Author Topic: The central dichotomy of original Buddhism  (Read 825 times)

Offline pragmatic432

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The central dichotomy of original Buddhism
« on: October 09, 2016, 11:25:17 am »
I don’t know where it first appears in the tradition but there is the parable/simile that goes something like this: beside a river there is a demon, a human and a god; for the demon it’s a river of pus; for the human, water; for the god, nectar.

It naturally raises the question of the relationship of consciousness to whatever is “out there”. In early Buddhism, the most apt formulation I’ve noticed in the suttas is a version of dependent origination in which consciousness depends on name & form, and name & form in turn depends on consciousness, where I assume name & form is shorthand for the other four aggregates.

So the bottom line for the chain of causation is the mutual dependence of name & form and consciousness.

Now officially modern science would hold that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, the last of the five aggregates to arrive on the scene. But it only requires a slight shift in perspective to see that until we have consciousness we have nothing worth speaking of - nothing to truly register the tree falling in the woods, as the story goes. In that sense, consciousness and the other aggregates do arise together, mutually dependent.

And I’m sure many have noticed that the traditional order of the aggregates is precisely the order a scientist would put them in, going from matter to mind. So with some allowance we can say that the core Buddhist account is completely naturalistic.

But one of the fascinations/frustrations of original Buddhism is the way it straddles the line between a naturalistic psychotherapy on the one hand, and a full-blown religion on the other, and one whose metaphysical claims are every bit as bold, if not more so, as any other religion.

That fault lines have to lie in its view of consciousness, and how it can be developed.

There is the usual sticking point of rebirth. Here where modern science would give priority to matter, Buddhism gives priority to mind. But the idea that there is a rebirth consciousness that somehow carries with it at least some portion of the other mental aggregates and can bridge the gap between one aggregate of form and another, would appear to run counter to the naturalistic account. It would appear to replace the materialistic assumption of science with the idealistic assumption of religion.

And then there are the supernatural powers of the Buddha. This begins with mental cultivation, and mental cultivation would appear to have three levels:

First, there is the level of purification in the naturalistic sense, of overcoming greed, hate and delusion, and related fear of death, anger, etc., becoming serene, freed from suffering in this life.

Second, there is the level of nibbana, the idea that “tanha” or some craving or ignorance or sense of self somehow holds the aggregates together, and that when that ignorance is extinguished, along with the aggregates, the unconditioned supervenes.

Third, there are the supernatural powers of the Buddha. Leaving aside all the later elaborations, the earliest accounts of his enlightenment have him remembering his own past lives (through eons of cosmic contraction and expansion) and then seeing in a similar manner the arising and disappearing of countless other beings.

Consider that the Buddha is thought to have overcome all self, that is, all sense of identity. Consider also that the tradition holds that there are no identities in any case, only the rising and falling of dhammas. And yet this unknown entity without identity is able through mental cultivation to see through eons of time and infinite space and locate bundles of rising and falling dhammas - which remember have no intrinsic markers as to identity, whose identities must be imputed - and parse out, if not create, not only a myriad of past identities for his not-self, but a myriad of identities for not-others.

But what’s my point, you may ask? I do not intend this as an exercise in debunking. Like other religions, original Buddhism makes bold metaphysical claims; it doesn’t follow - and I’m not arguing - that its claims are false.

No, as the title suggests, my aim was too set out as concisely as possible a basic account of the dichotomy in original Buddhism that Buddhists, it must be said, sometimes equivocate around, and which confuses people outside of Buddhism. Call it an exercise in full disclosure. And I hope those few benighted souls who take the trouble to read this account will see it in that positive light.

Offline VincentRJ

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Re: The central dichotomy of original Buddhism
« Reply #1 on: October 17, 2016, 05:35:33 pm »
Hi Pragmatic,
Isn't it true that we simply don't know precisely what the Buddha actually taught? There are no written records of the day. It was much later that the first Buddhist texts were written, possibly 400 years or so after Gautama passed away.

One can argue that reliable techniques of chanting and repetition might have ensured a fairly accurate memorisation over the several generations that passed before such memories were written down, but in the meantime there would have occurred a gradual change in the local languages and dialects used, and a promotion of the original teachings into a religious format by certain powerful rulers, such as King Asoka whose rule began about 200 years after Gautama passed away.

My understanding is that religions in general, as they spread and are promoted, tend to be adapted in order to accommodate the local customs in the regions they spread to, and in order to be a more effective political method of control for the rulers of the populations in those areas.

For me, some of the most impressive insights described in the Buddhist teachings are the concepts of impermanence and the interrelatedness of all things, which are always subject to the processes of 'cause and effect'.
I find the Kalama Sutta also a remarkable teaching which seems perfectly in line with the methodologies of modern science.

I presume the stories about Gautama's recollection of thousands of previous lives during the first watch under the Bodhi tree, are stories created to appeal to local Hindu populations of the times who believed in some sort of permanent soul or identity which is reincarnated.

One reinterpretation of such stories is to make a distinction between the Hindu belief in reincarnation, which involves a soul and a personal identity, and the Buddhist concept of Rebirth which includes only attitudes and tendencies that are passed from one life to another.

However, such an interpretation is not convincing. How could anyone identify with a former life based upon tendencies and attitudes which are shared by millions?

Another, more modern reinterpretation, more in line with modern science, is to consider that the concept of Rebirth applies not to a literal and biological new life-form, but to an arising of new thoughts and attitudes within this life.

During the processes of meditation, perhaps after many years, one might begin to view past types of behaviour and thoughts as being no longer relevant to one's current, more enlightened circumstances, and consider those previous types of behaviour to be metaphorically like a former life. What do you think?

Offline pragmatic432

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Re: The central dichotomy of original Buddhism
« Reply #2 on: October 17, 2016, 10:12:06 pm »
Hi Pragmatic,
Isn't it true that we simply don't know precisely what the Buddha actually taught? There are no written records of the day. It was much later that the first Buddhist texts were written, possibly 400 years or so after Gautama passed away.

Hi Vincent.

Yes I basically agree with your resume here of what modern scholarship says.

As a slight correction I would say that referring to “Hinduism” at the time of the Buddha is a bit of an anachronism, since at that time it was properly called Brahmanism, or you might say Vedic religion.

On the other hand Hinduism was developing side by side with Buddhism for centuries before the Buddhist scriptures were written down, and for centuries afterward there was much mutual influence. I think the more sophisticated schools of Vedanta might never have developed without the intellectual challenge of Buddhism.

As to reincarnation/rebirth, traditional Buddhists will tell you that the Buddha discovered his past lives on his own, through the development of his psychic powers. Reincarnation was a common if not universal belief of the times, and not just with “Hindus”. But I agree with you there’s no way of telling the facts of the case.

As to rebirth, I remember getting into a not altogether pleasant exchange with a Buddhist who insisted on calling me a materialist, yet his description of the mechanism of rebirth seemed to me the true materialism, redolent as it was of ancient theories of physiology etc.

I agree that rebirth definitely operates in life, moment to moment. I also agree that the literal idea of rebirth is incoherent. We’re asked to believe that there is no true continuity and yet simultaneously to care, intensely, about the arising of some new being.

Nevertheless, I think traditional rebirth is an advance over the idea of reincarnation, moving in the direction of understanding that all of our actions influence the rising of “new beings” in our own life, in the lives of those around us, and on into some indeterminate future. Our concern and compassion extends in all directions, which is one definition of selflessness. In that sense I think the idea of rebirth is very real.

Have a good one, Pragmatic.

Offline VincentRJ

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Re: The central dichotomy of original Buddhism
« Reply #3 on: October 19, 2016, 10:19:09 pm »
Hi Pragmatic,
Isn't it true that we simply don't know precisely what the Buddha actually taught? There are no written records of the day. It was much later that the first Buddhist texts were written, possibly 400 years or so after Gautama passed away.

Hi Vincent.

Yes I basically agree with your resume here of what modern scholarship says.

As a slight correction I would say that referring to “Hinduism” at the time of the Buddha is a bit of an anachronism, since at that time it was properly called Brahmanism, or you might say Vedic religion.

On the other hand Hinduism was developing side by side with Buddhism for centuries before the Buddhist scriptures were written down, and for centuries afterward there was much mutual influence. I think the more sophisticated schools of Vedanta might never have developed without the intellectual challenge of Buddhism.


Good points, Pragmatic.

What I also find interesting, and probably very relevant, is the development and merging of the different religious traditions prior to the times of Gautama.

One of the most amazing Bronze Age civilizations that we know at least something about, is the Indus Valley Civilization that once flourished in what is now Eastern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Western India between the years 3300 and 1300 BCE.

Some of the remnants and ruins of this civilization would have been only 800 years old around the times of Gautama's life, so it seems reasonable to suggest that the history and culture of this civilization would have been more transparent to the inhabitants of India 2,500 years ago, than they are today.

What seems to be very relevant is the impression of a peaceful civilization which was more in line with current Buddhist philosophy and practices than the opposing Aryan culture which introduced the rigid caste system and a culture of competing kings and warlords around the time of the demise of the Indus Valley civilization.

The impression I get is that this civilization was very egalitarian, with little indication of the presence of kings and palaces, armies, conflicts and priests. The cities were very well organised with drainage and sewerage systems. Agriculture and architecture was very advanced for the times, with the use of bricks, granaries, dockyards, warehouses and so on.

What is also remarkable is that the religious traditions in that ancient civilization seemed to be of an ascetic, wandering and homeless nature which presumably encouraged meditation, and which seem similar to the path that Gautama embarked upon when he left his palace.

Could it be that Gautama, dismayed at the mess that his part of the country was then in, with conflicting warlords, great inequality and entrenched poverty due to the rigid caste system, was actually trying to reach back to those glorious days of that past, peaceful and egalitarian civilization of the Indus Valley?

Offline pragmatic432

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Re: The central dichotomy of original Buddhism
« Reply #4 on: October 20, 2016, 12:25:37 pm »

Could it be that Gautama, dismayed at the mess that his part of the country was then in, with conflicting warlords, great inequality and entrenched poverty due to the rigid caste system, was actually trying to reach back to those glorious days of that past, peaceful and egalitarian civilization of the Indus Valley?

Your thesis has a certain plausibility, for sure. The Indus Valley cities are very intriguing in the way they appear to be less centralized, not build around a central palace or temple as in Mesopotamia.

On the other hand, when you look at the early Buddhist suttas it’s hard to see a nostalgia for the old city-states. As with other shramana groups like the Jains (called Niganthas in the suttas) what you do see is an intense fervour for renunciation and adopting the homeless life that doesn’t appear all that concerned with the recovery of civic values.

But the relationship between the heterodox shramana groups and orthodox Vedic religion is fascinating in itself. There’s been a dialectic and mutual influence between them for perhaps thousands of years. Much of what we associate with “Hinduism”, including that most Hindu of practices, yoga, and perhaps the spirit of renunciation itself, came from outside the Vedic tradition.

Another issue that has interested scholars is what changed in the culture to produce this spate of world-negation around the time of the Buddha. As you mentioned, it was a time of social change and upheaval, conflict between petty states and so on, but that doesn’t seem to me to be a sufficient explanation.

Fans of the Axial Age idea might point to somewhat parallel movements among ancient Greeks and Hebrews. In the early bible the afterlife was not much discussed. The focus was this world and the begetting of progeny, as it was in the early Vedas. In the course of the tradition that changes, culminating in the early Christian fervour to escape this fallen world. The Greeks as well, starting with at least Pythagoras, but running through to Plato’s forms, developed a distinctly metaphysical, otherworldly view, quite in contrast to their beginning, which like the Indians and the Hebrews centred on ritual sacrifice in this life.

Personally I feel that this so-called Axial Age initiated a phase in human culture which, while it was perhaps developmentally necessary and produced various fruits and benefits, we need finally to grow out of. We need to be able to reconnect in some way to our ancient ancestors who were concretely here, in this world, before the priests and renunciates taught them to feel otherwise.

That doesn’t mean we can return to some imaginary pagan ideal or that we should throw out all the scriptures. Rather it means rediscovering a basic simplicity and clarity about where and who we are, so that we’re able to evaluate and make effective use of the proliferation of texts, methods and beliefs available to us. The fact is theorizers, priests and teachers will never stop talking and multiplying texts - an affliction I can relate to!

But finally I should point out that it’s anachronistic to project the later rigid caste system back to the origins of the Vedic tradition. In the beginning there was only the class system of the four “varnas”, which originally meant colour but without modern racial overtones. So you’re probably familiar with Brahmans (priests, intellectual class), Kshatrias (military, ruling class), Vaishyas (farmers, merchants, professional class) and Shudras (working class). These divisions were simpler and not nearly so rigid or unbridgeable as the divisions of the later caste system. The idea that a Brahman depends on character more than on inheritance is found in the orthodox tradition as well as in shramana literature like the Dhammapada.

But also I would say that this fourfold division is really just a reflection of the way societies have operated in most places, most of the time, right down to the present day. The difference being that in modern capitalist societies it’s the Vaishyas, not the Brahmans or Kshatrias that dominate.

So why the caste system? I would say it was rather a sin of omission than commission. That is to say, unlike the Abrahamic tradition whose ideological drive tends always towards revolution and upheaval, Sanatana Dharma in general accepts social class as the way of the world, not particularly germane to spiritual concerns. India has been tolerant to a fault, you might say, and so ratified rather than resisted the common tendency toward ever more social stratification.

I should also mention the contentious issue of how Vedic culture came to India in the first place. Unfortunately, the racism associated with the original Aryan invasion theory has led many to claim that in fact Vedic culture began in India, in the Indus Valley cites.

Personally I kind of feel that there was a migration, or series of migrations of Vedic culture into India, but it’s a sensitive issue and I wouldn’t want to insist on it.

But to come around to the beginning of this post, there is that fascinating dialectic between shramana groups like Buddhism and orthodox Vedic culture. So while I wouldn’t put is as simply as you have - the Indus Valley may have been less totalitarian than Mesopotamia, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t as socially stratified as Vedic culture of the time, which again was not the later caste system - it’s certainly plausible that there were deep social/cultural roots to this dialectic.

But this is India! And given its traditional disinterest in history, the relative late appearance of writing and the way climate works against preservation, I think we will always be left in the dark.

Have a nice day, Pragmatic.


 


« Last Edit: October 21, 2016, 11:31:14 pm by pragmatic432 »

Offline VincentRJ

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Re: The central dichotomy of original Buddhism
« Reply #5 on: October 22, 2016, 02:17:25 am »

Could it be that Gautama, dismayed at the mess that his part of the country was then in, with conflicting warlords, great inequality and entrenched poverty due to the rigid caste system, was actually trying to reach back to those glorious days of that past, peaceful and egalitarian civilization of the Indus Valley?

But this is India! And given its traditional disinterest in history, the relative late appearance of writing and the way climate works against preservation, I think we will always be left in the dark.


Hi Pragmatic,
An issue which resulted in some confusion after I began to take an interest in Buddhism some time ago, was an assumption on my part that the ancient Vedic scriptures had already been written down before the times of the Buddha, on papyrus, or on seals, or as inscriptions on stone monuments or pottery, and so on.

I had a tendency to assume that Gautama, as a member of the elite, would have been schooled in the art of writing but might have chosen not to use the Brahmi script for his purposes because of its associations with the Brahmin priesthood and caste system, hence the lack of any Buddhist texts of the period.

However, after doing searches on the internet, I can find no references to any reliable, historical and archaeological evidence that any script was in use in India during the estimated period that the Buddha lived, spanning the 6th and 5th centuries BCE.

What seems astonishing is that the Indus Valley civilization appears to have used a written script over a thousand years prior to the lifetime of Gautama. The script hasn't yet been deciphered but that doesn't mean it wasn't a script. A few thousand inscribed seals in a legible condition have apparently already been unearthed from various excavations of Indus Valley sites.

It seems to be the case that this Indus script died out as the Indus civilization collapsed due to climate change and the Aryan invasion from Eastern Europe. For well over a thousand years between that collapse and possibly the beginning of the Ashokan Empire, which existed about 200 years after the times of the Buddha, the changing Vedic culture of those times took place without the aid of a written script. It all relied upon memories being passed down from generation to generation, as did the teachings of Gautama initially.

That's truly amazing, if true, but also creates an enormous problem. Without the existence of writing, the history and development of cultures and religions become impossible, or at least very unreliable.

 


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