Mind and Life Europe - Paris, October 1- 4, 2012
Buddhism and Humanities - The Four Noble Truths and the West
Asia Studies Centre - Bologna, Italy -----
The guideline of Buddhism is well expressed in:
Once the Blessed One was in the Simsapa forest at Kosambi. He picked up a handful of leaves and asked the monks, "What do you think, bhikkhus, which are more numerous, the leaves in my hand or those that are on the trees of the forest?"
"The leaves that the Blessed One has picked up with the hand are few, Lord, those who are in the woods are many more."
"In the same way, bhikkhus, the things I know from experience are many more, those that I have mentioned are only a part.
Why did I not mention the others? Because they do not bring any advantage, they do not make you advance in the Holy life, and they do not lead to detachment from the passions, to letting go, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.
That is why I did not speak about them. And what did I tell you?
This is suffering, this is the origin of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.
This is what I told you. Why did I say that? Because that brings benefit and progress in the Holy life, because it leads to detachment from passions, to letting go, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. So, bhikkhus, make your task be contemplation on: "This is suffering, this is the origin of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering."
(Samyutta Nikaya, LVI, 31)
In the teachings of the Buddha, the essential and necessary centre of gravity is the recognition of the suffering of sentient beings and, specifically, of man: First Noble Truth.
This First Noble Truth, however, is understood in as many ways as there are different cultures.
In history, Buddhism has always had to deal with the dàimon of the places where it was proposed. The Buddhism of Shri Lanka, Tibet and Japan, for example, represents answers to the spirit, soul, and mentality of the different places. Taking the example of Tibet, just think of the failure of Santaraksita, of the successful intervention of Padmasambhava and of the Council of Lhasa that saw Chan (Zen) expelled from the country. Neither the high sophistication of Nalanda philosophical subtleness nor Zen matched, at the time, the Tibetan dàimon.
Every country and culture is characterised by a world-view that determines its sense. Life, suffering and death themselves are lived and borne within a sense, or, without the support of a sense, are suffered with a blind despair.
For example, what a difference in the event of death between Tibetan religious culture, which makes it a passage (a Bardo) and a chance of realisation, from the contemporary Western one! What a difference between the Muslim attitude expressed in "God gives, God takes away. Praise to God!" and the one widespread today in the West which does not bear any loss.
In our civilisation, the challenge to death, that our scientific and technological culture has launched in a radical way promising an indefinite longevity through genetic intervention, betrays a terrible relationship with the end of life - called the "last illness to win" - that is, a terrible relationship with impermanence.
Furthermore, the culture of materialism led to a systematic decay of traditional values, considering life itself, ultimately, as deprived of ontological meaning, since it is reduced to a chain of chemical reactions.
For the purpose of an effective comparison between the West and Buddhism, it is necessary that we pose the terms of the question in a radical way, otherwise we will disregard fundamental factors.
The Buddha wanted to face suffering and its cessation, but his intent is not feasible if the the Origin of Suffering is not understood: Second Noble Truth.
It follows that we need to question what characterises the suffering of the contemporary West; suffering that, as it can be foretold, will gradually affect all mankind as a result of the process which is called the "Europeanisation of the planet", moved and conveyed by the ambassadors of science and technology.
Science and technology have weakened the traditional and classical foundational references, ethics and sense, providing and promising more effective explanations of almost all the events of our lives than the ones provided by religions.
Science and technology in principle pose no limits in their investigation and in their goal of explaining any context of human experience, in life, work and environment. Today, in particular, the goal is to fully clarify the human experience within the neuroscientific key.
Up to now, science and technology, through the M&L meetings, have been proposed as privileged interlocutors of Buddhism.
Science and technology, however, only deal with the following three questions:
1) How is the observed structured?
2) How does it behave?
3) What is it useful for?
They do not address the meaning, sense or value of existence apart from the terms that are referable to the three questions above.
Of course, the question of the meaning of our existence remains alive:
Why do we exist? What is the sense of existence?
How to deal with the nothing that devastates our lives when we suffer a loss, when we find ourselves in sickness, old age, and death?
What is the sense of existing, tout court?
Why, in a general sense, rather than not existing an Universe exists?
If, wearing the hat of the scientist, in the words of Francisco Varela, an attempt is made to bring the explanation for the existence of the world to the fluctuation of the "pre" Big Bang quantum vacuum, then why rather than not existing, the quantum vacuum exists?
If, wearing the hat of conventional Buddhist truth, we attempt to answer through Dependent Origination, then why rather than not existing, this causal chain exits?
Finally, no God can be the original cause or founding answer, since God himself "exists" (of course if He exists) - it is not a mere nothing, otherwise the theist would be indistinguishable from a-theist. The fact that God is, puts Him on the level of the unjustifiable existence: why God rather than nothing? What is the cause of the cause, what is the reason of the reason? Here is the "Death of God" proclaimed by Nietzsche but already intuited by Kant:
“Unconditioned necessity, which, as the ultimate support and stay of all existing things, is an indispensable requirement of the mind, is an abyss on the verge of which human reason trembles in dismay. Even the idea of eternity, terrible and sublime as it is, as depicted by Haller, does not produce upon the mental vision such a feeling of awe and terror; for, although it measures the duration of things, it does not support them. We cannot bear, nor can we rid ourselves of the thought that a being, which we regard as the greatest of all possible existences, should say to himself: I am from eternity to eternity; beside me there is nothing, except that which exists by my will; whence then am I? Here all sinks away from under us; and the greatest, as the smallest, perfection, hovers without stay or footing in presence of the speculative reason, which finds it as easy to part with the one as with the other.”
Critique of Pure Reason (Part II, Book II, Chapter III, sect. V):
The European, after Leibniz, Kant, Schelling, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre ... - that is, after the maturation of the fundamental question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" triggered and powered by them, and after becoming aware that it will remain for ever unsolved as an insurmountable mystery in which we find ourselves thrown (samsara?) - find himself to be groundless. It follows that the Being is groundlessness, enigmatic, absurd, something "that exceeds", something unnecessary, beyond reason... Finally: that there is not a possible sense of the existence; that the root of the suffering of the Westerner lies in having irretrievably lost the ground of any positive sense.
Along the awakening to the loss of any the sense, stems Nihilism, dominant today although in many declination and nuances. Nietzsche started with:
"What I am telling is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is to come, what can not be avoided happening: the advent of nihilism." ... "What does nihilism mean? It means that the highest values devalue themselves. There is no purpose. There is no answer to "why?".
Friedrich Nietzsche's posthumous fragments, 1883-88
Dostoevsky wrote: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” That's the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is allowed if God does not exist and therefore man is "abandoned" because he does not find a possibility of anchoring himself neither in himself nor out of himself.
First of all, he does not find excuses. ... Man is free, man is freedom. If God does not exist, we are not faced with values or orders that would legitimate our conduct. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of values, justifications or excuses. We are alone, with no excuses. This is what I would express by saying that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself by himself, and therefore beyond everything he is free, because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything that he makes. ... Man with no support and without any aid, is condemned at every moment to invent man...
J. P. Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism
Buddhism is the only soteriological religious tradition that tackles the nothing. It does so in the declinations of:
a-vidya: nothing of original knowledge
a-nitya: nothing of permanence
an-atman: nothing of self
pratitya-samutpada: nothing of intrinsic essence nirvana: extinction
The Buddha was not afraid to get completely involved, to remain alone with his "not knowing". He devoted himself to search the solution of the problem of finding oneself without foundation. The Buddha did not provide us with foundations, on the contrary he has shown us how to look at the groundlessness and at the empty mystery without depression or terror: Third Noble Truth.
Therefore, a radical confrontation between the West and Buddhism on the ground of suffering is desirable: its cause, its cessation, and the path to the cessation of suffering. Indeed, what kind of Buddhism would we face, without taking into account what essentially characterises it?
The West, since the end of the 19th century, finds itself more and more in the void of sense. The West has seen the problem at its root, and perhaps expressed it in a more radical way than the East has done, but it does not know the strategies for the solution of the discomfort arising from such an awareness.
Buddhism, on the contrary, knows the Way that leads to the solution.
Buddha has shown that the nothing is both the origin and the cessation of suffering. From “not knowing” to “not knowing”; the Awakening is in between.
Fourth Noble Truth.
This is the ground of the dialogue between West and Buddhism that I believe should be promoted: we both have something to teach and something to learn.
The Western field of this dialogue should be that of the Humanities, but the Humanities have no chance to survive within the scientific-objectifying interpretation of human experience if not based on what is not in any way objectifiable; something that, paradoxically, science cannot avoid to exalt in spite of itself: the experience of the epochal loss of sense of existence.
We can highlight here a serious problem: to whom should someone who suffers such a loss of sense turn to in the West? Neither the role of traditional religious pastors seems to be adequate to deal with the radical nothing nor that of the psychologists. Furthermore, until today philosophers have no experiential practices to propose beyond reading, writing, and discussing.
A collaboration with Clinical Psychology, however, may be desirable in order to provide practitioners with the capacity of recognising possible existential roots of their patients’ discomfort.
In fact, he who has lived "metaphysical" moments of awakening to the abyss of the groundlessness, in loneliness and misunderstanding, sometimes has suffered from being unable to make any sense of such experiences, easily confusing the genuine existential flavours with those of a relational, psychological suffering; he lives this experience as a child at the mercy of an overwhelming event.
In addition, often these fears are compounded by negative feelings triggered by the use of drugs and thus the young is afraid to revisit such an experience through the path of meditation.
I propose that the role of Buddhism in the West, among others, should be to forge people able to tackle the existential distress.
Of course, you must first become aware, in a historical perspective, of the problem, and give birth to a new culture capable to understand the age determined by the "end of the sense”.
Postmodernism – well expressed by Lyotard in The Post-modern Condition:
"In simplest terms, we can consider “post-modern” the incredulity towards any meta- narrative." –
is the fully encompassing expression of the loss of a central sense in History, of a sense of the human experience in general and of their narrability according to a meta- sense.
So we find ourselves existing without an answer to the "why?", and this definitively and without appeal.
Emptiness is not afraid of this, and it may well represent the bright "topos" of the post-Postmodernism.
If the loss of sense throws us into bewilderment and distrust that the deepest suffering can have an end, the Buddha says, and we agree with it, that, on the contrary, suffering can come to an end: Third Noble Truth.
The next step is to give a new life and meaning to appropriate Upayas for our contemporary Western civilisation: Fourth Noble Truth.
I think that the awareness of the crucial point of the collapse of sense, the sharing of the experiences of those who suffer the nonsense as well as of those who use upaya to help the Westerners suffering for the non-sense, and the development of new strategies for this goal, cannot be avoided in a program of comparison between Humanities and Buddhism.
Buddhism is the only hope for the West against the "Death of Man" after the Nietzschean “Death of God”.
Indeed, the alternative is a technological horizon dominated by machines that, of course, do not suffer from the non-sense.
But we believe that suffering is not simply a disfunction of life - it is a call of the Being.
Translation from an article of the italian giornal Non credo n.° 28