Sunday, December 13, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing

I spent the past two-and-a-half weeks studying Madhyamaka with a great teacher named Israel Lifschitz, from Nitartha Institute. I'm grateful to Israel for sharing these insights with me and helping me understand the practical value of Madhyamaka, which often seems maddeningly dense and intellectual. If there is anything of value said in this essay, it's probably from Israel; I've just tried to put it into writing, and tie it together with some of my own feeble thoughts.

When the Buddha first attained enlightenment, he remained alone and silent for several weeks, uncertain that he could share with anyone else what he had realized. But eventually he decided that he had to try. His initial attempt, it is said, didn’t go very well. When asked about his realization by one of the first men he encountered, he said:

“I have found a mind that is pure, profound, luminous and free of stains.”

The man basically took a step back and said something like, “Okay...Well, good luck with that!” And off he went.

The Buddha realized that in order to share his realization with others, he would need to come down to earth a little bit more, and talk at a level that ordinary people could understand and put into practice. So he adopted a more practical style of teaching, relating very much to the everyday level of experience. But over the next 40 years, as a large following of disciples grew around him and practiced his teachings, he gradually moved closer and closer to his original revelation: in stages, he unveiled the depth of his realization, one step at a time. Each time his followers thought they’d arrived at a solid understanding of reality, the Buddha would pull the rug out from under them again and reveal a new, more profound way of understanding. The stages of the Buddhist path point, ever more directly, towards that pure, profound, luminous mind that is free of stains, which was the essence of the Buddha’s awakening.

The fact is that the Buddha’s realization was something that cannot really be put into words, and cannot be conceptually understood. It was dancing itself, an experience which no dance manual -- however well-written or illustrated -- can really convey. Over the past twenty-five centuries, however, Buddhist practitioners have developed a mind-numbingly complex and mind-bogglingly vast array of manuals and philosophical systems describing that dance and how we can replicate it in our own experience.

Many of these philosophical systems developed highly sophisticated, detailed descriptions and categorizations of the human mind and its experience. But among the most daunting, and most profound, of these philosophical systems is one that arose in India several centuries after the Buddha’s passing, which came to be known as the Madhyamaka school. Later, when Buddhism came to Tibet, the Madhyamaka system was enshrined there as the highest philosophical view; today, 1,500 years later, Tibetans are still arguing the same issues that were debated by Madhyamaka philosophers in India nearly 1,000 years earlier.

In fact, the Madhyamaka system is not much of a system, because it contains no elaborate descriptions of mind or of ultimate reality. That’s because the Madhyamaka philosophers don’t really hold a view or a position of their own. From the Madhyamaka perspective, there is nothing to say about the ultimate nature of things, because it is beyond words, beyond all reference points and concepts. The only way to conceptually approach emptiness, or the true nature of reality, they say, is through refuting everything that it is not. Through systematically annihilating every mistaken conceptual idea one might have about true reality, they aimed to create a space for the Buddha’s non-conceptual realization to arise. Thus, the Madhyamaka philosophers asserted no particular views of their own and had nothing to defend, but simply went about exposing the absurdity and contradictions of the views and positions held by everyone else.

Contrary to appearances, Madhyamaka is not a philosophical game or an intellectual exercise. Its purpose is not just to refute other people’s views, but in doing so, to uproot our ignorance and to expose the mistaken nature of our assumptions about reality. Like all Buddhist teachings and practices, the Madhyamaka method is intended to help us wake up; by demolishing our opinions with merciless logic, it aims to help us go beyond opinions altogether, to pure experience and a state of relaxation free of mental constructs. The irony of Madhyamaka is that it has nothing to say and points to a state of total simplicity -- the pure, profound, luminous mind beyond concept that the Buddha realized -- and yet the Madhyamaka philosophers produced a mountain of philosophical treatises that rival, in both complexity and volume, the output of any other philosophical system in the world.

The very center of our experience, the core of reality, what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” is a place where words and concepts cannot go. Madhyamaka deals with that core, that center, but it never says anything about it directly -- because nothing that can be said can possibly express the nature of that core. In a debate with a Madhyamaka philosopher, you have the right to remain silent, but anything you say can and will be used against you.

The Buddha taught that our ignorance and our clinging are the fundamental causes of our suffering. The aim of Madhyamaka is to uproot our ignorance of ultimate reality and expose our clinging to opinions and conceptual reference points. Holding onto our reference points and clinging to our opinions is the Madhyamaka definition of suffering; letting them go and relaxing into a space beyond concepts is freedom.

Consider how we cling to the past, and how much suffering this causes us. We feel that we are conditioned and programmed by our past experiences, and we hold onto the memory of them tightly -- even (or especially) the bad stuff. We cling so very tightly to the labels we put on ourselves based on what we did or what was done to us in the past, and who we believe those experiences make us today. I am such-and-such kind of person and that’s who I really am, because such-and-such happened to me. We resist letting go of these labels because they define who we think we are. Who would we be without them? Our fixation and clinging to the past is like trying to clutch at water in our fists; by the time we close our hands on it, it’s already gone. The past no longer exists, and yet we constantly try to cling to it and make it permanent.

Madhyamaka doesn’t refute the appearances of life; it doesn’t say, for example, that the past never happened, or that the objects appearing in front of us now are not appearing. But it refutes, relentlessly, every single concept or opinion that we might impute onto that raw experience. It shows us how the mistaken notions we impute onto our experience -- and the fact that we believe what we impute -- block our ability to see reality as it is, and cause us unnecessary suffering. The problem behind our suffering, according to Madhyamaka, is not a lack of thinking or logic; it’s bad thinking, and bad logic.

When we let our minds be permeated by the ultimate view -- that things and experiences have no enduring essence that we can cling to, and that the true nature of reality is neither this way nor that way -- then our clinging is reduced. What is there to cling to? We don’t, after all, have to take the whole thing quite so seriously.


Bruce said...

It had never occurred to me that there might be a Buddhist version of the Miranda rights... this realization may indeed become an aid in meditation: letting go of conceptual thoughts knowing that they would be refuted once expressed...

Aruna said...

Hi Dennis,
I wrote a comment on your blog yesterday, but not sure if it was transmitted. Just wanted to tell you that what you write- and the way your write it - has been rather profound for me,at least in the last 12 hours or so that I've read it. I don't mean to overstate, but that's how I feel.
I'm a 36 year old woman, living outside of Washington D.C. and feeling like I am in the middle of the sort of spiritual transformation you describe (but thus far have only snacked on "potato chips" as you say...) Do you have a direct email address that you'd feel comfortable sharing with a reader? I'm on a similar journey and I guess I want to establish connections with people who I can relate/take guidance from.

Dennis Hunter said...

Hi Aruna,

I'd be happy to talk with you. You can write to me at dennishunter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Best wishes,