Buddha and Buddhism

Mythology aside, Siddhartha Gautama was part of a rising tide against Brahmanism (simply: a religious group obsessed with priest-craft, caste and maintaining political control).  Long before Siddhartha there were other doubters – true scholars and philosophers – who not only questioned the validity of the Vedas, but who both asked the pointed questions, and wrote extensively on the subject of:


-rejection of freedom of will,

-the efficacy of action/karma or the rejection of the efficacy of action,

-boycotted an atomistic cosmology,

-rejected the ability to know mind,

-acknowledged the idea of salvation based on good conduct,

-practised asceticism,

-avoided sacrificial rituals,

-were skeptical of the other world/after life,

-rejected Upanishadic monism,

-questioned the concept of omniscience, and

-recognized the rule of natural law.

In fact, Siddhartha gives credit to those great thinkers who influenced him – in the Sangarava Sutra – classifying them as traditionalists, rationalists and metaphysicians (including himself in the latter category).  In fact, there were some 363 schools of thought from which Siddhartha was able to pull from.  Great learning institutions with teachers such as Samjaya and Makkhali Gosala, Pakudha Kaccayana and Ajita Kesakambali, Purana Kassapa and Mahavira (who found Jainism).


Two Points

Siddhartha’s perspective is correct in stating that things change, but incorrect in not recognizing that they also have an aspect of permanence.  In fact, Samjaya – who was Siddhartha’s greatest influence – doubted and/or denied – many aspects of (what later became) Buddhism.  This means that, though heavily influenced by Samjaya and the early anti-Vedic philosophies, Siddhartha (though a self-proclaimed metaphysician) rejected universal entities/substances from his ontology.


Which is rather contradictory in its understanding of the soul (among other things).  For example, Buddhists divide the soul into five categories:




-traces, impressions/samskara, and

-volition, action, motivation/cetana.

This list shows that Buddhism categorizes the soul in a psychological mannter rather than a cosmological one, yet space – a metaphysical concept over a rational/scientific one – is integral to this contruct.  Rupa/visual is “atom”.  And it was this idea that put yet another crack in the Buddhist wall .. or the ability to transcend categorical thinking.


Next is the idea of dukkha, a word better translated as “uneasy, ill-fitted”.  The standard (and so readily accepted) translation is “suffering”, but this word in English is far removed from its native understanding.  Dukkha is akin to the word ‘yoga’ in that it is a device that connects one thing to another.  For example, there is sukha and dukha: ease/comfort and disturbance/aggravation (respectively), and both relate to a device used to connect the cart to the horse (literally).  Just as yoga means to yoke the beast to its burden, sukha and dukha relate the same actual connection between the two.  So that ‘suffering’, as understood in the West,  “to undergo pain or distress; to sustain injury, disadvantage, or loss”, is far too harsh an interpretation.  Better served to say, bother, or stress, or, closer to the actual meaning, struggle.


As such, the Four Noble Truths would then read:

This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of Struggle:

Birth is a struggle, aging is a struggle,

sickness is a struggle, death is a struggle.

Presence of objects we loathed is a struggle;

separation from what we love is a struggle;

not getting what is wanted is a struggle. 

In short, the five clinging-aggregates are a struggle.

— Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta 56.11 (with ‘struggle’ inserted for clarity)


Therefore, regarding not just both points, but Buddhism and all religion, it is best – from a spiritual perspective – to not get too attached, too comfortable with any particular way of thought, word or deed.  After all, life is a thing, that when we learn, we grow; which means every opportunity is not a lessen, but a chance to broaden and deepen our understanding.  As soon as we think a thought, we move forward from the last thought; and no matter what thought we are in, there is always a deeper, subtler and next thought after that.


What Kind of Mind Do You Want to Practice!



Sick and Don’t Know Why?

Headaches?  Stomach Problems?  Acne?  Allergies?  Diarrhea?  General aches and pains?

Clues to Gluten Sensitivity

15 March 2011

Wall Street Journal Online

Lisa Rayburn felt dizzy, bloated and exhausted. Wynn Avocette suffered migraines and body aches. Stephanie Meade’s 4-year-old daughter had constipation and threw temper tantrums.

Some people claim that eating gluten products can cause health problems like body aches and chronic fatigue — and even some behavioral problems in children. WSJ’s Melinda Beck talks with Kelsey Hubbard about a new study that sheds light on what may be going on.

All three tested negative for celiac disease, a severe intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. But after their doctors ruled out other causes, all three adults did their own research and cut gluten—and saw the symptoms subside.

A new study in the journal BMC Medicine may shed some light on why. It shows gluten can set off a distinct reaction in the intestines and the immune system, even in people who don’t have celiac disease.

“For the first time, we have scientific evidence that indeed, gluten sensitivity not only exists, but is very different from celiac disease,” says lead author Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research.

The news will be welcome to people who have suspected a broad range of ailments may be linked to their gluten intake, but have failed to find doctors who agree.

“Patients have been told if it wasn’t celiac disease, it wasn’t anything. It was all in their heads,” says Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group of North America.

The growing market for gluten-free foods, with sales estimated at $2.6 billion last year, has made it even harder to distinguish a medical insight from a fad.

Although much remains unknown, it is clear that gluten—a staple of human diets for 10,000 years—triggers an immune response like an enemy invader in some modern humans.

The most basic negative response is an allergic reaction to wheat that quickly brings on hives, congestion, nausea or potentially fatal anaphylaxis. Less than 1% of children have the allergy and most outgrow it by age five. A small number of adults have similar symptoms if they exercise shortly after eating wheat.

At the other extreme is celiac disease, which causes the immune system to mistakenly attack the body’s own tissue. Antibodies triggered by gluten flatten the villi, the tiny fingers in the intestines needed to soak up nutrients from food. The initial symptoms are cramping, bloating and diarrhea, similar to irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, but celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis and other more serious health problems that can result in early death. It can be diagnosed with a blood test, but an intestinal biopsy is needed to be sure.

The incidence of celiac disease is rising sharply—and not just due to greater awareness. Tests comparing old blood samples to recent ones show the rate has increased four-fold in the last 50 years, to at least 1 in 133 Americans. It’s also being diagnosed in people as old as 70 who have eaten gluten safely all their lives.

“People aren’t born with this. Something triggers it and with this dramatic rise in all ages, it must be something pervasive in the environment,” says Joseph A. Murray, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. One possible culprit: agricultural changes to wheat that have boosted its protein content.

Gluten sensitivity, also known as gluten intolerance, is much more vague.

Some experts think as many as 1 in 20 Americans may have some form of it, but there is no test or defined set of symptoms. The most common are IBS-like stomach problems, headaches, fatigue, numbness and depression, but more than 100 symptoms have been loosely linked to gluten intake, which is why it has been so difficult to study. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center says that research into gluten sensitivity today is roughly where celiac disease was 30 years ago.

In the new study, researchers compared blood samples and intestinal biopsies from 42 subjects with confirmed celiac disease, 26 with suspected gluten sensitivity and 39 healthy controls. Those with gluten sensitivity didn’t have the flattened villi, or the “leaky” intestinal walls seen in the subjects with celiac disease.

Their immune reactions were different, too. In the gluten-sensitive group, the response came from innate immunity, a primitive system with which the body sets up barriers to repel invaders. The subjects with celiac disease rallied adaptive immunity, a more sophisticated system that develops specific cells to fight foreign bodies.

The findings still need to be replicated. How a reaction to gluten could cause such a wide range of symptoms also remains unproven. Dr. Fasano and other experts speculate that once immune cells are mistakenly primed to attack gluten, they can migrate and spread inflammation, even to the brain.

Indeed, Marios Hadjivassiliou, a neurologist in Sheffield, England, says he found deposits of antibodies to gluten in autopsies and brain scans of some patients with ataxia, a condition of impaired balance.

Could such findings help explain why some parents of autistic children say their symptoms have improved—sometimes dramatically—when gluten was eliminated from their diets? To date, no scientific studies have emerged to back up such reports.

Dr. Fasano hopes to eventually discover a biomarker specifically for gluten sensitivity. In the meantime, he and other experts recommend that anyone who thinks they have it be tested for celiac disease first.

For now, a gluten-free diet is the only treatment recommended for gluten sensitivity, though some may be able to tolerate small amounts, says Ms. Kupper.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done for people with gluten sensitivity,” she says. “But at least we now recognize that it’s real and that these people aren’t crazy.”



Was Farming Progress?

Farming: a terrible idea?

28 July 2011

Daily Mail Online

Progress, we tend to assume is, well, a Good Thing. Things that are new, and better, come to dominate and sweep aside old technologies. When they invented the car, the horse was rendered instantly obsolete. Ditto the firearm and the longbow, the steamship and the clipper, the turbojet and the prop. It’s called the ‘better mousetrap’ theory of history – that change is driven by the invention of superior technologies.


Except it really isn’t that simple. Sometimes a new invention, even if obviously ‘better’ than what came before takes a surprising amount of time to become established.

The first automobiles were clumsy, unreliable and expensive brutes that were worse in nearly all respects than the horses they were supposed to replace. The first muskets were less accurate and took longer to reload than the long- and crossbows which had reached their design zenith in medieval Europe. The last of the clippers were far faster than the first steam packets designed to replace them.

A fascinating essay in this week’s New Scientist points out that perhaps the second-greatest human invention of all (after language), that of farming, was not immediately successful at all. In fact the big switch from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to settled farming communities 11,000 years ago in the Neolithic had more to do with the creation of new social and economic structures than increasing food supply.


It has long been realised that the advent of farming was not necessarily good for humans. Skeletal evidence tends to support the idea that the first farmers were shorter, weaker and died younger than their wild-foraging forebears.

Indeed, people have been shrinking for millennia since paleolithic times and only very recently have those in the rich world begun once again to approach the statures of our prehistoric ancestors. In his 2010 book ‘Pandora’s Seed’, geneticist Spencer Wells argues that farming made humans sedentary, unhealthy, prey to fanatical beliefs and triggered mental illness.

It is certainly true that large settled communities – possible only with specialisation of labour and organised food production – are more prone to diseases. Of course Stone-Age people got sick, but they tended not to get the plagues and epidemics that are associated with more recent history. A lot of this is speculation, but in his New Scientist essay, Samuel Bowles, describes his quantitative analysis of the relative effectiveness of foraging versus farming  – in terms of which provides the most calories for the least effort.

Using a whole host of data, collected by anthropologists studying hunter-gatherer tribes and analysing the effort needed to wield replicas of ancient farming implements, he has come to the conclusion that, like the first cars, the first farmers were no better than what came before in terms of feeding the masses. Indeed, they were probably worse.

So why did we do it? Farming, Bowles points out, ushered in a new era of property rights, created huge inequalities, paved the way for a wealth-based economy, divided the sexes and led to the creation of militaries needed to defend all this. Along with farming then, we got war and crime, madness and disease, cruelty, dictatorship and religions that were all about telling us what to do rather than emphasising our links with the Earth. The writer Jared Diamond has called agriculture ‘the biggest mistake humans have ever made’ and it is tempting to see the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall as an allegory for the descent of Man into settled barbarism.

It is a persuasive thesis. For most of our hundred-thousand-year history human beings have not lived as we live today. Perhaps a great deal of our problems, from the modern plagues of depression and anxiety, obesity and environmental issues, can be ascribed to the Neolithic Revolution. In the end, though, there was no stopping the farmers. Along with the bad stuff we also got art, medicine, science and literature – all more or less impossible in a nomadic, Stone Age society.

Cars eventually got better than horses, guns won out over longbows and steamships overtook the graceful clippers. But the success of the new is rarely as obvious, at the time, as it seems with historical hindsight. A thought that must have occurred to those first labourers, breaking their backs on someone else’s field, wondering why on earth they were doing this rather than picking fruit off a tree like their grandparents had done.