12 April 2015

Conditioned Existence

Fire Eater
Buddhism says that all existence is ‘conditioned’ – it is all conditional on other conditions. Like the theory of relativity, the theory of conditioning allows no absolutes. I am not a Buddhist. It would make no sense to be one, because belief is a form of conditioning. Buddhism is a self-solving metaphilosophical riddle designed to break minds free of all forms of indoctrination.

It also says that conditioned existence is suffering (dukkha). As all existence is conditioned, then, all existence is suffering. How can that be? We seem to know when we are suffering as opposed to happy or joyful. But perhaps we don’t know. Even when feeling full of joy, we don’t know the scope of joy, so we don’t know if we are at the suffering end or the joy end of the joy spectrum. And no such spectrum exists.

The Buddha is often depicted with a smile on his face, because he has solved the riddle. He gets the joke and can’t help smiling about it. This might seem like a self-satisfied way to behave, but he has sidestepped that accusation by becoming soulless (anatta), and so has no self to be satisfied about.

Constant chronic pain is a brutal form of conditioning. A person suffering in this way cannot describe to a pain-free person what her existence is like. When asked to describe her pain, she under-reports it. The chronic pain sufferer lives in a parallel universe. Her universe – a hell universe – is like our own but fuzzier and harder to pay attention to; sometimes, little exists of it but the parts causing perception and maintenance of agony. She may like Buddhism, and may understand fully that her pain is conditioned. But that does not help her much, because the conditioned path from her pain universe through the ‘normal’ universe to enlightenment is on fire.

The universe of depression is fuzzy too; and neutron-star heavy. Depression-sufferers are often highly-intelligent people who know much about the science of their condition. Nevertheless, this knowledge only helps the depressive when he has a good day. Then, he can rationalise his bleak moods and see them as neurochemical conditioning. On days where his mood warps to its dark pole, rationality provides no solace. That is because he is just as rational on his bad days. He sees his life for what it is, and he is correct, just as he is correct on his good days. The trick would be to find a way of making the correctness of his analyses matter less to him, and indeed of making certain forms of self-analysis less important to him. This trick is only obvious and funny on his good days. On his bad, it is a sickening conundrum that makes him question the worth of continuing to exist.

Buddhist texts often refer to the arising of conditioning – it’s genesis. The principle of ‘Conditioned Genesis’ is encapsulated in four lines:
When this is, that is;
This arising, that arises;
When this is not, that is not;
This ceasing, that ceases.
From this principle is drawn the idea that if we understand the arising and ceasing of our own thoughts, we will be able to observe them coming and going in a more detached way, and so we will set less store by them. Of course, conditioned genesis does not just apply to thoughts. In an entropic universe, it applies to everything that arises. In a non-entropic universe – one with no arrow of time – nothing would arise; because of temporal conditioning, we cannot imagine a universe like this . In a temporal universe with no life, arising would happen but nothing would notice.

It’s hard to let go. The principle of conditioned genesis seems to turn our lives into a meaningless bunch of impermanent arisings and ceasings. That is a reasonable analysis. So far, what has arisen in most human brains is an inclination to ascribe meaning to things. Some are ‘meaning junkies’ casting around for meaning in every perception that happens to arise in them. According to one dramatic Buddhist teaching, the ‘ Fire Sermon’, those people are ‘burning’ with desire for meaning. In fact, this teaching states that everything is burning, and it goes on to list how all our senses are on fire. Again, this is about conditioning. What we take in through our ‘burning’ sensoria will burn within us unless we can understand and stand back from our always-conditioned perceptions.

Perhaps you can see how the discipline required to free yourself from conditioning is the opposite of spirituality.