A paradox between monism and enlightenment

If, as I understand Mahayana-based Buddhisms to teach, we are all really one big monistic/unified Mind/Being, which is supposedly happier as Itself than as a suffering human, why doesn’t one person’s becoming enlightened cause everyone to become enlightened? When the Mind learns of its delusion from one person (e.g., Gautama Buddha), why doesn’t It correct Itself and stop manifesting this world?

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Three interpretations of Dhammapada 1

“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought” (Dhammapada 1, Acharya Buddharakkhita translation).

“Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation).

Here are three different ways of interpreting that famous first line of the Dhammapada:

  1. (A possibly animist or creationist interpretation:) There apparently exists an outside world independent of my mind, and the arrangements or configurations of most/all things in that world apparently result from the activities of human and non-human minds. For example, my house exists because many people in the past have thought that humans should live in houses for various reasons (protection from weather, animals, thieves, etc.); thought of ways to construct and sell a house in the climate, society, etc. where I live; and then constructed it. How far out/back you want to abstract this idea to nature or the universe is up to you. The Buddha didn’t offer a view about the origins of the universe.
  2. (A constructivist/phenomenological interpretation popular among Western Theravadists today:) Though there probably exists an outside world independent of our minds, no one can see it directly; we can each see only our own mind. Everything we see is a mind-state, a construction of our body-mind complex – mental output based on sensory input. When you think you’re seeing yourself or a world out there, all you’re really seeing are poorly measured, heavily subjectively biased mental constructs/fabrications of how the self or world might be. The only way to maybe see absolute reality is to remove one’s subjective biases through meditation and simple/ethical living, going deeper and deeper into the mind, until one can see reality clearly.
  3. (A later-Buddhism, possibly Vedanta-influenced interpretation:) The external world is literally made of/by mind, and has no existence except to the degree that our minds create it. In reality, there is only a single, monistic, cosmic Mind (e.g., Buddha-nature), which manifests itself as this dualistic world because it has somehow forgotten its true nature and/or developed dualistic cravings. When people realize/remember that true nature, they can wake up from this delusional dream we’re all living in.

Giving customers what they want

If Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s are dependent on lay people, how much would they be willing (or need) to change Buddhism to suit the popular views and desires of lay people, in order for the Sangha to survive?

Is this how things like protective chants/icons, Buddha as God, softening or ignoring the Vinaya rules, the Advaita Vedanta-type views in Mahayana, the many nation and ethnicity specific versions of Buddhism, etc. have worked their way into Buddhist traditions over the millenia?

Is Zen architecture Dravidian?

If Bodhidharma (the person who supposedly brought Chan/Zen to China) came from Kanchipuram in southern India, I wonder if that is where Zen architecture came from. Though Buddhism died out in southern India about 500 years ago, modern-day southern Indian architecture still looks very “Zen” (open spaces, minimal furniture, large pillars and beams, etc.). For example: https://duckduckgo.com/?kad=en_US&q=traditional+tamil+house+&iax=1&ia=images

Defending Theravada regarding the Bodhisattva Vow

I often have heard Mahayana (and Mahayana-derived) Buddhists criticize Theravada for not having a Bodhisattva Vow — where one vows to be reborn again and again to teach sentient beings, until all sentient beings either have attained enlightenment or attain it together — accusing Theravadists of being selfish for trying to attain nirvana/nibbana quickly. Here are a few defenses of the Theravada view:

Westerners are often asked to take the Bodhisattva Vow shortly after they have attended a Mahayana meditation group for the first time, when they barely know anything about Buddhism, are nowhere close to enlightenment themselves (so probably could not control their rebirths), and are hardly in a position to make a long-term promise.

Like the Western elementary school lesson/game ‘telephone’ — where 20-30 kids sit in a circle, whisper the same message in each other’s ears going around the circle, and see how distorted the message becomes after it has gone around the circle — humans often misunderstand what they hear, and then they pass on that misinformation. Over time, the original message is lost. Buddhism has split many times, and later forms of Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Tientai, etc. have become very different from early Buddhism, even in just a few thousand years. How different might human Buddhism become in 1 million years, if it survives that long? Would it bear any resemblance to what the Buddha taught?

Pop culture religion also has a habit of incorporating legends and becoming more outlandish/fantastical over time. For example, some people have apparently arbitrarily made up large numbers for the sizes, distances from Earth, or lifespans of beings in certain heavens and hells. I have also heard South Asian people claim that there have always been Indo-Aryan peoples in South Asia, though the archaeological record says that they have been there for only about 5,000 years. Some people claim that Islam has always been in India, though Muhammad (peace be upon him) lived from 570-632 CE.

There also is the issue of how much karma Mahayanists must keep in their mindstreams, in order to remain in samsara. Some of them, especially Zen Buddhists, lead quite worldly, indulgent lives. It is unclear whether they are clear-headed enough to preserve and practice good-quality Buddhism.

If there are many, possibly infinite, fully enlightened Buddhas from the distant past living forever in Pure Lands, which they created for themselves and which samsaric beings can visit, why do ignorant humans, or even devas (long-lived, heavenly beings), need to take a bodhisattva vow? Won’t everyone encounter one of those Pure Lands, or beings who have visited those Pure Lands, eventually? If there is an infinite series of past Buddhas, why don’t they continuously come to Earth themselves, or create real-time projections of themselves on Earth with which people here could easily interact? If Buddhas gain Creator God-like power over Buddha Nature when they become enlightened, why are their powers to interact with humans apparently limited after their human body dies?

(For how long) Would a Mahayanist sit around waiting for solids, liquids, gases, etc. in the samsaric universe to possibly evolve into a sentient being that is complex enough to interact with and instruct on the path to nirvana? It has been about 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, and there is a great deal of matter in this universe that is nowhere close to evolving into complex life, and may never be. Physicists’ predictions about the eventual fate of the universe (trillions of years from now) describe a great deal of matter either never evolving into sentient life or being destroyed in a Big Crunch. Upon what nearly-permanent bodymind medium do Mahayanists plan on surviving until the end of the universe, or across universes if there are multiple Big Bang – Big Crunch – Big Bang… cycles?

It is very rare and transient for sentient life to evolve in this universe, and it might happen on worlds separated by vast distances. How do Mahayanists plan on traveling to such worlds to teach the people there?

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu said in one of his recorded dhamma talks: “This body requires that we have to take food, clothing, shelter, medicine…. And it’s not only a burden for us in the searching, but it’s a burden for other people in their providing… other beings of all kinds: animals. This is why, when we stop samsara-ing, it’s a gift — not only to ourselves, but to the people around us. It’s not selfish to stop doing this. If you thought of samsara as a place where people are suffering, then it might seem heartless to want to get out. But, if you see it as a process — a process that’s causing yourself suffering, a process that’s causing other people suffering — the more people who stop doing the process, the better everybody’s going to be… the happier everyone’s going to be” (“Constellations of Stress,” 2004-09-07).

O ye religious studies scholar, to what degree is Buddhism a religion?

First, what is “religion”? The word has many meanings around the world, far beyond how Americans often equate it with the three largest Abrahamic religions. People usually mean some kind of everyday/mundane expressions or representations of faith in, or past experience of, “numinous” (i.e., somehow going beyond everyday experience) things. The expressions often include traditional concepts, stories, institutions, rules, practices, rituals, relics, statues, images, talismans, etc. To the degree that one actually experiences numinous states of consciousness, it usually is not called religion, but instead is called spirituality, attainments, visions, feelings, trips (if drugs are involved), exploration, or just experience. Religious expressions often have as much to do with mundane things (nationality, culture, history, politics, etc.) as they do with numinous things, and experiences that people call numinous sometimes feature mundane religious elements (e.g., Christians sometimes see visions of Jesus or angels, Buddhists sometimes see visions of the Buddha, etc.). To what degree that back-and-forth is accurate, or is people’s brains/minds constructing what they want to see to some degree, is hard to say. Arguably, like much of science, the mundane vs. numinous distinction assumes a conventionally “normal” or “healthy” human perspective. Some people’s everyday experiences may include what others would consider numinous. Also, what humans call everyday experiences are the result of specific evolutionary processes in land-based environments only on this planet, so other species might consider different experiences normal.

Buddhism is often said by Western scholars to have a philosophical or psychological monastic core, which is similar to (and much more developed than) phenomenology in the West, as well as a more religious pop-culture periphery. People usually encounter the pop-culture periphery first, so get the impression that Buddhism is quite religious. Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s (monks and nuns) are the people who most often and seriously study, engage, and experiment with the Buddha’s theories and methods in empirical or intellectual ways. Lay (non-monastic) people can be anywhere on the spectrum of more experience- or knowledge-oriented to more faith-oriented. Whereas a monk might only deeply revere the Buddha, a lay person might worship and pray to the Buddha. Like many religions, the pop-culture periphery probably has become increasingly embellished with dramatic folklore, ornate artwork, etc., as non-monastic people have elaborated upon Buddhism over more than 2,500 years. There can be quite a stark difference between a spartan forest monastery, which can feel more like a psychology laboratory, and an ornate city temple, which can feel like a shrine or art gallery. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, etc.) seem to have drifted the monastic core in more religious of directions, with the Buddha(s) being made more god-like and salvation-oriented.

Q&A on karma

Q: As you understand it, from an early/Theravada Buddhist perspective, what is karma (Pali: kamma) and how does it work?
A: First, some history and definitions.
The Buddha’s apparent innovation on the Vedic concept of karma was that it is not only physical action/deeds, but it begins with the most basic mental action possible. “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect” (AN, 6.63). This is in line with Buddhism’s very phenomenological character. “Phenomena [i.e., everything one experiences] are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation). “Heart,” in that famous sentence, is the Pali word “mano,” which is “the intellectual functioning of consciousness, while viñnāṇa represents the field of sense and sense — reaction (“perception”), and citta the subjective aspect of consciousness … it [mano] ranges as the 6th sense in the classification of the senses and their respective spheres (the āyatanāni or relations of subject and object…). These are: (1) cakkhu (eye) which deals with the sight of form (rūpa); (2) sota (ear) … (6) mano, with the sensing (viññāya) of rational objects or cognisables (dhamma). Thus it is the sensus communis (Mrs. Rh. D. Buddh. Psych. 140, 163) which recognises the world as a “mundus sensibilis” (dhamma). Both sides are an inseparable unity: the mind fits the world as the eye fits the light, or in other words: mano is the counterpart of dhammā, the subjective dh. Dhamma in this sense is the rationality or lawfulness of the Universe (see dhamma B. 1), Cosmic Order, Natural Law. It may even be taken quite generally as the “empirical. world” … i. e. the material world), as the world of “things,” of phenomena in general without specification as regards sound, sight, smell, etc. — Dhamma as counterpart of mano is rather an abstract (pluralistic) representation of the world, i. e. the phenomena as such with a certain inherent rationality; manas is the receiver of these phenomena in their abstract meaning, it is the abstract sense, so to speak. … As regards the relation of manas to citta, it may be stated, that citta is more substantial (as indicated by translation “heart”), more elemental as the seat of emotion, whereas manas is the finer element, a subtler feeling or thinking as such. … In the more popular opinion and general phraseology however manas is almost synonymous with citta as opposed to body…. So in the triad “thought (i. e. intention) speech and action” manas interchanges with citta” (from the Pali Text Society’s Pali dictionary’s definition of mano/manas).

In the centuries following the Second Buddhist Council in approximately 334 BCE, the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika early Buddhist schools tried to reconcile the idea of karma with the idea that people’s minds and bodies are a continuum of momentary particles/atoms/energies (for more on humans’ so-called “mindstreams,” see my 2016-06-12 post), specifically how an intention in one moment could lead to an effect in another moment. “Sarvastivadins argued that there exists a dharma of “possession” (prapti), which functions with all karmic acts, so that each act or thought, though immediately passing away, creates the “possession” of that act in the continuum of instants we experience as a person. This possession itself is momentary, but continually reproduces a similar possession in the succeeding instant, even though the original act lies in the past. Through such continual regeneration, the act is “possessed” until the actualization of the result” (Hirota, 2004; p. 5100). The Sautrāntika school developed the metaphor of karmic seeds (bija) and fruits (phala), or perfuming, to indicate that intentions in one moment leave some kind of impression on future moments, so that the seed eventually comes to fruition. Later Mahayana schools developed yet more elaborate ideas, such as the Yogācāra school’s concept of a store-house consciousness (Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna).

However it happens, the idea is that, in each moment, the self-other world we experience is an automatic/unconscious result of karmic seeds that our more-or-less conscious intentions planted in the past. In every moment, we are presented with these fruits, and we plant new seeds for future becoming. It is a one-to-one process; one intention plants one seed, which leads to one fruit, but people continuously plant karmic seeds. Hence, what we experience in the present is heavily biased by the intentions we have made in the past. For example, those who often cultivated anger in the past might now perceive a more hostile world than really exists.

There also is a debate about to what degree a person’s feelings about their body and surroundings are karmic fruits, and to what degree there might be other forces (Pali: niyama) at play, such as a natural environment, genetics, etc. Even if there are other forces at play, there also is an argument that the contents of one’s mindstream cause one automatically to seek rebirth in a certain place, with certain parents, etc. And there are arguments that mindstreams might be limited in how far they can (or are likely to) travel between lives, which might constrain their options, and that it is unclear how the process of unconsciously or automatically matching minds with bodies occurs (e.g., does it happen according to physical laws, or can the mind between lives (called a gandhabba) see/know something about its options?). This leads some Buddhists to avoid traveling to places where they would not want to be reborn.

Q: Must one always only have faith in karma, or can one ever see it directly?
A: Supposedly one can see it directly, beginning at the fourth level of jhana. As I understand, the Buddha asked people to have provisional faith/trust in only two things, before they attain enlightenment or a high level of meditation: that karma exists, and that the Buddha’s teachings and techniques can/might lead one to liberation.

Q: To what degree might the universe have a kind of built-in criminal justice system? What might that mean for police officers, court judges, soldiers, etc.? What about merit?
A: As a part of nature, karma is instantaneous and automatic, and the outcome is causally connected to the action that prompted it. How fair, or proportionate to the action, that outcome is seems unclear. Karmic fruits arise as they can, given the sensory input that the mind receives. It is hard to say whether the heavenly or hellish world that someone might perceive as a result of some intention/action would be as vivid or affecting as the original action. It might be possible that a karmic seed lays dormant for a very long time, such that, when it comes to fruition, the circumstances hardly resemble the original circumstances.

Karma probably is specific to individuals; it probably can’t be deferred up a chain of command. If one person even wishes to harm or punish another, that individual must live with the karmic fruit of that intention/action. In this way, a soldier who kills to defend their country, or a judge who punishes people in order to protect society, might make a kind of personal karmic sacrifice — accepting an unpleasant future for themselves, in order to serve what they think is a greater good.

The concept of merit — that positive karma can be accumulated, can counteract negative karma, or that positive karma can be transferred to other people — is popular in Asia. Like with empty vs. emptiness, there appears to have been a noun-ification of its meaning from earlier to later Buddhism, where it initially seems to have meant just the positive effects on a person of living a virtuous life, but it came to mean a kind of spiritual/karmic currency. My understanding of the early Buddhist notion of karma is that it is momentary, it is tied to an individual’s mind, and it just is what it is (i.e., it itself is not good or bad, positive or negative). For example, a soldier who is willing to kill because they love their country can plant karmic seeds of both the willingness to kill and the love for their country in two separate, but perhaps closely combined, moments. It is unclear to me whether one seed can affect another seed, and it seems unlikely to me that people could share seeds.

Q: If karma is intention, what might that imply about the entertainments (music, TV, movies, etc.) that people watch? For example, would Buddhism say that listening to violent music, or playing violent video games, can cause physical violence?
A: The Buddha warned people about becoming too involved in the strong emotions one often finds in entertainments. “Any beings who are not devoid of passion [or aversion or delusion] to begin with, who are bound by the bond of passion [or aversion or delusion], focus with even more passion [or aversion or delusion] on things inspiring passion [or aversion or delusion] presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. … Thus the actor — himself intoxicated & heedless, having made others intoxicated & heedless — with the breakup of the body, after death, is reborn in what is called the hell of laughter. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb” (SN 42.2).

One’s intentions set the stage for how one will experience the future. Listening to a lot of violent music may not actually cause one to use harsh language, to join a gang, or to do physical violence, but it sets the tone of one’s future states of mind, so that using harsh language and making violent choices will seem more natural, correct, necessary, not so bad, etc. in the future. Similar things are true for any kind of media, from greedy, lustful, or fearful media to loving, peaceful, etc. media. As I understand the Buddhist notion of karma, how one keeps one’s mind in the present sets the stage for how one will experience the future.

Q: Can karmic seeds be destroyed before they come to fruition?
A: Enlightened people supposedly can see how to destroy karmic seeds, and can choose not to make any new seeds, so that they will not be reborn again into samsara. They supposedly can do this either suddenly or gradually: they can choose to cut their karmic/mental stream completely and immediately stop existing in samsara (i.e., through force of will, stop their hearts from beating, their brains from even unconsciously thinking, etc.), or they taper off the stream slowly, perhaps in order to stay around awhile to teach or to say goodbye to people in samsara. Supposedly, only fully enlightened people can commit suicide without negative consequences, because only they can completely stop their karma/mindstream.

Q: Is it fair that enlightened people can destroy their karma? Does that mean that they are not held accountable for negative intentions/actions they did in the past?
A: Only a very pure mind — free of anger/hatred, greed/lust, selfishness, etc. — can attain the meditative states necessary to attain enlightenment. The karma that is left in such a mind probably is quite minimal and harmless, such as attachment to the body and to family and friends.

Q: Might the orderliness, fairness, morality, etc. of the law/system of karma suggest that it was designed by some being outside of samsara (e.g., a non-interactive God)?
A: Maybe. The beginnings and boundaries of space, time, and life as we know them are among the 14 unanswered questions. Whether the Buddha did not know the answers to those questions (e.g., how could even a very old mind that arose in this universe know what came before this universe?), or whether he merely thought they were not worth spending one’s short human life pondering (e.g., see the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow), is unclear to me.