Materialism and Abstractionism

Monday, February 22, 2016 K.Z. Freeman 2 Comments

Jie He

What is meant in Zen when it's said it is not a religion, but a way of Seeing into one's own nature?

Most of us think the current state of our society and the individual self is a state of intense materialism. What that means is pretty obvious - we wish to acquire things of material nature. Items. Possessions. Money. People.

In this frantic search for substance, we forget that this is a trick performed on us by ourselves.

Since our birth, we have been brought up to differentiate between things that are Me and things Not Me.
This is a natural process -- a necessary product of the survival instinct. And as we become older, we begin to understand that things Not Me cannot possibility also be Me. And yet, despite seeing this duality of Me and Not Me with our own eyes, we are connected to a deeper understanding without our direct knowledge of it. 
This is evident in our acquisition of things to express the Self.
We buy and acquire things that are obviously outside of our bodies, yet are a means to express what is inside our bodies/minds and in this sense become an expression of the (perceived) Self.

The things we wanted have always been ideas in our minds. Ideas of what we want to be, think we are, or feel we should express. Upon possessing the thing which we desired, the thing remains that idea, meaning the thing is the expression of a thought, and because of this, we ultimately find the possession (the item) empty. 
The point where we do find it empty is irrelevant, we inevitably do. 
This shows itself as long as we fail in seeing into our own Nature. In this regard, everything which we acquire until the point where we see into our Nature, will eventually become of no value to us. 
The initial value came from the idea, from the abstract thought. This thought always fades, so the item's value shall also fade. There are things which may convince a human that he or she bought the item because it is his nature, and so the item is the expression of that nature. To an extent this is true.

Let's take instruments as an example. 
You wish to express a certain inner state, an abstract, and thus acquire an instrument. An instrument in this case may be a pencil, and not necessarily a piano or guitar. You then perhaps progress in your understanding of that instrument and how it is played, then wish to acquire a better one to better express your own level of understanding of it. An instrument of greater value. Over time, you will integrate this instrument into your nature to a point where separation from playing will feel akin to losing a piece of your own self. Primarily what made you play was your nature to express something within you. This need for expression then became you as much as it already was you. So the instrument not only expressed your nature, but filled you with a belief that it is your nature.

However, what seeing into one's nature means is this: it must become evident  that the playing is your nature, the expression, not the instrument that is the means of expression

The expression itself is your nature, not the item with which it is being expressed. But because both arise mutually, the expression cannot be without the item and vice versa, and we are too often conflicted as to what is our nature instead of simply expressing it. However, new acquisitions of items will never be enough as long as one does not realize this. As each acquisition of a new instrument then becomes a wish-fulfillment of an ever-changing and inconstant nature of Self.

It was at first the abstract idea of what the thing represents that made one buy or claim it. And even at the point where we get the basic item of our desire, we sooner or later find that it does not express our being, our nature, and so we ultimately find it empty, and discard it, or replace it. That is because our own fundamental nature is empty and a series of abstractions.
Our minds and bodies remain an area of condensed experience, where our sense of I is always identified with past events, rather than with what actually is.
Even our system of normal, non-autistic memory functions as an abstract idea, meaning that whenever you have an experience, you always infinitely regress in its remembering. What that means is this: When you are part of an event which creates a complex system of remembrance and later recall this event, you will see parts of it. When you recall it the second time, your mind no longer recalls the first imprint of that memory, but recalls your most recent remembering of that event. This is the main reason for memory distortion and a good example of how in the end, all that remains is the abstract, emotional idea of that event, instead of concrete impressions.
Without realizing, we are with this acquire-discard-acquire-discard mechanism perfectly expressing our own transience. Only instead of realizing this transient nature, we wish to fill it and cover it up, creating a puzzling paradox; where one thing is both a perfect expression and a perfect mask to cover up the reason for the expression.

And so while superficially it may seem that we are Materialists, we are in fact Abstractionists. We never acquire a thing in order to have a thing, but to express an inner abstract idea of ourselves and represent/show it to the outside of us.

To give you an example from a Zen story.

In accordance with the advice of his master, Hui-neng lived a secluded life in the mountains. One day he thought that it was time for him to go out in the world. He was now thirty-nine years old. He came to Fa-hsing temple in the province of Kuang, where a learned priest, Yin-tsung, was discoursing on the Nirvana Sutra. He saw some monks arguing on the fluttering pennant; one of them said, "The pennant is the inanimate object and it is the wind that makes it flap."
It was remarked by another monk that "Both the wind and pennant are inanimate things, and the flapping is an impossibility."
A third one protested, "The flapping is due to a certain combination of cause and condition"; while a fourth one proposed a theory, saying, "After all there is no flapping pennant, but it is the wind that is moving by itself."
The discussion grew quite animated when Hui-neng interrupted with the remark, "It is neither wind not pennant but your own mind that flaps."


And yet that brings another side of it.

When dealing with our nature, or trying to see into it, we are confronted with things. When trying to pierce those things with understanding as to why we wish those things, we are confronted with thoughts. When trying to pierce thoughts we are confronted with more thoughts, mostly about things and other Selves. So what is then our true nature?

The point of this article is to yarr you. To further create duality and divisions in your mind to prove a point of how, just like you have been doing differentiations since your birth, you played into the role of doing one now. Material and Abstract. Just as you were differentiating between things that are Mine and things Not Mine, or things Me and Not Me, you were playing into the dualistic nature of mind now, while in reality Things are Abstractions and Abstractions are Things.

The answer is too simple for many to grasp and explains too little to be of satisfaction to a mind used to placing a label on everything. To us a thing is rarely as it is. To us a thing is ugly, beautiful, cute, nice, blue, warm, etc.

To this end, the difference between Epistemological Nihilism and Buddhism portraits the same line of thinking of the difference between things and the idea of things, but have a different way of seeing into their Suchness. And in this seeing is the key. In the seeing into the nature of things and the Self. Because our own views and ideas split the mind, it is for us harder to understand the Suchness of Buddhism and easier to understand the suchness of Nihilism - a predominately Western idea of suchness.

With Nihilistic thought, things as objects are futile as everything will eventually fade and die. Their suchness does not exist. It considers things such as colour and substance, and denies them of having substance and suchness. Metaphysical Nihilism states there may not be any real objects, and this comes close to what Buddhism is saying, but not really. With this thinking, Nihilism perpetuates the duality where the mind is forever split in experience of flavour and of itself, yet denies it as having real substance outside the subjective, and so being ultimately empty. In this regard it splits the knower and the known. Splits the one who wishes to play from that which is being played.

In Buddhism, the thought that eventually everything will fade and die is essential not for one to realize that things are futile, but to realize futility lies in thinking there is anything else but this very moment. Now. It does not split the mind, because instead of denial, things are accepted as they come and as they go. They arise from abstraction to give the impression of material, and become material as much as they had ever been an abstraction.


Sources: Memory distortion: an adaptive perspectiveZen Buddhism - D.T Suzuki


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