Buddhism and Charles Stross and Julian Sanchez on persistent identity by mattsteinglass

I became aware via Andrew Sullivan that Julian Sanchez is having an argument with someone about immortality, or more specifically whether the idea that one’s identity doesn’t persist after death is a problem or not. In the course of his argument Sanchez notes a Douglas Adams passage about the Japanese conviction that a pagoda is still the “original” pagoda even if it’s been torn down and reconstructed many times. This brings me to two reference points in my current field of view: the Charles Stross book I’m reading, “Glasshouse”; and the Kim Lien Pagoda, a few blocks away on the far side of my village of Nghi Tam.


Kim Lien Pagoda dates from 1631, though extensive renovations were carried out in 1792. When we moved to the neighborhood in 2005 the interior of the pagoda felt heavy, medieval, antique and absolutely authentic. Last year the city tore it down, carefully, piece by piece. They’re going to improve it, rebuild it with a perfect copy in order to make it nice and clean for the 2010 celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. I expect all the bricks will be new, and that most of the timbers (particularly the carved ones) will be saved, though I fear those great old, imperfectly hewn columns may be replaced by more “perfect” ones with some kind of tacky finish.

Sanchez brings up the issue of the replaceability of “original” buildings in Buddhist traditions in the course of explaining why he feels no particular discomfort at the notion that his consciousness, embedded in his identity, is an artifact of the continuity of certain physical processes, and that once those processes are halted or dissipate, the identity will dissipate with it. The idea that identity must persist is, he thinks, partly a semantic confusion:

I think this is one of many cases where it’s hard to disentangle our raw intuitions about the internal reality we directly apprehend from the mental habits overlaid by language.  Not any quirks of English, of course, but rather the perfectly natural way we talk about a world where strange split-brain disorders are extraordinarily rare, and Star Trek teleporters nowhere to be found.   There is every practical reason to speak of “the person” as a unique and perduring entity who remains the same over the course of a life, just as there is every reason to individuate objects instead of talking about clusters of molecules or parts. We also, quite naturally, have a hardwired concern with the survival of our brains and bodies—having evolved under circumstances where that was, after all, the only way genes were going to get to the next generation.  So it makes sense that we’d end up treating the verbal convention as though it represented a deeper fact of the first importance.

So what if we did live in a world where split-brain disorders were common and Star Trek teleporters were literally on every street corner? That’s part of the premise of Charles Stross’s “Glasshouse”. We’re many centuries into the future, and two technologies that have existed since about the 22nd century are key: T-gates and A-gates. T-gates are teleportation wormholes, and they’re all over the place, such that neighborhoods can be non-contiguous in physical space from one room to the next, and you can pull a gun you’ve stored in another solar system out of a little T-gate in your pocket. More important, A-gates (or “assemblers”) can rapidly synthesize anything down to the subatomic level, including an exact copy of you, or an exact copy of you but with blue skin and four arms, or an exact copy of you but with the painful memory of your last marriage carefully excised. And widespread acceptance of the principle that an exact molecular copy is the same as the original means that people no longer die; if they’re killed, they’re quickly resurrected via their most recent “backup”; and they can go through profound transformations in their physical existence, including switching gender, or turning into an interstellar battle tank for a few decades. And memory surgery from one body to the next means you’re not necessarily exactly the same self you were before. All that’s necessary is that you voluntarily give full consent to whatever memory surgery you want to undergo, before you have yourself scanned, broken down and reassembled. The main task of society becomes the guarantee of identity, protection against identity theft, and firewalling against worms, which corrupt people’s identity from one copy to the next by infecting A-gates and inserting their code into the copies.

But is your fifty-third instantiation in the last hundred years, now a large “ortho” male rather than your previous delicate blue female with four arms, really you? Is that consciousness really the same consciousness? This question doesn’t even occur to the people living in this society; it’s an outmoded moral problem belonging to a different universe, like whether slaves have souls. There were, at one point, humans who resisted having themselves copied or reconstructed in A-gates, for philosophical or religious reasons, but those human societies died out long ago, because they were less powerful and attractive. All the humans now alive are the product of A-gates, they consider themselves to really be themselves, and they view the prospect of walking into an A-gate, having themselves annihilated and then reconstructed, with perfect equanimity, just as we view the prospect of falling asleep and waking up again.

This makes the experience of reading the novel rather intriguing, because you have to ask yourself, when the narrator goes into an A-gate and comes out again — sometimes as a person of the opposite sex, sometimes with his/her character altered, and so on — whether it’s still really the same narrator. But then you have to ask yourself what it is, when you’re reading any novel, that gives you the confidence from one chapter to the next that this is still a unitary person you’re listening to, or watching, apart from a narrative convention. That tension is brilliantly explored in William Gaddis’s first novel, “The Recognitions”, about an ultra-talented forger of oil paintings. Part of the tension for much of the novel comes from the hanging question of whether a particular painting is “real”, or the work of our protagonist; and then, cleverly, we find ourselves watching our protagonist himself only through other people’s eyes, until in the last few chapters a figure resembling him passes through the narrative, but there’s no reason to believe it’s actually him except that why else would we be hearing about this guy in this novel? So the question of a character’s integral identity is reduced to a narrative convention and to the will of the reader to believe that the character is an integral individual.

I would like to think that these kinds of questions really are integral to the philosophy and practice of Buddhism. But in fact whenever I’ve gone to a Buddhist sitting the issues raised have been vastly less interesting, and the music has mainly been intolerably bad. In any case, I do find the idea that our consciousnesses are not continuous or coherent somewhat disturbing, and I think it’d be nice to have a religion that treated the issue seriously; I don’t think it comes up much in Judaism anyway.


Obama is a Mahayana Buddhist, not a Theravada Buddhist by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2008, 9:02 am
Filed under: Buddhism, President | Tags: ,

Ezra Klein points to Obama’s magnificent commencement address yesterday at Wesleyan, where he made clear just what kind of Buddhist he is:

There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation.

So it’s clear Obama is a Mahayana Buddhist, who rather than cash in his own individual salvation and achieve Nirvana, remains behind as a teaching Bodhisattva in order to hasten the collective salvation of all mankind. From Graeme Lyall’s “The Rise of Mahayana”:

The Mahayana, on the other hand, emphasises the Bodhisattva Ideal of postponing one’s liberation so that one may bring all sentient beings with you to that state of Nirvana by becoming a fully enlightened Buddha. The Mahayanists, perhaps, wrongly claim that the Arahant Ideal of the Theravadins is selfish because it limits the release to oneself….Karuna or Compassion is considered by the Mahayana to be as important as Wisdom. They are the Supreme Combination. Compassion may be considered as feeling the sorrows of others as one’s own with the wish that one could take them on to oneself to relieve that suffering in others. Skill in Means is the ability to use the appropriate means to help each individual case.

Unfortunately in a country that still maintains a certain Hayekian insanity, where some people seem to believe that saying “Let’s do this together!” is the first step on the road to Communist dictatorship, this kind of rhetoric may elicit paradoxical reactions in some quarters. Probably safer to stick with the Theravadans. Also a shift towards Mahayana might upset the balance between US support of Theravada Thailand and Mahayana Vietnam.

Dharma by mattsteinglass
May 13, 2008, 12:18 am
Filed under: Buddhism, Burma, China | Tags: , , , ,

October, 2007: Burma brutally represses protests by Buddhist monks in Yangon.

March, 2008: China brutally represses protests by Tibetan Buddhist monks.

May, 2008: Burma is struck by a colossal hurricane in the region of Yangon, killing at least 18,000 people; casualties are still mounting.

May, 2008: China is struck by a massive earthquake in Sichuan, on the border of Tibet, killing at least 8,300 people; casualties are still mounting.

Message: Do. Not. Screw. With. Buddhist. Monks.

Liveblogging the Bodhisattva by mattsteinglass
March 18, 2007, 9:28 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, Vietnam

Pretty marvellous crowd tonight for the closing chants of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Giai Oan ceremony at the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, in Ho Chi Minh City. This seems to be a bona fide spiritual event.

lady and crowd

More below the fold. Continue reading

The Future of Vietnamese Buddhism? by mattsteinglass
March 5, 2007, 3:24 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, Vietnam

This very interesting young monk was on hand in Ho Chi Minh City for the arrival of Thich Nhat Hanh a couple of weeks back. He’s Vietnamese, but went to France in 2000 to study with Hanh because he “didn’t see a wide future” in traditional Buddhism as it’s practiced in Vietnam today. He’s since helped establish a monastery near Dalat that focuses on Hanh’s approachable style of Zen, centered around a philosophy of “mindfulness”.  I found it really interesting as an example of what’s driving young Vietnamese these days who are interested in religion and searching for alternatives that mesh well with modern economies and lifestyles.

Now arriving at Gate gate paragate parasamgate… by mattsteinglass
February 26, 2007, 3:05 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, Vietnam

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Feb. 20. There is way too much that might be said about this, but I will just leave you to enjoy the sight of a world-renowned Zen Buddhist teacher coming back to his homeland, where a lot of Buddhists are very excited about his visit, and some others, well, less so.