Buddhist Philosophy Q and A

Recently an astute commenter asked some very good questions that I thought were worth sharing with everyone. Here are their questions and my responses.

What is the “you” that sees consciousness directly? I thought consciousness was defined as “that which sees/hears/etc”. Are you suggesting there is a “you” that is separate from consciousness that can observe it?

I am definitely NOT saying that there is a separate you. The “thing” which knows consciousness is…consciousness itself. It is that recursive quality of consciousness that makes logical discussions of it seem so mind-blowing. But at heart it is very simple. Consciousness is the faculty that knows. Including knowing consciousness itself.

In a way, this is the only way that consciousness works. When we see an apple, we do not experience it directly, but always mediated through our sense and cognitive apparatus. There is a world of forms, but we just don’t have direct access to it. All that we can know is our experience, which is a combination of the world of forms with our senses and our consciousness. They cannot be teased apart. There may well be an apple, but what we experience is always “apple”, that is to say the apple filtered through our senses and our nervous system.

Also, by saying “there is no “I”” do you mean there is no fixed unchanging form? I could buy this but surely there is something there.

Again, you are right on. The fact that there is no unchanging form is one reason that the Buddha concluded that there is no “I”. He also says the same for our thinking, wishes, choices, and consciousness, in a word, everything we generally take to be our True Self.

And you are also right that there is something there. Later traditions of Buddhism insisted that there is nothing there, but the Buddha was not so dogmatic. As I said above, there probably is something there, but we have no direct access to it. This includes an apple I see, but it also includes my toe that I feel, my thoughts that I cognize, the emotions I experience, and the wishes I have.

The key thing is not they they do not exist, but that they are are not MINE. I don’t HAVE them, I just experience them as ever-changing phenomena. Either to say, “Yes, there is something there,” or “No, there is nothing there” are both going beyond the evidence we have. All that we have is experience, nothing more (nor less).

There is the act of observing right? So we are a verb and not a noun? If this were true then wouldn’t we be wherever there is observing? If we are observing then wherever there is observing there is observing.

There is observing, and the experience is focused on the locus of the senses, namely this body, but it does not then follow that there is an “I” doing this observing.

If this is true then nirvana doesn’t make sense to me. In order for us to achieve nirvana wouldn’t we have to be a “thing” separate from the rest of the universe that achieves nirvana while the rest of the world does not?

Buddha was extremely cagey when it came to positively explaining what nirvana is. I feel that I should be even more so since I am (sadly) not an enlightened being. But yes, the Buddha said that some beings (the arahants) are enlightened and other are not. Perhaps part of the difficulty here is the idea of HAVING nirvana. Nirvana isn’t something that one HAS, but rather it is letting go. Imagine one section of a forest burning in a forest fire while another section does not. Does that mean that the section not burning HAS something that the burning section does not? Nirvana is the bliss of relinquishing the burden of desire. One does not HAVE anything.

Here’s a metaphor. It’s not perfect, but it gets to some of the matter. Imagine a string of dominos stretching back to the undiscoverable depths of time. Each one knocks down the next. There is clearly an ongoing process here, but where is the essence of this domino chain? There is no essence, no unchanging aspect. There is simply the conditioned, unfolding process. If we ended this chain, what would be lost?

To me it seems like Buddhism is saying that we do have a soul, its just that this soul is always changing and never a fixed thing.

The Buddha was very clear that none of the things we take to be our Self (or Soul) really qualifies. But of course that begs the question, what did the Buddha MEAN by Self.

Some time ago my son asked, “Chinese dragons are long and skinny, but European dragons are round and breath fire. Which one is right?” Well…it’s a question with no answer. There’s no such thing as a dragon, so neither can be the “real” dragon. It’s a little like that with questions of self. However you define it, there’s just no such thing.

It’s impossible to fully describe something that doesn’t exist. In the time of the Buddha, the dominant philosophical debate was the nature of the True Self. The most common teaching seems to be that the True Self was an aspect of God and liberation is return to God through purity and meditation. There were a zillion versions of the that basic narrative, but the Buddha denied them all. His basic point was, if you look for anything like a Soul or True Self, you won’t find it.

If there is really no “I” that is separate from the universe then it seems to me that there is no difference between you and I and all conscious beings. We would all be the act of observing and would be stuck living out countless lives. I’m not sure what I believe but I feel this is an important concept and I wish I could see where I’m getting it wrong.

As far as I know, the Buddha never directly addressed this version of nature of Self, but it sounds to me as though we’re just replacing “God” or “Brahma” with “Universe” and ending up in much the same place.

In the end, don’t worry too much about being Right or Wrong. Just keep thinking, questioning, and exploring. You’ll learn far more from observing your own mind and heart than from any book. Or even blog.

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