Monday, January 05, 2009

Buddhism, Non-realism & Christianity

I'm going to make this short and follow up on it later (this is not necessarily meant as a response to the last post, just a thread of some thinking, a sort of purge if you will)...

I’d like to bring Buddhism into this post as I’ve been sort of getting off topic from what this blog is all about, which I would consider to simply be “Religious Language” (well that’s not exactly true, I took a lateral move to define some things). What’s interesting to note strait off is the view of language held by people like Rorty, Wittgenstein and Davidson, and that is the notion that words are tools. I say interesting because this is a view that’s been held by Buddhists for eons, consider the following Buddhist phrase:

”You can use your finger to point at the moon, but don’t mistake your finger for the moon.”

From this I can make the following statement:
One can say “There’s Rover the Big Red Dog” to call attention to Rover the Big Red Dog, but don’t mistake “Rover the Big Red Dog” for Rover the Big Red Dog.

Of course this is exactly what the realist does; he thinks that he’s somehow captured the essence of thing in “Rove the Big Red Dog”, that he’s represented reality somehow, and that his statement corresponds to reality in some manner or another. But he’s not looking at Rover in this instance, he’s looking at “Rover”, he’s looking at his finger. He may even tell you otherwise, or even that you’re nuts, “There’s Rover right there!!!” And I would respond, “Yes, I know what you mean, Rover is a good dog indeed.”

One of my favorite lines from Robert Pirsig’s book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, for its shear poignancy, is the following where he states (and I paraphrase): “The only Zen that exists on the top of mountains is the Zen you bring with you.” In the same way, the only representation, the only essence, which exists in Rover the Dog is the essence you bring with you; for there is no more essence to a thing then there is Zen on the tops of mountains. When you make the statement, “There’s Rover the Dog”, you’ve conveyed a contingent truth and meaning, however there exists no Rover in your words, no underlying representation or correspondence one can clasp onto.

So what should we do in this instance? Consider another verse from Buddhism:
“The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”

Once one has the meaning, one can forget about the words. Meaning is temporary, and like a finger, it calls simple attention. One has not represented for me Rover by saying “Rover”, ones words are not a correspondence but a meaning and a truth existing in words. As said in the past, what Rover is outside ones needs and intentions is not something to be known and as such you have not defined an underlying reality by differentiating so called objective reality by cutting it with words, you have merely identified meaning; stated a contingent truth in language; and pointed ones attention to a view of quality. Consider the following question and answer between Ta-chu Hui-hai and Ma-tsu):

Question (Ta-chu Hui-hai): “When there is no word, no discourse, this is Dhyana (Zazen, meditation); but when there are words and discourses, can this be called Dhyana?”

Answer (Ma-tsu): “When I speak of Dhyana, it has no relationship to discoursing or not discoursing; my Dhyana is ever-abiding Dhyana. Why? Because Dhyana is all the while in Use (use represents what an object stands for, it’s value, utility and function). Even when words are uttered, discoursing goes on, or when discriminative reasoning prevails, there is Dhyana in it, for all is Dhyana.“When a mind, thoroughly understanding the emptiness of all things, faces forms, it at once realizes their emptiness. With it emptiness is there all the time, whether it faces forms or not, whether it discourses or not, whether it discriminates or not. This applies to everything which belongs to out site, hearing, memory, and consciousness generally. Why is it so? Because all things in their self-nature (self-knowledge; not being, but knowing, as knowing IS being) are empty; and wherever we go we find this emptiness. As all is empty, no attachment takes place; and on account of this non-attachment there is a simultaneous Use (of Dhyana and Prajna/Wisdom). The bodhisattva always knows how to make Use of emptiness, and thereby he attains the Ultimate. Therefore it is said that by the oneness of Dhyana and Prajna is meant Emancipation.”

So what should one make of this question and answer? It is often thought by the Buddhist understudy (monk) that the practice of Dhyana/Zazen (meditation) is the art of breaking past appearance to get to reality, which is where true enlightenment exists. Ma-tsu’s response then is quite clear in this context as he is merely saying there is no appearance reality distinction to be made; whether discoursing or not discoursing Dhyana is always prevailing. Once again the only essence that exists in one discourse or another is the essence you bring with you, the essence you apply. To think that one has discovered the essence of a thing in his words, to believe that one has found a commensurable dialoged with which to represent the world, is to apply the meaninglessness of meanings onto another. We may both agree to the moon at the end of your finger, but in such instance we have not captured its beauty; in the least you have captured a man’s attention.

The issue with the realist is his dogma, and just like the Liberal Ironist, the Buddhist rejects such things. Dogma is merely the notion of commensurability, the idea that we’ve reached a point where language gives us certainty about the world, and that we have adequately represented it. I'd like to note an interesting point; here in the west we have the dogma that essence can be made clear through language and the discovery of truth, where in the east there is the dogma that we can reach essence through the absence of discourse - however again, both are ideas that there exists an appearence/reality distiction and furthermore that there's a way get beyond this appearence to reality. But I follow from above, that words are tools, they’re for meaning and once one has the meaning he can forget about the words. He can forget about them not insofar as they are of little use in directing further attention, but only insofar as it isn’t representative of anything which can be considered an underlying reality. “Rover the Dog” is not Rover the Dog, he is many things relatively, and nothing ultimately. At this point I can call attention to the quote from Rorty in the sidebar.

On to Christianity:
My issues with Christianity have always surrounded its existence, teaching, and practice as a literal dogma, which now I’ll merely call the natural tendency to view it from the perspective of philosophical realism. My instincts have always told me that there was something suspicious going on behind the curtain of Christian belief, which is why I got into comparative religion and Buddhism in the first place; they simply made more sense. Today I realize that (or tend to believe) it isn’t the fault of Christianity itself per se, but the influences that Plutonic metaphysics has had on modern day Christian thinking which has left it in a dogmatic state of slumber and suspicion. Today I tend to think, as with most of eastern philosophy, that a non-realist approach simply makes more sense, and not just towards religion, but life in general. Of course, the east wasn’t as heavily influence (if at all) by Plutonic metaphysics and thus to high degree has maintained its purity – whereas Christianity becomes more cracked by the minute, more nonsensical in the face of a correspondence view of essence/reality. Although a correspondence view of reality has yet to even be shown outside of arguments that beg the essential questions.

It was asked of me, “how can a non-realist have a theology?”, and in an off-hand way, “What is non-realism anyway?” I’ll belabor the non-realism talk later as I think I’ve said enough on that for now (considering the above in this post and below) what I’d really like to address here is the theology, the belief in God and what it means. I could make the statement “God exists.” And the realist would likely respond, “Prove it.” Here I can simply say, “God exists in the same way ‘Rover the Big Red Dog’ exists.” Ah yes, and the realist may say, “Well show me God then.”

There exists a key element here which needs to be understood, and that is, what is God? God is (as I’ve said), “All Loving” and “All Good”. Shall I show you these things then? Shall I wash your feet, and give you a hug? Will you respond to me in this instance, “That is not God, you’re just washing my feet.” And I will say, “No doubt this is true, or so your finger says.” One might simply respond that I have not shown them an object, but such is the same response when one points me in the direction of Rover; am I seeing “Object”? Or am I recognizing a truth and meaning which is all too quickly forgotten upon my wet face?

(speaking rhetorically)
So tell me, Mr. Realist, if a dog represents something which has existence in reality, perhaps you can prove such a thing. Is it true simply because we can point to it? Is that what it is? Is all it’s existence wrapped up in “Rover the Big Red Dog”? What is Rover the Big Red Dog outside of “Rove the Big Red Dog”? If there is no answer to this, then emptiness is the right response from you. Or perhaps “Rover the Big Red Dog” simply is Rover the Big Red Dog? If that’s all that it is, then for certain God is not love, but if it is something else you know not, then surely God is Love.

I'll follow up on the Christianity portion of this at a later date - again, I just needed to get this out... P.S. - no spell or grammer check on this one, sorry.


  1. I wonder if there aren't things missing in your definition of God. As I see it, God is Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent. I haven't been following you for long. Maybe you have already talked about this?

    Anyway, if this is the definition, then I believe your following argument would look quite different?

  2. Burk, thanks for the comment...

    I'm not really trying to define God here, I'm merely running down thoughts in my mind, talking to myself out loud. I had this Buddhism thing on my mind and something Phaedrus stated in an earlied thread and wanted to see how it looked in type.

    Also, I don't believe that my post would have been different had I considered what you've stated as it depends on ones conception of God... As well, those three words are something I plan to post on with in next couple of weeks, coupled with my non-realist view of creation.

    Anyway, you have me at a lose for comment at the moment - or rather, I'm not prepared to comment on it as of yet as I don't have the proper frame work in place.

  3. ...Perhaps you have a few suggestions for me?

  4. No extra suggestions. I am really interested in this theory of non-realism. I haven't spent a lot of time in thought about it, so I'm enjoying the conversation!

  5. Thank you for your comment, by the way. I have commented back.

  6. "When you make the statement, “There’s Rover the Dog”, you’ve conveyed a contingent truth and meaning, however there exists no Rover in your words, no underlying representation or correspondence one can clasp onto."

    I'm not so sure Andrew. What you're describing is a language that has no inherent meaning. But a dialogue *about* an object or agent *is* meaningful, and carries with it an "aboutness" entailing representation or correspondence to the subject in question. The statement "There's Rover the Dog" has meaning to us because it is *about* something we both claim to percieve. Because we are both percieving a particular dog whom we've named Rover, we can create a linguistic dialogue about Rover. Just because that statement isn't complete in describing the dog's so called "essence" does not entail that the statement escapes meaning or representation. Where is you're valid argument for this (and I mean valid, not ambiguous appeal to the pseudoprofound zen buddhism who zen buddhists fail to understand)?

    How exactly are you defining "representation" or "coorespondence"?

    Also, supposing you show me a convincing argument that I cannot make existential statements about anything real, how does that allow for belief at all? How can there still be belief in god or other people we share communication with?

  7. "God is (as I’ve said), “All Loving” and “All Good”."

    I understand that you're attempting to escape an existential claim here by simply making a claim about a belief. But pay attention to the verb "to be". God *is* "all loving & All good."

    You presuppose an existential claim to formulate another claim. This isn't doing anything for you. You're just presupposing god, and making an unargued for assertion that "god is all loving and all good". How do you know this, and How do you come to formulate a belief about God?

    I suppose you'll respond by saying that you're just making belief statements about other belief statements. That's fine. But you still need a deductive argument that founds your belief. A statement or claim is just that. It has no meaning if it doesn't correspond to some sort of reasonable argument. If I say to you that "wombats are gay", it has no meaning other than opinion if I don't show you the *why* behind my statement.

  8. PD,
    I never stated that the dialogue wasn't meaningful, actually I think I said it was.

    What is something outside of what we say about it?