Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 4.More Meditations

Chapter 10.Behold the soul

Although Bodhidharma, as indicated earlier[1], seems at times to refer to a self in the sense of a soul, we can safely presume that, as an orthodox Buddhist, he did not literally believe in a soul. If asked who or what is beholding the mind, he would probably have answered ‘the mind’. Therefore, when I here bring up the question of soul again, I do not mean to impute such belief on him, but merely speak on my own authority as an ‘independent’ philosopher.

As also earlier indicated, I do agree that it is wisenot todirectly meditate on the self in the sense of soul. The reason being that it is easy for us unenlightened people to confuse our real self with our illusory self. The illusory self is so overwhelmingly present to our consciousness that we cannot easily ignore it. Thus, while hoping to soar meditatively, we may easily get bogged down in a low level of consciousness!

For this reason, I suggested that in our attempt to “behold the mind” we meditate on the fact of our awareness rather than on the person being aware. This is, I think, valid in the early stages of the meditation, at least, till we reach a relatively high level of consciousness.

But since I have reason to believe in the existence of a soul, I must consider such meditative restraint to be a temporary “expedient means”, rather than an absolute no-no. It seems therefore legitimate to now suggest that, once one has reached a certain degree of peace of mind and meditative intensity, one may well turn one’s attention on one’s self in the sense of soul.

This, then, would be a sixth aspect and latest stage of our proposed meditation on awareness: eventually becoming aware of oneself being aware. One should do so, not only because awareness is logically inconceivable without someone being aware, but also because this true sort of self-awareness is indeed subtly present in all our exercise of awareness, in everyday life and during meditation, and ought therefore to be acknowledged and concentrated upon.

To summarize: Bodhidharma’s advice to “behold the mind” seems vague and impracticable, in view of the ambiguity of the term “mind”. Of the various senses of the term, he probably meant ‘the fact of consciousness’ and/or ‘the one being conscious’. Granting which, his advice was, more precisely put, tobehold the beholdingand/or tobehold the beholder. I suggested, to avoid developing ego, to begin by the first of these types of awareness, and at a later stage attempt the second.

The Buddhist idea of a “non-self” (anatman) being at all aware is, to my mind at least, logically unthinkable. Such so-called non-self is tacitly reified, even as it is claimed null. To say we have no real self at the core of our consciousness (and volitions and valuations) is to imply us to be mere inanimate objects. To claim that something truly absent may be aware (and will and value) is to deny that certain objects have such power(s) specifically, i.e. while other objects lack such power(s).

To deny that “we” each have a soul, i.e. that wearesouls, is to turn us into mere things, or more extremely, into nothings. It is then discursively inappropriate to use “we” (or any other noun or pronoun) – yet those who make such claims continue to use such language. They either are not aware of the paradox involved in doing so, or contradiction does not bother them.

Buddhists claim that at the moment of enlightenment, the self (i.e. the apparent real self, not to mention the more gross illusory self) isextinguished. They claim that enlightenment is, precisely, the occurrence and experience of such extinction of the self. After that, “one” exists as a non-self (“in” nirvana), if at all (i.e. not at all, when “one” reaches the final stage,parinirvana). But such ideas are logically impossible to defend.

For the question arises, how doweknow about such extinction? Not from our own experience, since we have not yet become enlightened. Therefore, merely by hearsay[2]. If so, who told us? Buddhists claim: the Buddha told us (first, and then perhaps other teachers who attainedbodhi). So well and good – but if upon attaining enlightenment his apparent (real as well as illusory) self was fully extinguished, then he was no longer there and could not report anything to us.

If, alternatively, he returned and carried with him the memory of his enlightenment experience, then he was not quite extinguished. For, to return, and to speak of some past experience, implies some sort ofcontinuity, i.e. excludes true extinction (which logically implies a radical break with existence). In short, the very idea of an extinction of self being reported by a witness to us after the fact is paradoxical and untenable.

The idea of extinction can only be discursively accepted as a ‘third party’ hypothesis, a conceptual projection by some onlooker, a mere theory or speculation. It cannotconsistentlybe upheld as a first person account based on direct experience of actual obliteration. This being the case, the strict Buddhist idea of a non-self does not withstand logical scrutiny, and must be firmly rejected. For there is a more consistent alternative postulate, namely that we each have a soul, that we are souls.

There has to be a residue of some sort upon enlightenment, else we would not know about it. This does not however mean that the residue is an ongoing individual self; it suffices that the residue be the grand common Self, of which every individual self is but a tiny spark artificially delineated by ignorance. When this illusion of separateness collapses, enlightenment occurs, the individual self disappears but its underlying universal personhood remains.

To show the logic of this conception of enlightenment, an analogy can be made with a raindrop falling back into the ocean. As soon as it plunges into the larger body of water, the drop effectively disappears as an individual drop. The drop is immediately ‘one with’ the sea. Even so, it can conceivably, for a very brief while at least, be retrieved intact.

Similarly, the remnant of spiritual existence can initially report its enlightenment experience, although ultimately all its boundaries dissolve and it fully merges with its Source.

That Source we may call God, following our traditions. Buddhists would call it Buddha-nature, Buddha-mind or original-mind; Hindus would call it Brahman; and each other religion has its name(s) for it. The name is not so important, I think, as what the word is intended to refer to; I am not so concerned with religious traditions as with their underlying significance.

In truth, when Buddhists pursue liberation from the karmic world, they do not seek total annihilation, absolute death[3]. They rather seek something they call happiness or nirvana. It is an existence, a ‘higher life’ of some sort, though not one subject to the suffering of samsara. Nirvana is certainly something beyond, free of and devoid of all phenomenal characters and events; but that does not mean it is totally nothing, a nihilistic non-existence. It is, let us say, a purely spiritual existence (whatever that means).

Reaching such conclusion, I realize that my thinking on this subject is closer to ‘high’ Hindu philosophy (such as Advaita Vedanta) than to Buddhism. I can never accept the “avatar” idea, so pervasive in Hinduism (as in Christianity), the idea that God can and does incarnate in human or other forms. For me, as a rational philosopher, this is a logically untenable notion; the whole cannot become a part. But many ideas in Hindu philosophy are indeed profound and reasonable.

[1]In the first section of the present chapter.

[2]Hearsay of course has some logical value, but it does not constitute knowledge in the strictest sense. It serves to confirm a hypothesis, but cannot definitely prove it. For even if what the witness says he experienced happens to be absolutely true (in God’s eyes, say), it does not follow that his sincere belief in it is logically unassailable; and even if it were, it does not follow that we (other people) can take his say-so as fact.

[3]If so, those who do not believe in rebirth could just commit suicide and be done with this world, without needing to meditate and change their behavior.

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