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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Buddhism: What Do We Know?

Our certainty about the things we know varies on a fairly wide spectrum when one thinks about it. We take for granted the reality of things like a desk chair, our food, other people we interact with. But there are things that are believed in that aren’t necessarily fully thought out, such as our ethics, or even contemplated on as to whether they’re necessary, such as supernatural thinking of one form or another. To focus too much on whether something is absolutely or conventionally true misses the point of what I spoke about in “Two Truths, One Path,” . The fluctuating nature of existence necessitates that we take different perspectives on things, but nonetheless maintain a degree of consistency even in the vacillation. Knowledge is more difficult to remain constant on, since it supports every other action we do. We behave ethically due to beliefs about what is good and bad respectively, things are considered mistaken or accurate because of prior experience and evidence considered together logically, and even logic has a basis in what we consider valid and sound. Buddhism in particular is something that many find to be highly lacking as concerns formal knowledge. Everything seems more based in practice, which varies by the individual, be they monastic or layperson or something in between. With this in mind, it comes to the question: does Buddhism make any real knowledge claims, philosophically speaking?

No formal structure exists across all of Buddhism for karma or rebirth, two of the biggest issues in studies of the philosophy, let alone whether Buddha was simply a wise man or a figure that possessed semi divine powers of near omniscience even before he actually shuffled off his proverbial earthly coil. This creates a lot of ambivalence that I noticed early on when first studying Buddhism in a college environment five years ago. Our introduction to Asian religions course focused on Hinduism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion for the most part, so there was more detail put into each of them. A question I recall coming up for Buddhism that reflected issues I spoke about in part with both “Seeds and Fruits, Actions and Results, and “Rebirth, Not Reincarnation” was how a person’s karma can continue on if the person reborn is not the same as they were before? There are a few answers to this, the one I prefer being that karma is more a state of things instead of an individual person. There is such a thing as individual karma in the sense of one’s own actions and results affecting oneself primarily, but actions and results usually affect more people than we realize in one way or another. And this also solves that issue of rebirth in that karma isn’t co-opted by rebirth’s affecting any individual’s identity, subject to impermanence as they all are, particularly at death. Another answer to how a person’s karma might continue on even if the person themselves is subject to dissipation at death in some sense is that there is a stream of consciousness that is very subtly intertwined with the next rebirth, which retains the person’s memories, thoughts, etc. This, of course, brings up the more supernatural and even superstitious aspects of Buddhism as it spread out from India, though there were those that believed these things even within the founding country of Gautama’s teachings.

There is a tendency within lay Buddhism and even ordained Buddhism to follow the school that affirms Buddha was supernatural in some sense and that many aspects of Buddhism that are confusing should be answered with some form of mysterious and transcendent reality, such as Gautama Buddha being able to read people’s thoughts even in past lives, recall his past lives in vivid detail, not to mention the stream of consciousness spoken of before and the actual reality of the other six realms, particularly the lower and upper 2 where entities of a very unfalsifiable nature, however limited in their overall power, exist (hell beings, preta, asura and deva) I’m not saying this isn’t genuine Buddhism in the sense of it developing within cultures that don’t have opposition to a system as long as it can be incorporated into pre-existing beliefs. This is how Buddhism coexists so well with the animistic and polytheistic cultures that it holds high influence in today. The Buddha was notoriously silent on many of these matters, and unfortunately people take his silence as an ambivalent acceptance of the reality of things that he was emphatically against believing in just because of traditions or the like. This vague sense of “divine wisdom” we get from Gautama as depicted in many accounts of his life is what creates much of the mixed ideas that exist in Buddhism as it modernized and was incorporated into such cultures as Japan’s, where everything was believed to have a spirit in it, including mountains and rivers, let alone people and animals. Resolving the conflicts between them through syncretism is a solution, though it only muddies the waters as to what might be considered even remotely original Buddhism.

The Buddhist perspective on knowledge is not absolute in the grandest scheme, but only in those things that are beneficial to us. To know suffering is as valuable as knowing happiness, and knowing they are both fleeting is even more important. What is worth knowing and being confident, not arrogant, about are ideas that have practical applications in everyday life. Not just in isolated academic discussions, but something anyone can talk about in common language. Even if there isn’t always a structured dogma or official teaching in any sense of the word about such things as the principle of karma, derived in part from Hindu teachings that existed in the same culture with similar ambivalence, it doesn’t mean Buddhism doesn’t have certainty on other things. Life is most definitely dukkha, unsatisfactory in our initial approach to it, the cause of it is a combination of craving and ignorance, one can get over this dukkha approach to life and that is through living the eightfold path. There are also the 5 precepts and other traditions that are commonly held to have value across Buddhism, such as meditation and the virtues of metta and prajna.

To say Buddhism is cryptic and mysterious is not inaccurate, but rejecting it based on a standard of credulity requiring strict Western logic can miss the point of the nondualistic perspective that much of Eastern thought, Buddhism and Daoism especially, presents. Simply viewing things through a lens of “either/or” neglects the “both/and” answers we can see if we consider things differently, though not to the extent of throwing reason out the window. But as there are many sides to a diamond, life has many perspectives we can view it through and find different insights that we might not have discovered otherwise. That’s where Buddhism benefits: it seeks out answers wherever they may come and brings things together without reducing it in scale. The holistic nature of it doesn’t mean we neglect reducing things as is appropriate. It’s always a balance with Buddhist philosophy and practice and to come even close to perfect takes a lifetime, if not more in a sense. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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