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Buddhism As I Understand It

  • You are not your thoughts.
  • The sense that there is a you experiencing your thoughts and perceptions is a kind of thought. That sense is not you.
  • What other people think of as you is a physical body - driven by an assemblage of thoughts and sensations - that behaves in consistent and coherent ways, due to biological factors and habits acquired through your history.
  • No single aspect of that entity is you. No thought taken on its own is you. You are a nebulous collection of space-time paths and there is no “secret self” running the show.
  • There are a set of practices which provide visceral knowledge of the disunity of the self, showing that “you” are the sum of a set of processes that share the same approximate world line.

People sometimes say that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. That’s a little unfair: every religion always contains some philosophy. Buddhism is no different. I choose not to embrace the religious metaphysics1 that often accompany Buddhism, but I don’t need to redefine how anyone else relates to it. There are as many Buddhisms as there are Buddhists2, so I’m content to be pragmatic and cherry-pick those aspects which are compatible with modern cognitive science and philosophical materialism, without denying Buddhism’s status as a religion.

My theoretical perspective has been heavily influenced by David Chapman, Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being, and the commentary from Glenn Wallis in the Modern Library’s The Basic Teachings of the Buddha. I believe that the mind is purely physical and is composed of many neural processes that both cooperate and compete. Buddhist philosophy of mind seems to be both compatible with a materialist view and comes paired with useful practices (primarily meditation) to train awareness and equanimity.

I particularly like Kenneth Folk’s framing of meditation and Buddhist practice as building contemplative fitness. When I’m practicing consistently3, it really does feel like weightlifting for patience. I meditate so that I can be comfortably present with raw reality, accept the disunity of self, and embrace the chaotic interdependence of life.

Therefore, become one with the fire when there is no escaping it.
– Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen.

  1. Reincarnation, for example. ↩︎

  2. Or more! The same is true of Christianity. Does every Christian consistently hold the exact same set of beliefs continuously throughout their lives? I doubt such a thing is possible for anyone. ↩︎

  3. I practice vipassana meditation as taught by Henepola Gunaratana in Mindfulness in Plain English, with some influence from the Vermont Zen Center↩︎