Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics

Moonpaths by the Cowherds

For a hundred years, the West has wrestled with the problem of ethical nihilism. God’s commands once provided a firm foundation for morality; but then he died. All attempts to find an alternative foundation have failed. Why, then, should we be moral? How can we be sure what is moral? No one has satisfactory answers, despite many ingenious attempts by brilliant philosophers.

Buddhism has wrestled with the same problem for much longer: most of two thousand years. According to Mahayana, everything is empty. This means everything exists only as an illusion, or arbitrary human convention. “Everything” must include śīla—codes of religious discipline. (Those are the closest thing Buddhism has to morality.) “Everything” definitely includes people, the main topic of ethics.

For two millennia, authorities have acknowledged an apparent contradiction: why should we conform to śīla if it is empty, illusory, arbitrary, or mere convention? If people don’t really exist, why should we have ethical concern for them? Numerous ingenious answers have been proposed by brilliant philosophers. No one answer has been broadly accepted, which suggests none is satisfactory. Buddhists have argued endlessly, sometimes bitterly, about this problem; this continues in the contemporary West.

In this post, I will suggest that the problem lies in the Mahayana treatment of emptiness and form. Vajrayana offers a different understanding of what emptiness is and how it relates to form. In Dzogchen, this provides an alternative approach to beneficent activity. This approach seems strikingly similar to that proposed by the psychologist Robert Kegan, whose developmental ethics model and its application to Buddhism I discussed recently. I suggest that Dzogchen and Kegan’s work each cast light on the other, and together they may dissolve the foundations problem in both Western and Buddhist moral philosophy.

The Moonpath to Elsweyr

The attempted solutions from Mahayana apply versions of the “two truths” doctrine. (I will use “Mahayana” in the narrow sense, as excluding Vajrayana.) There is the absolute truth, that everything is empty, without true existence; and the conventional truth, that forms exist more-or-less as they appear. Since both truths are true, these cannot conflict.

But how can that be? There are many different, complex and difficult explanations for this. Mahayana philosophers disagree sharply about which is correct—which is evidence that none are. Most agree that only Buddhas are capable of fully apprehending the relationship between the two truths, which comes close to an admission that they actually can’t be reconciled.

In fact, I think that none of the explanations works. Explaining how and why each is wrong would be a huge project, so I’m not even going to start on that here! However, Moonpaths: Emptiness and Ethics, an impressive book on this topic, was published just last month. It is entirely about this problem, which shows that the authors consider the problem unresolved—or at least had not been resolved before now! And, indeed, despite numerous statements of collegiality, they seem not to have come to a shared conclusion.

Moonpaths, written by “The Cowherds,” an all-star team of heavy hitters in Buddhist and Western philosophy, is probably the most sophisticated book that has ever been written on Buddhist ethics. It is also—it seems to me—a complete dead end.1


The overall problem, I believe, is that Mahayana metaphysics in practice separates form and emptiness into distinct realms. There is the perfectly solid actual world of form, and the perfectly inaccessible Faerie Neverland Nirvana of emptiness. This makes emptiness invisible and enlightenment impossible. The scriptural path to emptiness is naught but a mirage, a myth, a moondream.

Since emptiness is always elsweyr, śīla becomes completely definite. Since emptiness has been snatched away, morality turns into rigid forms.

In fact, it is more-or-less explicit in some versions that this is the reason for keeping form and emptiness separate.2 If emptiness leaked into conventional reality from Fairyland, it would corrode śīla. Still worse, it would threaten the feudal-theocratic social order, which was justified in terms of conventional morality. That made it politically imperative to put emptiness out of reach. Thus it was primarily the threat of ethical nihilism (or even ethical flexibility) that motivated Mahayana scrupulosity concerning theories of emptiness that risk ontological nihilism (or even ontological flexibility).

I said above that Mahayana separates form and emptiness “in practice,” because the scriptures often say otherwise. The heart of the Heart Sutra is “form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form.” Mahayana sects acknowledge that this is true in theory, but find ways to deny its practical relevance. They say that form and emptiness are unified in Neverland (the metaphysical fantasy of ultimate reality, Elsweyr), but emptiness cannot be found by ordinary people in the ordinary world. That is reserved for imaginary Buddhas.

Everyday emptiness and ethics

A mooncow from Elsweyr with a mooncowherd.
I think of Vajrayana—especially Dzogchen—as calling Mahayana’s bluff. It puts into practice concepts Mahayana considers true only “ultimately” and theoretically. Vajrayana treats them as workable everyday realities—not abstract, incomprehensible holy mysteries.

Whereas emptiness is the nearly-impossible goal of Mahayana, it is the taken-for-granted starting-point of Vajrayana. Tantric practices, such as yidam, work with vivid empty form as an intrinsic quality of everyday being. Because emptiness is an everyday experiential reality, inseparable from form, its conceptual presentation is rather different than in Mahayana. Emptiness is luminous (ösel), radiant, full of dynamic potential (tsal); not a mere “non-affirming negation.”

“Non-affirming negation” is the summary slogan of Prasangika, the Mahayana metaphysics promoted by the Geluk School of Tibet. “Emptiness,” for Prasangika, is nothing more than the denial of true existence. That leaves “conventional” existence—particularly śīla and authority—untouched. Prasangika was the Geluk rhetorical strategy for keeping emptiness and form separate, and thereby justifying their theocratic rule, which was legitimated in terms of their supposedly exceptionally rigid adherence to śīla.

The Rangjung Yeshe Dictionary says of ösel:

A key term in Vajrayana philosophy signifying a departure from Mahayana’s over-emphasis on emptiness which can lead to nihilism. According to Mipham Rinpoche, ‘luminosity’ means ‘free from the darkness of unknowing and endowed with the ability to cognize.’”

Tsal has a range of meanings including radiance, skill, power, play, creativity, and dynamic potential energy. These may seem to be form qualities more than emptiness ones—but in Vajrayana those are inseparable!

In my discussion of Kegan’s model of ethical development, I wrote:

Stage 5 recognizes that [ethics] are both nebulous (intangible, interpenetrating, transient, amorphous, and ambiguous) and patterned (reliable, distinct, enduring, clear, and definite). Nebulosity and pattern are inherent in all systems, and are therefore inseparable.

I believe this is faithful to Kegan’s scheme, but the presentation is straight-up Tantric. “Nebulosity and pattern” are more-or-less emptiness and form, as they are understood in Vajrayana. The ten qualities I enumerated correspond to the ten Tantric Buddhas. The five female Buddhas each have their specific emptiness-recognizing wisdom, and the five male Buddhas each have their specific form-wielding method. The Buddhas appear as five couples, each in sexual union, representing the inseparability of their corresponding qualities. So moral considerations are intangible yet reliable; interpenetrating yet distinct; transient yet enduring; amorphous yet clear; ambiguous yet definite. Each of these is obviously, unavoidably true, to some degree, in some sense, in at least some cases.

Dzogchen goes a step further than Tantra: it rejects the “two truths” concept explicitly. For Dzogchen, emptiness and form cannot be separated at all. They do not describe distinct domains or levels of existence. There is only one world, in which emptiness and form are both pervasive and obvious aspects of the dynamic play of phenomena.

Here’s Jigmé Lingpa’s take:

Apparent and ultimate are not found in awakening mind. To say “it is not” does not make it empty. To maintain “it is” does not make it solid.

Ken McLeod’s commentary on that:

On the one hand, when we see through the confusion of life, we know viscerally the utter groundlessness of experience. On the other, we are awed to the point of overwhelm at the fullness of life. There is no way to put into words this dichotomy that is not a dichotomy. These two aspects of awakening mind, in the hands of both practitioners and philosophers, evolved and calcified into the concept of the two truths: what is ultimately true and what is apparently true (often also translated as absolute truth and relative truth). Jigmé Lingpa, however, is not fooled by such conceptual formulations. In this line he points out that in the actual experience of awakening mind, ideas such as apparent and ultimate truth do not arise at all. They are conceptual designations, nothing more.

McLeod writes that, according to Dzogchen, the two truths philosophy “does not work”: “it has no power. We have lost our original path and now wander along the pathways of the intellect, adding argument to argument, constructing sophisticated lines of reasoning that go nowhere.”3

The Kunjé Gyalpo, the earliest major Dzogchen scripture, goes through all the Buddhist ethical theories, each of the codes of śīla, and points out what’s wrong with them. Each is based on some limited, fixed idea. Dzogchen comprehensively rejects fixed ideas. Not ideas—just their fixation.

Here Dzogchen bites the bullet, where Mahayana obfuscates. Emptiness does mean that no ethical system can work. However, “emptiness” does not mean “non-existence.” Morality is unavoidably intangible, fluid, transient, amorphous, and ambiguous. It cannot be captured by rules, principles, or lists of virtues. But this is not ethical nihilism. The activity of the Dzogchen practitioner is spontaneously beneficent.

This insistence that morality is empty, and so cannot be captured by an ethical system, but also has form, and so is meaningful and important, gets reiterated in many later Dzogchen texts. However, as far as I know, none of them have much more to say. There are hundreds of volumes of them, so it’s possible there’s an extended discussion somewhere. (If you know of one, I’d love to hear about it!) But I suspect not. Buddhism overall has little interest in ethics, and Dzogchen usually has much less to say about any topic than any other branch of Buddhism does.

The view that ethics can have no foundation, but is nonetheless compelling, seems obvious to me. Nietzsche pointed it out more than a century ago. However, Western moral philosophers have done naught since but form hostile tribes who argue that their pathetic attempt at foundation-building is less implausible than the others. “Well, at least utilitarianism could in principle tell you what to do—even though we can never apply it in practice—whereas virtue ethics never could give any specific advice even in theory!”

After Nietzsche, there are only a handful of works in Western moral philosophy that acknowledge both the emptiness and form of ethics. The clearest example is Will Buckingham’s Finding Our Sea-Legs, which I recommend highly. Two others are Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity and Hans-Georg Moeller’s The Moral Fool. (Buckingham and Moeller both were influenced by Buddhism.)

Beyond method

Guitar slide

So if ethics can have no foundation, if there are no absolute rules, how can we act morally?

Dzogchen, uniquely among Buddhisms, explicitly has no system of practice, and no overall principle or method. There is no defined path. This is a pervasive feature of the yana, not just its approach to ethics.

Two key Dzogchen terms are kadag and lhundrup. “Kadag” means “primordial purity.” There is no purity or impurity in reality. On recognizing this, the Dzogchen practitioner goes “beyond good and evil”—the same phrase Nietzsche used—and is freed from the grip of karma.

“Lhundrup” is spontaneous beneficent activity. Kadag and lhundrup correspond roughly with emptiness and form (in Mahayana) and with wisdom and method (in Tantrayana). But there is no set form or method to lhundrup. That’s why it is “spontaneous.”

Stage 5 of Robert Kegan’s developmental ethics seems to me startlingly resonant with Dzogchen—although he was not influenced by any sort of Buddhism, so far as I know.4 I wrote a summary of Kegan’s model recently; the remainder of this page assumes understanding of that.

Since they cannot be separated, kadag is the emptiness aspect of lhundrup; and lhundrup is the form aspect of kadag. What does that mean?

Kegan explains stage 5 in terms of a glass tube, such as a guitar slide.5 It has two openings. The “openings” do not exist without the tube. They are not any thing; they are empty space. Their boundaries are inherently ill-defined: how far does an opening extend inside or outside the tube? Yet a tube also cannot exist without openings; a glass cylinder lacking them is not a tube, it is a rod.

Without a view of primordial purity (the empty openings, which are undefined but which define a piece of glass as a tube) there can be no spontaneous beneficent action. Without spontaneous beneficent action (the glass tube, which has manifest properties) there can be no primordial purity beyond good and evil.

So far, this may all sound like complete gibberish. Or, it may sound paradoxical and contradictory. It is reasonable to be skeptical. Stage 5, and kadag/lhundrup, explicitly cannot be made sense of according to any system. Spontaneous beneficence cannot be judged as correct according to any fixed criteria. Here at stage 5, criteria, systems, principles, and rationality are objects, not the subject.

So how does this work, if not according to a rational system? Lhundrup is described as “natural” and “uncontrived.” Ethically accurate activity occurs spontaneously because we humans just are ethical. According to Dzogchen theory, this is an inherent aspect of the mind itself. This might sound unhelpfully like monist woo, or a dormitive principle that explains nothing.

So let’s take “natural” seriously and talk evolution. Humans are naturally ethical because we are social animals. Our brains evolved to do ethics. (There’s been extensive, fascinating research on this in the past decade.) Cultures evolve, too. Ones with more sophisticated ethics have out-competed and displaced those with less sophisticated ones. In modernity, we have elaborate institutions—based on stage 4 systematic ethics—which make societies of hundreds of millions of people functional. All this just happened. Even the construction of rational, stage 4 ethical systems just happened, as a natural process. There is no ultimate justification for evolution, and no ultimate justification for ethics. It’s just what we do.

However, it is not arbitrary: other social animals evolved basic morality independently, because it’s effective at organizing clans and team activity. It is not meaningless, and we can do it well or badly. As an evolved function of material brains and material culture, we do not do ethics by formless, ineffable intuition. There are moral specifics.6

Dzogchen has no fixed method; it is inherently improvisational, in all aspects, not just ethics. However, it deploys methods when, and if, they are useful. What methods? It has some of its own; but it also happily uses whatever tools are ready to hand. The Kunjé Gyalpo details the limitations of the methods of Sutra and Tantra, but it also recommends deploying them when they are helpful. Sutra and Tantra take their methods as Ultimate Truths; Dzogchen re-appropriates them as heuristics, ways-of-looking, tricks of the trade.

Tantra develops mastery of precise action within systems. For Dzogchen, systems are fluid and transparent. Dzogchen may use systems, or pieces of systems, in the flow of effortless improvisation. Where the tantrika is a technician, the Dzogchenpa is a musician. Great jam band players master the technical details of a musical genre, or many genres, but transcend them. They may reference, borrow from, combine, and play with styles and techniques, but their music flows spontaneously from the texture of the moment of playing.7

This is also the stage 5 approach to ethics. Stage 5 comes into its own when no ethical system has an adequate answer, yet action is required. Its improvisation follows no rules, but is responsive to the specifics of the situation. Typically it coordinates ethical considerations taken from multiple, incommensurable stage 4 systems, plus stage 3 communities and stage 2 interests.

From the point of view of the lower yanas, Dzogchen looks like magic. From the point of view of earlier ethical stages, a stage 5 solution can seem that way too.

Abandoning an attempt at an application

I hope some readers will have found this “explanation” exciting and illuminating; but I fear most will find it exasperating and incomprehensible. It has certainly been absurdly abstract.

This page was supposed to include an example, here at the end. I do not know of any detailed discussion of Dzogchen ethics; and I think Kegan’s few examples of stage 5 ethical practice are not concrete or compelling enough to replicate here.

So I started working through a particular ethical issue myself, looking at it from stage 3, 4, and 5 viewpoints; analyzing it in terms of the tantric five wisdoms; and observing the inseparable emptiness and form of the issues. My example concerned the UK leftist/Islamist alliance. That was a “hot topic” when I was working on it a month ago. After the Paris attack a couple weeks later, it is way too hot to handle. Points about how one does ethics would be overwhelmed by intense opinions about the meaning of the event.

So a different example would be good; but I don’t have time for one now. (Sorry!)

I do intend to develop this approach further, to make it more concrete, accessible, and actionable. That will be a big job. I will do it on a different web site, the Meaningness book site.

You can sign up to get email notifications of new Meaningness pages here. It also has an RSS feed if you use that.

  1. Significantly, Moonpaths takes an exclusively Mahayana view. The Cowherds do not mention any Vajrayana (Tantric or Dzogchen) approach to its problem of emptiness and ethics. 
  2. See for instance Elizabeth Napper, Dependent-Arising and Emptiness, pp. 110, 148-150, 191-2, concerning Tsongkhapa’s interpretation. 
  3. This is in his excellent A Trackless Path, perhaps the most accessible Dzogchen book ever written. I will post a review of it next week. I chose it for its simplicity of language; many Dzogchen scriptures and major traditional commentaries also include an explicit rejection of the two truths. 
  4. Kegan almost completely ignores moral philosophy, although he certainly knows it well. His field is empirical psychology, not philosophy; but his model seems to me to address, and perhaps even answer, the fundamental problem of moral philosophy—ethical nihilism—which philosophy has almost completely failed to take seriously. Philosophers waste their time playing academic status games, elaborating details of approaches they know a priori could not work. 
  5. In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life, pp. 313 and 316. 
  6. Having realized that morality is an evolved, natural function, it’s also important to recognize that “natural” does not always imply “ethically correct.” 
  7. Sainkho Namtchylak, who sings in the video above, is Tuvan, from a culture that combines Mongolian Vajrayana Buddhist and Siberian shamanic influences. She trained in Western classical voice technique at university, while clandestinely becoming the first woman to master Khöömei, Tuvan overtone singing, traditionally a male-only style. She moved to Europe, and to avant-garde free improvisation, often with jazz and electronic instruments and styles mixed with Tuvan ones. My thanks to Beth Preston for introducing me to her music. 

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

43 thoughts on “Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics”

  1. Not sure if you saw it, but I provided a quite detailed argument for the famous line “form is emptiness” having originally being “form is illusion” (rūpaṃ māyā). I did this by tracking the phrase from where it was quoted in the 25k PoW Sutra back into the 8k PoW Sutra. 8k has māyā and 25k has śūnyatā. Form is not emptiness, nor is emptiness form. That was and is nonsense. The 8k PoWS does not make this mistake. Indeed it says that if one practices with “form is emptiness” one is still practising with respect to a sign – and thus getting it wrong.

    Something seems to have gone wrong with the PoW tradition between the composition of the 8k and the emergence of the 25k. My long draft essay containing all the citations and details is here: http://www.jayarava.org/writing/form-is-not-emptiness.pdf I plan a shorter more pithy article for peer reviewed publication in due course.

    Since then I have come across a cache of examples, in a book, where śūnyatā is arbitrarily added to Buddhist texts in Chinese āgama texts compared with their Pāḷi Nikāya versions. It seems śūnyatā became something of a fetish for Buddhists and they shoe-horned it in everywhere and anywhere, with little regard for the sense that it produced. It’s like a madness came over Mahāyānists sometime around the 2nd Century CE. Not quite sure what yet, but the result is 1800 years of Buddhist nonsense that people are reluctant to think about, let alone criticise.

  2. David, have you checked out the Capabilities Approach of Amartya Sen and Margaret Nussbaum? Any thoughts on it? This seems to be a very interesting ethics approach that does not fit into the normal ethics categories. Sen’s version is more open ended, but Nussbaum’s seems to actually try to arrive at some particulars. Here’s a little Buddhist reflection on her approach http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/04/eynd0301.pdf
    Also, I’m reading the Moonpaths book you mentioned and am enjoying it- although I’m more engaged with ‘Finding Our Sea Legs’ at the moment.

  3. Certain Chan masters also had interesting things to say in what seems to be an effort to de-reify or deconstruct the form/emptiness concept (and, elsewhere, all reified conceptual ideas/views), possibly in order to get around the familiar inconsistencies of Mahāyāna metaphysics. For example, Dayi Daoxin is attributed to have written, “Those who have just begun to practice Buddhism immediately understand emptiness, but this is only a view of emptiness and is not true emptiness. Those who obtain true emptiness through cultivating the Way do not see either emptiness nor non-emptiness. They do not have any views at all.”
    Daoxin doesn’t suggest that emptiness is inaccessible or a magic metaphysical absolute, but that obtaining true emptiness doesn’t lend itself to any views (and therefore any fixations on views) whatsoever, even views/fixed concepts about “emptiness” itself.
    This is perhaps an interesting parallel with what Jayarava wrote in ‘Form is (Not) Emptiness’: “The Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā makes clear that when one practices with concepts like ‘form is empty’ in mind that this is still an error. The śūnyatā-vimokṣa samādhi is free of such concepts…[we] really ought to talk more about śūnyatā as one of the trivimokṣa or ‘three liberations’, a state in which all verbal cognition shuts down and the experience is empty of all concepts.”

  4. Jayarava — Thanks, that’s really interesting! I had seen it before, but it’s good to have a pointer to it here.

    My take is that every generation of Buddhists has inherited a vast mass of practices and doctrines that are both (1) hopelessly incoherent, contradictory, and wrong, and (2) inspiring and seemingly insightful and important. So intelligent Buddhists in every generation have had to grapple with this mass and try to make it understandable and useful. But, because Buddhism is a religion, they’ve had to at least pretend to take everything labelled “Buddhavacana” as Absolute Truth. Even though many Absolute Truths were just scribal errors, or earlier generations being stupid, or good-faith conceptual confusions by smart people with inevitably limited understanding.

    However, the successive attempts to reconcile scripture with experience have sometimes made real progress—imperfectly, not unidirectionally, and only occasionally—but progress nonetheless.

    So a bunch of very smart people tried to reconcile the experience of tantric practice with Madhyamaka theories of emptiness and with Tathagatagarbha (which are obviously blatantly contradictory, as everyone involved more-or-less admitted). And that three-way integration was actually productive. It resulted in major reinterpretations of both Madhyamaka and Tathagatagarbha, which are less wrong. This tantric view (more-or-less what’s called Rangtong in Tibetan) is still somewhat incoherent and implausible, but it gives real insight into tantric practice.

    (Zen did something similar, I gather, again because they were doing a phenomenology of meditation practice. Also, both were influenced by Taoism, which apparently may have had the idea of “the luminosity of emptiness” earlier than either. Clearly that idea is incompatible with Madhyamaka, but it’s actually useful.)

    I think the phenomenological attitude was particularly important in this, because it ties the metaphysical speculation back to something real (even if the something is difficult to get a handle on).

    Early Dzogchen was simply a phenomenology of the experience of tantric energy practice. They dropped all the theory, and just talked about what it was like. But then, reflecting on that, they realized they’d resolved many of the conceptual problems in Buddhist theory as a side-effect. They were able to explicitly reject both Madhyamaka and Tathagatagarbha because they had new solutions to the problems those were trying (and failing) to solve. (I gave a somewhat silly summary of Dzogchen’s dropping of Tathagatagarbha in Your self is not a spiritual obstacle, in the end section about tradition.)

    Some new metaphysics got shoved into Dzogchen later. Or maybe it’s phenomenology. It’s hard to tell. Anyway, I think it’s legitimate to ignore it.

    Because it scrapped almost all the prior Buddhist metaphysics, I think Dzogchen is exceptionally naturalism-compatible. It seems to me the best conceptual starting point for a new Western Buddhism. (Which is more-or-less what Chögyam Trungpa did with Shambhala Training.)

    I said “conceptual starting point” because you can’t actually practice it unless you’ve mastered either tantric energy work or a Dzogchen ngondro. Shambhala Training included (somewhat covertly) both of those.

  5. Foster — Thanks, several people (including Will Buckingham) have recommended that I read Nussbaum. I haven’t done that yet.

    Alexander — Your added your thoughts about Zen while I was writing my reply to Jayarava above, in which I said something similar! Zen, like tantra, goes beyond Mahayana, and beyond emptiness as an Absolute, to explore the territory that lies beyond it. (Or so I gather. I don’t really understand it very well.)

  6. “Zen, like tantra, goes beyond Mahayana, and beyond emptiness as an Absolute, to explore the territory that lies beyond it.”

    I’m curious what your take is on Brian Victoria’s documentation of Zen Buddhist support for Japanese imperialism during the early 20th century, which used the language of emptiness to justify atrocities:


  7. Well, various Buddhist doctrines have been used to justify atrocities throughout its history. I guess one could say that by the 20th century, Buddhist authorities ought to have known better, but it’s consistent with the general history of Buddhist “ethics,” which I’ve argued at length doesn’t have much going for it.

  8. Hi David

    Thanks for your long reply. I agree that there seems to have been a repeated need to “reconcile scripture with experience”. This is also what Kūkai was doing in 9th century Japan and he is the source of most of what I know about Tantra.

    I don’t know enough about Dzogchen to say whether it is a viable alternative, but my general feeling is that we have to drop everything that is pre-scientific and start over. For a start I think we need to develop a native English discourse for the experiences that some of us are having. And or other modern European languages, but English is the new lingua franca for modern Buddhism. I’m fortunate to know Sanskrit and Pāḷi, but have no Tibetan so I have no idea what a word like Dzogchen means (or how to pronounce it!).

    Now that I’ve stumbled into them I think we should publicise the history of disagreements and intra-Buddhist polemics so that the real history of Buddhist ideas becomes clearer to more Buddhists. People seem to think I’m a maverick for example, but my work is solidly in the tradition of Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu. Yours is too. Dude, we are traditional.

    Re Buddhist ethics – they only work if you practice them, by which I mean consciously take the precepts on and modify your behaviour to fit them. And confess and repair breaches. It’s just unfortunate the Mahāyānists swept away the basis for this kind of ethical practice and Tantrikas openly went against ethical conventions. The precepts don’t work unless you follow them religiously :-). And most of us seem reluctant or unable to seriously take on ethical practice in this way. We WEIRDos want to be bad and to celebrate outlaws who seem to be free of convention because we are Romantic idiots. Sigh.

  9. These are my initial thoughts and questions off the top of my head – I appreciate answering them might be part of the big work of developing this account in your book, but here they are nevertheless.

    Aren’t most or all (interesting) ethical problems “those without an adequate answer, to which action is required”? If there was a simple clear answer to an ethical dilemma, it wouldn’t be a dilemma! With an ethical dilemma, often the solution is to pick one of two options (e.g. action vs. non-action, air strikes on ISIS or not…), neither of which any “solution” will feel wholly satisfactory (e.g. a zero sum game). So how can seemingly magical solutions come about in a dualistic world where bombing and not-bombing are separable?

    The idea of “effortless improvisation” reminds me of wu wei and zen masters talking about spontaneous action and magically responding the needs of the situation in a selfless way. Which I have always been suspicious of, as you have the samurai thinking of themselves beyond good and evil chopping off people’s heads and feeling very zen about it. What is stopping the Dzogchenpa doing the same? While they marvel at their following the flow and texture of the moment which they respond to naturally whilst using people’s heads as bongos.

    “I started working through a particular ethical issue myself, looking at it from stage 3, 4, and 5 viewpoints; analyzing it in terms of the tantric five wisdoms; and observing the inseparable emptiness and form of the issues.”

    How does a systematic analytic approach like this match up with the idea of acting “in the flow of effortless improvisation”?

  10. Jayarava — Many interesting points!

    Dude, we are traditional.

    Oh, totally.

    we have to drop everything that is pre-scientific and start over

    I’m not sure where we could start if we drop everything that is pre-scientific. The whole of pre-Mongkut Buddhism is pre-scientific. We can, however, continue Mongkut’s program of naturalizing Buddhism, which seems quite straightforward and has worked well so far.

    we need to develop a native English discourse for the experiences that some of us are having

    That would be great. And, I think this has been a useful contribution by the least traditional of Buddhist teachers over the past few decades, including the Consensus. People like Jack Kornfield do talk about meditation experiences in plain English. So did Chögyam Trungpa.

    My next post is called “Dzogchen in plain English,” as it happens. It’s a review of an upcoming book by Ken McLeod.

    “Dzog” (rDzogs in the Wylie notation for Tibetan orthography) is “complete” and “chen” is “great.” Originally, it referred to the experience of accomplishing dzog-rim, “completion stage,” which is the second phase of tantric practice, in which you work with energy relatively directly instead of through elaborately specified techniques (as in the first, “generation stage,” kye-rim). The “complete” part of the name subsequently got various other connotations.

    I think we should publicise the history of disagreements and intra-Buddhist polemics

    I agree. Although, this is very well-known in Tibetan Buddhism, and actually tends to be tiresome. In Tibet, there are four stable Schools, which have had well-defined positions on all issues for many centuries, and have debated them endlessly. That means that there’s a huge body of polemical work that already sets out the arguments for and against any position. At its best, that’s a great source of insight. Much of it is mediocre, though, and the positions have been mainly fixed since the 1400s, so it’s sterile and scholastic.

    The Tibetan tradition springs from the Pala-era Nalanda University tradition, in which logical debate about Buddhist topics was already well-established. The primary founder of Tibetan Buddhism was Shantarakshita, who while at Nalanda accomplished a dialectical synthesis of Madhyamaka and Yogacara. (Those had been metaphorically at war in Nalanda for decades if not centuries).

  11. Shane — Thanks for this…

    With an ethical dilemma, often the solution is to pick one of two options (e.g. action vs. non-action, air strikes on ISIS or not…), neither of which any “solution” will feel wholly satisfactory (e.g. a zero sum game). So how can seemingly magical solutions come about in a dualistic world where bombing and not-bombing are separable?

    Not all ethical problems come down to a pair of both-bad choices. In fact, that’s quite rare, I think. Moral philosophers like to concentrate on those (trolley problems), which I think is a big mistake.

    Even in this example, the way in which you do air strikes, or what you do instead of air strikes, or as well as air strikes, or the way you talk about air strikes, are all additional degrees of freedom, wherein better solutions might be found.

    The idea of “effortless improvisation” reminds me of wu wei and zen masters talking about spontaneous action and magically responding the needs of the situation in a selfless way. Which I have always been suspicious of, as you have the samurai thinking of themselves beyond good and evil chopping off people’s heads and feeling very zen about it. What is stopping the Dzogchenpa doing the same?

    Nothing, of course. There is no guarantee someone won’t misunderstand or misuse stage 5 ethics. But of course the same is true for stage 3 and stage 4 too. Indeed, those are misused, in public political discourse, to justify atrocities every single day.

    How does a systematic analytic approach like this match up with the idea of acting “in the flow of effortless improvisation”?

    It’s talk about ethics, rather than the doing of ethics. We can talk about how a jam band improvises. That may be of limited use, but not zero. I’m not a musician, so although I’ve read and appreciated some books about musical improvisation, I can’t take it far as an example myself. I’m hoping to find other examples that are more accessible for a broader audience, or at least for the STEM-ish audience I most hope to communicate with.

  12. According to Mahayana, everything is empty. This means everything exists only as an illusion, or arbitrary human convention.

    I think of a third thing emptiness means in Mahayana. Because everything is causally dependent on a complex of relationships, nothing exists independently “from its own side”. That is, everything is empty of svabhava, intrinsic nature. This understanding, very mainstream Mahayana, is much more in line with our current western view of the world than the other two.

  13. Clearly written, however I don’t know exactly what the elswyer stuff is referring to, I am clearly not part of the right sub-culture here (no idea if that is a film, a computer game, a book, or whatever) :-)

  14. I think of a third thing emptiness means in Mahayana. Because everything is causally dependent on a complex of relationships, nothing exists independently “from its own side”. That is, everything is empty of svabhava, intrinsic nature. This understanding, very mainstream Mahayana, is much more in line with our current western view of the world than the other two.

    Yes; the problem with that interpretation, though, is that it has no force. Everyone, regardless of philosophical or religious persuasion, agrees with it. And then: so what?

    I don’t know exactly what the elswyer stuff is referring to

    There’s links for your convenience :-) But it’s just a joke—there’s an odd series of coincidental similarities between terms in the Buddhist ethics book and a particular video game.

  15. We can talk about how a jam band improvises. That may be of limited use, but not zero…. I’m hoping to find other examples that are more accessible for a broader audience, or at least for the STEM-ish audience I most hope to communicate with.

    Amateur linguist here: Adult second-language acquisition might be relevant, and it’s something many STEM types have experienced themselves. Specifically:

    Both learners and educators vastly overestimate how useful it is to study explicit (“systematic”) models of grammar.
    Actually, the ability to spontaneously use a language well (“improvisation”) seems to be learned mainly by example, and elaborate models don’t help much.
    Using simple models, sparingly, can still help compensate for immature improvisation skills.

    My linguistics contacts tell me the core text for this is Krashen’s Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1982), which is available for free on his website.

  16. That helps, but still I am confused, particularly with your argument for the relationship with Kegan and dzogchen (and your account of Kegan’s ethical system is more focused on stage 3 and 4, and Kegan doesn’t spend much time on stage 5 either, so it is rather mysterious).

    Re: “limited use” and an obvious point – Music and language are similar in that you have an underlying rule based system that experts can create endless new combinations (and intuitively)…navigating the complexities of modern society, however…

    So you can decide to bomb because you say you are the good guys, and they are evil. Or you can decide to bomb because you feel you need to defend a way of life, or principles like freedom. Or, you can decide to bomb for some more complex nuanced justification with extended rationalisations, negotiations, preconditions, additional actions and so on (which sounds like a political solution – not something specifically or uniquely stage 5…)

    My understanding of dzogchen, like zen, is that if you are in the right “state” of mind – e.g. feeling all rigpa/zen, then appropriate action naturally spurts forth. And your talk of spontaneous flow, effortless improvisation, responsive to the specifics is consistent with that view. And it sounds nice and romantic and inspiring. And rather “System 1”. But I still can’t see how “coordination of considerations taken from multiple, incommensurable stage 4 systems, plus stage 3 communities and stage 2 interests” can arise in such a fashion. That sounds intellectual, rational and analytic.

    i.e. is the “doing of ethics” from a Kegan stage 5 perspective vs. doing ethics dzogchen-style quite different? I think I prefer the sound of the former, as a STEM type, as I worry about justifications arising from insights into the ultimate true nature of the mind of great radiance of empty being clouds (or whatever).

  17. Dan — Thanks! That’s a really interesting phenomenon. I’m not sure whether it’s an example of what I’m looking for, which is “meta-systematicity.” If you learn the language without the grammar, that’s more “stage-3-ish.”

    Maybe an analogy would be someone who did somehow learn a grammar (maybe from a book, with no exposure to spoken language) and then wrote in that language just with reference to the grammar (stage 4); but then learned to flexibly improvise around the grammar (maybe by exposure to native speakers), which would be like stage 5. (Whether anyone actually can learn a language this way, I’m not sure, although it seems to describe my memory of learning Latin pretty well.)

  18. Shane — Hmm, several things here… probably the central one is that Dzogchen is not “no concepts.” But let’s clear some other things first…

    Zen and Dzogchen are not the same, or even closely similar, although they do have some similarities. I don’t know enough about Zen to say anything about it. However, if you approach Dzogchen from a base of Zen, it’s likely to be misleading.

    I don’t know enough about Dzogchen to say anything about it, either, and everything I say should be discounted accordingly. Probably I should say nothing. However, I’m willing to take the risk of saying wrong things about it, mostly because so few people are (whereas everyone and their cockatoo is willing to go on about Zen).

    Dzogchen and Kegan’s stage 5 are definitely not the same. There are some structural similarities, which I think may help understand both, but they could also be misleading. So, I’m definitely not saying that ethics in Dzogchen is the same as stage 5 ethics in Kegan. Partly because those systems are so different, and partly because—as far as I know—ethics in Dzogchen is not well specified. And, as you say, stage 5 is not as clearly specified as one might like either. (I hope to rectify that.) The two are radically different at least inasmuch as a Dzogchen account of ethics would have to involve rigpa, and Kegan’s obviously doesn’t.

    The probably-central point is that rigpa is not “no concepts.” You can solve differential equations while in rigpa; and you can carry out complex ethical reasoning while in rigpa.

    Recall the four ting-nge-dzin, if you are familiar with that teaching. The first ting-nge-dzin is the no-concepts state of mind as a bright blue empty sky. (Emptiness is luminous and also blue!) The second ting-nge-dzin is the arrival of a flock of cockatoos and a hostile flock of kookaburras, and they have a big noisy shouting match and dogfight in the sky. This is conceptual thought arising. It occurs in the sky—in other words, rigpa remains undisturbed by the drama of thinking. The third ting-nge-dzin is the recognition that whatever happens in the sky—empty blue, a shock-and-awe bombing campaign, or an elaborate sunset—the sky’s nature is unchanged. The fourth ting-nge-dzin is activity that proceeds from the sky (whatever happens to be going on in it).

    So this is not about System 1 vs System 2. Both Systems are just things that happen in the sky. Rigpa is prior to that. And note also that rigpa is not a feeling. It’s not exactly a “state” either, although it’s common to talk about it that way. It’s actually always there. Whatever you happen to be feeling, whatever state you are in, is stuff-in-the-sky; it’s orthogonal to rigpa, which doesn’t change.

    I still can’t see how “coordination of considerations taken from multiple, incommensurable stage 4 systems, plus stage 3 communities and stage 2 interests” can arise in such a fashion. That sounds intellectual, rational and analytic.

    Sure. That’s stuff-in-the-sky.

    The point is that stage 5 does not perform the coordination according to any method. So there’s two aspects to stage 5: unlike stage 3, it makes use of systematic rationality; unlike stage 4, it is meta to systematic rationality, and is not systematic rationality.

    That-which-is-meta-to-systems is not itself another system. That’s the key point in Kegan’s scheme. By analogy, in Dzogchen, that-which-cognizes-mental-phenomena is not a mental phenomenon. It’s sems nyid, “mind itself” or “the nature of mind,” which not a mental phenomenon; and is roughly equivalent to rigpa.

  19. …which I mention only because in it the killer has peak experiences as he commits his crimes – samadhi via murder. Don’t know if Wilson based this on historical confessions or is just his own theorising – but interesting when considering all this buddhist morality stuff.

  20. Nebulosity and pattern. Chaos and strange attractor.
    After all, if we accept that morality is brain based, and brains are fractal systems, and the world brains interact with (or creat) are fractal systems, then we can hardly be surprised that morality manifests fractally, chaotically, unpredictably, and within certain bounds.

  21. I’m not sure whether it’s an example of what I’m looking for, which is “meta-systematicity.” If you learn the language without the grammar, that’s more “stage-3-ish.”

    Right, OK. I was thinking that the idea of using pieces of systematized grammar as one tool of many sounded sort of stage-5-ey. But you’re right, it’s not actually a great fit; Krashen’s main idea could be paraphrased as “language acquisition has no stage 4, and that thing over there that looks like a stage 4 is actually a separate skill.”

  22. Since I don’t have a good sense of what it means to find emptiness in everyday experience, I couldn’t really follow the logic from that point on. I suppose it means something like “appreciating the ways that something in the world could be reinterpreted or repurposed”. If so, form and emptiness are inseparable because no matter how you reinterpret or repurpose something, it will still do or be something in the boring, conventional world. Building on my gross ignorance, kadag would be something like “the capacity to appreciate” and lhundrup something like “using something in the world for beneficial ends, whether that something is repurposed/reinterpreted or not”. I suppose I have good reading lined up for 2016!

  23. Joshua — These are good guesses! But not quite the point. I will try to explain soonish. Unfortunately I’m having a busy time and won’t get a chance to reply properly for several days perhaps.

    It will help to know where you are coming from. I’m guessing you have a STEM background? And not a whole lot of meditation experience. If that’s not right, I’ll answer differently than I would have otherwise.

  24. I thought you put up the Skyrim video as an illustration of engaging with a world despite the subject being aware of that world’s illusoriness. Video game morality seems like an interesting perspective to look at form and emptiness. I enjoy playing open-ended games because they’re like a lucid dream, I get to engage with an exciting world while still knowing I’m out of harm’s reach… and I’m free, because my old identity and personality isn’t fixed, I choose an avatar, I can even be evil. Mostly though in games people seem to enjoy doing good, saving the world, exercising beneficial skills, creating cool things, etc.

    I randomly found this forum thread about ethics in Minecraft. http://www.minecraftforum.net/forums/minecraft-discussion/discussion/149918-the-ethics-of-minecraft

    It’s full of sort-of-interesting discussions centering around the lure of nihilism. I found this comment by bennaflynn funny and telling:

    “I agree with cave johnston i dont care what ppl think of me when i play minecraft. Theres nobody breathing down my shoulder everytime on i log on. I blow up testificates cause its fun, i burn down there house cause i think it looks cool, i make a flood gate full of lava because it takes time to do it. Its my world.

    The only thing I cant do is cut down a tree and not place a sapling. Empty feeling. (especially pine forests.)”

  25. I thought you put up the Skyrim video as an illustration of engaging with a world despite the subject being aware of that world’s illusoriness.

    How interesting—thanks! No, that hadn’t occurred to me.

    I don’t think of “empty” as similar to “illusory”—although that is the Madhyamaka view.

    Still, it’s interesting that I find it difficult to behave “immorally” in video games. For example, in Oblivion, a quick way to level up as a wizard is to repeatedly summon daedra and kill them with magic. Even though daedra/demons are “evil,” this seemed cruel to me, so (after trying a few times) I decided not to.

    I’m also tediously moral in lucid dreams. Conjuring up hot chicks to have sex with is totally feasible, but even when I’m fully aware that they are imaginary, the consent issues seem sufficiently sketchy that I avoid it.

    Interesting, seeing in that forum thread how other people work through such issues!

  26. If I say “empty of grounding substance” that seems like it would apply on some level both to Skyrim and normal reality. Like someone in that thread countered “it’s just bits” with “well, your mind is just chemical reactions.” On the level of culture: just like it would be somehow ridiculous to be a patriot of your Skyrim character’s home land, to us cosmopolitans the borders of this world seem to be mostly made up and “empty.” Law isn’t grounded by royal-divine substance anymore, so it can also seem “empty.”

    Still, all of those forms appear to us, even if they appear empty. We relate to them even if our relation is rejection. I agree to mostly play by the rules of borders and laws, for practical reasons, and that’s enough; nobody needs me to take them more seriously, unless I want to be a very serious person like a judge. So there’s a game-like aspect to reality.

    Actually maybe judges are even more aware of this. I’m reminded of the contrast between “legal formalism” and “legal realism.” Scalia wrote, apparently: “The rule of law is about form . . . A murderer has been caught with blood on his hands, bending over the body of his victim; a neighbour with a video camera has filmed the crime and the murderer has confessed in writing and on videotape. We nonetheless insist that before the state can punish this miscreant, it must conduct a full-dress criminal trial that results in a verdict of guilty. Is that not formalism? Long live formalism! It is what makes us a government of laws and not of men.”

    I’m not sure what my point is at all, just thinking randomly. So let me paste a couple of quotes from Dreyfus’s book “Being-in-the-World” which I’ve been reading on my vacation. I have a vague idea that Heidegger would be relevant to video game morality. Something like, simulated worlds are convincing to the extent that they bring Dasein into the fiction, and morality for Dasein is “always already” there. Imagine murdering daedra with VR headgear! Anyway, a quote from one of Heidegger’s lectures:

    “Nothing exists in our relationship to the world which provides a basis for the phenomenon of belief in the world. I have not yet been able to find this phenomenon of belief. Rather, the peculiar thing is just that the world is ‘there’ before all belief.”

    And Dreyfus on dreams:

    “Heidegger would perhaps admit that while dreams are not given as inner experiences, they are nonetheless experienced as disclosing a world. Then if we dreamed we were coping with public objects and equipment, we would have to describe this not as having a stream of inner experiences, but as an openness to a nonshared world.”

    I also found it interesting how people in that Minecraft thread show that the relevant distinction isn’t really whether the world is illusory in its forms, but only whether there are any conscious subjects in there which can suffer. So someone says they gladly raze entire villages in single player, but as soon as there is a second conscious player, they don’t even want to annoy them. They’re totally uninterested in pretending like NPCs are real, but clearly concerned about actual human suffering.

  27. Such a good one!

    “Forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangible objects—they’re all merely imputed by the mind in dependence upon becoming objects of particular senses. There’s no such thing as real forms, real sounds, real smells, real tastes or real tangible objects from their own side. They are completely empty. What exists is only that which is merely imputed by the mind, that which comes from the mind. These phenomena exist but those other seemingly “real” phenomena do not. The forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tangible objects that appear to us as having nothing to do with our mind, as real from their own side, are complete illusions, or hallucinations. All of samsara and nirvana, everything that we blab about from morning to night, exists in this way. All these things are empty of existing from their own side. What exists is what came from our mind, what is merely imputed by our mind.”
    Lama Zopa

  28. I will attempt to analyze the UK Leftist/Islamist alliance in terms of the Five Tantric Wisdoms and include viewpoints from Kegan’s Stage 3, 4 and 5.  Firstly, I will apply the specific emptiness-recognizing wisdom of each of the five female Buddhas:  the situation is intangible since most Muslims aren’t Jihadis and there’s no way to say ahead of time who is a Jihadi and who is not, and no one is sure when or if there will be another attack or not;  interpenetrating since we are all in this together; we are all one people of one human race (monist Stage 3 communal mode) who want peace and prosperity; transient until we stop conducting military exercise in the Middle East and find jobs and women for the men, and we British women start dressing more modestly and possibly wearing head scarfs so as not to offend our Muslim brothers; amorphous, so let’s all hold hands; ambiguous because you can’t hold any one group as being the problem since we’re all at fault and are responsible for the situation as it is today, and as a native 5th generation Brit why do I have a right to say who and who can’t live in my country; besides my grandfather was part of the Raj, so I’m guilty by association.  
    Secondly, I will apply the respective form-wielding methods of each male Buddha to the alliance:  reliable because we know the jihadi attacks will not stop; we have a real problem on our hands; the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis from the commonwealth and the Muslim refugees (thanks EU) are a distinct race of people with different languages, customs and cultures than ours; our cultures our incompatible and we have an ongoing enduring problem unless we continue to avoid the truth that the multicultural experiment is not working out; it is clear that the endurance of our great British civilization is under threat, and a definite resolution would be to deport all Syrian immigrants to friendly Muslim countries and subsidize governments, etc. (Nationalism Stage 4). 
    Our newly installed Dzogchen philosopher king given the responsibility to solve the situation comes up with a truly Stage 5 response and that is to … (?). 

  29. Could the need for “new thinking” you see in the 21st century be more a case of your scientific abilities and the influence of Heidegger’s “new beginning” causing a view of the present as devoid of ideas? Perhaps there is more value in those neglected strands of philosophy that fell outside the Continental/Analytic divide altogether and carry some connection to the Western philosophical tradition.

    Two thinkers associated with the early conservative and liberal traditions have more to say to each other long after their irritable association during their lifetimes. I’m working through Croce’s “Aesthetic” at the moment ; in addition to that work which he continued developing throughout his life, he wrote about historiography : ” Indeed, it was not obvious to Americans that the liberal tradition needed the sort of recasting Croce was attempting. In his thinking about politics, Croce had not started with the individual rights central to Anglo-American liberalism; indeed, he had had only contempt for the conventional justifications for liberal democracy. ”

    I believe this is important because as you point out with dry eloquence, Western democracies are having trouble both providing justifications for their political existence and the ability to address changing historical circumstances. Even Zizek recognizes that most of the intellectual energy is coming from the Right today. This is why I’m drawn to those earlier thinkers who tended to run counter to both Marxism and fascism.

    Irving Babbitt wrote about both Plato and Buddha as philosophers of a “higher will” that bears some relation to renunciation.

    “For the purposes of a comparison we may state that Babbitt and Croce were agreed as to the reality of a “higher will” , or moral world-order, and that their disagreement– more partial than Babbitt believed– concerns the relation of art to this worldview…” — Irving Babbitt and the Aestheticians, Folke Leander

    “But Croce did not settle into the relatively aestheticist position that White’s Metahistory seems to invite, even though, at first, he seemed headed in precisely that direction. Typically, Croce attempted to posit a middle way, between non-rational creativity and rational discipline… ” David D. Roberts , Historiography and Politics http://www.nhinet.org/roberts.htm

  30. I meant the above in reference to Heidegger’s “ontological destruction” of Western tradition, not his ideological project. I didn’t intend to associate you with anything despicable; on the contrary your ransacking of his writings for usable parts and explicitly non-spiritual orientation is more refreshing and honest than most takes on Continental philosophy I’ve seen. I promise not to write fiction where David Chapman figures as the creator of sado-masochistic titans who hellishly transform the earth into an eternal rite of struggle that mirrors the strife of the corporate office.

  31. I’ve never come across a Buddhist debunking blog before and it certainly makes for uncomfortable reading. Do you really think you understand it well enough to dismiss it as you do? Do you understand metaphysics well enough to argue with Nagarjuna? I’ve read a couple of posts but seen no telling criticism of the Mahayana view, just confusion. If you want to more difficult target you could have a crack at my writings, which promote the view you dismiss by clarifying the underlying philosophy, with which you seem to be less than well-acquainted.

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