Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Big Questions of Our Origin

The Buddha refused to answer certain questions, most famously among these "unanswerables" were the questions of God and the origins of the universe. He likened the need for answers to such imponderables to that of a man shot through with an arrow who wants to know all the details of the man who shot him, together with all information about the bow and the arrow itself, before he will let the arrow be removed. Far better, the Buddha reasoned, to first remove the arrow which causes the man's suffering. Thus, the Buddha largely restricted his teachings to explanations of the Four Noble Truths: the truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering.

Mahayana Buddhism (as opposed to its Therevavadan forerunner) has, however expanded its breadth to look into the causes of ultimate origin etc. Mahayana Buddhism's most famous contemporary teacher, the Dalai Lama, with his wide embrace of Western scientific findings within the context of the Buddha's teachings, made the following observations on man's evolution and the question of ultimate origination:
"Human beings took five billion years to develop to their present human state. For three to four billioins of years there was not life; only some basic, primary cells. In spite of human evolution, the question still remains: why did the whole universe or galaxy come into existence at all? What is the reason? We could say there is no reason or that it suddenly happened, but that answer is not satisfactory."

"Another answer is that it was the creator' or God's doing. However, this view does not hold true for Buddhist and Jain philosophies. The Buddhist answer is that it came into existence as a result of the karma of the beings who would utilize these galaxies. Take the example of a house. A house exists because there is a builder who constructs it so that it can be used. Similarly, because there were sentient beings to inhabit or utilize this galaxy, their karma produced the galaxy."

"We cannot explain this on a physical basis, only on the basis of the continuation of mind. The most subtle consciousness or mind has no beginning and no end. That is the ultimate nature. I am not talking about the ultimate nature here. Even on the conventional level, ultimate nature is something that is pure. The grosser mind with its basis of consciousness has its own ultimate nature which is pure."
[The Dalai Lama, "Transformed Mind," pp. 12-13.]
The Dalai's decidedly modern comments, are markedly similar to those of Andrew Cohen, a post-post-modern spiritual teacher and his scientifically grounded teachings on evolutionary enlightenment.
"(E)nlightenment, in the traditional, premodern sense," Cohen observes, "is about discovering unconditional freedom through awakening to this empty ground of limitless being, this eternal self, and abiding there constantly. And ultimately, it's not so different from the Western religious model, in which eternal salvation is found in a beatific heaven realm beyond the world. In both traditional Eastern wisdom and Western religious faith, the ultimate goal is a final state - a transcendent state of consciousness or a heavenly abode - that promises release from this world."

"(I)t's important to understand," Cohen notes, "that at the time when these great traditions flowered, people had a very different understanding of the context in which they were living. For example, in the East, where the concept of enlightenment was born, it was believed that history moved in continuously recurring cycles, like a merry-go-round turning round and round, eternally repeating the same processes. For one who "awakened" in that context, the path to liberation and salvation would be obvious: to get off the "wheel" of incarnate existence so one could dwell in the bliss, freedom, and eternal peace of the formless realm beyond time and space - forever."

"But," he notes, "we've moved on. We've learned a lot over the last few thousand years about who we are and about the context in which we have emerged. And one of the most important things we've discovered is that the movement of time is not cyclical, but a linear development process. Fourteen billion years ago, a tremendous energy burst forth from the void, and over time evolved from light to matter. And with the emergence of life, consciousness entered into the stream of time. Life and consciousness are one, and the greater the complexity of the life form, the greater is its capacity for consciousness."

"What is so miraculous about human beings," Cohen points out, "is that because of our highly evolved brain, we have the unique capacity to know that we know. In human awareness, consciousness has gained the capacity to know itself and everything that exists within it, including the evolutionary process that gave rise to that very capacity."
Taken together, both the Dalai Lama's and Cohen's decidedly modern takes on traditional enlightenment teachings, point - as science does  - to the primacy of consciousness, and the importance that consciousness itself will play in our further evolution if we are to survive as a species.

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