Thursday, May 28, 2009


Thomas Riggins

Towards the end of the first chapter of Das Kapital, after having established the validity of the labor theory of value, Marx has a section on the Fetishism of Commodities. To understand this section is to understand the whole first chapter and also to see why socialism is necessary. This article is an attempt to explain the meaning of this section and to apply its lessons to our times.

A commodity looks simple enough says the bourgeois economist. Most bourgeois economists say it is any object with a use value that somebody wants and is willing to pay for and its value is determined by supply and demand. Nothing drives such a common sense economist more to distraction than reading Karl Marx who says a commodity is "a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." What can Marx mean? Economics is a science, even a mathematical science, what has it got to do with metaphysics and theology?

Take a wooden table, says Marx. It is just wood that human labor has turned into a table and taken to market. Wood + Labor = Table. Where is the mystery? When it gets to the market the table finds itself in the company of the stool and the chair. All three have use values, are made of the same wood, and may be in equal supply and equal demand-- yet each has its own different price.

Why these different prices? Same wood, same demand, same supply. They are all the products of human labor. What is the difference between them that justifies different prices? The prices are reflections of the underlying values of the products. Could the values be different? What does Marx say determines value? It is the different quantities of socially necessary labor time embodied in the commodities.

The table, the stool, and the chair three "things" that are related to each other as the embodiment of the social relations and necessary labor of human beings that created them. Human social relations have been objectified as the relations between non human things. The chair is more valuable than the table but the reason is now hidden away from the perception of people.

"A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing," Marx writes, "simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relations of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour."

To find an analogy Marx tells us we have to turn to the "mist-enveloped regions of the religious world." In that world the inventions of the human mind take on an independent existence and humans begin to interact with their own fantastical creations as if they were really independently existing objective things. This is similar to the Fetishism of Commodities. All the commodities we see about us are part of the sum total of all the socially produced objects and services created by human labor in our society. People all over the world are making things which are traded, shipped, sold, resold, etc. But their use values cannot be realized until they are sold--i.e., exchanged, especially exchanged for money. But why are some more expensive than others? Why do some have more value than others? Supply and demand has a role to play in setting PRICE but it merely causes price to fluctuate around VALUE.

The fact that we know that value results from the socially necessary labor time spent in making commodities "by no means," Marx says, "dissipates the mist through which the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves."

This is because we are so use to how the market operates under capitalism, how prices fluctuate, commodities rise and fall in prices, the working people naturally just think the values (which they don't differentiate from prices) are products of the natural world, that is, are functions of the things for sale or barter themselves. This is why "supply and demand" seems to be the basis of the value of things. They don't see it's all really the result of the socially necessary labor time expended in the labor process that is the determining factor in value

This leads Marx to say , "The determination of the magnitude of value by labor time therefore is a secret, hidden under the apparent fluctuations in the relative values of commodities."

We are reminded, that to understand the real nature of a social formation we have to reverse our knowledge of its historical development. We begin with the full fledged capitalist system and we try to figure why the prices of things are the way they are. Looking at the mature system we don't really see its primitive origins. In the same way a religious person looking at a human being fails to see an ape in the background.

This leads Marx to say of his own theory, "When I state that coats and boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labor, the absurdity of the statement is self evident." This has been remarked upon both by the most astute of thinkers (Bertrand Russell) and the most pedestrian (Ayn Rand).

The problem is that the bourgeoisie looks upon an HISTORICALLY TRANSIENT economic formation, its own, as an eternally existing social order. Of course prices are set by supply and demand. What is that crazy Marx talking about? As the economist Brad Delong said, he had NEVER known anyone who thought that way.

Well, lets look at something other than the full blown capitalist system at work. Marx says, "The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes therefore, so soon as we come to other forms of production."

Marx gives the example of Robinson Crusoe. He chooses Robinson because he was a popular example used in the texts of the day. Robinson has to make everything for himself, obtain his own food, and provide his own shelter. It is pretty obvious that the things that are most important for his survival are those he expends most of his labor time upon and are consequently the most valuable to him.

Marx then says we should consider a community of free people working together cooperatively to make all things necessary for their society. Whereas Robinson was just making use values for himself, in this community a social product is being created. The people have to set aside part of the product for future production, but the rest they can consume. How would they divide it in a fair manner? They would divide the product in proportion to the labor time each individual had contributed to the joint production of the social product.

This is how barter went on in the Middle Ages. Peasants knew very well how much labor time was involved in making cheese, for example, and in making a pair of shoes . If it took twice as long to make a pound cheese that to make a pair of shoes, you can be sure that no one was going to trade more than a half pound of cheese for his shoes. It is only in the complicated processes of commodity production, especially in capitalism, that the Fetichism of Commodities begins to manifest itself and the true nature of the source of value is lost.

People have confused consciousness in our world. Our alienation from our own social product, the effects of commodity fetichism, and the continuing influence of religion all work together to keep us confused and off guard. But seeing what our condition is with respect to such mental blights also tells how far along the road to liberation we are (not far) and how far we have to go (quite a distance I fear).

The world, though in a distorted way, is reflected in these distorted forms of consciousness. "The religious world," Marx tells us, "is but the reflex of the real world." And, for our capitalist society where all human relations, and relations of humans with the things they create, are reducible to commodification based on the value of "homogeneous human labor" the best form of religion is CHRISTIANITY and especially PROTESTANTISM (or alternatively, DEISM [and maybe for our day we can toss in SECULAR HUMANISM]).

Why is this? Marx says it is because the idea of "abstract man" is the basis of the the religious outlook of these systems. A religion based on an abstract view of "human nature" is just the ticket for an economic system that the bourgeoisie says is also based on "human nature." The religion reinforces the basic presuppositions of the capitalist view of abstract man and since CATHOLICISM represents a pre-bourgeois human abstraction more suitable to feudalism it is the Protestant form that is more congruent with bourgeois conceptions.

As long as humans are confused and alienated, and ignorant of how capitalism works and are mystified by their relation to the objects of their labor they will never be free, or free from the spell of religion, according to Marx. "The religious reflex of the real world," he writes, can only vanish "when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible relations with regard to his fellowmen and to Nature."

The next two sentences from Marx are extremely important as they explain, in very general terms, the failure of the Russian Revolution and the downfall of the socialist world system. The first sentence describes what the Bolsheviks set out to do in 1917. "The life processes of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan."

This is certainly what was attempted-- first by war communism, then the NEP, and then by the five year plans, forced collectivization and industrialization. But why the failure? Where were the "freely associated men?"

To pull off this great transformation, the goal of communism, Marx wrote "demands for society a certain material ground-work or set of conditions of existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development."

In other words, the seizure of power was premature. The material ground-work had not been sufficiently developed. If Lenin represented the negation of the ancien regime, Gorbachev and Yeltsin represented the negation of the negation-- brought about by the failure of that long and painful process of development to properly develop production by freely associated human beings. For all its efforts the socialist world still belonged to that world in which the processes of production had the mastery over human beings and not the other way around. So we must still put up with the Fetichism of Commodities for a while longer.

The present crisis gives us an opportunity to educate working people about this Fetichism and how to free themselves from it. GM is about to be 70% owned by the government and the UAW will have a stake of about 17.5%. This leaves 12.5% in the hands of the capitalists. The commodities the workers make (cars) don't have a life of their own. Their value is determined by the socially necessary labor time it takes workers to make them. They are extensions of the being of the working people not the capitalists who have proved themselves totally incompetent.

The working people of this country far out number the number of monopoly capitalists-- both industrial and financial. The UAW and the AFL-CIO as well other Unions must demand that the government represent the interests of the working class majority. The 87.5% joint Government-worker control of GM must not be used to put the private interests back in control, but to rationalize the auto industry by means of worker control, eliminate the capitalists and the Fetichism that keeps people thinking private interests have a role to play in production, and lay the ground work for further nationalizations in the future.

What do you think?

Friday, May 22, 2009


Thomas Riggins

Thank God for the FBI and the NYPD. If an FBI informant had not met up with four mopes (two of them mentally challenged-- low IQ and the other mentally ill--) we may never have been spared from their plot to get anti-aircraft missiles and high explosive bombs. I guess they would have gotten them at a gun show. Good work in the War Against Terrorism. Here are some details from the media.

"The plot BEGAN last June when the [FBI] informant met Cromitie [one of the mopes] at a mosque in Newburgh, according to the [police] complaint."--AP

""NO ONE was at risk," said Kelly, the police commissioner, describing the explosive devices as duds CREATED [by the authorities] to dupe the suspects." CNN

"Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said if there can be any good news out of this case it's that "the group was relatively unsophisticated, penetrated early and NOT connected to any outside group." [except the FBI of course]--AP

"Obama’s Challenge:
The alleged terrorist plot is the MOST SERIOUS in the U.S. since President Barack Obama took office in January. Obama’s PLAN to CLOSE the Guantanamo Bay military prison has raised CRITICISM about what will happen to as many as 240 suspected terrorists, who may have to be relocated to prisons in the U.S." Bloomberg News


" Authorities have “NO evidence whatsoever” that the suspects were part of a wider plot, [Mayor Bloomberg] said." Bloomberg News

"Some have criticized informants' roles in such cases, saying they egged on and ensnared suspects who weren't dangerous".--AP-- WHAT!!! The FBI and NYPD set people up!! Perish the thought!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Keep the Guns Out of the Parks!


Thomas Riggins

Everyone, except the bankers, is happy to have the corrupt credit card usurers reigned in a bit by the Obama administration. The Democratic Senate passed new regulations on credit cards that will be helpful for working people-- but it refused to put a 15% cap on interest rates-- a big boon to the monopoly capitalists and kick in the teeth for working people.

The Democrats also caved in to the gun lobby. The Bush administration was blocked by the courts from changing the rules prohibiting loaded weapons in NATIONAL PARKS and WILDLIFE REFUGES. This move was applauded by conservationists and gun control advocates around the country.

But REPUBLICAN SENATOR Tom Coburn of Oklahoma "inserted an amendment to the credit card bill that would allow concealed, loaded guns in parks and refuges (Wall Street Journal, 5-20-09). Coburn is one of the most reactionary members of the Senate. The Democrats could have blocked this amendment. Hey Guys! You were not elected by the NRA and gun lobby (or were you?). Senate Democrats and Representatives should take this awful amendment out of the bill during the House-Senate conference.

Thursday, May 14, 2009



Thomas Riggins

The New York Times (5-14-09) reports "OBAMA REVERSAL ON ABUSE PHOTOS" by Jeff Zeleny and Thom Shanker. The papers reports that the photos of the US torture and killing of prisoners, that Obama said he had no objection to releasing, which were to be made public, after a court order, will be contested after all by the administration which now wants to prevent the American people and the world from seeing them.

The Times reports that "Mr. Obama changed his mind AFTER SEEING THE PHOTOGRAPHS ["Oh, My God! We did that! I should have listened to Jeremiah!"] and after getting warnings from top Pentagon officials [''You will have to arrest the lot of us, then who will run your wars for you?"] that the images, taken from the early years of the wars, [they don't photograph themselves now] would "further inflame anti-American opinion" [is there any room really left?] and endanger troops in two war zones [just like the Pentagon brass to hide behind the troops to save their cowardly moral asses].

President Obama, sounding more like his predecessor every day, said, "The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past [so why the fuss?] BY A SMALL NUMBER OF INDIVIDUALS [here we go again-- those bad apples on the front-line.]"

Now for the piece de resistance: "In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

But of course the truth is just the OPPOSITE. Releasing the photos would show the world the US was SERIOUS about rejecting the use of torture and would make the troops SAFER! But at what cost? Once the photos were out it would be almost impossible NOT TO PROSECUTE those responsible for war crimes and torture. The political impact on the elite would be catastrophic. By suppressing the photos the message is clear: they would show conduct so repulsive and criminal that the American people would demand justice. The world would see and applaud. The troops would be MORE SAFE.

But it looks like this won't happen. The safety of the troops will be sacrificed, as always, for political expediency. It is almost a law of nature that when ANY PRESIDENT says-- "I am worried about the troops," that the troops are about to be screwed.

Obama owes it to the American people and to the world to publish these photos to bring to light the truth about the crimes of the Bush White House. After all, it is for truth, justice, and the American way that our troops are supposed to be fighting-- not political considerations.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


Thomas Riggins

"Our demand is that there will be no civilian casualties in Afghanistan. We cannot win the fight against terrorism with air strikes."

"This is my first demand of the new president of the United States - to put an end to civilian casualties."

— Afghan President Hamid Karzai, November 5, 2008

On December 18, 2008, Afghan President Hamid Karzai again spoke of asking the United States to cooperate with his government in their military operations in his country. In a speech, he said that in the previous month he had again asked that the U.S. military in his country cooperate with his government, sending the U.S. government a list of demands about troop conduct, but did not say if he had received any response back.

"Part of that list was that they shouldn't, on their own, enter the houses of our people and bombard our villages and detain our people."-- President
Karzai. [the above is from Wikepedia "Civilian Causalities from the War in Afghanistan 2001-Present"]

Ostensibly the US [I'm not using "NATO" because that is just a facade] is in Afghanistan to help the Afghan government which we say is a democratically elected sovereign government. Actually we treat the government with contempt, ignore its wishes and do whatever we like in Afghanistan.

The arrogance of the US is unfathomable. Despite the best advice from Afghans on the ground, human rights activists, and independent scholars, and the Afghan leaders, we continue to use aerial bombardment of civilian areas, villages, groups of people working in fields or at celebrations (weddings, feasts), etc., bombing that has no military purpose, is counterproductive, alienates the population, and increases the strength of the "enemy."

The most recent example is the bombing of the village of Granai and a sister village nearby in the province of Farah last week. "Democracy Now" reported the civilian death rate is approaching 200 (the US does not include people who die later in hospital, only bodies on the spot and after deducting an arbitrary number of supposed "militants"-- i.e., Taliban).

Reports in the New York Times 5/7 and 5/8 2008 indicate there was a fire fight between the Taliban and US forces in fields outside the towns. The US forces retreated and called in air support. Meanwhile, the Taliban withdrew from the area to regroup. By the time the Air Force arrived the Taliban were long gone, all there was to bomb were the villagers. They and their children were blasted to pieces. Maybe some Afghan Picasso will memorialize this wanton slaughter. Maybe the picture will someday hang in the United Nations, to be discretely draped whenever a US President addresses the General Assembly. Maybe President Obama will withdraw our imperial forces of occupation and murder and put an end to tactics that so miserably failed in Vietnam. Maybe.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Thomas Riggins

The answer is "YES" according to the latest (May 2009) issue the AMERICAN PROSPECT. John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira in an article entitled "Progressivism Goes Mainstream" have analyzed surveys taken of people's answers to 40 questions about their beliefs concerning the role of government as well as their social attitudes--split 20/20 between left and right beliefs. They don't give much information on the protocol they used, and we know how easy it is to manipulate polls, but, for what it is worth here are some of the author's conclusions.

The scores possible on the poll run from 0 [you must be a neo-Nazi] to 400 [you are waiting for the second coming of Lenin]. The results show that most of the nature is center-left and tipping in the progressive direction. "The American electorate as a whole records a mean ideological score 209.5--- solidly progressive in orientation." The population is clustered between about 160.6 (Conservative Republicans) and 247.1 (Liberal Democrats). So, trolling around for a sample population didn't turn up any radical progressives evidently, nor KKK types either. Obama voters came in at 244 while McCain's voters averaged 169.

"Despite claims to the contrary," the authors write, " there really is no 'far right' or 'far left' among the electorate in the country. American ideological attitudes tend to converge in the middle." The old Reagan-Bush (1) ideological model of government has been replaced by progressive views as reflected by the Obama victory.

The authors report almost 80% agree with the view that we should have the government invest more in education, science, and infrastructure. So, with regard to government in these areas "conservatives are out of step with the rest of the country."

Over 66% think it's the government's job to help take care the elderly, the poor and sick people. Even a "slim majority of Republicans" agree. Now here is a big one! When asked if they believed "government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers" even over 60% of people calling themselves Republicans or conservatives said "yes''.

Sadly, one big reason for the change, the authors say, is "the decline of the white working class." I say sadly because the class position of white workers should have put them on the other side of the divide between the progressives and conservatives. The dividing mean was 209.5 and the workers are in with the "whites" and the "men"-- 203.7 and 204.3 respectively (women were at 214.3). However, there is some good news, the number of white workers who consider themselves conservative is 11 points lower that in Reagan-Bush(1) days. "[The] progressive agenda will continue to strengthen ... in the future as the decline of the white working class and the rise in more progressive populations continues."

Of course, the prevalence of conservative attitudes in white workers has something to do with the assault on organized labor and the attempt to weaken and destroy the union movement. There is no rating for a separate category such as "union members" on the authors' scale.

There are also some contradictory statements in their report that don't seem to jibe with their conclusions. They reported that most people supported government spending more on science, education, infrastructure, and supporting the poor, sick and elderly, etc., yet they also say almost 66% "agree with the conservative stance on free trade" and 60% think "government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient."

They also think "progressives" could be "tripped up" because "there are clear undercurrents of anti-corporate, anti-bailout populism across many segments of the electorate." I don't know just how the authors define "progressivism" but being "anti-corporate" and "anti-bailout'-- i.e., handing over billions to bankers and letting them then go ahead and foreclose on people' homes) is hardly "anti-progressive".

There are no questions on people's attitudes towards Iraq and Af-Pak either. So this study is, to my way of thinking, not all that convincing that we have become a progressive nation. I'm not saying we don't, it is just that this study, while encouraging doesn't seem to seal the deal.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Richard Haass, Torture, and the Law

Thomas Riggins

Last Friday Richard Haass published an op ed in the Wall Street Journal (5-1-2009) entitled, "The Interrogation Memos and the Law" in which he maintains that it would be a bad idea to prosecute the Bush administration people in the Justice department who wrote the memos justifying torture. He was himself a member of the Bush administration at one time and is now president of the Council of Foreign Relations, one of the foremost imperialist think tanks.

His reasoning leaves much to be desired as the following few examples indicate. Prosecuting the torture mongers "would have a chilling effect on future U.S. government officials", he says. I should hope so! Future officials need to know they are not above the law and if they engage in criminal activities they will be treated accordingly.

Haass thinks future officials will be afraid to come up with "daring proposals" that might be "judged illegal." This is baloney. The U.S. is party to treaties that already outlaw the use of torture. Bush administration cronies guilty of violating already existing laws should have no special immunity. Torture is certainly a "daring idea" but not one we really want our government officials to come up with-- it's illegal.

Haass says that prosecution would discourage people writing memos on "controversial matters." This is ridiculous. Torture should not be "controversial"-- it is against both domestic and international law and those who engaged in it and promoted it should face the consequences of their actions.

Haass also says prosecution would also distract us from more serious problems-- as if having top officials in the government and justice department promoting and justifying torture is not a "serious" problem.

The "best and brightest" won't want to serve in government, Haass says, if they might be prosecuted for criminal activity at a later date. Haass has to be one the few people these days who thinks the people in the Bush administration were the "best and brightest." Quite the opposite I should think.

"If we are not careful," he warns, about scaring off the "best and brightest" then "we will get the government we deserve, but not the government we need." Well Bush gave us a government we neither deserved nor needed.
If prosecution can keep Bush types out of government-- Good!


Thomas Riggins

Discussion Seventeen Hsuan-tsang [Xuanzang] in a series on Chinese Philosophy

“How are you today Fred? I’ve been looking over Fung Yu-lan’s exposition of Hsuan-tsang’s thought. Its pretty complicated.”

“You’re telling me? Nevertheless, we should have a go at it. I’ve read over Chan and am ready to give it the old college try.”

“Let’s go.”

“I’ll start with background based on Chan’s introductory remarks. Hsuan-tsang (596-644) was quite a character. He entered a Buddhist monastery when he was thirteen. Then moved around China studying under different masters. Finally he went off to India to study Buddhism at its source and with Sanskrit masters. He spent over ten years in India, wrote a famous book about his journey, and returned to China with over six hundred original manuscripts. He spent the rest of his life with a group of translators rendering seventy five of the most important works into Chinese. All of this work was sponsored by the Emperor of the newly established T’ang Dynasty.”

“Sounds like he had an interesting life.”

“He certainly did, but too short. He died in his forty eighth year. He created what Chan calls the ‘most philosophical of Buddhist schools.’ It is called the ‘Consciousness-Only School’ and is based on the Indian Buddhist school, founded by Asanga (c.410-500) and his brother Vasubandhu (c.420-500), known as Yogacara (way of Yoga). What Hsuan-tsang did, among other things, was to take a major work of Vasubandhu, Treatise in Thirty Verses on Consciousness-Only (Vijnatimatratrimshika), plus ten commentaries on it, including that of Dharmapala (439-507), add his own views, stir all this together and come up with his own concoction called Ch’eng-wei-shih lun (Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Consciousness-Only). This work was in Sanskrit , Vijnaptimatratasiddhi, but was translated into Chinese by his student K’ue-chi (632-682) who wrote sixty chapters of commentary based on his translation notes. This is the Ch’eng-wei-shih lun shu-chi (Notes on the Treatise on the Establishment of the Doctrine of Consciousness-Only). Chan says we couldn’t really understand Hsuan-tsang without it.”

“Great. Now we are going to try to understand him based on our own notes from Chan, Fung and a few others.”

“That’s how it goes Karl.”

“Well, finish up on Chan’s intro so we can get to the text.”

“OK. In outline, it goes like this. Humans have eight forms of consciousness which are (1-5) the different senses, (6) a concept forming ‘sense-center’ which organizes the raw data of the senses into ordered ideas, (7) a willing and reasoning consciousness or ‘thought-centered’/ self-centered one, and finally (8) one called the “storehouse” or alaya consciousness.”

“What’s that last one? Is it ‘memory’?”

“Much more than that. It's not memory in any conventional Western sense which would be in number seven.”

“So why is called alaya?”

“It's called alaya because all the other ones are ‘stored’ in this one. All these eight consciousnesses are in constant flux. Chan says, ‘It is so called because it stores the “seed” or effects of good and evil deeds which exist from time immemorial and become the energy to produce manifestation. This storehouse consciousness is in constant flux, constantly “perfumed” (influenced) by incoming perceptions and cognitions from external manifestations. At the same time, it endows perceptions and cognitions with the energy of the seeds, which in turn produce manifestations.’”

“Let me chime in here with some Fung. He says, ‘According to the teachings of this school, all sentient beings suffer from two erroneous beliefs: that in the subjective existence of an ego or atman (wo), and that in the objective existence of external things or dharmas (fa). The purpose of the [Consciousness-Only] or Wei-shih school is to destroy these two beliefs by showing that both are equally unreal (empty or shunya). Thus the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun maintains that what we call the “ego” and “things” have “only a false basis and lack any real nature of their own”; their manifestations are “all mental representations dependent upon the evolutions of consciousness.”’”

“Very interesting. Is that it?”

“No, Fung also gives Ku’ei-chi’s comment, which is a good gloss on your quote from Chan. Namely: ‘From this (it may be seen that) the inner consciousness is not, in its essential nature, non-existent, whereas the ego and things, considered as external to the mind, are not, in their essential nature existent. In this way we exclude the heterodox doctrine which clings to the additional reality of objects aside from the mind; we also exclude the erroneous view which, because it wrongly believes in “emptiness,” sets aside consciousness itself as non-existent, thus reducing (everything) to “emptiness.” Equally to avoid (the dogmas of) “emptiness” on the one hand and “being” on the other: this is what the School of [Consciousness-Only] teaches.’”

“That’s great. So we know the alaya is the fundamental consciousness. The other seven are ‘in’ it. Now we must note the three transformations that are always going on as well. The first is just the alaya-vijnana (storehouse consciousness) itself. The second is the transformation brought about by the ‘thought-centered consciousness’ which objectifies the alaya-vijnana as the ‘self’-- specifically as a personal self ‘always accompanied by the evils of self-interest.’ The third is the result of the actions of the senses and the co-ordinator of the senses (the sixth consciousness) constructing out of the alaya-vijnana (unconsciously) an external world (illusory as ‘external’). ‘Because these six consciousnesses,’ Chan says, ‘ have external things [he means so called ‘external’ things] as their objects, they are conditioned by them and are therefore crude, superficial and discontinuous.’”

“Let me interrupt here Fred. This is the place, I think, for me to jump in with my notes from the Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion as they clarify much of what you have said.”

“Go ahead. I welcome the relief.”

“In Chinese this school is called Fa-hsiang or ‘Marks of Existence School.’ Remember the Chinese use ‘fa’ for ‘dharma.’ Let’s take up with the ‘thought-centered’ consciousness, number seven. This is the go between the first six and number eight-- the alaya-vijnana. The ‘self’ arises in this interaction so I’m just going to refer to this seventh type of consciousness as the ‘Ego.’ For this school, the task is to overcome the Ego, recognize the ‘illusory nature of the world’ and thus gain enlightenment -- that is to become bodhi (‘awakened’) so it is suggested that awakening is a better term to use.”

“Awakening to what? To the ultimate ‘Truth’?”

“That is correct Fred. There are three levels of ‘Truth.’ Namely, 1) The Parikalpita level: ‘that which is imagined or conceptualized.... that which people take to be the “objective” world is imagined or conceptualized; i.e., this world is illusory and deceptive; it exists only as a semblance but not as a true reality.’”

“So this is like Kant I suppose-- the noumenal world and the phenomenal world of appearances. I think we can sort of accept this, Karl, if we think of the everyday world on the one hand and the worlds explained by science on the other. What is the second level?”

“The Paratantra level: ‘The level of “contingent nature”.... on this level dharmas enjoy only temporary existence, since everything that arises contingently (i.e., interdependently) possesses neither self-nature nor “reality”....’”

“This is a special use of ‘reality,’ I guess.”

“Yes, somewhat like Plato’s. The ‘real’ is self-subsistent and eternal as well as external-- the objects in the realm of the ideas (the forms) for Plato. Everything in our empirical world is in flux and change, so by this definition ultimately unreal. I think we can accept this level also.”

“What’s the last level?”

“The Tathata (suchness) level: ‘central notion of the Mahayana referring to the absolute, the true nature of things. Tathata is generally explained as being immutable, immobile, and beyond all concepts and distinctions. “Suchness” is the opposite of “that which is apparent”-- phenomena.’ This is the Absolute Reality.”

“Very similar to Kant in many respects Karl.”

“I think so. The noumenal realm is beyond our ability to comprehend (Kant)-- pure reason breaks down. Buddhists can become mystical here but they really don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t say that disparagingly but as a consequence of their own doctrines.”

“Well, this is all very interesting, but Chan points out this school did not have much of a future in China.”

“And why is that?”

“For two reasons. First, it was too ‘Indian.’ Chan says both it and the Three Treatise School we discussed yesterday were simply Indian schools transplanted into China where they ultimately didn’t mesh with the Chinese ‘psyche,’ if I can put it that way. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the school didn’t believe that all people were capable of salvation! As Chan says, it lost prestige ‘because it advocated that some people, being devoid of Buddha-nature, can never achieve Buddhahood, thus clearly betraying the Mahayana ideal of universal salvation.’ This was a really big objection.”

“Are we ready to hit the texts?”

“Yes. I’m going to quote from eight selections from Hsuan-tsang’s Ch’eng wei-shih lun.”

“So what’s the first selection?”

“Its called The Nonexistence of the Self and in it Hsuan-tsang says: ‘Both the world and sacred doctrines declare that the self and dharmas are merely constructions based on false ideas and have no reality of their own.... On what basis are [the self and dharmas] produced. Their characters are all constructions based on the evolution and transformation of consciousness....’”

“Is there a comment?”

“Yes. Chan says: ‘The denial of the ego is the starting point of Buddhist philosophy in general and the Consciousness-Only School in particular. The idealism of Berkeley and that of this school are very much alike. But while Berkeley’s philosophy is built on the assumption of individual minds and therefore finds itself in an “ego-centric predicament.” Buddhist idealism rejects the ego to start with and is therefore able to be free from solipsism.’”

“Fred, we should note that Berkeley also escapes from solipsism as he has more than just individual minds. He rejects ‘matter’ and thinks things only exist as objects of mentation-- esse est percepi- to be is to be perceived- but everything is perceived by the mind of God. Even for Hsuan-tsang there is an ‘ego’-- it's just not the ultimate reality which is the alaya-vijnana.”

“Here is the second selection: The Nonexistence of Dharmas. I’m not going to quote from this selection. You remember the comment I quoted from Chan yesterday when we discussed Chi-tsang. I mean his point on the ‘Four Points of Argumentation.’”

“You mean all that ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes and no.’ ‘neither yes nor no’ type of argumentation. I remember.”

“Well, in the same way Chi-tsang used the Four Points to refute our ordinary conceptions of causality, Hsuan-tsang uses them to argue for the nonexistence of dharmas. The point is, of course, not the absolute nonexistence of dharmas -- but rather that they are phenomenal not noumenal. Chan says, ‘The Four Points of Argumentation are ... employed to refute the doctrines of existence of dharmas. Whether the logic is sound or not, it cannot be denied that Buddhist thinking is rational and methodical, absolutely contrary to the common belief, even among some scholars, that the only mental activity of the Buddhist is intuition. It is significant that in a school chiefly concerned with the thinking process, the rationalistic and methodical elements are so strong.’”

“An interesting point Fred. The rationalistic aspect of Buddhist argumentation is often neglected.”

“Time to move on to selection three: The First Transformation of Consciousness. Here is a quote: [I]t is clear that the self and dharmas separated from consciousness conceived by the heterodoxical and other schools are all unreal.... From this we ought to know that there is really no external sphere of objects. There is only inner consciousness which produced what seems to be the external sphere....’”

“This is Descartes’ Evil Demon with a vengeance!”

“And without the demon. “The characters transformed by consciousness are infinite in variety, but the consciousnesses that transform can be divided into three kinds. The first is the consciousness where fruits ripen at a later time. It is the eighth consciousness. [It is so called] because it possesses in abundance the nature to ripen at later times. The second is called deliberation. It is the seventh consciousness. [It is so-called] because it is continuously in the process of deliberation. The third is called the consciousness that discriminates spheres of objects. It is the same as the first six consciousnesses (the five sense-consciousnesses and the sense-center consciousness. [It is so called] because it discriminates gross spheres of objects....’”

“Vasubandhu called this first (the eighth) the ‘storehouse consciousness’ (alaya-vijnana). This is the fundamental root of all consciousness and it contains the ‘seeds’ of all that we will later experience as the ‘external’ world. The other consciousnesses are responsible for our conception of an ‘external’ world by the way they interact with the alaya-vijnana and cause as it were the germination of the seeds. This process is called ‘perfuming.’”

“That seems to be what is going on Karl. Hsung-tsang says, ‘The act of enabling the seeds that lie within what is perfumed (the storehouse consciousness) to grow, as the hemp plant is perfumed, is called perfuming. As soon as the seeds are produced, the consciousnesses which can perfume become in their turn causes which perfume and produce seeds. The three dharmas (the seeds, the manifestations, and perfuming) turn on and on, simultantaneously acting as cause and effect....’”

“I wonder how much the hemp plant had to do with this. At any rate, this is a perpetual transformation.”

“Yes it is and from it arise what we experience as the four realms of existence, the five stages of transmigration, and the four kinds of living beings.”

“What are you talking about?”

“This is the medieval or ancient Buddhist world view-- their pre-scientific outlook on reality. Here, this will make it clear. This is how Chan puts it in a footnote. ‘In Buddhism, there are four realms which constitute the substances of all existence: earth, water, fire, and air; the five stages of transmigration: the hells, those of ghosts, animals, human beings, and heavenly beings; the four kinds of beings: those produced from the womb, from eggs, from moisture, and through metamorphosis. The Consciousness-Only School, because it denies the reality of the self and dharmas, regards all these as constructions of consciousness.’”

“Well, indeed, I agree this is a construction of consciousness! The ‘four realms’ are the same primary elements of the Greeks (Empedocles). Today we have the Periodic Table. We can’t take transmigration seriously from a scientific point of view, and hells, ghosts, and heavenly beings are definitely out in any case. The ‘four kinds of beings’ is also a group to revise in the light of modern biology. But even then, the modern scientific world view will be considered as only a ‘construction of consciousness.’ I think this would require that the alaya-vijnana be the universal first principle of the world.”

“Lets see. Hsuan-tsang says, ‘By “transformation” is meant that this consciousness [the alaya], from time immemorial, comes into and goes out of existence every moment and changes both before and after, for while it goes out of existence as cause, it comes into existence as effect, and thus is neither permanent nor one.... Being like a violent torrent, it neither comes to an end nor is eternal. As it continues for a long time, some sentient beings will float and others will sink. It is the same with this consciousness....’”

“And I have no idea what that would be like.”

“I don’t think anyone has. Here is an interesting comparison to Hume made by Chan. ‘The theory that consciousness is a constant stream of ideas inevitably reminds one of Hume. The comparison between him and the Consciousness-Only School has been made by Fung Yu-lan among others. Both that school and Hume hold that the mind is nothing but a stream of ideas, that ideas are governed by a causal relationship, and that the external world is ultimately unreal [this may be too much of a claim as to what Hume says]. But Buddhism is free from the skepticism of Hume, for Nirvana is realizable through spiritual cultivation. Furthermore, in Buddhism, but not in Hume, the source of ideas is known and can be controlled.’”

“Fred, I don’t think this quite right. You can’t really say that Hume held to the unreality of the external world. That’s too positive for a skeptic. What he holds is that all our ideas come from impressions of sense but he doesn’t claim to know where these originate-- externally or internally. This is a far cry from claiming that the external world is unreal.”

“Now I’m going to turn to selection four, The Second Transformation of Consciousness.”


“Here Hsuan-tsang explains how the thought- centered consciousness interacts with the alaya-vignana. He writes:
‘...Spontaneously this thought-centered consciousness perpetually takes the storehouse consciousness as an object and is associated with the four basic defilements. What are the four? They are self-delusion, self-view, self-conceit, and self-love. These are the four. Self-delusion means ignorance, lack of understanding of the character of the self, and being unenlightened about the principle of the non-self. Therefore it is called self-delusion. Self-view means clinging to the view that the self exists, erroneously imagining certain dharmas to be the self that are not the self. Therefore it is called self-view. Self-conceit means pride. On the strength of what is being clung to as the self, it causes the mind to feel superior and lofty. It is therefore called self-deceit. Self-love means a greedy desire for the self. It develops deep attachment to what is clung to as the self. It is therefore called self-love.... These four defilements constantly arise and pollute the inner mind and cause the [six] other transforming consciousnesses {the five senses and the self-centered consciousness}to be continuously defiled. Because of this, sentient beings are bound to the cycle of life and death and transmigration and cannot be free from them. Hence they are called defilements.’”

“I can see the benefit of trying to overcome these ‘defilements’ Fred. Not because of any imaginary ‘transmigration’ but just in terms of living a calmer and happier life here and now. If you want to take the cycle of life and death and transmigration in a philosophical way-- in this case metaphorically-- we can say that these defilements of an individual are spread about things (s)he comes into contact with and this perpetuates the cycle. ‘Transmigration’ is just a poetical way of talking about how we can transmit influences from our own lives to those of others. If my self-love influences your self-love then, in a manner of speaking, a little bit of me is ‘reincarnated’ or has transmigrated to you. Let us not, like hoi polloi, take these images literally.”

“I agree Karl. We must transcend the literal meaning to get any insight from this way of thinking. I would also maintain this has to be done with all religious writings-- not just Buddhism.”

“What a world of misery would be overcome if people only understood this.”

“Now I’m going on to the fifth selection, The Third Transformation of Consciousness. This is the relation of the five senses plus the sense-centered or coordinating consciousness. Hsuan puts it this way: ‘The root consciousness is the storehouse consciousness because it is the root from which all pure and impure consciousnesses grow.... By ‘causes’ are meant rising activities of the mind, the sense organs, and spheres of objects. It means that the five consciousnesses arise and manifest themselves, internally based on the root consciousness and externally as a result of a combination of the causes like the rising activities of the mind, the five sense organs, and spheres of objects.’”

“This is fairly confusing, especially when he says the ‘causes’ behind the activities of the mind are both ‘internal’ and ‘external.’ If you hold to consciousness-only there is no ‘external’-- only an apparent external. The external should be an illusion produced by the sense-centered consciousness.”

“You think Hsuan-tsang is confusing? This comment by Chan is just as confusing. ‘[T]he primary concern of the school has always been on characters of dharmas. In accepting them as real, is not quite Mahayana and has therefore been regarded as quasi-Hinayana which, generally speaking, accepts the external world as real. One wonders if the Chinese refusal to regard the world as illusory did not have something to do with the school’s position.’”

“But Fred, this is an Indian school transplanted into China. Chan has already established that this is one of the reasons it failed to ultimately catch on. I don’t know about calling it ‘quasi-Hinayana.’ The problem has to to with the concept ‘real.’ If ‘real’ means ultimately reducible to the alaya-vijnana, then the dharmas are ‘real’ and one doesn’t have to say the world is illusory. The same as with Berkeley. There is no matter. The tree is a percept. Everything ultimately exists because it is a perception in God’s mind. That doesn’t make the things illusory, just non-material. I think the same thing goes for what Hsuan-tsang is saying. Maybe Chan is so confusing because he too is a victim of the ‘Chinese refusal."

“Lets look at selection six then: Consciousness -Only. This section begins with a quote from Vasubandhu: "Thus the various concsiousnesses transform and change. Both discrimination (consciousness) and the object of discrimination Are, because of this, unreal. For this reason, everything is consciousness only." This is explicated thusly by Hsuan-tsang: ‘”The various consciousnesses” refer to the three transforming consciousnesses previously discussed and their mental qualities. They can all transform and appear as the perceiving and the perceived portions. The term “transformation” is thus employed.... Therefore everything produced from causes, and everything seemingly real or unreal, are all inseparable from consciousness. The word “only” is intended to deny that there are real things separated from consciousness, but not to deny that there are mental qualities, dharmas, and so forth inseparable from consciousness. The word “transform” means that the various inner consciousnesses transform and manifest the characters which seem to be the external spheres of the self and dharmas.... Therefore everything is consciousness only, because erroneous discrimination in itself is admitted as a fact. Since “only” does not deny the existence of dharmas not separated from consciousness, therefore true Emptiness [mental qualities--K’uei-chi] and so forth have the nature of being. In this way we steer away from the two extremes of holding that dharmas are real [although they have no natures of their own] or holding that dharmas are unreal [although they do function as causes and effects], establish the principle of Consciousness-Only, and hold correctly to the Middle Path.’”

“These quotes, Fred, clear up the issue we just discussed about the confusion between ‘internal’ and ‘external.’ There really is no ‘external.’ It also clarifies that Chan comment about the dharmas being ‘real.’”

“The next selection concerns several objections raised against the Consciousness-Only School. I’m not going to go over all of them, but since, as Hsuan-tsang says, ‘One’s own principle cannot be established by demolishing those of others,’ I will point out some of his responses to criticisms.”

“I for one am interested in the ‘Two Levels of Truth’ doctrine.”

“His discussion of this point comes from the criticism that if everything is ultimately ‘Emptiness’ then his philosophy of Consciousness-Only is also Empty. He rejects this view. ‘Empty’ is not the same as ‘Nothing.’ It just means the view of hoi polloi that dharmas have real external being is wrong. But consciousness is real. He says, ‘If there were no such consciousness, there would be no worldly (relative) truth, and if there were no worldly truth, there would be no absolute truth, for the Two Levels of Truth are established on the basis of each other. To reject the Two Levels of Truth is to have evil ideas of Emptiness, a disease the Buddhas consider to be incurable. We should realize that some dharmas [which are imagined] are empty and some [which depend on something else, i.e., cause, to be complete-- K’uei-chi] are not....’”

“So why do we think that some dharmas are external?”

“His answer is that, ‘At the time the external spheres are realized through immediate apprehension, they are not taken as external. It is later that the sense-center consciousness discriminates and erroneously creates the notion of externally. Thus the objective spheres immediately apprehended are the perceived portion of the consciousnesses themselves.’”

“So, ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Awakening’ is when we realize that, just as our dreams in sleep, the so-called world of independent reality is really a creation of the mind.”

“Yes. Hsuan-tsang says, ‘This is why the Buddha spoke of the long night of transmigration, because of our failure to understand that the objective spheres of color [and so forth] are consciousness only.’”

“So is there one big mind-- an ocean of consciousness-- or just individual minds?”

“There appear to be many individual streams of consciousness. I think the best view is that the alaya-vijnana of each person is always an endless stream. Individuals are perfumed seeds that develop from the the other seven consciousness interaction with the alaya as temporary aggregates. They dissolve eventually back into the stream. Then a new ‘Ego’ is perfumed. Reincarnation may be that the new aggregate contains reperfumed seeds from the old aggregate-- but there is no permanent ego or self. I have to agree with Chan when he says, ‘In the final analysis, Buddhism is mysticism and a religion. All speculation is but a way to Nirvana.’”

“That’s it?”

“More or less. There is a final section which is just a lot of quotes from Vasubandhu but we have basically covered this philosophy.”

“OK. What’s on the agenda for tomorrow then?”

“Ch’an Buddhism, better known by its Japanese name of ‘Zen.’ So bone up on it tonight so we can discuss Hui-neng (638 to 713).

“See you tomorrow Fred.”