Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Being and Becoming

I just finished reading Richard Gombrich's What the Buddha Thought, a title that puns on his former teacher Walpola Rahula's classic What the Buddha Taught. In his book, Gombrich, Boden Oxford Professor of Sanskrit and Founder-President of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, situates the Buddha in a cultural and historical context in order to identify the influences on the the Buddha as a thinker. The book draws entirely upon the Pali Canon and concentrates largely on the influences of brahminism and Jainism.

One thing that I found intriguing is Gombrich's proposition that the Buddha developed his ideas throughout the course of his 45 years as a teacher. I had never given this much thought, but when I did, I said to myself, "Of course, why wouldn't the Buddha develop his teachings?" For instance, Gombrich argues that The First Sermon represents a later development in the Buddha's career; in other words, his disciples edited the sermon at a later date (Gombrich argues after the Buddha's death). Interesting. Most orthodox Buddhists would consider this assertion as tantamount to sacrilege, but if all things are impermanent and subject to change, why would the Buddha's ability as a teacher be any different? And if his teaching got clearer over time (as he learned better ways to communicate the Dharma), why wouldn't his disciples take his best work and slip that into The First Sermon? If you have any doubts, check out the Vinayas, the Buddha's rules for monastics--the Buddha revises them several times, thus proving that he was in fact adaptable. Or so Gombrich argues.

By far, though, the most interesting point that Gombrich makes is drawing a clear distinction between the Upanishadic idea of 'being' and the Buddha's counter position of 'becoming.' For brahmins of the Buddha's time, being, reality, and truth, were considered to be the same--the Vedas (the Hindu holy books) don't draw a distinction between ontology (being or existence) and epistemology (knowing). For them being and knowing are one and the same. This fits in well with the Hindu principle of Atman, or divine essence in all beings. According to this teaching, we are all the pure consciousness of God, and so truth, being, and reality are synonymous.

The Buddha, on the other hand, saw this principle of pure 'being' as a ludicrous proposition. Instead of the brahminic eternal ground of being, he saw everything as a process of 'becoming.' Nothing stays the same from moment to moment, so how can something 'be'? For the Buddha, the notion of 'being' is ridiculous; there is only 'becoming.'

I'm not 32 years old, for that would imply stasis, a clear impossibility in nature. Rather, I am in a perpetual state of 'becoming.' As I've said before in my posts, the world is composed of verbs or processes, not nouns. Fixed, solid reality is an illusion.

Granted, the Buddha recognized the conventional value in the idea 'being' (as in the statement, "I was alone last night," for that serves a functional purpose of conveying information) but he wasn't fooled into believing that 'being' corresponds to anything in reality.

If you get a chance, check our Gombrich's book; I think it's well worth the read.

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