Some Reflections on Bench-top Buddhism
Dr. Stephen Fulder
The postmodern world has dug the grave of the narrow materialist perspective on the world as we know it, denigrating it as obsessively reductionist, limited, illusory and destructive of the planet. Instead there is a range of alternative views and a great deal of confusion as to what might replace materialism. One broadly held view, almost a 21st. century spiritual dogma, is that if you don’t hold to materialism, you must give primary place to the domain of consciousness.
Consciousness as a ground, a universal, a Creator, or a kind of glue holding together the observer and the world. The specialty of Buddhism, among all the great spiritual teachings on this planet, is the inner exploration of consciousness and mind, in the broadest sense. Thus Buddhist teachings are often recruited by modern thinkers, to question the reductionist paradigm, while at the same time supporting the primary place of consciousness. The Buddhist teachings, together with compatible modern discoveries such as quantum physics, offer a more dynamic and interconnected vision of reality, beyond the materialist view of the universe as a vast population of ‘things’. But here we may well be falling into a trap that has caught so many since the first Western translators of Buddhist texts. The trap consists in the assumption that Buddhism offers alternative liberating models and concepts on the nature of reality which can free our constrained Western thinking. This may indeed occur when we meet such different teachings from the ones we have grown up with. But it misses the point. There is sufficient familiarity with the Buddhist practice tradition and core teachings in the West today to tell us that the point is not about concepts at all. Buddhist teachings are a practical path of deconstruction of all concepts, however spiritual. Buddhism does not propose an alternative set of concepts. It deconstructs the iconic self who is forming the concepts in the first place, and in so doing teaches a path of liberation from all concepts, including and especially the concept of the conceiver. “You are the Buddha. Then why do you not feel it? Why do you not know it through and through? Because there is a veil in the way, which is attachment to appearances, such as the belief that you are not the Buddha, that you are a separate individual…If you have seen through it totally, even one glimpse, then you can see through it all the time, wherever you are, whatever presents itself. Simply refer to that ever-present, inherent, spacious, openness and clarity” (Kalu Rinpoche, Sonada 1970).
The biggest concept of all, and the most persistent, built according to the traditional teachings, over endless lifetimes of accumulated survival-tendencies (“karma”), is the concept of an enduring self. It is the self-concept that keeps us in conventional worldly realities, and binds us to our limitations, and suffering. In that sense, we are the concepts, and the views we have of the world, which we feel are so solid and true, are merely part of the myriad expressions of this delusion of a concretised self. As much as we concretise and hold on to views, mistaking them for reality, that much we hold on to a constrained and painful unenlightened existence. As the Paramatthaka Sutta, the Discourse on Absolute Truth, states: “caught in one’s view and considering all other views as inferior, this attitude is considered by the wise as bondage, absence of freedom. A good practitioner has no need to set up a new theory of the world, using the knowledge he has picked up…. A good practitioner abandons the notion of self and the tendency to cling to views. He is free, and does not depend on anything, including knowledge. He does not take sides amid controversies, and does not hold on to any view or dogma”. Core teachings enshrined both in early Buddhist texts, and the key texts of Mahayana and Zen, reveal the dharma, roughly translatable as both knowing and the known, as a practical methodology of inquiry into the nature of things. And the first place to inquire is into the nature of knowing and the knower, not in the changing faces of the known. The path from ignorance to wisdom is a peeling away of layers of conditioning, patterns, fixations, and concepts, until a core realisation of blissful empty potential with phenomena arising “like froth on the waves” as the Dzogchen texts describe it.
In the new world view, whether arising from quantum physics or transpersonal psychology or systems theory, or other disciplines, the role of the observer has re-entered as a crucial component. But in discussing these issues, it may be easily forgotten that the observer himself may not be a concrete entity, fixed in time, space and identity. We conceptualise the observer, giving him selfhood, form and position, without truly allowing the more disturbing implications of this subjectivity. Subjectivity permits many points of view and many co-existent universes, legitimises multitudes of meanings for language terms, and reduces the relevance of so-called right and wrong positions. Subjectivity modulates, becoming stronger or weaker moment by moment, and in different subjects at different times. Subjectivity involves personal interests, values and choices, and what is defined as truth may be no more than where attention is placed. So when a scientist would propose that the amoeba is observable by an independent observer, and that it is constructed from materials obeying pre-existing natural laws some of which are still waiting to be discovered, the Buddhist response would not be to propose an alternative set of vitalistic views, but to question the person. Is it worth holding such views? Are you imprisoned by them in ways that you cannot fully comprehend? Are they beneficial to yourself and others (including the amoeba)? Is there pain and limitation involved in holding on to such views, and is there insecurity in investing heavily in them? If we dropped them, would we be able to live more freely, more lightly, more wisely, more spontaneously, and more ethically? Can we dance in life by not holding on to any truth as absolute? “To see the truth, contemplate all phenomena as a lie” says one Tibetan yogi Thaganapa.
This is very radical, because it is a prescription to entirely remove the either/or quality of the search for understanding. It replaces it with an attachment/detachment or enchantment/ disenchantment spectrum. (“Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment from self and from things and from persons, and growing between them, indifference which resembles the others as death resembles life…” T.S. Eliot). This is an inner process of waking up from sleep, towards what is described in the first of the Eightfold Path as “right view”. What is this right view? “Where there are human beings, there are flies, and Buddhas” said the Zen poet Issho. Not a set of spiritual beliefs, or codes, or constructs, but the deep understanding, as much from the heart and belly as the mind, of anicca, anatta, dukkha. That is, all phenomena, including the phenomena of the observing self, are characterised by flow and change: this understanding is one of interconnectedness, “interbeing” to quote Thich Nath Hanh, in which our assumptions of lasting independent entities or things may be questionable, illusory. Everything is process, and it is only our survival instinct, our primal insecurity that makes us work impossibly and ceaselessly to construct a world of things, concepts and safe entities, hence the suffering.
There are many sobering implications from this for our tendency to rely on the intellect as a tool for freedom. For a start, early Buddhism disappointed the Brahminic pandits of the time, and does so to scholars today, by saying that ontological questions are irrelevant, a trap to the mind, leading to circles, proliferation of disturbances and endless fruitless debate, delaying inner transformation and not benefiting the questioner. Questions such as the origin and destiny of the universe, the finite and the infinite, soul and body, what lives after death, and where Buddhas go to when they die, were answered by the Buddha with a thunderous silence (Majjhima Nikaya 63), and sometimes with a curt dismissal to get back to the meditation cushion and stop wasting time. It is probably fortunate that this Network does not follow this authentic Buddhist path, as most of its articles might have to go. The rest would probably also have to go if we followed the other radical consequence of ‘Right View’. That is, where we are is not independent of what we say and do. The role of subjectivity is actual and powerful, and not itself a position. It would force us to ask, what state of mind we are in when we write about consciousness, when we do science, when we conceive alternative concepts? Does this article I am writing aid my own inner transformation as I write it, in the present? Is this scientific research I am doing for the sake of liberation and freedom from the ties of the conditioned reality, or does it lead in the opposite direction? Do I feel the expansive freedom in developing more open worldviews, or am I just swapping one set of concepts for another and staying basically the same.
The importance of non-attachment is that it allows in so much more, including experiences of the very consciousness which if conceived and handled as a ‘thing’ appears always beyond reach of experience. (“The spiritual journey is to discover the self, to discover the self is to lose the self, to lose the self is to gain the whole universe” Zen master Dogen). It allows emergence from the narrow straights of duality, towards a freedom in which all concepts including that of who I am, are forms of play, and passing clouds. This does not require a monastic retirement. In fact it invites a return to the world of ordinary realities, which are no longer so enclosing and contracted. It then becomes possible to be a Buddhist at the bench top, doing science, working with scientific concepts that require strong adherence to the Newtonian models, but not taking them as ultimate, and at the next and original new moment dance with another model that arises. If we hold ourselves more lightly, we can do science one moment and carpentry the next, without having to reconcile points of view, or thoughts, with each other. This living experience bridges the gaps of ‘either science or spirituality’. Nor does it require us to explain science in the language of spirituality or spirituality in the language of science. They are both forms of play. There is irresponsibility in this, when viewed from the point of view of those to whom fixed concepts of the world are totems. But from the subjective place of the Buddhist practitioner, it is crazy wisdom, wisdom that liberates, wisdom that can contain dualities and move on.
Scientists who choose this path would not need to abandon their laboratory or their computer. They might find themselves with a much more panoramic vision; a potential for greater flexibility to use different means at different times, to be comfortable within different world views and to use them all as needed. Science itself can be seen as a useful tool at this particular moment and no more. Perhaps the call of the birds outside the room and inside the subjective knower will become the total experience of this moment, and the computer screen a total field of knowing at the next. Where are the boundaries? Who made them? Right view, aware of the interconnectedness of life, also engenders an enormous respect for life. The basis of Buddhist ethics is the empathic awareness of boundless sharing and participation with all life. The scientists here would question whether his scientific tools are being put to good use to provide relief of human suffering. He would never be able to kill animals for the sake of his curiosity.
Whether we are working with the old paradigm or the new, we should not utilise Buddhism without acknowledging its basic challenge. It asks us to look at the metaphorical ground upon which we stand. To ask if it is really solid. To ask if we cannot see its sacredness, and to advise us to wield our concepts most tenderly.
Dr. Stephen Fulder is a molecular biologist from the UK who has worked for 25 years in the area of herbal and complementary medicine. He has written 12 books in these fields. He currently lives in the Galilee in Israel where he is working with Palestinians on preserving traditional indigenous medicine and medicinal plants. He also practices and teaches Vipassana meditation.
 Quoted by Wes Nisker in the summer 2002 issue of ‘Inquiring Mind’.