In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 13 Apr 98

On Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra

Branching from discussion of a "Theory of Everything" ...

CW:   ... Much of what you are hinting at is reminiscent of the Buddhist philosopher Nagaryjuna. In his exposition of the middle path he demonstrated that experience itself cannot be limited to any preconceived postulate. These postulates are filters not sources. To put it another way: the higher order experiences (deriving a TOE) are not intrinsically more real than lower order experiences (stubbing your TOE).

JCC:   The reference is to Acharya Nagarjuna, fl. 150 C.E. who amplified the doctrines of sunyata (emptiness) through negation of opposites. Semantic questions appear to have a lot of bearing on issues of social engineering ...

CW:   We tend to have a very blinkered view of what is going on so our attempts at understanding why tend to be all over the map. However what I was saying was taking what you were saying generally (about CTMU) and applying it to what you were saying about evolutionary success. Whether you suffer or not invariably you learn.

CML:   Buddhism is an essentially nihilistic philosophy in which the evolution of self culminates in self-annihilation. This implies that the self is a manifestation of pure nothingness which deludes itself regarding its own existence. The scientific equivalent is known as ex nihilo cosmogony. This, however, is a metaphysical absurdity whose existence would collapse the logical structure of reality like a soap bubble in a vacuum. So much for Buddhism as currently defined. Fortunately, there now exists a philosophical scalpel - the CTMU - sharp enough to excise Buddhism's absurdities and thereby clear the way for a constructive reinterpretation of its more valuable insights. In the future, a reconstructed form of Buddhism will be merely one aspect of a single religion based on the power and infallibility of God's first and most unbreakable law, logic.

CW:   Actually you are wrong about that. See the chapter entitled Shunyata in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa. The middle path is essentially a refutation of nihilism. Nagaryjuna's philosophy is basically a commentary on the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is interesting in that - being probably the central teaching of the Buddha - it wasn't actually taught by him. He just said "well said, well said" when his students propounded it.

CML:   Your point is well taken. However, Buddhist scholars are a bit like economists: presented with the same question, they all produce different answers. In fact, inasmuch as the history of Buddhist philosophy branches in a way similar to that of Western philosophy, one can no more talk about a unified Buddhist metaphysic than one can talk about a single Western philosophical outlook.

Etymologically, nirvana means "to blow out" or "to extinguish", as a flame deprived of fuel ceases to draw. Now, when a flame goes out, it ceases to exist. Modern scholars, aware that this imagery carries some rather disturbing implications, have taken pains to reform the concept, observing that it is not the flame itself, but only its finite boundary, that is subject to extinction. Unfortunately, this leads to certain problems... e.g., a conflict with anatta, the denial of metaphysical self. According to the doctrine of dependent coorigination - which, by the way, is somewhat analogous to the mathematical concept of recursion - the self can be analyzed as a relationship of independent personality components called "skandhas". Thus, when the self attains release from samsara and sheds its boundary, it merely falls apart, and the conceptual boundaries of its components are reasserted in its place! The loose ends and non sequiturs pile up mercilessly, leading one to the conclusion that perhaps the etymological definition of "nirvana" is what was originally meant after all.

Nagarjuna's philosophy (the Madhyamika school of Madhayana), far from solving such problems, complicates them. Nagarjuna held that knowledge can only be based on propositions derived from concepts and perceptions existing only for a given individual, that knowledge thus exists only relative to individuals, and that absolute knowledge is an impossibility. Understanding is attained when the relativity of knowledge is realized and all claims to absolute knowledge are abandoned, so that a direct awareness of reality, unconditioned by concepts, can be acquired.

Sadly, Nagarjuna, genius that he was, failed to pick up on a couple of crucial points. First, he was positing the statement "all knowledge is relative" as a piece of absolute knowledge. That's a self-contradiction. Second, terms like "direct awareness" and "reality" are themselves concepts. Deny their conceptuality, and they have no possible meaning and thus no meaningful existence. With every statement Nagarjuna makes, he digs deeper his hole of illogic, finally proving nothing beyond his own desperate need of that which he has attempted to jettison for the sake of "enlightenment".

Philosophies, like languages, are tied together by syntax and semantics. When these are corrupted by logical inconsistency, the philosophy becomes no less corrupt. One can immerse oneself in the loops and contradictions, hoping through the mortification of logic to intuit the overall shape of the maze in which he is lost; at present, this is the value of Buddhism. However, if the intuition is valid, then it must be amenable to consistent formulation. Buddhism has nothing resembling a coherent logical framework in which to achieve consistent self-formulation.

Again, the CTMU fills the breach. It says what Buddhist philosophers have been trying to say for millennia but lacked the logical sophistication to express. On the other hand, Western philosophy, while now incorporating powerful logical formalisms, lacks the holistic dimension of its Eastern counterpart. In fact, only a seamless weave of the strongest threads of Eastern and Western philosophy suffices to characterize of the structure of reality. That combination is here ... now.

CW:   My understanding of this is that N's argument relates to the last line of the sutra which says something like "we take this to be true because there is no deception in it." In other words what is true cannot be directly grasped but is realized by a process of elimination.

The word truth usually has to do with an observed relationship (eg gravitational attraction) that is invariant within a certain context. For example gravity doesn't always apply during dreams experiences but it does during waking experiences.

In a nutshell any relationship no matter how seemingly invariant is arbitrary in the sense that it is experienced. It is arbitrary because there is no context for experience itself. You can't compare awareness itself to anything. In this teaching awareness itself would be considered to be ultimate truth - true because it is the invariant of experience. But it seems more to be neither true nor false - you can't have a relationship (a truth) without invoking comparison. Relative truths are the invariants experienced contextually within awareness.

In some sense N's teaching on this topic has to do with impermanence but it is showing that the truth of impermanence is not necessarily a process of growth and decay but a basic sense of arbitrariness or nonexistence. In that way it is somewhat similar to the invention of calculus in that calculus discusses motion without reference to duration.

The aggregates or skandhas are not considered to be ultimate truth in this teaching. (See The Two Truths by Guy Newland for a synopsis.)

In some sense the experience of enlightenment must be something like the transition of matter to energy. Energy may have properties that are quite different from matter and might not "make sense" from the perspective of matter. Furthermore it is not a one-way transition: energy becomes matter and matter becomes energy under various circumstances. We can consider them as different forms of the same thing. The confusions of the relative truths and the wisdom of absolute truth have the same relationship being different forms of the same thing - awareness.

It is important to realize that these teachings are just that - they relate to a method that can actually be used to relate with mind. Taken outside the context of practice they become interesting philosophical speculations but are not necessarily useful. In the Heart Sutra they are talking about a very real experience available to anyone who is willing to do the work to divest themselves of self-deception. The experience came long before the analysis. So, although Buddhist philosophy might be exceedingly varied it all relates to a rather simple experience and is only valid in the context of that experience.

CML:   What you say here has merit. However, the self-deception of which one must divest oneself happens to include any notion that Buddhism as now formulated has overall logical integrity, or can serve as the basis for any logically consistent practice except error correction.

I note that you've given a semantical definition of word "truth", using the example of a non-a priori concept, gravitation. But semantics is ultimately based on syntax; there is a mathematical homomorphism between the logical component of cognitive syntax and any valid semantical construction. You then go on to say that truth can be grasped purely by elimination. But the syntactic meaning of "truth" is, in fact, set-theoretic inclusion in any set of noncontradictory propositions obeying this homomorphism. Whether or not a particular truth is achieved by elimination, it's still in the set, and the homomorphism criterion of this set prevents the separation of truth from logic. Concisely, it seems that "truth" is a well-defined logical concept of the kind that our friend Nagarjuna threw out the window of enlightenment.

CW:   I'm not saying that at all. I think the correct term is "non-dwelling" which refers to an ongoing activity. I think, to sum up, what I am talking about is the possibility that there are experiences and there are transformations of experience that are not in and of themselves experiences. The idea that you could "experience enlightenment" is therefore contradictory. Enlightenment happens and as a result one experiences differently. The logical relationships intuited directly from experience change as a result of the transformation.

CML:   Yes, but the change cannot entail total cognitive discontinuity. Remember, a "transformation", whether cognitive or not, is a logical construct with logical ramifications, and thus answerable to logic.

Nagarjuna was right that much of what we consider "knowledge" is relative and can be transcended. Where he went wrong was in attempting to absolutize his own teachings regarding this present it as an "ultimate truth" when its range of validity is in fact restricted. Perhaps this was deliberate on his allowance for the lack of cognitive sophistication of his students.

CW:   He didn't. "The wise do not dwell in the middle either."

CML:   You seem to be advocating a philosophical escape clause equivalent to "all crows are black ... except for those that aren't." That's tautological and therefore true. But this kind of truth can be glimpsed without, so to speak, "sitting at the feet of the Master".

In the final analysis, awareness cannot be regarded as unitary in any ordinary sense of the term. It has logical ingredients which must obey the laws of logic: a finite or infinite self (subject) that is aware (verb) of itself and/or its environment (direct object), or an open-ended inductive regress based on this construction (the CTMU takes the latter route). Take that away, and "awareness" means nothing that can be meaningfully apprehended.

CW:   By taking the inductive regress you appear to agree with Nagaryjuna that awareness is fundamentally ungraspable. Would another approach be to consider these logical components as dimensions? One could talk about a unitary basis for "awareness" by the same method that the curvature of space is calculated in general relativity (if I recall correctly from Wheeler's book, A Journey Through Gravity and Spacetime). Nevertheless because of the logical limitations imposed one could only infer this unitary basis. It would also not be directly graspable.

CML:   That which is "inferred" by any means whatsoever, including an infinite regress, qualifies as one node of an inferential relationship and can thus to some extent be grasped. In the CTMU, the terminus of the metaphysical regress is called "unbound telesis" and can be simplistically understood as a universal, unitary substance from which spacetime is even now originating. The kind of "awareness" associated with this ultimate substance is very general and powerful indeed.

CW:   One question that came to mind as I was watching "A Brief History of Time" again last night. Is Truth dependant on time? I seem to be saying yes. You, no.

CML:   You're correct, but only partly so. I say that to be applied at the metaphysical level of truth, "time" must be redefined in a certain specific way. In the CTMU, time is not an ordinary linear dimension, but possesses a far more complex (and potent) logical characterization. Keep in mind that if you consider truth and time to be unconditionally interdependent, then any high-level semantical rupture in the truth concept also entails a rupture in time, and thus in temporalized consciousness. Without integrity of consciousness - which, as you know, is a primary desideratum of Buddhist philosophy - awareness of any kind is out of the question. Consequently, even the highest form of awareness must conserve the logical definition of truth.

CML:   Quite a few "weekend Buddhists" delude themselves that they have indeed reached such an awareness by clearing away all the "relative knowledge" in their muddled brains. The truth is that they have either
(a) falsely intuited the existence of a mode of awareness that they did not really achieve, or
(b) not properly formulated their intuition.
(The reality is "b".) This forms the seed of a profoundly irrational outlook on life that would, if given a second opportunity, do to modern civilization exactly what it did to the civilization that gave it birth...namely, grease the skids to moral and social decay and oblivion.

CW:   I don't know where you came to these conclusions. I guess it is appropriate to start a religion if you feel you are privy to people's mental state, thoughts etc. Are you sure it was Buddhadharma itself that caused this decay? It is quite easy to talk about being a Buddhist (which I am not claiming for myself - mostly due to insufficient effort at this point on my part) and quite another story to really let go. That's all it is really, something comes up and you let it go. It isn't complicated, nor does it necessarily require a great deal of logical sophistication. Buddhadharma, is basically just a method that one can use. When this method has served its purpose nobody is expecting you to continue with it. Any notion to the contrary is a misunderstanding of intent. In any case I was wondering how your work connected with Nagarjuna and now I know. Thanks.

CML:   First, you don't have to be telepathic to read about Asian history. Second, I didn't say that Buddhism was a primary cause of social and moral decay, but only that it was a contributing factor. Third, if you just "let it go" every time "something comes up", social problems don't get solved and there is (at the very least) no philosophical barrier against social decay. And fourth, certain religions do not adequately specify when certain principles are to be applied (indeed, cultural evolution limits specificity in this regard). Instead, they just say "this is truth" and leave it at that. Unfortunately in the case of Buddhism, this left millions of people futilely trying to "read the intent" of an inscrutable patriarch who was notoriously ambiguous in life, and no longer around to explain himself in death. It's time for his primitive ideas to evolve in light of modern logic and mathematics...that is, CTMU-style.

Now that we've got that out of the way, allow me to say that you're clearly a highly intelligent person with more than the average amount of philosophical awareness. It's a privilege to enjoy these discussions with you, and may we enjoy many more.

** Colloquy began 6 Jan 98 as the online component of a society then known as Collegium.

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