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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Buddhism Paper

Beau Hilton
RELC 630 – Dr. Keller
One of the great joys in my life is the walk I take twice a week in the early morning. Twenty-five minutes of brisk peripatetic brings me to my earliest class – the streets are empty except for a jogger here, a plodding student there, and a few cars drowsily carrying their owners to yet another day of work. An empty street is a ponderous thing. Under my feet are sewer lines and electric lines and a thick layer of asphalt and foundation. The work that must have gone into creating it is staggering, especially when one considers that this bit of road is connected to all the other bits of road crisscrossing the city, state, and nation. The people who physically laid the road are likely out there somewhere, perhaps laying another bit of road somewhere else, perhaps sleeping warm in their beds. Perhaps they are sleeping alone, perhaps they are next to their wives or husbands, and perhaps they were generous and let their afraid-of-the-dark young children crawl into their bed for safety from the things that go bump. Perhaps their children will grow up to lay more roads, or perhaps they will go into computer technology and design word-processing programs for Macintosh laptops used by college students. Maybe they will themselves walk in the cool dawn air to attend a university music class, and maybe they will wonder about the incredible interconnectedness of it all. Maybe they will realize that, if it weren’t for those cars and those joggers and those students, there would not be a road at all, for no one would have thought to build it. They would then know that things and people only have meaning as they relate to other things and people.
            Shunyata is the core of it all. And shunyata is the core of nothing (existence and non-existence are wonderfully ambiguous terms in Buddhism.). Modern physics observes that all things exist vibrationally, and that solidity, liquidity, and gaseousness are relative terms. Though it may seem that the ground is solid and unmoving, it is in reality a jumble of energetic waves, exerting repelling force on the jumble of energetic waves that make up my feet. Latter-day Saint theology affirms the eternity of matter (D&C 93:33, 131:7-8), but is it possible that the term “matter” is being defined in a different way than in textbook physics? It is observed, for example, that there is less matter present after a nuclear bomb explodes than there was before – it is a simple matter of E=MC2. The matter is converted back into an energetic state, and the immense destruction of the nuclear bomb is due to the astounding release of energy upon that conversion. Allowing for a certain degree of wait-and-see-ism (a new and contradictory study may come out tomorrow), physics affirms eternal quality only for energy – itself a changing thing. Perhaps energy is the more refined matter spoken of. In any case, Shunyata describes this truth on a metaphysical level, observing that all things change and therefore there must be nothing that is at the core of it all. Speaking of reality, Hendrik Vroom states, “Zen Buddhists identify it with paramartha satya or shunyata, that is this reality, experienced in a totally different way, 'as it really is'. “[1] If the real reality is a reality of nothing[2], than what am I?
            The truth is, I am nothing, and I am in a relationship with all the other nothings. That is something. All things with mass exert an inward pull on all other things with mass – this is called gravity, and it is very grave indeed. That electron bouncing around the far side of Betelgeuse exerts a pull on my flannel pajamas just as surely as the moon pulls the oceans into tidal patterns. We just cannot get away from each other. Nor would we want to, for we have meaning only in our relationships to one another. This “we” is a cosmic “we,” disincluding no-one and no-thing; “we” is also practical, as has been discussed – no roads would exist if there were no people to walk them. Though there is nothing that is permanent, at least from our limited perspective, there is much meaning to be had in the interrelated reality that shunyata teaches. It is not a doctrine of pointlessness and nihilism. It is change and impermanence that makes human life exciting and worthwhile – indeed, the whole Plan would have been frustrated without it, for improvement and progression are change – and change and impermanence in family and friend relationships contributes to the worthwhile-ness of it all. Because we are constantly in flux and influencing one another, we have responsibility to move in an upward direction and take care that the inevitable, unavoidable influence we provide is positive. As one author points out, this has implications not only in the obvious interpersonal and political realms, but also in subjects including but not limited to ecology and environmental stewardship.[3] Another author compares it to a game. “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”[4] Because the collective “we” is not and never will be static, we play for the purpose of continuing the play, for the purpose of moving somewhere and nowhere all at once. The highest good is not to be found in monuments built, wealth attained, or enemies destroyed, but in “improving the shining moments,” living wholly and presently, and cultivating compassion above all other virtues. There is no “end” to this, it simply continues eternally, and is the “goal,” if it may be called that, of the bodhisattva within every Buddhist.[5]
            From the Avatamsaka Sutra comes the by now familiar analogy of Indra’s Net. Here are two of the more important sections, presented for our consideration.
A boundless host of enlightening beings, the congregation at the site of enlightenment, were all gathered there: by means of the ability to manifest the lights and inconceivable sounds of the Buddhas, they fashioned nets of the finest jewels, from which came forth all the realms of action of the spiritual powers of the Buddhas, and in which were reflected images of the abodes of all beings. Also, by virtue of the aid of the spiritual power of the Buddha, they embraced the entire cosmos in a single thought. (15-16)

The Ocean of teachings, numerous as atoms in a Buddha Land, are expounded in a single word—all without remainder. (32)[6]

It is a provocative ontology and pedagogy – all things exist reflected in all other things, all actions arise from interrelatedness (could I push if I had nothing to push against?), and all things may be known by considering a single thing. My ruminations on the road to school call to mind Thich Nhat Han’s teaching. “You cannot point out one thing that is not here - time, space, the earth, the rain… As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”[7] The value in considering a single subject is that it cannot remain a single subject for long. Soon one has considered “time, space, [and] the earth” and may compass it all together as a whole of truth. I have titled this essay “Mu,” the koan focusing on emptiness, hoping to gain experience with emptiness in order to have a bit of a better grasp (or non-grasp) on reality. By focusing on one thing, focusing on everything, and focusing on nothing, something is bound to happen. The Buddhist pedagogical method is beautiful. It is true education, the kind that changes people from the inside instead of forcing information in from the outside. It is education that comes from the transcendent truth that each jewel in Indra’s Net would be useless on its own – jewels are beautiful only in the reflections they make. Put a jewel in a dark room and it is just a cold rock.
            Latter-day Saint theology and the doctrine of shunyata, combined with the analogy of Indra’s Net, should be better friends than they have been in the past. “Wait,” says the Latter-day Saint, “I believe in eternal families, in eternal intelligences. What room has this doctrine of emptiness in such eternal views?” In the words of the hymn, “Improvement and progression have one eternal round.”[8] The doctrine of shunyata simply affirms this – nothing is static. The soul of man is eternal, but it is constantly changing – what is meant by “eternal”? From one moment to the next choices and decisions either buoy the soul up with light or weigh it down with evil. Even God the Father, in His beginningless perfection, continues His work of salvation and constantly creates, molds, and shapes. Though His attributes are consistent, His actions are variegated and lively, creative in their essence. Nothing sits still, and nothing is significant in and of itself. Would the Savior have worked salvation if there were no beings to save? It would have been pointless. God in His yonder heaven would have been what Haemon suggested Creon become in Antigone – king of a desert, with no subjects.[9] God is playing an eternal game, with no end in mind because there is no such thing as an end, just as there never was a beginning. The point is to compassionately move forward, creating happiness and peacefully driving ever upward, kingdom upon kingdom, eternal lives upon eternal lives. Without pushing shunyata to remove from us our souls and intelligences, without suggesting that energy or matter ever really cease to be, we can realize that, from a certain perspective, impermanence and emptiness explain very well the necessity of the gospel-centered life and God’s work, the necessity of interaction, and the primacy of compassion. In this way we can make good use of the philosophical undergirding of the doctrine of shunyata and find not only common ground with, but also admiration for, our Buddhist brothers and sisters and the doctrines upon which they build their lives.

[1] Do All Religious Traditions Worship the Same God? Author: Hendrik M. Vroom Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 73-90 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20019388
[2] The word “nothing” is being used here for effect – as will be shown, Buddhism affirms a reality, but it is a reality that exists of things in relationship and nothing by itself. A thing by itself has no relative, and is therefore empty – nothing.
[3] Can the East Help the West to Value Nature? Author: Holmes Rolston, III. Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 37, No. 2, Environmental Ethics (Apr., 1987), pp 172-190. Published by: University of Hawai'i Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1398737.
[4] 497. Loy is quoting James Carse. Indra’s Postmodern Net. Author: David Loy. Source: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jul., 1993), pp. 481-510. Published by: University of Hawai'i Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1399579
[5] Lopez, Donald S. Jr. The Story of Buddhism. New York: HarperCollins publishers. Print. 2001. p. 258.
[6] Avatamsaka Sutra (The Flower Garland Sutra). Dharmaflower.net. PDF file.
[7] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding. Berkeley: Parallax Press. Print. 1988. pp. 3-5.
[8] Hymns, 284.
[9] Antigone, 821ff.  in Lawall, Sarah N., eds. The Norton Anthology Of Western Literature. New York : W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.

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