Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Early Western Buddhist Scholars

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

Awhile back I found an article written in the Jan. 1940 Life magazine by Quentin Roosevelt about his travels and thoughts about Buddhism in Tibet. I decided to do a bit more digging in Google books to see what other interesting things I could find. It's hard to imagine Western writers of the 19th and early 20th century tackling the subject of Buddhism, but to my amazement, there is no shortage of books and articles about it. In fact, I found a few of these books rather eye opening in subject matter, depth and content of discussions concerning how Buddhism fits into a Western world view. I think you might be surprised that these Victorian and turn of the century writers tackle subjects that are still hotly debated today such as how Buddhism corresponds to psychology, science and other religions.

Here are a few of the works I found and a little bit of information on each one. Some of these you may have heard of, some you may not; and a warning, much of what you may find in these texts is inaccurate, biased and perhaps even a bit offensive to Asians or Buddhists in general.

Buddhism by Annie H Small - Published 1905- I think this preface she wrote gives a good idea of the intention of this book. Odd, how in 1905, people were looking at how Buddhism fits into a Christian world view. This work was recently republished and is better known than other turn of the century literary works.

The journal of philosophy, psychology and scientific methods, Volume 2 By JSTOR Published 1905 - Many of the first studies on Buddhism by Western scholars focused on the Theravada and a little on the Tibetan traditions. This study, published in a scientific journal, is one of the first serious attempts to look at the Zen tradition. While the text is fairly well written, and some of what the author has to say intriguing, there is a good portion of it that is skewed by limitations of knowledge of psychology and science of the day, and general European enlightenment bias found in most turn of the century scientific writing. However, this is definitely still worth the read if you are interested in Zen, and how Westerners first viewed its practices.

The Mahávansi, the Rájá-ratnácari, and the Rájá-vali: forming the sacred and histroical books of Ceylon By Edward Upham, Published 1833 - A Victorian age book looking at more of the Theravadan tradition of Buddhism as found in what today is called Sri Lanka. It was not 30 years before this book was published that the British finished it conquest of the Indian sub-continent, and many British scholars of the time, as demonstrated by this book, spent a plethora of time studying all the aspects of the culture, religion and traditions of the day.

The Light of Asia, The Great Renunciation by Edwin Arnold. Published 1879 - This is a better known piece, but none the less, an interesting read. Arnold tackles the subject in both as almost a scientific approach and as some first person abstract conclusions.

Esoteric Buddhism By Alfred Percy Sinnett Published 1888 - One last piece that is a bit odd, but interesting none the less.

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Friday, 2 April 2010

Something there is to be a dog that only a dog knows but that we need try to understand

"Twinkle, twinkle little bat.
How I wonder what you're at."
-- first lines of a poem recited by the Mad Hatter at his tea party
in Alice in Wonderland [written by Lewis Carroll, 1865]
Umwelt is a century-old concept introduced to ethology, the study of animal behavior, by Jakob von Uexküll. It's the recognition that every animal exists in a unique perceptual universe that's closed to human beings other than through inference: Much of a bee's world is ultraviolet; a dog's nose does a lot of what we use our eyes to accomplish. Then there are the electric fish which perceive their world through a sense we lack entirely.

Thirty-seven years ago, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked "What is it like to be a bat?," picking up on the Mad Hatter's curiousity, perhaps.

Nagel wrote:
To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals. On the other hand, it is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a bat. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.

So if extrapolation from our own case is involved in the idea of what it is like to be a bat, the extrapolation must be incompletable. We cannot form more than a schematic conception of what it is like. For example, we may ascribe general types of experience on the basis of the animal's structure and behavior. Thus we describe bat sonar as a form of three-dimensional forward perception; we believe that bats feel some versions of pain, fear, hunger, and lust, and that they have other, more familiar types of perception besides sonar. But we believe that these experiences also have in each case a specific subjective character, which it is beyond our ability to conceive. And if there's conscious life elsewhere in the universe, it is likely that some of it will not be describable even in the most general experiential terms available to us.* (The problem is not confined to exotic cases, however, for it exists between one person and another. The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, for example, nor presumably is mine to him. This does not prevent us each from believing that the other's experience has such a subjective character.)

And so it is with our best non-human friends, dogs: Deeply understanding their experience is "incompletable." But thanks to research in recent years, pulled together for lay dog lovers by cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, PhD, in her new, wonderful book Inside of a Dog, we can get a good handle of what dogs are like, even if their subjective experience of being alive, their umwelt [read caption to graphic, above], is significantly unknowable to us.

Umwelt of Unitives

And now let us look at the umwelt (subjective experience) of the highest spiritually-developed humans [or, I should say, the highest development that has been identified], Unitives.

This from Bill Harris's The Blog that Ate Mind Chatter:
Unitives, though they still have a sense of being a center of awareness in a body, no longer experience themselves as a separate “me.” The separate me isn’t just an idea, a construct, a way of looking at things [(as it is for other high and rare developmental stages), here] it is also felt and experienced as [a choice in how to experience the world]. …

This is, quite obviously, an entirely new and different way of experiencing human existence and consciousness – a more cosmic or universal perspective. All the paradoxical aspects of existence are now integrated. Polar opposites, such as good and evil, being and not being, self and other, subject and object, existence and non-existence, are experienced without the sense of oppositional tension experienced by those at previous [i.e., lower] developmental perspectives. Instead, these seeming opposites are just part of the flow of how things are. …

The Unitive is able to take any previous developmental perspective or point of view and shift between perspectives and states of awareness effortlessly. All experiences — joy, grief, life, death, being, not being, pleasure, pain, having, not having — are seen as natural parts of the flow of existence, to be noticed and experienced as they are. The rational mind is not seen as a limitation; rather, as just another manifestation of being human — sometimes useful and allowed to be more prominent, and at other times not needed and allowed to recede into the background.

The Unitive is able, then, to cherish all humans as part of the grand dance and flow of the universe, not needing others to be different than [as] they are. “Higher” stages of development are no longer seen as “better.” Rather, all stages are necessary, interconnected, and always-changing aspects of the human condition. …

The Unitive’s perspective is one of non-ego-involved witnessing, moment-by-moment awareness, and resourceful responses to the infinite number of systems and variables swirling around him — including all the conflicting needs, paradoxes, and constantly shifting realities of the situation. He is no longer identified with a certain “me,” a certain role or identity. He spontaneously takes on whatever persona is necessary in order to catalyze others or in some other way be appropriate to the moment. His concern is quite often outside of what most people would consider his own individual interests–a concern often expressed as an unconditional love for humanity.

… The Unitive’s low identification with the separate self and his greater identification with the rest of humanity further elevates this trust–of the way things are, where they are going, and what can and “should” be done — to an even higher (and more selfless) level. To the Unitive, there is an awareness that on an ultimate level everything is happening in a perfect way, even including the fact that the world contains much suffering and many problems. These problems, and any addressing of them, are just parts of the dance, parts of the endless going on of it all.

This is reflected in the Buddhist perspective of the bodhisattva — the awakened being who vows to stay in the world until all beings have been similarly liberated.

The Unitive sees happiness and unhappiness as part of the necessary, temporary (and endless) fluctuations inherent in the human situation. Instead of seeing life in a dualistic way, where some things are appropriate and desirable while others are inappropriate and undesirable, the Unitive experiences the world as a place where all opposites “arise together” and “go together” — in any polarity each side implies (and needs) the other. Up needs (and is defined by) down, here needs there, life needs death, good needs evil, and so on. Positive and negative are seen — and experienced — as mental constructs, as ideas, rather than as innate or intrinsic characteristics of things, events, or people. The Unitive watches as positive turns to negative and back to positive, endlessly — and necessarily. This is, indeed, a totally new and different way of experiencing the world.
In Christian mysticism, it is the ultimate stage in life, when God can be seen, "face to face." [The idea is reflected in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, in the chapter on love [or, agape], when he writes, in I Corin 13, verse 12, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

Does that mean, as Meister Eckhart said, "The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love"?

Quoting William Rafe Inge's Bampton Lectures of 1899:
The last stage of [life's] journey, in which the soul presses towards the mark, and gains the prize of its high calling, is the unitive or contemplative life, in which man beholds God face to face, and is joined to Him. Complete union with God is the ideal limit of religion, the attainment of which would be at once its consummation and annihilation. It is in the continual but unending approximation to it that the life of religion subsists.
All this raises the question, of course, of what being John Malkovich is like, or what being the Buddha is like.

Twinkle, twinkle, little Buddha. How I wonder what you're at.

By the way, there is this which is somewhat the point of all the wordy words: Buddha, or the folks of his time, thought of consciousness as being another of our senses. As with other matters, it seems Big B may have been right! Right, again, Sid, you big sweet fellow, you!

While our consciousness is very much wholly dependent on the other senses to bring light to what the brain/mind/whatever thinks is going on, it is, too - like the other senses - is a part of the team of elements that inform what the mind thinks and does.  Whether there is yet another element - Free Will, or, at very least, a pair of dice rattling around in the brain/mind/whatever - is debateable.
* [Nagel's footnote, here]:  Therefore the analogical form of the English expression "what it is like" is misleading. It does not mean "what (in our experience) it resembles," but rather "how it is for the subject himself."