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.

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Bryant also notes in the referenced article that "if class exists, it is not an experience nor the result of an experience (though it can, perhaps, be experienced)" (86). So how can the withdrawn be experienced? Can it be so through a transcendent, present consciousness or "awake awareness" of the real through meditative discipline? Bryant goes on: "The question then... [is] how we experience or are conscious of class....requires a sort of leap and detective work that ferrets all sorts of traces allowing us to finally infer its existence" (90). Recall from The Democracy of Objects that this is apprehended though Bhaskar's transcendental realism, which asks:

"What must be presupposed about the nature of the world in order for our scientific practices to be possible? As Deleuze reminds us, the transcendental is not to be confused with the transcendent. The transcendent refers to that which is above or beyond something else. For example, God, if it exists, is perhaps transcendent to the world. The transcendental, by contrast, refers to that which is a condition for some other practice, form of cognition, or activity"(1.2).

This transcendental presupposition is exactly a form of conceptual elaboration to infer a nonconceptual (non-human) elaboration. Or as Garfield once said (see p. 84 of this thread) in order to experience the nondual one must first have a correct conceptual view of it.

From Integral Spirituality, Chapter 5, "Emptiness and view are not two":

"'Without a conceptual framework, meditative experiences would be totally incomprehensible. What we experience in meditation has to be properly interpreted, and its significance—or lack thereof—has to be understood. This interpretative act requires appropriate conceptual categories and the correct use of those categories'.... Notice that 'cognition' is actually derived from the root gni (co-gni-tion), and this gni is the same as gno, which is the same root as gno-sis, or gnosis. Thus, cognition is really co-gnosis, or that which is the co-element of gnosis and nondual Sanskrit, this gno appears as jna, which we find in both prajna and jnana. Prajna is supreme discriminating awareness necessary for full awakening of gnosis (pra-jna = pro-gnosis), and jnana is pure gnosis itself. Once again, cognition as co-gnosis is the root of the development that is necessary for the full awakening of gnosis, of jnana, of nondual liberating awareness" (112-13).

Balder said: Yes, well, there is always that game of sectarian soteriological one-up-manship...

You surprise me with this, Bruce.

Edward's quote "The contemplation of Ch'an or Zen....and the corresponding realization were not the condition of total plenitude and perfection called Dzogchen" (11) doesn't give the context that Capriles provides:

"Namkhai Nyingpo, one of the main direct disciples of Padmasamb-hava, was a realized practitioner of Shantarakshita’s tradition of gradual Mahayana, as well as one of the most realized Tibetan practitioners of the Chinese Ch’an School, which transmits the Tönmun or “sudden” tradition of the Mahayana. Thus, he was most qualified for comparing the final result of successively going through the Paths (Skt., marga; Tib., lam ) and levels (Skt., bhumi; Tib.,sa) of the gradual Mahayana, with the Contemplation (of) the ultimate condition to which the sudden school gives direct access. And in fact, he never contradicted the claim of Ch’an or Zen according to which the Contemplation of this school is the very state of Buddhahood (corresponding to the fifth Path and the eleventh level of the gradual Mahayana). However, Namkhai Nyingpo also was a realized Master of the Dzogchen Path of self-liberation, as well as a Master of the Tantric Path of transformation, and so he was able to realize, and to explain in his Kathang Dennga, that the Contemplation of Ch’an or Zen implied some degree of attention and therefore of directionality, failing to surpass the duality of center and periphery, and that this manifested as a certain partiality towards voidness. Consequently, this Contemplation and the corresponding realization were not the condition of total plenitude and perfection called Dzogchen — the totally panoramic state beyond the duality center / periphery, beyond attention and beyond directionality. Though, as we have seen, the Contemplation of the sudden Mahayana corresponded to the supreme and final realization of the gradual Mahayana, it was not the self-manifested condition of total Space-Time- Awareness called Dzogchen, wherein the Vajra nature containing the three kayas becomes perfectly evident in its entirety." (11)

Hi, Lol, yes, I should have looked at the context.  I also was not aware that Namkhai Norbu had trained in Ch'an as well as Dzogchen.  This does make him more qualified to compare the orientations and results of both paths.  However, this claim would be more compelling to me if there were examples of Zen masters trained outside of the Tibetan context (where Dzogchen is already considered the pinnacle) who also report that they have discovered a fuller, more complete soteriology in Dzogchen.


(On a related note, if only tangentially, I learned recently that Tenzin Wangyal will be moving to my area.  I have been away from a Dzogchen practice context for quite a long time and would like to begin practicing with him again, so I will begin visiting his community once he settles in.)

Hi Bruce,

That's good news re. Tenzin Wangyal -- when I eventually make my (hopefully extended) visit to the US I will definitely be staying over a little while at Santa Cruz, which I don't think is a million miles from where you are, so I would want to see you and him both.

And just to say that according to Elias Capriles it is Namkhai Nyingpo, one of Padmasambhava's main disciples, who trained in Ch'an as well as Dzogchen, not Namkhai Norbu. And I take your point about what would make Namkhai Nyingpo's claim more compelling for you.

Balder said:

Hi, Lol, yes, I should have looked at the context.  I also was not aware that Namkhai Norbu had trained in Ch'an as well as Dzogchen.  This does make him more qualified to compare the orientations and results of both paths.  However, this claim would be more compelling to me if there were examples of Zen masters trained outside of the Tibetan context (where Dzogchen is already considered the pinnacle) who also report that they have discovered a fuller, more complete soteriology in Dzogchen.


(On a related note, if only tangentially, I learned recently that Tenzin Wangyal will be moving to my area.  I have been away from a Dzogchen practice context for quite a long time and would like to begin practicing with him again, so I will begin visiting his community once he settles in.)

In my IS excerpt above the first part was quoting Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (a Kagyu tulku) from Mind at Ease (Shambhala 2003).* Another part of the quote is this: "Meditative experiences are in fact impossible without the use of conceptual formulations" (112). Wilber adds on the same page: "Meditative experience per se--that simply does not exist."

* Interestingly, one of his more recent books is The Influence of Yogacara on Mahamudra (Nasmse Bangdzo, 2010).

On a tangential but related note, I like this from IS, the beginning of Chapter 6 on the shadow:

"The great wisdom traditions...have absolutely nothing like this.... An understanding of psychodynamic repression, as well as ways to cure it, is something contributed exclusively by modern Western psychology.... Consequently, even advanced meditators and spiritual teachers are often haunted by psychopathology, as their shadows chase them to Enlightenment and back, leaving roadkill all along the way" (119).

The Stanford Encyclopedia Philosophy entry on Gorampa is instructive. While I might disagree as to the nature of the actual ultimate, I appreciate the necessary progression through the nominal ultimate, a point I've been hammering above. The distinction then becomes what is real or ontologically ultimate, which is where rangtong and OOO diverge. (While the latter two might converge on points they still differ, as I've been critical of aspects of rangtong as well.*)

"One begins by correctly identifying and understanding the conventional truth. Then, through logical reasoning and meditative practices, one gradually begins to realize that this so-called truth is merely conventional and that it is based entirely on concepts that are rooted in ignorance; in this way one comes to a conceptual understanding of the nominal ultimate. Through more analysis and practice still, one eventually leaves behind the mere convention and directly experiences the ultimate truth, which does not depend on ignorance and concepts. In other words, when one realizes the nominal ultimate, a distinctive feature of this realization is that, even though it depends on concepts (and thus ignorance), it can be used to negate concepts and ignorance."

* Perhaps I might call my view rangtOOOng? Or maybe pOOOntong?

This last notion of pOOOntong reminds me of two earlier posts in the differance thread, starting here and a following post 3 down, re-printed below:

I referenced this book, Shadow of Spirit, in another thread. Chapter 19 fits in this thread: "Woman and space according to Kristeva and Irigaray" by Phillipa Berry. A few excerpts:

"One way in which Heidegger’s emphasis upon openness and the clearing has left its mark in the work of Kristeva and Irigaray is through their shared interest in a highly ambiguous spatial category which was used by Plato, but which also has evident affinities with the pre-Socratic thought that so fascinated Heidegger: the category of chora" (255).

"In deciding to focus upon this particular Platonic term, Kristeva was apparently rejecting a post-Platonic philosophical emphasis upon ideas in a fascination with the absence of form, or with that emptiness which precedes but is the necessary precondition of all forms of representation. This emphasis, while derived from Plato, has clear affinities with pre- Socratic thought: specifically, with the emphasis upon a primordial void or apeiron,found in the thought of Pythagoras and Anaximander" (256).

"She may have been thinking of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in particular, for these systems place great emphasis upon the attainment of a paradoxical, non-dual model of knowledge which is also a knowledge of emptiness; this illumination coincides with the discovery of the illusory nature of the subject–object dichotomy. In this context, the void (sunyata) is identified with ‘absolute reality’ and held to contain all dualities and polarities; specifically, to unite the opposites of form and emptiness. It should be noted here that this fullness of the Buddhist void seemingly approximates more to a Derridean différance than to a Hegelian Aufhebung or sublation of difference" (258).

In the referenced chapter above Berry notes that both Kristeva and Irigaray's concern is to explore the space between the secular and sacred--and the inner and outer, and all opposition, for that matter--a theme being explored in the Habermas thread. It is in these gaps that K and I find the feminine as empty space itself. And both do so from a reading of Heidegger's later notion of the Abgrund, the groundless ground of nothingness and openness within the clearing of Lichtung. H notes that Lichtung is an "open center" in the midst of opposition and from which that latter depend, but is itself not part of that categorization. (Also discussed in the Levin threads.) The center is aka alterity "in the midst" and considered sacred. And it is this meaning that K and I carry into their chora.

"Thus rather than simply representing the repressed opposite term either of idealist philosophy or of social reality, Kristeva argued that chora is always asymmetrically ‘other’ to what Lacan called the symbolic order – that is, to any philosophic, cultural or social construct" (256).

Within this feminine space resides an ecstasy which breaks all boundaries while bonding all manifestation in love. They emphasize its sacred, feminine embodiment which grounds the spatial (and the spiritual) in the temporal (and the earthly) flesh. Hence, that empty space between a woman's legs is indeed the portal in which we experience ecstasy and for a moment, at least, dissolve all boundaries in the throes of love. Holy, wholly, holey indeed.

This reminds me also of Roland Faber's subtractive affirmation, which I mentioned briefly in my paper and which is discussed in depth in Polydoxy.

With reference to my last two posts, pOOOntong posits (yes, as in positive) that the so-called nominative ultimate is used to "negate concepts and ignorance" but does not "eventually leave behind the mere convention and directly experiences the ultimate truth." Through differance and/or transcendental deduction one comes to "approximate...the Buddhist void" but its withdrawn nature is not directly experienced via meditative presence. This may approximate Faber's subtractive affirmation, though I'm not familiar with it so not sure. It is though akin to Zizek's affirmative negation of negation, which Caputo finds akin to differance.

In the thread where Pepper criticizes Wallace, Batchelor commented in the original linked discussion. I copied some of Batchelor's comments in the Pepper thread below, with some additions.

"What is striking in the case of Alan Wallace is that the position he appears to present in his book regarding an atman-like (yes!) consciousness that underpins all experience (and reality itself?) is strongly influenced by Dzogchen, a practice and philosophy found in the Nyingma school, but a view that is rejected vehemently by Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Geluk school.... The Prasangika-Madhyamaka philosophy of the Gelukpa has no time at all for any kind of primordial or pristine consciousness, which, correctly I believe, it regards as a return to Vedanta. Much of Tsongkhapa’s polemical writings are taken up with rejecting this practice and its philosophical corrollary of gZhan sTong ('Other Emptiness').... It has always struck me that the “Mind and Life” dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists have suffered from a strong, though often unstated, bias towards Dzogchen and its reified and idealistic notion of atman-like consciousness. Many of the leading Buddhist voices at these events have been Dzogchen practitioners: the Dalai Lama himself, Matthieu Ricard, and Alan Wallace. (On another note, this kind of view is becoming normative of much 'Eastern spirituality' in the West, particularly under the influence of the neo-Vedantist Ken Wilbur and his followers/admirers — it is hardly surprising that Wilbur practices and endorses Dzogchen).... I believe that by positing an atman-like consciousness, Dzogchen (and similar teachings found in Chan/Zen – and even in the Theravada Forest Tradition) are implicitly abandoning the a-theism of the Buddha and embracing another theos called Pristine Consciousness/ the One Mind/ the One Who Knows etc."

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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