Saturday, October 12, 2013

The scholastic trap.

We regard ourselves as smart people and have consequently fallen in love with the rational model for dealing with and solving our challenges and problems. We constantly desire to understand our world and the issues assaulting us. If we can’t fathom the reasons we seem powerless to move. This is both a distinguishing aspect of being human and a threat to our existence. When someone is holding a gun to our head we need to set aside the desire to rationally resolve the dilemma and come to terms, not with the conceptual reasons and understanding, but instead to first deal with the reality of the threat.

Scholasticism was developed as a method of critical thought, which dominated teaching by the academics (scholastics, or schoolmen) of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1500 CE. This model was employed to articulate and defend orthodoxy in an increasingly pluralistic context. It originated as an outgrowth of, and a departure from, Christian monastic schools (the forerunners of current universities). Not so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, scholasticism placed a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference, and to resolve contradictions. Scholastic thought is also known for rigorous conceptual analysis and the careful drawing of distinctions. In the classroom and in writing, it often takes the form of explicit apologetic disputation: a topic drawn from the tradition is broached in the form of a question, opponent’s responses are given, a counterproposal is argued and opponent’s arguments rebutted. Because of its emphasis on rigorous dialectical method, scholasticism was eventually applied to many other fields of study. 

John Calvin shines as the prime example of the logic of proof-texting, so convoluted that you need a step-by-step scientific roadmap from the beginning of time to endless eternity to fathom his disputations. His seminal work “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” published in 1536 CE is his greatest contribution to hyperbole: the standard by which most Protestant (meaning “to protest”) theology continues today. I know this personally since I studied Calvin and reformed thought extensively while attending seminary.

Scholasticism began as an attempt unify various contradictions on the part of medieval Christians thinkers: to harmonize the various authorities of their own tradition, and to reconcile Christian theology with classical and late antiquity philosophy, especially that of Aristotle but also of Neoplatonism.

The main figures of scholasticism historically are Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas's masterwork, the Summa Theologica, is often seen as the highest fruit of Scholasticism. Important work in the scholastic tradition has been carried on, however, well past Thomas’s time, for instance by Francisco Su├írez and Molina, and also among Lutheran and Reformed thinkers.

This entire approach, by design, is based on conceptual, abstract thought assuming that a transcendent God could be converted into an object for theological study. The Age of the Enlightenment was a response to the scholastic movement and continued the tradition, which it initiated. This movement is a manifestation of the Western attempt to rationally grasp reality but is by no means the only movement. In the East a completely different model arose based on trans-rational vision and was best exemplified by the man who has been acknowledged as the father of Zen and known as Bodhidharma. This was the name given to him by his spiritual teacher (Hannyatara Sonja). His real name was Bodai Tara (surname Chadili) and he lived during the 5th century CE. This places him 1,000 years after the time of The Buddha and roughly 500 years prior to the scholastic emergence in the West. As nearly as anyone can prove, Bodhidharma transmitted Zen from India and into China and was a towering giant in the long history of Zen Masters. Reading what he had to say can be somewhat daunting.

One of his most profound teachings comes to us from what is now known as the Wake-up Sermon. In this sermon Bodhidharma addresses the matter of “understanding.” In light of our ordinary grasp of this matter, what he has to say seems startling. Consider this—“People capable of true vision know that the mind is empty. They transcend both understanding and not understanding. The absence of both understanding and not understanding is true understanding...That which exists exists in relationship to that which doesn’t exist.”

What does “...the mind is empty” mean? Emptiness (in a Buddhist sense) has two meanings which are: (1) nothing is self-existing but rather depends upon something else, and (2) form is fundamentally lacking substantial existence. While similar, these two ways of grasping emptiness are subtly yet importantly distinct.

Our mind has two aspects. One aspect is our “conditional mind”—our ordinary mind of thoughts and emotions, which we employ to manage and negotiate our conditional/relative world. This is the aspect of mind used by scholastics and the model common in our world that is leading us into a quagmire of grief. The other aspect is our “unconditional mind”—fundamental consciousness atop which sits our ordinary mind of rational thought. In Buddhist vernacular “unconditional mind” goes by many different handles one of which is Buddha-Mind (bodhi)—awakened mind. These two aspects are interdependent and as Bodhidharma says, “That which exists exists in relationship to that which doesn’t exist.” 

It would not be inaccurate to say that “unconditional mind” doesn’t exist since the only way it could be perceived is by objectifying it (which renders it unreal). In it’s unmodified state bodhi is real (yet imperceptible) but when objectified it becomes an abstraction (a delusion/unreal) in the same way that God becomes unreal when objectified. So on the one hand we can say that one aspect (it doesn’t matter which aspect we refer to) exists together with the other aspect (the first way of understanding emptiness) and that our unconditional mind is truly lacking substance—there is nothing  there objectively (yet everything) except when manifested: the second way of understanding emptiness. It is important to understand this latter point.

Something (anything at all), which is unconditional, can’t possibly be defined or understood since understanding is itself a set of conditions. If we objectify something real (make it perceptible) we strip it of life and make it abstract. The opposite is to reify something unreal (an object) which is to engage in delusion, believing something to contain life, which doesn’t. Our unreal ego is a case in point of this latter and our ego is fundamentally corrupt. The delusion of ego blocks access to bodhi since in a delusive state we make two errors— (1) We mistake our self-image for who we are and in so doing (2) we remain blinded by ignorance and don’t have access to who we truly are.

Any object by definition is limited by conditions of time/space and circumstances, whereas bodhi (since it is unconditional) is transcendent—without limits. When we say “I understand” what we are really saying is that we have a set of ideas under consideration which we then accept as “understanding.” That is our conditional mind at work and our conditional mind is incapable of true understanding since it is constrained by conditions perceived by our rational thought processes (left brain stuff). This is conditional mind looking at unconditional mind and falling prey to delusion—believing it’s own PR. 

Contrast this with what Bodhidharma says: “The absence of both understanding and not understanding is true understanding.” If I said “I don’t understand” this would be no better than saying that I do understand. Both of these expressions are manifestations of rational thought processes (different only by alternative conditions). What we ordinarily grasp as understanding is not understanding at all. It is a rational surrogate—an abstraction, which is rooted in the idea of “self”—a delusion.

When we say “I understand” we are making reference to something which in fact doesn’t exist. There is no “I” except what we conjure up in our imaginations (a product of our conditional mind) which we consider as our identity and this is grasped as separate, distinct, uniquely defined and set apart from every other set of ideas belonging to other “not me’s.” The practical, everyday impact of this way of seeing is that true understanding is beyond isolation and belonging to any individual, however intelligent. We are all, in truth united and bound together at the level of unconditional mind (how could it be otherwise?). Individually we are a piece of this whole but just a piece and while we may think it is possible to see the whole picture all by ourselves this is a delusion of ego which is always joined with arrogance and defensiveness. True understanding is beyond the limitations of a conditional perspective.

Mahayana Buddhist thought (Zen belongs to this branch) stresses that bodhi is always present and perfect, and simply needs to be “uncovered” or disclosed to purified vision. We find in the “Sutra of Perfect Awakening” The Buddha teaching that, like gold within its ore, bodhi is always there within our mind, but requires obscuring mundane ore (the surrounding defilements of samsara and of impaired, unawakened perception) to be removed. Thus The Buddha declares:

“Good sons, it is like smelting gold ore. The gold does not come into being because of smelting...Even though it passes through endless time, the nature of the gold is never corrupted. It is wrong to say that it is not originally perfect. The Perfect Enlightenment of the Tathagata (A Buddha: our true mind) is also like this.”

Our desire to contain understanding within a scholastic framework only is a trap that threatens our existence. True understanding is not limited to conditions, which come and go. True understanding is beyond all limitations. Many will say that until we rationally understand a situation our analysis is incomplete. Such a critique is like asking to have a conversation with a murderer holding a gun to our head and inquiring about his motives. The first step is to disarm him (or her). Then we can explore his or her reasons. This one-sided rational approach is what got us into the out of control entanglement we find ourselves in today. To continue down this road of conditional limitation and ideological opposition is a surefire prescription for disaster.
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