Monday, October 24, 2011

Neither Determinism Nor Destiny

If I claim I am dependent on things, there is an initial judgment that I am not being assertive enough, that I am doing the very thing I warn against many times, clinging. But this is a fundamental, yet nuanced, understanding of dependence that connects to more commonly Western concepts of determinism and destiny, one of which we avoid often, since it is perceived as mechanistic and inorganic, the other is embraced many times because of, ironically, a desire to shirk responsibility and let something higher than us take over so we don’t have to put in so much work, if any. But dependence, more specifically dependent origination, is neither determinism nor destiny, but a simple discernment of the processes that penetrate deep into our psychology and philosophical beliefs and behaviors. I may have to speed through the latter part, but the most important points to make here are both the universal applicability of dependent arising to the world as a whole and the web of 12 causes enumerated by the Buddha to describe dependent origination’s progress within our psychology that binds us to samsara and, when regressed, can lead us into nirvana.

When we think of things being dependent, or more specifically, contingent, on other things, it usually brings up metaphysics or, to be specific, theology. It’s said that there has to be some necessary being in order for all other contingent things to exist, but this only muddies the waters with an entity that is asserted to be so without any reason beyond solving the problem of infinite regress. While that problem might be eliminated by the positing of such a being, it only brings up questions about whether “God” actually has free will, since it is compelled by its nature according to most theologians, to do certain things and not do other things. That aside, dependent origination gives a sufficient and reasonable answer to questions of origins and other such problems of scientific and philosophical import. Many would say it doesn’t fully answer it, but people’s notions of completion vary depending on how far they want to go in order to know everything. In Buddhism, a parable is used to demonstrate the problem of this kind of discursive thinking. A man asks Buddha to answer his various questions about the world and Gautama compares it to a man struck by a poison arrow. Before the arrow is removed by a doctor, he wants to know everything about the person who shot him. In the time it would take to learn all this, the man would’ve died. Similarly, if someone wants all their questions answered by Buddhism, they’re barking up the wrong tree, since Buddhism only posits to answer those questions that allow beings to achieve clarity and enlightenment. If you want questions regarding creators, creation or other such answers, you will not find it, since Buddhism is by general nature atheistic or even apatheistic. Belief or disbelief in God is not pertinent to one’s seeking enlightenment, since it doesn’t in itself make a difference to whether you will find the truth or not. This isn’t to say it doesn’t matter, but that in the long run you will not concern yourself with extraneous issues like that.

Another problem asserted by detractors is that Buddhism is fatalistic in saying that we are ruled by previous trains of cause and effect back into eternity and may not be said to actually even have free will. It’s a similar contention based on the idea of karma and vipaka as affecting a self even though Buddhism denies a self in one sense. But pratiyasamyutpada (the Sanskrit term for conditioned genesis, another translation) doesn’t focus purely on the cause/effect web without regard to circumstances and conditions that progress the web’s weaving. If I do a good deed only wanting to satisfy myself as opposed to aiding others, it may appear to be a good deed worthy of merit in some sense, but the selfish habit is self destructive in not being generous for generosity’s sake, but to gain influence over others. Ultimately we are told to change our circumstances and condition ourselves differently in order to alter the causes and thus alter effects in a predictive pattern. It is not that we are ultimately free, but our freedom is internal first and foremost before any sort of external freedom that we might want. To change the outside, one must first change the inside.

The last and yet most profound explanation of interdependence of phenomena is that nothing is truly independent in and of itself. This means, of course, that you reject the existence of God, of the soul and of anything completely self sufficient unto itself.  Humans, animals, plants, everything is interrelated with something else. This is not to say that we don’t have volition, but merely that we should recognize and discern how our volitional actions, resulting from habits, beliefs, etc, affect other things around us, including events that seem to be out of our control, like rewards or punishment. Of course, there are many things out of our control, but the important thing to recognize in all of this is that we can control ourselves and practice from the inside to enhance our relationship with the outside in its various manifestations. This is possibly the simplest idea to recognize in one way and yet ignore various implications that would inconvenience us otherwise. Therein lies its universal application to everything else.

The second and more personal idea which results from dependent origination is that of the 12 links. They are, in initial order: ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, name/form, six senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and aging/death. One could enumerate all of these in some detail, but I’ll be as brief as I can without skipping the important things to consider about each. Ignorance is our basic state when not being mindful. In Western thought, whenever you call someone ignorant, it’s taken as an insult, but a general definition of it is not the same as insulting someone’s intellect. We are all in a state of ignorance about many things no matter how enlightened we might become. But ignorance about the key things in Buddhist teaching is most damaging. If you don’t realize the truth of the three marks of existence, for example, then you could know many things, but they are essentially irrelevant and immaterial to your realization that they will not give you fulfillment in any enduring fashion, unlike philosophy, something Buddhism implicitly condones as beneficial to your mind, meditation to your body. From ignorance mental formations come, usually explained as our habits and beliefs about things. Beliefs lead to and influence actions, so this second step is one of the most crucial to concentrate on, though it isn’t as important as recognizing when your beliefs are rooted in ignorance. The changing nature of one’s beliefs does not mean you have no foundations, as some might claim. I have roots in my human experience and inquiry about ethics, metaphysics, logic, aesthetics and epistemology among others. If you change your beliefs to something more based in reality, does it mean that you are betraying some group that holds those beliefs dear and sacred? Perhaps, but is it better to conform to a tradition based notion of truth or an experiential one that is not unwilling to admit when it was mistaken? Each further cause leads to another effect, such as one’s contact with things through the six senses leading to the sensations and experiences that tend towards our craving and clinging. Our attachment to things leads to a figurative birth of ourselves in each moment as we change our focus towards something new to satisfy us. And subsequently we age and die with each new life, which reinforces the ignorance that returns us to the beginning of the cycle. In this way, it is our own lack of mindfulness that binds us into the metaphorical wheel of samsara that is turned by our grasping and wanting permanence and certainty in everything. If we start to let go of those ideas, we lose ignorance. And as you lose one link, the others lose their influence and you can slowly break the proverbial chain of bondage that keep us in a cycle of rebirth that we don’t explicitly realize since it’s not metaphysical in nature, it’s psychological. If our minds are freed, our bodies don’t matter except as they continue to aid us in interaction with others for teaching purposes, which is why even enlightened beings might be said to return as bodhisattvas in traditional teachings, though again, this doesn’t have to be seen as some mystical idea, but merely people born with a particularly piercing disposition to see into things in a way most people do not. Admittedly I’m detracting from the main thrust of the article by defending the notion of Buddhism from a secular perspective, but I think it’s important to qualify this as I continue to do this series. Me believing in things like rebirth would be less suspicious if I simply renamed them, but perhaps just enumerating in time what I mean by each of these in some brief summary would suffice for my readers?

There are said to be two kinds of truth in Buddhism, which I’ll probably speak on next week. The first is conventional, those ideas we understand innately, the second is ultimate, those we don’t understand without realization. As much as I could explain interdependence technically to anyone, there is a point where it becomes more confusing than clear and in that sense, parables and metaphors can sometimes progress the understanding more than mere rational direct explanations that work very well in other areas of thought. For the truth of interdependence, I leave you with the image of an oil lamp. It burns only if the oil and wick are there. If either the oil or wick is not there, the flame will not be as we expect it or it will not last for long. We either burn ourselves with flaming oil or we get a fizzling wick with no support. There are more examples one could use, but this only shows how prominent this teaching is in Buddhism throughout one’s learning about it. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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