Buddha as cheeky consultant

MECE is a principle for organizing information into buckets that are Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive, meaning that for any piece of information there is one and only one bucket it should go into.

MECE comes in handy for consultants, who use it to help businesses convert nebulous problems into well-structured maps.

Buddhism is full of MECE frameworks that map out the world we experience: the five skandhas. The twelve nidanas. The thirty-two parts. The five elements.

I like to imagine that these frameworks were genuinely helpful to people making sense of their world 2500 years ago. That they “onboarded” lay people onto the “platform” of Buddhism. (These onboarding hooks are known as upaya.)

But modern readers may find them to be unhelpful – at once too primitive and too daunting. They may be inclined to skip Buddhism’s MECE frameworks altogether.

This strikes me as a big problem, because further along the project, Buddhism is going to want to play a game with us:

If X is the sum of its parts A, B, C… then where is X to be found?

This game is illustrated in the parable of the chariot, in which King Milinda visits the monk Nagasena. Nagasena shows Milinda that his chariot is neither the axle, the wheels, the yoke, the reins, nor is it the combination of those parts, nor is it outside those parts. So what did Milinda ride in on?

We can “get it” on an intellectual level, and perhaps agree that there is no such thing as a “chariot” per se. But if we don’t care, if there are no stakes, if we don’t even know how half those parts work, we’re not going to make any progress. The whole thing will stench of semantics.

(The story of the chariot reminds me of Rebecca Lawson’s study that even people who ride bicycles everyday don’t have a mental model for where the frames, pedals, and chains go. )

The good news is that when it comes to playing this central game of Buddhism, any MECE framework will do. We don’t have to memorize the skandhas or the nidanas to begin the project of understanding dependent arising.

Interestingly, some MECE frameworks are more helpful than others. If we divide our world into “has stripes” and “has no stripes,” we are unlikely to get far in the project. The game has to hold our sustained interest.

The MECE framework that has benefitted me most is the five elements as introduced by Ken McLeod. It’s traditional, but it lends itself to modern interpretations and helps me understand patterns in behavior.