“There Is No There There” — Gertrude Stein
I believe the most fundamental Buddhist insight, the one from which all other Buddhist insights emanate is that of interdependent co-arising (PratÄ«tyasamutpÄda). Simply stated, this means that no phenomena exist independently of other phenomena. This isn’t to say that if everything didn’t exist in the form it currently exists nothing would exist. That would be ridiculous and easy to disprove, all you would have to do is cut down a tree and wait for the rest of the Universe to unravel. What it means is that reality is an irreducible totality because if you take any aspect of reality (a tree, the sun, an insect, a skin cell, a photon and so on) and examine it closely enough you will find it is an aggregate form. That is, every phenomena is made up of smaller constituent phenomena and that those phenomena are in turn made up of constituent phenomena and so on ad infinitum. As you approach infinity these constituent phenomena become less and less ‘there’ – they pop in and out of existence at the level[s] of quantum foam, until at a certain point you have dissected reality right out of existence. This isn’t only true for phenomena we think of as objects but also processes, such as perceptions and feelings and all causes and effects across space-time. This is what is meant by all things being empty. The implication of this is that there is no reliable base unit of measurement, not even the whole because it is, ultimately, made up of a whole lot of nothing. It is only in the reality of inter-being that anything exists at all.
This applies to the concept of the self. We like to think of ourselves as being real in and of ourselves. The fact that there is an aggregate form from which our consciousness arises makes this a difficult illusion to see through. We are born, we exist, and we will die. Those are all undeniable realities. But we are dying and being reborn on a cellular level all the time. Where’s their baby shower? Where’s their funeral? This sounds silly, but we are just as much an aspect of an irreducible reality as our cells are. We are also as dependent on our cells for our existence–including our ability to conceive of a self or no-self–as our cells are dependent on the atoms that make them up. Taking this to its logical extreme, we can be no more said to exist in and of ourselves then the sub-quantum nothing we are ultimately made up of.
This fundamental insight deprivileges the self–whether conceived of as body or consciousness–as the fundamental unit of reference. This is what is meant in Buddhism by ‘escaping the cycle of birth and death.’ It does not mean some kind of essential immortality in spirit or soul.
It would be foolish to ignore the significance of individual bases of perceptions, conceptions and (inter)actions; you have to eat and drink and sleep if you want to go on living in your current aggregate form/existing in a state of self-awareness. It is from these bases that we must operate, but we can do so in a way that recognizes the non-independence and ultimate emptiness of the self.
In sum, it is inaccurate to think of oneself and others as discrete phenomena because there is no corporeal essence. So I guess another way of saying what I’ve been trying to say is: “there is no us here.”
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1. Although the scientific terminology I am using are modern creations as are the specific theories, these concepts were all implied, and in many cases referenced by other names, in Buddhist thought. I’m not a Buddhist scholar nor am I all that interested in what specific words were used by whom or the correct pronunciation, or any other traditional knowledge signifiers for that matter, so you will have to take this reasoning on its own merit, or not, whatev~
2. There seems to be some inconsistencies on this in at least some Buddhist doctrine in terms of a vehicle for karmic transmission that periodically manifests in conscious and corporeal form as human (and in some discussions/traditions as animals, demons, hungry-ghosts, demi-Gods and such). I believe this is a misunderstanding of the core Buddhist insights and its implications resulting from an incomplete conceptual disassociation from the ego in conceiving the nature of reality.
On Terrence McKenna and the fetishization of the individual
I am beginning to wonder whether an unintentional fetishization of the individual haunted the back of Terrence McKenna’s ideas.
The individual is definitively a useful point of reference from which to analyze and talk about the Universe; however, I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument as to why even the very thing that gives us a conception of the self as individual–our consciousness–is anything but the synergistic effects of constituent parts, which can themselves be broken down into infinitely smaller parts, although at a certain sub-sub-atomic level this is purely a conceptual exercise due to the limits of technology.
While it can and has been argued that the experience of consciousness is itself an argument for the primacy of the individual as a unit of measurement; from what I understand we are not self-contained units, we could not exist outside of the societies that make our (re)production and acquisition of basic needs possible, nor could we exist without the smaller biological entities–who have their own DNA and systems of recreation–that make up the bulk of “our” body mass. What differentiates the individual, who would not exist without the collective in which she lives from the animals in our gut, who could not live without us and without which we could not live?