Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
In my quest to go postmetaphysical a few of my several concerns follow: 1) How to interpret states and stages of consciousness; 2) How to practice secular meditation free from metaphysical baggage; and 3) How to share the former in a contemporary, western community with a focus on some form of liberation, or at least alleviation, of human suffering. Stephen Batchelor has been invaluable in this quest. (See our prior discussion of him here.) One of his essays is instructive along these lines, "The agnostic Buddhist: a secular vision of dharma practice." Here are a few select excerpts:
It is important to distinguish between those questions that are addressed by the core teachings of the Buddha, and those which are not really of central concern. I was listening on the radio not long ago in England to a discussion about religious belief. All of the participants were engaged in a heated discussion about the possibility of miracles. It is generally assumed that being a religious person entails believing certain things about the nature of oneself and reality in general that are beyond the reach of reason and empirical verification. What happened before birth, what will happen after death, the nature of the soul and its relation to the body: these are first and foremost religious questions. And the Buddha was not interested in them. But if we look at Buddhism historically, we'll see that it has continuously tended to lose this agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalised as a religion, with all of the usual dogmatic belief systems that religions tend to have. So, ironically, if you were to go to many Asian countries today, you would find that the monks and priests who control the institutional bodies of Buddhism would have quite clear views on whether the world is eternal or not, what happens to the Buddha after death, the status of the mind in relation to the body, and so on.
So, what would an agnostic Buddhist be like today? How would we even start to think about such a stance? Firstly, I would suggest that an agnostic Buddhist would not regard the Dharma or the teachings of the Buddha as a source which would provide answers to questions of where we are going, where we are coming from, what is the nature of the universe, and so on. In this sense, an agnostic Buddhist would not be a believer with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena and in this sense would not be religious. I've recently started saying to myself: "I'm not a religious person," and finding that to be strangely liberating. You don't have to be a religious [or spiritual] person in order to practice the Dharma.
Secondly, an agnostic Buddhist would not look to the Dharma for metaphors of consolation. This is another great trait of religions: they provide consolation in the face of birth and death; they offer images of a better afterlife; they offer the kind of security that can be achieved through an act of faith. I'm not interested in that. The Buddha's teachings are confrontative; they're about truth-telling, not about painting some pretty picture of life elsewhere. They're saying: "Look, existence is painful." This is what is distinctive about the Buddhist attitude: it starts not from the promise of salvation, but from valuing that sense of existential anguish we tend either to ignore, deny or avoid through distractions.
"Emptiness" is a singularly unappetising term. I don't think it was ever meant to be attractive. Herbert Guenther once translated it as "the open dimension of being," which sounds a lot more appealing than "emptiness." "Transparency" was a term I played with for a while, which also makes emptiness sound more palatable. Yet we have to remember that even two thousand years ago Nagarjuna was having to defend himself against the nihilistic implications of emptiness. Many of the chapters in his philosophical works start with someone objecting: "This emptiness is a terrible idea. It undermines all grounds for morality. It undermines everything the Buddha was speaking about." Clearly the word did not have a positive ring back then either. I suspect that it might have been used quite consciously as an unappealing term, which cuts through the whole fantasy of consolation that one might expect a religion to provide. Perhaps we need to recover this cutting-edge of emptiness, its unappealing aspect.
I like to think of the Buddha's awakening under the Bodhi tree not as some kind of transcendental absorption, but as a moment of total shock. Neils Bohr once said about quantum mechanics: "If you're not shocked by quantum theory, then you don't understand it." I think we could say the same about emptiness: If you're not shocked by emptiness, then you haven't understood it.
Now, whether we follow the Indo-Tibetan analytical approach or the Zen approach of asking a koan like "What is this?," such meditative inquiry leads to a mind that becomes more still and clear. But paradoxically this does not mean that things then become more clear-cut, that you reach some final understanding of who you are or of what makes the universe tick. Because, at the same time as such things become more vivid and clear, they also become more baffling. One encounters, as it were, the sheer mystery of things. A deep agnosticism would be one founded on this kind of unknowing: the acknowledgement that, in terms of what life really is, I really do not know. And in that unknowing there is already a quality of questioning, of perplexity. And as that perplexity becomes stabilised through meditation, one enters increasingly into a world that is mysterious, magical in a sense, and not containable by narrow ideas and concepts.
But this is not where the practice ends. This is only half the project. What we also discover in this open space, in this mysterious experience of non-self, are the wellsprings of creativity and imagination.... The process of articulating the Dharma goes on and on according to the needs of the different historical situations that it encounters. We could read the whole history of Buddhism, from the moment of the Buddha's awakening until now, as a process of seeking to imagine a way to respond both wisely and compassionately to the situation at hand.
All of us have experiences of what it means to imagine and create something. It struck me very forcibly one day…that preparing myself to put into words what had not yet been put into words was to enter a very similar frame of mind to that of sitting on a cushion in a zendo, asking: "What is this?" The creative process seemed very comparable to the meditative process. Awakening is only complete -- in the same way that a work of art is only complete -- when it finds an expression, a form, that translates that experience in a way that makes it accessible to others. That again is the balance between wisdom and compassion. The creative process of expressing the Dharma is not just a question of duplicating in words something etched somewhere in the privacy of my soul. The living process of understanding is formed through the encounter with another person, with the world. You've probably all had the experience of someone coming to you in a state of distress and blurting out their problems, and you suddenly find yourself saying things that you were quite unaware you knew. The process of awakening is one of valuing and connecting with that capacity to respond in authentic ways to the suffering of others. The imagination is the bridge between contemplative experience and the anguish of the world. By valuing imagination, we value the capacity of each person, each community, to imagine and create themselves anew.
In the contemporary world Buddhism encounters a culture that places a positive value on the power of each individual's creativity and imagination. It's interesting that in most Buddhist traditions these things are not strongly encouraged, or, if they are, it's usually only within highly formalised settings. I like to think of Dharma practice today as venturing into a world of imagination, one in which each individual, each community, seeks to express and to articulate their vision in terms of the particular needs of their own situation. Buddhism would then become less and less the preserve of an institution, and more and more an experience that is owned by ordinary people in ordinary communities.
Of course, there are dangers here. But these are hardly new. Historically, Buddhism has always had to find ways of responding effectively to the danger of becoming too acculturated, of becoming too absorbed into the assumptions of the host culture. Certainly such a danger exists here in the West: Buddhism might, for example, tend to become a kind of souped-up psychotherapy. But there's the equal danger of Buddhism holding on too fiercely to its Asian identity and remaining a marginal interest amongst a few eccentrics. Somehow we have to find a middle way between these two poles, and this is a challenge which is not going to be worked out by academics or Buddhist scholars; it's a challenge that each of us is asked to meet in our own practice from day to day.
From Reynolds (aka Vajranatha) on Dzogchen:
"Our conscious thought process is changing from moment to moment; it is as fleeting as reflections seen on the surface of the water. But the Nature of Mind is outside and beyond time and conditioning.
"Everything is part of a single continuous reality.
"Level 0 or what is called in Buddhist terminology Shunyata. This term literally means 'emptiness.' But this does not mean just nothingness or mere absence. Rather, it means the pure potentiality for all possible manifestations....this level is referred to as the Nature of Mind.... Level 0 is accessed directly through Dzogchen practice."
In this discussion Reynolds goes into the history of Dzogchen. He reiterates: "These teachings reveal in one's immediate experience the Primordial State (ye gzhi) of the individual, that is to say, the individual's inherent Buddha-nature or Bodhichitta, which is beyond all time and conditioning and conceptual limitations."
He notes that both traditions, Nyingma and Bonpo, assert that Dzogchen did not originate in Tibet but rather central Asia, and "was brought to Central Tibet sometime before the seventh century from the previously independent country of Zhang-zhung, west of Tibet, and more remotely from Tazik (stag-gzig) or Iranian speaking Central Asia to the northwest." Early Bon teachings came not from Buddha but from Shenrab Miwoche, based on the Causal Ways which were "considered to be dualistic in their philosophical view."
The Nyingma "tradition claims that it originally came from the mysterious country of Uddiyana to the northwest of India. Therefore, it appears most likely that it is to the Indo-Tibetan borderlands of the northwest that we should look for the origins of Dzogchen.... Zhang-zhung had extensive contacts with the Buddhist cultures that flourished around it in Central Asia and in the Indo-Tibetan borderlands. Just to the west of Zhang-zhung there once existed the vast Kushana empire which was Buddhist in its religious culture. It was an area in which Indian Buddhism interacted with various strands of Iranian religion-- Zoroastrian, Zurvanist, Mithraist, Manichean, as well as Indian Shaivism and Nestorian Christianity.... All this suggests that certain trends within Yungdrung Bon...actually do go back to a kind of syncretistic Indo-Iranian Buddhism that once flourished in the independent kingdom of Zhang-zhung."
That latter of which were also dualistic in their philosophical view. Hence this was not the Indian Buddhism of Nagarjuna but rather a system that tried to include the Indian Mahayana by adding and mixing it with these other, Indo-Iranian Buddhist views. A distinctive brew for sure, but questionable as to its strictly Nagarjunan interpretation, about which Tsongkhpa was wont to wax poetic and polemic.
Klein's Unbounded Wholeness has some interesting references to, and comparisons with, Derrida that might be relevant. The book has been uploaded to Slideshare and you can also do a search for "Derrida" in the footnotes on the main webpage.
Footnote 123 discusses the excluded middle and how formal (binary) logic cannot apprehend it, given the fuzzy boundaries of objects (suobjects). This has been one of my pet projects, as you know. Klein correctly notes this similarity with Derrida, as have I on numerous occasions. Where Klein is wrong is that deconstruction indeed also offers "a place to rest," but instead of an objectless subject perhaps a subjectless object a la OOO? The former indeed is more suggestive of this timeless, conditionless, transcendent Subject that directly experiences an unbounded wholeness in all its presence. In her words, it "simply knows itself and, in the process, all things that are immutably related to it." She's right that the latter is at odds with Derrida. And the topic of my last several posts on rangtong/shentong.
The polar relation of the options of either a subjectless object or an objectless subject suggests, to me, that both must somehow be true (or, rather, that both must be "taken together"). I'm not sure where to go with that, though, post-metaphysically. But trying to land, finally, in either one place or another seems, to me, like it would be a decidedly unintegral reduction. What do you think?
Only if one interprets the phrases formally. I expanded on what I meant by the phrase "objectless subject" in that it seems to refer to a transcendent Subject a la Wilber's causal Witness, for example. OOO's "subjectless object," on the other hand, doesn't exclude the subject but rather excludes the totalizing and onto-theologoical present in any suobject. Klein and Bryant (and pOOOntong) attempt a nondual ontology that "takes together" foundational opposition, but in very different ways. And if we are to go post-metaphysical then the onto-theological is not to be included or balanced but rather replaced. Recall the "ladder, climber, view" thread.
Yes, what I meant by where to go with that, post-metaphysically, was whether the positing (along with a subjectless object) an objectless subject (where both might be alternative views of "suobject") could be sustained without slipping into metaphysics (in the ontotheological sense). I think Guenther's Heideggerian reading of Dzogchen could probably help here, so I will look there. Also, I haven't read this yet, but this thesis, which was supervised by Klein, looks relevant.
Interesting that you should mention Guenther's reading of Heidegger. In my last posts of the OOO thread Bryant distinguishes himself from Harman's reading of Heidegger, finding in his withdrawn some of the same criticisms we're seeing here. Bryant favors Deleuze, Luhmann and Derrida with his withdrawn. I've even pointed out some similarities with Levin's reading of Heidegger (and Dzogchen), and I agree with a lot in Levin but contend this point.
The reason I mentioned Guenther is because several reviews of his work mention ontotheology and contrast his views with ontotheology. However, I haven't been able to find accessible copies of these reviews online. My distance, in time and recollection, from his work is too great at this point for me to say whether his differentiation from ontotheology is adequate from a postmeta POV, so this remains something for me to explore when I can find the time.
Concerning Levin, especially his journal from his Dzogchen retreat, I believe you read something into it that wasn't there (or, rather, that I do not think necessarily follows from his use of such language, which would indeed be inconsistent with everything else he develops and argues in his work).
Concerning Levin...I believe you read something into it that wasn't there.
Maybe so. We've been around this block several times where even the big dog (dong) Dzogchen adherents deny the atman-like nature of rigpa, often with quite sophisticated arguments. Still the likes of Garfield, Batchelor and Thakchoe (and that insignificant pOOOntongpa theurj) aren't buying. ;)
Recall this post from the "ladder, climber view" thread, an excerpt below:
"Even though Wilber doesn’t discuss the transitional nature of worldviews in IS he does spend a lot of time explaining his postmetaphysical worldview, which replaces the metaphysical. For example, his entire critique of the myth of the given is about this replacement. See for example Chapter 8, 'Monological Imperialism and the myth of the given.' Postmetaphysics doesn’t include or integrate metaphysics; it is diametrically opposed to and replaces it."
What's interesting about this though is, as I've shown in this thread and elsewhere, that he only applies postmetaphysics to the relative realm, since the absolute realm is not only immune from such concerns but maintains a metaphysical causal reality directly experienced through nirvikalpa meditation. As also noted above, Wilber gets this from Vedanta and Vedanta-influenced (and Iranian-influenced) Vajrayana, which maintains this duality between the relative and the absolute. Wilber didn't come up with this stuff; as kela has shown a lot of it comes right out of Adi Da's mouth. It doesn't matter that Wilber or these traditions specifically deny such a duality with their nondual "integration"; the duality is still there despite the protestations.
It really doesn't have to do with your lack of ability in communicating the Dzogchen position Balder. This is an ages old argument coming from the big dongs from all sides and there is no resolution. We can though try to discern which view(s) are more postmetaphysical, which doesn't necessarily eliminate metaphysics as ontology but does eliminate metaphysics as ontotheology. The remnants of the latter are still in kennilingus, even though postmetaphysics are there too. And the specifics as to which is which I have long elucidated in this forum.
On p. 4 of this thread I discussed that section of IS where Wilber discussed Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche on how conceptual mind was a necessary condition of meditative experience, with Wilber summing it up thus: "Meditative experience per se--that simply does not exist." Along these lines I found this paper from Sonam Thakchoe on Scribd, "Transcendental Knowledge in Tibetan Madhyamika Epistemology." I used his book The Two Truths Debate extensively in this and the predecessor threads. While I mostly agreed with Thakchoe's book presentation of Tsongkhapa against Gorampa, I also said that I still didn't buy the former's adherence to a strictly nonconceptual realization of ultimate truth. Nevertheless, this paper looks interesting. A few introductory excerpts:
"Tsongkhapa...argues that language can partly express ultimate truth, although not entirely, and that thought has some access to ultimate truth, although not fully. In this respect, he is able to advance the view that ultimate truth can be an object of knowledge even with respect to the conceptual mind. In contrast, Gorampa...argues that language is utterly incapable of expressing ultimate truth, and that thought is utterly incapable of knowing ultimate truth. In so doing he is able to advance the view that ultimate truth is not an object of knowledge with respect to the conceptual mind at all."
"Tsongkhapa and Gorampa both maintain the position that ultimate truth is an object of knowledge at least in as much as it is accessible to 'transcendental wisdom’—also referred to as ‘non-conceptual wisdom,' or as ‘wisdom of the arya’s meditative equipoise.' As matter of fact, this is one of the few areas where the Tibetan Prasangika Madhyamikas...generally agree."