[Advayavada Study Plan – week 40] Anicca (Pali) or anitya (Sanskrit) means impermanent, changeable, unstable, transitory, and it is the first of the three (in Advayavada Buddhism, four) signs or marks or basic facts of being. The Buddhist aniccata or anityata doctrine teaches that impermanence or changeability is the most fundamental property of everything existing; it lies at the very heart of the interdependent origination and emptiness of all things (see next week), and evolution, progress and liberation would not be possible without it – karma is, in Advayavada Buddhism, this incessant universal process of interdependent origination of all things as it is undergone and experienced by sentient beings, our individual share of it being the everchanging knotlet of biopsychosocial (bps) events in which we are personally embedded.
To realize what in Advayavada Buddhism we term ‘to become a true part of the whole’ one must quite simply follow the Eightfold Path. In Advayavada Buddhism, the Path is interpreted dynamically as a fully autonomous process of progressive insight and as strictly non-dual and non-comparative, this in the sense that it bears no reference at all to anything predetermined by others or oneself. A prescriptive method with preset demands and expectations is antithetical to all progress, both of the individual and the group to which he or she belongs. The Path is not seen in Advayavada Buddhism as a means to become something in the future, but as the way to become as something rightaway in the herenow. It is seen as the way to become oneself herenow as existence interdependently becoming over time now in its overall right direction – it is by becoming herenow as the whole of existence as it is beyond our commonly limited and biased personal experience of it, that we free ourselves from suffering. Nirvana is when we experience our own existence as being completely in harmony with existence as a whole becoming over time, with natura naturans. ~ @advayavada
question I wonder what your support for this interpretation of humans experiencing Nature as progress might be. There’s abundant evidence in media of various sorts — good, bad, or indifferent in quality — of people who contrarily do not experience the overall course of Nature as progressive at all, but instead as destructive and teleologically negative, especially today in conditions of global warming, cyclones, tornados, earthquakes, oceans rising, meteorites, and so on.
answer If you look closely, all those unpleasantnesses you mention do not pertain to overall existence at all but are the result of mistaken views, immorality and mismanagement. When we say how man experiences the course of Nature we of course mean man unencumbered by these contingent shortcomings and mistakes that impair his vision, understanding and accomplishments – the reference standard is overall existence and not failing mankind.
question I would agree with you that the objective of the Middle Way is to reconcile us with existence. Or to be more precise, it helps to understand life as it is. This is a condition for being to go forwards. However we are influenced by many things like greed, hatred and ignorance. These can take us backwards. The way to go forwards then is to develop the Eightfold Path. Or rather the Eightfold Path develops when there are conditions for its development. These conditions are the intellectual understanding of the Eightfold Path.
answer You are asked to accept the preeminence of existence over mankind, and that existence cannot, by definition, be anything but just right as it is, and that the Eightfold Path is an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of existence as a whole becoming over time. We must not see the Buddha’s Middle Way devoid of extremes as an attitude or method that will enable us e.g. ‘to escape from the realities of life’ or ‘to make it somehow in spite of things’, but we must understand the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching correctly as the means to reconnect and reconcile us with wondrous overall existence as a whole as it truly is. We must, in fact, accept that to live the way existence as a whole is, and not some idealized form of humanity, is what is to be sought after by men.
question I am not familiar with the term Advayavada.
answer We gave the name Advayavada Buddhism to the radical non-dual standpoint of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism to which we specifically adhere. A sound explanation of the term ‘advayavada’ can be found in for instance professor T.R.V. Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: “The sole concern of the Madhyamaka advaya-vada is the purification of the faculty of knowing. The primordial error consists in the intellect being infected by the inveterate tendency to view Reality as identity or difference, permanent or momentary, one or many etc. These views falsify reality, and the dialectic [of the Madhyamaka] administers a cathartic corrective. With the purification of the intellect, Intuition emerges; the Real is known as it is, as Tathata [advayata; non-dual suchness] or bhutakoti [reality-limit; the extreme limit beyond which there is nothing which can be known]. The emphasis is on the correct attitude of our knowing..” It is in this sense that we use the term ‘advayavada’.
question What you say seems to me to be an essential teaching of the Mahayana in its complete form. The Unborn Infinite Reality can never be less than Perfect and Whole, and is the True Essence of all Beings, and is ever present. All that is needed is that, in perfect simplicity, we turn to That, and realize that the human manifestation of life is just an imperfect reflexion of That. Simple! but not easy. That is the problem. If we realize what we are, how do we remember to continue to realize it moment by moment, rather than seeking to hold on to the vision of the past?
answer Everything is, indeed, as right as it can be, and the Middle Way devoid of extremes is a perfect reflexion of it at the human level. As for your question, our answer would be that you must see that ‘vision of the past’ for what it really is: a highly selective subjective recollection in the present of things no longer there – please understand that life only happens Now.
Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) on the rights of erroneous conscience (from Bayle vs. Spinoza on Toleration, by Edwin M. Curley, Mededelingen vanwege het Spinoza Huis #95, Voorschoten 2009)
[P]erhaps his most distinctive and interesting argument occurs quite late in the Commentaire [philosophique sur ces paroles de Jésus-Christ, constrains-les d’entrer], where he contends, in replying to an objection, that an erroneous conscience has the same rights as an enlightened conscience. Here’s a summary of this argument:
I. To say that your conscience judges an action to be good or evil is the same as saying that your conscience judges it to be pleasing or displeasing to God. (Volume II of Pierre Bayle, Ouvres diverses, ed. Elisabeth Labrousse [OD II], p.422b; Pierre Bayle, Ouvres diverses, ed. John Kilcullen and Chandran Kukathas [KK], p.220)
II. If a man’s conscience tells him that an action is evil and displeasing to God, and he nevertheless does it anyway, he acts with the intent of offending and disobeying God. (OD II, 422b-423a; KK, 220)
III.Whoever acts with the intent of offending and disobeying God necessarily sins.
IV. So, if a man’s conscience tells him that an action is evil and displeasing to God, and he nevertheless does it anyway, he necessarily sins. Or more succinctly: whatever is done against the dictates of conscience is a sin. (OD II, 422b; KK, 220)
Bayle recognizes that this argument will not be persuasive to an atheist, but that may not be a problem for his purposes. His primary opponents are Christians, who may not be troubled by the theistic aspects of his assumptions. I presume most Christians – and most theists in general – would readily grant that if you act with the intent of offending and disobeying God, you sin. The first premise of Bayle’s argument will be more controversial. As he formulates it, it requires a commitment to what we might call ‘analytic theological voluntarism’, the theory that the meaning of ethical terms is to be analyzed by using the concepts of what is or is not pleasing to God. Many Christian philosophers would grant that Plato’s Euthyphro showed that analysis of ethical language to be faulty. But perhaps there is a way of reformulating I [the first premise] which would avoid the commitment to voluntarism.
[Note: According to Advayavada Buddhism, what human beings experience and identify as good, right or beneficial, indeed as progress, is, in fact, that which takes place in the otherwise indifferent direction that wondrous overall existence flows in of its own accord.]
To understand Advayavada Buddhism it is necessary to accept in the first place the preeminence of wondrous overall existence over mankind and that existence cannot, by definition, be anything but just right as it is. Secondly, that the objective of the Middle Way, being the correct existential attitude expounded by the Buddha, is the abandonment of all fixed views and to reconnect and reconcile us with wondrous overall existence – indeed, that in its dynamic Eightfold Path form, the Middle Way is an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of wondrous overall existence becoming over time. Now, as the Eightfold Path leads us towards better and better, it follows, inductively if you will, that, in human terms, existence as a whole becomes over time towards better and better as well. Inversely, we experience as good, right or wholesome those events which are in agreement with the overall indifferent pattern and direction of existence – it is for this reason that they are experienced thus. The reference standard, you see, is wondrous overall existence. It is not mankind, with its various civilizations and plagues, let alone, however well intentioned, our subjective sense of relative beauty.
question Do you not agree that the vast common ground shared by all people without exception everywhere is predominantly secular? Is it not crucial to develop awareness in society of this fact so that it may become the universally accepted basis for conflict prevention and resolution all over the world?
answer The common ground shared by all ‘isms’ is indeed essentially secular or non-religious. Whether they admit to it or not, all religions and beliefs contain and share a very large secular, nonmetaphysical component. Take, say, the universal struggle against evil, caring for our children or, more simply, eating. We must all eat, whatever our religion or belief. The need to eat, the biological requirement to nourish ourselves, obviously belongs to the neutral common ground of all people without exception. Now, some people say grace before eating. Clearly, only this ritual of saying grace can be said to belong in any way legitimately to the particular religious belief involved, but certainly not the basic need to eat as such. The universal need to eat pertains entirely to the shared secular component we speak of, and it is in our view quite presumptuous for any religion to interfere with this natural human necessity and others, like clothing and sexuality, which all obviously belong unconditionally to the whole of existence. (cf. radical mediocrity)
We therefore say ‘First our common ground, then our religion or belief’, and the ten principles underpinning all our Foundation’s initiatives all essentially belong to, and sustain, the common ground we speak of. They are, for your ready reference, the following unequivocal principles of (1) the secular state; (2) a multicultural society; (3) liberal democratic government; (4) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (5) gender equality and education for all; (6) fair trading and sharing; (7) non-violence and peace; (8) Common Ground conflict resolution; (9) the care for health and environment; and (10) international cooperation and solidarity.
question The human community cannot reclaim its common ground until it can move religion completely off of the property. The various religions of the world are sitting directly on top of it, having hijacked the common ground from its rightful owners. I am referring to the community property of morality and ethics and to the common cause and condition that is fully addressed by the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path and The Four Signs of Being of Buddhism and certain other secular sources of practical wisdom.
answer Though officially less radical than you, deep in his heart the writer could not agree more – what religion as the main rationale for the present socio-economic organisation of humanity is doing to his beautiful world, to the only world we have, is a source of much pain to him. Nevertheless, he of course accepts and supports that, as stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; that this right includes freedom to change his or her religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, worship and observance’. When we speak of a multicultural society we indeed mean one freely allowing cultural and religious pluralism and diversity of choice.
question What is ‘radical mediocrity’?
answer La condition humaine postmoderne (Henk Oosterling), utopia vulgaris (John Willemsens). Radical mediocrity, as we understand the term, is our common ground with the cultural overlay caused by our dependency on modern media (tools and appliances, travel, communication, and access to information) which stifles our individuality and, with it, our critical ability. Some see the concept ‘radical mediocrity’ more positively, as having a potential for a new kind of person, an ‘interbeing’ or ‘zwischenmensch’, a ‘dividual’, instead of an ‘individual’, the challenge being to uncover and develop the spiritual and creative dimension of such a postmodern society – the core of radical mediocrity would be affirmative because ‘we want to be connected to all others’. (cf. Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching, which propounds the opposite.)
question How do we know about the world? Via the body, perception, sense consciousness and so on, all dependent on this embodied state. But how seldom our awareness rests within this body; how seldom the body and mind are at ease with themselves. We seldom think about our bodies; they are something given. When they work well and provide us with pleasure and happiness, we are satisfied with them and then ignore them. Only when they stop working properly, do we attend to them, and then only as a teacher to an errant pupil; we are angry and disappointed that they have failed us. We have a strangely ambivalent attitude to something so vital to us. It’s not like our relationship with a car; we can’t go out and hire or buy another one when it breaks down; yet we often treat our cars with more care and consideration.
We are born into this body, and when it dies, we die. But does one choose this body or decide its dimensions? Is one even able fully to control it? Can one choose when one wakes, goes to sleep, is ill, is healthy? No, most of what occurs with respect to the body is involuntary. We know, for example, that the body has various repair mechanisms, but it is very rare that we can set these in motion ourselves. Is this what we are, these arms, these legs, this head, eyes, teeth? With modern techniques, an awful lot of it can be made prosthetically. And so what are we? The bit that remains? The brain, two ears and so on? Or is this perhaps not how it is at all, not what we are at all? If the body were simply us, we would have a great deal more to say in the matter!
answer The lion’s share of our body’s activities is fortunately under the control of our peripheral nervous system, which includes the autonomic nervous system. ‘The sensory nerve fibres of the peripheral system carry impulses from e.g. the ear or the skin to the brain, and its motor nerve fibres carry impulses from the brain to e.g. our skeletal muscles. The autonomic nervous system comprises a sympathetic and a parasympathetic system which counterbalance each other. Together they run, for example, our heart rate and the flow of blood through our blood vessels, the contractions of our digestive tract, the ever-changing size of the pupil of the eye, the dilation and constriction of our bronchii, etc.’ We do not think that you would want to have a conscious say in these matters.
You will agree that these nervous systems carry out very complicated and, above all, indispensable and irreplaceable functions. But the relevant fact in the present context is that the systems are things (that belong to the rupa skandha) and what they carry out are not things but activities, processes (that belong to the arupa skandhas). A thing and what that thing does are not two things; they are a thing and an, its, activity or function, and an activity is an event, not a thing. It is for this same reason that Advayavada Buddhism stresses again and again that the mind is not a separate thing but one more function of the body; the mind is to think (and consciousness is to know) and to think is not a thing but an activity, a process, which is an event, not a thing. A mind that is in any way a thing separate from the body, and moreover carries out activities on its own and by itself, is an atman or pudgala, or a soul. To propound that such a thing exists, as you seem to do, contravenes the Buddha’s most basic anatman teaching.
Bearing in mind that the traditional khandhas or skandhas theory is but a very rudimentary presupposition of the actual physiological processes, earlier on we had this to say about the skandhas in this respect: The skandhas in fact do nothing – they are the doing. The cluster of physical existence is the rupa skandha. Also this cluster does nothing – it is physical existence in all its aspects. The four or so non-physical skandhas [traditionally sensations or feelings (vedana), perception (samjña, sañña), mental forces or formations (samskara, sankhara), and consciousness (vijñana, viññana)] are clusters or aggregates of functions, which are events – they denote how the rupa skandha is over time. The rupa skandha does not cause these events, it is them. Like when we say that a tree grows. The tree does not do the growing; it is the growing. This is how the tree is, how it exists in space and time. The growing of the tree is quite obviously an event, and not a thing, let alone a separate thing capable of in turn doing other things by itself. We owe the cohesion and activity of the rupa skandha to the spontaneous incessant dynamic principle of existence: the interdependent and conditioned co-arising or interdependent origination or universal dynamic relativity of all phenomena, called pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit.
important note Advayavada Buddhism supports the view that consciousness (to know) is a biological phenomenon. All living beings – plants, animals and humans – experience the world in their own ways. Each organism engages in a creative relationship with the external world, bringing forth a myriad of different ways of knowing, whereby the physiology of the organism changes accordingly (immanently) in the process.
question In what you say in your web pages there is a flavor of some sort of an underlying absolute reality. In some sense, of course, that must be true. As we investigate reality, we might imagine ourselves digging deeper and deeper into its fundamental reality. Absolute reality would be like the center of the earth – maybe it is beyond the capacity of human language to express, but there it is all the same. The contrasting view I prefer is more like probing out into space. The more we investigate, the vaster the universe appears. Eventually maybe we realize that space is boundless and that our investigations will be limited only by how far we push them.
answer The results of that digging or probing, however sophisticated, still belong to conventional truth. They are only so many more conventional ontological facts, about phenomena, that one has been able to collect. They do not belong to an underlying reality nor do they have an underlying reality themselves. There is in Advayavada Buddhism no underlying reality, separate from phenomena, to be investigated. What we are after is ultimate truth. It is as a result of the purification of our perception of the phenomenal world, indeed at the level of conventional truth, that we shall come to understand the significance of ultimate truth. Nirvana is to experience the phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth – to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction of all suffering as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is.
question Nagarjuna says something like this: “However confused people are who take ordinary appearances as substantially existent, even more confused are those who take emptiness as substantially existent.” So how can we be after something that is not a thing at all? I think of absolute truth, of emptiness, as something like the inevitable ungraspability of things. And it isn’t just ordinary things that are ungraspable. Also Buddhahood and emptiness are ultimately ungraspable. Emptiness simply already is, it’s the nature of everything already, completely and thoroughly. But I nevertheless have the bad habit of grasping at things as if they were ultimately graspable, and I suffer and create suffering for others because of the incompatibility of my actions with the way things actually are. I need to bring myself into harmony with the nature of things, with their ungraspability, which is inseparable from their mutual interdependence.
answer To realize what in Advayavada Buddhism we term ‘to become a true part of the whole’ one must follow the Eightfold Path. In Advayavada Buddhism the Path is interpreted dynamically as a fully autonomous process of progressive insight and, let us clarify further here, as strictly non-dual and non-comparative, this in the sense that it bears no reference at all to anything predetermined by others or oneself. A prescriptive method with preset demands and expectations is antithetical to all progress, both of the individual and the group to which he or she belongs. The Path is moreover not seen in Advayavada Buddhism as a means to become something in the future, but as the way to become as something rightaway in the herenow. It is seen as the way to become oneself herenow as existence interdependently becoming over time now in its overall right direction – it is by becoming herenow as the whole of existence as it is beyond our commonly limited and biased personal experience of it, that we free ourselves from suffering. Nirvana is when we experience our own existence as being completely in harmony with existence as a whole becoming over time, with natura naturans – Nirvana is, if you wish, the ultimate reconciliation with his or her Buddha-nature achievable by man.
question We normally wander around sensing that phenomena are imbued with their own self-possessed selfness that marks them to be what they are, independent of anything else. We innately and intellectually perceive them to exist from their own side alone, self-established and intrinsically identifiable. They may be related or interact with other phenomena, but we generally see them to contain their own distinguishing identity. Doctrinally and experientially this is the selfness that is refuted in Buddhism. Emptiness (shunyata) is the non-affirming negation of such inherent selfness. Emptiness is a negation that only negates without affirming some other possibility. It is not someplace occupied by mystics and seers. It is not a state of mind where no thoughts echo. It is not something we can detect by staring at things hard enough. In no way is anything else asserted. Also emptiness is empty. Teachings and meditators hold that emptiness can be perceived directly, but nowhere do they assert that emptiness becomes a something. Emptiness is the absence of what seemed to be obviously manifest.
answer Well said. The fully liberated person has two truths at his or her disposal: the conventional everyday relative or ‘veiled’ truth (samvriti-satya) of the phenomenal world and the ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) of its pure, unblemished becoming, its Emptiness. We say that it is as a result of the purification of our perception of the phenomenal world, at the level of conventional truth, that we shall come to understand the significance of ultimate truth. Nirvana is to experience the phenomenal world at this level of ultimate truth – to experience the phenomenal world thus, brings about the complete extinction (nirodha) of all suffering (duhkha, dukkha) as a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is. Note, however, and always bear in mind, that man is the only being able to eventually view and experience reality under this aspect of eternity. In other words, Nirvana is a human concept.