December 1, 2011

Buddhism & Western Thought: Sifting Through Descartes Bones. ~ Andrew Furst

I Lost the Game.

I was introduced to the game by my teenage boys. The game is described by wikipedia as a mind game and has a single rule, if you think of the game, you lose. If you lose the game, you’re obliged to declare out loud “I Lost the Game”. Grumbles and giggles predictably follow. More on this later.

Recently I played hooky from my Sangha to attend a concert at the New England Conservatory. It was a benefit for the Greater Boston Food Bank and was put on by an organization called Music for Food. It was also an opportunity for my sons—a violist and violinist—to attend a concert featuring world renowned violist, Kim Kaskashian.

Music for Food is an effort by Kashkashian to help combat hunger and food insecurity. She’s organized a series of concerts featuring world famous musicians, teachers and their students. The price of admission is a canned good or a contribution to the cause.

We were treated to Brahms’ Sextet No. 2 in G Major that featured Kashkashian and violinist, Miriam Fried, that just rocked my boat. I was dancing in my seat.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTLb8AVvVig]

The price of admission also allowed for a very diverse audience. Twenty-something Conservatory students mingled with folks like Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and my two teenage string players.

As I sat, my attention wandered the crowd and drifted in and out to the music. At one point during the first movement of the sextet, I was noticing how much I was enjoying the music. I lost the game.

Mind Games

One of the things that drew me to Buddhism was its philosophy. I was impressed by the way it addressed the classic problems of being. Eastern thought, while dressed in different language and culture, is remarkably consistent with Western thought. They share the same categories and grappled with the same problems.

A ubiquitous problem of philosophy is dualism. The philosopher Rene Descartes is the founder of modern dualism in the west. Descartes divided things into two categories or substances, matter and ideas. The corporeal world has substance and measurable attributes.  Thoughts and ideas are fundamentally different.

While there is merit in the idea that thoughts are categorically different from matter, dualism poses a problem in philosophy. It’s called the mind-body problem. How can a thought, which has no mechanical properties manifest a physical response? The puzzle is how these two seeming unrelated substances interact.

The Method.

Russell Shorto’s book, Descartes Bones, offers an engaging story of how dualism has shaped and divided Western thought. Descartes most significant contribution was the introduction of skepticism, the foundation for the scientific method. The scientific method paved the way for monumental leaps forward in science and technology.

Descartes formulation of skepticism formed the basis of the European era of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment culminated in revolutions of thought that turned the world on its head. In the 200 years following Descartes, everything in the west changed. Consequently, the influence and power of the institutions of the past, especially the church, began to erode.

Descartes, a devout Catholic, recognized the dangers that skepticism posed for the religious world view. He saw that a materialist world view could lead to atheism. He was compelled, albeit with tepid confidence, to carve out a place for God.

According to Descartes and the Dualists, God holds dominion in the of realm of thoughts and ideas. Where else could we logically situate morality and ethics? But this division has cost dearly. We struggle with it even today.

Split Personality.

The dramatic success of science has forced us to reexamine the religious world view. For many, there has been a conquest. Science is a replacement for religion. Leading atheistic scientists believe that they will explain consciousness as a material function. That will be it, once and for all, for God.

On one hand, I believe that religious views must adapt to new data. But I also see a danger of the worship of material progress. When we abandon the mystery, we may be forsaking our fulfillment as humans.

Is there more to life than just material progress, and is science capable of leading us there?

In Descartes Bones, Shorto weaves a wonderful story around the plight of the philosopher’s remains. From his death in the mid 17th century until now, Descartes bones have been separated and reunited in a journey that has touched the lives of some of greatest minds of modernity.

The historical sketch offers insight on the development of “the method” and the people who shaped and were shaped by it. Those who were drawn to a balance between the power of reason and the religious world view went on to create the US Constitution, a hallmark of the Enlightenment. In contrast the more radical factions went on to lead the French Revolution, and inspired the likes of Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Hitler.

Two in One.

Philosophers have struggled to reconcile the two sides of the dualistic equation.  Some have done so by embracing materialism.  Others look to Plato’s allegory of the cave and his concept of forms.  Materialism seems inadequate, but the effort to put a handle on the ideal world has proven elusive. Descartes skepticism seems to demand that we abandon such ideas.

Eons after my last philosophy course, while reading How to Practice by the Dalai Lama, I was struck by the way that Buddhists had engaged the mind-body problem and with great skill set it aside.  It was like discovering the answer right under my nose.

It comes down to this. It is our nature to be aware. Awareness is pure and unwavering.  It does not go away and then come back, like thoughts or moods. It is also impossible to describe awareness. It has no length, width, size or color.  It is the mystery. It is the fact of being. It is what Buddhists call Buddha-nature. It is, in some sense, the second component of Descartes’ dualism.

But Buddhism firmly rejects dualism by rejecting the separation.  This is the great embrace. The material and the mystery are intertwined and inseparable. Science cannot exist without awareness, but awareness without the material is barren: emptiness is form and form is emptiness. Human fulfillment cannot be achieved without embracing both material and the mystery.

Buddhist philosophy demonstrates a refreshing pragmatism by acknowledging the truth of the mystery in our own being.  It is also careful to acknowledge that the mystery is not accessible to Descartes’ method.

I Won the Game.

Sometimes, when I am meditating, doing qigong, or yoga, I am overtaken by waves of pure joy.  They can be a little scary in their intensity. But I know that I am safe. The feelings arise from being exactly what I am suppose to be and they are immeasurable.

When I caught myself enjoying the Brahms sextet, I pondered a bit about whether I lost the game.  Whether or not my exercise in self reflection could somehow diminish the experience. Was I somehow breaking the sacred bond.

But how could I ever break this perfect union.  Not even in my darkest moments of self-centeredness do I ever leave the perfect bliss of union.  I may shovel dirt on it, and obscure it with ego, but when I wipe away the dirt it still shines like a diamond.



Andrew Furst is a Meditation Teacher for Buddha Heart USA, a yogi, a backup guitarist for his two teenage boys, a lucky husband, a third dan, and a self employed software consultant. He’s generally forgetful and generally interested. He’s constantly trying to remind himself that he’s in union with the great divine, and willing to send reminders to anyone needing the same.

Click here to visit his website.





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