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.
Turns out that Scribd has pretty much quit providing free books in their entirety, including this one. They now charge $10 a month to access unlimited books. Kind of like a public library, but for the fee. One of those hybrid private/public access v. ownership things in the transition from capitalism to the commons. Still less than buying all those books though. And access to books like this, not typically available in public libraries.
We recently mentioned The Two Truths Debate by Sonam Thakchoe in another thread, which was used extensively as a reference in this thread and its predecessor thread. I just found this free e-copy at Scribd for those interested.
Following up on this post and ensuing discussion in another thread, in Priest's article he discusses relations and functions regarding truth values. The Aristotelian principles against contradiction, i.e., the excluded middle and non-contradiction, rely on the function of truth values. Priest's solution around this is to make the values relations. But when it comes to Buddhist emptiness he seems to mix and match functions and relations. On one hand emptiness is based on relations, since nothing has an inherent existence but is conditioned by its relations to other things. But on the other hand it is based a function because the previous relations relate only to conventional reality; ultimate reality per this other Priest article posit is as "pure form" (11), itself a preconditional function for conventional reality.
I.e., the relation between the truth values of relations and functions is itself a function. Which is of course Gorampa's assertion in an actual ultimate versus a nominal ultimate, where this function is metaphysical. Whereas Tsongkapa's assertion is that the relation between the truth values of relations and functions is itself a mutual relation, i.e., these two truths about emptiness themselves require that their interaction be relational. Emptiness in this case is not a metaphysical actual ultimate in opposition to conventional reality. The paradox is that this relation is also a function in that this is an ultimate(um) on the nature of existence, so it is both and neither a function and/or relation in the Aristotelian sense.
And as I stated earlier in the thread, this whole mess is clarified by difference, which is itself a transcendental precondition for, or function of, relational and conventional existence. Yet it is not metaphysical in the sense of being transcendent of said conventional existence, itself also dependently arisen from said existence and thus also a relational truth value. All very twisted and folded.
I need to get out of my head now, eat something, take a shit, something that doesn't require all this nominally ultimate proliferation on the withdrawn nature of the actual ultimate.
I've referenced Sonam Thakchoe earlier in the thread, particularly his book The Two Truths Debate. Here are a couple of his entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Theory of Two Truths in Tibet; The Theory of Two Truths in India. It's going to be pretty hard to question his translation and interpretation of Tibetan terms given his resume.
Integral World posted this new article on Madhyamaka. I discussed a lot of this debate in this thread. I disagree with the abstract thesis though that the absolutist and non-absolutist views can be reconciled. Abstract follows:
This dissertation identifies a substantial opposition among many Buddhist scholars to the authenticity of an Absolute interpretation of reality in Mâdhyamaka. Its thesis is that this opposition is profoundly mistaken, but not in the sense that an Absolute interpretation of reality is correct and a non-Absolute interpretation is incorrect. An account of reality in Mâdhyamaka is articulated that argues not only are both interpretations correct but, despite their apparent contradiction, they can be presented as mutually compatible. The methodology for presenting this account is centred on a robust comparison of well-known exemplars of Absolutist and non-Absolutist accounts of reality in Mâdhyamaka. Firstly this is implemented by an emic Mâdhyamaka comparison of Jay Garfield's non-Absolutist and T.R.V. Murti's Absolutist accounts of reality. For Garfield, this comparison draws on a selection of his work that is intended to be a proxy for the tide of scholarly opinion that often cites Murti's work as a paradigm of its anti-Absolutist views of reality in Mâdhyamaka. Secondly, I turn to, arguably, the two most prominent figures in the field of Transpersonal Psychology to provide a similarly stimulating but etic comparison from that discipline's perspective of reality in Mâdhyamaka. Thus I compare Jorge Ferrer's non-Absolutist and Ken Wilber's Absolutist account of reality in Mâdhyamaka. I conclude that reality in Mâdhyamaka is perennialist and panentheistic and thereby embraces both Absolutist and non-Absolutist versions of reality; and tie this in with Buddha's famous story of the elephant and the blind men. Finally I suggest the properties of infinity can provide additional explanatory power to this conclusion.
Thakchoe's book The Two Truths Debate, much referenced in this thread, can be found here for free.
From the conclusion of TTTD on ontology, rangtong and shentong in a nutshell:
"Tsongkhapas ontology treats the two truths as mutually entailing. He argues that they share the same ontological status, and that they are empty and dependently arisen. The same principle applies to his ontology of samsara and nirvana. Since both samsara and nirvana are dependently arisen and empty, they have equal ontological status. Gorampas ontology treats the two truths as hierarchical and contradictory. He argues that conventional truth and ultimate truth each have their own distinct and independent ontological status. The same distinction is applied in the way he treats samsara and nirvana ontologically. While conventional truth and samsara are treated as dependently arisen, and thus as ontologically conditioned, Gorampa argues that ultimate truth and nirvana are ontologically unconditioned and transcendent" (160-61).
Wilber, btw, takes the shentong view most recently in this video (around 5:20) on The Fourth Turning. He obviously overlooks rangtong, likely because it's just so green meme in his view.
"The idea being, to clear the mind of any and all concepts about reality so that reality itself can be directly experienced: A notion that became the foundation of virtually every Mahayana (greater vehicle) and Vajrayana (diamond vehicle) teaching henceforth."
And in this Thakchoe paper he lays out the differing views in modern interpreters. Wilber got a lot of his stuff from Murti.
"The debate among the modern interpreters of Madhyamaka philosophy belongs to two different camps: Chr. Lindtner (1986, 321), Jaideva Singh(1989, 52), Stcherbatsky (1998, 19), T. R. V. Murti (1985, xxvi) and the like argue that the Madhyamika is ontologically absolute and monist about the truth.In their view the Madhyamika vehemently rejects the validity of conventional truth and upholds ultimate truth as the absolute truth. On the contrary, interpreters such as Kalupahana (1991, 69), Jay Garﬁeld (2002, 24–5), JeffreyHopkins (1983, 418–9), Paul William (1996, 71) and Guy Newland (1992,60) —all maintain that the distinction between the two truths is minimal and strictly epistemological in nature. Conventional and ultimate truth are, in their understanding of Madhyamaka philosophy, mutually entailing—that the two truths are not ontologically hierarchical. Therefore a Madhyamika is, they hold, not an absolute monist about the truth. This debate, not surprisingly, has been an ongoing phenomenon among the traditional Buddhist thinkers."
For those not inclined to read Thakchoe's lengthy and very nuanced book, see his shorter Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the same topic. It too is quite nuanced on the subtle differences between the four main Tibetan Buddhist schools. The following is from the concluding implications section sort of summing up:
"Gelug considers the two natures of each phenomenon as the defining factor of the two truths. It argues that the conventional nature of an entity, as verified by a conventionally reliable cognitive process, determines the defining criterion of conventional truth; the ultimate nature of the same entity, as verified by an ultimately reliable cognitive practice, determines the defining criterion of ultimate truth. Since both truths are ontologically as well as epistemologically interdependent, knowledge of conventionally real entitity as dependently arisen suffices for knowledge of both truths. In contasty non-Gelug schools—Nyingma, Kagyü and Sakya Non-Gelug, as we have seen, rejects Gelug's dual-nature theory, treating each conventional entity as satisfying only the definition of conventional truth and taking the definition of ultimate truth to be ontologically and epistemologically transcendent from conventional truth. They argue, instead, it is through the perspectives of either an ordinary being or an unenlightened exalted being (āryas) that the definition of conventional truth is verified—fully enlightened being (buddhas) do not experience the conventional truth in any respect. Similarly, for non-Gelug, no ordinary being can experience the ultimate truth. Ultimate truth transcends conventional truth, and the knowledge of empirically given phenomena as dependently arisen could not satisfy the criterion of knowing ultimate truth.
"For Gelug, there is an essential compatibility between between the two truths, for the reason that there is a necessary harmony between dependently arisen and emptiness of intrinsic reality. As dependently arisen, empty phenomena are not constructions of ignorant consciousness, so neither is conventional truth such a construction. Both truths are actual truths that stand on an equal footing. Moreover, according to this view, whosoever knows conventional truth, either directly or inferentially, also knows ultimate truth; whosoever knows ultimate truth, also knows phenomena as dependently arisen, and hence knows them as empty of intrinsic reality. Where there is no knowledge of conventional truth, the converse applies. For non-Gelug, the incommensurability between dependently arisen and emptiness of intrinsic reality also applies to the two truths. Accordingly, whosoever knows conventional truth does not know ultimate truth, and one who knows ultimate truth does not know conventional truth; whosoever knows phenomena as dependently arisen does not know them as empty, whereas whosoever knows phenomena as empty does not know them as dependently arisen.
"While Gelug thus distances itself from the subjective division of the two truths, Nyingma, Kagyü and Sakya attempt to demonstrate the validity of their view by arguing that perspective provides the primary basis for the division of the two truths. Unlike Gelug, non-Gelug schools hold that the two truths do not have any objective basis. Instead they are entirely reducible to the experiences of the deluded minds of ordinary beings and the experiences of the wisdom of exalted being.
"According to Gelug, the agent who cognizes the two truths may be one and the same individual. Each agent may have all the requisite cognitive resources that are potentially capable of knowing both truths. Ordinary beings have only conceptual access to ultimate truth, while exalted beings, who are in the process of learning, have direct, but intermittent, access. Awakenened beings, however, invariably have simultaneous access to both truths. The view held by non-Gelug argues for separate cognitive agents corresponding to each of the two truths. Ordinary beings have direct knowledge of conventional truth, but are utterly incapable of knowing ultimate truth. The exalted beings in training directly know ultimate while they are meditative equipoise and conventional truth in post meditative states. Fully awakened buddhas, on the other hand, only have access to ultimate truth. Awakened beings have no access to conventional truth whatsoever from the enlightened perspective, although they may access conventional truth from unenlightened ordinary perspectives."
I have very limited understanding of the different Buddhist schools. I get the impression that a lot of attention (at least in the West?) is given to Madhyamaka (Mahayana?), and less to Abidharma philosophy?
Indeed, and certainly within the kennilingus crowd. But even then, it was the shentong (non-Gelug) versions they espouse. Gelug rangtong is a different story. This thread explores those nuances in detail. Thakchoe does so in even much finer detail, being an expert, while I am just an interested layman.