Monday, July 31, 2006

More on karma

So what am I saying here? I'm saying that we, as humans, see patterns in our experience. We see repetitions of patterns which, for whatever reason, we tend to think of as having a cause or basis which exists in its own right, of its own accord. We think of this independent existence as an underlying core which structures the patterns of our experience by which we come to know it. I'm saying that the search for this underlying core, and the attempt to define it, and even "get in touch with it", once and for all, has largely been the goal of philosophy, science and religion.

So I'm saying, What if there is no underlying core? What if I give up on this reductionist urge? Well, there are still patterns to my experience. This doesn't make them fundamental or anything because "fundamental" is what I've given up on. But these patterns are my life and my reality, and I think they are reality enough. For the most part these patterns are consistent and expected. At times these patterns have changed dramatically and in unexpected ways. On a few occasions these patterns have almost completely dissipated. It was when these familiar, consistent patterns were almost entirely absent from my awareness that I first became convinced of their status as patterns, without any underlying core.

So do I think that the world is an illusion? No. I think it is best not to think of the world as an illusion, you will almost certainly get seriously hurt thinking that way. It is best, in my opinion, to think of the world in some way which does not contradict everyday experience. The idea that the world has an underlying core which determines its structure seems to me, from a historical perspective, to defy experience, or at least it seems dispensable. We have moved from one 'underlying core' to the next. From Plato's world of Eidos to the scientists constructing theoretical vibrating strings beyond the boundaries of observation, through to the mystics finding oneness beyond the boundaries of everyday perception and intelligibility, one underlying core steps up to replace the last. It seems there is always another way of reducing the world to one thing or another.

So I have said that, for example, the self is not so much this or that but this, that and anything else that is compelling enough to warrant continued focus. The cause of an event is not this or that, but those conditions which draw their salience from a given context of inquiry. I have said that if one is to adopt a model of the world, as it seems one must, then one of interdependent conditions is the least likely to admit of the reduction which I'm trying to avoid. So instead of reductionist inquiry, I advocate relational inquiry: an inquiry which seeks to sketch varying models of salient relations which enable us to understand and predict experience within multiple contexts. I have therefore advocated the application of the Buddhist notion of karma by which certain active values of the past can be thought of as constraining the emergence and evolution of active values in the future. For the reason already stated, I don't think karma is the fundamental process of the world. I do think one can gain multiple, instructive perspectives on most events by considering them within a karmic model of recurring value patterns. By creating, highlighting and promoting those values now which we want to see propagate and evolve in the future we may become active participants in the karmic process with which we understand the world.

As an inappropriately brief but pertinent example, if one thinks of the current Middle East crisis in these terms you can build various models of relations at work which can be seen to fuel the conflict in mutually dependent ways. There is the immediate salient condition of the conflict which is the capture of Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah fuelled by their valuing destabilisation by provocation and maintenance of Israeli fear and unease. There is the recurrence of Israel valuing its unconditional right to defend itself by any means necessary. These two opposing values are largely dependent on each other. In the larger context of history there is the recurring Jewish value of the right to occupy the stretch of land presently defined as Israel. There is the recurring Arabic value of the resistance of the right of Jews to occupy said land. In a larger political context there is the recurring American and British value of the need to support western democracy at all costs in the Middle East. There is the recurring American and British value of resisting Iranian development of nuclear capability. In a religious context there is the recurring Judaist value of the right of Jews to occupy said land. There is the recurring Shi'a Muslim value of the desire to bring about a Shi'a majority in Lebanon. There is the recurring Judao-Christian value of resisting a dar al-Islam. There is the recurring Jewish value of feeling unjustifiably reviled throughout history.... I could go on but you can begin to see the complexity of values and dependent relations which one can discern in this present conflict, the great tragedy of which is that all of these related values appear to be stronger than the value given to a child's life. Any viable, multilateral solution to the crisis must spend some time with a variety of relational models to determine which values can be engaged and/or disengaged in order for the situation to progress to something better. The search for an unequivocal and underlying core to the problem is not the right approach, in my opinion.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Salient conditions

I spent a lot of time earlier on in this blog looking into causation and I want to briefly conclude the inquiry here. If, as I think is the case, any thing or event you can discern has potentially innumerable conditions and those conditions have their conditions and those conditions etc....then when you identify a 'cause' you are in fact selecting from a potentially unlimited number of related 'causes'. Clearly, not all conditions will usually be considered equally pertinent, and in any case it is neither practical nor desirable to include as something's cause the entire history and breadth of possible conditions. Generally speaking, it seems to be the case that some conditions will simply be more striking than others and will be the most likely to be described as a cause. Therefore, to avoid slipping into a deterministic or essentialist understanding, I prefer to think of causes as 'salient conditions'. The salience should be seen as dependent to some degree on the context of the inquiry and therefore different contexts may attend to other conditions.

Notes on karma

I think the self is best thought of as a locus of active relationships between beliefs, desires, memories and sensations, the delineation of which is dependent on a particular purpose. Furthermore, each active relationship is dependent on another without exception. In principle, therefore, the delineation of these relationships can extend to the whole interdependent network which constitutes the universe or, at the other extreme, contract into a single point. In this framework, looking for the 'real self' becomes problematic if not futile. This is not to state that there is no stability to the self. Rather, it is to state that such stability comes from the recurrent focus on certain relationships and that this focus is neither inherent nor immutable.

In the Buddhist tradition this process of recurrence is described by the concept of karma. Peter Hershok, in the Journal Of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 10, 2003, states that, "The teaching of karma invites attending to the consonance between the topography of our ongoing experience and the pattern of our own values and intentions. A basic insight resulting from this practice is that patterns of value and intention are in complex feedback with patterns of experience—a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship in which neither can be claimed fully foundational or original in the strict sense."* So the stability of the self, and of the states of affairs, both of which are inextricably and mutually co-dependent, is subject to the karmic process of evaluative contextualisation. Indeed, neither the self nor states of affairs stand apart from this evaluative context. Put another way, the self and states of affairs just emerge from and consist of this recurring yet changing evaluative context.

Thus the upaya of which I have recently written is perhaps found in a sensitivity to values and their 'karmic efficacy'. Its means is perhaps the ability to approach a troubled situation with the skill to redraw its 'value topography' in a way which redefines the boundaries of the self, the state of affairs, or both, in a new and better way such that the situation can proceed in a better direction. In a sense, this has always been what philosophy, science and religion do, when they are at their best. This is what I obliquely referred to when discussing alterity a couple of months ago.

What philosophy, science and religion do at their worst is take a particular value topography as final and in need of no further revision until it hardens and resists progression and new relation. This is what I have been roughly describing as essentialism. This 'error' isn't limited to these spheres of activity, however. Karma permeates everything, and so must the upaya by which it is approached.

*Pirsig readers will certainly be struck by the consonance between this concept of karma and the 'value-centered experience' at the heart of the Metaphysics of Quality.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Upaya: Praxis makes perfect

Following on from the brief notes on Buddhist wisdom I made the other day, here is a useful article - - to remind me, and anyone reading, of the spirit of upaya in which the Buddha taught, and the spirit in which I want my blog to progress. I've worked through a lot of the abstractions now and want to get to some specifics at some point. Anyway, here is the conclusion from Schroeder's essay, an essay in which he has criticised Buddhologists who are prone to metaphysical abstraction and analysis:

The prejudice of those I have criticized in this article has to do with judging the value of Buddhism apart from its upayic role. Neglecting the actual practices of a Buddhist life, they view the doctrines of "emptiness," "non-self," and "dependent arising" apart from Buddhist praxis. Nagarjuna's "emptiness of emptiness," for example, is generally seen as a metaphysical maneuver: it deconstructs epistemological realism, essentialism, metaphysics, causality, and a referential view of language. It tells us something about how the mind posits "hidden" essences and "secret powers," how language carves the world into subject/object dualities, or how consciousness constructs an illusory world of "things" interacting "in" space and time. But it is precisely this metaphysical move that "skillful means" rejects because it forces us to think of Buddhist praxis in an abstract way, as something we can discuss apart from its rhetorical and pedagogical contexts.

Even more problematic is that many of the scholars I criticize see their interpretations of Nagarjuna as upayic. The majority of Madhyamika scholars I have discussed tell us that not only is Nagarjuna's critique of svabhava geared toward metaphysics but that liberation depends on understanding how it works. According to Murti, for example: The dialectic, then, as the Sunyata of drstis, is the negation of standpoints, which are the initial negation of the real that is essentially indeterminate. Correctly understood, Sunyata is not annihilation, but the negation of negation; it is the conscious correction of an initial unconscious falsification of the real. (Murti 1955, p. 271) Murti not only sees Nagarjuna as diagnosing a fundamental problem in human existence, but also thinks that his dialectical method will "cure" us. The problem is basically metaphysical in nature, and consists of "covering" the Real with a conceptual thought-which, according to Murti, amounts to an unconscious negation of "Truth." Thus, if we could reverse this process (negate the negation), then we would experience liberation. What is interesting about Murti's analysis is that it supposedly offers an upaya: "emptiness" is the "means" for correcting a "falsification of the real."

Frederick Streng also reads Nagarjuna in an upayic way. "Emptiness," he says, is the "means for quelling the pain found in existential 'becoming' which results from longing after an eternal undisturbed entity" (Streng 1967, p. 149). While Murti tells us that Nagarjuna is deconstructing a "conflict in reason," Streng tells us that Nagarjuna is attacking a referential view of language. By understanding what he calls a "relational norm of meaning," that is, that words are meaningful only in relation to other words, we will be "cured" of the longing for an "eternal undisturbed entity." C. W. Huntington, Jr., expresses a similar view: Recognition of the strictly contextual or pragmatic significance of the thoughts and objects that populate our mental and material world renders meaningless any search for a transcendental ground behind these phenomena . . . .What is immediately given in everyday experience is indeed all that there is, for the inherently interdependent nature of the components of this experience is the truth of the highest meaning: both the means to the goal (marga; upaya) and the goal itself (nirvana). (Huntington 1989, p. 40)

For Garfield, the upayic nature of Nagarjuna's philosophy lies in showing us the nature of what he calls "reification," or the tendency to take what is conventional for something essential: Reification is the root of grasping and craving and hence of all suffering. And it is perfectly natural, despite its incoherence. Nagarjuna intends one to break this habit and extirpate the root of suffering. . . Only with the simultaneous realization of the emptiness, but conventional reality, of phenomena and of the emptiness of emptiness, argues Nagarjuna, can suffering be wholly uprooted. (Garfield 1995, p. 314) According to Garfield, Nagarjuna's dialectic uproots this tendency to "reify" the world by showing not only that all phenomena are "empty" but that this very "emptiness" is itself "empty," or, as Garfield says, that it, too, is merely a conventional designation.

Given that all the thinkers above do see Nagarjuna's dialectic in an upayic way, how can I claim that their approach to Buddhism is, in fact, non-upayic? The main reason for this has to do with how they frame the problem. According to their accounts, Nagarjuna already knows in advance what everyone's problem is, and how to solve it. Whether the problem is "falsifying the real," a "referential view of language," "essentialism," or "reification," Nagarjuna is depicted as speaking universally; he not only diagnoses an innate "sickness" in human nature, but cures it by prescribing a set remedy: namely, "emptiness." However, both the problem and the cure on these accounts are abstract and essentialistic. Asserted independently of any rhetorical context and apart from the karmic dispositions of individuals, they are expressed with the assumption that there is a single cause to all human suffering and a single cure. If it is true that Nagarjuna is speaking in this way, and that his doctrine of "emptiness" is supposed to cure all "ills" no matter what the time, place, or cultural context, then it is debatable just how upayic his philosophy really is. Given that upaya rejects sweeping generalizations about human beings and their suffering, he would then suffer from the exact "illness" that "skillful means" is trying to cure. However, I have tried to argue against this view of Nagarjuna by showing how "emptiness" is a "skillful means" used against the Abhidharma Buddhists, and how it is making a claim about Buddhist practice. In this sense, sunyata is not a panacea at all, but an attack on the very tendency to think in this way.

After having attacked so many others for turning Buddhism into "bad medicine," however, and after having devoted this article to explaining how it is impossible to make sense of "skillful means" apart from the concrete needs and karmic dispositions of an audience, the position of my own argument is obviously problematic. Is this study an upaya? Is it grounded in the lives of others, a practical guide or a "raft" toward liberation? If it is true that "skillful means" is a practical guide, and that by thinking of it apart from praxis we lose sight of what Buddhism is all about, then have I not committed a grave error by offering an abstract account of up, upaya?

These questions expose my argument at its weakest point. This article is not a "raft" or a path toward liberation. It is not grounded in the Buddhist life of practice, nor is it a meditation device. Therefore it, too, is guilty of speaking about Buddhism apart from practice, and suffers from the problem of explaining its central ideas (e.g., upaya) apart from how they function in the lives of Buddhist practitioners. In effect, this article is afflicted with the very "illness" that the Buddha, Vimalakirti, Lin-chi, and Nagarjuna are fighting against.

On the other hand, what distinguishes my argument from those I criticize is that I am not offering a path to liberation. I have not determined in advance what any path is or said what one should do in order to attain liberation. On the contrary, I have tried to remain faithful to the doctrine of an upaya that undercuts our ability to say in advance-and previous to knowing who one's audience is-how liberation should be achieved. I believe that this is where my argument differs most from those I criticize. For most Western scholars, Nagarjuna's "emptiness" is a panacea, a medicine that will cure everyone regardless of the disease, and their interpretations are usually devoted to telling us what our problem is and how to cure it. And all of this, oddly enough, without even knowing who we are. I have simply tried to show why this approach "tends not to edification."

(John Schroeder, Nagarjuna and the doctrine of "skillful means", 2000)

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Relational Self in Buddhist Wisdom

I have written about the possibility of a new widespread conception of the self, one in which the essentialised, Cartesian image is left behind in favour of a relational and dynamic entity. I now want to briefly consider how this conception is already applied in terms of Buddhist wisdom.

Buddhist wisdom broadly consists of insight into the conditions - the network of interdependence - from which things may have arisen as they have, and a keenly attuned capacity for dissolving and revising the meaning of situations that seem to have gone astray. A key element of this wisdom is the teaching of the three marks of existence: all things are suffering, impermanent, and without any abiding self or essence. It is with this knowledge, according to the Buddha, that one can set about dissolving the conditions of suffering.

Although it can often strike people as a basically negative teaching, in practice an awareness of the three marks can bring about profoundly constructive and positive insights. Perhaps the most crucial in this regard is the realization that no situation, regardless of how hopelessly conflicted it appears to be, is finally intractable. Indeed, seeing all things as impermanent is to see that change is always already taking place. The question then is not whether change is possible, but in what direction should it proceed? Because of dependent arising there are no permanent selves, no cores or essences of things or states of affairs, therefore all situations are open to positive revision and/or redirection. Finally, seeing all things as suffering is to resist the tendency to feel that if things are okay for me or for us, then they must be okay for everyone. It is also a reminder that dissolving the conditions of suffering or conflict is not a teleological affair, but an ongoing, dynamic activity.

So, Buddhist wisdom emerges as a capacity for increasingly flexible and subtly attuned responsiveness to changing relationships and possibilities between self and environment. As such, training for insight into the emptiness, i.e. the dependent arising of all things is strongly associated with meditative discipline. Meditative discipline undermines the essentialising effect of habit formation that constrains our capacity for flexible, situational response, while at the same time building a capacity for situational attunement. The general Buddhist pattern of skillfully dealing with suffering and conflict can be seen as a systematic relinquishing of our present , often habitual, horizons for relevance, responsibility, and readiness, whatever these may be. More positively phrased, it consists of developing the kind of appreciative and contributory upaya needed in order to fully accord with our situation, to expand or contract its network of interdependence, and respond to it as needed.

Finally, Buddhism does not imply an ultimate transition from a deplorable or troubling state of affairs to one that is desirable and free of trouble—a transition from a hell to a heaven. Rather, it is an active process of continuously and skillfully reorienting the pattern of relationships in which we find ourselves, indeed, the patterns by which we are at all. Thus, Buddhist liberation does not consist in being free, but in relating freely.