Friday, August 6, 2010

A Look at Two Salvations

Recently at The Magical Messiah the conceptual differences between the notions of salvation among Eastern religious traditions and Western religious traditions are identified. Though the post’s author sees a divergent conceptual outlook operating between the East and West, he nevertheless holds that the East and West arrives at or achieves the same religious goal. You can view the original post here. I would just like to give a few comments concerning this post below. In my post, I will limit my discussion primarily to issues I find troubling in relation to Buddhism.

At the outset, the author identifies the conceptual outlook of the Eastern traditions toward salvation as one's “attaining to correct knowledge of the true Self and that Self’s relationship to Reality”, whereas the conceptual outlook of the Western traditions towards salvation is articulated as “the realignment of the lower self, psyche, or soul with the higher Self or spirit.” In this, I think the author’s presentation of the conceptual outlook of the traditions is, in very general terms, an adequate model for exploring the contrasting viewpoints among the Eastern and Western traditions. However, caution is needed when lumping the various traditions together to form either of the two broad categories of “Eastern “ or “Western” traditions and their corresponding conceptual outlooks regarding salvation . Hinduism and Buddhism, at least from an orthodox point of view, offer very different presentations of the individual and salvation/liberation. Even within each of the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism themselves quite disparate views on important issues related to the nature of reality, the individual, "no-self" (anatman) and salvation/liberation are entertained. For instance, are we to accept the Vedic religion to be a part of the Hindu tradition? If so, how are we to rectify its conception of salvation as the correct performance of ritual with the view presented above, namely – that salvation is the attainment of correct knowledge? What are we to make of the many practicing Buddhists for whom salvation through correct knowledge means little to nothing, but instead are concerned with ethical action and “salvation” through better rebirths?

While the above issues are important, they are of minor concern to me in relation to the actual presentation of the conceptual outlook of the Eastern traditions. My difficulties may only be semantic in nature. The author’s use of the terms “Self” and “true self” are troubling since Buddhism denies the existence of “self” (atman). A definition of “Self” or “true self” from the author’s perspective would be illuminating (I will have more to say about what I think the author intends by these words below).

The author continues to demonstrate the conceptual disparity between the Eastern and Western traditions by stating that the Eastern traditions deny “the reality of both the physical body and the psyche, while the Western schools affirm the existence of both of the same elements but sees flaws in them….” This is simply erroneous, at least with respect to Buddhism. In Buddhism the mind and body are not seen as unreal or illusory. What is illusory or unreal is a mistaken conception about them. Indeed, one of the earliest means to salvation/liberation was the technique of analyzing the constituent elements of existence in regard to the individual (skandha) and external phenomena (dharma). It was hoped that by doing so, the mediator would perceive that which is not among those things that do in fact exist, namely- “self” or atman. The early Abhidarma texts preserve a plethora of approaches for analyzing such phenomena. Furthermore, there is a cornucopia of Buddhist texts dealing with both psychological and epistemological models of the mind. In these texts the mental/psychic components are not seen as unreal or illusory. Instead, these components are contemplated in order to show the mediator exactly where illusion or ignorance originates in the mind, how it continues to reside in the mind and how it may be eradicated.

After detailing what he sees as the apparent conceptual disparities between East and West, the author presents what appears to be his major thesis, namely- that despite all conceptual differences or distinctions the Eastern and Western traditions achieve the same religious goal. They all end up at the same place. Now, what exactly is this religious goal that the author sees as being shared among the Eastern and Western traditions? According to the author, it is the identification with the Absolute. It is the identification with something (i.e., the Self) that is the antithesis of the transitory constituents of mind and body. Exactly what this something/Self is remains unclear. However, the author indicates that it is “beyond time, space and death.” It is in fact a “Changeless Reality.” This view of reality smells of monism and is functionally equivalent to the teachings of the Advaita Vedanta, an influential sub-school of the Vedānta school of Hindu philosophy at the time of the Buddha. According to Advaita Vedanta, the only reality is the Absolute, which is Brahman. Typically, this Brahman is designated by the term atman or “self” when it remains undiscovered among the illusory or transitory components of mind and body. Now it is just this “self” that is vehemently denied within early Buddhism by the anatman (“no-self”) doctrine (of course, the anatman doctrine was supplanted later on among certain Mahayana schools by the doctrine of sunyata or “emptiness” in order to deny the reality of other non-existents as well). Indeed, among the early Buddhists no-thing is found outside of the transitory components of body/matter and mind. Here salvation is the recognition of the nature of the transitory components of existence (dharma) alone. No-thing exists outside these transitory components.

Now, in all fairness to the author of Two Salvations, certain Buddhist schools have been interpreted by Western scholars to be monistic . The Yogacara school, certain Madhyamaka teachings, and certain forms of the Buddha-nature doctrine have been especially susceptible to such interpretations. Many contemporary scholars who are working with the primary texts, however, find fault with these interpretations. What is more, certain Buddhist schools have accused other Buddhists of being monists. Despite these facts, no Buddhist school will accept the idea that it adheres to a monistic philosophy.


Duncan said...

I'm with Magical Messiah on this one! Having practised Buddhist vipassana meditation assiduously for a number of years, the insight I arrived at is that the 'true' self is 'no-self'. I think that Magical Messiah's description of enlightenment as 'identification with the Absolute' is spot on. The Absolute is that in which the enlightened person situates their 'self', but that 'self' is a 'no-self'.

Philosophically this argument may indeed seem flawed, but this arises from the attempt to describe in words an experience (a non-experience, in fact) that is impossible to describe. It's practice that counts the most!

Check out the work of Daniel Ingram, who has written on the 'true self' versus 'no-self' dilemma from a contemporary, hardcore dhamra angle.

You've got a fantastic blog here, by the way! Thank you! :-)

Karmaghna said...

I suppose if you pushed me far enough I might consent to agree that, strictly within a Buddhist paradigm, the "true" self is "no-self". But I think that Magical Messiah says more than this. My understanding is that Magical Messiah takes the position that the Buddhist's experience of "no-self" is experientially equivalent to the salvation experience in Hinduism, Taoism as well as to those of the Western traditions outlined in the post. My contention is that this position cannot be maintained if the Buddhist teachings are themselves taken seriously, since Buddhism rejects the salvation experience of Hinduism in the form of Advaita Vedanta.

Let's consider two houses, side by side, that contain the same furniture. Let's call them house "AV" (Advaita Vedanta) and house "B" (Buddhism). The tenets of house "AV" come home and decide to paint the inside walls. To clear the space they toss all the furniture out the door. To their surprise they find an elephant in the now emptied house. Meanwhile, over at house B the tenets return home and decide to paint the interior of their home as well. They too, in order to clear the space, toss all the furniture out the door. What they are left with is an empty house. They are quite relieved to find the absence of an elephant in their house.

Now, the Magical Messiah claims that any distinction between these two experiences exist only at the level of conceptuality or language. In other words, it is just semantics. While I would agree that both have an experience that is "self" transforming, it is still my contention, and I believe the contention of scholastic Buddhism as well, that the experiences are themselves different.

Duncan said...

Well, okay... But I still see problems with this approach... First off, in your simile: what is the status of the 'elephant' that appears in the AV house? It comes ex nihilo! A metaphor cannot address the issue of whether the elephant is really there, or is a figure of speech, because a metaphor itself is a figure of speech. This is unfortunate, because this is exactly our question!

Secondly, to decide if the two experiences were different one would have to undergo both. But how could one do that, given that one arrives at it from one tradition or the other? Or having had the experience from one tradition, one then proceeds towards the other, but inevitably through the distorting lens of the first!

I've hung out with Buddhist crowds and AV crowds. I've had the experience mostly through the Buddhist lens, but my gut is that the two are the same. It seems to me easily conceivable that we could end up talking about the Absolute in diametrically opposed terms but mean the same thing. (Because we're relative creatures after all.)

The Absolute is not 'nothing', because if it were then it would then be relative to 'something', and thus no longer Absolute, so therefore the Absolute has to include 'something'. In that case, 'elephant' is as good a description of the Absolute as the concept of 'nothing' is!

I love this stuff! :-)