The Chinese Ch’an School and Buddhist Dialectics

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If the Buddha’s path is reduced to the correct perception of ‘void’ and ’form’, then it is the task of the Chinese Ch’an School to correctly interpret these two terms and explain the authentic method of their realisation. Void, of course, is the direct (subjective) experience of consciousness. This must not be overlooked or easily discarded as a ‘truism’ but studied carefully. The conscious mind ‘emerges’ from the functionality of a living brain – with many neuroscientists stating that this ‘emergent’ mind cannot – and should not be limited to the functionality of the brain that has produced it. This suggests that once the mind has emerged from the brain – it can nolonger be reduced to the brain that has produced it (in the evolutionary sense). In this sense, the ability to possess an apparent non-material ‘sensing’ ability is considered something of an evolutionary mystery, as conscious not only possesses the ability to sense material objects, but also cognise the ‘empty space’ that exists between material objects. The brain, as a distinct organ, evolved from the spine as a response to the need of a living body to traverse a complex physical environment (in search of food and as a means to survive the elements and other dangers). The conscious mind seems to be a by-product of this development, albeit an extraordinary one. Sensing the space between objects has been the essence of human survival. For the Buddha, the development of this attribute from an aspect of survival to a profound spiritual insight, is the basis of his method for escaping ‘suffering’ as experienced by humanity on the physical and psychological planes. This must be explained by stating that the Buddha does necessarily draw a distinction between the existing but changeable physical world and the human mind that perceives it – but he does state that both mind and physical universe are ‘impermanent’. Taking his ‘five aggregates’ teaching (contained within the ‘Four Noble Truths’) as a legitimate statement of the Buddha’s position, the aggregate of ‘matter’ (rupa) is mentioned first as the precursor of sensation, perception, thought formations and consciousness. With this model, the Buddha’s understand equates with that of modern science and suggests that the physical body developed a brain from which emerged the mind. If the Buddha’s position was inverted, then the five aggregates would have to read ‘consciousness, thought formations, perceptions, sensations and physical body’ – implying that the thinking mind emerged from an ethereal consciousness and gave rise to perception, sensation and the physical body. This incorrect position (from the Buddha’s perspective) would match the theistic notion of ‘creationism’ (that life emerged out of nothing through a divine will), but contradicts the Buddha’s rejection of theism and theories of spontaneous manifestation (everything has a preceding cause according to the Buddha). Even the much misunderstood Yogacara School (peddled in the West by DT Suzuki as suggesting that the mind creates the universe) also states that the mind – although the area all legitimate inner work and transformation – nevertheless remains ‘impermanent’. Although the mind is responsible for sensing, perceiving and thinking about the physical body and environment (through the agency of ‘consciousness’, or the momentary interaction between sense organ and sense object), It cannot and does not ‘create’ or ‘generate’ the physical world it inhabits as if ‘from nothing’. This is because the Buddhist use of the term consciousness does not corelate with the Western notion of consciousness, which in popular culture is conflated with Judeo-Christian notions of an ever-lasting ‘spirit’. Through correct meditational and dialectical training, the Ch’an method reveals ‘form’ and clarifies ‘void’. Most people are confused about these two terms at the beginning of their training, and the Ch’an masters often inflict a severe ‘cutting’ of delusion at its deepest level (utilising Nagarjuna’s ‘tetralemma’). Old habits of perception must be firmly identified and thrown-away as being redundant and of no perceptually valid purpose. There is an element of human perception that sees both ‘form’ and ‘void’ from a unified position of awareness. Within the Ch’an texts this is termed realising the ‘empty mind ground’.

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