February 17, 2006

The Dissolving of Self

Posted in non-fiction, scripture at 3:26 am by Jerry

Buddhists (both Theravada and Mahayana) understand that all life is suffering and try to solve the problem of suffering with a desire to be without the desires of attachment (see Buddhist Four Noble Truths), much like the Stoics. One of the main differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is Mahayanans will not pursue Nirvana (a complete detachment, a dissolving of self) without everyone else.

In other words, the Buddhists’ form of salvation, the extinguishing of any attachments (including with people), is important for Mahayanans such as the Dalai Lama, to share with others.

I have to ask: “Why do Mahayanans care about people they don’t want to be attached to?

To me, this Mahayanan motivation for compassion is also ironic because I understand the definition of death to be a detachment, a removal from relationship (mind to body, human to human, human to God). I’ve been told many times in Christian circles that the Christian faith is about relationship. So, from my prospective as a Christian philosopher, to receive compassion from a Buddhist for these reasons alone, would seem like some sort of invitation to death.

The Dalai Lama writes:

“…if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterizes our individuality and identity as a discrete ego… The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena. …I would not be able to write on paper, and you would not be able to read the words on this page. So since we interact and change each other, we must assume that we are not independent – although we may feel or intuit that we are.

“…causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses independent existence would be immutable.. Things and events are “empty” in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute “being” that affords independence. This fundamental truth of “the way things really are” is described in the Buddhist writings as “emptiness,” or Shunyata in sanskrit.” p.46-47.

I’m conflicted about this last text I’m quoting from Dalai Lama’s book because of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. I know the Dalai Lama was quite vague about reincarnation where he mentioned it in this book because of its current identity as unscientific. However, if reincarnation is a transmigration of souls, then there is something immutable about the soul through the many lives it lives, isn’t there?

Maybe the Dalai Lama would say, “Change can be so subtle that it could take many life times before we could recognize the mutability of the soul.”

But does change always have to mean an eventual annihilation?

There is a popular phrase used from Buddhist philosophy that is intentionally anti-dogmatic. The phrase is “Killing the Buddha.” It developed out of a story of a buddhist novice who finds his master after a moment of enlightenment and says he has found the Buddha (an ideal state of humanity). The master says, “Good, now kill the Buddha.”

Up until recently, I’ve taken the meaning of this parable to be in the proximity of Jesus’ teachings to “Take up our cross daily,” and “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose it for my sake will find it.” But I’ve never understood the Christian process of dying to one’s self as a path that eventually leads to annihilation of the spirit. (For more biblical content, read the end of Mark chapter 8, after Jesus rebukes Peter for making plans for God.)

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