Quora answer: What are some big ideas western societies should learn from Buddhism?

Feb 18 2014

The big idea that we can learn from Buddhism and Taoism is Nonduality, these are two examples of nonduality one with the source in India and the other in China. These two different ideas of nonduality came into relation with each other in China and Tibet giving rise to advanced forms of thought that far surpass Western thought in many ways. On the one hand we have DzogChen in Tibet and on the other hand we have ideas like those of Fa Tsang in China, and later Chan monks who appreciated both Emptiness of Buddhism and Void of Taoism and could pass back and forth between them making the distinction of the difference that makes a difference between them such as Stonehouse.


Now here what the West needs to learn and has been avoiding learning all this time, which is that all traditions encounter a moment in which nonduality arises as a possibility, and that possibility transforms those traditions. In China that encounter was between Confucianism and Taoism. There the court Taoist works were destroyed and Taoism was allowed to continue on as a non-court phenomena basically as something that one could retire to after court service. But we have now recovered those destroyed documents and that allows us to assess court Taosim and to see what it really was like and of course this gives us a completely different view of the Chinese intellectual development. On the other hand in India this Nonduality appeared in Buddhism and perhaps partially in Jainism. Buddhism was a hersey and eventually that heresy was reabsorbed into mainstream Hinduism, and actually died out in India itself, but not before affecting all the other societies in the region, including China and Tibet. In the case of India the nondual tradition was reabsorbed as Avida Vedanta, and the Buddha eventually become just another avatar of Vishnu.


So while in China there as a standoff but mutual tolerance between Confucianism and its nondual tradition, in India there was reabsorption that transformed Hinduism into nondual strains. Also in China there was enough similar talk to Taoism that there could be intellectual rapprochement between Chinese Confucian philosophy and the nondual tradition from Taoism. They tended to be amalgamated later under the pressure of Buddhism as a foreign religion in China. And excellent example is Lo Chen Shun’s Knowledge Painfully Acquired (one of my favorite books).


But in the West whenever nonduality arose it was suppressed with violence. So in the West nonduality was not tolerated. Rather radical dualism was more influential than any form of nonduality. For instance, Greek Philosophy was heavily influenced by the Persian culture and its radical opposition between its dualistic gods. Gnosticism appears to be an offshoot of Magnetism which also had radical duality at its core with a radically transcendent notion of God, as different from the Archons who are tyrants that govern the lower spheres and earth. A good account of the history of dualism in the West is Coming to Our Senses by Morris Berman. So with heavy Eastern influence toward extreme dualism and the reaction against Buddhism by Aristotle, who explicitly takes exception to the Tetralemma the tradition from the beginning was oriented toward dualism. This pattern only become more and more emphasized as the tradition unfolded and whenever some nondual alternative arose it was put down by force and marginalized, so that no nondual alternative appears to ever have gained foothold, and the alternative Gnosticism had an even more radical duality than was the conventional approach. This was so extreme that when the alternative Heresy of nonduality arose as Islam within the Western tradition the Christians eventually declared all-out war against it, which has continued through the colonial period.


So the biggest idea that can be learned by the West is how to deal with nonduality, and how to think about nonduality, and how to base ones way of life on it. Nonduality means Not One! Not Two! Not Many! In other words it is something that is not understandable conceptually, and something that is impervious to being related to number and other fundamental concepts. It is something that is non-experiential and non-conceptual. It is an alternative beyond the logical possibilities. Our ability to indicate it, tells us something about human nature that is important, and that has been shut out of our Western tradition from the beginning. We have not even really began to come to terms with nonduality within the Western tradition itself. Rather what happens is people think that they can jump ship and enter into the alternative nondual traditions that are imported into the West. So there is no real conversation between these other traditions and the Western tradition, even though a few philosophers were influenced by the Western representations of Buddhism. It turned out that the West recognized that Sanskrit was an Indo-European as well and so Hinduism was given special status as part of the Western tradition, and Western philosophers became interested in Buddhism like Schopenhauer. But for the most part these philosophers did not understand Buddhism, and so it is only recently that enough was known and enough was translated to have a good idea about what Buddhism was really about. Now there has been at least a generation who could know enough about Buddhism to actually make the comparison with Western Philosophy that would have significant philosophical impact.


So for instance I had a full set of seven courses that covered the whole of the tradition of Buddhism from Alfonso Verdu. I have been reading Sutras and secondary literature in English ever since. And there are enough trustworthy works by scholars in English that it is possible to get a view now days that is beyond the early orientalism, and beyond the popularizations such as by Alan Watts and others. The reading of Western philosophy into Oriental Philosophy is still going on even with the scholarly works on Buddhism and other nondual traditions. It is really difficult to extract ourselves from the influence of our own tradition in order to get a clear view of the different concerns and different organization of other foreign traditions. Effectively I realized that in order to not read Western philosophy unconsciously into Buddhist philosophy I had to master Western Philosophy. And sure enough if you know something about Western philosophy you can see how the various interpretations of Buddhism is infected by Western ideas. It is only if we get clear about what Buddhist tradition itself has to say for itself without these contaminations that we can really compare the two with confidence that we are not just projecting an orientalist vision on the foreign tradition. But this is very difficult. Ultimately we realize that we are so caught up in the Western tradition that we cannot extract ourselves. So it is better to just talk about the Western tradition, even though our inspiration may come from our understanding of the nondual traditions. We cannot be sure about ourselves not being affected by our own tradition in subtle way that skews our view of Buddhist and other nondual traditions.


But this not really a problem because we have the example of Nagarjuna and how he showed that Emptiness is at the core of Logic. This move is universal and so we can apply the same approach ourselves within the Western branch of the Indo-European tradition as it was applied to the Eastern Branch previously. And so even though we cannot be sure of our interpretation of Buddhism, because Buddhism is from the Indo-European tradition, the same strategy can be applied to our part of that tradition as was originally applied by Nagarjuna without fear of misinterpreting Buddhism. Buddhism is a rebellion against Being, and it substitutes the focus on Existence for Being. So the relation between Sat, or Sein, or Being and Existence is the same in both cases. Western Existentialism is really polluted by the concept of Being and does not actually approach the understanding of Existence, because it does not see it as nondual, but as a dual with Being. So we have to be careful in our comparisons of Existentialism to Buddhism.


The key point is when we point out that the logical operators are separated from each other by discontinuities. and the three operators are combined to create four operators that combine unary and binary operators. There are four such combined operators AND, OR, NAND, NOR. Since the discontinuity between AND / OR is absolute and the discontinuity between AND/OR // NEGATION is absolute, then it is in these discontinuities we can posit the presence of emptiness. Without these distinctions there would be no logic, and so emptiness is implicit in logic, and we can locate it at the center of the minimal system of the combined operators. Emptiness is there at the empty center of logic itself. Emptiness is nondual, and it is Not One! Not Many! It is non-conceptual and non-experiential. It pervades all of logic and thus everything else. And that is the key. We live in a culture that is obsessed by Sets and which eschews Masses. But just as Sets have Syllogistic Logic so Masses have pervasion logic, for instance like that of the Laws of Form by G. Spencer Brown as interpreted by N. Hellerstein in Diamond Logic and Delta Logic. So we must learn to switch to pervasion logic to understand Emptiness, and this is one of the main difficulties in our understanding the concept and its relation to logic. In Sanskrit the logic was a pervasion logic to begin with, and so there was a natural fit for the concept of emptiness in logic. But for us there is a cultural blindspot which does not recognize the dual of the syllogism as pervasion logic, and thus it is difficult to conceptualize emptiness and its pervasion of everything from the core of Logic which is its empty center. Once it is taken seriously that emptiness is at the core of logic, as Nargarjuna showed, then it is almost impossible to deny it. Basically you can kill anyone who points it out, but you cannot make it go away. So from this seed the stage is set for the transformation of the worldview, because it cannot really rid itself of nonduality that is implied by the existence of discontinuities between logical operators. The fact that it is at the core of the logical operators and their distinction from each other making their difference possible means that nonduality is prior to all concepts, and all operations. This has a transformative influence on all concepts in the tradition eventually if it is taken to its logical conclusion. And this is the transformation that needs to take place within our out of balance tradition. We can take hints from the history of Buddhism and Taoism, but really the entire transformation of our ways of thinking needs to take place as the logical consequence of emptiness being the kernel of logic itself. Of course, in Buddhism this emptiness is associated with Silence. And since logic is the core of language all of Logos is affected. On the other hand we start with atomism where atoms are seen as being within a void, and that void is the Taoist void within nature, and so there is another type of nonduality that we also have to deal with which is the Void of empty space. Thus the core duality in our tradition Logos/Physus is mirrored by the nondual distinction between Emptiness/Void. Once we replace the core duality with a duality of nonduals then we have to consider what the next move might be. And I suggest that this next move is to go deeper as we see in DzogChen to higher logical types of nonduals. I call the deeper nondual Manifestation, following Meister Eckhart as interpreted by M. Henry in The Essence of Manifestation. There are at least two deeper levels of nonduals: Manifestation and beyond that the Amanifest.


The other way to go is to rebuild the worldview out of the field created by the presence of the striated and unstriated pair at the center of the vortex of the worldview called emptiness and void. I call this field the Pleorma. Pleroma means fullness, and is a gnostic term. But here we merely mean the field of asymmetric opposites out of which the worldview arises. The first two of these which are countable is Beyng/Being, and Oblivion/Forgetfulness. Notice that all of Heideggers philosophy revolves around the Forgetfulness of Being (Sein) and our Oblivion to the Ereignis of Beyng (Seyn). So Heidegger was on to something very fundamental in his philosophical exploration that is not immediately obvious to the casual observer. He was describing the layers of the production of the Worldview as it circled like a cyclone around the empty center described by the Empty/Void. But we can go beyond that by exploring deeper nonduals such as manifestation as suggested by Meister Eckhart one of the voices pointing at the possibility of non-duality within our tradition. There are others later like Blake whose philosophy should be considered as the visionary equivalent of Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel was one of the few Western philosophers to understand the import of emptiness and to bring it into the foundations of his thought. There is a lot to learn from Hegel in this regard.


Once we see that emptiness/void the still center around which the cyclone of the worldview rages, and that we can access deeper nonduals from that center without leaving the worldview, then we can have everything that Buddhism has within the Western tradition itself without appealing to any foreign formulations. I call this the Homeward Path. It is a path we need to take seriously before the worldview completely wrecks the planet. When the Western worldview realizes that it is utterly permeated with nonduality from its kernel, many of the illusions fostered by Being are just going to fall apart and fade away naturally, at least for some. Meaning flows out of the nondual, and when we tap into that emptiness/void at the center of our worldview as nondual we will realize that there is a groundswell of meaning that is there to be tapped that will make it possible to understand the tradition anew in its own terms without its being violated by any other tradition. The possibility of self-transformation is there at its core and has been suppressed all this time, and is waiting to unfold naturally as it has in all the other traditions. All the necessary resources are there within the tradition itself, particularly in the works of Plato, to understand emptiness as interpenetration and to have models of it that place in a new light all our previous models based on duality. I call these models the Special Systems. You can read about them in my works at http://works.bepress.com/kent_palmer. I have been exploring this alternative horizon that looks out from the kernel of the Western worldview on the Nondual for decades. It is a wonderful vista that transforms all you know about the tradition when seen from the perspective of the nondual. Please join me in appreciating this wonder.  Because the nondual is fundamental is is encoded even in its own suppression. It is impossible to get rid of no matter how many you kill who hold these heretical nondual based-views. So the eventual transformation of the tradition by nonduality is inevitable. But I don’t believe it will happen from foreign sources. But our fascination with these foreign sources of nonduality is a hint that our need for this new perspective is great indeed and is in fact overwhelming due to the pent up demand by enforcing dualism for so long.


What we can note is that Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism is coming to the West as an intact tradition via refugees. And they bring with them the highest form of nonduality that was ever created in the East which is DzogChen, and which is comparable to the work of Fa Tsang in China that began to combine Taoism and Buddhism to get to deeper insights into the Deeper nonduals. These various transformations in Buddhism are refered to as the turnings of the Wheel. There is Hinayana, Mahayana, Tantrayana, and DzogChen, thus four turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma. I think with the transfer of Buddhism to the West as a living tradition we might be ripe for the next turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, the Fifth Turning. I believe that many of these nondual traditions will coalesce in the West. For instance, Islam as expressed in Sufism is also about deeper nondualities. So when we look at the potential for the transformation of Buddhism into a fifth turning beyond DzogChen, and we look at the tradition of Sufism and its understanding of deeper nonduals, and we look at the potential for self-transformation in the Western worldview, then we see that things are ripe for multiple simultaneous  convergences, not to produce one tradition, but which will allow us to see by their mirroring the differences and similarities in a new light. DzogChen exposes the possibility of deeper nonduals especially in the form that we see it given by Mipham which is true to the initial definition by Manjushrimitra. Within Sufism we see the original Western nondual Heresy that could not be stamped out. And in the West we can go directly from the fundamental duality of Logos/Physus to the dual nonduals of emptiness/Void, and beyond that to manifestation (tajalliat of the sifat) and the Amanifest (Dhat). In Buddhism and Sufism these insights are tied to meditation practices and a tradition of exploring deeper states of consciousness. Our exploration of the Homeward path has much to gain from these prior explorations. But we need to make them our own on our own terms. It is only if we make them our own on our own terms that we can really transform the worldview from the inside out. And we really need to do that soon before irrevocable damage is made to the planet. In other words just as Buddhism make fundamental changes to Hindu Culture, and Islam made fundamental changes to the original Middle Eastern Greco-Roman and legacy cultures, so to the Homeward Path can make fundamental changes to Western dualistic culture in spite of its deep seated animosity against all nondual approaches rooted in our dogmatic history. But my point is that the Western dualistic culture is really vulnerable to this transformation. In a sense all that is needed is for the move that Nagarjuna made to be made in our cultural context and the rest should follow naturally, as it transforms itself from within. This is because no one can deny that the discontinuities between the logical operators is there. The are in fact the linchpin of the entire worldview. Once we place the nondual interpretation on those discontinuities, then nonduality overwhelms all duality. Because nonduality is non-conceptual and non-experiential there is nothing that can stop it from pervading everything. All concepts and all experiences are pervaded now if we but knew. Prajna as the realization of emptiness permeating everything is very close at hand. When you hold up non-nihilistic distinctions that cannot be denied and are obvious then the illusory dualistic distinctions fade quickly and are realized to be illusions. In a sense all of the philosophical tradition except Plato is swept away, and in another sense it stands as irrelevant unless it takes into account the prior and more original reality of the nondual permeating everything. All dualistic philosophies point to this original nondual possibility unknown to themselves. It is so clear once one achieves the right standpoint that Western Philosophy was circling around it lost without finding it throughout the tradition. But we only have to take a few hints from Nagarjuna and we have found it and identified it and seen its efficacy in transforming the tradition. These are subtle winds of change within the tradition. I sense them building into a perceptible breeze. I invite you to feel the coolness of that new breeze blowing our way.

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