“This existence of ours is as transient as Autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at
the movements of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,
Rushing by, like a torrent down a deep mountain.”
“Buddhism” is a western term; on its own terms, this way of thought we’ll be studying for the rest of the semester is about as far from an “ism” as anything I can think of; and on its own terms is known as the Buddha Dharma, or the way of the Buddha.
And “buddha means” awakened one, or the one who woke up: Buddhism is most literally the Way of the One Who Woke Up! And it represents to me, for various reasons, the purest form of philosophy I have ever encountered; and it is so unlike a religion at its core that its almost shocking, if by religion you mean something involving belief in transcendental realities based on the authority of authors
You’ll recall I’ve said that in my view philosophy is something like an attempt to discover
*what is most real
*through all that reason is and can be
*in order to know how to live in the light of that discovered reality
We can call that metaphysics and ethics in the light of reason (with the proviso that reason is something more than a calculative thinking which only accepts a quantitative mode of reckoning: reason being richer than that, and including qualitative and non-discursive elements grasped in intuition [explain non-discursive!])
So the idea I’m getting at is that philosophy tries to discover reality with all that a human being qua human being can bring to bear–and only that! Just reason, in the richer sense of reason, in terms of pragmatic human experience
And the Way of the One Who Woke Up is at its core just that: the Buddha Dharma is radically philosophical in its appeal to nothing beyond you as you are now–you and you and you:all of you–it appeals to nothing but the direct experience you have of yourself, and how you can reason about that experience (and the accent is on reason, in the richer sense of reason I mentioned).
In this way it reminds me of the Way of Socrates, which was known as the way of argument and refutation [elenchos], a sort of negative dialectic which sought through dialogue and questioning to draw out of you what’s there–and what’s not there–in order to show you what you don’t know: remember Socrates said he was the wisest man alive because he knew what he did not know; and he would go around arguing with others, in order to show them what they did not know too!
Well, the Buddha Dharma is a kind of refutation of the ego, the Self, encouraged through active and radical questioning in which you seek above all to discover what you are NOT, and so to become free
In fact, the One Who Woke Up actively encouraged questioning and experimentation in a sort of pragmatic, existential challenge, in order to have direct, experiential insight into reality.
And his way to wake up into reality seems deceptively simple. Using my translation of the traditional terms, we need to:
Live with Discipline [shila]
Cultivate Stillness [samadhi]
Pay Attention [prajna]
And keep your eyes peeled for the Suchness of the Void. And that Suchness of the Void sounds mysterious, but it’s not; listen to a story:
One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu: Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom? Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.” Is that all? asked the man. Will you not add something more? Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.” Well, remarked the man rather irritably, I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written. Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention. Attention. Attention.” Half-angered, the man demanded: What does that word `Attention’ mean, anyway? And Ikkyu answered gently: Attention means Attention.
(Kapleau, Three Pillars of Zen)
Well, according to the Buddha Dharma, what you really first see, when you try to pay attention to yourself, here and now, is that simply paying attention seems almost impossible. Because what we are really preoccupied with is not reality but our conception of reality, expressed in words, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes given to us by other people: the names that we talked about when we discussed Taoism, that can name no lasting name–but we start out thinking that they can.
And see how easily we move from group to group, trading one group of names for another, in our desire to feel safe and secure: unhappy with society’s names, we reject society and form our own names in an endless mirror-house of sub-sub-sub counter-cultural enclaves on the left and the right. But names can name no lasting names, not even the names that reject society’s values.
And obsessed with names and the security they represent for our desires we end up with this strange whirl-wind we call our ego or our Self–but what we think is reality is usually just a perception of it; and just like in a dream, we mistake the fantasies of our desire for something really happening around us–whether in society with it’s fantasies, or outside of society, in some subgroup and its fantasies
Now the One Who Woke Up claimed to teach a way to cut through these fantasies: a way to come out of it, like waking up from a dream; and that to do that, all you needed was what is here and now in your life as a human being: no gods, no supernatural forces, no magic words or rituals, no gods in a spaceship, but simply the realization of your own life and mind through Discipline, Stillness, and Attention to the reality that is right there in front of us, but which is obscured by this obsession we have with permanence
So through this philosophy, it is claimed, you can be freed from bondage to all forms of thought, visions, objects, opinions, beliefs, imaginations–what some people call the real world–and be brought to a state of Absolute Emptiness which is simultaneously the Fullness of What Is! Emptiness is the Fullness of Suchness, because, when you become empty or void of the words and labels and concepts we paste over the world, you see for the first time: THIS! [LOOK AROUND WHEREVER YOU FIND YOURSELF TO BE!!!] THIS IS THE VOID, THE EMPTINESS, SO HARD TO SEE BECAUSE OF THE CONCEPTS WE LAY OVER IT. Are you looking for heaven’s gate? Here it is, just like we are now.
And what is the way to achieve this? What incredible feats must you do? What astonishing searches? What awful sacrifices and penances? How do you start? Must you leave your family? Give up all your money? Fast and meditate? Spend 7 years in Tibet?
Well, the One Who Woke Up said, sit down, where you are, and pay attention to who you are! Sit down and know yourself! YOU WANNA KNOW WHAT’S REAL? Take a seat! [sit on desk and look at them] What a joker! Only a philosopher would say that! And it’s a trick: philosophers are full of tricks; because it turns out to be the most amazingly hard thing in the world just to sit down and pay attention to who you are; it requires in fact all of your life and thought to do it: to sit down and ehi passika, to sit down and come and see who you are
And who are you, according to the Buddha Dharma? well, listen to Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, who points a finger at the moon for us; LISTEN! LISTEN TO THIS FINGER POINTED AT THE MOON BY CHOGYAM TRUNGPA. ATTENTION! ATTENTION! ATTENTION!
Fundamentally there is just open space, the basic ground, what we really are. Our most fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego, is such that there is basic openness, basic freedom, a spacious quality; and we have now and have always had this openness. Take, for example, our everyday lives and thought patterns. When we see an object, in the first instant there is a sudden perception ;which has no logic or conceptualization to it at all; we just perceive the thing in the open ground. Then immediately we panic and begin to rush about to trying to add something to it, either trying to find a name for it or trying to categorize it or trying to find pigeon-holes in which we could locate and categorize it. Gradually things develop from there.
But the beginning point is that there is open space, belonging to no one. There is always primordial intelligence connected with the space, vidya–which means `intelligence’ in Sanskrit–precision, sharpness, sharpness with space, sharpness with room in which to put things, exchange things. It is like a spacious hall where there is room to dance about, where there is no danger of knocking things over or tripping over things, for there is completely open space. We are this space, we are one with it, with vidya, intelligence and openness.
This philosopher claims that you can pay attention, and as a human being, through reason and discipline, discover this experience of reality in a truly pragmatic sense: that you can step beyond the words that are appearance and that bewitch us into bland desire and mind-less egotism, and discover the reality that rolls all around us–what Lao Tzu called the Great Ordinary, as best as I can coordinate their two fingers pointing at the moon.
And the way he found seems to me to be what I would call radically existential and radically pragmatic in its approach to reality and life. Radically existential because, first of all, the Buddha only claimed to be a human being, and to have achieved what a human being can, unaided, through human effort and intelligence. What is most real, and how to live it out, depends on human intelligence and effort.
Radically existential, second, because it involves a life of truth involving how you, the individual, live: no one is responsible for you but you: and theory is totally unimportant except as it informs a life of truth
Consider a quote from p. 12 of Rahula, What the Buddha Taught:
The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. It seems that there were some among his own disciples who did not appreciate this attitude of his. For, we have the example of one of them, Malunkyaputta by name, who put to the Buddha ten well-known classical questions on metaphysical problems and demanded answers.
One day Malunkyaputta got up form his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, saluted him, sat on one side, and said:
Sir, when I was all alone meditating, this thought occurred to me: there are these problems unexplained, put aside and rejected by the Blessed One. Namely: Is the universe eternal or not? Finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or is the soul one thing and the body another? Does the Tathagata [realized Buddha] exist after death, or not, or both exist and not exist? These problems the Blessed One does not explain to me. This attitude does not please me.
Malunkyaputta, the frustrated metaphysician, then goes on to say he will quit being a buddhist and leave if his curiosity on these ultimate concerns is not satisfied. The Buddha then replied with a story about a poisoned arrow (found in Rahula):
Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: `I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until he explains these questions,’ he may die with these questions unanswered by the Tathagata. Suppose a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: `I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me: whether he is a warrior, a priest, a businessman, or a servant; what his name and family might be; whether he is tall, short, or of medium stature; from which village, town or city he comes from . . . until I know the type of bow . . .the type of arrow . . . and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made.’ Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, if anyone says: `I will not follow the Buddha until he answers questions like these, and so on,’ he would die with these questions unanswered by the Tathagata . . . Why have I now explained these things? Because it is not useful . . . not conducive to full realization, to Nirvana.
This makes the philosophy of the One Who Woke Up radically pragmatic. In a pragmatic theory of truth, the truth is simply how things work out in action; the truth of a word or concept is in its actual effect, and is nothing beyond that. So the meaning of the concept `hardness’, for example, is that it cannot be easily scratched, and the truth of hardness is found in that and not in some theory of atomic structure. Similarly the truth, the meaning of the words `believe in God’ when I was a child seemed to me to be: get up on Sunday, dress up, go to a place where people said a lot of things I didn’t understand, experience excruciating boredom, go home and eat my grandmother’s pot roast, get out of those damn clothes and get on with my life! How it works out in actual habits of life IS the truth in a pragmatic sense.
So in a famous example, the Buddha compared his teachings to a raft (in Rahula):
O bhikkhus, a man is on a journey. He comes to a vast stretch of water. On this side the shore is dangerous, but on the other side it is safe and without danger. No boat goes to the other shore which is safe and without danger, nor is there any bridge for crossing over . . . So that man . . . makes a raft, and with the help of the raft crosses over safely to the other side . . . Having crossed over . . . he thinks: `This raft was of great help to me . . . It would be good to carry this raft on my head or on my back wherever I go.’
What do you think, O bhikkhus, if he acted in this way would the man be acting properly with regard to the raft? [Wouldn’t he be acting properly if he thought:] `This raft was a great help to me . . . It would be good if I beached this raft on the shore, or moored it and left it afloat, and then went on my way . . .’ In the same manner I have taught a truth similar to a raft–it is for crossing over, and not for carrying.
This meant that what was essential for him is that someone experience the truth of his words, and that nothing be taken on faith. What is essential is experiencing a thing so as to understand it. This gives the way of the One Who Woke Up an experimental, pragmatic flavor: you are asked to come and see, not come and believe.
As Rahula puts it (in What the Buddha Taught): Suppose I told you I had a diamond in the palm of my clenched fist. You would have to believe me if you could not see it–but once you see it, there is no need for belief. If I unclench my fist and show you the diamond, you can experience it for yourself, and the question of belief on my authority never comes up. So the Buddha always talked about knowledge of his teachings gained through experience, and never about believing through faith.
So another story is told about the Buddha visiting a small town, where he was asked about how one religious teacher or philosophy professor after another would blow into town, give his views, claim they were the truth, and say the others who were there before them were wrong! You know how it is: I think they had cable! This is what the Buddha told them (quoted in Rahula):
Yes: it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look: do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Don’t be led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic and inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight of speculative opinions, no by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: `this is our teacher’. But when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give them up . . . And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.
The Buddha went so far as to repeatedly tell his followers even to examine the Buddha himself: to try it out and see for themselves if what he way saying was true: if it truly resonated with their actual experience of the world.
So what did he say was true, that he asked others to verify for themselves? Well, that’s quite a story! All I can do here is hint at it. But we can make a little start. Come and see!
The Buddha thought that when you began to really pay attention to what is most real, to discipline yourself with stillness and attention, that the first thing you realize is the truth of impermanence: that nothing is permanent and unchanging; and that the source of all our confusion was to try to make the impermanent to be permanent, which can only lead to unsatisfactoriness.
Nothing is permanent! Not even and especially your body, which the Tibetans call “something you leave behind.” And your always leaving your body behind! More and more it comes to seem to be not yours at all, as it grows and matures, and declines, and changes, and you can’t really do anything about it! PUKING! I ALWAYS THINK OF THIS TRUTH WHEN I’M PUKING! MY BODY IS CHANGING AND I CAN DO NOTHING ABOUT IT! Or think about what we call our “self”: conception, 1, 2, 3, 4 to 9 month in the womb; birth, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18: which one is your self? Can you find something permanent there anywhere?
And he said that if you thought–really thought, in a disciplined way–about your actual experience of life, you can see that there are three marks of what is real: three basic features of existence:
This means that every thing undergoes change and has no permanent substance; and from the point of view of desiring permanence and substance, this is dukkha: unsatisfactory: that from the point of view of ego existence is pervaded by a kind of frustrating confusion, a sense of irritating incompleteness, as we try to stop the change and make what is impermanent substantial.
And even the moments of happiness and joy, that are real too, never last; every joy is impermanent and has no substance; and to try to hold on the happiness or joy and make it permanent simply makes things more unsatisfactory.
The Buddha was called the Knower of the World: and said we only can begin to know how to live when we realize the reality of these truths: not in theory, but in a radical confrontation with the experience of your life as you live it, resulting in insight wisdom.
To know the world is to see it in the light of these three marks of existence. And Impermanence, unsubstantially, and the unsatisfactoriness of trying to ignore the truth of these marks, becomes really clear in the face of death. The thought of death focuses the mind on these realities and makes life become clear. So paradoxically, in Buddhist philosophy, it is the thought of death that teaches you how to live.
This doesn’t mean that you become morbid, or try to kill yourself, which would be a strange confusion; for to think about death is to think about life, and how you should live. The longer you live in the face of death, the more you are set free to live fully; that physical death will come soon enough, all on its own, who knows when. As the Buddha is reported to have said:
This existence of ours is as transient as Autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at
the movements of a dance.
A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,
Rushing by, like a torrent down a deep mountain.
The truth of impermanence is only unsatisfactory, and the cause of suffering, to those who do not see that to live in the light of what is real is to be free from the suffering caused by unreal expectations. To begin to see that, the Buddha said, you need to sit down! Be still! And pay attention! attention! attention!