Friday, June 20, 2008

Buddhism & Monism: A Response to S. Dhammika

(Linda on Mackinac Island)

Yesterday Buddhist scholar S. Dhammika made the comment below re. my blog post “Buddhism as Atheism.” I’m grateful he responded. Here’s his comment, plus my comment back to him. This discussion gets really technical. One reason it does is because Buddhism is so counter-intuitive to Western thinking.

If you want to read further, note two points:

1) S. Dhammika agrees with me that Buddhism is atheism. Of course he is correct about that.

2) S. Dhammika does not find my understanding the Buddhism is metaphysical monism sensible.
I think he is incorrect about that.
S. Dhammika writes - “I am a Buddhist convert from Christianity and have been for 36 years, I have a degree in Buddhist studies, I read the scriptures in their original language and have written some 15 books on the subject. I can assure you, Buddhism is atheistic, in the sense that it gives no significance to the concept of a supreme deity. As for being ‘metaphysical monism’ you have completely lost me there. What one or One? I know of no place in the scriptures where the Buddha says anything like that or that this idea can be intimated from what he said. But keep trying and you’ll get there one day.Kind regards."

Here’s my counter-comment back to him:

”S. Dhammika – thank you for responding. I am certain that you understand the Buddhist scriptures far better than I do, so I’m listening to what you have to say. But I’m a bit surprised that you feel lost re. the idea that Buddhism is metaphysical monism, also called dialectical monism. Let me explain.

Dialectical monism is based on the idea that duality and unity are identical - unity always appears as duality, and duality is always reducible to unity. As the Heart Sutra says, “Form Does not Differ From the Void, And the Void Does Not Differ From Form. Form is Void and Void is Form.”

But note that unity is primordial. Duality is an epiphenomenon of unity. Unity is the reality, duality an appearance, or epiphenomenon. Unity, in Buddhism, prevails. Ultimately, everything that is, is One. Surely Buddhism, as a philosophy, is monistic rather than Western-philosophical/Cartesian-dualistic.

So what about our dualistic experiences, to include our experience of an “I” that now sees objects outside of my own “self?” Here is where I find Buddhist philosopher Owen Flanagan helpful. In The Problem of the Soul, he likens the philosophy of phenomenology to Buddhism’s philosophy or worldview. Flanagan writes, “Many Buddhists are master phenomenologists.” (209) This means that Buddhists concern themselves with appearances, and not with any things that might or might not correspond to those appearances outside of their minds “in an objective world.”
Note this Flanagan quote, which expresses Buddhist philosophy well: “What Buddhism calls “bare attention,” which is hardly bare, involves scrupulous attention to the way things – both the world and our own minds – really seem. Bare attention allows things to reveal themselves as they seem when carefully attended to, and it yields and grounds these observations. But it provides no grounds for speaking about much more than appearances.” (211)

Here the Western subject-object experience evaporates, and experience becomes non-discursive. Here is where Christian mystics like Thomas Merton find connections with Buddhism, and where Heideggarians find “Being” as similar to what Buddhists seem to be saying.

It’s this view of ultimate reality that I find interesting but ultimately incoherent, and false. Surely, it is debatable. And, it’s about a philosophy, or a worldview.

Blessings to you,

John Piippo”