Mahayana Buddhism

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 20)


What lies behind the fluttering forms we see? No clay, cries Buddhism, just a ceaseless dance devoid of stuff and substance. Grasping at ghosts within grants no relief, rather anxiety’s siege. Freedom rides life’s wave instead of taking cover. Be sage and bodhisattva mid melody, summoning the courtesan’s carefree bliss. Embrace experience utterly, no escaper you need be. For the void is full, if we still our need to fill.



In the last program I was talking to you about the basic teachings of the Buddha, who lived in India about 623 years before Christ. And I’m going to devote this program to a development of the original doctrine of Buddhism which is called Mahāyāna Buddhism. Maha means “great” in Sanskrit and yana means something like “vehicle” or a “conveyance.” And Mahāyāna Buddhism is today found in the northern part of Asia—that is to say, in Tibet, China, Mongolia, and Japan—and is contrasted with another form of Buddhism which is properly called Theravāda (that means “the way of the elders” or “the doctrine of the elders”), only it’s impolitely known as Hīnayāna, “the little vehicle.” And this is found in the south of Asia; in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.


And Mahāyāna developed in India probably somewhere between about 100 B.C. and 300 or 400 A.D. This was the whole period of its germination. And what it really is is a very profound philosophical elaboration of the Buddha’s original teachings, drawing out certain things that were implicit in those teachings, if not actually stated, on the principle that if the original teachings are something like a seed, which has any vitality in it at all, it grows into a tree. And sometimes a tree doesn’t look very much like its seed, although the tree was of course implicit in the seed from the beginning.


Now, once upon a time there was an old Chinese Buddhist master called Linji, and he used to tell his disciples that he felt his duty towards them was to beat the ghosts out of them. And I pointed out to you last time that Buddhism is, in a certain sense, an awakening: waking up, as it were, from a bad dream. And in the sense that ghosts are something like a bad dream, there are, as it were, certain fixed ideas or habits of thought which (to use a slang phrase) bug the human mind and confuse us. And I was trying to explain one of them, which in Mahāyāna Buddhism has been very carefully investigated, and that is the idea that this world is not really what we call substantial.


There is a theory in Mahāyāna Buddhism that is called the doctrine of mind only, and this isn’t quite like Western ideas that we sometimes call subjective idealism—the idea, in other words, of the whole world is something that exists only in your own mind, and there isn’t any outside there, as it were, at all. It isn’t quite like that, and I want to try, in this program, among other things, to explain the difference.


Now, the important point to understand from—this is contained in the Buddha’s original teaching—is that the whole of our world of experience is an experience of pure pattern. Just (as it were) formation or process without any substantiality in it at all: a pattern of form constantly rippling and changing and shifting, and always flowing, as it were, from one thing to another. Try and conceive, then, the idea of all the forms and things of the world as being form, and nothing but form, and having, as it were, no stuff underneath its constantly shifting changes.


This, of course, is a difficult idea for us to imagine because it’s so contrary to our ordinary common sense. As I explained last time, we tend to think of our world by analogy with the potter’s craft. Just as a potter makes pots out of clay, so we think of all the various things in the world—the mountains, the stars, the trees, people, and so on—as being made out of some stuff. But as we know from our own science, and as the old Buddhist philosophers knew in earlier times, we can perfectly well give an account of this world, describe it, and talk about it in terms of form alone without ever having to introduce the concept of stuff. And that’s only a difficult idea for us to understand because we have fixed habits of thought that make it seem strange to us when we try to clarify it.


Now, this involves another idea that is common to all schools of Buddhism, which—again, for the same reason—is difficult to understand. This is called in Sanskrit the doctrine of Anātman. And that means “non-ego,” that is to say: the doctrine that the feeling that we have of being “I”—a thinker behind thought, an experiencer behind experience, a feeler behind our feelings, and a sensor behind our sensations—that feeling is agreed by all schools of Buddhist thought to be an illusion.


But, you see, this immediately surprises us because it seems to be one of the most common sense feelings we could have. Not simply that I am I in the sense that I am my whole physical organism and body, but also to feel that there is some kind of permanent entity or center of consciousness inside the body, receiving all its experiences, and being the main director of its actions—sitting in the body, as it were, like a chauffeur inside an automobile, or as if we had some sort of little man inside our heads. And so it does seem a fundamental commonsensical idea that we—as ego, as “I,” myself, as the knower, the little man inside the head—am a sort of screen upon which life is constantly writing a pattern. And we develop from this the fear that the writing of life upon the screen may wear the pattern out in the same way, for example, as if I were to write here upon the sand, and begin to trace patterns in it. Now, as I go on writing, the sand begins to be scattered. And so in the same way we have, as it were, the impression that the constant motion of life is wearing out the conscious knower, the ego, and therefore we develop a kind of resistance to experience.


But now I think we ought to ask the question: is this true? Is experience something that happens to us, that we have? Or would it be more accurate to say that there is simply a process of experiencing? Again, the Buddhist philosophers of ancient India had realized something which we can perhaps see even more clearly as a result of our own scientific investigations of just what perception is in terms of our own nervous system. And it’s rather simple to talk about this whole problem, shall we say, in terms of neurology. This is not to say that our consciousness, our minds, are nothing but nerves, because that sounds like a kind of materialism. We have to understand that we don’t know, as it were, what the nerves are in terms of some kind of material substance or mental substances. We can think of our nervous system simply as a pattern.


Now, the important point to realize first is that all that we see in terms of an outside world—color, texture, shape, and so on—is going on inside our heads, going on inside our nervous system. So that when we, say, touch something and feel that it’s hard, what we are actually experiencing is not so much the outside thing. It’s true, the stimulus is coming from the outside world to our body, but what we actually feel and experience as hardness is a particular activity, or process, going on inside our nervous system. So that we could say all of our experience of the external world is felt directly only as an experience of the nervous system. And even that, in a way, is not quite correct. Because when I say an experience of the nervous system, that what we are experiencing is a state of our nervous system, this still isn’t a simple enough way of talking about it, because it sounds again as if there were, behind the nervous system itself, an experiencer.


What we have to try and get clear is that our sensations, our processes in the nervous system, and that those processes are us. The self is the process of sensation. In other words, there isn’t a sensor behind sensation. When we have a sensation, we don’t have it, we are it. And so it helps, then, if (first of all) we could think of the nervous system as being a pure pattern, something like the one I’m going to draw. I’m going to draw a pattern in four stages of its movement.


So let’s think of these as four positions in the movement of a kind of dancing pattern. The first, the second, the third, and the fourth. I’ve drawn them all out in a row, but one would see them just as one pattern constantly shifting around.


Now, our nervous system has in it a peculiar capacity, which is illustrated in these particular drawings by the fact that, if you look closely, you’ll notice that the preceding pattern is represented in the following one by a pattern like it which, as it were, represents the former state of the pattern. In other words, the former state of this pattern was this. And so to record that form of state, it has this in it. And then, as we shift along, the whole pattern changes to this shape. We find inside a sub-pattern or subsection of the pattern which is representing this one. And of course it represents the first one as well. And so when we finally come here and the pattern has shifted to this shape, here is a pattern inside it which represents this pattern.


And so this ability of a pattern to contain elements which represent its former states is what we call memory. In engineering language we would call it feedback, because feedback is the system whereby any system of energy is enabled to record the results of its own action so that, upon that record, it can, as it were, make plans for the future. It can, in other words, correct its action. And so, because human beings have memory, the capacity of the pattern of the nervous system to record its former states, the human being can make predictions about the future, and so in general control its activity.


But from this extraordinarily marvelous ability there arises a certain (I could call it) confusing byproduct. And that is the feeling that there is, as it were, a constant entity, like the screen of sand that I was drawing on a little while ago. In other words, because a certain element of permanence runs through these changing patterns, this permanent behavior of the pattern (or permanently repeating behavior of the pattern) gives the impression of some substantial mind-stuff or mind-entity underlying the pattern, and upon which the pattern is recorded. It’s the same sort of illusion that arises when, for example, I would take a flashlight and rotate it in the dark, and you would see in the ordinary way a continuous circle of light. Actually, this won’t quite perfectly come through upon the television camera, but something interesting and analogous to what happens to us does come through. You will see that the light leaves a track behind it. And, in the same way, the moving light leaves a track upon the retina of the eye, and that is what gives us the illusion of seeing a constant circle of fire.


And so a similar illusion arises from the repetitive pattern of the nervous system, and thus gives us the impression, you see, that there is this constant thing (the experiencer) who, as it were, lasts, endures, like a substance, from the past through the present to the future, but at the same time has, as it were, to protect itself against being worn out by experience.


And so gradually we come to develop within ourselves a resistance to what we’re experiencing. And this comes about not only because we are, as it were, afraid of being worn out, but also because the problem of control constantly arises. That is to say: we become anxious as to whether our predictions are going to work out, and therefore we tend to get over-cautious, over-questioning as to whether our acts are exactly right or exactly wrong, whether our thoughts about them are exactly right or exactly wrong. And as a result of this our resistance to experience builds up.


And all this does is to make the whole system, the whole flowing of the pattern, operate not more efficiently—on the contrary—but stickily. That is to say: supposing, when I write, I resist my own action of writing, and instead, in other words, of drawing a smooth line in a perfectly straightforward way like this, I start resisting my own movement and go… you see, it begins to shake. And, in very much the same way, we begin to develop a kind of chronic shakiness which we call anxiety when we start resisting our own process of feeling too much. And as a result of that resistance we get not only chronic anxiety, but a chronic feeling of frustration. And then, in other words, we feel… well, something’s got to be done about this, too! And what does that lead to? You know? It just leads to more of the same kind of thing.


If, in other words, we identify ourselves with this permanent and purely illusory ego-substance that isn’t really there, we’re identifying ourselves with something abstract, we get from this the sense of a kind of voidness, a kind of hunger, which is not physical but psychic. And from that we develop a greed for revenge: for more and more experience, more and more time, and yet at the same time we know the more we experience and the more we live, it’s going to wear us out. And so from this kind of resistance to life it leads to further resistance, and thus to a vicious circle, which in Buddhist philosophy is called by this important term in Sanskrit: saṃsāra.


Saṃsāra. And although saṃsāra is represented in popular Buddhist philosophy as a process of the individual being reincarnated into this world again and again and again and again so long as he has attraction for it, the real meaning of the circle, the going round and round, is precisely the vicious circle which arises through a resistance to life which builds up into further resistance.


Now, we can demonstrate this in rather an interesting way, because just as this, as it were, is an attempt to split the human mind apart and turn it back on itself, so we could create a situation in the television circuit whereby we turn the television circuit back on itself. Now, you’re going to see something which is nothing wrong with your television set. Don’t try and turn the knobs and put it right. What we’ve done here is to turn the camera onto the television screen. And this sets up, first of all, a series of screens beyond screens beyond screens. And then it begins to jangle and fluctuate and wave, and you get all kinds of repeated patterns going, sort of, bleah, bleah, blyoo, blaah, bleeah, blaah, blaah, blaah, blaah, blaah, like that.


And that is just exactly what happens to our minds when we develop excessive self-consciousness—that is to say: an excessive sensation of difference between the experiencer and experience—and try to make the one latch onto the other one completely and control it. When, in other words, the experiencer resists experience, that’s not what really happens. What really happens is simply that the whole pattern of our consciousness, of our nervous system, gets sticky and begins to jangle on itself. And under such conditions—that is to say, for example, when we are worrying about worrying, and worrying about worrying about worrying, and that sort of thing—life becomes an intolerable burden, and we say: well, let’s get out of it.


Well, let’s get out into the garden.


And so, then, it was for this reason that the original appeal of Buddhism to the human mind was that it offered a way of deliverance from the vicious circle of life. But now see an important point that is absolutely fundamental to the thinking of Mahāyāna Buddhism: that trying to get out is still working on the assumption that there is a real experiencer to be, as it were, extracted from experience. But what we’ve just discovered is that that is the illusion. There is no experiencer to be extracted from, who can escape from, experience. There is simply experiencing. Just the moving pattern.


And in the symbolism of Mahāyāna Buddhism the person who is no longer, as it were, seeking an escape from life, but has realized that it isn’t something to be escaped from, is called in Sanskrit a bodhisattva. And here you see a typical and one of the most famous bodhisattvas—called Guānyīn, the bodhisattva of mercy—who is thought of as one who has come back into the world of everyday events, there to live it fully and to help all other beings to be delivered. In other words, the ideal of Buddhist wisdom no longer becomes, as it were, a detached and aloof sort of sage who shuns life, but one who loves life and therefore gets thoroughly involved in it.


And this is very astonishingly illustrated in another bodhisattva figure who is known in Japanese as Fugen. The interesting thing about this picture is you see a woman sitting on a white elephant. Now, Fugen is usually invariably shown in male form, and always sitting on an elephant. But this particular woman figure is a figure of a courtesan. It may seem surprising that a bodhisattva, a great sage, manifests in the figure of a courtesan. This idea is not to be taken exactly literally. What it means is that the courtesan represents, as it were, the most worldly of the world, and therefore represents the life, the nature, the experiencing that human beings are constantly afraid of. The bodhisattva is not afraid, but assumes this form symbolically, and therefore represents the whole attitude of, as it were, overcoming life by not escaping from it, but by accepting it completely and profoundly—through, of course, the discovery that it doesn’t have to be accepted. There is no one separate from it to do the accepting.


And so there is an ancient Buddhist verse that says:

Suffering alone exists,

No one who suffers.

Deeds alone exist,

But no doer thereof.

The path there is,

But no one who treads it.


(that is to say, “release”)

Nirvana exists,

But no one who attains it.


And so you may ask, then: well, what is this all? If there are deeds but no doer, experiencing but no experiencer, what is reality? What is life? After all, we always thought we knew what pattern was by contrast with stuff, substance with form. But now the contrast has disappeared—we are left with the deed alone, no agent; the form alone, no stuff—what do we have? What Buddhist philosophy calls śūnyatā: the empty void. Void not because there’s nothing there, but because our mind has no idea of it.

Mahayana Buddhism

Alan Watts

Document Options
Find out more