SOLIPSISM

First, although there is Zazen at Hill Street Center this coming Saturday June 6, 2009 at 10 am, you cannot park in the Hill Street Center parking lot that day since there’s a parking lot sale sponsored by the church going on.

Second, I managed to kind of solve my AT&T; problems. I wasn’t entirely happy with the solution. But I managed to get most of the charges knocked off. The woman I spoke to on the phone was very sweet about the whole thing. I’m sure she got hired there because she’s got the kind of voice you don’t want to scream and yell at. Not that I would have. Anyway, it’s OK now. And thanks to the people who donated money. I think I got about $17 from that little mention. So that was cool.

I just wanted to say a little bit here about solipsism as it relates to Buddhism. I was looking at some of what’s written on the Internets about Buddhism in English and noticed there’s a great deal of confusion. It used to be that people figured Buddhism was a form of Nihilism or a form of Atheism. Those two ideas are kind of out of fashion, though they still persist. Yet the idea that Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, is a form of solipsism still remains.

Lots of people, including lots of so-called “Buddhist Masters,” are confused by the idea, which is present within Buddhism that the inner world and the outer world are one and the same. From this idea, they generate the mistaken solipsistic notion that there is no real outer world and that everything we experience is all in our heads. This is not Buddhism at all. It would be just as crazy to say there is no inner world and that everything we experience takes place outside ourselves. We know that’s bullshit. Yet somehow it’s easier to believe the opposite is true and think that there is no outside world at all.

In Nishijima’s translation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Song of the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says, “The four reliable facts are reason, the external world, the present moment, and reality — this world — which seems to be similar to God. A fifth reliable fact can never exist.”

So the external world is very real in Buddhism. Do not doubt its existence.

I say this because it’s pretty scary to think there are folks out there teaching people not to believe in the outside world. This is a very dangerous notion. If you cease to believe in the outside world you can commit all kinds of horrendous actions against whoever you please, since they don’t really exist after all.

In a way this kind of dovetails into my reservations about “cyber-sanghas” — and even about this very forum you are reading right now, dear friend. Interactions with computers tend to lock you into your head. I see a lot more solipsism in the world of Internet Buddhism than I do in the world of flesh-and-bone Buddhism.

There is a real world “out there.” Your perceptions of that world may be limited and faulty. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And it doesn’t mean the outside world is exactly the same as your inner world. This is a very important point.

There is just one world, with no division between inner and outer. Yet the two sides are not the same.

Get it? Got it? Good!

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94 Responses

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  1. Harry
    Harry June 3, 2009 at 11:15 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Harry
    Harry June 3, 2009 at 11:17 am |

    No, we can't separate anything from the totality, because it's the totality it must include everything.

    That doesn't mean that the contents of a tiny human head (a philosophy) accurately represents the whole of the totality though… or even represents the reality of it's own human headiness.

    Regards,

    Harry.

  3. Mr. Reee
    Mr. Reee June 3, 2009 at 11:24 am |

    "Is our physical reality a product of human thought?"

    Good question, but what if we step back and say "Human thought is a product of physical reality?"

    This would jive with the idea that the individual is simply an expression of here and now (the Buddhist observation.) In other words, there's no way to distinguish between "here," "now," and "me."

  4. It's a shame
    It's a shame June 3, 2009 at 11:35 am |

    Mr Reee –
    "Or maybe it just means what it says; A = B and B = A and that's all, Kemosabe."

    I think so.

    Or like saying: "form is empty" – ok, fair enough, as you say. But in order to have an understanding of what that means, we (surely) have some notion of 'emptiness'; what it is to be "empty" of the qualities we assign to [things] via our perception.." (even if we can't visualise it). THAT notion, whatever you think it might be, IS NO DIFFERENT from form: there is no "emptiness" that exists other than the form we perceive.

    Like saying "Form is emptiness. So what's emptiness? I just told you: form. None other than.

    Not the best expression, I think, but My tuppence-worth.

  5. Connor Hollenback
    Connor Hollenback June 3, 2009 at 2:20 pm |

    I went to this page and the ad in the "ads by google" section was for Genpo Roshi's 'Big Mind'. Haha, I think that's funny.

  6. Mysterion
    Mysterion June 3, 2009 at 7:51 pm |

    Nishijima's translation of Nagarjuna's Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way or anybody's translation of Nagarjuna's Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way can safely be considered an opinion.

    Nagarjuna alone knew what he meant to say. Any translation, at best, is speculation.

    M?lamadhyamakak?rik?

  7. David
    David June 3, 2009 at 7:58 pm |

    I chased that unmentionable ad and played a video. The guy I heard sounds a little like a Xenuphobic to me. He seems to speak of of really simple things in a rather condescending way.

  8. rossignol
    rossignol June 3, 2009 at 8:56 pm |

    i was blind at birth. a rose is no differnt than a pile of shit. they both smell.

    i slit my throat and my world ends. you're in it. too bad for you.

  9. floating_abu
    floating_abu June 4, 2009 at 2:18 am |

    Can't get it by speculation

  10. floating_abu
    floating_abu June 4, 2009 at 2:21 am |

    Harry said:
    True Buddhism, on the other hand, has got 'not fooling ourselves' as its standard.

    It's hard for the thief to see the thief though, need a bit more than that. Zazen helps the lucky ones.

  11. Rich
    Rich June 4, 2009 at 4:15 am |

    I don't understand Buddhism, I just sit every day.

    "i slit my throat and my world ends. you're in it. too bad for you."

    Sometimes it's not that bad.

    "There is just one world, with no division between inner and outer. Yet the two sides are not the same."

    Balanced ANS

  12. Jinzang
    Jinzang June 4, 2009 at 5:45 am |

    anybody's translation of Nagarjuna's Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way can safely be considered an opinion

    All translations are interpretations. But that doesn't mean all translations are equally good. Jay Garfield's translation of the MMK is the best in my opinion, but it sticks pretty closely to the Gelugpa party line.

  13. Justin
    Justin June 4, 2009 at 6:03 am |

    Garfield's is the only translation I've read fully. I found it readable, coherent and well-annotated.

    The only other I have is Stephen Batchelor's which I don't recommend (he tries to turn a systematic rational discourse into something more wooly and poetic).

    As for this:

    "Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form"

    It is all about the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, which means roughly 'absence of self' ie lack of indepent nature or identity. Everything is interdependent.

    Form is Emptiness
    Means that physical form (and all other phenomena) are empty of self-nature

    Emptiness is Form
    Means that this emptiness does not exist as a separate thing either and is inseparable from physical form (and all other phenomena)

    There are many guides to the Heart Sutra available.

  14. Mr. Reee
    Mr. Reee June 4, 2009 at 6:57 am |

    "Emptiness is Form
    Means that this emptiness does not exist as a separate thing either and is inseparable from physical form (and all other phenomena)"

    That seems about right–I kept stopping at that station to look every time I passed it. 🙂

    And taken together, it does point to the indivisibility of all things (no forms perceived without emptiness; no knowledge of emptiness without a form.)

  15. Jinzang
    Jinzang June 4, 2009 at 9:31 am |

    So the external world is very real in Buddhism. Do not doubt its existence.

    Form is emptiness; emptiness is form

    These two statements can't be reconciled. "Form is emptiness" means that form, roughly everything in the physical world, doesn't exist independently of the mind that conceives it, in other words, it's a concept with no reference, a mere imputation. ("Emptiness is form" means that there is nothing else to the concept of emptiness than this.)

    This just shows why Buddhist philosophy is important. Through studying the philosophy we can understand the insights of the greatest Buddhist masters of the past. Even though this is only an intellectual understanding and does not substitute for practice, it's an important guide for those who practice. Without this guide, one is likely to fall into all sorts of misunderstandings about experiences in meditation, and since these experiences often carry an emotional charge, one's misunderstandings are taken as self-validating and not in need of any external check.

  16. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 4, 2009 at 10:41 am |

    66

  17. pkb
    pkb June 4, 2009 at 10:51 am |

    Jinzang said:

    "This just shows why Buddhist philosophy is important. Through studying the philosophy we can understand the insights of the greatest Buddhist masters of the past. Even though this is only an intellectual understanding and does not substitute for practice, it's an important guide for those who practice. Without this guide, one is likely to fall into all sorts of misunderstandings about experiences in meditation, and since these experiences often carry an emotional charge, one's misunderstandings are taken as self-validating and not in need of any external check."

    An excellent point, Jinzang. It's exactly why the Buddha and countless masters didn't just teach 'go sit in the right posture'.

  18. Jesus Christ almighty
    Jesus Christ almighty June 4, 2009 at 1:35 pm |

    "the Buddha and countless masters didn't just teach 'go sit in the right posture'."

    Correct. They didn't. And they aren't. So WHY keep bringing it up like SOMEONE is?

  19. JC almighty
    JC almighty June 4, 2009 at 1:42 pm |

    ..and apparently you have to be pretty clever to get yourself enlightened. Because spending some time every day, quietly, in a balanced posture, is a pretty useless thing to do: only for thickos.

  20. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 4, 2009 at 1:59 pm |

    The “How to do Zazen” link above reminds me of the Steve Martin joke, “How to earn a million dollars and not pay any taxes … Step one: earn a million dollars; step two … .” It tells you how to sit, but not what to do while you’re sitting there.

    Granted, knowing how to sit is crucial. Take a tennis lesson and they’ll tell you not to hold your racket like a hammer, so meditation instructors should at least tell you to balance your head on top of my spine. After my first daylong I nearly needed an epidural cortisone injection because nobody bothered to do this.

    Moreover, after telling you how to hold the racket, tennis instructors don't then say, "OK, now play tennis!" But more often than not "how to meditate" instructions do just that.

  21. Just a thought
    Just a thought June 4, 2009 at 2:28 pm |

    I.59pm –

    I hear ya… But did you rectify that mistake/find out how to sit by yourself; by getting to know yourself?
    Tips are useful, but in the end, it's about learning, and only you can learn how to teach yourself. But, yes, with help.

  22. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 4, 2009 at 4:17 pm |

    Good point. I think that's what "turn your light within" might mean.

  23. Mysterion
    Mysterion June 4, 2009 at 5:33 pm |

    Today, one of my students asked about calming one's mind in zazen. I told him that it might take 8 or 10 or 12 years to experience the effect and that even then, the moment would be fleeting at best.

    He asked: "Why bother?"

    I said: "It's no bother."

  24. Smoggyrob
    Smoggyrob June 4, 2009 at 6:16 pm |

    Hi everyone:

    I ran across this quote from Hillel the Elder (a famous Jewish dude), and liked it enough to share:

    "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    And when I am for myself, what am 'I'?
    And if not now, [then] when?"

    And Mysterion, your student totally pwned you in dharma combat. Instead of answering. you should have smacked him. That's why I got into Buddhism, the opportunity to get away with smackin' people. I love this religion. 8^D

    Rob

  25. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 4, 2009 at 6:21 pm |

    Have him try sitting after a hard 90 mins of Yoga.

  26. Mysterion
    Mysterion June 4, 2009 at 6:46 pm |

    "the opportunity to get away with smackin' people."

    You are correct. I should have said: "For me, it's no bother."

  27. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 5, 2009 at 12:32 am |

    bother.
    no bother.

    both? er…

  28. Justin
    Justin June 5, 2009 at 12:36 am |

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  29. Justin
    Justin June 5, 2009 at 12:41 am |

    Jinzang

    So the external world is very real in Buddhism. Do not doubt its existence.

    Form is emptiness; emptiness is form

    These two statements can't be reconciled. "Form is emptiness" means that form, roughly everything in the physical world, doesn't exist independently of the mind that conceives it, in other words, it's a concept with no reference, a mere imputation. ("Emptiness is form" means that there is nothing else to the concept of emptiness than this.)

    Yes they are reconciled.

    Form is emptiness does indeed mean that the physical world does not existent independently of the mind. However it is not just form that is empty it is also sensation, cognition, volition and consciousness – all very much what we call psychological phenomena – in other words, these aspects of mind do not exist independently either.

    Independently of what? The mind? 'Empty of independent existence' doesn't just mean no existence independent of mind, it means no existence independent of anything. That is, matter is not independent of sensation, cognition, volition, consciousness. But consciousness is not independent of matter, sensation, cognition, volition and so on. Or in simpler terms, mind and matter are interdependent.

    This is not the same as saying that 'everything is mind'. 'Everything is mind' is a monist philosophy called Idealism in the west. This isn't Buddhism (some literalist interpretations of Yogacara aside). Buddhism is not monism. And the Heart Sutra gives no indication that 'all is mind' – it does not say 'form is empty of independence from mind' it says.

    form [rupa, the Buddhist concept of physical form, or body, the first of the five khandas or aggregates] is emptiness [sunyata, possessing no essential, enduring identity] and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

    No Idealist undertines are there. No priority is given to mind. Everything is interdependent. Matter is matter, mind is mind and at the same time, they form a whole.

  30. Justin
    Justin June 5, 2009 at 12:56 am |

    Anon

    human physiology dictates that all individual experience is “in our heads,” because that’s where the mind is physically located.

    You are basing you belief that everything is ultimately dependent on mind on the observation that mind is dependent on brain physiology.

    Doh!

  31. floating_abu
    floating_abu June 5, 2009 at 3:19 am |

    Jinzang:

    "Form is emptiness; emptiness is form"

    These two statements can't be reconciled.

    Intellectually yes or no, but through practice definitively.

    Which is why I think sometimes Zen Buddhism is more of a practice oriented tradition. Nothing wrong with study but who can study the taste of mango juice. Some can spend a life doing so I guess.

  32. Rich
    Rich June 5, 2009 at 4:00 am |

    Jinzang said:

    "This just shows why Buddhist philosophy is important. Through studying the philosophy we can understand the insights of the greatest Buddhist masters of the past. Even though this is only an intellectual understanding and does not substitute for practice, it's an important guide for those who practice. Without this guide, one is likely to fall into all sorts of misunderstandings about experiences in meditation, and since these experiences often carry an emotional charge, one's misunderstandings are taken as self-validating and not in need of any external check."

    I think the function of Buddhist philosophy as taught by past and present masters is to continuously motivate and establish in you the will to the truth which is actually the practice of sitting daily. Resolving any 'misunderstandings' is part of the practice and having a teacher is helpful for this.

  33. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 5, 2009 at 7:44 am |

    It appears that learning to sit
    is very much like learning to juggle
    or learning to ride a unicycle.

    You have to get the hang of it
    and no one can do it for you,
    but sometimes a well-timed tip
    can help you discover the hang of it
    just a little more efficiently.*

    But not much…

    Drop your balls, pick them back up.
    Fall off, get back on.
    Good luck and don't give up.

    *(and a zendo is sort of like
    a circus where assclowns can
    help each other learn by
    osmosis 😉

  34. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 5, 2009 at 7:55 am |

    The World as Emptiness and Form
    Schopenhauer?
    Gesundheit!

  35. pkb
    pkb June 5, 2009 at 8:26 am |

    Justin, I agree with your explanation of mind / matter. Just as zen isn't solipsism. Neither is it nihilism or monist idealism.

    But…

    The word "mind" (ch. hsin) can also be used to denote the ultimate nature of reality itself. This can be misleading because so many people confuse this 'mind' with the thinking mind (which is the point of the story about the monk with rocks in his head). But mind (usually with a capital M) can indeed be used in the same way Buddha is used. Not to mean the historical person, but ultimate reality (Brad and Nishijima seem to prefer God, but this can be even more misleading than Mind).

    Here's an extract from Huang Po:

    " All Buddhas and all ordinary beings are nothing but the one Mind. This Mind is beginningless and endless, unborn and indestructible. It has no color or shape, neither exists nor doesn't exist, isn't old or new, long or short, large or small, since it transcends all measures, limits, names, and comparisons. It is what you see in front of you."

    Huang Po goes on to say that this Mind isn't really mind. Similarly, if you're going to use the word God, maybe it should be qualified that this God isn't really God.

  36. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 5, 2009 at 8:43 am |

    U forgot next line…

    "Begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error."

  37. Justin
    Justin June 5, 2009 at 9:07 am |

    pkb

    Valid points.

    Huang Po goes on to say that this Mind isn't really mind.

    Yes this 'Mind' isn't really mind. 'Mind' is just a word that is used to point to the whole interdependent shebang – this original reality before there is mind/matter – aka Buddha, God, Emptiness, Mu, Dependent Arising or Impermanence. Personally I prefer 'Dave'.

  38. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 5, 2009 at 1:31 pm |
  39. pkb
    pkb June 5, 2009 at 2:54 pm |

    anon @ 8:43, I didn't forget the next line, the quote is a tiny bit of the writings of Huang Po and was only used to make the relevant point. Not practical to quote the entire book.

    But yes, reasoning about it would involve speculation, analyzing, philosophizing and this would end in a dead concept such as monism or idealism instead of the living reality of the One Mind.

    And Justin, that is funny because I prefer to call it Ralph. But Ralph isn't really Ralph.

  40. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 7, 2009 at 10:40 am |

    Hi folks,

    I don't really understand Buddhism or non-Buddhism. And should really be sitting more regularly.
    Anyway, here's my contribution:

    Try not to get reality and non-reality mixed up. Both are not different from this very computer screen right now. Please don't get caught up in this sort of stuff, there is just no point.

    Get real and live – reality and non-reality are as bad as each other if they keep us locked into our heads. The buddha didn't hold up a flower for no reason.

  41. Edward
    Edward June 9, 2009 at 12:06 am |

    These discussions of what is real and is the inner more real that the outer, just prove to me what the fundamental truth of Zen is: that the Truth can't be grasped by the mind i.e. concepts – that Reality is apparent in every moment but can't be contained in the this and that of ideas.

  42. Nate
    Nate June 23, 2009 at 6:10 pm |

    If I drink Drano, it will dissolve the construct that is my esophagus. I cannot believe it to be iced tea with any credibility to my internal organs.

  43. Wolf
    Wolf June 24, 2009 at 8:18 am |

    If I have understood it correctly that solipsistic notion, that comes with the concept of "emptyness", is the main reason why the Rinzai people in those Koans always punch each other in the head…

  44. Chris A
    Chris A September 29, 2010 at 2:23 pm |

    I believe:
    Life is but a dream. It would be dualistic to believe that dream life and reality were opposite or dualistic. The mind, body, everybody and everything are also part of the dream. Just by saying "the internal and external world" creates duality. As far as harm, there is no harm in this belief as long as you know the physical body and mind that you often claim to be the I, is not really the I that is dreaming and that all is really a creation of the real I. All is one, and it makes no sense to harm oneself.

    Tell me your thoughts!

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