By: David Xi-Ken Shi
When we apply a rigorous study of contemporary pragmatic philosophy to Buddhist thought we find a new way of reconstructing notions the ancient mind had of their worldview. Chief among some of these ideas was the tendency to interpret the world and personal experiences in terms of dualism. These included not only the idea of mind and body functions but also to objects, nature, actions, and human essence, to mention just a few. Their belief was that all these concepts of what was happening around them involved two fixed entities that, when clearly understood, totally excluded each other. The Buddha applied a pragmatic frame of reference and saw the error in their approach when he came to realize that the elements of these so-called pairs all coexist with each other both in the world and in our validated experiences, so that thinking of them as mutually exclusive makes this actual coexistence into a kind of mystery. When we apply the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination (or Dependent Co-arising), as well as the modern lessons science provides, it helps clear up some of this ambiguity.
What is needed, from a pragmatic point of view, is a reexamination of dualism for the purpose of overcoming this mystery. A useful approach is to consider first that thought and conscientiousness are not individual elements of brain function and that the concrete reality is that human beings think in a single stream of functionality as a living organism. Ideas of a dualistic nature of the thought process are no more than abstractions taken out of their physiological context and turned into fixed and independent parts. A second step in undermining dualism is to shift attention away from understanding objects, nature, actions, human essence, and so on in terms of their having a fixed essences that defines them in terms of the characteristic ways in which they function, and the roles they play in the concrete processes of the intent of their actions. We learn not to make distinctions. Take the act of thinking for example. There is no idea devoid of a thought and no thought without some conscious content. Concept of thought and its subject become a dualism when they are abstracted from the thinking process and each is viewed only as a separate entity excluding the other.
The Buddha came to the pragmatic reality that even the nature of our human expression is devoid of a dual nature. The doctrine of not-self recognizes that there is no permanent and everlasting nature that is know as ‘self’. Although, as expressions of the Universe, the elements that define our form return to express themselves in new ways. This is the interconnected and interdependent nature of the Universe which is void of any dualistic aspects. Name and form have no self-nature and are void of a duel-nature. This is what is meant in the Heart Sutra as emptiness. (I now prefer to use the term “unity”) We can say that this world comes out of Universal unity and eventually returns to that same reality. Viewing the foot as separate and distinct from the body is not logical. So why do be try to find the duel nature of what we see as individual things. Our Buddhist practice ultimately comes to awaking to the reality that everything is the all encompassing.
By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
One of the core principles of Buddhism that is accepted by all traditions is that of no-self (anatman). It is an essential teaching of Buddhism that states that there is no permanent enduring substance within any entity. The Buddha taught that the notion of a self is just an idea. In our contemporary language when we consider “who we are” we encounter the term psychophysical personality that introduces us to all kinds of interpretations. No matter the complexity surrounding coming to terms with no permanent self, we also must reconcile that this impermanent universal nature is also of a non-dual nature too. When we say we have no permanent self we are rejecting the metaphysical self which presents a problem that man has two distinct entities in the form of mind and matter. For the time being, we will not discuss 21st century physics and string theory for now. The Buddha was skillful in not speaking of man’s having a dual nature in a single entity. This is not always clear when we read many of the legacy teachings, especially when they seek to explain how conscientiousness interacts with the psycho-physicality of our “humaness”.
What is clear though, is that the Buddha was not willing to consider that a mind can have independent existence. When he spoke of human nature, he did so by always associating the body and mental capabilities as making up a single physical personality; there could be no consciousness unless it was associated with a living physical entity. He said that consciousness is nothing more than the act of being conscious. Both at the time of the Buddha, as it is now in our time, there was/is a universal tendency to look upon the mind and the body as two distinct “things” both existing independently. Based on the Buddha’s personal experience he came to consider this notion to be unsubstantiated. To take the opposite view would be to surrender to an unknown notion that “something” is of a permanent nature in each of us that is hidden to scientific investigation.
Siddhartha (the Buddha) was centuries ahead of his peers in empirical reasoning. When considering the interplay between the body and mind he referred to the material body as “contact with resistance” (patigha-samphassa), and the mind as “contact with concepts” (adhivacana-samphassa)1 . In doing this he was reducing both the mind and body to contact elements and processes of experience, and avoiding making them both have material characteristics. This also avoids any metaphysical entanglements. It is an example of the Buddha abandoning metaphysical notions that would result in the doctrine of Dependent Origination (causality) being put into question.
For Siddhartha, any thought of something that has permanence although hidden, even though subject to metaphysical theories and the evidence of the “creativity of man” to try to explain the unexplainable, does not hold strong against validated personal experience, either subjective or objective. The psychophysical personality considered by the Buddha emphasizes the dependence of consciousness on the physical personality as well as the interconnectiveness of the body-mind that answers to how the causal universe is expressed in us as we strive to be positive agents for change. This change is effective at the same time as having the properties of impermanence too. How we humans effect change is dependent on our dispositions. Not only our personalities, but how we live, what we find of interests, the art we create, our culture and civilization, what drives our exploration toward new horizons, is all dominated by our dispositions. Our dispositions, not our consciousness as a substantial entity, drives the human contribution to the causal-chain. Another reason for us to study and refine our dispositions as we struggle to understand the power of a non-permanent self in a world that matters.
1 Digha Nikaya 2, 62
By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
One of the most fundamental and central Buddhist teachings is that of interdependence and interconnectiveness. They are the major threads that help weave the fabric for understanding the principle of Dependent Origination (mutual-causality). In the Mahayana Buddhist traditions we might also say Inter-dependent Origination. The other two additional treads for consideration would be the principle teachings of impermanence and anatman (nonself). The Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, uses the words “inter-being” to represent this connectiveness we share with all other Universal expressions. All methods aiming at our realization of an awakened bodymind has its origin in our understanding these Buddhist constructs. This takes all our effort at skillful means to achieve the wisdom necessary to see both our independent-self, and our inter-shared-being that is what we call our Buddha nature. As we begin to merge how we see the world around us with what we see as difference, we also awaken to the reality that this Buddha nature is also Dharma. No distinction.
We must, therefore, learn to see reality as merging these differences and unite them in a seamless fashion that makes their independent form vanish. It is then that we begin to see the “big picture”. Think of it like solving a picture puzzle. All the individual pieces are arrayed in front of us, and each has a different shape, no two are alike. That is the nature of a picture puzzle after all. But the true “nature” of the puzzle is when all the pieces are put together in order to give it meaning. When we fit the pieces together, all those next to the piece being merged fit the way they were meant to be. And when that happens, we no longer see the form of each piece. The form, while having its usefulness, comes into its own when it works with all the other pieces to create a functioning whole. This is what I mean when I say it is empty of form. Or better stated: empty of its individual forms. The individual pieces do not go away, but just become one with the puzzle. But for it to be a picture puzzle, the individual pieces have great value too. In other words, we need to see one reality in two ways, which is the origin of how Siddhartha came to realize difference and unity. Continue reading
By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
Karma is one of those terms that is in popular use, but interesting enough, not by many individuals that know anything about what it really is. Most of the time when I encounter the term it is not how I have come to understand it’s meaning at all. Karma is also know as the law of cause and effect. As a Buddhist principle, it is know as Dependent Origination, or Relational Origination, or Co-dependent Origination. So as you see, karma is know by many names. Buddhism does not own the term. What is most unusual, is that karma is not unusual at all. It fact, it is in most moments evident when we know how to look at the world around us. Karma is seen in action, and also what is behind action. Karma is not linear, but is multi-directional. In fact, it might be helpful to consider karma as circular. When we think about interconnectiveness, we should think that karma effects all points of a single connection, and possibly throughout the net of connections. When you come to think about it, when we turn on a light, switch on our computers, or turn the ignition key in the car, we demonstrate the karmic consequences of these actions.
Everything in the material world acts in accordance with this law. Nothing is caused by chance. Nothing. This is also the case with our minds. Every thought we have, every word we say, every intentional action we take, creates a cause. Over time these causes ripen to become effects. Time being a relative term. Our thoughts emerge as words; the words we use can manifest into actions; these actions develop into habits; and our habits hardens into character. We should watch our thoughts and their results with great care, and let it arise for the compassionate concern for self and others. Remember the adage: “As we think, so we become.” Continue reading
By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
For some time now I have wanted to talk about the subject of whether or not God exist. You can imagine that as a Buddhist teacher I get asked if I believe in a God frequently by those unfamiliar with Buddhist thought. You see, our culture is confused about what Buddhists believe, and the role Siddhartha, the Buddha, expresses in the Buddhist faith. The word “faith” goes along with the word “God” when the question is ask most of the time, that is why I am using it here. Considering this question, Buddhism generally takes a more pragmatic and agnostic approach, rather then get involved in theological dogma, preferring neither to say yes or no, and thus taking the Middle Way. The Buddha himself did not deny or confirm the existence of a Creator God, but taught that there is no need to have an answer to this question because it did not achieve awareness of how we are that can lead to an enlightened state of body-mind. Theism is not a central component of Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment, and the notion of a God was one of those questions he refused to speculate about because he was more intent on individuals seeking a way from their unsatisfactoriness through their own experiences, and thus to human flourishing.
But many of our Buddhist legacy teachers did speak about this question in either direct or indirect ways. I will stick my neck out here and say that many of our enlightened Buddhist masters may have spoken about the “Does God Exist” question because they considered the answer to be in the question. For myself, I believe the question is more complex than a simple yes or no answer, or even taking an agnostic worldview. That is why I refer to myself as a reluctant agnostic. I think the answer to this hard question requires a more nuanced consideration, as my spiritual practice works to seek an answer that expresses something more then a simple dismissal of what reality may be. Much of my adult life has been seeking the quest for an answer to this question, and unsatisfactory answers was the major reason I left my Christian monastic practice. Now that I am walking the Buddhist path, the quest is still a driving force in my recognition of how I am. But my view of how the word “God” has transformed into a wider concept then just creation being a noun has dramatically changed how I approach the subject now, taking into consideration my understanding of the principles of mutual-causality, impermanence and the reality of a non-dual state of being. When I am ask the question now, I generally ask, “What do you mean by God?” This delays the obvious perhaps, but it gets the questioner a chance to think about their own way of expressing a question that has no absolute response. I think an answer is incomprehensible if it is a good one anyway.