Buddhists have a tendency to put a heavy emphasis on meditation. They also tend to disparage or dismiss thinking. The only question is why. Is Buddhism intrinsically anti-intellectual?
Much of the human world is filled with social constructs. They are what historian Yuval Harari (author of the book, Sapiens) refers to as “useful fictions” or objects of our collective imagination. Why do we think of paper money as valuable and can be used to purchase real goods and services when the paper itself has little or no value? We may say that paper money’s value is symbolic in nature. It is dependent on our collective trust, or collective imagination and our collective consensus on its value. The same logic can be applied to our notions of “God,” country, corporations and human rights. The “reality” of these things is highly dependent on our collective belief. A corporation, for example, is a “legal fiction.” Its existence will continue even if all its physical assets are gone and all its employees are gone.
It is the same with our ideas of “personhood.” Will I still exist if I get a replacement of my hips, my lungs or my heart? Or, will I still exist if I completely change my political ideology, religion and worldview? The public’s notion of me is that I am a person of certain appearance, group association, beliefs, values and preferences. But all these can be changed and my identify as “Ken” still remains. In other words, the notion of “Ken” is one which is based on certain assumptions of permanence which cannot be justified in reality. “Ken” does not exist except in the public imagination.
Samskara is a very important, yet very poorly understood, concept in Buddhist psychology. It is commonly translated as “formation.” Bhikkhu Thanissaro translates it as mental fabrication, meaning something that is invented by the mind. In this sense, the “self” is a fabrication. “God” is a fabrication. A corporation is a fabrication. And human right is a fabrication. Thanissaro offers the following explanation of this concept:
“The mind has a basic habit, which is to create things. In fact, when the Buddha describes causality.. he says that the power of creation or samskara — the mental tendency to put things together — actually comes prior to our sensory experience. It is because the mind is active, actively putting things together, that it knows things.”(Fabrication, March 2001)
Here lies the problem with thinking. Our thinking, reasoning, etc. are typically based on the assumption that certain concepts (such as time, space, self, identity, motion, causality, …) are valid. But what if they are not? What if they are, just like other things, products of mental fabrication? There is nothing basically wrong with either deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning. But there is a huge problem if some of the basic premises are wrong. If some of the basic assumptions (called axioms) are faulty, the entire system may collapse. This brings us to the value of meditation, which is more about awareness than thinking. Bhikku Thanissaro continues:
“The problem is that most of (the mind’s) activities, most of its creations, come out of ignorance, so the kind of knowledge that comes from those creations can be misleading. For this reason, what you want to do is to back up, to get down close to this process of creation as you can, to see if there’s a way to do it skillfully that leads to knowledge, that leads you to a point that breaks through ignorance. And this means, instead of building up a lot of things, you let things fall apart so you can get down to exactly where these basic forces in the mind are putting things together.”
If the world of thoughts is about construction, the world of meditation is about deconstruction. The two processes are complementary. What does this mean to us? There is no need to be anti-intellectual or anti-science. There is no need to oppose logical or scientific thinking. In fact, the modern cognitive sciences are helping us discover more and more of our hidden assumptions and preconceptions which may not be justified. As a social scientist myself, I’d say that there are alternative routes in discovering the shakiness of our existing knowledge. We can either do it through science or we can do it through meditation. The bottom line is not to abandon knowledge. It is to become aware of the limitations of our knowledge and the possibility of arriving at totally different conclusions via alternative thinking.
Finally, coming back to the notion of Samskara. The opening of the Dhammapada says:
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.
Perhaps this is what Buddha means. Much, if not all, of our phenomenal world is created by the mind. Mind is the creator of things. The mind creates the myriad things based on its fundamental “ignorance.” There is no need to abandon the world. Just see it as if it is all maya (illusion). Live in the world. Don’t abandon it. But the world should not be taken too seriously. Let us be a little playful. Vedic wisdom teaches that the phenomenal world is lila (divine play). We need to strike a balance between naïve realism and epistemological nihilism. This is the Middle Path. Use the mind to think. But also use mindfulness to discover potential flaws in our conceptions and thinking. Thinking and meditation are like the yang and yin in life. They are complementary and can coexist peacefully in a wholesome life.