My eyes being hindered by blind passions I cannot perceive the light that grasps me; Yet the great compassion without tiring Illumines me always. Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, The Collected Works of Shinran, Vol. 1. In the talk at last night's evening service, Rev'd Satyavani begins by reading this quote from Shinran, and then describes how burning the flapjacks led to an experience of insight.
This is a recording of the talk given by Kaspalita at our study morning yesterday, on the topic of A Buddhist Approach to Dealing with Not Having What You Want.
Kaspa outlined several different responses to not having what you want, from short-term strategies, to looking at the underlying causes of why not having what you want is a problem, and what to do about it.
A few days ago Satya and I were in Evesham. The weather had been dry for long enough for the floods to recede so that we could get there without too much difficulty.
We walked along the high-street like magpies, each looking for our own shiny objects to take back to the nest. We were both drawn to an immaculately presented charity shop, Satya to the rail of red clothes (Still searching for something smart, and red to go underneath her gankonin robe) and I was seduced by the sign reading, ‘Book cave, this way’.
As Satya tried on various combinations of red clothes I started to read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate from 2002. I read a little more this evening and wanted to share some reflections with you here.
The Blank Slate is essentially an argument against the mind as a blank slate, an argument against the idea of the noble savage (that we are born noble, and society corrupts us) and an argument against the ghost in the machine (the idea of a separate self guiding our actions).
The current debate Pinker writes, is not between whether the mind is a blank slate, or page, upon which our personalities are written by our experience in the world, but how much or little that slate already has written on to it when we come into the world.
He points to correlations between size differences in different areas of the brain, and behaviour. People with smaller and less active pre-frontal cortexes are more likely to behave violently, for example. Having said this, he also recognises that some brain-structures can be changed over time, through practice and so on.
The other point he makes is that science and philosophy are moving towards understanding that the mind either arises from or is physical activity in our incredibly complex brains. The arguments supporting this are reasonably compelling, but if you want to know what they are you’ll have to but the book (or look elsewhere, there is plenty of writing about this out there).
Pinker also reminds us of Freud’s idea that our conscious minds do not act, but merely tell us a story about our actions.
“What implications does this have for my practice and how I think about Pureland Buddhism?” I wondered.
Some of our mind is pre-programmed. (It comes into the world with us.)
Some of it is learnt behaviour. (Events in the world can affect it.)
How much change is possible, the self-power Buddhist in me wants to ask (and to have an answer to.) Is it possible to become accomplished in all of the different areas I have ambitions in?
I think that what all of these ideas do, is undermine the illusion of control that our ‘self’ perpetuates: we have much less control over our actions than we imagine.
Having said that, perhaps one aspect of practice is recognising this lack of control, or to put it in more Buddhist terms, our conditioned nature. You can see how this understanding of the mind fits in line with the Buddha saying to Rahula “This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”
What else do we do in Pureland practice? Put ourselves in relation to Amida.
Manshi understood and called Amida, 'Infinity'. So we put ourselves in relationship to Infinity, or the whole. This puts our lives into a much greater context than we usually live.
Is this understanding our conditioned nature, and being in relationship with the infinite, salvation?
If we can just come and go with reality – is that enough?
What is Amida in this scheme of things? A phrase I read the other day was the ‘active aspect of reality’ This is our experience of the infinite or suchness that comes to save us and guide us to a place of being at ease things as they are.
Sometimes I think Amida is separate to everything, something I think Amida is everything. (Of course there can be more than one infinite thing in the universe.) Either way we do have an experience of something that speaks to us and says that we’re okay our conditioned lives are loveable our ordinary coming and going is loveable and whilst we are small, there is also something much, much bigger than us going on.
Those are the few thoughts that came to me whilst I was reading just now, and I thought I’d share them here and see if they inspired any conversation…
What do you think?
Image: 19th century Phrenology chart, from Fowlers&Wells