Thoughts on consciousness

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Thoughts on consciousness

Postby Gwiwer » Wed Nov 21, 2012 10:50 pm

I have to start off with a minor confession. After almost a year of practicing Buddhism, first Zen and now Tibetan, I still frequently have doubts about whether or not my beliefs on the soul or self actually fit with what Buddhism teaches or if they are actually more in line with a religion like Jainism. My confusion is often compounded by the fact that the things I read from various self-described experts on Buddhism occasionally seem to be at odds with some of what I believe the various scriptures of the religion teach. As such, I thought it might be fruitful for me to give, as best as I can, a full account of what I believe and give everyone here a chance to weigh in and let me know what they think regarding how closely my beliefs match with what they understand to be the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps, in that way, I can better understand where I stand in regard to what the religion actually teaches.

I can start by saying that I have no major issue with the teachings of no-self, or no-soul, as long as we are using the definition of self that seems to be used in religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. In other words, I do not believe we have an eternally unchanging "true self" that passes on exactly from one incarnation to the next without any major changes. With that being said, I do believe we have a stream of consciousness which would probably fit the loose western definition of a soul in that it is a consciousness which survives the physical death of the body and continues on through subsequent incarnations. As I said, I conceive of this consciousness as a stream of consciousness that is constantly flowing, changing, and in flux not only from incarnation to incarnation, but also throughout the course of one's current incarnation and even from moment to moment. For instance, even within my current life, my consciousness is different at this moment than it was 5 minutes ago, or 10 years ago, or what it was when I was 4 years old, yet it is very much an unbroken continuation such that what it is now has arisen or flowed from what it was at those points in time. I believe this process occurs not only throughout one life, but into the next and so on without any significant breaks in the flow. In other words, I believe that subsequent incarnation are not entirely new incarnations, but merely continuations of all of the incarnations which preceded them in the same way that who you are at age 20 was not a completely different entity. It was a continuation of who you were at age 19, 18, 17, 16, and so forth. As such, I think of one's consciousness almost like a river. It is all one continuous flow, yet each subsequent stretch of the river will be subtly different. The water flows from one to the next in a continuous, unbroken stream, yet natural forces are perpetually changing it in subtle ways so that each stretch of the river will never quite be perfectly identical in composition to any stretch of the river that precedes it.

I believe this consciousness is very malleable and is perpetually being shaped by one's thoughts, karma, physical body, and actions. To me, the purpose of Buddhist practices are to maintain the thoughts, actions, physical and mental conditioning, discipline, and karma necessary for taking control of this consciousness and shaping it into what you wish it to be rather than allowing natural forces to shape it for you, often in very negative ways. As such, I view the teachings on emptiness of form not as a limiting or negative concept, but as a very empowering, positive, and uplifting concept. To me, everything about my consciousness is malleable, changeable, and able to be shaped into whatever I intend it to be. Through Buddhist practice, my consciousness, ideally, becomes a lump of clay that I can, with much hard work, discipline, and study, learn to shape into whatever I want it to be rather than allowing natural forces to do whatever they wish to it without my control or consent.

And that, in essence, is what I currently believe on this topic. I'm just curious to hear some thoughts and reactions to this. Is it more or less in accordance with Tibetan Buddhist beliefs or am I way off base? To be honest, I often find myself getting discouraged and wondering if I'm practicing the wrong religion because, when I read Tibetan, Zen, and Theravada scriptures, they seem mostly in accordance with my beliefs, yet, when I read articles by many modern Buddhists, scholars, and self-described experts, they often seem to contradict many of the things I believe. So, I'm never quite sure if these people are trying to force a modern re-interpretation onto traditional Buddhist beliefs, if they are simply using different language to say the same things that I am and I'm missing the connection, or if they are just much more studied than me and are aware of further traditional teachings on the topic that I'm not acquainted with yet. I often get the feeling that many modern Buddhists and scholars are uncomfortable with traditional beliefs on things like reincarnation, other realms, life after death, paranormal powers, gods, spiritual beings, ghosts, and so forth and attempt to re-interpret those things as being symbolic or allegorical in order to force them to accord with what they view as a more rational, scientific perspective. I, personally, have no problem believing literally in things like those. I sometimes wonder if this is why my views don't often seem to fit with some of the articles that I read.

Anyway, positive or negative, please do share your thoughts on all of this. I don't mind if you completely agree or completely disagree with me. Either way, it will be helpful to me. I really am very curious to find out where I stand within the broader community with my beliefs. Even if you think I'm totally and completely wrong, feel free to say that. I'm definitely not fishing for comments to reinforce my beliefs. I'm simply looking for honest assessments in order to help me evaluate if Tibetan Buddhism is really where I belong. I love the religion and I really don't think leaving it would make me love it any less. Even if I find out I'm better off in a different form of Buddhism, or even a different religion entirely, I will always have positive feelings and a great deal of respect for Tibetan Buddhism. So, let me know what you think. I thank you in advance for reading through all of this and for whatever help you might be able to provide.
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Re: Thoughts on consciousness

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Thu Nov 22, 2012 2:36 am

Gwiwer wrote: I conceive of this consciousness as a stream of consciousness that is constantly flowing, changing, and in flux not only from incarnation to incarnation, but also throughout the course of one's current incarnation and even from moment to moment.


I think this is pretty much in sync with the Buddhist concept.
Except that the details might need to be addressed, and this is where you may be finding some contradiction to your understanding (I would like to see the sources that you feel contradict this).

For example, you refer to a stream of consciousness that is constantly changing.
The buddhist argument is that if it is changing, then it isn't constantly anything.
Further, if you say it is "my" consciousness, or a consciousness that one owns, for example:
"my consciousness, ideally, becomes a lump of clay that I can, with much hard work,
discipline, and study, learn to shape into whatever I want"
..on a relative level, yes, this is true.
But on the ultimate level, are you talking about consciousness owning (shaping) itself
or one consciousness owning (shaping) another consciousness?

So, yes, the Buddha taught that we have control over our thoughts,
and also, that the thoughts we have shape who we are.
We don't have to be slaves to whatever emotion suddenly blows us this way or that.
So, it is true that in one context, we own our thoughts.

But it is also true that there is nothing that can be called "me" or "mine"
and that all such appearances arise due to passing conditions and have no substance to them.

Both are true.
It's like if I say 24 hours is divided between night and day.
If you are standing on the surface of the Earth, this is true.
But it is relative truth. It is a conditional truth.
However if you are in outer space watching the Earth spin,
all you see is a shadow moving across half of its spinning surface.
You don't see it as two different periods of "night and day".
That is ultimate truth.

Sometimes buddhist writings seem to contradict one another,
but you also have to look at the context of the teachings.

Ultimately, there is no self
yet the experience of self is real...it is pretty much all we have!
so that is what we work with.

But strictly speaking, there is no actual continuity of consciousness
rather, there is the constant replication of the causes of consciousness
which recreate the sensation of continuity over and over again
with minor changes, of course.
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Re: Thoughts on consciousness

Postby duckfiasco » Thu Nov 22, 2012 3:23 am

Hi, Gwiwer. I'm not at all an expert, being fairly new myself. Here are just some thoughts I had while reading your eloquent post. I do get to the point eventually :rolling:

The teachings on impermanence, karma, etc. are geared for our relativistic viewpoints, as beings in samsara. So the idea "something in me existed in the past, exists now, and will continue to exist; it is acted on by external forces" is in line with our apparent experience, and a good foothold. The teachings start with this experience to hook us. I would be cautious though in stopping there, because the Dharma isn't done reeling you in yet :)

Here is my view of things: karma brings attention to the nature of our situation and the consequences of our actions. So we diligently establish ourselves in the present. Impermanence makes us scrutinize this experience and our reactions. The present becomes even more ephemeral and unattainable. Perhaps practicing in this way, we feel acted on by forces or that we are acting on forces. So the same focus is applied to this subject-object relationship: our "this" being changed by "that." Where do we cleanly cut one thing off from the other and tie them together with a thread of intangible action? Let alone when we're talking about representations of patterns of ideas of perception... oy! The whole thing may start to seem like a weird daydream, especially with something as abstract as, "I improve myself with Buddhism" (or my consciousness). When it feels bewildering enough, the Buddha just shrugs at you. So for want of anything better, you drop the whole thing. Then... wait. What was that?

So my point with all this nonsense is that all the tools of Dharma converge at one point: reducing self-cherishing, no longer imputing a self from smoke and pretty lights. In our case, from flesh and the appearance of phenomena. The rest is just method. What happens after you get to that point? Hmm... :cheers:

Having at least this entire lifetime practicing the rather astonishing ability of creating a new self out of essentially nothing, we are masters at doing it with anything, including the Dharma. I see a slight tendency towards that in your language of a thing being molded, conditioned, disciplined, especially a thing that not only endures, but that can be improved upon with spirituality. That leads to...

To me, the purpose of Buddhist practices are to maintain the thoughts, actions, physical and mental conditioning, discipline, and karma necessary for taking control of this consciousness and shaping it into what you wish it to be rather than allowing natural forces to shape it for you, often in very negative ways.

I don't quite agree :stirthepot: Accumulating merit or beneficial karma, which a lot of the practices help you do, is for the purpose of giving it away :) It's not to feel we can make something into something else, or gather favorable conditions around us. Why accumulate something to give it away? Because especially if we feel it's of great use to us, then by giving that precious jewel to beings sorely in need of help, it helps us practice reducing self-cherishing, or bodhicitta by another name. All Dharma agrees at one point, remember!

So exercise great caution in any spiritual pursuit. We don't usually turn things to our own advantage out of some devious malevolence. But consider that you are here with us in relativistic samsara, so there is already a well-practiced notion of self. We can screw things up just out of sheer force of habit, like a guy who pulls into work then goes, "Shit, I meant to go to the store." I say this out of a desire to help you avoid something I run up against all the time :D

When I feel I'm being very spiritual or that things are going smoothly, I have to make a point of asking. "Why am I doing this?" If the answer isn't instantly "for the benefit of all beings" in a sincere way, then it's likely spiritual materialism hiding in the wings. So we just have to offer up the merit of recognizing our own foibles and renew the aspiration of bodhicitta. You'll likely know when you're BS-ing yourself.

To be honest, I often find myself getting discouraged and wondering if I'm practicing the wrong religion because, when I read Tibetan, Zen, and Theravada scriptures, they seem mostly in accordance with my beliefs, yet, when I read articles by many modern Buddhists, scholars, and self-described experts, they often seem to contradict many of the things I believe.

Throw your beliefs out the window and practice diligently. From your post, I feel you and I are similar in this way. I dithered between those three very schools you mentioned. Zen, so simple and direct. Theravada, the Buddha's own words. Tibetan, using our nonsense as the path itself. I have a subtle desire still to get it "right". I can't be following the wrong religion, the wrong practices. I can't waste my time.

This line of thinking is, unfortunately, egocentric. You aren't here to pass a test. Often for me, needing correct knowledge was a gateway to some practice, but more of a hindrance to much practice.

This is often our introduction to the Dharma, a logical thing that we put to use with modest success. We see how karma is at work in our lives, we can't really argue against impermanence. Seems logical. Or even we have the idea of ghosts and reincarnation and put a "factual" sticker on it.

Does it reduce self-cherishing and grow bodhicitta? Ask yourself this relentlessly. Be willing to do something wrong and useless. Show me the color of a thought that is right and one that is wrong, and we'll have an interesting conversation if we even get that far. Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, Mahayana, Pure Land... different colors, who cares? Show me your ease in discomfort, your compassion to those who despise you, your equanimity as your life and body dry up then shrivel to forgotten husks. Most importantly, show me the weight of your self. Is it a grain of salt or an elephant? It's a weird request, but if you're anything like me, Buddhism can become another mental circlejerk while your precious, short life flies by with alacrity, and your own suffering sits on the shelf along with that of every other being.

What settled me on Tibetan Buddhism was simple :) I applied different practices and felt those of Tibetan Buddhism, such as tonglen, lojong, saying manis, had efficacious results. And a Kagyu center happens to be 30 minutes away. Your own karma will predispose you to one or another practice, so trust your gut feelings on this one. It's all part of the path, dithering and doubt included :)

I hope this wasn't too brash or seemingly dismissive. I love reading complex philosophical articles and untying mental knots... it's all so fascinating! But for goodness sake, if any of this long response resonated, get out of your head and just practice! You may die at any moment.

:buddha1: :heart:
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"When people of the Pure Land school chant Namu amida butsu, they are doing zazen with their mouths, and when we do zazen, we are performing Namu amida butsu with our whole body." - Kosho Uchiyama (Opening the Hand of Thought)
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Re: Thoughts on consciousness

Postby Wayfarer » Thu Nov 22, 2012 3:56 am

First, thanks for a very heart-felt and deeply thought post.

A couple of points in response. I understand the general question very much the same way you do. As for which school I am in, I don't really have an answer. I have associations with Tibetan, Theravada, Zen and Mahayana schools. But there is no real 'party line' to adhere to, and considerable dissent within and between different schools on these deeper questions, such as the one you are contemplating. So I don't claim the following represents any particular Buddhist school.

I did a Master's Thesis earlier this year on the question of 'Self, No-self and Non-self'. In it, I argued against the idea that 'annatta' means simply that 'there is no self'. I argued that it is usually used as an adjective - that is, 'everything is anatta' - everything is 'without self'. As to what 'self' it is without, this is a subtle question.

In the Theravada (I will mention that here, even though this is a Mahayana board), the main canonical text on this is the Brahmajala sutta. That weighs up various kinds of 'incorrect views' about the nature of self. On one side, there are 'nihilist' views - that at death and the break-up of the body, there are no further consequences, no re-bith, and so on. On the other side, there are 'eternalist' views. These are the views usually associated with beliefs in 'eternal self or soul'. However, if you read it carefully, the eternalist view is the idea that there is a self or soul that exists for ever, that is continually reborn, whilst somehow remaining the same 'like a barren mountain peak, like a post set fast'. Certainly, the idea of a permanent self in that sense is denied. But the question that comes up for me is: is that really what 'the soul' or 'the self' is?

So some questions I explored were: is this really the same as either the Western idea of 'soul'. I don't think it is. The Western notion of soul is not very clearly articulated anyway, but I don't know if it means the same as what is being denied. Then I asked if it was the same as 'atman'. And that too is quite ambiguous, because the teaching of 'atman' also varies considerably. But certainly the Buddhists had to differentiate their teaching from the Brahmins, and as the Brahmins teach 'atman', it is natural to distinguish the Buddhist teaching from that, which the 'anatta' teaching certainly does.

I also considered the problem of agency, that is, how it is possible for karma to exist, if there is no agent to whom the results accrue.

In the end, I argued that the 'anatta' teaching does not actually mean 'no self or no soul' in the sense that many people often interpret it. I think it applies to everything - every thing is 'anatta' (which in the Mahayana, becomes transformed into sunyata.) Nothing exists in its own right, by itself. 'To be is to be related'. So I don't think that is too far from your view, either. But I find, there are quite a few Buddhists who insist on a literal interpretation of the teaching, with whom I respectfully disagree.

Gwiwer wrote:To me, the purpose of Buddhist practices are to maintain the thoughts, actions, physical and mental conditioning, discipline, and karma necessary for taking control of this consciousness and shaping it into what you wish it to be rather than allowing natural forces to shape it for you, often in very negative ways.


Even though I agree with the main idea, I am a bit concerned with the idea of 'taking control'. Who is controlling what, exactly? Yes, discipline and practice is necessary, but the real agent of change is always insight itself, rather than effort of will. The effort required is to turn up, to do the practice, to allow the insight to work its magic. Subtle but important point.

Anyway, as I say, a great post, you're a very thoughtful practitioner.

:namaste:
Learn to do good, refrain from evil, purify the mind ~ this is the teaching of the Buddhas
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Re: Thoughts on consciousness

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sun Nov 25, 2012 3:05 am

Accumulating merit or beneficial karma, which a lot of the practices help you do, is for the purpose of giving it away ...It's not to feel we can make something into something else, or gather favorable conditions around us. Why accumulate something to give it away?

A better way to view the accumulation of merit is the way a musician gets better through practice, and then plays the instrument practiced, and the music goes out to everyone who is listening.
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The Chinese characters are Fo (buddha) and Ming (bright). The image is of a student of Buddhism, who, imagining himself to be a monk, and not understanding the true meaning of the words takes the sound of the words literally. Likewise, People on web forums sometime seem to be foaming at the mouth.
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Re: Thoughts on consciousness

Postby Gwiwer » Sun Dec 02, 2012 7:51 am

Sorry about the lack of a response. Thanks for the posts, everyone. They all gave me interesting ideas to ponder. I decided to go back and re-read some of the Mahayana sutras as it's been a while since I've read them. I'd been mostly reading the Pali cannon lately because it's a little easier to understand and more accessible, but I decided it was time to go back and give the Heart, Lotus, Diamond, and Mahayana Mahaparinirvana sutras another try since I think I've finally learned enough about Buddhism to be able to make some sense of them. I was kind of thinking I wouldn't reply to the thread until I had made my way through them, but it's taking longer than expected. So, I figured I'd better at least pop in to say thanks for the replies and explain why it seemed like I had abandoned the thread.

I'm not sure exactly how I feel about Buddhism at the moment. There are still some theological and philosophical issues that I'm not so sure I agree with, but I'm at least in a position where I could understand the context and meaning of Buddhism's teachings on those issues and more accurately weigh how I feel about them. I'll probably hold off final judgement on things until I've had time to finish reading through the various sutras and have had an opportunity to carefully consider what they have to say.
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