Thoughts on Buddhist Philosophy
A brief consideration of the human condition and the Buddhist philosophy towards it.
Firstly: The reasons we humans are almost devoid of the complex instincts which teach us to survive, which all other creatures have, has left us open to the multiplicity of post-birth programming. Most of what we believe to be true comes from the teachings of our careers and communities. This can lead to remarkable advances in such positive things as medicine and technologies or in great catastrophes like religious massacres and money worship - and everything in between.
Secondly: My thinking has found that the only recognizable difference between humans and other animals is the level of our ability to manipulate symbolic and abstract objects. (Close, but not exactly the same things in my mind) There is nothing else I can think of, and every other suggestion given to me, such as imagination, is simply a product of what I have suggested.
The combination of the two could mean, as some people think, that all humans are born prematurely, as it would be impossible for a mother to take a human infant into full gestation to a point they could perform as an antelope, or an elephant child; ready to walk, able to identify their mother, seek out food etc.
Let us suppose the implanting of specific instincts for survival happens in the latter stages of every other creature’s gestation period. We wouldn’t receive it. In truth we don’t receive it. What if humans come equipped only with the basic instincts needed for the rudest of functions and nothing more? It would explain why they are incapable of much until they are shown what to do by others.
My interest here is that our birthing method gives us both immense advantages and disadvantages. It gives us a unique adaptability that relies on logical thought rather than instinctive behavior. A bluebottle will fly against a window-pane again and again without ever realizing that it can never provide the exit it needs. It might die, exhausted when the door to the house is wide open merely feet away. Our logical rather than instinct-driven method makes us flexible in our approach to obstacles. We are not dependent on our climate remaining stable, as we can change the housing we live in, the clothes we wear and the way we warm ourselves. We are not reliant on a single or even a small variety of foodstuffs. Should one food source fail we simply introduce another to our diet, be it fruits, meat, fish, vegetation etc. We are not reliant on nature to provide for us – we command nature to work for us.
The disadvantages are also obvious. We become simpletons of belief. Anyone who threatens us with death or even discomfort or, contra wise, offer us security and comforts can tell us what to think, what to believe, our allegiances, our politics, our opinions and our religion. Children come home from school and turn on their parents for ‘crimes’ such as wrong political thinking or moderate private drinking, or whatever the authorities decide should be the propaganda of the day. In democracies adults vote against their own interests and can’t truly understand why. Our opinions become putty because we have no fixed guiding-light of instinct to guide us. We are easily manipulated. That can become, not just a danger to ourselves and others, but to Mother Nature herself. A simple test of this is to meditate on where your opinions come from and how you arrived at them.
So, what of enlightenment?
The side-effect of this human ability to manipulate symbolic and abstract thought to many strata levels gives us the mental freedom, to those who choose to use it, to mentally abstract oneself from running nature’s physiological and mental programs – or at least to understand the evolutionary program itself. Yogi’s often consciously manipulate various levels of their bodily functions normally reserved for their autonomous systems. Buddhist philosophy is all about doing the same for the mental faculties – freeing oneself from programming – taking control of functions normally in the domain of evolutionary instinct. This includes the emotions.
Buddha saw that suffering is caused by attachment. We suffer from seeing our child die because we are programmed by evolution to love a child. And before you cry, ‘Well of course!’ think of the thousands of young that are killed before getting a chance at life, like turtles. If mother turtles grieved for every child they would die from the grief – there’s not enough room here for more examples, but there are thousands. Those ancient creatures who didn’t love their children remained low on the food chain as every one of their infants had to rediscover the world and their place in it anew. Those who loved their children gave them an immense advantage in the evolutionary world by teaching them how to survive. So we place love and parenting on our human pedestals at the highest point. We can also place there morality, manners, and all the associated gifts for functioning in a community.
And it’s obvious why community would be essential for humans, as besides being vulnerable when young we stay that way all their lives. An average human being could not make electricity or forage for food by themselves. Look at a dozen objects around you from where you know sit and ask how many of them you know how to make – or even how they work. My glance around the room reveals, a light bulb, a computer, a tape measure, a cork extractor, an electrical cable, a needle, a box of paracetamol, a book – none of these everyday objects could I hope to reproduce.
We feel suffused with pleasure on the news that our friend or someone in the family is going to have a baby. Even when the last thing Mother Nature needs is more humans – but too late, we have placed parenthood on the highest pedestal. We find that another man has slept with our woman and want to kill him, or maybe both of them. A half an hour’s pleasure with no further consequences is now a reason for carnage. What are we killing for in reality? Broken trust? An infringement and trespass on the womb we had rights too? What if we saw it as unimportant – how would that change humanity? The answer is, it would change it drastically. Jealousy plays a vital service to evolution but gets no respect in Buddhist philosophy.
I’m not belittling these things because evolution has a very sensible reason for all its advances. Does it make mistakes? That is debatable. What Buddhist philosophy teaches us is how these things are not of our choosing, but of our programming. Even further than that, it shows how we can rid ourselves of all such programming; divest ourselves of shame, humiliation, fear, etc. etc. In fact - all suffering. But there is a price to pay.
It means relinquishing the life that you have lived, the values you have been bought up to believe in. And relinquishing the grip you hold on life itself. So, it has its dangers too.
For example: The Tibetan Buddhist is wary of the Zen and Chang Buddhist schools because they feel they leave the practitioner in a moral vacuum. Almost illogically, the Tibetan Buddhist fills the emptiness created by the removal of authority of nature and the attendant emotions, by flooding the corridors and passageways with Love and Joy. They even teach that Love and Joy are some kind of underlying theme to reality when all else is stripped away. This they must claim because one of the teachings of Buddhism is that all judgments have their opposites, ying/yang style – so there is nothing hard without an equivalent soft – there can be no high without a low – love cannot exist without hate – Ah! There’s the drawback. This is a contrary part to Buddhist thought. The teaching that there is an exception to the great ‘properties of objects’ rule. But you must have it, this moral component. For the power that it brings, to master yourself, without any attendant good-will to mankind could prove devastating. Men could be turned into ants of destruction against enemies if they have all morality removed – and we have come close enough in our history to that. Each and every religious experience has been militarized at some time in our history – enlightenment would not escape, although with scientific modifications. Experiments have already been done with drugs on modern soldiers to remove all moral inhibitions – they haven’t been blind to that one.
But what of the cost to oneself? The relinquishing of the sense of self – which is life itself – for being in a coma is the same as death to our minds.
We are told there is no self. The Zen master says, ‘If your mind is troubled bring it to me and I will mend it’. The student replies, ‘I cannot bring it to you. I don’t know where it is’ Perhaps he is enlightened at that point, perhaps he is sent away to wash the dishes again.
The point is we can’t present the mind or our ‘self’ as a single object. But neither can you present your body as a single object. The cellular life that makes up the body are simple complex interdependent life-forms all with their own agendas, living and dying in their individual cycles; that’s not to mention all the bacteria that could can just as easily live in another person’s body as yours – but without which you would not survive. So where is ‘your’ body? It is a system not an object. Is not our ‘self’ or our mind just a similar system? In the same way that Buddha took a flower to pieces and named the parts but said that the flower now no longer exists. Are we not trying to do that with our sense of ‘self’. You may just as well say to an individual, show me your government. They would reply that their government is made up of a number of ever-changing people who are only ever referred to as a government when all working together. You may ask, if I remove one person does it cease to be called a government? No. Two or twenty people? No. It would be easy to suggest then that there is no such thing as a government but it’s merely a name given to a very loose system.
What then of nature?
If we can control nature does that mean she no longer has us under her power (excuse the feminization, but it’s traditional). Obviously not. The Buddha died; they say from drinking un-boiled water, but the cause is not important. He was born, he lived a life and he died. Enlightened or not Nature is still in charge.
His followers claim, like Jesus and Elvis, he still lives on. They claim the Buddhas of the past all live on too. There is as much evidence for that as for a Christian God or the multi-theistic Gods of the ancient Greeks. I will work on the fairly safe assumption that they are wrong.
How much of nature can we manipulate with our Buddhist philosophical powers then? As far as I understand it we still have to sleep, to eat, to drink – therefore we still get tired, defecate and urinate. Buddha always appeared clothed so he was either modest or compliant to the wishes of his community. (Many swamis, even today, walk around naked in India) He appeared to take great joy in company and enjoy teaching people. We can assume he was no recluse. He travelled and taught as he went so was driven with a sense of purpose, so expressed some desire in that area. He respected women and helped them form Buddhist groups so he was no misogynist.
From these faint sketches of Buddha we can see that he was not supernatural, he didn’t fly from place to place like a wraith on the wind. So enlightenment must be investigated more seriously than well-wishing devotees do.
He is supposed to have claimed that all his teachings are incorporated in The Four Noble Truths. In this work he focuses solely on the causes and conquest of suffering. He makes no claims to anything supernatural. He shows how ‘attachment’ to objects in the form of desire leads to suffering and that to bring about the cessation of suffering one needs to lighten that attachment to a point of the slightest touch.
On a pragmatic level he did that by his lifestyle. As monks today are encouraged to do, he did no work, but begged. But remember, he lived in a culture where begging by religious people was already an established tradition and the principle of Karma for giving well known through Hindu teachings; in England I believe he may starve to death or at least be put to work. In begging he rid himself of an enormous amount of suffering and worry. Coming from a wealthy background he had no worries about how his parents were going to cope – a huge relief. Next, he left his wife and child and lived alone. This rid him of another great source of worry, problems and desires that most people are subject to. He simplified his food and drank only water. A natural diet guaranteed to solve most dietary problems. Living in a warm climate must have been a blessing as a Buddha in England would not expect to live through its winters – many ordinary people die on the streets in Britain every year.
At this point Buddha has sensibly divested himself of many everyday problems and their attendant sufferings. This is without doing anything particularly religious. So how about the awakening aspect of his life? This is where he fully understands how it all work – the enlightenment.
Accepting that he had already made huge strides in removing every average person’s cause of suffering (and joy) already makes it interesting to see what happens next. But let’s interrupt this train of thought with another: Is it possible that Gautama Buddha was autistic? That he didn’t have the normal emotional ties to others that would prevent him from leaving his wife and child? But that is pure conjecture and cannot be investigated.
For Buddhist philosophy cannot be called ‘natural’ in any normal meaning of the word. Being celibate is unsustainable for any species. Begging is not possible should we all choose to do it, for who would give?
Buddha’s enlightenment may have been that moment of realization when he understood that we were not living for ourselves but just organisms playing a role in an action that is as pointless as the eternal journey of a distant frozen star in a far off galaxy. That we were not special, had no celestial master, had no purpose, that, like gas and rock we just happened to be – and that was the entire story? Wouldn’t this lead, when fully realized, to the freedom to play with nature – to make the lessening of ‘the pain of living’ a priority? In fact to reduce the human attachment to nature itself to that slightest touch! Then to see how evolution morphed us and manipulated us, but also realizing you could thwart its purpose and by doing so ease the burden on yourself – what an enlightenment!
Unfortunately, I am not enlightened, nor have I met anyone who is, or talked to anyone who has met anyone who is. So I am in the dark, darkness of ignorance. Just having a beer and waiting for what comes.
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