GABlog

February 7, 2019

Salvation from the East

Filed under: GA — Q @ 6:30 pm

The religious practices of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism are mostly ritual in many places. But there is a more spiritual strain found in certain sects and their texts: the idea that consciousness itself is the sacred or God. The very fact of being conscious means that we already know everything that it is possible to know about God or Buddha, although certainly revelation or enlightenment can make that knowledge more available to understanding. The insight of Buddhism is that consciousness is essentially one thing, despite the many creatures who each possess their own form of consciousness, and despite the infinite possible objects of consciousness. A Zen master once summed up Zen teaching in one word: “Attention.” When asked to elaborate, he said, “Attention, attention, attention.”

Consciousness is shared by animals. There is a famous Zen koan about a monk who asks his master whether a dog has Buddha-nature or not. The Zen master answers “no!” although I understand the Japanese word “mu” (sometimes translated as “no”) is actually more nuanced. The traditional teaching of Buddhism is that all beings have Buddha nature and attain enlightenment, including dogs and stars, rocks and trees. The point of the koan, as I understand it, is that the student should be seeking enlightenment not wondering about doctrine. Zen disciples seek enlightenment, the content of which defies any rational explanation. Meditation on the master’s answer to the student’s question, mu, informs the Zen practice of some disciples.

Kant wrote, “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” To develop his point, I would say there are three miracles which support faith in God: Being (the universe surrounding us), life (which fills the heights and depths of our planet), and human consciousness, which is indeed distinguished by our sense of right and wrong. Eric’s idea of the scene of representation can articulated in ethical terms. To be aware of God, or to be aware at all, means to be aware of the human community, as a community, and to be aware of individuals, as individuals. Human consciousness is a new awareness of others, as mediated by a sign. Buddhism is never nihilistic. Consciousness, the scene of representation, is filled with the attention of the human group.

All animals and even plants have the ability to react to their environment, and can thus be said to share the miracle of consciousness. Rocks and stars do not obviously have consciousness. But Zen Buddhism, like Kant and Hegel, seeks to overcome the opposition of the perceiving self and the objects of consciousness. Anything that can be perceived, therefore, partakes of Buddha, and the duality of subject and object, coming and going, is illusory. For this reason, the question of whether the scene of representation has any ontological status apart from human consciousness is not meaningful.

Buddhism recognizes that life is suffering, and that the source of suffering is desire. The human condition therefore is desire and the suffering which results, a very Girardian insight. The solution is to minimize desires for sensual pleasure and not let desire lead one into sin. There is an ascetic strain to certain types of Buddhism and Hinduism. Enlightenment suggests an inner serenity and detachment from external conditions, founded on the insight that all existence is always-already free and transcendent.

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