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 p. 138 of TKTME:
"Since ‘seeing ultimate truth by way of not seeing’ also means ‘transcending of conceptual elaboration’, the distinctions between Tsongkhapa’s and Gorampa’s positions regarding the way in which ultimate truth is realised can be further articulated by considering the criterion that determines the ‘transcendence of conceptual elaboration’. At issue here are a number of questions including the question whether the transcendence of conceptual elaboration calls for a total obliteration of conceptual categories?—Is there perhaps a way of transcending conceptual elaborations without actually eliminating them?"
More from the above source:
"On the view espoused by Tsongkhapa, ultimate wisdom (non-conceptual wisdom or ultimately valid cognition) is described as ‘transcendental wisdom’ in the sense that it is directed to the transcendental sphere —towards supramundane or unconditioned nirvana—but it is nevertheless mundane in terms of its scope and its nature. Transcendental wisdom still operates entirely within the range of the conditioned world—it is itself dependently arisen and does not imply a shift to a metaphysically unconditioned sphere. Only reality as it is given within their own ﬁve aggregates is accessible to the meditator and is knowable directly through their personal experience.... It is crucial for Tsongkhapa to emphasise the coordination between transcendental and empirical wisdom, and therefore also the ontological unity between samsara and nirvana, since it is on this basis that Tsongkhapa argues that transcendental knowledge is qualitatively equivalent to the knowledge of phenomena as dependently arisen.... In spite of the fact that wisdom destroys the mental tendencies for the proliferation of prapanca, such wisdom nevertheless leaves the categories of prapanca intact....Once transcendental knowledge is achieved,the meditator still makes use of dualities in respect of certain practicalities—to distinguish between, for instance, skilful and unskilful action, afﬂictions and non-afﬂictions—and yet the habitual tendency to proliferation of prapanca ceases since the meditator has become aware of the fact that such dualities are part of ongoing processes, rather than inherently persisting discrete entities.... It is Tsongkhapa’s contrasting emphasis on the unity of the two truths that is the basis for his insistence on the merely epistemic and psychological character of the transcendence associated with ultimate truth and transcendental wisdom" (144-6).
I am reminded of this post on Bryant from the OOO thread:
Bryant's blog post on "the affective life of philosophy" touches on some themes in recent discussions. A few snips:
"[There] are felt differences, differences that can only...be sensed, and that cannot be inscribed discursively in a concept.... It was features like this that led Kant to claim that there must be a transcendental aesthetic, to claim that the aesthetic is irreducible to the conceptual, or that there is a domain of differences that are outside the conceptual and that must be lived to be known.
"In this spirit, it is perhaps the case that there is an affective dimension to every philosophy. Philosophy, as the invention of concepts, is always populated by a discursive or a conceptual field; yet perhaps there is also an affective field, a field of affective or sensible volumes, that haunt every philosophy as well. Is there maybe a way there is a dimension of sensible volumes in philosophy that can only be felt? These volumes of affect would be intertwined with the concepts that populate a philosophy, but would not themselves be of the discursive order."
An interesting thing about the article is that both camps describe a specific state of consciousness as ultimate knowledge. Granted they differ on what it means, T seeing it as “merely epistemic” and G seeing it as an ontic metaphysical reality. But it seems this state is unanimously described as “ceasing of bodily and mental processes, called 'vanishing' or 'dissolution'.... The usual dichotomy between subject and object dissolves....[they] are engaged with each other nondualistically” (134). Here there is still content to consciousness so it doesn't appear to be nirvikalpa (complete cessation without object).
Also of note is that progression that leads to conceptual proliferation, which is an obstruction to nondual knowledge. “Feeling leads to perception....and categories...leads to thinking, and thinking leads to desire, desire in turn leads to [duality]” (139). However for T it is not concept in itself that is bad, just its proliferation that leads to a reified separate self sense with its seeming inherent existence. Hence one can transcend the bad and leave the good, whereas for G the whole ball of wax is bad and must be eliminated, and the nondual state of knowledge/reality is the only good.
Another problem in terms of postmetaphyics is the unanimous description of this knowledge as 'ultimate.' Even though T sees such knowledge as epistemic and therefore ontologically not metaphysical it is still interpreted metaphysically as 'ultimate' within its mythic-rational, cultural-spiritual system per several posts above. Also per above I provided one way to interpret such a state postmetaphysically, as a baseline tonic state that indeed gets glossed over with all of our self-proliferated bodily aches, disturbing emotions and incessant monkey mind. And returning to this baseline state via meditative discipline restores us to our ancient origin (body and brainstem, delta waves) so that when we return to the higher levels we can do so with some equanimity and balance (integrated brain, gamma waves), keeping them intact without the proliferation or the alienated ego. But we can drop the metaphysical baggage of calling the baseline state either ultimate reality or knowledge.
This is one reason I like Bryant's onticology, since it gets to this 'bottom' of any suobject's affective interaction with the world. Such 'affect' is not emotion in the human sense but rather even an inanimate suobject's interaction with another. And we might even find a more postmetaphysical homeomorphic equivalence to a nirvikalpa (causal) state in that a suobject's virtual proper being is that non-relational potential not yet entered into actuality, a state of no discernible contents. A state that is the transcendental (yet immanent) condition for the duality of actual contents.
I found another free online article by Thakchoe at Scribd, "The relationship between the two truths." This article is from '03, the previous one from '05, both pre-dating The Two Truths Debate. Material from both though was incorporated into the latter book, and this provides at least some of that material for those that cannot buy the book. There are also copious quotes from the book earlier in this thread, and especially in the Gaia predecessor thread.
From the last reference. Now where have we heard this before?
"So, how are the two natures related? Are they identical or distinct? According to the view held by Tsongkhapa, the short answer is that the two natures are neither identical nor distinct in any unqualiﬁed sense. The two natures are related in terms of a single ontological identity with distinct conceptual identities—thus they are both the same and different" (114).
Thakchoe also wrote in 2011 the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for "The theory of two truths in Tibet." He goes into more specific detail on how the different Tibetan schools saw the various points.
He also wrote the SEP entry for the Indian two truths doctrine. There were several versions of this including Madhyamaka. Within the latter there were sub-schools, one of which was Prasangika. Since all the Tibetan traditions unanimously lay claim to Prasangika (through Candrakirti) it behooves one to examine its roots. I'm not sure historically why they all assert the Prasangika foundation (kela would likely know), but when one examines the other Indian doctrines it appears that most of the Tibetan versions (non-Gelug) adopted at least some of their points and mixed them with their versions of Prasangika (hence shentong). Here is an excerpt on the emptiness of emptiness:
"Could we argue that emptiness [is]...ultimately real or...intrinsically real? We tend to posit ultimate reality as something that is timeless, independent, transcendent, nondual etc. So if emptiness is the ultimate reality, could we say that it alone is nonempty, ultimately real or intrinsically real?.... On Candrakīrit's view....emptiness is also empty of intrinsic reality.... If emptiness is ultimately real, emptiness would not be empty of the intrinsic reality—the essence of conventionally real objects. In that case we will have to grant emptiness as existing independently of conventionally real entities, as their underlying substratum. If this is granted the emptiness...would be quite distinct and unrelated. Moreover if the emptiness of the [suobject] is nonempty, i.e., if it is ultimately real, whereas the [suobject] itself is empty i.e., ultimately unreal, then, one has to posit two distinct and contradictory verifiable realities even for one conventionally real [suobject].... Therefore, while emptiness is the ultimate truth of the conventionally real entities, it is not plausible to posit emptiness to be ultimately real."
For any interested, Dharma Seed has a collection of Batchelor's talks. The most recent is as follows:
|2012-04-09 The Phenomenology of Meditation (Part Two) 62:09
|Reflections on "an ordinary person's life," as understood in a passage by the 9th century Chan master Teshan. This idea is related to the Buddha's phenomenological analysis of human experience (the "all") into namarupa and consciousness, a vision of life where there is no transcendent awareness or consciousness "outside" ordinary experience, thereby revealing a common thread between the Pali Canon and early Chan.
Around 28:00 or so he talks about The Witness, and that it arose via the ego! (29:30). Something I've claimed for years. See earlier in this thread and the predecessor thread.
Some more gems for me:
"There is no permanent awareness apart from experience" (32:00).
"Consciousness is reckoned by the particular conditions dependent on which it arises" (32:55).
"To harness mortal and immortal with one yoke and think they can agree and interact is but a joke" (34:25).
Quoting Satre: “Existence precedes essence” (43:00).