Saturday, April 10, 2010

Interfaith Blog Event #8: Pantheism (Part 3: Comparison to Buddhism)

Welcome to the 8th Interfaith Blog Event! In this event, we'll be discussing Pantheistic religions. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be joining me in this event. He will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective.

My essay will be posted in 3 parts, as I have to develop a lot of background information before I can begin discussing Hinduism. This post is Part 3. The other posts are linked below:

(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay]

(Part 3)

Comparison to Buddhism

How does this ancient wisdom compare to the teachings of the Buddha? One way to answer this question is to trace, very briefly, Siddhartha Gautama’s early life through his enlightenment.

Siddhartha was born to King Suddhodana and Queen Maha Maya and, hence, raised as a Prince of his kingdom. However, at the time of his birth, a great seer predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great political leader or a great spiritual teacher. Siddhartha’s father wanted him to become the next great leader of his kingdom, so throughout Siddhartha’s life, the King ensured that his son was constantly surrounded by glamor and material wealth, hoping that he would never feel the pull of the spiritual life. However, around the age of 29, Siddhartha left the palace and, despite his father’s attempts to keep all sick, aged, and suffering people hidden, Siddhartha encountered the suffering that people experienced, things that had been hidden from him as a Prince in the palace. Seeing this suffering, his heart broke in compassion for these people. He also met an ascetic, and afterwards left the palace to find the solution to the suffering of the world.

Siddhartha devoted himself to his training under several great spiritual teachers of the time, all of whom practiced expressions of Indian Spirituality, as I previously discussed. Through his training, he mastered the skill of concentration (as I discussed previously) and achieved the deepest meditative states attainable (which Buddhism terms jhanas), bypassing several of his teachers. These were the states that Indian Spirituality said brought the awareness that the Atman is simply a reflection of Brahman and, hence, the attainment of Moksha and the ending of the cycle of rebirth.

However, Siddhartha was not satisfied for several reasons: (1) These miraculous states were temporary--they could not be maintained indefinitely in life (“But such pleasant feeling that arose in me did not invade my mind and remain” [Majjhima Nikaya 36; (MN 36)]); (2) Suffering was not ended by attainment of these jhanas; and (3) These concentrative attainments did not lead to the end of the cycle of rebirth (#3 is basically a subset of #2).

Therefore, Siddhartha left his final teacher and resolved with all his being to sit in meditation until he discovered the Truth. Finally, in a marathon overnight meditation session, Siddhartha attained enlightenment just before dawn, becoming the Buddha, the Awakened One, at the age of 35.

The obvious question is, “What prevented Siddhartha from attaining true enlightenment in his earlier practices?” Or, in other words, “How does Buddhism differ from Hinduism?” The primary factor that led to his enlightenment that was missing from his earlier practices was Wisdom. Buddhism acknowledges the vital importance of concentration: Right Concentration is one step on the Eightfold Path, the path toward ending suffering. However, it, alone, is insufficient; it must be tempered with Wisdom, which has several components that are encompassed on the Eightfold Path in the factors of Right View, Right Intention, and Right Mindfulness.

Wisdom is a very important aspect of the Buddhist path and, hence, is a very deep subject with many facets. For the purposes of this essay, a detailed exposition of these facets must be omitted (many of them are discussed in greater detail in other posts on my blog). In short, while the Buddha agreed with Hindu teachings on the importance of concentration, the practice of ethics, and some aspects of karma, he directly observed that such were insufficient to attain freedom from rebirth and, hence, the complete ending of dukkha (I use the Pali word dukkha here instead of the traditional English translation of “suffering” because the English word suffering is woefully inadequate and inaccurate in understanding the original idea of dukkha. [see Footnote 2 for a more thorough explanation of dukkha]).

Cosmologically, Buddhism retains a similar understanding of other realms of being (including heavenly realms) as Hinduism. However, whereas Hinduism views the realization of the oneness of the Atman with Brahman as moksha, Buddhism observes that moksha is only temporary; what Hindus interpret as the merging of Atman with Brahman after the body’s final death after attaining moksha, Buddhism states is really a rebirth into a heavenly realm. And while this is a rebirth filled with happiness that lasts 60,000 aeons [3], it is still temporary, and after the causes that have generated this rebirth have all been used up, another rebirth will occur.

Part of the discrepancy occurs due to each religion’s understanding of karma and rebirth. Hinduism posits that the Atman of a person, when it first separates from Brahman, will incarnate into a very simple form. As the Atman acquires knowledge and skills via different rebirths, it will incarnate into higher and higher forms (for example, from vegetable into animal into human), and once an Atman has achieved a certain level, it cannot revert to a lower level. Hinduism views the human level as the highest level of rebirth, and hence, the realization that the Atman is just a reflection of Brahman allows the Atman to rejoin Brahman after death, thus transcending the need for rebirth and coming full circle to one’s source. (Incidentally, this upward-spiraling path of the Atman is also one of the causes of the caste system in early Hinduism; lower castes are seen as “newer” humans whose Atman haven’t developed as far as those of the higher castes).

The Buddha, however, observed a very different system of karma operating in the universe. While Hindus acknowledge the cause-effect nature of karma, it appears that the Atman-Brahman link lies outside that system, since once an Atman has achieved a certain level, it cannot revert regardless of its thoughts and actions. Buddhism, however, sees Cause-Effect as operative in all things. In other words, everything that happens is a function of a complex of causes, and this includes rebirth. Hence, one’s rebirth is an effect of prior causes, so therefore, there cannot be a restraint on the form taken in rebirth. This immediately conflicts with the Hindu upward-spiraling Atman. To give an analogy, if I act very compassionate and loving to my wife one day, but then the next yell and scream at her in anger, that outburst will still have major consequences and effects that are not completely negated by the compassion and love I showed the prior day.

In his development of Wisdom, in addition to concentration, the Buddha directly observed that the Self, the Atman, is also a falsehood--in other words, one interprets the Atman’s existence due to one’s misleading belief that there is something within one that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, and not subject to change. One “regards material form thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ He regards feeling thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ He regards perception … mental formations … what is seen, heard, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally pondered … thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ And this standpoint for views, namely, ‘That which is the self is the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity’--this too he regards thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.’” (MN 22:15). The Buddha attributed these views to the untaught ordinary person, who is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma. The final part--that which is the self is the world--comments directly upon the Hindu belief of the merging of the Atman with Brahman in moksha.

In contrast, the Buddha directly observed that the well-taught disciple, skilled and disciplined in their Dhamma, “regards material form ... feeling ... perception … mental formations … what is seen, heard, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally pondered … thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ And this standpoint for views, namely, ‘That which is the self is the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity’--this too he regards thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’” (MN 22:16)

At this point, it is very important to note that the Buddha devoted few words to philosophical matters. As stated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his translation of the The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya), “[T]he Buddha’s objective is the practical one of leading beings to release from suffering.” (pg. 32) Philosophy not only has no role in this process, but is also detrimental because it diverts one’s attention from the important matter of practice. Accordingly, the Buddha gave the Simile of the Raft, which I’ll summarize below.

“Suppose a man, in the course of a journey, saw a great expanse of water, whose near shore was dangerous and fearful and whose further shore was safe and free from fear, but there was no ferryboat or bridge for going to the far shore.” (MN 22:13) The man then collects grasses, twigs, branches, and leaves and builds himself a raft with his own hands. He then paddles across the water, safely reaching the far shore. The man might then think thus, “‘This raft has been very helpful to me, since supported by it and making an effort with my hands and feet, I got safely across to the far shore. Suppose I were to hoist it on my head or load it on my shoulder, and then go wherever I want.‘ By doing so, would that man be doing what should be done with that raft?” (MN 22:13)

No! “Suppose [the man] were to haul the raft onto the dry land or set it adrift in the water, then go wherever [he] wants. It is by so doing that the man would be doing what should be done with that raft. So I have shown you how the Dhamma is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”(MN 22:13). The Buddha continued, “[W]hen you know the Dhamma to be similar to a raft, you should abandon even the teachings, how much more so things contrary to the teachings.”(MN 22:14).

What do we learn from this teaching? That the Dhamma itself is never to be taken as philosophical truth, but as skillful means to lead one to freedom, to wisdom, to enlightenment. The Buddha is most often heard teaching non-self, that there is no permanent, everlasting, eternal Self, not subject to change. However, note that the prevailing viewpoint of his day was that of traditional Indian Spirituality which embraced the idea of the Atman. Therefore, the Buddha’s teachings were meant to free the people from this delusion. In no way whatsoever was the Buddha preaching philosophical truth. He was using skillful means to bring his followers to enlightenment.

In MN 148, The Six Sets of Six sutra, the Buddha even demonstrated “by a reductio ad absurdum argument that impermanence implies non-self: when all the factors of being are clearly subject to rise and fall, to identify anything among them with self is to be left with the untenable thesis that self is subject to rise and fall.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi, pg. 29) However, the Buddha also gave the following teaching in MN 2:6-7: “What are the things unfit for attention that he attends to? … This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? … Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? … Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?”

The Buddha continues, ”When he attends unwisely in this way … the view ‘self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘no self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘I perceive self with self’ … or ‘I perceive not-self with self’ … or ‘It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.’ This speculative view is called the thicket of views … the fetter of views.” (MN 2:8) In other words, this entire thicket of views of self versus non-self is ultimately to be abandoned. While realizing the truth of non-self acts as a raft to allow us to reach the other shore of enlightenment, once there, we must abandon even that view as a fetter!

Once you can understand the following statement, you understand the Buddha’s teaching:

If someone should claim that the [Buddha] speaks of a view of a being, a view of a life, or a view of a soul, would such a claim be true? No, such a claim would not be true. When the [Buddha] speaks of a view of a self, the [Buddha] speaks of it as no view. Thus is it called ‘a view of a self.’ … those who set forth on the bodhisattva path know, see, and believe all dharmas but know, see, and believe them without being attached to the perception of a dharma. And why not? The perception of a dharma is said by the [Buddha] to be no perception. Thus is it called the ‘perception of a dharma.’” (Diamond Sutra. Red Pine. Pg 26-27)

You cannot understand this paragraph by mere logic. Logic brings knowledge; similarly, philosophy, which is the application of logical discourse to a topic, brings knowledge. Neither is capable of bringing wisdom. In many ways, philosophy is the absence of wisdom because time wasted on philosophizing is time that could have been spent on the development of wisdom, the practical application of skillful means to bring one closer to freedom.

I’d like to end this essay with a discussion of Nirvana, and how it compares to Hinduism’s Moksha. Both Hinduism and Buddhism designate Moksha and Nirvana, respectively, as the liberation from samsara (the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth) and, hence, the suffering involved in being subject to this cycle. Hinduism states that for such liberation to occur, the individual Self or Atman must be realized as one with the divine ground of all being, Brahman. As I stated above, in this training after leaving the palace, Siddhartha Gautama attained the states Hindus identify as the merging of Atman with Brahman, but Siddhartha directly observed that while these states were blissful and wondrous, they did not lead to the end of suffering, nor to liberation from samsara.

As I explained above, Buddhism denounces philosophy as a harmful distraction, and the Buddha’s teachings on Nirvana are no exception. In MN 26, The Noble Search sutra, he described Nirvana in verse 18 as the, “Unborn, … unageing, … unailing, … deathless, … sorrowless, … undefiled supreme security from bondage.” In verse 19, the Buddha indicated that attaining Nirvana implies a definite task, describing it as, “seeing this truth [of] dependent origination; stilling of all formations; relinquishing of all acquisitions; destruction of craving.”

However, it is important to note that Nirvana really cannot be “reached” or “entered.” Nirvana is not a place; as stated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in A Verb for Nirvana [4], “[Nirvana] is realized only when the mind stops defining itself in terms of place: of here, or there, or between the two.” He explained that, “Samsara is a process of creating places, even whole worlds, (this is called becoming) and then wandering through them (this is called birth). Nirvana is the end of this process.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu very nicely describes the limitations of Samsara: ”Wherever there's attachment, that's where you get defined as a being. You create an identity there, and in so doing you're limited there. Even if the ‘there’ is an infinite sense of awareness grounding, surrounding, or permeating everything else, it's still limited, for ‘grounding’ and so forth are aspects of place. Wherever there's place, no matter how subtle, passion lies latent, looking for more food to feed on.” Notice that in addition to describing Samsara, he also describes the Hindu notion of Moksha and its inherent limitations.

I simply cannot explain how Nirvana can emerge from this situation better than Thanissaro Bhikkhu, from whom I will quote liberally as follows:

"If, however, the passion can be removed, there's no more "there" there. One sutta illustrates this with a simile: the sun shining through the eastern wall of a house and landing on the western wall. If the western wall, the ground beneath it, and the waters beneath the ground were all removed, the sunlight wouldn't land. In the same way, if passion for form, etc., could be removed, consciousness would have no "where" to land, and so would become unestablished. This doesn't mean that consciousness would be annihilated, simply that — like the sunlight — it would now have no locality. With no locality, it would no longer be defined."

"This is why the consciousness of nirvana is said to be "without surface" (anidassanam), for it doesn't land. Because the consciousness-aggregate covers only consciousness that is near or far, past, present, or future — i.e., in connection with space and time — consciousness without surface is not included in the aggregates. It's not eternal because eternity is a function of time. And because non-local also means undefined, the Buddha insisted that an awakened person — unlike ordinary people — can't be located or defined in any relation to the aggregates in this life; after death, he/she can't be described as existing, not existing, neither, or both, because descriptions can apply only to definable things."

In MN 26:19, the Buddha described Nirvana as, “profound, hard to see and understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.” In the same way that Nirvana cannot be philosophized, non-self cannot be philosophized, nor can impermanence be philosophized. They must be experienced directly, and once they are, it is as the Buddha described, “My deliverance is unshakeable.” (MN 26:19)

[2] Old age, sickness, death, and physical pain are not dukkha or suffering. Dukkha, or suffering, is our mental response to such experiences. We cause ourselves to suffer because of our response to our life experiences. For example, if we stub our toe, it is not the physical pain that Buddhism calls suffering or dukkha, it is our mental response that may be called suffering. Do we dwell on the pain, curse ourselves, or curse the object on which we stubbed our toe (suffering)? Or do we acknowledge the injury and immediately work to reduce the pain without anger or other emotional response? (not-suffering). Buddhism teaches that pain, old age, sickness, and death are unavoidable. But suffering can be completely ended.

[3] Just like the Bible, Buddhist scriptures utilize large numbers to signify “a great deal of time,” not numerically accurate renderings of exact time periods.