Buddhism on “Do Humans Exist”?

Buddhism on “Do Humans Exist”?

True emptiness is that which transcends all things
and yet is imminent in all.

Thomas Merton

One of the most controversial ideas in Buddhism is the idea of emptiness. This is the idea that everything is empty of inherent essence. Meaning, there is nothing that is part of who I am that is different than the things that are part of you. There is nothing constant that defines us as individuals. This leads to the next idea, that everything is impermanent and forever changing. This is proven by modern science with things like particle decay and our bodies replacing themselves completely every seven years or so (no cell in our body is the same as seven years ago). So, having an essence would apply to something like the Western idea of soul or spirit, the “us” that inhabits our bodies. The Buddhists believe that there is no such thing.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu over on Tricycle Online, summed it up nicely as far as experience goes: “Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there’s anything lying behind them.”

The idea of emptiness necessitates the idea of interdependence, meaning nothing can exist on it’s own. That everything and everyone depends upon everyone else for it’s existence.

How is it, then, that we are reborn? If there is no part of us that carries on after we die, what is reincarnating?

This very idea has birthed many schools of Buddhism over the years, none of which have a perfect answer that can be agreed upon by everyone else. BUT, I will try to break this down for you. Karma is a creative force which has been around since the beginning of all things. It is the cause and effect principle, where every effect had a cause, and every cause had an effect. This also relates to he idea of interdependence.

Now, Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha we all know and love, never tried to answer metaphysical questions such as “what was the original cause?” So, we won’t get in to that as we are strictly looking into the present and future. As individuals, we generate karma, and have for many past lives. Every single moment has the potential for everything. We make a decision in every single moment of our lives. Since we know that every cause has an effect, we can understand how many effects have to play out from even just the time we’ve spent reading this! Because it would be impossible for all these effects to play out in one life time they continue to happen for many lifetimes to come. So, the aim of some buddhists is to create as few effects as possible so they don’t have to be reborn. (As being reborn is a continuation of samsara, or cycles of suffering, as all life brings with it suffering…a different topic all together.)

In a perhaps more logical sense, then, it isn’t a soul that is acquiring a new body, but rather a process of causes and effects that are continuing to cycle through all of time on a particular wave length. So, if all we are is a cycle of cause and effect, and there is no essence within us, do we really exist? For that matter, does anything really exist?

I open the floor.


Welcome back from Summer & A Short History of Japanese Philosophy

Well, it has been a beautifully long and busy summer, and in all of it I seem to have neglected posting my discussion notes. So, over the next few days you will get a few updates! This first post was not used for intro notes, but rather a guideline to some of the topics we’re discussing at the 5pmSLT Sunday meetings on Sengoku.


Japanese Philosophy

In the West we typically approach philosophy from finding the space between a set of opposites – for instance mind and matter, or self and other. In the Japanese traditions, rather, they try to find where these philosophies overlap, essentially negating that anything is separate from anything else, but rather everything is a process of apparent opposites.

Before 7th Century CE – Yamato Period
⁃ Shintoism, a native form of animism that addressed an essence within each of us and in every living thing known as “kami,” which governed the world.
⁃ respect for animals, weather, nature, and ancestors.

7th-9th Centuries CE – Asuka and Nara Periods
⁃ Confucianism and Buddhism imported from Korea and China.
⁃ “Confusianism addressed the “social self,” influencing government structure and patterns of formal behaviour.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ Buddhism focused on the workings of the inner self. The most common ideas in Buddhism are impermanence, emptiness, dependent co-origination, and the impermanence of the self.
⁃ Shotoku Taishi, the then crown prince, declared in the “Seventeen Article Constitution” (604 CE) that the goal of “philosophy as well as government was harmony, rather than competition or separation, between the traditions.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ Buddhism and Confusianism came together to allow the people to view the universe as a constantly fluctuating process, and acquire an understanding of the self as “interdependent with the social and natural worlds.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)

9th-12th Centuries CE – Heian Period
⁃ Kūkai (774-835) and Saichō (767-822) were two primary thinkers of this period. They influenced the Shingon and Tendai Buddhist schools. The main ideas they brought about were of every phenomenon as an expression of the cosmos (macro mirrored in micro) and that enlightenment, a goal of Buddhist practitioners, was not able to be attained as a concept but “was an act of the full complex of mind, body, and spirit as transformed through ritual practice.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ It was in this period that the miyabi (elegance) and (okashi) charming aesthetic themes emerged.
⁃ The philosophical ideas of impermanence (mujō) and deep ontological being or mystery (yōgen), poignancy (mono no aware) and sensitivity (ushin) were further developed.

12th-16th Centuries CE – Kamakura Period
⁃ Samurai class takes over the court life seen in the classical period, turning people to search for a religious philosophy which would lead to peaceful everyday life rather than big-picture answers. Buddhist schools such as Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren were established.
⁃ Thinkers of this time were Hōnen (1133-1212), Shinran (1173-1263), Dōgen (1200–53), and Nichiren (1222–82).
⁃ Hōnen and Shinran each founded a school of Pure Land Buddhism which focuses on faith in Amida Buddha, “the buddha of light who promises rebirth in the Pure Land to the faithful.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy) They critiqued the idea of self as an isolated ego.
⁃ Dōgen was a main figure in Zen Buddhism, known for his ideas of the self and consciousness, with a focus on zazen, a particular form of seated meditation. Zazen was developed not as a means to enlightenment but as a form of discipline as an end in itself.
⁃ Nichiren focused on the Lotus Sutra and its ideal of the bodhisattva.
⁃ The native Shintō ideas and practices were absorbed into the Buddhist traditions during this period.

17th-19th Centuries CE – Edo and Tokugawa Periods
⁃ Confucian ideas reemerged to encourage peace and stability, unifying the state to political centrality.
⁃ Bushidō, the Code of the Warrior, emerged. This code expressed ideals of loyalty, stoic self-control, and personal virtue. These are in line with, respectively, “Confucian propriety, Buddhist self-discipline, and Shintō purity of heart.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy)
⁃ There are two main groups of Confucian thinkers:
⁃ First are those who emerged from the neo-Confucian philosophies of Zhu Xi (Shushi; 1130-1200), Wang Yangming (Ōyōmei; 1472-1529), Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) and Nakae Tōju (1608-48). This group had some members who thought that the neo-Confucian philosophy was too abstract when detailing ri (metaphysical principle) was the structuring force of the universe – they emphasized that qi (vital force) was the main structuring force of the universe.
⁃ The next group was the school focused on the “traditional” ideas of Confucianism as presented by Confucius, which emphasized a less metaphysical view and was more concerned with the functioning of everyday lives than answering the greater picture. This school is known as the kogaku school.
⁃ During this period, a school of thought known as kokugaku emerged which held the idea of returning to the original “ancient ways” of Shintōism. They wanted to renew the ideas of mono no aware – a sensitivity to or sympathy for the things that constitute the world.

19th-Current Centuries CE – Taisho and Heisei Periods
⁃ A new word was coined during this period that was meant to be a direct translation of the English term “philosophy” – testugaku, comprised of wisdom (tetsu) and learning (gaku).
⁃ Here is when the Western constructs started to influence Japanese philosophers. The first major Japanese philosopher to use the Western style of philosophy was Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945) in his “An Inquiry into the Good” (1911). He introduced a philosophy he called “Nothingness” (mu), which fuzed the ideas of Zen and William James to come to an idea of “pure experience” based on experiential and logical experiences of judgement and action. His ideas inspired the Kyōto school of philosophy which explored the differences and similarities of Western and Eastern philosophical and religious traditions.
⁃ Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990) explored the idea of Nothingness and brought the ideas of Martin Heidegger (who he studied under), which was already arguably similar to Japanese ideas of being and existence.
⁃ Watsuji Tetsurō (1889-1960) disagreed with the ideas of Western individualism as well as Confucian collectivism, and instead posited an ethical idea of “betweenness,” as if each individual exists on a sliding scale of “individual freedom and socially imposed norms.” (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/301242/Japanese-philosophy).
⁃ Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962) also found a sliding scale between the universal and particular ideas, feeling that the schools of either ignore the fact of specific species. For instance, the respective schools would emphasize a person’s universal human nature or atomistic individuality. What Tanabe introduced was the idea of a person as an ethnic, national and cultural being, having an individual role as well as a universal role.
⁃ Some modern philosophers that have stuck to the traditional philosophies are Tamaki Kōshirō (1915-1999) and Nakamura Hajime (1911-1999) who follow a Buddhist tradition. Some others, such as Yuasa Yasuo (1925-2005) and Ueda Shizuteru (1926-current) focus on integrating ideas to establish a universal or global perspective rather than monocultural.

Karma and Death

We lost a family member last week. Her funeral was Monday, and over 85 people showed up. I lost count. So fantastic how many lives she touched. Every single one of them could have stood up and said something unique about her. She was one of those rare people who always knew what to say and do, and when to say it. She brought everyone into her family, no questions asked. She will for sure be missed, but it was really nice to see how much of an impact she left. This is karma, in a sense, where her actions are still with us and will always cause ripples. When we went to visit her in the hospital I gave her a hug and my scarf snagged on her glasses, so she exists still as part of my scarf. She was listening to music and now every time I hear that kind of music I think of her; she exists still in my thoughts. She had made spanikopita and sent a huge Tupperware of the leftovers home with us in August, we never did give the Tupperware back to her; she exists still in objects and our associations to them, our regrets and wishes and happiness. She influenced so many people to do so many things, and always knew just what to do. But, she’s not gone. I don’t know if I believe in a soul or heaven or whatever else, but I do believe that by touching so many (and even if she had only touched a few) her essence will always be with us – in every song, scarf, and Tupperware. Our bodies are made of physical material – form, but the impact we leave on the world around us is really what defines who and what we are. I still feel her, just as I feel all of you. I take solace in this realization, and I hope some of you will too. 

Emptiness and Impermanence Notes

At 11amSLT I’m hosting a discussion on Emptiness and Impermanence at Sedona’s Playground. Come join us!


Emptiness and Impermanence

This idea of things being empty and impermanent is a very well known Buddhist thought. The basic idea is that everything is ever-changing, and therefore empty. It is considered common knowledge that the Diamond Sutra, one of the main Buddhist texts, deals with impermanence. But, some say this is a misperception. One of the main issues with any Buddhist texts is the fact that they are translated for those of us who don’t speak Sanskrit, Pali, or any of the other ancient languages they were written in (which is most of us). Because of these translations, we have to be careful about the way we interpret the words. We take emptiness and impermanence as meaning that Buddhists don’t believe anything actually exists. But this may not be the case.

Emptiness really means ’empty of inherent existence’. (Sean Robsville) “The teachings on emptiness are concerned with HOW things exist, not IF and WHETHER things exist (UFO’s Unicorns and Yetis) or WHY things exist (because God, The Devil or the Spaghetti Monster made them). … We don’t normally say that an explosion exists or existed (though there’s no logical reason not to say so). And we don’t normally say that the universe occurs. Yet an explosion and the expanding universe are similar entities, just operating on different timescales.” So, it seems that the way we use the terms “exist,” “existence,” and “existed,” are all relative to our notion of time. “So to say that something exists is ultimately an arbitrary statement. All we are saying is that its rate of disintegration is negligible on the timescale of our lifetime. In reality, all functioning phenomena are impermanent – it’s just that some are more impermanent than others.”

Let’s look at an example. Oftentimes you’ll hear people refer to the senses as our way of experiencing the world. What if you take a closer look at your senses? Your ears hear because of the many parts that make them up. But what if you took that ear apart and separated the many pieces? You would no longer be able to hear. Same with your eyes – they only work because of the various parts and the fact that the brain has a way to communicate with these parts. But we see how easy that can break down if one piece of this sense organ doesn’t work, or deteriorates over time. So, everything we experience is based on these very delicate organs, that themselves are reliant on time and consequence.

The Buddha points to a chariot and says, “Where is the essence of the chariot?” Is it in the wheels? The seat? The axle? The cart? No – none of these contain any “essence” of the chariot. And if each of these is broken down into their smaller parts, there is no essence within them either. The chariot, as a whole, is simply a particular arrangement of parts, each of which themselves are also a particular arrangement of smaller parts. The chariot is a thing that exists interdependently

The Buddha teaches that we want things to be permanent, because we love them or desire them to be ours forever. This creates suffering. The whole idea of Buddhism is to recognize that suffering is constant in the world, but to try to leave it behind. So the teachings of emptiness and impermanence seem not to be saying that nothing exists, but that nothing exists permanently, or eternally.

The Sanskrit term for emptiness, “sunyata,” is translated to english as: “Buddhist concept denying the existence of lonely properties, in other words those intrinsic properties of a thing that could survive it having no relations with other things, or being the only thing in its universe.” –http://www.answers.com/topic/sunyata#ixzz2E0zEBrRO

So you can see that the translation to “emptiness” is a lacking one. We just don’t have a better word for it. “Sunyata” could also be taken as meaning that nothing has an independent origin – that “the present state of all things is the result of a previous state.” (http://buddhismteacher.com/emptiness.php)

The idea that we see here is that nothing has a permanent essence that allows it to stay constant or exactly how it is forever. Even the universe is in a constant flux – growing, expanding, collapsing. There is nothing we’ve come to know that is permanent, and therefore nothing that has an essence that is eternal.

But Buddha isn’t the only one who has touched on this idea of emptiness and impermanence. Plato also developed a theory, which we call Plato’s Theory of Forms, which actually looks at the other end of the spectrum. In this theory he states that Forms are properties or essences of things that are eternal and changeless. Some examples of this would be beauty, car, notebook, lamp, love, hate, chariot, etc. In other words, Plato is saying that everything is referred by using a general notion(s) or idea(s) that are eternal and changeless. For instance, if I was to say, “Look at this beautiful table.” You know automatically, without further explanation, that I think the table (the object with four legs that acts as a hard surface, usually for eating on) has exceptional qualities that I find attractive. Of course, all this depends on the fact that we speak the same language.

To expand on this, imagine all the tables you’ve ever seen. No matter if they have two legs and are supported by a wall, or three legs and are triangular in shape, or four legs and tall, they are all tables. So the “idea” of table stays the same, regardless of which table you’re speaking of. A box is a box is a box, until you take away the sides and it’s a tray. A human is a human unless you look closer and see two arms, two legs, a torso and a head (which can then break down into smaller, more descriptive characteristics that determine WHO or WHAT a human actually is). So these Forms are in themselves not necessarily ideas, or mental objects, but an essence that is “changeless”.

“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” – Jorge Luis Borges

There are a few questions this makes us have to ask. The main question is: where is an objects separate, independent, defining and lasting essence? Can one say that a Form is completely changeless and eternal, or does the Form change as society grasps at better understandings of what things are? And, if things are empty and impermanent, what effect does that have on our consciousness or way of thinking (i.e. happiness, fear of death, our notion of souls, God(s), etc.)?

I open the floor.

Some links for further reading: