Friday, October 29, 2010

Metaphysical grasping is still grasping

I'm currently reading Paul Williams' magnum opus Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. It's a fascinating read, packed full of information regarding the development of Mahayana. I'm about halfway through the book, and what I've begun to find is that as Mahayana evolved throughout its several-hundred-year development, its metaphysics grew increasingly more complicated.

From the Cittamatra's "mind only" philosophy (Buddhism's brand of idealism) to the Tathagatagarbha sutras' Buddha Nature, I find Mahayana writers/philosophers becoming more and more concerned with metaphysical speculation. Subtle and causal bodies, storehouse consciousness, dharmakaya/Tathagatagarbha/Buddha Nature, all of these seem to delve into the territory that the Buddha warned us about--metaphysical speculation. On many occasions, the Buddha cautioned us about getting caught up in philosophical quandaries, such as "Is the universe infinite?" "Do we have a soul? Is it eternal?"

To quote Stephen Batchelor, in the Pali Canon the Buddha repeatedly said, "Don't go there" to these types of questions. And yet, it seems to me that this is exactly what these Mahayana philosophers were doing. They were debating and speculating about ethereal bodies, the Self, etc.; meanwhile, the arrow of suffering is still buried fast in their legs. The danger, of course, in all this philosophizing is that we're just creating another object to cling to. Mental candy.

Perhaps I am being reductive, but what strikes me as the ultimate slate-cleaner regarding metaphysics is the fact that most of these philosophies don't agree. And since they can't all be correct, reason tells us that, in every place except in bizarre Quantumland, all but one of them must be wrong (unless you argue that they're all different ways of expressing the same thing--a form of upaya--a proposition that I'm growing leery of accepting).

A good question to ask is whether these paradigms are useful. If so, then use them, but don't grow attached to them; they're simply models of reality, not reality itself. When you're done with the raft, the Buddha says, you discard it. If they're not useful, if they're just causing us to run around in circles creating more and more theories, then I think we already have our answer.

Zen tends to avoid all this, in that it demands the immediate engagement of life as it is. Right here, right now. No philosophizing. "If you have a subtle body," a Zen master would say. "show it to me." Uhhh....


I don't intend for any of this to profane, but rather to express my own difficulty in synthesizing these later Mahayana developments into my practice.

For me, the Buddha always returned to the same project--relieving suffering. The way to do that is to stop clinging. And for the life of me, I can't see how positing some subtle ethereal body or complex metaphysical cosmology does that. To me, that's just another example of people getting caught in the cycle of speculation, a form of mental grasping.

What do you think?
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: sand dragon.


  1. I both agree and disagree. You make a provocative point that is worth contemplating, which I've been doing since you posted it a few days ago. And yet, there are are a few problems I see.

    Vajrayana practice (dealing with the subtle body, etc.), as I understand it, ultimately isn't about theory or speculation. It is experiential. Looking at it from the outside -- i.e., reading a book about it and interpreting it from a Zen perspective, which is adding a further layer of speculation -- it might appear very abstract and speculative, but maybe that's because you're just reading a book -- which is, by nature, a speculative activity.

    It also seems a little bit absurd to characterize all Mayahana philosophers as being stuck in metaphysical speculation while the arrow of suffering is still embedded in their legs. Perhaps you would have to know some of them personally to judge how liberated from suffering they actually are.

    Moreover, there are all kinds of speculations that you probably take as a given on a daily basis, even while sitting in Zazen. You have no first-hand experience of the fact that your body is made of atoms (and that atoms are made of quarks and muons, and that quarks and muons are made of strings, and so on) -- but you probably believe it's true, or accept it as a valid working hypothesis. You also have no concrete experience of the fact that your mind has an unconscious dimension and no proof that it exists, but you can infer that it's there because you have dreams and memories and urges and motives that might be hidden even from yourself, and these things don't appear to come from your conscious mind. Atoms and the unconscious are useful ways of talking about existence and experience, but from a Zazen point of view, they are also useless speculation. Show me your atoms. Show me your unconscious. Uhhh....exactly. And yet, I doubt that you deny those things exist, and that they play an active role in creating the experience of sitting right now in Zazen in the present moment, staring at the wall and being aware of your conscious experience.

    As you intimate in your post, it's good to be aware of the pitfalls of too much abstract thinking and speculation that diverge from actual, lived experience....but it's also good to keep that opposite tendency in balance. We need the "immediate engagement of life as it is, right here, right now," -- and yet, we also need the mind that philosophizes and explores and tries to understand what this is that we are experiencing. Without that mind, we wouldn't have any idea about the atoms or the unconscious. We'd just be sitting there staring at the wall like cows.

    Middle way. All things in moderation.

  2. From the little reading I've done into cittamatra, they certainly emphasize the point that all of the refined, subtle, and beautiful conceptual models of the personality that they build are "construction of that which was not," i.e., ultimately empty, and useful only as descriptions and expedient means. (I also don't think it really fits the definition of 'idealism' very well, unless prefixed with 'subjective,' which is (a) totally different from what's usually meant by 'idealism' and (b) not quite what cittamatra is either.)

  3. Dennis, you raise some interesting points. Many of these metaphysical assertions are the result of meditative experiences--the result of very advanced meditative absorption. But what proves challenging for me, whenever I read them, is that they don't agree. I mean, Zen makes no mention of chakras, and yet they form the cornerstone of Tantra. I don't know how to reconcile that. Not to mention the fact that different traditions have different definitions of nirvana itself. Obviously they can't all be correct if they don't agree.

    I think that we can't underestimate the influence that culture, language, and religious assumptions have on the spiritual experience. For instance, it should come as no surprise that a Christian experiencing a near-death or mystical experience may see Jesus and not the Buddha. The opposite goes for East Asian Buddhists. We interpret our experience based on myriad factors--social, linguistic, and cultural, to name just a few.

    I guess what I'm trying to get at is that, as a Westerner, I have difficulty identifying with Buddhist metaphysics. Injunctions--practical instructions--work best for me. Maybe that's why I practice Zen. That doesn't mean that I doubt them; I just have a hard time committing to them.

    Thanks for the read and for the feedback!