from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday 8 May 2012

interstellar dust mark 2 (the Buddhist take)

If you're a regular reader of my blog (and you perhaps don't know how much it means to me that some of you are), you may have noticed that I didn't include Buddhism, Zen or otherwise, in my thoughts yesterday. (For regular readers: some of what I write below is a reprise of previous posts, but reframed within this context.)

What I said yesterday was: 

An evolutionary biologist would say that, improbable though it might seem, consciousness such as ours has arisen like everything we know from an interstellar explosion that created our planet, and the conditions necessary for human awareness. Yes, the odds are billions to one,  but the process can be mapped.

A mystic would say that out of consciousness, universal consciousness, has arisen everything, including this planet and the conditions for us to emerge.

The gnostic or arcane/occult view might hold that everything we know and can know is a co-creation of the mind of the universe and our individual minds – that the universe needs us for its knowing as we need the universe for ours, and that that is a continual and continuing process of co-evolution.

The Buddhist view is compatible with all three of those statements – or at least has things in common with each of them; but differs also in a seemingly small but significant way. It is elegant, simple and radical in its scope and implications. The proposition put forward by Buddhism is that there is already in reality no separation between this 'me' and the rest of the universe. Our perception of duality, of 'me' versus 'you' or 'it', is the result of millenia of conditioned habituation to the notion of a separate egoic self, and our enormous efforts to preserve and defend our identity as this separate 'self'.

We live, suggests Buddhism, in an utterly interconnected co-emergent universe, where everything is in a state of co-arising all the time. (This co-arising also includes dissolution, but in Buddhism these are not polar opposites.)  

The Buddha famously would not be drawn into debate about our cosmic origins, nor into stating absolute truths about the universe. Buddhism doesn't tend to make statements about things that can't be relatively simply identified by individual non-expert experience, empirically. (Of course it requires attention and motivation.) I don't think this is widely recognised.

In brief, Buddhism in my view brings an active psychological dimension lacking, clearly, in the evolutionary biology approach, and largely absent as an active force in most other spiritual or religious traditions.

Central ideas in Buddhism include the convergences I mentioned in the gnostic and mystic viewpoints. For Buddhism, everything is utterly interconnected at all levels at all times, and it is only our perceptions that hold us apart from that view and from everything else. (One could say, then, that our job is to pull back the clouds that obscure the already-in-place-ness of unity, which is perhaps the ultimate goal of all spiritual paths.)

Buddhism does not deal in beliefs that require eg faith. 'What I offer is a way that leads beyond suffering,' the Buddha would say. 'Try it out for yourself.'

What he was offering was a way of freedom based on awareness of and investigation into the psychological patterns that keep us back from being all we might be as spiritual beings, and prevent us from experiencing and giving out loving-kindness/compassion, and that can be experienced by anyone sufficiently motivated to try it out for themselves. If pursued with right concentration, effort and commitment, he suggested, it would bring about peace, serenity and a sense of unity – surely the aim of all spiritual paths – which would ripple beyond the individual self. 

NB: the point is not salvation of an individual soul, but a contribution to the whole of committing to find ways to free us all from suffering, whether human, animal or planetary, and to the project of enlightenment. 'I vow to save all sentient beings', is the Bodhisattva Vow – not in the sense of believing oneself to be omnipotent, nor indispensable, but knowing that what one does for oneself one also does for others, and vice versa, in an interconnected universe; and, knowing that, to choose a path that is wise and 'skillful' (Buddhism avoids the binaries of eg good and evil, preferring a continuum between ignorance and wisdom).

It would also be true to say that Buddhism draws attention to the dangers of thinking one has found the 'one right way', and being caught in that belief.

For me, Buddhism is a psychological 'lens' for being skilfully present in the world and attempting not to fall into the traps and delusions of the ego – in other words, seeing the limitations of our habitual way of being in the world, and making choices based on an awareness that everything we think, say and do has consequences, and choosing response rather than reaction (I say again this is aspirational, but meditation and a commitment to mindfulness do keep the aspiration in view!). Through this lens I also practise a path that includes both gnostic/arcane and mystical elements.

So what prevents us from realising our true being, according to Buddhist thought, is our persistent belief in and defence of the existence of a separate self (or rather our locating our 'self' within the small compass of a separate ego), and the duality that brings in its wake. We divide the world into us and not us, this and not that.

In addition, we bring our judgements: good/bad, pleasant/unpleasant, love/hate and all the rest of them. Our identification with one pole and our reaction against the other the Buddha described as states of attachment or aversion which also keep us trapped in habitual patterns of thought, belief and behaviour, and are responsible for a great deal of the world's suffering and troubles.

And then there is the tricky notion of time; and the fact that we so rarely inhabit the present moment, as we're continually not only immersed in our sense of the little egoic self and its likes and dislikes, opinions and emotions, but we're continually lost, most of us, in nostalgia or regret for the past, or hopes and fears for the future.

Our need to cling on to things that simply cannot be permanent, our refusal to accept the obvious truth of transience, is another big delusion of the separate self.

So there we have it in extremely sketchy terms: what keeps us from knowing, experiencing, that we live in a co-emergent interconnected universe is that we buy into subject/object dualism instead of unity; that we miss the joys of the continuing present moment; that we hang on to our beliefs to define and keep separate the ego; that we don't accept the truth of impermanence.

Easy, isn't it??

Am off now to fall into the delusion of suffering at the dentist's...


  1. I am becoming a more regular reader of your blog. I appreciate your efforts. Thanks. Hope the dentist wasn't too painful :-)

  2. Hello Elly - thanks! I saw you'd signed up to follow. Welcome! And the dentistry was appallingly jaw-achingly grim, thank you... :-( compensated for though by the sight of a seal near the bridge at Totnes immediately after (the river is tidal there but it's a long way upriver from the sea!).


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