Logical Criticism of Buddhist Doctrines

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

header photo

14. Mind and soul


1.    Behold the mind

Judging by a collection of essays attributed to Bodhidharma[1], the latter’s teaching of Zen meditation was quite introverted. He keeps stressing the futility of physical acts and rituals, and stresses the necessity of “beholding the mind”, to achieve enlightenment/liberation. This message is repeated throughout the volume in various words. For instance:


“Responding, perceiving, arching your eyebrows, blinking your eyes, moving your hands and feet, it’s all your miraculously aware nature. And this nature is the mind. And the mind is the buddha… Someone who sees his own nature finds the Way… is a buddha.” (P. 29.)


The implication here is that buddhahood (ultimate realization) is not something far away, like the peak of a high mountain difficult to climb. It is something close by, attainable by a mere change of outlook. That is, the separation between samsara and nirvana is paper-thin: on one side, you are in samsara, and on the other, in nirvana. In his words:


“Seeing through the mundane and witnessing the sublime is less than an eye-blink away. Realization is now.” (P. 113.)


The transition is not to be achieved by elaborate external deeds, but by acute attentiveness. Thus, he states:


“People who seek blessings by concentrating on external works instead of internal cultivation are attempting the impossible.” (P. 95.)


Even so, in view of the ambiguity of the word “mind” the advice to behold the mind remains somewhat difficult to understand precisely. For “mind” (to my mind) in the largest sense includes every aspect of the psyche:

  1. The real self (or soul or spirit), which stands as Subject of all acts of consciousness (i.e. awareness of any sort) and the Agent of all acts of volition (will) and valuation (valuing or disvaluing anything). This ‘entity’ is without phenomenal characteristics (“empty” in Buddhist parlance), and so intuited (apperceived) rather than perceived, note well.
  2. The faculties or inner acts of that self – viz. consciousness, volition and valuation. These intentional expressions of the real self are also in themselves devoid of any phenomenal aspects, and so intuited rather than perceived. Here, we must carefully distinguish between the fact (or relation) of consciousness and the content (or object) of consciousness[2], as well as distinguish the Subject who is conscious from the particular act of consciousness. And similar distinctions apply to volition and valuation.
  3. The illusory self (or ego), a collection of body and mind phenomena that the real self habitually delusively (at least partly delusively) identifies with itself. This composite ‘entity’ includes a multiplicity of changing mental phenomena (i.e. mental projections, memories, imaginations, concepts, verbal descriptions, emotions) and physical phenomena (sensations, sense-perceptions, physical feelings), and is ordinarily confused with the real self. The ego is constantly crystallizing in our mental outlook, if we do not work hard to oppose this seemingly natural tendency[3].
  4. The physical infrastructure of the psyche and its workings; i.e. the nervous system, including the brain, spine and nerves, the physiological characteristics of humans that are involved in sensory, motor and emotive functions. This is one sense or aspect of the term “mind” as colloquially used; it is sometimes the intent of the more specific term “unconscious mind”. It is appropriate to refer to these physical structures and events as pertaining to the mind, insofar as they apparently constitute the interface between the material and the mental and spiritual domains; the mind is supported and fed by them and acts on the body and the world beyond it through them.

Note the difference between the last two of these factors of the psyche. The third refers to inner phenomena, a private subjective self-perception (which thereafter may have social ramifications), whereas the fourth refers to objective phenomena (knowable only from the outside, even for the body’s owner).[4]

Now, when he recommends our “beholding the mind” Bodhidharma is obviously not referring to the third aspect of the psyche, the perceived (phenomenal) aspect; the ego is (rightly) the bête noire of the Buddhist.

He does sometimes seem to be referring to the fourth aspect of mind, the mystery of the mind’s wordless power over the body; for instance, when he states that no deluded person “understands the movement of his own hands and feet,” or more explicitly put:


“…every movement or state is all your mind. At every moment, where language can’t go, that’s your mind.”[5]


But mostly, Bodhidharma seems to be referring to either the first or to the second of the above-listed factors – i.e. to the intuited (non-phenomenal) aspects of the psyche.


“If you can simply concentrate your mind’s inner light and behold its outer illumination, you’ll dispel the three poisons and drive away the six thieves once and for all. And without effort you’ll gain possession of an infinite number of virtues, perfections and doors to the truth.” (P. 113.)


Sometimes, his emphasis seems to be on the real self; as when he writes: “No karma can restrain this real body” (p. 21), “Awaken to your original body and mind” (p. 31); “Your real body has no sensation, etc.” (p. 39), or further (emphasizing the non-phenomenal nature of the real self):


“The buddha is your real body, your original mind. This mind has no form or characteristics, no cause or effect, no tendons or bones… But this mind isn’t outside the material body… Without this mind we can’t move. The body has no awareness.” (P. 43.)

Sometimes, it seems to be on the acts of consciousness, and the related acts of volition and valuation, of that real self; for example:


“Language and behavior, perception and conception are all functions of the moving mind. All motion is the mind’s motion. Motion is its function… Even so, the mind neither moves nor functions, because the essence of its functioning is emptiness and emptiness is essentially motionless.” (Pp. 43-44.)


All this gives me the idea of a meditation consisting of ‘awareness of awareness’. In this meditation, one focuses on the one who is aware (oneself) and/or on the fact of awareness (as distinct from its content). Whatever material or mental[6] phenomenal objects come to our attention, we simply ignore them and rather pay attention to our being conscious of them. The objects come and go during the meditation, but the Subject and consciousness endure and are focused on persistently.

It may be suggested that the emphasis ought to be on the awareness rather than on the one aware, for there is a danger in the latter case that one may get fixated on an ego representation of self rather than on the real self. Moreover, my experience is that meditative insight seems to hit a peak when the impression of self seems to disappear; one seems to face the surrounding world unburdened by an extraneous presence. Thus, even if the self is not really absent (since it is being conscious), it is best to behave as if it does not exist. For this reason, we should describe this exercise more narrowly as meditation on awareness.

Be mindful of the miracle of your being aware, or of your awareness as such, whether directed outward or inward. Bodhidharma says: “Buddha is Sanskrit for what you call aware, miraculously aware[7]. The sense of wonder when observing consciousness is, he clearly suggests, essential to enlightenment[8]. Cultivate this wonderment. Don’t take consciousness for granted, making it invisible to itself. Realize the marvel that one thing (you) can see another (whatever you look at, including yourself). Wow! How can such a thing be?

At first, such meditation requires effort; but one can eventually reach an effortless level of concentration that may be characterized as contemplation. Note well that the true object of such meditation on awareness itself is not phenomenal – it has no visual or auditory or tactile or gustatory or olfactory qualities. It is truly spiritual and purely immaterial, and is for this reason likened to a transparent empty space.

Of course, it is not much use to take note of one’s awareness just momentarily; one has to persevere in that effort for some time. At the same time, one should beware of making this a “gaining idea”[9], i.e. of letting such effort become a distraction in itself. One cannot grab hold of results in meditation, but must proceed gently, with some detachment.

I have personally tried such meditation on awareness repeatedly lately, and it seems to be an effective way to discard passing perceptions, fancies and thoughts, and attain a more dilated and contemplative state of mind. Although I cannot yet claim to have had the lofty experience of beholding the mind that Bodhidharma recounts, I have found it worthwhile.


2.    Behold the soul

Although Bodhidharma, as indicated earlier[10], seems at times to refer to a self in the sense of a soul, we can safely presume that, as an orthodox Buddhist, he did not literally believe in a soul. If asked who or what is beholding the mind, he would probably have answered ‘the mind’. Therefore, when I here bring up the question of soul again, I do not mean to impute such belief on him, but merely speak on my own authority as an ‘independent’ philosopher.

As also earlier indicated, I do agree that it is wise not to directly meditate on the self in the sense of soul. The reason being that it is easy for us unenlightened people to confuse our real self with our illusory self. The illusory self is so overwhelmingly present to our consciousness that we cannot easily ignore it. Thus, while hoping to soar meditatively, we may easily get bogged down in a low level of consciousness!

For this reason, I suggested that in our attempt to “behold the mind” we meditate on the fact of our awareness rather than on the person being aware. This is, I think, valid in the early stages of the meditation, at least, till we reach a relatively high level of consciousness.

But since I have reason to believe in the existence of a soul, I must consider such meditative restraint to be a temporary “expedient means”, rather than an absolute no-no. It seems therefore legitimate to now suggest that, once one has reached a certain degree of peace of mind and meditative intensity, one may well turn one’s attention on one’s self in the sense of soul.

This, then, would be a sixth aspect and latest stage of our proposed meditation on awareness: eventually becoming aware of oneself being aware. One should do so, not only because awareness is logically inconceivable without someone being aware, but also because this true sort of self-awareness is indeed subtly present in all our exercise of awareness, in everyday life and during meditation, and ought therefore to be acknowledged and concentrated upon.

To summarize: Bodhidharma’s advice to “behold the mind” seems vague and impracticable, in view of the ambiguity of the term “mind”. Of the various senses of the term, he probably meant ‘the fact of consciousness’ and/or ‘the one being conscious’. Granting which, his advice was, more precisely put, to behold the beholding and/or to behold the beholder. I suggested, to avoid developing ego, to begin by the first of these types of awareness, and at a later stage attempt the second.

The Buddhist idea of a “non-self” (anatman) being at all aware is, to my mind at least, logically unthinkable. Such so-called non-self is tacitly reified, even as it is claimed null. To say we have no real self at the core of our consciousness (and volitions and valuations) is to imply us to be mere inanimate objects. To claim that something truly absent may be aware (and will and value) is to deny that certain objects have such power(s) specifically, i.e. while other objects lack such power(s).

To deny that “we” each have a soul, i.e. that we are souls, is to turn us into mere things, or more extremely, into nothings. It is then discursively inappropriate to use “we” (or any other noun or pronoun) – yet those who make such claims continue to use such language. They either are not aware of the paradox involved in doing so, or contradiction does not bother them.

Buddhists claim that at the moment of enlightenment, the self (i.e. the apparent real self, not to mention the more gross illusory self) is extinguished. They claim that enlightenment is, precisely, the occurrence and experience of such extinction of the self. After that, “one” exists as a non-self (“in” nirvana), if at all (i.e. not at all, when “one” reaches the final stage, parinirvana). But such ideas are logically impossible to defend.

For the question arises, how do we know about such extinction? Not from our own experience, since we have not yet become enlightened. Therefore, merely by hearsay[11]. If so, who told us? Buddhists claim: the Buddha told us (first, and then perhaps other teachers who attained bodhi). So well and good – but if upon attaining enlightenment his apparent (real as well as illusory) self was fully extinguished, then he was no longer there and could not report anything to us.

If, alternatively, he returned and carried with him the memory of his enlightenment experience, then he was not quite extinguished. For, to return, and to speak of some past experience, implies some sort of continuity, i.e. excludes true extinction (which logically implies a radical break with existence). In short, the very idea of an extinction of self being reported by a witness to us after the fact is paradoxical and untenable.

The idea of extinction can only be discursively accepted as a ‘third party’ hypothesis, a conceptual projection by some onlooker, a mere theory or speculation. It cannot consistently be upheld as a first-person account based on direct experience of actual obliteration. This being the case, the strict Buddhist idea of a non-self does not withstand logical scrutiny, and must be firmly rejected. For there is a more consistent alternative postulate, namely that we each have a soul, that we are souls.

There has to be a residue of some sort upon enlightenment, else we would not know about it. This does not however mean that the residue is an ongoing individual self; it suffices that the residue be the grand common Self, of which every individual self is but a tiny spark artificially delineated by ignorance. When this illusion of separateness collapses, enlightenment occurs, the individual self disappears but its underlying universal personhood remains.

To show the logic of this conception of enlightenment, an analogy can be made with a raindrop falling back into the ocean. As soon as it plunges into the larger body of water, the drop effectively disappears as an individual drop. The drop is immediately ‘one with’ the sea. Even so, it can conceivably, for a very brief while at least, be retrieved intact.

Similarly, the remnant of spiritual existence can initially report its enlightenment experience, although ultimately all its boundaries dissolve and it fully merges with its Source.

That Source we may call God, following our traditions. Buddhists would call it Buddha-nature, Buddha-mind or original-mind; Hindus would call it Brahman; and each other religion has its name(s) for it. The name is not so important, I think, as what the word is intended to refer to; I am not so concerned with religious traditions as with their underlying significance.

In truth, when Buddhists pursue liberation from the karmic world, they do not seek total annihilation, absolute death[12]. They rather seek something they call happiness or nirvana. It is an existence, a ‘higher life’ of some sort, though not one subject to the suffering of samsara. Nirvana is certainly something beyond, free of and devoid of all phenomenal characters and events; but that does not mean it is totally nothing, a nihilistic non-existence. It is, let us say, a purely spiritual existence (whatever that means).

Reaching such conclusion, I realize that my thinking on this subject is closer to ‘high’ Hindu philosophy (such as Advaita Vedanta) than to Buddhism. I can never accept the “avatar” idea, so pervasive in Hinduism (as in Christianity), the idea that God can and does incarnate in human or other forms. For me, as a rational philosopher, this is a logically untenable notion; the whole cannot become a part. But many ideas in Hindu philosophy are indeed profound and reasonable.


3.    The Buddhist no-soul theory

One of the major and distinctive theses of Buddhism is the theory of “no-soul” – (or anatta in Pali, anatman in Sanskrit). This is part of a larger thesis that nothing has a real essence, the individual soul or self being here conceived as a special case of the concept of essence, i.e. as the essence of a person.

The Buddhist no essences doctrine arose in reaction to a thesis, labeled “Eternalism”, which was apparently normative in Indian philosophy at the time, that ‘things’ consist of eternal, unchanging ‘essences’, substantial and causally independent entities. Similarly, with regard to the special case of souls.

The Buddhist no essences doctrine was based on the assumption that the belief in such “essences”, including in particular the belief in souls (as the essences of our bodily and mental existences), is the root cause of our imprisonment in samsara (i.e. our fundamental ignorance and suffering), so that its abandonment would put us in nirvana (i.e. enlighten and liberate us).

There has been a theory very similar to Eternalism in Western philosophy, namely the “Monadology” of Gottfried Liebniz. This was of course an extremist ontological idea, due to a simplistic reading of predication as stating that the predicate is literally “contained in” the subject. That is, that whatever is predicable of anything must be “part of its nature”, and therefore inextricably intrinsic and peculiar to it – so that the world is composed of a multiplicity of eternal substances each of which is an island onto itself.

Opposite such inaccurate philosophy, the Buddhist counter-theory would indeed prima facie appear to be a laudable improvement. But, I submit, the Eternalist theory serves Buddhism as a convenient philosophical ‘red herring’. It is surely not the commonsense or scientific worldview (which are effectively ignored by Buddhism); and the Buddhist rebuttal constitutes another extremist position (in the opposite direction), which altogether denies the reality of any essences by allegedly reducing everything in the world to an infinite crisscross of mutual dependencies (the co-dependence or interdependence theory).

Although Buddhists would protest that their thesis is not the opposite extreme, viz. Nihilism, but a middle way between those two extremes, it is hard to see how we might reasonably not judge it as an extreme view. It is true that there are two, nay three, Buddhist positions in this context. One, attributed to the Theravada branch, of ultimately a total void (extinction in meditation); another, attributed to the mainstream Mahayana branch, of an ultimate original ground (an underlying universal spiritual substance of sorts, albeit one piously declared ‘void’ or ‘empty’); and a third, claimed by Zen adepts, of neither this nor that, i.e. fence-sitting between the previous two positions (hence, more ‘middle way’ than them).

Of these three, the said mainstream Mahayana option would seem the least Nihilistic, in that it admits of some sort of real existence – viz. the existence of the “original ground”. Logically, however, this Monist thesis (to which I personally tend to adhere) should logically be classed as an Eternalist philosophy of sorts, since the original ground is beyond impermanence. Impermanent appearances continuously bubble forth from it, but it is everywhere and ever one and the same calm fullness. Thus, the other two Buddhist theses, which are more clearly anti-Eternalist, can reasonably be viewed as Nihilist rather than middle way.

The commonsense view (to which most of us adhere, consciously or not) is rather noncommittal on such issues. It is truly a middle way, without prejudice. It does not draw any such general conclusions offhand. It neither reduces everything to independent substances nor reduces everything to mutually dependent non-substances, but remains open to there being perhaps a bit of both these extreme scenarios present in the real world, and other options besides. At a more scientific level, this common view becomes the “laws of nature” approach – the idea that there are various degrees of being and forms of dependencies, which (in the physical domain, at least, and possibly in the mental domain to some extent) are best expressed through quantitative formulas.

In such ordinary viewpoint, there seems to be some concrete ‘substance(s)’ in the world, but not everything is reducible to this concept. Furthermore, substantial things need not be individually permanent, but change is possible from one form to another. However, Physics does assume as one of its basic premises a law of conservation of matter and energy – i.e. that the total quantity of physical substance is constant. Moreover, that which is impermanent lasts for a while. Things that exist must exist for some time (some more, some less) – they cannot logically be so impermanent as to “exist” for no time at all.

Anyway, the concept of essence is certainly not, in our commonplace view, equated to that of substance. Essences are rarely substances, but usually structures or processes that seem to be generally and exclusively present in the phenomena at hand, and so are used to define them. Essences are usually abstractions, i.e. rational insights or concepts, rather than concrete percepts or objects of perception. Abstraction claims validity of insight without claiming to be literally within reality; though it depends on a Subject to occur, it in principle correctly interprets the Object. One cannot deny abstraction as such without resorting to abstractions – so such a skeptical position would be logically untenable.

In the Buddhist view, in contradistinction, the apparent or alleged essences of things are conventional, or even purely nominal, and souls are no exceptions to this rule. By “conventional” (and all the more so by “nominal”) is here meant that we, the people who believe in essences or souls, project this idea onto reality, whereas reality has in fact no such thing in it. In Buddhist epistemology, people ordinarily use their mind conventionally (or under the bad influence of words) in this manner, projecting onto reality things that are absent in it.

How (we may ask) do we know that reality is not as it appears to the ordinary mind? We know this, according to this theory, through enlightened consciousness. Thus, Buddhist epistemology, while invalidating ordinary consciousness, affirms the optimistic idea that we can transcend it and see things as they are. This can, incidentally, be compared and contrasted to Kantian epistemology, which likewise claims our phenomenal knowledge to be imperfect, but distinctively puts the perfection of ‘noumenal’ knowledge beyond our reach. While this theory of Immanuel Kant’s is inconsistent with itself, the Buddhist theory is not so in that respect.

Still, note well the difference between ordinary ‘abstractionism’ and Buddhist conventionalism or nominalism. For the Buddhists, as in Kant, our minds invent abstractions without any objective support; whereas in ordinary rational epistemology, abstraction is an act of rational insight – i.e. it does record something objective, which is not a pure figment of the imagination.

In addition to the said epistemological explanation or rationalization of its no-soul thesis, Buddhist philosophers propose various ontological claims and arguments. According to them, all things, including apparent souls, lack essence, because they are impermanent and discontinuous. They say this can be readily observed, and that in any case it can be logically argued – as well as being evident to anyone who is enlightened.

With regard to observation, they claim (much like David Hume later) to have looked for a soul everywhere within themselves and never found one. The soul is therefore (to them) an illusion of conventionally minded people – who are deluded by their ego (bodily and mental appearances of selfhood) into believing that there is something (i.e. someone) at the center of all their experience and thought.

But we must note that this is of course not a pure observation of an absence of soul, but a generalization from a number of failures to positively observe a soul. The generalization of negation could be right, but it does not have quite the same epistemological status as a positive observation. There is nothing empirically or logically necessary about the no-soul claim. At least, not from the point of view of an unenlightened person; and it is hard to see how an enlightened person could avoid equal reliance on generalization.

Moreover, we can fault their inference and larger argument by pointing out that it is absurd to look for the soul in the phenomenal realm (i.e. with reference to perceived sensible qualities, like sights, sounds, odors, savors, tactile feelings, whether mental or physical), if the soul happens to be a non-phenomenal entity (something intuited, which has in itself no phenomenal aspects).

It is worth additionally clarifying that, though our soul is a non-material, spiritual substance at the center of a multitude of mental and physical phenomena, it is not their “essence” or defining character. Our soul is “us”, our self – the subject of our cognitions and agent of our volitions and valuations. It is an intellectual error to try and identify us with things that are only associated with us. We are not one with or part of our minds and/or bodies, but something beyond them, though in their midst, cognizing and interacting with them in various ways.

With regard to impermanence, Buddhists apparently consider that, since our soul always has an apparent beginning (our birth) and end (our death), it is necessarily illusory. In their view – reflecting the general assumption, it seems, of ancient Indian philosophy, what is temporary (or passing) is necessarily illusory; only the permanent (or eternal) is real. Moreover, in their view, nothing is eternal – by which they mean, surely, that nothing phenomenal is eternal; for they certainly believe in the eternity of enlightenment or of the underlying “nature of mind” or “ground of all being” – even if they affirm this universal substratum to be ultimately “empty”.

But this viewpoint can be contested. To be real is to be a fact, i.e. to occur or have occurred. How long or short this fact is or was or will be is surely irrelevant to its status as a fact. An illusion is something that is or was thought to be but is not or was not. To identify reality with eternity and illusion with impermanence is to confuse two separate issues. I have never come across a convincing argument why such equations ought to be made. Surely, one can imagine eternal illusions and transient realities. Thus, we should consider that the issue of the soul’s persistence, i.e. whether the soul is eternal or as short-lived as the body and mind evidently are, has nothing to do with its reality or illusion.

The Buddhist argument against the soul also appeals to the general idea of discontinuity, i.e. the idea that everything changes all the time, and so nothing can ever be pointed to as “one and the same thing” from one moment to the next. This idea is presented as an observation – but it is clearly a mere hypothesis, an abstraction extrapolated from an observation. Given the observed fact of change, one can equally well suppose that some sort of continuity underlies pairs of moments. Since all we actually experience are the successive moments, the issue as to whether some residue of each moment is to be found in the next is open to debate. Thus, to speak of discontinuity is already to assume something beyond observation.

Furthermore, even given a seeming discontinuity, we cannot draw a definite conclusion that there really is discontinuity – let alone that this is true in all cases. Discontinuity is an abstraction from experience; it is not a pure object of experience. Additionally, the concept of universal discontinuity remains always somewhat open to doubt, because it is an inductive assumption – at best, a mere generalization. Moreover, the internal consistency of this concept is unsure, since it implies a permanence of discontinuity across time. That is, if we regard abstraction as necessarily implying some sort of continuity (whether of the object or of the subject), the concept of discontinuity is self-contradictory when taken to an extreme.

This insight is especially pertinent in the case of the soul, which is here both subject and object. We could not possibly claim to know for a fact that the soul is discontinuous (i.e. a succession of discrete momentary souls), because such a statement claims for the soul to the ability to transcend discontinuity sufficiently to see that the soul is discontinuous. That is to say, to make such a claim, the soul (as subject) must be present in the time straddling two or more of its alleged merely momentary instances or segments (i.e. the soul as object). This is clearly a self-contradiction. Thus, the Buddhist argument in favor of the thesis that the soul is non-existent does not survive serious logical scrutiny.

Another Buddhist claim regarding the soul is that it is subject to “dependent origination” or “conditioning” – i.e. that its actual existence, as a unit of being, as a fact – is impossible in isolation, is only possible in relation to all other things (which are themselves similarly interdependent). However, this theory – that everything in the universe could only exist in the presence of everything else in the universe, and that a smaller universe (holding just one of those things, or some but not all of them) is inconceivable – is just a speculation; it is not proved in any way.

Moreover, we could again ask whether this theory is consistent with itself. If it is, like all sublunary things, something dependent or conditioned – and it surely is so, notably with reference to human experience and thought – how can it be claimed as a universal and eternal truth? Any claim that the relative is absolute seems paradoxical and open to doubt. There has to be something absolute to anchor the relative on. To claim everything dependent on everything else and vice versa is still to claim this big soup of interdependent things to be an independent thing. And if this in turn is not an irreducible fact, something else must be. There is no way to be an absolute relativist!

The belief that something can be “both A and not-A”, or “neither A nor not-A”, seems to be the essence of all mysticism (in the pejorative sense). The claim to make no claim is itself a claim – there is no escape from this logic. To claim that everything is illusory is to claim this as a fact – i.e. as something that is not illusory. To claim there is nothing, no person, at the core of our being might seem superficially at first sight logically possible, i.e. not self-contradictory – until we ask just who is making the claim and to whom it is addressed. Inanimate objects are not concerned with such issues. A non-self can neither be deluded nor realize its delusion. Any occurrence of cognition, valuation or volition implies a self.


Drawn from Logical and Spiritual Reflections (2008-9), book 4, chapters 7, 10-11.


[1]              The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, consisting of four essays. Like the translator, Red Pine, I assume their author is indeed Bodhidharma; but who the genial author(s) is/are, is ultimately not very important: some human being(s) had this interesting teaching to transmit to us. I notice that D. T. Suzuki, in his First Series of Essays in Zen Buddhism, (pp. 178), mentions six (not just four) Bodhidharma essays as quite well-known and popular in Japan today. While acknowledging the Zen spirit of all those essays, Suzuki considers only two of them as likely to have been written by the first patriarch of Zen.

[2]              There is no awareness without content (i.e. object); one is here aware of another act of awareness whose content is in turn something else.

[3]              Meditation is precisely the most effective tool for overcoming our built-in tendency to ego formation. Even so, one may at any moment fall back into old ego habits; for example, the other day a young woman looked at me in a certain way, and I found myself flattered and captivated.

[4]              In this regard, it is important not to confuse the latter ‘objectivity’ with an exclusive standard of truth, as do certain modern “scientists”. Such Behaviorism, advocated under a pretext of positivism or radical empiricism, is a non-scientific ideological stance that would more accurately be described as narrow or extremely materialist. It is epistemologically fallacious, because its proponents deliberately ignore a major portion of common personal experience (viz. introspective data), and formulate their theories on the basis of an arbitrary selection of experiential data (viz. physical phenomena). Really, what this anti-phenomenological doctrine signifies is that the convenience of certain low-level laboratory technicians is to be elevated to the status of a philosophy of mind! The psychological motive behind this doctrine is an ailment that afflicts more and more people nowadays: it is a deep personal fear of introspection – i.e. of confronting the mental and spiritual aspects of one’s psyche.

[5]              P. 23. This makes me think of Tai Chi, which is a meditation on movement, on the relation between the mind and physical movement. Similarly in Yoga.

[6]              In the narrower sense of ‘mind’ – referring to phenomenal events (memories, imaginations, dreams, verbal thoughts, etc.) only. Note in passing that the term ‘mind’ colloquially also often refers to the mind space, the presumed extension in which mental phenomena occur.

[7]              Verbatim from the present translation; on p. 29.

[8]              It is interesting to note in passing how far this viewpoint is from the view of some Buddhists (more ‘Hinayana’ in outlook, perhaps) that Enlightenment is the actual extinction of consciousness (and volition and all other aspects of selfhood). For Bodhidharma (a ‘Mahayana’ teacher), the purpose of it all is to reach a summit of consciousness, not unconsciousness. The difference is perhaps due to a different reading of the twelve nidanas doctrine (on the chain of causation of samsaric existence). According to that, the first three causes in the chain are ignorance, actions and consciousness; these clearly refer respectively to lack of spiritual understanding, acting in accordance with such incomprehension, and the narrow and delusive consciousness emerging from such action. It is not consciousness per se which is the problem (as some seem to think), but the limited and limiting consciousness of ordinary existence. The solution is therefore not the annihilation of consciousness, but its maximal intensification and expansion. Thus, consciousness as such is not a disvalue, but a value. (In accord with this divergence in interpretation, the Hinayana branch tends to regard Emptiness as nothingness, literally a negative, whereas the Mahayana branch stresses the positive meaning of it, as the “Buddha-nature” underlying all things.)

[9]              Advice often given in his books by a modern disciple of Bodhidharma, Shunryu Suzuki.

[10]            In the first section of the present chapter.

[11]            Hearsay of course has some logical value, but it does not constitute knowledge in the strictest sense. It serves to confirm a hypothesis, but cannot definitely prove it. For even if what the witness says he experienced happens to be absolutely true (in God’s eyes, say), it does not follow that his sincere belief in it is logically unassailable; and even if it were, it does not follow that we (other people) can take his say-so as fact.

[12]            If so, those who do not believe in rebirth could just commit suicide and be done with this world, without needing to meditate and change their behavior.

Go Back


Blog Search

Blog Archive