Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Who made "you"?

When we conventionally speak about language, we think of it as a system of mental and verbal symbols created by humans to help them communicate. Or at least that's how I think about it. David Loy, in his book Nonduality, says we've got it all backwards. We don't create language; it creates us.

He writes: "It is not the 'I' that names and intends, but rather the reverse: subjectively--the sense of a subjective consciousness that is doing the seeing, acting and so on--arises because of the naming and intending" (Loy 121).

Talk about mind blowing! According to this, language is responsible for creating (or at the very least, reinforcing) this sense of an "I." And what do I mean by "I"? A discrete subjective agent who thinks, acts, etc., is independent and self-existent. And as it pertains to Loy's book, a separate subject (which according to nondual school is an illusion). In short, the grandest piece of fiction that we all subscribe to.

Is this consistent with traditional Buddhist teachings? I think so. The 12-link chain of causality identifies name and form (nama-rupa) as being the condition that leads to discrimination, the act of separating objects or slicing up reality into what appears to be "independent entities."

And what's the source of all this naming and discriminating? The traditional Buddhist answer is ignorance. Naturally the next question is: Well, what are we ignorant of? It depends who you ask. Loy as a Zen Buddhist would say nonduality. But to ask the question itself is to get trapped in the language game, which only helps perpetuate the problem itself! For the question is inherently dualistic, in that it presupposes that the one who is ignorant is separate from the reality being ignored. It's a vicious cycle, and whenever we look to concept or words for help, we get pulled right back in.

Loy suggests that it is desire (trishna, link 8) and its concomitant grasping (upadana, link 9) that creates and perpetuates this sense of "I." For example, whenever I find myself at odds with the "outside" world, my sense of "I" is heightened. The same goes for when I desire something. My sense of "I" feels virtually tangible at such moments. *

But this is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. If Loy is right, and I happen to think he is, then the simulacrum of language has trapped us into believing that it and its conceptual world is real. Talk about The Matrix!

The irony of course, is that we--our sense of "I"-ness, how we habitually tend see ourselves as separate from everything else--are ourselves a product of that very same process.

So how do we get out? By seeing language for what it is--conventional, limited, the map and not the territory. A finger pointing at the moon.

I think this is what Zen masters mean when they say, "Die on the cushion!" It's a type of ego death, though not in the modern psychological sense. It is only when we forsake all notions--for they are discriminatory and thus dualistic--of ourselves, others, the world, inside, outside, that we can hope to end our suffering. For inevitably, any sense of a separate "I"--an "I" divorced from the world, and thus at odds with it--is one doomed to suffer.

Picture borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Jason-Morrison.

*Now I know what some of you are thinking: links 8 and 9 follow link 4, so how could grasping create nama-rupa? But we must remember that the 12-link chain can begin at any link; it need not start at link 1. Ignorance is conditioned by our past lives, our past clinging, and so on. And of course the reverse is true for clinging. So I think Loy is safe.

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