Sunday, June 24, 2012

Notes on Mysticism (with Respect to Ven. Ñāṇavīra)

     It is just a little ironic that some of the stuff I have written is being published by Path Press on their website, as the original purpose of Path Press, I think, was to promulgate the writings of a Buddhist philosopher named Bhikkhu Ñāavīra. Ñāavīra was a highly intellectual English monk who practiced in Sri Lanka, and who committed suicide in 1965 due to a distracting chronic health problem. I read his work as a junior monk in Burma, but was not greatly impressed by his interpretation of Buddhism in general, or of Right View in particular. For one, he seemed to insist on an elaborate, rationalistic Right View that he had devised for himself, influenced much by Existentialist philosophy (he especially liked Kierkegaard), asserting, essentially, that anyone who disagreed with his interpretation had wrong view, and thus had little if any hope of becoming enlightened. At the time that I read him he seemed hyper-intellectual, intolerant, and rather arrogant. The last statement of his that I saw was at a used bookstore in Mandalay several years ago; there was a copy of some selected letters of his (an old Buddhist Publication Society booklet) on the shelf, so I picked it up and opened it at random just to see what my gaze would land upon. It was a statement to the effect that Aldous Huxley could never hope to be any better than a second-rate thinker. The statement seemed to imply that the writer, Ñāavīra himself, was a first-rate one qualified to pass such a judgement. It struck me as uncomfortably arrogant, partly because I like Huxley, and I put the book back on the shelf. 
     Although he has quite a few followers to this day, and has much to say that is interesting and thought-provoking, the only noticeable effect he had on my practice was to encourage me to read Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire again. At the time I was scrupulous about reading "worldly" literature, but Ñāavīra, an intelligent man and a serious monk besides, considered it to be an excellent reflection on Dhamma, and had read it himself more than once, so that was good enough for me. 
     We do have certain traits in common, like a failure to have much appreciation for Abhidhamma philosophy or the commentarial tradition, a preference for interpreting Dependent Co-arising as simultaneous and not sequential in time (as he astutely points out, the texts say, "This arising, that arises," not "This ceasing, that arises"), a tendency toward rejecting orthodox interpretations of Dhamma in favor of our own systems, and, unfortunately, a tendency toward intellectual arrogance. I did not acquire these traits from him, however.
     I do think that he made certain fundamental mistakes, not the least of which being that he considered the so-called "core texts" (first four books of Vinaya, first four Nikāyas, and first several books of the fifth Nikāya) to be absolutely reliable records of the Buddha's teaching. Thus he built up a mind-boggling superexistentialist interpretation of Dhamma on an authority that could easily be called into question. It has always struck me as odd that such a brilliant person (educated at Cambridge, no less) could have accepted texts which include fairy tales, talking animals, fire-breathing dragons, and devotionalistic miracle stories, as well as texts in which the Buddha is essentially boasting about how wonderful he is and encouraging others practically to worship him. It seems to be the same gamble made by Burmese sayadaws and the Abhidhamma scholars that Ñāavīra derided; they devote their academic lives, and sometimes their spiritual lives, to building up and mastering a system based upon a foundation of axioms that on close examination prove to be largely a dogmatic wild guess. All their brilliance and logic are in a way debased by expending them on something not necessarily valid. Of course the expounders of religious and philosophical systems other than Buddhism also do the same thing.
     But the main issue I would like to discuss here is Ñāavīra's open disdain for anything mystical. Sometimes it seems that it was sufficient for him to reject an idea simply by labeling it "mysticism." Ñāavīra was a supreme rationalist who believed that any valid system of thought must be "of a piece," and that mysticism violated Aristotle's "Laws of Thought," which may be briefly summarized as:
     1. A equals A. (The Law of Identity)
     2. A is not equal to not-A. (The Law of Noncontradiction)
     3. Anything must be either A or not-A. (The Law of Excluded Middle)
Ñāavīra insisted that mysticism necessarily maintains something like, "The world is and is not real," which is a logical absurdity and necessarily false. One of his followers, in a book on Buddhist existentialism, even went to the extreme of refusing to translate the name of the highest formless contemplative state, the sphere of neither perception nor nonperception, I assume because it sounded too monstrously illogical to admit it publicly as a teaching of Gotama Buddha. Consequently, of course, Ñāavīra and his followers have interpreted Dhamma along rationalistic, non-mystical lines.
     Several years ago I wrangled with a very hard-headed Englishman who had taken Ñāavīra's teachings, at least some of them, to heart and had zero use for my mystical approach to Dhamma because he saw it as self-contradictory. In response I unearthed the following ancient document:

The Bumpkin: A Pseudoplatonic Dialogue
     SOPHIST (pointing to an empty Coca-Cola bottle): What is that---is it glass, or is it a bottle?
     BUMPKIN: Well, it's glass and it's a bottle.
     SOP: Oh I see! So "glass" and "bottle" are synonyms. When I say "glass" I mean "bottle," and when I say "bottle" I mean "glass." Isn't that so?
     BUM: Of course not.
     SOP: What!? So when I say "glass" I don't really mean "bottle," and when I say "bottle" I don't really mean "glass"?
     BUM: Naturally.
     SOP: So "glass" means something other than "bottle," and "bottle" means something other than "glass"?
     BUM: Quite so.
     SOP: And so they are not the same?
     BUM: Right.
     SOP: Ah, I think I understand now. Part of this is glass, and the other part is a bottle. Right?
     BUM: No, the whole thing is glass.
     SOP: And the whole thing is a bottle too?
     BUM: Naturally.
     SOP: Wait a minute…let me get this straight---You say that the whole thing is glass, and the whole thing is a bottle. But we have already determined that "bottle" means something other than "glass." So if we say that the whole thing is glass and the whole thing is a bottle, it is the same as saying that the whole thing is glass and the whole thing is other than glass. Isn't that so?
     BUM: Eh…I guess so.
     SOP: Doublethink! You are saying that it is A and not-A, which is logically inconsistent and impossible! You have violated the laws of thought!
     BUM: Well…er…huh?

(The ancient manuscript is fragmentary and breaks off here.)

     Now clearly, glass and bottle are not the same; they do not even imply each other, as one may have a glass ashtray or a plastic bottle. The glass and the bottle are qualitatively different. Yet at the very same time they are the very same object, and are completely mutually inclusive. If one takes away the bottle, the glass also is taken away; and if the glass disappears, so does the bottle. The solution to this mystery is is that glass and bottle are at two different levels of truth. The glass is the substance, or essence of the bottle, and the bottle is the form, or appearance, of the glass. We have two levels of reality involved here---the level of essence and the level of form. They are the same in a sense and different in a sense, but this is not pernicious doublethink as the sense is not the same; there are two senses which are not mutually exclusive. (Similarly, to say that Agathon is taller than Diocles but shorter than Theophilus, and thus is both tall and short at the same time, is not muddle-headed self-contradiction as his tallness and shortness are in two different relations which are not mutually exclusive.) 
     The thing is this: If one allows that the above line of reasoning concerning the Coca-Cola bottle is valid, not self-contradictory doublethink, then one has in effect flung the door wide open to nondualistic mysticism, as its fundamental premise can be based upon exactly the same kind of reasoning (assuming that a nondualist bothers to rationalize it; usually they don't). Thus, at the experiential level consciousness is the essence of mental states (and experience as a whole), while mental states are the form of consciousness (and experience as a whole). Water and waves---the same yet different. Likewise, at the universal level Nibbāna-dhatu, the Dharmakāya, Brahman, Tao, the Spirit of God, or whatever one wishes to call it is the essence of the samsaric world, and Sasāra is the apparent form of Nibbāna. And hence the paradoxical Mahayanist claim that Nirvana and Samsara are obviously in a sense different, yet nevertheless exactly the same and completely mutually inclusive. The difference between the two levels is the difference between the two kinds of truth described in Buddhist philosophy---ultimate truth and conventional truth. They are simultaneous, and superimposed. We do not progress from conventional truth to ultimate truth, from Samsara to Nirvana; ultimate truth and Nirvana are already present at the beginning of the Path, but we just don't notice, somewhat like a fish doesn't notice being wet.
     One further consideration is that anything that is infinite and formless transcends the boundaries of "is" and "isn't," of existence and nonexistence. As the philosopher Hegel pointed out in his logical dialectic, absolute, infinite Anything is absolutely indistinguishable from absolute, infinite Nothing, as both are devoid of any determinate content. Only differentiation of some sort can create a duality between these two extremes. Thus consciousness without mental states, or the ultimate essence of the world, cannot be said to exist or not exist, or both, or neither. Yet we have to choose some dualistic terminology in order to speak. So, it's a matter of personal choice: If one prefers "is" one may call it "Brahman," say, and be a Hindu; and if one prefers "isn't" one may call it Nibbāna or Nirvana and be a Buddhist. Whichever works for you. Take your pick.
     Venerable Ñāavīra was right in insisting that in order for a philosophical system to be logically valid and self-consistent it must be "of a piece." But the "piece" may not be a flat, two-dimensional surface; the "piece" may be a cube instead of a square.
     On the other hand, metaphysical speculations such as these are probably unnecessary, and may be a waste of time.

(Ven. Ñāṇavīra Thera)


  1. Dear Bhante Pannobhasa,

    you said that, at the experiential level, consciousness is the *essence* of mental states, while mental states are the *form* of consciousness.

    It seems to me that the *meaning* of this might not be so far away from Ven. Nanavira's views, but your *wording* certainly is. Let me explain what I mean:

    For Ven. Nanavira, *essence* is *matter* (rupa) and not consciousness, even in case of so called "mental states". "Consciousness", for him, is *presence*. And what you call "form" is, for him, *appearance* (nama). At least this is how I understand him.

    While the wording is different, you both seem to agree that there is an *essence* of experience. You call it "consciousness", Ven. Nanavira calls it "matter". This essence is manifest or has a "form"/appearance, which you seem to call "mental states", while Ven. Nanavira identifies the appearance as "nama" and matter or the essence *together* with its "form" is for him name-and-matter (namarupa), i.e. "matter as it appears".

    As for consciousness, Ven. Nanavira regards it as presence or isness - which always belongs to *something*. In the end it is inseparable from the essence or matter, since the essence is that which *is*. To speak based on Sartre: "Matter" is "de trop" or "too much". And this being "de trop" is the meaning of consciousness. It comes together with the essence. Similar to the "being of beings" (Heidegger).

    As far as I can see we cannot get rid of the essence of experience, since its *presence* is beyond control. But we can get rid of the "manifestation". What is left then is the "ocean without waves".

    But I think there is a crucial point. If we call the essence of experience "consciousness" (which is not wrong in and of itself) there is a danger that people think in terms of "Tat Tvam Asi", i.e. along the lines of "I (as Self) am manifest as the world" - and that would be wrong. Since the essence of the manifestation is beyond control and so its presence is not *my* presence at all. No one is present in terms of essence. *Neither* the ocean *nor* the waves are "oneself" - *nor* is "oneself" anywhere beyond.

    Sorry for that rather long reply. I also want to apologize in case I have misrepresented anyone.

    Best wishes,


  2. Venerable,

    It was not a waste of time to read through your post.


  3. In the example you site the glass is the "shape" that the bottle exemplifies. Let's suppose I look at a bottle and associate it in imagination with other things made of glass -- a paperweight, an ashtray, a window etc.. All such things are particulars of what it means to be glass. In that given experience both bottle and glass are present at different levels of being. But if I look at that same bottle and associate it with other things that hold fluids -- a cup, a jar, a carton, etc. -- in that experience it's not bottle and glass that are present, but bottle and fluid container. The essence of a bottle is no more to be glass than to be a fluid container -- as you noted a bottle might be made of plastic. But given that in your example the bottle is seen as glass, it is a particular aspect or view of a collective whole, the commonality of which is glass .

    "A shape is nothing but a sum of limited views, and the consciousness of a shape is a collective entity."
    Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. 1945.

  4. I explained non-duality to myself with the idea of a shadow, a mirror, a photograph and an xray all representing the same object in different planes of truth. Your coke bottle example is nicer.