A thing may sound true for one of two reasons: 1) it is true and 2) we want it to be true. These two reasons exist entirely independent of one another. I believe Buddhism is true. I also want Buddhism to be true. I want to believe I have the seeds of enlightenment, buddhanature within me. I find this very comforting.
I want to believe my suffering is solely within my own control and no other’s. If I am responsible for my own suffering, then there is no reason to be angry, to blame, or to hate. Anger, blame, and hate are themselves forms of suffering. Because I am not angry, do not blame, and will not hate, I suffer less. Because I suffer less if I believe I am responsible for my own suffering, I believe Buddhism is true. This is what I call the utility of belief. (I don’t know if there are other names for this in other people’s philosophy.)
It does not have to be so. In fact, I may be utterly incorrect.
Take the example of God. I cannot say for certain whether or not God exists, but I do not believe God exists. I could be wrong. However, I can see how belief in God could be comforting to another. To know that a being exists who loves you unconditionally, watches out for you constantly, and has a greater purpose for your life and the universe itself than you can discern can be of great value. It answers many questions which might otherwise plague us. Moreover, God is a basic mechanism for morality, helping ensure the more or less smooth functioning of society. Many argue that the fact that we exist at all, that good exists in the universe, is evidence of God. Nothing comes from nothing.
Although there is a utility to belief in God, this utility does not point to the truth of God anymore than the utility of belief in buddhanature points to buddhanature. There was a time when I wanted to believe in God. I envied the comfort others took in that belief, the sense of direction, the clear morality. However, in the end, I could not believe in God. I found something else to believe in – myself.
However, Buddhism also teaches the self as we perceive it does not exist. At first blush, this does not sound true. How could it possibly be? The self obviously exists. Descartes is irrefutable. And indeed, Buddhism does not say a self does not exist, only that the self is not what we believe it to be – solid, immutable, eternal, independent. Rather it is an interdependent aggregate of causes and conditions constantly reaffirming itself.
If I cannot believe in God, because nothing comes from nothing, including God, then I cannot believe in the solid self. All is subject to cause and condition, God and myself. All is interdependently co-arising. All is empty of inherent existence. This is the mechanism by which suffering ceases.
The root of suffering is found in the delusion of self. “I” suffer. If there is no longer an “I,” there is no longer something to suffer. To see that we are an aggregate of cause and condition is to be able to see the cause and condition of suffering – and to choose another path. This path is nondualistic.
“Form is nothing more than emptiness, emptiness is nothing more than Form. Form is exactly emptiness, and emptiness is exactly Form. The other four aggregates of human existence – feeling, thought, will, and consciousness – are also nothing more than emptiness,” says the Heart Sutra (Wikisource).
When dualism is removed suffering is nothing more than nirvana, nirvana is nothing more than suffering. Suffering is exactly nirvana and nirvana is exactly suffering.
“All things are empty: Nothing is born, nothing dies, nothing is pure, nothing is stained, nothing increases and nothing decreases. So, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. There is no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no imagining. No plane of sight, no plane of thought. There is no ignorance, and no end to ignorance. There is no old age and death, and no end to old age and death. There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end to suffering, no path to suffering. There is no attainment of wisdom, and no wisdom to attain.”
This may sound like nonsense, but it is no different than e = mc2. Energy is nothing more than matter and matter is nothing more than energy. Neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed; it can only change state. This is Einstein’s theory of relativity. The Heart Sutra is simply the Sanskrit version.
I am an aggregate of matter and energy. I am an aggregate of collections of matter and energy we label eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. I am also an aggregate of time, all the moments of my past (of all past) forming the causes and conditions which bring me to the present moment. This is not determinism, though it may be called karma.
Karma is action. It is cause and condition, as inexorable as a pebble rolling down hill. Karma is Newtonian. For every action there is a reaction. Objects in motion with remain in motion and objects at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Karma is the “acted on.” You and I and every living thing and every movement of nature and burning star and turning world are the “outside force.”
To believe in the present moment I have free will is to deny karma. It is to deny the aggregate, everything that has come before, all the cause and conditions. It is to affirm the “I” who has free will and in so doing deny buddhanature and the ability to be free from suffering.
However, to deny my freedom to act is also to deny my ability to be free from suffering. It is freedom itself in which our buddhanature is lodged. “There is free action, there is retribution, but I see no agent that passes out from one set of momentary elements into another one, except the connection of those elements.” These words are attributed to the Buddha. This is the Middle Way, which recognized both karma and freedom simultaneously.
Karma will embody itself is our habitual patterns. These patterns push us towards the familiar, towards suffering. All beings suffer. However, at some time in the past, the seeds of liberation were planted. The buddhanature, the fertile soil, is there, and when one hears the dharma, then one also accumulates the karma necessary to break from habitual patterns. Flowers bloom.
The Theravadans believe this process is slow and requires resolute intensity of effort. They dedicate their lives to steadfast morality so that someday their so-called positive karma my overcome beginning-less habitual patterns leading to suffering. The seek individual liberation from endless suffering.
The Vajrayana believe this process can come like a thunderbolt from the blue, awakening in a single moment, a brilliant end to ignorance and delusion, the roots of suffering. They cultivate techniques designed to bring about this thunderbolt within the short span of a single life.
The Mahayanists believe this process is interdependent – no one being can achieve an end to suffering. As we co-arise together so too does our suffering and our happiness co-arise. Our karma interacts, and the division between one being and another breaks down to the point of nonexistence. So they vow to seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings, and upon it’s grace lead all beings to nirvana.
They are, none of them, wrong. But are they true?
Morality, cultivation of the mind, and care for others are all honorable, useful things. The beliefs on which they are based are therefore useful things. Yet one further thing Buddhism teaches – that all beliefs are false. Or rather, they are moot, fundamentally mistaken. These things I have discussed – suffering, buddhanature, God, the self, interdependence, emptiness, karma, The Middle Way – are part of the practice of Buddhism. They are to be understood as methods, not beliefs. Yet, as discussed, we are all products of our pasts and Western thought provides a language for what is and is not to be believed, so the troublesome word persists and perpetuates.
To believe is to be caught in the net of dualism, in “this, not that.” It is conceptual thinking. Conceptual thinking can no more describe the nature of reality than one blind from birth can describe blue. “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon,” is the warning. Reality can only be experienced, not conceived. The Buddha demonstrated we are not blind, only asleep. Thus he was given the name “Buddha,” Awakened One, for he opened his eyes and saw for himself.
Ultimate truth cannot be taught; it must be realized. “Gone, Gone, gone beyond, Gone Completely Beyond. Praise to Awakening!” the Heart Sutra extols. So to know truth I must go, go, go beyond, go completely beyond, and in praise awaken.