Ch’an Buddhism as Scientific Socialism

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If Buddhism is viewed as a ‘religion’ – and the Buddha as a ‘theistic’ being – then Buddhism has nothing to do with modern science, and in that case, would represent one of many pre-modern theories devised by the human mind to explain reality. However, it is clear from a study of the Pali Canon that the Buddha’s system is a perceptual science premised upon the logical and rational observation of matter, and assessment of natural processes. Within the ‘five aggregates’ teaching, it is clear that the human mind is defined by the Buddha as a number of impermanent processes that ‘emerge’ from biological matter. This is why the Buddha places ‘rupa’ or ‘matter’ as first in the list of the five aggregates. The Buddha also seems to have been the first human in history to suggest that the tiniest specks of matter are ‘flashing’ in and out of existence during every moment, and that the idea that the world of matter forms a solid wall in-front of the senses is an illusion. This would suggest that the Buddha’s path is one of physical and psychological discipline that clears the mind of all ‘old’ and ‘out-dated’ modes of thought (such as an external or subjective belief in a god construct), and when coupled with the observation that compassion and wisdom manifest throughout society – serves as the foundation for the application of  Scientific Socialism. This is how Ch’an Buddhism is viewed in modern China.

How the Big Bang Continues to Defines Human Existence

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The Universe Just 370,000 Years Old

The universe began from an event which human understanding knows to have happened, but which is difficult to define. Space and time suddenly emerged for reasons unknown, within a infinitesimally small area, and suddenly expanded, releasing immense light energy and heat (i.e. ‘inflation’). This process was not an explosion in the conventional sense, as an ordinary explosion requires a change of pressure. The above photograph shows the process of the ‘big bang’ from year 0 – 370,000 years (around 18.7 billion years ago). This is a hot ball of plasma, within which areas are beginning to cool and condense into solid matter. This process produces matter as light energy slows down. This matter has been thrust outward at tremendous speed, and over-time, has created the physical universe (the earth was formed around 4.9 billion years ago). When matter is formed, gravitational force is generated (as a side-effect) which pulls all galactic objects into a rounded shape (due to gravity operating in all directions). Gravitational pull generated by a sun, for instance, also sets the orbits for all the planets (and other objects) to circumnivigate through, in any given solar system. The entire universe appears to rotate around a theoretical centre-point at the heart of existence. As matters stand, human science does not know what caused the big bang, or what exists beyond the light horizon. As there is no data to analyse, or experiments that can be carried-out, everything beyond this point of understanding is purely speculative (with one theory being as valid as anyother). The big bang was probably not a ‘big bang’ – as nothing seemed to exist before this event – or exist in a manner that humanity can currently perceive and understand. Why and for what reasons the physical universe emerged are unknown, but one-day this will be known. There probably is something beyond the light horizon, and there was probably some kind of existence prior to the emergence of the physical universe. Or, it might be that concepts such as ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’ have no ultimate meaning, and that humanity is looking at existence from an incorrect interpretive position, or utlilising a flawed logic. What is known, is that space at this current time is beginning to speed-up in its expansion rate, and that this expansion of space will continue forever, or what humanity perceives to be ‘forever’. If multiple universes exist, it could be that the universe that humanity inhabits is just one amongst many, with each having its origin through a ‘big bang’ event. As human science is premised upon immutable laws, its understanding is limited to the observation of light. If material (of whatever kind), exists beyond what humanity can see through the observation of ‘light’ (i.e. the ‘light cone’), then as long as human science remains focused upon the observation of light, any reality beyond the light horizon will remain beyond what can be observed and measured. The human universe can probably be defined as having a boundary – the true extent of which cannot be observed through the measuring of light – but it might also be true that the pattern of material universal existence could be repeated infinitely throughout reality, so that there could be many such universes. This feeds into the multi-verse theory and the idea of parallel universes. The point is that anything and everything could have happened before the big bang, but it has been the big bang that has served as the basis of the material reality within which humanity exists and has evolved.

The Limitations of Matter (Quantum Field Theory)

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The human senses developed over very long periods of time, and were designed to ‘detect’ the physical environment. This was the unfolding of the evolutionary process through natural selection. Human-beings can only ‘sense’ that about the physical environment, which is required for the species to survive. In other words, the evolutionary process does not grant or furnish any extra or superfluous sensing abilities outside of the minimum data-reception required, for the species to successfully procreate and survive (from one generation to the next). As a consequence, as diverse as the human senses seem to be, in reality the data they receive represents only a very narrow scale of what is actually ‘out there’ in the universe. Human logic has historically developed to perceive reality in two broad categories – namely the ‘materialist’ and the ‘idealist’. The materialist method of gathering knowledge (about the human condition), pays attention to the observation of the external world (which can include the human body, when it is ‘objectified’ as is the case of modern medicine), and has developed many theoretical assumptions premised upon these observations. The materialist model assumes that the external world is ‘real’ and that its study serves as the doorway to true knowledge. The idealist method, on the other hand, states that the inner world of thought is far more important than the external world, and that consciousness, in one way or another, is responsible for the generation of the external world of matter. Idealism is closely associated with theistic religion, and maybe perceived as a ‘modern’ and ‘secular’ manifestation of religious thinking, often presented in scientific garb (as is seen in the various theories of psychology). It has historically transpired that humanity has scientifically progressed through the observation and measurement of material objects and material processes. As religious theology has lost ground in the secular West, material science has come to dominate (with the caveat that ‘psychology’ in its non material mode, might well represent a ‘new’ type of religious thinking). Through the development of technology, humanity has been able to ‘see more’ above and beyond the scope of its limited evolutionary senses. This has meant that the world of matter has been examined over greater distances, and to a greater depth, to the extent that beginning of the universe can now be seen, as can the constituent particles and sub-atomic particles of atoms. Through this process, it has become clear that ‘matter’ is not a solid wall of impenetrable ‘stuff’ that stands silent and still in front of the human senses. It has been discovered that atoms are not the ‘tiniest’ things that exist, and that quarks (which exist within the nucleus of an atom), probably possess constituent elements. In short, modern material science has revealed that the world of matter is not ‘solid’ and ‘opaque’, but is rather ‘translucent’ in nature, whilst existing in a state of constant ‘flux’. This suggests that light, ordinary (byronic) matter, dark matter and dark energy all emerge from at least 12 different quantum fields (and probably more). Understanding this reveals that matter is not what humanity’s limited evolutionary senses first thought it to be, but equally important, this reasoning has been discovered through the empirical study of what was once thought to be ‘solid’ matter. Although idealism has attacked materialism as being a theory premised upon an illusion, idealism (and religion) has not been able to develop a science to demonstrate and ‘prove’ this assertion to be correct. In a very real sense, materially based science has seen beyond its own limited methodology, and proven its original models of the physical universe to be redundant. Simply put, (and a point of argument correctly made by the idealists and religionists), matter is not what humanity thinks it is. However, where the idealists have ‘rejected’ matter out of hand, the materialists have embraced the physical stuff of the universe, and made its study the basis of modern science. It is now known that the idea of ‘matter’ being a solid and impenetrable wall, is a flawed concept, but that the idea that matter must be studied to progress human understanding, has turned-out to have been correct. As matters stand, the basis of existence consists of highly fluid quantum fields. As the universe pre-exists and post-exists each individual existence, a direct connection between human awareness and the external universe has yet to be proven, even though certain academics are engaged in this study. This does not mean that the human mind has no place in science, after-all, it has only been through logical thinking that material science has been developed and progressed. The following lecture from Professor David Tong (at the Royal Institute) places all this information into its correct scientific narrative.

The Oldest Light in the Universe and the Origins of Matter

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here Did the First Light in the Universe Come From? Astrophysicists Now Know

This is a photograph showing the first light ever-present in the universe, taken by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck Space Telescope in 2013. It is believed to show light from when the universe was just 370,000 years. In other words, this photograph presents the universe as it looked from the year zero to round 370,000 – 380,000 years old. This is a significant find, as the universe today is thought to be around 13.78 billion years old. This is essentially a photograph of what is called the ‘Cosmic Microwave Background’ (CMB), or to what is more commonly referred to as ‘background radiation’, which can be detected everywhere – including on earth. This is the residue of the ‘Big Bang’ that brought everything into being, the processes of which, eventually led to the formulation of planet earth (around 4.9 billion years ago), and through evolutionary processes, the emergence of all life (humans in their current evolutionary manifestation, are around 200,000 years old). One point that must be remembered is that light is older than matter, and that the dark patches in this photograph demonstrate areas where light is slowing down, and beginning to form matter – the physical stuff of the universe. Light is an electro-magnetic wave that travels through the vacuum of space, and which does not require any other medium to do so (the existence of dark matter and dark energy is known, because such entitles or ‘fields’ exercise an ‘attracting’ or ‘repulsing’ force respectively upon light as it travels through the apparently ’empty’ space). The following documentary conveys the ‘science’ of light, and humanity’s quest to study and understand its nature, covering operations with the naked eye, theoretical assumptions, telescopes, microscopes and mathematical equations, etc. British Professor Al-Khalili explains precisely how the physical universe emerged, and the scientific processes behind this emergence. When the early universe of hot, dense plasma ‘cooled’ and condensed, atoms were formed and trapped light energy released.

Materialism – A Brief Introduction

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Materialism is a set of related theories which hold that entitles and processes are composed of – or are reducible to – matter, material forms or physical processes. All events and facts are explainable, actually or in principle, in terms of body, material objects or dynamic material changes or movements. In general, the metaphysical theory of materialism entails the denial of the reality of spiritual beings, consciousness and mental or psychic states or processes, as ontologically distinct form, or independent of material changes or processes. Since it denies the existence of spiritual beings or forces, materialism typically is allied with atheism and agnosticism.’

The English word ‘matter’ has its origins in the Latin words ‘mater’ (i.e. ‘mother’), and ‘materia’ (i.e. ‘all physical things’). As existence is composed of matter, matter is viewed as the foundation of all things. Generally speaking, all matter is said to possess both volume and mass. Within the Chinese language, the concept of ‘matter’ can be expressed using the ideograms ‘物质’ (wu4zhi2). ‘物’ (wu4) is written using the left-hand particle ‘牛’ (nui2) – meaning ‘cow’, ‘bull’, or ‘ox’, and the right-hand particle ‘勿’ (wu4) – originally meaning ‘flag’. When combined together, the ideogram ‘物’ (wu4) literally means ‘matter’, ‘things’, and ‘objects’. ‘质’ (zhi2) is written using the ideogram ‘贝’ (bei4) – meaning a hard sea shell, and the right-hand particle ‘斦’ (yin2) – originally written as ‘two axes’, but also used to refer to a measure of weight equalling around one kilogram (i.e. ‘two catty’). Within Chinese thought, when taken together, the concept of ‘物质’ (wu4zhi2) represents the entirety of existence, or by implication, that physical substance which possesses  (measurable) mass and volume. Ancient India, despite its association with spirituality within popular culture, developed a school of materialist thinking named ‘Lokayata’ (लोकायत) in Sanskrit, which suggests a system of developed thought grounded in the observation (or perception) of the physical world (which is directly accessible to the senses). This school rejected all religious thought that advocated karma and karmic retribution, a belief in ‘invisible’ theistic constructs, and any notion of ‘rebirth’ or ‘reincarnation’. Therefore, the validity of inference and the authority of scripture are firmly rejected. For the Lokayata followers, only that information directly perceived through the senses is real. The Lokayata developed a theory of physical existence that involved four basic elements which combine to generate all of material reality. As a consequence of this thinking, Lokayata is associated with ‘atheism’. The origin of this school is problematic (due to the loss of primary texts), but evidence suggests a date anywhere between 600 – 300 BCE – with the possibility that the ideas associated with this school could be far older.

Whatever the case, the Buddhist Pali suttas mention the Lokayata, which is associated within the tradition of Buddhist commentary, as representing a ‘hard materialism’ (not favoured by the Buddha). However, detailed with the ‘five aggregates’ teaching of the Buddha, it is clear that his system of mind-matter integration is a form of ‘soft materialism’, which recognises a plurality, (but not a duality). This is because the Buddha’s system is premised upon ‘rupa’ (रूप) – or ‘physical matter’, which he defines as particles (paramanu) that flash in and out of existence (similar to the observed behaviour of sub-atomic particles within quantum physics). The Buddha sees the physical world as ‘existing’, but being non-substantial and changeable in nature. This ‘Buddhist’ definition of matter is different to that of the ‘Ucchedavada’ (ဥေစၧဒ) – which the Buddha criticised for assuming a permanent and unchanging physical world – despite the fact that the Buddha agreed with the Ucchedavda that there is no ‘atma’, or permanent soul. The Buddha’s soft materialism deviates away from the hard materialism of the Ucchedavada (which maybe directly linked to the Lokayata), by stressing that karma does function (in a limited, non-theistic sense), and that moral behaviour is required to escape worldly suffering.

Western scholars tend to date the Buddha as living either 563-480 BCE, or 483-400 BCE, whilst within traditional Chinese Buddhism, his date is given as 1028/29-948/49. Obviously, the Buddha’s existence, if dated accurately, would determine the antiquity of the Indian schools of materialism. In ancient Greece, however, the materialist origins of philosophy are said to have developed through the thinking of Democritus (460-370 BCE), who conceived of the universe as being composed of tiny, irreducible atoms unobservable to the naked eye. These atoms operate in a deterministic fashion, and combine to form the various forms associated with physical existence. Epicurus (341-270 BCE) – the student of Democritus, developed this thinking by asserting that every so often atoms ‘swerved’, as a means to explain unusual behaviour or happenings in the physical world. Ancient India developed a theory of materialism, whilst Buddhism developed a theory of the atom, but the (modern) Western world follows the ancient atomic models as devised within the Greek philosophical tradition. Whatever the origin, the doctrine of materialism stands in philosophical opposition to that of ‘idealism’. Idealism is usually understood as advocating that ‘mind’ is primary, and that the physical world exists only as an expression or appearance of that mind. This suggests that the physical world is not truly ‘material’, but rather ‘psychological’, or ‘mental’ in origination and nature. Within the Western philosophical tradition, theistic idealism is associated with Berkley, transcendental idealism of Kant, and the absolute idealism of Hegel. Idealism is often interpreted as being a secular version of theology, and directly related to ‘creationism’, whereby the physical world is viewed as being created by an unseen theistic entity (theology), or ‘projected’ into existence by the agency of mind (idealism), as if by an act of will and/or perception.

Within the subject of ‘philosophy of mind’, the theory of materialism has three distinct definitions, the first two of which represent ‘hard’ materialism, and the third ‘soft’ materialism:

  1. Eliminativism. This theory seeks to ‘eliminate’ entirely any notion of ‘mind’, and all theories of ‘psychology’ from modern science, on the grounds that such notions are the product of misunderstanding, and akin to ‘fairy tales’ that are the product of the residue of religious thinking. How human beings perceive their own minds is viewed as erroneous and the consequence of historical and cultural conditioning. As a consequence, as there is ‘no mind’ in reality, there can be no true experience of ‘raw feelings’ (qualia), or the exercise of intentionality. Theories of psychology are viewed as expressions of out-dated science which need to be abandoned as a necessary means to progress scientific understanding.
  2. Reductionism. In its simplest form, ‘reductionism’ reduces all psychological states to that of easily observable and measurable behaviour (i.e. ‘behavourism’). This reduces mind states to a mode of expression acceptable to modern science. Mind processes might exist as a function of the physical brain, but are viewed as knowable only through the measuring of behaviour. Other than as a producer of behaviour, the mind cannot be directly understood (because although it might generate qualia and intentionality, it does not ‘independently’ exist), and is of no further interest to reductionist.
  3. Irreducibility of mind. Although it might be accepted that ‘mind’ could exist as an apparent independent entity, nevertheless, its existence is so inherently related to matter, that this apparent ‘independence’ is not an issue. The mind is related to matter in a matter far more profound than mere causal independence. This means that the irreducibility of the mind is not a threat to the primacy of the materialist theory. Mind is a product of matter, even if the exact process of the emergence of consciousness from matter is as yet not fully understood.

Karl Marx studied Hegel’s absolute idealism, and understood it (through the work of Feuerbach) to be ‘inverted’ in nature. When turned the right way around, Marx developed the theory of ‘historical materialism’ (which replaced Hegel’s theory of ‘historical idealism’). The theory of historical materialism is ‘scientific’ in nature, and states that it is the economic reality of a society that determines the physical reality of that society. This is an ongoing historical process that does not allow for any ‘divine intervention’ in the affairs of humanity. It is through this materialist theory that Marx explains the historical reasons why it is that the impoverished working class (i.e. proletariat) exists in a subordinated and exploited manner, whilst being dominated by affluent middle class (i.e. bourgeisie), and how it is that this situation contains within itself, the seeds of its own inevitable transformation (through the agency of ‘revolution’). On this point, Marx states ‘In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’ (Preface: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy). Marx goes on to say that at some point in time, the material productive forces if become so strong that they out-grow the current organisation of society, and come into direct conflict with the existing (bourgeois) relations of society. As the workers become aware of their own material and productive powers, they mass organise and initiate an era of social revolution, eventually seizing the means of production, and radically transforming society through the agency of a socialist revolution. This is the playing-out of class antagonisms, and explains why Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov further developed this idea (in 1891), by referring to this process as ‘dialectical materialism’. This was developed from the work of Friedrich Engels (found in his book entitled ‘Dialectics of Nature’) whereby Engels uses the term ‘materialist dialectics’ as a means to combat and neutralise ‘idealistic dialectics’. The theory of scientific socialism as developed by Marx and Engels adopts a materialist outlook to explain human society and the human condition, but Marx and Engels rejected two forms of materialism prevalent in the 19th century, namely those of the ‘mechanistic’ and the ‘metaphysical’ variety. Marx rejected the mechanistic view because it suggested nothing could be changed, and he rejected metaphysical view because he recognised the existence and purpose of a human consciousness – even if it is generated from the brain and conditioned by outer circumstances and events. Marx views the immense productive forces of labour as the driving force behind the unfolding of history. The unfolding of the historical process is not a passive or indifferent passing of events, but is a dynamic, directing and transformative force within human affairs. Metaphysical materialism, strictly speaking denies the existence of this dialectical and historical materialism that Marx clearly sees as operating throughout human history, where it has reached a particular intensity after the Industrial Revolution. The concept of ‘dialectics’ within Marxism can also be applied to personal education, and the development of a proletariat mind that is freed of the oppression and limitations of the past, and which is collective in outlook, and thoroughly progressive and scientific in nature. This maybe taken as the use of Hegel’s dialectic of thesis, antitheses and synthesis – reworked to interpret the changes of the material world (through the negation of the negation) rather than the changes of the ‘idealistic’ (or ‘religious’) world.

 

 

Buddhism: Pali Bhavana and Chinese Ch’an

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In 1996, I spent a short but fruitful period studying under the Theravada Buddhist monk named Mangala Thero – who was then the Head Monk of the Ganga Ramaya Temple in Beruwela (Sri Lanka). He was not particularly interested in the Mahayana Buddhism of China (or anywhere else, for that matter), but when I explained what Chinese Ch’an (禪) was, the venerable monk thought for a moment, and then explained that he would explain this approach as an exclusive focus upon the development of ‘bhavana’ (Pali: भावना). Broadly speaking, Mangala Thero stated that ‘bhavana’ begins and ends with ‘reigning in’ the mind, so that it is nolonger ill-disciplined. When a mind is disciplined (through concentration upon the breathing, or upon generating loving kindness, etc), the habitual thoughts calm-down and eventually ‘cease’. When the mind is ‘stilled’ in this manner, the ‘thought formations’ (i.e. the fourth aggregate) nolonger arise in their delusive form and ‘pure consciousness’ (i.e. fifth aggregate) can be clearly ‘perceived’ (third aggregate) as the body continues to ‘sense’ (second aggregate) the material environment (first aggregate), and the mind is ‘aware’ of the absence of thought. After this, it is a matter of deepening and enriching the experience through further meditation practice performed within a conducive environment. When I asked my main teacher Richard Hunn (1949-2006) about ‘bhavana’, as usual, he knew the Chinese translation for this Buddhist technical term – which is ‘修習’. Chinese transliterations and translations are useful as the early Chinese scholars had to understand the Indian Pali and Sanskrit terms before they could be rendered effectively into the Chinese language. Obviously, some of the early transliteration of Indian Buddhist terms are purely ‘phonetic’ in nature and in themselves do not convey much meaning as ideograms. This represents an initial process of a slow, careful and gradual building-up of knowledge in China about a thoroughly ‘foreign’ Indian philosophy that had to develop an ‘interface’ with existing Chinese culture. As understanding grew, literal transliterations often gave way to more ‘exact’ translations and I suspect this process happened to the Pali and Sanskrit term ‘bhavana’. Today, within Chinese Buddhism, ‘bhavana’ is not a commonly used term, but it is written as ‘修習’ (xiu2 xi2). The ideogram ‘修’ (xiu2) carries the meanings of ‘repair’, ‘to mend’, ‘construct’, ‘to cultivate’, and ‘to sharpen’ – whilst the ideogram ‘習’ (xi2) carries the meanings of ‘training’, ‘habit’, ‘custom’, ‘repeat’, ‘cultivation’, ‘to follow’ and to ‘learn’. When ‘修習” (bhavana) is taken together, it does appear to be a very good Pali definition of the Ch’an (禪) method. The ideogram ‘修’ (xiu2) contains the left-hand particle ‘攸’ (you1) which depicts a person ‘expertly’ fording a river with a pole (and ‘travelling far’) – whilst the right-hand particle ‘彡’ (shan1) signifies ‘writing’ as used in the act of of committed ‘developmental study’. The ideogram ‘習’ (xi2) carries the upper particle ‘羽’ (yu3) which refers to feathered ‘wings’ that ‘uplift’ (with flying associated with ‘progression’ and ‘advancement’), and the lower particle ‘习’ (xi2) which directly refers to the act of ‘disciplined study.’ Bhavana (修習), therefore, refers to a committed and uplifting Buddhist meditational practice that requires dedication, expert guidance, repetition, and a suggestion of ‘transcendence’ if practised correctly. In other words, ‘bhavana; is a means to get ‘from here’, to ‘there’ – but these two ideograms suggest that it is not an ordinary path of ‘mind culture’. Scholarship, study and expertise are extolled activities and characteristics within Chinese culture, and ‘bhavana’ is a prime example of this activity. A bow of thanks to Mangala Thero and Richard Hunn (Upasaka Wen Shu). Finally, ‘bhavana’ (भावना)) appears to be linked to ‘भ‍वन’ (again, pronounced ‘bhavana’) which is used in the sense of ‘constructing’ a material object such as a building or a shelter, etc. In this context ‘भ‍वन’ (bhavana) suggests a very firm grounding in the material world, with the training of the mind in Buddhist though being considered a part of, or extension of that material world. The ‘mind’ within Buddhism is not a spirit that stands in opposition to the physical world – but is an integral part of it. This means that ‘भ‍वन’ (bhavana) can also be used to denote ‘physical existence’ (or its ‘arising’), with the term ‘abhava’ (अभाव) referring to the ’empty’ nature or ‘insubstantiality’ of physical existence – which is void of any permanency.

Email: Buddha, Nagarjuna, Plotinus and the World of Matter (6.9.2017)

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Dear N

Thank you for your very interesting Plotinus quotation and Nagarjuna-related question.

The tetralemma of the Indian Buddhist monk Nagarjuna states:

1) All exists.

2) All does not exist.

3) All exists and does not exist.

4) All neither exists or does not exist.

This is how Nagarjuna (the 14th Ch’an Patriarch) summarises the entirety of the Buddha’s teaching. Therefore, we may state that:

a) The mind exists.

b) The mind does not exist.

c) The mind both exists and does not exist.

d) The mind neither exists nor does not exist.

This may be viewed as a developmental schematic of ever deepening understanding or awareness of the mind-body nexus and its essence. Exactly the same analysis can be applied to ‘matter’ but not to ‘spirit’ – as the Buddha rejected the notion of a spirit or mind that exists in opposition (or ‘outside’ of) the material world. In the Theravada School the mind-body nexus is ‘empty’ of ‘atma’ (or ‘soul’), but appears to contain a personal self (i.e. perceiving ‘mind’ function) that is a temporary coming together of elements which dissipate at death. In this school the physical world ‘exists’, but is ‘empty’ of any permanent state. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana Schools – the idea of ‘emptiness’ is exactly the same – but is extended so as to imply (or suggest) that the world of physical matter is ‘empty’ of any and all substantiality. However, as the Buddha also rejected any notions of ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ – these schools must be careful in their analysis. Therefore, we can say:

i) The world of matter exists.

ii) The world of matter does not exist.

iii) The world of matter both exists and does not exist.

iv) The world of matter neither exists nor does not exist.

Perhaps the 4th statement is the enlightened position, and although the world of matter may not exist as we think it does – it is also true from a Buddhist perspective – that the world of matter does not exist as we may presume it not to. This is not merely a matter of semantics – but a matter of actual inner and outer realisation attained through self-cultivation, experience and assessment. In the Four Noble Truths the Buddha clearly states that material existence is the basis of physical life and all subsequent philosophical development. This suggests that existence and the world of physical matter are inherently linked, integrated and entwined. In other words, the Buddha appears to be stating that a non-embodied existence is impossible, as the basis for life. In this regard, he is in agreement with the Greek philosopher Epicurus (with life being a special arrangement of atoms that congeal at conception, and fall apart at physical death). This view would correlate with the Buddha’s five aggregates – although the Buddha does seem to entertain a ‘limited’ notion of rebirth (not evident in the five aggregates themselves) which is negated at the point of the realisation of enlightenment.

As for Plotinus, it is important to consider that his original Greek thought has been translated into Western languages usually involving an underlying Judeo-Christian influence that attempts to separate his teaching into a ‘rejected’ material world and an ‘accepted’ spiritual world (that stands in opposition to the material world). One prime example of this modern Eurocentric bias is the continuous rendering of the Greek ‘psyche’ (i.e. ‘breath of life’) as the Judeo-Christian ‘soul’ which implies a completely different meaning. The Greek ‘pyscho’ refers to the spark of life in the functioning conscious mind that defines human existence – whilst the Judeo-Christian ‘soul’ is a completely different entity that links a monotheistic entity to each individual person. A ‘soul’ may be related to an individual’s mind and body – but remains continuously ‘distinct’ from both the mind and body, so that at the point of physical death, the ‘soul’ survives and moves into another dimension of existence (leaving the mind and body behind). The confusion arises from the fact that the early Christian ideologues took the Greek term ‘psyche’ and changed its definition and usage (rejecting the original Greek meaning). Later, when Christianity spread into pagan Germany, the non-Christian Germans believed in a pagan entity called a ‘soul’ which the Christian missionaries could not prevent. Their answer was to usurp this non-Christian term and use it in a Christian manner, therefore, a distorted interpretation of the Christianised Greek ‘psyche’ became commonly known as ‘soul’ within Christian theology. As I said above, the Christianised ‘soul’ concept has no bearing whatsoever upon the philosophy developed by non-Christian Greeks! I think this is important because the term ‘matter’ is often viewed within non-Christianised Greek philosophy – a priori from a Christian position. Obviously, this is incorrect and constitutes a ‘category error’. Plotinus does use various words referring to ‘divine’ or ‘god-like’ states of mind – but despite seeking a realisation of ‘Oneness’ – the schematic of Plotinus has nothing to do with monotheism. From correctly translating from the Greek, it would appear that Plotinus is advocating an ever rarefied perception of the essential nature of material existence – with lesser understanding in the material world serving to ‘corrupt’ matter. This may be taken to imply that the deep insight that Plotinus found (and according to him – all people possess) is ‘hidden’ by an obscuring layer of ‘not understanding’ material existence in its highest frequency. Perhaps today, this might correspond to human awareness (or ‘consciousness’) at its highest degree of development, being associated with light energy, and ignorance as being trapped in congealed light energy, (i.e. light energy slowed down), which constitutes material existence.

Best Wishes

Adrian

PS: Curiously, as far as I am aware, the Pali term ‘atma’ also means ‘breath of life’ – like the Greek term ‘psyche’. For religionists, this ‘breath’ or ‘spark’ is divine, whilst for materialists, this term is natural in origin.

The Connection Between the Perception of Inner and Outer Space

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The Buddha’s ideas are very similar in nature to many of those generated by the philosophers of ancient Greece. Like those ancient Greek philosophers, the Buddha used his mind in a very ‘modern’ manner, and developed a logical and rational view of existence. Again, like the ancient Greeks his thinking reflected, the Buddha developed his mode of pristine thought out of the religiosity prevalent during his lifetime. The Buddha’s life dates are uncertain, but he is thought to have lived (by Western scholars) around 2,500 years ago in ancient India, and around 3,000 years ago according to the traditional scholarship preserved within Chinese Buddhism. I have speculated elsewhere, a tentative theory that Emperor Ashoka [304-232 BCE] (and his ministers) may have developed a peaceful and wisdom-loving (secular) philosophical path, that denied the relevancy and reality of an ‘Indian’ militant Brahmanism, an Indian religion that threatened to confront and over-throw Emperor Ashoka’s ‘foreign’ rule. A passive and meditating Buddhism could have been developed by merging certain Brahmanic elements (such as the yoga of meditation), with various aspects of Greek rational thought. A candidate for the Greek input for the Buddha’s mode of thinking could be the system of thought as developed by Epicurus (370-270 BCE). The similarities between the Buddha’s system and that of Epicurus are so obvious and staggering that I am surprised that this link has not been recognised in the past and studied with a greater depth. Of course, playing devil’s advocate, I have suggested that the ancient Greeks influenced ancient Indian thought, and that Emperor Ashoka ‘created’ Buddhism out of an admixture of Indian and Greek traditions. This is purely a speculation on my part, using the rational facility of my mind. It could also be that the Buddha’s mode of modern thinking was developed hundreds of years before a similar manifestation occurred in ancient Greek (spreading to Greece from ancient Indian through trade and cultural exchange). Another theory is that a ‘new’ way of using the human mind was an evolutionary development that spread ‘species-wide’ across many human cultures that had no direct (or indepth) contact with one another. The use of the rational mind (as advocated by the Buddha and ancient Greeks), is essentially a ‘free’ and ‘unhindered’ mode of thought that lies at the basis of modern science when channelled in a certain manner. This means that ‘free-thinking’ requires various modes of constraint to direct its energy into specific forms of creativity – with perhaps art for art’s sake being its most ‘free’ expression, and scientific endeavour being its most structured and disciplined.

Epicurus was taught by Nausiphanes, and their root-master was Democritus. Democritus was a genius who – without access to microscopes (or even advanced mathematics) – used his ‘rational’ mind to determine that existence is comprised of ‘atoms’ that move around through ’empty space’. Today, through the use of advanced technology and mathematics we know that this is scientifically correct. This would suggest that Democritus had an experience no less important than the enlightenment of the Buddha, as it radically redefined humanity’s perception of reality and existence, and yet generally speaking, there are no temples containing statues of Democritus, or people applying a meditative method to replicate his mode of thought. Democritus stated that atoms moved through space in a determinate manner – but Epicurus modified this idea by stating that atoms – although moving in a definite manner through space – also possessed the ability to suddenly ‘deviate’ or ‘swerve’ in a different direction for no apparent reason. This is how Epicurus explained how unusual events happened, whilst things seemed to unfold in similar patterns. Thousands of years later, Epicurus was proven right when Heisenberg produced his ‘Uncertainty Principle’ in 1927. My point here, is to explore how space and matter is perceive within (and by) the human mind. The Buddha and the Greeks said similar things about form and void. Epicurus – like the Buddha – rejected the relevancy of religion. Both seem to suggest that gods might exist in a deluded sense, but do not exist in an ultimate sense (as many people thought). Epicurus stated that even if gods existed, they had no interest in humanity, and after-all, as there are only atoms and space that define existence, the gods themselves must be comprised of atoms just like humans, and probably subject to some-type of ‘death’ or ‘demise’. For Epicurus – who understood that life was comprised of many sufferings and different kinds of pleasure – death is the absolute end of existence for the individual because the body has ceased to function and its atoms fall apart. There is no transmigration to a heaven or a hell, or rebirth into another living form. The Buddha agrees with this, but allows for a certain ‘delusional’ existence where rebirth occurs and physical death is not the end of existence. However, when full enlightenment is attained, then all rebirth (and karmic retribution) comes to an end – and yet the Buddha clearly states time and again the reality is comprised of empty space within which physical reality manifests. In other words, empty space is not ’empty’ in essence, and physical matter does not occur in a ‘dead’ vacuum.

The Buddha and ancient Greeks were able to use their minds to ‘see’ reality in such a way that modern science has confirmed their basic assumptions to be correct. Both Epicurus and the Buddha seem to suggest that this is not just an ‘objective’ understanding, but also the product of a profound subjective experience. It could be that the Buddha and Greek philosophers like Epicurus were able to manifest a rational mind premised upon subjective experiences that had been previously interpreted in a ‘religious’ manner – an approach rejected by ‘rationalists’. The following is a fascinating scientific documentary about empty space – which is not ’empty’:

 

Plotinus and his Assessment and Definition of Matter

Christian theology separates reality into a physical world and a spiritual realm – or a disembodied (intangible) soul that stands in opposition to a world of tangible physical matter. The ancient Greeks did not think this way (even though Christian theologians hijacked and distorted many Greek philosophical terms), and modern science does not accept this religious dichotomy (primarily because such a religious notion cannot be perceived and measured). Plotinus – being probably the last great Greek philosopher – also did not make use of this Christian thinking (in fact, he criticises it one text) – and many may be surprised by the fact that he appears to view existence as comprising of of a gross or ordinary realm of matter, which is directly related to the realm of rarefied thought, perception and understanding – which is representative of ultimate matter. This ultimate matter is the formless reciprocal within which all thought forms take shape as definite objects – but ordinary matter is unsatisfactory and unreliable because it is not constant and always in a state of flux (an argument very similar to the ‘impermanence’ theory of the Buddha). Plotinus also does not know ‘how’ thought forms (which can be sensed by an appropriately trained mind), are able to take physical shape. On the face of it, this seems like ‘idealism’, but I suspect that it is not, as Plotinus also recognises that the world of physical matter also creates and conditions itself in a manner independent of the human mind that perceives its activity (again, similar to the Buddha’s idea of dependent origination)  The reason I think it is not ‘idealism’ is because thought is itself a very subtle frequency of physical matter. In modern terms this is the equivalent of stating that matter is gross energy, whilst consciousness is subtle energy. It could also be expressed as consciousness being a certain frequency of light energy, whilst physical matter is congealed light energy – or light energy slowed down (again, another frequency of light energy). Whatever the case, I suspect Plotinus fully understood that the world of matter was primary for biological life, and that through this biological existence, the rarefied state of conscious awareness that Plotinus undoubtedly experienced, could only be realised if the physical body (and the mind it contains) was trained in the right way. What is certain is that Plotinus does not at any point posit the idea that human consciousness pre-exists physical birth and post-exists physical death. For Plotinus, transcendence as he defined it, is realised through a physical incarnation, and not in-spite of it.

How Plotinus Makes Use of the Material World

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I include below two extracts from the ‘Enneads’ (Gk: ‘the nines’) – or what might be referred to as the ‘nine categories’ of the life work of the great Greek philosopher Plotinus (204-270 CE). I doubt Plotinus – who did not even care about the state of his physical body – would have cared much whether his words were passed on or not. We owe a debt of gratitude for the preservation of these essentially beautiful words, to the untiring efforts of the main student of Plotinus – namely ‘Porphyry’.  In my opinion, far too much is said about Plotinus that diverts the student of inner development away from the correct path. Although, for instance, often and continuously referred to as the ‘founder’ of neo-Platonism, Plotinus had a teacher – Ammonius Saccas (of Alexandria in Egypt) – and if anyone was responsible for creating a ‘new wave’ of Plato’s philosophical understanding, it was Ammonius Saccas and not Plotinus, but neither man, I suspect, would have recognised the term ‘neo-Platonism’ – stating that what they follow is the ‘correct’ or ‘true’ lineage of Plato (as originally taught to Plato by Socrates, and eventually passed on to Aristotle), which has been precisely and exactly passed down through the generations over hundreds of years. In this respect, this approach is very similar to the spiritual lineages of Chinese civilisation, whereby a qualified master carefully teaches a few good disciples over many decades, to follow a systematic path of physical discipline and psychological development. Plotinus advocates a relationship with the physical world that involves an understanding of it as incomplete, but otherwise definitely existing in nature, in a sense that its ‘heaviness’ can keep the average person anchored firmly to the temporal realm, with no ability to ‘see beyond’ its superficial manifestation. Regardless of the sophistication of his method, that is the rarefied and clear dissection of perception and non-perception – Plotinus NEVER denies the existence of the material world – he simply uses it as the springboard for his method. If there was no material world (which is often admitted as being ‘beautiful’ by Plotinus), there could be no transcendent method. The point is that the realm of ideas (for Plotinus) exists within the material world, but also appears to exist as if disembodied from it – and yet it is only within a human-body, that the reality that Plotinus believes lies beyond its material limitations, is realised. This is a point often missed by those who would have use believe that Plotinus ‘rejects’ the relevancy or existence of the material world, he certainly does not. For all its limitations and inconsistencies, without a material world that provides (through evolutionary development) a conscious being to appreciate it, there can be no ‘transcendent’ system of philosophical insight. Therefore, it must be truthfully stated (as Plotinus does), that a continuously changing beauty exists beyond any concepts of ‘static’ beauty, and that such a beauty with regards to that which lives is ‘beautiful’, but that even that which is ‘dead’ is also ‘beautiful’ when viewed in a certain way. Although Plotinus advocates (for a time) a ruthlessly ‘looking within’, he does not permanently ‘reject’ the physical world he strives to ‘look beyond’. He fully admits that once a higher view of existence is attained, it must be applied not only to the realm beyond material existence, but also to the material world itself. The beauty of insight is applicable to both form and void, and yet lies also beyond form and void (with no inherent contradiction). For Plotinus, true beauty is arrived at through a strict and disciplined life-style and form of meditation – and yet once inner and outer unity successfully realised – it has absolutely nothing to do with the method through which it has been attained.

‘He that has the strength, let him arise and withdraw into himself, foregoing all that is known by the eyes, turning away for ever from the material beauty that once made his joy. When he perceives those shapes of grace that show in body, let him not pursue: he must know them for copies, vestiges, shadows, and hasten away towards That they tell of. For if anyone follow what is like a beautiful shape playing over water- is there not a myth telling in symbol of such a dupe, how he sank into the depths of the current and was swept away to nothingness? So too, one that is held by material beauty and will not break free shall be precipitated, not in body but in Soul, down to the dark depths loathed of the Intellective-Being, where, blind even in the Lower-World, he shall have commerce only with shadows, there as here.’

Plotinus: 1st Ennead – 6th Tractate – 8th Section

‘Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.

When you know that you have become this perfect work, when you are self-gathered in the purity of your being, nothing now remaining that can shatter that inner unity, nothing from without clinging to the authentic man, when you find yourself wholly true to your essential nature, wholly that only veritable Light which is not measured by space, not narrowed to any circumscribed form nor again diffused as a thing void of term, but ever unmeasurable as something greater than all measure and more than all quantity- when you perceive that you have grown to this, you are now become very vision: now call up all your confidence, strike forward yet a step- you need a guide no longer- strain, and see.’

Plotinus: 1st Ennead – 6th Tractate – 9th Section

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