Monday, September 29, 2014

Western Buddhist Review of Mind and Cosmos

I think [Mind and Cosmos] is of great interest for western Buddhists, because it puts forward a critique of, and ideas for alternatives to, the predominant materialist worldview of our times. Nagel’s starting point is not simply that he finds materialism partial or unconvincing, but that he himself has a metaphysical view or vision of reality that just cannot be accommodated within materialism. This vision is that the appearance of conscious beings in the universe is somehow what it is all for; that ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself’.  Nagel’s surrounding argument is something of a sketch, but is entirely compatible with a Buddhist vision of reality as naturalism, including the possibility of insight into reality (under the topic of reason or cognition) and the possibility of apprehension of objective good (under the topic of value). His naturalism does this while fully conceding the explanatory power of physics, Darwinian evolution and neuroscience.  Most Buddhists are what one might describe as intuitive non-materialists, but they have no way to integrate their intuition into the predominantly materialistic scientific world view. I see the value of Nagel’s philosophy in Mind and Cosmos as sketching an imaginative vision of reality that integrates the scientific world view into a larger one that includes reason, value and purpose, and simultaneously casts philosophical doubt on the completeness of the predominant materialism of the age.

The Universe is Waking Up, Western Buddhist Review

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Secular but Not Materialist

After years of debates, reading, and meditation, I think I have decided that I am actually 'secular Buddhist' - but one that accepts the reality of re-birth, and who rejects the scientific materialism of Western culture. (Of course, as their rejection of re-birth is the main 'tenet of faith' of secular Buddhism, that puts me in the odd but somehow customary position of differing with all sides in the debate.)

I have also decided that whilst I am not atheist, I don't believe that God exists. But this is because, insofar as God is real, God is beyond existence, meaning, transcendent (as per essay on right menu bar on this topic, with which I am in total agreement.) However, what is beyond can also show up within existence, which is the general meaning of 'revelation'. So, what exists, is only one aspect of what is real, as I have explained in some of the older posts on this board. To understand that, you have to understand metaphysics, and hardly anyone does, in my experience. 

But generally, I don't say too much about God. 

I mainly agree with Buddhist philosophy, except in respect of it being nominalist, because (in traditional terms) I tend towards realism (of the scholastic kind, i.e. believe in the reality of universals.) I think, overall, the approach I like best is that of the mid-20th century Universalist intepreters of Buddhism - Suzuki, Conze, Murti, Schterbatsky and others. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

'Adharma' and Contemporary Society

After quite a few years of debating on philosophy forums, I have formed the view that few of the atheist critics of religion and spirituality have much insight into what it is they don’t believe in. Writing from the perspective as a kind of ’spiritual-but-not-religious’ practitioner of Buddhist meditation - although I am finding that the distinction is hard to maintain! -  I think there is a profound truth in this observation by E. F. Schumacher (of Small is Beautiful fame) in a 1957 radio broadcast called The Insufficiency of Liberalism, about what he termed ‘the three stages of development’ in society:

The first great leap was made when man moved from Stage One of primitive religiosity to Stage Two of scientific realism. This is the stage modern man tends to be at. Then, he said, some people become dissatisfied with scientific realism, perceiving its deficiencies, and realize that there is something beyond fact and science. Such people progress to a higher plane of development which he called Stage Three. The problem was that Stage One and Stage Three looked exactly the same to those in Stage Two. Consequently, those in Stage Three are seen as having had some sort of relapse into childish nonsense. Only those in Stage Three, who have been through Stage Two, can understand the difference between Stage One and Stage Three 1

In all my debates, I encountered only a few who seemed to come from a ‘Stage Three’ perspective. There were some followers of the perennial traditions and those with an affinity for mystical spirituality or philosophical idealism in various forms. But the great  majority were scientific realists, who naturally assumed that any talk of higher truths was a throwback to religious literalism and fundamentalism. And they were so resolute, so absolute, in their rejection of ‘anything religious’ that it conditioned their response to any such ideas. Anything spiritual whatever was obviously, simply, a trojan horse for fundamentalism, or mysticism, which they seemed to detest just as much (whilst showing little comprehension of it. The aversion of analytical philosophy to 'mysticism' is so great that the term itself is a pejorative.)

From all this I have come to the view that anti-religion is a belief system. It is based on the firm and unswerving conviction that there is no God, and nothing that can be called ‘supernatural’. However those who advocate such views - and they are legion  - have very odd ideas about what might constitute Deity and the supernatural. They are generally very literalistic and concrete; Richard Dawkins frequently expresses incredulity about the notion of the 'super-complex being' that a God must be, on the basis that something that designs must be more complex than what it designs. Quite why this is mistaken then turns out to be impossible to explain, because such philosophical and theological notions as 'the divine simplicity' are impossible to describe or imagine.  And this is the case with virtually all the atheist depictions of Deity I have encountered - on account of which, I feel that if 'God' was as atheists depict God to be, then I would certainly be one of them.

Fingers Pointing at the Moon

There is a Buddhist idea that Buddhism itself - all the teachings, liturgy, sutras and commentaries, and everything else, are but ‘fingers pointing at the moon’. The Buddha points the way, but you have to walk it. Even Dharma must be abandoned in the end to say nothing of 'adharma'. 

However according to anti-religion, there is no moon, nothing to point at, no 'way' to traverse, and no such thing as ‘release’ or ’nirvana’.  There is only our momentary life in the world, book-ended between the non-existence that we have fortuitously and momentarily sprung forth from by entirely material processes. It follows from this that the only aims in life are utilitarian and technological - things which aid material comfort and well-being. Certainly there are intellectual and artistic aims, but these aren't related to the cosmic order - only to social, civic and personal aims and virtues. They are always ultimately subjective and relative. But if you point this out, they say 'What else is there?'

There is an asymettry in this: for the materialist, it is only about the denial of 'a belief', and furthermore one which has no 'empirical referent'; whereas, for the awakened, what is denied is a dimension of being-knowing-bliss (sat-chit-ananda) which is as real as the ground we stand on (or even more so, being the ground of the ground). So for the atheist, reality is simply the world of appearances, that is known, imperfectly, through the sciences and the senses, into which we are born, by chance, and from which we eventually disappear; whereas for anyone of whatever spiritual persuasion, this life is simply one chapter in the overall story, one facet of a larger whole. So from the atheist point of view, it is simply a matter of a false belief, whereas for the spiritual, what is at stake is the very nature of life itself. 

But it seems it can only be understood in terms of an archaic Sky-Father-God image by many people - both believers and atheists. So even if that is not what you mean, that is what they think you are talking about, and then they proceed say that you're irrational or retrograde for believing such a thing. (I'm sure that many theistic believers actually believe in something very similar to Jupiter, which is derived from the Indo-European word for 'Sky-Father'. After all 'Jehovah' and 'Jupiter' are very similar words, even if from completely different etymological roots. Although it ought also to be considered that this might be necessary at some stages of development. )

Poisoning the Well 

I think the main cause behind contemporary anti-religion goes back to the reaction against the influence of fundamentalism in the Christian mainstream. The shadows of Calvinism and the Inquisition and the related conflicts loom large in the Western psyche. It has poisoned the well, so to speak, and given rise to entire generations who are cut off from any sense of the spiritual. One of the last dialogues I had on Philosophy Forum was with a friendly contributor who could sort of see what I was getting at, but seemed to think it must always mean 'a return to the past' -  to the judgemental, inquisatorial Sky Father God and all the associated baggage. How to explain to him the 'bliss that comes from within'? Can it be explained? Maybe not, or maybe it no longer has anything to do with the subject of philosophy, which after all nowadays seems more and more to be 'talking about talking'. 

Inner Experience

Right now I am reading David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss, and finding it generally congenial to my outlook. Regardless, there are basic points of dogma that I don't go along with.

But, on the other hand, having been awakened to some small degree by meditation, I now am far more sympathetic to Christianity as a spiritual philosophy, than I ever could have been previously. But I still think there are perspectives that are missing from the way that both its advocates and proponents portray it. (Some books I encountered along the way which helped me to see such perspectives were Inner Christianity by Richard Smoley, and A Different Christianity, by Martin Amis; they both put a lot of emphasis on the path of meditation and are generally gnostic in some sense.) The lack of that perspective of 'inner knowing' is what drove many people, myself included, to Eastern spirituality, although having done so, I now recognise the treasures of the tradition I was born into.

The basic issue in all this is, that the aspect of spiritual philosophy that is important is concerned with a different way of being. It is not, as many atheists depict it, 'an hypothesis' about a being. Metaphysics requires metanoi - and 'metanoia' means 'change of mind' or 'change of heart'. This doesn't mean suddenly adopting a belief in a super-natural designer - whatever that might be! -  but discovering a different way of being, and the very different perspectives that comes out of that.   It is much nearer to the Socractic 'all I know, is that I know nothing' than to 'belief in a supernatural being'.

That is why meditation puts a lot of emphasis on inner silence rather than on discursive thought.
The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and keep not-moving mind. So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand. So if you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. You must keep don’t know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.2

 'Always keep this don't-know mind'. That is the way to higher truth, which is actually and simply 'what is' when the monkey mind is in abeyance.

(This kind of understanding can be found in Christian teaching also, if you know where to look, but you generally wouldn't learn about it in Church.)

Fear of the Unknown

And I think another problem is that atheism projects a lot of unconscious fears onto religion rather than understanding that it is really about inner peace and understanding the nature of mind (as Buddhists would put it). Furthermore it does this unconsciously, that is, without really being aware of what it is doing and why. You can actually see this in the deep hostility that 'the new atheists' have towards religion - a real 'fear and loathing'. Hence also the long-standing aversion in analytical philosophy to metaphysics, which it disparages as 'woo'.

I think that this fear and loathing is a manifestation of the unconscious awareness of aspects of our own being - the unconscious, which is ambiguous, fluid, not subject to quantification, but at the same time foundational to existence. So there is the constant, relentless drive to 'prove' what 'the real ground of being' is, in terms of science, physics and quantifiable, external data - what can be made explicit, what can be made manifest and objectified. So whether it is 'the selfish gene' or the theory of the ultimate material entity, perhaps in some ways it is always the sublimated search for the immortal, for that which is beyond change, decay and death. But it has to be external, objective, 'out there somewhere', as people say nowadays -  that in terms of which everything else can be explained. But the very search itself has now overflowed, so to speak, the vast Universe itself, into many worlds and parallel dimensions - which is something for another post.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Knowing Higher Truth

The point of spiritual teachings generally is enable the student to access higher truths and to realise their true nature. The idea of ‘higher truths’ is not recognised in modern analytical philosophy or science but is well understood in some forms of traditional philosophy and in Eastern practice-based religions.

Liberation or moksha is grounded in realising your ‘true identity’, real nature or Buddha-nature.   This is not something fixed or permanent in an external sense, in that it is never an object of cognition, as it is not something that one is ever apart from but is ‘that which knows’. But it is also not simply non-existent - those who think it is non-existent fall into the trap of nihilism. It is also not really your personality, although it will manifest in each individual in a unique way. But it is definitely beyond ego in the sense of beyond your day to day sense of who you are. 

(There are many rancorous disputes about this idea on Dharma forums. Many people insist that Buddhism teaches ‘there is no true self or higher self’. It is true that Buddhism generally doesn’t utilise such language. But the real meaning of ‘no-self’, anatta, is not ‘there is no self’ but that nothing has any self, ‘self’ being defined as ‘something that exists in its own right’ (‘svabhava’, self-originated or self-originating.) That applies to atoms as much as persons.)

But the idea of higher truths is also not much understood in Augustinian Christianity. In that tradition, all ideas of higher truths must conform to the dogmatic formulae within which salvation is dependent on ‘right belief’ (ortho-doxa) in Jesus.  However there are some Christian schools and teachings which recognise the concept of higher truths (see for instance Richard Rohr’s excellent Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.)  But the Augustinian doctrine of ‘total depravity’ is, I think, dangerous and vitiating. The ‘grace’ that ‘saves’ is not the exclusive property of Christianity; it can’t be confined by doctrinal boundaries or sectarian creeds. In other words, it is not only available via religious channels, although to seriously engage with it requires a religious type of intent. 

You may begin to experience that grace whenever you start to meditate. It might not be described in such terms, because words like ‘grace’ - unfortunately! - now carry cultural baggage. But my early experiences with meditation were that just that - from sitting for 20 minutes, powerful experiences of bliss came along. Sometimes they were vivid, sometimes very quiet, but really there was a sense of an energy source or a source of light or joy within my own being.

And sometimes not! That is the meaning of ‘the wind blows were it lists’.  You can’t get attached to such experiences,  because they do come and go, and you have no ability to control them. They’re not ‘yours’, even if they are intimately connected to your very being.  But they are definitely real, not just whims and fancies. 

So we have to focus on realizing that higher truth here and now, even though we might have many hindrances and obstacles and habit-patterns that get in the way. That is what spiritual teaching is about, there is no other purpose to it.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Silence of the Buddha

I was sent the following excerpt from Raimond Pannikar's  The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha by private message on the Dharmawheel Forum today, following my responses to a topic about the Buddha's teaching on the self.  This is a beautiful and profound passage and one that really reflects so much about my own journey these last few years. 

Invocation—the raising of the heart in a plea for true love, the raising of the mind in a quest for salvific knowledge, and the raising of the life of the individual in a cry for real help—is becoming more and more necessary in the contemporary world, and at the same time more and more impossible.
First, it is becoming more and more necessary. We cannot bear up along under the weight of existence. Modern life is becoming ever more precarious... Individuals cannot know all things, or solve all problems, or control all of the factors that mold their life. They can place no confidence in their peers, who are as fragile and fallible as themselves. They cannot rely on society, for society is precisely one of their greatest burdens. They feel the need to ascend higher, to cry for help, to reach out to something above, to trust in a love, or a goodness, or a someone. Invocation, as emergence from oneself in order to trust, or take refuge in, or at least to contact, something or someone superior to ourselves, becomes ever more imperative.
At the same time, such invocation is becoming impossible. The God to whom this invocation is directed, the God at the acme of the hierarchy of beings, appears impotent, and from that moment forward is silent.
Surely nothing can tell us what the world is, for neither question, that of being or that of non-being, can be asked with regard to the world. Ontology is not false, it is just that it is caught in an endless circle. Ontology insists that to on corresponds to ho logos. The Enlightened One has seen beyond this. What has he seen? Nothing! Śūnyatā, nirvāṇa. 
We are dealing with avyākṛtavastūni—things (literally) inseparable, ineffable, inexpressible —things "inexplicable," in the etymological sense of being so tightly intertwined as to thwart all unraveling. The principles of identity and noncontradiction, properly speaking, or primario et per se, are logical principles—principles of thought, raised to the status of ontological principles in virtue of the "dogma" of identity, or at least of the adequation, of being and thinking. The Buddha has "seen further." ... If my interpretation is correct, then it seems to me that the intentionality of the avyākṛta does not regard the logic of thought—does not bear upon a softening of the principle of noncontradiction or of the excluded third [middle], but rather points to the imperfection, the limitation, the inability to express the real, intrinsic first of all to the verb "to be" and then to the very concept of being, inasmuch as, ultimately, being itself is not deprived of membership in the kingdom of the impermanent, the changeable, the contingent. There are actually propositions that are inexpressible, owing to the limited grasp of the ontological comprehension available to us. Accordingly, although there is no third alternative between A and not-A, there is between "is" and "is not." 
Were we to attempt to sketch these main lines in broad strokes, we should speak of a tissue of mythos, logos, and spirit. Humankind cannot live without myth. But neither are human beings fully human until they have developed their logical potential and spiritual capacities as well. Just as the essence of the "primitivism" of an archaic culture lies in its mystical characteristics, so the essence of the "barbarian character" of contemporary Western culture lies not in the material component of a given civilization, but in the supreme power that it confers on the logos. If there is a single concept in which we might capsulize the contribution that the Buddha could make to our times, it is the conviction that the logos cannot be divinized in any of its forms, either ontological or epistemological or cosmic. Mythos and logos can exist only in spirit. But spirit cannot be "manipulated," either by mythos or by logos.  
If we look carefully, we see the the trust the Buddha asks is not a new acceptance of someone else's experience, but a reliance on our own experience once it has been enlightened. It is not a matter, then, of the renunciation of knowing, on the implicit presupposition that there is something real to know and some real subject to do the knowing. It is a question of recognizing that creatureliness cannot transcend itself, and that consequently nothing in the order of being, nothing that develops in space and time, can be included in the realization of what ultimately matters. And what ultimately matters is the orthopraxis that eliminates contingency—that is, suffering. 
The human situation may appear self-sufficient in its reciprocal solidarity, but the fact remains that, shut up within its own limits, it will suffocate. Its very sacrality projects it toward the infinite, toward eternity, and unless it is willing to remain irremediably closed off within the spatio-temporal coordinates that delimit it, it will have to be able to find a mediation with an extrahuman order of salvation. This is the traditional function known by the name of "priesthood." 
Without an objective something outside themselves for which to strive, human beings may fall victim not only to the self-centeredness that issues in dishonesty with their neighbor, but to the ennui that flows from the meaninglessness of a contingent life that comes to constitute its own stifling limitations. Human beings must lift their eyes to a horizon that is higher than simply themselves and their own story. What I consider that earmark of the new atheism is rather the emergence in contemporary humankind of a tendency to adopt an ideal that is personal in nature. That is, each individual consciously adopts some particular ideal in order to maintain the very need to believe. 
And yet does it really seem wise to break with a tradition, a religious one as it happens, that for centuries, for better or for worse, has furnished a large part of humanity with an effective support? Indeed, have we not begun to see that the drastic solution, tested several times now in the course of history, of discarding religion, does not seem to have yielded very satisfactory results? On the contrary, it seems almost as if the "place" vacated by God has been filled up by... nothing at all—and that this "nothing" has loomed up before an unprepared modern humanity with a force that terrorizes it, threatens to swallow it whole. Only silence has filled the void left by divinity. God is gone now, and the silence seems even more disappointing and incomprehensible than the God who has been wished away. 
Here our speculation will have to adopt a culturally and religiously pluralistic outlook if it is to have any hope of finding paths to a solution of the problem before it. The challenge of the present age will be to examine whether it is possible to "de-divinize" Being, and de-ontologize God, without either one suffering any detriment, so to speak. Apart from such a possibility, only one alternative remains: identification or nihilism. 
God may be or appear to be no more than a handy, bourgeois solution for so many of the problems of modern human life; but at least God represented a hypothesis that, once accepted, really did solve human problems. Left to themselves, without their Gods and without God, human beings simply "don't make it." They must forge themselves every manner of idol in order to survive. Atheism is powerful when it comes to destroying a determinate conception of God; but it betrays its impotence the moment it pretends to transform itself into a worldview that would replace what it has destroyed. Now the cure is worse than the disease.
To express myself in the simplest way possible, then: persons discover that, in their deepest heart, there is a "bottomless bottom," that "is" what they largely are, and at the same time is identical to what each "other" human can likewise experience—the bottom that constitutes what is deepest in every human being, as anyone who has had this experience can attest—that same depth, moreover, that is lived, perceived, intuited as the unique source of all things, and yet never exhausted in any of them, so to speak. 
The Buddha delves to the root of the problem—not via a direct, violent denial of God, not again through some harmonization of the various paths, but with a demonstration of the superfluity of the very question of God or of any ultraterrestrial world. In the Buddha we see the vacuity of any possible response, because of the nullity of the entire question. Yet we are not obliged to renounce the possibility of an outcome in terms of salvation and liberation.... Let God's existence be affirmed or denied as it may: neither "answer" will be of any importance, for both are equally invalid. 
Faith, though of course comporting an intellectual dimension, is not fundamentally an act of the intellect. It is an act of the whole person. The perfect and universal formula of faith is not "I believe in God," but "I believe," as an expression of total self-bestowal, as an utterance of the abandon with which the answer given in the gospel by the person blind from birth is charged: "I do believe, Lord." Faith is an act of sheer openness. Any closure upon an object wrings it dry. The very presence of God is detrimental to the constitutive openness of faith. Neither the Buddha, nor the Prophet, nor the Christ can remain at the believer's side without representing a dangerous obstacle to that believer's leap of faith. 
What matters, then, is not "God," in the classic sense. What matters is only a path, a way that leads in the direction of liberation. Ultimately our lot is in our own hands. We and we alone can deliver ourselves from the suffering that assaults us on every side. The only help available is a reliance on the experience of the Buddha himself and of the monastic community of his followers, in observance of right conduct.... When all is said and done, neither orthodoxy nor orthopoiesis matters. What saves is the refusal to entertain any ideology of philosophy that in some degree would center on God. What is of true value, what carries us beyond this nearer shore of ours is orthopraxis. Now we "arrive" indeed, but without vaulting into the arms of a transcendence that can be manipulated, one that is but the product of our unsatiated desires. The dharma is not infertile, and indeed per se. It suffices to follow it; there is no need to concern oneself with it by reflecting and willing. One need only rely on the Buddha, who has indicated the way, and on the community—that is, on solidarity. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Meaning of Rebirth

There is a lot of debate in Western Buddhism about whether rebirth is real or not. Sometimes it is said that rebirth is an Indian religious belief, and not necessary for practicing dharma. However I am not so sure about that. I think the meaning of 'rebirth' is that 'so long as we identify with those things that are subject to birth and death, then we too are subject to birth and death'. When seen this way, rebirth seems a lot less fantastic, less like participating in an endless series of Hollywood films that many people seem to understand 'rebirth' to mean. It is more that we are then subject to all the sufferings of creatures bound to the wheel of birth, decay and death, and driven by instincts to keep struggling for survival.

We can't simply run away from that, however. It is not as if we can simply step out of that, even at the time of our death, because the latent tendencies will then re-form another existence which is also bound to the wheel of re-birth. It is not voluntary, it is out of our conscious control. I think that is why Buddhism stresses 'mindfulness' which is to understand these deep drives which power the 'wheel of life and death'. But that understanding is not a simple matter, it is not like having a relaxing time or being 'free from stress' in the way that worldly people understand. If it were like that, then simply being materially well-off and not having any emotional problems would be the same as liberation. But the Buddha teaches that, even though we might be lucky enough to be free of stress now, even for a whole lifetime (although very few are), at the end of that we are still subject to change and decay, and so still bound to the wheel of samsara, and so whatever favourable circumstances we have now will one day be lost.

So I think understanding 'freedom from rebirth' is not actually a matter of whether you believe in reincarnation or not. It has a deeper meaning than that. It is about whether you are of this world, part of the whole cycle of birth-and-death, change-and-decay, rising-and-falling, that everything in nature is subject to. Nowadays we seem to think that 'natural' is good and wholesome, yet it is the case that everything in nature is subject to decay and death, even if it is temporarily beautiful, young and vital.

There is something that is beyond change and decay, that is not subject to the constant cycle of birth and death. It is something always new, never perishing. That is what the Buddha found and points to. Living in the light of that, realizing what that is and making oneself available to it, is the aim of the Buddhist teaching. And that is not something that is taught very much in 'Western Buddhism'. Many 'Western Buddhists' can talk expertly and at length about subtle and abstruse concepts and quote passages from all kinds of texts. But in the absence of the understanding of the meaning of rebirth, 'nirvana' means simply being happy in this life, not having anything to worry about, being relaxed. It doesn't really have a deeper meaning. And so their idea of Buddhism supports that condition very well. But I think it's because they don't understand the meaning of rebirth.

May all beings realize the truth of re-birth in this human realm.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The European Enlightenment and Buddhism

In the European enlightenment, there was an underlying presumption that science ought to replace 'religion' as the source of normative judgement. However science is not directly concerned with ethical questions - it is mainly concerned with measurement, prediction and exploration of the natural world. The scientific attitude has been generally associated with the tendency towards positivism in philosophy, which is the rejection of metaphysics and many other facets of traditional philosophy.

‘Positivism’ was a term devised to differentiate the empirical and natural sciences - 'positive sciences' - from prevailing religious and metaphysical philosophies of the age. Auguste Comte, who coined the word, saw a progression in the development of society from the ‘theological’ to the ‘scientific’ phase, in which data derived from empirical experience, and logical and mathematical treatments of such data, provide the exclusive source of all authentic knowledge. The general conception of the evolution of society from theological to scientific - a model which might be called ‘historical positivism’ - has remained an important component of the modern outlook. In this world-view, the mechanistic model and the idea that the underlying reality of the Universe was matter was, then, the culmination of the idea of Progress. In important respects, science assumes the role that was previously occupied by religion, to become something like a 'religion of scientism' which has recognizable exponents in modern society.

Secular thinking, conceived a systematic philosophy which does not make recourse to anything metaphysical, accepts the natural sciences as the umpire of reality, understanding of which is always to be sought in objective terms. Within this view, individuals are free to practice within any religious or spiritual tradition of their liking, with the proviso that it ought not to be harmful to others. But note that this radically subjectivizes the question of the validity of the truth claims of any such traditions. In practice, it is impossible to differentiate such truth claims from matters of opinion, because they are basically subject to individual conscience and beyond the purview of the objective sciences.

What I think is lacking in all of this is a model which accomodates the fact of spiritual enlightenment. There was really no idea of such a thing in the ecclesiastical traditions that the Enlightenment reacted against, where 'spiritual enlightenment' in the Eastern sense was generally the subject of ecclesiastical censure and persecution. If such an understanding is to be found, I think it has to be sought through comparitive religion, anthropology, and the study of what William James called 'the varieties of religious experience'. And I think if you do study it that way, with an open mind (which is a very hard thing to come by in regards to this question) you can see the outlines of what 'spiritual awakening' across many different cultural traditions really consists of. 

One of the groundbreaking popularisers of comparitive religion, Huston Smith, addressed this in his book Forgotten Truths in which he says that in all the sacred traditions, there are "levels of being" such that the more real is also the more valuable; these levels appear in both the "external" and the "internal" worlds, "higher" levels of reality without corresponding to "deeper" levels of reality within. On the lowest level is the material/physical world, which depends for its existence on the higher levels. On the very highest/deepest level is the Infinite or Absolute, which might be identified as God in the theistic traditions. (The key point, the single most important understanding that was lost in the European Enlightenment, was the notion of a 'hierarchy of being'.)

Basically his Forgotten Truths is an attempt to recover this view of reality from materialism, scientism, and "postmodernism." It does not attempt to adjudicate among religions (or philosophies), it does not spell out any of the important differences between world faiths, and it is not intended to substitute a "new" religion for the specific faiths which already exist.

Nor should any such project be expected from a work that expressly focuses on what religions have in common. Far from showing that all religions are somehow "the same," Smith in fact shows that religions have a "common" core only at a sufficiently general level. What he shows, therefore, is not that there is really just one religion, but that the various religions of the world are actually agreeing and disagreeing about something real, something about which there is an objective matter of fact, on the fundamentals of which most religions tend to concur while differing in numerous points of detail (including practice).

I would hope that some kind of common vision is beginning to emerge from the Western encounter with Buddhism as well as from other sources. If we are able to construct a cosmology within which the fact of spiritual awakening retains the pivotal importance that it has always had for Buddhism, there is no reason why this can't accomodate, and also counter-balance, anything which the objective sciences discover. In its absence, however, we are facing only ever-increasing and more sophisticated forms of avidya which is a threat to both the human and natural environment.

(Originally posted on Dharmawheel).

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Armed and Dangerous

Sabbe sattā ummattakā - all sentient beings are deranged - The Buddha.

In the ancient world, it was understood that the ordinary condition of people was one of delusion. In the wisdom traditions, this was encoded in various symbolic terms and allegories  -  but the underlying idea was that 'man is a stranger to himself' and lived in an unreal world of dreams and fantasies, which he mistakes for reality (for example, the Allegory of the Cave, in The Republic). And even though a person might have had great learning, skill and fortune, as long as s/he remained in 'ignorance', in this philosophical sense, this remained the case.

It seems to me that most of what passes for philosophy in this day and age is simply a way of rationalizing this state of affairs. Materialism, which is basically the rejection of any real philosophy, is the determination that the world of appearance is the only world, the real world, and that the conscious ego and the forces it can master is the real self. Any notion of a truth that has to be striven for or aspired to through self abnegation and renunciation is laughingly dismissed.

Those who propose this are what the gnostics call the 'somatics' or 'hylics'. They are the common man, the puttajana, the unreformed, the mass of people. The aim of post-Enlightenment philosophy seems to be making the world safe for the ignorant: enabling you to stay in your slumber of delusion, while enjoying the illusory pleasures that it provides to the utmost degree. Of course, this situation is completely unsustainable, and the source of a great deal of our current crises, large and small. But you can't explain this to anyone - because they don't really grasp what it is that they don't understand! Any attempt to explain it meets a barrage of fire which is designed to preserve the egoic illusion. And as this egoic illusion is now equipped with weapons of absolutely unprecedented potency, the world is indeed on a knife edge. We have generations of people who have no real idea of the distinctive nature of wisdom, yet who have the most advanced technology the world has ever seen.

One grand irony in all this is that science itself has actually seen through the delusion of materialism. Science has dissolved matter into probability waves, and realized that 'the observer' occupies the pivotal role in the creation of the world of appearances. So this materialism is no longer even really supported by the science that it trumpets to everyone. But try telling that to anyone - it is taboo, forbidden. The lords of this world won't allow it. So, the problem then becomes that materialist philosophy doesn't comprehend what it is ignorant of. As far as it is concerned, there is only scientific knowledge, even though it is by now obvious that the world itself, the entire arena of scientific discovery, does not contain its own ground or its own origin. The profound nature of this shortfall is not admitted, however. The best we have is 'fallabalistic and approximative hyptheses' which will forever be subject to falsification.

So in this mentality, the very absence of wisdom, in the sense of the vision of the eternal, is now called 'wisdom'. We are told to 'live in the moment' - quite a different thing to the 'eternal now' of the sage - because life is only a moment, a flash of light in the eternal blackness of the material universe. But those who propound this teaching have no idea of what it is they are criticizing, having never gone through the dedication and effort required to actually ask the question about the nature of ultimate reality properly. So they are teaching ignorance as wisdom. That is the nature of the age we live in.

It is interesting that I find the following statement in two completely different sources. The first is by A W Tozer, an American evangelical, but a very unusual and insightful one, in my opinion:

There are two spirits abroad in the earth: the spirit that works in the children of disobedience and the Spirit of God. These two can never be reconciled in time or in eternity. The spirit that dwells in the once-born is forever opposed to the Spirit that inhabits the heart of the twice-born. This hostility began somewhere in the remote past before the creation of man and continues to this day. The modern effort to bring peace between these two spirits is not only futile but contrary to the moral laws of the universe.

A W Tozer, The Once-Born and the Twice-Born.

Then I found this statement on a Sikh website:

It is repeatedly indicated in the Gurbani that there are only two different groups of people living together on earth: Gurmukhs (followers of Divine Hukam, Truth (ਸਚ), Wisdom of the Gurbani ...) and Manmukhs (deniers or opposers of Divine Hukam, Truth (ਸਚ), Wisdom of the Gurbani ...).

Saturday, February 2, 2013

....religion has survived the assaults of reductionism because religions address distinctively human concerns, concerns that ants and computers can’t have: Who am I? What is my place? What is the point of my life? But in order to reject reductionism, we don’t necessarily have to embrace religion or the supernatural. We need to recognize that nature, including human nature, is far richer than what so-called naturalism chooses to admit as natural

Richard Polk,  Anything but Human

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On Spirit

The question in regards to the nature of 'spirit' is never 'what is that?', but 'who am I?'

'Substance is that which is always a subject, never a predicate' ~ Kelly Ross, Meaning and the Problem of Universals

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Spiritual Occlusion

Occlude, verb: block passage; obstruct a path.

Human beings generally suffer from an occlusion of perception which obstructs their view of the nature of things. Some people are aware of this - and to be aware of this is the first step in undertaking sadhana, spiritual discipline leading to an unimpeded view, to seeing how things really are.

Most are not aware of it, and so continue to suffer for reasons that in their heart of hearts they know but have chosen to forget.

Then there are those whose view is not occluded. There are the liberated beings how have outgrown and matured beyond what we accept and regard as 'the human condition'. They are the awakened ones, very few in number. All the great spiritual traditions spring from and honour those whose view is not occluded.

When spiritual teachers say that the true nature of being is obscured by craving and ignorance, it is to this occlusion they refer. And the true nature of which they speak is not some cumbersome philosophical concept understood only by academics and scholars. It is the very joy of being alive, the first flush of spring, the bliss of being which is known to kittens and children and those unencumbered by self-concern. It is the delight of compassion which need ask nothing in return and has no care for the morrow. It is the love which springs spontaneously from one who dares to be tender.

It is true that humans must abandon innocence and break from the womb of nature, and that having done so they will wander for aeons in the realm of created being, subject to death and decay. But all along they are emanations of that intelligence which animates all, that which knows but is not known. To begin to truly love, which is to love without cause and without object, is to begin to overcome that blindness which occludes our perception of the impercievable, that impossible task which only love can accomplish.

jps | August 2002

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Einstein Also Said

"The very fact that the totality of our sense experience is such that by means of thinking it can be put in order -  this fact is one which leaves us in awe, but which we shall never understand."

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Religion is....

...the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

A N Whitehead, quoted by James le Fanu

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reality is not what you see out the window

Reality is not what you see out the window. Reality is you looking out the window. What is the difference? Well, 'you looking out the window' includes the observer. And it is obvious that, in fact, reality does 'include the observer'. Insofar as science wants to understand reality as if there is no observer present - 'the view from nowhere' - then what it actually sees is only a slice or an aspect of the totality.

The totality, the whole picture, always must include the observer; and to pretend that it doesn't is a kind of conceit, and maybe even a kind of deceit.

It has occurred to me that 'scientific materialism' is actually a degenerate form of Christianity. From Christianity it has inherited the idea of 'truth', however now materialism understands this as 'scientific truth'. The problem with this is that there really isn't such a thing as 'scientific truth'. There are scientific hypotheses, which are, by their nature, limited and falsifiable. There are enormous amounts of data, far more than any individual can ever hope to know. But the idea of 'Truth with a capital T' is very much inherited from Christian Platonism. It is the remnants of the idea of a realm of truth, a place or a state of mind, where 'all is revealed'. (Think 'the allegory of the Cave'. Perhaps this really was the vision at the beginning of the scientific enterprise.)

Now what it has come to mean is that there only certain kinds of things which we will consider to be real, namely,  'the kinds of things which the natural sciences are able to investigate'.  Basically these are things which are amenable to quantification and explanation in third-person terms and are potentially explicable in terms of the laws of physics. Anything whatever which is deemed to 'contradict the laws of physics', is anathematized with all of the passion with which the doctors of the Church used to condemn heresy. An example was John Maddox' (Then editor of Nature) outraged reaction to Rupert Sheldrake's A New Science of Life:

"I was so offended by it, that I said that while it's wrong that books should be burned, in practice, if book burning were allowed, this book would be a candidate (...) I think it's dangerous that people should be allowed by our liberal societies to put that kind of nonsense into currency. It's unnecessary to introduce magic into the explanation from physical and biological phenomenon when in fact there is every likelihood that the continuation of research as it is now practiced will indeed fill all the gaps that Sheldrake draws attention to. You see, Sheldrake's is not a scientific theory. Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned, in exactly the language that the popes used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy".

That is why the so-called 'sceptics' (so-called, because many are actually ideologues rather than actual sceptics) are so vehement in their condemnation of anything  they deem metaphysical. Theirs is basically a quasi-religious stance, created around the religion of scientism, which, as I say, has descended from the ruins of Christian idealism. This understands the nature of reality solely in terms of material processes; life as the outcome of chance, in a multiverse which is inherently meaningless and chaotic, to put it in a nutshell.

They conceive of 'the laws of physics' as somehow prohibiting or outlawing anything they regard as psychic or 'spiritual'. In fact, many will also dispute any kind of order whatever, and any notion that the intellect is anything more than the material brain.  In this respect, 'scientific laws' now occupy a very similar place to 'God's laws' in medieval society - from which, it must be recalled, modern society has descended. They are, to all intents, proscriptive, rather than simply descriptive, in stipulating what kinds of things ought to be considered.

But if you even have a little imagination, the discoveries of 20th century science did nothing to undermine a kind of pan-religious view of the Universe. The very notion of the 'Big Bang', which seems to say that the universe exploded into existence in the literal blink of an eye, from an infinitesimally small point to the vast expanses of space we see today, is very easy to accommodate within the overall notion of creation ex-nihilo. There is an idea floating around that the universe expands and contracts through endless cycles of Big Bangs, which dovetails very nicely with the 'myth of the eternal return'. In the (disputed) Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics, matter is dissolved into 'probability waves' which are intelligible rather than material. Physics is alive with ideas of multiple dimensions and unseen matter.   Now matter itself is ultimately mysterious, something understood in terms of waves and potentialities instead of absolute point-particles. There is plenty of space with all of this for a spiritual view of life - arguably more so than there was 100 years ago.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Experience and realisation

Reality is realised. Existence is experienced.

Perhaps one way of understanding this distinction is to say that 'what is real' and 'what exists' are different, and this relates to the difference between 'realisation' and 'experience' and between the noumenal and phenomenal. Reality is much greater than what just exists, because it includes possibilities, meaning, and more.

There are those who object to the idea of 'noumenon'  because it seems to imply some 'world behind the world', a real world as opposed to an illusory one that we normally inhabit. Perhaps not. Perhaps 'what is', consists not just of 'things which exist' but, more importantly, the relations between those things, which is, of course, changing in every instant, because everything is in motion. So 'what is', which is 'the noumenal', is actually always fleeting, because it is changing at every moment, while 'what exists', which are those things that we actually can know, measure, and talk about, are of a lesser degree of reality than 'the totality'.

In this understanding, 'what exists' is indeed what can be measured, ascertained, photographed, captured, and so on. So it really does exist. But 'existence' itself is simply a momentary aspect of the totality - and the totality is what is real. I think this is why the sages see things as they do - they are alive to the totality, which is why they say that 'all is one'.

Another way of considering this. Reality is the totality of your experience at this very moment. It includes everything you can see, know, think about, and of course an indefinite or infinite amount more which branches out into the vastness of space around you and also down into the depths of your own unconscious processes. The nature of 'awakening' is to be completely awake and alive to the immensity of this current moment of reality.

In practice, this state always being occluded by the conditioned outlook, the constant interplay of memory-and-expectation, desire-and-aversion, and the many other states, both conscious and subliminal, that constantly arise and pass away from one moment to the next. This is what dictates our actual experience of life moment to moment, or what you call 'yourself' or 'your life'.

Now the point about a 'purified consciousness' is that it is intensely alive to each moment and to the sense of immensity which this brings. There is a sense in which one's own aliveness and the aliveness of all that lives intermingle in this awareness. But of course we cannot appreciate this immensity precisely because of the burden of self-hood, of the weight of who we are and what we own.

Existence, on the other hand, is your life considered longitudinally, that is, through time. It relies on time to introduce the sense of continuity, which established a series of moments, which comprise your conscious existence through time. It describes all that you know, measure, think about. 'You' are that process which exists through time, which measures and knows and hopes and so on.
If you are able to meet each moment completely, live it with complete attention, without any effort, then it doesn't leave any marks on you. Everything just falls off you like water off a duck's back. But of course I am not like that, I am always thinking, planning, getting, doing, the very thought process is always creating itself according to its previous experience.

So this is the purpose of spiritual discipline: to realise that state of intense aliveness and awareness. With it comes an increased sensitivity to the nature of things which really can't be captured by thought, no matter how subtle, clever or refined. Because thought itself is of the nature of time.

Now I make no claims to be in this state or to know this state. However I do, now, understand that it is something real.