REALITY AND ITS LOCUS IN BUDDHISM

Though there are specialized works for exposition of Buddhist meditation methodology leading to realisation, for example, the basic early Buddhist text on The Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipa.t.thaana Sutta).(1), any meditative discipline would be empty and meaningless unless the devotee has some measure of understanding of the concept and nature of reality in Buddhism.
Since ancient times, both Eastern and Western traditions made brilliant contributions to speculative metaphysics. In all these we are able to perceive two central foci: being and becoming as candidates for reality. Where the former focuses on the permanent, unchanging, eternal entities, the latter focuses on the impermanent, changing phenomena. Men have been fascinated by change from time immemorial, but, more importantly, they were even more interested in the permanent unchanging nature of things. Even Heraclitus, the champion of change and flux in nature, sought in the final analysis to understand the unchanging nature in the changing world. He went back to the concept of logos, the logic of the nature of things, but did not succeed. Pre-Socratics gave us variations on the being-becoming theme but Plato brought it to a climax. He clearly divided the realms of being and becoming and gave the former the superior eternal status. He, exalted the mind by making it the home of the Form (eidos); indeed, the Form expressed the ideality of existence, the nature of truth and knowledge. On the other hand, the “perpetually perishing” realm of becoming is short-lived, transient, unreliable, and unrealizable in any sense. Attachment to this realm denigrates knowledge to the status of an opinion. The way out of this situation is to seek the eternal Form within the becoming world of particulars. Plato postulate that the Form participates in the particular, but how does it participate? Aristotle, puzzled over this question and with a naturalistic inclination, dismissed the Form and concentrated on the realm of becoming. He premised his own metaphysics on substance (ousia) with its attributes to establish a most powerful influence on man’s view of nature in the West. Even today, this substance-oriented metaphysics has lingered on in many quarters, both professional and lay. Over on the Asian side, particularly in India, there were similar attempts to come to grips with changing and unchanging phenomena. Saa.mkhya and Yoga philosophies, for example, emphasized the indestructible nature of the soul (puru.sa) despite its involvement in the physical nature of things (prak.rti), but in the quest for the enlightened life, the soul would finally triumph over the physical. The same format is seen in the Vedaanta system that postulated the empirical self (aatman) bound up in the changing world, but when its purity is uncovered by virtue of yogic discipline. the self can rise above the impurities to become the greater self (AAtman) and thereby identify itself within the total nature of things (Brahman). This approach certainly was a great spiritual insight; it captured the imagination of the Indians and has enabled the dominant Hindu philosophy to thrive so powerfully up to the present day.
A variety of restrictive elements in our life and society at large act to hinder and actually cover up the true perception of reality. Recent philosophers, like Heidegger and Derrida, have underscored man’s own intended or unintended occluding of reality itself. This has been a long process for mankind to burden (impregnate) human life by subtle blinders that lead us unconsciously for the most part to color and prejudice the perceptions. Nolan P. Jacobson has declared: “The chief cause of disorientation from what is unconditionally real and ontologically open to us is the linguistic system every encapsulated culture-world employs to preserve its identity regardless of its distortion of reality.”(2) Indeed, language as the basis of culture greatly undermines efforts towards clear perception of reality. We are caught up with the objects of perception established with precise correlations to the concepts in use, and such correlations have crystallized to the point of generating a matter-of-fact attitude concerning the whole perceptual process. This prevents the recovery of the original nature of things. It thus becomes difficult to go back to the preconceptual bald existence, the primitive developmental stage prior to the onset of the accepted correlations. Search for true ground of existence must start from the bare ground i.e. the pristine context of things. Realizing this very early Vaisheshiks and particulaly Nyaya philosophies focused on the hinderances to true perception and knowledge through enquiry of epistemological questions. This may have been the initial impulse of Siddhaartha Gautama (Buddha).
Early in the Indian philosophical milieu,the Buddha appeares to give a novel twist to the eternal quest for the unchanging within the changing phenomena. From all indications, the Buddha’s message was a philosophy of the present or an understanding of the nature of the momentary nows in the quest for enlighrenment. In a series of short chapters in the Majjhima-nikaaya, the Buddha repeatedly emphasized that “the past should not be followed after, the future not desired” and, in turn, that one ought to concentrate on the present things, that is, present happenings.(3)
Buddhism was early characterized by the so-called Three Marks, that is, impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and nonself (anattaa). Close examination will reveal that these marks actually refer to the “contents” of the Buddha’s enlightened state. In that state of existence, he experienced the basic momentary nature of existence, the cessation of the nature of suffering, and the uncompounded nature of the self. In contrast, the unenlightened state shows up the exact opposite, that is, the incessant quest for the permanent nature of things, the interminable rise of the nature of suffering states, and the persistence of personal identity or the self. Common knowledge of things sanctions such states of being as real alongwith features of permanence, suffering and self. However, Buddhist response is that in conventionality we do not ‘really’ grasp the truly natural states of existence, but rather go against those states by trying to manipulate the natural flow. It seems quite obvious that life is a process, a series of moments that continue on and on until death overtakes.(4) Even Buddha denied life after death, the immortality of the soul, on the grounds that it would transgress and disregard the normal flow of existence. Thus, if immortality or permanence (eternality) is not to be experienced, then the concentration would have to be on the moment-to-moment existence. In this way, the great insight was not about permanent or eternal life, but on the microscopic behavior within momentary existence. That is, it denied the attachment to permanent entities within the cycle of life (sa.msaara), that each cycle, though unique and independently related, is but a segment of the continuum of life. As such, nothing permanent resides in the continuum, nor is anything made permanent by the cycle or moment in question. Each cycle or moment, moreover, is a compounding phenomenon where its own character is revealed in its own”carving out” process within the continuum. The continuum is more like a symmetrical series of intersecting and overlapping phenomena. But within this context of things, it is so easy to refer to a permanent nature of a self that is directing the compounding activity. This is a simple case of placing the cart before the horse, since the very nature of the self is that; it is already a compounded phenomenon (sa^nkhaata). In other words, to set the self apart from the activity itself is to commit a fallacy of misplaced abstraction or simply to beg the question. The self, therefore, does not exist in the moment-moment continuum. Any reference to it would have to be in terms of what has already transpired. This is looking to the past and not in any way infringing on the present or the future. A potter may claim ownership of the pots he has made but strictly speaking, he can not claim his artisanship as a potter. Put another way, an association is conventionally made with respect to the potter and his pots, but in the reality of pot-making there is neither the potter nor the pot but only pottering. It should be clear that the potter and the pot are always involved in the dynamics of the continuum of existence and that references to them are mere abstractions and belong to “dry metaphysics.”
Understanding the nature of universal suffering is the key. Buddha repeats over and over again that failure to accept the impermanent nature of things will result in suffering, that is, seeking permanent elements in the impermanent, and the resolution can only come when one realizes that there is no self that seeks the permanent, indeed no self at all.(5) Specifically, Buddha expounded the cause of suffering in terms of the incessant thirst (tanhaa=trishnaa) that keeps the life cycle going. He mentioned three phenomena of this thirst. The first deals with the perpetuation of the whole biological nature of human beings, the thirst for sensual pleasures (kaama-ta.nhaa), that is, the constant gratification of our senses in permanent ways, like sustained eating or seeing something appealing or attractive. This is the most common of the three phenomena and thus the easiest to understand and accept as a basis for the continuance of the life cycle.(6) The second and third phenomena are highly psychological in nature in that there is a conscious intent involved, though deviant in nature, either to continue or to discontinue in the life cycle. The second is known as the thirst for existence or the becoming nature (bhava-ta.nhaa), which is perhaps akin to Schopenhauer’s celebrated will to live or to Freud’s general nature of eros. It can be illustrated by the child’s conscious effort by imitation or other means to grow up as fast as possible, to become a teenager, or it can even be manifested in the case of an elderly person who does everything possible to slow down the pace of life in order to increase longevity. In either instance, something forced or strained or manipulatory has entered to distort the natural life cycle. The third phenomenon is the thirst to annihilate oneself (vibhava-ta.nhaa) manifesting as tendency toward self-destruction. Naturally, it includes suicidal attitudes as well as the fascination with death or the dead. In this respect, it is akin to Freud’s reference to thanatos. These three phenomena are basic drives in man which may or may not be apparent or consciously striven for, and yet, over a period of time, they do appear in more obvious or crystallized forms.
Buddha, immediately after enlightenment, was quite reluctant to expound on the nature of his enlightenment precisely because human beings are fundamentally consumed by these drives or thirsts. They are so blinded by the elements of these desires or thirsts that they are prevented from probing the very foundation of the momentary happenings. Their unreal existence is so ingrained that they would not be jolted sufficiently enough to experience the true, real holistic perception of things. However, Buddha reconsidered and decided to expound his nirvaa.nic experience in the form of the famous Four Noble Truths, which are essentially the truth of universal suffering and the way out of it.
Why Buddha decided to expound the Four Noble Truths, which was greatest moment in the story of Buddhism?(7) Although the suutras do not precisely record his inner feelings or thoughts, it may be speculated that therein may be found the fundamental basis of the Buddha’s truth of existence (Dhamma, Dharma) and his helping hand. He might have decided to expound on his enlightenment not only because he was prompted by his infinite compassion for his fellow creatures but for the sake of revealing a deeper nature of momentary existence that resides in the compassionate act itself.
Buddha came to the realization that existence is a truly open nature and that individuals mirror that very openness in their momentary existence. Every moment of existence, in its openness, absorbs indiscriminately as well as relates equally with everything in its wake. However, in ordinary perceptions (due to our volitional karmic force) everything is molded by a process of selection, restriction, and retention in order to clarify and continue individual flow of karmic activities. Thus, holistic nature or framework in which everything is naturally flowing alonwith whole openness, the vastness in every momentary existence remains hidden from ordinary perception. The selectivity and fragmentation of momentary existence though sharpen momentary individual perceptions yet narrow the existential compass of beings obstructin holistic perception .
Buddha most probably saw another unique dimension to the total nature of things, the reflexive nature of existence. The momentary existence means that at each moment or cycle, the total or holistic nature is reflexive in the sense of a vital or dynamic two-way phenomenon. It reaches as far as it will go in manifesting its own nature but, simultaneously, it reflects back at each step of the expanding process. This dimension is missing, neglected, or even ignored in ordinary treatment of human experience. The phenomenon though basic in every human behavior, is selectively ignored in ordinary perception. Impact of neglecting the perception of reflexivity are most dramatic in mutual human relationship.
The relationship we speak of in human contacts is, from the Buddhist perspective, always a two-way reflexive process. A person’s behavior toward another is always reflexive, mutually speaking, although the reflexive nature of mutuality is generally uncognized and unfelt by the persons involved. The nature of reflexivity is indeed subtle, but its presence must be perceived and respected in human relations. In many respects, it provides the vital component for the fruition or fullness of momentary existence. Concepts such as mutuality and human relations are normally interpreted in a more limited framework, but it should be noted that there is also much of the unlimited nature that goes along with the limited. That things are in mutuality means that they mutually support each other in their natures, that is, they reflect each other, and each can not exist without the other. Such being the case, it would be apparent that a focus on the limited alone does not give us the whole picture on the involvement of the relationship in question. Yet, this is precisely the kind of truncated perception and understanding that we normally pursue, promote, and perpetuate.
To sum up, Buddhist conception of reality or ontology is dynamic, focussed on the process i.e. on ‘becoming’ and its locus is in the momentary nows, however elusive, nebulous, and uncharacterizable they may be. Notes:
1. Diigha-nikaaya, 22. Maha Satipa.t.thaana Suttana (Setting up of mindfulness); see Dialogues of the Buddha (London: Luzac & Co., Ltd., 1959), pp. 327-346. Also, there is the Majjhima-nikaaya, 10, Satipa.t.thaanasutta (Discourse on the applications of mindfulness; see The Middle Length Sayings (London: Luzac & Co., Ltd., 1954). pp. 70-82. P.279
2. The Heart of Buddhist Philosophy, published by Southern Illinois University Press.
3. Majjhima-nikaaya, 3.131, 132, 133, 134; see Middle Length Sayings, trans. I. B. Horner, Pali Text Society translation series (London: Luzac & Co., Ltd., 1959), vol. 3, pp. 233-248.
4. A most graphic illustration of the impermanent nature of life is presented in a short piece from the Angutrara Commentary, 225-227, entitled Kisaa Gotamii, in which a woman who has lost her beloved son seeks medicine to revive him. The Buddha tells her to go into the city and inquire at each household if no one has ever died in the family and, if such be the case, to collect tiny grains of mustard seedfrom there. She makes her rounds, but cannot obtain a single mustard seed. She soon realizes that death is an inevitable human phenomenon, and she brings her dead child to the cremating ground. She realizes that all things are impermanent and becomes the Buddha’s disciple (Eugene Watson Burlingame, Buddhist Parables (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1922), pp. 92-94).
5. For example, Sa.myutta-nikaaya, Part IV 35.1-26; see The Book of Kindred Sayings, trans. F. L. Woodward, Pali Text Society translation series (London: Luzac & Co., Ltd., 1956). vol. 4, pp. l-14.
6. The Sa.myutta-nikaaya, 3, is devoted to an analysis of the khandhaa (skandhas). It presents fine arguments on why our cravings for the permanent nature of things are based on the skandhic graspings. It is literally a burden that we carry with us without knowing about the mechanism involved. So long as the skandhic natures remain, the notion of the self cannot be dispelled (Kindred Sayings, vol. 3). Famous account supporting the impermanent nature of things is the Fire Sermon, which says that everything is on fire, the analogously referring to the skandhic graspings (Kindred Sayings, vol. 4, pp. 10-11).
7. This momentous decision is reflected clearly in the Mahaayaana tradition, where the Bodhisattva Dharmaakara vowed to save all sentient beings. More specifically, it refers to the Original Vow (pra.nidhaana), that is, to delay entrance into nirvaa.na until all sentients are liberated from their suffering, a vow which is basic to Pure Land Buddhist faith.
8. Majjhima-nikaaya, 3.280; see The Middle Length Sayings, trans. I. B. Horner (London: Luzac & Co., 1959) vol. 3, p. 330. See also Kindred Sayings, vol. 4, p. 66.

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