“(We are) incapable of certain knowledge or absolute ignorance. We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro. Whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and make fast, it shifts and leaves us behind. If we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us. Nothing stands still for us. This is our natural state and yet the state most contrary to our inclinations. We burn with desire to find a firm footing, an ultimate, lasting base on which to build a tower rising up to infinity, but our whole foundation cracks.”
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The opening lines of the Dhammapada, the collected sayings of the Buddha, read:
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart… Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.
Speaking and acting are the two ways one uses one’s mind to draw trouble or happiness from the world. This fits with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, who said that when we speak, our words are our thoughts, with no separation between speaking and thinking. The same applies to acts. Perhaps all thinking is rooted in speaking and acting. Perhaps picturing something in the head is rooted in the experience of looking, moving one’s eyes, head, neck and body such that a thing comes into view.
Descartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am”. Both Buddha and Descartes reason that if there is thinking, then there is a thinker, but they see this relationship in opposite ways.
For Buddha, the thinking is the coming into existence of the thinker, such that there is no thinker without thought making it so. The thinking causes the thinker to be a particular thing.
For Descartes, the thinking is evidence of the thinker, leading to the conclusion that there exists a thinker prior to and independent of the thinking.