Musings on Buddhism and modern global culture, plus a few miscellaneous topics.
Monday, 27 May 2013
"Change and decay in all around I see..."
From Lankaweb Ill-digested science and garbled Buddhist metaphysics - R Chandrasoma
"In the world of physical knowledge an overarching law is that called the Second Law of Thermodynamics (The Law of Increasing Entropy) which says that in a closed physical system, disorder or chaoticity alone can increase with the passage of time. Any overall initial organization can only weaken as the system ages. Note the important caveat – given by the words ‘overall’ and ‘closed’. Within a closed system there can be subsystems that are anti-entropic – in which order increases at the expense of the general trend of disorder in the system as a whole. Life – and living systems – are oases of ant-entropic complexity in a physical universe that is running down. Indeed, this is the striking fact – that life (and complexity in general) has prevailed in a universe governed by physical laws that do not give any hint of this potential. The rise of complexity and organization in a universe governed by physical laws that predict the very opposite is the central mystery of the universe as we know it. To suggest (as does Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri in a recent contribution to LankaWeb) that perishibility and decay constitute the essence that unites science and religion is a misdirection in both areas of knowledge. Let us note, first, that religion and science are ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ and the concepts of the one are not readily transferable to the other. Thus, the three cardinal attributes of all that exists are anicca, anatta and dukkha according to the grounding metaphysics of Buddhism. Of these, the first (anicca – the process or fluxional nature of all aspects of nature) and the second (anatta – the denial of enduring essences) can link with basic notions of science such as system dynamicity and integration – but dukkha is a purely religious term and hinges upon the metaphysical reaction of a conscious agent to the inexorably fluxional nature of things and events. When the Buddha reflected sadly on the fact that ‘all component things are subject to decay’ he did not have in mind the Law of Increasing Entropy – he alluded to the fact that the Eternal must be Unchanging and final ‘release’ of a karmic being comes with the total cessation of the Birth-Death cycle that enslaves us. (Nirvana). This vision goes well beyond science and its understanding of the dynamics of change. The numinous is categorically different from the mundane.
Let me conclude with a few words about the metaphysics of decay that is hugely over-emphasized in ‘popular’ versions of Buddhism. It is true that we are finite beings living briefly and, perhaps, dying ingloriously. Yet there is burgeoning and beauty in nature that briefly defies the universal law of decay. A beautiful flower, a young prancing animal or a haunting melody bespeak of an aspect of nature that rises above the ugly reality of time and decay. Its brevity and transience does not diminish its importance as a glorious aspect of the puzzling reality in which we are trapped as mortal beings. This must be celebrated even when the metaphysics of sorrow seem to overwhelm us."
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Gautama the Buddha put forth a substance theory or if you prefer a less challenging term, he puts forth an essence theory. Incidentally, for me, this puts Buddhism into the realm of science insofar as the Buddha directly cognized a unique substance. Let’s not forget what the broad definition of science is. It is “knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied” (O.E.D.).
More specifically, such an awakening by Gautama whereby he became the Buddha was the cognizance of an all pervading substance which was not composed or asankhata/asamskrita, in contrast to the composed. It also implies that the universe exists within a spiritual medium which is mind-like. Even our most subtle thoughts occur within this enveloping medium, the substance or essence of which is only Mind (cittamatra).
About his ministry, to make a long story short, the Buddha tried to show composed things have no actual substance or essence. They are empty and illusory. More importantly, he taught that our psychophysical body is not the first-person or our authentic self, the self being the immediacy of substance which, in our unawakened human condition, we are unable to recognize. Because of this, we are unable to distinguish our real self from our composed psychophysical condition which is the false self or anâtman. This further leads to our rebirth into composed states where again we are unable to recognize our self in this encompassing deception.
In this context, the importance of meditation cannot be overstressed. To put it simply, meditation, when accomplished, is the awakening to the universal substance that Gautama cognized. The adept has passed through all fluctuations of mind to arrive at pure Mind itself which is irreducible. At this arrival, one sees that Mind is free of suffering which has always been oneself. One no longer blindly journeys (samsara), incomplete and ignorant (avidya) clinging to a false self which is composite."