Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Why Does Anything Happen?

Amazingly, almost no one ever stops to think about why does anything happen. Actually, that's not strictly true -- some of us do occasionally stop and think about it. But usually it is only about some specific thing. It is extremely rare to find anyone who is concerned with finding out why do things, all things, happen.

What Do You Think?

So what do you say? Why do things happen? Why is is that anything happens in the first place?

As we go through life, we cannot help but notice that things happen all the time. Things change, and each change is an event that makes us realize that there are things happening all the time.

But why is the world organized that way? When I ask my students about it, they usually tend to split into two extreme camps:
  1. Divine intervention -- things happen according to the God's will
  2. Random occurrence -- pure chance (or, chaotic changes)
The first camp (i.e. the divine intervention) relies on the existence of a divine, omnipotent being who created the world, and is willing everything that takes place in the world. This theory implies that the world has a beginning, and consequently, will have an end.

The second camp (i.e. the chaos theory) holds that everything is pure chance, a capricious or whimsical outcome of the laws of probability. Some events exhibit higher degrees of the probability pattern, and hence impress upon us the idea of a more or less organized regularity. But most events lack this regularity, and are merely viewed as a random rolling of dice.

Maybe you see yourself siding with one of the two camps we've mentioned above. But if I asked you to abstain from joining either of the two camps and yet taking a stance, what would you say?

What Do We Think?

As dedicated practitioners of the Buddhist Middle Way, we tend to avoid extremes, such as divine intervention, or pure chance. As Middle Way practitioners, we live in a godless world, but at the same time we hold that random, chancey world would not only be utterly meaningless, it would be utterly impossible.

While not relying on divine intervention and yet avoiding the blind chance of a chaotic world, we firmly stand the ground of recognizing that the world is fully ordered. Put slightly differently, we know that nothing ever happens without a very good reason.

Regardless of how many universes may exist in the world, none of them is regulated by a god-like figure, nor is any of them governed by the pure chance. All the possible universes are subject to the strict laws governing the occurrence of any and all events.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Buddhism and Free Will

Buddhist practice and teaching represents a fully qualified triumph of Intellect over Will. When attempting to describe the Buddha's incomparable achievements and powers, Buddhist texts invariably speak of his omniscience, but seldom of his omnipotence. Clearly, the Buddhist tenet system holds Knowledge (jnana) in a much higher esteem than it holds Will.

The power of will, in the Buddhist system of practice, is a blind force brought about through erroneous thinking. As such, it must be transcended through the proper use of intellectual analysis. Once the insubstantiality of the cravings, clinging and attachment/aversion becomes plainly evident to the practitioner (via the use of intellectual analysis), the power of will inevitably wilts away and fades out.

Such blind force of will, that arises via the confusion of ignorance, can be dispelled once proper understanding has been achieved. But, can the concept of Free Will, which should be a much less blind force, be regarded as a guiding principle in the Buddhist practice?

The principle of Free Will stands in stark contrast with the abiding Law of the Universe. The Law (or, a collection of laws) governs the Universe, governs the behavior of all manifested phenomena. The Law is inescapable -- it applies in all places, at all times.

But if that's invariably the case, then morality and ethics would become meaningless. Every act, every thought being predestined by the rigid workings of the Law, no one would be accountable for their actions.

All the great religions of the world uphold morality as the cornerstone of their practice. Consequently, such teachings cannot allow for a full blown determinism of the Universe. A loophole must be allowed to appear so that humans could be made accountable for their behavior. And such loophole is called Free Will.

According to the doctrine of Free Will, human beings are given a choice -- either they will attempt to discern what is right from what is wrong and then chose to do the right thing, or they will neglect that duty and turn their backs to the moral teaching. And, depending on their choice, humans will get rewarded/punished.

Depending of the scope of the human being (i.e. whether a particular person is viewed as lasting only a single lifetime, as opposed to being reincarnated in multiple lifetimes), the concept of reward/punishment gets defined. If a human being is viewed as contained within a single lifetime (as is the case in the Semitic religions), the reward or punishment will be awarded after that person's demise. If, however, the person's scope is viewed as extending into multiple lifetimes, the rewards and/or punishments are viewed as being administered on a pretty much ongoing basis.

Buddhism, being prevalently an ethical practice, places emphasis on the necessity of being accountable for one's deeds. The basic premise of the Buddhist teaching is that anything a person does will bear fruit, and that fruit will get experienced by that same person sometime in the future. Furthermore, and as a corollary to this, it would never be possible for one person to experience the fruit of another person's deed.

This morality therefore pretty much demands that a person, upon reaching the end of his life, must be born again. This is so because up until the very end of his life, that person has continued committing deeds, and such deeds will inevitably bring fruits in the future. And as that doer instantly dies and perishes, there will be no one to experience the fruits of his actions in the future (because of the dictum that forbids one person to taste the fruits of another person's doing). Consequently, and according to the Law of Karma, anyone that dies must be reborn in order to reap what he or she had sown in their previous life.

Now, similar to other ethical teachings, Buddhism also places the onus of choice on the individual's shoulders. If the practitioner understands the moral law as taught by the Buddha, and if the practitioner observes that understanding in her everyday acts, she will experience the fruits of her good deeds. And conversely, if she does not understand the teaching, or if she understands it but nevertheless choses to ignore it, she will experience the fruits of her bad deeds.

In Buddhism, the fruits of good deeds are experienced as improved conditions for practising the Dharma. The fruits of bad deeds are experienced as worsening of such conditions, as in the case when a practitioner regresses into some form of a subhuman creature upon being reborn.

So, unlike in some other religions, where bad deeds are being punished by an act of eternal damnation, for example, in Buddhism there is no such concept. Since everything we might encounter in our lives is a direct product of our own acts, we go from lifetime to lifetime always carrying this choice whether we want to improve or worsen our chances for attaining complete freedom.

As such, we see that Buddhism is the teaching that is based on the idea of change. One's situation could be quite bleak, but one can change that. How? Simply by learning the Buddha's teaching and observing it in one's workaday life. Conversely, one's situation could be quite advantageous, but one can change that as well. How? Simply by forgetting the Buddha's teaching, or by neglecting to apply it in everyday life.

Also, the Buddhist teaching of ultimate freedom is based on the idea of change. It is thanks to the fact that everything is impermanent that a person can change his/her situation and attain liberation. If things were permanent, being forever defined with unchangeable identity, no chance of being freed could ever present itself to any human being.

Observing this situation superficially, it would appear that the concept of Free Will is extremely prominent in the Buddhist teaching and practice. However, upon closer examination, it becomes really hard to identify this concept anywhere in this teaching. True, sentient beings are faced with a choice at every moment in their lives -- observe the Buddha's precepts, or ignore them. But, their choice is not governed by their will. It is governed by their knowledge, as obtained through careful proper analysis of phenomena.

In non-Buddhist religions, practitioners do not feel the need to examine the phenomena, since they believe that the world was created by the Supreme Being, or God. The only thing a worshipper needs to do is embrace the Will of the Creator, discard one's own will, and rest assured of the posthumous award. Conversely, failing to do that, the subject will rest assured of a tormentous punishment that awaits in the designated hell.

Where does Free Will fit in with that picture? Why was the individual human being given Free Will and the ability to choose?

Free Will in such religions is merely an expedient that enables the all-loving Creator not to be blamed for the ills of His creation. Why would an omnipotent all-knowing all-loving Creator create a world with so much hardship, heartbreak, misery and catastrophe? He wouldn't, not under any conceivable circumstances. How are we then to explain all the misery and inconceivable suffering that permeates the world? There is no other way to explain that discrepancy away other than to invoke the magical principle of Free Will. God has created humans in his own image and endowed them with Free Will, with the ability to choose between embracing Him or embracing the darkness. All the miseries that collate around the world are caused by the man's weak will, by his inability to choose the right path.

On the surface, this situation seems very similar to the Buddhist worldview. In Buddhism we also have the situation where individuals can choose at any moment whether to embrace the light or embrace the darkness. However, this is where the similarities end. In Buddhism, a person does not embrace darkness because of the weakness of his will, but because of ignorance. In non-Buddhist religions, the worshipper cannot be excused on the grounds of ignorance, because the unambiguous teaching is explained to all worshippers, and it is easy to understand that teaching. Basically, the knowledge needed to embrace the light consists in undivided allegiance to the Creator. Embrace the Creator in one's heart, devote one's entire life to Him, and you will be saved.

Things are far from being that simplistic in the Buddhist practice. To begin with, there is no Creator, so there is no one to pledge our allegiance to. Secondly, the teaching itself is abtruse, extremely recondite. Even among the advanced Buddhist practitioners one can notice considerable struggle in trying to fathom the more subtle, profound aspects of the teaching.

We have said at the beginning of this essay that proper knowledge is sufficient to eradicate any will. This is precisely what Buddhist practice aims for. The deluded mind conceives erroneously of "I" and soon enough the notion of "mine" follows. Then the "non-I" becomes a problem, and the will arises to fight the "non-I" and to conquer the "not mine", and turn it into "mine".

This will is the result of erroneous, miscalculated perception and apprehension. The same miscalculated perception gives rise of the false, phantom Free Will. Feeling falsely imprisoned by the phantom "non-I", the equally phantom-like "I" dreams of breaking free. This dream is what gives rise to the notion of Free Will.

Once this dream dissipates (through the establishment of the right view, or proper knowledge), the miscalculated perception turns into unblemished perception. The falsely perceived enslaved "I" vanishes, and with it every notion of Free Will. Once the notion of Free Will is discarded, true liberation shines through.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Rome Wasn't Destroyed in a Day

Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself
George Bernard Shaw

Funnily, a Buddhist prescription to what 'life is about' would be the exact opposite of what George Bernard Shaw suggested. If we ask a typical Buddhist practitioner what life is all about, he would quite possibly tell us: "Life isn't about finding yourself, life is about destroying yourself!"

Sounds quite radical. However, that's not the end of it. If we look into the Madhyamika teaching and practice, we may end up being startled upon finding even more radical explanations. However, before we go into that level of detail, we need to first set the stage appropriately.

Levels Of Buddhist Practice

Generally speaking, there are four levels of Buddhist practice, as exemplified in the four types of Buddhist practitioners:
  • Common folk (i.e. Buddhist wannabes)
  • Shravakas (i.e. 'hearers', the ones who hear the Buddha’s teaching and adopt it for their personal salvation)
  • Pratyekabuddhas (i.e. the self-enlightened ones)
  • Bodhisattvas (i.e. the ones who wish to save all sentient beings)
  • Buddhas (the fully accomplished, perfect ones)
Of course, common folk are the heavily deluded practitioners, the ones who believe in real substance underlying all life's experiences. These people may engage in the Buddhist practice, at which point they will undergo training to try and shed the cast of the coarsest illusions.

Shravakas, on the other hand, are the ones who had already managed to shed the heavy cast of more coarse delusions, and who are capable of attaining the cessation of their own personal emotional turmoil. Such practitioners have experienced the taste of nirvana, the complete cessation of personal emotional turmoil.

Pratyekabuddhas are more advanced than Shravakas because they have penetrated the worldly illusion. They realize that all experiences are hollow to the core, in the sense that they do not possess identity.

Bodhisattvas are the most advanced on the path, due to the widening of the scope of their practice. Upon raising compassion in their hearts, certain Buddhist practitioners enlarge the scope of their practice from being concerned about their own salvation to assuming a more altruistic outlook. All of a sudden, such practitioners realize that, without liberating all beings, they won't be able to ever find the final peace. Such people are then known as Bodhisattvas.

Finally, Buddhas are the ineffably perfect, fully accomplished beings, who are treading the path of no more learning.

The Madhyamika Level

Nagarjuna introduced a very pointed teaching, which systematizes the core of the Buddha’s recondite teachings. This teaching is not suitable for the common folk, or for Shravakas or even for Pratyekabuddhas. Only Bodhisattvas can enter the Madhyamika path, because their vows of undying love toward all beings help them gain strength and stamina required for practicing this extreme path.

It is the most radical, uncompromising path there could ever be. It goes beyond substantialism/nihilism. In terms of answering the Bernard Shaw's bon mot, Madhyamika proponent may say something like the following:

"Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is abut destroying not only yourself but also the entire realm of phenomena!"

From the above we can glean that Madhyamika practice negates, in the wholesale manner, the reality of the entire range of human experiences.

In terms of the various levels of Buddhist practitioners, the Buddha knew that different people are characterized by different range when it comes to the scope of their practice. Thus, different types of practitioners reach their level of exhaustion at different times. Common folk are, or course, the first ones to fall exhausted to the ground. To them, the Buddha delivered encouraging words in the sense that if they persist, they will be reborn in much more agreeable circumstances.

Shravakas, by the virtue of their disciplined practice, are characterized by the much farther-reaching range. Still, even those practitioners have relatively short range, after which they cannot keep pushing their practice. To them, the Buddha delivered encouraging words explaining the bliss of nirvana, the final repose. Of course, nirvana, designed for Shravakas, is not really the final repose, it is merely an oasis, a place to rest and gather one's strength.

Pratyekabuddhas and Bodhisattvas are much more resilient, as they are prepared to invest extreme effort in order to reach the far shore. To Pratyekabuddhas, the Buddha delivered the soothing words explaining how all the phenomena are devoid of substance, of real existence.

To Bodhisattvas, the Buddha delivered the final teaching explaining that both the personal self, as well as the phenomenal self, have no reality. Both classes of phenomena are illusory, to be regarded as mirage, a reflection in the glass, a moon reflected in the pond, etc.

This is actually the Madhyamika level, which teaches that not only the personal self is nowhere to be found, but also the phenomena (the no-self) are empty, not findable.

Rome Wasn't Built In A Day

As the famous saying goes, it took considerable effort to build a city the size and the splendor of Rome. Certainly not something that could be accomplished overnight. However, as it turns out, as long as it may have taken to build Rome, it certainly took much longer to destroy it. Once a magnificent facility gets built, it assumes a life of its own, and tends to be very resilient, resisting true change. Thus, we see from the history textbooks that it took many lifetimes (read: generations) of persistent destructive behavior to finally destroy this magnificent city.

The same applies to the self. It takes some time to build it and to polish it, but it certainly takes much, much longer to demolish it.

Broken Mirror

The practice of compassion arises from understanding the situation. If our understanding is lacking (i.e. is tainted by ignorance), then everything we perceive appears as if being reflected in a broken mirror. Things and events appear fractured, fragmented, jagged, and in general, very unpleasant and jarring.

Every now and then, we do manage to find a special angle in that fractured mirror where things start appearing a little more palatable to us. This precarious balance is difficult to achieve, and is typically very short lived. A slight, minor change or shift in our perspective is sufficient to 'break the spell' and to push us back into viewing things as being disjointed, unpleasant, even threatening to us.

Because of that, some people tend to hide their heads in the sand, or to run away from that fractured mirror. Substance abuse (overeating, alcohol, drugs), sexuality abuse (incest, child molestation, S&M), material cravings (acquiring goods and services), throwing oneself into therapy, or into some irrational cultish ritual, are all signs of not being able to cope with the broken mirror.

At the other end of the spectrum, some people, being seriously disturbed by the broken mirror, tend to practise 'growing up' in order to reach some sort of a truce with the unbearable broken mirror. Instead of sticking their heads in the sand, or running away from it, they try to embrace as much as what they find embraceable in there. In order to understand that, we should study selfishness, as it occurs among humans:

At the most crude level, we see that some people never outgrow their preschool/kindergarten age. Such people always hasten to let us know how all they care about is their own self, and how they don't really care about what happens to anyone else. These are the people that can easily sell their own mother, even their own children, when push comes to shove. They cannot tolerate even the slightest discomfort.

At the next, somewhat more cultivated level, we see that some people learn to outgrow such childish obsession with their own little comfort zone, and manage to develop some level of empathy toward other humans (and maybe even animals). These people can have functional family lives, including even developing a circle of close friends.

At the even more cultivated level, we find people who managed to enlarge their own self to the point where they start loving not only their immediate family members and close friends, but their own tribe, their own nation, their own race. Even loving the entire humankind. These people like to think they are practising compassion.

But, are they really? Are they any less selfish than the kindergarten types (the 'me, me, and only me!' types)? We can see that, by enlarging their self to embrace the others, and, ultimately, the entire world, they have also enlarged their selfishness. All this compassion that they practise is actually only compassion towards their own self. By identifying with things apparently outside of themselves, they have enlarged their self, they have conquered the new territory, and are working to ensure that their now bigger self will achieve a beneficial status in the future. That's not the spiritual path of cultivating compassion. That's just an effort to fix the fractured mirror, to appease and tranquilize the troubled mind.

The problem is, no amount of mending is ever going to cure the problem. What is needed is the realization that the mirror is not actually broken. It is as if a dislocated screen was placed between the interpretative perception and the mirror. Once we see through this charade, and the imagined screen is dispelled with, the mirror appears as if restored, in its incomparable brightness and shininess. For the first time, things appear as they truly are, unfractured, unfragmented, whole.

Once this happens, we can safely abandon the search for those 'special' angles. Any angle is the angle we want to look at.

So, once we get to the point where we see things objectively, as they truly are, instead of seeing them subjectively (through the distorted imaginary screen, i.e. selfish), we can finally understand the situation. Then, we can truly help others, because we clearly see what it is that they need. Before that happens, what we may see in other beings is certainly not what they really need. Everything is tainted with our own fractured and fragmented, personal selfish agenda.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Two Teachings

Substantiality is the single biggest problem in the Buddhist practice. It is ubiquitous and persistent. It seems that no matter what level of sophistication practitioners may reach, there always exists this propensity for reification of one's experiences.

Thus we see different practitioners getting 'stuck' at different levels of substantialist beliefs. Less refined ones tend to hang on to the more coarse manifestations of substantiality, such as believing in a separate personhood, etc. More refined practitioners, who manage to get beyond such coarse reifications, usually tend to get stuck at a less obvious impasse. Such advanced practitioners can be recognized as belonging to the 'substantialists' by their afilliation with more sublime concepts, such as Tao, or space, the sky, consciousness, awareness, or mind, etc. All these subtle concepts (i.e. Tao, vast expanse of space, vast expanse of mind, etc.) are only reified substance, masquerading as something non-substantial.

The Buddha, upon attaining the unexcelled perfect enlightenment (samuttara samyak sambodhi), expressed his keen concern regarding these issues. He lamented:
This Dhamma, won by me, is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand... But this is a generation delighting in sensual pleasure... And if I were to teach Dhamma and others were not to understand me, this would be a weariness to me, this would be a vexation to me
(Vinayapitaka, I 3f)

Why Was The Buddha Vexed?

The Buddha knew that it is relatively easy to convince regular, untutored person that his/her ways are deleterious. Most people realize that they're not even close to being perfect.

But the person who had spent years perfecting her virtues and polishing her insight may not be so amenable to the suggestion that her ways might actually be ruinous. The Buddha was mostly worried about such practitioners. He knew that all people have this ingrained tendency to search for the Holy Grail, for the Philosopher's Stone. And he also knew that such miraculous stone is merely a fool's gold. In other words, the existence of a wish-fulfilling gem is nowhere evidenced. The search for the primordial substance, so dear to each and everyone of us, is very deleterious for a very simple reason -- it is a colossal waste of time.

And while ordinary people tend to search for this primordial substance in vulgar places (such as material wealth, fame, longevity, etc.), more sophisticated practitioners, who managed to rise above such crass concerns, seek for this substance in exalted areas, such as mind, dharma, nirvana, and such. Because of that, the Buddha knew that such practitioners absolutely won't be able to understand his teaching. He knew that they will consequently choke on something so illusive, so fine grained, that it would be incredibly difficult to get them to realize that they actually have a serious problem.

Nagarjuna's Solution

Shakyamuni Buddha introduced a teaching so radical, that it took a number of generations before the dust could settle and the teaching could be systematized. After several partial attempts at systematizing the Buddha's teaching (i.e. Abhidharma, Prajna-paramita), Nagarjuna was the first master who managed to fully expose the essence of the Buddha's teaching without leaving any unresolved issues.

This systematization resulted in the formulation of the Madhyamika school of Buddhist practice. This school is based on the discipline of the Middle Way, beyond the extremes of views. Nagarjuna explained it thus:
If I were to advance any proposition whatsoever, from that I would incur error. On the contrary, I advance no proposition. Therefore, I incur no error.
(Mulamadhyamaka karika)

This relinquishing of all views is what constitutes, according to Nagarjuna, the essence of the Buddha's teaching.
I reverently bow to Gautama the Buddha who, out of compassion, has taught the true doctrine in order to relinquish all views.
(closing verse, Mulamadhyamaka karika XXVII 30)

This teaching could only be fully understood if the doctrine of Two Truths is mastered. Here is the essence of the Two Truths, as Nagarjuna puts it:
In teaching the Dharma, Buddhas resort to two truths: worldly conventional truth and ultimate truth.

The ultimate cannot be taught without resorting to conventions; and without recourse to the ultimate, one cannot reach nirvana.
Once the significance of the above formulation is fully realized, one cannot help but become free of any substantialist impulses. Nevertheless, regardless how simple the instructions given to us by Nagarjuna may appear to be, in reality this is the most difficult teaching to follow.

Because the ultimate cannot be demonstrated in and of itself, beings tend to confuse it with conventional manifestations. And because conventional manifestations cannot be flatly rejected (being the vehicles for realizing the ultimate), deluded beings have tremendous difficulties understanding and adhering to the teaching. Only devout followers of the Middle Way school (i.e. Madhyamika) can avoid falling into the substantialist trap.

Two Truths Vs. Three Truths

Things are far from being idyllic even in the extremely rarefied world of Madhyamika practice. One would think that those practitioners, who had summoned the courage to set their foot on the Middle Way course by relinquishing all views, would cease erring on the substantialist side. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case.

How do some Madhyamikas fall into the substantialist trap? It all has to do with the misapprehension of the Two Truths teaching. The Buddha had taught that all manifestations could be viewed in two lights -- in the correct light, and in the incorrect light. When phenomena are viewed in the incorrect light, we are dealing with the conventional, all-concealing truth (samvrti in Sanskrit). When those same phenomena are viewed in the correct light, we are dealing with the ultimate, indeterminate truth (paramartha in Sanskrit). The all-concealing truth, or truth by consensus, is no different than the ultimate truth, only it is subjectively falsified. The error is entirely epistemological, imagined, and has no ontological status of a really existing entity.

At the same time, the ultimate truth is nothing more than the all-concealing truth after the error of misperception has been corrected. This unity of the Two Truths is at the essence of the Buddha's teaching, and it has been underlined and re-emphasized by Nagarjuna, as well as by many other prominent Madhyamika practitioners.

So, where's the problem then? The extremely subtle issue creeps in when some Madhyamika practitioners get hit by the realization that what this doctrine actually means is that the conventional, consensus-based realm doesn't really exist. It can be best illustrated with the following (classic) example:

Imagine a person hiking in the countryside, who sees a wheat field in the distance. In the middle of the field, he sees a farmer, and decides to ask him for directions. The hiker starts yelling: "Hello, over here! Hey, you, can you hear me?" But the farmer doesn't seem to respond. Getting closer to the farmer, the hiker becomes more and more agitated, getting annoyed that the farmer doesn't seem to exhibit a common decency to reply to his calls. The hiker now gets positively angry with the farmer, and starts marching toward him with the intention to teach him a good lesson in etiquette.

But as the hiker gets closer to the farmer, he suddenly notices that the farmer is nothing more than a scarecrow. All of a sudden, all the pent up drama dissipates in the same manner it tends to evaporate when a person wakes up from a very intense dream.

The farmer who seemingly was the cause of all the fuss and fury, turned out to be completely non-existent. His apparent 'existence' was imputed, or ascribed by the hiker. More careful analysis, performed by that same hiker, resulted in the correction of error; this method is referred to as removal of ascriptions, and is part of the regular Madhyamika practice.

Similarly, all the other seemingly solid and existing phenomena invariably turn out to dissipate in the same way the imputed farmer had dissipated after more careful analysis. And according to the Buddha and Nagarjuna, as well as many other Buddhist Masters, no evidence exists of any phenomena that is not imputed/ascribed in the exact same manner.

Knowing this, it is easy to see how unreal the domain of conventional, everyday truth is. However, the inherent bias toward substantiality, that many of us seem to cherish above anything else (even above truth itself), compels some practitioners to still hold that behind all that charade, there is still some solid, immutable, reliable substance. According to their line of reasoning, all the demonstrable apparitions that the world of consensus-based truth deludes us with are based on some underlying non-deceiving substance. While they agree that things appear to arise and cease, and that these cycles are deceptive, they nevertheless insist that such deception, such error is only possible if there is something real, something substantial causing things to get imputed or incorrectly ascribed.

Such practitioners cannot conceive of the validity of accepting wholeheartedly the utter emptiness, or lack of self-determination of any manifested phenomena. Even after convincing themselves in the evident utmost unfindability of any perceived phenomena, they still keep on insisting that such phenomena continue to exist "according to their characteristics". In other words, while the substantialist Madhyamikas accept that manifested phenomena are devoid of real, inherent existence, they still must exist based on their attributes.

In this manner, the Madhyamikas with a substantialist bend introduce the third truth. That one they call the "approximate truth". Before we proceed with the analysis of the third truth, let us first examine all the possibilities. In the final analysis, it is possible to formulate four truths about the world:
  1. Hallucinatory truth
  2. All-concealing truth (i.e. truth by consensus)
  3. Approximate truth
  4. Ultimate truth (i.e. the indeterminate truth)
1. Hallucinatory truth: simple examples of optical illusions could illustrate this truth. A deluded person may think he sees a lake in the desert, while all he actually sees is just hot air hovering above the horizon.

2. All-concealing truth: as already explained, everyday occurrences, which may appear totally solid and real, turn out to be mere figment of imagination when examined more closely.

3. Approximate truth: as mentioned above, this is the truth about phenomena who do not exist according to their true nature (which is nowhere to be found), yet exist according to their characteristics.

4. Ultimate truth: indeterminate, indescribable, surpasses conceptual realm.

Different philosophical and religious systems may subscribe to different combinations of the above list of possible truths. No system is known that embraces all four at the same time. Some systems embrace only one truth (such as Materialistic system, which basically only holds that whatever is accessible to immediate perception is true, everything else being false; as such, the materialists deal only with the second truth, the so called all-concealing truth).

Some systems embrace three truths at once (apparently, Vedanta being one such system, where the hallucinatory truth is accepted as a subject of investigation, together with the all-concealing truth and the ultimate truth).

In Buddhism, the doctrine teaches only about the Two Truths: the all-concealing truth and the ultimate truth. The Buddhist practitioners show no interest in analyzing the hallucinatory truth. However, in the Madhyamika practice, the substantialist current felt the need to introduce the third truth, namely the approximate truth.

Approximate Truth

Some Madhyamika practitioners, upon reaching the inevitable conclusion that all experiences are nothing but mere figment of imagination, feel uneasy about being forced to conclude that experiences are essentially unreal. While the inviolable evidence compels them to proclaim how things do not actually exist, they still cannot help but murmur under their breath: "How is it possible that things don't really exist?" Due to their deeply ingrained substantialist bias, they cannot really accept the fact that everything anyone could ever experience is a mere error in perception, a blatant miscalculation or misinterpretation.

Thus they rush to impute another concept, that of "approximate truth". The rationale they offer for introducing this newfangled concept is based on the ineffability of the ultimate truth. Their argumentation goes as follows:

"If everyday experiences are phantom-like, and if the ultimate truth is unreachable by the rational means, how are we to teach the deluded beings?"

The simple answer by the non-substantialist Madhyamikas is: "In order to teach deluded beings, use the falsity of the manifested phenomena as a starting point for spotting and correcting the error. Once the error gets corrected, the ultimate gets realized."

However, in the approach suggested above one cannot find any handles that would help one solidify, or reify one's need for substantiality. Both the unborn error, as well as the act of correcting it, are totally insubstantial. And the realized ultimate truth is also insubstantial, simply by the virtue of being indeterminate.

Such situation is absolutely untenable for the practitioners who have even the tiniest substantialist inclination. For them, after all is being said and done, after everything has been analyzed and debunked, a solid residue of something distilled that is reliable, immutable and definable must remain. And that definitely is not the case with the devastating dialectic analysis that the Madhyamika practice brings.

In order to keep the dreaded insubstantiality at bay, the substantialist Madhyamika practitioners introduce the concept of approximate truth in the last ditch attempt at clutching straws. The practice of approximate truth is devised in order to attempt bridging the perceived gap between the all-concealing relative truth, and the ineffable absolute, ultimate truth. While proper Madhyamika practice forbids us to introduce any concepts that may attempt to approximate the characteristics of the ultimate truth, the substantialist current of the Madhyamika practice encourages such attempts. Thus, such practitioners do not limit themselves to only exposing all theories as being idle speculations (by reducing their conclusions to absurdity), they also actively engage in weaving their own theories about the world. They allow for introducing positive propositions during the debate, thus directly violating Nagarjuna's dictum:
If I were to advance any proposition whatsoever, from that I would incur error. On the contrary, I advance no proposition. Therefore, I incur no error.
(Mulamadhyamaka karika)

Two Teachings

In order to suppress the strong urges toward substantiality, Buddhas and bodhisattvas resort to two teachings. The easiest way to explain the difference between these two teaching is to give a simple illustration:

Imagine a person who must spend one month alone in the forest. His biggest concern is survival. Not having any skills required to live alone in the wilderness, that person is getting close to having a panic attack when thinking about what awaits him in the dreaded forest.

He may hear of a good teacher, a person who himself is known for being able to survive alone in wilderness for a prolonged period of time. So he goes to see that teacher, to ask for help.

The teacher may ask him: "When are you scheduled to spend one moth in the forest?"

"In April", the person would reply.

"April could be tough," warns the teacher. "No berries or any other plants will be available yet. You may have to rely entirely on mushrooms for your sustenance."

"All right, I'll eat the mushrooms then!" the person replies, being somewhat relieved to hear that it is possible for him to somehow stay alive there.

"Wait, not so fast!" warns the teacher. "You cannot just go there and start eating the first mushroom you stumble upon. There are many different mushrooms in the forest, many of which are very poisonous. If you don't know what you're doing, you'll drop dead on the forest floor the very first day!"

"But, what am I to do then?" the person asks desperately.

"Well, you can either learn all there is to know about mushrooms, or... I can try and teach you how to obtain keen vision. You see, even if you acquire encyclopedic knowledge of the mushrooms, that still wouldn't mean that you are free of risk. Many poisonous mushrooms look very similar to the edible ones. You will then grasp for the innocent looking one, and will soon find yourself rolling on the ground in mortal coil."

"Please help me, what should I do then?"

"You need to acquire the ability to see through the mushroom as something that is desirable or as something to be avoided based on the characteristics of that mushroom. If you can see through that, you'll be able to see which ones contain the deadly poison."

In a similar way, in order to attain liberation, deluded beings need to let go of their attachments. So, the most natural way to teach them is to warn them against attaching.

However, that would be similar to saying "don't eat mushrooms, they may be poisonous, you never know!" The person who accepts the teaching, which advocates not to attach, will be right in his practice. However there will remain a certain residue in that person's mind which will sit there like a cloud of doubt. Sort of like "All right, I've abstained from eating that mushroom because I know that it may be poisonous; but what if it isn't? Am I not missing a delicious meal then?"

In order to circumvent this doubt, Nagarjuna taught the method of direct seeing: if you can learn how to see directly, and to realize the very emptiness of phenomena, your propensity to attach/reject will spontaneously melt away. Once you do that, you will never again suffer from doubts whether your decision not to attach to something was a correct one or not.

Madhyamika Refutation of the Non-Buddhist Dogmas

Being an anti-dogmatic discipline to the core, Madhyamika teaches that any unexamined assertion must be taken with a skeptical frame of mind. Anything that gets accepted at face value, without examining the solidity of the offered conclusion, is a good candidate for the Madhyamika brand of dialectic investigation.

Dogma usually springs from two sources: either a sample of the untutored perception is taken for granted, or the authority of some sacred scripture gets taken for granted.

There are three categories of typical Non-Buddhist dogmas that need to be examined:
  1. Materialist worldview
  2. Substantialism
  3. Modal worldview

The Materialist View

For materialists, the only reality is what appears to the raw perception. According to their way of thinking, all things and events we are able to perceive are based on the materialistic grounds.

By adopting this worldview, materialists only accept direct perception, while rejecting inference, as a source of valid knowledge. Thus, when asked about past and future existences, for instance, they express their disbelief. They do not accept the possibility of past lives, nor the possibility of future lives. The reason for this is that such states are not directly perceived by the senses, and consequently there is no evidence for them. If a common person cannot directly perceive past or future lives, where would the evidence that such things exist be?

Madhyamika Refutation Of The Materialist View

To this conviction Madhyamika presents the following question:

Is this non-perception of past and future existences a direct perception or not?

If it is not a direct perception, on what grounds then can the materialists decide whether those unperceived things exist? The materialists have established that, according to their rules, direct perception of an object furnishes the only grounds for belief in the existence of that object.

If, on the other hand, the materialists answer that this non-perception of past and future existences is a direct perception, that gives rise to a completely new problem. If it is possible indeed to directly perceive the non-perception of something, then it follows that even a nonexistent thing is directly perceived. And the moment the nonexistent thing gets directly perceived, and according to the materialist rules, the nonexistent thing becomes existent.

Thus, the existent and the nonexistent things meld into a single irrational something, which cannot withstand any analysis, nor can it support the materialist thesis.

However the materialists choose to answer the question whether non-perception is a direct perception or not, they invalidate their own system. We are therefore forced to reach the conclusion that their fundamental rationale is based on pure unexamined dogma, or, put another way, their system is based on completely irrational grounds.

More to come...

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Limits of What is Expressible and What is Thinkable

Humans have a tendency to value knowledge as a tool used for dealing with life's challenges. The history of human civilization offers countless examples of the quest for knowledge about the world – how does it work, what does it consist of, how does it all hang together, etc. This precious tool has always been desirable, in all ages and under all circumstances. We love to acquire knowledge, to accumulate it, to amass it, and so on.

A much more rare and unusual quest is the one for acquiring the knowledge about knowledge. Acquiring the knowledge about the world is what we're all naturally drawn to. But seldom do we ever stop and think abut the knowledge itself. What kind of a thing is it? What makes it tick, how does it all hang together, what is it made of?

Recent developments in the field of epistemology (knowledge about the knowledge) have truly pushed the focus from investigating and learning about the world to investigating and learning about the learning itself. In the past hundred years or so, we've witnessed increased activity in the field of logic, mathematics, philosophy, linguistics, and in general, in the field of cognitive sciences.

Limits Of The Language

One of the most influential twentieth century philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951), attempted to first and foremost draw a limit to what is expressible in language. Thus he proposed we divide things into two camps – on one side we place all the things expressible using language, while everything remaining on the other side will result in nonsense.

As a corollary to this arrangement, anyone who tries to say something about the other side of the boundary (i.e. beyond the limits of language) will inevitably produce a statement that has no meaning.

Although Wittgenstein claims that any proposition about something that is inexpressible is necessarily meaningless, his own propositions about those same things are somehow supposed to be sensible. However, if one actually understands those pointed propositions (furnished by Wittgenstein) about something that is inexpressible, it follows that these propositions are not nonsense.

Thus, what Wittgenstein proposed ended up being contradictory. But, when we attempt to wiggle out of that controversy, we find that it's really impossible to do so. Thus, we're faced with a particularly nasty paradox.

Russell's Paradox

Back in 1902, famous philosopher Bertrand Russell stumbled upon a very significant paradox. That paradox is perhaps the easiest to understand by using the following illustration (a hypothetical example from real life):

Imagine that you've been hired as a librarian. On your first day at work, the Senior Librarian gives your first assignment. He explains it to you like this:
In this library, we have many books that refer to themselves. For example, there are books that mention something like this – 'see page 42', or something similar to that. Now, what we would like you to do is to examine all the books in the library, and then create two new books. In one book you’ll enter the titles and the ISBN numbers of all the books that refer to themselves, while in another book you'll enter the titles and the ISBN numbers of all the books that do not refer to themselves.
Once you finish this task, you'll be faced with one final decision – where should you enter the titles of the two new books you've just created? If one of the two new books (let's call it "Catalog A") contains entries for every book that does not reference itself, and if the other book (let's call it "Catalog B") contains entries for every book that references itself, then where should the entry for "Catalog B" go?

Since "Catalog B" does not make any reference to itself, it should be placed in "Catalog A". But then, where should "Catalog A" be placed?

Russell thus encountered an indeterminate situation, which he formalized as follows:
  • R is the set of all sets that are not members of themselves
  • Is set R a member of itself or not?
The outcome of this impasse is that any sufficiently complex, consistent logical framework cannot be self-dependent.

Further Investigations

Other modern-day thinkers tried to deepen and elucidate on Wittgenstein's ideas. Willard Van Orman Quine (1908 – 2000) tried to enrich our understanding of the limitations of language by positing that meaning exists only in its relationship to behavior. Thus he established that our expressions in language lack determinate meanings outside of our conventions (or, outside of consensus).

Again, although Quine tried really hard to liberate our considerations of the limitations of expressiveness from the tangles of paradox, he couldn't avoid acute contradiction. If we are to accept his view, we must realize that his own statements sorely lack determinate sense. So we can't be sure if we understood him or not.

This problem that something is inexpressible and yet that something is nevertheless expressed, was also tackled by Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004). Derrida accepted that nothing has meaning in and of itself, but only in relation to, and in opposition to, other things. These relative meanings are constantly in flux. Thus the meaning has no ultimate mode for grounding itself.

But again we see that Derrida expresses something that he shows cannot be expressible. The limit of expressibility is again reached. However, the closure is, as in other cases, marred in contradiction. If meaning is constantly in flux, perhaps it is not possible to express anything at all.

In Derrida's work, what he seems to be telling us is that his own writing is meaningless, yet we somehow understand him, and are forced to admit that the meaning was expressed, after all.

Naming The Unnameable And Expressing The Inexpressible

Such investigations, that started emerging during the twentieth century in the West, are actually nothing new. Even 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha began teaching these concepts, and had successfully founded and launched one of the world’s greatest and most vital philosophic/religious systems. His teachings on these topics were most successfully expressed 700 years after his death, in the works of the Buddhist Master Nagarjuna.

The crowning achievement of the Buddhist philosophy is found in the seminal work by Nagarjuna Mulamadhyamakakarika ("The Treatise on the Middle Way"), written around 200 CE. In this treatise, we find the following statement:
What language expresses is nonexistent.
The sphere of thought is nonexistent.
(XVIII. 7.)

In stating this, Nagarjuna seemed to have been trying to express something similar to what Derrida was after (see explanation above). Language expresses something that, in and of itself, doesn't exist. It only appears to be existing in relation to and in contrast with other, equally non-existing "entities".

Both Nagarjuna and Derrida go beyond the limitations posited by Wittgenstein, who allowed for the existence of things that are expressible using language.

However, Nagarjuna seems to go even beyond Derrida, in stating that not only is language caught in this mire of expressing something that does not exist, the thought itself is not only incapable of expressing anything, it actually doesn’t exist at all!

What on earth could he actually mean by saying that?

To Nagarjuna, and, for that matter to any other accomplished Buddhist practitioner, all things may be seen in truth or in delusion. This twin-identity is the essence of the Buddhist teaching. Seen correctly, the ultimate, the inexpressible gets expressed and the unnameable gets named. Seen incorrectly (that is, erroneously), the ultimate appears as all-concealing truth.

All phenomena are thus the contrived, resulting from erroneous, miscalculated apprehension. As such, all phenomena are nothing but "all-concealing" truth.

Note that phenomena, contrived and erroneous as they are, are still regarded as truth by the Buddhists. This is because they are the basis of the consensus, or conventional agreement. But ultimately, phenomena, the "all-concealing truth", are nonexistent, have no identity, are unproduced.

Language expresses phenomena – their phantom apparent existence, their phantom apparent identity, their phantom apparent production/cessation. As such, language necessarily expresses what is nonexistent.

The sphere of thought, on the other hand, corresponds to the arising of the "all-concealing truth". It is where the consensus is formed. The apparent reality, the apparent substantiality of the erroneously perceived unnameable, inexpressible "that", reveals that the sphere of this activity is nonexistent. It is an imagined field of activity.

More to come...

Susan Karpasitis said,

on January 23rd, 2006 at 8:48 pm

I am thinking of investigating the link between Nagarjuna and Derrida further for my Eng Lit dissertation. Could you recommend any useful texts for a beginner to start with. Much appreciated. Susie.
P.S: You managed to explain Derrida more clearly than my lecturer was able to in five hours. Thankyou.

Monday, December 5, 2005

Buddhism and Substantiality

One of the most prominent features of the Buddhist teaching and practice is the insistence on non-attachment. All Buddhist practitioners, regardless of their denomination, seem to unequivocally agree that the Buddha taught abstinence from attaching to the worldly experiences. Such conclusion, however, seems a bit surprising, seeing how it violates an even more basic Buddhist prescription, namely the Middle Way.

If we examine non-attachment more closely, we will see that it comprises of both not clinging, not attaching to something, as well as not rejecting, not being averse to something. Treating non-attachment in a more careful fashion, i.e. not covering it with a blanket statement such as "do not attach to anything", seems to be a more fruitful approach to understanding the Buddha's teaching. The 'beyond falling into extremes' principle (i.e. the Middle Way), that the Buddha taught, is much better served when we understand that not only are we not to attach, not to cling to something, but we're also not to reject something. Thus, our practice tends to be more balanced, or well tempered.

Still, expanding our scope from refraining from attaching to something to include also refraining from reject something, cannot truly salvage this teaching from having an overtone of asceticism. Attaching to something implies being initially attracted to it. Abstaining from the attachment will then mean eschewing our initial attraction. In a similar fashion, refraining from feeling an aversion to something will mean that we must ignore our initial impulse for avoiding it, which again implies the austere path of asceticism.

The Buddha never advocated the extreme path of asceticism, same as he advised against the other extreme of over-indulgence. Understanding that, how are we then to interpret his teaching on non-attachment?

Don't Attach Foolishly

Basically, what the Buddha taught wasn't necessarily "do not attach, period." Rather, what he was warning us against was: "Do not foolishly attach to something that is not there." And conversely, he also warned against rejecting something that doesn't really exist. This teaching is more along the lines of the true Buddhist practice, which is anti-dogmatic to the core. Accepting the 'do not attach' dictum as an unquestionable law would rob our Buddhist practice of its non-dogmatic nature. The Buddha himself kept reminding us to 'come and see for ourselves', meaning, to carefully examine all the claims set forth by his teaching.

Any time someone would approach the Buddha with an issue to discuss, our Teacher would point out the fact that the problem, or the topic of the conversation, is a non-existent one. After demonstrating to the inquirer that the object of his/her vexations doesn't really exist, the Buddha would then advise not to attach to/reject something that's unreal. Thus his explanation would invariably amount to reminding us that it is utterly counter-productive to waste time chasing non-existing items.

One of the most striking illustrations in support of this teaching is the Buddha's metaphor about a man who was shot with a poisoned arrow. If the man refused to receive any medical assistance unless someone explains to him who shot him, why did they shoot him, where was the person who shot him standing, what material was the arrow made of, etc., etc., he would be attaching to the items immaterial to his well being. As such, his attachment would be not only counter-productive, but lethal. And it is obvious that such attachment to the irrelevant things would be completely and utterly foolish.

In conclusion, the reason the Buddha didn't teach full and unqualified non-attachment was because he did not want us to fall into the extreme of asceticism. When a person experiences a strong desire arising within him toward certain object or concept, to practice non-attachment at that point would be a gross mistake. Forcing oneself into an extreme form of asceticism will not successfully make one disinterested. The suppressed urge will effectively never go away. It will only get bottled up and will eventually return with a vengeance.

Do Not Attach To Insubstantial Items

The way out of this predicament is to examine the object of our attachment/aversion. If it turns out that the object of our desire is insubstantial (that is, unreal), the attachment/aversion will naturally and spontaneously dissipate.

Imagine a person trying to reach his destination on foot. As he is walking down the path, he may spot a farmer working in the field. Approaching the farmer, the man begins hailing him and waving his hands. Since the farmer didn't seem to have noticed the man, he starts yelling even louder, trying to catch farmer's attention. After being plainly ignored, the man begins to develop angry feelings toward the farmer and starts preparing for a big speech that he will deliver to him, once he gets close enough.

But at the moment when the wayfarer gets close enough to the farmer, he may suddenly realize that what he was yelling at wasn't the farmer, just a simple scarecrow. At that moment, as the man realizes that the farmer isn't really there, his attachment/aversion to the farmer suddenly disappears. He may feel silly for working up such an anger toward this ascribed 'farmer', but he certainly cannot be attached to the farmer any more.

Thus, the man all of a sudden becomes completely and utterly free from his vexations. Had he, from the very outset, worked hard with the intention not to attach to this farmer, he may never had reached the realization that the farmer isn't really there. He would have then practiced severe asceticism, and will spend the rest of his life wondering what might have happened had he not ignored that 'farmer'.

According to the Buddha's teaching, it is always better to fully examine the experiences that we go through, instead of shutting them off based on some preconceived practice, such as renunciation. To be truly and utterly free, we need to realize the insubstantiality of the objects of our craving/revulsion.

Finding Substantial Evidence

Is it then all right to attach to substantial items? If the only thing we need to make sure is that we examine our experiences, and if they turn out to be insubstantial, leading us therefore to spontaneously let go of them, what are we to do with the ones that are not insubstantial? If a really, truly existing experience presents itself, would it be acceptable according to the Buddhist teaching to attach to such an experience?

Here, the Buddhist teaching is very specific: such truly existing experience is unfindable. Since it is unfindable, it will be mere idle chit-chat to engage in a polemic whether to attach to it or not. Again, attaching to a non-existent, non-findable thing is absurd. Nagarjuna said:
A thing that is not dependently arisen is not evident
A thing that is non-empty is indeed not evident
(Mulamadhyamaka-karika, XXIV, 19)

Thus, the central Buddhist tenet system claims that no one was ever able to present a non-empty, that is, a really existing thing. As such, this teaching holds that all phenomena are dependently arisen, that is, are not truly existent.

This is the central Buddhist teaching of non-substantiality. Seeing how no substance could ever be identified anywhere, any ideas of attaching or rejecting becomes utterly meaningless.

Preponderance of Substantialism

Evidently, all non-Buddhist systems are, in one way or another, based on the underlying idea of a substance. Some of these systems consider that the basis of the manifested world (that is, of phenomena), is some fairly crude form on substantial noumena, such as primordial matter, for example. Other systems may hold that a more ethereal substance permeates the manifested world as its underlying noumenon, such as Light, or Spirit, or Tao, etc.

In Buddhism, substantialism was deemed unreal right from the outset. The Buddha taught impermanence as one of the basic tenets of our experience. He taught that there isn't anything that is permanent, solid and reliable that underlies all the perceived transformations of our ever-changing world. As a corollary to this teaching, he also taught the importance of the absence of self. Not having abiding identity, entities come into being, persist and then perish, but are never able to define their own existence from their own side. As such, entities do not have abiding self, and are insubstantial.

Such clear-cut teaching was quickly overturned in the hands of many of the Buddha's followers, who lacked the capacity of understanding their own experiences in terms of the lack of underlying substance and the underlying self. Many schools and factions formed and branched out of the Buddha's core teaching. One of the most prominent branches (or, a group of similar branches), reached the conclusion that the Buddha taught the insubstantiality and the lack of self in the compounded phenomena (that is, in the aggregates). However, they hold that the Buddha nevertheless proclaimed that the constituent elements, i.e. dharmas, underlying and supporting the compound phenomena, truly exist and are substantial. Thus, they are convinced that such atomic elements, or dharmas, possess unmistakable identity and as such, are representative of a true underlying substance governing the appearance of phenomena. This school is grouped under the umbrella known as Abhidharma school.

At the other end of the spectrum we see an opposite school of Buddhist thought emerge, the one that places emphasis not on the underlying constituent elements comprising reality, but on the perceiver of reality. Thus, the Mind-Only, or Yogachara (also known as Vijnanavada or Chittamatra) was formulated in response to the vulgar materialism of the early dharma-based school (i.e Abhidharma). In this school, things do not exist, only the mind or consciousness perceiving things exists. Like an ocean that gives birth to waves, the mind gives birth to the apparition of phenomena. The phenomena are unreal, but the underlying mind is real. As such, this underlying mind is the substance on whose unique identity this school relies.

From the above described course of events we see that even the Buddhist practice and teaching itself is not immune from the ills of substantiality. Even after the Buddha explicitly rejected any possibility of substantiality, many of his followers couldn't come to grips with such radical approach, and had to reintroduce it through the 'side door', so to speak.

Today, we find the majority of the Buddhist practice worldwide immersed in one form or another of substantiality. Buddhist practitioners either flock toward the older, dharma-based picture of reality, where basic underlying non-compounded elements comprise the underlying substance, or toward the Mind-Only worldview, which proclaims the sovereign substantiality of the mind itself.

A much smaller, almost marginal portion of the Buddhist practitioners today manages to somehow steer clear from both extremes of substantiality. In particular, the Madhyamika school and some of its subdivisions are still the keepers of the original Buddhist flame, in the sense that any and all substantiality is still proclaimed unfindable. Any time anyone brings forward claims of anything substantial, the Madhyamika practitioners subject it to the analysis, and upon reaching only absurd conclusions, put the seeker's mind to rest.

Sometimes, the claim of substantialism can be extremely subtle. There are cases where Buddhist practitioners, while firmly believing in insubstantiality, still manage to introduce it through the 'back door'. For example, certain practitioners may reach the realization that the essence of reality is space-like. Formless, immeasurable void. They may then be convinced how their realization is truly insubstantial.

But in reality, all they've accomplished is attachment to the space. And because they hold space to be the true underlying substance of everything they may experience, they find themselves addicted to this idea, unable to get rid of the subtle attachment.

Some practitioner may go even further, and attach themselves to the idea of awareness. Now, awareness itself is a very subtle, formless phenomenon. As such, it feels so ethereal that most people would never even dream of considering it substantial. Still, by introducing it as an explanatory principle for all other phenomena, practitioners invariably reify it and hold on to it as a primordial substance. In that manner, their subtle attachments present insurmountable barrier to their practice.

Things can get even more subtle than that, where certain very advanced practitioners may get attached to the very idea of emptiness. Thus emptiness, the antithesis of substantiality, is turned into a substance!

And so on. The important point is that we must identify this virulent propensity for reifying anything, for dragging it down to the substantial level. This is the only way we can get attached to anything, and the only way out of that predicament is though practising the original practice of insubstantiality.