Love of All Wisdom

Mou Zongsan’s theories across cultures

by on Jun.05, 2011, under Confucianism, East Asia, God, Judaism, Mahāyāna, Metaphysics, Sufism, Vedānta

I have recently taken on a position as interviewer for the New Books Network, an exciting new project to hold podcast interviews with the authors of recently published scholarly books. I will be interviewing for New Books in Buddhist Studies, a position I share with Scott Mitchell. I’ve completed a first podcast which is not yet available online, but I’ll let you know when it is.

I mention this now because that first podcast is with Jason Clower on his The Unlikely Buddhologist, the study I recently mentioned of 20th-century Confucian Mou Zongsan. The podcast is there to explore Clower’s ideas; here I’d like to add my own.

The book asks why Mou, a committed Confucian, spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about Buddhism. Its answer is that Mou found East Asian Buddhists expressing metaphysical distinctions with a clarity that the Confucians had not. Mou is deeply concerned with the metaphysics of value – specifically, the relationship between ultimate value and existing things. One might refer to this as the relationship between goodness and truth, or between God and world, even creator and creation. Mou thinks the Buddhists provide conceptual tools to discuss this relationship which the Confucians didn’t have.

The key metaphysical distinction Mou takes from the Buddhists is between “perfect theories” (yuanjiao 圓教), monist theories according to which existing things are ultimately identical to the one good, and “separation theories” (biejiao 別教) in which they are fundamentally distinct. Mou identifies Tiantai Buddhism as the key example of perfect theory, and Yogācāra as separation theory; both believe in “buddha nature” as an ultimate value in the universe, but for Tiantai we are identical with it in a way we are not for Yogācāra (or so Mou claims). He is a strong advocate of “perfect theory,” and with that monism he sets his Confucianism apart from many others’. Especially, he rejects the thought of Zhu Xi, probably the most influential Confucian thinker since ancient days, because Zhu insists that Heaven (tian 天, the ultimate source of goodness in Confucianism) is separate from the human mind.

The debate Mou examines between perfect and separation theories may seem like the kind of abstract technical debate that is relevant only to Buddhist-influenced neo-Confucians. But I don’t think it is. I’m coming to think the distinction is quite a powerful one for cross-cultural philosophy – because it applies even to traditions Mou doesn’t really think about or care about. It seems to me that in key respects it is the same debate that I – following Skholiast – have previously characterized as a debate between ātmanism and encounter.

Perfect theories are “ātmanist”: they claim that created things, trees and jars and human beings, reveal themselves in the end as equivalent to the ultimate truth or good. The idea of ultimate “encounter,” by contrast, requires that the ultimate source of value (Heaven, Buddha-nature, God) remain ultimately distinct from flawed, fallen worldly beings. Here’s the thing: I spoke of this debate primarily in the terms of Indian Sufism. Sufis typically aim at an experience of mystical oneness with God; the Indian Sufis debated whether this meant that human beings really were one with God, or whether God must ultimately be irreducibly distinct from us. That is exactly what’s at issue between perfect theory and separation theory as Mou describes them – even though Indian Sufism is a tradition which, to my knowledge, Mou had absolutely nothing to do with.

It goes further. Skholiast, in setting out the terms of ātmanism and encounter, was drawing on still other traditions. He used the term “ātmanist” to refer to Ken Wilber, who draws perhaps most heavily from Aurobindo, and clearly draws the term from Advaita Vedānta, the tradition whose central teaching is that everything is all one ātman (self). And “encounter,” with which Skholiast contrasts Wilber and Advaita, draws heavily on the thought of 20th-century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas. Yet neither Judaism and Vedānta registered much on Mou’s radar either – when he looked outside of China philosophically it was mainly to Kant, with occasional references to Christianity and Indian Buddhism.

It seems to me, then, that in exploring perfect and separation theories, Mou is asking a perennial question. Across very different philosophical contexts, people have struggled at length with perfect and separation theories, the question of the relationship between ultimate value and everyday things. It’s a question well worth thinking about.

Mou’s answer also bears some thought, because it leads in a fairly distinctive direction. The perennial questions I’ve most commonly examined have been the questions of ascent vs. descent and intimacy vs. integrity. How do perfect and separation theories (ātmanism and encounter) relate to these questions? At first, perfect theories seem to map relatively well onto theories of integrity ascent, like Advaita, which aim to transcend this world for a solitary unity, and theories of intimacy descent, like those of Lévinas or Martha Nussbaum, which embrace the physical world and its relationships. Integrity-ascent views, like perfect theories, point us at a metaphysical unity we can identify with if we cast off our mistaken identifications with the physical world. Intimacy-descent views, like separation theories, warn us of the arrogance of a quest for perfection and ask us to embrace a flawed world that will never fit a perfect good.

Mou, however, flips this all around. His metaphysical “perfect theory” is combined with an ethics of intimacy descent. In practical terms, Mou is resolutely Confucian. Not for him any monastic rejection of worldly goods; the human life is best lived in the everyday world of work and family. We live best when we recognize that ultimate metaphysical value is found right in all of these everyday things. Mou is unusual in thinking that perfect theory makes a good fit with an intimacy-descent life. His approach resembles that of the Bhagavad Gītā: act in the finite with your eye on the infinite. Moreover, I think it gets around the objection that Nussbaum makes to the Gītā’s kind of view: she claims that one isn’t really living in the material world if one doesn’t identify with it, if one goes through the motions like a “play-actor.” Here Mou’s view of perfect theory is distinct: unlike Advaita, the material world for him is no illusion. Heaven or buddha-nature, the source of ultimate value and goodness, are all there in the material world, and that’s exactly why it’s so important to live in it and play by its rules.

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36 Comments for this entry

  • Thill

    1. How can it make sense to identify two things, whether actual or posited, which obviously have different properties?

    A human being is a land mammal with a complex mind. This is an eternal truth about human beings. Everyone knows it and has sufficient evidence of it daily and yet almost everyone believes, or professes to believe, in claims which are inconsistent with it.

    On the scale of delusions the human mind is prone to, the notion that a human being is God or an infinite, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent being must get a clear 10! The idea that we have a “buddha nature” or “buddha mind” (What does it mean?) is a variant of this delusion.

    Take any property attributed to the “Atman”, “Brahman”, “Heaven”, “Buddha mind”, “Buddha nature”, or what have you. One of the central properties is absence of ignorance. Another is absence of suffering.

    Consider whether these are different from any of the known properties of a human being anywhere on this planet. The answer is obviously in the affirmative. All human beings, indeed all sentient beings, are subject to some form of ignorance and suffering. This is another eternal truth about human beings, and any sentient being, including the so-called “God men”, “Avatars”, “Buddhas”, “Enlightened Ones” and such.

    And yet, defying logic, sense, and common sense, we have some philosophers affirming that this self-same human being subject to ignorance and suffering is identical to “God”, “Atman”, “Brahman” “Buddha Nature”, “Buddha Mind”, and so on!!!

    If this isn’t an eloquent testimony to the egregious delusions the human mind is prone to or tempted to entertain despite “education”, I don’t know what else could be!

    2. The word “ultimately” seems like a waffle term. What is the difference, if any, between saying that X is identical to Y and saying that X is ultimately identical to Y? The identity relation is pretty straightforward and does not admit of any distinct type of identity called “ultimately identical”. Either X and Y are identical or they are not. And it is impossible for X and Y to be identical if they have different properties.

    • michael reidy

      Thill writes:

      And yet, defying logic, sense, and common sense, we have some philosophers affirming that this self-same human being subject to ignorance and suffering is identical to “God”, “Atman”, “Brahman” “Buddha Nature”, “Buddha Mind”, and so on!!!

      Who are these vile catiffs, suborning youth and a threat to the state? Hemlock is too good for them.

      • JimWilton

        Good one, Michael! “All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.”

        • JimWilton

          Vizzini: I can’t compete with you physically, and you’re no match for my brains.

          Man in Black: You’re that smart?

          Vizzini: Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?

          Man in Black: Yes.

          Vizzini: Morons.

          • Jabali108

            It’s silly to ignore the arguments and engage in sneering at someone’s refusal to salute the sacred cows.

            A person who thinks that just because Plato, Aristotle, etc., held a view, that, therefore, it must be true or plausible is indeed a moron!

            Go ahead and believe that horses have X number of teeth merely because Aristotle said so! LOL And when you have Aristotle’s authority, why bother to actually count the teeth of a horse, eh?

            • Thill

              Michael, Jim,
              FYI: There are at least five important metaphysical traditions in Indian philosophy which reject non-dualism: Sanhkya, Mimamsa, Yoga, Dvaita, and Visistadvaita. There were many philosophers in these traditions who offered devastating arguments against non-dualism.

              • michael reidy

                Presumably they used arguments and not declamations.

                • Thill

                  Appeals to logic and common sense are legitimate forms of argument and offer good support for declamations on philosophical nonsense and/or pathology.

                  It isn’t mere declamation to point out that consistency requires that if we think that someone’s claim to be the emperor of our solar system is an instance of a delusion of grandeur, that we must also think the same, at least, of someone who claims identity with God, Atman, Brahman, etc.

                  • michael reidy

                    The difference between a man who thinks that he is ‘the emperor of the world’ and one who believes in his Buddha nature or the identity of Atman and Brahman? The emperor of the world is another human being like the deluded one so laws about identity come into play. The other has a metaphysical thesis in mind that is something like the contrast between genus and species. If you were to say to me that you can’t be a fruit and a banana at the same time I would have to assume that you were making a category error i.e. that you were treating a fruit and a banana as two things and you thought that therefore the law of identity applied or as though we were talking about a banana and an orange. Similarly and likewise Brahman is a larger way of understanding Atman. I suppose the guiding insight here is that consciousness is not the sort of thing that could be divided. Perhaps the substance of Spinoza is along the same lines. You will find analogies in all the major monist thinkers.

                    It may be claimed that Monism is unscientific, that the great breakthroughs of the empirical approach come through a close examination of single, discrete, entities. This is to disregard the ecological which would stress the artificiality of an over fragmented analysis. We neglect tiny differences in formulating laws which represent ideal, experimental conditions. In the wild the butterfly effect is evident.

                    • Thill

                      “The other has a metaphysical thesis in mind that is something like the contrast between genus and species. If you were to say to me that you can’t be a fruit and a banana at the same time I would have to assume that you were making a category error i.e. that you were treating a fruit and a banana as two things and you thought that therefore the law of identity applied or as though we were talking about a banana and an orange. Similarly and likewise Brahman is a larger way of understanding Atman.”

                      Michael, your response commits a category mistake by conflating an entity with a category and then draws a false “fruity” analogy on this basis.

                      This is because you ignore the concept of Brahman in the basic or canonical “Vedanta” texts such as the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras, not to mention the commentaries of Sankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva on them.

                      “Fruit” is a category or group of things with shared features. “Brahman” is not a category of things. It is an infinite entity or being with the essential attributes of Sat (unconditioned existence), Chit (pure consciousness), and Ananda (Bliss).

                      It makes no sense to speak of features or properties of the category of “fruit” which are not instantiated in any particular fruits. But, in contrast, the essential attributes of Brahman are not instantiated in any particular! So, the fruity analogy does not work.

                      To claim identity between an individual and Brahman (Jivo Brahmaiva na parah “This individual is none other than Brahman”; Aham Brhamasmi “I am Brahman.”, etc) is to claim identity between two entities with clearly different properties: the individual is finite and bound by desires whereas Brahman is infinite and always free; the individual is subject to ignorance, Brahman is the embodiment of knowledge; the individual is subject to suffering, whereas Brahman is always bliss, and so on.

                      It should now be obvious that identifying the individual and Brahman is absurd by any stretch of logic.

              • JimWilton

                I find a lot of wisdom in the Buddhist tradition. One of the teachings that I come back to is the teaching on the three prajnas (hearing, contemplating and meditating). These three represent the progression of how learning is taken in, evaluated and understood.

                Of the three prajnas, arguably the most important is the prajna of hearing. The two ways not to be open to wisdom according to this teaching are (i) to accept what you hear, or (ii) to reject what you hear. An open mind does neither of these two — but instead is willing to sit with doubt and uncertainty. That is why I find Amod’s approach of doubting everything to be a very powerful approach. Our minds so often want to resolve things and achieve certainty. But for a mind to be intelligent and flexible, doubt (and even doubt about the doubt) is a helpful beginning approach.

                What bothers me about your approach, Thill, is that you are quick to find “baloney” — you are very certain and, for me, that is the sign of a closed mind. The extent of your fixed views is really what is extraordinary. In your first post above, you lump together Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity (and a Michael points out) the views of major Western philosophers and label them all as delusional.

                It might be possible, if you had an open mind, to have a discussion about Buddha Nature, for example. We could talk about Maitreya’s Uttaratantra Shastra. And you could raise some arguments from your readings of dualistic Eastern traditions. However, to do that you have to be willing to give up some ground — to suspend your certainty in order to understand the views of others. Without this, we only listen to others in order to find ammunition for our own arguments. And that is a very limited and unproductive approach.

                And, for the record, I find a lot of wisdom in dualistic and theistic traditions. Buddhism values expedient teachings and many Buddhist approaches for cultivating the mind are dualistic precisely because our conventional mind is dualistic. From this point of view, it is possible to appreciate other traditions. For example, you don’t have to believe in the god of the Old Testament to understand the power and discipline involved in Jewish rituals of keeping a kosher household and how this integrates worship into everyday life. You miss a lot if you come from outside these traditions and feel so certain of your view that you can dismiss entire traditions as “baloney”.

                • Thill

                  “In your first post above, you lump together Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity (and a Michael points out) the views of major Western philosophers and label them all as delusional.”

                  Jim, mere presumption of wisdom does not show that it is really there. Such claims need justification.

                  I addressed a specific type of claim of identity (identity of the human individual with God, Atman, Brahman, Buddha nature, etc) and gave a simple argument to show its absurdity: two things cannot be identical if they have mutually incompatible properties.

                  Further, how is it consistent to think that it is a delusion to believe that the human individual is the center of creation and yet deny that it is an egregious delusion to believe that the human individual is identical with the creator, or all of creation, or its “ultimate” ground?

                  When are you going to address my argument? Instead of addressing the argument and showing what’s wrong with it, you take offense at the conclusion and go off on an ad hominem tangent attributing a “closed mind” etc., to me. The reluctance to abandon a religious doctrine is a more reliable indicator of a closed mind than the willingness to criticize and abandon it on the strength of logic, common sense, plain facts, and scientific discovery.

                  I find it extraordinary that you have not made or raised a single criticism or critical question on any of the dogmas of Buddhism on this blog since we started debating it. When are you going to apply the prescription of doubt to Buddhism for a change? Instead, you seem to think that the prescription holds only for the critics of Buddhism!

                  • Neocarvaka

                    Thill, do you think there is a close connection between the “dysfunction”, as Amod calls it, in the professional practices of the disciplines and/or departments of philosophy and religious studies and the sorts of “weird” or “pathological” stuff they typically spend their time and efforts in purveying?

                    These strange guys form “schools of thought” or cliques – be it Confucianism, or Buddhism, or feminism, or “neo-colonialism”, “deconstructionism”, or “analytic philosophy”, or “continental philosophy” – and woe unto those who question or dissent from the sacred dogmas of the “school”! Just ask those who have been denied tenure on grounds of “lack of fit” with the department. Amod’s remarks on the job risks of criticizing, even on purely intellectual grounds, the “ideas” of Donald Lopez on Buddhism and science point to the problem I’m talking about.

                    • Amod Lele

                      Neocarvaka, I don’t think academic concern with “lack of fit” is a specific consequence of any of these schools of thought. Everybody has a point of view of some sort. I would not expect to be treated any differently by departments where the reigning view is that advocated by you and Jabali and Thill, insisting on empirical evidence through science and “common sense.” Such a department could easily reject an application from someone like me on the grounds that I am too prone to abstract armchair flights of fancy. (I have, in fact, had a search committee chair tell me that they turned me down because my work wasn’t empirical enough.)

                      I do think there is a connection between the structure of academia and the ideas purveyed within, but it is subtler than this: briefly, academia encourages people to think small, because specialization is the only way to get published and noticed. This allows the parsing of arguments into smaller and smaller pieces (the stock in trade of philosophy departments), the edition and translation of ever more obscure texts (area studies) and the endless reinterpretation of existing texts according to the interpretive flavour of the month (literary studies). What it doesn’t allow for is big ideas: unless you reach the chimerical pie in the sky of tenure, you will not be allowed to write the next Republic, the next Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, even the next The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Those who do reach tenure and can write big things usually don’t, because by that point they have been socialized not to. And so everyone writes too much about too little.

                    • Thill

                      In the twenty-five or more years I’ve spent in various institutions of higher education in North America, I’ve encountered and seen evidence supporting the concern that there could be a price to pay, in terms of job prospects, tenure approval, etc., for criticism, even if purely on philosophical or scholarly grounds, of the ideas of a so-called “big name” in some field of academic study. This is inconsistent, to put it mildly, with the professed ideals of the academic community and the sorts of things they proclaim day in and out at the lecture pulpit to students.

                      To give you a representative instance, I gave a short talk to a dept in which I was an adjunct. The talk used some ideas of Harry Frankfurt on “bullshit” and applied it to criticize some claims made in philosophy, e.g., by Derrida, Sandra Harding (who has dubbed Newton’s Principia a “rape manual” for nature!!!), Andrea Dworkin (for whom every act of intercourse, with the exception of lesbian sex, is an act of rape!!!), and so on. Instead of addressing my criticisms and taking it in the proper academic spirit, some of the feminists in the dept, who had at least appeared friendly prior to the talk, took it personally and turned hostile.
                      Paradoxically, such manifestations intellectual immaturity are not uncommon in academe.

                      There are areas of specialization which are emphasized in most departments. I have no problem with that. But intellectual diversity, and this doesn’t have anything to do with diluting standards of clarity and rigor of argument, requires that departments do not ossify into dogmatic schools or fora for ideological indoctrination, e.g., feminism, liberalism, Marxism, etc.

                      Rational criticism is the life-blood of inquiry and must be encouraged. It is intolerable to penalize scholars and diminish their career prospects for expressing cogent and radical criticisms of reigning orthodoxies in any field of thought. This is a travesty of the fundamental values of academe.

                      I do think that the lack of exacting standards of adjudication in certain disciplines such as philosophy allows more scope for ideological camps, personality cults (Derrida, Foucault), metaphysical hogwash (non-dualism, Madhyamika) anti-science, etc., to proliferate and undermine critical inquiry in the interests of clarity and knowledge.

                • Jabali108

                  Jim: “the power and discipline involved in Jewish rituals of keeping a kosher household and how this integrates worship into everyday life.”

                  If you had asked Freud, he would have explained the obsessive-compulsive nature of the ritualistic actions quite plausibly!

                  Ask the Palestinians in the occupied territories or even the Israeli Arabs facing mistreatment and humiliation everyday about the actual effects on them (assuming that they are still alive to speak of it!) of this alleged integration of “worship into everyday life”.

                  But I suppose this is no different from the “wisdom” of Catholicism: talk of love and mercy and keep burning people at the stake, or worse, burn them in the name of love and mercy!

          • Jabali108

            Mr. Commonsense: The Dentist’s bills were equally high for me and my wife this month.

            Herr Professor: Gott im Himmel! That’s not possible!

            Mr. Commonsense: What do you mean? I just told you that it is a fact.

            Herr Professor: Ah, but you poor commonsense-ridden folk don’t know Aristotle!

            Mr. Commonsense: What’s Aristotle or Christotle got to do with it?

            Herr Professor: Aristotle saith that women have fewer teeth than men. He was the greatest philosopher of all time. And he was married twice. Your wife’s dental bills must be less than yours since she must have fewer teeth.

            Mr. Commonsense: The last time I looked at my wife’s teeth she had just the same number of them as I do.

            Herr Professor: Ah, So you think you are smarter than Aristotle? Do you think a genius like Aristotle had any need for doing such a lowly and mundane task, meant solely for you commonsense people, as looking at the teeth his wives had?

            Mr. Commonsense: He would have if he had to take them to the dentist! I guess they never got any dental care. I suppose that’s one of the privileges of marriage to a philosopher!

            Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.

            Bertrand Russell, Impact of Science on Society (1952) ch. 1

  • Jabali108

    “We live best when we recognize that ultimate metaphysical value is found right in all of these everyday things.”

    What is the “ultimate metaphysical value” of a pile of human excrement? How is it different from the ordinary (dis)value attached to it? And how does it help us to live best?

  • Neocarvaka

    “If this isn’t an eloquent testimony to the egregious delusions the human mind is prone to or tempted to entertain despite “education”, I don’t know what else could be!”

    Well-said! Perhaps, “because of” should be substituted for “despite”. Abstraction, flights of abstract thought, removed from common sense and the actual world, are always imbued with “weirdness” if not outright pathology.

    In science, such flights of abstract thought are subject to the exacting constraints and tribunal of observations of phenomena, experimental results, and so forth. Hence, there is an inbuilt protection against pathology and “going over the ledge” when engaging in abstract thought.

    By contrast, in philosophy there are no such constraints, no exacting standards of adjudication. The door, therefore, is wide open to all the weirdness and pathology human thought is capable of as it drifts away from its familiar and unforgiving landscape of common sense and the everyday world into philosophical “outer space” or “Twilight dimension”!

  • Ramachandra1008

    How would you respond to the (bizarre?) claim that we human beings are inherently “Atman”, “Brahman”, “Buddha”, etc., but have either forgotten our “real nature” and/or playing or acting the role of a “land mammal with a complex mind”?

  • Thill

    Well, if we are “inherently “Atman”, “Brahman”, “Buddha”, etc” and have “either forgotten our real nature and/or playing or acting the role of a land mammal with a complex mind”, it follows from a simple logic of identity that:

    “Atman”, or “Brahman”, or “Buddha” has forgotten its real nature and/or is playing or acting the role of a land mammal with a complex mind.

    This is definitely a bizarre claim. How can forgetfulness of its own nature arise in an entity with the property of absolute consciousness or absolute self-awareness or self-knowledge? Forgetfulness of one’s own nature is the ultimate form of ignorance and it is logically impossible for this form of ignorance to arise in “Atman”, “Brahman”, “Buddha Mind”, etc.

    We have no knowledge or awareness of being “Atman”, “Brahman”, or “Buddha Mind”. If we are indeed acting the part of a land mammal with a complex mind, we are extraordinarily good actors since we have so identified with our parts that we are ignorant of our true status as “Brahman”, ‘Atman”, etc. Thus we are back to the intractable problem of explaining how it is logically possible for an entity which is supposed to be absolutely self-aware to become forgetful or ignorant of its own nature.

  • Neocarvaka

    I agree with your points on specialization. The importance of a perspective and its development is worth keeping in mind.

    “the parsing of arguments into smaller and smaller pieces (the stock in trade of philosophy departments)”

    I wish this were true, particularly of philosophy paper presentations at conferences! There would be fewer people dozing off with or without eyes closed!

  • Jon

    The claim that there is one indivisible consciousness sounds to me like magical thinking. I offer Matthew Arnold on the subject:

    “YES: in the sea of life enisled,
    With echoing straits between us thrown.
    Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
    We mortal millions live alone.
    The islands feel the enclasping flow,
    And then their endless bounds they know.”

    On monism vs. dualism: there appears to be one substance (like water) that can be perceived two ways: subjectively (as wetness) or objectively (as H2O). Does it matter whether this is monism or dualism?

    I confess to not knowing precisely what the term “Buddha nature” refers to but have always found it a creepy term for the reasons Thill put forth in his first post. There are plenty of ideas where closing the mind seems perfectly appropriate: the Abrahamic religions for example are both silly and dangerous as Sam Harris among others convincingly argues. Kosher (and Halal for that matter) are worse than foolish, given the rest of the ‘worship’ they bring to daily life, like thinking god gave you the west bank or sexual minorities should be crushed to death. Not even to get started on the church. Personally I got out of academia asap but I admire Thill for sticking it out and standing up for reason in that environment.

  • michael reidy

    Analogies always give bother because people insist on taking them in a global sense, like in every respect, rather than like in a narrowly focused way. My point is that the madman who thinks he is Napoleon cannot be. The law of identity ensures that. Now on the other hand atman can be Brahman (aham brahmasmi) according to the Mahavaka ‘I am Brahman’. Using the analogy of fruit: banana and orange are not identical as individual pieces of fruit but they have a quasi-identity as belonging to the same category of fruit. If you said to someone ‘hand me a piece of fruit’ and they gave you an orange when you meant a banana you could not fault them for having misunderstood you. Now the Self as consciousness and Brahman as consciousness and the linkage between the two can be loosely indicated using the simple analogy which I proffered. A favourite image in Vedanta is of vessels of water reflecting the sun or space that has taken the different shapes of receptacles but is in reality undifferentiated. All of this language is of course inadequate to the mystery of the Atman/Brahman identity but what we can certainly say is that the delusion of the madman and the realisation of a sage are not in any way alike as you stated.

  • Thill

    Michael, it has nothing to do with taking your analogy in a “global sense” and all that! Quite simply, there is only one correct way to refute or undermine an analogy: pointing out the relevant (i.e., relevant to the conclusion drawn from the analogy) differences between the compared cases.

    The difference I pointed out – that the term “Brahman” is not analogous to “fruit” because the former refers to an entity whereas the latter refers to a category – undermines the analogy you were drawing between Brahman-individual relation and fruit-apple relation. They cannot be compared because the former is an “entity X = entity Y” identity relation and the latter is an “Entity x belongs to the category y” relation.

    Therefore, your attempt to use the analogy to support the conclusion that “The individual is Brahman.” is not an absurd identity statement in just the way “A banana is a fruit.” is not an absurd identity statement fails.

    Consider what the non-dualist claim means: You, an individual, is identical to Brahman. In other words, you are none other Brahman. You are Brahman!

    Now what does this mean? That obviously depends on what is attributed to Brahman. Since unconditioned existence, consciousness, and bliss are the essential attributes of Brahman, it follows that the statement “You are Brahman.” (Tat Tvam Asi)clearly means that you have the attributes of unconditioned existence, consciousness, and bliss.

    This is obviously false because your existence, consciousness, and bliss are finite, conditioned or subject to dependence on external causes, and, hence, subject to the possibility and actuality of change. Further, the concept of individual would be rendered incoherent by the claimed identity relation: an individual would have at the same time a conditioned and unconditioned existence, consciousness, and bliss. Hence, the claim of identity of the individual and Brahman is incoherent.

    It is also incoherent for the following reason. If you are Brahman, then Brahman is also you! If Brahman is also you, it must have the properties you have: conditioned existence, consciousness, and bliss. This obviously makes the concept of Brahman incoherent. Hence, the claim of identity of the individual and Brahman is incoherent.

    The logic of the identity relation implies that if X and Y are identical and if Z and Y are identical, then X and Z are identical. So, if you are identical with Brahman and Osama bin Laden is also identicla with Brahman, then you and Osama bin Laden are identical! How do you feel about those bullets in your chest and head??? Oh, I forgot that you are dead already! This is a conclusive reductio ad absurdum of the claimed identity of the individual and Brahman!

    The only way out for the non-dualist reduces his claim of identity to pathetic tautology. The non-dualist can say that the “individual” does not refer to the particular individual who, among other things, goes by the name of “Michael Reidy” on this blog. Well, who is the referent then? The non-dualist proclaims that it is Herr Brahman itself!

    This only makes the non-dualist identity claim a resounding tautology: Herr Brahman is Brahman, an instance of “A is A.”! Unfortunately for the non-dualist, we already possess this piece of remarkable “wisdom”. So, her labors are in vain!

    • JimWilton

      Thill, let’s set aside the substantial issue of whether it is useful or not to lump together different concepts such as Brahman, atman, buddha nature, god, etc. from different traditions.

      It seems to me that your approach is based on an unstated assumption. Many of the traditions that you attack take the position in various ways that there is an aspect of our experience that cannot be captured by language, that is beyond thought. Your unequivocal rejection of these traditions is based solely on language and logic. It is as if someone asked you the question: “Is there understanding that is beyond language and logic?” and your answer is: “The question is not logical.” Your answer, whether correct or not (and I believe it is not correct even as a matter of logic), misses the point and does not answer the question.

  • Thill

    Whether or not concepts from different traditions can be mentioned in the same breath or grouped together for some purpose depends on whether they have significant shared features or properties.

    I did not merely “lump together” those concepts. I pointed out two minimum features or properties they all share: a) absence of ignorance, and b) absence of suffering.

    In fact, all I need is property (a) to refute the claimed identity of the individual with God, Brahman, Atman, and Buddha Nature.

    “Is there understanding that is beyond language and logic?”

    My response to this question is not what you assume it would be. Rather it is this: What does the question mean? What does it mean to speak of an “understanding” or knowledge which is “beyond language and logic”?

    Perhaps, you can provide a tentative answer?

    • JimWilton

      To your first point, the concept of buddha nature, at least, is subtle and quite difficult. It certainly is not conceived of in any Buddhist texts that I have seen as a soul or atman. In my understanding, it is also not free of ignorance. Buddha nature is often described as a seed or potential. Ignorance arises when the mind errs — creating the concept of a permanent self that needs to be protected. This gives rise to fear. But the basic cognizant quality of mind underlies both confused mind (the mind of sentient beings) and unconfused mind (the mind of buddha). Ignorance, in fact, is an active emotion that sees before it doesn’t see. As the poet says, “the angels are not as powerful as looking and then not looking.” So, the seed of awakened mind exists even in sentient beings. It is just not realized as a result of fear and attachment. I merely give this brief description to show that the concept of buddha nature is subtle and best not to lump together with concepts from other traditions (concepts that may be equally subtle).

      In terms of your second question, my answer is tentative. The clearest example that I can think of for understanding that is independent of logic is understanding that is expressed through Art. Dance or poetry can communicate truths about the human condition that is beyond logic. I would also say — even for poetry — that it is beyond language since poetry communicates through sound and uses concepts in juxtaposition to other concepts — almost like an artist creates a mosaic. This example is fairly obvious. Of course, a critic can try to explain Art using language and logic. But the description is at best a map.

      • Thill

        “Buddha nature is often described as a seed or potential.”

        This is obscure. To say that Buddha nature is a “seed or potential” does not tell us what it is. And “seed or potential” for what?

        Further, “buddha nature” smacks of something complete or fully-formed and inherent, but hidden or veiled, in beings. If so, it would be false to say that it is a “seed or potential”.

        Notice also the inconsistency in saying that the Buddha nature is not free of ignorance and at the same time saying that it is free from confusion

        Think about this: whatever it is, if it is a “seed or potential”, it is subject to development or growth. And this implies change and also imperfection in its initial condition since it needs growth or development.

        Do you think change, impermanence, and imperfection are consistent with the concept of “Buddha nature”? I suppose we can’t answer this if we have not clarified what “buddha nature” means in the first place and how it is different, if at all, from the ordinary nature of human beings.

        So, I ask again: What is it to have a “Buddha nature” albeit in seed-form or potentiality?

      • Thill

        Jim, you may find this Wikipedia article on Buddha-nature useful

        Note the number of statements in it which contradict the notion that it is different from the Atman. Note also the claims made on it which are inconsistent with the notion that it is a seed or potential subject to developmental growth. Note again the statements which contradict the idea that ignorance could be a characteristic of it.

        “In some Tathagatagarbha scriptures, however, especially the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha-nature is defined as Self which is permanent, blissful and pure.”

        “The Buddha-nature doctrine centres on the possession by sentient beings of the innate, immaculate buddha-mind or buddha-element (Buddha-dhatu).This Buddhic element is essentially perfect and non-evolving, as it is already taintless..”

        “The Buddha-nature is equated in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra with the changeless and deathless true self of the Buddha.[12] This Buddha-nature is described in the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra to be incorruptible, uncreated, and indestructible. It is eternal awakeness (bodhi) indwelling samsara, and thus opens up the immanent possibility of liberation from all suffering and impermanence.[14]”

        “The eternality, unshakeability and changelessness of the Buddha-nature (often referred to as “tathagatagarbha”) is also frequently stressed in the sutras which expound this Buddha element. The Śrīmālā Sūtra, for example, says:

        The Tathagatagarbha is not born, does not die, does not transfer [Tib: ’pho-ba], does not arise. It is beyond the sphere of the characteristics of the compounded; it is permanent, stable and changeless.[16]”

        “It is a recurrent theme of the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra that the Buddha-nature is indestructible and forever untarnished. Professor Jeffrey Hopkins translates several passages from the sutra in which the Buddha speaks of this topic and defines the Buddha-nature as pure, eternal, truly real self:

        … that which has permanence, bliss, Self, and thorough purity is called the “meaning of pure truth”.

        Permanent is the Self; the Self is thoroughly pure. The thoroughly pure is called “bliss”. Permanent, blissful, Self, and thoroughly pure is the one-gone-thus [i.e. Buddha];

        Self means the matrix-of-one-gone-thus [i.e. the tathagatagarbha/ Buddha-nature]. The existence of the buddha-nature in all sentient beings is the meaning of “Self”.”

  • michael reidy

    I had to go back over our exchanges to discover where the crossed wires were, not that there will be accord between our two great peoples. My focus was on consciousness as the unifying aspect between Brahman and Atman, the bridge between the different entities or apparently different entities. Consciousness is the common attribute that unites the two entities much as being a fruit is the attribute that unites being an apple, an orange , and a banana. The different beings/entities Atman and Brahman ‘share’ the attribute of being conscious. Yon took it that I was making a point about categories and entities and mixing up the two.

    So much for that, let us put it behind us. Non Duality is not a cunning way of saying identity. As I understand it, and my understanding is not beyond controversion, it has the implication of not two and not one. Anirvacanaya is the technical term for that level of deep inscrutability. If these things were decidable on the basis of pure logic then realisation and faith would not be required. However I would deny that this is a lemming-like rush over the cliff of reason. For the seeker confirmation comes in many ways, subjective of course and not testable by any cool dispassionate observer; nevertheless real.

  • Thill

    “My focus was on consciousness as the unifying aspect between Brahman and Atman, the bridge between the different entities or apparently different entities. Consciousness is the common attribute that unites the two entities much as being a fruit is the attribute that unites being an apple, an orange , and a banana.”

    You can’t get started with an analogy if there isn’t a shared feature or similarity between two cases X and Y. But analogies are not good merely because of a shared feature or similarity between X and Y. You must ensure that there are no significant differences between X and Y which would undermine the conclusion you are drawing from the analogy.

    Brahman and the jiva or individual are both conscious beings. So what? That doesn’t make them, by any stretch of logic, identical. Even the talk of any “unity” between them is undermined by the kinds of differences between their respective modes or forms of consciousness and existence.

    “Unity” is ambiguous. It could either mean oneness or identity of two or more things, or a relationship of accord or harmony between two or more things.

    If you are using “unity” as a synonym for “identity”, you have not established the identity of the individual and Brahman by merely pointing out a shared property or similarity, i.e., consciousness.

    A dog or an orangutan is also a conscious being. I presume you wouldn’t claim that a human individual is identical to a dog or orangutan on this ground!

    If by “unity” you mean accord or harmony between two or more things, you have switched from the issue I was examining to another one: the “unity” or harmony between Brahman and the individual.

    Here is an objection to this claim of harmony or accord between Brahman and the individual. Harmony or accord cannot exist between two entities if one has properties incompatible with those of the other.

    Brahman is characterized by unconditioned existence, unlimited consciousness and knowledge, and absence of any suffering or pain. The Jiva or individual obviously has the characteristics of conditioned existence and subjection to ignorance and pain.

    These respective properties of Brahman and the individual are not compatible with each other. Ergo, there cannot be any “unity”, i.e., harmony or accord, between Brahman and the individual.

  • michael reidy

    The extraordinary thing about religious irrationality is that it is freely admitted to and even gloried in by the practitioners themselves. The slightest acquaintance with any of the major traditions will show this but it rather takes the fizz out of an expose to admit it.

    To alter Moore’s paradox – It’s true but you shouldn’t believe it . What then are you to do if you don’t believe, how else is access possible? Here I am encouraged by the tantric text that was recommended by Ramana Maharshi Tripura Rahasya. There the working of your true nature because it is of necessity accessible to you at all times, if it is attended to ,will bring you along with it. The author speaks of the naturalness of samadhi, of insight that is woven into the fabric of the everyday. Here the etymology of ‘tantra’ as given by Elisa Frescshi is instructive.

    The things that you should believe are those things that connect to the rest of your life, the things that make sense. As the path develops those things may be a little past the sense of the rationalist, poor thing, but in this there is a self-generated shraddha or a tentative likelihood that is, with due regard for the limitless powers of self-delusion, reliable. It’s a touchy, feely thing!

    All that the imagination can imagine and the reason conceive and understand in this life is not, and cannot be, a proximate means of union with God.

    St.John of the Cross

  • Thill

    Since you have conceded the irrationality of it all, I presume I have achieved my goal! LOL

    Yes, where else, but in “religion” or “faith” can you find this exultation in irrationality with all its predictable effects?

    You may think your brand of irrationality is more “sophisticated” or less intolerable than that of the Christian Scientists or snake-handling faith cults in the American south, but they are all of the same rotten vintage.

    Take heed of Voltaire: Those who can bring themselves to believe in absurdities can also bring themselves to commit or support atrocities.

    • michael reidy

      Well then, you shouldn’t believe it. How deep that crust of hard baked rationalism is I don’t know, your blustering manner may be a whistling past the graveyard symptom.

  • Thill

    Since you have misconstrued my banter for bluster, I will take leave with some real blustering.
    You can correctly gauge the extent of another person’s “rationalism” or rationality only in proportion to your own “rationalism” or rationality.
    It is better to whistle past the graveyard (of philosophical and religious absurdities), than to remain whistling in it.

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