Sunday, December 18, 2011


The Samyutta Nikāya (‘Connected Discourses’ or ‘Kindred Sayings’) is a Buddhist scripture, the third of the five nikāyas (collections) in the Sutta Pitaka, which is one of the ‘three baskets’ that compose the Pāli Tripitaka (or ‘Pāli Canon’) of Theravāda Buddhism. The Pāli Canon is the earliest collection of Buddhist teachings and the only collection of sacred texts formally recognised as ‘canonical’ by Theravāda Buddhists. (Of course, as any ‘good’ Buddhist knows – or ought to know – Buddha himself affirmed, ‘Believe nothing because it is written in ancient books.’)

Now, here is a most illuminating sutra from the Samyutta Nikāya known as ‘The Sutra on Totality’:

Monks, I will teach you the totality of life. Listen, attend carefully to it and I will speak.
     What, monks, is totality?
It is just the eye
with the objects of sight,
the ear with the objects of hearing,
the nose with the objects of smell,
the tongue with the objects of taste,
the body with the objects of touch
and the mind with the objects of cognition.
This, monks, is called totality.
     Now, if anyone were to say, ‘Aside from this explanation of totality, I will preach another totality,’ that person would be speaking empty words, and being questioned would not be able to answer. Why is this? Because that person is talking about something outside of all possible knowledge.

As I have said before, Shakyamuni Buddha was a radical empiricist. He taught people how to realize for themselves enlightenment ... by direct experience. He encouraged his followers to ‘come and see’ (ehipassiko), that is, to investigate for themselves whether or not his teachings worked – as opposed to placing reliance on blind faith. Yes, investigate for yourself and then make up your own mind based upon the evidence.  Buddhism is a very down-to-earth set of teachings. In one sense, Buddhism is very Aristotelian (as opposed to Platonic). At the risk of over-simplification, the essence of Buddhism is – what you see is what you get. That is all there is, but it is more than enough!

The Sutra on Totality makes that point perfectly clear. The ‘totality of life’ is the sum total of what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you taste, what you touch, and what you think. Now what could be more ‘empirical’ than that? Yes, Buddhism, in its philosophy, is a form of radical empiricism.

The Buddha affirms that if someone preaches – I love his use of that word – ‘another reality,’ that person is speaking ‘empty words.’ Well, all I can say is that there are a lot of preachers speaking ‘empty words,’ and that includes all those preachers – Christian or other – who would have you believe there are ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ levels of reality as well as ‘natural’ and so-called ‘supernatural’ existence. Buddha says, in effect, if people affirm the existence of such things, they are talking about ‘something outside of all possible knowledge.’

My favourite philosopher John Anderson (pictured left) said as much when he wrote that any notion of there being different orders or levels of reality or truth was ‘contrary to the very nature and possibility of discourse.’ Such thinking (if that be the right word for it) was, according to Anderson, ‘unspeakable’ … indeed, meaningless. Anderson referred to this as the ‘problem of commensurability.’

It is important to note that Buddha was agnostic on whether there was ‘another reality.’ (Buddha was also agnostic as to the existence of God. He also never actually denied the existence of the ‘self,’ for to do so is itself arguably an act of self-identification.) According to Buddha, there may be ‘another reality,’ but if there is, we can have no knowledge of it. Such a reality is, therefore, unspeakable.

‘Empty words’ – that sums up most theology … and a lot of philosophy as well. Stick to what is tangible, that is, occurrences in time and space. That is where you have your everyday existence. That is where you are grounded – even where you are mindfully unaware of it.

Here's something else to ponder. There is no such thing as the 'universe.' That's right! The word 'universe' is just that - a word. It simply means the sum 'total' of all there is, with the totality of all things being what is known as a 'closed system.' Each 'thing' is a cause of at least one other 'thing' as well as being the effect of some other 'thing,' so everything is explainable by reference to everything else. End of story. Hence, all theological talk of the supposed need for some 'first cause' is ... well, nonsense! As Professor Anderson pointed out, 'there can be no contrivance of a "universe" or totality of things, because the contriver would have to be included in the totality of things.' (In any event, the entire notion of a supposed 'Being' - the 'contriver' - whose essential attributes [eg omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience] are non-empirical is unintelligible. Further, why would a supposedly supernatural 'contriver' bother to 'create' a natural universe ... assuming for the moment it was created?)

Anderson, himself an empiricist, wrote of the 'facts of complexity and interaction,' and the 'influence of the other things with which [things] come in contact.' Buddhists refer to this interconnectedness of all things - Thich Nhat Hanh calls it 'InterBeing' - as 'dependent origination' (or 'dependent arising'), and it makes much more sense than certain alternative worldviews.

And where does mindfulness fit into all of this? Well, mindfulness is the only way to be fully ‘connected’ to the ‘totality of things’ as things unfold from one moment to the next. Why is it the only way, you may ask? Well, there is only life, and living things living out their livingness as occurrences in time and space. That is the ‘way of being.’ The fact is that each one of us is such an ‘occurrence,’ and mindfulness is simply the immediate and direct awareness of occurrences as they happen – live and in full colour!


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