It’s Buddhist, so it must be true!

I conducted a short Introduction to Buddhism presentation tonight, as the culmination in a four-week world religions survey course. Of the religions covered, it is really the only one I had a personal investment, as I’ve “dabbled” in it; and have lingering sympathies, if not actual practice. Obviously, it is impossible to cover all that you’d like in a ninety minute introduction. One can barely get through the life of Gautama and a too-quick gloss of the dubiously simplistic three-pronged typology of the “Three Vehicles,” let alone explore the complexities of the human condition. Oh, but I tried, and in the process, I think, did a hatchet job to the two-truth doctrine. So much so that I feel like I should make up for it here, in the only other public venue I have for these kinds of things, and tap out a lay-level presentation on the topic. Take from it what you will. Given the venue, however, I welcome comments on its relative coherence, and am also curious whether others otherwise unconcerned with Buddhism find any resonances with their philosophico-political projects.

Re: the two-truth doctrine. “Basically” . . . in Buddhism (esp. Mahayana Buddhism) there’s a sense that there are two levels or kinds of truth. Big-T “absolute” truth, and little-t “run-of-the-mill” truth. We live our lives in and by little-t truth. Little-t truth (our everyday reality) is governed by the principle of what Buddhists call “co-dependent origination”: nothing exists independently of something else. All actions occur in a web of other actions — e.g., traffic (“I” am traffic, rather than “in” traffic, because traffic does not exist outside my participation with others in creating it). Even actions we do in private occur in relation to others, in the sense that we only know it is private because of the absence of other people. Without the existence of other people, and the possibility they could be around, there is no “privacy.” [Note: I set my Fichte aside years ago, but it's never quite left me.] Such is the little-t truth that governs our lives. We do not escape this. Rather, the key is to see little-t truth as little-t truth; and thus to see that the stuff of our regular lives, from our experience of others to our experience of ourselves, is ultimately impermanent (in the sense that if something is dependent on something else, it should not be construed as permanent or “necessary”). Suffering comes from (a) not recognizing the things of life as impermanent, and (b) grasping them/clinging to them as though they were permanent/necessary.

[Coming to grips with this intellectually is possible. Otherwise, why would I be writing this blog post or teaching such lessons to non-practitioners? This kind of intellectual understanding is what motivates people to try and follow the Eightfold Path. Experiencing the truth, however, is a different matter, and is where the stuff of monasticism and/or meditation kicks into gear; which is why so few people do either.]

All this is different, but related to, Big-T Truth, which Buddhists regard as the only truth that that can be called permanent, necessary, and ultimate. Because this truth about the world, about ourselves, etc., is not dependent on anything else, it can only be described as “empty.” If the truth is anything other than emptiness, i.e., if it is “something”, then it becomes dependent on something else, and thus is no longer permanent, necessary and ultimate. (As a result, the “empty”-language shouldn’t be regarded negatively; but, says the Buddhist, it should be regarded as an ultimate affirmation–which for the Buddhist results in a profound, self-dissolving, absolute bliss.)

So, in short . . . yes, in the language of the modern-day Whole Food “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual jet set” we are all united, even in the territory of little-t truth of everyday life, in that our actions (things we do and do not do) affect the actions of every conceivable other, and these actions are themselves caused directly and indirectly by the actions of untold others. We are united in this intricate, complex web of intentional and unintentional, random and planned causation that extends beyond even a single lifetime.

We are,  however, also united by the Big-T Truth, but this is a unity whose implications are far more profound still. Here, we recall that the singularity of “I” and the unity of “we” both need to be recognizable as “I” or “we”; and that this process of identification puts us back into the co-dependent territory of little-t truth. As such, Big-T truth unites us in the sense of dissolving the desire for such an identification and/or recognition–whether it be the identification of “I,” certainly, or “you,” and thus too “us,” or even of what is happening when we say “unity”. (Hence the Buddhist insistence on no-self.)

What I like about Zen especially is the degree to which Big-T truth is not elevated as some goal to achieve. On the contrary, this truth in a certain sense requires the impermanence of little-t/everyday truth. No little-t truth, no Big-T truth. (Of course, the “awakening” to Big-T truth transforms our understanding of little-t truth; but it in no way frees us from it. Indeed, so close is the relationship between the two kinds of truth that, ultimately, the annoying tic manifested throughout this post of differentiating “Big-T” and “Little-T” truth must ultimately be seen as inadequate, and possibly even deceptive.) Lest things start to become too clear: we are all united by way of our being differentiated from one another. This is the truth, says the Buddhist, of which only meditation (or in non-Zen traditions, a really benevolent and helpful Bodhisattva) can give us a true glimpse.

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13 Responses to “It’s Buddhist, so it must be true!”

  1. Alex Says:

    Brilliant piece.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Cue the earnest CTS student saying, “Wow, that really sounds like process thought to me!”

  3. Ben B Says:

    Brad,

    Thanks for the post, and well done. I also found the Big-T, little-t tick slightly annoying. The post just didn’t sound buddhist because of it. I would consider not discussing the two-truth doctrine in an introduction to Buddhism. There is enough to talk about without it and it is too easy to make it sound like a western preoccupation with Truth.

    If you have not already done so, check out David Loy. I really enjoyed Lack and Transcendence.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Ben. I don’t know it.

    I agree that the post does not “sound” Buddhist. That was quite intentional. The language, and the simplistic formulation “Big-T” v. “little-t” was intended as a conversational way to introduce the topic to absolute outsiders to the language and ideas. (In the past I’ve found it difficult for students to get past the idea that “reality,” in the Buddhist conception, is not the same as one’s commonsense, day-to-do experience. So, different language was sought.) The aim always being, as I expressed parenthetically here, to point out the necessity of ultimately tearing down the distinction altogether. Now, to be sure, I’m not particularly fond of the language I settled on; but upon reflection it proved reasonably adequate, due to the fact that in the class (which, yes, I’ve already taught) I only had very few minutes to broach the topic anyway.

    I agree about the dangers re: “the western preoccupation with Truth,” but also think that even a cursory grappling with the idea is important for reflecting on non-duality — the alternative being a too-quick of non-duality as such. It may sound ambitious to want to get to that in a 90-minute introduction, but I decided (rightly or wrongly) that I needed at least to introduce the language they might encounter if they dig deeper on their own, as I likely would not have a lot of formal opportunities to follow up.

  5. Joe Says:

    Ha! You say what you say about introducing Buddhism to absolute outsiders, and it reminds me of how hard the idea has been for me that people’s “commonsense, day-to-do experience” is not the same as “reality, in the Buddhist conception.”

    One thing to consider though, would be that not knowing Buddhist terms is not the same as being outside of the awakened state that so typifies the “Buddhist experience.” There are Buddhas who do not know – have no thought – that they are Buddhas, who do not employ words to mark them as special. That’s not to deny the efficacy of doctrine or terms, but to warn against approaching people’s beginner’s mind as a matter of indoctrination. The Buddha gave voice to the Dharma, but he didn’t invent it, which was his assurance on his death-bed.

    I hope that comes off as supportive and not merely critical. I notice among inter-faith enthusiasts a compulsion to foster encounters with the religious equivalent of multicultural tolerance and “curiosity” rather than diving right into that kind of dialog giving no thought to the conventional distinctions that are supposed to make one a Buddhist rather than a Christian (or whatever). That kind of syncrestic approach is goes a long way to “tearing down” distinctions.

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    Joe, I more or less agree with you. Well, more specifically, I definitely agree with the whole of your second paragraph. But am more wary about your third. I’m not so sure about your notion of “giving no thought to the conventional distinctions” — not only does this seem a little hasty to me, and problematic on pedagogical level, it doesn’t seem (per the perspective you established in the second paragraph) particularly Buddhist either. Dive right in, sure . . . but there is always a context from which you are diving.

  7. David U. B. Liu Says:

    The question of terminology (i.e., big v. little t-truth) is a thorny one, especially if one were to follow up an introductory chat with something more investigative (which I assume we are beginning to do here). Truth in Brad’s piece seems to be an epistemological category, but that is not how the distinction is presented in Madhyamaka thought, though one can argue that Yogacara views it more epistemologically, or at least as a category of meta- or non-thought. In the Madhyamika, the distinction is between (in Western translation) conditioned and unconditioned (absolute has also been used, but it’s a bit outmoded and problematic for understandable reasons) REALITY. Both are true to the same degree, but their subjects are different, and their uses are different. Concordantly, emptiness (sunyata), which is a key concept of Madhyamika thought, is not a perquisite of the unconditioned reality, but rather describes the pratityasamutpada (conditioned or mutual genesis) that is impermanent and labile (Brad’s truth with little t). This emptiness, therefore, is of the greatest relevance to the poststructuralist elaborations of difference and differance. That is, it connotes abs-ence, non-identity, anti-realism (but not anti-empiricism, certainly not Deleuzian empiricism), and bears a close relation to Barbara Stafford’s co-ontogenesis. It also has much to say about OOO – pro and con (though I think on the balance con). Whether it escapes the scourge of Laruelle’s non-philosophy or not, we will have to see. I rather think it does, because the two “realities” are simply two perspectives on the same “emptiness.”

  8. Joe Says:

    I see how it comes across as hasty, but all I mean by giving no thought to conventional distinctions is not speaking from a position that affirms their non-familiarity. I’m not saying denying context either, but that many times inter-faith encounters are like – I have my context, you have yours, let’s compare notes. What good is context if it functions as a veil? When you really speak to where people are you will sound very extimate (to drop a Lacanian neologism), very familiar and yet surprising.

    How this translates to actual introductory material I have less to say on, though I have gotten the impression over the years that actual teaching in the Buddhist context is much more personal than mass communication. I have even been told by some adepts that real teachers only have a handful students in their lives.

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    Joe, yes, I can definitely affirm that — esp the bit about non-familiarity. I like the way you express that there.

    David, I didn’t mean only to discuss truth as an epistemological category. That’s certainly there, but I also had in mind the conditioned / unconditioned reality. For the sake of disclosure, I used “absolute” knowing the problems, but as a shorthand that could be undercut later. (Such is my typical method of propping up a notion and then cutting its knees out from under it — often taking me, the teacher, down with it.) Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say sunyatta is not “perquisite of the unconditioned reality”? — Do you mean in terms of it [sunyatta] not being somehow exclusive to unconditioned reality; or not applicable at all? Your final line, which I agree with, would seem to imply the former, but I want to be sure I understand you correctly.

  10. David U. B. Liu Says:

    Brad,
    So, to be more specific, sunya (adj.) and sunyata (n.), though first used in the Pali Canon, are prominent terms (for void, empty, emptiness) in the Prajnaparamita literature (including the Heart Sutra) and its elaborations by Madhyamika commentators (esp. its founder Nagarjuna, 2-3 c.) of the Mahayana. It comes out of a polemical situation with Scholastic traditions of the previous centuries, where the functional role given to dharma (realia of whatever description) threatened to obscure the primitive Buddhist doctrines of anatman and anitya (or anatta and anicca in Pali). As Nagarjuna used the word sunyata, it referred PRIMARILY to the phenomenal (or “determinate”) realia, that is to their dependent, contingent (and hence impermanent) nature. I take this to correlate with your (heuristic) lesser truth (though you may say the opposite). As relates to unconditioned (some scholars still say ultimate) reality, a matter of noumenal insight about the transcendental (universally applicable) nature of the doctrine of sunyata, it seems that the term can also apply to itself, since it has no positive content of its own (such as God, eternity, universe, etc.) – even as it is predicated of all (conditioned) phenomena. Hence just as tathata (suchness) pervades both the contingent realities and reality in general, so sunyata may be said to traverse all natures and apprehension of things. In this way, reality is not scissioned, and Nagarjuna may rightly be said to be the first “non-philosopher.”

  11. Brad Johnson Says:

    David, thanks for the specificity. I’m definitely on board the idea of Nagarjuna as in league with with non-philosophy, and recall saying as such in the past (though in passing, and certainly not w/ the level of detail you can supply that I assuredly cannot) to Anthony. Once I get my grubby hands on the newly released Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School (IU Press), I hope to offer some more comments about it and provide a forum for conversations like this.

  12. Eric Daryl Meyer Says:

    For what it’s worth, I second the recommendation of David Loy.

  13. Brad Johnson Says:

    I thought I might check out this much-praised book, but the GTU’s only copy is checked out until November; and, as my circulation privileges are conferred only by way of a check I write them every three or so months, and not because of my affiliation with the school in any formal way, I do not have ability to recall it. However . . . should any GTU students read this blog, or, more importantly, should read this post, and wish to “help a brother out,” as they say, I will reward said person with a drink, burrito, or slice of pizza–your choice.


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