The existential nature of Buddhist ultimates

By Winston L. King
Philosophy East and West
Volume 33, no.3
(July, 1983)
(C) by the University of Hawaii Press

P.263 According to the Paali Canon (Majjhima Nikaaya, Sutta 63) Maalu^nkyaaputta, a disciple of Gotama Buddha once complained to him that he had never in his teaching given answers to questions concerning the finitude or infinitude of the space-time world, or the relation of soul to body, or the nature of the state of the enlightened arhat after death. To this the Buddha replied that were all such questions to be answered before a man began his spiritual quest, it would be like answering all the questions a wounded man might put about the nature of the arrow which had wounded him, of the bow that propelled it, of the characteristics of the man who had shot it, etc., before the man was treated. By the time all the answers were given the man would be dead. The Buddha then defined his teaching as eschewing answers to philosophical questions and dealing only with the existential fact that "there is birth...ageing... dying... grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation, and despair" and their "suppression... here and now." These matters he does explain, and only these, "because it is connected with the goal, is fundamental to Brahma-faring, and conduces to turning away from, to dispassion, stopping, calming, superknowledge, awakening and nibbaana."(1) In other words, theorizing about ontological metaphysical ultimates has absolutely no place in the Buddhist Dharma. What remains in this "original" or core Buddhism, is the pure existentialism of dispassionate detachment from the space-time world which results in nibbaana--which is elsewhere defined simply as the absence of greed, hatred, and delusion. But suppose now that we advance some 1500 years in the history of the development of Buddhist thought. What do we find? On the semi-popular level of the Mahaayaana tradition there have been the eternalization, absolutization, and trinitization of the Buddha, the creation of supernal Buddha-lands without number, and a variety of ornate ritual patterns. There have also been technical philosophical developments. One theory speaks of some seventy-five dharmas, or constituent elements, which are strung together in causal chains by the dynamism of dependent origination and compose all perceptible entities, including the so-called self. There are explanations of perception as the non-conceptual awareness of the point-instants of the occurrence of a fluxing physical world, or contrastingly as only subjective apperception of what has already ceased to be. In place of the not-self some Buddhist thinkers propound a storehouse consciousness (aalayavij~naana) that contains all the karmic results from one's immemorial past. Then there are those that maintain that "consciousness alone" exists; others that the universe is the mutually interpenetrative presence of everything in everything else. And there is still another important school of thought maintaining that even those once hallowed Buddhist entities of cause/ P.265 effect, sa^msaara/ and numbers of others are empty of meaning and reality, that emptiness (`suunyataa) alone remains, What has happened to that beautifully simple existential/experiential dharma of the Paali Canon? Has this developed Buddhism totally forgotten the explicit mandate of its founder? One thing should be noted at once: that simple, original, core Buddhism was not as simple as it literally seems to be. Underlying its simplistic prescription for achieving passionless detachment are many taken-for-granteds, inherited from its parent Brahmanism. Beginningless-endless rebirth governed by the moralistic cause-effect of karman, an existence whose hallmarks are impermanence, emptiness of reality, and suffering, and the possibility of an absolutely full and final release from all this ( are assumed without question--as well as many other views of ontological/ metaphysical implication. Indeed the existentialist prescription of the Four Noble Truths as the remedy for the human predicament, which we find in the canon, could not be presented with its scriptural intensity and relevance lacking these presuppositions. Yet, notwithstanding these qualifications, it must never be forgotten that the basic, original emphasis in early Buddhism was existential rather than ontological/metaphysical; the first emphasis was explicit and primary, the second implicit and secondary. Again it must be recalled that in the ensuing centuries Buddhism was forced by the very factors which impelled Maalu^nkyaaputta to ask his questions, to make its implicit assumptions explicit, though perhaps somewhat reluctantly. That is, as a new and different faith and practice, Buddhism found itself competing against many other religious traditions in India with developing or already well-developed philosophies which did give answers to Maalu^nkyaaputta's questions. Correlate with this was the universal tendency in the historical development of a religious faith to elaborate its original simplistic beginnings, dependent largely upon the charisma of the founder-figure, into a full-fledged system of doctrine and practice. Hence Buddhism could not possibly have escaped the destiny of philosophical development forced upon it by its Indian heritage and further complicated by its later career in China and Japan. If it be granted that such in fact was the case, we then need to ask two questions. The first is: has Buddhism been forced to forsake totally its classic existentialist/experiential heritage for ontology and metaphysics? (By "ontology" I mean questions about being, particularly about human being--what is man and what is he capable of becoming? By "metaphysical" I refer to a world-view of sense of ultimate structure and reality underlying experience--what is the real nature of the "world?" and what is its destiny?) And the answer to this is a qualified no. To quote from a modern Shinshuu Buddhist source: "Buddhist thought, including its complex doctrinal systems, is a conceptual superstructure built in reflection on experiential realization."(2) Of course all religious "experiential realization'' has always as its context, and partly as its cause, at least an implicit ontology and metaphysics. But it is worth noting that a P.265 developed system of Buddhist thought, some fifteen hundred years after Gotama Buddha and in a tradition (Mahaayaana) which has strongly modified the Paali Canon system of belief and practice, it is still maintained that the experiential is primary and the theoretical secondary. Examples of this could be multiplied many times over. The second question is this: how then are we to regard some of the words developed Buddhism uses about its ultimates-ultimates of some sort or other? Are they ontological/metaphysical in fact or only disguised forms of the existential/experiential? Or are they both at the same time? In general it seems to me that the case is something like this: the basic Buddhist point of view--with perhaps the exception of a school of thought here and there during Buddhist history--is that there is some sort of ultimate reality beyond our merely subjective thoughts and sensations that occasions them: but that in our thoughts, our terms and names for these realities, and our philosophical systems we do not deal with ultimate entities at their deepest levels of reality and meaning.(3) Like the "chariot" in Nagaasena's discourse metaphysical terms are only "generally understood terms, designations in common use" which are convenient for rough and ready indication. The ultimates, whatever they are, are more fully open to direct experience than to conceptualization. EXEMPLIFICATION Two major terms have been chosen for analysis along these lines, and several others for summary characterization. They are anattaa, "no-soul" or "no-self, " and `suunyataa, emptiness. When Theravaada Buddhism asserts that man is a non-self, is this an ontological assertion or an experiential one? Both, I would maintain, but most surely an existential/experiential one. That there is an ontological intent can scarcely be denied; it is intended to mean. in the mouths of most Theravaada Buddhists, that there is no discoverable, genuinely substantial or unitary personal entity such as is usually indicated by the term "self"--though the foundation of this statement in paali Canon texts has been challenged in a recent volume, Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism, by Joaquin Perez-Remon.(4) But it is worth noting that the "ontology" of no-self is purely negative, a statement of what the "self'' is not, and the assertion that even such a "non-self" is nonexistent as a distinct entity. Thus, the so-called self is not a true unity but a temporary-momentary collection of elements (skandhas or dharmas); in fact it is not even a genuine psychological unity, but more like a stream of fluxing and varied mental currents. Nor is there any discernable "I" apart from its thoughts; the "self" or individual "mind'' is its thoughts. This temporary collection of bits and pieces falls apart upon death, with only its main karmic thrust of energy carried on into new being. Though this portrait might be challenged both psychologically and ontologically, my interest here is in "no-self" as experiential. Though it is true that the negative ontology is the intellectual justification and the emotional springboard P.266 for the meditative process which reveals the emptiness of self and produces the experience of detachment, no-self as experienced in detachment is the main concern of Theravaada meditation. The basic thrust of many of the no-self passages is epitomized by the comment after one extended declaration that form, feeling, consciousness, etc. are "not my self"; "Seeing this the well-instructed holy disciple becomes disgusted with the skandhas. Disgusted he becomes dispassionate; through dispassion he is set free." And it justifies the late Edward Conze's comment that "The formula is manifestly intended as a guide to meditation and not as a basis for speculation."(5) Two aspects of anattaa as experience will be noted. One is that anattaa can be experienced, not just described. Indeed all vipassana meditational techniques have as their purpose the production of a visceral, fully existential awareness of one's own body-mind "self" as a set of temporarily associated factors which have no integral unity. This is accomplished by focusing "bare attention," that is, impartial, impersonal scrutiny, upon one's own physical processes, emotional dynamics, and thought developments. The result has been thus described: As to the ultimate purpose of Satipa.t.thaana, Mindfulness on Postures will bring an initial awareness of the impersonal' nature of the body, and will be conducive towards an inner alienation from it... Looking at the postures with such detached objectivity, the habitual identification with the body will begin to dissolve. And the same author later concludes: The whole Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness may be regarded as nothing else but a comprehensive theoretical and practical instruction for the realization of that liberating truth of Anattaa... The guidance provided by Satipa.t.thaana, will bring about... that immediate visualization of it which alone imparts life-transforming and life-transcending power.(6) The second point about anattaa is that this experience is also one of release, release from the power of samsaric drives into a new and different self-awareness. By the existential appropriation of anattaa awareness to himself, the meditator gains a sense of freedom from the push-pull of his own appetites, passions, ambitions, and fixations and from the external world's domination in general, that is, the conquest of greed, hatred, and delusion. The enlightened mind which results from the complete appropriation of the truth of anattaa is like "a rock of one solid mass... neither visible forms, nor sounds, nor odours, nor tastes, nor bodily impressions, neither the desired nor the undesired, can cause such a one to waver... gained is deliverance."(7) It is further worth noting that nibbaana, which is the Ultimate Goal in Theravaada Buddhism, and its Ultimate Reality as well, whose attainment brings rebirth into space-time existence to an end, is also the Ultimate Experience. With respect to the fullest possible this-life experience of nibbaana, attained in nirodhasamaapatti (cessation of all perception and feeling), asks in his The Path of Purification: "Why do they attain it?" Answering his own question P.267 he replies: "Being wearied by the occurrence and dissolution of formations [i.e. experiencing ordinary consciousness of fluxing data by a fluxing consciousness] they attain it thinking 'Let us dwell in bliss here and now reaching the cessation that is nibbaana."(8) And according to the Paali Canon his disciples tell the Buddha that this state can be "enjoyed for as long as we like."(9) I suggest then that the Theravaada conception of nibbaana is that of Ultimate Experience. The conviction that it is of ultimate rebirth-ending reality, though it functions powerfully as incitement to the quest of the nibbaana experience, is basically an inference from the experience itself As Ultimate Reality it is spoken of vaguely and usually negatively. Hindu yogins spoke of similar experiences, but were equated by them to oneness with Brahman. Now turning to Mahaayaana: All the Buddhist entities are to be found here in a greatly altered state and proportion. Gotama, the enlightened prince, has largely been replaced by the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Suutra. Dependent origination, whose Theravaada role is to destroy the sense of the unitary integrity of personal selfhood, both physical and mental, has become the interdependent origination and existence of each being, in organic relatedness to every other being in the universe. The Buddha Mind, the All-Mind of the Vij~naanavaadins, is implied as the Ultimate Source and Being of the universe, and the essence of the ordinary human mind, that is, the Buddha mind in every man. Or sometimes it is the Dharmakaaya, the absolute essence of the Buddha, one and indescribable, that becomes the Ultimate Reality. Nor was it that there were no efforts in Mahaayaana to deal with epistemological and ultimate ontological questions. but in the end these lesser considerations always seem to be dissolved in some indefinable-but-experienceable Ultimacy.(10) Perhaps the subject of our special concern, emptiness (`suunyataa), however, is the single best exemplar of the existentialist-experiential quality of Buddhist ultimates which we are now examining. And it is likewise one of the most important contemporary designations of Buddhist ultimacy, especially in Zen, in which emptiness has engulfed all lesser terms in itself. We must then ask, as it has often been asked in the past, what then is emptiness? When Naagaarjuna demonstrated the empty-because-relative nature of all substantive concepts, he did not then enthrone `suunyataa in their place. For him emptiness was a mode of apprehension of the universe, the core of a spiritual discipline, not an entity of any sort. He used it, as Theravaadins tend to use anattaa, as a universal solvent of all substantive-reality concepts and as forming the core of a new mode of liberated awareness and existence in the world of time and space. But neither is emptiness a simple denial of being. It is the essence of Theravaada dependentorigination, or, in Mahaayaana, interdependent origination and being, in which each atom partakes of the reality of the total universe and vice versa. To use an analogy: Like primordial space it (`suunyataa) can contain and permeate each item within it without doing damage to that item's particularity.... It sustains and nourishes P.268 whatever limited reality there may be in particularity. So too its unlimited emptiness... ever and ever again flows out of its own indeterminate infinity into all limited forms without partiality or distinction.(11) In somewhat similar words Masao Abe has written; True `Suunyataa, being the negation of sheer emptiness as well as sheer fullness, is an active and creative emptiness which, just because of being itself empty, lets everything and everyone be and work respectively in their particularity.(12) One is reminded of the full-emptiness of the Primordial Nothingness of Taoism, from which Chinese and Japanese Zen undoubtedly appropriated much. To use a visual image, emptiness is like the mist in a Chinese painting which "curls through the valley uniting the elements of the landscape"(13) without itself being clearly specifiable or genuinely tangible. But we are at the same time left in an intellectual quandary. Emptiness has about it all of the majesty, the undefinable mystery, the distinctionless unity of some sort of Absolute Ultimate Reality--yet we are forbidden by Naagaarjuna and his Zen successors to give it such a status. What then shall we do with it? Perhaps the sentence following the passage just quoted from Abe provides a clue. He adds to his specification of "an active and creative emptiness" that "It may be helpful here to mention that `Suunyataa, just like, is not a state [he might add "or Reality"] but is Realization." And he further adds: "true `Suunyataa... is, the True Self. which is beyond every form." Given the antisubstantialist tenor of his main argument, I am uncertain why "Realization" and "True Self" are seemingly reified by their capitalization; but in any case the thrust of these further comments is clearly to existentialize and experientialize the character of `suunyataa. That is, the experience of existence in time and space, when carried on in the mode of emptiness-awareness, is true, formless selfhood. So interpreted, in common with Theravaada anattaa, emptiness represents two elements of an experiential nature: it is the experience of freedom from the bonds of ordinary self and space-time oriented personhood: and it springs out of the meditative discipline. To this may be added a third, specifically, though not exclusively, Mahaayaana feature: freedom to and in an unobstructed universe. Two examples of this will be given. The first is from a narrative of the experience of a thirteenth-century Chinese Zen monk, named Bukko, when he came to Japan. Though it is described in terms of Dharmakaaya realization, it is not experientially different from a Mu-satori experience described in the second example, As the account has it, Bukko was suddenly enlightened after a long period of intensive, but seemingly vain, meditation, by the sound of the striking of the wooden gong in front of the head monk's room. He rushed out into the night and found joy in everything he saw and felt--especially in his sense of oneness with it all. The next day, beholding the rising of the sun, he judged that according to the astronomy of the day he was some two billion miles from it but "that as soon as it comes up, its rays lose no time in striking my face." And from this he drew the following conclusion: P.269 The rays of my own eye must travel just as instantaneously as those of the sun as it reaches the latter; my eyes, my mind, are they not the Dharmakaaya itself?" Thinking thus, I felt all the bonds snapped and broken to pieces that had been tying me for so many ages. How many numberless years had I been sitting in the hole of ants! Today even in every pore of my skin there lie all the Buddhalands in the ten guarters.(14) In the second example D. T. Suzuki thus describes the experience of satori gained through zazen, by the use of the koan mu: The one who thus utters the sound, audibly or inaudibly, is now completely identified with the sound. It is no more an individual person who repeats the "Mu!"; it is the "Mu!" repeating itself... The individual vanishes from the field of consciousness, which is now thoroughly occupied with the "Mu!" Indeed the whole universe is nothing but the "Mu!"... We can now say that the "Mu!" and the "I" and the Cosmic Unconscious--the three are one and the one is three. To this he adds the qualification that this experience is not yet that of full satori. One must come back in awareness to the relative level in which there is once more an "I" and an "other." But after the self-emptying unitive experience of Mu-ness this ordinary I-other consciousness is not the same: This so-called relative level is not really relative. It is the borderland between the conscious level and the unconscious.... Once this level is touched, one's ordinary consciousness becomes infused with the tidings of the unconscious. This is the moment when the finite mind realizes that it is rooted in the infinite.(15) Certainly the meditative Mu! is not the full equivalent of emptiness, but it obviously belongs to the same species of essence, and might well be called the experiential surrogate of emptiness itself. For here too there is the same emptyfullness that in Abe's phrasing finds emptiness as "active and creative'' in its support of the individual (self). is the "True Self" and its Realization. Mu-emptiness here means the destruction and/or transformation of ordinary self-awareness, and the gaining of a basic non-conceptual sense of unity with one's subconsciousness, and thereby or therein with the Cosmic Unconscious, in Suzuki's words. Here we may observe that this same experiential unitive emptiness informs many another Mahaayaana term of the more basic sort. "No-mind'' is the experience of an instant, almost-instinctive alertness and response to the flowing situational currents about one, freed from the constraints of the idee fixe or intellectual constructs. "The Buddha Mind'' is universal-mind or universalmindedness which has overcome the limits of merely individual mind--positive-anattaa we might call it. "All is Mind" is the experience of experiencing in one's own private awareness the infinity of the universe with no sense of mental versus material essences incommunicably separated, and without the confinement or obstruction of individual-minded finitude. AAlayavij~naana is the sense of an indefeasable internal unity of past-present-future experience now embodied in one's being and experience without temporal limit. "Suchness" is the world of entities experienced immediately in their own intrinsic quality without the P.270 interposition of culturally conditioned thought-frames and personal value-references--the Mahaayaana form of "bare attention." The Hua-yen doctrine of "Totality" is a mystical sense of organic involvement in, and oneness with, the totality of reality, of the limitless extension of the self. In a word, all of these at least semiontological-metaphysical, or seemingly ontological-metaphysical terms, also and perhaps primarily, indicate experiences of the bursting open of confined subjective (subject-object) consciousness of the universe, of the underlying organic oneness of self and that universe, and of the emptiness of those distinctions which ordinarily set one entity apart from another. SUMMARY What then can be said in conclusion about emptiness as the Buddhist Ultimate? (Anattaa will here be treated as a sub-form of emptiness, and as its experienceable consummation.) First and most important, I think, it is the experiential ultimate for Buddhism. It is the experience of freedom from all outer and inner trammels, and of organic unity with the whole universe. Zen literature in particular is full of expressions of such experiences. There is freedom from, in, and with the universe; the overcoming of all basic distinction between self and other, even in the very experiencing of that other. One might almost say that the ultimate experience of emptiness in its fullness is the Buddhist Ultimate, period. Yet, particularly in contemporary Zen thought, emptiness functions in fact as an Absolute or Ultimate Reality does in Western philosophy and religion. Why is this true? It is primarily because of the ultimacy, i.e., inexpressible, non-conceptual, nondiscussible quality of emptiness as experience. That is, absoluteness as experience imperceptibly, unconsciously, and inevitably creeps in as the absoluteness of reality (and being?) when "emptiness" is used in the ontological context of the discussion of emptiness as beyond-above "Being" or "The Absolute" or "God." And now functioning as an Ultimate Reality, under the guise of not so functioning, it is said to be all-supportive, all-pervasive, and unitive of all separate individuals, though in organic rather than monistic manner. Emptiness becomes the Ultimate Reference and the Ultimate Dimension of everything. In it, to use Christian words, everything "lives, moves, and has its being." Yet, I repeat, we are told over and over again that emptiness is neither substantial Absolute Being nor nihilistic nonbeing, but somehow transcendent-immanent in "being'' and "nonbeing." This use of Emptiness as an ultimate category, about which everything and nothing may be said, allows a marvellously flexible use of language as the following quotation illustrates: The field of emptiness is in such a sense the field of absolute transcendence, transcendence of time and place, of causal necessity, of the "world-connexus" itself. But this absolute transcendence is at the same time absolute immanence....Our actual existence is, in its very being-in-the-world, not-being-in-the-world; because it is not-being-in-the-world, it is being-in-the-world.(16) P.271 Here is perhaps a supreme instance of eating one's metaphysical/ontological cake and having it too. Yes, emptiness is the Ultimate Experience. And it is the Ultimate Reference that displaces all other metaphysical/ontological references. But, no! No metaphysical claims or statements can be made about emptiness--hence there are no attendant intellectual structures to expound or defend, even though it is the Ultimate Dimension of everything and undercuts (or overtops) all other metaphysical/ontological formulations. In a word, emptiness performs all the functions of a full-scale substantial Ultimacy, both sntological and experiential, but like a mystic ultimate which atypically in this case refuses to attach itself to any theological-religious entity (except somehow to the Buddha Mind) can neither be conceived, nor attacked, nor proven, nor denied, but only experienced by the (Buddhist) believer. NOTES 1. Middle Length Savings (Majjhima Nikaaya), trans. I. B. Horner, (London: Luzac, 1957) , 2:100-101(I. 431). 2. Notes on Once-Calling and Many-Calling, Shin Buddhist Translation Series (Kyoto: Hongwanji International Center. 1980), p. 1. 3. This, of course, is particularly true of Zen, which in its training discipline, at least, speaks of spiritual transmission outside the scriptures, coins phrases like "If you meet the Buddha, kill him," is opposed to speculative thought in favor of experience, etc. 4. Joaquin Perez-Remon, Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism, (The Hague: Mouton, 1980). 5. Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1962), p. 37. 6. Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (Colombo: The Word of the Buddha Publishing Committee, 1953), pp. 74, 85-86. Italics mine. 7. Nyanatiloka Thera, Buddhist Dictionary, 3d rev. ed. (Colombo: Frewin and Co., 1972), p. 106. 8., The Path of Purification, trans. Nyanamoli Thera. (Colombo: A. Semage, second edition, 1964), 23:30. 9. Middle Length Savings, P.261 (I. 209). 10. I remember my own Western frustration at a Buddhist-Whiteheadian conference when Whitehead's cosmology was being discussed, to have the final ontological comparisons on the Buddhist side to be to the Buddha Mind. Yet no suggestions of Western-style philosophical idealism were allowed. 11. "`Suunyataa's as a Master Symbol," Winston L. King, Numen 17, Fasc. 2., August, 1970), p. 103. 12. "Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions" (Kyoto: The Eastern Buddhist, Vol. 1, No. 1, New Series), p. 119. 13. The New Yorker, July 13, 1981, p. 22. 14. D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, First Evergreen Edition, 1961), p. 257. 15. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, Erich Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, Richard De Martino (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960), pp. 46, 47. 16. Nishitani Keiji, "Emptiness and History," The Eastern Buddhist 13, no. 1,(Spring 1980): 9-10.