“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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Buddhism, Nihilism, Objects 2

The conversation continues. Now with extra Marcus Boon!

Christopher Ireland: Oh yes, I'm much more rangtong than shentong, you are quite correct in your diagnosis. However, you are quite incorrect to suggest that shentong is the superior view. You may be interested in the following book chapter entitled "Is there such a thing as Shentong-Madhyamika?" written by the Kagyu scholar Karl Brunnhölzl:

In this vein I would thoroughly recommend Klaus-Dieter Mathes' "A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Gö Lotsawa’s Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga" for a very detailed analysis of rangtong and shentong within the Kagyu Mahamudra tradition.

In my opinion, to call the rangtong view nihilism is simply to misunderstand what Nagarjuna calls "the emptiness of emptiness". Once this is understood, appearances become very much easier to deal with, as when it becomes clear that there is nothing above, behind or beyond them one is not so distracted. As you yourself allude to, the accusation of nihilism towards rangtong is a symptom of 1), as this svabhava way of thinking can only conceive a negation of essence as an affirmation of its non-existence. This most certainly is not an issue of mine.

In my first reply to you, I asked you if position 3) was a reformulation of Yogacara. If you do read that chapter by Karl Brunnhölzl, you will see I was referring to shentong. So yes, I guess my original diagnosis of 3) has been confirmed.

So here we are, centuries later, still running around this old chestnut. Cool :)

Tim Morton: Hi--the rangtong view is not nihilism. But you veer close to it by saying that emptiness is the simple absence of anything. At least now we know where we stand and that I haven't forgotten Nagarjuna.

I must say I'm not convinced a Kagyü guy (being one myself) would argue that way, the way the author you mention does. I shall look at this.

One more thing though: if the glass is a mere illusion, how do you know it's an illusion? Isn't it the case that if the glass is just a manifestation of a deeper emptiness, which according to you is total nonexistence, then your perceiving mind doesn't exist either? How can you know anything real?

..and "the emptiness of emptiness" is Chandrakirti. I'm afraid he may agree with me that positing emptiness as anything (such as nonexistence, as you do), is to fall into theism or nihilism. This is why I use Prasangika Madhayamaka, as does Khenpo, who by the way is a Mahamudra master. The whole debate against the Gelugpas was that shentong was definitive. I don't need a scholar to tell me that!

...as for the Yogacharins, they stuck their middle fingers in wax and burned them down to the root to prove their faith in emptiness. By contrast, I am just a simple meditator. There's no need to go that far! So no, I'm not a Yogacharin, and I don't think the argument is particularly Yogacharin. But you seem to need to put me in a box.

Marcus Boon: A fascinating debate ... I don't have my books with me, so I can't check what KTG said in his Emptiness book. My understanding is that various people have associated Yogacara and Shentong because they share a belief in a kind of stainless or groundless ground of being -- the ocean of mind in the case of Yogacara, some kind of stainless awareness or thusness in the case of Shentong (Dolpopa talks about Shentong in terms of stained and unstained), The Prasangikas generally would say there is no essence and that the appearance of the object is just the coming together of causes and conditions through acts of designation or labelling. It's a tricky point, but I think generally a Prasangika would say that there is no object per se (since everything lacks self-existence), and no withdrawn object either, all you can speak of is an object that appears. That object which appears either has no essence since it appears in dependence on causes or conditions ... or ... well, Tim, you seem to be saying that the essence of the object is the way in which it appears. The way in which the object appears is empty of self-existence. Thus shunya ... and shunyatta. Khenpo Tsultrim's version of Shentong, if I recall, says that the Prasangika positions, outlined thus, is correct, but that there is a stainless ground there, which is the same as emptiness, therefore also the same as the relative forms which arise in/as emptiness ... but which appears as essence or ground to the advanced meditator. But ... he doesn't say that it's an object. And this is where I struggle with the OOO stuff ...if the object that appears "withdraws" or "dissolves" into emptiness ... then it's no longer an object. As soon as you posit it as a withdrawn object you're introducing a concept into something that's been defined in advance as being non-conceptual, because it's free of the stains of relative existence. You can't even call it "something" or "it" ... it's not ontic, or ontological ... but it's also not nothing.

Maybe we should be talking about a luminous awareness oriented ontology?

Note that most Prasangikas would say that KTG's assertions mean that he's not really a Prasangika Madhyamaka. I'm attracted to his point of view, as you are, Tim ...

C: It is a fascinating debate, and I most certainly intend it as an open ended one and not as a device to prove my view superior to yours by boxing you into an inferior one. I too struggle with OOO in the same was as +Marcus Boon does, hence my reason for entering into conversation with you in the first place.

To begin with, the words "emptiness of emptiness" were not pronounced by Nagarjuna in his Mulamadhyamakakarika, to my knowledge. However, he does make the point very clear in XIII:8 ( http://goo.gl/hBEi6 ), in XXIV:18-40 he makes a detailed analysis of it ( http://goo.gl/f54jN ) and the text ends with a clear pointer to it XXVII:30:

"I bow down to Gautama, whose kindness holds one close, who revealed the sublime dharma in order to let go of all views."
"I prostrate to Gautama, who through compassion, taught the doctrine which leads to the relinquishing of all views."

I also understand that Nagarjuna makes his discussion of "positionlessness" even more explicit in his Vigrahavyavartani, although I have not read that text.

I'm also sorry if I have given you the impression that I view emptiness as nonexistence. Again I will reiterate that this is not the case. One thing is holding a view for expediency's sake in order to bring somebody to liberation, and another thing is holding a view as a lens through which to interpret experience. Holding the view that phenomena are ultimately nonexistent is, in fact, an example of an expedient view which can be clearly seen deployed in a teaching on Milarepa by KTG himself ( see Milarepa's vajra song at the end of http://goo.gl/xHHX7 ).

So, I'd like to ask you Tim, what is your aim in OOO philosophy? Is it, as it was for Wittgenstein, "to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle"?

BTW, one serious defect in Google+ seems to me to be the fact that these comments can be edited even after they have been replied to. This can shift the replies out of their original context and can make them seem even more nonsensical than they originally were :)

T: Hi guys. I've only ever used the "edit" function to correct a spelling error, I think.

Well I haven't talked about how Buddhism relates to OOO here yet, but Marcus since you asked. The object doesn't exist and then withdraw. Its withdrawal is its existence. "Withdraw" is not a good word maybe, but other words are also not good. Withdrawal is not an ontic fact among other facts (the glass is round, sparkling, etc.)

To say that appearance is empty of essence is not necessarily to say that one appearance is as good as another. For instance, there is such a thing as real relative truth. In this sense, the glass is not merely an illusion. This is why Trungpa Rinpoche can talk about meditation as a form of realism (see my blog spot from earlier today).

"Essence" doesn't have to mean "solidity" or "ontic givenness" or whatever. "Ontological" doesn't have to mean onto-theological, either. I now have no problem using this seemingly dirty word.

It's pretty cost free in today's culture to talk about emptiness being the lack of essence. Everyone is at it, from Shell Oil to Karen Barad. That was my point in the Adbusters essay.

On the Dzogchen view, which is what I really hold, rather than the Prasangika, all beings (whether classified as sentient or not) are Buddhas. Now that's what I call withdrawal! So no, this is not luminous awareness ontology, not if it means "Yet again I can ignore my footprint in the biosphere."

Rigpa has an "essence" (Tibetan, ngowo, that's what it means). "The essence, empty, dharmakaya." From this emptiness arises compassion and clarity. Emptiness is not the total lack of characteristics, otherwise you could easily say that hatred was as valid as compassion, since both are equally empty.

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