Do We Really Know Life?

10 Dec

I’ve looked at life from both sides now 

From up and down and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all -Joni Mitchell

This is the true question that the Buddha’s teachings really address – ‘Do I Really Know Life At All?’ And in investigating the question, the answer becomes quite clear- for the uninvestigated mind, No…I don’t. All existence is much too complex, interrelated and deep for us prideful humans to truly comprehend and indeed mystery is the result. But this is not a defeat but an affirmation of our embeddness and interrelatedness with All of other existence. Not the folly, alienation and separateness of the conceit of being the supreme being of the universe or even earth but the authentic identification of the true ecological, co-arising nature of all things. You will hear people say, ‘I am trying to find myself.’ But if you want to find yourself, then transcend yourself. When we transcend our-self, we truly find each other and our interconnection with all. We are not alone! Just look around you, there are creatures of life everywhere. If we feel alone, that is our blindness to life all around us, our suffering of alienation created by the illusion of separateness and ‘I’.

This blog presents my putting several pieces of a puzzle together regarding the teachings of the Buddha. A fuller examination of this discussion you will find in my book, The Buddha’s Teachings: Seeing Without Illusion. However, in this blog the overarching framework is provided by Sue Buddhist scholar Hamilton from her book, Early Buddhism: A New Approach. While, of course, these pieces from her book are only a part of her discussion, they are exciting to me in that they provided the framework with which a couple of other ideas that I have thought pertinent can be integrated into Hamilton’s work with which I think strengthens the comprehensibility of all.

So I begin with Hamilton’s ideas as represented by quotes from her book.

‘In his teachings the Buddha consistently directed the attention of his listeners to the understanding of cognitive processes. Objects, be they concrete or abstract, are subjectively reified: that their characteristics conform to and are correlated with the way cognitive processes operate and that further aspects of the structural framework, of the objective world are similarly subjectively reified.’

‘The heart of the teachings of early Buddhism: that there is a correlation between the entireties of the structure of what is experienced as the world about us – all objectivity- and the way it is subjectively processed.’

‘We feel that we are separate objects, albeit also experiencing subjects, in a separately existing plurally comprised world of other objects. And we take it that that what we are what there is. However, we cannot actually ever get outside of ourselves to check whether this is in fact the case.’

‘The problem with expressing views, ontological or in fact otherwise too, is that they can be only expressed within a conceptual framework. And the only conceptual framework with which we are familiar, that has any meaningful reference for us, that is, indeed, conceptual as we mean the term, is one which is appropriate only from the standpoint of ignorance as to the nature of Reality. Specifically, talking in terms of things and nothing, existence and non-existence, is within the conceptual framework of manifoldness and permanence. What is more, when associated with the nature of Reality, it is talk that in fact assumes transcendental realism: that the structural framework of the experiential world is external to and independent of us. But in fact its meaningfulness is wholly limited to the world of experience understood not as it really is but as it seems to us in our ignorance to be.’

‘Transcendental idealism: what we take to be external world-in the cosmic sense- about us, with us in it, only appears to us like that because that is the way our cognitive apparatus presents it to us, not because Reality is in itself really like that. We are unable to see Reality as it is in itself because we cannot transcend our cognitive apparatus. But we only experience the world at all because Reality is there: what we are experiencing is our interpretation of a transcendentally existent reality. In fact, being transcendent of the entire framework of our conceptual categories, Reality itself can properly be indicated only apophatically- even the notion of existence being problematic in this respect in that the properties so predicated are meaningful only within our conceptual framework.’

‘The experiential world as a whole, in which all subjectivities and the whole of objectivity are as it were parts of what is dependently originated, is dependent- period. And it follows from this that there must be something else. There must be a Reality which is transcendent of experience on which the experiential world is dependent.’

‘Voidness or emptiness of the world is understood as regarding permanence, of the independence we erroneously assume it to have. This is related to the sensory process as it does, the point is not that something does not exist, but that the notion of independence is a product of the subjectively dependent cognitive structuring of the world.’

‘The correlation of the structure of the empirical world with subjective cognitive processes informs us that the limits of the empirical world as we know it are associated with the limits of cognition as we know it.’

‘This is what experience is: neither the world nor ‘I’ in it are other than experience. Cognitive processes are experiences as a whole subjective/objective correlation.’

‘The status of the world is dependently originated and therefore not understandable in terms of existent or non-existent. The reality of experience is experiential. The reality of Reality is unknowable in –normal- experiential terms.’

‘Earthly or worldly existence is characterisized according to the name and form structure. …those who have achieved enlightenment still see, know and so on. That what is different about them is not that their cognitive structure no longer operates, but they have achieved insight into what is happening, are are no longer affectively responding to their experiences in a binding way. Such statements as ‘the cessation of consciousness’ should…be taken metaphorically to refer to the cessation of ignorance.’

‘…if the structure of the world of experience is correlated with the cognitive process, then it is not just that we name objects, concrete and abstract, and superimpose secondary characteristics according to the senses. It is also that all the structural features of the world of experience are cognitively correlated. In particular, space and time are not external to the structure but are part of it. …there is no such thing as experience as we know it that is not characterized by space and time.’

‘If the entirety of the structure of the world as we know it is subjectively dependent, including space and time, it follows that the very concept of there being origins, beginnings, ends, extents, limits, boundaries, and so on, is subject dependent. The entirety of temporality and special extension are concepts which do not operate independently of subjective cognitive processes. The entirety, that is to say, of dim and distant history, and of the furthest flung regions of outer space – the entirety of whatever is knowable in temporal and special terms – is not independent of subjectivity. The framework within which is meaningful is in a very real sense a conceptual one.’

‘In regards to the classical unanswered questions of the Buddha, the questions of is the world eternal or finite, presuppose that space and time are transcendentally real- that is, that they operate externally to subjective cognitive process. As with the questions on the self, they seek to find a permanence or immortality. However, if space and time are part of the structural characteristics of the experimental world, and that that is cognitively dependent, then one can see that the presupposition of the transcendental reality of time and space is false, and that the fundamental premises on which the questions rest are therefore also false and unanswerable.’

Now, in support of her point that the experiential world as a whole, in which all subjectivities and the whole of objectivity are, as it were, parts of what is dependently originated, is dependent- period, is found in F.J. Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch’s book, The Embodied Mind. They wrote: ‘Embodied action- cognition depends upon the kinds of experience that come from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second, that these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context. By using the term action we mean to emphasize that sensory and motor processes, perception and action, are fundamentally inseparable in lived cognition. Indeed, the two are not merely contingently linked in individuals, they have also evolved together.’

‘Since local situations constantly change as a result of the perceiver’s activity, the reference point for understanding perception is no longer a pregiven, perceiver-independent world but rather the sensorimotor structure of the perceiver – the way the nervous system links sensory and motor surfaces. This structure – the manner in which the perceiver is embodied- rather than some pregiven world determines how the perceiver can act and be modulated by environmental events. Thus the overall concern of an enactive approach to perception is not to determine how some perceiver-independent world is to be recovered; it is rather to determine the common principles or lawful linkages between sensory and motor systems that explain how action can be perceptually guided in a perceiver-dependent world.’

‘The neuronal network does not function as a one way street from perception to action. Perception and action, sensorium and motorium, are linked together as successively emergent and mutually selecting patterns.’

‘Color categorization in its entirety depends upon a tangled hierarchy of perceptual and cognitive processes, some species specific and others culture specific. They also serve to illustrate the point that color categories are not to be found in some pregiven world that is independent of our perceptual and cognitive capacities. The categories red, green, yellow, blue, purple, orange – as well as light/warm, dark/cool, etc- are experiential, consensual, and embodied- they depend upon our biological and cultural history of structural coupling.’

‘We can now appreciate how color provides a paradigm of a cognitive domain that is neither pregiven nor represented but rather experiential and enacted. It is very important to note that just because color is not pregiven does not mean it does not exhibit universals or that it cannot yield to rigorous analysis by the various branches of science.’

Now regarding Hamilton’s analysis of space and time from the Buddha’s perspective we see concurrence from physicist Wolfram Schommer’s in his book, The Visible and the Invisible: ‘The physiological apparatus has an influence on space as it appears to us. The constancy of space and also time, which results from direct experience, is not due to the fact that space exists absolutely and independently of all things and processes, but that the physiological apparatus has developed a constancy mechanism.’

‘Events occurring in the cosmos are presented inside a biological system only as symbols in a picture. The difference between reality and its picture can be as large as the difference between a cinema and a cinema ticket. That reality corresponds to what appears in front of our eyes is a view which has shown itself to be more or less untenable. The picture in the mind contains aspects of reality only in symbolic form, i.e. the elements in reality are not identical with the pertinent elements in the picture. Moreover, the elements of which a picture is composed do not occur in reality at all.’

‘The picture and also its frame, space and time, is located in the head of the observer. We know from experience that space-time arises only in connection with objects and processes i.e. an empty space-time cannot be perceived.’

Also he wrote: ‘Basic reality, i.e., reality which exists independently of the observer, is in principle not accessible in any DIRECT WAY. Rather, it is observable or describable by means of pictures on different levels, i.e., levels of reality. And ‘Everything is located in the head, not only the products of fantasy and scientific laws, but those things which we understand as “hard” objects. This is because we do not have the “hard” objects actually in front of us but “only” their pictures.’

Regarding this same point, B. d ‘Espagnat wrote: ‘The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.’

Also, H.R. Maturana wrote: ‘The observer as an observer necessarily always remains in a descriptive domain, that is, in a relative cognitive domain. No description of an absolute reality is possible. Such a description would require an interaction with the absolute to be described, but the representation which would arise from such an interaction would necessarily be determined by the autopoietic organization of the observer, not by the deforming agent; hence, the cognitive reality that it would generate would unavoidably be relative to the knower.’

These are not the only modern writers supporting these insights but for now they are examples. Also, of course, for one to “know” what the Buddha wanted us to understand we must have insight through the meditative training and experience as described in the Noble Eightfold Path.

Therefore, the Buddha was not concerned with trying to understand ultimate reality because he understood that and similar metaphysical questions were unanswerable. The Buddha was, therefore, as David J. Kalupahana characterizes, a radical empiricist. Kalupahana wrote in his book, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology: ‘ For the pragmatic Buddha, the search for ultimate causes and conditions ( as well as the conceptions of self or substance) is as futile as the search for the unseen beauty queen (janapada-kalyàni).’






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