It’s the buddhist way to look at ourselves and the universe: conditioned arising. Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula calls it the buddhist theory of relativity. There’s no maths involved in what comes next:
When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceases, that ceases.
Because of conditioned arising, nothing is absolute or independent. Not even consciousness itself. Conditioned arising is a circle, not a chain of events. In this theory, there’s no room for free will. There simply can’t be. Will cannot be on its own, free from it all. Will is just a thought, and as such it’s conditioned, like every other thought. Nothing can arise without conditions, away from cause and effect.Free will is just another idea, like all the other big words: god, the soul, justice, reward and freedom. Personally, I think the philosophers who posit free will have ulterior motives. They may be doing it to save their concept of self. Because when you’ve accepted conditioned arising and the fact that there’s nothing outside of it, buddhism goes just a little bit further. It asks:
“Who are you?”
There is no immortal substance in man or outside. No I, no self, no ego, no soul. All these are mental projections. Conditioned, and fleeting, like everything else. (This is why I’m always surprised when people think buddhism can be reconciled with some romantic thorougly westernised views on reincarnation.)
In the words of zen master Dainin Katagiri:
“Everything is constantly changing. No moment ever appears again in exactly the same way. None of the 6,400,099,180 moments of a day can be repeated, and nobody knows what will happen next.”
In his view, at the bottom of human suffering is time. We have big brains, our awareness cannot keep up with the quick changes of conditioned arising, so we feel a gap between ourselves and time. Because of that, we see ourselves as completely separate from everything else in the universe. This delusion then makes us feel dissatisfied.
Buddha on Self
The buddha was often asked (if you believe these legends, but it doesn’t matter at all if you don’t) to comment on the Self. People seemed to have an inkling that buddhism would destroy their sense of self. And that worried them. Like when a monk respectfully asked Gautama:
“Sir, is there a case where one is tormented when something permanent within oneself is not found?”
Meaning: “Is it OK to be scared about all this?” And, according to legend, Gautama answered:
“A man hears the Tathagata (=buddha) preaching the doctrine aiming at the complete destruction of all speculative views…aiming at the extinction of “thirst” (we might say: desire), aiming at detachment, cessation, Nirvana. And then that man thinks: “I will be annihilated, I will be destroyed, I will be no more.” So there is a case when one is tormented when something permanent within oneself is not found.”
Meaning: “You can be as scared as you like, but that’s not going to change anything.”
According to the buddha, there was no self to be found. This was a radical departure from the brahman idea of atman, the soul. The buddha posits five aggregates (skandha’s in Sanskrit):
Our notion of self comes from the combination of these five aggregates, apart from them, there is no self to be found. I once asked Stephen Batchelor and an expert on life in northern India in 2500 years ago, if anyone else mentioned these skandha’s before the buddha, but it appears they did not. As for the place of consciousness as one of the skandha’s I don’t think the buddha posits an individual consciousness at all, but that is my personal opinion.
When the buddha had said all this, his followers expressed a fear that he would die. They wanted him to leave instructions on how to carry on. The buddha felt for them, but based on his own teachings, he could not give them any. That is why he said: “Be your own refuge: be a light onto yourself”. I think this is expressed beautifully in the Diamond Sutra:
So you should view this fleeting world
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream
It’s possible that you have been reading this and are about to ask: “Where do the Four Noble Truths come in?” I must confess I’ve left them out on purpose. I heard Stephen Batchelor speak, almost two years ago, and I was tempted by his view that they might neither be Noble, nor True. If you would like to know more, please read his article: “A secular buddhism”. As he states, secular buddhism 2.0 is a way of life, not a metaphysical belief system. I tend to agree with him on that one.
This post was inspired by a post on bloggingisaresponsibility called “The Neglected Philosophies: Pyrrhonism.” I’m still working on that. It’s brilliant.
David Yerle’s poetic post “The war between mind and matter” also made me think. To be honest, I would love to say that I was influenced by what he’s going to tell us next…but I feel compelled to concede we cannot know the future.
If you were to tell me what you make of all this, dear reader, it would be much appreciated.