“JUST AS A SNAKE SHED ITS SKIN, WE SHOULD SHED OUR PAST OVER AND OVER AGAIN.”
By Joshua Sumitta Hudson
Rene Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” In one short sentence,he was able to sum up the delusion of man, because while he could deny and question the existence of everything external to him, he was unable to rationalize away his own existence. (Actually, he said it in Latin, “Cogito ergo sum!” which made it sound even more impressive.)
But is his statement true? Because we think, do we exist? In Buddhism, so many try to wrap their heads around the concept of emptiness (sunyata): the concept that we have no true nature and therefore possibly do NOT exist. In addition, this concept of emptiness raises other questions of “does any thing exists?” and “what is the point if nothing exists?”
How do we know what is and what is not?
First, let us look at this concept of “I” as our starting point of knowledge. We are aware. We have physical shape. We interact with our environment. To this extent there is something “there” that exists. In this sense, Descartes is correct. “Something is there and self-aware.”
In Buddhism, we break down the person into five aggregates or khandhas (skhandhas): five collections that make up who we are. These are our physical material (rupa), feeling senses (vedana), perceptions of the worlds based on our feeling senses (sanna), our constructed opinions or volitional formations based on our experience with the world around us (sankhara), and our consciousness (vinnana). Change any of these factors and change who we are, and we are changing all the time. We age, get sick, loose the quality of our senses, gain wisdom and insight.
While there is certainly a process that is operating with these five aggregates, it is forever changing and evolving. Each moment is a new experience, and change in the body, and shift in our volitional formations. So the concept of “I” remains elusive to Descartes’ definition, because what was”I” in one moment changes with every tick of the clock. When the aggregates are removed, the construction falls apart like a house of cards: nothing is left.
But if we are ever changing, impermanent, and without solid definition,what about the rest of the world? It too is made up of aggregates that are forever changing. In addition, the world is bound by our relational definitions of them. A chair is only a chair to someone that uses it as such: A wooden chair would be a meal to a termite, a throw toy for an elephant, an obstacle for a dog.
Our senses interpret the world falsely as well. How often have we been fooled by optical illusions, faulty perceptions, and misinformation? There is a story of a man at twilight being frightened to death by a rattle snake on the road, only to find out in the morning it was a bit of discarded rope under the light of day.
So how do we know what is and what is not? Perhaps the problem is not in the answer but in the question.
Knowing that the world around us is a perception and not a concrete hard fact, knowing that the world is forever changing, knowing that our perceptions are constantly changing: Perhaps, we should stop asking “how do we know?” but “how do we accept?”
When we accept that the world is perception, relational, conditional; we can then accept that it is integrated, communal, and a projection of ourselves.We can accept that all things are impermanent and find happiness in the time we exist the way the world is, not in the delusions of how we think it should be.
John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell and a hell of Heaven.”
Our world is not seen through our eyes, but our eyes create the world around us.