SeekingDharma wrote:Hi Alex. No disrespect intended, I thought I was making a fair inquiry.
I hate taking things out of context. That exercise never ends well, no matter how well intentioned its motivation may be. This is why I was insistent that whoever is interested in discussing this topic ought to read the entire book first.
Nevertheless, not to be a stick in the mud, I will here offer an extract from the book, for your consideration. I am convinced that, out of context, this extract will get violently misinterpreted, but what can I do?
Allow me first a brief prep talk, before we go into the extract. I began my Buddhist practice by getting introduced to one fundamental concept -- the Buddha's silence. My instructors presented this silence as an entry point into the Buddhism, as a handle that everyone must get a hold of before one can begin the practice. According to their presentation, the revolutionary aspect of Buddhism lies exactly in this silence, in refusing to discuss any metaphysical topics.
Needless to say, I took that instruction at its face value, and wholeheartedly embraced the importance of the Buddha's silence. It was only some 15 years later that I've managed to return to this 'fundamental' teaching and examine it more carefully. What I found was not what I expected. Read on:
"Extended studies of the original Buddhist scriptures, as preserved in the Nikayas and Agamas (also known as early or primitive Buddhism that purported to preserve the Buddha’s original, non-embellished words), reveal that the Buddha was fond of remaining silent upon receiving an agreeable request or invitation. Keeping silent after receiving an invitation to join a community event was his way of consenting. In a similar fashion, keeping silent upon receiving a request or a plea from an aspiring practitioner to join his community of followers was the Buddha’s way of consenting and thus giving his seal of approval. From this we see that the Buddha felt that there is no need to spend time talking in cases when two parties reach mutual agreement. Remaining silent was always a sign that the Buddha was in full agreement. However, whenever he felt that what the other party proposes was incorrect, he would spring into action and would verbally denounce the proposed thesis and would then offer a proper elaboration.
The above was the Buddha’s invariable way of teaching and communicating with others. But in the centuries that ensued after the Buddha’s death, this silence that the teacher was famously fond of got turned onto its head, hence propagating a brand new myth whereby the Buddha was allegedly remaining silent whenever he was in disagreement. It is not clear how, or at which point, did this 180 degrees turnaround happen, but it has been abused to this day in defense of some rather dubious metaphysical and speculative theories that many budding Buddhist ‘teachers’ have been peddling. For the sake of brevity, I will expose only one of the most recent misrepresentations that have been collating throughout the Buddhist literature for at least two millenniums. The following passages, culled from the “Introduction to the Middle Way (Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara)”, Shambala Publications, Inc., 2002, are found in the “Translator’s Introduction” (the translator is Padmakara Translation Group, which is a group of scholars working on this and other seminal Mahayana texts). In the section under the heading “The Origins of Madhyamika and the Buddha’s Silence”, the translators direct our attention to what they call ‘a comparatively simple key idea that can provide a vantage point from which to view the whole terrain’. That proposed ‘key idea’ was, of course, the Buddha’s silence, which, according to this fabricated legend, the Buddha was employing whenever he was confronted with a metaphysical question, or a question that is entirely of a speculative nature.
Right at the outset, the problem with this approach is that it is blatantly incorrect. As is recorded in many sutras preserved in the Nikayas and Agamas, the Buddha had never remained silent upon receiving a speculative/metaphysical question. Instead, he was always and invariably represented as giving a very pointed and specific response, which could best be translated as “Do not say so”, or “Do not speak like that”, after which he would elaborate on the correct view regarding the original question. There is a huge and incalculable difference between that kind of a specific and pointed verbal response, and a response shrouded in silence, especially in the light of the fact that, as we have seen, the Buddha’s silence had always indicated full agreement and consent.
This error, embedded in the very fabric of each and every Mahayana treatise, nevertheless remains, and from that error in reasoning, things can only take the turn for the worse. According to these, as well as many other authors, the entire body of Mahayana doctrine represents the exploration and systematic expression of the Buddha’s silence! As the authors of the above “Translator’s Introduction” hasten to explain, “when the inquiry itself concerns matters that transcend experience, it is clear that silence is the only possible response.” (p. 8, emphasis mine) The key word here is transcend. As we have seen in many examples provided in the earlier chapters, the Buddha was always strongly cautioning against looking for an escape via attempting to transcend the perceived or imagined limits of ordinary, as well as extraordinary (as in super-sensory) experiences. Rather than hoping that there must be, after all, more to it, more to this obviously broken and dysfunctional world (the life process), the Buddha advised his followers to remain level-headed, to examine the situation with due sobriety, and to realize and accept the fact, make peace with the fact that this world, samsara, cannot be fixed. He knew that, so long as people continue hoping for the existence of some sort of transcendence, which will in due time, with proper ripening, reveal to them a more just, nay, a perfect side of the broken world, and which then they get to visit and establish themselves in, no hope of them ever achieving liberation will be possible. Simply put, people desire to remain under the spell of the world, and they don’t see any point in abandoning it.
The authors of the above “Translator’s Introduction” continue by examining the Buddha’s fundamental doctrine. In his answer to Vacchagotta’s question whether the Buddha had any theory of his own, the Buddha replied:
“The Tathagata, O Vaccha, is free of all theories. But this, Vaccha, does the Tarthagata know: the nature of form, of how form arises and passes away, the nature of feeling (and so on through the five aggregates). Therefore the Tathagata has attained liberation and is free from attachment, inasmuch as all imaginings, or agitations, or false notions, concerning a self and anything pertaining to a self have gone, faded, ceased, have been given up and abandoned.” (ibid., p. 8)
Following this, the authors immediately comment: “It would be easy to misread this passage as a simple rejection of metaphysics and a slightly condescending admonition to stick to the simple practice of self-scrutiny and attentive living.” But that’s precisely what the Buddha was saying -- self-restraint and benefiting others is the only conceivable way toward achieving freedom. There is no misreading of the Buddha’s doctrine, unless someone wants to purposefully misread it. As we’ve already elaborated on above, the Buddha did reject metaphysics and any form of speculative reasoning, and he did advocate the practice of self-restraint (mentioned as ‘self-scrutiny’ in the above quote) and the practice of benefiting others (‘attentive living’).
Continuing their analysis, they add: “But the message is much more profound than this. It is precisely because the Buddha does not immerse himself in theories about phenomena that he is able to discern their true nature, and it is this very discernment that confers liberation. To know things as they truly are is to free oneself from their tyranny.” (ibid., p. 8) While this passage contains a fairly valid statement about the fact that only by knowing how things really are can one attain liberation, it gets very difficult to understand how is that particular insight much more profound than the insight that by practicing self-restraint (self- scrutiny) and benefiting others (attentive living) lead the Buddha to attain the liberation. Nothing is gained by belittling the Buddha’s fundamental teaching on self-restraint and benefiting others, while at the same time aggrandizing the nebulous hunch that a much more profound message awaits those who probe deeper into the realm of ‘unthinkable’. As a matter of fact, much is lost by such an approach, as it entails prolonging one’s obsessions about the world, about the possibility of eventually revealing its hidden face, reserved only for those who stick to some dubious lineage of ‘enlightened’ masters who will reveal the ultimate answer to their followers in a secret, arcane session, preferably during a cloudless night while the full moon is shining.
The next thing that is analyzed in the “Translator’s Introduction” is the Buddha’s explanation of the dangers inherent in theorizing about the transcendent; here, the Buddha said:
“To hold that the world is eternal, or to hold that is it not, or to agree to any other propositions that you adduce, O Vaccha, is the jungle of theorizing, the wilderness of theorizing, the tangle of theorizing, the bondage and the shackles of theorizing, attended by ill, distress, perturbation, and fever. It does not lead to detachment, passionless, tranquility, and peace, to knowledge, and to the wisdom of Nirvana. This is the danger I perceive in these views, which makes me discard them all.” (ibid, p. 9)
The views the Buddha was rejecting and discarding above are, of course, the views advocating transcendence, as in going beyond the knowledge verifiable via common-sense experiences, or via super-sensory experiences, such as those obtained during the highest meditative trances (samadhis). In rejecting these, the Buddha was abandoning all activities that promise a cheap way out, an easy and seductive bed time story that would placate the anxious by singing lame lullabies to sedate the fearful. But the authors of the “Translator’s Introduction” have a different theory; they claim that “although it (i.e. the above passage recited by the Buddha) expresses an unambiguous rejection of futile theorizing, it nevertheless indicates a truth that lies beyond the ordinary mind and becomes accessible precisely when theories are laid aside. It points, in other words, to a reality that transcends ordinary thought processes but is nevertheless still knowable. To say that it is possible to know something that is beyond thought carries the important, indeed astonishing implication that there is in the mind a dimension that in the vast majority of living beings is wholly concealed, the existence of which is not even suspected.” (ibid., p. 9)
It is impossible to explain where exactly in the Buddha’s answer to Vacchagotta, as quoted above, have the authors found all that mumbo-jumbo about some unverifiable ultimate truth that lies beyond the ordinary mind, that transcends ordinary thought process but is nevertheless still knowable? Same as it is impossible to find any traces of evidence that the Buddha was ever talking about that ‘important, indeed astonishing implication that there is in the mind a dimension that in the vast majority of living beings is wholly concealed, the existence of which is not even suspected.’ If anything, the Buddha never grew tired of talking about the fundamental error of other tenet systems who were advocating precisely that brand of mystical dimension, hidden within the minds of living beings, as a divine spark waiting to be discovered and liberated. In a way, one of the major impetuses of the Buddha’s teaching presided precisely in debunking the nonsensical transcendental theories like the one formulated by the Padmakara Translation Group (as quoted above).
Finally, on attempting to elucidate the the ultimate meaning of the Middle Way, as formulated by Madhyamika (or, as is sometimes known, the Central Philosophy of Buddhism that emerged some six centuries after the Buddha’s death), the Padmakara Translation Group authors make the following incorrect claim: “Confronted by Vacchagotta, the Buddha remained silent, refusing to involve himself in the inept attempts of philosophy and religion to reach beyond the world.” While it is true that the Buddha had refused to reach beyond the world, he certainly didn’t remain silent, as the ample evidence quoted above illustrates (if anything, the Buddha was quite talkative when confronted by Vacchagotta). Starting from such an incorrect claim, the authors then continue: “This is exactly the attitude of Madhyamika. On the issue of transcendent reality, it adopts the Buddha’s reserve and does not formulate a position.” (ibid., p. 10) This claim is also incorrect, because we know that the Buddha, while expressing his unabashed reservations toward issues of transcendent reality, did not abstain from formulating a position. And his position was very clear: transcendence is to be avoided at all costs, as it is extremely harmful in its seductive ability to offer false hopes to those who are ensnared by their hankering for the world. Transcendence was identified and singled out by the Buddha as the most insidious and poisonous drug which prevents people from freeing themselves (which can only be done by appeasing their obsessions). Instead of appeasing the obsessions, transcendence only helps in adding fuel to the flame by implanting a false belief that, deep down in the recesses of everyone’s mind, there lies a promised land, something solid and real and substantial and permanent and endlessly pleasurable, something worth staying in the world and fighting for. In the end, transcendence is the drug that promises that, despite all the bad news, samsara, the world of endless births and deaths, is after all, fixable.
One last attempt to establish the much desired incontrovertible possibility of being able to fix samsara is expressed by the Padmakara Translation Group in these closing statements: “Rather, by a systematic analysis, whereby every possible position is exposed as false, the busy, restless mind (which, in failing to recognize its own nature, fails also to recognize the true status of phenomena) is reduced to silence. Conceptual construction must be stilled if the perfection of wisdom is to manifest; the mind must be brought to the Buddha’s silence for liberation to be possible.” (ibid., p. 10)
The above orientation is very problematic, as it is rife with misconceptions, misunderstandings, and a healthy dose of wishful thinking. To begin with, it yet again attempts to drag in the fabricated ‘key concept’ labeled as ‘the Buddha’s silence’. Hiding behind that fabrication, the authors talk about the stilling of the conceptual construction. According to this line of reasoning, once the conceptual construction ceases its noisy chatter, the perfection of wisdom magically manifests. Once that happens, complete liberation shines forth. But first of all, how does this perfection of wisdom magically manifest? Why, it’s quite simple -- it has always been there, tucked beneath the surface of the conceptual, all-concealing chatter. Perfection of wisdom is an inborn wisdom, a mystical, permanent substance lodged inside the soul of every living being. One obtains it by transcending the mundane, by abandoning the familiar world of empirical truths.
Secondly, the Buddha had described, on many occasions, how disappointed he got upon discovering, during his search for the truth, that attaining such places of utmost silence, where all perception and conceptualization and such completely ceases, didn’t bring him any closer to the truth, nor to the liberation. He didn’t unveil this mysterious ‘perfect wisdom’ upon attaining the highest spiritual trances possible. Hence his severe criticism of super-sensory sources of knowledge; the Buddha knew and had declared that the highest possible yogic raptures and trances are not revelatory of the truth, nor are they capable of serving as a liberating vehicles.
Thus we see how much of the striving found in the Mahayana literature is of a fictional nature. An enormous body of fabrications founded on half-truths or even on complete falsities (such as in the case of claiming the Buddha’s silence to mean his disapproval, while in reality the Buddha had always used his silence to denote full approval). The puzzlement over why are Mahayanists creating such questionable distortions of the Buddha’s teaching has already been answered in some earlier chapters, but it may bear repeating: it is all driven by people’s likes and dislikes, by their hankering for the world, by their inability to follow the Buddha’s teachings and truly abandon the world. Desperate for staying here, for fixing this familiar situation, they look for some wiggle room, and think they find it by misinterpreting and misrepresenting what the Buddha said, such as in this case falsely claiming that the Buddha had introduced this noble concept of remaining silent when confronted with metaphysical and speculative inquiries. The reality is the exact opposite, meaning that the Buddha was all but silent whenever confronted with any discussion pertaining to anything transcendental. We must not forget that Buddhism arose in the spiritual climate that was brimming with transcendentalism (Vedic and Upanishadic teachings that culminated in Hinduism and Vedanta); the Buddha had vehemently disavowed any transcendentalism in his teaching, and had remained adamantly devoted to the sphere of empirical knowledge, insisting that only by sticking to the empirically verifiable knowledge can one attain liberation."