Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Optimistic Pessimist

I have many hesitations about writing publicly on Buddhist scriptures.  First, I'm not commenting only on some literature that many people enjoy; I'm reviewing literature that millions of people live by.  Second, I'm not even sure if millions of people do in fact live by these words.  As I understand it, (1) ancient Buddhist writings far outnumber ancient Hebrew or Greek religious writings, surahs of the Koran, etc., (2) there is no recognized canon of these scriptures, and (3) current-day Buddhists interpret and use these writings in different ways as they find them enlightening or helpful.  So if in my tiny sampling of Buddhist writings I imagine some element as prominent, I may be as far off course as an Asian reading the first few chapters of Genesis and thinking that Judaism and Christianity center around giants.

Nevertheless, this fool rushes in and comments on about a hundred pages printed in the old Harvard Classics Five-Foot Shelf of Books.

My first thought is that these tracts are much more in line with "western" logic than I supposed.  I had a vague notion that Buddhists believed that the law of noncontradiction (a thing cannot be both A and not-A in the same respect and at the same time) was invalid (or perhaps both valid and invalid in the same respect and at the same time).  So I was not surprised to read that someone asked the Buddha whether the saint exists after death, or does not exist after death, or both exists and does not exist after death, or neither exists nor does not exist after death, as if there were four possibilities and not just two.  But the Buddha does not acknowledge these categories, responding instead that answering the question would only detract from the more important issue: seeking to put an end to the cycle of rebirth, death, and misery.

In another passage, where the Buddha seems at first to say that neither the existence of things nor the nonexistence of things is true (where Aristotle's logic would say one of those two states would have to obtain), in the end he seems to say only that the insistent belief either way is an extreme.  He teaches a middle way of understanding: that the interdependent nexus of ignorance, karma, consciousness, name and form, organs of sense, contact, sensation, desire, attachment, existence, birth, and finally death and despair, come into being simultaneously and cease to exist simultaneously.

I found another part of the Buddha's teaching on existence reminiscent of Aristotle, as well.  He declares that there is no ego, only a combination of body, perception, predispositions, and consciousness arranged in a certain relation.  To one who doubts, he points out that the same is true of a wagon: "wagon" does not refer to one thing but to a collection of things in a particular arrangement.  Where Plato would argue with the Buddha that a unity called "wagon" does indeed exist, only in a realm of eternal, self-existent ideals, Aristotle would say something very similar to the Buddha's teaching: that the physical wagon is a composite, and that "wagon" as a unity is an abstraction that a mind draws from perception of the physical wagon and has an existence only in the mind.

Well, that's all well and good for wagons since wagons don't go into crisis when confronted with the idea that they might not exist.  But humans do struggle when faced with the idea that the ego -- the I, or the soul -- might not exist or is only an abstraction in a mind that might cease to be.  The Buddha's answer to this struggle seems to be that we should each start on a path toward wisdom, detaching ourselves from all things (including ourselves) and all desire for things, and move toward a final dissolution of consciousness and all its misery.

The Buddha's vision of the ultimate nature of things seems so dark: that only evil things come into being and decay, that life is all misery, and that our best hope is in self-annihilation.  What a contrast to, for instance, Aquinas's insistence that existence itself is good and that any existing thing is, so far as it exists, good.  Evil, Aquinas says, does not exist as a thing but is only absence of existence, as darkness does not exist positively but is only absence of light; that a thing is evil in some regard means that it lacks something it should have or does not reach its proper potential.  Compared to that view, the Buddha's is pessimistic indeed.  And yet he was so optimistic about our ability to reach the escape from misery.  He declares himself "the chief in all the world" and defeats the death-god Mara by means of his own virtue and merit even when Sakka, the king of the gods, must flee in terror.  To become greater and stronger than the gods takes unfathomable virtue and merit, and yet one acquires this merit in order to escape utter misery by removing oneself from existence.

What if neither the Buddha nor Plato were right while Aristotle was close to being correct?  What if "I" am an idea in an eternal Mind that did not abstract the idea from perceiving an existent composite but instead conceived the idea and then gave it existence?  In my view, this knowledge begins the road not just to the end of despair and misery, but to happiness.  The Buddha did actually acknowledge that a creator might have fashioned him, but when he attained complete wisdom, he sang defiance to his maker:

          O builder! I've discovered thee!
          This fabric thou shalt ne'er rebuild!
          Thy rafters all are broken now,
          And pointed roof demolished lies!
          This mind has demolition reached,
          And seen the last of all desire!

This fool will now take a stab at wisdom by ending his commentary.

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