Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Don't neglect the subtle nuances

Consider the following examples:

"Life is suffering." - "Life is marked by suffering."

"Reality is in the mind." - "Reality is determined by mind."

"There is no individuality or identity." - "There is no intrinsic (isolated/enduring) individuality or identity."

"Ego is the barrier to enlightenment." - "Attachment to ego is the barrier to enlightenment."

Now, if you would, think about the differences in perspective that arise from a system of beliefs and attitudes based on the initial statements and a system of beliefs and attitudes based on the latter.**

"Life is suffering."

It seems to me that this gives rise to a nihilist philosophy in which life itself is a curse and nirvana is both salvation and literal oblivion. Rather than seeing annihilation of the self as an end to a deeply-rooted belief in an intrinsic identity (and extensions of this belief such as an "eternal soul"), existence per se is a horrible dream. Hence nothingness is preferable.

This is opposed to seeing "emptiness" as potential, the well-spring of/another aspect of existence, rather than a perpetual and final state of non-existence. A corollary of the thinking arising from the idea that life is suffering is a reintroduction of a sense of dualism, in contradiction to the oft-cited (Buddhist) teaching that "form is emptiness, emptiness is form"/"samsara and nirvana are one not two". Hence you can "get away" from suffering (in "this" world) by "getting away" from life. How sad.

"Reality is in the mind."

This can be read in different ways. I am addressing the idea that our subjective, personal mind is the basis of reality - this is an extreme mentalist position in which reality in any form or sense is a delusion. To be clear about what I am talking about, this isn't the same as saying that the subjective can influence our shared reality (as in debates about the effect of an observer on the observed). Nor is it the same as saying that for all intents and purposes our "worlds" are the result of perceptions and thought and therefore "my" view of reality is going to be biased and constructed differently than "your" view of reality. The idea that reality is all in one's own mind is, in fact, saying that there IS nothing else other than our biases and delusions, and this fits well with the idea about life/existence=suffering and nirvana=true oblivion/non-existence. Hence when you escape delusion, reality ceases, and presto, oblivion. Taken to a logical extreme, it also raises the troubling specter then of whether other people are even "real".

(Now, technically speaking, there is another way to read the phrase even unmodified, but it tends to get into the idea of Universal Mind, and I am not addressing that view or the ramifications of it here, so this is not a critique of all forms of what is sometimes referred to in Buddhism as the "Mind-Only" school of thought.)

"There is no individuality or identity."

This is a little cultish if you ask me, as one goal of cults is to erase a sense of identity or individuality and produce a pliable mind which only acts on the desires of the leader(s) in unquestioning group-think. This I think fits in well with the nihilistic tendencies of the notion that life is suffering and the idea that everything is just a delusion which can result from the extreme notion that reality is all in the mind.

"Ego is the barrier to enlightenment."

Seeing the ego as a "foe" to be "defeated" is a bit like making enemies so that you can conquer them and have peace. Why not just be at peace from the start? Nothing is going to feed attachment to the ego like giving it the mission of combating "the ego". Your thoughts, feelings, and memories do not need to be "conquered" or "overcome". They are just as much an aspect of the greater whole to which all things are connected as anything else, another part of the fabric of dependent co-arising (or interbeing for the Thay fans out there). The ego doesn't need to be defeated, just brought into the proper perspective. Different traditions and schools are better at explaining or expressing certain teachings, which is why I cite so many varied sources. I think that Shin Buddhism does a good job in this case by talking about the fact that Other Power does not dissolve or dilute Self Power, but rather Other Power contains and completes/is completed by Self-Power. Another way I have seen this expressed is not dependent, not independent, but rather inderdependent.

I am not saying that any tradition, school, or sect actually advocates any of the (misguided?) translations/interpretations I am discussing here. But I have heard or read people saying them, and I also know that there are those with a superficial knowledge of Buddhism who follow the logic of such "slightly off" teachings to come to some really unfortunate yet oddly coherent views about what Buddhism has to offer, that is, what Buddhist teachings advocate and what Buddhist practice is supposed to accomplish.

**As always, this is not a sermon on dharma talk, it's just me dealing with or pondering things, so caveat emptor if you are looking for wisdom.

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