People want me to write about something other than SARS2, LSWMs or climate change, which is a good idea. I have a fascination for Dharmic religion. As an outsider I’m not going to have anything fundamentally new to offer on this topic for the foreseeable future. I just wish to record my observations based on what I’ve read, this will help me remember what I’ve learned.
The main reason for my interest is because it generally lacks the anthropocentrism you find in Abrahamic religion. Anthropocentrism doesn’t just lead to abuse of non-human animals, it ultimately renders the planet uninhabitable for human beings. Almost all health problems in old age seen in the West are caused by people’s animal based diets, which don’t just make them unhealthy, but make their bodies appear ugly.
Empathy for animals has always come naturally to me, but ultimately Christ just has nothing to say about animals, or at least nothing has been recorded. In the Christian tradition and in Abrahamic religion in general, the experiences that animals go through are an afterthought.
I would argue that Abrahamic religion isn’t just anthropocentric. Rather, it depicts non-human animals as evil. The epitome of evil for most Christians is when the line between human and animal begins to blur. The devil is depicted as half-animal, with hoofs of a goat. In movies like the Omen, the antichrist is depicted as born from a jackal. Medieval paintings too tend to depict demons as animal-like creatures.
The witch in medieval culture is depicted as a woman who fraternizes with animals, rather than with humans. She has a familiar, an animal that she gets along with well. She can turn into an animal when she wants to. She goes out into the forest, to kiss the anus of the devil, who appears like a monstrous goat. Christianity teaches us a dualist view of the world. This dualism, when combined with the tendency to ascribe animal characteristics to evil forces, encourages us to lack empathy for animals.
American Christians’ greatest anger is typically reserved for experiments that produce human-animal hybrids, rather than for experiments that simply abuse animals. I think the anger for these experiments is ultimately down to the simple fact that our religious tradition makes an arbitrary distinction between human and non-human, that it then never really bothers to elaborate upon.
With all the knowledge that we have today, the arbitrary distinction is very hard to maintain. Why harbor empathy for a human fetus, but not for an adult pig? Even humans born without brains receive rights in the Catholic tradition that are not awarded to animals. When we look at evolution, we see this problem expressed to its ultimate extent. Because of this, protestant Christians who take their faith seriously tend to conclude that evolution itself must be a mistake.
The failure to have empathy for animals seems to me like the greatest failing of our era. Within Dharmic cultures this is generally accepted. In India, the idea of prohibiting people from eating meat is seen as “conservative”. Hindutva groups will insist that local Muslims and Christians shouldn’t be allowed to sell meat during Jain festivals. Leftism and liberalism there means to eat meat.
The Gautama Buddha too discouraged the eating of meat. The countries that are Buddhist today generally never had slaughter houses, where animals are brought to be murdered. In the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, the Buddha is recorded as saying that animals who live around meat-eating humans exist in a constant state of fear. The animals can smell the foul scent of such humans and thus whenever they encounter them, they fear they are about to be murdered.
The Buddha here says that the constant wandering into births and deaths, is caused by the eating of meat and cyclical killing. These behaviors increase greed and anger, thereby making living beings unable to escape suffering. By eating animals, humans constantly murder their own reincarnated relatives. And as a result, they are trapped in constant reincarnation.
When the Buddha explained this, the text goes on to say that ferocious shape-shifting ghosts living on Earth, the Rākshasas, heared him and stopped eating meat. In addition, these ghosts said that they would do great bad things to people they find eating meat.
To the average modern secular Westerner this doesn’t really mean anything. But the reason for that, is a fundamental difference in the perception of the external world. You believe the external world to be real, for your senses to grant you an accurate perception of some objective external reality that goes on around you.
To a Buddhist, this is an illusion, Maya. Your senses deceive you. Through modern science you arrive at the same conclusion if you would follow it consistently. Your brain generates a map of an external world. It is this map that you experience. Whether the map accurately reflects an objectively existing external reality is impossible for you to prove, as you are always only able to interact with the map.
The other thing worth noting about this is that the “bad guys” here are not really forever lost, like demons in Christianity. Rather, the Rākshasas are just ignorant. They don’t understand what’s going on and once the Buddha explains it, they change course and start using their powers to try to reduce suffering. This is a typical thing you see in Buddhism. The Gods too are powerful, but they’re not enlightened the way the Buddha is.
But what fascinates me, is that in almost every religious tradition, you tend to find the phenomenon of people who seek an opposite path towards enlightenment. In the West we tend to call this the left hand path.
The right hand path consists of adjusting to social norms. The left hand path on the other hand, consists of consistently violating such norms. It is naturally going to appeal most to people who have always felt fundamentally at odds with the society they inhabit.
In Hinduism and Buddhism you also see this phenomenon. In Hinduism, the term Dakṣiṇācāra is used, for tantric sects that don’t engage in heterodox practices and follow conventional social norms. On the other hand, Vāmācāra is used for sects that engage in heterodox practices and violate social norms.
An example of a Vāmācāra sect I have mentioned before are the Aghori. The Aghori are devout devotees of Shiva, the destroyer of the Trimurti. They argue that human beings arrive on this world without discriminating, as babies play as happily in filth as with toys.
You notice this in other aspects too. For example, consider eating insects. There’s fundamentally nothing wrong with this practice. Animals like pigs harbor various parasites and germs that can hurt us. Milk contains pus from cows. There’s fundamentally nothing more disgusting about eating a worm or a fly, than eating a pig or drinking milk. As a child I didn’t understand why we don’t eat insects, the idea did not repulse me. We’re taught to make distinctions, which we then start to see as self-evident.
The Aghori are seen as an extremely Tamasic sect. To understand this, you have to understand the theory of the three gunas, which underlies most of Indian philosophy. Everything in our universe is composed of a mixture of three natures: Rajas, Sattva and Tamas.
Rajas is becoming. Sattva is. Tamas is ceasing to be. And so Rajasic foods are stimulating, whereas Tamasic foods are sedating. Sattvic foods on the other hand, are seen as proper for a Yogic diet. Meat is a Tamasic kind of food. Tamasic foods sedate human consciousness, reducing our awareness of the laws of karma, the consequences of our actions. In Indian culture it is thus generally encouraged to use such foods sparingly, only when necessary.
The interesting thing about the theory of the three Gunas, is that it clashes with the dualistic view of the world we inherit from the Christian tradition. Rather than everything being either good or evil, you think of everything as either becoming, being, or ceasing to be. There are dualist conceptions of the world within the body of Hindu schools of thought, but most emphasize the non-duality of existence.
And the Aghori, as an extremely tamasic sect that revels in darkness and decay, pursue the extremes of tamasic taboos. They do not just eat flesh, the most tamasic of human foods. They fish bodies out of the river, to eat the flesh of human corpses, the most tamasic of flesh.
They also take drugs that reduce our consciousness. They take alcohol, cannabis and most remarkably, they ingest Datura seeds, which contain an anticholinergic drug. You can find plenty of trip reports, where people describe the experiences they have when taking Datura. All of these experiences tend to fit what you would expect in extremely tamasic conditions.
I should note that the Aghori are a tiny almost extinct minority, they are in no way representative of the mainstream of Hindu tradition. Additionally, the Aghori revel in their reputation. To find an Aghori is a bit like finding a Satanist in the West.
You’re bound to run into a lot of people who look really interesting in photographs (I’m not going to bother sharing those) and invent all sorts of fanciful backgrounds for themselves, but ultimately have nothing of substance to offer. In addition, you’re going to hear all sorts of contradictory narratives.
Convergently, within Tibetan Buddhism we also see a similar phenomenon emerge: Chöd. This seems to have begun with a female Buddhist nun, Machig Labdrön, who lived in the 11th century AD, although it may predate Buddhism and have inherited elements from the indigenous Tibetan religion, Bön.
It’s worth noting that to be a nun in Buddhism means something different from the traditional Western image of a nun, of a woman who commits herself to be Christ’s lifelong chaste bride. To be a Buddhist nun doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment. Labdrön studied Buddhism as a teenager in a monastery, eventually left to marry and have children, then later on became a nun again.
Machig Labdrön is a very remarkable figure. She is not just a rare example of a female Vajrayana master. She is seen as the originator of the first authentic Buddhist teachings that don’t originate in India, but began in Tibet. Until Labdrön, all the Dharmas in Tibet originated in India. Hers is unique, in that it originated in Tibet, from where it spread to India.
Buddhism is full of accounts of demons, but in Labdrön’s conception, all these frightening demons are just mental constructs, that serve as obstructions to freedom. And the greatest of all demons is said to be attachment to the ego, which prevents a person from achieving enlightenment.
But interestingly enough, Labdrön also reverses the idea of demons and Gods. Her son was a thief and she told him that demons bestow you with presents to prevent you from practicing Dharma, whereas those who give you pain teach you patience. In this conception the demons bestow people with pleasure, thereby trapping us in cycles of reincarnation.
When you look at Chöd, you see a lot of the same practices emerge that emerged among the radical Shaivites of the Aghori. The practitioners aim to overcome their fear and to achieve this, they put themselves in positions that would naturally terrify people. The practitioners may seek out charnel grounds, where they will spend days, fall asleep and carefully observe the various stages of decay of the bodies left there. All of this serves to prepare them for their ultimate ritual: Visualization of the Ganachakra, a ritual feast where all taboos are violated.
When I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, he suggested there is an apparent paradox in the Buddha’s goal of enlightenment. To find enlightenment requires the cessation of clinging to desires. And yet, to seek enlightenment is a desire itself. This apparent paradox is not hard to recognize.
I think the way to resolve it, is to come to the conclusion that enlightenment is not something you seek out. Rather, it is something that overcomes you. It happens once you are exhausted with this world, once it has no temptations that lead to attachment left to offer.
And so if you follow this logic, I wonder if you can apply it to the Tamasic left-hand path practiced by groups like the Aghori and the Chöd practitioners. Rather than seeking out stimulation that carries a karmic debt, in the sense that your actions impose suffering on others, you impose negative emotions like fear and disgust on yourself.
These sects seek out increasingly more frightening and disgusting ways of interaction with the world. Then finally, once they have visualized it all, once they have witnessed it all up close, the world has nothing left to terrorize them with anymore. Then there is nothing left to trap them with in this realm, no debt left to pay.