Comments on “Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics”

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Garet Church 2015-11-27

wonderful. thank you.

jayarava 2015-11-27

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.

Foster Ryan 2015-11-27

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.

Alexander 2015-11-27

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.”

David Chapman 2015-11-27

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.

David Chapman 2015-11-27

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.)

Pasada 2015-11-27

“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:

http://www.tricycle.com/reviews/sword-compassion?page=0,0

David Chapman 2015-11-27

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.

jayarava 2015-11-28

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.

Shane 2015-11-28

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”?

David Chapman 2015-11-28

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).

David Chapman 2015-11-28

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.

edlevin2015 2015-11-28
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.

David Chapman 2015-11-28

Jayarava — You might be amused to read about the Half-Eggists, for instance, whose name reminds one of Jonathan Swift’s Big-Endians and Little-Endians (a parody of British religious debates, over egg halves). The Half-Eggist debate was, however, over whether a mind can do more than one thing at a time, so it’s directly relevant to something you wrote about recently.

nannus 2015-11-28

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) :-)

David Chapman 2015-11-28
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.

Dan 2015-11-29
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.

Shane 2015-11-29

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).

David Chapman 2015-11-29

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.)

David Chapman 2015-11-29

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.

Alf, the sacred river 2015-11-29

Dragon Age is loads better than Skyrim

Alf, the sacred river 2015-11-29

Did you ever, BTW, read Ritual in the Dark (Colin Wilson) ?

Alf, the sacred river 2015-11-29

…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.

Alf, the sacred river 2015-11-29

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.

Dan 2015-11-30
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.”

Joshua Holmes 2015-12-01

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!

David Chapman 2015-12-02

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.

Donna Brown 2015-12-11

Thought this article might interest you.. some overlap with your ideas.
http://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-for-2016/january/benedict-and-the-buddha-monasticism-in-the-west/

David Chapman 2015-12-12

Thank you!

Kenny 2015-12-18

With respect to the naturalistic origins of ethics and morality, this reminded me a lot of the Metaethics sequence of posts on Less Wrong, particularly The Gift We Give To Tomorrow.

Mikael Brockman 2015-12-25

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. 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.)”

David Chapman 2015-12-25
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!

Mikael Brockman 2015-12-26

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.

David Chapman 2015-12-28

These are all interesting & insightful points—thank you!

Jackson 2017-03-24

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

Matthew 2017-11-25

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 … (?). 

J. Aurelian 2018-03-17

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

J. Aurelian 2018-03-29

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.

PeterJ 2019-04-01

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.

so many conclusions

friend 2021-01-16

It seems to me you are primary a scholar of Buddhism, and by that surely a very smart and crafty one indeed. I am absolutely not able to climb on that montain of conclusions of yours; it is so far in height, and yet there is no ceiling. Reading the Sutras and philosophizing, abusing the intellect in search of thusness, there is only forgetfulness and confusion. To let go of the mind is to find the mind, said Dogen, thinking non-thinking. Of course, it may be fun, from time to time, to dip one toe into abhidharma. But after one moment, IT becomes phenomenology, a place for the intellect to dwell on, cut off from non-thinking, cut off from wisdom born out of suchness. In endless time, you may accumulate knowledge to compare, analyze and discern all things build on thought, but this montain of ideas will never be complete, but crumble and crush enlightenment.

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