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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS - PART 3

KARMA, REBIRTH, AND THE SKANDHAS.

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question Karma, literally deed, means the sum total of our actions throughout our life, including our speech and thoughts and other inner stirrings.. The karma accumulated in previous lives determines place and fate at the moment of rebirth: the 'soul', in Hindu terms the Self, fashions its own destiny. But different than in Hinduism, in Buddhism not the Self but karma is central. The Buddhist teachings reject the Self as hypothesis.. For the Buddhist it is karma that weaves the connecting thread throughout the human life cycle. Strictly speaking it is karma only that shall seek a new place for itself at the end of a life.. Because Pythagoras, for instance, probably believed in a soul substrate, his theory of metempsychosis points to something more concrete than what is suggested by the idea of rebirth in Buddhism. In Buddhism the idea proposes something very tenuous and, indeed because of this, undispersable. But the circular view of human existence remains a very important similarity between both theories, this in sharp contrast with the linear view of Christianity, according to which life happens to us only once and is subject to a divine plan for our deliverance.

A further similarity between the Pythagorian and the Buddhist views is the idea that man's existence on earth is not the highest and most ultimate that he can achieve in the whole of existence, but that he can climb to higher spheres through a process of purification and spiritualization.. Only our consciousness can yearn for deliverance and in the end reach Pure Being, Nirvana. To do this from our present existence in the realm of the senses, of conceit and desire, is extremely difficult. As is the case with Pythagoras, first what is inferior must be discarded. Also Buddhism speaks of a realm where only sight and hearing remain (the realm of beauty, it is said) and the lower wants are silent. And higher still is the realm where there are no more things but all existence is wholly spiritual. In the highest heaven of the Buddhist cosmological hierarchy, for example, the gods feast on bliss and emit rays of light of themselves: there is light without darkness, no sun and no moon, there are no opposites. But even this high heaven is not where the endless and undefinable consciousness freed of all earthly afflictions reigns.

answer The contention that only our consciousness can yearn for deliverance and in the end reach Pure Being, Nirvana, is the language of the pudgalavadin and amounts in our view to a serious straying from the Buddha's teachings. Buddhism presupposes traditionally that the human being is composed of some five skandhas or clusters of which the physical rupa skandha disintegrates and dissolves and the non-physical arupa skandhas, including our consciousness, simply cease to occur completely at death. What is 're-born' is, as taught in Advayavada Buddhism, exclusively the result or outcome of the parents' procreative deed and the karma in which it is embedded as an integral part. Karma is not an individual thing that does things, as you insinuate, but a continually changing knot of interdependent events in time. It is, in fact, the working or operation here and now of overall interdependent origination or pratityasamutpada at our own sentient level, including personal choices and responsibility. The genetic and social factors present at the beginning of a so-called new life are the product of that wondrously minute creative occurrence in infinite overall existence.

In Advayavada Buddhism we say that karma is basically and simply the operation of incessant pratityasamutpada (interdependent origination) at the sentient level (pratityasamutpada, that is, as in Madhyamaka philosophy, where 'all causes are effects and all effects are causes'). Our own karma is the everchanging knotlet of events in which we are personally embedded. These events include traditionally the consequences of one's actions (the kamma niyama), the laws of heredity (the bija niyama), the environment (the utu niyama), the will of mind (the citta niyama) and Nature's tendency to perfect (the dhamma niyama).

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question It seems obvious to me that the idea of deliverance can be formed only in the consciousness of the human being, even if a.o. feelings (the desire for deliverance) or a natural tendency are closely involved: there is indeed an incessant interaction between the khandhas. I do believe now that I might have better said that "only our consciousness can make it possible to enter (or to realize) Nirvana". That the personal consciousness is something very different than 'endless and undefinable' consciousness, where 'the world ends' and with the world the khandas, is something that I have often stressed.

answer We must as Buddhists be very careful not to start imagining consciousness as a thing instead of seeing it correctly as an event. When we say that consciousness can do something or become something, it is like saying that not I but my speech is going to say something, or that not I but my sprinting will reach the finishing line. Consciousness is not a thing, but an action, a deed, an event, as to speak and to run. Consciousness cannot in turn make something else enter or realize Nirvana. A consciousness that can make us do or not do something of its own accord is a pudgala or an atman, the existence of which is rejected in Buddhism. The formation of the idea of deliverance is indeed not an activity in or of consciousness, but one of the many activities or functions that form part of this skandha or cluster that we collectively call consciousness. The desire for deliverance, by the way, belongs formally not to the vedana but to the samskara cluster.

We find it very difficult to come to terms with this frequently heard contention that the arupa skandhas or khandhas are in some way or another capable of carrying out things by themselves, such as initiating and maintaining an "incessant interaction" or making something "enter or realize Nirvana". Because the arupa skandhas in fact do nothing - they are the doing. The cluster of physical existence is the rupa skandha. Also this cluster does nothing - it merely is physical existence in all its aspects. The traditional four non-physical skandhas [sensations or feelings (vedana), perception (samjña, sañña), mental forces or formations (samskara, sankhara), and consciousness (vijñana, viññana)] are clusters or aggregates of functions, which are events - they denote how the rupa skandha is or becomes. Also the rupa skandha does not cause these events, it simply is them. Like when we say that a tree grows. The tree does not do the growing; it is the growing. This is how the tree is, how it exists in space and time. The growing of the tree is quite obviously an event, and not a thing, let alone a separate thing capable of in turn doing other things by itself.

We owe the cohesion and activity of the rupa skandha to the spontaneous dynamic principle of existence: the interdependent and conditioned co-arising or interdependent origination or universal relativity of all phenomena, called pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit. This spontaneous dynamic principle immanent in all existence, the incessant becoming of reality so to say, corresponds almost exactly to the Chinese concept of Te, the 'virtuous power' of the Tao: the Tao is all-encompassing Totality and Te is how Totality really is or becomes.

question "Inquiry into the relationship between the physical and the mental can shed light on the nature of the self; and deepening my appreciation of how the self flickers in and out of existence is perhaps the main reason why I continue to be interested in Buddhism at all."

answer The use of the preposition 'between' implies that there are two objects here, but this is not the case. We simply have here a physical thing and how it exists over time.

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question When a baby is born its mind is like a tabula rasa, an empty white blank, with nothing on it. And then we start writing things on it, "I am".. and so on. In the first six or seven years of our lives we develop a sense of ourselves. A lot is just implied through the attitudes of parents, relatives, teachers, religious people, the class, the ethnic identity. That's the way everyone thinks, and assumes is just normal and right. So how do we get behind the conditioning we acquired before we learned to read and write, behind our cultural conditioning, behind our personality? How do we get back to the tabula rasa, the empty mind? Through mindfulness. Mindfulness is being able to stay open to the way things are in reality. In the satipatthana meditation practice, the four foundations of mindfulness - the body, the feelings, the mind, and the way things are, are all objects that we are observing. The relationship is subject to object, mental objects, objects of the mind. Consciousness is a function. We're conscious when we're born out of our mother's womb. We start life as a separate conscious entity. So consciousness isn't culturally conditioned. It is a function; it's a natural function. Through practice we begin to recognize this conscious awareness, awareness through consciousness. Consciousness is like this. It's like waiting, listening. Now, the foundation for this kind of practice is, of course, based on moral responsibility. We learn to be responsible, to do what is good and to refrain from doing what isn't. It's not just being passive, just watching everything arise and cease in a passive way. That would mean that we somehow can't participate in life at all. But this practice allows us to participate in life in a way that is skilful, and we can learn from the experiences of our lives.

answer Your contribution contains in our opinion an obvious contradiction: that new human life is a tabula rasa, but nevertheless at the same time a separate conscious entity, able already at birth, as you imply, to eventually practice satipatthana meditation. The very fact that a new human life unit possesses at birth such a highly developed function as consciousness, proves, we think, that it is not at all a tabula rasa at birth. Karma indeed does not work that way. Traditional Buddhism presupposes that the human being is composed of some five skandhas or clusters of which the physical rupa skandha disintegrates and dissolves and the non-physical arupa skandhas simply cease to occur altogether at death. What lives on are the result of one's participation in karma, which is the working or operation of interdependent origination at our sentient level, including our own personal choices and responsibility. The genetic and social factors present at the beginning of a so-called new life (and which should be equally stressed) are exclusively the result of that preceding karma. Human rebirth is the direct result of the karmic activity of sexual reproduction (genetic re-combination, mutation and concatenate multiplication) and the karma in which it is embedded - we are convinced that there is no other factor at play: there is no human rebirth other than by that extraordinary concurrence of events, and each new human life unit is again formally composed of five or so skandhas or clusters. As for moral responsibility, all sane human beings possess it at birth to different degrees. Morality has become an integral part of our samskara cluster as a result of the pressures of evolution. It may have become temporarily obscured in some individuals, but it is nevertheless there. It shall continue to develop during the life period of the new unit provided it is not tampered with, and can indeed come to full bloom and become altruism as a result of a good life (cf. Social Intelligence, mirror neurons, neural interconnection, emotional contagion).

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question My understanding is that advayadharma, as the highest truth, means the undividedness of the conditioned and the unconditioned. Turning to the undivided relationship between Mind and body, this must be seen as a coordination between the absolute and its phenomena, like that between the source of a river and the river's body extending from this source. Next, Mind in Mahayana Buddhism, is not a "manifestation of being" that simply thinks. I think it is better to identify the Mind that thinks with manas and the Mind that knows with jñana. With respect to consciousness (vijñana), perhaps we should treat this as Mind in the mode of discrimination, which in the nidanas is the preincarnative consciousness that attaches to the embryo. As for your reference to pratityasamutpada, it is usually understood in two modes. First it relates to receptacle-consciousness and secondly to sympathy with the twelve fetters or nidanas. In the first mode the arising of things is dependent on the receptacle-consciousness which is their essence. In the second mode the arising of good or evil destinies depends on whether or not Mind enters into empathetic union with its manifestations.

answer In Advayavada Buddhism there cannot be any talk of coordination between the absolute and phenomena, because they are considered to be exactly the same thing but observed subjectively from a different perspective. Advayavada Buddhism is a truly radical non-dual and life-affirming philosophy and way of life. In Advayavada Buddhism what you call Mind and we call the mind is not a thing but a function, which is an activity, an event, a deed. It is the activity carried out by our brain in conjunction with our nervous system. Manas, jñana and vijñana are old words that describe some of the different ways in which this important activity occurs in the human being, like the English words strolling, running, sprinting, etc. describe the different ways we move about on our legs. That it is called mind and not minding is somewhat like the fist being called fist although it is merely a clenching of the hand.

The idea of a preincarnative consciousness that attaches itself to an embryo, implying that it is not an activity without corporeality but a thing that moreover can carry out an activity by itself, is therefore absolutely foreign to Advayavada Buddhism (there is in Advayavada Buddhism no human rebirth other than the division or concatenate multiplication of the mother after fertilization of her egg or eggs by the father). And you will understand that, for the same reason, also the Yogacara concept of an alaya-vijñana, a consciousness that can contain things of itself, cannot be shared with you. Yogacara (also called Vijñanavada) is a metaphysical idealism in which our consciousness supposedly creates its own objects and can also ideally exist quite by itself as pure consciousness. This indeed makes it an essentialist or substantialist doctrine, and you must realize that as such it clearly contravenes in our view the Buddha's fundamental anatman doctrine which teaches that there is no permanent, eternal, integral or independent substance within an individual existent.

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question The Buddha taught that pleasure and pain are causally conditioned by one's own actions, together with other supporting factors such as the environment - both physical and social - and the physical state of the body. This concept of kamma [karma] seems to have been revolutionary at that time.. In the Majjhima Nikaya it is clearly stated that the Buddha stressed that it is the volition preceding an action which makes it either wholesome or unwholesome: "It is cetana (volition or will) which I call kamma. Through cetana one performs kamma by means of body, speech and mind". Every volitional action has consequences; these may be acts of thought, word or deed. Purely mechanical actions, like switching on a light have no kammic consequences. The experience of sensations and the process of perception are not volitional actions and so do not produce kamma. The Buddha's teachings are primarily concerned with the purity of the mind.. All unwholesome actions are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion - all wholesome actions are rooted in generosity, love and wisdom.. In the Buddhist sense, very simply the word kamma means action. It is the law of cause and effect but does not mean the results of that law for which we should use the term vipaka. It is important to understand the relationship between kamma and vipaka: wholesome actions or kamma produce wholesome results or vipaka, unwholesome actions or kamma produce unwholesome results or vipaka. This is a natural law. We can regard it as a perfect system of natural justice.

answer Traditional Buddhism presupposes that the human being is composed of some five skandhas or clusters of which, at death, the one physical rupa skandha disintegrates and dissolves completely and the non-physical arupa skandhas simply cease to occur altogether. And according to Advayavada Buddhism, there is further no human rebirth other than by sexual reproduction and the so-called new life that is produced in this manner is again, or yet, traditionally composed of some five khandhas or skandhas. Sexual reproduction is by definition a karmic activity. Karma is, in Advayavada Buddhism, how interdependent origination or pratityasamutpada operates here and now at the sentient level, including personal choices and responsibility. Karma is neither the cause nor the effect, but the everchanging knot of ongoing events as such. Our own share of this karma is the everchanging knotlet of biopsychosocial (bps) events in which we are personally embedded. In the case of human rebirth, the main event is the division or concatenate multiplication of the mother as a result of the fertilization of her egg or eggs by the father. The main karmic activity is here, in other words, the wondrous event of physical love, pregnancy and parturation. The genetic and social factors transmitted to and inherited by the so-called new human being are all fully reflected at birth with minor changes or variations in its own set of skandhas. There are no so-called karmic seeds in the vijñana cluster that will ripen as yet in this or a future life, as is implied in the Yogacara vipaka theory - there is no evidence at all of an alaya-vijñana or store-house consciousness that might contain and carry such seeds forward into the future. Nor is there any evidence of a patisandhi-viññana, the connecting consciousness encountered in Theravada ontology, nor of any other form of re-incarnation, transmigration, or of afterlife or resurrection. Instead, everything is already there in the skandhas or clusters of the so-called new being produced sexually by the parents, geared and ready to grow into an adult human being. Modern scientific investigation in the field of genetics must yet supply many answers. The khandhas or skandhas theory is but a very rudimentary presupposition of the actual process of heredity and mutation. Biophysics must in fact yet uncover how exactly a living organism, indeed any biological system, can generate, copy and eventually transmit its data.

But we can safely state that from the moment of conception onwards everything that happens in the whole of existence, including, though not primarily, what this so-called new human being does or does not do itself, will affect it accordingly in its further life. This includes the mechanical action of switching on or off of a light: if somebody trips over a chair in the dark and breaks his or her neck, this is most certainly the result of how interdependent origination operates at the sentient level, the result of karma. This event will at the very least modify to a considerable extent the structure and relative arrangement of this particular conventional set of skandhas. Also his or her cetana (will or volition), which formally forms part of the human being's samskara (forces) cluster, will no doubt be affected by the challenge in accordance with its intensity and the endurance the person can muster. Karma, we must stress, is, in our view, pratityasamutpada or interdependent origination at our sentient level, including personal choices and responsibility - it is the immanent universal dynamic principle of existence as it also operates incessantly within the human being, in the relations between all sentient beings and in their interaction with the environment. Wholesome human activities are necessarily those which are in agreement with the overall otherwise indifferent pattern and direction of existence. It is, indeed, for this reason that they are experienced by us as such. You will no doubt agree that there cannot be two sets of rules at play, one for totality and one as devised by humankind itself for its own affairs only.

question What do you mean by 'indifferent'?

answer The same idea of the indifference of Nature to the concerns of humanity is, for instance, also treated in chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching ("Heaven and Earth are not humane, they regard all things as straw dogs, etc."), which please see in your copy of this important book.

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question Was it not Kierkegaard who said that one must be content to be a human being? Is this what Advayavada Buddhism strives after, to be pleased with being alive?

answer Yes, you might indeed put it that way. The Advayavadin is a happy Buddhist and he seeks the happiness of all other living beings. He is happy to be alive and he makes no bones about it. B.C. Law already tells us in his 1937 Concepts of Buddhism that duhkha or suffering is nowhere postulated in the Buddhist scriptures as a "permanent feature of reality" and is only "admitted and entertained as a possible contingency in life as it is generally lived". He explains duhkha or suffering thus: "The problem of dukkha is essentially rooted in the feeling of discord or disparity. Birth, decay or death is not in itself dukkha. These are only a few contingencies in human experience which upset the expectations of men. From the point of view of mind, dukkha is just a vedana or feeling which is felt by the mind either in respect of the body or in respect of itself, and as a feeling, it is conditioned by certain circumstances. In the absence of these circumstances there is no possibility of its occurrence. Whether a person is affected by dukkha or not depends on the view he or she takes of things. If the course of common reality is that being once in life, one cannot escape either decay or death, and if the process of decay sets in or death actually takes place, there is no reason why that person should be subject to dukkha by trying to undo what cannot be undone. Thus dukkha is based upon misconstruction of the dhammata or law of things or their way of happening in life." We do not agree, however, that duhkha is a feeling felt by a mind somehow separate from the body, as Law implies. Duhkha (existential suffering, i.e. to suffer existentially) and mind (i.e. to think) are simply both events: formally duhkha belongs to the vedana (sensations or feelings) cluster, and mind (to think) groups a number of events of the samskara (mental formational forces) cluster.

question What is, then, your understanding of duhkha?

answer The concept of duhkha or dukkha does not include, in Advayavada Buddhism, emotional grief nor physical pain. It refers solely to the existential suffering, angst and regret non-enlightened human beings are prone to, and is, therefore, considered as a remediable psychological affliction; the enlightened person accepts with understanding and compassion the sorrow and pain which are part and parcel of human existence.

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question How do we know about the world? Via the body, perception, sense consciousness and so on, all dependent on this embodied state. But how seldom our awareness rests within this body; how seldom the body and mind are at ease with themselves. We seldom think about our bodies; they are something given. When they work well and provide us with pleasure and happiness, we are satisfied with them and then ignore them. Only when they stop working properly, do we attend to them, and then only as a teacher to an errant pupil; we are angry and disappointed that they have failed us. We have a strangely ambivalent attitude to something so vital to us. It's not like our relationship with a car; we can't go out and hire or buy another one when it breaks down; yet we often treat our cars with more care and consideration.

We are born into this body, and when it dies, we die. But does one choose this body or decide its dimensions? Is one even able fully to control it? Can one choose when one wakes, goes to sleep, is ill, is healthy? No, most of what occurs with respect to the body is involuntary. We know, for example, that the body has various repair mechanisms, but it is very rare that we can set these in motion ourselves. Is this what we are, these arms, these legs, this head, eyes, teeth? With modern techniques, an awful lot of it can be made prosthetically. And so what are we? The bit that remains? The brain, two ears and so on? Or is this perhaps not how it is at all, not what we are at all? If the body were simply us, we would have a great deal more to say in the matter!

answer The lion's share of our body's activities is fortunately under the control of our peripheral nervous system, which includes the autonomic nervous system. The sensory nerve fibres of the peripheral system carry impulses from e.g. the ear or the skin to the brain, and its motor nerve fibres carry impulses from the brain to e.g. our skeletal muscles. The autonomic nervous system comprises a sympathetic and a parasympathetic system which counterbalance each other. Together they run, for example, our heart rate and the flow of blood through our blood vessels, the contractions of our digestive tract, the ever-changing size of the pupil of the eye, the dilation and constriction of our bronchii, etc. We do not think that you would want to have a conscious say in these matters.

You will agree that these nervous systems carry out very complicated and, above all, indispensable and irreplaceable functions. But the relevant fact in the present context is that the systems are things (that belong to the rupa skandha) and what they carry out are not things but activities, processes (that belong to the arupa skandhas). A thing and what that thing does are not two things; they are a thing and an, its, activity or function, and an activity is an event, not a thing. It is for this same reason that Advayavada Buddhism stresses again and again that the mind is not a separate thing but one more function of the body; the mind is to think (and consciousness is to know) and to think is not a thing but an activity, a process, which is an event, not a thing. A mind that is in any way a thing separate from the body, and moreover carries out activities on its own and by itself, is an atman or pudgala, or a soul. To propound that such a thing exists, as you seem to do, contravenes the Buddha's most basic anatman teaching.

Bearing in mind that the traditional khandhas or skandhas theory is but a very rudimentary presupposition of the actual physiological processes, earlier on we had this to say about the skandhas in this respect: The skandhas in fact do nothing - they are the doing. The cluster of physical existence is the rupa skandha. Also this cluster does nothing - it is physical existence in all its aspects. The four or so non-physical skandhas [traditionally sensations or feelings (vedana), perception (samjña, sañña), mental forces or formations (samskara, sankhara), and consciousness (vijñana, viññana)] are clusters or aggregates of functions, which are events - they denote how the rupa skandha is over time. The rupa skandha does not cause these events, it is them. Like when we say that a tree grows. The tree does not do the growing; it is the growing. This is how the tree is, how it exists in space and time. The growing of the tree is quite obviously an event, and not a thing, let alone a separate thing capable of in turn doing other things by itself. We owe the cohesion and activity of the rupa skandha to the spontaneous incessant dynamic principle of existence: the interdependent and conditioned co-arising or interdependent origination or universal dynamic relativity of all phenomena, called pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit.

important note Advayavada Buddhism supports the view that consciousness (to know) is a biological phenomenon. All living beings - plants, animals and humans - experience the world in their own ways. Each organism engages in a creative relationship with the external world, bringing forth a myriad of different ways of knowing, whereby the physiology of the organism changes accordingly (immanently) in the process.

question Inquiry into the relationship between the physical and the mental can shed light on the nature of the self; and deepening my appreciation of how the self flickers in and out of existence is perhaps the main reason why I continue to be interested in Buddhism at all.

answer The use of the preposition 'between' implies that there are two objects here, but this is not the case. We simply have a physical thing and how it exists over time.

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question The late Ayya Khema writes the following in one of her books: 'To get an inkling of voidness liberation, we can deliberately empty the mind of all it contains, realizing that it has no absolute significance. The less we carry in the mind, the less tired the mind becomes. Usually our minds are full to the brim, which is a great burden for us. Voidness liberation means that there is an absence of all formations (thoughts and reactions). When, for a moment, we have let them go, we can notice how relieved we feel, and we get a taste of voidness liberation. Then we let thoughts and reactions return and realize the difference. Immediately irritation arises, which usually escapes our awareness because we are used to a mind full of formations. We experience the heavy, debilitating, burdensome nature of thoughts only when we are able to compare our usual mind states with momentary emptiness. This may be the first time we notice the constant sense bombardment we commonly experience. The most insidious irritations arise through thinking. Thought is a constant process with which we identify and then we act upon. [But] we cannot act upon everything we see or hear. If we see a beautiful sunset or hear some great music, there is nothing to do about it, except to like it. No need for a reaction, which may easily result in new problems. Even the most innocuous situations can cause friction if we identify with our thinking process. Once we express our views, hopes, and beliefs, the argument starts, and tears start flowing.' What do you think?

answer With all due respect, this is not at all the position of Advayavada Buddhism. Our understanding is that the Buddha's teaching exhorts us, on the contrary, to continually improve the quality of our thoughts by conscientiously following the Noble Eightfold Path. According to our view the objective of the Middle Way, being the correct existential attitude expounded by the Buddha, is to reconnect and reconcile us with existence, not to turn our backs on it. Buddhism must be understood as a Way of Reconciliation with the whole of wondrous existence just right as it is, i.e. as it truly is beyond our commonly limited and biased personal experience of it.

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question Prior to the level of assumptions and presuppositions that we gain through experience, there are levels of instincts and basic temperament that come through our genes. In raising my children I have seen all too clearly how the basic temperament leads to the basic assumptions which in turn become the foundation upon which we build our world view. I think it was Santayana who pointed out that most people have established their fundamental philosophy at the age of eighteen and then spend the rest of their lives selectively accumulating evidence that this philosophy is correct, or, to put it in other terms, overcoming cognitive dissonance.

We can learn to challenge our assumptions and we can broaden our point of view, but to the extent that we think, our thinking will always grow from the foundation that begins in our genes. But we can also transcend thought. This is the whole meaning of original mind. Yes, the mental activities leading up to and away from this are based on assumptions, but the actual state of being during samadhi/nirvana/satori is free of all categories, all thoughts, all imaginings, all emotions. This is why it is truly called liberation, because it is momentary freedom from a chain of cause and effect that runs from the beginning of time. I know many believe this is impossible, but I say to them be more diligent in your practice. The result is worth the effort.

answer We have little to add to this.

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question What is your position on preexistence and rebirth?

answer Our considered assessment of this important issue in Buddhism is that human life is a remarkable process of concatenate multiplication over unidirectional and irreversible time, not differing from other mammals in this respect. What is born is exclusively the product of the parents' procreative deed and the karma in which it is embedded as an integral part. Karma is, as we understand it, pratityasamutpada or interdependent origination as it operates here and now at the sentient level, including personal choices and responsibility. The genetic and social (nature and nurture) factors present at the beginning of the so-called new life are the direct result of that wondrously minute creative occurrence in infinite wondrous overall existence. There is in our view no scientific evidence at all of an alaya-vijñana or store-house consciousness that might contain and carry forward so-called karmic seeds (vasana) into the future as is implied in the Yogacara vipaka theory, nor of a patisandhi-viññana, the connecting consciousness encountered in Theravada ontology, nor, for that matter, of any other form of rebirth, re-incarnation, transmigration, or of afterlife or resurrection. We strongly disagree with and distance ourselves from the contents of S.N. Goenka's widely circulated essay What Happens at Death? and similar implausible theories. We say that this one life with a duration of some 4,000 weeks is it and that you will not get a second chance here or elsewhere - things, all phenomena, exist only durationally. As for the recollection of so-called past lives, it is difficult to see why a person should inherit the shape of the nose, the ring of the voice, and even the facial expressions of a forebear, and not, in some way, the recollection of an experience.

question The issue for this type of time, the time as ordinarily lived and experienced, i.e. personal time, is whether or not it is a useful concept in and of itself, or is merely the result of talking about entropy without knowing it. Which is to say, are we, with this usage, taking the connotations of something to be the thing itself - do we take 'time's arrow' for 'time'?

answerWe are speaking of the 4,000 or so weeks which we will have lived since we were born, becoming older and older by the day, until we die. It is time, or duration, measured in such terms which we behold and experience as unidirectional and irreversible, indeed as time's arrow, and confidently know to be an essential fact in the living of our lives.

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question Existential 'nothingness' opens when deep questions about existence and reality lead to uncertainty about anything having ongoing reality or meaning. When despair and a sense of isolation become the stopping point, then existential nothingness has [again] made itself into a 'somethingness' which is clung to. When it is adopted as the way to encounter life it represents an identity of emotional numbness and inability to commit to life. It is this nihilism, along with eternalism, that is specifically regarded in Buddhism as not being middle-wayed. From the standpoint of the the Middle Way, which is neither negation nor affirmation, the negation of any permanently or independently existing thing or quality is simultaneously seen as the affirmation of interpenetrating Totality beyond words or thought.

answer Well said. Allow us to quote in this context from Prof. Archie Bahm's Philosophy of the Buddha: "Each fold of the Eightfold Path is clearly labelled with the prefix samma. And sam means sameness, ambiguity, universality, equality, regarding willingness to accept things as they are.. Sam is middle-wayedness between over-acceptance and under-acceptance, between attachment to them as more than they are or less than they are. Translation of sam as 'right view' etc.. fails to convey to most readers the ideal of equanimity which is then to be perfectly sought. [...] The term 'right', although fitting better into the puritanic, rigoristic, and perfectionistic preconceptions of many Western translators, and into the perfectionistic (extinctionistic) tendencies of Theravada, is only slightly justified." It is our view that it is only by following the Path in a non-prescriptive way that we shall eventually be able to come to understand the non-conceptual import of ultimate truth, and it was a.o. this explanation of the term samma by Prof. Bahm which prompted us to translate it in Advayavada Buddhism as 'best' or 'best possible'.

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question It was believed at one time that one could be objective, achieve a pure objectivity totally unaffected by anything. And it is possible, but only when one is totally mindful, when one is seeing all objects as 'what arises, ceases'. That is pure objectivity, the purity of the mind with no cultural additives, prejudices, angles, distortions, filters, positions, and no axe to grind. By practising mindfulness you begin to observe all the cultural conditioning as the impermanence of your own language, your own thoughts, your own attitudes, your views of yourself, views of the world, opinions, emotions - all of these are witnessed as impermanent and nonself. That is seeing in objectivity. That is a pure objective seeing, knowing. And it is through mindfulness and wisdom, which are not conditioned. They're not conditioned and they're not cultural. You can't even say they are Buddhist, or anything. They are beyond any of those kinds of concepts. By looking thus at suffering, therefore, and understanding it, we develop this way of knowing the truth. And then there is the realisation of cessation and the development of the path. It's a way of realising God, or realising truth. The teachings are excellent teachings. They're not dogmas or beliefs. They're even stated in such a way as to encourage us to reflect with them rather than just to grasp them. People still grasp Buddhist teachings, of course, and become Buddhists rather than liberated enlightened beings. So people do become Buddhists by believing in Buddhism, but the actual practice the Buddha gave is a direct path of liberation here and now. That's why, as you practice more and more, you find there is no suffering, that the suffering the Buddha pointed to is due to your own ignorance.

answer This is indeed the intention of the Path; this is why in Advayavada Buddhism it is said that duhkha or dukkha (existential suffering) is but a symptom indicating that one is going against the grain of things - clearly there cannot be anything wrong with existence and that it is not life that should be improved upon, but man's habitual way of living it. We are convinced, as stated before, that the objective of the Middle Way expounded by the Buddha as the correct existential attitude is, therefore, the abandonment of all fixed views and to reconnect and reconcile us with wondrous overall existence, and that the Noble Eightfold Path must be seen as an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of wondrous overall existence becoming over time now in its manifest direction. Nirvana is when we experience our own existence in the present moment as being completely in tune with existence as a whole becoming over time now - to experience our own existence thus causes the total extinction of all suffering as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is. This is how Advayavada Buddhism understands the Buddha's teachings.

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(last modified 25 April 2016)

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