We experience ourselves as the subject of a world of experiences that are not ourselves. This is the fundamental reality of the world that we experience. When we analyze that world empirically and scientifically we discover an intricate mechanism, quite different from what appears, that “just happens” to be able to be modeled by our mathematical imagination. Numbers are the threshold between reality and experience, between objectivity and subjectivity. Numbers embody the principle of differentiation that is the fundamental characteristic of experience that we experience as self. This whole complex is what the Indic traditions, including Buddhism, regard as essentially illusory. On this basis, they reject the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that they call samsara as illusory. Because it is illusory, it is therefore unreal and therefore there is no question of an “origin” or even a relationship between samsara and reality – samsara is simply a word, a name that we give to a mirage. Unfortunately, this mirage encompasses what we perceive as ourselves and that results in a problem. For if we do not exist, if we are merely a mirage, then what is reality?
Contemporary philosophical nihilism has rejected the problem summarized above as itself illusory. Its answer is that reality is intrinsically unknowable and therefore the question is meaningless. To seek after knowledge that cannot be had is foolish. Instead, we should – note the ethical “should” – fall back on what we can know and make the most of it. Like survivors on a life raft who wake up with no memory of the disaster that led to their being there, we analyze our situation and provision for our future as best we can, rationing – same root as “ratio,” reason – our resources and maximizing our viability, but knowing that in the end there is no hope. We have succeeded at this 10,000 or so year old enterprise better than we ever imagined. The technical revolution that is driving us forward has transformed human existence to such an extent that a significant minority of the human race never come into direct contact with anything fundamental, even the question of their own relationship to being that is the essence of identity. We have created a society in which all thought is restricted to the commonplace, the practical, the economic, and the trivial. Life is defined in terms of “work” and “leisure,” leisure being merely escape into the unconsciousness of the sensual or the stupidity of the religious. Indeed, the sensual has become the religious. We have idealized the sensual to such an extent that we regard sexual love as our highest good and nature as the arbiter of human conduct. We are so immersed in our games and so confident of their rules that we can tolerate books and even movies like Things to Come, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, Anthem, 1984, and The Matrix because “everyone knows” that books are merely “entertainment.” Books and the knowledge they contain are not “real.” They are ephemeral, chimerical, and essentially false, with certain notable exceptions of course, with the books of science at the apex of the pyramid, followed by the corporate ledgers (money, of course, is fundamentally real). The question then becomes, what will it take to wake us up? Or will humanity die in its sleep?
However, to return to our life raft analogy, what if the survivors are not waking up on a life raft at all? What if they are asleep and merely dreaming? Inside the dream, the dream appears perfectly real to the dreamer with its own set of rules and its own lawfulness. The only way to recognize that one is dreaming is if one recognizes a discontinuity within the terms of reference of the dream itself. This is how lucid dreams are generated. In addition, what are dreams anyway? What is their relationship to experience?
Does such a discontinuity exist in our world? Yes, it does, and it lies in the nature of the reflexive self. For when we reflect upon the being of the self, what we find is not what we are told we should find. What we are told we should find is an infinite regression into differentiated experiences and phenomena, for according to that view that is all the self is – an inter-association of experiences ultimately reducible to changes in the electrochemical state of the neurons and synapses of the brain. Consciousness is literally manufactured by the brain. Moreover, of course we do find that. If I reflect upon myself, what first comes to mind are (symbolic representations of) all the experiences that I have had. But when I enquire further, I begin to enquire into the nature of experience, the selfness and otherness of things, and the presence of my body in relation to (what I infer) are other similarly differentiated beings with their own presence, what we refer to loosely as the body. That is all there should be (there is that ethical imperative again). But what I actually do find is a regression into far more interesting phenomena, including those of dreams, imagination, visions, abstractions, concepts, ideas, judgments of various kinds, what appear to be volitions and decisions, and finally – not nothingness, but the abstract self, the ineffable non-reducible quality of reflexive sentience itself as the universal ground and foundation of all of it, different in quality and yet inextricably interwoven with all of these and more, and yet not reducible to them either individually or as a totality. A world far more similar to the world of Buddhist metaphysics than of the contemporary world of insatiable development.
A common mistake of Buddhists is to think that the search for enlightenment is a quest to return to a perfect origin or source, a fundamental reality or truth in relation to which our experience is illusory and therefore something to be transcended. The Tathagata and his Arahants do not “return.” They are “emancipated” from experience. Only the bodhisattva “returns,” but even the return of the bodhisattva is contingent. When all of existence is liberated, then the bodhisattva too will be liberated. The religious, who long for the annihilation of samsara, take this eschatology literally as the ending of illusion, despite the statements of the texts themselves, including the foundational texts of the Pali Canon, that samsara is infinite – a finite samsara is a contradiction in terms, which would require an act of some deity to set in motion – merely begging the question of the deity’s origin, and so on in an infinite regression. Infinity, again. Buddhism emphatically rejects theism in all its guises, seeing clearly the absurdities and contradictions to which it leads. This interpretation of samsara is a contradiction of just this type. The texts reiterate that samsara has no creator and no beginning, but many religious Buddhists have failed to understand the metaphysical implications of this statement, preferring to take refuge in a psychologized and samsara-centric Buddhism that is essentially nihilist.
This self-contradiction comes out in Buddhism in another way. The religious explanation of the arising of the thirst for enlightenment that sets into motion the karma that leads to enlightenment itself, albeit after thousands, millions, or even billions of rebirths, is that it arises spontaneously in response to the essential unsatisfactoriness of experience, characterized as it is by change. Since nothing is stable no object of desire can ever be retained, leading to unhappiness. Sooner or later a being realizes this and formulates an alternative strategy. Such is the arising of a buddha. However, such a doctrine can only be true if samsara is finite, for over infinite time it is certainly true that every being whensoever and wheresoever situate should have already experienced the essential unsatisfactoriness of existence, formulated the intention to awaken, and achieved it. We should therefore all be buddhas! If we are all buddhas, and buddhas by definition are not reborn, samsara should not exist. Clearly religious Buddhism is in error in this detail.
If samsara has no beginning it is infinite, and if it is infinite then it has no end, so the quest of the bodhisattva is a hopeless one. Since his quest is hopeless, then it is not his quest, for a quest cannot have hopelessness as its goal. We are confronted by the problem of teleology, as we are by the fundamental identity of human and universal sentience – the anthropocentric nature of existence.