The day-to-day application of the Mahayana philosophy concerning the sense of self, the attitude toward sense data, samsara (finitude), and nirvana (infinitude) bear further examination. From Zen Buddhism to Pure Land Buddhism, tantric Buddhism, Shambhala Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, the dilemma of finite and infinite that Mahayana Buddhist philosophers pondered in the Dark Ages was responded to in diverse ways. By focusing on fundamental principles at work in that development, we gain a better understanding of how higher age practices geared at placing the body in suspended animation and lifting the energy to the brain - thereby fully investigating a nonfinite avenue to knowledge - would become distorted once the rationale behind their application was no longer fully understood.
One of the major answers that Mahayanists give to the spiritual dilemma of finitude seeking the nonfinite is called the Prajna-paramita, which has strong ties to Nagarjuna. The intended result of Nagarjuna's nihilism is not nihilistic but is the bliss of liberation. This is in keeping with the ancient proto-theory of self. In fact, early Indian Mahayana scholars, unlike modern Buddhists, never took their eyes away from liberation in infinite bliss. The Buddha's ideal of right samadhi was not discounted.
Of course, nothing in the writing of Nagarjuna does not, on one level or another, constitute yet another grasping - not that the ancient Indian philosophers would have had a problem with that. The device of dialectics that he uses to deconstruct the limited concepts of our narrow sensory reality is still a device that must be engaged with by the mind. Of its own, Nagarjuna's doctrine of relativity - namely that all philosophical and theological propositions must be ultimately refuted because they are at best valid only in relation to something else - is useful.
But Mahayana Buddhism went too far with this relativity by assuming that the same relation exists between samsara (finite) and nirvana (infinite). Watts writes, "as soon as nirvana is made an object of desire, it becomes an element of samsara. The real nirvana cannot be desired because it cannot be conceived." This is an example of Mahayana refuting its own arguments without even knowing it, as we will presently see. This relational attitude toward the infinite is, I feel, at the crux of Mahayana’s failure to be true to the legacy of the Buddha.
Mahayana is attempting to teach one not to desire nirvana because doing so will chain the seeker to samsara. However, this is circular reasoning because one could then argue that one's lack of desire for nirvana, caused by the desire-born concern that the desire for nirvana will chain one to samsara, is yet another chain to finitude. That is, even the lack of desire for nirvana, artificially induced, is arguably a desire for nirvana, and hence will cause suffering. Some Mahayana scholars like Shinran addressed this self-imposed philosophical dilemma, but this vicious cycle nevertheless spins eternally, getting one nowhere.
Watts might have asked himself: If nirvana, being inconceivable, cannot be desired, how can it become an object of desire, and hence an element of samsara? Something other than nirvana might become an object of desire, but not nirvana itself. The finite has no relation to it.
The ancient theory of self revealed that nirvana cannot ever be desired, and therefore it did not get hung up on the worry that nirvana would ever become an element of samsara. It instead focused upon the expense of nervous energy, directed by attention, as the baseline criterion to determine if a thought, belief, or action contributed to the development of a nonfinite avenue to knowledge. It was supremely elegant and simple, only to be confounded in the Dark Ages by cumbersome and complex checks and balances to human desire.
Think of it, how can nirvana be "an object of desire," when it "cannot even be desired?" That which cannot be desired will never be an object of desire, even if the narrow self thinks it is. It is in thoughts and attention, themselves, squandering energy and limiting the intuitive capacity - the sole nonfinite avenue to knowledge available - where self-analysis is appropriate.
What appears in this narrow school of philosophy to be a desire for nirvana will only, ultimately, translate into an expansion of the range of intuitive perception as the self, employing the proper means of energy conservation (asceticism) and energy introversion (pranayama), gradually ceases to run after samsara as the source of knowledge for the parameters of the self. In practical application, the ancients are found to be correct in this assertion: the energy and awareness retire inward to the spine through the mystical methods regardless of the fact that the practitioner thinks to have the desire for nirvana inspire practice.
Nagarjuna's writings of Sunyavada, by the standards of the schools of yoga, represent an effort in jnana yoga, or the yoga of intellectual discrimination as a means to approach nonfinite self-knowledge. As such, it is, if practiced alone, exceedingly slow in culminating in the nonfinite self-knowledge that it promises. It does not seek to directly check the expense of energy by such organs like the genitals, lungs, and heart, or further seek to sublimate their energy expenses and turn a patent loss into a reserve of nervous energy available for intuitive purposes.
Similarly, most of the skillful means of Mahayana are poor practices based on Dark Age ideas of finite and infinite. The techniques of proactive sense introversion degenerated into breath watching, improper ("soft" and downward) gazing, keeping the eyes open (in an intellectual effort to not deny the infinitude in finitude), mandala gazing, chanting, intellectual debate, Dark Age tantric rites that fail to sublimate nervous energy, and sitting and "doing nothing" while the heart, breath, mind, and senses are busy doing all kinds of things not under the control of the practitioner. Eventually, the ideal of the breathless state was lost, as were the standards of self-mastery. Practices were devised not to attain right samadhi, but to insure a better rebirth, place the mind in states of absorption, and artificially fit the philosophical conclusion that doing something to realize nirvana would keep nirvana far away.
The Pure Land school of Buddhism taught that humans have the "Buddha nature," or the seed of the infinite self, but it nevertheless maintained its own version of this self-crippling idea that efforts and desire are opposed to spiritual pursuit, maintaining the fatal assumption that all efforts to become a Buddha are still the work of the narrow self. All that is needed, according to Pure Land, is to repeat the name of the Amitabha Buddha with the faith that doing so will result in rebirth in the Pure Land where Amitabha presides.
Obviously, it is impossible to repeat the mantra of Amitabha's name without the use of effort. Effort is required to even think the name. So this teaching is contradictory. Further, there is very little practical difference between this wishful thinking and the belief that Dark Age (and modern) Christians had that faith in Jesus would culminate in eternal life in heaven. (To Buddhism's credit, though, at least the Buddhist would eventually become a Buddha in their Buddha heaven, while the Christian residing in heaven could never become Christ.)
These sorts of teachings appear to be an ongoing Dark Age theme. All the grace that Jesus Christ represents (since Jesus needed to make no effort to be a Christ) and all the efforts that the Buddha made in meditation and asceticism are all that is necessary for salvation, accessed simply by groveling before these fantastic beings. Of course, the practical result was humans groveling before priests.
The Japanese exponent of Pure Land Buddhism, Shinran, realizing this contradiction, was forced to get around the quandaries that intentionally ceasing to desire nirvana was still born of a desire, ceasing to make effort was still the work of effort, and calling on Amitabha required effort too. So, he added that even efforts at faith were not necessary for the name of Amitabha to result in birth in the Pure Land. To him, the rote repetition of a mantra was sufficient, which is to say that our liberation is secured by blind subconscious habit. With this conclusion, it is fairly plain to see how the teachings of the Buddha degenerated and hit rock bottom during the Dark Ages.
If anything, Mahayana had it backwards. Not only can efforts and desires fuel the expansion of the sense of self but even mundane efforts and desires could be harnessed for intuitive pursuits. For example, we must all exert effort to fulfill the desire to eat. Harnessed, eating takes on new purpose and meaning, helping us to eat in ways that conserve energy in the short and long term. Mahayana’s philosophy constituted one big act of suppression, attracting a lot of habitually suppressed people.
Buddhists, which is to say humans narrowly identified with a certain body of literature, sites, and artifacts, must continue to engage in this discussion if an actual Buddha is ever to emerge from Buddhism. In this regard, Buddhism is at a disadvantage (or perhaps an advantage) to Christianity in that while journeying to an eternal Christian heaven after passing can never be confirmed or denied in any way, nirvana is a here and now realization that must have some confirming evidence here and now. Christians without batches of christs is expected, but Buddhism without buddhas is laughable.
Buddhists can begin by weighing the effectiveness of their meditation practices, along with the philosophical assumptions against which they were developed. All Buddhists are certainly not Pure Land Buddhist, but even as the various sects of Christianity share some very basic ideas of divinity that were developed during the Dark Ages, so too are all East Asian forms of Buddhism based upon very basic yet false assumptions made by Mahayana scholars in the Dark Ages. Many of these false assumptions rest on the granddad of them all, that desiring nirvana was something about which to be concerned.
But Buddhists aren't jumping over themselves in an effort to undermine these assumptions. Another aspect of modern Buddhism, detrimental because it discourages serious questions and challenges, is its commerciality. This commercialism translates into a condition on the sense of self, inseparable from being a Buddhist, engaging in the Buddhist lifestyle, and adopting the exotic cultural idiosyncrasies that have nothing to do with the spiritual life.
My all-time favorite example of this commercialism is the Buddhist teacher, largely aligned with East Asian forms, claiming that one or another language (the one in which he studies Buddhism) is the perfect language. This is reminiscent of Jews who think Hebrew is the language with which God created the world and hence is the only language in which to pray, though this is naught but a glaring example of ethnocentrism.
Buddhism in the West has a flip side to its commercialism. Narrowly identifying oneself as a Buddhist makes the follower one out of a billion in the East, but in the West being a Buddhist may mean one is part of a select community, one is extra special with access to a secret or special dispensation, one has escaped Western dogmas, one is spiritual, one may find oneself on the cover of a magazine, one is suddenly pro-active politically for the welfare of "all sentient beings" (I can hardly type that without the affection and platitude oozing out of the computer screen), one is on the bodhisattva track, and/or one is perhaps even a trend-setter (as opposed to just another sheep) if one's circle of acquaintances is small enough. All these things further narrow the sense of self and are contradictory to the very teachings of the ascetics like Buddha, inhibiting that questioning spirit necessary to undermine past assumptions.
One thing Mahayanists were right on is in this sort of relativity. Being a Buddhist in the West in this era only means what it does relative to the current religious circumstances in the West. It may mean less or more, one thing or another, in different circumstances, but it will certainly mean something different to each adherent in proportion to the different elements in his or her respective micro-environments.
But one thing is for certain across the board: Buddhism, like eveyr other organized religion, is not a mystical path of transcending the finite avenues to knowledge, and as such it will never culminate in the highest appreciation for the finite or the nonfinite. If nirvana realization were that easy, millions of Buddhists would have attained it. Alas, nirvana cannot be packaged. Temples can't be built to praise it, chants can’t be sung to it, realizing it can't be organized, and priestcraft is poisonous to it.
Every sect of Buddhism freely uses transcendental language, but so does every other religious sect. After all, what is religion without its trademarked means of overcoming death? But promises of overcoming death is a worthless commodity without a means by which conditioning is transcended. Since the body is the storehouse for conditioning, transcending conditioned existence is accomplished through the mastery of the breath, heart, senses, and mind - the finite faculties and activities underlying conditioning. It has always been this way and it will always be this way because we human beings simply do not have numerous nonfinite avenues to knowledge from which to choose.
The unavoidable conclusion is that Buddhism, like other religions, purposefully does not attract people interested in self-realization, or nirvana, anymore than does Christianity attract people that want their religion to make any logical or historical sense.
Seekers investigating methods to expand the sense of self and nonfinite avenues to knowledge, who perhaps may not be up for the intellectual debate between philosophical schools or for rectifying Buddhism, would save a great deal of time and avoid a lot of grief by remembering that knowledge is power. If nonfinite knowledge is real, it must culminate in knowledge of space, time, causation, and individuation, and power over these cosmic divisional misperceptions.
Without nonfinite knowledge and power, the Dalai Lama answering questions on enlightenment in the magazine "What is Enlightenment?" is no different than the Pope answering questions on heaven in "La Civilta Cattolica." They are both scams worthy of rude exposure.
Why is it that in countless books on Buddhism, none give any attention to the basic principle that knowledge is power, and it is in that maxim that we can effectively test our desires and efforts? Why is the breathless state, the only avenue to nonfinite knowledge humans have, never mentioned? Why is no test for a nonfinite avenue to knowledge provided? It is not as if Buddhism is like Islam, a religion that makes no claim to be founded by a yogi. What is the excuse? Just as mysticism was stripped out of so many Jewish sects, yoga and the Buddha have apparently been stripped from Buddhism.
The reason the authors of these books do not make reference to the test of knowledge in power is that such an admission undermines the rest of their foundation to teach. It undermines the rest of their teachings, hanging on the strained thread of Dark Age intellectual jargon. It is a threat to their own standards of measuring spiritual success, which are next to nonexistent - a fact of which they are, if anything, proud.
The nature of the infinite self, whatever it may be (existence-awareness-bliss is one popular designation) is that which all finite selves will seek, since the divided self invariably seeks its own undivided source. This simple truth throws the whole idea of fearing spiritual desires, according to Buddhism, in the wastebasket for it is impossible, if anything is impossible, to not desire to know an infinite self.
If meditation teachers teach you to meditate without desiring results, the reason they do so, whether they know it or not, is because they think your chances of realizing the nonfinite self will be greater with this approach. They believe, whether they are aware of it or not, that sense-introversion will be more likely with this attitude.
If a book tells you to avoid desiring nirvana, it is because the author, with or without full knowledge, thought that not desiring nirvana would give you a better chance of realizing the infinite self.
If a miserable person commits suicide, then that person believes at bottom that by doing so she will come closer to the infinite self.
That is, if we are divided selves of one undivided self, then all divided selves primordially desire to realize the infinite self. That would then be the desire behind all desires. Without that desire, the desire to avoid the pain of hunger (a function of desiring bliss) and the threat of death from hunger (a function of the desire for existence) would not be operative, and not entity would bother to live.
A Mahayana Buddhist may attempt to self-indoctrinate him/herself otherwise, sparked by the desire for the infinite self; but to go further and graft onto limp spiritual practices that, in reflecting this indoctrination, fail to investigate an avenue to nonfinite knowledge because effort might be required or his or her desire may be showing, a great disservice to his or her own expansive potential is committed.
Any mention of knowledge and power, without which yoga is fairly useless, in Buddhist circles these days precipitates the standard "Power? Power for what? Power over what? What do you want power for? What desire motivates you to have power or use powerful methods?" questions. The seeker who is still searching does not know how to respond to these disarming questions, as much as they are based on delusion. Of course, the power is obvious to anyone sincerely interested in self-knowledge: The power over the limitations that the divisional misperceptions place on our avenues to knowledge.
Zen Buddhists, taking the cake in the empty knowledge and power baking contest, are especially interested in conjuring that "wordless" teaching that was supposedly transmitted from the Buddha through the Dark Ages. Instead of knowledge and power, they prefer fluff and hollow pastries.
I can understand the Christian theologian who does not make reference to knowledge and power; it's not as if Christology has any books on ancient Indian yogis in its library. Buddhism's failure is tantamount to the failure to represent the Buddha. But even that is not saying enough. Buddhist teachers today practically shun any mention of knowledge and power not because the Buddha didn’t emphasize them, but because highly threatening contemporaries did and do. The religion is toothless not because it had no teeth at one time, but because it pulled out its teeth and summarily claimed victory by not engaging in the fight. It is full of adherents that know nothing, and are quite capable of glorifying that fact.
Is Buddhism sincerely interested in self-knowledge or is it just another organized religion that will conveniently ignore the Buddha-state of a modern-day yogi simply because that yogi's teachings are not narrowly designated as Buddhism or any other ism? The answer is clear: Buddhism is run by the modern version of the Brahmin who, in true form, rejects the example of self-knowledge right in front of his nose.
The groupies of these priests (rinpoches, lamas, whatever) then fill in the "void" by divinizing and mystifying their leaders. They then get very defensive when their leader or religion is sincerely challenged. Their self-assuredness and sense of superiority is in direct proportion to their denial; and yet, this is the religion that is supposed to be their excuse for moving beyond monotheism. Meanwhile, only the Mormon and the Jehovah's Witness fanatics knocking on your door compete with these people in the affectation arena.
Buddhism as a whole, so far, is unwilling to challenge itself with the real samadhi of a yoga master, and would rather continue watering down the very meaning of nirvana until the term only expresses a bland state of It-ness. Buddhism, East and West, is thus no more than a ritual-based lifestyle with which to identify. It is no coincidence that poles have shown that of all people, Buddhists are the least likely to meditate – not that we can call what they’re doing meditation. To me, this makes adherents of Buddhism far greater charlatans than fundamentalist Christians. They are taught to fear desiring nirvana so much so that all they’re left with is desiring everything else.