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J.F.-- Are you sure that, for average Buddhists, that idea means anything? Don't they just think that the prayer wheel's doing the praying on their behalf?
M.-- Perhaps not all Tibetans know the doctrine and its symbolism in detail, but I don't think they turn prayer wheels in the hope of achieving their ordinary wishes for prosperity or success. They have in mind the notion of accumulating merit. 'Merit' is a positive state arising for a while in the mind that helps to counteract negative states of mind. I think that the predominant idea for them is therefore that of purifying the stream of their consciousness by an 'accumulation of merit', to reinforce the positive stream that flows toward wisdom. That's why people do prostrations, walk respectfully around sacred monuments, and make offerings of light in the temples.
J.F.-- In Catholicism, to light a candle in a church implies the very superstitious idea that the candle can earn us the grace either of a saint, of the Holy Virgin, or even of God himself, and grant our wishes. It's superstitious to the point that you often see people who are neither practicing Catholics nor even believers offering a candle when they visit a cathedral.
M.-- Such customs are useful outer supports allowing believers to communicate with an inner truth. I know from experience that when ordinary Tibetans offer thousands of butter lamps (the equivalent of candles) they're well aware that the light they're offering symbolizes wisdom dispelling darkness. The prayer they'd be making as they offered lamps would go something like, 'May the light of wisdom arise in myself and all living beings, both in this life and in lives to come.' Even very simple people are aware of the symbolism. The same goes when they're reciting mantras.
J.F.-- What exactly is meant by a mantra?
M.-- Etymologically, 'mantra' means 'what protects the mind'--not from some calamity or other but from getting distracted and from mental confusion. A mantra is a short formula that's repeated numerous times, like the Prayer of the Heart in Orthodox Christianity, which is accompanied by constant repetition of the name of Jesus. Such techniques of repetition are found in all religious traditions.
J.F.-- Yes, but they're hardly their spiritually most elevated aspect, are they!
M.-- Why not? Reciting helps to calm the superficial movements of the mind and thus to see its underlying nature more clearly.
J.F.-- I suppose it might. But let's get back to the question of reincarnation. You used the metaphor of a river without a boat. What I find hard to take in this whole idea is, on the one hand, this notion of an impersonal river, flowing from one individual to another--regardless, by the way, of whether those individuals are human beings or animals--
M.-- Or yet other forms of life--
J.F.--Or other forms of life--and on the other hand the fact that the goal of Buddhist practice is to dissolve the self in nirvana, meaning, if I've understood it right, a complete depersonalization of any remaining spiritual element. Under such conditions, how could it possibly be announced that some particular individual--meaning someone with a high degree of personal specificity--has reincarnated in some other particular individual? Given that there are more than six thousand million human beings on earth, plus I don't know how many tens of billions of animals, etc., there must be that many rivers in circulation. And to pick out the concrete, individualized temporary form into which one or other particular river has flown after the death of the preceding incarnation seems to me a totally impossible undertaking. Except, in fact, by resorting to methods of identification that are magical or subjective, of a supernatural order, which to me aren't terribly convincing.
M.-- First of all, we can and do talk about an 'individual' consciousness, even if the individual doesn't exist as an isolated entity. The fact that there's no such discontinuous entity being transferred from one life to the next doesn't mean that there can't be a continuity of functioning. That the self has no true existence doesn't prevent one particular stream of consciousness from having qualities that distinguish it from another stream. The fact that there's no boat floating down the river doesn't prevent the water from being full of mud, polluted by a paper factory, or clean and clear. The state of the river at any given moment is the result of its history. In the same way, an individual stream of consciousness is loaded with all the traces left on it by positive and negative thoughts, as well as by actions and words arising from those thoughts. What we're trying to do by spiritual practice is to gradually purify the river. The ultimate state of complete clarity is what we call spiritual realization. All the negative emotions, all the obscurations that render the underlying wisdom invisible, have then been dissolved. It's not a question of annihilating the self, which has never really existed, but simply of uncovering its imposture. Indeed, if the self did have any intrinsic existence we'd never be able to bring it from existence into nonexistence.
J.F.-- So you want to abolish something that, from the start, doesn't exist.
M.-- A nonexistent self can't really be 'abolished', but its nonexistence can be recognized. What we want to abolish is the illusion, the mistake that has no inherent existence in the first place. The following analogy is often given. If, in dim light, you saw a piece of mottled rope and took it for a snake, you'd feel afraid and perhaps try to escape or drive the snake away with a stick. But if someone then switched a light on, you'd see immediately that it wasn't a snake at all. In fact, nothing has happened; you haven't 'destroyed' the snake, as it never existed in the first place. You've simply got rid of an illusion. As long as we perceive the self as a real entity, we'll tend to try and draw to us whatever we judge to be agreeable or beneficial, and to push away from us whatever we judge to be disagreeable or harmful. But as soon as we recognize that the self has no true existence, all these attracting and repelling impulses will vanish, just like the fear of that piece of rope mistaken for a snake. The self has neither beginning nor end, and therefore in the present it has no more existence than the mind attributes to it. So nirvana isn't the extinction of anything, but the final knowledge of the nature of things.
J.F.-- If that's how it is, how and why does this illusion of a self build up?
M.-- There's a natural feeling of self, of 'I', which makes you think 'I'm cold, I'm hungry, I'm walking', and so forth. By itself, that feeling is neutral. It doesn't specifically lead to either happiness or suffering. But then comes the idea that the self is a kind of constant that lasts all your life, regardless of all the physical and mental changes you go through. You get attached to the idea of being a self, 'myself', a 'person', and of 'my' body, 'my' name, 'my' mind, and so on. Buddhism accepts that there is a continuum of consciousness, but denies any existence of a solid, permanent, and autonomous self anywhere in that continuum. The essence of Buddhist practice is therefore to get rid of that illusion of a self which so falsifies our view of the world.
From the Hardcover edition.
|1||From Scientific Research to Spiritual Quest||1|
|2||Religion or Philosophy?||19|
|3||The Ghost in the Black Box||45|
|4||A Science of the Mind||71|
|5||Looking for Reality: Buddhist Metaphysics||101|
|6||Acting on the World and Acting on Oneself||127|
|7||Buddhism and the West||147|
|8||Religious and Secular Spirituality||163|
|9||Tracing Violence to Its Sources||175|
|10||Wisdom, Science, and Politics||185|
|11||The Red Flag on the Roof of the World||201|
|12||Buddhism: Decline and Renaissance||213|
|13||Faith, Ritual, and Superstition||223|
|14||Buddhism and Death||231|
|15||The Supremacy of the Individual||243|
|16||Buddhism and Psychoanalysis||257|
|17||Cultural Influences and Spiritual Tradition||265|
|18||Progress and Novelty||269|
|19||The Monk's Questions to the Philosopher||281|
|The Philosopher's Conclusion||301|
|The Monk's Conclusion||307|
Posted December 25, 2011
Posted January 3, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted June 16, 2009
No text was provided for this review.