The final word on the "no self" confusion
Hi everybody! these months I am re-reading "Sex, Ecology and Spirituality" by Ken,
and I re-encountered a foot-note that, this time, quite hit me as the most significant,
profound, exhaustive, comprehensive discussion on the so many times painfully confusing
subject of Anatman, or the -early- Buddhist doctrine of No Self.
In a real maping of all possible opinions on the subject; and in an academic manner,
"à la ancienne", Wilber shows why, definetly, the "no-self" concept has no more use
in an by itself in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism (and even why the complete Abhidharma
-buddhist psychology-) makes sense only to the Theravadan school.
A "True Self" definition, while still methaphorical -and conceptual- emerges as a far better
pedagogical way to refer to the Absolute (Emptyness, Godhead) reality.
I find this text to be really amazing and quite pioneer.
And the implications are strong enough; being that most Rinpoches I knew (personally
or by media or books) still continues to draw from Abidharma and -a lot!- on anatman,
we can think of how unreliable they are as a truthful account of Buddhism.
In another words, their fixation to traditional ideas doesn't gives them enough distance to make the bold
and audacious statements that need to be done in this regard.
"NAGARJUNA WAS FAR MORE ENLIGHTEN THAN THE BUDDHA" is an undeniable reality and, still,
is a taboo in Buddhist circles.
I appreciate (as always) Ken's distance to his own main tradition, that allows him to go deeper
than any other theoretician in this regard, and drawing from his own experience of all that which
he disclose in such a precise manner.
All in all,
thank you Ken, once again, for taking care of a bunch of doubts that still resonated in my mind.
Hope this text could be clarifying for others as it was for me!!
If you happen to know someone that is still struggling with the concept of "no self"
that is -WRONGLY!- adjudicated to Buddhism (instead of to old, inaccurate versions of Buddhism), please, take a moment to forward him/her this text.
It could change his/her life.
Peace and blessings.
Wilber, on Anatman (SES, note 1 on chapter 14th):
Nor, I believe, is Spirit's literal interpretation as "no-self" very helpful either.
As is well known, Theravada Buddhism (and the general Abhidharma doctrine, the oldest of the Buddhist schools, unkindly referred to by later schools as Hinayana, or "Lesser Vehicle") has, as one of its central teachings, the doctrine of anatta (or anat-man in Sanskrit), which literally means "no-self." The mental stream is said to be composed of five aggregates (skandhas), none of which is or has a self, but together these aggregates give rise to the illusion of a separate, grasping, desiring self. A more careful meditative analysis of the mind stream, it is said, will reveal that the skandhas, although real enough in themselves, do not constitute a real and enduring self (but are instead simply discrete and momentary elements of experience), and thus this liberating discovery is simultaneously a release from the pain (duhkha) of defending an entity that isn't even there.This no-self or anatman doctrine was particularly leveled against the Brahmanical and Samkhya doctrines of a permanent, unchanging, absolute Subject of experience (Purusha, Atman). And against the Atman tradition, the Anatman doctrine was wielded with much polemical force: in place of substance, flux; in place of self, no-self; in place of unitary, pluralistic; in place of cohesive, discrete.Thus, the Abhidharma accepted the reality of momentary, pluralistic, discrete, and atomistic elements (dharmas) and accepted their causal effects as real (codependent origination). This causal (karmic) linkage allows the discrete momentary states to give rise to the illusion of an enduring, cohesive self, much as whirling a flashlight at night gives the illusion of a real circle. This cohesively felt but illusory self is driven by fear, grasping, and ignorance (particularly the ignorance of the reality of momentary, not cohesive, states).However true aspects of that doctrine might be, it nonetheless generated considerable controversy in subsequent Buddhist development. Virtually all ensuing schools of Buddhism (the Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle," and the Vajrayana, or Tantric Vehicle) accepted the Abhidharma as a starting point, but none of them remained with it: none of them accepted it as the final word, so to speak. In fact, the Abhidharma doctrine as a complete and adequate system was aggressively attacked, both in its capacity to cover relative or phenomenal reality and in its ability to indicate absolute reality. Some schools, in fact, would claim that the Abhidharma, taken in and by itself, fundamentally misunderstood both illusion and reality, both relative and absolute truth: wrong on all counts, as it were.Thus, Nagarjuna launched a devastating attack on the reality of the skandhas and dharmas themselves (they have apparent reality only), and the general Yogachara and Vajrayana tradition lambasted the skandha system because it only dealt with "coarse"-level reality (the gross realm, or Nirmanakaya) and did not cover the "subtle" and the "very subtle" realms (what we have called the subtle and the causal, and which Vajrayana identified with the Sambhogakaya and Dharmakaya). Higher stages of meditative development, Vajrayana claimed, would disclose these subtle and very subtle dimensions of consciousness (particularly in the anuttarayogatantra tradition, which we will discuss in a moment), and the Abhidharma system, they claimed, was completely inadequate in this regard: it covered only the Nirmanakaya (gross-form-oriented or sensorimotor-oriented consciousness).One would think that as a Buddhist, Nagarjuna would busy himself with the standard attacks on the Samkhya and Atman traditions; in fact, his main target is the Abhidharma of early Buddhism. "Nagarjuna himself applied the dialectic [critical analysis] against the Abhidharmika system—the doctrine of Elements [dharmas]. The Madhyamika Karikas [one of Nagarjuna's major works] are a sustained attempt to evolve the Sunyata [Emptiness] doctrine out of a criticism of the realistic and dogmatic interpretations of early Buddhism. His criticism of the Samkhya and other systems of the Atma tradition is rare and implicit" (Murti, p. 165).T. R. V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, although not without its difficulties and occasional inaccuracies, is nonetheless a classic in the field, and it still manages to pinpoint several crucial factors in this area (many scholars, as David Loy points out, feel that "Murti's study remains perhaps the best work in English on the subject": p. 59). Without endorsing all of Murti's conclusions, I would nevertheless like to draw on those aspects of his presentation that remain seminal in this discussion. And all of this will eventually bring us to the genuine problems that have arisen in interpreting Spirit in terms of a "no-self" doctrine.Because above all, for Nagarjuna, absolute reality (Emptiness) is radically Nondual (advaya)—in itself it is neither self nor no-self, neither atman nor anatman, neither permanent nor momentary/flux. His dialectical analysis is designed to show that all such categories, being profoundly dualistic, make sense only in terms of each other and are thus nothing in themselves (the Emptiness of all views and all phenomena). This dialectical analysis applies to all things, all thoughts, all categories: they are all mutually dependent upon each other and thus are nothing in themselves. They therefore have a relative or phenomenal reality, but not absolute or unconditioned reality (which is Emptiness disclosed in nondual prajna, which is not a reality apart from the relative world of Form, but is itself the Emptiness or Suchness of all Forms)."In the Prajnaparamita and the literature of the Madhyamika [the school founded by Nagarjuna], the one basic idea that is reiterated ad nauseum is that there is no change, no origination, no cessation, no coming in or going out; the real is neither one, nor many; neither atman nor anatman; it is as it is always."Origination, decay, etc. [codependent origination of Abhidharma], are imagined by the uninformed; they are speculations indulged in by the ignorant. The real is utterly devoid (Śunya [Empty]) of these and other conceptual constructions; it is transcendent to thought and can be realized only in non-dual knowledge—Prajna or Intuition, which is the Absolute itself."We are also expressly warned not to consider Śunyata as another theory, the Dharmata [the Real] as other than the phenomenal world. The Absolute in one sense transcends phenomena as is devoid of empiricality, and in a vital sense is immanent or identical with it as their reality."The butt of the criticism is the dogmatic speculations (the reality of skandha, dhatu, ayatana, etc.) of the earlier Buddhism; the skandhas are not impermanent; but they are Śunyata, lacking a nature of their own. Pratitya-Samutpada is not the temporal [and causal] sequence of entities [as in the Abhidharma] but their essential dependence"—that is, each entity depends on the others and thus is nothing in itself: it is not ultimately real—it belongs to appearance only. Thus, the entire doctrine of no-self and dependent origination "receives a deeper interpretation as appearance; and by a relentless dialectic it is shown that nothing escapes this predicament" (p. 86).Thus, what for the Abhidharma were a mark of the real (impermanence, no-self, flux) are all shown by Nagarjuna to be marks of the unreal: they are dualistic notions dependent upon their opposites, and thus are nothing in themselves. And dependent origination—the notion of temporal causal linkage between phenomena—is shown by Nagarjuna to mean that no phenomenon is independent, unconditioned, self-generating; rather, they are all mutually dependent, which looks like a nice systems theory, and indeed it is; but Nagarjuna then adds the crucial point: mutual dependence is a mark of the unreal, since the dependent entities are nothing in themselves—they have apparent or relative reality only, not unconditioned or absolute reality: "phenomena are unreal or śunya because they are dependent; mutual dependence is a mark of the unreal" (p. 106).Nor can we escape this by taking dependent origination itself as absolutely real, because, says Nagarjuna, the same argument can be applied to the series itself: if all things dependently originate, does origination itself originate? If so, it is relative and unreal; if not, it contradicts itself, and is thus unreal: either way, unreal.Thus, for Nagarjuna, all views, of whatever nature, are smashed by the dialectic. "Relativity or mutual dependence is a mark of the unreal. No phenomenon, no object of knowledge, escapes this universal relativity. Tattva or the Real is something in itself, self-evident and self-existing. Only the Absolute as the unconditioned is real, and for that very reason it cannot be conceived as existence or non-existence, atma or an-atma" (p. 139).And, according to Nagarjuna (and perfectly a la Augustine) we can criticize all partial views because we have, in our own awareness, access to prajna, or nondual Perfection of Wisdom, against which imperfections stand out like a sore thumb. (For a further discussion of Nagarjuna's dialectic, see note 4 below.)Absolute reality, then, is neither self nor no-self, neither substance nor flux, neither permanent nor impermanent, nor any other combination of such dualistic notions, but rather is the nondual Emptiness of all phenomena, all views, all stances. As the Ratnakuta Sutra (one of the early Mahayana texts) puts it: "That everything is permanent is one extreme; that everything is transitory is another.… that 'atman is' is one end, that 'atman is not' is another; but the Middle Way between the atma and anatma views is the Inexpressible." Is Emptiness.Thus, "for the Madhyamika, the Real is neither one nor many, neither permanent nor momentary, neither subject nor object… , neither atma nor anatma. These are relative to each other and are equally unreal. Nagarjuna says: 'If the apprehension of the impermanent as permanent is illusion, why is the apprehension of the indeterminate as impermanent not illusion as well?' " (p. 239).The question then arises, if no-self and impermanence do not actually apply to the Absolute (which is neither self nor no-self, nor both nor neither, etc.), do the notions of impermanence and no-self apply to the phenomenal stream itself (as maintained by the Abdhidharma)? If no-self is not absolutely true, is it at least relatively true? If it does not apply to noumenon, does it at least apply to phenomena?And here the doctrine fares no better. Nagarjuna (and several of his followers) demonstrate that on the phenomenal level, the states (skandhas) cannot exist without a self, and the self cannot exist without the states: they are mutually dependent. Likewise, substance does not exist without modes or flux, and vice versa. Neither the states in themselves (without a self), nor the momentary modes, can even offer an adequate explanation of phenomenal "If we confine ourselves to the phenomenal point of view, if we propose merely to give a transcription of what obtains in everyday experience, we must accept, besides the states or moments, the activity and the agent. From the noumenal point of view of the Unconditioned truth, the moments too are as unreal as the activity which the earlier Buddhism rightly rejects. The correct Madhyamika standpoint is that modes by themselves cannot offer an adequate explanation of phenomena. Substance too must be accepted" (p. 187).Likewise for the self as cohesive agent in the phenomenal stream: "Nagarjuna explicitly says that there can be no act without an agent or vice versa; he calls them ignorant of the true meaning of the Buddha's teaching who take the reality of the atman only or of the states as separate from it; if there is no atman apart from the states, there are no states too apart from the atman. In fact, the entire Madhyamika position is developed by a trenchant criticism of the one-sided modal view [selfless flux] of the Abhidharmika system, by being alive to the other side of the picture equally exhibited in the empirical sphere."In the same strain Chandrakirti [a principal successor of Nagarjuna] complains that the Abhidharmikas have not given an adequate picture of the empirical even. 'If it is sought to depict the empirically real then besides momentary states, the activity and the agent too must be admitted.' Chandrakirti shows, in a sustained criticism of the view of mere attributes or states without any underlying self in which they inhere, that this does violence to common modes of thought and language; it fails as a correct picture of the empirical; nor [as we have already seen] can it be taken as true of the unconditioned real"—wrong on both counts, as it were (pp. 249-50).These criticisms pointed up "the inadequacy of a stream of elements to account for the basic facts of experience, memory, moral responsibility, spiritual life, etc.: the states (skandhas) cannot completely substitute the atman; a permanent synthetic unity must be accepted" (as a relative truth; p. 81). "On the modal view [anatma, no-self], there are the different momentary states only; there is no principle of unity. But mental life is inexplicable without the unity of the self" (p. 205).But again, on the phenomenal plane, this does not mean that the self-view alone covers the scene: "The self of the [early] Brahmanical systems is a bare colorless unity bereft of difference and change, which alone impart significance to it." Rather, according to Nagarjuna, "the self has no meaning apart from the states… , and there are no states apart from the self. The two are mutually dependent"—and therefore, both are phenomenally real but ultimately unreal, ultimately Empty (pp. 204-6, 249).In short, both the cohesive self and the momentary states are relatively real, but both are ultimately Empty: the absolute is neither self nor no-self (nor both nor neither), neither momentary nor permanent (nor both nor neither), but is rather the "Thatness" disclosed by nondual Prajna or primordial awareness, a "Thatness" which, being radically unqualifiable, cannot be captured in any concepts whatsoever.(We would say: the signifier "Emptiness" can only be understood in those who possess the developmental signified that is Prajna, whereupon the actual referent "Emptiness" is directly perceived as the Emptiness of all forms whatsoever, and not the privileging of one form or concept, such as no-self, over its opposite, such as self. But the referent of the signifier "Emptiness" becomes obvious only upon the awakening of Prajna, and Prajna is not an idea or a theory but an injunction or a paradigm: it begins its practice by categorically rejecting every conceivable category of thought to embrace the Real, or Dharmata. This categorical rejection—the dialectic—creates an opening or clearing in awareness in which the primordial and unobstructed nature of the Real can shine forth nondualistically as the Suchness of all phenomena. And all of those words are nevertheless still signifiers whose actual referents are disclosed only in that "opening" or "clearing," and prior to the discovery of that opening or Emptiness, they are all equally off the mark. Even the phrase "Emptiness is free of thought concepts" would itself be denied: that's just more words. Where is the actual referent? Where is your Original Face right now?)Scholars are still arguing about the exact influence of Nagarjuna on subsequent Eastern thought, but most agree that the Nondual Madhyamika was a profound revolution that, to one degree or another, influenced virtually all succeeding schools of Asian thought (either directly or indirectly). Because Emptiness was not a realm apart from or divorced from other realms, but rather was the reality or Suchness or Emptiness of all realms, then nirvana was not, indeed could not be, sought apart from the phenomenal world. This, indeed, was revolutionary.Thus the almost purely Ascending and Gnostic bent of the Samkhya, Yoga, and Abhidharma systems (nirvana as the extinction or utter cessation of samsara) gave way to a variety of Nondual systems (Yogachara, Vedanta, Tantra), all of which maintained, in their various ways, that "Emptiness is not other than Form, Form is not other than Emptiness"—the union and integration of the Ascending and Descending Paths, of Wisdom and Compassion, of Eros and Agape, of Ascent to the One (formless nirvana) perfectly and fully embracing the world of the Many (samsara and Form).In all of these developments, a Path of Ascending (and Ascetic) Purification and Renunciation (where defilements are exterminated in cessation) gave way to Paths of Transformation (where the defilements are seen to be the seeds of corresponding wisdoms, since nirvana and samsara are ultimately not-two: the Ascending wisdom has a Descending compassion, and thus the defilements—indeed, the entire manifest domains—are seen to be expressions of the Absolute, not detractions from it: the integration of Ascending and Descending, Emptiness and Form, Wisdom and Compassion). And these in turn often gave way to Paths of Self-Liberation, where the defilements are seen to be already self-liberated just as they are, and just as they arise, since their basic nature is always already primordial Purity (pure Emptiness in pure Presence: the radical and already spontaneously accomplished union of Emptiness and awareness/ clarity/form: the already accomplished union of Ascent and Descent: Emptiness and Awareness, Emptiness and Clarity, and Emptiness and Form).And all of this, in a sense, was opened up by Nagarjuna. Already in the Madhyamika we find the twin principles of Prajna (Wisdom) and Karuna (Compassion), the former seeing that all Forms are Empty, the latter seeing that Emptiness manifests as all Form, and thus each and every Form is to be treated with care and compassion and reverence. (Cf. the whole discussion of this theme of ascending Wisdom—the Good—and descending Compassion—Goodness—in chapters 9 and 10.) "Sunyata [Emptiness] and Karuna [Compassion] are the two principal features of the Bodhicitta [awakened mind]. Sunyata is Prajna, [Wisdom or] intuition, and is identical with the Absolute. Karuna is the active principle of compassion that gives concrete expression to Emptiness in phenomena… , a free phenomenalizing act of grace and compassion [Descent/involution or manifestation itself as an act of Agape/Compassion]. If the first [Prajna] is transcendent and looks to the Absolute [Eros], the second [Karuna] is fully immanent and looks down toward phenomena [Agape; thus together: Ascent and Descent, evolution and involution]. The first is the universal reality of which no determinations can be predicated [Emptiness disclosed in and as Prajna]; it is beyond the duality of good and evil, love and hatred, virtue and vice; the second is goodness, love and pure act. Buddha and the Bodhisattva are thus amphibious beings with one foot in the Absolute and the other in phenomena [ultimately not-two]. They are virtuous and good [Eros] and the source of all goodness in the world [Agape]. With its phenomenalizing aspect, Karuna, the formless Absolute (Śunya) manifests itself as the concrete world. But the forms neither exhaust nor do they bring down the Absolute. It is through these forms again that individuals ascend and find their consummation with the universal Real" (pp. 264, 109).This profoundly Nondual conception had its equally profound impact. "Sunyata is the pivotal concept of Buddhism. The entire Buddhist philosophy turned on this. The earlier realistic phase of Buddhism, with its rejection of substance and uncritical erection of a theory of elements, was clearly a preparation for the fully critical and self-conscious dialectic of Nagarjuna. Not only is the Yogachara idealism [Empty Consciousness] based on the explicit acceptance of Sunyata, but the critical and absolutist [Nondual] trend in the Vedanta tradition [of Gaudapada and Shankara and Ramana Maharshi] is also traceable to this" (p. 59).And likewise the rise of Tantra. Although general tantric practices have a long history, nonetheless "it is Sunyata that provided the metaphysical basis for the rise of Tantra"—largely because, as I indicated, nirvana was no longer conceived as being away from samsara (and body and sex and flesh and the senses in general) but rather was to be found within them. "It is the Śunya of the Madhyamika that made Tantricism possible. It may thus be said to have initiated a new phase in Buddhist philosophy and religion; this had its due influence on the corresponding phase on the Brahmanical side." As Bhattacharya put it, "There is hardly a Tantra in Hindu literature which is not tinged with Buddhistic ideas; it is no exaggeration to say that some Tantras of Hindus are entirely Buddhist in origin. It is thus amply proved that the Buddhist Tantras greatly influenced the Hindu Tantric literature" (all quotes p. 109).These are a few of the reasons that I earlier likened Nagarjuna's influence in the East to that of Plotinus in the West: they brought the Nondual revolution.Perhaps the major difference between the Madhyamika and the subsequent Non-dual traditions which it sparked is that Madhyamika (as Prasangika) remained the pure via negattva school: no concepts at all (including the concept of no concepts) could be applied to the Real, which is "what" is disclosed in Prajna, not in conceptual talk-talk (I'll return to this in a moment: it was primarily a statement about signifiers and referents and corresponding injunctions/paradigms). Emptiness was not a conceptual view, but the Emptiness of all views, which itself is not another view. As Nagarjuna trenchantly put it, "Emptiness of all views is prescribed by the Buddhas as the way of liberation. Incurable indeed are they who take Emptiness itself as a view. It is as if one were to ask, when told that there is nothing to give, to be given that nothing" (p. 163).Thus ultimately Emptiness takes no sides in a conceptual argument; Emptiness is not a view that can dislodge other views; it cannot be brought in to support one view as opposed to another: it is the Emptiness of all views, period. The relative merits (or relative truth) of various views are to be decided on their own terms.The subsequent Nondual schools would, in various ways, relax the purity of this intense via negativa and, also in various ways, would look for phenomenal metaphors for Emptiness. Advaita Vedanta and Yogachara/Vijnanavada (Consciousness-only) schools "both reach advaitism [Nondualism]—the advaita of Pure Being (Brahman) and the advayata of Pure Consciousness (vijnapti-matrata) by rejecting appearance through dialectical methods—through negation. Their Absolutes partake of the form of the Madhyamika Sunyata in being transcendent to thought and being accessible only to non-empirical Intuition [prajna, jnana]. They also have recourse to the two truths [absolute and relative]" (p. 59).Thus, "In the Madhyamika, Vijnanavada [Consciousness-only], and Vedanta systems, the Absolute is non-conceptual and non-empirical [perceived with the eye of contemplation, and not merely with the eye of mind or the eye of flesh]. It is realized in a transcendent non-dual experience, variously called by them prajna-paramita, lo-kottara-jnana, and aparoksanubhuti respectively. All emphasize the inapplicability of empirical determinations to the Absolute, and employ the language of negation. They are all agreed on the formal aspect of the Absolute [i.e., its strict unqualifiability with merely phenomenal categories]."However, "The Vedanta and Vijnanavada identify the absolute with something that is experienced in some form even empirically—the Vedanta with Pure Being which is Atman and the Vijnanavada with Consciousness. Taking these as real, they try to remove the wrong ascriptions which make the absolute appear as a limited empirical thing. When, however, the atman or vijnana is absolute, it is a misuse of words to continue to call it by such terms; for there is no other from which it could be distinguished. They are also [at this point] reduced to the Madhyamika position of the Absolute as utterly inexpressible. Words can only be used metaphorically to indicate it" (p. 236).But in that indication lay the direction that subsequent Nondual schools would follow (even though always resting, as it were, in final Emptiness). "The Vedanta and Vijnanavada [and Tantra], owing to their [metaphorical] identification of the real with Atman or Vijnana [or Tantra: great bliss] are seemingly more able to provide a bridge between the world of appearance and the Absolute. The transition seems easier. The Madhyamika by his insistence on the sheer transcendence of the absolute and his refusal to identify it with anything met with in his experience is too abrupt and harsh. But in principle, however, there is no difference in the form of the Absolutes in all these systems. Śunyata represents the form of all Nondualism" (p. 237).As for the "bridge" between Absolute and phenomena: "Both Vedanta and Vijna-navada analyze illusion [samsara] and show that the illusory appears on a real ground but for which illusion itself would not be possible [again, cf. Augustine]. The world-illusion is thus a super-imposition on Brahman or Vijnana. It is not true to say that the Madhyamika conceives illusion to occur without any underlying ground. Tattva [Suchness] as Dharmata [realm of the Real] is accepted by the Madhyamika as the underlying ground of phenomena. But it is not [actually] shown by him to be immanent in experience, how Dharmata activates and illumines empirical things. Not that the Madhyamika takes the Absolute and the world of phenomena as two different sets of entities; but the Absolute is nowhere explicitly shown to be in things constituting their very reality. The relation between the two is not made abundantly clear. This may be said to constitute a drawback in the Madhyamika conception of the Absolute" (p. 237).And this "drawback" is what Vedanta, Yogachara, and Tantra set about to redress. In their various conceptions, the pure Self constitutes a bridge to the Absolute (Vedanta), pure Consciousness freed of duality constitutes a bridge (Yogachara), and the emotions and desires of ordinary awareness constitute a bridge (Tantra). Thus, in Vedanta, "Brahman is no doubt devoid of determinations [is pure Emptiness]; it cannot be made an object of thought as a particular thing is. But it is self-evident [nondual intuition of Brahman is self-evident, self-certifying immediateness] and because of this anything becomes evident; it implicitly, invariably and unconditionally illumines all things. In a slightly different manner Vijnanavada shows that the object is dependent on consciousness, and not vice versa [and thus the Real is present in and as phenomena]." Likewise, Tantra would show that even ordinary emotions and desires and confusions, if entered into with open awareness, would disclose the wisdoms at their base. Bridges each and all, whereas for "Madhyamika the Absolute is also held to be immanent, but epistemologically it is not shown to be such"—the drawback (p. 237).Before we move on to the next and closely related topic (namely, the subtler stages of consciousness revealed beyond the five gross skandhas of Hinayana), let me finish with Murti by noting his assessment of the relation of the Consciousness-only schools with aspects of Western Idealism: "The parallel for Vijnanavada in the West is the system of Fichte or Hegel, both of whom conceive the Pure Ego (Fichte) or Reason (Hegel) as self-legislative, as containing and creating both the categories and the objects on which the categories function. The difference between Hegel and Vijnanavada is that the Hegelian absolute is thought or Reason [vision-logic]; the Vijnanavada absolute is above reason and is non-dual" (p. 317). I believe that the assessment I give later in this chapter is more specific and more accurate, but the general agreement with Murti will be obvious.The tantric Buddhism of Tibet (Vajrayana) would (particularly in the oldest, or Nyingma, tradition) divide the overall Buddhist teachings into nine yanas (vehicles, levels, stages): the first two were Hinayana, the third was Mahayana, and the remaining six were Tantric, divided into the three lower or outer Tantras (Kriya, Charya, Yoga), and the three higher or inner Tantras (Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga).I will here briefly focus on the two highest yanas, the Anuyoga (or "Highest Yoga Tantra") and the Atiyoga, or Dzogchen, the "Great Perfection."The "bridges" that tantric Anuyoga would disclose between the ordinary, gross-oriented mind and the enlightened mind of Clear Light Emptiness centered on the subtler states of consciousness and their associated "energies" or "winds." Consciousness was said to be divided into "gross," "subtle," and "very subtle" (causal) dimensions, with each dimension possessing a "body" or "medium" or "energy," commonly called a "wind" (so that we have a gross bodymind, a subtle bodymind, and a very subtle bodymind). Meditation consisted in a developmental unfolding of gross mind to subtle mind to very subtle (causal) mind, accomplished by a meditative manipulation of the winds or energies or bodies that supported each mind.Thus, the existence of the five skandhas is fully acknowledged, as in the Abhi-dharma, but the skandhas are, as it were, just the beginning of the story. The five skandhas are generally listed as (1) physical form, (2) sensation, (3) perception/impulse, (4) emotion/image ("dispositions"), and (5) symbolic/conceptual consciousness. (Note that these are also exactly the first five basic structures of consciousness in the Upper-Left quadrant as I presented them in the text; see, for example, figs. 4-1, 5-1, and 9-1.)For the higher Tantras, the last skandha—or mental consciousness in general—is then further divided into three general domains: the gross, the subtle, and the very subtle. The gross realm is the sensorimotor realm, and the gross mind is the mind tied to, or reflective of, the sensorimotor world (and supported by the gross or vital wind). The subtle domain is the mind freed from all gross-conceptions (as revealed in higher meditative states, certain dream states, and so on), supported by the subtle wind (and channels and drops—all part of the "subtle anatomy" of consciousness). The very subtle domain is the mind of Clear Light Emptiness, supported by the "eternal indestructible drop" and very subtle wind in the center of the Heart.These three domains (gross, subtle, and very subtle or causal) are also said to correspond to the Nirmanakaya, the Sambhogakaya, and the Dharmakaya; and to waking, dream, and deep sleep states (at which point the similarities with the Vedanta become quite striking; see Cozort 1986 and Gyatso 1982).Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains: "The five physical sense consciousnesses—those of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body—are necessarily gross levels of mind. The sixth consciousness—mental consciousness itself—has three divisions of gross, subtle, and very subtle. All eighty indicative conceptions [waking-state concepts and skandhas] belong to the gross level of mind. These are the 'used minds' and include the different thoughts we remember, what we think, and so forth. They are 'used minds' because they realize, hold and cognize their objects [all in the gross realm]; they think and meditate and we—the person—use them. In addition, the first four signs of meditation [its early stages relating to the five elements] are all gross minds because their mounting winds are gross" (p. 139).As the gross mind (and wind) subsides with further meditation, the subtle dimensions (of which there are three) begin to unfold in developmental sequence.Using my terminology, these three subtle minds (beyond the gross-oriented ego/ centaur) begin with the psychic level (and the psychic anatomy of subtle winds and channels that begins to disclose at that level) and move into the subtle realm itself (experienced as various interior illuminations, as we will see), culminating in perfect cessation or pure unmanifest causal absorption (experienced as "black near-attainment").Thus, Gyatso: "Beginning with the fifth sign [of advanced meditation, which is called white luminosity appearance] the subtle minds are experienced. They manifest from the beginning of the mind of white appearance to the mind of red increase [which are both subtle-level illuminations] to the end of the mind of black near-attainment [causal cessation]. Each successive mind is subtler than the last. Each is classified as subtle because during its arraisal there are no gross dualistic conceptual thoughts" (p. 139). (Compare this with note 8 for chapter 8, where I defined the subtle level as having no gross-referents in cognition; there is still, however, a subtle dualism between subject and object, and this is also pointed out by Anuyoga.)This subtle-level development culminates in "black near-attainment," "black" because all objective awareness ceases, and "near-attainment" because it is close to pure Nondual Emptiness/Awareness (or the Clear Light). As I would put it, black near-attainment is the transition between causal and nondual. "Finally, after the mind of black near-attainment has ceased, the mind of clear light arises. This is called the very subtle mind [causal/nondual] because there is no subtler mind than this" (p. 139).It is this very subtle (causal/nondual) mind that is the Empty Ground of Enlightenment, and thus it is also called the "Root Mind" or the "Foundation Mind," and it is associated with the very subtle wind that is the "eternal indestructible drop or empty essence" in the heart. Gyatso: "The very subtle wind and the very subtle mind that is mounted upon it reside in the indestructible drop in the center of the heart" (p. 74). "At that time, the very subtle primordial wind and mind of clear light become manifest. It is called 'the eternal indestructible drop' because the continuum of the very subtle wind within it is never broken" (Cozort, pp. 76, 72). Gyatso: "Without utilizing this very subtle mind and wind there is absolutely no possibility of reaching the perfect enlightenment of Buddhahood" (p. 140).Gyatso continues: "This very subtle mind residing within the heart is referred to both as the root mind and the resident mind. This latter name is employed to differentiate it from the gross and subtle levels of mind, which are temporary. While the gross body and mind are temporary bases upon which the 'I' is imputed [mistaken for the Real], the primary and continuously residing bases of imputation are the very subtle mind and its mounted wind" (his italics; pp. 137, 195.)Gyatso then drives to the major point: "The very subtle body of the continuously residing continuum never dies [is timeless]. In the same way, the continuously residing body—the very subtle wind—is never separate from the continuously residing self. You have never been separated from it in the past nor will you ever be separate from it in the future" (p. 195).Note the use of "continuously residing self"; we will return to this terminology shortly; for the moment simply notice that, as a metaphor (and it remains merely a metaphor until one has awakened to the direct realization for oneself), it is perfectly appropriate to use "continuously residing self" to indicate this state.This very subtle mind (and continuously residing self)—that is, the pure Empty Awareness as Clear Light—is the root cause and support of all lesser states and domains (hence "causal"). "The distinguishing factor of secret mantra [Vajrayana] is its assertion that the deluded mind of self-grasping depends upon its gross mounted wind. This gross wind developed from a subtle one which in turn developed from the very subtle wind mounted by the all empty mind of clear light." And there is a precise description of Involution or Efflux (causal to subtle to gross) (p. 194).And therefore, after one has developed (or evolved) to an awakening of the very subtle consciousness (nondual Emptiness/Awareness), one then consciously reverses this path of Ascent and deliberately re-creates the complete path of Descent: one reanimates from the causal to the subtle to the gross, reentering on the "way down" all of the meditative signs and all of the actual domains that one first met on the "way up," thus uniting and integrating the Path of Ascent with the Path of Descent (the real secret of Tantra), balanced and upheld by the indestructible empty essence that is the Heart.Thus Gyatso: "When you arise from the appearance of Clear Light the first thing you will experience is the mind of black near-attainment of reverse order. Then comes the mind of red increase, the mind of white appearance, the eighty gross conceptual minds [and senses] and so forth in an order that is the reverse of the sequence in which the winds originally dissolved. The mind of clear light is the foundation of all other minds. When the gross and subtle minds and winds dissolve into the indestructible drop at the heart [pure Ascent], you perceive only the clear light and it is from this clear light that all other minds—each one more gross than the one it follows—are generated [pure Descent]" (p. 76).As for referring to the Real (Emptiness) as a continuously residing self (or True Self, or pure Consciousness, etc.): since Nagarjuna had already demonstrated that the Real is neither self nor no-self, but that in the phenomenal realm, there is no self without the states and no states without the self, then the metaphor of a True Self could in fact serve as a much better bridge:Not that a phenomenal self gives way to no-self (for pure Emptiness is neither self nor no-self); and not that a phenomenal no-self gives way to pure Emptiness (there is no phenomenal no-self); but rather, a phenomenal self gives way to pure Emptiness (that strictly speaking is neither self nor no-self nor both nor neither).And since in the phenomenal realm the self is necessary and useful (as Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti pointed out), then as a bridging metaphor, it was more adequate to speak of the phenomenal self (relatively real but ultimately illusory or phenomenal-only) giving way to a True Self (that was no-phenomenal-self, and that strictly speaking was neither self nor no-self but pure Emptiness, free of all conceptual elaborations).Thus Emptiness as True Self, Emptiness as pure Consciousness, Emptiness as Rigpa (pure knowing Presence), Emptiness as primordial Wisdom (prajna, jnana, yeshe), Emptiness as primordial Purity, even Emptiness as Absolute Subjectivity: all of these bridging notions began to spring up in the Mahayana and Vajrayana to supplement (or even replace) the notion of no-self, which, strictly speaking, was wrong both phenomenally and noumenally.And indeed, starting with the Nirvana Sutra, the absolute was often metaphorically categorized as "Mahatman," the "Great Self" or "True Self," which was no-phenomenal-self: the selfless Self, so to speak (still metaphorical). And down to today (to give just a few examples), Zen master Shibayama would find that the ultimate state could best be metaphorically indicated as "Absolute Subjectivity." As he puts it, "The Master does not refer to the subjectivity that stands over against objectivity. It is 'Absolute Subjectivity', which transcends both subjectivity and objectivity and freely creates and uses them. It is 'Fundamental Subjectivity,' which can never be objectified or conceptualized and is complete in itself, with the full significance of existence in itself" (Zen comments on the Mumonkan, p. 92).Likewise, Shibayama uses "True Self" to mean no-separate-self: "Thus Mumon says, 'There is nowhere to hide the True Self. When the world is I-myself, there is no self. When there is no self, the whole world is nothing but I-myself, and this is the true no-mind in Zen. The ancient Masters were never tired of pointing out that the 'True Man of no title' [True Self that is no self] is the Master, or Absolute Subjectivity, and this is one's original True Self. To realize one's antecedent determinant is to awaken to the 'the True Self that is prior to the birth of one's parents'. It is to be born anew as a person of Absolute Subjectivity" (pp. 173, 123, 338). As Suzuki Roshi would put it, small mind finds itself in Big Mind.Likewise, by the time we reach the highest vehicle, or yana, in the Vajrayana (which is Maha-Ati, or Dzogchen, "The Great Perfection"), the absolute is most often described in terms of permanence, singularity, freedom, unbroken continuity, ongoing pure Presence. Thus the great Dzogchen teacher, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, who is one of a handful of Tibetan masters giving the entire Dzogchen teachings, A to Z, including rushan, togyal, and trekchod, explains: "From the day we were born until the day we die, our life experience is an ever-changing relative truth that we hold to be very real. It is not, however, absolutely real or permanent. This is very important to understand. When you wake up from your dream of life, all of your experiences, which seemed true, were not really true in the absolute sense."The criterion we can use for understanding truth is permanence. If something is permanent, it is true. If it is impermanent, it is not true, because it is going to disappear. To wake us up so we can see the illusory quality of our relative reality and understand our foundational absolute nature is the goal of the Buddha Dharma. A completely awakened state is enlightenment, the unwavering recognition of the absolute nature of our being. Absolute nature pervades everything and is separate from nothing, but we have gone so far into mind's dualistic delusion, that we have lost sight of what is absolute. Seeing separateness where there is none, we suffer in our experience of relative truth, [quenched only by] the unchanging, deathless absolute, the unchanging bliss of enlightenment" (Life in relation to death, pp. 10, 11, 14).Likewise the Dzogchen master Namkhai Norbu, describing the self-knowing absolute or primordial state of pure Presence (yeshe/rigpa), points out that the Primordial State (or pure Presence, pure Emptiness) is not a particular experience, whether of pleasure or clarity or "voidness" itself, but rather is that which cognizes all experiences (or the pure Presence of any experience): "There is a great deal of difference between a sensation of pleasure and one of voidness, but the inherent nature of both the two experiences is one and the same. When we are in a state of voidness [no-thoughts], there is [nonetheless] a presence that continues all the time, a presence which is just the same in an experience of pleasurable sensation [or any other experience]. This Presence is unique and beyond the mind. It is a non-dual state which is the basis of all the infinite forms of manifestation."Thus, he continues, "All that appears to us as a dimension of objects ['out there'] is not, in fact, really something concrete at all, but is an aspect of our own primordial state appearing to us. Different experiences can arise for us, but the presence never changes" (Dzogchen, pp. 52, 53, 50).Different meditation practices engineer different states and different experiences, but pure Presence itself is unwavering, and thus the highest approach in Dzogchen is "Buddhahood without meditation": not the creation but rather the direct recognition of an already perfectly present and freely given primordial Purity, of the pure Emptiness of this and every state, embracing equally all forms: embracing a self, embracing a no-self, embracing whatever arises.But in no case is primordial Emptiness a particular state versus another state, or a particular concept versus another concept, or a particular view versus a different view: it is the pure Presence in which any and all forms arise. It certainly is not "no-self" as opposed to "self." It is rather the opening or clearing in which, right now, all manifestation arises in your awareness, remains a bit, and fades: the unwavering clearing itself never enters the stream of time, but cognizes each and all with perfect Presence, primordial Purity, fierce Compassion, unflinching Embrace.This unwavering Presence is not entered. There is no stepping into it or falling out of it. The Buddhas never entered this state, nor do ordinary folks lack it (the Buddhas never entered it because nobody ever fell out of it). It is absolutely not an experience— not an experience of momentary states, not an experience of self, not an experience of no-self, not an experience of relaxing, not an experience of surrendering: it is the Empty opening or clearing in which all of those experiences come and go, an opening or clearing that, were it not always already perfectly Present, no experiences could arise in the first place.This pure Presence is not a change of state, not an altered state, not a different state, not a state of peace or calm or bliss (or anger or fear or envy). It is the simple, pure, immediate, present awareness in which all of those states come and go, the opening or clearing in which they arise, remain, pass; arise, remain, pass.…And yet there is something that does not arise or remain or pass—the simple opening, the immediateness of awareness, the simple feeling of Being, of which all particular states and particular experiences are simply ripples, wrinkles, gestures, folds: the clouds that come and go in the sky… and you are the sky. You are not behind your eyes staring out at the clouds that pass; you are the sky in which, and through which, the clouds float, endlessly, ceaselessly, spontaneously, freely, with no obstruction, no barriers, no contractions, no glitches: no moving parts in one's true nature, nothing to break down. In spring it rains; in winter it snows. Remarkable, this empty clearing.You do not become this opening or clearing; you do not become the sky. You are not always the sky, nor are you already the sky: you are always already the sky: it is always already spontaneously accomplished: and that is why the clouds can come and go in the first place. The sunlight freely plays on the water. Remarkable! Birds are already singing in the woods. Amazing! The ocean already washes on the shore, freely wetting the pebbles and shells. What is not accomplished? Hear that distant bell ringing? Who is not enlightened?And yet, and yet: how best to refer to this always already Emptiness? What words could a fish use to refer to water? How could you point out water to a fish? Drenched in it, never apart from it, upheld by it—what are we to do? Splash water in its face? What if its original face is water?Twisting in this linguistic dilemma, the Mahayana/Vajrayana often uses equations such as: Big Mind = no-mind, True Self = no-self, Original Face = no-face, Permanent Vajra = impermanence of all objects, and so on. But it is quickly added that both "Self" and "no-self" (or "permanent" and "impermanent") are mere words, that is, mere signifiers. And thus in order for either of them to actually be true (absolute truth), one has to recognize the pure Emptiness, the pure opening or clearing in which all words, all things, all processes, spontaneously arise and fall. "Emptiness" or "True Self" or "no-mind" or "no-self" are all, finally, signifiers whose referent discloses itself only upon following the injunctions (paradigms) of contemplative competence which unfolds the appropriate developmental signified resulting in the direct recognition of always-already pure Emptiness, the recognition of one's "True Nature," which is, so to speak, all-pervading water: the referent is the universe of One Taste. But the Zen masters don't want you to explain Emptiness or nonduality to them; they want you to directly show them Emptiness, which might be as simple as yawning or snapping your fingers: Just this!Thus, Shibayama, after repeatedly referring to reality as "Absolute Subjectivity,"quickly adds: "It is Absolute Subjectivity, one's original True Self. But however precisely you may describe 'it,' you will miss it if you ever try to describe it at all; you have to grasp it yourself if you want to really know it. To call it by these names [Absolute Subjectivity, no-mind, True Self, no-self] is already a mistake, a step toward objectification and conceptualization. Master Eisai therefore remarked, 'It is ever un-nameable' " (pp. 309, 93).And Chagdud adds: "As the Buddha taught, in absolute truth, nothing really comes, and nothing really goes. Nothing is born, nothing ceases. Neither something nor nothing, [pure Presence] is neither one nor many. Absolute truth is beyond all of these ordinary concepts. Words can't name it"—unless one has recognized it, and then words work just fine: the cherry blossoms are in bloom, the spring air is cool.Now I mention all of this because no-self has been mistaken (particularly by several Western theorists) as an accurate account of the phenomenal mind stream (which is simply wrong: self and states are both relatively real), and also as a description of the ultimate Reality (also wrong: the Ultimate is shunya of self and no-self), and this has caused an enormous amount of confusion, a confusion that has not helped the spread of Dharma in the West.When "no-self" is literally applied to the Absolute, or the primordial state, or pure Emptiness, then that misunderstanding locks Emptiness into an extremely dualistic notion. Whether the experience of self or the experience of no-self arises, both are equally manifestations of the Primordial State, self-cognizing Emptiness and spontaneous luminosity. "Emptiness" is not a conceptual doctrine which one uses to advance the theoretical position of no-self as against the position of cohesive self—and yet it is being used, by some Western interpreters, to do just that.Likewise, the no-self "doctrine" is being used by many Westerners to describe the lived, phenomenal mind stream: the phenomenal stream is supposed to be without a cohesive self. And here this confused and untenable notion runs smack into massive amounts of psychiatric and psychological evidence about what happens when the phenomenal mind lacks a cohesive self: it's called borderline neurosis and psychosis. The self-system, in its formative phases (particularly fulcrum-2), fails to clearly differentiate self and object representations, and thus the self boundary is constantly open to emotional flooding, on the one side, and to a sense of pervasive emptiness or hollowness or depression, on the other. A cohesive self fails to emerge and consolidate, and thus the mind stream remains a series of often fragmented "no-coherent-self" states, which is not Buddhist heaven but psychological hell.And thus, when orthodox psychological researchers hear that the mind is "really without cohesive self," they are simply flabbergasted. You mean, people want to be borderline? They honestly cannot imagine what these "Buddhists" mean, because the self is being denied reality precisely on the plane that it is indeed real—and the loss of this cohesive self is not Enlightenment but some of the most painful psychological disturbances known.These particular Western Buddhist interpreters are, with very good intentions, trying to integrate East and West, but in using the inadequate "no-self" doctrine, they invariably can point to only a few Western theorists. There is the obligatory quoting of Hume's paragraph from Treatise (which actually demonstrated nothing but the lame fact that if I look only at objects, I will never find a subject; for a religious theorist to want to integrate this is rather like begging for a nice cyanide capsule); and then some passing reference to Jacques Lacan (who himself committed the Single Boundary fallacy and is no friend of Emptiness; see note 3 for chap. 6 and note 32 for chap. 13). And recently attempts have been made to connect "no-self" with post-structuralism (ditto Hume) and "selfless" cognitive science (about which, more later).But the rest of the traditions, both East and West (the vast majority of which are not confused enough to deny a phenomenal cohesive self) are completely sealed out of their "integration," which has unfortunately lead to a type of Buddhist arrogance and imperialism: their phenomenal "no-self" doctrine (which indeed is unique to Hi-nayana) is felt to be the only correct doctrine, and everybody else is profoundly wrong (they go absolutely apoplectic if you mention Aurobindo or Ramana Maharshi).This is why the work of such theorists as Jack Engler is so important. Engler, trained in both Buddhist vipassana (mindfulness) meditation and Western psychotherapy (and who works as a practicing therapist), made a much more useful theoretical bridge: "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody." That is, it is necessary to form a stable, cohesive self before one can transcend (or deconstruct) that self in pure Emptiness. Condemning the ego for not being Emptiness is like condemning an acorn for not being an oak—and, as we have seen, it is profoundly inadequate both phenomenally and noumenally. (Engler's approach was consonant with my own work on the pre/trans fallacy—pre-ego to ego to trans-ego, and one has to form a stable ego before one can stably go trans-ego—and with Daniel Brown's work on the higher stages of Buddhist meditation, and thus we became the three main coauthors of Transformations of Consciousness; Engler's quote is on p. 49.)But Engler's analysis contains another very important insight. Based on his clinical experience, he began to suspect that some individuals who were lacking a fully cohesive self were in fact drawn to this notion of phenomenal "no-self" because it seemed to speak to their condition, and certainly seemed to rationalize it. Since many researchers feel that a general borderline malaise is actually increasing in America (and not simply being reported more often [Masterson]), the appeal of this "no-self" notion is perhaps understandable. The Hinayana "no-self" speaks especially to individuals with an already precarious sense of self-cohesiveness.Further, given the fact that the pure and exclusive "no-self" doctrine of the Abhidh-arma is part and parcel of an exclusively Ascending and Gnostic path, culminating in complete withdrawal from (and condemnation of) samsara and the manifest realm, this would directly appeal to those who were already having trouble befriending samsara in the first place. Instead of embracing the entire manifest realm with love and Agape, one simply opts out entirely (with Eros gone Phobos). As one Theravadin teacher put it, when asked about the suffering of others, "I don't care, I'm getting off."Engler and I are not suggesting that any theorist who subscribes to the literal "no-self" doctrine is personally borderline. We are suggesting that, in addition to its own insuperable difficulties on both phenomenal and noumenal planes, this literal no-self doctrine is all too easily confused with a borderline worldview, and, indeed, this does especially appeal to individuals who are already having difficulties forming a cohesive self.This phenomenal "no-self" doctrine: what difficulties it has caused in the attempt to integrate East and West. Perhaps it is time to drop a certain Buddhist imperialism and throw our synthesizing net a little wider, a little more generously. If there is indeed Buddha-nature, it would not leave itself without a witness in other cultures, other places, others times: and in the ears of sensitive men and women, it seems to have whispered the equivalent of "Mahatman" much more often than "anatman."Finally, to return to The embodied mind, by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (see previous comments: notes 49 and 52 for chap. 2 and notes 13 and 43 for chap. 4). As I indicated, in my opinion I find their overall approach enormously rewarding and significant. Not only is their enactive paradigm one of a very few attempts to integrate the Left- and Right-Hand paths in cognitive science, it is the only paradigm (using the word in its technically correct sense as injunction) that takes a meditative/mindfulness approach to the Upper-Left dimensions in an attempt to integrate them with Right-Hand cognitive science, an approach that alone can embody a scientific (i.e., repeatable, communal, injunctive) disclosure of the domains of awareness.My major criticisms, all within this prior admiration, relate to several topics mentioned above:
1. Varela et al. attempt to build most of their bridges between direct, lived experience (Left-Hand) and objectivistic cognitive science (Right Hand) using the Abhi-dharma doctrine of "selfless minds" and the theory of discrete, selfless states and aggregates. But this Hinayana approach, as I tried to indicate, denies the cohesive self on precisely the plane where it is (relatively) real and pragmatically mandatory. The authors are constantly emphasizing that, for most people, the cohesive self is unavoidable, habitual, inescapable; it is only with mindfulness training that we can actually interrupt the formation of a self out of the momentary states: presumably a two-year-old child cannot perform mindfulness training, and thus the self-sense is inevitable in human development. But an inevitable illusion is not merely an illusion: it is serving some purpose (it is, in fact, preventing borderline fragmentation, among many other things).
This type of atomistic analysis (a la Abhidharma) thus fails to account for the extremely important developmental period where a cohesive self is crucial. And thus:
2. It tends to play into the borderline worldview, as I described above, and thus throws us into the retro-Romantic notion that at some point in development a horrible mistake occurred, and we have undo the mistake by digging backward, instead of evolving forward to higher integrations that overcome a partialness.
Each stage of self-development is indeed a type of deconstruction of the previous self-sense, not by plopping straight into pure Emptiness, but by growing a deeper and wider self that undoes the lesser self, until all selves are undone in Emptiness (which is neither self nor no-self). The mind stream, after all, does not deconstruct itself: it is deconstructed by a finer employment of attention and will, which, by any other name, means a self strong enough to finally die in pure Emptiness, not a self weak enough to regress to fragmented "no-self" discrete atomistic experiences.
3. Modern cognitive science, as we have seen (note 43 for chap. 4), postulates something like a computational mind (or even a society of mind) that in itself is completely lacking consciousness. That is, cognitive science believes in the existence of totally unconscious intentional computations (or whatnot) that perform all the requisite functions of cognition, and your presence is not required. What is really happening in your "mind" is a series of objective functions that possess no consciousness at all; consciousness remains either a puzzling epiphenomena, or is pronounced to be "not good for anything."
The authors refer to this as the discovery of the "selfless mind," and they therefore wish to integrate this scientific "discovery" with the Abhidharma "no-self" analysis of phenomenal experience, thus building a bridge between experience and theory. The "selfless minds" of cognitive science are supposed to be the correlate of the "selfless minds" of Abhidharma analysis. The practice of mindfulness (which discloses "no-self") can thus be brought together with the theoretical discovery of "selfless minds," they maintain.
But cognitive science has not discovered selfless minds; it has discovered mindless minds. There is in cognitive science no more room for mindfulness/awareness factors than there is room for a conscious self: all of those are banned from discussion, and banned from any sort of real existence, by the very mode of investigation itself. As I suggested earlier, far from being a major discovery, the "mindless minds" notion is a fait accompli of the objectivistic, representational paradigm that guides the theoretical, objectivist notion in the first place. Varela et al. are building a bridge between an inadequate (if not downright wrong) skandhas theory and the reductionistic portion of cognitive science.
4. Because of their Abhidharma no-self atomistic analysis of experience, the authors likewise are constantly "juxtaposing" this with Emptiness and with the "selfless minds" of cognitive science. Both of these reductionistic approaches (Abhidharma and cognitive science) are supposed to be "evocative" of Emptiness. But, as I tried to argue, to bring Emptiness to bear on a particular view—as a crowbar to dislodge a particular view (instead of all views)—is to reduce Emptiness to one notion among others. It comes perilously close to "incurable view" Emptiness.
Thus, with reference to the above four points, it's hard to avoid the impression that the authors are taking the inadequate (or even wrong) aspects of all four and trying to integrate those inadequacies: a truncated/atomistic Hínayana psychology with the reductionistic aspects of cognitive science, flirting with an incurable view of Emptiness, and tending toward an embrace of the borderline worldview.
The authors are very much aware of some of these difficulties, and after working hard to establish these points, they begin to carefully qualify or even gingerly withdraw from them. Of cognitive science's "discovery" of "no-self" (which is really just a reductionism inherent in the approach), they finally state: "In cognitive science and in experimental psychology, the fragmentation of the self occurs because the field is trying to be scientifically objective. Precisely because the self is taken as an object, like any other external object in the world, as an object of scientific scrutiny—precisely for that reason—it disappears from view" (p. 230).
Likewise, of Hume's self-vanishing act, which they had earlier called "brilliant," they now point out, with reference to objectifying: "Nowhere is slight of hand between inner and outer [Left and Right, subjective and objective] more evident than in the work of David Hume" (p. 230).
Of Emptiness and its "juxtaposition" with "no-self" analysis and the "selfless minds" of cognitive science, the authors state: "This is a crucially important point. There is a powerful reason why some Madhyamika schools only refute the arguments of others and refuse to make assertions. Any conceptual position can become a ground, which vitiates the force of the Madhyamika (this is also why pragmatism is not the same as the middle way of Madhyamika). We would be doing a great disservice to everyone concerned—mindfulness/awareness practitioners, scientists, scholars, and any other interested persons—were we to lead anyone to believe that making assertions about enactive cognitive science was the same thing as allowing one's mind to be experientially processed by the Madhyamika" (p. 228).
And as for the Abhidharma theory of Elements (skandhas, states, dharmas), the authors are certainly aware of its fate in subsequent Buddhist schools: "The basic element analysis received certain kinds of devastating criticism from philosophers such as Nagarjuna" (p. 117). And, of course, Zen's approach was characteristically right to the point: "They were traditionally burned in Zen" (p. 121).
The authors then state that what they are actually trying to do is use these analyses (selfless minds, no-self phenomenal stream, enaction, etc.) simply to help evoke the true groundlessness of pure Emptiness. "Just as the Madhyamika dialectic, a provisional and conventional activity of the relative world, points beyond itself, so we might hope that our concept of enaction could, at least for some cognitive scientists and perhaps even for the more general milieu of scientific thought, point beyond itself to a truer understanding of groundlessness" (p. 228).
Personally, I find the enactive paradigm itself very appealing and a genuine advancement of knowledge, but not for that reason, because the "groundlessness" that they point to is, as I suggested, often atomistic, reductionistic, borderline, fragmented. It builds bridges precisely to the aspects of various theories that ought to be rejected, not integrated.
Because of this bias to a "no-self" analysis of the phenomenal mind stream, the authors likewise (and ironically) fail to appreciate aspects of the enactive paradigm that actually go a considerable way to solving some of the problems that their "no-self" analysis prematurely and unfortunately dissolves or disrupts. To mention a few:
The authors, early on in their attempt to build a bridge between the atomistic aspects of Abhidharma and the reductionistic aspects of cognitive science, point to Minsky's notion of the mind as a "society" (the society of mind), the idea being that we can't find a self here either: an individual mind is really a society of agents. And while there is some truth to that (nobody believes the self is the monolithic monster dominating awareness that many Enlightenment writers seemed to imagine), nonetheless there is a profound and significant difference between individuals and societies (although both are holons within holons within holons): individuals have a locus of self-awareness. That is, a compound individual is a society that further serves as a locus of self-sense. And whether that self-sense is "real" or "illusory" doesn't change the fact that individuals have it, societies don't.
Moreover, this self-sense develops. It develops, as we have seen, through nine (or so) major fulcrums of differentiation/integration (before fully recognizing Emptiness). This Left-Hand developmental process is not simply a matter of monological and sensorimotor cognition (although grounded in it). It is also, and especially, a matter of dialogical exchange and intersubjective mutual understanding (on the way to trans-logical Emptiness). And at that intersubjective and dialogical point, sensorimotor phenomenology begins to fail us miserably (after serving its grounding function).
And this indeed is one of the primary reasons that phenomenology as a discipline so often gave way to various forms of structuralism and neostructuralism (and even poststructuralism): the intersubjective functions of cognition display patterns that are not obvious, and not available, to simple phenomenological apprehension (that is, they follow patterns that are not available to or disclosed by the senses or immediate lived experience). The phenomenologists were simply no match for such items as linguistic intersubjectivity and the patterns that it displayed, patterns that could not be recovered in phenomenology.
Foucault recalls, in listening to a lecture by Merleau-Ponty (the theorist that Varela et al. point to as most resembling their own approach): "So the problem of language appeared and it was clear that phenomenology was no match for structural analysis in accounting for the effects of meaning that could be produced by a structure of the linguistic type. And quite naturally, with the phenomenological spouse finding herself disqualified by her inability to address language, structuralism became the new bride" (Miller, Passion, p. 52). This in turn would lead to Piaget, and Habermas, and more adequate accounts of the development of intersubjective competence. (See note 48 for chap. 4 for an extended discussion of the inadequacies of phenomenology.)
I am not suggesting an abandonment of phenomenology (nor unadulterated embrace of genetic structuralism). Rather, phenomenology (especially of the Merleau-Ponty variety) forms a type of foundational edifice quite similar, I believe, to that proposed by Varela et al. But its monological apprehensions need to be supplemented with dialogical recognitions, and this begins to take us away from the too-heavily sensorimotor anchoring in which Varela and his colleagues seem a bit mired.
This sensorimotor-heaviness shows up in the authors' presentation, I believe, as a constant confusion of organism/environment with inner/outer, which in fact are two very different types of interaction and enaction (the former is interaction between Upper Right and Lower Right, the latter is interaction between Left and Right). They quote Lewontin and Oyama in support of the contention (which I accept) that the organism and the environment co-generate each other. But the argument of both of those authors (and most similar micro/macro arguments) are couched in purely outer (or objective) terms: they are talking about the interaction and mutual codetermina-tion of Upper Right and Lower Right: that is, the mutual determination of the organism (its genetic material, its physiological structure, its nervous system, and so on) and its ecological environment.
But that is most definitely not the same as the interaction between the interior lived experience (Left Hand) with the outer material forms (Right Hand), whether those exterior forms are organismic or environmental. To equate the two is, once again, to buy into the flatland (Enlightenment) paradigm, even if we are trying to redress that paradigm by having the Upper Right (organism) and Lower Right (environment) mutually codetermine each other. Important as that insight is, it still buys the fundamental Enlightenment paradigm: it reduces the Left-Hand experience to the Right-Hand description, monological in result (thus Lewontin uses subject and object interchangeably with organism and environment: precisely the problem).
This has the effect, in the authors' presentation, of confusing sensorimotor as organic structure (Upper Right) with sensorimotor as immediate lived experience (lower portions of Upper Left), and this keeps their enactive paradigm heavily grounded in a biologistic bias. Thus, to the question "What is cognition?" the authors answer that it is "Enaction: A history of structural coupling that brings forth a world." Fair enough. But then, to the question "How does it work?" they answer, "Through a network consisting of multiple levels of interconnected, sensorimotor subnetworks." And that doesn't simply ground awareness in sensorimotor networks, it reduces the significant aspects of awareness to its more fundamental foundations: reduces dialogical understanding to monological apprehension (p. 206).
I do not doubt that basic sensorimotor cognition and the early mental categorization process has many of the features outlined by the enactive paradigm. But even so, that covers only the first three fulcrums of a nine-fulcrum awareness.
Thus, the authors point, as example, to the work of Mark Johnson (The body in the mind); and, as far as it goes, I am in complete agreement with their assessment. "Humans, [Johnson] argues, have very general cognitive structures called kinesthetic image schemas. These schemas originate in bodily experience, can be defined in terms of certain structural elements, have a basic logic, and can be metaphorically projected to give structure to a wide variety of cognitive domains." These are simple sensorimotor/physical schemas referring to such elementary distinctions as inside, outside, boundary, and so on (all anchored in the preconceptual sensorimotor worldspace).
"On the basis of a detailed study of these kinds of examples, Johnson argues that image schemas emerge from certain basic forms of sensorimotor activities and interactions and so provide a preconceptual structure to our experience"—very similar to Piaget's role of sensorimotor schemas in subsequent cognition. Johnson "argues that since our conceptual understanding is shaped by experience, we also have image-schematic concepts. These concepts have a basic logic, which imparts structure to the [higher] cognitive domains into which they are imaginatively projected. Finally, these projections are not arbitrary but are accomplished through metaphorical and metonymical mapping procedures that are themselves motivated by the structures of bodily experience" (pp. 175-76).
All of which I heartily endorse, as far as it goes. As I would put it, precisely because the mind transcends but includes the sensorimotor body, the foundational structures of the mind (and higher conceptual/formal thought) do indeed rest upon preconceptual bodily and sensorimotor foundations (the "include" part). But those foundations do not fully explain or account for the functions, patterns or capacities of the higher structures themselves (the "transcend" part). Johnson's book is thus quite aptly named: the mind is not in the body, the body is in the mind. And for just that reason, significant aspects of mental cognition and awareness are not simply, or even especially, sensorimotor networks.
(Likewise, spirit is not in mind, mind is in spirit; and thus mental interpretations color, but do not create, spiritual realities).
The authors' sensorimotor/biologistic tilt further tempts us to overlook the equally important types of structural coupling that are occurring in the Left-Hand dimensions themselves. That is, not only is the sensorimotor organism interacting with its environment (the Upper Right interacting with the Lower Right, all of which can be investigated and described monologically), but also the inner subject is interacting with its intersubjective pool of mutual understandings (i.e., the Upper Left is interacting with the Lower Left), and this mutual intersubjectivity cannot be described or investigated monologically: it is not simply the interaction or enaction of the organism with its environment: it is the enactment of the understanding of one person by another, with mutually shared experience the coinage and mutual understanding the goal. All of those have empirical and sensorimotor correlates; none of them reside in those correlates.
And this is where Varela's notion of structural coupling gains an added usefulness, even if not fully acknowledged by the author: it is not just the structural coupling of the objective organism and its enacted environment, but also of the subjective experience of that organism with the intersubjective experience of its enacted cultural world-space (where, again, it creates and is created by its forms of intersubjectivity, and not just its forms of interobjectivity).
Thus, where Varela et al. attack the representational paradigm for its insistence that there is a pregiven world that the pregiven organism recovers in perception (I agree with that attack), nonetheless the alternative they propose is still monological: the monological (sensorimotor-specified) organism enacts a monological world (the perception of color being their favorite example). All of which is true enough, and all of which is foundational (or the sensorimotor starting point), but all of which totally overlooks the further nonreducible developments in the intersubjective sphere, which cannot be recovered in an enactive monological paradigm, but must include an enactive dialogical paradigm as well.
Thus, the authors (correctly, I believe) switch from a monological pregiven world to a monological enactive world (which is correct as far as it goes); but fail to move on to the crucial components of a dialogically enacted cultural world, which does not consist in the enactment of monological perception of surfaces (a patch of color), but the intersubjective interpretation of depths not given merely by the surfaces. The authors thus escape the crude mirror of nature paradigm (monological and pregiven), but only by attacking the pregiven part, not the monological part: the paradigm shifts from the monological mirror of a sensorimotor world to the monological enactment of a sensorimotor world. They grasp correctly that the subject enacts an object, but they fail to address the fact that, further, subjects mutually enact subjects via intersubjectivity, which is not the perception of a surface patch but the interpretation of dialogical depth (itself contigent upon the developmental history of structural couplings in the cultural worldspace, and not just structural couplings in the natural/environ-mental/sensorimotor worldspace).
And further, it is only through the dialogical enaction that one gets to translogical Emptiness, and not through a regressive dissolution of dialogical intersubjectivity into atomistic monological states and reductionistic mindless cognitive mechanism, the path the authors all too often stray into.
(A more intensely nonreductionistic approach would likewise allow a more forceful recognition of telos/emergence in development itself. Like all drift, natural drift occurs only where there is some sort of current; in this case, the current of the Kosmos, or Eros. Enaction of the presently given worldspace is not just based on past structural coupling. Rather, based also on the emergent pressure of the future, the present world is enacted.)
That said, let me finish by repeating the strengths of the enactive paradigm, which first of all actually is a real paradigm, because it embodies a specific program of injunctive research (namely, the open-ended investigation of direct lived experience with a view to its integration with theoretical models). We might see it this way:
In Vajrayana (which the authors endorse), it is typical to embrace all three Buddhist vehicles in something of a developmental arc. One begins with Hinayana mindfulness, which is the monological investigation of immediate awareness. One then moves to Mahayana, and the specific approach of exchanging self and other (tonglen), that is, investigating the dialogical and intersubjective circle of awareness. One then moves to Vajrayana, or the final dissolution of exclusively monological apprehension and dialogical exchange, and rests in the nondual luminous Emptiness that playfully manifests all worlds (translogical).
Given the very crude state of modern cognitive science, the authors, in a sense, had no choice but to give a Hinayana-level account, and in many ways I think this can serve as a beginning foundation for the yet-higher developments of cognitive understanding, to which, no doubt, the authors of this volume will contribute in no small measure.