Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tuesday Buddhism

Buddhist philosophy begins with position that is terrifically different than the tenants of most western spiritual beliefs. This perhaps explains why it feels so alien, especially to those of us raised in Judaic/Christian traditions.

The degree of difference can be clearly seen when you look at the Buddhist version of genesis:

In the beginning, Buddhism would argue, human beings mistakenly made a incorrect distinction between matter and space. To matter, and the various physical forms assumed by matter, they gave the name "real." Spaceousness, however, was demoted to a position of non-reality, so much so, in fact, that to this day we believe that space is nothingness, a void.

This belief in the primacy of form makes up what Buddhists term the first of five skandas, sometimes translated as "aggregates" or "heaps". The skandas represent five different mistaken assumptions human beings make, which form the foundation of a cyclical, unhappy existence. Each of the skandas is a karmic result of the preceding skanda, and depends upon the others.

So the first skanda, form, arises due the human decision to reduce spaciousness to non-existence, and to give primacy, and false permanence, to the various shapes that matter takes. The first human error is in separating matter from space, in separating various forms from one another, and in believing in the truth of "this vs that."

Note how radically different this position is from Judaic/Christian mythology, where the separation between matter and space, rather than being the cause of misery, represents the birth of reality. In this mythology, it is God, not man, that separates heaven from earth.

In the Buddhist cosmology, the second skanda arises when we strangely choose to take up a relationship to the various forms that we have noticed. We create the illusion of ego by creating a feeling that we exist in relation to the various forms that have arise. Feeling is the second skanda, and it is created because we hold to a belief in self and other. "This is me, and that is not me, and that's how I know I exist," is the logic.

The third skanda is usually called perception, and with this skanda there arises an impulse to take some kind of action in relationship to the various forms perceived by ego. We respond with longing to the form, with hostility to the form, or with indifference to the form. This is the skanda that is responsible for desire and hostility in all their forms, and it exists to prop up the illusion of ego/self. We grab for the things that support our sense of self, we reject those that threaten it.

The fourth skanda is usually translated as intellect. This aggregate includes a complicated system of mental concepts and beliefs, a framework that attempts to make sense of various forms and their relationship to one another. In modern western society, this is the skanda that is most highly celebrated. We may, in fact, view intellect as the supreme accomplishment of the human species. Buddhists, however, regard intellect as a construct built on faulty foundations (the previous skandas) and do not find it of particularly important value.

And because intellect cannot exist without a context, the final skanda is consciousness, which is a somewhat artificial ocean upon which the intellect bobs and sails. In this context, it does not mean awareness, which is a non-judging quality that does not discriminate. Awareness is much different from the skanda of consciousness, which exists to give relationship and context to ego and form. Awareness leads us to awakening; consciousness (as defined here) is something of an obstruction.

For theoretical Buddhists, the skandas represent the basic fallacies of human existence, and are the root of all unhappiness. On the face of things, this fact could depress us mightily, since the skandas seem to represent pretty much everything we consider part of the human experience. What could a world without form, with intellect, without passion, without consciousness possibly look like? we wonder.

The key to the Buddhist path is pretty simple, though. We simply look at the initial premise of the first skanda—that form is separate from spaciousness. Is this really true? we ask ourselves. And we then ask what existence would feel like if we ignored the illusion of separateness, and behaved as though form and space are not separate, but are the same phenomenon.

It is no oversimplification to say that this is precisely what represents awakened enlightenment—the discovery that form and spaciousness are not separate at all. For Buddhists, meditation is not a religious practice, but a laboratory in which we experiment with our assumptions regarding matter and space.

1 comment:

Jerri said...

Beautifully written, but a bit deeper than my mind can go at the moment.

A world without intellect or passion, without consciousness? Um......how could that be?