Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Reason and spirituality - Part I (paca)

This was a huge comment on llama's post below, but it was so big I decided to make it a real entry. However, it is a continuation of the discussion in llama's post, so you may wish to start there for this one to make any sense:

Howdy, llama,

I am operating a lot like -e here in that I left all my books on religion, except for one or two C.S. Lewis of course! - in a warehouse in the Boro, so this is all coming from memory, much of it dim.

Part of the problem, as always, is that there are hundreds of different beliefs all being lumped together as Buddhism and Hinduism in our discussion. In India alone, there are a series of Buddhist schools with very different views of the soul and rebirth. Most of my memories of Buddhism are based on a particular school, known as Madyamika, or the Middle Way, inspired largely by a Buddhist philosopher named Nagarjuna, though of course followers would say they are continuing the pure teachings of the Buddha himself. This is the school that largely got imported, well this is too simple but I will say it anyway, into East Asia, taking various forms, most famously Zen in Japan (Ch'an in China). Since you are in Thailand, it is worth stating, as you likely know, that this is a very different tradition than the version of Buddhism in Thailand. The distinction is often made between Mahayana (Great Wheel) Buddhism found in East Asia, and Theravadin (can't remember the translation) found in Thailand and Sri Lanka mostly. Tibetan Buddhism kind of fits into the Mahayana tradition, but it's pretty much it's own thing, sometimes called Tantric.

So anyway, in Madyamika philosophy, there is no thing called the soul. It is in fact the belief that there are souls that is one of the primary sources of suffering. But there is no such thing. In one Buddhist Sutra - a really famous one with a King, King Asoka maybe? - there is a discussion of chariots. Is there such a thing as a chariot? In the form of sutras and lots of religious texts, they go through each thing that might be the chariot - the wheel, the axle, the thing you stand on, the harness - and find no chariot. They also move into more nuanced ideas - is it the arrangement of wheel and axle and standing thing, and still find no chariot there either. The same sort of analysis can be done on the soul. It isn't any part of our body; it isn't our emotions; it isn't our thoughts; it isn't all of these things together. There is no soul. Nagarjuna in his Mulamadyamikarikas (Great Verses of the Middle Way) offers a series of arguments that are intended to show that many things we think exist do not. These include the soul, but also causation (to show how abstract he got), and a kicker for a Buddhist, nirvana. There is no nirvana and no samsara (samsara is the daily world).

When these people are saying things don't exist, there are a couple points to keep in mind. One is that they aren't trying to do natural philosophy and give an account of the world like I might. Nagarjuna is trying to provide ways for you to escape attachment. They have spiritual purposes, like Zen koans, and are not treatises on physics. Secondly, they mean existence in a certain sense. They mean things don't exist in themselves. They do not have eternal essences. Souls aren't infitnite ghosts which inhabit bodies and move them around.

This same debate goes in in Western philosophy and journeys back to at least Plato, as all Western philosophy does. In Western philosophy, the most common way to view the world is with the idea of Substances. There is some sort of stuff and that stuff has properties. It can be little, yellow, different, etc. But when you start taking all the properties away and get back to this Substance, which is supposed to have these properties, so say the critics, you don't have anything left. Buddhists are kind of saying the same thing. You take away the body, the thoughts, the emotions, etc. and you won't find some sort of soul lurking underneath. The soul just is the emotions, the thoughts, the body, and nothing more. No extra stuff. And this is what I mean by the soul emerging from becoming and dying. Thoughts come and go. Much of our body comes and goes. Yet something we call "I" keeps sticking around.

To give this a little bit of plausbility, you might want to check out work on complexity theory and self-organizing systems, though you probably know this stuff.

So, how does reincarnation work if there is no soul to transfer from body to body? I should say that I never bought reincarnation much myself, so I never really bothered to learn how it worked, but my best understanding is the idea of the pattern. Over time, the emergent non-essential soul, or just us, gathers a way of behaving. You could call it our personality, I guess, but again it isn't a thing which behaves in a certain way, it is just a way of behaving by itself. And so in reincarnation, no thing moves to inhabit another body. Instead, this manner of behaving appears again. A new creature emerges with the personality pattern of a creature that went before. If there is a difference between saying this is one creature, one pattern of behavior being reincarnated, or two creatures behaving similarly, I don't know.

I do agree with naughtyloki that your argument is stronger if you can get estimations of general biomass at different times instead of humans. I do wonder, however, what to make of the great extinctions like the Great Dying where some 80-90% of marine life perished. But one could always just point to other worlds that have existed in various forms of Buddhism forever. In various traditions, there are circles of hell, and heaven after heaven, and a million other things that could always be used as a way out.

I do find that sort of discussion to be a how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing, meaning, for me, who cares, or put better - is it important to understanding the basic beliefs of the religious tradition and its relevance to our life? I think this finally gets back to your point about not needing an account of the physical state of the world from religious traditions, since a physical account can provide one.

Earlier I said that I didn't find the idea of rebirth terribly important to me, so I never really bothered to study it. This should strike some as really weird if I was studying Buddhism, because isn't the whole concept of Buddhism that we are reborn over and over until we reach a state of Enlightenment and then poof no more rebirth? Forgetting about rebirth and studying Buddhism would be kind of like being Christian but ignoring that whole Easter thing.

This gets back to the bit earlier in Nagarjuna when he argued there was no Nirvana. Nirvana and Samsara are the same place. The best expression I know of all this is in the Zen tradition, particularly as expressed by Dogen (12th or 13th century). He is the founder of one of the two main Zen traditions, known as Soto Zen. Anyway, he argued that one did not practice meditation to become enlightened. You don't do something and then suddenly bang, enlightenment. Instead zazen, meditation, is enlightenment. It is practicing enlightenment right then, right now, at this moment. Nirvana is not another world, or non-existence, but is a way of being.

Only once in my life did I have a chance to meet and speak with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. I piped up and asked a question which I knew was a bad question, but I couldn't think of any better way to say it. Anyway, this guy was at a level where he could say, kind of, that he was enlightened. He wan't just a professor or someone like me who read books. He was the real thing. My question was basically, "so what was it like?" I don't remember his answer. But as I write this I realize why it was a dumb question. If being enlightened is a way of being, you might as well ask someone, "so what's it like being kind? or honest? or aware?" I don't think such a question is answerable.

So if you break down what nirvana is and what the soul is to a way of being, then perhaps rebirth in the end isn't a physical account at all, but a spiritual one, as you advocated.

FYI, for the most part I have only been talking about what I remember. But I actually believe the last few paragraphs. I think Dogen nailed it.

1 comment:

-E said...

i hadn't really missed my college days until this thread started. 3 times a week my last semester a future jesuit priest, a morman, a guy who wanted to be jewish and i (i was unaffiliated at the time) would have lunch together (we all had class together right before lunch). i can't even begin to get into the conversations we had. but i digress...
i think paca is correct in what he remembers, or at any rate i do not remember anything contrary.
i had a few thoughts on the soul issue. first, at lsmsa i took a religion class and on a test we were asked why buddhist monks live such strict lives...? my answer was partly taken from the movie "little buddha" (yes the one with keanu reeves.) anyway there is a seen where one of the monks shows a cup of tea, then he breaks the cup on the floor and asks if the tea still exists, then he wipes the tea up with a rag, does the tea still exist? i equated the rigid cup with the rigid lifestyle of the monks trying to contain the tea. hey, i was 17! that's pretty good for 17. so, i guess this could be followed up with the "what is a chariot" discussion.
second, a physical argument. so here we are i am me, you are you. one day we die. our bodies are buried, we decompose, feed the grass, circle of life. within ourselves are small parts of thousands of previous lives. do some part of what made them unique, more than a collection of atoms, remain? i don't know.

i need to go back to school. my forte is not discussing an individual religion, but in seeing the larger pattern with other religions. for instance i see striking similarities between christianity and buddhism that i don't usually here other people talk about.
that and paca and llama are much more eloquent than me.