Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Philosophy, inner experience and spirituality

Buddhist or Taoist texts time oftentimes come upon to their readers as abstruse (or profound). It is the nature of the discipline, and, as my previous post mentioned, this nature will be magnified by the Chinese language. These texts can be understood from two perspectives: philosophically and experiential. By philosophy, I don’t mean an academic understanding of contemporary analytic philosophy and its pigeon-holing viewpoints into pre-defined categories like mind-body dualism, materialism, scientism etc, which has nothing to do with life’s problems (or sufferings) that these ancient Buddhist or Taoist sages wanted to tackle.

The Buddhist or Taoist texts presupposed an appreciation of life’s problems together with an intention to solve them. It is similar to Christianity accepting one’s original sin being a prerequisite for any Christian discussion, failing to appreciate this will leave Jesus’ sacrifice totally irrelevant. Hence for an academic who has a successful career in the philosophy department, an appreciation can be impossible despite many ancient texts he has studied and analyzed. And such appreciation can’t be taught: you either have it or you don’t. That’s why A becomes a Christian and B becomes a Buddhist and C becomes a person with no religious or spiritual belief …etc.

To become a spiritual person, a program of mind-body training will be very useful. The method of meditation is at the core of such training. Nowadays the practice of meditation has been spread to some Christians groups, like the World Community of Christian Meditation (http://www.wccm.org/). Unlike the TV-evangelists more popular in US, these Christians meditators are supposed to be quieter when they search their spirituality!

An example from the Heart Sutra 心经


Form is emptiness
Emptiness is form

Any philosophical analysis (in the analytical tradition) is futile, because the statements boil down to a tautology, and will, upon further analysis, turn into mysticism.

On the other hand, with a prior understanding of Buddhist’s life problem, one can appreciate the first statement talks about the detachment from life’s conditioning or programming on a person’s thoughts and actions (free from conditioning meaning Emptiness). And this is the enlightenment objective of Small Vehicle Buddhism (小乘佛教). The second statement refers to the vow (after accomplishing the first) of going back to the world of sentient beings with a compassion to enlighten all sentient beings (higher-level action from Emptiness). This is the enlightenment objective of Large Vehicle Buddhism (大乘佛教).

Without the above understanding, any meditation on the two statements will be futile. Without meditative training, a Buddhist cannot achieve either goal no matter how much he understand and how many Buddhist texts he might have studied or memorized!

Heart Sutra on Emptiness

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