Contradictions to be taken literally… (Deguchi c.s.)

Contradictions meant to be taken literally, be accepted, and as unambiguous (from The Way of the Dialetheist: Contradictions in Buddhism, by Yasuo Deguchi, Jay L. Garfield and Graham Priest, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, July 2008)

We have seen that there are various ways in which apparent contradictions in Buddhist discourses may be defused. And some contradictions, as we have seen, are best defused in this way. But we have also seen that contradictions may not always be defused by these mechanisms. Indeed, the discussion has taken us to the point of seeing why some contradictions in some Buddhist texts cannot be defused. To suppose that one ought to defuse them would be to misunderstand.

There are no ultimate truths. As we have put is before [elsewhere]: “Ultimate truths are those about ultimate reality. But since everything is empty, there is no ultimate reality. There are, therefore, no ultimate truths. We can get at the same conclusion another way. To express anything in language is to express truth that depends on language, and so this cannot be an expression of the way that things are ultimately. All truths, then, are merely conventional.”

If Buddhists were content merely to point mutely to ultimate reality, there would be nothing more to be said. But they are not. They explain how conventional reality is simply the imposition of conventional conceptual categories on ultimate reality, and they explain the delusion about the nature of ultimate reality to which this gives rise. In the very process, they describe certain things about ultimate reality. The indescribable is described; indeed, even to say that is is indescribable is to describe it. In this respect, Buddhism is akin to any of a number of positions that claim that there is an ineffable reality, and then go on to explain why this is so, in the process, saying things about that reality. The phenomenon is to be found, for example, in Neoplatonism, in Advaita Vedanta, and in Heidegger on Being.

It could be said that such descriptions are simply upaya, to be jettisoned as soon as one can appreciate the nature of ultimate reality directly. Although they might be seen in this way, this would not do justice to the texts. The texts in question are simply too carefully reasoned and too explicit, and are read by their commentators as correct. There is indeed a difference recognized in all Mahayana Buddhist traditions between, on the one hand, the conceptually mediated, and hence indirect, apprehension of ultimate reality that one obtains through reasoning and discursive practices, and, on the other hand, the immediate, direct, perception of emptiness that is the goal of meditative practice. However, the object of these two modes of apprehension is the same: emptiness, which is identical with [inter]dependent origination – the ultimate truth, which is in turn identical with the conventional truth properly understood. The descriptions of ultimate reality, however thin they may be, and however imperfectly they capture the object of yogic direct perception, are, nonetheless, taken to be veridical. And again, since the things claimed about ultimate reality are often contradictory to things claimed about conventional reality, if these two things are ultimately the same reality it is a contradictory one.

It might be suggested that although such contradictions are true, their truth is incomprehensible. Such truths, in this view, have the deictic function of ostending the incomprehensibility of ultimate reality, but cannot themselves be understood. This view concedes our point that such contradictions are intended as true, but we do not concede the view that they are incomprehensible. Those who hold that contradictions are always and obviously only false will of course find supposing them to be true incomprehensible. However, despite various orthodoxies, East and West, the view that some contradictions are true is a perfectly coherent and intelligible view, as modern studies in dialetheism and paraconsistency have established.

Buddhism is about Solving a Problem (Garfield)

Buddhism is about Solving a Problem (from Taking Conventional Truth Seriously, by Jay L. Garfield, in Moonshadows – Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy, by The Cowherds, Oxford 2011)

Buddhism is about solving a problem – the problem of the omnipresence of suffering – and the central intuition of Buddhism is that the solution to that problem is the extirpation of ignorance. Epistemology is located at the foundation of morality and gets its point just from that location. The mechanism of the extirpation of ignorance is the competent use of our authorative epistemic instruments. What that use delivers is hence, at least indirectly, always of soteriological significance – always instrumental to liberation. Inasmuch as that is the central moral virtue, and inasmuch as epistemology is so tightly bound to the soteriological project, it is also the central epistemic virtue, and what we call the goal of epistemic activity is truth. Conventional truth is hence no to truth as blunderbusses are to buses or as fake guns are to real guns but rather is simply one kind of truth.

One of the Buddha’s deepest insights was that there are two truths and that they are very different from one another. They are the objects of different kinds of cognition, and they reflect different aspects of reality. They are apprehended at different stages of practice. Despite the importance of the apprehension of ultimate truth, one can’t skip the conventional. Despite the soteriological efficacy of ultimate truth, even after Buddhahood, omniscience and compassion require the apprehension of the conventional.

Nagarjuna’s deepest insight was that, despite the vast difference between the two truths in one sense, they are, in an equally important sense, identical. We can now make better sense of that identity and of why the fact of their identityis the same fact as that of their difference. Ultimate reality is, as we know, emptiness. Emptiness is the emptiness not of existence but of intrinsic existence. To be empty of intrinsic existence is to exist only conventionally, only as the object of conventional truth. The ultimate truth about any phenomenon, on this analysis, is hence that it is merely a conventional truth. Ontologically therefore, the two truths are absolutely identical. This is the content of the idea that the two truths have a single basis: That basis is empty phenomena.Their emptiness is their conventional reality; their conventional reality is their emptiness.

Nonetheless, to know phenomena conventionally is not to know them ultimately. As objects of knowledge – that is, as intentional contents of thought, as opposed to mere phenomena – they are objects of different kinds of knowledge despite the identity at a deeper level of those objects. Hence the difference. But the respect in which they are different and that in which they are identical are, despite their difference, also identical. A mirage is deceptive because it is a refraction pattern, and it is the nature of a refraction pattern to be visually deceptive. The conventional truth is merely deceptive and conventional because, upon ultimate analysis, it fails to exist as it appears – that is, because it is ultimately empty. It is the nature of the conventional to deceive. Ultimately, since all phenomena, even ultimate truth, exist only conventionally, conventional truth is all the truth there is, and that is an ultimate and therefore a conventional truth. To fail to take conventional truth seriously as truth is therefore not only to deprecate the conventional in favor of the ultimate but also the deprecate truth per se. That way lies suffering.

The Doctrine of Pratitya-samutpada (Narain)

The doctrine of pratitya-samutpada (from The Madhyamika Mind, by Prof. Harsh Narain, Delhi 1997)

The doctrine of universal relativity (pratitya-samutpada) is the stepping stone to the doctrine of sunyata. The knowledge of the former at once leads to the knowledge of the latter. Their relation is so intimate that Nagarjuna has no hesitation in identifying the two. He observes, “What is relativity we call sunyata. It [sunyata] is relative being (upadaya prajñapti). It is the middle path”. This proposition is pregnant with implications. The Madhyamika turned pratitya-samutpada, literally and originally conditioned/dependent origination, into pratitya-samutpada as dependent or relative being, as relativity. He had better replace the term with pratitya-samutpapada. In this sense, however, he expresses pratitya-samutpada otherwise as upadaya-prañapti (relative appearance, relative being, relativity). In fact, pratitya-samutpada, which emerged in the Pali canon as a theory of causation, became at the Madhyamika´s hands tantamount to a veritable denial of causation. Indeed, Nagarjuna´s verdict is that what has come into being through causes and conditions has in fact not come into being at all, and, since it has not come into being, it is sunya, void, pure and simple. It is significant that Candrakirti interprets pratitya-samutpada to mean ´non-origination by nature´ (svabhavenanutpadah).

Nagarjuna’s suggestion is that his denial of the world does not imply belief in another order of reality like the Absolute, immanent in or transcendent to phenomena. It is quite in conformity to the spirit of the Prajñaparamita texts, which refuse to set sunyata over against the dharmas and to acknowledge positive knowledge of any such reality in the highest wisdom conceived by them. Nagarjuna himself expresses the view that sunyata is nothing other than existents and that there is no existent without sunyata. Advayavajra follows suit. Prajñakaramati expresses himself categorically against the attempt to install sunyata over against the realm of being: “Sunyata is not different from being, for being itself is of the nature of that; otherwise, in the event of sunyata’s being different from being, there would be no essencelessness of the dharmas.”

The Conventional Reality of Phenomena (Garfield)

The Conventional Reality of Phenomena (from The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, by Prof. Jay L. Garfield, New York 1995)

The central topic of Mulamadhyamakakarika (literally Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) is ‘emptiness’ – the Buddhist technical term for the lack of independent existence, inherent existence, or essence in things. Nagarjuna relentlessly analyzes phenomena or processes that appear to exist independently and argues that they cannot so exist, and yet, though lacking the inherent existence imputed to them either by naive common sense or by sophisticated realistic philosophical theory, these phenomena are not nonexistent – they are, he argues, conventionally real.

This dual thesis of the conventional reality of phenomena together with their lack of inherent existence depends upon the complex doctrine of the two truths or two realities – a conventional or nominal truth and an ultimate truth – and upon a subtle and surprising doctrine regarding their relation. It is, in fact, this sophisticated development of the doctrine of the two truths as a vehicle for understanding Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology that is Nagarjuna’s greatest philosophical contribution. If the analysis in terms of emptiness is the substantive heart of Mulamadhyamakakarika, the method of reductio ad absurdum is the methodological core. Nagarjuna, like Western sceptics, systematically eschews the defense of positive metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of things, arguing rather that any such positive thesis is incoherent and that, in the end, our conventions and our conceptual framework can never be justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an independent reality. Rather, he suggests, what counts as real depends precisely on our conventions (though in the end, as we shall see, ultimate reality depends on our conventions in a way, it depends on our conventions in a very different way from that in which conventional reality does; despite this difference in the structure of the relation between convention and reality in the two cases, however, it remains a distinctive feature of Nagarjuna’s system that it is impossible to speak coherently of reality independent of conventions).

For Nagarjuna and his followers this point [that what counts as real depends on our conventions] is connected deeply and directly with the emptiness of phenomena. That is, for instance, when a Madhyamika philosopher says of a table that it is empty, that assertion by itself is incomplete. It invites the question: empty of what? And the answer is: empty of inherent existence, or self-nature, or, in more Western terms, essence. Now, to say that the table is empty is hence simply to say that it lacks essence and importantly not to say that it is completely nonexistent. To say that it lacks essence, the Madhyamika philosopher will explain, is to say, as the Tibetans like to put it, that is does not exist ‘from its own side’ – that its existence as the object that it is – as a table – depends not on it, nor on any purely nonrelational characteristics, but depends on us as well. That is, if our culture had not evolved this manner of furniture, what appears to us to be an obviously unitary object might instead be correctly described as five objects: four quite useful sticks absurdly surmounted by a pointless slab of stick-wood waiting to be carved!

More Questions and Answers

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.

More Questions and Answers

question Your contention that “the absolute and phenomena” are “exactly the same thing” but “observed subjectively from a different perspective” is reminiscent of Japanese Tendai’s hongaku thought, the chief characteristic of which is world-affirmation (genjitsu kotei). The major problematic of this doctrine, as you are aware, is that identity (advaya) amounts to the equivocation of phenomena with enlightenment – a quasi-pantheism. On the other hand, some Buddhists argue that identity takes place at the level of final enlightenment, sub specie aeternitatis. After a careful reading of your letters, I must assume that the so-called advayic identity of “absolute and phenomena” takes place at a phenomenal level for you, which I take is your position. By analogy, you are postulating that grasses and trees realize Buddhahood because of the identity (advaya) of subject and its environment. Yet it is easy to see that “grasses and trees” remain such as the environment remains such, neither losing its separate identity. How therefore is this identity, seems puzzling? In what way are even the grasses and trees identical? How is the sky identical with the trees and so on? I apologize if I am not making myself very clear. I enjoy our correspondence. We are like two old fools playing chess in the park!

answer Your closing remark, which made us laugh very much over here, is very zenny and almost like a haiku. Two old fools playing chess in the park, indeed! We are very grateful for your pleasant and forthcoming attitude. We are also enjoying this correspondence very much.

Tendai Buddhism, you might agree, risks becoming in the end, as a result of the exaggerated syncretistic zeal of its followers, no more than a well-meant ontological fantasy. The non-dual and life-affirming philosophy and way of life that we call Advayavada Buddhism is, on the other hand, purely an epistemological standpoint. In accordance with the doctrine of shunyata all distinctions are understood to be fundamentally illusory and artificial – dualisms as Nirvana and Samsara, or absolute and phenomena, are revealed as figments of our imagination. The term advaya in Advayavada means not-two in the sense of knowing that objectively there are not two realities nor two conditions or aspects of reality. When we say that Samsara and Nirvana are the same thing, we do not mean that they are identical in the sense of being two-but-the-same, as is meant by the Hindu term advaita, but that they are simply not two, that they are very literally one-and-the-same thing: rather simply put, Samsara is the name we give to reality as experienced conventionally and Nirvana is the name we give to the same one reality but as experienced by the fully enlightened mind – this identity is, indeed, also the third truth of basic Tendai philosophy.

The tendency to view reality as two is a result of our fundamental ignorance of the true nature of reality, as professor Murti writes in The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The Spinozean expression sub specie aeternitatis is frequently used by Buddhists to indicate that we would see for ourselves that there are not two realities if we were able to view existence from the completely non-conceptual standpoint of eternity. We can however ascertain rightnow, as indeed Madhyamaka proves, that there is no basis whatsoever to suppose that besides phenomena there is a second, transcendent and, moreover, superior reality. The specific purpose of Advayavada Buddhism, which literally means not-two-ism, is to actively propound the conclusions of Madhyamaka philosophy in this respect. Your grasses and trees are indeed two of the many different manifestations of vegetable life. Advayavada Buddhism does not maintain that they are identical phenomena; what Advayavada Buddhism maintains is that there is no reason at all to believe that there is a further second reality, invisible to the eye, parallel to these life forms or any other phenomena. In Advayavada Buddhism there are no other two than part and whole, numerator and denominator.

There are not two realities, but there are, Madhyamaka teaches, two ways of seeing, of experiencing, of understanding the one reality: there are two truths, conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya) and ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). In our everyday application of conventional truth, though we are aware of the intrinsic emptiness of all dharmas or phenomena since we know that all things are interdependently arisen and exist conceptually only by virtue of our idea of them or of their alleged opposite, we nevertheless do take into account and make use of the relative, conceptual aspects of phenomena in our commonplace interaction with other sentient beings and with our environment. As a matter of fact, the Noble Eightfold Path operates throughout exclusively at the level of conventional truth. As we advance along the Buddha’s Middle Way responding to his promise of Nirvana by ridding ourselves of the so-called ten fetters (dasha-, dasasamyojana) that restrict us to Samsara, the fallacies in our perception of Samsara are progressively transformed, purified first into conventional truth, and it is through conventional truth that we shall eventually come to understand the non-conceptual import of ultimate truth. The dialectic of Madhyamaka, with its exhaustive analysis of the nature of reality, indeed takes place at the level of conventional truth. By ultimate truth is meant our awareness of the underlying field of experience where all phenomena stripped of their relative aspects are known to happen: it is our insight into the void beyond all concepts. This field of experience where the real events are known to take place is that of non-dual emptiness, advayata, shunyata, the realm of prajña, non-dual, contentless intuition. To experience existence at this level, which we can truly say lies between the notions of being and non-being, is nothing less than Nirvana.

question What are those ten fetters you just mentioned?

answer In Advayavada Buddhism, the ten samyojana or fetters that restrict us to samsaric life are: 1) belief in the self, 2) scepticism regarding the Path, 3) attachment to rituals, 4) partiality for certain things, 5) prejudice against certain things, 6) clinging to physical life, 7) hope of a hereafter, eight) conceit and pride, 9) intolerance and irritability, and 10) the last remnants of our ignorance.

question Do I count three realms of experience in your description of the dvaya-satya doctrine: Samsara, conventional truth, and ultimate truth or Nirvana (more or less along the lines of the three kinds of knowledge in Spinoza: opinion, reason and intuition)?

answer Though Nagarjuna’s dvaya-satya teaching is very much a two-truths doctrine, as its Sanskrit name indicates, some aspects are comparable to Spinoza’s teaching. Our application in Advayavada Buddhism of this essential Madhyamika doctrine is as follows: Samsara is to experience the phenomenal world at the level of conventional everyday truth (samvriti-satya). However, our initial perception of the phenomenal world normally contains many fallacies (mithyasamvriti) and the conversion of these fallacies into true conventional truth (tathyasamvriti), by following the Noble Eightfold Path, occurs entirely within the realm of Samsara. At the same time the fetters that restrict us to Samsara are broken one by one. Ideally, our perception of Samsara becomes in the end wholly pure conventional truth, whilst all ten of the restraining fetters have also been shattered along the way. Now, it is as a result of this thorough 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. Ultimate truth (paramartha-satya) is truth divested of all our preconceptions, including eventually those expressed here. Nirvana is to understand and experience the one 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. The fully liberated person has continually at his or her disposal, then, two truths: the everyday conventional truth of the phenomenal world and the ultimate truth of its pure, unblemished becoming, its Emptiness.