Friday, September 7, 2012

BUDDHISM AND THE PLURALITY OF ALL THINGS

Image of the Buddha in the garden at Asakusa Kannon Temple
(also called Sensoji), the oldest temple in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo taken by the author.


One of the reasons I embrace Buddhism is this---Buddhism, at least in its more early, uncluttered forms, espouses a realist view of ‘things as they really are.’ I like that, for I am at heart a realist, an empiricist, and a naturalist. I reject all supernaturalistic views of reality.

Buddhism, consistent with an empirical view of reality, affirms that whatever exists are ‘occurrences’---or ‘situations’---in one space-time. Things exist ‘in situations.’ This is known as situationality. Further, at any ‘point’---for want of a better word---in space-time there is always (yes, always) a plurality of space-time interacting situations or occurrences (‘complexes’). Indeed, there are literally countless such pluralities, and all these situations exhaust the whole of reality. There is nothing else ... or supposedly 'beyond' or 'above' all this. Things may be distinct---indeed, they are---but they also connected in space-time, and these connections are very real. The Buddha reportedly said:

Monks, we who look at the whole and not just the part, know that we too are systems of interdependence, of feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness all interconnected. Investigating in this way, we come to realize that there is no me or mine in any one part, just as a sound does not belong to any one part of the lute.

Situationality and plurality---such is the nature of reality. Never forget that!

The third Zen patriarch Seng-Tsan described situationality and plurality in this way:

One thing, all things:
Move along and intermingle,
Without distinction.

Truth---reality---is never static but always dynamic. The Buddha is also reported to have said that ‘things are different according to the forms which they assume under different impressions’. One could substitute the word ‘situations’ for ‘impressions’ without distorting meaning. Here is a typical saying attributed to the Buddha:

The thing and its quality are different in our thought, but not in reality. Heat is different from fire in our thought, but you cannot remove heat from fire in reality. You say that you can remove the qualities and leave the thing, but if you think your theory to the end, you will find that this is not so.


The author at Asakusa Kannon Temple (Sensoji).
People waft smoke over their bodies from the bronze incense burner
before worship. Some believe that the smoke can heal
or prevent illness. I'm skeptical---naturally.
 

Buddhism recognizes the existence, at any ‘point’ in space-time, of a plurality or multiplicity of interacting factors that can, at any time, produce a certain effect. We are talking about a complex, ever-changing, dynamic system whose parts are mutually dependent. In the ‘Fire Sermon’ (Aditta Sutta), the Buddha is recorded as having said:

The eye, O monks, is burning; visible things are burning; the mental impressions based on the eye are burning; the contact of the eye with visible things is burning; the sensation produced by the contact of the eye with visible things, be it pleasant, be it painful, be it neither pleasant nor painful, that also is burning. With what fire is it burning? I declare unto you that it is burning with the fire of greed, with the fire of anger, with the fire of ignorance; it is burning with the anxieties of birth, decay, death, grief, lamentation, suffering, dejection, and despair.

The ear is burning, sounds are burning, … The nose is burning, odors are burning, ... The tongue is burning, tastes are burning, ... The body is burning, objects of contact are burning, ... The mind is burning, thoughts are burning, all are burning with the fire of greed, of anger, and of ignorance.

The Fire Sermon presents, albeit in a highly lyrical way, a plurality of multiple situations that are in continuous process. That is causation---processes continuing into one another. Such is life ... wandering, wandering, waxing and waning. We live and die from moment to moment. 

The Vietnamese monk and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh uses the expression ‘InterBeing’ to refer to this state and process of interdependence. It is important, however, to note that Buddhism is not monistic. No form of Buddhism affirms that all things are in reality one. Nevertheless, a single ‘logic’ applies to all things, for all things exist in the same ‘level’ or plane of existence and observability.

All of this is very profound---but also very simple. Delightfully so. Truth is like that, you know.



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