Thursday, April 08, 2004

Buddhism/Zen Thursday: Jae Beop Gong Sang

The Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (I have no idea why he spells his name this way; it just makes matters more difficult since his name is pronounced "SOONG-SAHN" in Korean), in writing out his The Compass of Zen, a short handwritten text that purports to contain the essential principles of Buddhism distilled from various sutras, kong-an, and other writings, plucks the following wisdom from the Heart Sutra (Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra):

All dharmas have the character of emptiness.

The Chinese characters, read in Korean, say jae beop gong sang, or "All dharmas [i.e., "phenomena," in this context] have the character of emptiness." As I think Andi has noted, emptiness, for Buddhists, is as much a matter of relationality as it is of dynamism implying lack of self-nature. Dr. Vallicella's recent blog entries discuss the matter of permanence and impermanence, and Vallicella finds permanence in many aspects of existence:

Even if you don’t believe in my Paradigm Existent, I might be able to persuade you with other examples. Arguably, the truths of mathematics are necessary truths: they are true ‘in all possible worlds,’ to employ some Leibnizian phraseology. (Don’t believe me? Then try to wrap your mind around the notion that the proposition expressed by ‘7 + 5 = 12' is true only at some times or only in some possible worlds.) A necessary truth is a necessarily true proposition. A proposition cannot have the property of being necessarily true, however, unless it necessarily exists. But what necessarily exists cannot not exist, hence cannot pass out of existence. I conclude that there is a nondenumerable infinity of counterexamples to the claim that everything is impermanent. What I just gave is a sketch of an argument, not an argument fully deployed, bristling with defensive weaponry at every joint. But I could give such an argument. You might not want to provoke me.

I'm afraid I can't buy into this argument because, while I might not be able to wrap my mind around the idea that 7 + 5 = 12 isn't true in all possible worlds, this inability of mine doesn't constitute proof (or even an argument, or even the sketch of an argument) that other possible (actual??) worlds would not operate in a manner totally unfamiliar and incomprehensible to us (and don't we have hints from science that the behavior of things inside singularities like black holes might be pretty wild?). To get into discussions about such worlds would be fascinating, but I think it would also constitute a leap from philosophy into science fiction. The discussion would be heavy on speculation, and light on actual argument.

I have, in other contexts, employed this "possible paradoxical worlds" counterargument against those theists who, in the tradition of Aquinas and others, limit God's omnipotence only to that which is logically coherent (e.g., God cannot make a round square because a round square is an absurdity, but the inability to realize an absurdity detracts nothing from God's omnipotence). People who limit God only to the logically possible are, in my opinion, denying God the ability to realize paradox. They don't take the notion of "omnipotence" seriously enough. To me, the reason why certain thinkers have insisted on constraining God to what is logical is that they wish to exculpate God from responsibility for screwing up creation. Along with James Morrow (and maybe Augustine?), they cry "ontological necessity!" and insist that suffering has to be part of the mix-- it just has to! And that's not God's fault!

Sorry, but I think that a truly omnipotent God could have created a better universe in which humans are totally free and yet totally immune to suffering. From our vantage, such a universe would be logically absurd, given what we know about physics and human nature. But to a God whose purview includes paradox, this is small potatoes. God is therefore not exculpated by arguments from logical necessity.

[NB: I'm not a classical theist, so while I may be discussing God here, I'm not personally engaged by the question of God's "nature" except to the extent that the philosophical aspects of the question are interesting.]

I'm not a Buddhist, but I don't think a Buddhist would have any trouble with the idea that 2 + 2 = 4 everywhere in this universe. Nor would he have trouble with the idea that the truth of 2 +2 = 4 is true at all times in this universe. Does this therefore make this truth permanent in some metaphysically absolute sense? To say yes, you'd have to argue from a godlike vantage none of us has. You'd have to claim that this truth would still be true even if there were no universe to which it would apply or be relevant. The Buddhist would probably argue that the mathematical truth is relational: it's tied to the existence of this cosmos. As such, that truth is contingent. Being contingent, that truth also has the character of emptiness.

Granted: if the Buddhist makes the above "relational" claim (and I don't know if all Buddhists would make such a claim; I can't really speak for them), he's probably not going to be able to prove the claim any more easily than the person arguing for the permanence of this truth. But I tend to think the Buddhist has empirical evidence in his favor: he sees a changing universe; he sees that not all scientific formulations are equally applicable to all phenomena (try using molecular biology to study galactic motion); he knows that truths are contextual, contingent-- empty (please, please keep in mind that "empty" is not being used pejoratively here!).

Dr. Vallicella says:

It is a mistake to think that change is all-pervasive. In addition, those who maintain that all is impermanent need to tell us exactly what they mean by this and how they arrived at it.

Having spent some time reading Dr. V's blog along with Dr. Burgess-Jackson's, I think I have a better idea of where philosophers are coming from when they make such demands. There are problems, however, if the interlocutors are not both philosophers and have markedly different purposes for entering into a debate about the nature of reality. For most Buddhists who take this sort of exchange seriously, there is inevitably a crucial ethical component in any such discussion: correct apprehension of reality is supposed to lead to the decrease of suffering. As Sperwer strongly implied in his critique of my initial Contra Vallicella post, the Buddhist agenda isn't the philosopher's agenda.

Here-- Seung Sahn says it better in this passage from The Compass of Zen (a book that includes Seung Sahn's short Compass of Zen interspersed with a ton of lively commentary from his dharma talks and elsewhere):

Zen does not explain anything. Zen does not analyze anything. It merely points back directly to our mind so that we can wake up and become Buddha. A long time ago, someone once asked a great Zen master, "Is attaining our true self very difficult?"

The Zen master replied, "Yah, very difficult!"

Later someone else asked the same Zen master, "Is attaining our true self very easy?"

"Yah, it's very easy!"

Some other people asked him, "Is attaining our true self very easy or very difficult?"

The Zen master replied, "Yah, it's very difficult, and also very easy."

Someone later asked him, "How is Zen practice? Very difficult or easy?"

The Zen master said, "When you drink water, you understand by yourself whether it is hot or cold."

The point is that your mind makes everything. If you think something is difficult, it is difficult. If you think something is easy, it is easy. If you think that something is not easy, but also not difficult, then it's not difficult or easy. Then what is it really like? Go drink some water, and then you will understand, on your own, whether it is hot or cold. Don't make difficult or easy. Don't make anything: when you are doing something, just do it. That is Zen.

[from Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen (Boston: Shambala, 1997), 257-258]

You'd have to be blind not to see that there's a heavy metaphysical component to this discourse. But at the same time, you'd have to be blind not to see that Seung Sahn is squatting over the metaphysics and taking a shit on it for ethical purposes. What if you take Seung Sahn literally, in your philosophical quest for conceptual and terminological rigor, and accuse him of solipsism because he says "your mind makes everything"? Is Seung Sahn-- or any Buddhist who makes such a claim-- truly a solipsist?

I think this may have some relevance to my dialogue with Dr. Vallicella, even though Vallicella's paper is focused on issues in Pali Buddhism, which has recognizably (to a Westerner) philosophical traits. While I'm on an academic track and will indeed need to learn (a hell of a lot more) more Western philo as part of my overall training, I'm also in the field of religious studies, and for religious reasons (I haven't gotten into that on this blog, and probably won't). This alloy of academe and religion is going to produce static, not just within me, but in my dialogues with other folks. In the case of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy, we're dealing with metaphysics in the service of ethics: the metaphysics themselves aren't fundamental, and the Buddhist reserves the right to question why anyone would insist on clinging to notions of permanence, and would openly wonder what benefits they see in such clinging.

I'm not suggesting that the solution is therefore to abandon all dialogue. That'd be silly. To the extent that philosophers demand clarity of expression and rigorous thought, dialogues with philosophers will bear all sorts of wonderful fruit. But at the same time, I guess I'm acknowledging that there are limits to what such dialogues can achieve: S. Mark Heim notes Descartes' lament that philosophy still hasn't solved any of the basic questions in a universally satisfactory manner. Obviously, there are asymptotes delimiting the range and depth of philosophical (and religious) discussion.

I said two things earlier, in separate posts, that bear repeating:

1. [T]he strongest critique of a position is one that employs that position's own terms...

2. There is, however, a meta-problem in discussions like these: because Buddhism arose and developed in one environment, and Western philo arose and developed in another, very different environment, there will always be the danger that interlocutors from either side of the fence will talk past each other. (I'm referring mainly to philosophical discussions like this one, but what I'm talking about is equally applicable to interreligious discussions.)

More than that, there's always the chance that arguing the Buddhist case entirely on Western philo terms is an unnecessary concession to the Western side (by parity of reasoning, vice versa is also true). Trying to make a Buddhist conceptual square peg fit into a Western conceptual round hole is bound to generate static. My point is that it's possible that one can explain a foreign concept only so well before the strictures of the discussion itself preclude further explanation. (How do you bridge the conceptual gap at that point? What role do intuitive, empathetic, and imaginative leaps play in Western philosophical discourse?)

The above two claims look contradictory. I don't think they are. If I'm going to have a meaningful dialogue with Vallicella, I'll need to learn to speak his language. At the same time, it's important to realize that we're not going to solve the world's problems with our exchange. In the cosmic view, what we're doing amounts to little, and in reality, we aren't the only two involved in this discussion: we're both participants in something very, very old.

*** *** ***

Switching gears: the third character in the calligraphy I did above, "gong," translates as "emptiness" in the context of the saying, but is the same character that means "zero" and "hollow" (one Korean word for zero is "gong"). This ties the Buddhist notion of emptiness to the Taoist notion of emptiness, which has more to do with literally empty spaces and the potential that such emptiness represents. I don't think the Buddhist and Taoist notions are unrelated; they're not totally dissimilar, but they are distinct. The semantic field of the Sanskrit sunya, "empty," doesn't entirely overlap with the Sino-Korean gong.

Now it's late, and I'm sorely lacking in what you see below-- Buddha-mind (bul shim).

Bul Shim-- Buddha Mind

Then again, a lack of Buddha-mind might have little to do with how tired I am.

[NB: I stand corrected. Dr. Vallicella's blog does feature permalinks to specific sections, but you have to know where to look! Also, visit Dr. Vallicella's blog archives, which are in the form of "blog batches," to see some of his other musings. And take a gander at his fascinating online papers, many of which are quite simply over my head.]


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