Sunday, February 21, 2016

Material Dharma

A talk by Gudo Nishijima randomly came up on my play list the other day and provoked some thoughts I find interesting.

He said, Buddha insisted there was one reality.

I completely enjoy this idea. There is only one truth going on and each person has a different view of it. In expressing those views it appears that truth is a matter of belief. Rather it is a matter of observation. This may be a difference between, roughly speaking, religion and science.

I once had the idea that becoming enlightened is rather like turning on the porch light at night for the first time. It's not that there's anything new to see when the light comes on, it was all there prior, but now one can see it. And it is mundane.

I do not think there is a soul. There is nothing extra-corporeal that lingers after death. Rather like one proposal I saw in science mags recently, consciousness is a 4th state of matter. Matter in the universe has characteristics that cause it to assemble into conscious things under certain conditions. We happen to be the outcome of a series of those conditions.

But neither is it as elegant as 'natural selection' makes it sound. I don't like that phrase. It anthropomorphizes what is inherent possibility. There is no 'grand design' coming into its own. Things that survive do, and those that can't don't. Given a slightly different set of conditions, those things that are not now, might well be. There is no 'selecting' going on.

So there is one truth. The dharma.

Nishijima talks a lot about idealism and materialism. Roughly speaking, I think materialism is this one truth. But materialism is also an idea (part of idealism), so this is where things get a little tricky.

Setting aside (or rather allowing) for a moment the fact that discussion of concepts is by its very nature idealistic, reality is materialistic. As I understand the word, the truth of reality is the truth of materials. We and our consciousness are one of those materials. Our thinking is material. There is not one thought conscious or subconscious that occurs that is not the result of some material chemical action in our bodies (in our brains). But, from this material truth, idealism arises.

I think humans are uniquely idealistic. It is very hard to test, I think, whether other animals have 'ideas' per se. There is such a tendency in us to anthropomorphize things (thus attributing emotions to things like 'angry' weather and 'calm' seas), it is difficult to judge if a dog has 'ideas'. A very sophisticated neural network could look like it is 'thinking' about ideas, but quite simply be responding robotically to stimuli. Indeed some thinkers suppose that perhaps even humans don't have free will at all, and are only responding to stimuli in a predictable way that could be copied with the right computer set up with the right pre-conditions.

Regardless of whether it is truly free thought or not I think one can characterize ideas as those things which are self experienced as free, and go on further to say that there is a marked difference in this activity in humans verses other animals.

I think that there may be some 'idealism' going on in other higher mammals such as gorillas and dolphins. If so they may, to some extent fall into the same bucket as we humans which I am attempting to describe here.

So there is one truth based on facts of materialism and this is the dharma.

Because of the specific nature of our material reality (i.e. how our brains are structured), humans are idealistic, and this brings suffering. This is a bit of a recast of the first nobel truth. And, I think it is an important difference.

The less a living organism is 'thinking' (lets use the proxy sentient, for this) the less it suffers. Even sentients might not be the right word here. I think dogs are very sentient, but I think most of their behavior is materialistic. They are just responding to stimuli and don't have a strong conscious experience of situations. At least not anywhere near as strong as humans. They do not sit around pondering, for example, what the semantic difference might be between 'idealism' and 'materialism'.  When they get an itch, they scratch, and they don't think 'my, I've got an itch, I should scratch it. Could this be a Zika mosquito bite?' while they do so.

So I with GB has formed his first noble truth as 'For humans, life is suffering'. And in this I embrace the more general meaning of suffering, which is a type of discontent. This discontent comes from idealism. Thinking (of the type I am trying to express here - not just any brain activity) is idealism.

Therefore, contemplating materialism is idealism.

Our idealism gives rise to suffering. The various ideas we get about what's going on bring us to be discontent.

We cannot escape idealism. It is our nature.

And this is where my current concepts appear t diverge from Nishijima-roshi's. I think the 'purpose' of zazen, or perhaps better said as its fundamental benefit, is a balance of our idealistic nature verses our materialism.

In zazen we express our materialism concretely by simply sitting and letting it be. The sounds the temperature on our skin, the comfort (or not) in our muscles, the smells, the sights, are all our materialistic nature 'manifesting'. Usually in life our idealism dominates our awareness. We operate as all ideals with a few headlines now and then from the real material worlds. In zazen we can 'see' our idealism manifest with our materialism. They both can sit there manifesting without us chasing one or the other with more ideas.....sometimes and for short periods. Then ideas arise. But we can practice not chasing them.

In this, is the one reality accessible? All I can say at this point is I think so. The reality is we are idealistic. Ideas are not truth, not the dharma, but the dharma includes us as idealists. Ideas can express the truth. That is there original purpose I think. We humans, came to the ability of forming stories about the world around us, which afforded us survival. The more correct the stories are the more useful they might be to our continued survival. But we are also in a place in many societies where survival is so inherently built into to fabric we live in that off-ideas (errors) do not bring quick death, and so can be perpetuated.

We cannot directly see the truth beyond seeing our materialism and knowing it is colored with idealism. We can see the power of our idealism to color our experience of the world, and strive to 'dial down' the weight we give it in our lives.