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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
spring 2007| 54 |buddhadharma lem is not that this experience needs to be denied but rather that we’re mistaken about the nature of the experience. Rather than understanding that the experience of subjectivity is an ever-changing, ongoing flow of experiences, we take this flow of experience to be a graspable person who must look good and be happy and on and on. So karma makes sense in terms of the ongo- ing, ever-evolving, ever-changing, ever-disappear- ing and reappearing subject, because downstream that subject experiences events that were caused upstream by actions of the subjects of the past. Let’s say the last time we met, I insulted Amaro. This time when we meet, the subjects who now exist feel badly about that, or maybe the subject we call Amaro is now feeling badly about me. That’s how it is. The problem arises when I think that there is a graspable subject here and a graspable subject there. But in fact, even if I understand the true essence of my self and of Amaro’s self, I still want to pay attention to karma and vipaka, because there will still be effects in the future – although the effects come to bear not on a permanent graspable self but on the ever-changing, ongoing stream of self. Yes, it’s a tricky kind of language, and we have to be careful to draw it out for students, because most people take the no-self language to be a denial of the experience of subjectivity. And such a denial is absurd. ajahN amaro: Right. What we are trying to clarify is that the quality of awareness, the fundamen- tal quality of knowing – or buddhanature, as you would probably call it in the Northern tradition – is not confused by any concrete, independent entity. It’s a pure knowing, not confused or clouded in any way, about the nature of the subjectivity. We might say it’s a pure subjectivity that finds no need to be turned into an individual person. buddhadharma: In the West, however, not having an agent, a doer, feels very squishy to many people. It runs counter to religions and movements that are not only based on free will but actually celebrate will as what makes life worth living. NormaN fisher: In the Buddhist worldview, there is no equivalent to this celebration of will. It is a totally different view of life. Rather than the assertion of my will as fulfilling my destiny, as the reason for my existence, the Buddhist view has more of a sense of a sharing, a cooperative and creative discovery of experience moment after moment in concert with everything. That’s our destiny and that’s our joy. The whole idea of will implies a separate individual asserting his or her will. That asserting of will escalates to asserting my will against the will of others, so if I want my will to have its satisfaction, I will have to do battle courtesyofJackshainmanGallery,nyc lytical method as we used in looking at sensations, and so forth, to look at this act of choosing, there does not seem to be a central agent; it’s a concat- enation of circumstances. robiN korNmaN: Yes, but if you talk that way, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for trying to convince anybody to do anything different. But Buddhism is a religion, and all of us here are often in the position of being pastoral counselors, trying to convince people to do things as if we believe they existed. In some sense, you have to ignore the emptiness of the self to preach the religion. ajahN amaro: I agree, that’s true. You have a name, I have a name, we all have names. In the normal conventions of personal use, there is individuality. I’m responsible for my actions in the eyes of the law. But if we are talking about the deep tissue philosophical structures and the heart of karma and non-self, we end up talking in a different way. buddhadharma: That’s a helpful distinction. From the perspective of deep insight, and therefore Buddhist doctrine, there is no person, but how you speak to people in ordinary language carries the assumption you’re referring to an ongoing person. robiN korNmaN: Particularly when you get into the Mahayana and start talking about buddhanature, which starts to sound an awful lot like a kind of personhood. ajahN amaro: Yes, indeed. robiN korNmaN: When I talk to a student I find it helpful to assume, if not actually say, “You feel like you exist and I feel like I exist. From the point of view of existence, you have a buddhanature you haven’t discovered and I have a buddhanature I may be beginning to discover.” Then we can move ahead and talk about a vaster ethical system than simply avoiding the negative results of our pre- vious karma. How do you deal with that in the Theravada tradition? How do you deal with the relative truth that there is a kind of self that is, for example, saddled with keeping one’s vows? ajahN amaro: I wouldn’t use the word “saddled” [laughter]. It’s voluntary, after all, at all stages of the game. robiN korNmaN: From my perspective it’s only vol- untary for a moment, and then you’ve created a karmic commitment, the choicelessness we spoke of earlier. NormaN fisher: From the standpoint of the Zen tra- dition, and also in my own experience working with people, I like to point out that we all have an experience of subjectivity. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be so interested in “the self.” There’s an experience people have of being a subject somehow. The prob- The enlightened person is free from karma, but there’s more to it than that. The deep answer is not to be found doctrinally but rather by intuition on the cushion. — Norman Fischer