a pragmatic component: Truth as expedient means to an end needs to be viable in a given context, enabling people with different capacities and intelligences to gain true enlightenment (at least an insight on how to live their lives well). It is not what a statement says, but what it does (that is, what it accomplishes), that makes the statement true.


The 18th Camel

Here is a story prominently exploited by Heinz von Foerster in order to illustrate an important aspect of constructivism (see Lynn Segal’s book “Das 18. Kamel oder Die Welt als Erfindung. Zum Konstruktivismus Heinz von Foersters”, Piper Verlag, 1988):

A Mullah was riding on his camel to Medina. On his way, he saw three young men with a small herd of camels. The men looked sad and confused. He approached them and asked what was wrong.
Our father passed away.”, said one of them.
May he rest in peace! I am sorry for your loss! Did he leave anything behind for you?“.
Yes, those seventeen camels! That’s all he possessed.”.
Well, then you can be happy! Why so gloomy?
His last will was that the oldest of us gets half of his camels, the second gets one third of them, and the youngest gets one ninth. We tried everything to distribute the camels, but it never works out!
Is that all that is burdening you, my friends? Well, then, just add my camel to the herd for a moment and see what happens!
Of the now 18 camels, the oldest brother got half, which is nine, and the second got one third, which is 6, and the youngest got one ninth, which is two. One camel was left, the one of the Mullah. He climbed it and continued his journey, waving with a smile at the happy brothers.


Heinz von Foerster remarked: “Like that 18th camel, we need reality as a crutch that is thrown away when having clarity about everything else.”

How may we understand this? The three brothers in the story find themselves in a situation in which the task that is given to them is puzzling and seemingly impossible to accomplish. It makes no sense to them. This is because of a mismatch between the parameters of their task and the referential frame, its condition (one half, one third and one ninth of 17 can never yield whole numbers, which is important for structural integrity when the entity to distribute is camels!). Since the task itself (the late father’s last will) could not be changed, the only way to get out of the misery is to change the reference frame: 18 instead of 17 camels!

We find ourselves in similar situations day in and day out. Whatever happens to us, we have to make sense of it, otherwise our conscious cognition would leave us in despair and confusion. Think of the example I made in an earlier letter: Our visual perception is constantly completed according to our concepts of and (past) experiences with something, like the (2-dimensional) house front is immediately thought of as a complete (3-dimensional) house. We are able to find our way in this world because our trust that it works reliably in accordance with our expectation (the extrapolation from repeated past experience into the future) is seldom violated. The fundamental basis of self-knowledge is the separation of “me” and “the world” (or “all the rest”). What is “world” is knowledge that is acquired and constructed over the course of one’s lifetime (aligned with each other’s constructions by communication). Colloquially we refer to it as reality, meaning the referential frame for our performance (the “task”) in which everything ideally makes sense and works out well. Here we see why constructivists are never tired pointing out that it is important to get rid of (absolute) truth claims and instead to evaluate the validity of reality descriptions in terms of their viability (their success in application). The 18th camel was not among those that the brothers inherited from their father, we may say, so it is a kind of cheating. It is “not true”! But is that really important? The task was solved and everybody was happy, going on with their lives successfully. When you make decisions, even the most profane daily life choices (where and what to eat, what clothes to wear, to call your boyfriend or not, etc.), you do that in a matrix of factors that give you the illusion of being part of a perfectly consistent and fine-tuned “world” that functions according to particular laws and rules. You rely on that so much that most of the time you are not even aware of it. Be it scientific statements, value judgments, personal preference choices, behaviour, etc. – in your mind they must make sense so that you are willing to accept them (which you have to if you want to proceed into any direction in your life). The claim is: This sense-making has no roots in a fixed eternal unshakeable reality, but deep roots in your personal narrative, your world construction. I don’t deny that there is a “real” world of this or that kind, shape, constitution, whatever. We just have no access to it, so it must not be mixed up with our (conscious and unconscious) concept of it!

As von Foerster pointed out, we need the concept of reality as a crutch whenever we are unclear about something (which is quite often the case). Here, I also see the touching points with Buddha’s teachings again. Reality is an illusion, a matrix in which we are caught because there is no other choice, unless we acquire the skill to see things as they really are and get enlightened. I assume, that is a gradual process that we start in small steps and proceed according to our capacities. Being aware that “there is something” beyond our default-setting might be a good first step. May this story of the 18th camel plant a seed in your reflections!


There is no One!

In an earlier letter on my worldview, I labelled myself as a monist. Recently, I found that this needs further elaboration and maybe a correction. Maybe I had a wrong idea of what is “monism”, a term with a long history in western philosophical discourse. The two fields of inquiry we are interested in, here, are ontology (the question of what is real) and epistemology (what is knowledge, what are we able to know about reality).


Basic terminology in Western metaphysics.

Western philosophy is predominantly characterised by the dichotomy of mind and matter. This ontological dualism is built on a strong substance metaphysics: The materialist believes that the one underlying substance of everything is matter and that mental phenomena arise from material processes (for example, thoughts and imagination are the effect of neuronal activity in the brain). The idealist believes the opposite – that the one substance is mind and that the entire perception of the phenomenon “matter” is a mental creation. Both are, in their own way, monists – there is only one substance. Attempts to moderate between the two are dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, for example in Spinoza’s work. Furthermore, there is a strong religious association with the term monism: those who believe that there is only one almighty divine entity as the substance-creator (a god) are religious monists.

Strictly speaking, monistic idealists and materialists are still dualists since they obviously separate mind and matter. What I had in mind when calling my metaphysical viewpoint monistic was a non-separation of the two, a strict non-dualism. Perhaps, I may call it “dialectic monism” to make it clearer: For me as a convinced epistemological constructivist (all we know is constructed by our mind on the foundations of our experiences and formations) and holist (everything is interconnected in a net of conditionality), both mind and matter are embedded into an ultimate reality that “works” by only one set of mechanisms (are call it “laws”). As described earlier, the emergent character of an ever-changing world – the dependent arising in Buddhist philosophy – brought about the feature of conscious perception and cognitive processes. This is the origin of our mind. With our current knowledge about “nature” we may say that it arises from matter. However, at the same time – that is: dialectically – the whole concept of “matter” is the product of our mental reflections on our surrounding. And here my “monism” – thought of as “non-separation” or “emptiness” – comes into play: We easily fall victim of the illusion that our mental processing of the world is somehow separated from the “real” world outside of our mind. We separate into me and you, me and the world, inside and outside, and so forth. This conscious ontology is the phenomenal or conventional reality, but not the ultimate reality or actuality. The call for oneness is, therefore, a prescriptive one: If our goal is to progress towards enlightenment, we need to understand that there is no metaphysical substance, permanence and separable identity of things, but emptiness, impermanence and interconnectedness. In this respect, my “monism” may not be understood as “there is only one”, but as “there is only everything”.

A next question would be if there is an analogous insight for epistemological monism: The “mind-monist” – the rationalist – would claim that all knowledge is a result of mental reasoning (rationality). The “matter-monist” – the (traditional) empiricist – would understand all knowledge as the result of incoming experiential triggers that are caused by matter (for example, light, sound waves, molecular exchange, etc.). Again, dialectic monism replies that both are working interconnectedly. Ratio needs experience from interaction with the surrounding, while the processing of the experience itself is enabled through a sense-making by our conscious rationality (as depicted in my tree of knowledge). Again, there is no one (ratio or experience), but only everything (the experiential margin of our perception, the pattern formations of the past, our choice of strategies for sense-making and meaning-construction, etc.).

Now comes the tricky question: Why bother? Why would it matter for our daily life? Admittedly, not all philosophy has this pragmatic component of applicability or viability. Traditional metaphysics and epistemology as “armchair philosophy” were a purely intellectual academic endeavour. However, I am firmly convinced that these insights – when successfully put into practice – have a deep impact on our daily life. Take, for example, the love relationship of a couple: When the two are regarded as separated entities, it might always remain at the level of “you and me”. When we understand how we are all connected in karmic relations, there is the chance to reach the level at which there is only “us”. The way of communication, the willingness to listen and understand, patience, benevolence, all will be different. Another example is the attitude towards one’s situation in the job or – in case you are a student – at school or university: Do the challenges make you feel stressed, powerless or overwhelmed and do the people you have to deal with bother and annoy you? Or do you understand how those situations are the product of manifold interconnected factors (including you and your attitude) and learn how to control and work with these factors to create beneficial circumstances for yourself and everyone involved? Or politics: Is it really “us and them”? Or is it actually possible to induce transformations of system flaws by planting small seeds in family members, neighbours, friends, colleagues, etc.? Aren’t the leaders we get the ones we inevitably deserve as a society, due to the opinions and viewpoints that we allow or even support to form? Can we really blame certain people or parties for insufficiencies or are there maybe hidden causal pathways that we are not aware of or that we don’t understand but that let certain decisions and democratic practices appear in a different – sometimes more reasonable – light?

If we were Buddha, we would be able to see through all karmic relations in the conditionality network. Or – to exploit a more recent cinematic picture – if we were Neo we would not see the illusion of the world (the conventional truth), but the Matrix (the ultimate truth). Most of us will never get even close to it. Some might notice the scratches in the surface of our illusion. The metaphysics of dependent origination and emptiness, as far as I can see it, is one of the most helpful insights to make intellectual progress towards a viable (that means: reliable, efficient, applicable, reasonable, verifiable) worldview, which should be followed by practical progress. It could be a mantra – The Mantra of Non-Separation – for every day: There is no one. There is only everything.


Nutshell Buddhism

There is a difference between “the actual world” and our idea of the world in our minds. Despite the scientific realists’ claim that scientific knowledge resembles real (natural) entities, many philosophers of different epochs and cultural realms concluded that we can’t be that certain of what we believe is the “reality”. This ranges from Daoists (the Dao stands for the ultimate reality that is in contrast to the human world that is perceived, explained and communicated by names (language)), to Indian (Hindu) worldview with two truths (ultimate reality and phenomenal (common sense) reality), to Kantian metaphysics (things-as-they-are (Dinge-an-sich) and forms-of-view (Anschauungsformen)), to constructive realism a la Friedrich Wallner (actuality vs. lifeworlds and microworlds). Nobody, however, expressed this difference more aptly than Gautama-Buddha, mounting in the First Noble Truth (“Life is suffering“). I understand suffering (dukha) in the Buddhist sense as the deviation between our idea of the world as the result of our deluded minds and the world as it really is. This is what he means with ignorance. Let me elaborate a little further on that.

In my tree of knowledge, I depicted our mental and cognitive features (and all they entail) including the experiences we make through them as the roots, the process of sense-making and meaning-construction as the channels in the trunk of the tree, and the manifestations of our worldviews, beliefs and values as the branches. This can be a powerful illustration to explain the essence of Buddhist worldview. The core of Buddhist philosophy is the scheme of the “12 links of interdependent co-arising“. Basically, it teaches that due to our ignorance we believe in the permanence of isolated separated entities, including ourselves (or: our self). We believe that “what we see is really there” (which, from an evolutionary perspective, is probably helpful for survival), which arouses our desires in a way that we judge what is “good” or “bad” for us so that we seek for some things (attachment) and avoid others (resistance). The desirability and non-desirability of things, however, is an illusion. It is formed by the framework of our past experiences and our vision of the future (driven by the fear of death). Buddha, here, elaborates on the roots (in my picture): He claims that the roots are grown in a rigid and inflexible way. We rely on perception tools that are limited (six senses, each limited to certain ranges of physical properties such as wavelengths (seeing), frequencies (hearing), molecular concentration (tasting and smelling), etc.). We are aware only of what fits our experiential margin. Emotions and desires are shaped by forces that are beyond our control. Therefore, relying on our roots is the first factor of suffering.

Then, he explains what the flaws are with our choices of channels for meaning-construction. We are driven by concepts and intellectual reasoning, external forces like dogmas and paradigms, or psychological punishment- and reward-systems. Same as the roots, they are all deluded by the illusory conviction that our mental reality is identical with the actual reality. Society with all its institutions (science, politics, economy, organised religion, etc.), culture (with its modes of identification in separation from other cultures), and also individual personality (as the branches of the tree) are all built on this level of reality. Things are, however, different. There is nothing permanent and separated. Everything is connected in a complex net of conditionality, non-deterministic, non-teleological, non-reductive, non-dualistic, and therefore: empty. Shunyata (“emptiness“), as understood by Nagarjuna and later the Chinese Mahayana schools Huayan, Tiantai and Chan, is the fundamental metaphysics of the world. This is the ultimate reality. The worldly features that we create on the basis of our deluded “roots” deviate from this underlying ultimate reality to certain extents. The bigger that deviation the stronger our suffering.

Now, there are two ways to overcome this suffering. One works on the roots. We may plant seeds for the roots to grow in different ways. To use the metaphor of a famous movie: This means to “exit the matrix” of the mindlessly grown roots and actively form new sources for experiences and cognitive access to reality. The other way – but most often both ways have to be applied together – is a change of meaning-construction, or in terms of the picture: choose a different channel through the trunk. This is meditative contemplation and mindful awareness. In order to get closer to the ultimate reality, we need to let go of concepts, deluded rationality, mindless following of doctrines and rules (acquired through education and socialisation), and especially the illusion of an independent self that dominates our psyche. Only then will we be able to see through the complex network of cause-effect-relations (karma) and set ourselves free in (not from) its matrix. The Diamond sutra may help to understand the important point here: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.“. It sounds like a contradiction, but it is a rhetoric tool to describe the indescribable. Form (the things we perceive as independent objects or substance on the level of (deluded) common-sense reality) is actually empty (not outside the karmic cause-effect-conditionality), while it is exactly this metaphysical conditionality that brings about all which we interpret as form. This ontological understanding, with ourselves interwoven into the ever-changing web of the world fabric, will change our approach to life fundamentally! While the more traditional Indian Buddhists (Theravada schools) would probably state that there will be no more branches since enlightenment (that ontological break-through) leads to the other-worldly nirvana, I share the Mahayana view (esp. Tiantai) that enlightenment and nirvana are this-worldly phenomena from which we benefit within our lifetime. With an enlightened mind, our roots, the trunk and the branches all transform. We see our personality traits, emotions, fears, desires, and worldviews in the context of our past, our local surrounding (society, culture) and our cognitive capacities. We see how our past experiences form layers around our very core personality, the Buddha-Nature. In the next step, we disconnect the causal chains that control our decisions and choices. We see how sense and meaning are constructed in our mental processes and gain the ability to step back from it, question the strategies, apply different ones and get less dependent on the pre-shaped ones. Many branches, then, lose their significance and shrink. We see how others construct meaning and why they act like this or that within the thematic margins of certain branches, and we gain the empathic skills of compassion and loving-kindness.


by Alex Grey

The rebirth of Now

In Western thinking – based on the historical experiences – religion is carefully separated from philosophy. Religious belief is dogmatic and “faithful”, while philosophical reflection is logic, rational and should be based on empirically acquired knowledge. Christian worldview and Aristotelian or Kantian worldview might overlap in parts but are fundamentally different in their derivation and character. Religious people are believers and worshippers, while philosophers are thinkers and doubtful skeptics. When I started being interested in Buddhist worldview, I found that it is not so much a religion, as often propagated, but much more a philosophy. The Western term “buddhism” describes two ideas of Buddha’s influence, which in Chinese are 佛教 (fojiao), used to describe the religious practices, rituals and beliefs of buddhists, and 佛家 (fojia), understood as the intellectual philosophical content of Buddha’s teachings. Am I a “Buddhist” when I agree to Buddha’s worldview and practice some of its essences like mindfulness, compassion, inner peace and meditative contemplation, without supporting the belief in some of its historical dogmatic elements like rebirth or the Japanese idea of a “pure land”? A friend said “You can’t just select what you like and ignore the rest!”. Well, I can, but then I am just not “a Buddhist”.

The most intriguing religious idea of Buddhism is rebirth. However, there are many misunderstandings about it, especially when communicating it in a Western language like English or German, and especially when talking about it with someone having a “Western” cultural and educational background. Let me try to clarify a few important aspects of rebirth and Karma, which is closely connected to this topic.

The Chinese term used in the context of rebirth is 輪迴 (lunhui) which is often translated as “reincarnation” or “transmigration”. This is very unlucky, because reincarnation and rebirth must be carefully distinguished. Christians believe in a “soul” that migrates to a new body after the death of the old one.


Souls are eternal and the core of a person. The reincarnation of someone is still that someone. The mortal body is merely a container of the soul. Sounds like typical Western thinking to me. We also find it in Hinduism, serving as the justification for the Indian caste system (that someone is “born into” by reincarnation). The whole concept of personhood and personality is different in Buddhist worldview. Nothing is permanent, so there can’t be this kind of “soul”. Also, there is no isolated, individual being that makes any sense regardless of its surrounding (let’s call it “world”). What determines a human being’s condition is the embedment within an environment and the interaction with it. By having a consciousness and a strong action potential, humans create causes and effects with what they choose to do. This is called Karma. We constitute the further course of our surrounding and, by that, our own path through our karmic actions and decisions. The ancient Theravada school of Buddhism, still closer related to Hinduism, interpreted this in a way that karmic conditions and tendencies are carried on into the next life cycle. It is karmic forces that “migrate” to the next life, not someone’s personality.


Karma, then, also determines the conditions of the next life cycle: The surrounding as well as the form of being itself. This has often been exploited for educational purposes: “If you misbehave and do bad deeds in this life, you will be reborn as an amoeba!”. So you better do well!

Now, the literal understanding of rebirth has never been and can never be proven. That makes it a religious belief. However, there is another way to give it a down-to-earth daily life meaning, as found in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, especially in Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. Mahayana philosophy follows a much stricter monism (“all is one”) and rejects the idea of “Nirvana” as a particular moment occuring “someday” in one of an entity’s life cycles, as such separated from the profane life within the Samsara. Instead, Nirvana is always present, intrinsically interwoven into life in form of karmic potential. Moreover, there is no self that sustains itself independently over long periods of time (only our illusion of it does). From moment to moment  a being’s constitution changes, because it is dependent on all the karmic factors of its surrounding (which, obviously, is also constantly changing). With this understanding, “rebirth” doesn’t necessarily mean to be “born again” after death. Every new moment is a rebirth of the previous moment. Making a “moment” infinitely small ends up at the continuum that we perceive as “time”. Therefore, time is always “now”. What I choose to do in this Now determines my condition when “reborn” in the next Now. I am nice to you now, and in the next moment I might have a new friend. I steal an apple from my neighbour now, and I will be one step further down the spiral of crime with all its consequences in the next moment. Many of our choices and actual actions are somehow (ethically, normatively) “neutral”, but they impact our path and further course (call it “fate”). This matches perfectly with the understanding of Karma as “the law of cause and effect” rather than as a kind of punishment and retributive justice system. It also rejects determinism and destiny, because human consciousness enables the creation of new karmic tendencies. If not, the entire Buddhist endeavour of “enlightenment” would be useless. I think, this can be a reason for many Christians feeling uncomfortable with Buddhism: It would put them in charge of their lives, it would make them have responsibility for it, rather than blaming all on God. They feel good trusting in the benevolence and mercy of a loving God who takes good care of their lives. History has proven that this trust is too often disappointed. It is on us to take good care of our lives, to find “the right way” and make “the right choices”. Then Karma will increase the chance that in each and every “next moment” we find ourselves reborn in a “better world” with “better conditions”. This totally makes sense to me!

Further reading: click here

World Construction

The core question of philosophical reflection is “What is this world?”, or “What is being?”. Different epochs, eras and at different geographical places, people and their cultural realms found different answers on these questions. In case the historical answers are known, in retrospective, we can analyse them and – in view of later, more modern insights – find a certain course of development or sophistication in world explanations. We might also recognise that the “evolution” of insights is in good analogy to the process of knowledge acquisition for an individual from childhood to adult age.

By using our cognitive tools we perceive the world we are living in. The most naïve view is that of a real world that presents itself to us. Our task, then, is to “discover” as many facets of it as possible in order to increase the chances of a “successful” and fulfilled life in this world.


This was the idea of the Ancient Greek philosophers, starting from Heraklit and Parmenides up to Sokrates, Platon and Aristoteles. It was all about “the world”. Its features and properties (its “truth”) can be recognised by us so that we – by careful watching and philosophical reflection – get the most realistic image of it. Only then we can fulfil our most “human” task of overcoming our natural boundaries and get closer to the divine, closer to perfection. This is the basic idea: The specifically “human” element in us is the ability to go beyond ourselves, to exit the inevitable and be free. With an accurate picture of the real world that surrounds us in mind, this movement towards the divine is facilitated significantly!

There are two dangers in this idea, and both are deeply entrenched in the further course of European-Western philosophy. The first is the dualistic division into “outside” and “inside”, into “outer world” and “inner me”, finding its climax in the reflections of René Descartes (17th century). The consequences are tremendous! It took ages and the influence of East-Asian philosophy to correct this flawed idea. The second is the realist scientific worldview with its idea of “discovering” knowledge about real features of the world. Even though this realism has been replaced by constructivism in recent decades, many scientists, engineers, researchers, but also most scientific laymen are still convinced that the knowledge we can acquire by scientific investigation describes a somehow manifested actuality.

Immanuel Kant is the most prominent philosopher who modified this image of world perception. His basic idea was that we can only get aware of those features of the world that we have a pre-formed image of, that means that somehow match with our previously made experiences. He distinguished “things-as-such” (the features of the real world) from the things as they appear in our mind.


As a consequence, we can never know for sure what the actual world is. It remains obscured. The world that is represented in our mind is fed by an image of the world, and at the same time it feeds this image (for example by making new experiences that requires a modification of the image). In this view, “world” is all about the subject (or: the observer). Some even went so far to say that “world” only exists in the mind.

With this understanding of human possibilities to know anything about the world, dualism and realism are not overcome, yet. The apparent monism that “world is only idea (in the mind)” (we call that idealism) is a hidden dualism because it only emerges in view of its counterpart “materialism” that states that “world is only matter”. Moreover, it is still the somehow given (real) world with its “things-as-such” that impacts the human perception. This direction was reversed by phenomenology, most prominently pushed forward by Edmund Husserl and later Martin Heidegger. The subject can’t be taken as a passive observer and constructor of the world. The cognitive process of observation itself gets into the focus.


An act of perception, in this view, is not a mere “streaming-in” of stimuli, but an active “looking-out” (figuratively! it covers all senses, not just the visual!) into the world. By nature, this is a highly selective process. Insights from biology, physics, psychology, anatomy, and other scientific disciplines that tell us about the human condition deliver a better understanding of how we construct “world” by making experiences. The crucial point is the human cognition, the “lens” that we are unable to take off. It confines the cut of the world that we are able to pay attention to, and it also colours and shapes the incoming signals. One of the most impressive experiments that was conducted to show our selective perception was this: People were asked to watch the video of a volleyball match and count how often the ball was passed between players all dressed in white. A man in a black gorilla costume appeared in the center of the scene during the match, beating his chest and making silly movements. The big majority of watchers didn’t see him, even though he was clearly visible among the white dressed players. Now, we can say that it was “unfair”, because the people were asked to concentrate on the ball, they can’t be blamed. But isn’t “life” exactly like that? We are always so busy focusing on certain clear cut aspects of life, occupying our full attention, that occurrences beyond this don’t find a way through to our awareness. Nobody can be “blamed” for that, however, since this is simply a neutral observation.

Phenomenology stresses the importance of “experience”. Every experience (drawn from every act of cognition) involves the entire set of experiences made in the past. An experience is the manifestation of all experiences. A simple example: When seeing only the front of a house, we “know” that this is a three-dimensional building because we know the concept “house” from former experiences. In every perception of a part of the world, we are aware of the entire world, because only in this relation the experience makes sense. This sense-making is the basis of all experience. Not only do we align all experiences with our worldview (constructed from previous experiences), we also can only experience what fits into our margin of “sensefulness”. That’s why we don’t see the gorilla during the volleyball match, because a gorilla has no place in the world “volleyball”. The house front is automatically “completed” in our mind to an entire house. When walking around it we might find that it deviates from our imagination, for example the exact size, shape, etc., but these are just details. In the same way, we almost always succeed in identifying an item as a “table”, even when it is a very unusual modern art design, because its entire embedment into our world (including its functionality) is constantly present. Sometimes our imagination is fooled, misled, surprised or puzzled. When we walk around the house front and find that it is only the decoration of a movie set, for example. Then we either have to re-align the constructed reality (here: from the world “house as living space” to the world “movie making”), or we have to construct new meaning from the new experience.

How can we be sure that the way we construct meaning from experience is in any way supported by real features of the surrounding world, and by that somehow “justified”? How do I know that what I “see” is the same thing as that what you “see”? There could be a simple answer: by talking about it!


Both our world constructions don’t represent the actual world sufficiently, but if we integrate our two – almost necessarily deviating – images into one, we might get closer to what may count as “real”. This “discourse approach” to world conceptualisation was promoted in the later 20th century by Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel, Niklas Luhmann and others. Mankind is a species that constitutes its environment through communication and collaboration. World construction is, therefore, always a process from the “inter”-space: inter-personal, inter-relational, inter-cultural. My world becomes my world by setting it into relation to yours. My experience is only valid (or not) in view of your experiences (and all others). In case there are insurmountable differences, we need to engage in a conversation (or a discourse) in order to create new clarity.

However, communication is not a trivial thing. Its most important tool is language. This includes our spoken language using words, but also numerical systems (mathematics) and symbolism, non-verbal interaction, body language, etc. Language itself is conditioned and constituted by experience, which means that we only have linguistic expressions for what is already part of our experience (made by any of our ancestors). Translatability of “thoughts” and other cognitive impressions is a difficult endeavour, not only between the different languages of different countries or cultures, but even on the very basic level of interpersonal conversation. Therefore, philosophy spends a great big deal on clarifying and defining words and terms. When all that is done it is still not guaranteed that one really understands the other, because experience is not fully transferable. With sufficient exchange of information I might be able to anticipate your experience, but since my framework of experiences and their connection is different from yours, I will never be able to see the same thing in the same light. Actually, “world” can be defined as exactly this “framework of connected experiences”. Then, it makes sense to talk about “worlds” rather than “the world”, because what is “world” for you is more or less different from what is “world” for me. Identifying and getting aware of the overlapping parts of our world is as interesting and inspiring as the deviations.

These reflections, obviously, are inspired by European-Western philosophy. Much of this can be found in East-Asian philosophy as well. Especially Buddha’s teachings and their early philosophical analysis, for example by Nagarjuna, give insights into their idea of “world”. To my understanding, they have never been as naïve as the Ancient Greek. They didn’t split the world into outside and inside, they didn’t conclude this childish realism, and they were well aware of the human condition (i.e. human cognitive mechanisms) that underlie the world construction processes in our minds. This knowledge, ever since, could be exploited for actual down-to-earth mental liberation and enlightenment attempts. “Freeing the mind” from the “default setting” became the main endeavour of Buddhist practice. In contrast to the Greek idea, THIS is the main human challenge. In my illustrations that would be like removing or “clearing” the lens through which we see and interpret everything.


That would mean that we try to be less dependent on the patterns that we formed through our experiences but see things “as they are”. I’d like to add that it would also mean that for the large part of our surrounding (I avoid the term “world”, here) that is beyond our conscious capacity, we simply accept that we “know nothing”. This awareness makes a crucial difference! We will not be tempted to rely on our illusion of “knowing” but see through the flaws of our deluded minds and question everything. We could express it as “having no world in mind” or “having a no-world in mind”. Inter-personal or even inter-cultural communication about “worlds” is brought onto a completely new level by this understanding. Not only are we more open-minded towards others’ ideas and experiences, we are also less likely to fight for our own views and against the others’ views, because we understand that after all everything is “empty” of actual “substance” or “independent reality”. Then it also becomes entirely irrelevant to talk about “truth”. Much more important than truth is the viability of an experience and its subsequent subjection into meaning construction. The things “as they are” (which is not the same as Kant’s “things-as-such”), experienced directly and purely, span up the framework in which we live our lives and make our choices and decisions. Making this margin as wide and flexible as possible and ourselves as less conditioned and controlled as possible is the core practice of Buddhism. If we succeed in that, we see through the cycle of the 12 links of interdependent co-arising, we become aware of the three mind poisons, of our attachments and desires, of the dominance of our self concept, and of the Matrix that we live in. Then we can exit it.

The Three Monkeys

The three wise monkeys (Japanese: 三猿, san’en or sanzaru, or 三匹の猿, sanbiki no saru, literally “three monkeys”) are a pictorial maxim. Together they embody the proverbial principle to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil.


The source that popularized this pictorial maxim is a 17th century carving over a door of the famous Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan. The carvings at Toshogu Shrine were carved by Hidari Jingoro, and believed to have incorporated Confucius’ Code of Conduct, using the monkey as a way to depict man’s life cycle. The philosophy, however, probably originally came to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, from China in the 8th century (Nara Period). It has been suggested that the figures represent the three dogmas of the so-called middle school of the sect. In Chinese, a similar phrase exists in the Analects of Confucius from 2nd to 4th century B.C.: “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety” (非禮勿視, 非禮勿聽, 非禮勿言, 非禮勿動). It may be that this phrase was shortened and simplified after it was brought into Japan. The Kōshin belief or practice in which this symbol is rooted is a Japanese folk religion with Chinese Taoism origins and ancient Shinto influence. It was founded by Tendai Buddhist monks in the late 10th century. Though the teaching had nothing to do with monkeys, the concept of the three monkeys originated from a simple play on words. The saying in Japanese is “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” (見ざる, 聞かざる, 言わざる, literally “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak”). However, -zaru is the old japanese grammatical form of negation (“not doing something”) and is pronounced the same as zaru, the vocalized form of saru (), “monkey”, so the saying can also be interpreted as the names of three monkeys. It is also possible that the three monkeys came from a more central root than a simple play on words. The shrine at Nikko is a Shinto shrine, and the monkey is an extremely important being in the Shinto religion. The monkey is believed to be the messenger of the Hie Shinto shrines, which also have connections with Tendai Buddhism. Furthermore, it also reminds of “Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta“, good thoughts, good words, good deeds” in Zoroastrianism and of the three Sanskrit words referring to mind, speech and actions Manasa, Vacha, Karmana.

In Germany (and probably all over the western world) this symbol is very often misunderstood. It is commonly used to describe someone who doesn’t want to be involved in a situation, or someone willfully turning a blind eye to the immorality of an act in which they are involved. It stands for a lack of moral courage. But from my point of view, this is totally wrong. The maxim wants to address our attitude towards the world and how we perceive it. When looking at something, we should try to focus on the good aspects of it, not on the negative things. We shouldn’t interpret statements negatively when listening to other people talking, and when we talk we should avoid making negative statements. This is described in detail in the principles of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, Right speech & right action. Additionally it is in accordance to early associations of the three monkeys with the fearsome six-armed deity Vajrakilaya that link the proverb to the teaching of Buddhism that if we do not hear, see or talk evil, we ourselves shall be spared all evil (as in the Three Vajra from Tibetan Buddhism). This may be considered similar to the English proverb “Speak of the Devil – and the devil appears.”. One reason is that a person who is not exposed to evil (through sight or sound) will not reflect that evil in their own speech and actions. It can also be seen as a way to avoid spreading evil. Do not listen to evil things so they do not influence you. Do not read things that are evil or look upon evil things so they do not influence you, and lastly do not repeat verbally evil things so they cannot be spread about. Another interpretation is a warning or suggestion to not “see”, “hear” or “speak” evil in places where there in fact may not be any evil present. The point is that evil may not exist in the world except for how we may choose to perceive it or act it in the world through our own “speech” and “actions”.

Let me tell you some examples where I remember this symbol in daily life. I had a colleague who was always complaining and making very negative statements. Sometimes she caused trouble and stress, much more than necessary, by spreading “negative energy”. I am sure it would help her and also the working atmosphere at the office, if she would remember this maxim before starting to “speak evil”. Another example is from my drum teacher when I had drum lessons at the age of 14. He told me that on the coming weekend there is a workshop with a drummer at a music store, I should go there and listen. I told him, I know that drummer, and he is not very good, so I doubt that I can learn anything from him. He was quite upset about my statement and explained that I should listen to every drummer, even though they are not playing well. When I listen carefully they will at least once play something that I never heard before, that inspires me or that gives me a new idea for my own drum technique. I think this is valid for many situations in which we should listen with positive expectations instead of pre-judging someone and waiting for the confirmation of our “hearing evil”. The third example is something I practiced for a long time: when I woke up in the morning, looked out of the window and saw rain, I had bad mood. That was a very bad start into the day. But with this maxim it does not matter what I see outside after waking up, because I see the good in every weather. Rain is good for all life forms, because it gives them water which they need to grow. Sun gives energy in the form of light. Wind helps the flowers to spread their seeds and grow more flowers. Snow turns the landscape into a beautiful white. All kinds of weather have positive aspects, and when focusing on those, every day starts with good mood!

It sounds so simple but is yet so difficult to apply to all situations in daily life. Very often I find myself acting with negative attitudes, and realising that makes me feel uncomfortable. I know I have so much more to practice and train, but maybe someday I can integrate it fully into my daily life.