Saturday, September 22, 2018

On Demonstrating the Deleterious Effects of Alcohol - of Any Amount

For decades there have been international efforts to collaborate in addressing causes of health issues affecting people around the world.  The subject of alcohol consumption has been included in such efforts as it is accepted as a cause of serious diseases; where it's less clear, and hence the subject of  debate among professionals and scholars, has been around the effects (and side effects) of smaller quantities.

My impression as a non-specialist is that until recently, some international data has been published, but the samples have often been either quite small or selective.  Generally, collaborations have involved a few partners, but it’s not been global. Apart from the challenge of coordination, the funding required for large scale studies is considerable and has tended to be dependent on philanthropic organisations or big businesses.  Such has been the case for alcohol, at least in the UK, where one of the most highly visible charities, Drinkaware, works closely with the alcohol industry, a relationship that, as the Aberdeen Evening News reminds us, continues to be problematic.

So I think it’s of major importance that the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME),  at the University of Washington, has coordinated work in this field involving hundreds of researchers from accredited public institutions spanning much of the world.  Their collaboration has resulted in the publication of Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease 2016 Study in The Lancet (full report).  This research — and many of the other projects as well as the open access — is funded by the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation (which makes sense as Microsoft is based in Seattle), with no obvious potential conflict of interest in this area.

The research gathers data mainly via questionnaires seeking to establish current practices in alcohol consumption.  Whereas some studies had suggested health benefits with low levels of consumption, they dismiss this assertion, stating in their conclusions:

“Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none. This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day.”

The study appears to meet expectations around rigour, but the main issue is how to interpret the findings.  What’s the significance?  Does it really matter for the ‘occasional drinker’?  Based on their statistical analysis, the percentage improvements are small, suggesting that the benefits of complete abstention are minor.  In some comments reported at the end of a BBC article about the research, No alcohol safe to drink, global study confirms, Prof. David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, was dismissive.

"Given the pleasure presumably associated with moderate drinking, claiming there is no 'safe' level does not seem an argument for abstention," he said.
"There is no safe level of driving, but the government does not recommend that people avoid driving.
"Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention."

Prof. Spiegelhalter, who introduced the MicroLives metric, is an expert at quantification and risk around health and based on the available data it’s a reasonable conclusion to reach; the measurements of the purely physical symptoms appear to be statistically trifling.

But where alcohol is concerned we ought to be looking more widely to get the full picture of its effects.  With regards to these kinds of studies, one could seek longitudinal studies that studied changes in intake over a period of time, but it will probably be more revealing to concentrate on cognitive effects, which can be studied in neuroscience; in particular how an individual’s perception of their quality of awareness might not register a degradation in, e.g., response times.  Is it possible to measure the impact on decision-making processes in general?

The design of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study is based on certain kinds of measurements relating to a person’s health, but if a government, public body or policy maker wishes to evaluate alcohol effects more fully, then other perspectives are needed.  So I want to extend the discussion, starting with the observation about alcohol’s pervasiveness: just as alcohol gets very rapidly absorbed by the bloodstream, there’s a social currency or flow around alcohol — I’ll dub it ‘society under the influence’.   I suggest that it has an impact on even clinical research studies, for any research around human behaviour depends on views and the socio-cultural context. 

To get some indication of this, I’m curious to know how the findings have been received in different countries.  What do people make of it?  One way of gauging this is to look at how the research has been reported in national media channels.  If we choose to examine responses in the UK, which is a largely secular society, there is strong emphasis on ‘objectivity’ and empirical research based on verifiable evidence.  Looking again at the BBC’s report, whilst the findings are duly summarised, the suggested ‘takeaway’ for the reader is strongly suggested by Spiegelhalter’s remarks, which I paraphrase as: “nothing to see here, carry on as normal.”  It’s echoed numerous times (along with the derisory tone) in the comments section.

However, those who have the responsibility to ensure safety on the roads often advise that any amount could be a problem.  Alcohol increases risks generally and as to pleasurable experiences, there are many free alternatives (such as meditation) that don’t carry such risk.  Moreover alcohol’s biggest risk is not the physical effects, but the increase in heedlessness (which in turn increases exposure to risk).  Furthermore, many people do recommend abstention, especially those who practice a religion (in Christianity, think about the temperance movement; in Islam the prohibition on alcohol; and in Buddhist the Fifth Precept. They regard it as poison, which immediately makes an argument for adopting such a position.  But practice varies enormously due to cultural conditioning, as I established when I carried out my own survey online.

Britain has a long-standing culture of alcohol, where any number of explanations are readily forthcoming (such as alcohol is needed to keep people warm — to which one may point out that the Cadbury family’s hot chocolate business demonstrated no such need.)  Some are very protective about drinking habits, which reflects the social function, but the gathering down the local pub doesn’t need to be fuelled by alcohol as there are many other beverages that could take their place.  It spans all social strata, particularly noticeable at Oxford University, where so much social networking revolves around it (many academics are partial to a glass of fine wine), though it’s not so pronounced as before.  It even affects Buddhist scholarship; if an academic interprets the precept around refraining from intoxicants as “not to take alcohol to the point of intoxication” then it’s quite likely that they drink alcohol!  But from my own reading of canonical sources the Buddha was clear — to be safe, “not a drop” should be consumed.

The Buddha taught in a way that both enabled an individual to cultivate their mind, but also to foster the social conditions in which individuals practice.  Returning to GBD study, it was the World Bank who sponsored initial work in 1990, subsequently reported in the World Development Report 1993 : Investing in Health (see the section on ‘Measuring the burden of disease’, pp. 25-29).  In that report from 25 years ago there was already established a way of measuring reduced quality of life as disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).  Although there was no explicit mention in this section of alcohol, it is mentioned in other sections as a factor in violence against women, and as a factor in high spending in low income families correlated to medical conditions (p.44).  More generally this work also indicates severe social costs not measured.  And one can take this further by consider the non-physical and even metaphysical implications: in Buddhism, the link between alcohol and dementia is clear:

For one reborn as a human being drinking liquor and wine at minimum conduces to madness.
Anguttara Nikaya 8:40, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi,

The greatest danger from alcohol is the risk of heedlessness, which can lead to any number of problems, for the individual and others, which may or may not have observable impact on physical health.  It can lead someone to think that an extra glass is okay and then this process can keep repeating and there lies the danger — as recovering alcoholics will insist very strongly. The effects are determined by the Law of Karma and taking alcohol is described as a road to ruin.  It’s really not worth the risk.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Pause for Thought: The Use of Interventions in Social Networking Sites (Part 2)

We’ve laid the groundwork for a cognitive approach to re-designing social networking sites. OK, so it sounds a good idea to design interventions with due sensitivity, a supportive space for reflection, supporting us online in reaching outcomes that are for our well-being. Then how exactly do we do this? What techniques are available that are suitable for application?

I’m going to suggest a general technique (Thinking Routines) and then develop the rationale to support a particular kind of usage, mainly derived from a Buddhist perspective, but drawing from and linking to other disciplines.

Case study: Thinking Routines for Teacher Training

The field of education seems a good place to look, and for cognitive development a promising candidate seems to be the ‘Thinking Routines’ of Harvard’s Project Zero, their extensive research into a broad teaching method called ‘Visible Thinking’ . It encourages healthy cognitive habits of observing, questioning and exploring. For example, ‘See, think, wonder’ is “a routine for exploring works of art and other interesting things”:

  1. What do you see?

  2. What do you think about that?

  3. What does it make you wonder?

The questions are self-directed, prompt critical engagement and their simple formulation make them easy to remember and apply repeatedly, which suggests they could become good habits.

How amenable are ‘Thinking Routines’ online? It likely depends on the context. They seem well suited to the evaluation of educational Web content, as enthusiastically advocated by Thomas March. Teresa Foulger et al. have shown that furthermore they can be used to focus on ethical issues, adopting them as an inquiry-based pedagogical protocol for teacher trainees. Their method used case-based interventions to prompt trainees to reflect especially on the implications of SNS use around student-teacher interactions.

Given the relevance of the ethical discussion in the teacher training paper, I’m going to consider the routines used, which were of three types:
  1. See–Think–Wonder: What did you see/read about X? What do you think about X? What does it make you wonder about X?
  2. Claim–Support–Question: Make a claim about X. Identify and support your claim. Ask a question related to your claim.
  3. What makes you say that?: What’s going on with X? What do you see that makes you say that?
The questions were posed in a deliberate sequence with reference to a use case concerning teachers’ problematic online interactions with students in MySpace. They were designed to gradually prompt reflection on the ethical implications of such activity outside of the normal physical environment of the school and classroom. Thus,‘See, think, wonder’ is used twice, first as:
  1. What do you see/read about how MySpace/social networking works?
  2. What do you think about how MySpace/social networking works?
  3. What does it make you wonder about how MySpace/social networking works?
This is then reinforced by another routine of the same type:
  1. What do you see/read about teachers’ use of social networking sites?
  2. What do you think about teachers’ use of social networking sites?
  3. What does it make you wonder about teachers’ use of social networking sites?
Whilst these are very general high-level questions, even so the interventions had a statistically significant impact, whereby judgements about the scenario presented became more moderated, taking into account broader perspectives; and awareness increased about the dilemmas over jurisdiction. Whilst MySpace is now past its hey-day, the same issues would apply to other SNS; the research is usefully indicative of how to foster a “culture of thinking” more broadly.

But before continuing with interventions, I wish to step back and consider broad issues around personal safety.

Safety and Robustness

The deliberations in the research above revolved around risks and safety, major considerations that were difficult to resolve, partly because boundaries between physical and virtual were not clear, so it was difficult to establish clear jurisdiction. The software, provided by a private company, made it very easy for awkward situations to arise and there was a lack of clear guidance on behalf of the educational establishments. Nowadays, institutions often provide social media policies, but the boundaries between the professional and personal remain blurred, largely because the systems are built with little consideration of them and generally have very different priorities. Given that there is a great deal at stake, I wish to look into these aspects and analyse from first principles, especially with regards to system design because that’s a much more significant factor than most people realize.

Let’s start by defining safety. For example, what does it mean for children to be safe or unsafe online? Basically, safety is protection from harm or loss. That simple sentence can be read in different ways depending essentially on what we mean by “protection”. “You’re safe here” can be taken as a simple statement of fact, but really it is an assertion that requires justification, which in turn depends on a proper assessment of risk.

To sharpen the focus, there is a branch of computer science that specializes in safety-critical systems, i.e. systems where there is a risk of the loss of life if something goes wrong. This was the subject of my PhD thesis, where I used mathematical techniques called formal methods in the specification and analysis of medical device communications.

I quote the definitions I used there (chapter 2):
    Safety is a value judgement, perceived essentially as protection from loss (or injury), be it physical, social or environmental. 
    A hazard is a set of conditions in which the protection is reduced, that is unsafe to some degree, and has an associated risk of loss. 
    Risk is defined in terms of three factors: the likelihood of a hazard occurring, the likelihood of the hazard leading to an accident, and the severity of the worst possible potential loss resulting from such an accident. 
    An accident is an event which occurs in an unsafe state and results in loss.
Hence, put proactively, safety needs to be assured; it is the minimisation of the risk of any major mishap or accident, which requires understanding the hazards and designing in a way to avoid or effectively deal with them. Then the goal is to ensure safety by design and correct implementation. Various techniques are used, fundamentally rooted in mathematical proof. Accidents are to be prevented through the control of conditions and most especially by preventing or minimizing the severity of hazards so that the probability of an accident is acceptably small and/or the effect of the accident is acceptably mitigated. Treated this way, the risk is considered acceptable.

Even though we’re dealing with software, the definitions are broadly applicable to life in general, which already suggests that software is an environment that affects our well-being to a considerable degree. We may even consider SNS as a safety-critical system when considering extreme cases of abuse, such as the damage done to emotions and reputations, as well as possibly related physical actions that can even lead to fatality. I think that presents a compelling case for making a concerted effort to ensure safety online: to protect as far as possible against undesired eventualities that carry risk, both individual (as personal and emotional integrity) and institutional (as maintaining honourable status). So the analysis and treatment of risk is fundamental to safeguarding well-being.

System robustness

There is one further concept that I wish to introduce (please bear with me!) It concerns the provision of safety. I introduce it with an example.

Suppose you have just tidied and cleaned the kitchen; it’s clear of all implements, a safe space for that next culinary masterpiece. Except that you don’t notice the toy car that’s just been brought in by your toddler. You step on it and take a tumble. “That wasn’t meant to be there!” you cry. Very soon, you realize — after the event — that you didn’t close the kitchen door; the open door presented a risk of your child coming in, a hazard was created and it led to an accident. The safety of the environment was not robust.

In the software context protection is typically ensured by robust design, which means that the system performs dependably in all operational circumstances. It requires that any implementation delivers what’s specified, but also cannot engage in (extra) unspecified behaviour. The term might sound cumbersome, but it’s a very important consideration in many daily situations. Hence, medical treatments should not give serious harmful side effects unless the criticality of the situation makes this a price worth paying; accordingly, the packaging of medical pills usually lists the known undesirable effects and it's why vaccinations can be such a bone of contention. In the kitchen example above, keeping the door closed is a robust measure, helping to ensure safety. And in the context of SNS, we would particularly expect the system to ensure that data marked as private really is private.

The main challenge to medical science is: how can one anticipate every eventuality? It’s the same for software. In general you can’t and so the requirement on robustness might get expressed as "not performing what is disallowed". However, there are techniques that make it easier, one of which is separation of concerns and the use of modular components. The task of risk analysis is then largely reduced to how the system behaves when such components interact.

I hope this has shown that in the design of SNS there is a need to be proactive to help ensure safety of all participants by properly treating risks and providing due protection. Intrinsic to this safety are user interfaces, which provide more than just functionality and this is where the use of interventions comes in. Currently, they are driven by regulation or marketing: hence the pop-up for obtaining “informed cookie consent” or site feedback. The notion of designing interventions in SNS for safety seems to be novel.

Personal robustness

Computers have the capacity to handle huge amounts of data without tiring, but humans do not; systems keep going, whilst people burn out. Much of the risk in the context of social media revolves around the interplay between the physical and virtual environment, and, vitally, the impact on the person’s well-being, as discussed above. I think it pertinent then that software systems should support personal robustnesss, which means that such systems are designed and developed in such a way that they assuredly protect a person’s integrity. I’ve not encountered any of the current SNS coming close to achieving this. I suspect this is not only because of commercial and other priorities, but also partly because the prevalent development methodology of trying things out on members of the public to see what breaks — it’s not a habit conducive to well-being.

To some extent, members of society (and the brain) can adapt and cope through developing resilience. In terms of the mind and mental processes, the practice of mindfulness and clear comprehension now has widespread recognition for developing inner strength or protection, increasing the ability to respond more skilfully to our personal spaces, but the environment itself still needs to be addressed.

Systems architects would do well to learn more about personal psychology and the cognitive inputs and outputs. For whatever the environment, we have a personal responsibility to take care, which includes contributing to our environment in ways that help reduce risk and improve well-being for all. This entails developing our own personal and emotional qualities and becoming aware of how our actions affect these in others — do they enable or hurt? Do they promote welfare or hinder it?

What to perform vs what to avoid: Perspectives from Buddhism and Psychology

Seeking suitable means to promote and safeguard human flourishing, I’ve been delving into canonical Buddhist texts to see what might be amenable to the online context. It is generally taught that the cultivation of moral virtue is a foundation for meditation practice and in turn for wisdom. So ethical conduct is a basis for clear comprehension when it comes to making decisions. Further, within this field there is a pair of terms that reflects the sense of fulfilling conditions robustly. These are the principles of cāritta (positive performance of wholesome actions) and vāritta (avoidance of harmful actions), both terms from the Pali.

We may illustrate cāritta and vāritta by the Five Precepts, rules of training (not commandments) for moral virtue observed by Buddhists around the world. They are generally formulated as vāritta.
  1. I undertake the precept to abstain from the taking life.
  2. I undertake the precept to abstain from taking that which is not given.
  3. I undertake the precept to abstain from misconduct in sensual actions.
  4. I undertake the precept to abstain from false speech.
  5. I undertake the precept to abstain from liquor that cause intoxication and indolence.
The texts also indicate a cāritta counterpart in which the practice is to cultivate respectively compassion, honesty and contentment, fidelity, truthfulness, and heedfulness.  Each precept had particular significance, but the fifth precept, which was the subject of my Master’s dissertation, is said to underpin the others.   They all involve the discipline of restraint, which I think is very relevant to the use of the Internet.

Then we can see in the context of software development, applying cāritta is to enable people to render good service to each other, and applying vāritta is to protect people from carrying out misdeeds, thereby carrying out a role of robustness. This twofold approach naturally suggests two kinds of interventions, based on cāritta and vāritta respectively. If we can build these principles into the system design, this should lead to more sustainable livelihoods and friendships. I’ll attempt to show how this may be done in the next section.

But before I do, I wish to refer to the research area in psychology of regulatory focus theory (see Higgins Research Lab and also the Wikipedia entry). I have yet to properly explore this research and related regulatory ‘family members’, but from an initial glance it appears to be fundamentally concerned with motivation in the pursuit of goals and with the decision-making process. The theory “posits two separate and independent self-regulatory orientations, both fundamentally related to value motivation (i.e., achieving desired end-states):” prevention and promotion. Under prevention, lo and behold, it “emphasizes safety, responsibility, and security” and also “prefers a vigilant goal-pursuit strategy” whereas promotion “Emphasizes hopes, accomplishments, and advancement”.

The theory appears to have gained some maturity with its analysis of motivations ranging from the immediate and momentary to the long-term, though I sense it’s still exploring the depths and may have a lot further to go. In a paper by James Cornwell, Becca Franks and Tory Higgins, Truth, control, and value motivations: the “what,” “how,” and “why” of approach and avoidance, there is a nuanced consideration of motivations; they are not simply about the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. A key aspect is its recognition of the significance of the moral or ethical dimension. There is a survey of research into prevention- and promotion-based strategies that consider various moral and ethical situations, giving room for the subjective and values held internally.

This is very much aligned with the discussion above that posits a safety-oriented goal in systems architecture with the motivation of protecting well-being; vāritta aligns with prevention and cāritta with promotion, a perspective rooted in a distinct ethical system. Moreover, it’s not such a fanciful proposition to have such altruistic goals, viewing the world as a non-zero-sum game, as it were, where everyone can benefit. In the Buddhist approach, the ultimate goal is the transcendence of Samsara and its eternal round of unsatisfactoriness. Sensual pleasures are not necessarily to be avoided (otherwise many meditation practices would be nullified!), but one must guard against becoming attached to them, which is, alas, the usual state for suffering beings and may be regarded as a form of addiction.

Motivations depend upon view. Someone who is metaphorically asleep, will be largely motivated by material considerations; whilst someone on the spiritual path will have other motivations and possess a range of attitudes to materiality: from eschewing it to making use of it, insofar as it’s helpful to others on the path. From a Buddhist perspective, decision-making is guided by how one views the law of dependent origination (the workings of karma). The aspect of clear comprehension in mindfulness knows about cause and effect and would be aware of how its principles operate in any specific context, but it still requires commitment for skilful application.

Here two principles of restraint are kept in mind by an observant Buddhist: hiri and ottappa, Pali words that mean respectively “a sense of shame” about wrong-doing and “a sense of fear” about its consequences; the former being an internal sense that dwells on the conscience, whilst the latter is the observable damaging effects. Hiri and ottappa are precious; they are considered two of the seven noble treasures. For an insightful discussion of their value, please read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay, The Guardians of the World.

There's quite a lot of overlap and resonance between the discussion by Cornwell et al. and the exposition of hiri and ottappa and I hope this will be investigated further. In the context of social media, observing hiri and ottappa would prevent any ill-willed and thoughtless tweet being typed on the keyboard. Parker’s comments in his Axios interview are indicative and instructive. His becoming "something of a conscientious objector" on social media reflects hiri and “God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains” reflects ottappa.

Scanning via Google Scholar the papers that have been published on regulatory focus theory and its application to SNS, particularly around avoidance and performance, many of them appear to be more concerned with consumer choice and marketing issues. “Choices, choices everywhere and ne’er a stop to think.” Or reflect.

I don’t see anything on applying to new systems design, so perhaps have a break for a cuppa and then let’s keep going...!

Applying Thinking Routines to SNS activities

If we are to build interventions into the systems themselves, it helps to make reference to some specific context pertinent to the scenario. And it needs to be succinct. So it may be helpful to keep i mind the context of the student-teacher relationship for which we may highlight two repeated patterns of risk that generally affect behaviour between them: how one communicates about others in light of the potential for public revelation (applicable to most social media) and how we conduct ourselves in making connections — or ‘friend’ requests — functionality that’s core to social media in general, but in the context of a proposed new system architecture.

Can we devise suitable Thinking Routines to fulfil these interventions? I feel I may need some help here! One of the main problems, arguably the primary concern, is just to stem the flow of data, so introducing ill-designed thinking routines may potentially exacerbate the situation by encouraging discursive thought. However, if the quality of thought is improved then it’s likely to reduce discursive thought in future.

Time to ground our analysis in the two use cases just mentioned. For each of these scenarios, I’ll propose interventions using custom Thinking Routines based on Buddhist teachings on harmless speech and wholesome conduct.

Use Case 1: 5 Star Speech for Status Updates

Here is a status update box — an old screenshot, but I’m sure it’s familiar:

This Thinking Routine is all about pausing to think before we hit the ‘share’ button. A teaching in the Vācā Sutta (discourse on speech) describes 5 qualities of well-spoken and blameless speech.
  1. It is spoken at the right time. (kālena)
  2. It is spoken in truth. (saccā)
  3. It is spoken gently. (saṇhā)
  4. It is spoken beneficially. (atthasaṃhitā)
  5. It is spoken with a mind of good-will. (mettacittena)
[from the Anguttara Nikaya, Book of the Fives, No. 198 - I've chosen a different rendering of saṇhā to reflect the opposite of pharusā, which means ‘roughly’ or ‘harshly’]

These statements lead directly to 5 questions to be presented for what we might dub ‘Mindful Thinking Routines’ or the ‘Thinking Routine for 5 Star Speech’. They can be tried out any time on any communication system.

How about ... ?
  1. Notice: 

    What is it that you ‘see’ that prompts you to write? What’s inspiring you?

    How does it make you feel? Is it positive or negative?

    [These two scenarios correspond to cāritta and vāritta (wanting to affirm and promote vs wanting to deny or remove)]

  2. Think: 

    What do you want to say?

    Is it true?  Have you got your facts right?
    Is it the right time to say it?

  3. Imagine: 

    Who’s going to read your message?

    What will they feel when they read it?

    How will it benefit them?
  4. Plan: 

    How are you going to say it in the best way? Prompts:

    - friendly intentions

    - gently

    (Why do these this work?) 
Special consideration should be given to ‘hot topics’. Perhaps they should have their own refined thinking routines…?

On submission, the system (as happens already with some systems) can validate the input and check particularly for offensive language. If something is flagged as potentially inappropriate, then a further intervention can come into play:

Did you really mean to say that? It may be regarded as offensive … etc.

Use Case 2: Friend Requests

I registered for a Facebook account in 2007 and within a few weeks I was not impressed by the fact that there was fundamentally only one connection type of ‘friend’, so I started pondering other kinds of relationships that ought to be made explicit and concluded that a better solution lay in some teachings the Buddha gave to a householder, Sigāla, on how to conduct wholesome relationships.

Convinced by the validity of the argument, I continued to develop the ideas for the Sigala project. The key architectural element is the separation of concerns through the identification of 6 types of people and hence directed communications in 6 directions, viz: the cardinal points (north, east, south and west) plus ‘above’ and ‘below’. This is not merely arranging connections in sets or groups, but orthogonal classes of connections, each with their own mode of interactions.

At the heart lies a teaching the Buddha gave to a householder,
  • East: parents
  • South: teachers
  • West: dependents
  • North: friends and associates
  • Above: spiritual guide(s)
  • Below: servants or employees
(Think chronologically — the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.)

It has been rendered visually as follows:

The Six Directions (adapted)
source: Man’s Personal Transformation by Ven. Dhattajeevo

Under the proposed architecture the first task is to provisionally decide the primary type of relationship. It should usually be straightforward, but it is possible to have multiple and there can be edge cases. The word ‘provisionally’ is deliberate as the relationship type should be mutually agreed — are they really a friend, say? (it’s likely to be quite meaningless if it’s a connection you’ve only met once for a few seconds.) So in some cases a further task is to determine the depth of connection
  1. Identify
    How do I know them?
  2. Think
    How well do I know them?
    Do I want to associate with them online?

    This part could be facilitated by a further Thinking Routine based on other passages in the sutta. For example, with respect to friends, the sutta describes how one should minister to friends and associates (as the North). This can prompt one to ask oneself about what one is ready to give (rather than take). 

    … Consider

 Am I ready to:
    (i) To be generous?

    (ii) to show courtesy in speech?
    (iii) to offer help?
    (iv) to be impartial?
    (v) to act with sincerity?

    In turn, consider: is the associate a true friend?

    Imagine … you are in the company of this person.
    Do they act as follows?
    (i) Protect me from being heedless?
    (ii) Protect my property if I am heedless?
    (iii) Someone I can turn to when in danger?
    (iv) Someone who sticks around when I’m in trouble?
    (v) Do they show consideration for my family?
  3. Connect!
    All OK?  Then now is the time to send the invitation.  If writing a note of introduction, considering using the Thinking Routine for 5 Star Speech. :-)

If these connection types are in active use, then it will help communications by giving a more specific focus to directed communications: who is this message for?

User interface

The interventions above can be used inside or outside a particular system; in the former case, they are suitable for classrooms where the general issues can be introduced by the teacher or facilitator and particular examples discussed in groups. But I also think they need to be intrinsic to the system itself. An appropriate balance is then needed when implementing the user interface. It’s particularly challenging since the relentless emphasis on making things as easy as possible has tended to strip away many of the cultural norms in communication and, I think, some respect along with it. To take the second use case, there may be quite a number of connections to review so we may expect this to require sometimes rapid evaluation. When pressed, it may be tempting to just accept all the connections, even if one knows there are edge cases. Perhaps there should be a system warning: Don’t do this in a rush!

Given that we have got used to ‘instant access’, where we doing things quickly and with little thought, then making more effort, conscious effort to think and reflect when communicating, might not come easily without some fresh training and until it becomes a habit. Using the Internet can be considered a skill like driving and it’s no coincidence that there exists certification such as the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) to help navigate the basics (and perhaps the use of social media could be likened to using motorways?)

It may help to consider that nowadays there are already many interventions in Web site browsing, many steps before one accesses, most of which are niggly and don’t have much long-term benefit. In contrast, the interventions proposed above should lead to flourishing in the long-term and then it’ll be easier to see the effort as worthwhile.

I feel that with children accessing social media, we should put them at the forefront of design. We could trial ideas in some kind of ‘tutorial mode’, in which we can link to relevant resources at each decision step; we could keep some elements of this scaffolding for children, similar to how Junior Scrabble provides a simplified board to help learn spelling. A playful user interface can enhance the presentation and perhaps we may introduce an A.I. assistant, with its avatar, but that may bring back memories of Clippy, whose return to a browser is likely to be a perturbing experience for some.

A viable solution should be simple and elegant that flows well, then the process could seem almost effortless.


It’s been quite a long thread to get to the practical applications, but I hope it’s clear enough how we can apply insights from Buddhism, psychology and other disciplines to the design of interventions in software systems that enhance and even ennoble behaviour and help protect against bad behaviour.

The image I have of current SNS is of a large barrel full of holes, leaking water (or oil) everywhere and causing a lot of damage. The barrels are not fit for purpose, but to build better ones requires understanding robustness. Translating this metaphor, it means design software architectures that promote and protect human integrity. To help ensure such integrity, we’ve seen how these may be derived with reference to a particular Buddhist text, the Sigalovada Sutta, which separates out different kinds of dyadic relationships. At the simplest level it distinguishes between kinship and non-kinship connections; and it also suggests interventions that involve reflecting on the nature of the connection and how to properly nurture it.

The specificity of such interventions should render their effectiveness amenable to verification by cognitive science. In this regard, we note they are mental-emotional states associated with virtue, particularly around qualities of loving kindness and compassion, which have already been well demonstrated in neuroscience studies. Given the wide-ranging treatment, this post suggests only elements of a framework, and necessarily invite researchers, designers, developers to help validate and improve the various components.

Irrespective of the thoughts presented here, I would encourage experts in many disciplines involving or relating to mind and education to become involved in co-creating SNS systems of the future for our current and future well-being.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Pause for Thought: The Use of Interventions in Social Networking Sites

The ‘attention economy’ has become a way large organisations view our use of the Internet; to maximise revenues, systems are designed to retain and nurture our attention, to keep us in front of screens and to steer us in particular directions, usually feeding some form of consumerism.

Perhaps because of the novelty in social media, Web 2.0, etc. and the undoubted benefits of connecting people irrespective of their location, mainstream publicity has for many years been generally positive and upbeat, and it is only belatedly that concerns expressed about the impact on one’s mental state and well-being (and hence for society as a whole) have started to be taken seriously.  However, these concerns are growing, especially evident among those behind such technological developments, who, as parents, are instructing nannies to prevent their children from having access to such devices.

Figure: The supramarginal gyrus (shaded in yellow), which has been found to be associated with empathy.

In this introductory post (the first of probably two or three) I’ll try and articulate some of the underlying issues and indicate how I am developing a cognitive approach, extending previous work from a social sciences perspective. My interest in cognitive aspects of behaviour in online environments was sparked whilst leading the RAMBLE project in mobile blogging, 2004-5. Ostensibly a software development project, I noticed that the content being authored had a special reflective quality, as remarked in an article for Ariadne.

Although I don’t have empirical data to show this, I’m quite sure that cognitively what was essential to the depth and range of student reflection was dis-engagement, allowing the mind to relax and unbind and to come to a natural position of rest before reasoning and evaluating with greater clarity. (Note I used “unbind” deliberately, because the meaning of engagement has a sense of binding.)


I am going to take the principles of engagement and disengagement to explore a particular facet in design: the intervention. This word is derived from two Latin words: inter, which means ‘between’ and venire, a verb meaning ‘to come’. (See the entry on the online etymology dictionary.)

So an intervention is an act of coming between someone on an existing course or path and the continuation of that path. That ‘act’ could be a natural phenomenon, as in “bad weather intervened in the rescue operation”, but, more usually, when it involves people, there is some intention behind the intervention with a view to modifying the outcome.

The Problem: Interventions and Attention Deprivation

At first I thought that the concept of intervention was confined largely to medical sciences, e.g. to help someone who suffers from dyslexia improve the accuracy of their reading. However, as I explored I realized that its use is not restricted to any particular subject or field of application: regarding software and the Internet, there are numerous kinds of interventions or, rather, micro-interventions, in the design of social networking sites, but they are not usually so helpful when repeated!

Here are a few examples:
  • a web page pop-up prompting us to check the site cookies policy or sign up to a newsletter
  • regular and frequent e-mails conveying selected network updates. Typically they convey only summary information and require clicks to their site to see anything really useful. Some of these will link to pages requiring a paid subscription.
  • Similarly, 1-1 messages may come via e-mail from a contact, but replying to the e-mail requires logging into the network.
The intention behind these designs is mainly to retain and extend the usage of their platforms.  Design is deliberate, not accidental, so such technology is not neutral.

Does that matter? What is the human impact? In the short term (for example, in the immediate mental functioning) and in the long term (for example, in emotional development)? Evidently, the prompts above are designed to hold on to and retain attention, i.e. keep the user engaged, just for a few more moments. A handful of such prompts are easily dealt with, but what about the cumulative effect of dozens, hundreds, or thousands … ?

Recently there have been candid remarks from a number of prominent figures that indicate that the cognitive and emotional effects are deleterious. Most notably, perhaps, was the reference to a so-called ‘dopamine hit’, by Sean Parker, former President of Facebook, when interviewed for Axios. The design of social networking sites (SNS) and social media technology is by and large making attention an increasingly scarce resource and it thereby is often removing control; malware often spreads when a usually vigilant person is in a hurry to clear their desk and in their haste they click on the wrong link. We tend to think of succumbing to malware in terms of software viruses causing damage to our daily working routines or finances, but Parker has made it clear that badly designed SNS can exploit “human vulnerability” in a similar way by facilitating harmful speech in status updates and accepting ‘friend’ connections without any thought.

Response: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Well-being

So how do we respond? Vociferous campaigns, such as the petition to Facebook from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to withdraw Messenger Kids, advocate banning certain new software service developments. However, once released somewhere in the world, technology generally can’t be uninvented, so unless it's clearly illegal then without major societal change it’s little more than a stalling tactic.  Other responses are needed.  Teaching mindfulness and skilfulness in attending to (and abstinence from) Internet use, as advocated by Ravi Chandra M.D., is a valuable tool that increases our capability and capacity to deal skilfully in such scenarios.  It is certainly to be encouraged, but again, just as it’s recognised that certain physical environments are not conducive to well-being and merely leaving them as-is is not desirable, the same applies online.

I think we need also to be constructive, by proposing alternative technological designs: as Rohan Gunatillake, creator of the Buddhify app, has argued, this requires that practitioners and academics embrace the digital.
  Design shouldn’t be left to a small demographic of young technically-savvy coders. Rohan advocates ‘compassionate’ elements to gradually improve the quality of existing designs, which can include softening current interventions (such as replacing an unhelpful alert ‘You’ve got 10,000 messages in your InBox’ with colour saturations for new messages). However, whilst such measures offer some help I see them as minor concessions, which will be insufficient to deal with fundamental flaws (to borrow a biblical image, this is like “pouring new wine into old wineskins”).

Seeing the need to start afresh, I have for some time been focusing on the theme of well-being rooted in teachings of the Buddha, whilst drawing on a wide range of scholarly disciplines. Previously I explored the architecture of relationship networks from social science perspectives, resulting in ‘Supporting Kalyāṇamittatā Online: New Architectures for Sustainable Social Networking’ (paper and slides on the project). The conference where that paper was given had three strands: Buddhism and Social Science, Buddhism and Cognitive Science, and Buddhism and Natural Science.

The social science perspective has been helpful in providing some background and general parameters for the design.  Indeed, much of the foundational work has already been established concerning notions of friendship, well-being and human welfare, though research tends to drift in particular directions, neglecting others. In social sciences, a central term is ‘social capital’, which rather vaguely attributes value to the various ways of being sociable — a Wikipedia article seems to cover this quite well.  Alejandro Portes attempted to provide a firmer footing (in Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology) and made an important observation that there’s been a gradual shift in how it’s viewed, moving away from small-scale family (kinship) relationships, the original focus for Durkheim, to large-scale societal views. Since that paper, now 20 years old, many SNS studies have reflected that tendency by dwelling on the collective paradigm.

This has arguably resulted in ethics being a casualty because discussion in this area has been more in terms of personal data and privacy and far less about behaviour.  It partly explains how Janet Sternberg’s thesis from 2001 (almost a prehistoric age in Web terms) about misbehaviour in cyber places can be republished in 2012 for, as she explains, there still remains a dearth in literature about behaviour (as well as showing that the principles of community remain largely the same). By introducing normative Buddhist ethics (above) I have tried to highlight how this is the case, but haven't yet got so far in applying this practically to software development.  I have been exploring more at a theoretical level the synergies with social science and whilst findings from social sciences, particularly around patterns of human networking, have influenced designs (with research often commissioned by larger tech companies), they are generally not affecting the basic structure.

For more fundamental aspects concerning the system architecture and user interfaces, further and perhaps deeper insights may be gained by appeal to cognitive science.  Social sciences is effective in showing how just as the physical environment impacts our ability to grow socially, so too the online environment, in terms of types of networks and relationships; cognitive science is more focused on the individual person and, like a microscope, potentially able to illuminate the basic qualities and degree of cognitive processing involved at every step.  An interdisciplinary approach will be more fruitful, as shown by the work in evolutionary anthropology by Robin Dunbar around the "social brain hypothesis", popularly headlined by Dunbar's Number.  This has even spawned social networking services such as the Path app, as featured on Wired, with network size limited by that number.

The Solution? Restoring Attention through Intervention

Long before Parker's confession, concerns had been raised among various researchers, especially by practitioners in children’s education focused on individual development over the long term. Some of the earliest empirical studies that addressed specifically emotional development among adolescents were carried out by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang et al at the University of Southern California, in interdisciplinary work that brought together experts in education and neuroscience. In an important paper, Neural Correlates of Admiration and Compassion, they described experiments to foster qualities of virtue such as compassion and observed:

“In order for emotions about the psychological situations of others to be induced and experienced, additional time may be needed for the introspective processing of culturally shaped social knowledge. The rapidity and parallel processing of attention requiring information, which hallmark the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience.”

In other words, there is at the basic level of cerebral functioning, a certain minimum duration required to absorb and process. I suspect that minimum is for survival and if this exposure were sustained for a long time, then perhaps more neural connections would be established, a kind of adaptation that ensured continuation in terms of essential biological functioning. In the context of behaviour online, it means that the brain can develop ways to cope with the barrage of interventions, but what about the overall health and what would that mean in terms of more refined human qualities?

The team subsequently emphasized that time was of the essence. Interviewed for USC News, Noble Instincts Take Time, Immordino-Yang remarked:

“For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection...”

I take that as a cue for designing interventions in a new, wholesome way.  But it will takes more than one "magic number" to foster a radically new approach to system and interaction that could provide an alternative to the most popular systems in use.

So let’s see if we can show how the use of new kinds of interventions as an aspect of design in SNS can enhance the quality of attention and decision-making. Can we in particular deploy interventions to enable users to take more time for reflection and evaluation online? Can we do this especially with a view to the cultivation of virtue, which will aid in our personal development and the fostering of healthy relationships?

Our efforts should pay more attention to individual behaviour, especially on how to make choices more skilfully; this is where interventions can be introduced. Friendship is a pertinent focus because it applies to many scenarios where one’s actions have some impact on the quality of one’s relationship with others. Actually, many kinds of interventions can be specified to enhance friendship with various spheres of impact, amply demonstrated in a valuable reference paper by Adams and Blieszner, Resources for Friendship Intervention.  Their investigations reveal their intricate nature and considerable variety; they are sensitive to how effects can be unpredictable. They also discuss how cognitive processes can be uplifting (page 162):

“Intervention thus centers on identifying irrational beliefs and sources of inappropriate schemas; analyzing the emotional and behavioral outcomes of holding those beliefs and schemas; and replacing them with more realistic, accurate, and positive ways of thinking about the self, others, and relationships.”

There is a section devoted to 1-1 (dyadic) relationships, which is discussed in terms of marital partnerships, but even in that context it is recognised that:

“it is equally important that partners maintain a degree of autonomy or self-determination … rather than responding to each other only on the basis of anxiety or other emotions.”

Think about the online context — how much autonomy do we really have and what is our emotional state in our interactions?

It needs pause for thought, and in the next post I'll show how interventions can help.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Teachings at Wat Paknam (Attā and Anattā: Part Three)

[Updated on 23 June 2019: fixed some typos and inserted a few missing diacritics]

Continuing with the theme of attā and anattā raised by Horner, having indicated some of the scholarly response (or lack of), I turn now to some views from Thailand.

My own Buddhist background comes mainly through my mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford, who belonged to the Dhammakaya tradition; she used to practise meditation at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Thonburi, Thailand. It was she who introduced me to the teachings of Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni (Sodh Candasaro), or simply Luang Phor Sodh, as he was popularly known, who was its Abbot from 1916 until his passing in 1959. (Luang Phor means something like ‘respected father’; he is also popularly referred to as Luang Pu —‘respected grandfather’.)

Luang Phor Sodh delivered many sermons, some of which, mainly the later ones, were recorded, and quite a few of these have been translated from Thai into English. Most of my reading has ben from two volumes published by the 60th Dhammachai Education Foundation, part of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. The title is ’Visudhivācā: Translation of Morradok Dhamma’, where Morradok is a Thai word that means something like 'legacy' or 'inheritance' (but the book link above is incorrect — Volume II can be read online / downloaded at Unfortunately, Volume I, from which I will quote, is out of print and I can’t find any copy online.

I shall focus on one particular sermon by Luang Phor entitled 'Self as Refuge', which he gave on 13th September B.E. 2496 (1953), so it is contemporaneous with Horner’s article. It also includes several of the passages that Horner cites. Further, in Luang Phor’s main treatment of the topic of attā, we may discern a pattern of teaching that mirrors Horner’s gradual approach, i.e. Luang Phor starts by reviewing what is compounded and mundane before moving onto the supramundane. In both cases he asserts there is attā, respectively conventional and transcendent. However, whereas Horner relies on study of the texts, the main basis of Luang Phor’s teachings is his meditation experience — which has been verified by many of his disciples and their disciples (of which my mother was one).

As a warm-up Luang Phor recounts the episode where, shortly after his Enlightenment, the Buddha encounters a group of princes, searching for a woman who is suspected of having made off with some precious jewellery. The Buddha addresses them, recorded in Pali as:

“taṃ kiṃ maññatha vo, kumārā, katamaṃ nu kho tumhākaṃ varaṃ — yaṃ vā tumhe itthiṃ gaveseyyātha, yaṃ vā attānaṃ gaveseyyāthā”ti? “etadeva, bhante, amhākaṃ varaṃ yaṃ mayaṃ attānaṃ gaveseyyāmā”ti. “tena hi vo, kumārā, nisīdatha, dhammaṃ vo desessāmī”ti.
(Vin. Mahāvagga i.23, i.e. 1. mahākhandhako, 11. bhaddavaggiyavatthu])

Horner translates (p.32):
“What do you think of this, young men? Which is better for you, that you should seek for a woman or that you should seek for the self?”
“Truly this were better for us. Lord, that we should seek for the self."
"Well then, young men, you sit down, I will teach you dhamma."

The account relates that the princes were given gradual instruction on sense restraint and magga (the meditative path of liberation) so that in due course:

“having seen dhamma, attained dhamma, known dhamma, plunged into dhamma, having crossed over doubt, having put away uncertainty, having attained without another's help to full confidence in the teacher's instruction,’ spoke thus to the Lord: May I, Lord, receive the going forth in the Lord's presence, may I receive ordination?'

(It’s the same formula as used for Venerable Aññata Kondañña, one of the Pañcavaggiyā (Five Ascetics), p.18).

Luang Phor proceeds to give his main teaching to connect attā and dhamma based on the following passage from the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta (DN 16), which is also quoted by Horner

attadīpā attasaranā anaññāsaranā
dhammadīpā dhammaasaranā anaññāsaranā
[D. ii. 100, DN etc.]

Luang Phor explains this word by word:

attadīpā means having the self as an island.
attasaranā means having the self as a refuge.
anaññāsaranā means having nothing else as a refuge.
dhammadīpā means having Dhamma as an island.
dhammaasaranā means having Dhamma as a refuge.
anaññāsaranā means having nothing else as a refuge.

So the Abbot’s repeated translation as ‘self’ adds cumulative weight; it is more than a mere conventional reference to oneself or ourselves. He then goes on to elaborate on what this ‘self’ means by reference to successive stages in Dhammakaya meditation.

Each stage makes reference to a body and that body is to be regarded as ‘self’. There is a succession of bodies, so there are various levels of ‘self’. Each ‘self’ is what one works with in practice, what is to be thoroughly known; when bringing the mind to a standstill, it dissolves, allowing the next body to arise at its centre. (This bringing to a standstill is what the Buddha meant when declaring he had stopped to Angulimāla).

The succession starts with manussakāya (the human physical body). That’s self. It dissolves and then so too is panīta-manussakāya (the refined human body, ‘astral’ or ‘dreaming’ body), this is self. The process repeats for increasingly refined bodies, hence: dibbakāya (celestial body), panīta-dibbakāya (refined celestial body), rūpabrahmakāya (form Brahma body), panīta-rūpabrahmakāya (refined form Brahma body), arūpabrahmakāya (formless Brahma body), panīta-arūpabrahmakāya (refined formless Brahma body).

There are eight of these bodies. Luang Phor explains:

These are all 'selves’, bodies within bhavaloka (the three planes of becoming)... The various selves of the three planes of becoming are conventional; they are not real, and will remain only for a certain period of time. Such bodies are transient.

There are more bodies beyond those planes and Luang Phor proceeds to enumerate them, but I will change the order by bringing forward what he says about conventional Dhamma and relate this to self. Likewise there are various levels of Dhamma:

Dhamma is a dwelling-place for the self; the self could not exist without Dhamma. The human body, the refined human body, the dibbakāya, the refined dibbakāya, the rūpabrahmakāya, the refined rūpabrahmakāya, the arūpabrahmakāya; the refined arūpabrahmakāya; all possess Dhamma. Without Dhamma, such could not survive.

Luang Phor teaches that each body (self) has Dhamma, where the Dhamma is located at the centre of the respective body and that it is a sphere, hence Dhamma-sphere. However, for these 8 bodies, these Dhamma-spheres are conventional; Luang Phor quotes the Buddha: “The Great Lord said: Sabbe dhammā anattā ti; ‘all dhammas are not-self’.” To clarify he states: “Self is not Dhamma — self is self — Dhamma is Dhamma”, but the Dhamma-sphere is what makes self possible.

I suspect that all these stages would have already been attained before the Buddha’s Enlightenment and the beginning of his dispensation. The Brahmajāla Sutta, which describes a long list of false views includes the belief held by eternalists that loka (the world, be it form-filled or formless) and the highest self are the same. This erroneous view could be reached by those who had surveyed through considerable efforts in meditation cycles of universes over many aeons, including numerous past lives, but without seeing beyond the three planes.

Given the Buddha’s refutation of a permanent self in all that, it’s perhaps not so surprising that many scholarly interpretations will stop at ‘all dhammas are not-self’ and conclude that this includes nibbāna, but this would contradict the Buddha’s utterance in the Udana 8.3 and bind us all to the lower shore.

Descriptions of the path to liberation typically involve purification with the abandonment of the kilesas (the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion) and proceed to the destruction of the asavas (deep-seated taints). Today there are many explanations about the process but references to magga (path or way), specifically the Middle Way are often vague or not made explicit. Yet, it could only be from outside the three planes of becoming that the appropriate insight could be gained.

In contrast, Luang Phor gives these terms explicit meanings and proceeds to show how the mode of practice through the centre of the body continues to apply. This is the vehicle for the Middle Way, a process of body within body, performed repeatedly (an approach I’ve tried to express by using the image of microscopes).

But are there canonical references for this? Yes, in the Mahāsatipatṭhāna Sutta (The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha uses the phrase kāye kāyānupassī viharati (dwells contemplating body in body), and similarly for vedanā, citta and dhamma. This is explained by Luang Phor in another sermon dedicated to that sutta, also translated into English in Visudhivācā Volume I. Further, in the Samaññaphala Sutta (on the Fruits of the Contemplative Life) the Buddha describes the relationships of ‘body in body’ through imagery: like a reed being pulled from a sheath or a sword from its scabbard. Without understanding the mode, kāye kāyānupassī has been mistranslated, often with reference to external bodies and even as ‘contemplating the body in and of itself’. No, it means ‘body in body’ (two bodies, one inside the other).

Continuing with the sermon on attā, Luang Phor goes on to introduce 10 further kāyas, all transcendent, by this mode. The first of these is the entry point to the ariyan states, the dhammakāya-gotrabhū. Gotrabhū means ‘transition of lineage’. It’s referenced in AN 9:10 (the sutta on those worthy of offerings), but Gotrabhū is often weakly translated as “member of the spiritual clan or family”. Luang Phor is indicating that it’s specifically the Ariyan family, the stage of entry or threshold, as defined by Nyanatiloka in his Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines.

There follows the refined dhammakāya-gotrabhū, the dhammakāya-sotapanna, the refined dhammakāya-sotapanna, the dhammakāya-sakadāgāmi, the refined dhammakāya-sakadāgāmi, the dhammakāya-anāgāmi, the refined dhammakāya-anāgāmi, the dhammakāya-arahatta, the refined dhammakāya-arahatta, making 10 transcendent bodies in all, each of which possess spheres of Dhamma successively larger in dimension in which the respective bodies (selves) dwell. Thus there are pairings throughout — the body, which is perceived, and the Dhamma on which that is based, without which it cannot exist. Both are of two kinds: the conditioned and unconditioned, 8 and 10 in number respectively.

After describing the qualities of each stage from the point of view of a practitioner Luang Phor revisits the Pali phrase attadīpā attasaranā anaññāsaranā, explaining first how self is an island:

How is it that the body or 'self’ is an island, and how is it our own refuge? To start with, picture a vessel that has been attacked by a storm and wrecked in the ocean. The passengers are forced to swim to reach the shore. They surely need something to rest on, such as an island. What if, whilst swimming, they suddenly see in the distance an island? You can imagine how pleased they would be. That island is their refuge; they now have a place upon which to rest, to take a break from swimming, which is very tiring. Once they find they have an island they can reach, they are no longer tired; their difficulties and hardship are alleviated...

Then explaining how self is a refuge:

What does it mean to say body is a refuge? How come you have your self as a refuge? What happens when you see the island? The answer is that you are happy because you can stay on that island, you can rest on that island. Since you have nowhere else to go, you take that island as your refuge.

Luang Phor goes on to provide a further explanation based on practical reality:

At present, we human beings take our own bodies as the place in which we live. If we do not depend on the human body as an island, then why don’t you let go of it? When a human has no material-form that could be called a body, the refined body is unable to exist. Others would not be able to see you, which would mean that you were dead. This supports my explanation that the human body is truly an island.

There is further elaboration in the sermon, but I think that’s enough for this post.

In summary, the late Abbot of Wat Paknam's teachings on attā and anattā are emphatic and nuanced; whereas many scholars make reference to just one (physical) body with which to work with, Luang Phor indicates that there's a notion of 'body' at each level and that is to be regarded as 'self'. Each such 'self' is to be paired with Dhamma, which for the mundane levels (corresponding with the first 8 kāyas up to the formless Brahmakayas), are actually anattā, but for the 10 supramundane kāyas they are attā.

There were many skeptics in his day, but Luang Phor never wavered in his conviction and he eventually convinced many of his detractors once they practiced themselves or sometimes when they faced difficulties that they could not resolve, but Luang Phor could.

I’ll just finish by relating an episode from my first stay in Thailand, during which I had my fourth birthday. I don’t remember very much apart from a dream in which I was on board a ship, out at sea. There was a storm and I fell overboard and was washed up on shore. As I walked along the shore a hole appeared and I fell into it. Maintaining my awareness I observed it getting larger, but I don’t recall being afraid. And then it morphed into my room and I was awake.


I have been unable to locate the original Thai transcription of Luang Phor’s talk, though I have found an extract from a Thai collection of Luang Phor's sermons (Vol. 1), page 33, which corresponds to page 40 of Visudhivāca I. It has its own title of กายในภพ-กายนอกภพ ('Body in the world — body outside the world'). It contrasts the conventional with the supramundane. I include a portion below along with my own translation, which I carried out partly to confirm the English in Visudhivāca I (it seems fine, likely better than mine).

เพราะฉะนั้นจะต้องเรียนให้รู้จักกายของตัวเสียก่อน ว่ากายมนุษย์นี่ แหละเป็นตัวโดยสมมุติ ๘ กายที่อยู่ในภพนั่นแหละเรียกว่า อตตสมมุติ เรียก ว่าตัวโดยสมมุติทั้งสิ้น
So we must study and get to know initially the self of the world. About this human body (manussakaya) it has a conventional self. There are 8 sammuti [conventional] bodies in the world [bhavaloka]. These [bodies] are called attāsammuti, that is they are all called conventional self.

ส่วนธรรมล่ะ คือธรรมที่ทำให้เป็นกายมนุษย์น่ะ ก็เรียกว่าธรรมสมมุติ เหมือนกัน สมมุติชั่วคราวหนึ่ง ไมใช่ตัวที่พระองค์ทรงรับสั่งว่า “สพุเพ ธมมา อนตฺตาติ” ธรรมทั้งสิ้นไม่ใช่ตัว ตัวทั้งสิ้นไม,ใช่ธรรม ตัวก็เป็นตัวซิ ธรรมก็เป็น ธรรมซิ คนละนัย
As for Dhamma it is Dhamma that causes the human body. So it is called sammuti dhamma as well — being sammuti it is temporary; it’s not a permanent dwelling place for self. Of this it is said “Sabbe dhammā anattā ti”. None of these dhammas are self. Self is not this Dhamma. For self is self and Dhamma is Dhamma — they are different from one another.

มีตัวกับธรรม ๒ อย่างนี้เท่านั้น กายมนุษย์ก็มืตัว กายมนุษย์ก็มืธรรมที่ ทำให้เป็นตัว ตลอดทุกกาย ทั้ง ๑๘ กาย มีตัวกับมีธรรมที่ทำ'ให้เป็นตัว แต่ว่า ตัวทั้งหลายเหล่านั้น ทั้ง ๘ กายในภพ เป็นอนิจจํ ทุกขํ อนตฺตา หมดไม่เหลือ เลย ทั้ง ๑๐ กายนอกภพ เป็น นิจฺจํ สุขํ อตฺตา หมดไม่เหลือเลย ตรงกันข้าม อย่างนี้เป็น นิจฺจํ สุขํ อตฺตา เป็นของที่เที่ยงของจริงหมด แด,ว่าในภพแล้วเป็น ของไม่เที่ยงไม,จริงหมด
There is self and Dhamma. Merely these two things: there is human body and there is self. The human body has also dhamma which makes it have self. Each and every body, all 18 bodies, have self and dhamma, which makes it [possible to] have self. But the self across all 8 groups in the world are aniccam, dukkham and anattā, all of them. On the other hand all ten bodies outside the world are completely niccam, sukham, attā. They are all the same in this way niccam, sukham, attā; they are completely certain and true, but regarding those [bodies] in the world they are transient, not real at all.

Contextualising attā (Attā and Anattā: Part Two)

Having introduced Horner's essay on Attā and Anattā and related some of the (more) open questions around the meanings of attā, we now consider the third and final part, where Horner presents various passages containing ‘attā’ (or more, exactly, “the logical opposite of an-attā”, which she regards as “too much overlooked”.

For example, from S. i. 140. [SN 6.2.2] Gārava Sutta (Respect):

Tasmā hi attakāmena,
Saddhammo garukātabbo

Horner translates as (my italics):

So he to whom the self is dear,
Who longs for the great self,
Should homage to true dhamma pay.

Yet Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as (again, my italics):

Therefore one desiring his own good,
Aspiring for spiritual greatness,
Should deeply revere the true Dhamma.

and Bhikkhu Sujato renders it:

Therefore someone who loves themselves,
aspiring to transcendence,
should respect the true teaching.

There is considerable variation in these, but the second and third translations both avoid using the word ‘Self’, though Ven. Sujato does assign to mahattama transcendence, which is not the conventional. My knowledge of Pali is not sufficient to be clear on this, but the key to the translation of the second line is how one deals with 'mahattam' (or 'mahatta[m]') - the PTS dictionary translates 'mahattam' as 'greatness' (from the Sanskrit mahattva). So technically Horner's translation of this line looks erroneous, though they may well share linguistic roots. However, I think the key point is that the second line reinforces the first one, so the sense is actually correct.

More generally, I notice that other modern translations of some of these passages replace references to 'self' by something vaguer, with conventional meaning, or otherwise gloss over the words. Whilst in some cases this may be closer to the intended meaning, it seems to me that more often it’s rooted in a particular limited view of self, entailing some aversion to writing ‘self’ without qualification. Sometimes there’s even an insistence in the footnotes that any reference to attā can’t be metaphysical, as is the case for the following famous passage that Horner includes in her list:

tasmā attadīpā attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā

Horner translates this as:

Wherefore fare along with self as island, with self as refuge, and no other, with dhamma as island, with dhamma as refuge, and no other. (D. ii. 100, etc.)

But in a footnote Walshe is adamant it can’t be other than a reflexive pronoun.

Yet Horner was not convinced by the conclusions of Walshe and those with similar views and I believe that by reprinting the essay in the ‘70s she purposely wished to re-express her view:

As the idea of brahma in the Pali canon has been overlooked—in spite of the ever recurring brahmacariya, the Walk to or with Brahma, the Sublime—so has that of attā. Both were of the utmost significance in the Upanishads. Both have a significance, even if we have not yet assessed it, in the Pali canon.

Substantially, she proposed a philological basis to glean the meanings, but she indicates it would require far-reaching studies across the Vinaya and Nikayas and furthermore a proper understanding of Indian cultures and beliefs at that time.

She starts us off with a selection of quotes around the use of “brahma” and “dhamma”, suggestive of affinities with. They include:

He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.

And a teaching to Vasettha where the Buddha referred to himself using the terms dhammakāya, brahmakāya, dhammabhūta, and brahmabhūta. The passage is from D. iii. 84 [DN 27] Aggañña Sutta, and is as follows:

He whose faith in the Tathagata is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakeable by any ascetic or Brahmin, any deva or mara or Brahma or anyone in the world, can truly say: “I am a true son of Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma.” Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathagata: “The Body of Dhamma” [dhammakāya], that is, “The Body of Brahma” [brahmakāya], or “Become Dhamma” [dhammabhūta], that is, “Become Brahma” [brahmabhūta].

Academic Response

So what has been the response to Horner’s paper? When I search online I can find few citations; in fact, it seems to be little known, not even listed in Google Scholar.

Even so there have been a few scholars who have delved into the subject matter. Among them was Joaquín Pérez-Remón, who made a bold attempt to explore at length in his thesis, Self and Non-self in Early Buddhism (De Gruyter), which is partially accessible via Google Books.

A general sense of his position is expressed in his reflection about the Buddha:

Is it not far better to say that what he affirmed and what he denied were not one and the same thing? When he affirmed the existence of attā against the materialists, he affirmed the reality of something objectively true. When he denied the attā against the eternalists, he did not deny the true attā, but the attā of the eternalists that is wrongly identified with the khandhas.
(from Pérez-Remón's concluding section, page 302)

I find this a fair assessment, but his work was considered controversial; reviews found aspects useful, but seem to be critical — it seems that whatever the philological analysis, if it came to conclusions that challenged prevailing views it would not be regarded favourably and might just be dismissed as intellectual speculation (see e.g Vijitha Rajapakse’s review for the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies).

The book is a reworking of the author's doctoral thesis at the University of Bombay under the title: 'The Anattavada in the Suttapitaka' (page v). At 1810 pages it seems that the institution had a very liberal attitude to limits, but I feel sorry for the examiners! The considerable length may explain why the author has seemingly inverted the presentation by devoting the first half of the book to numerous references containing attā: part one (of only two) is entitled ‘The Existential Self’ before treating — in part two, ‘The Metaphysical Self’ — attā and anattā more together. However, with Horner starting mainly with anattā, I find the ordering odd; I think a more balanced approach to treat them alongside each other all along, a more natural process to show how there might be complementarity instead of apparent contradictions or inconsistencies.

It would have been interesting for Pérez-Remón to have disseminated his ideas more widely and continued with his research, but he passed away only a few years after its publication [In memoriam]. However, it looks like Arthur Wells took up the baton with his Master’s thesis: The Early Buddhist Affirmation of Self (Atman) in the Logic, Parables and Imagery of the Pali Nikāyas.

I was only made aware of his work very recently; it seems not so widely circulated. At least it has been considered and cited in the academic literature and it does get occasionally mentioned in online discussions. I wonder why Pérez-Remón went to such great lengths in his research. It may be due to his own religious convictions; he was a Jesuit who explored interreligous dialogue, especially mysticism - among his other publications is Misticismo Oriental y Misticismo Cristiano, Caso Típico: Teresa de Jesús. Having studied some of the imagery of St. Teresa of Avila, I add this to my reading list. Other Buddhist scholars have also been interested in this mystic; Lance Cousins wrote a paper about her, suggesting parallels with the path of purification as expressed by Buddhagosa.

More recently, Chanida Jantrasrisalai’s PhD thesis has examined in depth the meaning of language in the Indian context — around terms such as Brahmacariya, Brahmakāya and Dhammakāya. It’s entitled, Early Buddhist dhammakāya: Its philosophical and soteriological significance and available to download from the University of Sydney. It's the Dhammakāya tradition that I wish to explore next.

Attā and Anattā (Part One)

The title of this post is copied from an essay written by the Pali scholar, Isaline Blew Hornerattā means ‘self’; an- means ‘not, without’; hence anattā means ‘not self’ or ‘without self’. I. B. Horner had been working on this topic for quite a while with some earlier drafts (IH A/12) dating to Nov 1948 and the publication of a similar paper in French, 'Attā et Anattā dans les Textes du Canon Pali’ in La pensée Bouddhique, Bulletin des Amis du Bouddhisme, Jan. 1949. pp. 6-13. But it seems it wasn’t until 1952 that it appeared in English, in The Golden Lotus (Philadelphia) and The Middle Way (the journal of the Buddhist Society in London). About 20 years later it was reprinted for Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Winter 1973).

It’s quite an unusual essay: whilst Horner presents some philological analysis, as befits her professional background, her main point is that there’s a major gap in terms of research, though she doesn’t really reveal her intentions until the second half of the paper. Her argument, or plea, is that passages mentioning attā have been relatively neglected and should be given closer attention. She appears to be demonstrating this in the title by placing attā alongside anattā, from which we may infer that these two terms should be studied in tandem. However, being a major undertaking, it is beyond the scope of such an article to provide the detailed analysis, so she cites a number of passages where attā could be usefully explored further, an open invitation to the community.

Horner felt strongly that this was needed: she included a similar call in her introduction to her Pali Text Society translation of the Mahavagga in the Khandhaka, the second book of the Vinaya, the book of monastic discipline, where she writes (in 1951), "Various passages in the Pali canon, including the Attavagga of the Dhammapada, should not be ignored in estimating the position of attā as a philosophical concept in Early Buddhism." (p. xxiv)

I was quite struck by the article, hence this post. After summarising her approach and selective quotes, I indicate how it has been received and responded to, and then offer some response from my own tradition in light of the teachings of the late Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni, the late Abbot of Wat Paknam, and re-discoverer of the Dhammakaya tradition. The aim is to show how the teachings can be harmonised, setting these concepts in the framework of a path of practice. Originally intended to be a single post, I’ve split it into three owing to its length, but they should ideally be all read together. If there’s sufficient interest and time, I may tidy up my writing and put together a more formal article.

References are made to the Pali canon in the conventional way, i.e. first to the Pali Text Society edition of the Pali original, using the PTS abbreviations, i.e. a Roman numeral for a book number and then the Arabic numeral; then the Arabic number and section for the translation, as used by popular websites such as Access to Insight. For example: S iii 119 [SN 22.87].

Towards a More Nuanced View of attā

Horner opens by expressing the problem:

It is becoming more and more general to think and to say that Buddhism teaches not-self, anattā...

[It’s certainly a general view today.]

However, based on her extensive readings of the Pali canon (which probably only a handful of scholars could match), she perceives this all-encompassing view as invalid. Choosing her words carefully, she observes:

But Early Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Vinaya and the Suttapitaka, does not exactly teach not-self, except in so far as it says that certain definite things are not-self; therefore put them away, they are not yours (S. iii. 33-34; M. i. 140-141).

She was well aware that her position could (and would) be seen as controversial, so she makes her case gradually, in three parts. Initially, she cites a number of passages relating to anattā, how they are variously framed. She provide explanations that few scholars would disagree with — the five khandhas (aggregates) of grasping, namely rūpa (form), vedanā (feeling), sañña (perception), saṅkhāra (mental formations) and viññāna (consciousness), are of the nature to be impermanent and thus not-self. She goes on to describe how an ordinary worldling is bound by this grasping through the senses, giving rise to a wrong view about oneself. Such false views are to be got rid of. So far, so good.

In addition to establishing the common ground, for the next step Horner intimates in various ways how the meaning of attā is not so clear-cut. And in fact one of her first quotes, from the Vinaya, specifies a condition for attā:

Had they been self: rupam (etc.) c'idam attā abhavissa (Vin. i. 13), there would have been power of disposal over them: Let my body be such, let it not be such. But as they are not self, one cannot alter them.

This could be argued as hypothetical as it doesn’t say whether there really are such attā. However, Horner follows up with a statement by the Buddha that is more direct:

"What is not self, that is not my self" (yad anattā . . . na meso attā) (S. iii. 45, iv. 2) [Anicca Sutta].

This is a strong statement that seems to posit attā: besides the fact that it’s contained in the attādīpa Vagga (‘Self as Island’ section) of the Samyutta Nikaya, the context of eradicating the asavas (taints) across each of the khandhas to obtain final release points to the non-conventional.

To further indicate that there may be more subtle meanings to attā Horner relates the Buddha’s encounter with a wandering recluse called Vacchagotta, to whom the Buddha remains silent when asked in turn: “Is there Self?” and then "What then, is there not self?"(S. iv. 400-401).

Evidently there was no definitive statement that the Buddha could make in this instance. When questioned by his disciples the Buddha made reference to false doctrines that were prevalent at the time (and there were a vast array, including eternalism, as described in the Brahmajāla Sutta). Giving an answer depended not only on the context of the question and what the Buddha knew as true, but also on the questioner's state of mind and frames of reference, which in this case could not support right understanding. Nevertheless, the questioner was asking about ultimate truth and in this context the Buddha would not make a general denial about attā. I think it is this matter of context operating at various levels is what Horner wishes to draw to our attention, though I do not agree with her parenthetical comment about all things (dhammas) being not-self include nibbāna.

Here I would insert a quote attributed to the Buddha from Udana 8.3, which, although not using the term attā, is an affirmation of what likes beyond the khandhas, pointing to a higher sense that may be related:
There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

When I was 15 years old the head master at my school required every pupil to write about their spiritual beliefs. Even though I had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, I wrote about ‘God’ in terms of energy and superconsciousness. By the time I had reached my early 20s I had reflected intellectually on the recursive dissolution matter into smaller and smaller parts, finding it inherently formless and devoid of self. At the same time I also intuited superconsciousness with effects in the world of form, but, confining my view of such agency to experience I queried the anthropomorphism, and could not perceive anything beyond a kind of supramundane awareness.

Then, as though reading my mental state, my mother casually remarked, “Apparently there is a realm of Buddhas.” My mother practised a lot of meditation, it was not a statement I could ignore. Very soon my view changed radically as I ceased being annihilationist (from the Latin ad + nihil. literally: to/towards nothing). I’ll try to intimate this in the next two parts.

[Next: Part Two]