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 Emptiness of Phenomena is not Nonexistence (Garfield)

The Emptiness of Phenomena is not Nonexistence (from Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, by Jay L. Garfield, in Buddhist Philosophy, Essential Readings, edited by William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield, Oxford and New York 2009)

That all phenomena are dependently originated is the heart of Buddhist ontological theory. In the Mahayana tradition, this dependency is spelled out in three ways: all phenomena are dependent for their existence on complex networks of causes and conditions; a dollar bill, for instance, is dependent on the printing press that printed it, the miners who extracted the ore out of which the metal for the press was smelted, the trees that were pulped for the paper, the United States Treasury, and so on. All wholes are dependent on their parts, and parts on the wholes they help make up. The dollar bill depends for its existence on the particles of paper and ink that constiture it but also, for its existence as a dollar bill, on the entire economic system in which it figures. Finally, all phenomena are dependent for their identities on conceptual imputation. The dollar bill is only a dollar bill, as opposed to a bookmark, because the United States Treasury so designates it. To exist, according to Buddhist metaphysics [sic], simply is to exist dependently in these senses, and hence to be merely conventionally existent.

To exist dependently is, importantly, to be empty of essence. For a Madhyamika, like Nagarjuna, this emptiness of essence is the final mode of existence of any phenomenon, its ultimate truth. For to have an essence is to exist independently, to have one’s identity and to exist not in virtue of extrinsic relations, but simply in virtue of intrisic properties. Because all phenomena are interdependent, all are empty in this sense. Just as the conventional truth about phenomena is made up by their interdependence, their ultimate truth is their emptiness. These are the two truths that Nagarjuna adumbrates throughout his corpus.

It follows immediately that the emptiness of all phenomena that Nagarjuna defends is not nonexistence: to be empty of essence is not to be empty of existence. Instead, to exist is to be empty. It also follows that emptiness is not a deeper truth hidden behind a veil of illusion. The emptiness of any phenomenon is dependent of the existence of that phenomenon, and on its [inter]dependence, which is that in which its essenceless consists. Emptiness is itself dependent, and hence [also] empty. This doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness, and of the identity of interdependence, or conventional truth, and emptiness, or ultimate truth, is Nagarjuna’s deepest philosophical achievement. The two truths are different from one another in that the ultimate is the object of enlightened knowledge and liberating, while the conventional is apprehended by ordinary people through mundane cognitive processes. Nonetheless, they are in a deep sense identical. To be empty of essence is simply to exist only conventionally. The conditions of conventional existence are interdependence and impermanence, which, as we have seen, for Nagarjuna, entail essencelessness.

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 As a Christian moral philosopher, I find very obvious evidence of sin entering the subconscious minds of humans as habits of thoughts and actions which become psychologically conditioned over time with positive reinforcements causing humans to do destructive things which are not rational. Buddhists of course do not see any such problem. That nihilism is not credible, and it promotes the problem instead of overcoming it.

answer Advayavada Buddhism maintains that by following a Path such as the Middle Way as taught by us one is able to return to the fold of an overall existence which, expressed purely in terms of human perception and experience, is undeniably sequential and dynamic in the sense of ever becoming better than before. It is an extraordinary teaching, with enormous societal implications, because the Buddhist Path is, of course, applicable, not only to individuals as you and I, but to societies as well. As things stand now, however, humanity lacks the qualities required to govern itself properly, and this fact is at present very much aggravated by the prevailing dumbing-down tendency undermining the entire Western world.

question Is it not quite apparent that there is a sin problem which is not being solved – in Buddhism as well as every place else?

answer The shambles humanity is in is, indeed, the result of sin and ignorance. The recurrence of genocide is particularly sad and disappointing. But we must be careful not to become a carrier of sin and part of the problem ourselves by refusing to place our trust in the whole, by whatever name you wish to identify it, and in the resilient natural goodness of our Buddha-nature – the major religions and beliefs, which cynically cultivate and live off the failings of humanity, including their own, are unfortunately on the rise again. Our own clear and important message and invocation is instead one of reconciliation with the wonders of overall existence. Nirvana, which is there for all, is indeed when we experience our own existence in the present moment as being completely in tune with existence as a whole becoming over time now in its right direction – the total extinction of all suffering is a direct result of our full reconciliation with reality as it truly is beyond our commonly limited and biased, and all too often sadly deluded, personal experience of it.

question I’m curious to know how dependent origination, pratityasamutpada, fits in with your idea of progress as the fourth sign of being.

answer Interdependent origination is how wondrous overall existence becomes over time. “Dependent origination is the explicability and coherence of the universe. Its emptiness is the fact that there is no more to it than that” (Jay L. Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, New York 1995). Now karma, as we see it, is our share of interdependent origination at the sentient level, including personal choices and responsibility – karma is, so to say, our stake in incessant pratityasamutpada, and what we feel and experience as good, right, wholesome, and beneficial, indeed as progress, is that which accords with the overall, otherwise indifferent, direction of existence becoming over time. The Taoist sage follows the Tao by imitating Nature – the Advayavadin understands the Noble Eightfold Path as nothing less than an ongoing reflexion at the human level, and in human terms, of the whole of existence becoming over time: the Advayavadin sees the Buddha as the prophet of existence as it truly is, as it truly is beyond our own commonly limited and biased personal experience of it.