Monday, September 26, 2016

The Dharma vs. Non-duality (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Bhikkhu Bodhi, "Dhamma and Non-duality" [or The Buddha's Teaching vs. a Hindu Teaching] edited by Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson, Ashley Wells, Wisdom Quarterly
The Buddha's transcendental message of freedom is profound, subtle, hard to see.
One of the most challenging issues facing Theravada Buddhism in recent years has been the encounter between classic Theravada "insight meditation" (vipassana) and the "non-dualistic" contemplative traditions best represented by Hinduism's Advaita Vedanta and [its philosophical descendant] Mahayana Buddhism.
Responses to this encounter have spanned the extremes, ranging from vehement confrontation to attempts at synthesis and hybridization. While this essay cannot pretend to illuminate all of the intricate and subtle problems involved in this volatile dialogue, it is meant to contribute some light from a canonical Theravada perspective.
A system of meditative practice does not constitute a self-contained discipline. An authentic system is embedded within a conceptual matrix that defines the problems the practice is intended to solve and the goal it moves us toward.

So the merging of techniques grounded in incompatible conceptual frameworks is fraught with risk. 

Although such mergers may be appealing for eclectic experimenters, it seems likely that their long-term effect will be to create cognitive dissonance that will reverberate through the deeper levels of the psyche and stir up even greater confusion.
Second, simply put, non-dualistic spiritual traditions are far from consistent with each other, but comprise, rather, a wide variety of views that are profoundly different. They are inevitably shaped by the broader conceptual contours of the philosophies that encompass them.

Mahayana Buddha statue flanked by dragons (Popolisson as Polo D/
For the Vedanta (the best of the Brahminical Vedas, which was rejected by the Buddha and inherited by modern Hinduism) non-duality (advaita) means the absence of an ultimate distinction between the Atman (innermost self) and Brahman (divine or ultimate reality) the underlying ground of all reality, the godhead.

From the standpoint of the highest realization, only one ultimate reality exists -- which is simultaneously Atman (self, soul) and Brahman (GOD, godhood, the unchanging reality behind the illusion we see all around) -- and the aim of the spiritual quest is to know that one's own true self, the Atman, is the timeless reality which is Being, Awareness, Bliss. [This is the Hindu conception the Buddha rejected as he discovered and made known as an-atman, "not-self," egolessness, the impersonal nature of all phenomena.
    Siddhartha renounces to go on quest
  • This is the teaching at the core of the Heart Sutra, the most famous Mahayana Buddhist discourse, which is the epitome of the "Perfection of Wisdom" (Prajna Paramita) literature everyone reads but nearly no one understands. (This is the core because unless it is realized there is no stream entry/winning, the first stage of enlightenment, the Buddha declared). If there is no "self," then what is there? The answer is the Five Aggregates. How does "self" or at least the "illusion of selfhood" arise? It arises by a causal sequence called Dependent Origination: "When this is, that comes to be; with the ceasing of this, that ceases" is one way of briefly defining a very profound concept. The fact is, every composite thing, while it may seem to be self sufficient, actually depends on elements, causes, conditions because of its composed nature. Not only is this true of matter, it is true of us. What are we? What we call "self" is actually a composite of impersonal phenomena labelled form (the four qualities of matter); feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousnesses. The first four are the "body," the remaining four are the "mind." There is no "self" to be found among these momentarily arising elements that immediately perish and are replaced with nearly identical substitutes. And it keeps happening. Everything is hurtling toward destruction. Anything we would cling to as "self" cannot be clung to because it is burning away, decaying rapidly, vanishing. The process of its replacement gives the illusion of continuity, but careful examination (mindful awareness while contemplating the 12 causal-links identified by the Buddha as Dependent Origination or paticca samuppada) reveals the trick. The illusion is broken. Enlightenment dawns. One glimpses nirvana (real peace, the deathless, the unsurpassable, the unexcelled), and liberation is realized as "the Truth that sets us free."
Since all schools of Buddhism reject the idea of the Atman, the "self,"  none can accept the non-dualism of Vedanta.

From the perspective of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, any quest for the discovery of selfhood, whether as a permanent individual self or as an absolute universal self, would have to be dismissed as an illusion or delusion, a metaphysical blunder born from a failure to properly comprehend [what is really going on as specified in the dependent origination or arising of "things" that are in fact empty, without essence, selfless, egoless] the nature of concrete experience.

According to the Pali (exclusively Buddhist language) sutras, the individual "being" (when, in fact, what "self" is is constantly becoming) is merely a complex composite of Five Aggregates, which are all stamped with the three marks of existence: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness.
  • One should not misunderstand the Five Aggregates to amount to five things. They are innumerable heaps of five kinds or groupings. Not every feeling or perception is the same, but mental phenomena known as sensation and knowing can be analyzed and sorted into heaps.
Hindu temple in India with sacred symbols
Any postulation of selfhood in regard to this compound of transient, conditioned phenomena (groups of impersonal, impermanent, and unsatisfactory things) is an instance of "personality view" (sakkaya-ditthi), a kind of delusion or "wrong view" (miccha-ditthi), the most basic fetter that binds beings to the round of rebirths known as samsara.

The attainment of liberation [from samsara], for Buddhism, does not about by the realization of a "true self" or absolute "I," but through the dissolution of even the subtlest mistaken sense of selfhood in relation to the Five Aggregates -- which, as has been stated, are impersonal, not ours, not the basis of any real I, me, or mine -- "the abolition of all I-making, mine-making, and underlying tendencies to conceit [the very subtle and hard-to-remove habit or proclivity of regarding or speaking of things as self]."
The many Mahayana Buddhist schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous.

Nirvana is samsara? Ignorance is wisdom?
This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara [the Round of Rebirth and Suffering] and Nirvana [liberation from that painful round], defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment.

For the Mahayana, the enlightenment the Buddhist path is designed to awaken instead consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective, an old Brahminical/Vedic/Hindu notion the Buddha rejected.

The validity of conventional dualities is denied because the ultimate nature of ALL phenomena is emptiness [all things being composites rather than unities, they lack a self or enduring core] the lack of any substantial or intrinsic reality.
  • Nirvana alone -- because it is the only unconditioned element -- does not arise, change, pass away, or depend on any conditions. (The realization of it may depend on conditions, such as meditation and right view, but it does not come into being or grow or go out of being or shrink if people realize it or fail to realize it).
So in their "emptiness" all of the diverse, apparently opposed phenomena posited by mainstream Buddhist doctrine finally coincide: "All dharmas [phenomena, things] have one nature, which is no-nature."
The teaching of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, Shakyamuni, the "Sage of the Shakya Clan") as found in the Pali language canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha's discourses. More

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