The Middle Path between Dualism and Materialism (from 'A Buddhist Response', by Prof. B. Alan Wallace, in Consciousness at the Crossroads, Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism, edited by B. Alan Wallace e.a., Ithaca, New York 1999) The Madhyamaka, or Centrist, view adopted by Tibetan Buddhism at large challenges the assumption that any phenomena that comprise the world of our experience exist as things in themselves. Thus, not only does this view reject the notion that the mind is an inherently existent substance, or thing, but it similarly denies that physical phenomena as we experience them are things in themselves. For this reason, the notion of an absolute, substantial dualism between mind and matter is never entertained. According to the Madhyamaka view, mental and physical phenomena, as we perceive and conceive them exist in relation to our perceptions and conceptions. What we perceive is inescapably related to our perceptual modes of observation, and the ways in which we conceive of phenomena are inescapably related to our concepts and languages..
In denying the independent self-existence of all the phenomena that make up the world of our experience, the Madhyamaka view departs from both the substantial dualism of Descartes and the substantial monism that seems to be characteristic of modern Materialism, or Physicalism. The Materialism propounded during this conference seems to assert that the real world is composed of physical things-in-themselves, while all mental phenomena are regarded as mere appearances, devoid of any reality. Much is made of this difference between appearances and reality. The Madhyamaka view also emphasizes the disparity between appearances and reality, but in a radically different way. All the mental and physical phenomena that we experience, it declares, appear as if they existed in and of themselves, utterly independent of our modes of perception and conception. They appear to be things in themselves, but in reality they exist as dependently related events. Their dependence is threefold: 1) phenomena arise in dependence upon preceding causal influences, 2) they exist in dependence upon their own parts and/or attributes, and 3) the phenomena that make up the world of our experience are dependent upon our verbal and conceptual designation of them.
This threefold dependence is not intuitively obvious, for it is concealed by the appearance of phenomena as being self-sufficient and independent of conceptual designation. On the basis of these misleading appearances it is quite natural to think of, or conceptually apprehend, phenomena as self-defining things in themselves. This tendency is known as reification, and according to the Madhyamaka view, this is an inborn delusion that provides the basis for a host of mental afflictions. Reification decontextualizes. It views phenomena without regard to the causal nexus in which they arise, and without regard to the specific means of observation and conceptualization by which they are known. The Madhyamaka, or Centrist, view is so called because it seeks to avoid the two extremes of reifying phenomena on the one hand, and of denying the existence of phenomena on the other.
Tsongkhapa's View of Reality (from The Bridge of Quiescence, by Prof. B. Alan Wallace, Chicago and La Salle 1998) To understand Tsongkhapa's view of reality, it is imperative to make the subtle, but crucial, distinction between mere figments of the imagination and conventionally existent phenomena. Let us begin with the subject of personal identity. On the basis of our awareness of our own bodies, behavior, memories, feelings, thoughts, fantasies, consciousness, possessions, friends, environment and so on, we develop a sense of personal identity. This self-concept is not static, but varies in accordance with the personal events that capture our attention from moment to moment and from day to day. Thus, a very high degree of editing goes into the selection of personal phenomena upon which we establish our identities. The self so designated is not identical with any of the phenomena upon which it is is imputed; rather, it is conceived as the person who possesses those aggregates of the personality and so on as its own attributes or affiliations. Thus, while this self does not exist independently of this conceptual designation, it is conventionally valid to speak of it as performing actions, experiencing the consequences of those deeds, and interacting with other people, the environment, and so forth. In this way the self is said by Tsongkhapa to be conventionally existent.
There is a powerful, innate tendency, however, to hypostatize, or reify, this conceptually constructed self, grasping onto it as being inherently existent, independent of any conceptual designation. Such an intrinsic personal identity, Tsongkhapa claims, is totally a figment of the imagination, with no basis in reality whatsoever. A central task of contemplative inquiry is to establish experientially that such a self has no existence either among the constituents of one's personality or apart from them. Moreover, if the self is designated on the basis of non-existent attributes, or by means of a denial of existent attributes, even the conventionally designated self is a groundless fabrication, devoid of even conventional existence.
Even if one has a limited degree of insight into the conceptually designated status of one's identity, there remains the strong tendency to view one's body and other macro-objects of the physical environment as bearing their own intrinsic identities. Indeed, as we visually perceive the physical world, including our own bodies, it appears to exist purely objectively, from its own side. This mode of appearance, Tsongkhapa declares, is utterly deceptive. All that seems to appear purely from the side of perceived objects is in fact thoroughly structured by our conceptual frameworks.
Perceptual objects reified by the mind do not exist in nature, but are solely fabrications without even conventional existence. In addition, due to objective sources of illusion or psychological and physiological influences, we may apprehend objects that do not exist, misidentify objects that do exist, or fail to perceive objects that do exist and are otherwise accessible to our perceptions. All of these faulty perceptions constitute errors of apprehension apart from the tendency of reification.
The Buddha's Conception of the Universe (from Outline of Indian Philosophy, by Prof. A. K. Warder, 1956, 1960, 1964, Delhi 1971) The Buddha's conception of the universe is thus of natural and impersonal forces and processes, of conditions and phenomena, transient, with no enduring substances. It is not correct to speak of persons 'who' do things, but only of events which occur. It is enough to describe the 'qualities' (a possible translation of 'dharma', which we have otherwise translated 'phenomena') and the conditions under which they appear. There is no justification for assuming any substance, not definable apart from these qualities, in addition to the qualities we observe. This is a conception of the universe which is de-personified, de-anthropomorphised, a collection of natural forces and phenomena to be described without postulating any unnecessary entities, or in fact any entities at all, only the minimum of observable qualities. It is a thoroughly empiricist conception. It implies a whole critique, an analysis, of metaphysical concepts (such as 'soul'), worked out in detail by later Buddhist philosophers, and of metaphysical statements (such as 'the universe is eternal'). No doubt in many of the texts the language of the ordinary people of India is used, with its 'persons' and its popular conceptions of all kinds. But this is popular preaching for the sake of teaching moral precepts to ordinary people, in language they can understand; we are expressly told in the properly philosophical, or we might say scientific, texts, that to be accurate we must drop the personifications of everyday language: if taken literally, such personifications will lead to untenable metaphysical extremes such as an eternal, and therefore unchanging, soul, or the annihilation of a soul which persisted for a lifetime only. Nirvana, finally, is not the annihilation of a soul, or the release of a soul, it is simply the cessation of a process, of a sequence of events.
Nirvana is Acceptance of the Present Moment (from The Meaning of Happiness, by Alan W. Watts, 1940, New York 1970) The Hinayanists looked upon Nirvana as an escape from the pains of life and death, a conception which to the Mahayanists with their Brahmanic background appeared as the old error of dualism. Thus the ideal man of the Hinayana was the arhat, one who simply attained Nirvana and ceased from rebirth, entering into the formless rest, bliss, and impersonality of the eternal. But the Mahayanists gave their philosophy of non-duality practical expression in the ideal of the bodhisattva, who attains liberation but remains in the world of birth and death to assist all other beings to enlightenment. In other words, they refused to make any absolute distinction between Nirvana and Samsara; the two states are the same, seen, as it were, from different points of view. Therefore the Lankavatara Sutra (as translated by D.T. Suzuki) says: "False imagination teaches that such things as light and shade, long and short, black and white are different and are to be discriminated; but they are not independent of each other; they are only different aspects of the same thing, they are terms of relation, not of reality. Conditions of existence are not of a mutually exclusive character; in essence things are not two but one. Even Nirvana and Samsara's world of life and death are aspects of the same thing, for there is no Nirvana except where is Samsara, and no Samsara except where is Nirvana. All duality is falsely imagined."
In terms of practical psychology this means that there is no actual distinction between our ordinary, everyday experience and the experience of Nirvana or spiritual freedom. But for some people this experience is binding and for others liberating, and the problem is to achieve what the Lankavatara calls that "turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness" which effects the transformation.
Now the Mahayana was more thoroughgoing in its statement of this problem than even Vedanta. For what is our ordinary, everyday experience? It is not just our awareness of external circumstances or even such ordinary activities as walking, eating, sleeping, breathing, and speaking; it includes also our thinking and feeling: our ideas, moods, desires, passions, and fears. In its most concrete form ordinary, everyday experience is just how you feel at this moment. In a certain sense Buddhism is very much a philosophy and a psychology of the moment, for if we are asked what life is, and if our answer is to be a practical demonstration and not a theory, we can do no better than point to the moment Now! It is in the moment that we find reality and freedom, for acceptance of life is acceptance of the present moment now and at all times..
Acceptance of the moment is allowing the moment to live, which, indeed, is another way of saying that it is to allow life to live, to be what it is now (yathabhutam). Thus to allow this moment of experience and all that it contains freedom to be as it is, to come in its own time and to go in its own time, this is to allow the moment, which is what we are now, to set us free; it is to realize that life, as expressed in the moment, has always been setting us free from the very beginning, whereas we have chosen to ignore it and tried to achieve that freedom by ourselves.
For this reason Mahayana Buddhism teaches that Nirvana or enlightenment cannot really be attained, because the moment we try to attain it by our own power we are using it as an escape from what is now, and we are also forgetting that Nirvana is unattainable in the sense that it already is.
The So-Called Narrative View of the Self (from Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka, A Philosophical Introduction, by Jan Westerhoff, Oxford 2009) Nagarjuna's rejection of entities existing by svabhava is not restricted to the study of the external world around us. At least as important as refuting the existence of fundamental substances which provide the basis for a world independent of human interests and concerns is the refutation of a substantial self, which constitutes the fixed point around which our internal world revolves. Such a substantial self is an essentially unchanging entity, distinct from our physical body and psychological states, which unifies our sensory input and mental life and acts as a foundation of our agenthood in the world. Nagarjuna wants to replace this prima facie plausible and compelling view of a self, which, however, he claims to be mistaken, by a conception of the self as a set of causally interconnected physical and psychological events. He sets out to account for the fact that we normally do not see ourselves in this way by arguing that this set of events is usually under the misapprehension of its own properties: it sees itself as a substantial self, even though it is not.
It is interesting to note that this alternative view of the self presented here (which, to be sure, is not a Madhyamaka specialty but widely shared between different Buddhist traditions), despite its intuitive implausibility, finds a surprising amount of support in recent research on cognitive science. Of particular interest in this context is the so-called narrative view of the self, a theory that has been explored in detail by Daniel Dennett [most famously in his Consciousness Explained, London 1991], who also presents supporting evidence from our current knowledge of how the brain works. One of Dennett's central observations is that the processing of neurophysiologically encoded information is spread across the entire brain. There is no place in the brain where "it all comes together", no "Cartesian theatre" where the stream of sensory information is unified into mental content and presented to consciousness. He argues that not only is there no neurophysiological analog to the self anywhere in the spatial organization of the brain, also the temporal sequence of events in the brain cannot be used as a foundation of a continuous self. Dennett shows that in certain cases the order of events as the appear in our consciousness does not line up with the temporal order of their underlying neurophysiological bases. The view of our selves as continuous, temporally extended entities therefore cannot be seen as a mere reflection of a series of events in the brain, but requires a significant deal of conceptual construction. Our subjective feeling of spatial and temporal location cannot be grounded on the spatially and temporally spread out, discontinuous series of events in the brain in a straightforward manner. Our view of the self as an essentuially unchanging unifier and agent cannot be based on the structure of the piece of matter that occupies the space where we locate the center of gravity.
Dennett argues instead that the self is a product of our linguistic capacities. The capacity to use language is hard-wired into our brain, and once we start using language, we tell stories, including stories about ourselves which continuously create that very self. The self emerging on this theory is not the author, but the authored. Dennett notes that "our tales are spun, but for the most part we don't spin them; they spin us. The human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is the product, not their source". For this reason there is no fundamental difference between the self created by our own narrative and the selves created in works of fiction. It is not the case that the former are intrinsically more real than the latter; in fact they belong fundamentally to the same class of things (even though the fictional selves, unlike our own narrative selves, are usually not open ended). Both are conceptual constructs produced by our brain regarding a narrative, our own or that in some text, as revolving around a single fixed point.
The Term Shunyata (from Philosophies of India, by Dr. Heinrich Zimmer, edited by Prof. Joseph Campbell, 1952, London 1967) The term shunyata, as applied to the metaphysical reality, insists on the fact that reason and language apply to only the finite world; nothing can be said of the infinite. But the term is applied also to all things of the phenomenal sphere, and here is the great stroke of Shunyavada. "As applied to the world of experience," writes Dr. Radakrishnan in his Indian Philosophy, "shunyata means the ever-changing state of the phenomenal world. In the dread waste of endlessness man loses all hope, but the moment he recognizes its unreality he transcends it and reaches after the abiding principle. He knows that the whole is a passing dream, where he may sit unconcerned with the issues, certain of victory."
In other words, the concept of emptiness, the void, vacuity, has been employed in the Madhyamika teaching as a convenient and effective pedagogical instrument to bring the mind beyond that sense of duality which infects all systems in which the absolute and the world of relativity are described in contrasting, or antagonistic terms. In the Vedanta Gitas, as we have seen, the non-duality of Nirvana and Samsara, release and bondage, is made known and celebrated in rhapsodic verses; but in this Buddhist formula, one word, shunyata, bears the entire message, and simultaneously projects the mind beyond any attempt to conceive of a synthesis. Philosophically, as a metaphysical doctrine, the formula conduces to a thoroughgoing Docetism: the world, the Buddha, and Nirvana itself become no more than the figments of an absolutely empty dream. This is the point that has been attacked, always, in argument, and, of course, it is an easy point to make seem absurd if one takes absolutely the usual categories of reason. But the circumstance to be borne in mind is that this Buddhist philosophy is not primarily an instrument of reason but an instrument to convert reason into realization; one step beyond the term is the understanding of what it really means. And as a device to effect such a transformation of knowledge - first standing between all the contrarities of 'the world' and 'release from the world', then standing between the moment of preliminary comprehension and that of realized illumination - it would be difficult indeed to find a more apt and efficient term.
This is why the doctrine is called Madhyamika, the 'Middle Way'. And actually, it brings, as far as possible, into systematic philosophical statement the whole implication of the 'Middle Doctrine' of the Buddha himself. For as we read in the orthodox Pali Samyutta-Nikaya: "That things have being, O Kaccana, constitutes one extreme of doctrine; that things have no being is the other extreme. These extremes, O Kaccana, have been avoided by the Tathagata, and it is a middle doctrine that he teaches." The Buddha continually diverted the mind from its natural tendency to posit an abiding essence beyond, or underlying, the endless and meaningless dynamism of the concatenation of causes. And this is the effect also of Nagarjuna's metaphysical doctrine of the void.
Boeddhabeeld in Artis.
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(last modified 19 January 2021)
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