One of the things that I have found particularly intellectually stimulating in my "conversion" to Buddhism is that the history and debates that govern Buddhism are not that dissimilar to those governing Western philosophy, though many of the Buddhist debates are wrapped up in questions of religion and spirituality in a way that Western philosophy is not. I do not mean to imply that Western philosophy has not been bound up with various spiritual notions, only that the character of those notions differ from what we find in Buddhism.
Anyway, in just a bare bones sketch, I want to trace one of the more interesting debates or moments of transition in Buddhism, the one that mirrors, to my mind, the so-called postmodern turn in Western philosophy. The story begins with Shakyamuni Buddha, the name given to the enlightened form of Siddhartha Gautama. who upon reaching enlightenment begins teaching what he has discovered. Now Shakyamuni is teaching in the context of a rather established Hindu and Vedic tradition, and many of his teachings run counter to it, but many of his teachings are also adapted to it, which is to say, that like any rhetorician, he spoke in the vernacular of his audience. His four noble truths, for example, borrow and reconfigure several terms that were common in Hinduism. The truths are, as follows:
- There is suffering (dukkha) in the world.
- The suffering is caused by our attachments and desire. These attachments keep us stuck in the world of suffering, which is also the world of illusion, and which is named samsara. Now samsara was a commonly used term at the time, and it also carried with it the idea of reincarnation - having not reached perfection, individuals would be doomed to repeat the world, life after life, until they reached perfection and were free of it. In these traditions, as with early Buddhism, the belief is that reincarnation is a punishment for failing to reach enlightenment, not a reward (as it is often imagined in the West). Buddhist reincarnation implied a return to the world of suffering, and happened because of attachment to that world.
- There is an alternative to suffering and illusion, and it is enlightenment (nirvana). Buddha, literally translates as "awake," or "awakened one," and so enlightenment entails some notion of waking up to the world around you. Of course, there are a lot of debates as to how best translate nirvana, with some scholars calling it peace or happiness, but the general idea is the same, that through some form of rethinking and re-being, one can free themselves from samsara.
- And the form that such rethinking and re-being should take is the eightfold path, which includes right intent (trying to do good), right livelihood (living in a way that benefits others), right mindfulness (mindfulness practice), and right concentration (meditation), and four others.
Eventually, with the Buddha's passing, there came moments of disagreement as to the meanings of his teachings, and even disagreements over which of his teachings (and there are a lot of them) should be taken as primary or canonical. While some of the reasons for this split are cultural and political, some of them are also hermeneutic, in that some Buddhists felt that Buddhism had taken too much of its interpretive cue from Hindusim. As it was, early Buddhists tended to believe that becoming a Buddha was particularly difficult, and that instead people became arhats, which are like saints who work to the betterment of the gods (the Buddhas) but are not capable of becoming Buddhas themselves. A split developed between those that believed in the arhat model and those that believed that actually everyone had the potential to become a Buddha, that what was called "Buddha-nature" existed in everyone but that most were asleep to it. Rather than the arhats, this new group believed that those who would be arhats were more properly understood as Bodhisattvas, people who delay their own enlightenment in order to help others on the path to enlightenment. Long story short, the new group named their Buddhism "Mahayana", or the greater path, and distanced themselves from the "Hinayana," or lesser path, which is more favorably known as Theravada Buddhism.
Now the break between the two was not particularly simple, and Mahayana Buddhism has itself splintered many, many times, each time being reconfigured by the country into which it spreads, such that both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism can lay claim to being descendants of the Mahayana teachings. Nevertheless, after some trial and error and a lot of debate, an Indian sage named Nagarjuna keyed on one of the particularly fundamental teachings of the Buddha regarding what was known as sunnata in the Pali, and which he picked up as sunyata, which translates roughly as emptiness. Nagarjuna looked at the four noble truths and saw a fundamental problem: if the eightfold path teaches ultimately that all entities are connected (a doctrine called in Buddhism "dependent origination") and that therefore right action and right livelihood and right whatever is to be done with this in mind, how can one really speak of a subject or a self that engages in these acts? The Buddha taught on many occasions that the ego was nothing but the source of attachment and desire, and so there was not, properly speaking, anything on which to base the subject. And if there was nothing upon which to base the subject, how could the subject know the difference between samsara and nirvana? Nagarjuna's solution was elegant:
Unprepared to argue the existence of either a 'ground of being' or a 'self', Nagarjuna took the bold opposite track. His revolutionary argument is as follows: if being is constituted by relations (which is the fundamental argument of dependent origination), then all being is absolutely empty. What exists between dharmas (that is, relations) is emptiness. Since consciousness exists through the process of dependent origination, it is also fundamentally empty. It follows that all mental constructions, which are the product of consciousness, are therefore empty. The basic fact, he argued, holds as much for the simplest sentence as it does for the Four Noble Truths. Nagarjuna went so far as to admit that even the concept of emptiness is empty. (John Holt, "The Radical Egalitarianism of Mahayana Buddhism," 102-3).
This led to a radical decomposition of those structures underpinning the social order. As Holt explains (107): If distinctions between samsara and nirvana were ultimately empty, if the part could not be separated from the whole, and if every living being was endowed with Buddha-nature, on what basis could distinctions between householder and monk, male and female, rich and poor,be made legitimate?" These changes in religious belief structure did not so much change the politics of the people who believed them, but as a system of beliefs, they are nevertheless quite fascinating in their dispensation with grounds, ontology, and subjectivity, and are quite radical and transformative in their consequences.
Now Nagarjuna is writing around 200 years (give or take) after the date given as the birth of Christ, which means he is writing a hell of a lot earlier than Heidegger, Sartre, and the so-called postmoderns. His arguments, while focused on Buddhism, are not unlike those of Gorgias, with his "Being doesn't exist, if it did we wouldn't know it, and if we knew it we couldn't communicate it," but unlike Gorgias, Nagarjuna's arguments don't get trumped, more or less, by Platonism and subsequently get buried under nearly a millennium of metaphysical kruft.
For me, the most interesting result of Nagarjuna's work comes a handful of centuries later, with the advent of Ch'an thought in China, and its eventual exportation to and transformation within Japan, where it becomes known as Zen. Holt again provides a nice summary of how the argument evolves along the lines Nagarjuna first lays out:
Just as Indian Mahayana metaphysics and the evolution of the Bodhisattva ideal had culminated in the positive valorization of samsara, Zen valorized such mundane tasks as sweeping, kitchen duty and gardening. These actions were held to be as valuable as any other. The form of a task was of no importance, rather it was the way in which a task was carried out with right intention and mindfulness. This ethic is portable and became a principle in such diverse activities as painting, poetry, the tea ceremony, archery, and swordsmanship. For Zen, there is no dichotomy between thought and action. Zen is the negation of Cartesian perspectives. In its expressions, the mind reflects the suchness of existence. The sword is not external to the swordsman. It should move as an extension, as an intrinsic part of the mind. The same should be true of the pen and paint brush. What is most important is the spontaneous expression of the disciplined, enlightened mind in utter simplicity. Much of the practice of Zen essentially involves recovering the original unfettered nature of the mind. (Holt 110)
This practice of recovery, what Suzuki Roshi praised as "beginner's mind," may explain the appeal of Zen, or it may not, but it does help to understand its placement within the historical undoing of a Buddhist metaphysics first made possible by Nagarjuna's exposition of sunyata. It's the reason why D.T. Suzuki once referred to Zen as Buddhism evolved.
There's more to the story of course. Zen's opposition to duality, its doctrine of the not-self, and its treatment of language (especially through koan practice) are all particularly interesting philosophically and rhetorically, but they can wait until a later post. Tags:Buddhism emptiness Nagarjuna postmodernism Zen Posted on March 6, 2007 1:22 PM Permalink
Philosophical Buddhism is highly relevant to modern thought, but I've found that the bare mention of Buddhism usually ends a conversation. People just don't want to make the effort, Eurocentrism plays a role, and people tend strongly to associate Buddhism with New Age thinking, hippyism, and David Carradine.
I got far enough into Chinese philosophy that I read certain Western thinkers from the Chinese angle. (Citations: Gudmunsen and Finch on Wittgenstein, Magliola and others on Derrida, Nishitani on Nietzsche and Heidegger, Odin on Whitehead, and Doi on Freud.)
In East Asia, a lot of stuff that's new and counterintuitive in XIX-XXc Western thought has been worked out in detail over the period of many centuries. Posted by John Emerson March 7, 2007 10:34 AM
There's the apocryphal story of Heidegger reading a D.T. Suzuki book and saying something like "this is what I have been talking about all along!" And it really does seem as if Eastern philosophy has touched upon Western philosophy's recent work literally centuries prior. This post was shorter than I wanted it to be, but at some point I'll make my case for how something like koan practice precedes and anticipates Heideggerian destruktion, and as you point out there are a lot of other examples. So John, what do you make of that phenomenon? Is it the legacy of Platonism that kept the West moving in a different direction for so long? Is it Christiandom?
I'm not sure there's a single answer, and I'm not sure that the two systems of thought are commensurate. Still, the similarities and junctions are fascinating, and the disjunctions even more so...Posted by Kenneth Rufo March 7, 2007 10:44 AM
It's nice to see someone out there in the blogosphere at least attempting to tackle the pandora's box of Zen/Nagarjuna and continental philosophy. As someone who has spent a long time training in Asian zen monasteries (and currently a philosophy grad student) I am sympathetic but also, admittedly, pretty cynical. For starters, since you've already made several comments re Heidegger, what about the problem of language? What about Heidegger's own warnings in his "Dialogue on Language" (specifically re the possibility of dialogue between Japanese and Western philosophical thought)? In any case, you write (and cite others writing) "Being" in a Buddhist context, but how do you know--really know--what being, or its Pali, Sanskrit or Chinese correlates means? Do they correspond at all? What would be the conditions of possibility of such knowing or correspondence? Until these problems of language and translation or translatability are really addressed I'm not sure how much is accomplished with much/most so-called comparative philosophy (and perhaps this is why, for the most part, continental philosophers don't bother taking traditional Asian thought seriously). Posted by Josh U March 9, 2007 2:02 AM