23 June, 2010

Direct experience is best

Ashok Vohra
Known variously as ‘the awakened one,’ Tathagata or ‘the one who has attained the highest truth’, and Sakyamuni or ‘the sage of the Sakyas,’ the Buddha has had great impact on those exposed to his teachings।

Written down some 400 years after his death, Buddha’s philosophy came to be classified into three pitakas or baskets। Vinayapitaka prescribes rules for conduct of monks; Suttapitakas contain the conversations of the Buddha about practical methods of spiritual attainment; and the Abhidhammapitakas deal with Buddha’s teachings on psychology and ethics.

The Tathagata has no “theories”. His teachings are not about theory but praxis. Secondly, Buddha regards all metaphysical discussion concerning the ultimate nature of reality, atman and Brahmn as “vain talk”. The aim of such talk, according to him, is to satisfy curiosity while ignoring ground realities. He considered some metaphysical questions to be unnecessary and useless, while what he upheld could not be answered in logical terms.

The first type can be illustrated by the kind of questions asked by an injured person who has been brought to a physician for treatment. Before describing the nature of his injuries he wants to know the colour, caste and creed of the person who has injured him. These questions ignore his immediate needs and are a waste of time.

The second kind of questions relate to the nature of Self, soul, Brahmn or ultimate reality. The Buddha maintained silence when faced with opposing questions like: Is there Self, or no Self?’ He was silent because these questions relate to direct experience, they are beyond logic, and can be known only by intuition. They are not the subject matter of discursive knowledge.

However, Buddha’s silence does not mean that he denied the existence of anything abiding, permanent and unchangeable. In a sermon he asserts: “There is an unborn, unoriginated, unmade, an uncompounded; were there not, there would be no escape from the world of the born, the originated, the made, and the compounded.”

Buddha held that the nature of enduring, simple reality couldn’t be defined, for the nature of reality is beyond sense experience. Like a colour, say red, it can only be experienced, not described. Likewise you know the nature of reality by venturing into your inner self. When we try to define reality we reach the limits of language. The only thing we can say (as Wittgenstein said) is: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

Buddha, therefore, advises: “Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge.” Only those bhikhus shall know the nature of ultimate reality and attain nirvana, who “shall look not for refuge to anyone besides themselves” and who are “anxious to learn”.

Those who are anxious to learn must experiment and accept their own findings. They should be guided neither by external dogmas nor creeds, nor by alien doctrines and theories, no matter how profound they may be. They do not have to believe the experiences of others, howsoever authentic they may be. They should trust their own experience. Nothing is to be accepted on authority even if it is of the Buddha, what to talk of Vedas or realised ones.

To the Buddha, self-verification through self-experience is the way to “peace of mind, to higher wisdom, enlightenment, to nirvana”. Nirvana is not an afterlife experience. It is here and now.

(The writer teaches philosophy at Delhi University)

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