Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Are you a Buddhist? (part four)

Returning now to the topic of of Are You a Buddhist with the fourth installment of this consideration. See posts from March for parts one through three.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, author of What Makes You Not a Buddhist provides four criteria to consider. To be a Buddhist, one must believe in all four of these tenets or seals. These are: 1) all compounded things are impermanent, 2) all emotions are pain, 3) all things have no inherent existence, and 4) nirvana is beyond all concepts.

In this last installment, we'll discuss the proposition that "nirvana is beyond all concepts." Nirvana has been discussed for thousands of years but what does it mean for it to be beyond concepts. Does it mean it is an experience that can't be described in language or is it beyond the conceptual apparatus of the brain. William James in the class Varieties of Religious Experience notes the four qualities of the mystical experience: 1) ineffability, 2) noetic quality, 3) transiency, and 4) passivity.

If we are supposed to regard nirvana as beyond concepts and language it would accord with William James's definition as ineffable and noetic. However, concept suggests something more than language. Without getting into the discussion of whether we can have concepts independent of language, to be beyond concepts is a higher standard to achieve. Can the brain transcend itself in this way? 95% of mental life is conducted unconsciously. This is not a Freudian dynamic unconscious, but a cognitive processing one. For example, the brain reduces information from the eye by a factor of 100: 1 (100 million light sensing cells reduce to 1 million going to the brain). Categories help us to lessen information density via filters that constrain what we actually see. If we attempt to consciously inhibit or override these categories, we can enhance our access to sensory and perceptual information (to the extent that these can be consciously accessed). Lakoff and Johnson in their book Philosophy in the Flesh caution against the hope to overhaul the category system: “A small percentage of our categories have been formed by conscious acts of categorization, but most are formed automatically and unconsciously as a result of functioning in the world. Though we learn new categories regularly, we cannot make massive changes in our category systems through conscious acts of recategorization” (1999, p. 18). However, by deliberately inhibiting the formation of categories to the extent that we can, we avoid making premature judgments about others, increase the opportunity for novelty, and allow the ordinary to become the extraordinary. Mindfulness meditation practice provides a set of tools to facilitate this category inhibition. What’s the big deal, you might ask. Ronald Reagan was quoted as saying, “If you’ve seen one redwood tree you’ve seen them all.” Siegel in his book Mindful Brain depicts the cost of invariance: “In many ways such learning oppresses our raw sensory experience by muddying the waters of clear perceptions with prior expectation. As we grow into adulthood, it is very likely that these accumulated layers of perceptual models and conceptual categories constrict subjective time and deaden our feelings of being alive. Without the intention effort to awaken, life speeds by. We habituate to experience perceiving through the filter of the past and not orienting ourselves to novel distinctions of the present.”

But these consideration fall short of the consideration of nirvana. Lakoff and Johnson are not sanguine about our neurological chances for achieving nirvana as a place beyond all categories. "We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, “get beyond” our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.” If this argument is valid, I may have to depart company with Rinpoche on meeting this Buddhist criteria. In review, I can endorse at least 3 out of 4 of the criteria and I'm still trying to understand the fourth. Now, when people ask me, "Are you a Buddhist," I say "yes." Was that so hard?!

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