Buddhism, Conceit and The Nature of All Things

Lately, I’ve been playing the classic RPG game Chrono Trigger on my mobile phone, and it’s been a lot of fun to relive this game on a modern platform. I am amazed that this game even fits on a mobile phone, but that shows how much times has changed.

Anyhow, these screenshots are from my favorite part of the game where the players travel in time to an enlightened Ice Age / Atlantis-like civilization. One of the residents of this realm says to the players (as shown in the screenshots above):

The world you see with your eyes may well differ completely from the one I see with me. There are as many different worlds as there are observers. Never assume that only those things which you can see or touch are real.

This is a surprisingly Buddhist message (even if not intended that way). Allow me to explain.

Of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings (i.e. the Dharma) is the concept of no-self called anātman in Sanskrit. Sentient beings from the moment they’re born or conceived, they begin to experience senses, feelings and thoughts in a interdependent phenomena that Buddha calls the Five Skandhas (aggregates). The details aren’t super important, but what matters is that from all these sense experiences, feelings and thoughts, sentient beings reify this into a sense of self, even though it has no permanent substance (i.e. it “has no leg to stand on”).

Because we create this sense of self out of our past experiences, thoughts, etc, it also colors our future thoughts and impressions as well. The experiences and sense of self of a person born in a rural family will differ from a family born in the city, a person born in one country vs. another, a person raised in a large family vs. a small one, a religious family vs. a non-religious one, etc. In short, there are almost as many possible ways to look at the world as there are people because each person is coming with their own personal baggage, and each one assumes their perspective is reality because that’s all they’ve ever known. It’s like a fish who only knows the lake waters they have grown up in, unaware of a much larger ocean, let alone the air above, and space beyond that.

Further, in the end, these perspectives, views, etc are all just a bunch of hot air. They have no substance apart from what is in people’s minds. Hence no-self / anātman.

The Buddha really brings this home when he talked with a wandering ascetic named Vaccha:

“A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata [i.e. a Buddha] has “A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathāgata has done away with. What a Tathāgata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception… such are fabrications… such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathāgata—with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all suppositions, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit—is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”

The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72) translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

So, while we need to rely on our senses and thoughts for practical, day-to-day living, it’s important to take our own thoughts with a grain of salt, and not assume we have a pristine understanding of things. The results may surprise you.

P.S. The venerable Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy really explored this in excruciating detail by mapping the mind, how it takes in new experiences, the many possible feelings one might experience, etc, and how these drive new thoughts based on past experience in a kind of feedback loop which they called “perfuming the seeds [of the mind]”. Reverend Tagawa’s excellent book, translated into English by Professor Charles Muller, Living Yogacara is an excellent overview of the Yogacara school of philosophy as it exists in Japan as the Hossō school. One of my favorite Buddhist books to read.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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