Monday, May 15, 2017

The Way We Think

Given the critical nature of thinking, it’s imperative to properly grasp what thinking is all about and how thinking (properly understood) leads us all to our true nature. So let’s take a stroll together down the reality road and examine the goal of seeing things as they are, without distortion or delusions. For our stroll we need to begin with an agreement—to remove customary lenses, with which we are habitually comfortable. For the duration of our stroll we make a pledge to set aside all preconceived views and be open to a new way of seeing.

First let’s describe the terrain in Buddhist terms. What we are going to see in our minds-eye must be considered from within the framework of how Buddhists define reality, and once we establish this framework we’ll accept this definition until the end of our stroll. Following our stroll you may, if you wish, return to your ordinary way of looking at life.

Buddhists don’t accept the notion that things (contents) exist apart from context. To imagine that they do exist in such a manner is a delusion. This beginning premise has vast repercussions. The correct view is that nothing has an independent nature which is exclusive and uncaused. Another way of saying this is that things arise together—are originated interdependently and are caused by other things or events. Thus a thinker only has meaning in terms of what a thinker produces (thoughts) and the converse—thoughts require one who thinks. Thoughts have no independent nature and neither do thinkers. These two arise together simultaneously. Thoughts are causally linked to perceptions, which in turn are causally linked to consciousness. Without consciousness there would be no perceptions and without perceptions there would be no thoughts and without thoughts a thinker could not exist.

But words are devices which themselves have no independent nature. They too arise together with one who writes, speaks or hears. Words are mere devices used to extract and communicate about something. All of the words you are now reading only exist in your mind where they will bear the fruit of imagination. They are not the something itself. Words are reflections or abstractions which join my mind with your mind. Words have no intrinsic self-nature. They too are causally linked to thoughts.

Instead of using a word like “thinker” we could easily substitute another name like “subject” and instead of using a name like “thoughts” we could substitute another name like “objects.” The relationship between thinker/thoughts is the same as between subject/object, the point being that it takes a subject to perceive an object just as it takes a thinker to perceive thoughts, and perception depends upon consciousness.

So we could then say that since one half of these relationships (e.g., thinker apart from thoughts, or subject apart from object) is an impossibility, that such a split is “empty” of independent existence. It would be nonsensical to speak of a thinker without thoughts and in the same way it would be nonsensical to speak of a subject without an object. None of these halves possess a self-nature except conceptually. And all of the foregoing pertains to our stroll down reality lane. Why? Because such conceptual distinctions are not real, only imagined.

This manner of speaking has a name. It is called dependent origination and occurs within the conditional realm, which itself has no self-nature. Just as a thinker has no meaning without thoughts, conditional reality has no meaning without unconditional reality. Everything is subject to this interdependent framework.

So given this, what would happen if we did away with one of these sides? For example let’s say that we did away with thoughts. If that happened, by definition, the thinker would cease to exist. But wait a moment. Where does this relationship of thinker/thoughts exist, except in our minds. Outside of mind there are no thoughts and therefore no thinkers. Both thinkers and thoughts are manifestations of mind and mind exists within our bodies. So if we stop thinking (and the thinker disappears) what does that suggest about our identity? Is it possible for us to disappear when thinking/thoughts disappear? Obviously not. So it is clear that the real us can’t be the thinker, otherwise we would disappear when thoughts cease, which is precisely the whole point. In fact this non-thinking entity is how Bodhidharma defined Zen: Not thinking about anything is Zen, and that is who we truly are: A non-thinking entity that thinks thoughts, or no-thoughts. Sounds strange but when we cease conceptual thought what we are left with is The One Reality: Our True Nature.

So obviously the real us is independent of this thinker/thought arrangement. But if so, then this real us must exist outside the framework of conditional existence since a thinker/thought arrangement is a condition. Where does this stroll then lead us? It leads us into the unconditional realm which is known as the realm of the tathagatakaya (body of the Buddha Lankavatara Sutra) and accessed when we leave conceptual thinking behind...beyond thought and non-thought. To explain: The idea of thought is a thought. The idea of a non-thought is a thought about not-thinking. Both are thoughts and all thoughts are ideas about something but not the something which is thought about.

Why does this matter? It matters because when we become attached to what we perceive and think, and empower these images with notions (another thought) as being real we are subject to clinging to ephemeral and fleeting phantoms which produce suffering. Both things (and particularly thoughts about things) are fleeting. But the distinction between things and thoughts about things, is that things are just things (neither good nor bad—just what they are—suchness) but thoughts about things become judgements of good and bad. We like the good things (and try to grasp and retain them) and dislike the bad things (and try to resist them). Both grasping and resisting are forms of attachment to fleeting existence and attachment creates suffering.

Now let’s shift gears somewhat and come at this from a different perspective by thoroughly considering what is meant by unconditional. The obvious starting point is to understand that something which is unconditional is not dependent upon anything for existence. Anything would include (but not be limited by) time, space, circumstances, birth, death, form, emptiness—everything and nothing. Unconditional means transcendent to all conditions. No beginning, no ending, no circumstances, no form, no right or wrong. Every aspect or defining characteristic would have no place in a realm of unconditional reality, yet unconditional reality must be said to be empty of self since it is a form of complete emptiness and depends (yet it doesn’t depend) upon conditions through dependent origination. 

Unconditional reality is a profound paradox. For it to exist, conditional reality must exist, but in itself it is dependent upon nothing. Thus it is said to exist and yet not exist. It neither has a self (intrinsic, independent nature) yet it does. In Buddhist cosmology this unconditional realm is know as Tathagatagarbha which means Buddha Womb/Buddha Matrix and is explained by The Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra to refer to the True Self or Essence of the Self within all sentient beings—the unconditioned, boundless, nurturing, sustaining, deathless and diamond-like Self of The Buddha, which is indiscernible to worldly, unawakened vision, as a result of conceptual obscurations (e.g., thoughts), inappropriate mental and behavioral tendencies and unclear perception.

Such a composite can only be understood as both conditioned and unconditioned, which means the unified source of both: an aspect with defining characteristics and an aspect without defining characteristic which arises simultaneously just as a thinker arises with thoughts. The aspects of Buddha-Nature with defining characteristics is the nirmanakaya—Buddhist vernacular for our physical being... (Incarnate Buddha) and the sambhogakaya—The mind-stream link to the Dharmakaya. Both of these are said to be subject to birth, death, and other conditions. The physical and psychic aspects of Buddha-Nature come and go. These aspects have form, but form and emptiness are a single thing. Form can’t exist without the context of emptiness. They arise together. An object (form) can only exist in space/time (emptiness). That form may be either physical or psychic. A thought is a psychic form—an abstraction, whereas physical forms appear to have substance and intrinsic/independent existence, but from a Buddhist point of view, not even physical form is real (meaning independent from emptiness).

From this point of view all forms (physical and psychic) are manifestations of mind and lack intrinsic existence. The aspect which is without form is called the Dharmakaya (Body of truth). This aspect can only be seen by a Buddha and those who have advanced to the highest state of consciousness since it is unconditional. What is conditional (anything with form) can’t see what is unconditional (emptiness—like space can’t be seen). This articulation is an attempt to understand the trikaya—the three aspects of Buddha-Nature. But this is a provisional attempt using form (words) to speak of something beyond all form so the attempt is flawed from the outset. As Lao Tzu stated, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.” The nameless is the Dharmakaya or Mind essence. In truth these aspects are a single, indivisible reality but for convenience sake we speak of them as separate.

The Dharmakaya goes by many names. Often times the name One Mind is used. It is always present yet never found. Mind has no conditions nor limiting qualities yet is always present and functioning. Bodhidharma called it mind essence which may be a better expression since essence has a connotation of infused transcendence. But names and handles are not important. What is important is the essence to which names and handles point; like a finger pointing to the moon. To transcend all names and thoughts (abstractions) and access directly what is, without condition is what tathagatakaya means. Tatha means thusness or suchness—things as they are in their fullness (both conditional and unconditional). Tathagata is an alternative name given a Buddha: one who sees things as they are without delusion

There is a story about the second Zen patriarch (Hui-k'o) who asked Bodhidharma to help him make his mind stop. Bodhidharma said, “Show me this mind of yours, and I’ll make it stop.” Hui-k'o responded, “I’ve looked everywhere for my mind but can’t find it.” Bodhidharma said, “There. I’ve stopped it for you.” The point is that mind/Dharmakaya is not to be found. The idea or thought of mind must be stopped to access mind. When we look at objects (a thought is an object) we see just objects: the perceptible form; the abstraction, but we don’t see essence because it can’t be seen. The purity of mind is what sees, not the tools we call eyes. Objects are containers of essence but not essence itself and our eyes see objects (but not essence). Meister Eckhart (famous Christian mystic) made this same point in distinguishing ideas from essence.

Each of us exists in fullness. We are not just decaying form. Fullness includes the essence dimension of Buddha-Nature—the Dharmakaya. Without this, no form could exist (because of dependent origination). When this is understood we see that we are both transient and eternal. We are both subject to beginning/ending and we are not. We are both subject to suffering and we are not. We both have no self/intrinsic nature and we do. Both subject and object fuse into a single thing. SELF and self are different yet the same. We, and all of nature, are the great mystery of life.
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