Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Seeing" what is not there: a fake? What about Buddhism and Jainism, then?

Can one access something new through visualization (bhāvanā) or meditation?

If not, then the Buddha and the other human beings who established a new religion by claiming that they had a particular access to dharma (/God's will/etc.) are a fake.
But how to distinguish the case of the Buddha and of other extra-ordinary beings from that of cheats? The Mīmāṃsā arguments against the access to dharma through visualization or meditation seem quite strong, as they rely on the fact that what is "seen" is in fact only "remembered", and on the fact that sense-faculties have fixed boundaries and super-sensuous elements exceed them.

As for the first point, consider the following passage by Veṅkaṭanātha (Seśvaramīmāṃsā ad MS 1.1.4):
Out of visualisation it is not perception which arises, but rather only clearness of memory. In fact, the accumulation of mnestic traces (saṃskāra) can supply sharpness only to memory. Even when, for instance, a love-sick sees his [absent] beloved one, nothing additional to what has already been known appears [in his image of her].
And the additional element appearing in "And on every tree I see Rāma, clothed  with the skin of an antelope and a garment, with his arch, holding a noose in his hand like the Destroyer (Yāma)" (Rāmāyaṇa 3.37.1512) and similar [verses], is not directly perceivable, since it appears in a different way (i.e., as a tree, not as Rāma). What [is directly perceivable] is, instead, its external look (i.e., the tree). (That is, the fact that Rāma appears on every tree and in Yāma's garb is not directly perceived —through direct perception one would see trees as trees).

Do you see a different way to "save" Buddhism, Jainism, etc., while yet not accepting all sorts of claims about super-natural access to dharma, etc.?

On yogipratyakṣa (sense-perception of extra-sensory items, such as dharma), see this post (and the further list of links on its bottom).


Jayarava said...

We may need to clarify the purpose and process of visualisation in Buddhism, and what is meant by Dharma in this context.

Personally I'm happy to entirely dispense with the supernatural and focus on the experience of meditation itself. Indeed what is the supernatural but an explanation of an experience that must have been mediated by the senses and the mind, but where the object of the experience is obscure to us? If an experience is mediated by the senses and the mind then it is natural even if we don't understand it. I've talked to many people about their supernatural experiences and they all involve the ordinary senses producing experiences of sight, sound, touch etc. The supernatural is simply an explanatory framework. And to my mind the supernatural is never better than no explanation or a state of unknowing. Better "I don't understand" than "I understand this to be supernatural". Somehow the "I don't know" seems to be unbearable for most people.

However the experience of meditation is not like other experience. The phenomenology is different from waking or dreaming or day dreaming for example. It's not like being immmersed in a film or novel. And visualisation is a specialised subset of meditation.

To take the example of the love-sick person. In Buddhist meditation we don't simply attempt to see the beloved. We begin with an empty featureless blue sky in which there is no beloved. We build the visualisation and try to make it as vivid as possible so that we feel ourselves to be in the present of the beloved (which does involve memory). Then we dissolve the whole thing back to empty blue sky, deliberately letting it all go so that at the end again there is no beloved.

The last part is the most crucial - the experience of letting go; of acknowledging the contingency of all experiences, since all experiences have a subjective component so that even with an unchanging object we never have a lasting or repeatable experience of it. The Dharma or truth, one understands is that all experiences are the like this - arising and passing away, mostly beyond our control. Nothing supernatural about this, but it is profound.

It's not the seeing per se, it's the experience of seeing and not seeing; our response to the experience that are the focus for Buddhists. Knowledge about the nature of experience does arise out of this practice. Realising that asti and nāsti don't apply to experience. Even I can say that I have felt this and know it, to some extent, from personal experience. But freeing ourselves from the compulsion of grasping at experience, or acting like a naive Realist, is not a simple matter.

The trouble with comparing textual accounts of religious ideas is that philosophers are often talking about theory and abstractions rather than their own experience. And they're very often pedantic and sectarian. The example you cite would seem to be all of these. It certainly tells us nothing about Buddhist approaches to meditation or knowledge.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks Jayarava, interesting points. As far as I am personally concerned, I would agree with you and just say that I care more about the power Buddhist (or any other) practice has on me than about its supernatural foundation. You might remember that we already discussed often enough about ontology and the fact that it is —according to me— an habit more than a need. Long story short: I would put more emphasis on experience and less on "this is the way the world is".
As for Veṅkaṭanātha, however, I feel guilty for having put his sentence out of context. His is an objection, not his final view, and I think it does make some sense, if confronted to the direct thesis that one can access to super-natural things (including the Four Noble Truths) through a sort of immediate intuition. He was not targeting Buddhists especially.

ombhurbhuva said...

I think that the mistake is to think that the natural and the supernatural are distinct realms that are cut off from each other. For the saints and sages the natural and supernatural are aspects of a single reality.

elisa freschi said...

Yes, Ombhurbhuva, this is exactly the point. Mīmāṃsakas think that in order to establish something different than ordinary experience, one needs cogent evidence. Unless and until one has no such one, why should one admit something which goes against our experience of the world?

Unknown said...

Hi Elisa,

The following questions cropped up in my mind while reading your latest blogpost on "Seeing" what is not there: a fake? What about Buddhism and Jainism, then?":

1. When Veṅkaṭanātha says, “Out of visualisation it is not perception which arises, but rather only clearness of memory.”, does he mean that in the pre-visualisation state the contents of memory remain jostled up, and visualisation only helps establish a clear logical and causal relation among those (apparently) discrete elements?

2. Next when he says, “In fact, the accumulation of mnestic traces (saṃskāra) can supply sharpness only to memory.”, does it in anyway imply that saṃskāras (and as a matter of that, actual experience or any other things that leads to the generation of saṃskāras) make possible visualisation? If so, then how are we to account for saṃskāras that continue from a previous birth, as also the concept of apūrva, which in a way leads to new births (may be in heaven or hell)? The very acceptance of the idea of pūrvajanmīya saṃskāra brings in an element of the supernatural, and the implicit claim to pull down the ivory tower of supernaturalism vanishes;

3. When again he says, “What [is directly perceivable] is, instead, its external look (i.e., the tree).”, does it mean that the subliminal (sāṃskāraja) image of Rāma is only superimposed on the actual image of the tree? If so, then is such knowledge (i.e. tree with Rāma, instead of tree only) valid (i.e. is it fit to be called pramā?), or is it actually an instance of erroneous knowledge (apramā)? If the latter, then would it not imply that no such (valid) knowledge as ‘sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahma’ can ever be had?

elisa freschi said...

1–2) Venkatanatha's point is that saṃskāras only help memory AND NOT some sort of yogipratyakṣa. E.g., if I "see" my beloved one, I am only reproducing a recollected image. There is nothing else beyond what I have already seen. As for saṃskāras from a previous life they are not discussed (I suspect: because they are not part of ordinary experience and whatever goes beyond ordinary experience can only be accepted if one has cogent evidence for that).
3) As for sarvaṃ khalv idaṃ brahma, you are right. The vision of the tree is pramā, that of Rāma is apramā. The world ---as we see it--- is made of several things, not of a unitary brahman.

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