Buddhism: Beyond Materialism & Idealism

Buddha & Sariputra

The all-important aspect of enlightenment is that it should not be mystified, as mysticism, in this context, denotes a muddling, and movement away from clear insight.  Mysticism has no place in the Buddha’s system and his explanation of the state of nirvana.  Nirvana is often misinterpreted as a state of salvation, inherently related to the kind of heavenly imaginations associated with theistic religions that maintain a human – divine dichotomy.  Nirvana, from the Buddhist perspective, is a negative definition of a state that lies beyond ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.  The Buddha reveals the truth throughout his sutras, by explaining what enlightenment ‘is not’, but the explanation must not be mistaken for the end result.  Elsewhere in the sutras, the Buddha describes nirvana as a non-conditioned state.  This is because within his philosophical system, enlightenment is presented as a state of non-obscuration, but must not be confused with the path that removes the obscuration.  The obscuration is delusion and its antidote is the Dharma.  The Dharma is a collection of specific but diverse approaches to removing obscuration; the Buddha was non-dogmatic, and did not resort to mysticism or theology.  He did not mix the mysticism and theology of his time, with the pristine (and logical) nature of his insight into reality.  However, he did acknowledge that the prevailing mysticism and theology of his day did include the notions of polytheism, rebirth, and karma.  The Buddha weaved these pre-existing conditions into a temporary cosmology associated with his Dharma, but which remain separate and apart from his enlightened vision.  This is because the Buddha felt the expedient need to harness the common psychology, and guide it toward the reality he had discovered.  Therefore, the Buddha radically re-interpreted the Brahmanic religion of his day, subtly altering and changing its manifestation so that it became a channel for his own teaching.

It is clear that in the final analysis, nirvana is a state of pristine vision that clearly and directly perceives, without error, the integrated interplay of phenomena and space, and that in this state of clarity, there are no gods, no experience of rebirth, and no generation of karma.  The Buddha states time and again in the sutras, that gods, rebirth, and karma appear to be real whilst in the deluded state, but do not actually exist in the enlightened state.  What is important for the Dharma, if it is to remain effective in the world of delusion, is that those still suffering from delusion should not embrace gross materialism and simply mimic the Buddha by mindlessly re-stating his pronouncements on ultimate reality.  The Buddha’s teaching is clear; those beings, whose minds are existent within deluded obscuration, will undoubtedly be subject to karma and rebirth, whilst experiencing theistic entities.  This has a deep and profound psychological relevance as humanity transitions out of a period of theological domination, toward that of secular logic.  Much of the psychological traits found within secular society are in fact the consequence of religious patterns of thought stripped of their must obvious religiosity.  Gods become abstract concepts, whilst rebirth and karma become rational science, etc.

For the Buddha, delusion generates itself in cycles of endless repetition.  Causes lead to consequences, and this systems appears to transmit itself from one birth to the next.  However, this should not be interpreted in a theistic or mystical fashion.  Whatever the Buddha is referring to, it can not be obvious reincarnation favoured by certain religious theories, as the Buddha fundamentally rejects such notions in his teachings.  Rebirth and karma, as used by the Buddha, appear to be a method of interpretation that avoids the trap of gross materialism, whilst using the rational mind.  The Buddha is not a gross materialist, but neither is he an idealist, as the state of enlightenment is unconditioned and can not be reduced to an inwardly generated state of mind.  The Buddha teaches non-identification with thought (i.e. non-attachment), proving that Buddhism is non-idealistic.  In other words, gods, rebirth, and karma, appear to exist until they are realised as non-existent, or ‘empty’ of any substantiality.  Simply generating ‘ideas’ in the mind about enlightenment is missing the point of the Buddha’s message; his message advocates the seeing beyond (and through) the thinking process.  It can not be limited to the thought process itself.  On the other hand, the Buddha does not deny the existence of the physical world, or the fact that the human mind generates thought patterns based upon its perception.  The Buddha simply states that things do not exist (or non-exist) in the manner in which humanity thinks they do, in the unenlightened state.

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