Saturday, July 26, 2014

The seal of reality

Mahamudra, the great seal of reality. Reality as the measure of all things, or, as we know it in the west thanks to John Locke's 1688 Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, empiricism. Which was an improvement on Aristotle's idea of a Tabula Rasa for the human mind—furthered by Al Farabi during the Islamic renaissance while the west was in the middle of its dark ages. Empiricism is the main pillar of science, what makes science advance to the levels that we see today, what sets the limits to confirmation bias: hypotheses testing and experimentation.

Mahamudra has been a part of Buddhist tradition since at least the 10th century but, as opposed to empiricism, this seal of reality has been directed inward into the mind. As a tool to explore the mind and how it interacts with reality. While science has been focused on external reality Buddhism has been focused on the internal one. Science has focused on what can be measured and acts only on what can be observed externally, repeatability, what can be proven to others via hard data.

This was not always the case for science, most famously Sigmund Freud used mental introspection techniques to understand his own mind, and applied what he learned to the minds of others. This was the beginning of psychology as we know it. But, just as in Buddhism, this led to castles in the air that could not be verified, and thus operational, measurable, or actionable reality took the place of the interminable psycobabble of introspection.

In the west empiricism started with Locke's assays, furthered by Hume and many others with the foundations of skepticism, until reaching neopositivism and pragmatism in the 20th century. This evolution took place at about the same time that Freud developed Psychoanalysis, which was mostly displaced by more observable or 'operational' schools of psychology. These are the foundations of the scientific method we know today, as well as Agnosticism and the final separation of "God" and philosophy (Kierkegaard 1844, Huxley 1860, Nietzsche 1882, Russel 1939). Something very recent indeed.

In the east, the seal of reality, the explanation of the reality of mind combined with centuries of evolution, is what set this boundary. Personal introspection being checked by the reality of proper intention, our own life, and our social interactions. Useless introspections fading away as newer more fit introspections took their place. Of the eastern traditions, Buddhism remained closest to this root, despite all other social influences. To this day, the Dalai Lama has said:
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.
—The Dalai Lama, The New York Times, 12 November 2005—
Mahamudra itself was not written down for centuries, partially because it was a complex concept with possibly dangerous consequences to the teachings themselves, and better left to evolve and purify via oral traditions from master to pupil to new and improved masters. Masters themselves being the measure of the reality of the teachings. It is such a complex concept, in the realm of introspection, that just a phrase, such as the definition of mind, requires a full chapter to make sure it is clear enough what mere clarity and awareness means. Never so much weight has been put on such an apparently simple definition.

I do not agree with calling that "mind" as, in the western culture, the word "mind" has not only broader connotations that can at least cross all species with a recognizable brain; but also narrower common connotations when contrasted with 'heart', 'soul', or 'consciousness'. I do agree, however with its idea of awareness being what the Buddhist notion of mind entails. Within science, this even matches what the Attention Schema Theory theory proposes as the purpose of consciousness itself.
Make the seal of reality the measure of your dreams,
if you let your dreams get too far ahead of reality you are not living in the present.
Your dreams are like the distant mountain peak that provides you with direction,
the mountain that can be covered by fog and thunderstorms one day,
but that you know is still there.
Reality the small town that you live in and satisfies all of your needs.
Admire the mountain, admire its capped snow peaks when you can,
see the mountain morph and evolve across the seasons of your life.
But never forget that there is no life on the mountain,
with its ragged outcrops, slippery ice banks, and rarefied air.
Stop to enjoy the placid lake that captures its streams and lies on its shade.

– RoboBard (©2014 CC by-nc-sa) —
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