Responses for “Thangka”

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I have been scrambling around the last few days so I apologize for the delay in responding to your comments regarding my poem “Thangka”. Better late than never so here it is…

Isn’t it interesting that the way we are conditioned, make us unquestioningly belief things that others would raise more than just their eyebrows…it would be interesting to do a study on how far belief systems can suspend rationalism and critical thinking amongst believers of faith. Yesterday I was at the inauguration of a new monastery and a guy came up and said very earnestly that one of the volunteers discovered that a Buddha statue had changed its position and he was quick to point out that the event stuck awe within the heart of the foreigners who witnessed it! Fascinating… that he believed the statue turned its head in the first place and more so the way in which he sought an impartial “witness” to this supernatural event, a foreigner, who would have little to gain from making up such a story and therefore a much better witness than an insider. Now if someone had told us the same story about Jesus and there are lots of ‘eye witnesses’ accounts, I am not sure if we would run to believe it. So what is it that makes us suspend disbelief and why is dharma not sufficient by itself that we seek voodoo to justify its existence?

One common thing I have observed about such beliefs is that it seems to extend only within one’s own religious framework but doesn’t go beyond it. A simple nomad living in the remotest part of Tibet will not buy the story of God’s creation of the universe in seven days and that there was Eve and Adam in the garden of Eden. Turn it around the other way and no Christian will believe that Buddha was a Bodhisattva in his previous life or for that matter any of the beliefs propagated by Thekchen (Mahayana) and Thekmen (Hinayana) schools of Buddhist thought. The same goes for other religious traditions too. Related to this issue, is Dawa la’s comment on Mahayana and Hinayana HISTORY- that “Buddha was born with incredible store of merit from his past lives” or that he was “ many many lifetimes ago a great Boddhisattva but not fully enlightened”. These are beliefs not history. Historical claims are supported by evidence and till date there are no studies conducted either by Buddhalogists and/or historians who had established that Buddha had past lives. Rebirth unlike evolution is a belief. What historical evidence tells us is that he was a prince who became a spiritual teacher. The time of his birth and death are still contested. Moreover when historians study Buddha’s thought, Mahayana accounts are not considered primary sources of information since those were developed much later.

Minax: My personal opinion is that Buddhist teachings were egalitarian in a broad sense since the sanghas had both nuns and monks and were open to all races, classes and free of caste system. But logically speaking, the converts were still products of their time and bound within a larger socio cultural context that was patriarchal in nature. Therefore even if obvious discriminatory practices against women may have stopped, the more submerged behavior and attitude against women are bound to have existed even during its inception.

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7 responses »

  1. Hi Drugmo, I appreciate your response. I’ve been over the hills and behind the wall for awhile and only just got back to Kathmandu, so sorry for the late response.

    I think you bring up a great point about the willful suspension of disbelief. I think there are two types of this. One is where the person has grown up believing such things are actually possible, if one has grown up in a religiously devout family or community for example. In this case it’s not so much the suspension of disbelief as simply a wider (and most likely un-investigated) belief in what is possible in the world. One simply thinks certain things ARE possible, and has had experiences of things (whether true or not is perhaps irrelevant) that they take as proof. This seems to me to be the most common case.
    But for me I don’t have this background.
    The second case is the willful suspension of rationality. Someone with a modern and scientific education and upbringing yet is still able somehow to believe such things. How?
    I personally think it requires a segmenting or the concept of truth. It’s possible to see different aspects or levels of truth. Empirical truth, Ultimate truth, Experiential truths, Relative truths or contextualized truths. I find no problem holding two truths that are seemingly contradictory as true as long as I know on what level they reside. Why? When we watch a movie or read a book suspension of disbelief is necessary in order for us to enjoy it. We do it because its enjoyable, our experience is stronger and happier when we are able to cut out overtly rational thinking or at least when we can limit it to within the context of the film. For example we accept that flying is possible, but keep rational about other aspect of life when we watch Superman. (Frighteningly this also has strong links to the temporary happiness people get from drug and alcohol abuse, where we use a chemical to retard our minds ability to be rational).
    When it comes to religion I think there is a similar process happening. People come to an eventual realization that as “true” as it may be rationality and empirical truth are incapable or making us happy. If we look at a painting and simply measure its dimensions, hues, values, mediums etc, it has no value to us. If we simply look at its content as a comment of a time, place, historical event etc. it equally has little value. What has value in it comes down to something inherently non empirical, it’s completely subjective and thus related to the current state of our mind.
    There are a lot of things in religion related to this. Pure Perception in Vajrayana is precisely this. And herein lies the great conundrum of our age. We are rational to a point that has perhaps never before existed, but this rationality is unable to bring us to where we actually want to be, which is happiness. So is it acceptable to put “truth” aside if it leads to us being happier and kinder people?

    As far as dharma is concerned I don’t think people have to resort to “vodoo” in order to justify it, but they do need to do a lot of studying the tradition in order to avoid it. This is something I plan to write a paper on this semester. How Buddhism, rather than eliminating superstition makes use of and transforms it into something positive.

    Take care.

  2. Dawa la, thank you for the thoughtful argument.
    I can see that your point on happiness is a rationale as to why people willingly suspend their disbelief, which is absolutely their choice. My point is not about “why” they make such choices but by the way they try to convince others about the superiority of their chosen path.
    Anyway from a purely observational point of view- by saying “people eventually realize empirical truth is incapable of making them happy”- you are counteracting your own argument about the existence of multiple truths in a highly subjective world, i.e. in a world of multiple truths such as the one you posit, due to its very subjective/diverse nature, there is equal possibility that there are people for whom only rationality and empirical truth is what makes them happy. Therefore “something inherently empirical” can provide happiness. We know for a fact that many in this world do spend their life in empirical pursuit and are happily vocal about it.
    Labeling science and rationality as something cold, lacking and deprived of beauty and enjoyment is a common default of religious practitioners and advocates. This caricature becomes important for them to promote amongst people because it forms one of the main ground on which religious existence is dependent. Otherwise (as the Indians would say) it doesn’t take much to figure out “dhood ka dhood aur pani ka pani”. Watch and read any kind of debate between science and religion and it is clear (at least in my mind) what is and what isn’t.
    Moreover insinuating that empiricism and rationality is deprived of beauty is to succumb to this one-dimensional idea of beauty as something that can only be experienced and seen when we suspend disbelief and embrace a world of smoky supernatural ideals. In line with your examples – there are many who find enjoyment in the structure of a novel, the fluidity and grace of its prose. They are many who are captivated by the cinematography of a movie, the types of acting, its technical sophistication and editing superiority. They are many who are enchanted by the historical context of a painting, its subject and raw materials, its mathematical precision, and colors. All these don’t require temporary suspension of disbelief in order to appreciate beauty and art. To infer such types of enjoyments are less than or not wholesome is to negate subjective reality. After all we are into validating everyone’s ‘truth’ here.

  3. As to why people try to convince others of their own path, I think thats got a simple answer. Insecurity and doubt. Looking to others to reaffirm their viewpoints.

    As to the question about empirical truth being able to make people happy I think you need to look a little deeper.

    What is the difference between say Math, as an empirical thing, and the ability to see beauty in it. The difference is a mental imposition that is separate from the math itself. Finding beauty in the structure of a novel or the materials of a painting are not empirical at all, they are subjective. No non subjective experiment can define or locate beauty. The mind by necessity already suspends disbelief at almost every moment. Simply seeing a three-dimensional scene on a flat canvas covered in pigment is exactly this. The mind is ignoring reality and creating mental associations to images stored in it.

    That difference I mentioned above is the same thing Buddhism (and other religions perhaps – I can’t speak for others) understand to be of the utmost essence, its in here that one finds happiness or sadness. Because of this no matter the view point you take on external reality – whether miracles exist, or people can fly, or spirits inhabit the environment etc – we can find happiness. People were happy long before the modern scientific method came about.

    My thinking is that when people try to be overly “empirical” their overemphasis on the external begins to neglect the subjective state of their minds. Because of this the state of the mind is distraction and grasping to external sense pleasures as a means of finding happiness.

    As the Dalai Lama likes to point out though trying to focus, understand and transform your own mind in an empirical-like manner is the Buddhist approach.

    To tie it all back to your original post. I think it’s acceptable to see things on different levels and with different relative truths, I doubt very much the people who were struck with awe by the statue turning its head have suddenly given up on their scientific, rational upbringing. They have jobs that probably rely on it. One can accept what happened on a subjective/spiritual level while still maintaining their grasp on what’s, possible or not on the functioning empirical level. It’s only when we start to mix these up and are unable to differentiate between them that we lose our ability to communicate on a secular start to become fundamentalists.

    Look at us ramble…
    but enjoyable to debate with you.

  4. “People try to convince others because they are insecure and doubtful of their own path?” You seem to overlook the entire history of righteous intention behind the missionaries and religious fanaticism across the globe. It isn’t for nothing that we have the common phrase “the path to hell is paved with good intentions”. Note: “Good Intentions” instead of Fear and Doubt.

    “…empirical truth being able to make people happy…I think you need to look deeper?” My subjective right and reality instead feels that you should perhaps look deeper into empirical studies in order to appreciate its unique beauty. Here we can agree to disagree.

    Psychoanalysis and mental health being a part of my profession, I am intrigued by the way you describe the workings of the mind – in your Maths example and the following statement “the mind by necessity suspends disbelief almost every moment”. What I would like to know is, are these your opinion or do you have references? I would be happy to read any studies/ journal articles/authors that you drew upon to arrive at such conclusions because what you are saying is frankly news to me.

    I need a clarification. It doesn’t make sense when you say, “people that try to be overly empirical neglect the subjective state of mind which leads to distraction and grasping to external sense pleasures”. That sounds like an oxymoron to me.

    In all candidness, lets not push the “Dalai Lama says” envelope because within our cultural context, it leaves no room for frank and fair discussion.

    My post was in fact about people’s ability to see things differently and the relativeness of one believer’s ‘truth’ against another from a different faith. Hence my example about Tibetan nomads and Christians, how beliefs are always believable as long as it is advocated by one’s own religion.
    So yes, at that instant when one believed the statue turned its head because of some supernatural power, science and rationalism was suspended even if he/she had a job that relied on it outside the moment. If that wasn’t the case, then he/she would either shrug it off and/or instead of taking it as the obvious “truth” they would begin asking questions.

  5. “You seem to overlook the entire history of righteous intention behind the missionaries and religious fanaticism across the globe.” True. I was speaking on more of a one-on-one level. I think when many people start professing the same belief that doubt can transform into assurance, which can lead to zealousness. But is it based on actual assurance or do they just cover up their doubt with other people’s similar opinions…. interesting to look into.

    Regarding the maths and the paining example, I’m not sure what work has been done on what I’m talking about precisely. What I said is a mixture of my opinion, with my studies into Abhidharma and Tse-ma, (Ancient Indian Valid Cognition theory). I think there might be some work done into it by Dr. Francisco Varela and other surrounding him.
    In general though its about distinguishing what is mind and what exists on the other side of perception. Most people don’t know which is which and thus they confuse the two. For example how does the mind take data spread over the thousands of cells in the retina and create an image? What the mind receives is not an image but thousands of points of information. When it’s pieced together how do we know how much variance the resulting image has from person to person? We know the mind is capable of dreaming without external sense data and we know its capable of hallucination by superimposing something onto that data, so how do we know that what we see is the same as what someone else sees? Empiricismas as a “truth” can only be ever be a mental abstract that we each perceive as functioning, as an abstract we can place our trust in it because it works and is replicatable, but if we hold that abstract to be “real” we are grasping to something internally created as an externally existent thing. So is this “Truth” anything but relative itself? At least it seems to be common and observable to most humans so it functions as a means of communication between us and is a necessity.

    When I say there can be a tendency to neglect the subjective I mean that people can think too much about the external without examining what is that makes them enjoy something or not. They don’t examine the pleasure or pain as a separate element from the external thing. They equate them. While in reality the cause of the feeling is internal and the condition is the external object.

    As for your last paragraph, its impossible to know what that person actually experienced or not, perhaps he’s just running wild with hearsay. But I think that shows the import of Multiple truths, if you actually did experience the head turn how would you deal with it? If you only have one level of truth available to you then you must either disregard your experience as a meaningless hallucination or optical illusion or you must firmly believe a miracle happened and thus when you spoke to others you would start to sound…nuts (for lack of a better word). Thus people from different religions sound nuts to each other. I think this just goes to show the need to maintain a common secular truth with which we can communicate with the world at large. A Christian should be able to understand evolutionary theory on one level while understanding their own truths on another, the ones who can are able to operate in a multi-cultural world the ones who can’t head in the direction of fundamentalism.

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