Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
Foreword by Stephen Batchelor
He begins by noting how the word meditation has changed in response to the influx of Asiatic religion into the West, and its countercultural appropriation thereof. It used to mean reflective thought but now it relates to a spiritual practice, usually sitting quietly still. Same for the word mindfulness. And yet the West had tended toward the secularization of this practice, divorcing it from its religious Buddhist underpinnings. Westerners are more interested in its practical results in terms of reduced stress, a more balanced personality, lower blood pressure and so on.
This has also led to Buddhists reconsidering some of their religious tenets, like reincarnation. Should it be considered a relic of its religious history? Should westerners include some of the ethical injunctions from its religious roots? And what of the scientific study of meditation? Thompson tries to bridge the gap between first-person accounts of spiritual experiences and how they manifest in 3rd person scientific studies. Each perspective can learn from and modify the other through 2nd person philosophical dialogue and collaboration.
Vikram Zutshi: Have you delved into the Self/No-Self debate between Hindus and Buddhists? Some schools of Buddhism come very close to the Vedic concepts of Atman and Brahman, while others reject it outright. What is your conclusion?
Evan Thompson: This debate is fascinating. It developed over many centuries and millennia in Indian philosophy. The concepts of atman and anatman were constantly evolving. On the one hand, there’s a sharp opposition between, say, Abhidharma Buddhist philosophy, which holds that what we call a ‘self’ or ‘person’ is ultimately only a collection of impersonal and momentary mental and physical events (dharmas), and Hindu Nyāya philosophy, which holds that the self exists and is an independent thing or substance. On the other hand, the Mahayana Buddhist idea of an innate Buddha nature (Tathāgatagarbha) seems conceptually rather close to the Advaita Vedānta notion of atman or atman-Brahman nonduality. All these philosophical twists and turns provide a good example of how we can’t talk about Indian conceptions of self or non-self as if they were monolithic; we have to refer to specific thinkers and the evolving context of philosophical debate and contemplative practice.
My own view, which I describe in the last chapter of Waking, Dreaming, Being, is that the self is a kind of construction, but not an illusion. It’s not a ready made, independent thing or substance; it’s a constructed process or a process undergoing constant construction. As such, it serves useful functions, but identifying with those processes or functions as if they were an independent thing causes suffering. So my view incorporates Buddhist ideas but disagrees with versions of Buddhist philosophy that say the self is strictly an illusion.
Yeah, t - and I tend more towards Evan's take on "the self" - a construction.
I find it mildly interesting and pleasing that what I just posted, before reading this, as an elaboration on the feminine-masculine typology thread, speaks a little to the needs and utility of 'self', though I have plenty of uncertainty around the phenomenon/condition.
Good stuff. In Religion and Radical Empiricism, Nancy Frankenberry takes us from the thinking of Dewey and James, through to Wieman, Meland, and Loomer, and then finally back to Whitehead and Abhidharma Buddhism. The question then becomes how to properly interpret the Abhidharma view. I like the summary Evans gives above: "which holds that what we call a ‘self’ or ‘person’ is ultimately only a collection of impersonal and momentary mental and physical events (dharmas)."
I think this is a powerful conception to hold - it fits very well with my ideas around PatternDynamics. But it's not the whole story.
Just today I read this quote from Bernard Loomer, which is relevant:
"In the relational viewpoint, the individual begins life as an effect produced by the many others in the world of his immediate past. But he is not simply a function of these relations. He is emergent from his relations; and in the process of his emergence he also creates himself. His life as a living individual consists of synthesizing into some degree of subjective unity the various relational causes or influences which have initiated his process of becoming something definite."
- p. 22 from the highly recommended essay "Two Conceptions of Power."
I think that's close to Thompson when he said: "It’s not a ready made, independent thing or substance; it’s a constructed process or a process undergoing constant construction." It is a constructed interdependent thing that maintains its own autonomy nonetheless. I shift to Bryant on the interdependent autonomy of things for a clearer definition.
"Consciousness isn't an abstract informational property, such as Giulio Tononi's 'integrated information'; it's a concrete, bioelectrical phenomenon" (343).