Sunday October 22, 2006
Recently there was an interesting discussion on the Network of Engaged Buddhists e-mail list concerning dementia and dharma practice. The discussion involved an interesting exploration of whether dharma practice is dependent upon brain-states or whether it is independent. The general consensus in the discussion seemed to be that dharma practice is about something that is somehow beyond to the reach of the physical world, that it cannot be merely about those things that are observable or detectable here within the world. It must be about something longer-term, something more enduring, even – it was suggested – something indestructible.
This claim that dharma practice must be about “something more”, from one point of view, makes sense. Sometimes our lives are narrow, our concerns even narrower, and we do not live as fully as we might. There is indeed more to life. Sitting in meditation, it is possible to notice that life is infinitely more complex than our everyday narratives make out. As the narratives die away and we begin to become a little more aware, we see that there is more – far more – than we habitually take for granted. What, however, I find utterly baffling is the idea that this “something more” must lie somewhere beyond the reach of the physical world. I don’t really think even I understand what this means.
Think of it like this. Let us posit a non-material mind. Either this mind has effects in the world or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t have any effects in the world, then there is no way of knowing whether it exists or not, and even if we take a gamble and say we believe (necessarily without evidence) that it exists, its existence cannot do anything at all. Thus the only kind of non-material mind that seems worth having is one that has effects in the world. These effects, being in the world, should be amenable to systematic study, so that we can then throw light upon the cause (“non-material mind”) that lies behind these effects. This study might be arduous and difficult, but in principle it should be possible. So let us say that we trace all the effects of this posited entity, the non-material mind. Now two questions present themselves. Firstly, how can we be sure that these effects are all attributable to this particular entity that we have posited, if this entity is beyond the physical? If we were to be certain, we would first have to rule out all other possible effects within the world. Secondly, however, even if we did attain to a systematic description of these effects, then I can’t see how this would be different from a systematic description of what happens in the world, rather than a systematic description of something beyond the world.
It is for this reason that when Buddhists talk of Mind with a capital M, when they write that we all have an indestructible Awakened Heart, when they claim that consciousness is an entity that can survive death, I simply do not understand how it is possible to make these claims.
This is perhaps why I do not see my dharma practice as religious. When it comes to religious claims such as these, I suspect that I have the equivalent of a tin ear. Or perhaps it is because when I look out of the window – as I did the other day – and see the poplar tree lit up with evening sun against a dark, brooding sky, and a rainbow arcing across the sky, I do not feel that this material world is insufficient, I do not feel as if I need anything more.
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