I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, but today I’m going to post nothing more than a response to a single reader comment, Sacred Slut’s response to yesterday’s post.
(Slut asked for a reading list; I would point out anything by Chogham Trungpa, particularly The Lion’s Roar, for evidence of how modern Buddhist scholars view the idea of different “realms” of reincarnation. In this book, Trungpa states that we should think of these different realms as psychological states, not literal rebirths.)
Slut makes a couple of premises, though, that violate my own assumptions. First of all, I don’t believe that true spirit or consciousness is the “emotional-feeling” part of us at all. What we aim for is well past that. Much of what commonly thought of as mind is not mind in the Buddhist sense, but simply another manifestation of body.
This includes thought, which is not considered special or spiritual in any way. Nor is emotion, even pleasant ones, thought to be evidence of some divine state. These things are considered aggregates—temporary assemblies of matter that will arise and fall away like everything else. They are not particularly important. Eastern mysticism points at something beyond and antecedant to thought and emotion. Although perception of the mystical may well stimulate intensely pleasurable feelings, the feelings are a byproduct, not the goal.
Where this leads us to is that consciousness itself is defined much differently in many eastern philosophies than it is in the west.
What westernerns call consciousness is not the thing that Buddhists believe travels on after death. At best, the thing we call human consciousness is nothing much more than a very rudimentary, vestigal form of the universal consciousness we believe exists. Consciousness is not the condition of being awake-and-out-of-bed. It refers to much more rarified condition.
So most Buddhists wouldn’t argue with the premise that mundane human consiousness is extinguished at death. This is somewhat like saying that, although twilight marks the death of a single day, it doesn’t mark the end of the sun itself.
The goal of Buddhist mysticism is stop dwelling on the day (small individual consciousness) in order to have experience of the sun (universal consciousness).
Next, I would say to Slut that I sense that she wants me to present some kind of scientific evidence of the truth of this. Alas, it can’t really work that way, since these are truths that use entirely different vocabularies. I can’t describe mystical truth using the language of science, anymore than I could write a sonnet using decimal mathematic language. It doesn’t translate that way. Nor could you translate a sonnet from English to Russian, because the rhyme schemes simply couldn’t work.
But there is perhaps a form of logical thought that might be followed.
If you read the biographies of Newton, Albert Einstein and a host of other scientific minds, you begin to see a pattern. Many of the most startling scientific discoveries seem not to be the product of reason at all, but often arrive at moments of utter detached receptivity. The Law of Specific Gravity, for example, is said to have simply popped into Archimedes head at a moment of utter rest. And Einstein was fabled for the fact that his insights were not products of reasoning at all, but products of inspiration. The literature is full of examples like this. Although there is a good deal of reason and logic that goes into the utililization of scientific insight in applied science, the insight itself—the theoretical science-- seems quite divorced from reason, and much more closely resembles the insight of the mysticism. Perhaps its not power of intellect at all, but mental receptivity that is most important.
What this suggests to some of us is the presence of a larger consciousness which gifted or skilled individuals may be privileged to tap into. What we suspect is that science discovers nothing; it simply sees, at long last, what is already there. Cutting edge minds in both science and mystical pursuit often have exactly the same experience in the throes of insight—they report simply coming upon an understanding that is already present.
The “already there” is what we Buddhists would call universal consciousness. We believe that death probably simply involves the return of puny human consiousness to the universal pool. And for some people particularly advanced in the pursuit of consciousness, we don’t discount the possibility that a perception of universal consciousness, once achieved, could be maintained through a death cycle. For an astronaut circling the earth at the right speed, there would be no night and day—only day.
It’s for this reason, I think, that many Eastern thinkers have no quarrel with science at all. They don’t see science at odds with mysticism. The Dalai Lama, for example, is fascinated by scientific study, and keeps quite current on all research pertaining to the study of human happiness. This fact often surprises western scientists when they first are confronted with Buddhism. We really don’t see that science and religion are at war at all. The goal of both, we feel, is an understanding of the mechanics of human happiness.
So perhaps it is the case that Buddhism, next to genuine humanism, most closely approximates the non-theistic approach to spirituality that Slut describes.
What will we do, without something to argue about?