(Last part of the three-part essay by Milo Clark)
At his second talk in what is now Benares in north central India, Shakyamuni Buddha gave his Discourse on the Marks of Not-Self, Anatma-lakshana-sutra. Buddha lived in a time when the Brahmanic religions of India, which we now group as Hinduism, emphasized that each being or individual contained a self similar to what others now call soul. This self in Sanskrit is named atma. Adding the negating a- or an-, Anatma means, then, not self. This "self" entity carried karmic residues, present influences of past actions, between incarnations.
Uncomfortable with this formulation, seeing it as unrepresentative of actuality, Buddha made two essential points. First, assuming one is taking the pathways outlined above, an attitude of non-attachment is critical. That is, being attached to or clinging to the imagined continuity of one’s self, soul or atma is, ironically, self-defeating. Second, This imaging presents a logical conflict as well. How could something with the all-enduring, high qualities of self, soul or atma inhabit or associate itself with something having the impermanent, lower qualities of an appearance, a manifestation, a form such as a body? For Gautama Buddha, the in-dwelling state, the unconditioned permanent actuality is called nirvana, a realized, undifferentiated ocean of universal consciousness. A drop of water thrown up from an ocean cannot forever remain separated from return to the ocean. Likewise a self, soul or atma cannot remain eternally separated from its ground of being within nirvana. Permanent separation from home is both illogical and a definition of duhkha. The core of this teaching has become very muddied over time as Buddhism, in general, has been moulded back to Brahamanic thinking on this matter. Rebirth, reincarnation and karmic residues moving forward through time as though attached to an individual self, soul or atma are quite thoroughly reinstated. As such, these ideas may be contributing to continued not knowing and ignorance, that is continuing separation from the universal ocean of consciousness, nirvana.
The sophistries adopted to make this reconnection are convoluted and complex. They are analogous to the extreme actions taken to defend against observations asserting that earth revolves around sun rather than vice-versa. This resistance is understandable in the context that Shakyamuni Buddha’s view conflicted with the conventional wisdom of his time and notions of human ego, a construct of human imaginings in itself vastly bound in conditioned behavior, not knowing and ignorance. The myriad explanations offered by latter-day Buddhist religionists remain unconvincing except to the convinced.
Impermanence, anitya, the second lakshana, also marks existence. Dharma, often translated as the body of teachings underlying Buddhism, also subsumes existence in general, therefore dharma can be a name for all things. From what is written above, we can understand that existence is qualified into two categories: conditioned existence, samskrta, and unconditioned existence, asamskrta. As early listeners appear to have understood the teachings offered, unconditioned existence is a quality exclusively of nirvana, ocean of consciousness, void, non-dual state. Conditioned existence is undergoing change every instant continually cycling among beginning, being and ending. Following the eightfold pathways leads to unconditioned existence, permanent, unchanging. The third mark of existence, duhkha, is a primarily a repetition of the first arya satya, the first noble truth. Existing then is conditioned by understanding of anatma, no-self, anitya, impermanence and duhkha, suffering, not knowing or ignorance of the nature of being as nirvana.
Given that being, existing, having appearance, manifestation or form as an individual involves having no self, soul or atma, what then is this physical aggregation called "you" or "me" or "us"? The early teachings specified five aggregates, skandhas, bundles of physical, mental and energetic qualities as composing the physical entity of me or you. Being attached to the skandhas is indeed duhkha, according to Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching. At the beginning, we take form as named qualities of something. These two core skandhas are called namah for the naming or mental aspects and rupah for the physical aspects. Namah is given four additional characteristics to complete the list of five skandhas. Rupah, form, appearance, manifestation is composed of the four base elements, earth, water, fire and air from which evolve the five sense organs and their physical apparatus. All that is physical or material in quality, i.e., animal, vegetable and mineral, for all time, internal or external, gross or subtle is rupah. Manifested as form, our physical entities have feeling, vedana; perception, samjńa; mental aspects or volition, cetana; and embodied consciousness, vijńana. We are hereby presented with a classification system for physical materiality not dependent upon a construct of self, soul or atma for explanation.
The last element of Buddhist root thought to be dealt with here is called pratitya-samutpada, Dependent Origination or Causation. Contemporary Buddhism is generally characterized by a fairly rigid theory of cause and effect, i. e., there is a cause for each effect. In linear thinking worldviews such as those dominating much of eastern and nearly all western thought in relatively recent history, effect quite naturally and quite mechanically proceeds from cause.
Having been established by definition, quid pro quo, ipso facto, nothing more need be said. However, contemporary thinkers and scientists appear to be reinventing Buddhism as much as freeing today’s understandings from the fetters of mechanistic thinking. The words have come forward to us so that we may rediscover meaning as it was given not as it has been interpreted. We are told that Buddha contemplated causation intensely following his enlightenment under the Boddhi tree. What is reported is his ideas of a dynamic, interdependent, relational quality in all existence. From them, we are given a closed, dependent, lifeless, linear and mechanical progression from cause to effect paralleling monotheistic ideas of sin.
In terms of today’s understandings of systems theory, quantum mechanics, fractals and such; Gautama Buddha was telling us about a non-linear, multidimensional, omni-relational, all- things-happening-in-all-directions-at-once universe. Nothing less makes sense in terms of the teaching as a whole. His approximate time contemporaries in Egypt, Greece, China, mid-east and wherever seers were seeing reported similar findings. Dependent origination is, therefore, a latter day misnomer adding to rather than dissipating duhkha. In the West, Descartes and Newton fabricated a linear, mechanistic world to meeting the needs of their times much as, in the East, Buddhist commentators and interpreters created a linear process of cause and effect for Buddhism falling victim to human processes grounded more in not knowing, collective ignorance and suffering. An all too classic case of unexamined assumptions leading to unintended consequences.