The Diamond Sutra and modern thought

Modern thought is characterized by physicalism and atheism.

The forerunner of physicalism was materialism. Basing everything on matter doesn’t make good sense so materialism became physicalism. Physicalism, very simply, means that everything obeys the laws of physics, and thus physicalism has an open-ended definition because the laws we understand today will surely be different in the future.

Criticisms of physicalism claim it is vague since, as of today, we can’t say what the ultimate laws are and we are unlikely to ever be able to for how do you know when you know all there is to know?

I have no problem with physicalism and would be happy to call myself a physicalist. I think physicalism fits well with Buddhism and if you push at it a bit it can easily include many aspects of religion and the “supernatural,” which just means that which has not yet been explained by the laws of physics. See The invented God argument for more on this angle.

Another interesting way to connect modern thought with Buddhism is to look more closely and with different eyes at the Diamond Sutra or any other major wisdom teaching within the Buddhist tradition.

The Diamond Sutra is a long answer to a single question: “…when good men and good women commit themselves to complete, unsurpassed enlightenment, on what should they base themselves, and how should they subdue their minds?”

The Buddha’s answer is that they should be generous and not base their generosity on anything. That is, no phenomenal thing, nothing material, nothing conditioned. To say it another way, they should be generous but not base their generosity on any transient thing or material calculation.

Doesn’t that sound like the Buddha is indicating a higher level of understanding not unlike the laws of physics? Consider some questions: Where are the laws of physics? What holds them together? Do the inhere in matter, do they spring from matter, or do they “reside” at some other level?

I don’t know what it would mean for them to inhere in matter or spring from matter. Are the laws “out there?” Are they  more fundamental than matter? Higher than matter? We don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but there is nothing wrong with the questions.

The Buddha’s answer to Subhuti also contains this: “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

In Buddhist thought, our senses are sight (form), sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. These, of course, can be expanded to include proprioception, balance, and much more. The important point here is that the Buddha uses the six senses mentioned to categorically exclude all phenomenal input including thought.

It takes time if you are coming from a modern language to see thought as being a sense. But look at how materialism has transformed into physicalism and how we can’t be sure even today which of our thoughts is really good and will be viable in a hundred years and which of them will look outdated in ten years. Psychoanalysis and materialism, to name just two thoughts, have suffered complete falls from grace over very short time-spans.

Consider again the six senses of Buddhism. Sight depends on light, something outside the body system. And so does sound, smell, taste, and touch. We see and perceive via our senses because those things are “out there.” Birds fly because air supports them. Fish swim because the water allows this. The fish are adapted to water and have evolved within it.

But what about thought? Is thought material? An epiphenomenon of matter? Since materialism is a weak philosophy, we should ask instead is thought physical? Does it obey the laws of physics?

One answer is reductionism, which goes down deeply into matter to find what we may already know. But another answer is that thought is “out there.” It exists independent of our bodies and brains. Just as the laws of physics do not inhere in matter, so also does thought not inhere in the body. As a bird’s wings are supported by the air, so our thoughts are supported by a reality that is different than the material world and probably superior to it.

If that is so, our capacity for thought is shaped by the laws of physics as much as our bodies are shaped by matter. Birds crash, make mistakes and die due to their mistakes. So also, we humans make mistakes in our thoughts and crash and die due to those mistakes. To glimpse a higher source for thought and being is not to say that our thoughts cannot be horribly mistaken.

Glimpsing a level of reality, profound physicalism, that is “superior” to the reality apprehended by our senses is not to say that we are enlightened or that we have reached the end of the road. We have, rather, caught sight of a way of understanding our lives that is fuller and probably truer than anything on the current spectrum that lies between materialism and spiritualism.

Is this what the Diamond Sutra is indicating when the Buddha adds generosity to the emptiness of the self? As sentient beings, we are capable of being generous. But we also tend to want to have our actions confirmed by our lower senses, our material senses, thus reducing them in much the same way that materialism can reduce higher sensibilities by binding them to a lower calculus.

Is this why the Buddha makes his point so explicitly? He says, “This means that he should not base his generosity on form, and he should not base his generosity on sound, smell, taste, touch, or thought.”

Profound wisdom (prajna) means being generous without basing that consciousness on anything material or any understanding we have (so far) of physicalism. Now, does this mean that generosity is itself an element of the deepest laws of physics? Do we perceive unconditional generosity because it is already “out there?” Is the universe as we know it generous or is it cold, as so many materialists claim?

The Buddhist answer is that the universe is generous. We know it is vast, abundant, and creative. We k now it “obeys” the laws of physics such as we know them. We know birds fly due to there being air. Is the Buddha saying we can grok profound, unconditioned generosity because it is already “out there?” It’s part of what an enlightened being knows?

In this respect, can we say we have made some progress in analyzing whether maths are “out there” or are mere constructs of our minds? The answer would be both, with an emphasis on maths being “out there.” Surely some of them are wrong, and some are not deep enough, but like the laws of physics or the generosity of a Buddha, maths are also very importantly “out there” and that is why we can find them.

Similar things can be said about other uses of the mind that rise above materialism—music, in this respect, is far more than mere “pleasing sounds,” art more than pretty pictures, poetry more than good sounding words.

Another way to look at this is consider what you mean by your “self,” your “personality,” “ego,” “autobiography,” etc. Can your personality, such that it is, handle detailed analysis of active communication as in FIML practice? I am all but certain it can’t. So what good is it if it cannot even analyze its own listening and speaking while they are happening?

In Buddhism, the self, the personality, the ego are fictions. They obscure reality rather than reveal it. If your personality or self is a touchy little thing inside your head that loses control of its emotions every time it hears anything out of the ordinary, how can it be true? Why would you want it? Why do we organize our senses and beings around such bankrupt concepts as self or personality?

The small answer is we don’t know any better and everyone else does it so we can’t be different. The big answer is the Buddha’s answer. The self is a narrow organizing principle that relies on base sensory calculations to maintain itself and as such is subject to the selfish delusions of greed, pride, anger, and ignorance, to name just a few.

The answer the Buddha gives in the Diamond Sutra to Subhuti’s question is a supreme “physicalist” answer which indicates that just as birds can fly humans can soar.

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