Sunday, October 5, 2008

Unbound or Rebinding?


Many have wondered how to classify Buddhism since it is not preeminently concerned with an idea of God (as normally understood by westerners). Is it a method of psychotherapy? Is it a philosophy? A moral code? Religion? What? All of these suggests a desire to define, categorize and set apart Buddhism from other categorical forms. And the answer is “All of the above” AND “None of the above”. The simple truth is that Buddhism can be(and is) understood to conform to all of these definitions (or not) depending on the nature of the person under consideration—which is infinite in variation—and at a deeper level without variation.

At the level of self-awareness there is no end to differences—as varied as snow-flakes. And at the deeper level we are all just snow. But to go to the heart of an answer it’s necessary to deal with the matter of a self. Buddhism teaches that there is no such thing as a substantial self—only an illusory one, shaped by unending changing circumstances and karma. It is this illusion of self-substance which gives rise to possessiveness, greed and aversion which in turn produces suffering and anxiety. And this illusion cascades across every human dimension from the psychological to moral persuasion, to relationships with others and the sublime.

At the deeper level—where we are just snow—there are no differences and “self” is understood as an interdependent reality connected with everything with no boundaries. At this level there is no inner vs. outer; no beginning vs. ending, no versus anything since here there is no discrimination at all.

Religion (in western form) is concerned primarily with re-tying a broken link with an external God. That is what the word “religion” means and the manner of which this retying occurs differs according to dogma taught by the various religious forms. Buddhism is radically different on this score where there is no presumption of a broken link with an external God. The problem is the same—alienation and estrangement—but the presumption is different. In Buddhism the alienation happens due to the empowerment of the illusive self. It is this impediment which blocks integration with both our true nature and the world in which we live.

For a very long time in Buddhism the goal of liberation from bondage—the alleviation of suffering—has been understood as the realization of Nirvana, which is seen as extinguishment when the fuel is used up. And the metaphor here is a dying flame of a candle when the oil is expended. There are some sects of Buddhism, still, which maintain this means freedom following literal death. Other sects propose this liberation as a here-and-now proposition which is called parinirvana, to which an entire sutra was devoted—Mahaparinirvana. Key to any understanding of Nirvana is an acceptance of what is considered to be extinguished. In other words, “life and death”. If life is understood as a physical matter, then death must be understood in the same fashion and in this case true liberation can only be realized when the flame of physical life uses up physical energy.

On the other hand if life is understood as unobstructed essence at the snow level then death is associated with unenlightened snow flakes—the illusion of a substantial self, which creates a living hell of alienation and opposition. Zen teaches that true liberation is a matter of waking up to the unbroken and ever-pure nature which has never left us in the first place. So there is nothing to re-tie. To attempt to find what has never been lost is a guarantee of continuing in bondage, sort of like trying to find a pair of glasses which sits atop your own head.

And while many who practice Zen are persuaded of this ever-present, never-lost reality they still reach for a special psychic state which they associate with Kensho, Samadhi or enlightenment. What they fail to see is that this very reaching is what blocks what they seek. The subtle trap inherent in this quest for fulfillment is that it keeps the traveler locked into an “other-worldly, not now” mentality. The goal is always moving away the harder the chase.

It must be said that the key to either western religious forms or Buddhism to genuine liberation/salvation is surrender; from the quest or from the attempt to achieve what is already present. It is this state of yielding and acceptance; this acknowledgment of emptiness, that produces the desired state of selflessness. And when this state is achieved the world opens and we go through the door as new, yet ageless beings.
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