It’s no secret that I’m a (nominal) buddhist. It’s probably more accurate to say I practice the dharma. I have no interest in being seen as religious, or even spiritual in the sense that most people think of it. I’m more of a scientist, and my field happens to be consciousness, studied from the inside out, which, when you think about it, is pretty much the only game in town.

I’ve avoided talking about buddha-dharma in a sweeping way for a long time, partly out of respect for my teacher, and partly out of a desire to not confine things to a specific methodology too much.

However I recently wrote up a bit of overview essay for a friend who is getting into it, and I thought it might be of some interest here. I tried to challenge myself to write a summary as short and concentrated as I could get it, and that could hopefully make it’s way around and dispel some of the idiocy that’s grown up around buddhism. I expect this to go through some revisions but here’s a second draft:

___________

Okay: you probably know, or have heard in passing, the four noble truths      ( life is ‘suffering’, the cause of suffering is desire, there is an escape, and the noble eightfold path is the escape)

The first interesting thing, is that this formal structure of recitation follows the traditional method of the ayurvedic doctor in Indian culture: first the diagnosis of the illness, then the cause, then the prospect for recovery, then the method of treatment. so it’s psychological and spiritual medicine first and foremost.

gotama-the-buddha identified a certain psychological condition in human beings and developed a way to treat it and eventually eliminate it. this is not mythology, or cosmology, or creationism, or metaphysics. if you think this, you lose. do not pass go, do not collect $200. he says this himself and also said anyone who diverged into such things was not teaching his way. those of you who fail this standard of teaching can find your own way to the door. thanks for coming out.

now , the other main thing to remember is that buddhism is kind of built on top of the traditional hindu yoga, but significantly streamlined and clarified.

gotama studied extensively with several masters of yoga, and lived a withering existence as an ascetic for several years, to the point of near death. this led him to understand that the extremities of the yoga path were not necessary or sufficient for his purpose. the presumption, at least from the perspective of the original texts, is that you will cultivate some of the qualities of the yogi to facilitate learning the dharma, and absorb the crucial insights, but you don’t need to be some magical saddhu or anything, just a bare minimum of foundational skill. this is important later.

now these three ‘crucial insights’ I mentioned are known as the marks of existence; these original words get mistranslated and such a lot, so lets go back to the beginning: the first and biggest misunderstanding is dukkha, or what is usually called suffering ( note this is the same word up in the 4 noble truths), but is really a very general term for a disturbance or dis-ease. dukkha is most commonly used in sanskrit to describe a potters wheel that doesn’t spin properly. it’s misaligned, and squeaks, or what have you. it describes a fundamentally misaligned condition, not abject misery and despair. it means that things that you think are supposed to satisfy don’t do what you think they will. it’s like a bent axle on the car, except you’re the car. in this context it means that by craving for the experience of the world, ( craving or trishna has a fairly specific meaning too), your consciousness is fundamentally bent, and from this proceeds all the things we usually think of as miserable and painful. this doesn’t mean that physical pain doesn’t exist. but I think you’ll agree perspective makes all the difference when it comes to pain.

next is anata , or not-self. this simply means that nothing stands alone and exists in isolation from all other things. all phenomena are dependently arisen. everything that exists is composed of parts that came together, and forces that move through and around them. any so-called ‘self” or stable entity is just an arbitrary line drawn around an endless unfolding chain of events. any ‘thing’ is just made up of other ‘things’. ‘you’ are not the source or final end point of anything. everything you do or don’t do is the result of what came together to make you, here, now, doing or not doing whatever it is you’re up to. those who posit some kind of adversarial relationship to your ‘ego’ are just confused. the ego-as-identity doesn’t exist in the first place. it’s thinking that you ever had one that’s the problem.

and finally anicca, or impermanence, which is just the other side of the last one. everything fluxes, everything changes, nothing is ever, ever truly static. the changes might be so slow or subtle as to be invisible, but they are always there. we cling or thirst for things because they are constantly changing on us. we sense their instability as well as the instability of ourselves. I guess in the big taoist or dialectical kind of sense impermanence implies that in life all things eventually turn into their opposite. this is why clinging is futile. eventually anything you cling to will turn into the exact opposite of what you wanted.

…really, these three are aspects of a single kind of fundamental ignorance, and that is what holds them in place. you suffer because you cling to the illusion of a static unchanging self that exists separate from the causal chain of reality, and this warps everything that you experience. you don’t see what’s really going on because you’re too hung up on the dysfunctional cycle of your normal experience to want to see what’s really going on. you chase things that you think will remove the sense of dis-ease, but cannot, because the dis-ease does not originate in phenomena, and cannot be resolved by phenomena. changing the road will not affect the bent axle, right? if you drive perfectly, you might be able to conceal the condition of your vehicle for awhile, but not very long.

if you take this metaphor a step further, people approach life as if the perfect sequence of potholes will allow them to bend the axle of their car back the right way again, except they don’t realize that’s what they’re trying to do; they think its the road that’s fucked up, and the car is just fine. it’s this profound confusion about what’ going on, and what’s causing it that makes all the difference. that’s ignorance.

okay fine, so it comes down to ignorance, how do we deal with that? the answer is to understand the nature of reality clearly enough to eradicate these confusions in our consciousness. we do this by the structured 8 fold path. but we can simplify that even further, because really it’s just three elements that you need to cultivate and the eight fold path is an expansion of those ideas.

prajna, sila, samatha

the main thing is prajna, or transcendent insight. this is what clears out the ignorance and eliminates suffering. this was originally cultivated through precise observation of reality and sensations moment-to-moment, but there are other ways. because the fundamental features of reality ( that they are impermanent, have no self, and do not resolve dis-ease ) apply to absolutely everything, you can achieve ultimate insights by looking at anything clearly enough.

everyone has fleeting insights. the problem is holding them long enough to get through and really dispel ignorance. to do that you need a high level of concentration or samatha. note that this is the same root word as samadhi. it refers not just to mental concentration in the ordinary sense, but the mental condition of singular focus and clarity. it describes the kind of mental force you need to take fleeting insights and really break though. this is why on most retreats they’ll spend at least a couple days doing calm abiding or other jhanna practices. otherwise you’ll be too scattered and weak mentally to assimilate any clear observations you might attain.

you might know that ‘yoga’ literally means ‘union’ or unification. that’s kind of a hint that the limbs of yoga as they are traditionally taught culminate in samadhi, which is the ultimate state of concentration. the buddha’s thing was to take one further step beyond that, and clarify the true mechanism of what the yogis thought of as moksha or liberation. it also means you can do the job with a lot less concentration than it takes to achieve a true samadhi. a good solid grasp on the 1st jhanna alone is sufficient to get some good insights and hold them.

but you can’t live on retreat, right? and even if you are on retreat, most people spend the time worrying, whining, and spinning their wheels about issues of very little importance. and these things simply take over daily life. under these conditions the only way to cultivate enough yogic discipline to achieve significant concentration is to first clean up your act and quit flailing around in an emotional frenzy. this is where sila or conduct comes in. it describes how to change the way you talk think and act. it’s about calming your life down enough to really concentrate and achieve fundamental wisdom and not spend all your time living a jerry springer episode. in the larger sense it’s also about how to practice skillful means and deal with the world in a positive, compassionate way.

it really is as simple as that; chill out, concentrate, observe carefully and dispel your ignorance. life properly understood is not free of pain, but of the fundamental dis-ease of not seeing things clearly and not being in sync with reality.

there. as simple as I can make it. questions?

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12 thoughts on “A confused stagger through the dharma

  1. Hi Zac
    I’ve read some of your stuff regarding buddhism and the ego, and I’m taking a class on philosophy of science with a lot of epistemology and such. These combined set some gears in motion, and I came up with this:

    1.
    Referencing a standard matrix/brain-in-a-jar argument, I conclude that it’s impossible to be certain of the “truth” of anything your senses tell you. I.e. You cannot argue from sense experience to the existence of the world you see.

    2.
    For this reason, I conclude that the only certainty I have, is that there is an experience. I cannot be sure of anything else, such as where the experience comes from, or if it accurately reflects a postulated “reality”.

    3.
    I notice that my experience includes an experience of self and so ask the question “can I from my experience of self conclude with certainty that I have a self?”

    4.
    The answer to that would be no. Again, you cannot argue from the experience to anything external, so I would have to accept that my self is simply another experience, on par with any other. I cannot prove that the self exists seperately from the experience of self.

    5.
    The objection occurred to me that if there is an experience, there must be someone having that experience, whether that someone is what I consider my self or simply something else experiencing itself as me.

    6.
    However, I then wonder; how do I know for sure that an experiencer is necessary for the experience to occur? Granted, normally it feels that way (i.e., that is part of my experience), but since the existence of an experiencer is what’s being questioned, using that as an argument is really circular.
    Simply experiencing something doesn’t prove its independent existence, only that it’s part of the experience.

    7.
    The idea that the experience implies someone having it, seems to me entirely semantic, based in a language that I know does not always accurately reflect the truth (whatever that means). So, I go with Occam’s Razor:

    8.
    Two competing hypotheses:
    a) There is an experience
    b) There is an experience and an experiencer

    Given that the idea of the experiencer can never be verified or falsified (since any attempt to do so would be part of the experience), it does not meet the standards of a scientific theory. Also, postulating this ever unknowable experiencer gives no additional explanatory power to the theory.
    The experiencer isn’t necessary and therefore, by Occam’s Razor, we should prefer the simpler hypothesis of a).

    9.
    And there we are: There is only the experience. There is no real self independent of experience. Any postulation of such is a purely a matter of belief.

    I would love to hear any comment you have on this, especially if you can see a flaw in my argumentation, or if you see some way of making it clearer and more easily understandable. I often find I have trouble explaining my thoughts to others, so any help on that point would be most appreciated.

  2. no flaws I can discern. you basically re encapsulated decartes. or vendanta, from a certain perspective.

    you sort of presume an experiencer in order to question your experience, but eventually you can push back to question the experiencer itself, and realize that it’s an unnecessary postulate.

    it’s more rigorous to frame it in terms of awareness. an experiencer has to have some kind of circumscribed boundary, but awareness can be an undifferentiated field that perception of individual experience can grow up within.

  3. I’m not quite sure what you mean by that. I feel like you have a point beyond simply a change in vocabulary, but I’m not sure what it is.
    Could you elaborate?

  4. you might have to clarify your question. what exactly don’t you understand? just so i don’t have to explain the whole metaphysics of descartes

  5. What I mean is the last bit; “awareness can be an undifferentiated field that perception of individual experience can grow up within.”

  6. well, if you let go of the idea that there has to be someone or something that ‘has’ awareness, and just accept that awareness permeates everything, then the various phenomena that masquerade as ‘self’ or ‘experiencer’ are not as confusing. they are just more stuff, not the source of awareness. we just have to sort out that the awareness we have does not originate in the self.

  7. Ok, got it now.
    Thanks for looking it over for me. I always get the feeling that I’ve made some obvious error that I just can’t see.

    And sorry for the name switching 🙂 I use both and forgot which one I had going.

  8. these comments are sort of a can of worms, actually.

    zac, your piece is really good, especially because it isn’t full of the therapuetic buddhism bullshit but is likewise very accessible.

    lykex, “awareness” is something like compassion, samadhi, subject-consciousness, natural state of mind, that are background phenomena–really, phenomena is the wrong word, noumena is better–so closely tied into the awareness that while they are conditional calling them “conditional” is almost entirely wrong. and as you might imagine, there are millennia-long unresolved debates about them by people who are experientially familiar with them. It’s an hole-brained idea to say that some things defy “rational discourse” since often that’s not the case but these are close to actually impossible to discuss in anything but inaccurate parabolic terms.

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