Thursday, September 16, 2010

Trance-End-Dance

I would like to start this sharing with a play on words, that the word "transcendence" can be seen as "trance-end-dance". What this implies is that we are already in some kind of trance, some kind of mental, emotional, and sensory experience, and that this experience can end. I think that Buddha would have called this trance by the name "the trance of self", while the Hindus would have called it "ahamkara" (the self created by activity or doing). Inside this trance is a certain kind of "feeling of self" and this self feels that it is isolated and separate from other selves, and longs for companionship, kinship, or unity with other selves. This kind of self deeply longs to bond with another self in a loving romantic relationship to feel a very deep unity with another being, to not feel alone, and when such a loving partner dies, such a self can feel deeply alone, abandoned, in pain, and even end up dying from the feeling of loss.

Part of what Buddhism is has to do with "meditation", with entering this trance with "beginners mind" or what the Taoists call "the mind of a child or newborn babe". This is a mind without preconceptions, able to look without conditioning, and see things for what they are. I consider this approach the path of science. I would say that science is a philosophically precise formulation of looking and learning without any mental conditioning whatsoever. My favorite way of defining the stance of science is a mind that seeks to understand the world through an experimental process. If you take any assertion about the world and call it "A" and if you take the negation of the assertion about the world and call "not A", then what observation, experiment, or test can you do to determine which is true. What observation can be made to determine whether A is true or not A is true? There has to be something, some difference, between the assertion and negation that can be discerned. Otherwise the scientific principle of the "identity of indiscernibles" applies. This principle states that if you cannot tell two things apart, then they are the same thing or at least must be treated as the same thing. This principle is what we use to assume that we are meeting the same person each day.

Behind science is this simplicity, of checking with observed experience to see what is true, of looking at a thought that asserts something about reality, and pondering what kind of observation can make a difference to determine whether it is true or it is false. If I hear that "the car Joe drives is green in color", then I can determine this thought's truth or falsehood by looking to see what color the car is. Even when I cannot check this directly, I can check indirectly by seeing what is consistent with this assumption. Even though I may not have gone to Africa, I can assume it exists, because maps are drawn which include it and other places that I have been, because friends or friends of friends have talked about going there, and these people talk about the place in consistent ways, sometimes even naming favorite locations, places worth avoiding, and even a particular cafe which serves a particularly good beverage. Occasionally some inconsistency of testimony may appear, the testimonies do not have to be completely consistent to be accurate. For instance, some can mention a place and omit the mentioning the cafe on the same street that others had experienced it. In this case, some reason is sought to explain this contradiction. In one case, maybe, it may be "time indexing" that the cafe ceased to exist after a certain time, that it closed down and opened up under new ownership with a new name, and no longer had the delightful beverage that appeared in the earlier time indexed stories of the market street.

Behind this way of thinking is a sense that experience is somehow consistent, that it is logical in the sense that it does not have unresolvable contradictions. It may have paradoxes, which are seeming contradictions, but they can be understood, their deeper consistency felt, and do not pose a long term issue. One paradox is the Buddhist idea that prosperity can be created by being generous with possessions, rather than hoarding possessions. There is an egoic logic that believes that when we give something away that we always lose. There is a deeply logic that can see that when we share that more wealth is created for everyone. This is because when I share an experience I still have it and now you have it too. The experience in some sense doubles by sharing. If I own a boat and let you enjoy it with me, I feel more prosperous. The boat seems more valuable because you are enjoying it too. There is a sense in which you own the boat with me for the time that it is shared and are richer because of this. The boat is also valuable, because it shares in the ocean, the sunlight, the waves, and the air. It relates to all these things that freely give themselves and it freely gives itself to them, dancing along the surface of the water. It is like I agree to take care of the boat because it is my possession and my responsibility, that I take care of it for others too, and others are doing the same with their possessions. When wealth is shared this way, then one boat becomes many boats with many owners. If it is hoarded, then everyone must labor to buy a boat and is poorer as a result, since they cannot earn and spend enough money to own very many things. Sharing is a faster and greater way to increase wealth.

I mention the above example, because the scientific mind can be both precise and flexible. Sometimes the scientific mind has been rigid and has not been able to tackle issues like whether or not a supreme personal god exists. I think that it can deal with such issues and also that if you are on the path of science that you commit to determining whether or not such a supreme entity exists by using the "scientific method". If you take the two assertions, "god exists" and "god does not exist" what observation could make a difference and tip the scales in favor of one being true or the other being true? I find this question interesting, because a lot of humans inquiring about this have sometimes drawn a blank. Yet here is what should be a very big difference. Here is the idea of some being who is all knowing, all seeing, present everywhere, all loving, creator of everything, and able to do anything imaginable in a single thought instant in the form of a miracle. It seems that determining whether or not such a majestic being exists should be easier to determine than whether Joe's car is green. There should be some difference between this being existing and this being not existing. If you take the atheistic assertion that there is no god like this and that the universe is an accidental creation of impersonal forces, that life on Earth appeared by random chance and might get snuffed out by random chance, by anything from a meteor crashing into it, a plague wiping out all humans, another species superceding us the way that we superceded other species, the sun eventually going out, planetary resources getting exhausted, or us just dying in our own pollution, that the two viewpoints should be discernable from each other. There should be some fairly obvious observation or test to determine which of these radically different views is true.

The approach that the Buddha took, however, was to jettison both these assumptions, and, indeed, all speculative views about the universe and just look and learn without them. There is a Zen Koan that goes, "Does god exist? If you answer 'yes' or 'no' you lose your Buddha nature." While this koan puzzles some academic scientists, it is a strictly scientific koan. All of the koans of Zen are really pure science, but this science evolved through learning how to look, how to see, through the trance of ANY assumption. The mind gets very attached to views, even kills for the sake of a "right" view against a "wrong" view. Religious wars have been the most intense wars of history, and even when religion has not been the issue in a war, then wars have took on at least the rationalizations of a religion, often setting in motion the first battle in the name of some personal god and hearing the name of a rival god being shouted from the other side.

There are some who have thought that Buddha was atheistic. Indeed, a true scientist does not start with assuming an assumption as true. The Buddha started even earlier than an assumption. He jettisoned all assumptions. But he did not disbelieve in god either. He came to an "I do not know" and stayed with it. But once free from both the "theistic trance" and the "atheistic trance", from having any belief as a reference point for looking, free from looking without needing to even prove or test any assumption, then what did he see? When you do not even hold the idea of testing whether or not a supreme personal god exists, and just look at life, then what is seen? When a child is playing with things and just experiencing life, what is the nature of this curiousity? The child is free to learn a lot of things. The inquiry is open ended. It is not intentionally directed at proving anything in particular. This creative state was felt to be valuable in its own right. This is the first learning of the Buddha. He then directed his attention to watching the movement of human sorrow to see if it could naturally come to an end, to understand how and why it arises, and if it is necessary for human life. After looking, looking, and looking for 40 days and 40 nights, sorrow simply vanished of its own accord. It needed to be kept alive by "the three poisons of the mind", by addictive craving, resistive negativity, and obscuring delusion.

What I have found interesting is that what Buddha found is often debated in religious discussion in questions like "is sorrow necessary", "sorrow has value", "I have no intention of ending sorrow," etc. When such debates go on, the mind is simply coming from its assumptions, beliefs, and religious stances. It is not a scientific mind that is looking into the present moment of experience and learning. The scientific mind really does not debate, does not clash one opinion against another, but looks at reality to learn from it. Any assumption whatsoever is put aside to look and see. Even when a scientist makes a mental conclusion, he or she can put it aside to look again, to test again, and sometimes he or she gets a different answer. It is not that the old observations and conclusions must be invalid. Sometimes further observation may refine the seeing, deepen the sense of the principle, find new nuances in the how reality works. The assumptions form a "model of reality" or "a map", and the map can gain more refinement and detail, new roads, new cities, new elevations and new geographic features can be added to the map. There is also the need to update the map for temporal changes. To update the map for account for changes in roads, people moving out of or into a city to change its population, and even natural activity like earthquakes and volcanoes radically changing the landscape. Having a rigid belief system, having faith in this belief system, is like having a map that you do not ever plan to change or update.

What I found interesting is that Madhyamika Buddhist philosophers and Quantum physicists think similarly, in some way, about the nature of reality. Both the Buddhist philosophers and Quantum physicists are very sensitive to any questioned assumptions that are made about reality. Sometimes we make an assumption that influences what we see and what we are testing for. This is why Buddha did not even want the "lens" of "does god exist" determining what he was looking for. It is, in some sense, a very specific and strange thing to look for. In some ways, this god is obviously not existent. If you look at what people have believed this god to have wanted them to do, like burning heretics at the stake, torturing people for not believing in a certain religion, and rumored to throw all nonbelievers into hell, then this god does not seem to be very loving, seems very prejudiced against people who do not believe in it. People, too, do not seem to agree very much about what this god wants them to believe, which book or religion it says is the true and right testimony it gave to the world, etc. Empirically, even though every religion believes that god could have done it, this god seems to always work through humans, rather than simply drop a definitive book from the sky or teleport a book into the hands of everybody. All the books do not agree on anything. Even though this god is rumored to be perfect, there are logical contradictions, primitive moral rules that look barbaric or arbitrary to us in the 21st century, and even different versions with different books and parts included and excluded from them. It is really quite a mess. Most philosophers who are inquiring about whether or not a god exists, usually are forgiving for this "human level" of religion, and look beyond it. The concept has to be purified of all this stuff, some more scientifically accurate definition of god needs to be asserted. But when this happens, we have a problem here too. There are many different opinions here to. Is this god pure spirit and totally immaterial? Is this god part of creation? Is creation part of god? Is this god loving or impersonal? Could such a god punish anyone? Does this god even care? Can this god be personal enough to write a book and require obedience to it on the threat of punishment and still be loving? Would we come up with such an idea if we did not have all these belief systems surrounding us, endlessly trying to convince us that they are the one true way to salvation? There is still a mess even on this level and many philosophers have arrived at different conclusions regarding all these things.

Some people throw up their hands and give up on trying to figure out all these things. Other wade through all the beliefs and try to test them, try to find out what makes each viewpoint tick, to see what can be proven and what can be disproven. Others look at why people believe in any of these views. Sometimes the answer is just "faith". But it is curious to a scientist that most people have faith in whatever religion their parents had. Some people do have a conversion experience, usually at the hands on an evangelical religion, but sometimes they are relatively alone and unpressured. Some people have more than one conversion experience and assume only the last one is real. Some people get converted back and forth. Rarely are such conversions a rational process. It is usually some emotional and social experience. This is not to discount those experiences. It is just to look at how and why people get faith. In philosophy, if an argument "overproves", then it is invalid. By overproving, it means that the same argument can be used to prove various contradictory viewpoints. If the same argument proves both "A" and "not A" then it cannot be used to distinguish which one is true. Since "faith" is used to prove Christianity (A) and Islam (not A or visa versa), then it cannot be used to prove either. Some relevant difference between faith-a and faith-b needs to be distinguished. Whatever that difference is becomes important, not "faith".

What Buddha did, to me, is that he "just stayed in the seeing". Trying to arrive at a conclusion was less important than eliminating every assumption and having an seeing that is not obscured by them. I remember one friend who was studying meditation with an advanced Tibetan Lama. She exclaimed one time, "I have realized emptiness (aka freedom from concepts)!" The Lama then said, "What would your experience look like if you even peeled off this label?" We can be in any concept and try to look for the corresponding experience to this concept or we can look without the lens of any concept. It is tricky, because we can have subtle concepts behind our seeing, including the concept of having no concepts behind our seeing or even imagining that there is a "self" doing the looking, somehow standing behind the looking and doing the looking, yet this self has never been seen or verified to exist, and no one knows what this self would even look like if it did exist. It took 7 years of meditation for Buddha to finally and truly look without any concepts and yet still hold an intention to understand what sorrow was. Even then it took 40 complete days or 960 hours to see what was sorrow. During this time, part of what needs to be done is to "tune the lens", to open it up to see what is relevant to what sorrow is and to close out what is not relevant to what sorrow is. He opened up enough to include the activity of consciousness, thought, emotions, sensations, and body interacting with the world through sensory and motor experience. He opened up to different levels and kinds of consciousness, some of them free from sorrow and some of them not free from sorrow. He saw sorrow as caused by the three poisons of the mind and then saw the three poisons of the mind were tethered to an illusory sense of self which fed them and kept them alive. If one ended this illusion, then the three poisons also ended, and then sorrow ended. The sorrow itself was not a "thing" that one could eliminate, but was a process or activity that was dependent on certain conditions for its arising and in its turn was a cause for other conditions to arise (like sickness, old age, dearth, bardo, and rebirth). It was related to how a sense object joins a sense organ to produce a sensory experience, how the experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, how this experience activates a conditioned reaction of avoid, attach, or ignore, and how these basic reactions become craving (attach), negativity (resist), and delusion (ignore). He advocated "remaining with the sensation" (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) and letting go of any conditioned reaction and all the "I" thoughts, volitional intentions, that drive us to do things, seeing that all these thoughts have a kind of pretend self that is not us. When we are in "empty self", then a "first thought" arises, which is not conditioned and which is therefore free from the karma, or chain reaction, of sorrow. This "empty self" is unconditioned, and is part of the "unborn, unchanging, and undying". This "reality" is what Buddha might call "god". If you take the word "god" as an "empty label" for some all pervading sacred reality that is fairly free from concepts about what it may or may not be. It can be felt. There is a quality of emptiness of concepts, crystal clear silence beyond the traffic of thoughts, assumptions, arguments for and against endless numbers of positions, a bliss that is not related to any sensation at all, and a sense of presence which is what we are and which does not feel like a personality self constructed by having mental and emotional opinions about everything. The empty self is "cool" because of the fever of speculative thought has come to an end, it feels like the brain cells can finally calm down and not have to analyze anything. The trance of the personality self has come to an end and then life becomes a trance-end-dance.

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