Saturday, February 28, 2009

Maya / Sunyata

Somewhere along the line I had stated that I would post something on the Maya concept, which I aim to do here by making a comparison, and talking more directly about the Zen Buddhist concept of Sunyata. Whereas these two concepts are derived from different schools of thought, one Hindu, the other again Buddhism, I believe most certainly that both share the same underlying essence and use and thus I will talk about the one and infer onto the other – not to mention I’m no follower of Hindu.

The school of Buddhism associated with Zen was derived quite simply for the purposes of experiencing the enlightenment of Sakyamuni; which is in turn expressed through the doctrine of Sunyata. Of course the term Sunyata being one of those wonderful oriental terms that’s difficult to translate into English, it can be said to mean something along the lines of “emptiness”, or “void”, and directs ones attention to the essential character of being. By doing this though, it gives sunyata somewhat of a negative character, and thus a sense that it exists within the usual dualistic concepts of mind, where further we have the ability to apply our logic and generalizations over it, and/or the notion that it arises as a result of these tools. It should not be looked at then, as something one asserts, or as something that one has/had once asserted. Certainly it could be argued that no doubt the term was brought into light through human utterance, however it should not be considered that through this utterance a form of inquiry was born into the spirits of mans intellect, or that attention to some empirical insight was born such that through a philosophical dialogue we could come to know something once hidden behind a veil.

Sunyata, we can say, is simply that which makes everything possible, but it is not once a pre-supposition, or a fairy we can discover buzzing around the lilies; quite simply put, it has no individual existence, and/or should hold within the mind no conception of a dualistic existence whereby on the one hand it is this, while on the other it is that. To have a dialogue on the matter, to bring sunyata into the world of philosophical discourse and thus apply the forms of logic and analytic upon it is to then cease to talk about it, or anything at all. The doctrine of sunyata, again, is the means through which we experience enlightenment of Sakyamuni. To make a simple comparison, surely one can speak and talk of love, even apply logic to the experience, but within this dialogue we cannot at once capture the essence of what love is – one must experience it for himself, thus at this point the dialogue becomes meaningless and it is well understood by those who are in love that no such dialogue can ever hope to pass on meaning and understanding to those who have not experience being in love.

We should then consider sunyata as enveloping the world of dualism, of subjects and objects; it is both immanent, and transcendent, non-contradictory and absolutely one. For Zen then, to know sunyata is to experience it, as once it is conceptualized it is lost. Like love, to experience love is to know it and/or be aware of it; however in the case of sunyata, we are not to be seen as becoming aware of the world of sensation and intellection. Again, the world of sense and intellect is a world which pits a dichotomy between subject and object – of a subject at first sensing, an object being sensed, and then the subject creating differentiations between object X and object Y vs. subject A. Transcendence of this dualism then, is to have awareness of sunyata – this is the essence of Zen and Zen practice.

Sunyata then, is experienced only as both subject and object and is not felt within the world of everyday experience. This is because our experience of the everyday is a conceptualized experience, one where we apply the forms of our thought through a reconstruction of reality; in some cases a reality that is said to be that which is in itself, others simply the forms and tools of thought to serve needs and interests. In either case there is a clear sense of dualism which takes either a classic form, or a binary form. In a philosophical sense we aim to reconstruct the world via a starting point from empiricism (for example), thus creating a dualism which destroys the concept of sunyata. Certainly mans power of reason is a wonderful tool at predicting and controlling phenomenon, and improving the quality of life, however the foundation of sunyata is not this sort of cold hard intellection, but an experience in and of itself. One must cast aside his reason, and his desire to differentiate to first begin to enter into such an experience.

It is said that “Knowing and seeing” sunyata is sunyata knowing and seeing itself – in other words there is no outside knower, no man at the machine, it is its own knower and it’s own seer. Although our experience is condition and relative to certain contingencies, it should be seen that WE ARE sunyata; our capacity to reason arises out of it, however is not the path that leads back to it. As sunyata is part of reason itself and leaves its mark in the wake of reason, to all together engulf oneself in the enterprise of reason in an effort to discover truth is akin to rigorously applying geology to discover the secrets of the objective world.

The essence of Zen, of sunyata, of maya, is the unconditioned experienced of life itself – it’s the zone of the athlete, the middle stage of the act of shoveling ones driveway, being in the midst of battle with the enemy, or being within the act of a crime. It knows no morally right or wrong, evils or goodness, it is not held high and felt only by the righteous, but is woven into the lives of everyone; it permeates, it is here, it is not here, it is everywhere, it is everything, it is….

There is the idea that maya simply means illusion, and directs ones attention to the idea that the world of dualism we live in is unreal, that (for example, as in ZMM) the millions of people who perished as a result of the Hiroshima bomb, was merely illusory. But this represents a certain shallowness to the idea of maya. To see maya as an illusion is not to disregard life per se, be to direct one to a path of enlightenment which circumvents the use of reasoning for such a task.

From Pirsig’s ZMM:
“In all of the Oriental religions great value is placed on the Sanskrit doctrine of Tat tvam asi, "Thou art that," which asserts that everything you think you are and everything you think you perceive are undivided. To realize fully this lack of division is to become enlightened.

Logic presumes a separation of subject from object; therefore logic is not final wisdom. The illusion of separation of subject from object is best removed by the elimination of physical activity, mental activity and emotional activity. There are many disciplines for this. One of the most important is the Sanskrit dhyna, mispronounced in Chinese as "Chan" and again mispronounced in Japanese as "Zen." (there’s a bit of ignorance in this statement I won’t here point out, but the inference is clear enough) Phædrus never got involved in meditation because it made no sense to him. In his entire time in India "sense" was always logical consistency and he couldn't find any honest way to abandon this belief. That, I think, was creditable on his part.

But one day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed the fiftieth time and Phædrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes. That was the end of the exchange.

Within the traditions of Indian philosophy that answer may have been correct, but for Phædrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left India and gave up.”

It’s obvious from this passage that Pirsig was looking for the sort of enlightenment found through connection with the universe by means of pure reason (he was a Kantian slob was he not), and as a result failed to see the point of what was being conveyed, which resulted in years later going nuts. I suppose it’s difficult to get away from the idea that one can paste they’re conditioned forms and ideas onto the world, call it what it is and move on. That the world is illusion is not a plea to see it as such, and thus ignore it, it is nothing more then a warning of the ills which arise when applying logic to its discovery as a means of ultimate Truth - it is forever an empty cup. Could one live life with only the reasoning of love, and not love itself? If we once called love an illusion, does this negate what one reads in the paper or sees on the street? No – it says that love on sight, sound and intellect is an illusion as there is no experience there to be had, only the illusion of an experience that is not understood; one could at first be pretending, could be acting, so on. Is the love one is seeing between two people on a street corner illusory? Yes, and in the same way the Hiroshima bomb was.

The illusion of these concepts arises as the result of a particular form of inquiry that would limit them to the world of site, or of sense in general – that is the illusion…

A redundant after-thought:
The Illusion, Maya, and love is like a card trick. What makes the card trick illusiory is the fact that within the experience of the trick an essential component is missing, and thus an experience of illusion is had, which of course we call magic. What one sees when he uses reason to contemplate maya, or views love from a coffee shop window, is an illusion in the same way as an essential component of the experience is missing, and that is of course, the experience itself. Only upon plunging oneself into the act of living can he grasp what he sees, and only in this instance do the words he speaks make any sense. Once the illusion of the card trick is revealed, and one can directly experience the slight of hand, does one understand that through the illusion there is really no illusion at all…


  1. I'm not sure you're right that Pirsig was looking for "the sort of enlightenment found through connection with the universe by means of pure reason," but I myself always liked Pirsig's response in that scene. I would certainly concede that the scene may be predicated on a misunderstanding of Sunyata/Maya (one I would still assert, however, exists as what others would call a correct understanding), but I take the heart of the scene to be good, old-fashioned Americanism, one I like in Pirsig and that rests at the heart of pragmatism--a kind of impatience, after a while, with theory or any other kind talk that doesn't eventually ground out in something practical to do.

    We can say Sunyata "is simply that which makes everything possible," but us Americanists tend to get bored after a while with the saying. Which is, as pragamtists, about the strongest thing we have to say about the matter.

  2. A quick comment and I’ll come back to this later:

    First off, I guess I’ll have to post on Pirsig one of these days – but here I’ll just say that if ZMM was the only book Pirsig had written, I’d eat my own words and take back what I said.

    You said:
    ” We can say Sunyata "is simply that which makes everything possible," but us Americanists tend to get bored after a while with the saying. Which is, as pragamtists, about the strongest thing we have to say about the matter.”

    Upon making this statement you’d surely receive a swift wack on the head from the master, at which point he’d say, “If you are so bored of it, then why are you suddenly so angry?”

    The issue here Matt, is that you’ve created an object of inquiry out of sunyata, you’ve set it up as something we can have specific dispositions about as a thing/concept/philosophy by itself and this shows that you don’t really understand. It is well enough to say in one breath that sunyata “is simply that which makes everything possible.” But to follow up that one gets bored of it demonstrates that you’re pulling it into the world of our conditioned experience – and/or that of dualism, the world of this’ and that’s, of making distinctions.

    Buddhism most certainly wants us to “put philosophy down”, it wants us to see
    “words as tools”, it wants us to understand that our experience is conditioned – which, I should add, is no different then Rorty’s insistence that we view language as contingent… To a certain degree, Buddhism leads one towards pragmatism, although not entirely……

  3. Upon making this statement you’d surely receive a swift wack on the head from the master, at which point he’d say, “If you are so bored of it, then why are you suddenly so angry?”

    And I'd probably say, "Because you fucking hit me." The scene is a perfect replay of the Pirsig situation, and I tend to think of it the same way--a shrug and a "Well, I guess I don't understand it," as I walk out the door.

    That's the thing about Americanism--nobody's holding us here. Our spiritual path to perfection is our own path to hew, and giving up Platonism means giving up the idea that there's one right path. People like me, if we eventually don't see the point for us, the point to our lives, we eventually turn somewhere else. Some people respond to physicality, some people respond to masters. Some people don't, even if they do "get it" at an abstract level, which is to say from the outside, from a distance, as a spectator.

    Maybe I have turned Sunyata into an object of inquiry and that's the problem. On the other hand, I tend not to get too upset about that because I understand why Rorty eventually lost patience with Derrida--everything for Derrida was complicit in "the discourse of philosophy," and in any earlier phase he identified that as logocentrism, the play of binary oppositions. Rorty got tired of the endless deconstruction, however, because he saw the problem as not the use of binary oppositions, but the use of a certain set of binary oppositions. So many Derrideans, in fact, bite the bullet and say that all binary oppositions are bad (or something), but then you end up saying some pretty boring things after a while once you get used to the retort, "Oh! You're being complicit in the discourse of philosophy! You're phallogocentrism is spewing all over the place!" "Yeah, okay, but I still need to find my keys."

    From the point of view that Rorty and Dewey held, the one I tend to hold, what could thinking be other than binary, other than the use of distinctions, which at its most basic level is the same differentiation an amoeba makes between good and bad environments? Sure, sitting quietly and not-thinking might be a good activity for some, but there are others that don't have a problem with thinking--it doesn't run their lives--and so get little out of not-thinking. They don't see the point.

    For pragmatists, inquiry is fairly ubiquitous because we use a really wide sense of it, just as Pirsig did when describing "scientific method" at the beginning of ZMM. If I lose my keys, I make an inquiry into the matter, and if the master hits me, then my reply while rubbing my head is going to be, "Yeah, okay, got it. But if you want supper tonight, I'm going to have to find the keys to get to the grocery store."

    We agree with the Buddha that life is suffering, we just think that if our only discernible suffering is getting hit and boredom, then we may have put our finger on what attachment needs cessation. There are lots of ways to "put philosophy down," and the only point us Americanists, us thorough-going, West-centric pragmatists have is, well, maybe getting the hang of Sunyata isn't our cup of tea. You'll have to catch us to hit us a second time, and then we'll wonder why you're so angry.

  4. I think you understand the point just fine Matt – it’s just that, you’re a really smart dude and you like to talk about it. You understand in more articulate ways then I do that this philosophical crap we throw around is just a game – albeit one that I find extremely fun to play. (PS: I’m not trying to play you up here or sound patronizing – you really do seem to be sharp SOB)

    Needing to find your keys is exactly the point:
    The monk asks the Master, “Teach me Master”, to which the master responds, “Have you eaten your rice pudding?” “Yes, I have eaten.” “Well don’t you think you should wash your bowel…”

    One point I’d like to make with Maya (as it came up previous to this post), is that to interject it into philosophical debate is to rudely change the rules of the game without telling anyone. It’s akin to someone realizing they’re loosing in chess, then immediately flipping the chessboard over and saying, “There’s really no point in this anyway!” To which he’d be right; but I thought we were having fun? But, “rules” is another post I had in mind for another time.

    Anyway, I wanted to start here, than try to tie this (Buddhism) into pragmatism – because so far as I can see, the only difference is mystical. Which of course I’d consider to be hugely important, but I’m not prepared to travel down that road in terms of an argument yet – I only aim to first tie together the philosophies. (so that explains me sort of blowing you off here – yeah I’m kind of a dick like that sometimes)

    When I read or listen to the passage where Pirsig was sitting in his room with a cigarette burned down to his finger-tips and sitting in a puddle of his own urine, it always gives me tingles. It gives me a real sense of nothing, of awe and wonder, and then I say, “Aw fuck, where are my keys… my wife’s going to kill me if she sees this mess I made…”

  5. PS,
    Rorty's idea of Romance was a bit shallow and relfective of his reluctance to let his pragmatism become mystical (just as any philosopher would be). I say this because it seems to reduce things things to emotional states - specific emotional states.

    Unless of course, Romance is akin to Sunyata - that life is a romance, a dance. To have love for God is an objectification of a concept, a mistaking of the finger for the moon.

    But... I'm now being whimsical.