Deconstruction East and West

The Death Illusion

 

INTRODUCTION

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Humans tend to regard themselves as supreme by nature, in contrast to what is viewed as a primitive world.  We live with a sense of divinity, assumed to distinguish us from everything else.  People commonly assume that they are at least subtly God-like, marked by what is called consciousness.  A dividing wall is imagined to separate mind from matter, the animate from the inanimate.  Consciousness is our divine self, and death, a fall into lowly materiality.
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The inseparable interrelatedness of people to everything else generally goes unacknowledged.  The world is provides us with things, but we are not of it, hence the extensive environmental disregard.  This dualism also requires that we either accept eternal selfhood or be doomed to oblivion, death, as a descent into a senseless abyss.

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While the notion of human privilege appears to be an advantage, it is our affliction, resulting in an outlook of separation, conflict and fear.  The idea of birth as an independent point of origin and death as a final endpoint is a misconception.  An altogether different understanding of life and death, and of the relationship of consciousness to the world is necessary.~


MIND AND MATTER

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The notion that consciousness marks humans as divinely distinct, can first be challenged by recognizing that consciousness does not independently exist, but is an interrelational function.  What is considered to be conscious, is inseparable from what is not considered to be conscious.
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Here is a brief outline of the relationship.  Sensory perception must involve perceptual objects in order for the perception to occur.  Perception does not exist in itself.  The image, such as that of a tree, is known as consciousness.  Consciousness cannot be separated from sensory perception or from the tree.  They are not ultimately separable.  Thought is like a synthesized interplay of perception and objects.  So, conscious thought is not an independent function, but a dynamic, interdependent mind-body-world activity.

For more on the neurology of consciousness – emptiness teachings link to T. Metzinger article.

Conscious images are not objective impressions of a world out there.  For instance, there are no colors in the world.  The perceptual image of color is activated when different wavelengths of light are converted into images of color within the neural-visual system.  Objects are not the separate entities that they appear to be either.  The impression that they are, involve other interrelated processes that allow an immeasurable quantum-like world to appear as object images.
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A key point is that what is considered to be conscious, depends upon sensory organs such as eyes, ears, touch, etc., that are not regarded as conscious, but as material body parts.  Objects of sensory perception such as the tree, are also not considered consciousness, but matter.  Likewise, the neural brain that is integral to the formation and interaction of perceptual images, is not conscious by definition, but regarded as brain matter.  Therefore, no fundamental distinction can be drawn between mind and matter.  The only existence that subject and object have is through the other.  
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If you look at all that consciousness depends upon and that is not considered conscious and cleared it away, there would be no consciousness essence or function left over.  Since consciousness depends upon conditions that are not regarded as conscious, consciousness cannot be established as having its own independent nature, being or constitution.  Therefore, just as subjects and object are mutually dependent, there cannot ultimately be a distinction made between sentient and insentient either.
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The issue is not to regard consciousness (or any phenomenon) as non-existent, but to recognize that its freestanding appearance is deceptive.  In the same way, a tree appears to be a separate entity and yet what we call a tree cannot be separated from the sun, clouds, rain, oxygen, minerals, and so forth.  The appearance of its inherent separateness is like a mirage.  And as with a tree, it is important to note that given all of the diverse conditions that consciousness relies upon such as sense organs and their perceptual objects, there cannot be one singular consciousness.  Consciousness becomes reified into a unitary essence under the lens of a mechanical reductionism.
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Consciousness is an abstract, conventional name for what is not reducible to a separate entity that is conscious in and of itself.  Nor can matter be reduced to an essence that is inherently material.  One cannot say what mind or matter truly are, because all formations, in both their coarse and subtle appearances, are relational and therefore cannot ultimately be singled out.  Objects appear and function but have no nature of their own.  Regarding consciousness, the straightforward recognition that it cannot manifest apart from a body makes the point that consciousness cannot have its own nature, as does the arising of conscious thought upon reading these printed words.
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Now, previous thoughts conventionally appear as proximal conditions for subsequent thoughts to arise, but this is not the result of an individual continuum with an essence.  A thought does not think in itself.  Thought is a dynamic interplay without establishing one iota of independence that endures as its own entity. The appearance of continuity depends upon a regularity of conditions.  Thinking is not an independent entity or faculty that stands to the side objectively observing and interpreting a world.  There is no such separate consciousness to which anything appears.  Conscious thought is a symbolic description given to an interdependent complex of activity that changes with every relative interaction. There is no substance to be found in its name.
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“Consciouness is a name.  The name too, has no own being.”  Nagarjuna
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This understanding advances the refutation of an inherently existent consciousness and correspondingly, the notion that it is privileged in comparison to what is regarded as matter.  It discredits the idea that consciousness establishes a dividing wall between what is human and everything else.  For as consciousness can be seen to lack a self-essence, it cannot be the identifier of a human self either.
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There is another reason to question the standard view of conscious as a supreme identity.  Consciousness function is limited.  Most mobile organisms are required to anticipate an unpredictable environment.  The formation and manipulation of abstract images allow for the possibility of successful navigation and planning.  The imaginal sense of a distinct past, present and future is an example of this necessity.  Images of consciousness are conventionally designated, functional, and relative.  They are not copies of a reality.
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The vast majority of what goes on in the mind-body-world, including the formation of consciousness, is not by definition, consciously perceived or regulated. Additionally, body functioning such as the immune system, the production of a flower, or the overall coherence of the universe for that matter, does not take place through the use of conscious images.  With this understanding it is not consistent to grant conscious activity supreme status.
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The role of consciousness makes human culture and society possible.  However, on all counts, consciousness is like a cosmic network rather than the activity of an autonomous entity.  These reasonings are not intended to deny or devalue the function of consciousness, but to appreciate its interdependent magnitude and to therefore recognize the “equality of all phenomena.” ¹

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1. Arya Nagarjuna,, Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Tibetan Master Nagarjuna, (Dharma Publishing,1997), Exposition of Bodhicitta, sloka 29
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IMPERMANENCE EVERYWHERE ~

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All form, both coarse as in a tree, and subtle as in thought, depend upon innumerable conditions and are not the fixed entities that they appear to be.  Nothing actually remains the same for an instant.  What is perceived to be an unchanging object is on the contrary, an instantaneous, indivisible movement of disintegration and formation, even though this transience is imperceptible.  It is in this sense that what is called death is also life, as the perpetual transformation of all phenomena.
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Everything arises dependently.  The absence of inherent or independent existence is referred to in Buddhist philosophy as emptiness.  In western philosophical traditions the absence of objects or concepts existing in and of themselves is often referred to as non-essentialism.  It is because nothing exists independently, as its own substance, nature or process, that everything is impermanent.
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For example, fire is believed to exist as a fundamental element.  However, fire is dependent upon and inseparable from countless conditions such as fuel, oxygen, thermal friction and so forth.  Every flame continuously changes because fire depends upon conditions with no existence of its own.  Since fire is not self-maintained it is impermanent.
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When conditions for fire are no longer present, we say the fire died.  Yes, this is understandable, but it is important to see that each instant, the fire is a different fire, not the same fire.  Furthermore, since an appearing fire depends upon conditions that are not considered to be fire, fire lacks its own self nature.  After all, fire does not burn itself.  So fire does not and cannot die as an entity that ever existed in and of itself.
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Let’s try to find fire as an element existing in and of itself. Fuel is not considered fire.  Oxygen is not fire.  Heat is not fire.  Friction is not fire.  If these conditions are cleared away, or even one of them, such as oxygen, there will be no fire left burning.  Therefore, apart from the conditions of fire, there is no fire.  Fire is not an independent element, but an interdependent entity.  It has no essence of its own.  It is in this sense that fire is said to be empty.  The same can be said for a self or subject, consciousness, death, and all phenomena.
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Ultimately speaking, one cannot say what fire is or where is it begins and ends. Its conditions too, are empty.  This is not to say that fire as it appears, does not arise, endure or cease, or that it does not burn, but that the appearance and function of fire is not the product of its own independent movement, nature or being.  There are relative differences between phenomena and processes to recognize.  These differences however, are of appearance, not essence.  All form and all characteristics are dependent and relational in every regard.  In other words, form is an essenceless interrelationship.
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Death is also falsely viewed as an independent process that results in the annihilation of life.  However, if birth and death were independent processes, there would be no relationship between them.  Birth would forever be in the process of being born and death would be dead already, which is nonsensical.  Additionally, if birth had its own independent nature and process, it would have given birth to itself, which requires it to have already existed. And how can something that is dead produce death  Furthermore, it is contradictory to think of death or nonexistence as existing.  Where could nonexistence reside if it did not exist?
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These contradictions can be avoided by recognizing the interdependence of all things and consequently, to see that what arises dependently cannot be inherently created or destroyed.  For no phenomenon is ever its own thing to begin with. Instead, each moment, is an unmarked birth and death in an interdependent and impermanent flow of continuation.
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Therefore, there is not a separate self with its own cemented mind-body continuity that can be overtaken by a force called death.  Thought, feeling, sensation, perception and a body are all vastly interrelational and impermanent, never remaining the same for an instant.  The notion that there exists a separate, permanent self above and beyond a vast web of dependent conditions is a fiction.  Death, which is merely impermanence, has been here all along. It is like the saying that you never step into the same river twice.
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Humans are seen to possess a fundamentally different nature from the rest of the world, but are instead dependent upon it with no human essence left over. Without the conditions of air, water, earth, minerals, plants, the sun, a moon, ad infinitum, neither consciousness nor any human characteristic could appear, including culture, language, human society, and its interrelations.  Everything is interdependent with no individual core or substance to be found, just as with fire. The belief in thingness, mistakes the conceptual image of a thing for a real separate thing, mistakes the concept of death for death, the label of consciousness to be consciousness, the image of a me for a truly existent separate self.
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Using the notion of impermanence, is not to assume it to be an inherently existent entity or process either.  Impermanence is also empty of its own nature and does not involve an autonomous operation or autonomous entities that it moves or operates.  It is the inability to posit independent phenomena and processes that is the meaning of impermanence.
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An understanding of impermanence refutes the idea that separate entities just show up from out of nowhere concretely formed, and then disappear in a final act called death.  Things appear to have a separate location and to independently come and go, as well as function.  However, when these mechanistic impressions are carefully examined, such appearances, activities, and functions are recognized as relative, dependent relationships with no nature or being of their own.  Everything is like a reflection in a mirror, like a movie that appears to contain substantive entities but does not.
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CONCLUSION

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The belief in a dividing wall between life and death, is a great misunderstanding. There is no identifiable location from which things are born, or to which they return and so, there is no place to die.  Nor is there a human species or self who from out of nowhere becomes conscious.  We are of the world.
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There are relative conventional differences between birth and death, loss and gain, mind and matter, the animate and inanimate, that are of consequence. The issue is to note that these are essenceless interrelations rather than self-existent entities.  The understanding of interdependence avoids the extreme views that phenomena must either substantively exist or not exist at all.
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The appreciation that everything is interrelational and reflective is the undoing of the belief in inherent separateness and along with it, conflict and fear.  Under these conditions, the heart opens.  There is the recognition that the autumn leaf is not inherently different from the spring leaf.  The autumn leaf is life, in an essenceless, impermanent flux of causal continuance.  It never was itself, and so the appearance of its ultimate death is an illusion.

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References

Nagarjuna, Arya.  Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Buddhist Master Nagarjuna.  Dharma Publishing, 1997.

Metzinger, Thomas.  The Ego Tunnel – The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self.  New York: Basic Books, 2009.

Nagarjuna, Arya.  The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.  Translation and Commentary by Garfield, Jay L., Oxford University Press, 1995.


8 Responses to “The Death Illusion”

    • Gordon Cornwall

      Susan, your critique of consciousness is very much at the heart of the matter. People have an idea of consciousness that does indeed, make them feel as though they there’s a bit of divine substance in them, and no good can come of it. Consciousness is an attribute of (some) living organisms; it is not a substance. I agree that such ideas saddle us with an “affliction,” and a Hobson’s choice between “eternal selfhood” (not a very attractive idea, when you think about it) and temporary selfhood followed by oblivion.

      “No phenomenon is ever its own thing to begin with.” Temporal boundaries of things are often very unclear. At what point does human life begin? Those who are invested in the idea that there must be such a point often pick conception; but that leaves the suspicion that it is largely a matter of convenience, since conception takes place over a relatively short time. When does a chair begin to exist? When it is fully assembled? Does that include varnish and upholstery? When it is first assembled? (Making a chair by traditional methods may require assembly and disassembly at different stages of production.) No answer can be free from elements of convention. We decide these questions to suit our purposes of discourse.

      “We are of the world.” True, and the world is of us. Our effects, and nothing else, live on after our biological deaths. The same is true BEFORE our biological deaths. Although that is even harder for humans to understand, there is nothing more worthwhile. Susan, your closing paragraph captures the only reward possible: “Under these conditions the heart opens.”

      Reply
  1. Carroll Izard

    This is a lucid and cogent presentation of Middle Way reflection on the nature of consciousness. Co-dependent origination is simply the way things are. – Cal

    Reply

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