Idealism In Buddhism

Idealism: from the Greek word ‘idein’, meaning ‘to see’.  In the context of Western philosophy, the category of ‘idealism’ refers to the epistemological search for meaning that advocates that the world can not be known in any meaningful way, outside of the immaterial.  That is to say that the world can only be known through the mind and explored through the agency of thought.  Moreover, idealism asserts that if there is a world external to the mind, no true knowledge can be known about it, as there is no mind presence in this (theoretical) world.  As this permanent exclusion from an external world would appear illogical, the world that is known exists completely through (and within) the awareness of the mind or spirit itself.  As ontology, idealism asserts that the physical objects of the universe (and by extension, the very fabric of the universe itself) are mind-made.  Nothing would appear to exist outside of the mind that perceives it.  The world as it is perceived by the senses, is in fact the product of a psychic or spiritual essence, that seems to create a world separated into a false duality of subject-object, and with this erroneous view, the mistaken perception of a material world existing ‘out-there’, confronting the senses and the mind ‘in here’.  From the viewpoint of the idealist, materialism as a distinct interpretation of the world is the product of limited vision that reduces existence to the level of mere matter.  Furthermore, idealism is the product of an awareness that suggests that the world can not be sensed, or otherwise be known to exist, without the agency of mind imbuing the physical senses with conscious awareness, and the actual ability to function as information gatherers.  Without a living, functioning mind, there can be no awareness of phenomena.  Even the notion of materialism, within this model, can be logically reduced to an idea created and perceived within the mind, an idea that intentionally excludes its creator (the mind) from the parameters of its theory.  The idea that is materialism is created as if ‘independent’ from the mind that produces it.  The notions of materialism, in whatever guise, are created in a mind that ponders and conceives.  It is an idea that creates a theory that the physical world exists outside of itself, and can be known in a separate, objective sense by measuring the physical dimensions of various phenomena.  The apparent separation between matter and mind, places matter as the subject, and mind as the predicate.  That is to say that physical matter (i.e. the brain), creates the mind, and suggests that the mind and its consciousness are by-products of a physical, biological process (evolution).  From a purely idealist position, this kind of thinking, although prevalent in the modern world, is little more than a misplaced sophistry that is deliberately misrepresenting reality in a partial manner that prevents an integrated view of mind and matter from being established as a general paradigm of knowledge.  Materialism, although not necessarily incorrect, is nevertheless incomplete.  The idealist lives within a physical world, and has to function on a daily basis from the premise that the senses will mediate between outside objects and the mind itself.  When this process is acknowledged as occurring within (and through) a conscious essence, a certain holism is maintained as physical objects, and the mind itself share an immaterial essence that has given rise to them both.  It is this awareness of ‘completion’ that separates the idealist from the strict materialist, as the former is never estranged from the world he inhabits.

Religious thinking in the West has often been secularised through such works as that produced by Hegel, so as to suggest that spirit creates matter.  Hegel’s thinking was inversed by Ludwig Feuerbach, so as to suggest that matter creates spirit, that is to say that humanity, through its intelligence and imagination, has created notions of spirituality and divine originations, which although only ideas, have been mistakenly believed to pre-exist the minds that created them.  Humanity is a collection of biological events that have somehow developed consciousness, and in so doing developed a theological mythology that appears to be unaware of its own true origins.  Inert physical matter has become aware of its own existence, but has lost the knowledge that it was once, only inert matter.  Of course, matter that has become self-aware, can not ‘know’ its previous existence as a distinct set of memories, as there existed no conscious capability before the advent of the mind – which must be viewed as an ethereal extension of the brain.  The previous existence of inert matter can only be surmised through the power of the developed intellect itself.  In other words, material existence can only be known as an ‘idea’, and not as a living reality, because to ‘know’ is to have a fully functioning mind.  In Western religions ‘spirit’ is not necessarily synonymous with ‘mind’, and although Hegel made use of the term ‘spirit’, and followed the Judeo-Christian theological assumption that spirit gives birth to matter, he steered away from overt religious references and developed a theory of the production of society and its structures.  This development may be viewed as a secular divergence away from the theology that had dominated Europe for centuries.  Feuerbach however, decided to not only secularise philosophy, but move away from the idea that ‘spirit’ creates ‘matter’.  The inversion of Hegel’s thinking effectively makes a clean break between philosophy and religion.  More than this, however, but it also places the notion of materialism over that of idealism, with the argument that the former is far more logical than the latter.

The Buddha’s philosophy is a systematic and logical set of guidances that are designed to empower an individual in the development of their minds, so that the state of ‘inner freedom’ is achieved, regardless of outer circumstances.  That is to say that the Buddha’s teachings are designed solely to change the inner terrain of the mind, rather than the outer structures of the State, civil society or contemporary culture.  This is an interesting proposition, that has to be compared with other systems that advocate ‘outer’ change as a means to solve humanity’s psychological suffering – change the outer world, and the inner workings of the mind will change accordingly.  That is to say, if the outer conditions that comprise a State, civil society and prevailing culture is so disposed, the corresponding psychological structures required in the mind of an individual (that enable a successful existence within such a set of outer circumstances), will be formed from the birth of the individual, thus ensuring a certain mind-set suitable for such a society.

The Buddha’s philosophy teaches that the human mind corresponds to the outer world by creating the reflective psychological structures of greed, hatred and delusion, and that these structures are created in all human minds regardless of the structure of the outer society they happen to live within.  For the Buddha, the changing of the outer circumstances of the State, civil society and culture, does not change the propensity for the inner generation of greed, hatred and delusion, and further suggests that human beings live more than once, carrying their particular karmic burdens from one existence, into another.  Outer circumstances simply become a set of karmic pre-determinates that are the product of delusion created in the mind.  Therefore, it follows that no particular set of outer circumstances are free from being karmic constructs, even if certain outer circumstances might, for very practical reasons, be considered preferable to other sets of circumstance.

Relatively speaking, existing in different lifetimes, in various times and places, incarnate human beings experience a plethora of social circumstance that might include primitive communal living (tribal), early Greek democracy and totalitarianism, Italian fascism, Soviet communism, Chinese communism, Spanish anarchy, Nazism, British imperialism, European and USA-style democracies, and various forms of theocratic rule, including the Indian caste system, Christianity and Islam, as well as the Tibetan Buddhist State, etc.  In all these – and many other states of social organisation, the Buddha teaches that greed, hatred and delusion lie at their base, and that this base is the human mind.

This is not to say that the accomplishment of ‘inner freedom’ has no plausible effect upon the outer world, but that rather this is missing the point of inner development.  If the world is a manifestation of the mind, when the Mind Ground is fully realised, all things are permanently transformed from the perspective of the enlightened mind, even if physical hardships still remain.  On the other hand, the Buddha interfered in worldly events when such interference had the potential to save lives.  He taught his followers to adjust themselves to their prevailing circumstance and although the ordained Sangha lived a life free of the social constraints of the caste system, so-called lay-Buddhists had to apply the Buddha’s teachings whilst fulfilling the prevailing social requirements that existed in State law.  The ordained Sangha occupied certain ‘holy spaces’ granted them by the king.  Such spaces, (Sangharama), were exempt from secular law, taxation and military conscription.  Many holy men were granted such spaces by a king seeking good karma for himself and his realm – the only condition being that the holy man does not teach his disciples to undermine the State itself.  In such cases, the grant of exempted holy land was immediately withdrawn and the community subjected to the full strength of secular law, usually with the charge of treason, etc.

Early Buddhism, therefore, seldom, if ever clashed with political power as such a clash would have resulted in the removal of social conditions that allowed for successful spiritual training and the freeing of the mind.  In a very real sense, the granting of a holy space within society freed the Buddha from the necessity to preach a philosophy of open social revolution, although he did say that the gods were less important than human beings, and that the caste system is delusional in essence.  It must also be remembered that the Buddha pursued his own enlightenment on his own and without the benefit a holy social space per se.  Although he tended to live in forests, his lay-disciples often lived with their families in urban areas.  Of course, a corrective outpouring, set to balance what might be viewed as a one-sided practice can be found with the example of Vimalakirti – a fully enlightened lay-follower of the Buddha.

The point is that the Buddha offered free instruction to all without discrimination, and believed that enlightenment was attainable by all.  Indeed, even in his lifetime, many lay people, (male and female) attained to enlightenment, regardless of their social circumstance.  It is not the changing of outer circumstances as such, that is important to the Buddha, (although this can obviously be helpful for spiritual purposes), but rather that in the enlightened state, the perception of physical matter is transformed, and the delusive dichotomy of subject-object is thoroughly uprooted.  Although the world may seem the same, and that nothing seems to have happened, in fact, everything has changed forever.  This suggests that outer circumstance do not have to appear to change, if it is to be perceived as ‘different’.  The intellect as it is, can not solve what seems to be a riddle, or an utterance of an illogical nature,  The apparent absurdity is summed-up in the question that asks how can outer circumstance change, but appear to be the same?

If it is the case that outer circumstance are not transformed through the enlightenment experience, then nirvana simply becomes a quietened state of mind, that exists in opposition to a physical world that it has little direct contact with.  The problem with this state is that as a mind exists within a body that has senses, and that as a human being is more than a ‘mind’, it follows that a mind, (‘quiet’ or otherwise), can never be out of contact with the body it inhabits, and therefore the world that surrounds the body.  The enlightenment experience must, therefore, include a state of consciousness that sweeps through the mind, body and environment, and that simultaneously renders such designations as ‘mind’, ‘body’ and ‘environment’ thoroughly redundant and meaningless.  This attainment effectively creates a completely new way of viewing the world that has no intellectual relevance for the unenlightened mind.  In this respect, and in this way, the concept of Buddhist inner freedom equates completely with the notion of outer circumstantial transformation in a manner that the unenlightened mind can not conceive of.  Simply changing outer circumstances might well create better and fairer living conditions – this is not disputed – but such changes, although carrying the immense potential of positive social transformation, nevertheless, do not necessarily ‘enlighten’ the minds of those subjected to them.  The Buddha seems to be saying that regardless of whatever social system or regime an individual inhabits, greed, hatred and delusion remain implicit human psychological traits that must be uprooted through a proper and correct meditation practice.

It is an interesting speculation to consider what would be the case if a being were born into a society that had no wont, and therefore did not create the social conditions for inner greed; that did not separate beings into arbitrary and unjust social divisions (and therefore did not give a foundation for hatred to arise); and that provided a perfect education system, an exposure to which did not allow delusion to arise.  Societies that have arisen to date have been structured in such a way, so as to be beneficial to some and derogatory to others.  There has not been a society as of yet, which could be described as ‘perfect’.  Historically, all outer expressions of the organisation of human interaction have been imperfect.  In this respect, the Buddha’s system of philosophy is centred around the individual accessing a totality of ‘being’ through the development of the mind.  Although this may appear as a pure ‘idealism’ that conquers a pure materialism, this (dualistic) notion is mistaken, as terms such as ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’, although descriptively useful in the formulation of ideas, nevertheless, lose all ‘descriptive’ validity in the nirvanic state – which is nothing other than ‘ordinary mind’ thoroughly realised, so that the apparent (and false) barrier between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ is transformed into a totality of being.  Prior to this state being attained, the world is either one of two realities; it is either constructed entirely of psychic substance (mind), or it is comprised of hard physical matter, the latter of which reduces the concept of ‘mind’ to that of a mere function of the physical brain.  Both of these ideas are mutually exclusive and consider themselves complete as an explanation of reality.  As both theories have their merits and demerits, it is obvious that the ‘total’ explanatory power that both assume, can not be correct, and that reality lies in some other ‘third’ position.  It is exactly from this ‘third’ position that the Buddha presents his philosophical argument.  It appears as ‘idealism’ because the Buddha uses the notion of mind as his starting point. But this is only the starting point and not the end of his path.  He does not deny the existence of a physical world, but he does refuse to answer certain question about the nature of matter.  The pursuing of this line of enquiry is considered to be of no developmental benefit, emphasising the fact that although the intellectual understanding of the world has led to science, what the Buddha is actually conveying can not be limited or reduced to an intellectual construct, that competes with other similar constructs in the realm of intellectual endeavour.  Through the mind an understanding of the physical world is achieved that can not be satisfactorily categorised in any meaningful way.

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