I’m engaged in some discussion with other parapsychologists about a spiritual outlook vs a materialistic one, and related topics. Here is an example of what I’m thinking about – without having come to a nice conclusion. If you find it stimulating, maybe you can tell me where I should end up!
Identity, Self, Karma, Buddhism, Survival of Death, Etc….
Buddhism, as I understand it (and I’m not a scholar, just a beginning but serious student and on-again, off-again practitioner/experimenter and “fooler-arounder”) is a body of knowledge, concepts, and practices about human experience. Direct experience is the fundamental data of Buddhism, although a lot of Buddhism seems to say, in a way that’s debatable to me, that what is true about experience is true for all of reality. An interesting idea, but…. As a general expectation (subject to checking and future experience, of course) I suspect most of what Buddhism says about experience is likely to be some of the best “truth” we have about it. When it comes to the external, physical world, though, I generally expect modern physical science to be more accurate. “Accurate” or “true” in the sense of a good fit between concept and observable data. If I need to cross a bridge over a deep chasm, I hope it was designed by a mechanical engineer rather than a (advanced or not) Buddhist meditator…
Gautama Buddha was concerned, like Indian yogis before him, with human suffering and escaping from it. Traditional yoga taught its adepts how to enter into very deep altered states of consciousness (ASCs), jhanas, in which, among other things, all ordinary suffering (pain, thirst, hunger, worry, etc.) disappeared for the duration of the ASC. The Buddha mastered these absorptive states but felt they were not enough, because when you came out of them, the troubles you had left behind were still there. So, as Shinzen Young has pointed out, the Buddha made a great discovery. If you used the greatly enhanced concentrative and focusing abilities developed to study and examine the basic nature of all mental phenomena, all experience, vipassana meditation, you could see the roots of suffering, and then “tear out” these roots and so end suffering permanently, rather than just having temporary “vacations” in jhana states. (Although we should note that achievement of any of the jhana states is an amazing accomplishment in itself!)
Buddha insisted things had to be personally discovered, using meditative investigation and examination, not simply believed as some kind of doctrine.
Three of the most basic and necessary (to end suffering) discoveries to be made were anicca, anatta, and dukkha.
The Pali word anicca literally means “inconstant”, and refers to the absence of permanence and continuity. Everything (except perhaps the ultimate nature of awareness- this is a tricky and subtle idea) is in a state of flux, changing as a result of multitudinous causes. Some things may change rapidly, like our thoughts and feelings, some usually slowly, like a rock, but there are no eternal, unchanging things, totally solid stuffs, everything is actually ongoing process.
The Pali word anatta (or anatman) refers to the absence of any permanent self. What we usually take to be the self is, like everything else, a series of changing, ongoing processes, causally affected by many other things. It’s opposed to the Hindu idea of the atman, a permanent, immortal core or soul of a person.
Dukkha refers to the discovery, through deep meditation, as well as ordinary reflection, of the inherent unsatisfactoriness of all factors of ordinary existence. Facets of dukkha can be expressed with words like suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.
So who/what am I, then? And how can I end my suffering?
Meditative concentration practices teach me to focus and stabilize my mind, so I can then examine it. Without concentration and stabilization, it’s like trying to examine a fine-detailed painting when all you have by way of light is a sputtering, weak-flamed candle. As you develop concentration the light of your mental candle, following the analogy, gets bright and steady, so now you can make out details. You can practice not just concentrative meditation (shamatha) but insight meditation, vipassana.
I have been doing vipassana in various ways for more than 20 years now. I would never describe myself as an “advanced” or “accomplished” meditator, but I have gotten better at it and so seen some things about the nature of my experience (and presumably about experience in general, ignoring real possibilities of significant individual differences).
– You can get better at concentration and insight with practice, although it’s taken me a lot of practice! I started out with a really restless mind, my candle flame flickered wildly in thought gales, but I can steady it moderately well now some of the time. At other times, the usual thought storms are raging away!
– Anicca, impermanence, is a good description of my experience, the closer I look the more I see it constantly changing, morphing, flowing, things pop up, stay a bit, alter, disappear, etc., etc., etc. Even with my conscious, deliberate talking mind being relatively calm, there’s a steady stream of thoughts and thoughtlets, sensations, emotions going on.
– Anatta, absence of any permanent self, is also a good description of the fact that I can’t find a “watcher” of all these mental phenomena. Yet “I” obviously “watch” on many occasions. To believe I have some sort of permanent self is thus a belief with no data to support it in my experience. Yet I’m obviously here, writing this, “I” exist, so it makes no sense to believe in some sort of nihilism or non-existence. Practically, I tend to follow Sogyal Rinpoche’s advice here, accept that “I” obviously exist, but don’t take it too seriously or project all sorts of eternal concepts on to that ongoing, changing experience.
(Putting quotes around words like “I” and “watch” is my way of reminding myself and readers to be careful and not take these words literally, they are tricky.)
– Of courses there is my physical body and brain. I understand from what we know scientifically that they are processes rather than permanent things, and also know from experience that body sensations change all the time. Even what appear to be steady ones, if you look closely, are constantly morphing in various ways. I also understand from simple common sense and instinct that we need to take good care of our physical bodies. We’ll regret it if we don’t, and even then, my body will ultimately die.
– In spite of the insistence on anatta, the absence of any permanent self in Buddhism, there is an implicit implication that the ultimate nature of mind, rigpa, is a permanent “thing”/”process” that goes on from life to reincarnate life, as well as being behind all changing experience in this life. Since I think there’s good (albeit not overwhelming) empirical evidence for the reality of reincarnation for at least some people, I’m willing to accept anatta as just one of the “mysteries,” something we can’t understand with ordinary logic. It look’s like that’s just how it is, whether we understand it or not. Buddhist attempts to insist on no permanent self but then have “your” karma go from life to your reincarnate life always strike me as straining logic, so I don’t worry too much about them. Twenty-five hundred years of scholars straining to make everything consistent… as a scholar myself, I understand how scholars can get somewhat distant from the actual data while fooling themselves with oh-so-elegant words….
– My everyday experience of my mind functioning, ordinary or meditative, is obviously an emergent product of whatever the ultimate (life-spanning) core of myself (rigpa plus karma plus ???) is, intimately interacting with the physical and sensory-encoded qualities of my body-based psychology…. I mean “emergent” here in the sense of systems theory, that the whole is more than a simple addition of the parts.