Ratnaguna, On Buddhism and Humanity

13 07 2013

[On 25th June, the Philosophy and Religious Practices network came to the University of Chester with its workshop, Buddhism and Human Flourishing. A report of the day is available here. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be continuing the conversation with a series of blog posts reflecting on the workshop. To begin, Ratnaguna summarises the main points of his keynote talk from the workshop.]

Two of Buddha’s main contributions to humanity:
1. Pratitya Samutpada (Conditioned Co-production)

2. Primacy of Mind

1. Variously translated as Conditioned Co-production, Dependent Origination, Dependent Arising, Dependent Co-arising etc. Simply put (The Buddha):

This being, that becomes

From the arising of this, that arises

This not being, that does not become

From the ceasing of this, that ceases

Not simple cause and effect. Multiple cause (conditions) leading to multiple effects (results). Also, multi-layered, many levels.

For example, this conference. Conditions for the arising of this conference: someone had to have the idea. Then perhaps they held a meeting. Everyone at that meeting had to agree to the idea. Then they had to come up with a date. They had to agree on who to ask to talk, then someone had to contact them to ask them. Then they had to advertise it, liaise with the speakers, get the speakers to send abstracts etc etc. But of course, there had to be a Buddhism for there to be a conference on Buddhism and Human Flourishing. So, 2,500 years of Buddhist traditions. And there had to be the Buddha to start the whole thing off. And he had to have parents. So, if two people hadn’t got married and conceived a child, who later became the Buddha – no conference! And the Buddha’s parents had to have parents … there is actually no beginning to the conditions that brought this conference into existence. At 3.30 this afternoon the conference will come to an end – will ‘cease to be’. The condition that brought this conference into existence will cease, and so will the conference. And the conference will in turn be part of the conditions for the arising of things in the future. So as well as a result of previous conditions, it will be one of the causes of future events.

So this is the Buddha’s main insight. Everything that exists, does so because of the existence of other things. Just like this conference. Easy to understand isn’t it? Careful!

Venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: ‘It’s amazing, lord, it’s astounding, how deep this dependent co-arising is, and how deep its appearance, and yet to me it seems as clear as clear can be’. [The Buddha:] ‘Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Deep is this dependent co-arising, and deep its appearance. It’s because of not understanding and not penetrating this Dhamma that this generation is like a tangled skein, a knotted ball or string, like matted rushes and reeds, and does not go beyond transmigration, beyond the planes of deprivation, woe, and bad destinations’.

Easy to understand intellectually, hard to perceive. To live.

The Buddha also said that events don’t happen randomly. An apple seed doesn’t grow into a melon. A pebble doesn’t become a flower. Conditionality is ordered. It happens in a certain way. The Buddha didn’t offer an explanation as to why the universe ‘acts’ in this way. It just does! And that’s all we need to know.

All we need to know for what? To alleviate suffering. That’s all the Buddha was concerned with. He didn’t concern himself, for instance, with how the world (universe) began, or how it will end. Because, even if it were possible to know these things, that knowledge wouldn’t help us to alleviate suffering.

What this insight tells us is that the world – existence – is profoundly relational. Everything depends on other things for their existence. Nothing exists independently. The universe is a network of conditions, each ‘thing’ or event being conditioned by a multiplicity of other things or events, and, in turn, conditioning multiple other things or events.

Also, the world – existence – is dynamic – what we usually perceive as ‘things’ – independent, static – are processes – transient, impermanent.

As Heraclitus wrote – “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Everything is like that river. You never stand on the same floor twice. Never walk through the same door twice. Never meet the same person twice.

(I think it was A.N. Whitehead who said you can never stand in the same river once. Things are radically impermanent).

2. Primacy of Mind.

First two verses of the Dhammapada:

1. Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows even as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

2. Experiences are preceded by mind, led by mind, and produced by mind. If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.

What did the Buddha mean by an ‘impure’ mind: A mind tainted by greed, hatred and delusion. A pure mind is free of G, H and D, and is coloured by contentment, generosity, friendliness and awareness. Prof Harvey is going to say more about this in his talk).

This is the basis of Buddhist ethics. Story of Zen abbott and deer. Buddhist ethics = ethics of intention, or motivation. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare – Hamlet.

Buddhist ethics based on Law of Karma, which is PS in realm of the mind:

If you act from G. H or D, then you’ll suffer.
If you act from their opposites, you’ll flourish.

By the way – fallacy that everything that happens to us is due to our past actions (karma).

Everything we think, say and do conditions our future, but not everything that we experience is result of our past actions – because other strands of conditionality are also at work – i.e. natural laws and other people’s actions.

So there are two kinds of mental conditionality: ‘bright’ and ‘dark’.

The ‘dark’ kind of conditionality is cyclic – it goes round and round – pleasure – pain, love – so it’s called samsara – the round, the wheel of life. Have you noticed how you tend to end up in the same mental states again and again, or the same arguments with your partner? Samsara!

The ‘bright’ kind of conditionality is more like a spiral – one skilful (positive) mental state or emotion, leads to another, and that to another. Kindness leads to more kindness. Joy leads to more joy. Here’s a poem that expresses this:

From Blossoms
From Blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar taste of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Li-Young Lee

Returning to Pratitya Samutpada – I said existence is profoundly relational. So there are no ‘things’, only processes conditioned by other processes. Similarly, there are no ‘people’ – only relationships (i.e. no fixed, static being, but only processes
interrelating).

The Buddhist project is to understand this – not only intellectually (although this is a good first step)
but perceptually. And to live from this insight.

We do this by following the path (Dharma). Simplest formulation: 3 fold way.

1. Sila – behaviour, ethics. To live as if this were the case, even though you don’t yet perceive the world in this way. This is the conditioning factor for:

2. Samadhi – meditation, concentration, absorption. To bring the mind to stillness, absorption, tranquillity, to prepare the mind to perceive the world in this way. (Gabriel Marcel “there can be no contemplation without a kind of inward regrouping of one’s resources, or a kind of ingatheredness; to contemplate is to ingather oneself in the presence of whatever is being contemplated.”). Absorption is the conditioning factor for:

3. Prajna – wisdom. Seeing things how they really are, i.e. conditioned, relational, processional, impermanent, without fixed, independent being.

Seeing things this way has an effect on our behaviour – we become more ethical because we can now see, feel, perceive more clearly how related we are with others. Living more ethically enables us to become stiller and calmer in meditation, leading to more wisdom etc in a virtuous circle, a spiral.

When we see the world in this way we are wise. We are also kind, loving, affectionate, because we’ve realised, perceived, our connectedness with others. Not as an intellectual proposition, but as a living reality.

And compassionate, because we see that others are still living under the delusion of a fixed, and static self-hood, and also as essentially separate. And this is suffering.

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