“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Object-Oriented Buddhism 28: The Specter of Nothingness

The going meta syndrome that I outline in a recent post is synchronized with Buddhaphobia. I find this more than a little interesting. I've thought for a while that the fear of Buddhism often has to do with an anxiety about a nothingness that is the West's own shadow, projected. This seems to put some meat on those bones.

Most conversations I've had about Buddhism recently, with scholars that is, have tended to involve assertions (by them) that Buddhism is claiming that this pencil doesn't exist, that in absolute reality it's just not there. I've been disagreeing, vehemently. The tendency to glorify the absolute over the relative is nihilism, pure and simple. A bad case of meta disease.


Ogmin said...

These nihilist-tending scholars you spoke with are very likely proponents of Prasangika Madhyamaka, one of the 'outer' forms of the Middle Way, a useful preliminary in discriminating between the true nature and delusion. The ultimate reality of the pencil is beyond dualistic categorizations such as existence and non-existence.

Atomic Geography said...

I believe he Gelupa school differs at least with the other Tibetan B schools on this point. Gelugpas i believe assert that the "2 truths" are compatible while the others assert they are not ie conventional reality is only deceptive in therms of ultimate reality.

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Bob! Actually, it's the Gelugpas who emphasize emptiness (ultimate). See my essay "Hegel on Buddhism":


Timothy Morton said...

Craig--There is a kind of tendency there. But I was thinking more of Hegel and Zizek's distorted view.

Atomic Geography said...

Tim, I've read your essay and enjoyed it a great deal.

For a more compete treatment of this particular issue I've found "The Two Truths Debate" Sonam Thakchoe useful.

Much depends on one's understanding of "exist". Emphasizing ultimate emptiness is not "non-existence" in the Gelugpa view. The basis of designation exists, simply not in an impossible way.

craig's comment reflet I think a non-Gelugpa view of the matter (the characterization of PM as "outer". I think the Gelupga view would find the non-duality not in the negation of the conventional, but in the compatbility of the conventional and ultimate.

On this point, I think it is necessary to refer to the lineage one is referring to before roceding.

I think this point contributed to some of the lack of nuance in our earlier discussion.

Timothy Morton said...

Oh, thanks!

skholiast said...

I see the allure of the meta-move, which is why I appreciate having it diagnosed all the more. However, can we not lay this all (in the west, anyway) at the door of Hegel, whose dialectic is all about stepping back, stepping up over the either/or, to some new mountaintop which need not concern itself with all those mere dichotomous positions? By which I mean, isn't it possible to critique "neither existent nor non-existent" as, well, a bit meta?

Atomic Geography said...

Tim, I've continued to think about this, so some thoughts.

I'm not sure how clear I was in my last comment. Gelugpas do indeed emphasize emptiness and this is why the conventional and ultimate are compatible. The ultimate is jsut as empty of inherent existence as the conventional. So Mind has an equal existence as your favorite pencil.

The other schools see this presenting the danger of not adequately accounting for Mind, therefore the possibility of falling into nihilism. The perceived danger of nihilism has nothing to do with the non-existence of your favorite pencil, but possibly of Mind.

The other schools emphasize the qualities of Mind as definitive. I'm wondering if your scholars were of this view. If so they might say that things that exist conventionally are in fact non-existent, that only Mind exists in a non-impossible way. Which, from what you wrote, you would see as nihilistic.

If my summary is correct, I find it quite interesting that your view attributes nihilism to the non-Gelugpa schools while the potential fault traditionally attributed to them is that they may fall into eternalism.

It is also worthwhile to point out the all the schools of TB agree that whatever differences they have, they all arrive at the same point.

A disclaimer: I'm not a scholar. I'm sure the precise language your sources used is important. So my comments may be entirely off point. And of course I may have completely misunderstood everything I've talked about here.

And if I may, a small joke. If as you say, Nature doesn't exist, does that mean we should refer to Buddha Ecology?

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Bob,

I'm not convinced the Gelugpas do hold this view. It sounds more like Yogachara to me, or Chittamatra.

Timothy Morton said...

...which means it tends more towards eternalism than nihilism...