May 01, 2007

Emptiness of Reason

Several weeks ago in sangha I had a greater insight into emptiness. I imagined a web made of strings, each string representing a cause or condition. I plucked each string, each cause and condition, away separately until the space was empty. This is a visual metaphor for all things because all things exist as a result of cause and condition. Or do they?

Our discussion leader once said that consciousness is the only thing which inherently exists, without cause or condition. “We’ll get into that later,” he said. We haven’t gotten into it yet and it has left me wondering.

In a previous meeting, we were discussing the nature of self and I brought up Descartes, whose ideas on the matter of self are greatly accepted in Western philosophy. Our discussion leader told me of a book which presents the (Tibetan) Buddhist idea of non-self in a way which specifically refutes Descartes. He cautioned that it was quite long and convoluted, so I didn’t look into it as it was the middle of the semester. Time has passed.

Descartes’ theory is simply the “I think therefore I am” idea of self, beautiful in its very simplicity. He states that the only thing we can prove beyond any doubt is our own existence. Anything we perceive, feel, or even think (as basic as 2+2=4) can be false. It could be a simple error of perception (something appears small because it is far away) or it could be a dream, illusion, or implanted thought (Matrix style or caverns of Socrates). Therefore the only thing which we can prove is that the self exists because the self is that which thinks, which perceives. We cannot prove in what manner the self exists, that it walks on two legs or four, that it even has a body, let alone a mind or soul, or that anything it thinks or perceives is real or comes from itself, only that it exists.

I have found no way to refute this. Nor do I believe does the Buddhist idea of non-self directly refute it. I believe it is also a question of relative and ultimate reality. Of course in the relative world, the self exists, but in the ultimate truth of things…

However, if it is said that consciousness inherently exists, is this not the “self” Descartes proves? How can Descartes be both refuted and upheld?

Or if everything is empty, consciousness does not inherently exist, so where does it come from? Could this be proof of God? But wouldn’t that mean God inherently exists? Otherwise, where did God come from? If God is the result of cause and condition is he/she really God? If God does inherently exist, then inherent existence is possible, so could not consciousness just as easily inherently exist with or without God? Tricky, tricky….

So here I sit at my keyboard trying to reason my way into an understanding of emptiness. Reason is a tricky thing, however, and probably the emptiest of all things which do not inherently exist. (Bear with me here a moment.)

Often we, myself included, make the mistake of believing those who do not agree with us simply do not understand. We believe their reasoning is flawed. If we could simply explain it better, they would understand, they would agree. It rarely works out that way.

If I asked a person what is their favorite color, and then asked why, they might say blue because it is the color of the sky, because it reminds them of their mother, and because it can be so changeable. But no one would expect to me say “Those sound like good reasons. I think I’ll change my favorite color to blue.” Similarly, no one would expect me to decide on my favorite food because someone else described all the reasons they liked it, especially if I had not tried it myself.

Reason has its limits. It is specifically bounded by experience and by intuition. So in trying to understand emptiness, is my reasoning flawed? Or is it simply that emptiness must be experienced, intuitively or otherwise, in order to be understood? If so, how does one go about accomplishing this? I’ll just add it to my “To Do” list.

Goal Number 4,680 – Experience Emptiness (unless I can reason it out first)


Stuff said...

This comes from a weekly email from the SnowLion site - I think it relates to this posting of yours . . . see what you think.

It's sort of like a 'self' infers a label, which is fine, but it's not inherently existent . . nor is any other sort of label . .

Dharma Quote of the Week

An inexpressible, self-arisen expanse
Without the names "samsara" and "nirvana."

Here, "self-arisen" means the primordial state. It is not something we can fully express with words or concepts. It's beyond words or concepts. The nature of all is not biased; it is not restricted to one or another. The nature of all exists in one identical state. That ground, that nature, does not have any name such as samsara or nirvana. That is the foundation, that is the ground. It is beyond samsara and nirvana. Not knowing the ground means wandering in samsara. If you recognize this ground, if you truly experience this ground, buddhahood is attained. That is the fruition. That is the result of our practice and our path.

...The ground, that fundamental state of simplicity, is the origin of all elaborations. This pure basic state is like a simple artist's canvas. We paint different images on this canvas. We can paint the image of a buddha, and it becomes very pure, beautiful, and inspiring to look at. We can also paint a devil on the same canvas, which can create our fundamental suffering, our basic pain. However, the basis of both is the same simple state of canvas that is completely pure and totally free from the images we project on it. It is totally free, whether that image is a buddha or a devil. That is the origin.

--from Penetrating Wisdom: The Aspiration of Samantabhadra by the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, published by Snow Lion Publications

greenfrog said...

Our discussion leader once said that consciousness is the only thing which inherently exists, without cause or condition.

The consciousness that arises from the assemblage and pattern of materials that are "me" is, by all evidence available to me, entirely contingent. When I've been anesthetized for surgery, that consciousness, so far as I can tell, terminated. Consciousness arose again once the drugs were metabolized.

With you (and Descartes, apparently) I find that consciousness is evidence of existence and evidence that existence is capable of consciousness. But I'm not sure that it is really evidence of anything more.

We evidently exist in a universe that includes the capacity for consciousness.

Maybe that's part of what your discussion leader had in mind?