26 September 2014

The Nature of Reality?

The purpose of #meditation is to cultivate a mind that is a suitable instrument to discover the ultimate nature of reality. #buddhism— Culadasa (@Culadasa)
September 6, 2014 (Twitter)

We're still selling Buddhism in terms of absolutes. We're still telling people that if they want to discover "the ultimate nature of reality" then we can help them with that. I used to go along with this kind of hyperbolic rhetoric, but a few years ago I started asking what it meant and realised that not only did it not mean anything much, but that early Buddhist texts were replete with arguments against absolutes of this type. Indeed the idea of selling Buddhism as a way to discover the "ultimate nature of reality" is specifically parodied most obviously in the Tevijja Sutta (compare my paraphrase of part of the text).

The persistence of this way of talking about what we Buddhists do and what we seek is interesting. Anyone who wants to argue that Buddhism is not a religion needs to take a long look at this promise of absolute knowledge. It has a distinctively religious feeling to it. So what is the problem with this? I will draw on two sources for my critique: conversations with meditators who appear to have considerable experience of insight; and Buddhist texts.


We need to pay close attention to what deep practitioners say when discussing the effects of Buddhists practices. Those who have the most experience of putting Buddhism into practice are our best source of information on what it feels like to practice Buddhism. Serious meditators I know talk about the insights they gain in a fairly consistent way. And at the outset I would say that none of them talk about their experience in terms of discovering the nature of reality.

In meditation we observe our mind at work. In other words we observe experience. There seem to be several kinds of insight: insights into impermanence of experience generally; insights into impermanence of the experience of being a self; and insights that pertain to the apparent subject/object duality of experience.

I know many people on meditation retreats report periods where they lose their sense of self altogether. One sees a flower and has no sense: "I am seeing a flower." The experience of seeing the flower seems to be without a particular point of view or evaluation. There is just a flower and seeing. I've had glimpses of this kind of perception myself, so I trust the people that report it in far more depth. It's also widely described in other contexts - particularly by Jill Bolte Taylor describing her experience of having a stroke.

One of my teachers explained to me, from his own meditation experience, that the subject/object duality that characterises experience is not native to experience, but imposed on it. However, when we were talking about this recently I observed that this did not affect certain physical facts. Breaking down the subject/object duality for example did not affect his field of view: he could not see what I was seeing through my eyes, because his own eyes were facing in a different direction. I could see what was behind him and he could not. Thus even at this quite deep level of realisation there are still limitations on experience that insight does not erase. Physics, in effect, still applies. It's just that what comes in through the eyes is experienced in a radically different way because something in.

Thus it seems to me that even those who are gaining insights through meditation are not gaining insights into reality per se, not as we usually define reality anyway. They are not gaining insights into the nature of objects, or a world, independent of an observing mind; nor (even) are they gaining insight into the nature of the observing mind. They are not gaining insights into an underlying substrate upon which objects depend either. At least this is not what meditators talk about. The shift in perspective seems to produce insights into the nature of experience. This is exactly what we'd expect from studying early Buddhist texts, so let's look at them next.

Scholars & Texts.

There's a simple question it's important for Buddhists to ask.
Where does reality come in the skandhas?
Traditional narratives tell us the skandhas are everything. So is reality form? Is it sensation? Perception? Intention? Cognition? Is it in a combination of some or all of the skandhas? If reality is something we can gain insight into, if insight into reality is the goal we aim at, then we ought to be able to understand reality in terms of the skandhas. Or if not the skandhas then perhaps the āyatanas - the āyatanas are also said to be everything (Sabba Sutta). However I've yet to see any description of reality in terms of the skandhas. It's hard to see how the idea of reality, as we usually meet it, is compatible with the skandhas

Reality is a word that implies something real. And as we know (or any of my readers ought to know by now) there are a number of critiques of the very notion of 'real'. I usually go back to the Kātyāyana Sūtra (which I've studied in Pāḷi, Sanskrit and Chinese versions). With respect to "the world" (loka), however we understand that word, reality (astitā) and unreality (nāstitā) don't apply. They don't apply because when we examine the world we see arising (samudaya) and cessation (nirodha). Reality is denied by cessation. Nothing that can go out of being can be considered real in this view. Unreality is denied by arising. Nothing can come into being if it is unreal. Even a cursory exploration of experience shows us experiences constantly arising and passing away. As Bhikkhu Bodhi says:
“The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.” (Bodhi 2000, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: 394, n.182)
What about nibbāna? Isn't nibbāna associated with seeing reality? There are a number of "seeings" that are associated with nibbāna. And here seeing is a metaphor for knowing, since Indic languages have the same metaphor as we do in English: see what I mean? During his nibbāna the Buddha is said to have seen his own past lives and how they played out according to karma. And he saw the past lives of all beings doing the same. Lastly he saw the extinction of the āsavas in himself (i.e. the desire for sense pleasure, the desire for eternal being, wrong-views about experience and ignorance about the nature of experience).

The beginning of insight is labelled yathābhūta-jñānadarśana. Sometimes people take yathābhūta as consistent with reality. The word is etymologically a bit vague: bhūta is a past participle of 'to be'. I've tried to explore what it means, but taken in context there's no reason to suppose it means 'reality'. When we translated it as "things as they are" it's important to ask what is meant by "things". My first inclination these days is to answer "mental events". To talk about the "reality" of mental events is something we already know that early Buddhists thought was unhelpful. Reality and unreality don't apply.

One might also gain knowledge of vimukti - liberation from the three akusalamūlaraga, dosa and moha. Or knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (kāma, bhāva, diṭṭhi, and avijjā). But we can hardly translate this into reality. The three unskilful roots or their opposites are hardly reality. They are mental events. As are the āsavas. So in these traditional accounts of nibbāna one is having insights into one's own mental events and processes.  And in fact this is exactly the way that present day meditators describe their breakthroughs as well. There is a great deal of consistency between the two sources of information.

The criticism in the Tevijjā Sutta is extremely apposite here. In the text Brahmins are portrayed as teaching the way to the state of "companionship with God" (brahmasahāvyatā). But on questioning none of the Brahmins or their teachers had ever known this state for themselves. And the basic principle is that one cannot teach what one does not know. The Buddha stands them on their heads by saying the he does know, and Richard Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought) has read this as a sophisticated shift in levels referring to the brahmavihāra meditations. Cf. the Mettā Sutta. In other words the Buddha substitutes the Brahmanical goal of literally dwelling with God in heaven after death and the appropriate funeral rituals (including cremation), for the Buddhist meditations in which one suffuses the directions with positive emotions. A literal reading of brahmasahāvyatā would allow for no return in any case - like nibbāna it was a way off the wheel of birth and death (though note that Mahāyāna practitioners did not allow the Buddha to escape, but forced him to return as saviour, which constituted a major departure from early Buddhism). The Buddha was consistent in that he could teach something he knew, but he was being ironic in related brahmavihāra with brahmasahāvyatā - the two words are close synonyms but are used entirely differently in the two religious milieus. 

I've never met a meditator who had personal knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality. Even those people with deep insight simply don't talk in those terms unless they slip into repeating dogma - its not the natural language of insight. 


In order to make Culadasas's axiom consistent with early(ish) Buddhist philosophy we'd need to rephrase it along these lines:

The purpose of meditation is to cultivate a mind that is
a suitable instrument to discover the nature of experience.

Discovering the ultimate nature of reality is not the purpose of meditation, or at least it wasn't traditionally. It is not what meditation is good for in practice, in the sense that meditators don't report knowledge of the nature of reality. What's worse is that when Buddhists do start to talk about the nature of reality they very often have obviously naive views that are rooted in reading certain types of books, rather than being grounded in experience. Or they expound the nature of reality in one breath and then tell us that reality is ineffable in the next (which is simple confusion). There are more interesting discussions of how the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda might describe reality, but it's been a few years since I found this kind of discussion compelling. The resultant reality is far too vaguely defined, ambiguous and poorly understood to be of much use to anyone. It's better to refrain from treating pratītyasamutpāda as a Theory of Everything and apply it in the domain of experience where it makes most sense.

Reality is not something that meditation is going to help with. Meditation is ways about exploring experience and/or cultivating experiences. So often the Buddha is supposed to have said: I teach suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the way to end suffering. That's it. 

While I've explored the drift of Buddhist thought into the realms of ontology - of reality, what exists etc - in various essays now, I'm confident that, over the course of Buddhist thought, the methods and what they were capable of hardly changed at all (except for once when tantric practice emerged - but event that can be understood in terms of older paradigms with some thought). Of course Buddhist narratives did get caught up with ontological thinking and I expect that a closer examination would show that ideas about 'reality' emerged only once the concept of reality was admitted. This is certainly the drift of the changes wrought in response to the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. And what happened was the doctrine decohered from practice for a time. 

Probably the horrendous fudge of the Two Truths helped to bring the idea of a paramatha-dhātu or -loka into being. When you combine ontological thinking with notions of parama it's probably inevitable. It's one of the reasons I disparage the Two Truths doctrine - it facilitates wrong views. I don't think it had any significance in the first 1000 years of Buddhism, but of course that still leaves it with a long history.

What we look for in the long term is a strong coherence between Buddhist practice and doctrine; in fact we look for doctrine yoked to and driven by practice. When that is missing we are due for reform. 

Related Posts with Thumbnails