In reading the Buddhist texts over the course of this quarter, several aspects of Mahayana Buddhism stood out in my mind and impressed me. In this paper, I would like to address these topics and relate them to my experience in life.
The idea of non-duality is perhaps my favorite aspect of Mahayana Buddhism. This ideology is found heavily in the Zen school and helps to compliment and support the traditional Buddhist doctrine of no self. In Zen and The Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel speaks of how his Zen Master described the act of shooting a target as aiming for yourself. The target is not different from the archer, they are in fact one action (or interaction) and that action's result and goal. It is not the self (archer) that lets the bow string release once it has been fully drawn but the Dharma/Buddha or perhaps I would call it the Tao.
As a westerner, who was raised to believe in Monotheism, concepts of non-duality and no self were at first very abstract and hard to grasp. Indeed the need to grasp and to define these concepts was holding me back, as they too are only an expression of a need for a concept of self. In The Diamond Sutra, The Buddha is said to have said, "although terrestrial human beings have always grasped after the arbitrary conception of matter and great universes, the conception has no true basis-it is an illusion of mortal mind." Truth is beyond explanation and the emptiness doctrine is a far cry from the certain scientific reasoning based society of the west.
Despite the fact that I went to Sunday school throughout elementary school and most of high school, I have found looking back, that the education that I received trough my family was almost Buddhist in many ways and definitely instilled some Taoist virtues that I am only now aware of.
My grandparents lived on a seventy-two acre farm ten minutes from my parents' home. They had fields, an apple and peach grove, a green house and a garden. They also had barns, sheds, and a large wooded area. This environment was a favorite of mine in my younger years and I spent countless time exploring, using my imagination, and experiencing nature. How much greater would those experiences have been without the mental limitations that western society applies to the individual? This appreciation of nature and its order was only magnified as I matured.
Being half Afrikaans, my family has often traveled back home to my dad's native country of South Africa. My father, who majored in anthropology, had spent much of his youth in the bush, living with the indigenous tribe of the Timbavati area (next to Kruger national park). So, It was no wonder that my father would want to instill his love of the bush in me as well. Thus, every time that we have traveled back to South Africa, my family has spent a portion of our trip in a game reserve or on safari. The scientific knowledge gained from hearing the rangers and trackers speak of the areas, their ecology, animals, and flora is one thing, but the "knowledge that transcends by just being there that's another.
There is something the affects the deep consciousness of the human, something that cries out when the sky is a cloudy web of brilliant stars at night. When the only noises to be heard are natural ones, an aspect of experience that is often times lost in these days of modern living. No doubt the great sages such as Sakyamuni Gotama and Lao Tzu, were inspired by this more intimate relationship with nature and thus gained insight into the true nature of existence in much the same way as, say, shamanism.
The concept of non-duality is expanded even further as you apply it to different paradigms. In The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, for instance, much of the first chapter is devoted to this doctrine. In this chapter, entitled Purification of the Buddha-Field, "The Buddha said, 'Sariputra, this buddha-field is always thus pure, but the Tathagata makes it appear to be spoiled by many faults, in order to bring about the maturity of inferior living beings living beings born in the same buddha-field see the splendor of the virtues of the buddha-fields of the Buddhas according to their own degrees of purity.'" This is, I think, a round about way of teaching non-duality in relation to the nirvana/samsara paradigm. We've learned in the Mahayana non-duality teaching that Nirvana and Samsara are more or less the same deal. The experience of existence as Hell, Samsara, Heaven, or Nirvana appears to be a matter of karma and consciousness. Those with liberated minds experience existence as Nirvana while those who cling to a perception of permanence perceive existence as Samsara.
This part, for me, is not that hard to understand. Life is what you make of it and the old adage of making lemonade out of lemons comes to mind. But you need to have sugar to make lemonade. I will compare sugar to the Dharma Wheel. Not that you have to use the Dharma as your sugar, but it is perhaps one kind of sugar to be used. Non attachment, great compassion, and realization of impermanence would surely give one a more possessive outlook on life. And what more is there to the illusion of existence than one's outlook or perception of it?
Just having the knowledge that in the Buddhist universe everything is an illusion and that all things arise and are impermanent has helped me deal with samsara this year. If I have a headache I simply tell myself that it is not "I" who is having a headache and that the headache is only a temporary sensation that will fade away soon enough, like a dream. And when I do this, when I no longer worry over the headache, it does disappear sure enough. The idea of not clinging has also helped me out, but it is a bit harder to put desires or emotional pain out of your mind than physical pain. With increased awareness of consciousness, arising, and senses, this no mind tactic becomes easier for me.
Awareness meditation is something that I only started doing recently. I had done other meditations in the past that mostly involved visualization techniques, and these certainly have their place, but they haven't had quite the practical application for my current stage of development as awareness mediation has. Isolating experience, focusing on sensation, feeling that sensation cease to be a sensation help to detach your consciousness from the body and for it to deal with physical or perceived discomfort maturely.
Letting go, and focusing on breathing has also proven to be a pretty effective occasional practice of mine. This sort of meditation helps me with variety of tasks, whether it is becoming motivated to do homework, the act of singing, or performing better in a video game. I would probably attribute this to becoming physically and mentally more relaxed while, at the same time, having an increased concentration. This is most evident in singing, which in my opinion would likely excel under a Zen discipline. This is because so much of singing depends on proper posture, concentration, relaxation, and, most of all, corrects breathing.
I guess that I can not attribute this correlation only to awareness meditation, but also to chi kung meditation. In chi kung meditation, you focus on your don tien (sp?), the area just below your naval, in the center of your body. This is the exact same place that three previous voice teachers of mine have said to focus on. This is supposed to be the center of your body's chi activity, the source of the river if you would, it's no wonder that this is the focus of a practitioner of opera or kung fu for both of these arts take an enormous amount of chi energy to do correctly.
So, I have got my energy now, but the breathing meditation also relaxes my body, another thing that my voice teachers have always said to do, and to give me enough concentration to control my body as an instrument. For even though the body is supposed to be relaxed, it is also supposed to be firmly supported. Even a minute of such meditation will increase the vocal quality 2 fold, how much more so would mastery of such meditations improve one's quality of existence?
I also now try to use these methods in other areas besides singing. The other day, for instance, I was using a diving board at a swimming pool. It's been about a year since I've engaged in such activities so I was a bit hesitant. However, I had just completed Zen and the Art of Archery, which stressed the importance of focusing on the breathing not the action. I can't say that my dive was great, but it was better than I was expecting, I focused on the breathing and not on the diving, the result was an interaction that looked quite natural. Likewise, I have for some time used "focus" before engaging in an activity to help boost performance. The results are not always grand, a certain amount of technical skill and proficiency is required in all such activities, but the right mindset ends up working for me more times than not I'd wager.
Even in playing video games, nay, almost 95% of the time, my video game playing ability increases when ideas of no self and breathing meditation are employed. Some times my friends make fun of me or look at me funny for spontanously doing kung fu while in a class or meditating in public or before we start a match in a videogame, but it doesn't bother me because it's all in jest. Some of the characters in the cartoons that I watch or in the video games that I play also employ meditative techniques to power up for a super attach. It is perhaps my exposure to Hong Kong action movies and Japanese anime and video games that keeps me interested in self improvement in much the same way as their characters are.
This is probably why I like the Zen school of Buddhism and Taoism so much and the Pure Land school of Buddhism and Monotheism so little. There is no reason that an individual can't improve them selves. The whole "other power" employed by Pure Land and Monotheism just, in my opinion, reflects humanity's sloth and tendency to avoid responsibility for their own actions and to take hold of their destiny. Another name for "other power" is "easy way" and I've always found more fulfillment in the harder way. But I wouldn't deny these people their faith in "other power", many have not had the exposure to nature or to the world as I have and might not know that they posses a ton of potential inside of them selves. To this, I once again owe my parents and my fortunate upbringing.
As I look back at my childhood that I now crawl out of slowly, like an insect molting its old skin, I can see a heaven of stars or an ocean of reflected moonlight. These are the positive words of encouragement offered over the years by teachers, friends, and, most of all, my mother and father. I have come to many nodes in my life that could have caused me to become a being that does not contribute to the world, a bad person, or a confused person, but I had guidance and support that assisted me in reaching the state that I'm in now. So I guess that we all depend on other power in life. But in the same way, I try to share my power with others too. This creates a supportive community that is self-powered. In a way this is what my experience of church communities also feels like, so "all roads lead to Rome" but it's my view that Rome looks different depending on which road you took to get there. This again can be looked at from a non-duality standpoint and even referenced back to chapter one of The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti.
I guess that one of the biggest reasons that I like "self power" over "other power" philosophy is because it is often times the most open-minded. Certainly Pure Land is more open minded than Christianity for instance, but they both put all their eggs in one basket it would seem. I'd rather have a more open nature towards nature and live harmoniously. The following was taken from my guest book on my personal homepage. I think that it illustrates the closed mindedness of strict monotheism and the elegance of the Tao. It also has my attempt at answering the individual's (going by the name Ringlet) questions using some of the ideas that I picked up this year while studying Buddhism:
Ringlet: The page really made no sense to me at all. I think the idea of downloading your soul into a computer is just shows how ignorant you really are.
Thomas: Soul uploading??? Hmm, I agree. Perhaps my questions of "AI and Self" are a bit out dated. Since I wrote that I have done much thought, reading, experimentation, and studies. Buddhism says that there is no such thing as a soul. A personality or an illusion of a permanent self is a false one. "You" or "I" are constantly changing, only the result of interdependent perceptions and variable conditions.
The "me" in a day or in 10 years is not the same as the "me" writing this post. If I were to split into 2 copies of "me" right now, they would not be the same in a week... they would have 2 separate illusory "souls" if you would, born of a common history. So, in conclusion, probably impossible to "upload a soul" but not impossible to create a construct of variables that would approximate the "me" of a given instant and proceed to become it's own "me" with a shared perceived history.
Anyway, Thoughts of AI and Self (can be found in my literature gallery) was just some random thoughts that I jotted down while in an anthropology class last year. Thoughts spawned from comparing humans to pre humans and where the sentience line would be drawn and from completing William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy. Nothing really serious. What would be "ignorance" is if I had claimed the things in my short list of questions to be truths, but they really were nothing more than rhetorical questions meant to spawn thought. No truth can be expressed with language, even what I write here is only a clouded written form of what is intended to be conveyed.
p.s. there are not many people in this world who I would feel so compelled to call ignorant as you have me. There are many who, in my opinion, lack culture, common sense, proper behavior, a sense of humor, social skills, tact, style, et cetera, but for me to claim this as a truth would indeed be a bold statement like "the pot calling the kettle black", so to speak.
Ringlet: I don't quite understand what your firm beliefs are because you refer to so many cultures and beliefs. What are your firm beliefs of God or a higher power?
Thomas: I do not have any firm religious convictions, as I am still quite young and have much to explore. I think that what you might call a conviction, religion, belief system, or spirituality, is very much a personal journey, perhaps one that has a unique path to each sentient "being" who chooses to embark upon it or happens into it. As far as I know, the pragmatic universe is within one's mind. If said mind believes in "God" or "gods" then they most probably exist for that person. There are valid aspects to all beliefs, and, indeed, there seems to be something in human nature that calls for or is receptive to spiritual paths.
I try not to limit myself by proclaiming any ultimate truth, in my opinion there is none. All I can say is that it is in my nature to be kind to those who I meet in every day life. I try to live harmoniously with my environment, and I dislike injustices and corruption. If I had to call my self anything I would call myself a Lotek but if you wish to call me something else then call me a neo-Taoist.
Ringlet: I must say Thomas, you are very creative in your ways of thinking. You are obviously smart. I hope you only the best in your journey through life, but hope can recognize God before it is too late. I believe you will find Him before it's too late, just be ready for Him, and let Him in when he calls to you.
So, I don't doubt that this person feels strongly about their faith. I even went as far as to say that her ways wasn't incorrect (maybe a longer path) but despite the fact that I accepted the possibility of her views being valid, she never offered me the same courtesy. Granted this is just one person, but I've heard similar thinking by many others who have such convictions. So looking at this situation, I am reminded of the sutra in which it is divulged that even the Shravakas are Bodhisattvas, they just forgot. This sutra in turn reminds me of a sutra that I read in which the Buddha says that he was always enlightened but didn't remember (or become aware) that he was until the time of his enlightenment.
I look forward to the day when I have a greater understanding and awareness of the Tao, the Dharma Wheel, the universe, and senescent beings.