Transcribing the oral tradition...
Sanghajivini, Newcastle, UK
Viriyalila, FBA Team
Aileen, Shetland Islands
Nagabodhi, London, UK
Suvarnagarbha, Cambridge, UK
Vicki, Seattle, USA
Sangharakshita, Birmingham, UK
Viryaja, Toowoomba, Australia
Isn’t matter the stuff that holds all of these experiences together, and gives them a
common coherence? When you see my shoes at the door, and I see them, and Rover and
a fly see them, we experience them in different ways, granted, but surely it’s the same
thing that we experience.
Well, It’s true that all of us have similar experiences, although yours are more similar to
mine than they are to Rover’s — and who knows what the fly is experiencing? But do we
need ‘matter’ to guarantee this? As I will show later on, the commonality of our
experience can be more satisfactorily explained by other means. What, after all, is this
‘matter’ that we’re so keen to bring in here? It has no qualities that we can point to, apart
from our experience. We might say, ‘You can touch matter, and you can taste it, see it,
hear it and smell it’. But these are all experiences, and experiences are not matter. Where
is the matter apart from experience? If you take away from our idea of matter all those
elements that pertain to experience, what you’re left with is ungraspable, unknowable.
Weird stuff, this matter. And yet somehow it gives us a sense of security. It’s like a teddy
bear we hug in our beds to keep at bay the yawning sense of the insubstantiality of things.
At this stage of the discussion, people often fall back upon their own minds. ‘Come on,’
they sometimes say, pointing to their own heads, ‘are you saying that its all just in here?
That the world I know is just something that happens in the confines of my own mind?’
At first sight, that’s a reasonable question. But the argument we applied to the world of
objects can also be applied to ourselves as perceiving subjects. As David Hume put it:
‘For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I stumble on some
particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or
pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe
anything but the perception.’
Apart from our experiences, where is the ‘self’ that ‘has’ those experiences? Can you
ever, in your experience, locate a self? You can certainly locate further experiences —
any number of them; that I won’t deny. But do you ever experience anything you can call
a self, underlying that experience and owning it? Upon analysis, it turns out that the self
is just as weird as matter. The truth is, they’re both just ideas, inferences we’ve drawn
from experience. Self and matter, subject and object, have no perceptible independent
reality at all.
What we do have is a flow of experience. but this flow does not occur in a fixed,
unchanging subject and it is not produced by a world of fixed, unchanging external
objects. There is only experience.
Now the significance of our attachment to ‘stuff’ — to matter — and to ourselves as
separate, experiencing subjects is not just a question of metaphysical nicety. It goes much
deeper than that. Our attachment to the idea that there is a real world out there — a world
separate from ourselves, containing objects we long for and hope somehow to ‘have’ in
order to shore up our sense of ourselves — is the basis of all our unskilful action. It is the
source of all suffering, the root of all dukkha.
If we can only drop the idea of the intrinsic separation of subject and object, ourselves
and the world, then we will lose our hopeless, painful, yearning to take hold of and cling
to that which we are not. We will, in other words, eliminate dukkha.