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Buddhist viewpoint on human beings

about spirit and matter in buddhism

Is Buddhism monistic or pluralistic, eternalistic or materialistic?

From an external perspective, Buddhism is misunderstood as exclusively being monistic, pluralistic, eternalistic, or materialistic. However, from an internal perspective, Buddhism appears rather odd.

Depending on the point of view, it seems Buddhism can be monistic, pluralistic, eternalistic, or materialistic. Truly, such is strange. Upon hearing this, those with short tempers would become angry or frustrated and claim that Buddhism is wishy-washy or irresolute. That is not the case. From a philosophical point of view, Buddhism is doctrinally rich and leads to ultimate enlightenment.

1. Materialism

Materialism claims that all reality is materialistic. The universe and all beings are materialistic, or, said more simply, are made up of tangible matter. Even sentient beings’ purest aspects of thought and emotion are based on matter. Without matter, thought and emotion are impossible. The spirit consists of extremely delicate matter that is simply more pure than other matter such sugar, honey, nutrients, nerves,etc.

Materialists often reason that wherever there is not matter, then the spirit or the conscious cannot exist. As a result, the conscious must be derived from matter and is a state of matter. We need not waste our time critiquing such a shallow and partial point of view since everyone can see its absurdity. Also worth mentioning, materialism is an extroverted doctrine, which disregards the rich introverted doctrines that scientists can use to uncover the shortest light rays. Even those materialists who do acknowledge the internal universe simply regard it as another external phenomenon no different from other external objects, even if it is "the most delicate or purest of matter." To create the conscious from matter is difficult, and to think that the conscious believes it to be derived from matter is difficult to accept. How did such a bizarre consciousness ever "know" that it was derived from matter? Also, to state "wherever there is not matter, then the conscious cannot exist" is strange. As if human eyes and ears could sense the separate conscious present. Our eyes and ears can only indirectly sense the conscious through its effect on matter. The conscious is present, but we cannot sense its presence without its effect on matter. For example, there is always an electric current, and sound can be broadcasted over that electric current, but we only know that such sounds exist if we have a radio.

2. Eternalism

Eternalism states that the universe does not really exist, and that all matter does not exist outside of one’s imagination. Only the mind or the conscious truly exists. All else is a figment of the imagination, an illusion created by the mind. Eternalists claim that other than the conscious, nothing else exists: the universe, other people, and even their conscious are not real. Eternalists are like materialists in that they only acknowledge a part of the truth; eternalists intentionally ignore the effects and interactions of external objects and matter on our conscious and thoughts. Our loved ones who live with us also have feelings and thoughts, and simply stated, have a conscious of their own. Anyone can see this even in our most basic of activities. We cannot simply acknowledge our own conscious only.

3. Buddhism and the nature of the Self or soul

Buddhism is neither eternalistic nor materialistic, and it is also not agnostic. Buddhists state that the five aggregates constitute material phenomena and conscious phenomena, and the five aggregates (body, sensation, perception, mental formation, consciousness) are potentials found in Alaya.

All phenomena whether mental or material are those potentials that have arisen or manifested themselves. Before they have arisen, the phenomena are latent or are simply potentials. Potentials arise to become actual phenomena, and actual phenomena degrade or diminish back into future potentials; this cycle continues on never ceasing.

This issue demands thought for those seeking to understand reality. Here the material will simply present the main points of the idea. The potentials are a sort of force that make up the essence of all conscious and material phenomena, phenomena that have actually arisen or are real. All these potentials reside in the realm of Alaya, or, said differently, all these potentials make up the realm of Alaya. As a result, Alaya is the essence of all conscious and material phenomena. All phenomena (either conscious or material) after their expiration return to become a potential for another phenomena. Stated in a way easier to understand, in reality, all phenomena arise and expire in the span of a moment, so all phenomena constantly return to becoming a potential, and potentials are constantly arising to become phenomena. This chain or cycle is so quick that we cannot even recognize the individual moment.

How do these phenomena arise? They arise according to their corresponding interactions and are effected into being. For example: thought, reason, and emotion arise as a result of real physical (or material) stimuli. They (conscious phenomena) depend on the material phenomena as stimuli instead of being created by those material phenomena. With this understanding, we no longer believe that the consciouscreates matter or that matter creates the conscious. The potentials depend on each other to form and arise and because they reside in Alaya. These potentials are the "body" or "form" of causes and effects, meaning they are the primary factors, whereas other phenomena contributing to the realization of the potentials are called "enhancement" factors because they help to enhance the possibility of the potentials becoming realities. Therefore, the main causes of all phenomena are the potentials. However, to call them "causes" is not entirely correct; one must call them the essence of all phenomena. So potentials, with regard to the nature of reality, can be seen as "forces" that make the foundation for both conscious and material phenomena. All potentials and phenomena combined together are called Alaya.

After the body has decayed or expired, lacking the requirements to exist, the conscious phenomena return to the subconscious realm of Alaya. This way there are no stray conscious or spirits present without a body. The functions of the conscious (understanding, reasoning, love and hatred, etc.) cease to exist anymore, so they cannot be called a spirit. Of course, the realm of Alaya is changed, and those potentials that are ready or ripe will arise in a new world, in a new situation, with a new destiny.

Having heard this, there are some people who say that Buddhism is eternalist (conscious-oriented). But this is not the case because there is no Alaya that is independent. Instead, there are many Alaya from many sentient beings. The existence of one Alaya depends on the existence of other Alaya, and the

existence of other Alaya depends on the existence of one Alaya. They all obey the miraculous rule of interbeing and cause and effect. Our governing conscious conveniently resides in our Alaya. Objective reality exists outside of that conscious, but that does not mean that only our Alaya is responsible for all phenomena but rather an infinite number of Alaya combined together. This point we shall see clearly in the doctrine of self-destiny or cumulative communal destiny of the law of karma. Only when Alaya is pure and bright due to the effort of self-improvement does one become an official member of the Realm of Wisdom, and then does it separate from the above community and merge with the vast essence of purity and brightness.

Chánh Thiện

  1. Ngài Ma Ha Ca Diếp - Ma-Ha Ca-Diep
  2. Ngài A Nan Ðà - A Nan Da
  3. Ngài Nguyên Thiều - NguyenThieu
  4. Ngài Liễu Quán - LieuQuan
  5. Bốn Sự Thật Cao Thượng(Tứ Diệu Ðế) - The Four Noble Truths
  6. Mười Hai Nhân Duyên (Thập nhị nhân duyên) - The Principle of The Dependent Origination (Paticca samuppada)
  7. Tám Chánh Ðạo - The Eight-Fold Noble Path
  8. Kinh Mười Ðiều Thiện - The Sutra of The Ten good deeds
  9. Thiện Ác Nghiệp Báo  - Karma
  10. Sáu Ðộ - The Six Perfections
  11. Phép Quán Tưởng và Niệm Phật - The Methods of Meditating on Buddha
  12. Bát Quan Trai - The Eight Retreat Precepts
  13. Phật Giáo Việt Nam Từ Ðời Trần đến Cận Ðại - Buddhism in Vietnam from The Tran Dynasty to Present
  14. Tình Thần Không Chấp Thủ, Tinh Thần Tùy Duyên Bất Biến
  15. Phật Giáo Là Triết Học Hay là Một Tôn Giáo?
  16. Quan Ðiểm Của Phật Giáo Về Con Người - Vấn Ðề Tâm Vật Trong Ðạo Phật -  Buddhist viewpoint On Human Beings. About Spirit and Matter In The Buddhism
  17. Quan Ðiểm Của Phật Giáo Về Vũ Trụ - Vấn Ðề Nguyên Nhân Ðầu Tiên - Buddhism's Viewpoint ON The Universe The First Cause