Eastern Mind, Western Mind

There is a difference between Eastern mind and Western mind and it is the same as the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning is defined as a “reasoning process in which the conclusion logically follows from the premises, and in which the conclusion has to be true if the premises are true. In inductive reasoning, on the contrary, there is no logical movement from premises to conclusion. The premises constitute good reasons for accepting the conclusion.” (csun.edu).

By the Western standard of reasoning much of Eastern philosophy is illogical because it strings together incoherent, irrelevant and unconnected thought to form conclusions, whereas we use what we consider to be logical thought. However, that thoughts are logical is not proof of their truth, and conversely, because something is illogical is not proof of falseness.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to approach an Eastern philosophy like Buddhism purely from a Western perspective. We are too analytical and you can’t get Buddha-dharma from analysis and study alone. This is a philosophy based on experience, specifically the meditative experience. What we gain intuitively from that and then translate into our daily lives is the prime point, and the philosophy, all the doctrine and concepts and terms, are just there as support.

That’s bad news to those, myself included, who have a tendency to philosophize first and practice second. But mindfulness practice is about moving away from the kind of thinking that prevents us from having a direct experience of reality as it truly is. To be frank, from the Buddhist point of view, thinking gets in the way. That’s why there are teachings about “no-thought” and admonitions about putting aside thought construction, and embracing the emptiness of mind.

Pure thought just is. It does not require proof nor does it, as pure thought, provide proof of anything, except that there is mental activity. But once we move away and start with conceptual thought, then it’s all about construction and fiddling around with the building blocks of appearance, symbols, meanings, referents, language, semantics, and so on. None of which zeros in on the kind of direct experience that Buddhism is ultimately concerned with.

Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation based on self-observation and introspection. It is interesting to note that neither observation nor introspection is thought. Actually, the two words are essentially the same as introspection is only the observation of subjective mental properties. Thought may lead a person to become aware of a particular thing, yet that awareness is not a module of thought, and cognition is the result of mere observation.

This is not to say that analytical or critical thinking should be discarded. On the contrary, it is encouraged, but it requires balance. There should be recognition that in the end the subject is beyond analysis and thinking. It’s a fine line. Doubt is natural, especially in the beginning years of one’s practice. However, it can easily turn into skepticism. A doubter is open to the possibility that the opposite of what he or she believes is true. A skeptic, on the other hand, can be a person who habitually doubts, indicating a narrower frame of mind. What was once healthy, then becomes unhealthy.

I’m also not suggesting that the Eastern approach is perfect and could not benefit from some Western influence. Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that Buddhism sprang from an Eastern mind and for us to understand it in any meaningful way requires that we be open to this different mode of thought.

Turn off your mind, relax
and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”


The Nature of the Mind

Ole Nydhal is from Denmark. He’s a teacher  in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Also the founder of  a worldwide lay organization, The Diamond Way. I’ve attended a few of his talks and have spoken with him, briefly, a couple of times. I like his informal teaching style and liberal attitude.

I know he’s the subject of a few controversies, but I’m too far away from them to have any opinions. The first time I attended one of his talks, he just walked into the room, wearing a plain white t-shirt and faded blue jeans, hopped onto the edge of a table and started talking. No pomp and circumstance, no fuss, no muss. He’s a Lama and that’s supposed to be a big lofty deal, right? When I spoke with him afterward he seemed to be a pretty ordinary, down-to-earth guy. That told me a lot.

Actually, being a lama is not really a big deal. It only means teacher.

I don’t remember where I culled this from, but it seemed like a natural segue from yesterdays post. Here is Lama Ole Nydahl talking about the nature of the mind:

There are two kinds of wisdom: that which concerns the things happening in the mind, and the kind which knows the mind itself. The first we learn in schools and universities. It enables us to have interesting jobs, earn good money, drive fast cars and die with more debt than our neighbor. It is very fine, but when they put us in the grave, all benefit is gone. This wisdom is limited to things that we cannot take with us.

Insight into the nature of the mind, on the other hand, can never be lost. Mind is open, clear and limitless like space – it has never been born and can never die. For that reason, whichever of its aspects we realize, they are of a permanent nature and will benefit us from life to life.

Mind in its true nature is open, clear, and unlimited. When it recognizes its space-like nature, all fear is lost. Knowing that our essence cannot be destroyed, complete security arises, a resting in oneself. The important insight here is that we are neither the body, which gets old, gets sick and dies, nor the thoughts, which come and go. What looks through our eyes and listens trough our ears right now is radiant space. It is beyond coming and going, birth and death.

Wisdom – the enlightening kind pointing to the mind’s timeless nature – also manifests as our true nature. It shines forth naturally when the veils of disturbing emotions and stiff ideas have been removed. Experiencing things both as they truly are and as they appear, one can benefit countless beings.

Photo: Ginger Neumann