Friday, November 12, 2010

Reality in Buddhism

Different philosophical schools define reality in different ways. Let’s take a look at how Buddhism defines reality. (Based largely on the reading of ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ by Brad Warner.)

Materialism seeks to explain the universe entirely in terms of material phenomenon. In the modern world the materialist would appeal to the physical measurable universe and the laws of nature. For a materialist, everything is composed of elementary particles obeying the laws of nature. Even the human mind is merely a collection of atoms in a certain state. Emotions and feelings are just chemicals bouncing around in the cranium. For a materialist, that’s it. That’s the reality.

Idealism says that everything is a mental construct. This is a difficult idea to understand for some. The idea is that the only thing you really know is what’s in your head. The senses perceive the material world but we make sense of those perceptions only according to what’s in the mind. Thus, in one sense, we have no real knowledge of what’s out there. Only of what the mind thinks is out there.

This distinction becomes even more real when we start talking about things which aren’t really measurable. You see a woman in a bikini. Is that obscene? Depends on your cultural leanings. The obscenity is in your head, not out there in what you see. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder etc. etc.

Buddhism recognizes another kind of reality which is called ‘action’ but is best described as intent. When you intend to buy that new car, it isn’t sensory perception. It is a mental construct but of a special kind. It is different from the desire you might feel to buy the car or the dread you might feel at having to spend all that much money. Intent is a special kind of thought often resulting in action of some sort. Sometimes this action is merely more thoughts.

So in Buddhism, reality is neither of these three. It is an inseparable trio of all three. There is no reality without a material world to sense, or mental constructs to understand it. Finally if there is no intent (for example, the intent to know reality itself) there is no reality.

Zazen practice is all about bringing these three things together in one practice to better understand reality. In Zazen you sit and perceive whatever arises, whether it be sensory perception, sight or sounds or your own thoughts. You examine the nature of your mental constructs. Finally you bring with you the intent to do Zazen and observe what’s happening in the moment and your reactions to it. In the process you hope to better understand reality.

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