Alchemy and Hermeticism as the Basis of Progressive Civilisation


Alchemy and Hermeticism, in its purest and most logical form, is the nearest Western teaching to that of Chinese transformative Daoism, particularly Alchemy and Hermeticism has many general and specific similarities to the ‘neidan’ teachings found within the Daoist Philosophical School (Daojia). It represents the material and immaterial development of the human-being, and the perfection of consciousness, body and environment. The material and immaterial realms are not different but represent two frequencies of exactly the same energy expression. Indeed, Sir Isaac Newton – the British genius who single-handedly invented modern science – was a very spiritual person, and an argument can be made that his knowledge of Alchemy and Hermeticism led directly to his ability to isolate, observe and measure material reality. Underlying this reality for Newton was a profound spirituality which university-led mainstream science has played-down, and expunged from the observable record. The policy of which was designed to permanently ‘separate’ religion (immateriality), from scientific processes (materiality). Chinese science does not do this, and neither does Alchemy and Hermeticism. Chinese science, of course, even in its most modern and progressive manifestation in the material realm, never loses sight of the ‘immaterial’ basis of human perception. Immateriality represents that world which cannot be perceived with the human senses unaided by technological innovation. In other words, the human senses (and the mind) may not be able to directly perceive everything that exists, but can, through the right kind of psychological and physical training, gain an intuitive understanding of these realities – which with regards to material science – can be confirmed as existing beyond the senses through the use of modern technology (such as the telescope and the microscope). Furthermore, the immaterial mind can envision realities beyond the senses through the use of mathematics and algebra. Even the most hardened materialist scientist has to admit that technology and mathematics has revealed realities beyond the ordinary sensory realm. It is an irony to consider that Newton spent much more of his life studying Alchemy and Hermeticism, than he did material science.

Within the Chinese language, Alchemy and Hermeticism is written as ‘炼金术’ (Lian Jin Shu), or ‘Refining Gold Technique’. Chinese language sources report that alchemy and Hermeticism has existed in many different countries throughout time, including ancient Egypt, ancient India, ancient Greece, Rome, South America, North America, China, Japan, Korea, Persia and the later Islamic civilisation. It is thought that teachings from ancient Egypt are observable in the philosophical works of the Greek philosopher Democritus in the 1st century CE, and that this demonstrates a transmission of the teachings of Alchemy and Hermeticism from ancient (Black) Egypt into the Western minds of the Greeks. This process eventually led to the work of Sir Isaac Newton and the founding of modern science. There is also a school of thought which suggests that perhaps ‘logical thinking’ arrived in ancient Greece from Egypt, and facilitated an outpouring of rational thought the like of which is considered unique in the world. Just as Newton separated Alchemy from material science, some ancient Greeks also separated logic and reason from Alchemy, effectively creating a new tradition of thought and use of the mind. If this is correct, then the entire edifice of Western civilisation rests upon the teachings of Alchemy and Hermeticism. This may even be true for the theology of Judeo-Christianity, which represents a splitting away from an all-embracing original teaching.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether ancient Africa had direct contact with ancient China, with Chinese scholars being very much in favour of this idea. Which way the culture and information flowed is also a matter of great debate. Did China’s ancient developmental culture influence the development of African understanding, or did advanced African thinking influence China’s development? No one is sure, but it is obvious that ancient Africa possessed a rich tapestry of progressive and advanced understandings. Of course, there could well have been an ‘equal’ transmission and appreciation. There are some Chinese scholars who believe that Black African travelers visited and settled in China thousands of years ago, and that their DNA (and culture) is now part of the ‘Chinese’ genotype. Perhaps this is also true of ancient ‘Han’ Chinese people traveling to Africa and settling on that great continent, before integrating with the indigenous population. Whatever the historical case may be, another name for Chinese Alchemy is ‘黄白术’ (Huang Bai Shu), or ‘Yellow White Technique’. This refers to a technical language that talks of ‘smelting’ gold and silver, but this is not to be taken literally, but rather as a ‘coded’ instruction that only a truly initiated master already knows and can explain. Smelting gold and silver refers to specific psychological and physical processes that are transformed through the great heat associated with an intense meditative process. Chinese Alchemy is also referred to as ‘炼丹家’ (Lian Dan Jia), or ‘Cultivation Energy Field Family’. This refers to the three ‘energy centres’ or ‘dan’ that exist in the mind and body, and their opening and transformation through seated meditative practice, and various methods of ‘moving’ meditation (such as through the techniques of profound martial arts practice).

Chinese Language References:黄白术炼金术

The Limitations of Matter (Quantum Field Theory)


The human senses developed over very long periods of time, and were designed to ‘detect’ the physical environment. This was the unfolding of the evolutionary process through natural selection. Human-beings can only ‘sense’ that about the physical environment, which is required for the species to survive. In other words, the evolutionary process does not grant or furnish any extra or superfluous sensing abilities outside of the minimum data-reception required, for the species to successfully procreate and survive (from one generation to the next). As a consequence, as diverse as the human senses seem to be, in reality the data they receive represents only a very narrow scale of what is actually ‘out there’ in the universe. Human logic has historically developed to perceive reality in two broad categories – namely the ‘materialist’ and the ‘idealist’. The materialist method of gathering knowledge (about the human condition), pays attention to the observation of the external world (which can include the human body, when it is ‘objectified’ as is the case of modern medicine), and has developed many theoretical assumptions premised upon these observations. The materialist model assumes that the external world is ‘real’ and that its study serves as the doorway to true knowledge. The idealist method, on the other hand, states that the inner world of thought is far more important than the external world, and that consciousness, in one way or another, is responsible for the generation of the external world of matter. Idealism is closely associated with theistic religion, and maybe perceived as a ‘modern’ and ‘secular’ manifestation of religious thinking, often presented in scientific garb (as is seen in the various theories of psychology). It has historically transpired that humanity has scientifically progressed through the observation and measurement of material objects and material processes. As religious theology has lost ground in the secular West, material science has come to dominate (with the caveat that ‘psychology’ in its non material mode, might well represent a ‘new’ type of religious thinking). Through the development of technology, humanity has been able to ‘see more’ above and beyond the scope of its limited evolutionary senses. This has meant that the world of matter has been examined over greater distances, and to a greater depth, to the extent that beginning of the universe can now be seen, as can the constituent particles and sub-atomic particles of atoms. Through this process, it has become clear that ‘matter’ is not a solid wall of impenetrable ‘stuff’ that stands silent and still in front of the human senses. It has been discovered that atoms are not the ‘tiniest’ things that exist, and that quarks (which exist within the nucleus of an atom), probably possess constituent elements. In short, modern material science has revealed that the world of matter is not ‘solid’ and ‘opaque’, but is rather ‘translucent’ in nature, whilst existing in a state of constant ‘flux’. This suggests that light, ordinary (byronic) matter, dark matter and dark energy all emerge from at least 12 different quantum fields (and probably more). Understanding this reveals that matter is not what humanity’s limited evolutionary senses first thought it to be, but equally important, this reasoning has been discovered through the empirical study of what was once thought to be ‘solid’ matter. Although idealism has attacked materialism as being a theory premised upon an illusion, idealism (and religion) has not been able to develop a science to demonstrate and ‘prove’ this assertion to be correct. In a very real sense, materially based science has seen beyond its own limited methodology, and proven its original models of the physical universe to be redundant. Simply put, (and a point of argument correctly made by the idealists and religionists), matter is not what humanity thinks it is. However, where the idealists have ‘rejected’ matter out of hand, the materialists have embraced the physical stuff of the universe, and made its study the basis of modern science. It is now known that the idea of ‘matter’ being a solid and impenetrable wall, is a flawed concept, but that the idea that matter must be studied to progress human understanding, has turned-out to have been correct. As matters stand, the basis of existence consists of highly fluid quantum fields. As the universe pre-exists and post-exists each individual existence, a direct connection between human awareness and the external universe has yet to be proven, even though certain academics are engaged in this study. This does not mean that the human mind has no place in science, after-all, it has only been through logical thinking that material science has been developed and progressed. The following lecture from Professor David Tong (at the Royal Institute) places all this information into its correct scientific narrative.

Philosophy: Three Theistic Terms


Technically, the three following terms more correctly fall into the category of the ‘Philosophy of Religion’. Obviously, whether or not an individual ‘believes’ or ‘disbelieves’ in religion is irrelevant to the philosophical exercise of striving to understand the theoretical basis and practice of religions that evolve around a central theistic core element or elements. This is important because theistic religion has served as a primary source for human knowledge and purpose of action for thousands of years, and still continues to exercise that influence over a great many people in the world today. Even if some people describe themselves as ‘atheistic’ (i.e, ‘not’ accepting or believing in a divine concept, or any teachings emanating from such a theistic entity), secular society tends to exhibit religious trends of thought (as morals, ethics and attitudes), although devoid of any obvious or direct religious content or control. In the West, this has been the Judeo-Christian tradition, whilst in modern China, it has been Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism that have set the moral and cultural (national) character. In modem India it has been Brahmanism, whilst in the Middle East it has been Islam, etc. This secular development tends to manifest as a parallel stream of psychological and physical influence alongside the practice of more traditional modes of religion, albeit to varying degrees of intensity, or definitional sociological frameworks. The three Greek terms under discussion in this short essay are:

  1. Theogony
  2. Theurgy
  3. Theology

Theogony literally translates as the ‘origin of the gods’, or more specifically the ‘birth and genealogy of the gods’. It stems from the original Greek word ‘theogonia’ – with ‘theo’ meaning ‘god’, and ‘gonia’ meaning ‘birth’, and by implication, ‘growth’ and ‘development’. ‘Theogony’ is a poem written by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod (8th-7th Centuries BCE), which describes the origins of the ancient Greek gods.This body of knowledge may be considered augmented by the myths and legends as recorded by Homer.

Theurgy literally translates as ‘divine work’, and stems from the original Greek word ‘theourgia’. This term is found in the thinking of ancient and classical Greece, and later in the works of Plotinus. It originally referred to rituals that created the conditions on earth for a ‘divine intervention’ in human affairs. Sometimes referred to as ‘magic’, the practice of ‘theurgy’ is used by Plotinus to refer to the act of ‘contemplation’ or ‘meditation’ designed to ‘unite’ the individual with the ‘divine essence’. In this sense, ‘theurgy’ refers to a set of (disciplined) purification practises, performed with the body and mind, which generate a ‘frequency’ of being here and now, which through its rarefied structure, facilitates the manifestation of a divine presence in the affairs of humanity.

Theology literally translates as the ‘study of god’, or the ‘science of god’, and is a Judeo-Christian term referring specifically to the study of the theory, faith and practice of the monotheistic, Christian tradition in all its various branches, sects, schools and lineages, etc. Theology stems from the original Greek word ‘theologia’, and was used by the early Christian thinkers after Christ, as a means to develop a distinctly ‘Greek’ interpretation of teachings originally delivered in Syriac-Aramaic (the probable language of Jesus Christ), which expressed religious terms as preserved in Hebrew – the language of the ancient Jewish religion. This transition became vital for the early Christians – after that sect of radical Judaism – was ‘expelled’ from the Jewish religion and had to develop an entirely ‘new’ way for interpreting its guiding strictures. The early Christian were Jews who routinely used Hebrew to communicate their non-conformist ideas, and the use of Greek philosophical terms was considered a viable alternative. In this transition, of course, the Greek philosophical terms were ‘changed’ in meaning to suit the strictures of early Christian thought, and to ‘distance’ the emerging Christian Church from the pantheistic and atheistic tendencies found within Greek thought proper. This explains why later Christian leaders ‘banned’ all original Greek thought. As a consequence, and unless otherwise stated, Christian theology ‘rejects’ the notions of ‘theogony’ and ‘theurgy’ as examples of pre-Christian pagan practises and modes of thought.

Email: Buddha, Nagarjuna, Plotinus and the World of Matter (6.9.2017)


Dear N

Thank you for your very interesting Plotinus quotation and Nagarjuna-related question.

The tetralemma of the Indian Buddhist monk Nagarjuna states:

1) All exists.

2) All does not exist.

3) All exists and does not exist.

4) All neither exists or does not exist.

This is how Nagarjuna (the 14th Ch’an Patriarch) summarises the entirety of the Buddha’s teaching. Therefore, we may state that:

a) The mind exists.

b) The mind does not exist.

c) The mind both exists and does not exist.

d) The mind neither exists nor does not exist.

This may be viewed as a developmental schematic of ever deepening understanding or awareness of the mind-body nexus and its essence. Exactly the same analysis can be applied to ‘matter’ but not to ‘spirit’ – as the Buddha rejected the notion of a spirit or mind that exists in opposition (or ‘outside’ of) the material world. In the Theravada School the mind-body nexus is ‘empty’ of ‘atma’ (or ‘soul’), but appears to contain a personal self (i.e. perceiving ‘mind’ function) that is a temporary coming together of elements which dissipate at death. In this school the physical world ‘exists’, but is ‘empty’ of any permanent state. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana Schools – the idea of ‘emptiness’ is exactly the same – but is extended so as to imply (or suggest) that the world of physical matter is ‘empty’ of any and all substantiality. However, as the Buddha also rejected any notions of ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ – these schools must be careful in their analysis. Therefore, we can say:

i) The world of matter exists.

ii) The world of matter does not exist.

iii) The world of matter both exists and does not exist.

iv) The world of matter neither exists nor does not exist.

Perhaps the 4th statement is the enlightened position, and although the world of matter may not exist as we think it does – it is also true from a Buddhist perspective – that the world of matter does not exist as we may presume it not to. This is not merely a matter of semantics – but a matter of actual inner and outer realisation attained through self-cultivation, experience and assessment. In the Four Noble Truths the Buddha clearly states that material existence is the basis of physical life and all subsequent philosophical development. This suggests that existence and the world of physical matter are inherently linked, integrated and entwined. In other words, the Buddha appears to be stating that a non-embodied existence is impossible, as the basis for life. In this regard, he is in agreement with the Greek philosopher Epicurus (with life being a special arrangement of atoms that congeal at conception, and fall apart at physical death). This view would correlate with the Buddha’s five aggregates – although the Buddha does seem to entertain a ‘limited’ notion of rebirth (not evident in the five aggregates themselves) which is negated at the point of the realisation of enlightenment.

As for Plotinus, it is important to consider that his original Greek thought has been translated into Western languages usually involving an underlying Judeo-Christian influence that attempts to separate his teaching into a ‘rejected’ material world and an ‘accepted’ spiritual world (that stands in opposition to the material world). One prime example of this modern Eurocentric bias is the continuous rendering of the Greek ‘psyche’ (i.e. ‘breath of life’) as the Judeo-Christian ‘soul’ which implies a completely different meaning. The Greek ‘pyscho’ refers to the spark of life in the functioning conscious mind that defines human existence – whilst the Judeo-Christian ‘soul’ is a completely different entity that links a monotheistic entity to each individual person. A ‘soul’ may be related to an individual’s mind and body – but remains continuously ‘distinct’ from both the mind and body, so that at the point of physical death, the ‘soul’ survives and moves into another dimension of existence (leaving the mind and body behind). The confusion arises from the fact that the early Christian ideologues took the Greek term ‘psyche’ and changed its definition and usage (rejecting the original Greek meaning). Later, when Christianity spread into pagan Germany, the non-Christian Germans believed in a pagan entity called a ‘soul’ which the Christian missionaries could not prevent. Their answer was to usurp this non-Christian term and use it in a Christian manner, therefore, a distorted interpretation of the Christianised Greek ‘psyche’ became commonly known as ‘soul’ within Christian theology. As I said above, the Christianised ‘soul’ concept has no bearing whatsoever upon the philosophy developed by non-Christian Greeks! I think this is important because the term ‘matter’ is often viewed within non-Christianised Greek philosophy – a priori from a Christian position. Obviously, this is incorrect and constitutes a ‘category error’. Plotinus does use various words referring to ‘divine’ or ‘god-like’ states of mind – but despite seeking a realisation of ‘Oneness’ – the schematic of Plotinus has nothing to do with monotheism. From correctly translating from the Greek, it would appear that Plotinus is advocating an ever rarefied perception of the essential nature of material existence – with lesser understanding in the material world serving to ‘corrupt’ matter. This may be taken to imply that the deep insight that Plotinus found (and according to him – all people possess) is ‘hidden’ by an obscuring layer of ‘not understanding’ material existence in its highest frequency. Perhaps today, this might correspond to human awareness (or ‘consciousness’) at its highest degree of development, being associated with light energy, and ignorance as being trapped in congealed light energy, (i.e. light energy slowed down), which constitutes material existence.

Best Wishes


PS: Curiously, as far as I am aware, the Pali term ‘atma’ also means ‘breath of life’ – like the Greek term ‘psyche’. For religionists, this ‘breath’ or ‘spark’ is divine, whilst for materialists, this term is natural in origin.

The Connection Between the Perception of Inner and Outer Space


The Buddha’s ideas are very similar in nature to many of those generated by the philosophers of ancient Greece. Like those ancient Greek philosophers, the Buddha used his mind in a very ‘modern’ manner, and developed a logical and rational view of existence. Again, like the ancient Greeks his thinking reflected, the Buddha developed his mode of pristine thought out of the religiosity prevalent during his lifetime. The Buddha’s life dates are uncertain, but he is thought to have lived (by Western scholars) around 2,500 years ago in ancient India, and around 3,000 years ago according to the traditional scholarship preserved within Chinese Buddhism. I have speculated elsewhere, a tentative theory that Emperor Ashoka [304-232 BCE] (and his ministers) may have developed a peaceful and wisdom-loving (secular) philosophical path, that denied the relevancy and reality of an ‘Indian’ militant Brahmanism, an Indian religion that threatened to confront and over-throw Emperor Ashoka’s ‘foreign’ rule. A passive and meditating Buddhism could have been developed by merging certain Brahmanic elements (such as the yoga of meditation), with various aspects of Greek rational thought. A candidate for the Greek input for the Buddha’s mode of thinking could be the system of thought as developed by Epicurus (370-270 BCE). The similarities between the Buddha’s system and that of Epicurus are so obvious and staggering that I am surprised that this link has not been recognised in the past and studied with a greater depth. Of course, playing devil’s advocate, I have suggested that the ancient Greeks influenced ancient Indian thought, and that Emperor Ashoka ‘created’ Buddhism out of an admixture of Indian and Greek traditions. This is purely a speculation on my part, using the rational facility of my mind. It could also be that the Buddha’s mode of modern thinking was developed hundreds of years before a similar manifestation occurred in ancient Greek (spreading to Greece from ancient Indian through trade and cultural exchange). Another theory is that a ‘new’ way of using the human mind was an evolutionary development that spread ‘species-wide’ across many human cultures that had no direct (or indepth) contact with one another. The use of the rational mind (as advocated by the Buddha and ancient Greeks), is essentially a ‘free’ and ‘unhindered’ mode of thought that lies at the basis of modern science when channelled in a certain manner. This means that ‘free-thinking’ requires various modes of constraint to direct its energy into specific forms of creativity – with perhaps art for art’s sake being its most ‘free’ expression, and scientific endeavour being its most structured and disciplined.

Epicurus was taught by Nausiphanes, and their root-master was Democritus. Democritus was a genius who – without access to microscopes (or even advanced mathematics) – used his ‘rational’ mind to determine that existence is comprised of ‘atoms’ that move around through ’empty space’. Today, through the use of advanced technology and mathematics we know that this is scientifically correct. This would suggest that Democritus had an experience no less important than the enlightenment of the Buddha, as it radically redefined humanity’s perception of reality and existence, and yet generally speaking, there are no temples containing statues of Democritus, or people applying a meditative method to replicate his mode of thought. Democritus stated that atoms moved through space in a determinate manner – but Epicurus modified this idea by stating that atoms – although moving in a definite manner through space – also possessed the ability to suddenly ‘deviate’ or ‘swerve’ in a different direction for no apparent reason. This is how Epicurus explained how unusual events happened, whilst things seemed to unfold in similar patterns. Thousands of years later, Epicurus was proven right when Heisenberg produced his ‘Uncertainty Principle’ in 1927. My point here, is to explore how space and matter is perceive within (and by) the human mind. The Buddha and the Greeks said similar things about form and void. Epicurus – like the Buddha – rejected the relevancy of religion. Both seem to suggest that gods might exist in a deluded sense, but do not exist in an ultimate sense (as many people thought). Epicurus stated that even if gods existed, they had no interest in humanity, and after-all, as there are only atoms and space that define existence, the gods themselves must be comprised of atoms just like humans, and probably subject to some-type of ‘death’ or ‘demise’. For Epicurus – who understood that life was comprised of many sufferings and different kinds of pleasure – death is the absolute end of existence for the individual because the body has ceased to function and its atoms fall apart. There is no transmigration to a heaven or a hell, or rebirth into another living form. The Buddha agrees with this, but allows for a certain ‘delusional’ existence where rebirth occurs and physical death is not the end of existence. However, when full enlightenment is attained, then all rebirth (and karmic retribution) comes to an end – and yet the Buddha clearly states time and again the reality is comprised of empty space within which physical reality manifests. In other words, empty space is not ’empty’ in essence, and physical matter does not occur in a ‘dead’ vacuum.

The Buddha and ancient Greeks were able to use their minds to ‘see’ reality in such a way that modern science has confirmed their basic assumptions to be correct. Both Epicurus and the Buddha seem to suggest that this is not just an ‘objective’ understanding, but also the product of a profound subjective experience. It could be that the Buddha and Greek philosophers like Epicurus were able to manifest a rational mind premised upon subjective experiences that had been previously interpreted in a ‘religious’ manner – an approach rejected by ‘rationalists’. The following is a fascinating scientific documentary about empty space – which is not ’empty’:


Why ‘Inner’ Science?


All science, although it manifests through the material plane, originates within the human mind. This is a concrete fact as it is the agency of human consciousness that has perceived worldly phenomena, logically ordered that data, and eventually calculated, extrapolated and elucidated reliable theories and understanding about how the universe operates, how it came into existence, and its developmental history has unfold. Of course, the human mind and body is (and remains) fully part of this evolutionary process, and the fact that the mind has been able to transition from a mode of pure instinct for survival, to a state of profound observational contemplation, is testament to this fact. Generally speaking, science is the ordering of thought when the mind is engaged in observing the physical world and its processes. Just as the physical world unfolds according to discernible laws, the thought processes can be gathered together, focused, and directed in a particular cognitive direction – this consistent ‘direction’ is termed ‘logic’ – as the thought process and patterns that unfold in the head take on the the structure and direction of the material processes. In a very real sense, the inner mind becomes a tangible reflection of the functioning of the outer world. When there is a ‘disconnect’ between the inner mind and the outer world, the human state of existence is said to be ‘mythic’, or ‘illogical’ in nature. This is because the human mind remains ‘unaware’ of how the external world is operating, is unable to ‘reflect’ that operation, and instead subjects existence to being defined through the faculty of ‘imagination’. This is the religious view of the world which is premised upon the ‘mystery’ of ‘not knowing’.

Inner science is the acknowledgement of the importance of the human brain and its ‘mind’ function. This includes not only viewing the world in a logical manner (which is required if humanity is to progress its existence), but also includes the study of the ‘illogical’ or ‘religious’ mind-set. Certainly, it must be stated that the faculty of ‘imagination’ is not an error, and has served a very important purpose within human evolutionary development. In fact, although religion is generally inverted in mind-set (i.e. prone to set the cart before the horse when assessing reality), nevertheless, religion and religious beliefs (of whatever kind), were the first human efforts to rise above the animal kingdom, and the requirement for survival through an often ‘brutal’ manifestation of instinct. This function of religion also introduced the earliest concepts of ‘law’ where none existed, and the first ideas of ‘altruism’, whereby other humans (and animals) might be treated with compassion and understanding – simply because they were other living beings. In this respect, the shift from ‘instinct’ to ‘religion’ was a very important evolutionary development that still has important ramifications for humanity today, even when fully acknowledging the secularisation of the West and other areas of the world.

The implications are that formal logic grew-out of human religious thinking, as the understanding of the world developed over long periods of time. In India, for instance the Buddha reformed Brahmanism into a new and logical philosophy that emphasised the detailed assessment of human perception existing within a physical world. This development was nothing short of the creation of the science of perception. In ancient Greece, formal logic developed out of polytheism. In the Middle East, Jesus Christ rejected various aspects of Jewish Scripture, and created if not exactly a logical system of thought, certainly a view of reality that moved away from the dogma of theology (despite the later Christian Church re-asserting the primacy of theological interpretations – even if only spuriously connected with Christ). The point is that Christianity appears to have both hindered the development of the Western mind, whilst simultaneously preparing it for the resurgence of secular Greek logic during the renaissance – fuelled as it was by the rediscovered ancient Greek texts preserved in the Islamic libraries of Byzantine and elsewhere. Islam, of course, has always valued knowledge and wisdom without compromising its theological base, which has accommodated other ways of viewing the world. However, even the old religions, as superstitious as they are, should not be entirely dismissed out of hand, although I would stress that a religion should not seek or possess political power in its own right, as this sphere of activity has nothing to do with the achievement of inner peace.

The crux of the matter is this; as the human mind is the area through which logic and understanding emerge, it is within the best interests of humanity to make a study of this inner terrain without falling into ‘subjectivism’, or ‘myth’. This requires a certain strength of being whereby an inner explorer is like a cosmonaut heading to the stars, but is involved in the intimate and detailed exploration and mapping of nothing less than the ‘psychic’ fabric of the mind. I suspect that this exploration will only add to the power of objective thinking and analysis, and thereby ‘strengthen’ the human potential for generating scientific thought. Anyone can embark on this journey simply by sitting quietly and ‘looking’ within’. What do you see? Write it down and keep detailed notes of your experience. Later, objectively look through your notes and learn to distinguish between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ observations. In this way the psychic phenomena experienced in the mind serves as the most direct form of experiential data. This type of exploration maybe viewed as ‘introspective’, and of course it is, but when deliberately performed as a part of the objective development of science, its process takes on an entirely ‘new’ meaning, and its conclusions maybe used to enhance human understanding of the mind, body and environment.

How Emperor Ashoka Invented Indian Buddhism


The Chair is ‘Empty’ – The Buddha’s ‘Non-Existence’ Confirmed Within Early Buddhist Iconology

Disclaimer: The following article is a thought experiment designed to breakout of the confines of human beliefs and belief systems. Whether the Buddha existed as a historical personage is unconfirmed at this present time, as the only evidence of such an individual stems entirely from the philosophical works associated with his name. This lack of objective evidence logically suggests that the Buddha did not physically exist – but this does not necessarily mean that this is the last word on the matter. Objective evidence could still come to light that would prove the Buddha’s existence. Whether the Buddha existed or not, does not invalidate the ‘scientific’ nature of the teaching associated with his name, despite the fact that its logical core is encased within a superstructure that contains much religious mythology. Whether the Buddha’s logic influenced Greek thought (as suggested by Christopher Beckwith in his ‘Greek Buddha’), or Greek thought influenced the Buddha, is a matter still open to debate. Furthermore, the idea that Buddhism might simply be another ‘mythic’ religion constructed out of historical circumstance and imaginative fantasy, cannot be completely rejected – as suggested by Hans Penner in his ‘Rediscovering the Buddha’. Whatever the case, the scientific efficacy of the Buddha’s method as a means of psychological (and physical) self-assessment and self-organisation remains strong, and does not need its apparent founder to be an ever present figure – as does most theistic religions premised upon faith. Finally, as matters stand, (and regardless of personal belief) it would be dishonest to suggest that the Buddha ‘definitely’ existed when a forensic examination of the available evidence does not support such a hypothesis. ACW 30.3.2017

The earliest written evidence for the existence of the Buddha is that contained on the numerous stone pillars (and other objects) raised by order of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (304 BCE – 232 BCE), who militarily conquered much of the Indian sub-continent, and ruled from 268 BCE – 232 BCE. Prior to his reign, there exists no evidence of the existence of the Buddha, and this might explain why within early Buddhist iconology, no images of the Buddha’s physical likeness exist. Although generally explained today as being the product of the Buddha’s own philosophy, this does not make sense when viewed in the light of the fact that the Buddha is depicted in those earliest times as ‘not existing’ through an empty chair, a set of idealised foot-prints, a tree or even a chakra-wheel. Indeed, even the stone pillars that have inscribed upon them the teachings of the Buddha often contain not images of a serenely sitting Buddha, but rather depictions of four lions sat facing what is assumed to be the four cardinal points. Logic dictates that as the Buddha does not pre-date these Ashokan inscriptions in anything other than historical assumption, his existence before this point in discernible time must be open to question. Emperor Ashoka cleverly discusses an apparently extraordinary man, who is assumed to have pre-existed the raising of the pillars by a vague couple of hundred years, and in so doing constructs a philosophy that seeks to undermine the prevailing Brahmanic theology and dominant social order – with its rigid caste-system and militant warrior-kings – ensuring its spread throughout India (through imperial decree and protection), and the literal ‘removing’ of any Brahmanic threat to his rule. Where the Brahmins advocated a concept of ‘holy war’ against tyranny and heresy, the Buddha advocated a renouncement of caste and ‘killing’ and a preference for ‘reasoned’ argument not dependent upon the authority of Brahmanic scripture (effectively a rejection of theology). Emperor Ashoka whole-heartedly subscribed to this ‘new’ world-view simply because he invented it. By ascribing a vague date to the Buddha’s existence, Emperor Ashoka immediately ‘mystified’ the Buddha’s origins, and implied that the ancient sages of India were more advanced in insight than the contemporary thinkers of his day. On a practical level, through the use of ‘Buddhism’ – or a form of Greek-like logical use of the mind – Emperor Ashoka sought to utterly transform his new Indian conquest and eradicate any and all vestiges of the old order, by advocating a complete transformation of the mind’s traditional opinions, and the removal of all psychological traits that could be related to the old order. To achieve this, Emperor Ashoka focused his creative efforts on subduing greed, hatred and delusion, whilst simultaneously removing the notion of ‘atman’ from Indian thinking, as this religious concept was the basis of Brahmanic power within Indian society. The ‘atman’ or ‘breath of life’, was the divine-spark that the god Brahma placed in all living creatures at conception – and controlled them thereby throughout their lives. By breaking the link between ordinary living Indians and their ‘imagined’ Brahma-god, Emperor Ashoka ensured that he ruled over a passive population of inverted truth-seekers that had no interest in changing the status-quo. This eradication of Brahmanism from ancient India was a purely ‘revolutionary’ philosophical construct that was clear in its function. Ashokan Buddhism, although advocating passivity once established in the minds and bodies of the people, nevertheless was reliant upon thoroughly over-throwing the old order. This is why Buddhism today retains its old defining impetus of ‘rejecting’ the status-quo, and can be easily adopted to assist revolutionary, political ideologies. The collective religious mythology that underpinned Brahmanic society and Brahmanic militancy, was undermined by a new Buddhist rhetoric that equated suffering and delusion with an adherence to theistic teaching, and sought to replace that model of human understanding, with one that defined freedom from suffering as being synonymous with freedom from religion. Emperor Ashoka’s transformation did not end there, however, but carried-out another piece of deft philosophical footwork, by stating that ‘knowledge’ of conventional Brahmanic religion was actually no knowledge at all (i.e. theology being a product of ‘delusive’ thinking), and that by a deliberate act of ‘unprogramming’ the mind from its previous cultural conditioning, can ‘true’ knowledge be attained. How was his ‘new’ knowledge to be achieved? By training the mind to assess and record the physical (knowable) world through a scientific-like adherence to the observation of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ of matter and its functionality. This transition from idealism (i.e. the inner generated delusion of theism) to a perceptual science premised upon the precise observation of physical matter, ensured that all religiously generated resistance to change was quickly abandoned in the minds of ancient Indians, as Emperor Ashoka set about defining his new regime along the lines of the revolution in thought that was happening in Greece.

Of course, Emperor Ashoka could not simply expect to take all the credit for his new approach to defining reality, but instead created a set of ‘religious-like’ texts, the content of which was anything but ‘religious’ in the old sense, and ascribing their creation to a ‘mythical’ being who lived sometime in the distant past. Emperor Ashoka, along with his able and highly educated ministers, were probably well aware of Greek thought before the arrival of Alexander the Great in India. Whether Emperor Ashoka acquired this knowledge of Greek thought from Indian sources, or directly from Greece is unknown, as is the matter of whether Indian thought influenced Greece, or Greek thought influence India at an earlier date. The point is that prior to the rule of Emperor Ashoka and the development of Buddhism, India did not possess a developed political system of philosophical thought that in anyway resembled that of Ancient Greece. The Buddha’s thought is distinctly ‘scientific’ in nature, and it is probably due to its Greek influence, that Buddhism remains today as popular as it does in the contemporary West. Karma as a vehicle for divine intervention in the physical world (Brahmanism), was transformed through Buddhism into a logical observation of the process of the physically observable world. Emperor Ashoka allows the Buddha a dalliance with a god concept and agency of rebirth (all strong Brahmanic themes), but ultimately uses these ideals as a means to draw an essentially uneducated populace into the Buddhist way of viewing things – ultimately rejecting such ideas as ‘god’ and ‘rebirth’ as the transition is completed. This would suggest that the passionless state known as ‘nirvana’ within Buddhist thought, is in fact a new mind-set that is non-resistant to Emperor Ashoka’s interpretation of spiritual and social order. Further implied in this ‘perfect’ state is the attainment of a pristine logic premised upon the correct observation of all psycho-physical functionality. Such a state of ‘enlightenment’ is said to be ‘free’ of the delusion of the previous ‘theology’ that defined pre-Ashokan Indian society. As a reliance upon Brahmanic theology disappeared, Emperor Ashoka’s reign became ever more stable, to the point where he felt comfortable enough to ‘export’ his new way of thinking to other countries, in the form of sending gift-bearing emissaries. These couriers of the new Ashokan order would arrive in theistic-led societies and immediately set-about converting this mind-set into a reliance upon the use of logic and reason – although this message was often reinforced with quasi-religious trinkets such as assumed body-parts taken from the cremated remains of the ‘Buddha’. Quite often the Buddha’s remains were ‘worshipped’ as if he were a god, but his message of secular wisdom was embraced nonetheless. This process may be viewed as a temporary collaboration with inverted thinking associated with a belief in theism, as a means to eventually transition such populations away from the old and toward the new. By eradicating Brahmanic thought within India, and similar systems of theistic belief in the countries surrounding India, Emperor Ashoka was effectively removing any internal or external threats to his rule. In so doing, he applied the Buddha’s thought (as if he were a real person that had lived in the past) to his own kingdom (as if he were venerating a wise man that had lived long ago). The fact of the matter is that there is no physical evidence for the existence of the Buddha in the pre-Ashokan age, and any evidence that appears to suggest otherwise, is either the product of misidentification, misdating, fraud, or deliberate misinterpretation. The Buddha’s story begins in the Ashokan age, and the lack of evidence prior to this time (for the existence of a teacher who is supposed to have lived hundreds of years before), is explained by the clever artifice that the Buddha could not read or write – and that his teachings were submitted to memory and conveyed by word of mouth (a process that conveniently left no discernible mark until advent of the Ashokan age). It seems incredible that this method of ad hoc recording could eventually spawn a literature of around 5,000 different texts (i.e. sutras), all expressing the same opinion about a revolutionary, but otherwise unified vision for society and the world. The Buddha, although stating that what he teaches is a ‘rediscovery’ of an ancient system of Indian understanding, the reality is that India had never known such a manner of understanding existence prior to Emperor Ashoka. By ascribing an ‘ancient’ origination to the Buddha’s thinking (as opposed to ‘foreign’), the bitter pill of uprooting and replacing Brahmanism was thereby ‘sweetened’ as a consequence. Buddhism was not to be thought of as ‘new’ (it just seemed ‘new’), but was in reality a ‘return’ to a ‘pre-Brahmanic’ understanding, an understanding so ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ that the subsequent Brahmanic system marked a considerable divergence from it.

Emperor Ashoka, for practical political reasons, could not be seen to be the originator of ‘Buddhism’, as this assumption would have added to the military opposition he faced when subduing the country. The term ’Buddha’, in and of itself, simply refers to a specific use of the human mind. It is the replacement of religious ‘faith’ with personally experienced knowledge. Its usage demarks a movement away from speculative theology, premised as it is on imagination, and a transition to a reliance upon verifiable fact ascertained through the senses. However, the Buddha’s path maximised this observational activity by demanding that the observer be ‘detached’ from the method of observation. This may be considered similar to a modern scientist observing phenomena, without allowing personal belief to intercede whilst recording the results. Since the rediscovering of Emperor Ashoka’s pillars by British archaeologists in the 19th century, the Western scholarly tradition has tended to take the inscriptions ‘literally’ and ‘uncritically’ – ascribing all kinds of dates to the Buddha’s presumed existence. With no body, tomb or written work, there is no evidence whatsoever that the Buddha existed as an independent personage outside of the Ashokan inscriptions. Once this ‘disembodied’ existence is taken seriously, then any speculation as to the Buddha’s birth and death dates is a free for all, with one assumption being as good (or ‘false’) as any other. In reality, the physical Buddha never physically existed, and neither is he a composite figure created from the many examples of Indian holy ascetics. His biography (contained within his teachings) is improbable and illogical. Why would a rich man with every physical and spiritual advantage his society could give, renounce this privilege simply upon a vaguely defined philosophical disquiet premised upon the experience of how life is, rather than what he thought it might be (in his immature and youthful understanding)? By walking-out of his life of high caste privilege, the Buddha also abandoned his caste duties, his parents, his friends and his wife and child, not to mention his servants and animals, etc. This bizarre behaviour only makes sense if it is interpreted as a general message intended for the people of India, and designed to justify Emperor Ashoka’s reign, by encouraging the whole-sale abandoning of Brahmanism as a religious practice, and as a basis for organising society. It is only within this social-engineering context, that the Buddha’s story makes any sense at all. The Buddha leaves and rejects Brahmanic society (and culture), because this is exactly the same social policy of the Ashokan government. Emperor Ashoka uses the tenants of Buddhism to persuade the Indian people that they have wilfully chosen to be ruled by him, and that he is not oppressing them in anyway, when he demands nothing less than the complete abandonment of their Brahmanic culture. Although Emperor Ashoka used extreme military violence (and atrocity) to conquer India, he has to immediately out-law the use of similar violence by everyone else – to prevent his own government from being usurped in a similar fashion. A non-violent approach to his rule is presented as a spiritually superior way to behave, that leads to the eventual emancipation from the wheel of suffering.

From the West’s re-discovery of Buddhism in the 19th century in India, its history has been completely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Most obviously in this misinterpretation has been implicit in Western analysis, a Christian gloss over Buddhist philosophy that has no historical place or relevance in the development of Indian thought. This interpretive error has been compounded by a relentless ‘literalism’ that has conveyed Buddhism into the Western psyche as a new kind of secular religion, the founder of which actually existed independently from the texts that convey his teaching. This continuous process of missing the point and avoiding the correct context, has led to a wild goose chase with regard to ‘proving’ the Buddha’s physical existence. The Buddha’s physical existence cannot be proven, logic dictates, because he never existed in the physical sense. The Buddha is a rhetorical device designed to facilitate Emperor Ashoka’s new political, cultural and social vision for the India that he conquered. This understanding reveals that Western scholarship in this area is in disarray, and that Indian scholarship, premised as it often is on the concept of ‘Indian nationalism’ is equally misled. Buddhist countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma or Nepal, etc, exist within the imagination of Emperor Ashoka, and accept without criticism everything contained within the Buddhist teachings. More than this, however, these very same countries also ascribed to Buddha a god-like quality that Emperor Ashoka tried to avoid, and create social schisms by separating men from women, and ascribing a superior status to men. Monks are viewed as superior to nuns, and monastics superior to the laity – and yet all this ‘contemporary’ Buddhism can be seen as incorrect from even a cursory viewing of the Buddhist texts – errors in interpretation that maybe viewed as a consequence of historical deviations from Emperor Ashoka’s original vision for Buddhism – the central purpose of which, appears to be the achievement of ‘equality’ throughout the society he ruled. Within Emperor Ashoka’s original vision, all social barriers implicit within theological Brahmanism, were to be demolished through the use of Buddhistic logic and reason. In this sense, ‘Buddhism’ is a method for using and applying the mind in the transformation of society, and nothing more, Buddhism was certainly not intended to be like the religious system it replaced, or recreate the social injustices it reformed. However, the Buddhism of the modern world, although in places still retaining this original vision, is riddled with revisionism and contradiction which sees Buddhist monastics embracing the greed of capitalism, and getting involved in all kinds of worldly affairs. Whereas Emperor Ashoka sought to prevent and stop all meat-eating (and thereby animal slaughter), many Buddhists today eat meat (accept in China), thinking that hurting animals is inaccordance with the Buddha’s teaching. Emperor Ashoka developed Buddhism as a means to create a revolution throughout society – and this aspect of Buddhism remains its central tenant. Revolution within the mind represents revolution in the environment and vice versa. Bourgeois modes of Buddhist distortion, of course invert this defining reality, and transforms Buddhism into just another middle class plaything that supports and sustain the status quo.


Ch’an Dialectics


‘The illusion of form which includes the body and mind made of the five aggregates and the visible world is tackled first by returning each of its aspects to where it arises to prove its unreality.  Then the illusion of perception is wiped out by revealing its essence, or alaya, which like a second moon is also an illusionary creation.’

(Charles Luk: Preface – Surangama Sutra – Munshiram, (2001), Page xvii)

The Ch’an masters of ancient China are often judged as speaking nonsense, or even being ‘crazy’ in some Western-quarters, when the ‘enlightened’ dialogues with their disciples are analysed – supposedly in the cold light of day.  The problem with this type of analysis is that it is premised upon a major category error of interpretation that ignores or avoids the psychological and physical process the Ch’an masters are employing. This means that the ‘essence’ or ‘underlying’ aspect of the enlightened Ch’an dialogue is ‘missing’ from this limited interpretation.  It is like the presence of a wooden table being explained, without including the reality that it was once a living and growing ‘tree’ in the world, and that this tree was cut-down, and its trunk chopped into smaller pieces, which were then ‘processed’ into the applicable parts that are used to construct a standard table.  Everything in the world follows a logically discernible set of causes and effects, with a specific ‘cause’ eliciting a specific ‘effect’, and so on.  Far from being ‘illogical’, the Ch’an method is in fact highly logical, and a product of a sophisticated interpretation of depth psychology and behaviour.  The basis of the Ch’an dialogue is that of the interaction of ‘form’ and ‘void’ in the perception of the unenlightened disciple, as he or she is led to profound understanding by an already enlightened Ch’an master.  The Ch’an master either emphasises the ‘void’, or emphasises the ‘form’, depending upon the particular psychology (and understanding) of the disciple at hand.  This often rapid interchange of dialectical reality creates a ‘tension’ in the enquiring mind that assists in ‘loosening’ the bonds of ingrained attachment, and klesic obscuration.  This is the ancient Ch’an method at its root, which has nothing to do with being ‘crazy’, or ‘missing’ parts of one’s anatomy.  Dialectics, of course, can be traced not only back to the Buddha, but probably much earlier in ancient India, and of course in ancient and classical Greece, but the Buddha is unique in the ancient world in his use of ‘form’ and ‘void’ as a definite means to interpret and define reality.  It can be further stated that the early Confucian texts of ancient China utilised the dialectical method by juxtaposing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour, as did the various early Daoist or proto-Daoist texts (which defined reality as ‘correct’ or incorrect’ paths of endeavour).  If the Ch’an method is understood properly, then the casual observer is not ‘limited’ to the surface level of interpretation, (as this mistakes the ‘surface’ for the ‘essence’), but instead understands that profound system of stimulus – response is unfolding in real-time.  As the disciple mistakenly presents a surface obscuration in the mind (accompanied by a corresponding physical behaviour), the Ch’an master automatically ‘dismisses’ this ‘limited’ interpretation of reality, and immediately returns to its ‘empty’ essence – whether the disciple is instantly enlightened or not, depends entirely upon that disciple’s historical conditioning – and the Ch’an master’s direct perception of that history as it existentially manifests.  If the disciple mistakes a state of one-sided ‘nothingness’ as ‘emptiness’, the Ch’an master might well suddenly present ‘form’ as an antidote (as true emptiness contains all form, and vice versa).  In reality, the Ch’an method does not go beyond the Buddha’s realisation of ‘perception’ and ‘non-perception – the so-called ‘Tathagata Ch’an’ – but differs in that the realisation of the empty essence of ‘perception’ and ‘non-perception’ is directly emphasised from the moment Ch’an training commences – the so-called Patriarch’s Ch’an’.

The Historicity of Buddha’s Rationality


The Buddha’s path, particularly in its oldest known form, appears to be comprised of a system of thought premised upon the use of a clean logic and a pristine reason.  This observation has led a number of commentators in the West to ascribe the term ‘modern’ to the Dharma, and thereby suggest that the Buddha, as a learned man (who probably could not read or write), was the first modern thinker, perhaps even predating the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (an ancient Greek colony situated Turkey), who lived during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.  Of course, such an assertion is assisted if the lifetime date of the Buddha is more inaccordance with the Chinese Buddhist tradition that gives the years as 1028/29 –  948/49 BCE, than it is with current Western dating (accepted by the Theravada tradition since the 1950’s) as being (with slight variation) 563 – 483 BC. whereas Thales of Miletus lived between 624 – 546 BCE.  However, it may be that regardless of which distinct culture appeared to give rise to logic first, it could well have been a species-wide evolutionary development, as the work of Laozi (d, 531 BCE), Confucius (551-479 BCE), Zhuangzi (370-287 BC), demonstrate in ancient China, as all appear to utilise logical schemes for their systems of philosophy.  However, as unique as the Buddha’s thinking undoubtedly is, logic dictates that it did not develop in a vacuum, and did not suddenly appear as ‘out of thin air’.  Regardless of its epoch-changing ramifications, the Buddha’s system of logic was the consequence of well-established historical trends and conditions, observable in ancient India through the development of her systems of thought.  In my view, the clearest and most concise thinking on this matter has been written by Satkari Mookerjee, in his excellent book entitled ‘The Buddhist Philosophy of Universal Flux’ (re-printed 2006) which explains the fundamental trends that have underpinned the various and diverse systems of India thought, in the times prior to the rising of Buddhist thought.  Needless to say, there is no need for fanciful theories of ‘outside’ interference or guidance, or recourse to the notion that ancient aliens ‘implanted’ this ‘new’ type of thinking into the minds of humanity.  It is also clear that the Buddha’s system of thinking arose entirely within the milieu associated with Indian philosophical thought, and was not ‘imported’ from ancient Greece or elsewhere.  Intense dialectical competition between the existing and competing schools ensured a very high quality of developed thought-system, that continued to exist as ‘valid’ within Indian society, or was thoroughly vanquished into the oblivion of ‘falsehood’ on the battlefield of debate.:

‘What is, however, particularly refreshing in this tense atmosphere of fighting is the fact of the earnestness of the fighters.  Though all cannot be regarded as equally honest or honourable in their method, their earnestness and sincerity are beyond doubt or cavil.  The fighting has all the freshness of life and reality.  There is an air of unreality about it.  In fact, they fought for what they believed to be a question of life and death.  Philosophy was not a matter of academic interest in India.  Change of philosophy meant the change of entire outlook and orientation in life.  Victory in a philosophical debate, therefore, was essential to the preservation of one’s religion and mode of life, defeat spelt inglorious death or apostasy from the accepted faith.  There was, in fact, no line of demarcation between philosophy and religion in India.  A religion without a philosophical backing was unthinkable.

The cleavage between philosophy and religion is pronounced where religion is held to be a matter of unquestioning faith irrespective of a philosophical sanction.  But in India the two were identical.  So even the atheists had their own religion because philosophy and religion were one.  Belief had to submit to the test of logic, and a faith that was not warranted by philosophic conviction, was rightly regarded as perverse dogmatism which has no right to the allegiance of a man of sound education and culture.  It is this fact of intellectual honesty and spiritual earnestness that account for the intensity and desperate character of this fighting for opinion among ancient philosophers of India.  As has been aptly observed by Prof. Dasgupta with his characteristic insight, “The systems of philosophy in India were not stirred up merely by the speculative demands of the human mind, but by a deep craving after the realisation of the religious purpose of life.” Ignorance of this peculiarity of the Indian mind has been responsible for the so-called charge of scholasticism that has been laid at the door of Indian philosophy.  Philosophy was not the fad of intellectual satisfaction or for the purpose of whiling away their idle hours.  It was, on the contrary, the earnest quest of truth and life’s purpose and nothing short of truth could give its votaries peace or satisfy their ardent mins.  And the intensity of this craving was not appeased except by a thoroughgoing and meticulous application of the truth to every detail of life.  Accordingly, no fictitious barrier between religion and philosophy was tolerated.

If religion was not sanctioned and inspired by philosophy, it was regarded as a useless superstition.  If philosophy was not lived in actual religion, it was rightly held to be a mere waste of time and a dereliction from life’s true purpose and mission.  As Prof. Sir S Radhakrishnan observes with his inimitable felicity of expression, “In many other countries reflection on the nature of existence is a luxury of life.  The serious moments are given to action, while the pursuit of philosophy comes up as a parenthesis.  In ancient India philosophy was not an auxiliary to any other science or art, but always held a prominent position of independence.”  The true criterion of philosophy and scholasticism therefore should be sought not in the identity of the interests of religion and philosophy, which, to my mind, far from being an occasion of halting apology, constitutes the very apex and perfection pf both of them.  The criterion, in my humble judgment, should be the crucial test as to whether or not the pursuit of philosophy is inspired by an unremitting and unhesitating enquiry after truth and whether it is only an after-thought, a metaphysical eyewash, ot a clever subterfuge to bolster up a pet dogma.  If this criterion is accepted and applied, Indian philosophy will, we believe, come out in triumphant glory.  Unquestioning, blind faith may be shameful superstition, but the studious endeavour to keep religion apart from philosophy is a perversity of mind, of which we should be equally ashamed.  To keep philosophy again in a water-tight compartment and to prevent it deliberately from finding its fulfilment in religion constitutes an unpardonable case of moral cowardice, insincerity of purpose and shallow dilettantism,

There might be a semblance of justification or excuse for the charge of scholasticism against the course of philosophic thought in some Brahmanical schools (which we believe, we have succeeded in proving to be without foundation); but this indictment cannot be brought against Buddhist philosophy with any show of plausibility.  From the very beginning Buddhism has been critical In its spirit.  Lord Buddha was an intellectual giant and a rationalist above anything else.  He exhorted his disciples to accept nothing on trust. “Just as people test the purity of gold by burning it in fire, by cutting it and by examining it on a touchstone, so exactly you should, O ye monks! Accept my words after subjecting them to a critical test and not out of reverence for me.”  These words of the Buddha furnish the key to the true spirit of Buddhist philosophy throughout its career.  And this freedom of thought encouraged by Buddha was responsible for the schism in the Buddhist church and for division of Buddhist philosophy into so many divergent schools.  This should not be regarded as a matter of regret; on the contrary, we should read in it the signs of pulsating life.’

(The Buddhist Philosophy of Universal Flux: By Satkari Mookerjee, Motilal, [2006], Pages xxxviii-xl)

Whereas Greek philosophy developed in fits and starts, in a more or less haphazard affair over hundreds of years, culminating in the sublime rationality of Socrates, Plato (and much later Plotinus), the Buddha’s system of thought appeared on the world stage already ‘complete’ and in its finished form.  He undoubtedly made use of Brahmanic and yogic phraseology and practises, but he completely changed how these terms were interpreted and applied.  He made use of the prevailing conventions and habit of thought prevalent in ancient India, and radically broke with the past and conveyed a thoroughly ‘new’ system of thought free of the reliance upon theology and superstition.  The Buddha delivered his understanding in a devastatingly intellectual fashion that was very much part of the Indian tradition.  Without recourse to greed, hatred and delusion, the Buddha used a crushingly calm logic to counter, uproot, and dissolve all opposition to his definition of reality.  In this regard, the Buddha may be viewed as an inevitable product (perhaps its ‘apex’) of the ancient Indian habit of applying ‘logical’ assessment to every manifest theory.  This being the case, it would appear that the Buddha’s insight was home-grown within Indian culture, and not the product of the ancient Greek method of thought in migration.  By the time Greek thought matured, the Buddha’s advanced logical thought was already old.



The Buddha, Non-Literate Wisdom, and Why Ch’an is Beyond Words and Letters


Author’s Note: Many in the West are so understandably taken by the Buddha’s use of modernistic logic and reason in his expression of the ‘science’ of perceptual psychology, that they remain unaware that the Buddha either could not read or write, or if he could, never made any reference to this ability in the thousands of teachings attributed to him.  However, writing in November 1880, TW Rhys Davids and H Oldenberg, state (in the Introduction to Part I of their English translation of the Vinaya Discipline) that ‘writing’ was known to have existed during the formulation of the Vinaya Discipline, as it is mentioned on more than one occasion in the main body of that text, and within its associated commentarial ‘Notes’.[1]  Admittedly, its mention is not common, but its presence is contextually interesting: 

1) In Mahavagga I (45), for instance, it is explained that a man who had become a bhikkhu had in fact previously committed the crime of theft, and that the king had it ‘written’ that this man, once found, should be executed. 

2) In Mahavagga I (49) 1, it is stated that the parents of the Upali, suggested that if he learned the art of writing, then after their deaths, he could earn a living for himself. 

3) The Third Paragika Rule of the Vibhanga states any bhikkhu who kills a person, or brings about the death of a person, must be expelled from the Sangha.  In the Notes associated with this Rule, an example is given of attempting to cause death to another by persuading them that suicide leads to salvation.  It is stated that such an underhand activity might well be made not by word of mouth, not by messenger, but rather in ‘writing’.  Even if such corruption of the Dharma is made in writing, (and not spoken) it nevertheless constitutes a ‘Dukkata Offence’.  If another takes his life foolishly believing that in the suffering associated with self-inflicted death there is salvation, he who causes the death is guilty of a ‘Paragika Offence’. 

4) Again, the Vibhanga states that Buddhist nuns must renounce all attachment to the world and not participate in any worldly activity – except that of ‘learning to write’. 

These brief extracts contained within a very long ancient text, suggest that writing was probably known during the Buddha’s lifetime, and was used by the king and his government for official announcements, could be used to communicate in private life, and as a means to make a living that was available to both women as well as men.  However, despite these references, it is also clear by assessing all the implements that could be kept within the ordained Sangha community, that there is no mention of:

a) Pens (or similar writing devices).

b) Paper (or similar recording devices).

c) Existing texts containing important teachings.

The Buddha never taught that texts should be written-down, and learned through correctly reading the text.  On the contrary, in Mahavagga II (17) 5, 6, it is related how a group of bhikkhus had no one within their community who knew how to recite the ‘Patimokkha’ (Code of Monastic Discipline).  The answer was to send a bhikkhu to another Sangha community, and ‘learn’ this body of knowledge by word of mouth and accurately commit to memory. In the Mahavagga III, 5, 9, there is the story of a Upasaka (male lay follower of the Buddha) who sent word to the local Sangha living in his area, that he had received a teaching from the Buddha, and was concerned that if left too long, he might forget it.  A bhikkhu was immediately sent to learn this ‘sutta’ by heart, and bring it back to the Sangha community to spread its message (so important was this task that the Rule forbidding bhikkhus travelling in the rainy season was temporarily suspended).  In the Anguttara Nikaya (Katukka-Nipata and Pankaka-Nipata) there is an injunction that monks should ensure that they pass on (by word of mouth) the knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings they possess to others, before they themselves die and the teaching is permanently ‘cut-off’ at the root.  It seems that writing at the time of the Buddha (whenever that exactly was), was known but not yet associated with spiritual training or religious movements.  It could be that the sparse references to ‘writing’ in the Vinaya Discipline were added at a later date through faults in memory, transmission or transference, or included much later when the teachings were eventually committed to writing in 1st century BCE Ceylon (within the Theravada tradition).  Whatever the case, the Buddha NEVER mentions reading and writing, and obviously did not consider such abilities relevant to finding enlightenment on his path.  This appears to be the case in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions.  In the Buddha’s time it was perfectly natural and expected for a great scholar to have gained immense knowledge and wisdom through direct ‘seeing’ and ‘perceiving’, but not through the agency of reading and writing.  ACW 9.9.2016

‘When reading the early Buddhist literature we must not forget how these works originated.  The Buddha himself and his disciples could not write.  It was an old tradition in Indian cultural life that compositions in prose as well as poetry should be learned literally by heart, and they were in this way transferred from generation to generation.  Matter that is conserved in this way will necessarily get a special character.’

Pali Buddhist Texts Explained to the Beginner: By Rune EA Johansson, Curzon, (1981), Page 11

One of the reasons I was told that Hui Neng (the Sixth Patriarch of Buddhism) was (and remains) so popular in China, is that although perfectly and completely enlightened, like the vast majority of Chinese people prior to 1949, he was illiterate.  He could not read or write due to his humble family background and lack of formal education.  However, this inability did not prevent him from realising the empty mind ground – or that reality which underlies all psycho-physical functionality and acquired abilities.  If a student had a question about a sutra, Hui Neng would have that student read-out the section, and then he would wisely express his profound understanding through the spoken word.  Another reason Hui Neng is so popular (and important) to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, is that the Indian Buddha – Siddharta Gautama (the man believed to have initiated the Ch’an tradition), was himself illiterate.  The Buddha’s illiteracy is the hidden reason why Chinese Ch’an Buddhism is not dependent upon words and letters, or words and sentences. For many people in the modern world, brought up with abundant Buddhist scriptures (bound neatly in endless books), this seems an unlikely fact.  How can a system of such profound and logical thought, which is distinctly ‘modern’ in its presentation, be the product of an individual who could not read or write?  Indeed, so powerful was his penetrative insight into the nature of reality, that Western science and philosophy is still considering its impact upon the sum-total of the knowledge humanity possesses.  It seems that nearly every year or so lately, this or that advanced physics paper compares favourably the philosophy of the Buddha with contemporary scientific findings.  Even that modern genius Albert Einstein looked upon Buddhism with respect.  In other words, those who are now the product of mass literacy and sophisticated educational systems, look upon the ‘illiterate’ philosophy of the Buddha as if it had been produced at Oxford or Harvard after years of written research, lectures, data gathering, debate and refinement.

Of course, the Buddha’s system was a matter of personal will-power, and not institutional or group endeavour.  By an act of intense will, the Buddha managed to change the historically conditioned manner in which his brain functioned.  He managed to permanently ‘alter’ the thought-patterns of his mind so that they ‘shifted’ from the superstitious thinking associated with theology, and into that of modern logic and reason.  The Buddha’s Enlightenment mirrored entirely the European Enlightenment that would happen thousands of years after his lifetime, (and may well have pre-dated) and been far more sophisticated than its ancient Greek counter-part founded in Miletus by Thales.  The Greeks certainly developed logic and reason, but its early evolution is ponderous, inconsistent, and generally incomplete.  Greek logic and reason developed over centuries, and has been the product of many great thinkers using their minds in a new manner – but the Buddha’s system of thought appears to have evolved solely from his own efforts, and appeared suddenly in ancient India with no historical precedent.  Yes, the Buddha borrowed meditation from the Yoga School, and made use of pre-existing ideas such as polytheistic gods, rebirth and karma, but at no time did he use these terms in their historically correct context.  The Buddha made use of pre-existing terms, whilst thoroughly rejecting the historical premises for those terms.  Gods and rebirth were no longer ultimately real, but only appeared to exist as long as individuals believed in them (disappearing altogether when the mind achieved ‘enlightenment’).  Karma was transformed from a semi-divine and deterministic power, (as vague as it was fatalistic within Brahmanic thought), to the acknowledgement that everything operates in the universe through morally neutral cause and effect, and that through volition, or the state of mind of the individual, good, neutral or bad experiences could be experienced.  The Buddha saw that the minds of all beings are default set to function in the unenlightened state through the agency of greed, hatred and delusion, and that ‘enlightenment’ is the state of mind left after greed, hatred, and delusion have been uprooted through meditation.

The Buddha, through his Four Noble Truths, assessed that existence for a living being is ‘nama-rupa’ (mind and body integrated – see Chain of Dependent Origination), and that the notion of an underlying and permanent self was an illusion.  As the Buddha defined enlightenment by way of what it is not, the notion of ‘emptiness’ is very important in his system of thought.  The enlightened state is not greed, hatred or delusion.  The enlightened state is not the literal belief in polytheistic (or monotheistic) gods.  The enlightened state is not the blind acceptance of a deterministic karma that is partly determined by personal actions, and partly directed by the will of punishing or rewarding gods.  Enlightenment is not the acceptance of, or practical experience of rebirth.  Enlightenment is not the acceptance of, or practical experience of a ‘soul’ theory.  In other words, a fully enlightened and rational mind, is a mind ‘emptied’ of all delusion and irrationality.  This ‘emptiness’, however, has a practical realisation within Ch’an Buddhism, and is not just defined by the ‘absence’ of things. Yes, all delusion in the mind must be uprooted, but delusion is defined as the erratic and chaotic movement of the surface mind, that must be ‘stilled’ through meditation, or after a rigorous dialogue encounter with an enlightened master.  Once ‘stilled’, this obscuring layer is removed and the practitioner can see directly into the empty nature of the psychic fabric of the mind.  Once this understanding permeates all six senses, it appears to ‘expand’ and encompasses all that which it senses.  All this was realised by the Buddha without the need to read or write, and the power of his insight was such, that we are still discussing it today.  Hundreds of years after his lifetime, his sutras – which had been passed on from generation to generation by monks tasked with remembering them by word of mouth – were eventually committed to paper and comprehensively recorded in writing.

Although the Buddha could not read and write, and despite the fact that in the modern world ‘illiteracy’ is associated with a lack of education and knowledge, this cannot be said to be the case in ancient India.  The Buddha was a high caste Indian who had received a very sophisticated Brahmanic education, including Vedic studies, yoga, martial arts, and preparation for ruling and leadership.  All these arts were conveyed not through the written word, but rather through the recalled spoken word and in remembered actions.  It was a very sophisticated education in an age before reading and writing came to dominate education.  When Buddhism spread to China in the 1st century CE, reading and writing had already been raised to the level of spiritual attributes by the scholar-sage Confucius.  The Ch’an School produced very learned masters in the Buddhist literature but always remembered that the Buddha’s enlightenment was achieved prior to the era of wide-spread reading and writing, and constituted a unique and entirely different mind-set.  The Buddha’s knowledge and wisdom was not attained by ‘reading’ the ‘words’ explaining what others understood, or claimed to understand.  His ‘Buddhi’ (i.e. ‘intuitive’ knowledge) was a direct perception of reality in its most pristine and unmediated realisation (beyond and unsullied by the obscuring clutter of intellectualised words and letters).  The Ch’an School resided in a highly literate China that put a great stock on the written word as a civilising tool (despite the fact that only about 10% of the people could read or write).  The Ch’an School technique appears to refer back to a time in Indian history before the Buddha-Dharma was rendered into the written word, and became sullied by intellectual attachment, and shallow understanding.  Although this is a common knowledge within China, it is virtually unknown in the West, with many scholars referring to Ch’an as a later development, and offering no understanding as to its ‘beyond words’ motif.  It is quite often the case that Western scholars do not reference Chinese language source materials, but instead rely upon antiquated, and quite often flawed Japanese scholarship that misinterprets and misconstrues Chinese Buddhist history.

When reading and writing was associated with Western religion, its use was very different to that found in modern society, where ample texts are available and subject to individualistic consumption. Contemporary reading usually involves one person absorbing one text as if the act of ‘reading’ should be an entirely ‘private’ affair.  However, given that in the past throughout the world it was common for only a very select minority of people to possess the ability to read and write, reading was often a ‘shared’ experience, with texts being read aloud rather than silently.  In this regard, Jean Leclerc states:

‘…in the Middle Ages, as in antiquity, they read usually not as today, principally with the eyes, but with the lips, pronouncing what they saw, and with the ears, listening to the words pronounced, hearing what is called the “voices of the pages”…  Doctors of ancient times used to recommend reading to their patients as a physical exercise on an equal level with walking, running, or ball-playing.’[2]

It seems logical to assume that even after teachings were written down, their recitation followed on from the time of recitation from memory, and that initially at least, despite the shift in conveyance from memory to bamboo strip, leaf or paper, the manner in which the text was handled followed all the conventions of a ‘remembered’ text for hundreds or thousands of years.  The Buddha might have thought that as there was no real difference in how a text was recited, it was more efficient and functional for a Sangha that prided itself on a lack of possessions, (and which referred to its adherents as ‘bhikkhus’, or ‘beggars’), that the use of memory – common for the time – was by far the preferred (and perhaps superior) method of conveyance.  After-all, the Buddha’s method of transformation has the centre of its activity in the mind, and the perfecting of memory could well have been considered as important as perfecting the jhana states, and the uprooting of greed, hatred, and delusion.  The Buddha’s relationship to reading and writing can be logically assessed as:

i) He could read and write and never mentioned this ability throughout his 45 years of teaching.

ii) He could not read or write, but knew about these abilities and thought them irrelevant to his path.

iii) He could not read or write, and was unaware that such an ability existed.

If the Buddha was illiterate, it is curious that he would give permission in the Vinaya Discipline for his nuns (bhikkunis) to learn how to write, whilst advising them to renounce all other worldly activities.  As Andrew Skilton points out in his excellent ‘Concise History of Buddhism’ (see ‘Preface’), the received Pali texts of the modern Theravada School exhibit, in part, definite evidence of sectarian editing. Even so, as this school allots a superior position to a man and a subordinate position to a woman, it is difficult to envisage why women (and not men) would be granted the ability to read and write by the Buddha (whose original ‘liberal’ teachings should not be conflated with any particular school that arose after his passing).  Whatever the case, the Buddha-Dharma inherited by the Chinese Ch’an School does not discriminate between men or women, and is not reliant upon the ability to read and write.  Reading and writing is simply a function of the mind, that in and of itself represents a ‘moving surface’ mind that does not perceive reality.  This is why Ch’an masters advise that all activities be ‘laid down’ and the attention turned firmly within.  This includes no reading of books, or communicating in writing for the duration of the Ch’an training.

A final consideration is this; the Chinese explorer (and devout Buddhist pilgrim) Fa Xian (法顯) [337-422] – whose name literally means ‘Dharma Manifested’ – visited India (and other Buddhist countries) in search of Buddhist sutras between 399-414 CE. Kanai Lal Hazra states in his book entitled ‘Buddhism in India as Described by the Chinese Pilgrims AD 399-689’, the following information:

‘Fa-hein (Fa Xian) and his friends returned to Pataliputra from Banaras.  Fa-Hein’s aim was to obtain complete sets of the Vinaya texts. But he could not find any written volume.  Because in the various places of Northern India the Vinaya texts were handed down orally from teacher to teacher.  Then in a monastery he found a copy of the Mahasanghika Vinaya.  “The copy of the rules is the most complete with the fullest explanation.”  This was accepted by the Buddhist monks in the Buddha’s lifetime and was used by the monks of the First Great Assembly.  Fa-hein also obtained a manuscript of the Sarvastivada rules in six or seven thousand gathas.’[3]

Although the Theravada School Buddhist texts were committed to the written form around the 1st century BCE, it appears that in North India during the 5th century CE (some six hundred years later), there were schools of Buddhism that still retained the oral tradition of passing on the teachings by word of mouth, and that had not transferred their remembered Buddhist knowledge into readable form.  This behaviour appears to be an adherence to a much older tradition that had survived for at least a thousand years or more since the lifetime of the Buddha. Contrary to Theravada rhetoric that it, and it alone, retains the oldest version of the Buddha’s teachings, the above text makes it clear that in 5th century CE India, it was the Vinaya of the Mahasanghika School that was considered not only the oldest extant version at the time, but also the body of knowledge used to ‘fix’ the teachings at the First Buddhist Council (held soon after the Buddha’s death).  It is interesting to note that Bodhidharma, the Indian Buddhist monk that brought the ‘Dhyana’ (Meditation) School to China (where it became known as ‘Ch’an’) in the year 520 CE, arrived only 106 years after Fa Xian had returned from India (in 414 CE).  It is logical to speculate that Bodhidharma was very well aware that certain Indian Buddhist schools still existed that had refused to abandon the tradition followed by the Buddha, which emphasised the realisation of enlightenment during a developmental process that was not dependent upon the use of words and letters, or the ability to write words and read sentences.  Of course, as time went by, the ability (and necessity) of societies and cultures to make written records of their existences became ever more important, and the Dhyana (Ch’an) tradition probably represents a vibrant Buddhist school of India (and China), which preserved in essence the ‘pre-literacy’ tradition prevalent in ancient India at the time of the Buddha, whilst fully accommodating the contemporary necessity to embrace modern trends of scholarship premised upon the ability to read and write.  This historical development explains the apparent contradictory nature of the Ch’an School which possesses masters who have an advanced grasp and understanding of the most complex and difficult Buddhist written texts, whilst simultaneously demanding with an iron will, that all Ch’an students immediately ‘give-up’ and ‘abandon’ their reliance upon, and attachment to, their ability to read and write.  This Ch’an attitude is not a rejection or abandoning of literacy skills, on the contrary, it is the temporary suspension of a particular cognitive function of the mind that constitutes ‘movement’ in the mind, and is associated with inner psychological turmoil.  The ability to read and write is not the issue.  The issue is that the Buddha taught (in a pre-literacy age), that all functionality of the mind must be ‘stilled’ if the surface mind is to be ‘calmed’.  It is only when the surface mind becomes ‘still’, that a penetrative insight is able to perceive the deep and essentially non-substantive ‘empty’ mind ground from which all perception emerges and returns.  The ability to read and write simply allows the surface mind to add images of letters and words in combinations that represent various and continuous ‘attachments’ to surface movement.  The Ch’an method of the ‘hua tou’ (話頭), unknown as it was in pre-literacy India, was devised in China as a means in part, to combat that country’s reliance upon literacy skills in all areas of its culture (including spiritual development).  The ‘word head’ implies the principle of ‘ante word’, ‘word origin’, or ‘before word’, and refers to the ‘empty’ underlying mind ground from which the conception of a mental image emerges.  In the unenlightened state, the obscuring surface of the mind appears as a constant and self-replicating barrier of confusion and chaos.  It seems that one surface image automatically gives rise to another image in quick succession, with no gaps observable in the process.  The hua tou creates the enquiring word ‘who?’, and through an act of will, ‘turns’ it back toward the base of its origination (in the empty mind ground), and away from its apparent (and incorrect) manifestation in the surface mind.  Although one thought appears to give rise to the next in a lineal fashion, (like one word logically following the next in a correct grammatically structured sentence), this is incorrect from a Ch’an Buddhist perspective.  Thoughts (or ‘words’) only appear to follow one another in a continuous succession – this is an expedient or superficial truth. It is ‘correct’ only from the position of the surface (or ‘seeming’) mind, and is not correct from the perspective of the deep (or ‘real’) mind.  Thoughts (or ‘words’) do not really follow on from one after another, but in reality continuously ‘emerge’ or ‘bubble-up’ from the deep and empty recesses of the psychic fabric.  This being the case, it follows that the Ch’an method of ‘turning words’, particularly in relation to the hua tou, is a developed technique designed to counter the otherwise ‘solid’ surface structure generated in the mind through the ability to read and write.  During sustained training, the hua tou quite literally acts as a cognitive ‘drill’, and enables the practitioner to break through the accrued levels of psychological conditioning.  Of course, the hua tou method can be used effectively by literate or illiterate people, as all beings experience the steady stream of deluded thought that flows across the surface of the mind, but it is particularly useful for those caught up in their own intellectual understanding, which has been acquired through, and is inherently linked to the ability to read and write.  This non-reliance upon literacy skills as a means to acquire enlightenment explains why the tradition of Ch’an patriarchs begins with the Buddha holding-up a flower in an act of non-verbal communication with Mahakasyapa.  The Buddha’s enlightenment, as preserved within the Chinese Ch’an School, is the direct realisation of the ‘essence’ or ‘origination’ of thought in the deep mind, which must never be mistaken or conflated with the manifestation or functionality of thought in the surface.


©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.


[1] See ‘Sacred Books of the East’ Series, Edited by Max Muller, Vol. 13 [Vinaya Texts Part I], Vol. 17 [Vinaya Text Part II] and Vol. 20 [Vinaya Texts Part III] –  as re-published in 1982 by Motilal Banarsidass – Pages ix-xxxvii of Part I.

[2] Williams, Paul, Mahayana Buddhism – the Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, (1994), Page 38 – Leclerc 1961: 34)

[3] Hazra, Kanai, Lal, Buddhism in India as Described by the Chinese Pilgrims AD 399-689, Munishiram Manoharlal, (3011), Pages 4-5

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