Thought Experiment One: The Glove Game

Close your eyes and imagine an ordinary, small, red ladies glove. Imagine that in the wrist part of the glove is a slit and one side of this is a small red button. Imagine that on the other side of the slit is a small loop that can go around the button, to hold the glove in place on a hand.

You have just imagined a glove. Now I want you to imagine this glove floating in a void of nothingness. No other things, no time, no light, no observer, just the glove. I want you to imagine The Glove Universe.

In fact, you cannot imagine a universe that’s just a small red ladies glove. For a number of reasons:

You can’t imagine something being “small” if thats’ the only thing there is. Smallness is a relative property, it needs more things to be realised.

You can’t imagine something as being red if there is no light and no observer. “Colour’s” don’t make sense in the glove universe (Though you can imagine the surface of the Glove has properties that were it on your hand right now would make it red).

You can’t imagine just a glove because gloves are what’s called “enantiomorphs” (One of my favourite words), this means that they are left or right handed structures that cannot exist without a “counterpart.”

Perhaps, even without the above three issues, we just cannot imagine universes in anything like the same way we can imagine tomorrows weather or the things we can imagine. Perhaps we can’t imagine the unimaginable.

Luckily. We don’t need need to imagine the unimaginable to be able to think about it discuss it and learn from it. Too see this point and too see some other things we are going to play an imaginary game, but one we could all play any time.

The Glove Game: Round One

Start a document that has room for three lists. You can use pen and paper, bullet points, mental notes, whatever, it really doesn’t matter. I will use bullet points for my side of the game.

Label the first List, “True List.”

All you have to do to win Round One is add more True statements about the Glove Universe than I do. When we say “True” in the context of this game we mean:

True: “A statement is True about the Glove Universe if what it describes can be found within the Glove Universes.”

Here is my first Truth List:

  • True:

    • The Glove has four fingers and a thumb.

When I look at the imaginary universe I see that this is True. The meanings of the words are from outside of the Universe but what they represent can be found inside the Glove universe. If you’re going to try to imagine a six fingered glove, then you lose the game because the game requires an “ordinary, small, red ladies glove.”

It isn’t hard to come up with True statements about the glove as my “True List” shows:

  • True

    • The Glove has four fingers and a thumb.

    • The button is not between the index finger and the thumb.

    • The little finger is not longer than the middle finger

    • The thumb is not between any fingers.

You can add to your list and I can add to mine and on and on we go. Sometimes we may come up with statements where it isn’t so clear if the statement is True. For example, what do we say about?:

It is possible the tip of the thumb could touch the tip of the index finger if the rest of the glove remained the same.

I don’t know what to say about this. It mentions possibility and conditionals (“if the…”) that don’t seem to belong. We shall discuss these in Round Three, for this round, its pretty clear, none of us can win.

If you want to imagine that the loop is has a tangent that intersects the seam of the thumb at 23% degrees, that’s fine, it’s your thought experiment and so long as your Stipulation of any single fact is consistent with your stipulations of the other facts, you can “imagine” it. And this means the Truth List is just a repository for facts that are consistent with a universe that consists of just an “ordinary, small, red ladies glove.”

The Glove Game: Round Two

For the next round, we have to start on the second List. Label this the “False List”.

The winner of Round Two is the person who comes up with the longest statement list of False statements about the Glove Universe. To see if a statement is False just see if the thing it describes is to be found in the Glove Universe, if it is not, then the statement is False.

Here is the start of my “False List” (Comments are in the lines below):

  • False:

    • The volume of the thumb is greater than the volumes of the other fingers combined.

      • Although we can easily imagine gloves with very big thumbs, that would be outside of the rules of this game which requires “a small red ladies glove…”.

    • The glove has symmetry.

    • It is possible to weave the thumb through the other fingers

    • The glove has the same topology as a doughnut.

It’s pretty easy to come up with False Statements about the Glove Universe. And like with True Statements, when seeking False Statements we also find some statements that don’t seem to be False. For example:

    • The Glove Is underneath a Hat.

Seems to be False because the Glove is not underneath a hat. However, it’s not False and yert equally it doesn’t to be a True (That is, Not Flase.). These statements that don’t fit on either list will be discussed in Round Three.

The Glove Game: Round Three

The Third List in the game is the “Meaningless List” and it will take only statements that are meaningless relevant to the Glove Universe. This will take a little bit more to appreciate before we play.

A statement is Meaningless relative to the Glove Universe Game if it is nether True nor False about the Glove Universe. You might like to think of Meaningless statements as containing things that simply cannot be found in any possible Glove Universe.

  • True statements describe things that exist within the Glove Universe.

    • By “things” here we mean structures, relations, properties that are contingent upon the stipulation of the universe.

  • False statements describe things that do not exist within the Glove Universe.

  • Meaningless statements describe things cannot exist in the Glove Universe.

    • That is, “cannot exist” without cheating and stipulating something other than a “”a small red ladies glove…”.

With an idea of what it means to be “Meaningless,” here is my Meaningless List:

  • Meaningless:

    • Paris is the Capital of France.

    • Mars is often called “The Red Planet”

    • The glove is larger than an elephant.

    • All gloves are smaller than houses.

    • The glove belonged to Audry Hepburn.

    • The Glove is left handed.

    • We understand this experiment.

    • All games are not fun.

This game is rubbish!

Nobody could win Round One, nor Round Two and it now it looks like nobody can win Round Three. In fact, it strikes me that there are always going to be more meaningless statements because most possible statements simply won’t refer to things in the Glove Universe and thus, are meaningless.

Conclusion to the First Thought Experiment

This experiment has highlighted a number of things. Perhaps most importantly it’s shown what a Thought Experiment is, in case you didn’t already know. A thought experiment is simply a stipulated possible Universe that is created to be experimented on or questioned about.

We make Thought experiments all the time, “If I won the lottery I would..”, “Imagine all the people, living in Harmony…”

It’s also shown that thought experiments are about what’s relevant to them by stipulation, not by assumption. You can imagine things that are not really possible to exist or imagine and yet, you can see how still we can ask relevant questions about them.

But with the Glove Game we have employed a useful tool in the Truth Lists that allows us to speak about the possible universe in a pretty precise and useful way. I hope in the next experiment you will have an even more intuitive understanding of the potential.

The last thing we saw from this experiment is that all possible statements seem to fit into only one of three categories, True, False or Meaningless and that which list any statement belongs on depends on the stipulated nature of the relevant universe. This will become very important in future experiments.

The next Experiment will be published here shortly.

What is Karma?

A twitter post compelled my to quickly try and get down on pixel paper my thoughts on what Karma is.

As with, I think all Dharmic concepts, Karma is best understood as pertaining to systems rather than objects/people etc. So before explaining how I see Karma I’ll outline what a Moral System is to me:

Moral systems have emergent moral properties.

A moral system is a system that can emerge moral properties. I am a moral system. You are. Society is. Religion is. Schools are… and so on. All of these moral systems share the possibility of having moral properties attributed to them. Properties such as right, wrong, fair, cruel and just.

Moral properties are internal, in that they refer to the system or they are external in that they refer to some other system.

In addition these moral systems have the potential of specific attitudes towards other moral properties; my dislike in your unfairness, your compassion for their suffering, a charity’s stance against world debt.

Moral systems have emergent evaluations of moral properties.

Moral systems are able to refer to their own moral systems and in these references they necessarily will value distinctions between moral properties. (I believe it’s these constant valuations that all moral systems have to make that add the core bivalence between right and wrong into our moralities.)

A value within a system is a propensity to pursue or avoid some future state to which the value pertains to. If I value cream-pies then I will pursue those. If I hate cucumbers, I will avoid those. The same is true of moral properties, as moral systems will behave in accordance as to how they value the moral properties they can pursue and avoid.

All of these evaluative properties we can boil down into two abstract notions, the positive and the negative. Loosely, the positive are the things I or you would prefer to be the case and the negative are the contrary.

Karma is the causal interconnectedness between all Moral Systems.

I think that Karma is simply the network of moral causes and effects that radiate from each of our actions out into the world and, importantly, into ourselves.

The moral effects of our actions may be external; you make someone happy, you annoy an entire country . or they may be internal; your pride at your kindness, your guilt at your selfishness. This is all Karma is. We are in a sea Karma. It is our lies and admissions and hopes and fears and all of these motivators that guide not only us as individuals but the institutions around us.

Often people mistake Karma as being a substance or energy or force, and you can see why because all morality is potentially interconnected it is has this substantive aspect but that is just an illusion. The only sense in which Karma can be accurately seen as a Force is by analaogy to physical causation.

The cue ball causes/forces the black ball to move. The bad deed causes/had the karmic effect that Bob was sad.

If you are a good person the chances of you having a good life are increased, not because of some supernatural reward system but because of the “karmic feedback” of your actions and thoughts, internally and externally.

If you are a bad person then your lies and violence and guilt etetcera will increase the chances of you having more negativity in so many ways. Not only the obvious, like punishment etc but also in terms of ones psychology. The Buddha realised this and now so many studies are confirming it.

I think most people, when you take away the “majic” decorations that millennia of Buddhist culture have added to the concept of Karma would see it as the simple and obvious fact: good moral causes have good moral effects.

Understanding Dependent Origination – The Enlightenment of Dharma

Dependent Origination is the least taught, most misunderstood but most important aspect of all of Buddhism. Dependent Origination is the natural law that the Buddha fully realised when he became enlightened. It is not magic, it is not mystical, it is to do with the grounding truths of all logically possible realities and how they affect the emergent realities we experience as sentient humans.

At first site Dependent Origination, to western analytic minds, seems so obvious, it even has exact analogies in classic logic and metaphysics that have propagated from the pre-Socratic philosophers to modern reason. But what the Buddha did was to not only see it as fundamental but he understood the subsequent effects Dependent Origination has in all aspects of reality and, importantly, the limits it puts on reality.

To understand impermanence, emptiness and negativity is to understand the Dharma but to understand why all systems are impermanent or why there can be no ego, the answer comes back to Dependent Origination.

“If you know Dharma, you know Dependent origination. If you know Dependent Origination, you know dharma.” The Buddha

What Dependent Origination is Not.

If you ask a learned Buddhist what Dependent Origination is, or read in the vast majority of texts concerning it, you will most likely have described a complex wheel of causation. This wheel has twelve stages that encompass rebirth, suffering, ignorance and is termed The Twelve Niddyas.

Historically the Twelve Niddyas came at least four hundred years after the Buddha’s life yet they have become interpreted as being the actual concept of Dependent Origination rather than a mystical (pertaining to the supernatural) interpretation of Dependent Origination as applied to some notion of rebirth. This is a catastrophe to a widespread understanding of Dharma because it obscures the original and crucial meaning of the concept and thus excludes a deep and true understanding of Dharma.

An analogous case would be to say that a constructed, complex economic cycle that nobody but a PHD economist could understand was the law of “supply and demand” and then to expect budding economists to be able to move on in their studies from the confusing and inaccurate set of first principles.

Dependent Origination is a simple and rational principle, when properly understood its about as far from the mystical as one can get.

What Dependent origination Is.

Think for as long as you can about these four statements:

  • If I knock at your door, I am on your doorstep.
  • If I walk up to your door, I will be on your doorstep.
  • If I am never on your doorstep, I will never be knocking on your door.
  • If I stop being on your doorstep, I will stop knocking your door.

And then ask yourself these questions:

Are the statements all true in this world? Is there a possible world where the statements might not be true? Are the statements true together, that is, if one is true must they all be true? You can easily come up with trivial examples where they are not true, for example, standing off your doorstep and knocking with a big stick, but without adding any extra information to the statements, it seems that they are absolutely true in all cases.

If, like me, you are forced to conclude that the statements are true in all possible worlds in which they make sense, then you understand the foundational formulation of Dependent Origination. That is it! An anticlimax compared to the esotericism of the Twelve Niddyas, perhaps, but it is this conditionality that is Dependent Origination, nothing more.

In scriptural terms Dependent Origination is most simply expressed as:

  • When there is thisthat is.
  • With the arising of thisthat arises.
  • When this is not, neither is that.
  • With the cessation of thisthat ceases.


The first point we need to make about the above expression of Dependent Origination is that the this and that stated will be any this and any that. This is hugely important Dharmically because it referring to all possible things, all possible systems and events and representations. What the Buddha realised was that conditionality isn’t the domain of some isolated syllogism but that it applies to everything, necessarily (The Buddha had no idea about quantum randomness; I am not sure how this would fit in with Dependent Origination.)

When you take this and that as being any possible this and that then it can be seen that Dependent Origination bestows three properties on the causality of reality:

  • Transitivity– Conditionality is transitive. If P then Q then R, if not P then not R

o Note that in the world there are countless ways for events to happen, eg, you may open the door for another reason than me knocking on it. But that would be a different event, even though “on paper” it’s the same event.

  • Generality –Conditionally applies to any causally related events at any level of abstraction.
  • Totality –Conditionality applies to all events/systems/things. There is nothing outside of the conditionality of all things.

Everything is a cause and everything is an effect and the effects of causes are never singular and the causes of effects are never singular. The Buddha realised how reality is the vast, consistent and complex web of change, that there are no distinct unchanging things that can possibly be connected with reality.

Why is Dependent Origination Dharma?

I outlined here about the Three Marks of Existence, Annica, Anataman and Dukka, and how all of Dharma flows from them. I belive when you understand Dependent origination it is possible to see how these Three Marks are necessarily the case. Even now after many years thinking about this it hurts my head to see it all as one body of truth. I think this is why Meditation is considered so important to Dharma practice, as it may offer a way to apprehend these conceptual structures outside of the rigid lingustic structures we are used to relying on. But here goes:

Annica – All things are impermanent

Because all conditioned things originate within this transitive web of causation it follows that there is nothing to remain a constant. There is no thing that is isolated from the changes that flow following the principle of Dependent Origination. This applies from the neurons in my brain that make my knuckles tap on your door to the sound wave you hear and everything that follows from that and leads up to that.

As soon as an event happens, as soon as a thing changes, it is gone and the next change is happening, the effect becomes a new cause. And so on. And so on.

All conditioned things are impermanent. Everything is change.

Anataman – There are no objects/egos/souls

Because all things (systems, events..) are conditioned things it follows that there can be no thing that is isolated from the web of causation and equally no thing that appears from nowhere within the web of causation (QM randomness aside?). If Dependent origination is true in all possible realities then all possible realities are consistent. Consistent interconnectedness and impermanence preclude the possibility of their being something that is excluded from interconnectedness (a distinct thing) or immune to impermanence (an eternal thing.)

Ontologically impermanence and interconnectedness manifest in the impossibility of anomalous things, like miracles and souls. Psychologically impermanence and interconnectedness preclude the possibility of a constant distinct self/ego. There are no distinct objects in mind our world, however the illusions of perspective may make things seem to the contrary.

Dukka –Negativity/Suffering/Decay is Inevitable

Consider a deck of cards arranged neatly in suits and imagine the order changing (shuffling) as all things do. Any change will be a change away from that order, and, in addition, the probability increasingly decreases the more the deck is shuffled that it will to the original neat order. The deck of cards has a finite possibility space and the vastest extent of that space is change away from order not towards

The same is true of all systems that constitute reality; change will take place in a finite possibility space. In physical terms this fact is captured by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In economic terms by the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. In human terms by realisations such as “the more of Great Thing X you have, the less great X becomes.” Change reduces the possibility space and if that space is valued by some other agent (like you) then change tends towards the negative.

These kinds of realisations are the opposite of difficult, if dogs could think like us, they would think the same. It’s not just that all things change but that most change tends towards the negative. The Buddha realised that this fact was self-evident. Moreover, when the inevitable negative was apprehended by sentient beings with qualitative experiences (like you) the realisation, conscious or not, will be bound to create negative experiences in the being.

This is why we suffer, the Buddha thought; because we constantly crave for the inevitable negative to not be the case. Accepting our impermanence and the impermanence of our good experiences is one thing but clinging to the hope that that may not be the case is fundamentally going to only bear bitter fruit. It cannot be any other way.

Dukka applies to solar systems and ecosystems and air-conditioning systems, but where it solidifies into suffering and strain is when the inevitable negative is apprehended by sentient systems, just like me, just like you. The only way to lessen the negativity of the inevitable negative in ourselves is to end attachment to transient things and to remove ignorance about the ontological status of things (ego, object, others…) and see the world as it really is. The method he reasoned from these realisations was to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and embrace the transitive and the inevitable negative.


Dharma is science and reason, to think otherwise is to place the contaminating teachings of scholars and monks who came centuries after the Buddha’s teachings as being more authoritative than the original teachings. It seems this has happened with all religions, but with Buddhism are lucky. We still have the original, wonderful, rational, sceptical discoveries of The Buddha available to us, but in addition, we don’t need them. We could erase all of Buddha’s teachings and start again just from that first principle of Dependent Origination that enlightened the Buddha and arrive using nothing but reason and insight through the Three Marks of Existence, the Four Noble Truths to the practice of The Noble Eightfold Path.

Dharma is simple and rational, not mystical and obscure. It takes us from the core truths of reality to a personal and social morality and understanding where compassion and love are not assumptions but conclusions entailed all the way up from the first principles.

Dharma is truth, to prove it wrong one merely needs to disprove Dependent Origination.

The Last Words of The Buddha

I have argued elsewhere that we cannot really know with accuracy any of the sayings or events of the Buddha’s life or teaching. At best we have shadows of shadows.

We might expect that the Last Word’s of the Buddha would be exempt from this lack of certainty and authenticity but, alas, this is also not the case. There are countless translations and interpretations and suggestions as to the Last Words and no way to know if any of them are authentic.

What we can see is that the meaning of the Buddha’s last words, in all various instances, can be divided into categories.

The first grouping of meanings captures the centrality of Impermanence and the necessity of diligence with regards to Dharma. This meaning of the Last Words comes from interpretations of the Maha Parinibbana Sutra and has such examples as:


“All compound things are subject to vanish. Strive with earnestness!”


“Everything is subject to change. Remember to practise the teachings earnestly.”

The Second set of purported Last Word takes a more radical tone, especially when compared with the rigid orthodoxy of Buddhism as it is today. In this version the Buddha’s Last Words implore a global scepticism (As in the Kalam Sutra) and self-guided path towards one’s enlightenment and happiness.


In this view the last words are simply:


“Doubt everything. Be your own light.”


Was the Buddha a Buddhist? (Part One)

Essay One: Scripture and Chronology

There is a general acceptance in Buddhism that the scriptures we have written of The Buddha’s teachings are factual, verbatim and unquestionable; that the Sutra’s are the words or direct accounts of The Buddha. Not all Buddhists believe this, but it seems to have been the dominant orthodoxy for millennia.

Some Buddhists, the “nonliteralists”, take the scriptures as not being perfect accounts but subject translation and other glitches, but I suspect, if you agree with my essay’s conclusion, you will agree that its not just a matter of a few glitches but the evident possibility of an entirely divergent doctrine. I believe that even amongst nonliteralist understandings of the Scriptures there is a significant lack of appreciation of the real extent of the discontinuity between what we have now as “Buddhist Scriptures” and what The Buddha discovered and taught in his lifetime.

This essay investigates this discontinuity, in subsequent essays we will look at the Philosophical and scientific discontinuities between the self-evident Dharmic truths and the supernatural religion of Buddhism we have today.

Does it matter?

Buddhism offers something that it seems has been pretty consistent throughout it’s history. This thing it offers is also corroborated by psychology, sociology and the emerging science of “happiness studies”. This thing it offers is called Magga, or “The Noble Eightfold Path.” I know a Shinyoen Nun (A modern Japanese variant), a Tibetan lama and a Therevadan scholar and though there views may differ on many crucial matters, all will equally be practicing Magga. To be a Buddhist in the important sense means to Follow the Eightfold Path.

But if you are the kind of person who likes to know “Why this?” or “WEhy that?” then these kind of questions present themselves:

  1. Why did the Buddha believe that The Noble Eightfold was the right path?
  2. Did he really believe in Rebirth or the supernatural?
  3. Why is the Kalama Suttra such an epic (and early) statement of reason and scepticism and yet so in contrast with the “blind faith” aspects of later Buddhism?

Many Buddhists are happy to accept The Buddha’s teachings as they stand, to not question them and to reap the demonstrable benefits of following The Noble Eightfold Path, cultivating compassion, insight and mindfulness. If you are one of these Buddhist’s who simply isn’t interested in the Philosophy and reason that comes before the Practice then this essay isn’t for you. This essay starts by trying to answer the question:

“Is the Buddhism we find in the Scriptures the same as that taught by the Buddha during his life?”

The Development of Buddism

Before the Buddha

In India, For thousands of years before the time of The Buddha, there was a rich culture that was replete with mathematics, literature, philosophy, science, advanced architecture and art.

The predominant cultural mores was one that today would be considered Hinduism, with its antecedents in the Braman, Janeist and even further back, the Vedic systems, which scholars are starting to think predates the Sumerian “first civilization” by thousands of years.

It is important to see this, to see that Buddhism developed in the midst of a religious and cultural world where supernatural and “afterlife” concepts where the norm.

500 BC Prince Sidhartha Gotama was Born in Northern India

Nobody really knows the exact date of the Sidhartha’s birth. In fact there seems to be no evidence from ancient India that the Buddha even lived, though it is clear that a great mind discovered and elucidated Dharma. Let’s assume, as we Buddhists do, that he lived and his life was as described, at least approximately, as in the texts.

He spent the first years of his life pretty much imprisoned in his Father’s palace. His Father, we are told, wished to keep the young prince away from all the negativity and suffering in the world. One day Siddhartha left the palace and encountered suffering for the first time (He saw illness, death and poverty…) and it changed him profoundly.

470 BC Prince Sidharta leaves his palace

At the age of thirty Siddhartha gave up his privileged life of leisure and luxury and went out into the world to seek Enlightenment and understanding about Suffering. For about six years he wandered a beggar and a hermit, trying all manner of extreme practices in his quest. He practiced mediation, starvation, self mortification… as did many at the time. But nothing seemed to work for him, nothing gave him the profound insight he sought. Nothing could answer the simple question, “Why is there suffering?”

470 BC Prince Sidharta becomes The Buddha.

At the age of 35 something changed. The Buddha, whilst meditating and contemplating, discovered a set of grounding truths about reality and following these truth he arrived at his Enlightenment. He saw not only how the Dharmic truths were necessary to all possible realities but crucially he saw the moral and psychological effects of entailed by these truths on all possible sentient beings.

After his enlightenment The Buddha is said to have travelled around a relatively small area of the subcontinent teaching his discoveries. We are told that countless people became enlightened after being taught the nature and practice of Dharma, often after a matter of hours with The Buddha. It was this fact about the Scriptures that first piqued my interest in the idea that something was amiss.

If the Buddha could teach Dharma in a matter of minutes, and if the people he taught could also teach Dharma to others, then it follows that whatever it is being taught, it cannot be that intractable and, almost by definition, it cannot be something that necessarily requires a life of meditation outside of society.

Let’s call this the “Abundancy of Enlightenment” argument:Enlightenment was abundant at the time of the Buddha whereas now its so scarce that, (And I have asked this of many Buddhist) nobody seems to be able to answer the question “When was someone last enlightened?”

The next hint that there is a discontinuity can be found within the same acounts. We know that many people were enlightened at the time and we know about the importance of the discovery of Dharma. If the teaching was as complex and intractable as it appears today, then the question is raised, “Why was this hypercomplex, world changing system not written down at the time?”

The answer, I believe, is that there was simply no need. Dharma could be taught and transferred without any need of inscription because it was so simple. Let us not forget that at this time, and for millennia before, writing was an established means of communication and recording.

Let’s call this the “Simplicity of Enlightenment” argument: Enlightenment was considered to be so simple at the time of the Buddha that there was simply no need to write it down.

The “Abundance and Simplicity arguments” are the first two reasons why I believe we should be sceptical about the claim that the texts we have now capture the Dharma the Buddha discovered and taught during his life. But let’s move on to what happened after his life, here things become really dubious.

425 BC The Buddha Dies

In his eighties the Buddha passed away and left behind the close band of enlightened followers to continue his teachings. In addition, we are told that there were many others who knew Dharma and conveyed these teachings to others but were no longer connected with the Buddha’s followers.

For seven days, we are told, many came to pay respects to The Buddha, as would be expected. But what is unexpected is there seems no mention of what was to be done with his teachings. As we shall see, when they came to write down the Teachings they took months to recite, yet for seven days, there is a clear cataract in the path of the doctrine from Buddha to Buddhism. I think the answer to this mystery is, again, The Simplicity of Enlightenment. I can think of no other reason.

(One may counter that the reason for this seven day cataract is Ananda, the Buddha’s loyal attendant and himself enlightened, is said to have a “perfect memory” of the Buddha’s life and teachings and this is how the dharma could be preserved intact. Even granting this implausible possibility we are left with decade long chunks of The Buddha’s life in which Anaanda wasn’t with him)

424 BC The First Council

A few months after the Death of The Buddha the First Council was held. We are told that the reason for the First Council was to settle squabbles between the monks about the lifestyle and rules they must follow.

Five Hundred Monks took part in the First Council which lasted a number of months during which their rules and the doctrine was agreed upon and shared verbally. Nothing was written down during this period, rather it was supposedly amalgamated and communicated verbally.

The Verbal Verbatim Method

To believe that the Buddhism we have today is the Buddhism the Buddha taught there is no possibility but to accept that the verbal method stated after the First Council and continued for centuries was free from errors. Today we are very aware of the error prone nature of oral traditions but lets lay aside these obvious doubts and look at how this amazing feat was supposedly achieved with Dharma.

I’ll call it the Verbal Verbatim Method, i,e , the ability to maintain, in time and space, a very longmessage (The teachings and accounts of The Buddha’s life) with zero noise (The errors, additions, corruptions… that would make the message inaccurate) using just spoken words and human memories.

In theory the Verbal Verbatim Method isn’t as preposterous as it might sound because the Monks employed a strategy of high redundancy, that is, there were hundreds of monks maintaining and communicating the message. If a monk made a mistake, the idea was that there would be many monks to correct him. If a monk forgot something, there would be many monks to remind him.

So it seems feasible that, assuming an accurate and intact starting point (Which I do not, for reasons above) the Verbal Verbatim methodcould keep the message accurate. One way to see how this could work is to imagine five hundred games of Chinese Whispers with the same starting message running concurrently. It is plausible that if were there errors they could be discovered and corrected thus preserving the accuracy of the initial message in totality.

But there are a crippling problems with the Verbal Verbatim Method.

Firstly, the message we have now (The Tripitaka) is an immense collection of work that comprises scores of volumes, far bigger than the full Bible or a large encyclopaedia. So although the Verbal Verbatim method with its “error checking” has some plausibility this dwindles when the reality of the messages size is taken into account.

Secondly, we know (and should expect) that the Verbal Verbatim method took months to establish and unify, but how can this be. How can there be any error checking in parts of the message that must have been separated by weeks at least using the Verbal Verbatim Method to get started, let alone in the centuries after the cannon was established.

Thirdly the Verbal Verbatim Method has no mechanism for inner comparison and checking because there is no single correct version to compare against at any single time. If a Monk made a mistake in one place the only way that mistake could be corrected is if there are enough Monks witness to that mistake at the same time, but we know this cant have been the case (This problem becomes amplified massively when you consider the spread of the message over time).

I know that some Muslims memorise the entire Koran but the crucial difference is they have the extant text to work from. We are asked to believe in the case of Buddhist scriptures that it could be done with a larger book and with no written reference work ever existing. I remain to be convinced such a feat isn’t impossible.

I am sure that information theorists would be able to find many other issues that show the absurdity of the claim that such an immense message could be maintained using the Verbal Verbatim method without addition or error. But let’s put these doubts aside and look to the next milestone in the development of Buddhism.

380 BC The Second Council

Two generations after the Time of The Buddha the second Council was called. As with the First Council, the reason for the Second was to settle squabbles about the Rules for Monks rather than to establish any doctrinal consistency.

Seven hundred Monks attended and as far as I am aware there was no change in the doctrine other than relevant to the rules applicable to Monks (The Vinaya).

250 BC The Third Council

Nearly three centuries after the death of the Buddha the Third Council was called for. This is when, in my view, the certainty of the discontinuity becomes clear.

The Third Council was called because it was considered that the teachings, which has been passed on for centuries by the Verbal Verbatim method, contained heretical doctrines within them. This is huge, because it’s an admission by the Buddhist’s of the time that the three century old message they understood was not the same as the message when it started three centuries ago.

Also relevant to this investigation (especially the next two essays I will write) is the fact that we know that heretical doctrine was censored from the Buddhist doctrine and thus what we have today is unquestionably not the original doctrine. Moreover there is some uncertainty as to what this censored doctrine could have been.

The authentic position is ever more untenable but, as we have been doing through this essay, let’s ignore the obvious issues and assume, as literal Buddhists have to, that even after the Third Council we still have the original teachings of The Buddha intact.

100 BC The Fourth Council

One hundred and fifty years after the Third Council and at least four hundred years after the death of The Buddha the fourth council took place in Sri Lanka. The reason for this council wasn’t to do with squabbles or heresy but because of the recognised difficulty of memorising the teachings that had been passed down. This is very compelling evidence that, even at the time, the monks realised the error prone Verbal Verbatim methodology that had been used for four centuries. To me this is an another tacit admission that the oral system couldn’t possibly transfer the teachings without corruption.

As a reminder of how big the message was, we are told it took three years to transcribe from the memory of the Monks, a process which in itself is hugely susceptible to error. The teachings were written in the Pali script (which exists today) on palm fronds (none of which survive today).

Let us assume that right up until the first line of the Tripitaka was transcribed onto a palm leaf twenty one centuries ago the doctrine of Buddhism was that taught by the Buddha. Forget the implausibility of the Verbal Verbatim Method. Overlook the issues of the cataract, the memories of the monks and the other arguments discussed. If we ignore these issues can we at last have some certainty?

No, I believe we cannot. For three more reasons:

Firstly, not only was the first Council so distant in time from The Buddha, it was 1500 miles away in space. This raises the question, how could the doctrine cross this vast distance using the Vocal Verbatim method? The key to the Verbal Verbatim method is the assumed large redundancy weeding out inevitable errors. But for the method to stand a chance of working the participants need to remain together in some systematic sense. To reuse the Chinese Whispers analogy, the participants are not only passing the message onwards, they are moving (in themselves and/or over generations) an immense distance at a time when travel was immeasurably more difficult than it is now.

Secondly, the language that the doctrine was first written down in was Pali whereas the Buddha probably spoke a language called Magadhi Prakrit, certainly not Pali. Moreover there were no translation dictionaries at the time, so how could there be any claim to doctrinal accuracy between what the Buddha spoke and what the Fourth Council spoke? Again, it seems highly improbably that there could be consistency or accuracy.

Thirdly, and this is a composite of the last two points, in the 1500 mile journey the doctrine necessarily took over 400 years it would have passed not direct from Magadhi to Pali but through a vast linguistic landscape of languages and dialects.

An analogy will illustrate the scope of the issue. Imagine the encyclopaedia Britanica was memorised by a group of people four hundred monks years ago in Mosscow in an obscure Slavic dialect. Then over the generations it travelled west by word of mouth, through Croat and Maygar languages and then German and French and Dutch. When it eventually arrived in it was transcribed, in English, on a huge amount of paper. How sure would you be that the English version was an accurate facsimile of the original Russian encyclopaedia?

After the Fourth Council

Its absurd to think there would not be vast amounts of errors, corruptions, omissions and augmentations. But for the every Buddhist in the world, this is what our written starting point is like. I simply cannot believe that the first written doctrine is what the Buddha taught, it must by quantity alone have additions. And remember, this is just the written starting point, it would be centuries before it split (in often very significant ways) from the doctrine of the Pali into Mayhana, Zen, Tibetten, Chinese, Shinyoen and so on.

If there is no possible way the first written bedrock of Buddhism can be considered what The Buddha taught then it follows that, necessarily, neither can any of the later schools make any claim to authenticity.


The claim made in this essay is a pretty big one, and one I’m sure will be rejected outright by many Buddhists. But if you have got this far then, like me, perhaps you see that the demonstrable discontinuity of Buddhism raises many more questions. I shall outline these in short bullet form here and expand on them, later.

Is there thing I have missed out in terms of my understanding of the development the of Buddhism which would serve as a counter-argument?

  • For example, a fact about written corroboration of the first Buddhists texts (The Pali Cannon) that predates 100BC.
  • Is there a demonstrably significant linguistic pathway from the language the Buddha spoke to the Pali the Sri Lanakn monks wrote?
  • Are there other any cases where such a vast amount of text has been preserved

If any of the text is considered divergent (from what The Buddha taught), is there any way we can know which parts of the text are divergent? Is there some yardstick we can use to delimit the divergent from the original?

I believe that there is such a yardstick, in fact there are three:

  1. Logical Necessity: Much of the dharma can be established logically using the first principle of dependent origination as I outline here.
  2. Empirical consistency: Much of Dharma and it’s practice can be shown to be the case just by experience (corroborated by reason), but this is not true of vast swathes of Dharma.
  3. Scientific consistency: Much of Dharma is supported by science (HH Dalai Lama’s “The Universe in a Single Atom” is good on this) as any scientist who thinks about the first principles of Dharma will tend to agree. However science pretty much refutes the possibility of Rebirth (Whatever any “quantum Buddhists” may try reason (I have tried, see here)).

If we cannot separate the original from the divergent must we abandon Buddhism as being anything more than a legend? A legend with a remnant practice (Magga) that just happens to be beneficial?

Not at all, I believe. We need to start where The Buddha started and follow the path he followed. We start with nothing and use reason and experience (Not one, but both!) to recreate the first truths of Dharma.

For example, we might consider the following to be true in all possible realities:

  1. All events are causes.(Pattica samupada)
  2. All causes are events. (Patitca sampuada)
  3. All systems are impermanent.(Annica)
  4. All systems are interconnected. (Annatamanand Sunnata)
  5. All systems inevitably converge towards negative states. (Dukka)
  6. All sentient-intelligent systems will experience this convergence negatively. (Dukkaas suffering.)
  7. The cause/propagator of this suffering is misunderstanding/misapprehending the inevitable negative and because of this refusing to stop the conscious and subconscious decisions that pursue the negation of the inevitable negative(Phew!) (Tanhaand Samudaya)
  8. The degree to which a system can stop pursuing the negation of the inevitable negative is proportional to a decrease in the negative states experiences by the system. (Nirodha)
  9. Causation and interconnectivity operate at all complexities thus moral/psychological/social causes have moral/psychological/social effects at all complexities. (Karma)
  10. Understanding the inevitable negative and its effects on all systems will produces emergent benefits at more complex levels of abstraction (Behavioural, psychological, social, moral…). (MaggaI’m not at all sure how it fits together re Magga, but I’m thinking about it.)

Can we imagine a system that can be shown to be more positivising than the application of these Truths? (beneficial, stable, productive… or whatever level of abstraction one wishes to choose?)

I cannot, if you can, I’d love to hear it or any other points about this essay (mat at salted dot net)

Thanks for reading!