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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Do contradictions make sense? On mindless minds

Suppose you read in a text that "A is non-A" (and suppose you know for sure it is not a typo). What strategies do you adopt, before throwing the text away? And which counter-evidence do you use to check if your understanding is right, in case the text apparently violates even 1st order logic?

Readers know that I am not familiar with Buddhism. The little I know is about Pramāṇavāda. And the little I know beside Pramāṇavāda I learnt through interesting people who raised my curiosity and made me have a look at this or that text. Yesterday I had one such experiences, spending 4 hours discussing with Greg Seton (scroll down here to read about his research) on Ratnākaraśānti, Haribhadra and Ārya Vimuktisena. We read some paragraphs of a Prajñāpāramitāsūtra, the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā. This is a Mahāyānasūtra and it seems to summarize some chief characteristics of Mahāyāha Buddhism. I do not mean by that to say that it summarises its tenets. In fact, the text might even be said to be hardly understandable, as I hope to show.
After the first lines, the Sūtra goes on as a (Pāli) Sutta would, namely as a dialogue framed into what seem to be formulaic repetitions. But soon one is struck with something unexpected: there is no Prajñāpāramitā teaching, nor there is a Bodhisattva who might be instructed in it. Yet, if one were not afraid in hearing this (sad, allegedly, or at least scary) news, s/he would be the Bodhisattva, and this would be the teaching.
My usual chategories have been further challenged by the statement immediately following:
The Bodhisattva should be so instructed in the Prajñāpāramitā, that he does not conceive thoughts (na manyate), not even through the Awakening-Mind (bodhicitta). What's the reason for that? His/her mind is a non-mind (taccittam acittam).

What shall the interpreter do with this cittam a-cittam (literally: "the mind [is] no-mind")?
  1. 1. Imagine that the Sūtra does not make sense.
  2. 2. Assume that it is a narrative text and has no propositional logic to follow. Hence, a different attitude towards the text should be developed (for instance, one could suggest that Śariputra –the narrator– is telling us the story of the journey of one's experience from the state of citta to that of acitta.)
  3. 3. Try some logical explanation (for instance, adding a temporal dimension to the statement, so that what is cittam at point t1 is no longer one at point t2, or reframing the seemingly contradictory terms).

I tend to avoid in any case option 1., because it is a bad exegetical rule to give up (too soon). Personally, I also think that it is part of a philosophical enterprise to engage with a text and try to deepen one's own understanding through it. This is what has happened in many religions, when acute theologians have been confronted with folkloric relics and have interpreted them in a theologically stimulating way.
I oscillate, instead, between 2 and 3. I guess that 2 is of crucial importance within a religious path. The Mahāyāna Sūtras were part of a path, they were recited and copied again and again. The narrative dimension had, hence, a religious value, and was possibly thought as entailing also a transformative character.
Something similar is often narrated in Zen as the need for the disciple to listen again and again to a paradox until his conventional mind is "pierced" by it. In order to avoid such an extreme (in an Indian context) interpretation, I would partly emend view 2 through view 3. For instance, the two "citta" might have a different shade of meaning. Hence:

The Bodhisattva should be so instructed in the Prajñāpāramitā, that he does not conceive thoughts (na manyate), not even through the Awakening-Mind (bodhicitta). What's the reason for that? His/her mind is [in fact] not a [conventional] mind (taccittam acittam).

Immediately thereafter a possible reason is stated:
[Because] the nature of [his/her] mind is translucent.

Hence, if my interpretation is correct, the Bodhisattva's mind is a not-mind insofar as it does not function like a normal one. For instance, it does not conceive thoughts. It is luminous, but like a crystal is, which can receive and reflect light, without being in itself a source of light.

Of course, if there is anything correct or thought-provoking in this post, the credit goes to Greg, who has, however, probably failed to adjust all my erroneous conceptions about the Prajñāpāramitā literature.


michael reidy said...

A possible way out of this dilemma is to postulate a dialectic that is simultaneous and not successive. What is true at one level is at one and the same time untrue at a 'higher' level. There is 'mind' at the common level of differentiated bodies and persons but at the level of the impersonal and undifferentiated there is 'no-mind'. Suzuki on the Zen Doctrine of No-Mind' writes on this. My characterisation is probably not reliable.

Aleix said...

citta means mind and intention. perhaps cittam acittam means/points to a mind without intention.
But do you think solving the problem is solving the problem? Do you think contradiction is a problem? Whence comes the urge to resolve the paradox?
Maybe the one who is not confortable with contradiction is not understanding the ultimate meaning (esoteric) of the text.
I'm suggesting, I don't know myself what is the meaning of cittam acittam. What is clear is that the author is purposely creating a paradox. He want to make us wonder. And maybe that's all. Maybe solving the problem is not solving it.
I don't want to seem pedantic or esoteric. It's just for the debate's sake.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks for sharing your insights.

It seems to me that Michael tends to favour option 3 (finding a way to make logical sense of the seeming paradox), although with a Zen-flavour because the impersonal no-mind is initself a seeming paradox which needs to be investigated further. Aleix, on the other hand, after suggesting a type-3 solution ("a Mind that has no intention", with acitta as a bahuvrīhi), prefers option 2: that is, living with the paradox, which is in itself a narrative device (to produce wonder, in Aleix' understanding). But please tell me if you feel misrepresented.

@Aleix, don't worry. You might have noticed that I also often challenge someone else's argument just because I enjoy debating;-)

Patrick said...

The quote "mind is no(t) mind ; the nature of mind is 'clear light'" is to be found at the beginning of the Ashtasahasrika. Apparently the cittam here is bodhicittam & and bodhicittam is no ordinary cittam, has nothing to do with cittam ; it is acintyam as Nagarjuna & Co. have it. The prabhasvara, imho, is not 'translucency' but radiating 'non-photic' clarity : the non-void of mahashunyata, what in the trikaya theory constitutes the rupakaya (sambhogakaya + nirmanakaya). This acittam = nirvikalpasamadhi à la bouddhiste. An unknowing which is not ignorance. Nicolas de Cuse has written much (approachingly) on this kind of paradox. Excuse, dear Elisa, my naive answer : I'm constantly trying to dig this 'paradox' in which I'd love to finf a truth, a paramarthasatyam totally equal to acittam.

elisa freschi said...

Hi Patrick and thanks for your answer (which does not sound naive at all to me). I see (and possibly agree) with two of your points:
1) the citta which is said to be acitta is the bodhicitta. This is quite clear because of the Sanskrit syntax: tenāpi bodhicittena na manyeta. tat kasya hetoḥ? tathā hi– taccittam acittam.
2) this acitta seems to be the highest level, probably your parallels are right.

On the contrary, what is the source of your understanding of prabhāsvarā? What does it mean that this kind of clarity is non-photic (apart from its obvious physical meaning)? Do you mean to say that it has nothing to do with phos=intellect? Or with what other source of light?

Jayarava said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jayarava said...

I believe that Paul Harrison is preparing a new translation of the Diamond Sūtra which sheds light on this kind of construction. Can't wait!

In my opinion this form is part of an ongoing critique of ontological thinking, particularly naive realism (to take a phrase from Thomas Metzinger my current favourite philosopher of mind). Naive realism is the sense that we are in direct contact with the world.

For example speak about 'the mind' as an object in English, with an ontological status; but from the Buddhist point of view 'the mind' is not a thing, it is an experience of indeterminate ontological status. So by using this kind of paradoxical "P is not P" language it undermines the meditator's naive realism.

I especially do not see this as philosophy per se, or an attempt to formulate a mystical doctrine. This is meditators pondering the processes which give rise to experience, and realising that the pondering is also an experience, and the realising is also an experience; and also that the first-person perspective is also an experience. And underlying all these experiences one only finds other experiences and never anything which is not experienced (which is logical).

So we can say with, some caveats, that though we very much do experience having a mind, there is no 'the mind' as a thing to know, only the various experiences we associate with what we call 'the mind'.

In other words we are never in contact with Kant's "thing in itself" or noumena - what appears to be P is in fact not-P, but only our experience of a collection of sense and mental impressions that we call 'P' with mistaken realism. There must be things to generate experiences, but we don't have direct contact with them. Although a dualism between sense faculty and sense object is inherent in Buddhist psychology nothing is ever said about the sense object as far as I know; and little about the sense faculty. The focus is the sense experience, including the mind as sense faculty.

You may recall that the Buddhist conception of vijñāna is that it arises in dependence on sense objects *and* sense faculties, and that the coming together of all three is sparṣa or contact; from sparṣa which arises awareness of things (vedanā - often translated as 'feeling' or 'sensation' but obviously from the root √vid 'to know').

So our knowledge of the things we are aware of is always a second order process, experience is never direct, but arises out of the interaction of what we would call in English the object and subject. Hence vijñāna is neither subjective or objective but dependent on both.

The Bodhisattva's mind is not different from other minds, except that they understand it as a process rather than a thing. I'm quite convinced that they do conceive thoughts but that they understand the nature of the experience of having a thought, whereas we don't.

Although it's relative easy to say these things, it's a lot harder to break the spell of naive realism, and to see everything as conditioned experience. Hence they experience there mind as 'translucent' or clear or pure or whatever.

Prajñnapāramitā was first and foremost an approach to meditation. I think the ideas follow on directly from certain early texts such as the Pāli Kaccānagotta Sutta (Sn 12.15). David Kalupahana has made a big deal out of this continuity (rightly so I think). Sue Hamilton's approach to early Buddhism is very illuminating in this respect, particularly Early Buddhism: a New Approach.

Within this kind of framework statements like "P is not-P" make a certain kind of sense

elisa freschi said...

Thanks Jayarava, I was looking forward to read your contribution to this discussion. I absolutely agree and would even go further, stating that there is no need of an ontology (understood as the assumption of an outer world) for Buddhist thought. All we need is a phenomenology of experience.
If you think that Bodhisattvas DO conceive thoughts, how would you understand tenāpi bodhicittena na manyeta?

P said...

In the Diamond Sutra Jayarava mentions, there's a constant singsong (un refrain, en français), which goes like this -- excuse my poor English :
A is not A and thus the tathâgata names it A.
I'd say the Tathâgata (a name of that actual entity, "God" [if I dare use this Whiteheadian technoterm] which is not different from tathatâ) does not substantialise anything.
So, if the "natural state", the "absolute truth" (which is not something that exists non non-exists etc.) had to explain the natural state, etc., like Shâkyamuni to Shâriputra or Subhûti, "it" would just say, for instance, that :
"Enlightenment is not enlightenment and thus the 'enlightened one' NAMES it enlightenment.
The same with citamacittam...

What I say here comes from my reading of the Jingangjing (Vajracchedikâ) as translated into Chinese by Kumârajîva and commented by Jizang (of the Sanlun School).

But the ultra-famous "sems ni sems ma mchis te sems kyi rang bzhin 'od gsal ba 'o" points at a prabhâsvarâ which I unskillfully called "non-photic" thinking of "ordinary photonic light". Nothing such a that "level". No intellect or the Eckhartian "intellectus agens" as far as it has no svabhâva.

This a- in acittam points to the unborn (anutpâda) quality of all that appears (bhâs-) / is perceived -- an appearance being the name of any nonconceptual perception.

On that, precisely, and especially on "perception", etc., there's an impressive translation of Shântarakshita's Madhyamakâlankâra by the Padmakara Translation Group published by Shambhala (I must say I'm presently trying to translate the Tibetan root verses into French -- the Sanskrit of which being "lost".

Prabhâsvarâ is the subject matter of all the Buddhist tantras.

So long, dear friends -- I'm writing this from a restaurant in Ubud / Bali. Can go further & deeper another time.

Avec mes plus amicales salutations !

michael reidy said...

There are many ways of being a realist. Some while accepting that there is a mental modification which is the focus of awareness provide ontological justification for holding that there is an 'identity' between this 'inner' awareness and the object. This 'identity' is not of course a numerical identity but the identity of the substratum. The inner experience and the outer object speaking in broad terms are of the same stuff. The prime example of this ontology in the Eastern sphere is Advaita Vedanta while Plato and Aristotle offer their versions of the same intuition in the West. These philosophers while supporting the direct realism of the common sense response to the world go further to justify it ontologically.

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa,

"If you think that Bodhisattvas DO conceive thoughts, how would you understand tenāpi bodhicittena na manyeta?"

My Sanskrit is too rusty to see immediately what this says, or to trust my parsing. I've tried but I don't understand the sentence. Could you suggest a translation, and give me a sense of the context?

In the meantime if you think bodhisattvas do NOT conceive thoughts then how do you account for them understanding language, and communicating? Occam's razor.


Jayarava said...


Sorry, but the context is a Buddhist text. I know something about early Buddhism and to some extent how certain early Buddhist ideas are expressed in early Mahāyāna texts such as this. I can offer a perspective on this text from that point of view, but I can't place it within the discourse of either wider Indian or modern Western Philosophy. My sense is that neither would be relevant in understanding the aṣṭa anyway.

Jayarava said...

@P Not sure I understand how you portray the tathāgata. Go back to basic Sanskrit and you see it is an adjective that means 'in that state'. the use of -gata as a prefix.

In early Buddhism the word is sometimes used to describe anyone who has experienced vimutti.

I had a quick look for the form you suggest in the Diamond Sūtra (in translation) and I don't see it. Rather than -
"A is not A and thus the tathâgata names it A"

what I see is this form -
"P is not P and thus the tathāgata teaches it as not P."

Again this has to be seen in the light of the anti-ontological discourses such as the Kaccānagotta Sutta (which Nāgārjuna was well aware of since he quoted it).

One has to keep in mind the aim of the meditators who composed these texts.

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