Buddhist Back-Story: Dialectics and Linguistics…

img_1935Theravada Buddhism has it easy, when it comes to dhamma (dharma) talks, just pull out the old mind-kilesa-breath-nose-navel-‘Buddho Buddho Buddho’ playbook, rinse and repeat, hard to screw up unless you want to get into the murky afterbirth of past lives and kamma (karma), doing Yogic headstands and plotting Ptolemaic cosmic epicycles, trying to explain how anatta (non-self) somehow gets reborn, when there really is nothing there to begin with. But still they do. It’s embarrassing, especially when some of the same ones…

…get all goo-goo-eyed at the mention of ‘this present moment’, which I agree with, if not to the extent that some would take it. So how can you have both, not only within the same school of Buddhism, but within the same person, e.g. the Dalai (not Theravada) Lama? I can find you quotes of him advocating ‘nowness’ while Eckhart Tolle was still sleeping on sofas, and at the same time opining that if someone’s life hasn’t quite worked out right, then it’s because of something they did in a past life—ouch! What gives?

Well, Buddhism is obviously a mess of doctrines and fictions, logic and contradictions, which is not surprising when you consider it, that a full-fledged belief system was attempted some 2500 years ago, when world cities numbered barely a hundred, or two, and populations were barely a hundred million, or two, when civilizations were few, and brand-new, and languages were being written down for the first time…

So that’s what they did. They started writing things down. Wow! This is cool! We can just write anything we want—wham! And now it’s real—sorta’ kinda’ maybe, if you look at it from a certain angle. And so they sometimes wrote too much. And they made stuff up, simply because it sounded good, sounded right. So write it down—before we forget. We all know that feeling, right? There’s only one problem: just because you can make a word, doesn’t mean that the thing it denotes has any intrinsic existence…

And you can even invert the procedure, which is Buddhism’s theoretical brilliance, so that for every human or abstract human-ness, there is merely a collection of adjectives and functional aspects, e.g. forms, sensations, perceptions, predispositions and consciousness that comprise it. These are the five skandhas (khandas), of course, literally ‘heaps’, and that’s what I, you, we, they, she and he are, intrinsically, just heaps! Of whatever…

Throw in a few more choice adjectives and gerunds, like ignorance, craving, clinging and the birth-to-aging process, and pretty soon: bam! You’ve got the twelve links to Dependent Origination, the basic formula that links us all together in this dimension of Becoming that we call home (subsequent commentaries by ‘rebirthers’ have tried to make D.O. all about ‘cyclic existence’ but it’s not clear at all that’s what the Buddha intended, and is not necessary for the inherent logic of the system)…

Brilliant! We’re not nouns! We’re just collections of adjectives, and gerunds, breeding little prepositions running around all over the place! But still there’s the pesky little problem that this can be carried too far, such that you end up creating things out of thin air whose existence can not exactly be proven…

And like Congress trying to get a bill passed in DC, things got in the mix that probably weren’t necessarily intended, e.g. rebirth and past lives, the predominant New Age fad religion of the early First Millennium BCE that ended up in ALL Indian religions, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, probably no accident that resident Brahmins made sure of that, since they had the most to lose, i.e. their high-caste Brahmin status…

And so by the beginning of the Common Era the dangers of linguistic ‘reification’ were apparent to the top Mahayana philosophers such as Nagarjuna, and Candrakirti, who warned against it and other excesses of the mind, while at the same time establishing the ‘mind-only’ Yogacara school of Mahayana, which worked fine until Ch’an/Zen proved to be intellectually a step better, by being a step back, and Pure Land proved to be devotionally a whole lot freakin’ easier than the mental gymnastics of reconciling ’emptiness’ with the demands of real life…

So the synthesis to this dialectic between simple renunciant Theravada and intellectual-devotional Mahayana was no synthesis at all, more like an all-you-can-eat buffet of the lot of them, since ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ borrowed pieces of them all—plus Hinduism, explaining why it’s variously called Tantra-Vajrayana-Esoteric-Mantrayana-Lamaism you-name-it for the $2k question to Double Jeopardy’s oh-so-tricky answer…

And so now Buddhism’s time has come around again, turn-of-a-new-millennium, for the first time in over a thousand years, that the dialectic that once created dozens of schools and tolerated plenty of fools, needs to continue the winnowing process, the process that once started with a self-oriented conservative Theravada no-mind monastery tradition, after 500 years answered by a world-oriented progressive mind-only Mahayana then dumbed-down to devotion, finally by a Tibetan solution straight outta’ Air Asia’s ad playbook: “Now everybody can fly!”

And the debate now moves west, or east, across vast oceans, where Theravada Forest Traditions make good sense, while making inroads, if a bit simplistic and still hampered by the baggage of the past, and Zen is still good, if not quite past ‘Beat Zen’ vs. ‘Square Zen’, and even if the logic, or lack thereof, is still koan-fusing. So what is the synthesis to propel us forward for another 1000 years, to end all debates, at least for a while, to send our frowns packing, and give us a smile of approval?

Taking a cue from the ‘Tibetan’, which back-filled Hinduism by the bucket-load, I’m going to make a wild guess and guess that the synthesis will have to include some Christianity, which Thich Nhat Hanh is already doing, hence all the rap about peace, love, confession and forgiveness. But I’m going to go a step even further, and guess that the ultimate Buddhist synthesis will include the dominant religion of the last half millennium—Science. It’ll have to, or it’ll be meaningless, or almost, anyway…

 

 

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