March 20, 2010

Buddhist Perspective on Life and Communication

By Cheon, Young-Cheol

Buddhism was formed in the sixth century B.C. in India. It reached China in the first century A.D. and Korea in the fourth century A.D.

1. The Principle of Dependent Arising

According to the Buddhist worldview, humans and other living beings are linked to each other. All things in the universe do not exist in isolation but exists co-dependently.

The concept of the principle of dependent arising (‘Pratiyasamutpada’ in Sanskrit) is the central doctrine of Buddhism to understand the Buddhist view of the world. The principle of dependent arising is usually referred to as the interdependence or interrelationship among all beings (Bae Sang-hwan, 2006: 767). Thus, according to the principle of dependent arising, humans cannot be seen as separated from nature. In other words, all life forms are closely correlated as an organic whole (Bae Sang-hwan, 2006: 781).

In early Buddhism, the meaning of the principle of dependent arising is following the law of coexistence such as ‘this exists because that exists, because this generates, that generates.’ Because of this mutual relationship, Buddhism emphasizes the importance of harmony and mutualism rather than promoting competitions and disputes (Bae Sang-hwan, 2006: 768).

The traditional understanding of the world is mostly a linear casual pattern for cause and effect. It sees the relationship between cause and effect as a one-way relationship among substances. But Buddha sees the world as reciprocal causal patterns which interact (Silva, 1998: 40). Buddha sees that everything exists co-dependently like a network. There is an endless changing process in a relationship of cause and effect. Buddha, thus, sees substance as empty and relationship as real.

The Buddhist view of the world as a network is similar to Fritjof Capra’s ‘Systems Thinking’. According to Capra, there are no parts at all. What we call a part is just a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships (Capra, 1997: 37). He contends, ‘nature is seen as an interconnected web of relationships’. For instance, when we draw a picture of tree, we usually draw leaves, branches and a trunk. But the roots of the tree are interconnected and form a dense underground network in a forest. In other words, what we call a ‘tree’ is a network of relationships among leaves, twigs, branches, and a trunk (Capra, 1997: 40).

2. Consciousnesses-Only Theory

Consciousness-only (‘Vijnanavada’ in Sanskrit) is a theory that all existence is nothing but consciousness. It notes that nothing lies outside of the mind. This theory is closely related to this concept of the principle of dependent arising. The entire cosmos is interdependent or interrelated based on the ground-consciousness of the eight consciousnesses. In other words, all beings, such as humans, animals, plants, or inanimate beings, are under same foundation of the ground-consciousness. This commonness of all beings, based on the ground-consciousness, says that all existences in the world are a oneness.

The Consciousness-only theory notes that we can communicate with the eight consciousnesses: 1) eye-consciousness, 2) ear-consciousness, 3) nose-consciousness, 4) tongue-consciousness, 5) body-consciousness, 6) mental-consciousness, 7) the afflicted mind-consciousness, and 8) ground-consciousness (Rinpoche, 1998: 11, 12).

The first five consciousnesses are the sensate consciousnesses. They are the basic consciousnesses for human senses such as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and tactile feeling. Human beings can communicate to the world through these five sensory consciousnesses.

The sixth consciousness is the substance of the mind. The seventh consciousness acts as a bridge between the eighth consciousness and the first six consciousnesses. It contains the sense of self, of ego individuality, with which it defiles the communication to the first six consciousnesses.

The eighth consciousness is the most important consciousness. It is called the storehouse, because it stores all information transmitted to it by the seventh. Besides, the eighth consciousness is called the ground or foundation (‘alaya’ in Sanskrit) consciousness. The seven prior consciousnesses are based and founded upon the eighth.

According to the Consciousness-only theory, human being’s knowing exists as a thing in which absolute nothingness contains something caused by depending upon others. For instance, we say that eyes see, but it's not actually the eyes themselves that see. It is the eye consciousness which sees. Then, where does the eye consciousness come from? The Consciousness-only theory notes that it is from the mind. The same is for all the other consciousnesses as well.

In terms of language, it is the ground for human beings’ understanding their own world. Language is a way of communication to the world with the first five sensate consciousnesses. But the Consciousness-only theory argues that language is not the same as the world because of its limits.

In addition, the Consciousness-only theory notes that there are other ways of communication to the world through the seventh and the eight consciousnesses. Thus, instead of language, the Consciousness-only theory suggests nonverbal meditation to reach the truth and genuine communication.

3.Nondependence on Language

The attitude on language of Buddhism is similar to Taoism. Buddhism also notes the limits of language - that is, language cannot capture the truth. Buddhism has the concept of ‘Nondependence on Language’ which means ‘cannot express with language.’

According to the Buddhist view of language, language has no essence in itself. Buddhism, thus, focuses on signified of Semiotics. It notes the genuine signified cannot be captured through language as signifier.

Since the limits of language, Buddhism has the concept of ‘Outer Doctrine Separate Communication’. It means that communicating from one mind to another mind to complement the limits of written or spoken languages. In other words, while the inner doctrine is communication with language, the outer doctrine is communication with mind to mind.

In short, the concept of ‘Nondependence on Language’ in Buddhism is not the negation of language, but the critique. It emphasizes mind-to-mind communication beyond the limits of language.

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