Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Samatha Practice — A Study Guide

This is based on the introductory chapters from
Alan Wallace, “The Four Immeasurables”

Foundation of Practice – Ethics

The fundamental obstacle of the spiritual path is delusion, the mental afflictions that distort or twist the window of the mind so that we misconstrue reality. The Tibetan word for an adept is drang song, meaning straight, not twisted. While the antidote for hatred, self-centredness and indifference is loving kindness, the antidote to delusion is insight.

The perception of self without identity — this does not mean self does not exist but that it is not separate and autonomous — realized as an experience (not just as a philosophy) can be a precious treasure and utterly transformative, or it may be perceived as the loss of the greatest possible treasure. If the latter, then meditation is time not very well spent! Some groundwork is therefore needed to ensure insight can be welcomed so that it enriches and empowers rather than giving you a sense of existential impoverishment. In inter-relationship, our ego softens. This is not self-negation, but rather self-contextualization. It is possible to get tantalizing glimpses that drift away elusively, like smelling something cooking. Some groundwork is needed so that we can sustain our realizations and they are not reduced to mere episodes in memory. If worthwhile, how much more so to enter repeatedly, deepen, and let it saturate your experience. With continuity and clarity, this is radically transformative. Otherwise, it is mere flirtation.

Ethical discipline is the via negativa, entailing a quality of protection, that allows our efforts in spiritual practice to take root and flourish. The 253 precepts of the Buddhist monk all come down to a single precept: avoid inflicting harm on yourself or others. As our wholesome qualities become stronger, the virtue of our own mind protects itself and the need for discipline falls away. An enlightened being can be utterly spontaneous without restraint. When we notice our minds occupied by an affliction, the eighth century bodhisattva Santideva counsels us to stop and do nothing. Do not repress or pretend it’s not there, just pause, be present and wait until it passes. Restraint is not eradication, but a kind of quarantine. It helps prevent the illness of a thought or of a person from spreading to other thoughts or persons until we find the cure.

The positive approach is the guidance of intuition, opening up to all the insight, love and realization that is latently present. The purpose of spiritual practice is merely to awaken and bring forth the limitless potential for compassion, insight and power. The metaphor is of the cosmic atom-splitter revealing Buddha nature within each atom. The sense is of discovery rather than cultivation, a simple unveiling rather than arduous effort. If the heart leaps to affirm something positive beyond your knowledge, then don’t forsake it.

It is said that when the wisdom of the mind has been completely unveiled, you can raise a question, attend to it, and the truth will become evident. It is said that a Buddha’s compassion for every sentient being is like that of a mother. It extends like an ocean: even, calm, embracing, and with an ocean’s depth of concern and caring. It is said that a Buddha’s mind has extraordinary power, a power that can engage with the physical world to transform reality. In so emphasizing our material power, we have, perhaps inevitably, de-emphasized the power of the mind. “…if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” When Jesus said that, he was speaking literally of the power of the Holy Spirit.

The foundation of ethical discipline is so simple that if we care for that foundation, a lot will become evident, but if we skip it, the foundation is missing. Note that it’s a matter of restraint, rather than doing good. When we try to avoid things that cause harm, the goodness arises in and of itself. This may seem negative, but the implicit message is very optimistic. This may be experienced first-hand without any deep mystical realization with regard to quiescence of the mind. In so far as the mind is free of turbulence and torpor, a sense of well-being and calm arises from your mind. Knowing that well-being is not utterly dependent on things outside your control is a great insight. It gives us back our freedom.

The jewel in the lotus, Om Mani Padme Hum is a wonderful metaphor for the essential nature of the mind. It integrates two very different approaches, that of engaging in practice, and that of recognizing the perfection that is already there. The mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is associated with Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of enlightened compassion. Om signifies the manifest body, speech and mind. Mani in Sanskrit means “jewel”. Padme, pronounced pémé in Tibetan, means “in the lotus”. Hum, pronounced by the Tibetans as hoong, is a syllable suggesting the transcendent deepest essential nature of consciousness. On the one hand, “Strive diligently!”, on the other, “the jewel is right there!”.

As you chant the mantra, bring out the poetry of the metaphor. Imagine this jewel of the purity and perfection of your own Buddha-nature as a pearl of white light emanating from your heart and suffusing your body from the inexhaustible source of joy and compassion, so that your body becomes this light. Then let the light spread forth in all directions, bringing the same quality of purification, joy and compassion to those individuals and communities in the world who most need it.

There are three major emphases in traditional Buddhist practice: ethics, stabilizing the mind, and insight practice. All too often, the first hardly even gets mentioned; we skip past the kid’s stuff. Many come away from ten-day retreats with their lives radically changed by insights into avenues of experience they never knew were possible. The experience is valuable, but also fragile. The stronger the ethical grounding, the longer the half-life of the practice before it degenerates after the retreat, faced with real-world challenges. Not-harming is an on-going introspection throughout the day. That is not to say we need to be too hard on ourselves. A gentle approach fares best, and over time our need for indulgences will fall away. It’s a matter of timing. If an indulgence seems redundant or pointless, it probably is. That is the time to drop it. All of this is a path of freedom, not just a path to freedom, as we begin to be able to free ourselves from compulsive behaviour.


Entering Practice – 
Peaceful Concentration

What impedes the flowering of loving kindness? I have no answers, but one thing which certainly bears on the issue is our sense of inadequacy and neediness with which we engage with other people, and in so doing objectify them. This is the realm of the eight mundane concerns: our desire for material acquisitions, pleasurable stimuli, praise and acknowledgment, and our fear for the opposites of these four. A mind that reaches out to other people to provide what it seems to lack itself is a mind ignorant of its own resources for peace and happiness. Through attention to something as simple as our breath, we may learn to recognize and experientially come to know that there is nothing we need.

The purpose of samatha meditation is to make the mind serviceable, that however you wish to use it, it is fit for purpose. The dysfunctional mind is heavy, stiff, dark and prone to negative influences. The samatha mind is buoyant, light, stable and clear, ready to devote itself to the cultivation of wholesome qualities.

Abide in the moment, and rest your awareness on the tactile sensations of your body. Do a body scan from the contact of your body to the ground to your head and back to the ground. Witness the sensations of your breath as it enters deep within your belly and then out again. Soften your abdomen. Observe the shallow breath that is felt only in the abdomen, the deeper breath that raises your diaphragm, and the yet deeper breath that moves up into the chest. Then move your attention just to the point of entry of the breath at the mouth or nostrils, and rest with the rhythm of the oscillation, noting particularly the sensation just following the in-breath and just prior to the out-breath. Let your awareness rest in this soothing place.

There are three keys to the practice of meditation to attain peaceful mind: relaxation, stability and vividness. In two words, peaceful concentration.

Relaxation is the beginning of the end to distraction, not directed concentration, but rather the resting of awareness from its roamings. Instead of clamping down on mental agitation and distraction, we release it and return to the rhythm of the breath. Especially on the out-breath, release the energy and effort you are expending on distraction letting it blow away like the autumn leaves, and so that it’s as if the body breathe itself. Can we witness without trying to control? This is not just a superficial problem. Can we just let go and like a surfer ride the wave from the end of the out-breath to the beginning of the in-breath. Posture is very important; the breath effortless, the mind awake. You can also do this lying flat on your back, the spine slightly extended by stretching out at the chin and tail-bone. Shoulders relaxed, face relaxed, eyes soft. Each breath is an adventure. Can you relax fully for one full cycle? This would be a great accomplishment. Can you do better?

One breath after another, and we attain continuity. The main problem is the unwitting disengagement of the mind from the breath or gross excitation as it attends to something else. It is time now to attain stability. Keep going, but gently, without losing the quality of relaxation. Discipline is valuable, but not if you sacrifice the sense of ease.

With good continuity, of five, ten, twenty minutes or more, it’s almost certain that a laxity or complacency sets in, called laya, a feeling of deep settling like sinking into a huge armchair. The third and crucial component is vividness. It gives a feeling of being on a high. If the vividness lacks stability, it is fragile and tends to collapse, so just as relaxation must precede stability, stability must precede vividness. Sustain ease, maintain focus, and then when you find the first trace of laxity setting in, observe more closely, increase the sense of interest, even imagine flooding your body with light. If necessary, wash your face with cold water, or switch to objects of meditation which inspire, uplift and invigorate you. Breath awareness is the staple, but some prefer more complex visualizations. In the case of the latter, imagine turning up the brightness of the object by a million volts. Laxity is conquered by the vividness of illumination.

If the attention and breath can move like two dancers, without one grabbing the other and pulling it around, then there is not much space left for a gross sense of ego. The fine-tuning of samatha requires you to be so much in the moment that you are very near insight practice, and it’s relatively easy to develop one from the other.

Overcoming laxity is difficult. Try shortening your practice. Recall your original motivation. If you can start to get a taste of vividness along with continuity, then it will be much easier to keep going as the meditation reaps its own rewards in a sense of well-being. It is also useful to meditate in a bright environment, and to imagine inner light. When the mind closes down it needs to be centred with effort. Bring in some high-voltage awareness.

The practice of samatha meditation seeks not only controlled attention, but also mastery, so that we have the freedom to place it where we choose. William James is very insightful on the subject, as are the Buddhist teachings. The Tibetans distinguish between mindfulness and introspection. The sole task of mindfulness is to attend to the object with continuity. Introspection serves rather like quality control, checking on how it’s going. Note that the latter is not continuous, but an intermittent pause, for example if we notice gross excitation or agitation and the object of meditation is forgotten. With practice, this doesn’t arise any more, but still there may be a chatter of subtle excitation about the edges. This too disappears in time. Like a row of dominoes, the spaces in between the moments of mindfulness get smaller and smaller until it is fixed in a smooth continuous chain. Laxity is now almost bound to arise. The Tibetan word for it bying ba literally means “sinking”, and you need introspection to detect this. Then you need to add a spark of vividness. Even when vivid, a subtle degree of laxity may remain in which the object does not have full intensity. Gross and subtly laxity overcome, you no longer need introspection and it is even a hindrance. A feeling arises of just being. No more needs to be done. And yet, do not be premature about this.

Subject and object break down and you are left with the pure experience. This is the beginning of samatha. It is an advanced state, peaceful and incredibly creative. What to do with the ideas that arise in it? Just hold onto the spark. When you come out of meditation, you can let that spark re-ignite. Write down the ideas, follow them through as you like, and come back with a sense of completion. Sometimes buried difficulties will arise also. Then it is time for stalking the self, processing them with self-acceptance and compassion. In the words of Tiffany William,

You weren't born to feel guilty all the time. So cheer up,
promise yourself not to make the same mistake again 'cos
it’s your time to SHINE


In summary,

I think the way Wallace imagines the practice is as a sequence of successive refinement of mental circuitry (as we establish greater and greater ability to maintain concentration on the object of our practice, from a relaxed awareness, to the addition of stability as we turn away from distraction, to the addition of vividness as we turn away from laxity), and each time we practice, we make progress, though it may not feel like it. Yet between our practice, we also lose some of that progress. So it's a very simple equation... of building more than we lose... and it's here where ethical foundations help minimize our losses and keep us on track. This is a very goal oriented approach, so we risk falling into a “desire to become” if we are not careful but perhaps it is merely motivation to set us on our way…

So, what do we need in between practice to keep the practice strong? A suitable environment? Perhaps the quietness and spaciousness on the outside can help us to cultivate quietness and spaciousness inside, which is why Tibet became such a centre for spiritual practice in the past. Quietness and spaciousness both come with their opposite urges to fill the space, so this is where we must rest content in our inner space to not be disturbed by their lure. Again and again, we will be attacked by the idolatorous desires such as the eight mundane concerns mentioned already: material things, pleasure, praise, acknowledgement, and fear of the opposite of these four, and no doubt there’s a supra-mundane list also, which will also be worth looking up some time, including such things as the desire for security expressed through ideas and beliefs, and the “desire to become” and the “desire to extinguish”. And as the other Alan, Alan Watts, would say, it is only when the iron bull once and for all rejects the futile attempts of the mosquito to bite its iron hide, that the natural instincts of the mosquito are vanquished. And in the pause, there opens a way for grace and awakening. Or else we keep on biting the same old mind-addictions forever.

Another thing which occurred to me is that the moment immediately after waking is particularly interesting… because it is a natural pause! And our mind seeks to quickly fill that pause with thoughts, often futile or busy, and the movement of our mind after that pause is a powerful sign of our mental addictions. They are mostly harmless probably, and yet they exist. They might change from month to month, and yet they always lurk beneath the surface of consciousness. Are they mundane concerns? Or supra-mundane concerns? Or are we genuinely aware of them as expressions of our purpose. If we are to hope to make any progress, the strength of our practice must be greater than the strength of our mind-addictions, and our greatest aid is awareness and acceptance of their existence. That which is understood is no longer threatening. That which is named is recognised. That which is recognised triggers a reminder in us to "pause", to "stay", to "concentrate". And if we should fail, then to forgive and move on and not make the same mistake again. As Wallace says, the "road to freedom" is in fact a "road of freedom". And the Tibetans are really great! When the completely vivid, stable and tranquil samatha mind is realised, they have another four stages of practice to go beyond it, lol.
Another pause: the moment after you complete something! The mind is addicted to "next, next, next..." and sooner or later our actions follow, "next, next, next..." The authentic action on the other hand is always nestled within the pause and does not seek to end it. It comes from within, instead of coming from without in an attempt to fill a "gap".

But this example is just that of agitation (one of the five hindrances to meditation). The mind is also addicted to day-dreaming, boredom, doubt and aversion, and then the actions follow, either time-wasting or sleepiness, or hesitation, or judgment, so the five hindrances are just as much a reality of life as of meditation.

The rest of Wallace's book is then devoted to the cure to all afflictions of the mind, and that is love. The four immeasurables" of the title are: loving kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity.

Happy practicing!

This is an alternative Zen guide to meditation
Lecture given by master Sheng-yen during the Dec. 1993 Ch'an retreat

(edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller)
Source: Chan Newsletter #106 (Feb. 1995)

The Japanese term "shikantaza" literally means "just sitting." Its original Chinese name mo-chao means "silent illumination." "Silent" refers to not using any specific method of meditation and having no thoughts in your mind. "Illumination" means clarity. You are very clear about the state of your body and mind.

When the method of silent illumination was taken to Japan it was changed somewhat. The name given to it "just sitting" means just paying attention to sitting or just keeping the physical posture of sitting and this was the new emphasis. The word "silent" was removed from the name of the method and the understanding that the mind should be clear and have no thoughts was not emphasized. In silent illumination "just sitting" is only the first step. While you maintain the sitting posture you should also try to establish the "silent" state of the mind. Eventually you reach a point where the mind does not move and yet is very clear. That unmoving mind is "silent" and that clarity of mind is "illumination." This is the meaning of "silent illumination."

Faith in Mind a poem attributed to the Third Patriarch of Ch'an Seng-Ts'an (d. 606) begins with something like this: "The highest path is not difficult so long as you are free of discriminations." "Discriminations" can also be translated as "choices" "selections" or "preferences." The highest path is not difficult if you are free from choosing selecting or preferring. You must keep the mind free from discrimination and attachment. The method in which the mind is kept free from discrimination and attachment is what is called "silence" here. But "silent" does not mean the mind is blank and cannot function. The mind is free from attachment clear and yet it still functions.

We also read in Faith in Mind that "This principle is neither hurried nor slow. One thought for ten thousand years." "This principle" is the mind of wisdom and from its perspective time does not pass quickly or slowly. When we meditate or work we may fall into a worldly samadhi state and feel that time passes very quickly. In an ordinary state we may feel that time passes quickly or slowly. However in the mind of wisdom there is no such thing as slow or hurried time. If we can say there is thought in the mind of wisdom it is an endless thought which never changes. This unchanging thought is no longer thought as we usually understand it. It is the unmoving mind of wisdom.

In the Song of Samatha of Master Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh (665 - 713 also the author of the Song of Enlightenment) two Chinese terms are used which can be translated as "quiescence" and "clarity." Master Yung-chia uses them in two phrases "quiescence and clarity" and "clarity and quiescence." They describe a person whose mind is both clear and unmoving. When an ordinary person's mind is clear and alert it is usually also active and full of scattered thoughts. Quiescence of mind is difficult to maintain. When the mind is quiet it usually is not clear even in a samadhi state. But Yung-chia describes these two states quiescence and clarity as well as clarity and quiescence as goals.

Master Hung-chi Chen-chueh (1091-1157) who invented the term "silent illumination" in his poem the Song of Silent Illumination said this

In silence words are forgotten.
In utter clarity things appear.

"Words are forgotten" means you experience no words no language no ideas and no thought. There is no discrimination. This in combination with the second phrase "In utter clarity everything appears" means that although words language and discrimination do not function everything is still seen heard tasted and so on.

Someone told me that when he uses the Silent Illumination method he eventually gets to a point where there is nothing there and he rests. That is not true Silent Illumination. In Silent Illumination everything is there but the mind is not moving. A person may think he has no thoughts because the coarser wandering thoughts are absent but there will be fine subtle wandering thoughts of which he is unaware. He may think there is nothing there and so stop practicing. In Chinese this is called "Being on the dark side of a mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts." The mountain is dark so there is nothing to see and in the cave of ghosts what can one accomplish?

Now I would like to explain how to use the method of shikantaza. First your posture should be upright. Do not lean in any direction. Be clear about your posture because if you practice shikantaza just sitting at the very least you should be conscientious about sitting. It is also important to remain relaxed.

Next be aware of your body but do not think of it as yourself. Regard your body as a car you drive. You have to handle the car well but it is not you. If you think of your body as yourself you will be bothered by pain itchiness and other vexations. Just take care of the body and be aware of it. The Chinese name for this method can be translated as "just take care of sitting." You have to be mindful of your body as the driver must be mindful of the car but the car is not the driver.

After a period of time the body will sit naturally and cause no problems. Now you can begin to pay attention to the mind. If you were eating your mind should be the "mind of eating" and you would pay attention to that mind. When you are sitting your mind should be the "mind of sitting." You watch this sitting mind. Two different thoughts alternate: the mind of sitting and the mind or thought that watches the mind of sitting. First you watch the body sitting with little attention to the mind. When the body drops away watch the mind. What is the mind? It is the mind of sitting! When your attention dissipates you will lose awareness of this sitting mind and the sensations of the body will return. Then you should again watch the body sitting. Another possibility is that while you watch the mind you fall into a dull state like "Being on the dark side of the mountain in a cave inhabited by ghosts." When you become aware of this situation your bodily sensations return and you should go back to watching them. Thus these two objects of attention the body and the mind are also used alternately.

In the state where you watch the mind are you aware of the external environment sound for example? If you want to hear sound you will and if you do not want to hear sound you won't. At this point you primarily pay attention to your own mind. Although you may hear sounds they do not create discriminations.

There are three stages in this practice. You should start at the beginning and progress to deeper levels. First be mindful of your body. Then be mindful of your mind and of the two thoughts alternating in it. The third stage is enlightenment. The mind is clear and as the poem quoted said "In silence words are forgotten. In utter clarity things appear." When you first practice you will probably be in the first or second level. If you use this method correctly you will not enter into samadhi.

This last point needs clarification. It depends on how we use the term "samadhi." In Buddhadharma samadhi has many meanings. For instance Sakyamuni Buddha was always in samadhi. His mind was not moving yet he still continued to function. This is wisdom. Sakyamuni Buddha's samadhi is great samadhi and this is the same as wisdom. When I said that in the practice of Silent Illumination you should not enter samadhi I meant worldly samadhi where you forget about space and time and are oblivious to the environment. The deeper kind of samadhi which is the same as wisdom is in fact the goal of Silent Illumination.

What good is this explanation of Silent Illumination for people who are not using this method? If you are using another method of practice and you reach a point where it is impossible to continue you can switch to Silent Illumination and watch your body and mind. For instance if you use the method of reciting Buddha's name with counting and you can no longer count switch to Silent Illumination. If you use the hua-t'ou method but find that rather than generating great doubt you are simply repeating your hua-tou you may reach a point where you can no longer recite it. You can then switch to Silent Illumination and watch your body and mind. Eventually you will be able to use your own method again. Silent Illumination can provide a continuum for you in this in-between state so that you do not waste time.

I was just asked whether the enlightenment that comes from Silent Illumination is sudden or gradual. Enlightenment is always instantaneous. It is the practice that is gradual. As I mentioned earlier the third level of Silent Illumination is enlightenment. But how does one get there? As you practice your attachments discriminations and wandering thoughts gradually subside. Eventually you simply have no discriminations but this change is instantaneous. When the change happens you are in the state Hung-chi Cheng-chueh described as "In silence words are forgotten. In utter clarity everything appears.

After you have some experience practicing the sentiments and vexations you ordinarily experience may not arise during practice. It does not mean that they are gone. It just means that when you practice they do not arise. When you use Silent Illumination this may happen especially at the second level but that is not enlightenment. Practice is not like trying to clear thoughts from your mind and vexations from your life as if they were dust on a mirror. You cannot wipe the dust away and make yourself enlightened. It is not like that. Whether you use the methods of the Lin-chi or Tsao-tung sects within the Ch'an tradition once enlightened you realize that enlightenment has nothing to do with the practice that brought you there.

So why bother to practice? Practice is like a bridge that can lead to enlightenment even though enlightenment has nothing to do with practice.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Rousseau's “Social Contract”

From the famous opening line: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” we deduce three things: Rousseau loves paradoxes, he loves freedom, and he is nostalgic for the freedom man enjoyed before he became a member of society.

The second line: “Many a one believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they.” Another paradox! Rousseau is reminiscent of the Chinese sage Lao-Tzu and perhaps he was even inspired by the philosophy of the Tao. The emperor who thinks he has power over everything is in fact the slave of everything, like a rat on a treadmill running desperately just to keep still. But why a greater slave? Perhaps because the oppressed know they are enslaved. Society’s bonds are part of their everyday experience. The oppressor by contrast may not realize it.

The third line: “How has this change come about? I do not know.” Rousseau first defines what his purpose is not before going on to say what it is. It is not genealogy. That task will be taken up a century later by Nietzsche in his “Genealogy of Morals”.

The fourth line: “What can render it legitimate? I believe that I can settle this question.” Thus ends the first paragraph of Rousseau’s “Social Contract”. His purpose is what makes society legitimate despite the loss of freedom it entails. As he writes in the final paragraph of the whole work, it is to “lay down the principles of political right and attempt to establish the State on its foundations” and he concludes by saying that though he might have originally contemplated discussing external relations between one people and another: “law of nations, commerce, right of war and conquests, public rights, alliances, negotiations, treaties etc.”, these were beyond his limited scope. This is interesting in light of Nietzsche’s answer to how the social relation came about as being a consequence of external imposition in the first place. Nevertheless, Rousseau’s subject as we said is not speculative history nor external relations, but the current legitimacy of forms of authority internal to a society.

The structure of Rousseau’s work, like his first paragraph, is four-fold, and while seemingly disorganized conceals a hidden structure noted by Hilail Gildin. Following the introductory chapter to book one, the first four chapters concern false views of political authority, whilst the remaining four chapters establish its true foundations. The first six chapters of book two treat the sovereign as the source of law, the remaining six the legislator as its creator. The first nine chapters of book three discuss the institution of government, and the remaining nine how government might be prevented from usurping sovereign authority. The first four chapters of book four concern assemblies of the people, and the next four concern other public institutions besides the popular assemblies.

We focus primarily on the first book. What makes a moral obligation legitimate? Moral obligations are not secured out of prudence as might be the case in a state of nature under threat of force. By definition, legitimacy is not based on force. Nor is it custom based on psychological contentment because “man born in slavery” might not know better, “loving servitude as the companions of Ulysses loved their brutishness”. Turned into pigs by Circe, they lost the desire to be changed back. Nor is it ordained by God, because of the unknowability of divine will, and loss of faith in any authority who might claim to know it better. Nor is it grounded in nature because its truth or falsehood, though not dependent merely on contentment, does rely on consent. What we are left with is legitimacy as a secular concept based on something more than psychological contentment or natural law, as a covenant. Since it cannot be to God, it must be between men.

Any covenant alienates the individual will either partially or wholly, and either to a part or to the whole of society. This gives four possible kinds of covenant. He rejects any kind of total alienation of the will to some person or group of people because “to deprive your will of all freedom is to deprive your actions of all morality”. Without personal accountability, any talk of legitimacy is vacuous. A master-slave relation can never be legitimate even if voluntary. Slavery, far from terminating a state of nature, intensifies it: the covenant is only as valid as the force that enforces it. Hobbes’ convention to Leviathan fails on this count. Even partial alienation to a person or government is a paradox because it alienates to a legitimate authority that part of one’s will for which one is no longer morally accountable. So any alienation must be to a whole. The original aggregate of individuals can only consent to be governed if they become a whole, a people, a unity.

Rousseau also rejects the possibility of partial alienation to the whole. This appears a rejection of inalienable rights beyond the purview of society. One reason he gives is because of the impossibility of managing conflicts when these rights conflict and so the inevitable breakdown of such a society into either anarchy or tyranny. The covenant must completely alienate the rights of each member to the community as a whole. Since the covenant is by consent, any member may always withdraw from it in exchange for the restoration of their natural rights, but doing so means withdrawing from the possibility of making any moral claim, for example if they think society’s punishment is unfair.

Thus Rousseau conceives of the social contract: a contract of association between all members of a society which simultaneously generates both a moral community and sovereignty. Each individual has a dual role both as active participant in the sovereign process and perfectly obedient to its law. This law is legislated by the sovereign body of all people according to the general will and executed by the government they appoint. But what is the general will? The risk is that it becomes merely the will of a majority. Rousseau attempts to preclude this, as well as the usurpation of sovereign legislative power of the people by its government. Following John Noone, we may enunciate some of the terms of Rousseau’s social contract (scattered throughout his work):

1) All citizens have a voice in the popular assembly, none may lawfully be excluded. (§1.6; §2.2; §4.1)
2) Sovereignty is inalienable and indivisible. (§2,1; §2.2) The assembly cannot bind itself, much less future generations. This precludes legislation in perpetuity. (§1.7)
3) Except for the original contract which is unanimous, the majority will is binding, the necessary size of majority subject to legislation. (§4.2)
4) The assembly of all citizens is a permanent assembly that meets regularly at arranged times, elects magistrates and appoints or dismisses government according to the general will. (§3.13; §3.18)
5) The life and property of all members of society are subject to the sovereign body and its laws. (§1.9; §2.5)
6) Legislation is limited to areas of common concern. Any proposed legislation must first be voted on to determine if it is a common concern, and secondly if it is a common good. (§2.4)
7) Only those laws are binding that are universal and impersonal, not singling out a person or group for special treatment, favourable or unfavourable. (§2.6)
8) Citizens are to vote not according to personal desires, but on the basis of their estimation of the common good. (§4.2)
9) Sovereignty may be suspended in an emergency, but for a very limited time period.
10) A civil creed that includes tolerance of all faiths not subversive to peace. (§4.8)
11) Goals according to a pre-existing general will that all the members of society commit to.


In particular, note that the social contract is not a contract between the people and their government. This is a popular misunderstanding. Rousseau was especially critical of contract theories of government because they alienate the individual will to but a part of society (government) which he had already rejected (except for very limited time periods in case of emergency). Rousseau conceives of legislative authority remaining always with the people, so that government could be dismissed at any time if that were the general will.

In contrast to Locke who believed in the inalienability of property rights, and that any contract needed moral agents to begin with, Rousseau’s social contract is what makes its members moral citizens in the first place “substituting justice for instinct as the guide to conduct”. Duty becomes meaningful for the first time, so also legitimacy. On the face of it, this seems like the grossest nonsense, because it precludes morality and duty as conceived by reason, conscience or natural law. We will see however that the morality of the covenant arising from Rousseau’s social contract aims for something different, something encompassing and empowering individual and natural morality. In Buddhist terms, the social contract is the foundation for the moral being (Buddha), the moral law (Dhamma) and the moral community (Sangha), but the latter is deemed essential for the first two to find expression. There is something quite insightful in seeing these three as inter-dependent, yet by making moral law dependent on the community, what if the community is wrong? Are there not moral ideas or feelings that transcend time and space? Rousseau, following Locke, rejects innate ideas but not innate feelings. He writes in “Emile” that God has given him “conscience that I may love the right, reason that I may perceive it, and freedom that I may choose it”. Reason is not a sufficient source of moral obligation, so man must be endowed with the affective capacity of conscience to feel obliged, but he must also be motivated. This is the role the social contract plays. It is the motivation of reciprocal obligation which Rousseau seems to believe is necessary for the moral sentiment to bear fruit, that gives man “freedom” to do good.

John Noone’s explanation of what Rousseau means by freedom goes some way towards deciphering both the idea of a contract giving freedom, and also the kind of morality (that of the covenant) that occupies Rousseau. There are three kinds of freedom for Rousseau: natural freedom, political freedom and freedom to act from one’s own conscience. The social contract clearly restrains natural freedom, and leaves conscientious freedom alone, that is freedom to do good from individual conscience, independent of any obligation. However, it enforces political freedom. The idea of obliging freedom seems paradoxical. But political freedom is based on equality. Law must regulate everyone equally, universally and impersonally, and not lead to inequality. Thus Rousseau’s idea of obliging political freedom should be understood as obliging equality, so people are free to act according to their reason and conscience without being disadvantaged for doing so. Put this way, morality is strictly political morality, a duty to fellow citizens that reciprocates a corresponding duty of others to oneself. To recall Rousseau’s noble aim:

To find a form of association which defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by which each uniting with all yet obeys only himself and remains as free as before. (§1.6)

Freedom is the cornerstone of Rousseau’s philosophy, but freedom in harmony with the general will. If not, then it would harm others’ freedom. Does the social contract succeed in its noble objective? In theory, Rousseau thinks so, but in practice he requires a wise legislator, like the prophets of old under the guise of divine authority and even then the course of history never did run smooth. Rousseau does recognize this — he is a pragmatic realist.

Though his philosophy is not historically or empirically sound and though dogged with speculation, there is behind the seeming disorder a certain coherence. Whether the social contract that emerges is workable we leave to human imagination, but is it even theoretically viable? One criticism that comes to mind is that it seems to subordinate morality for its own sake to morality for the sake of the community. Another is that while procedurally sound, the commitment to substantial content in the form of the civic creed and social goals risks betraying something of the freedom for society to define these for themselves. A third is that morality emerging from community runs the risk of being restrictive to that community so community identity could come to be defined negatively in terms of other communities. In truth, community is a nested concept of family, tribe, city, country, even religion, but it is one kind of community which Rousseau believes must take precedence to avoid conflicting loyalties. One possible remedy to all these criticisms is a combination of Kantian autonomy of the individual will that chooses its communitarian commitments and a theological idea of regarding the covenant to any one of these communities not as end in itself, but as a means of training the will to subservience to divine will under the universal community of all beings.

While Aristotle and the medieval scholastics had extolled the virtue of a pre-existing natural law (Dhamma), Rousseau is the philosopher of the community (Sangha) and Kant would later favour the autonomy of the sovereign being (Buddha). Each tries to improve on their predecessor, but in reality Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha are all necessary and all inter-dependent. In the perfection of one, the other two will also come into fruition. For example, the participants of Rousseau’s social contract will need to be autonomous judges of morality in order to elect officials and make decisions while the wise legislator will need to bear consideration on what are the underlying natural virtues of their particular society in order to create suitable laws. However, in the face of widespread social inequality, Rousseau’s emphasis on communal solidarity as his starting point seems well-placed. For all those passionate about freedom and equality, his
Social Contract will continue to be a source of inspiration.