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“To be or not to be, that is the question.” – Hamlet
“To be and not to be, that is the truth.” – Buddhist Hamlet
In the Book of Exodus, God chooses Moses as the leader who will rescue the Hebrews from Egypt, where they have been enslaved for nearly 400 years. Calling out to him from a burning bush, God informs Moses of his task. After some initial reluctance, Moses asks God for His name so that he can tell the Israelites who sent him. God replies, “I am that I am.”
God’s response is mystifying and seemingly meaningless. It does not tell Moses anything about God’s identity. Yet nevertheless, the statement is deeply true. If God is infinite, then He must also be ineffable; the finite human mind is ill-equipped to properly conceptualize His divine nature. All the attributes that we could ascribe to God would fail to capture His essence. For instance, God is larger than anything we could possibly imagine, so it would be wrong to describe Him as merely “large,” or even “extremely large.” Nor is God “almighty,” since there are no words in any language that could do justice to the sheer range of God’s power and influence. In fact, He isn’t even “infinite,” because infinitude is itself a concept borne out of the finite human mind. Furthermore, the word is essentially empty of meaning, since, by definition, we cannot understand what it represents.
Thus, we can only know with certainty what God is not. This interpretation of God is expressed in the method of apophatic theology, which seeks to describe God by means of negation. The majority of apophatic theologians would, I think, claim that our inadequate understanding of God is a product of our limited knowledge; that is, God does have a nature, but one that is beyond the realm of human comprehension. However, there are some who would argue that God actually does not have a nature. Some of the most ancient Buddhist scriptures state that there is an “unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated,” suggesting that the highest manifestation of the sacred was never actually “created.” One of the most fundamental teachings in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition asserts that all phenomena are empty of any real substance, including the Buddha himself. Hence, the visionary Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna says, “The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.”
Clearly, the strain of apophatic theology in Buddhism poses some serious paradoxes. It violates one of the cardinal principles of logic, which states that either a proposition or its negation can be true, but not both. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle formulated this “either-or” principle as the Law of Non-Contradiction, but he was merely articulating an intuition that all of us tacitly accept as common sense. Nagarjuna obviously noticed the contradictions in his beliefs and developed a new logical framework to accommodate his views on the nature (or “no-nature”) of the sacred. He argued that there are two other truth conditions besides the conventional “True” and “False”: “neither True nor False” and “both True and False.” A proper understanding of the sacred demands a shift from “either-or” to “both-and” logic. Indeed, many of the teachings in the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest printed book and a foundational Buddhist text, presuppose a “both-and” logic. Statements such as “the world is not, therefore it is the world” and “the perfection of wisdom is not the perfection of wisdom, therefore it is the perfection of wisdom” imply not only that something can both be and not be simultaneously, but also that the existence of something depends on its nonexistence. (1) The philosopher Shigenori Nagatomo refers to this “both-and” logic as the “Logic of Not”: X is not X, therefore it is X. In this blogpost, I’m going to argue that the Logic of Not isn’t merely a convenient “trick” used by Buddhist philosophers to sort out the inconsistencies in their beliefs about the sacred. Rather, the Logic of Not is a very real truth, one that is deeply rooted in the impermanence of all phenomena. It also yields some radical implications for the nature of consciousness, which, in its purest form, turns out to be the ultimate embodiment of the sacred.
The Logic of Not stems from the broader failure of words and concepts to adequately express the deeply transient nature of the phenomena in the world. As I have argued before, everything is changing, all the time. Some objects appear to be still, but at the molecular or atomic level, they are engaged in highly dynamical activity. The atoms that form an object are in constant motion, so the patterns of interactions that they have with one another are perpetually shifting.
Thus, an object at one moment is not exactly the same as the object at another moment. A table may look the same from one moment to the next, but its material constitution is undergoing subtle alterations that just aren’t visible to the naked human eye. By the time that the mind labels it as “this (or that) table,” it is no longer materially identical to the table it was at the moment that it was perceived. It has become a new table, but once the mind has designated it as “this new table,” the table has already changed again! The phrase “this table” can never refer to a table that actually exists in the present moment. The atoms that make up the table are perpetually entering into new configurations, and each one has already faded into the past once the mind has apprehended it.
Therefore, the concept “table” exists outside the passage of time. It assigns a fixed identity to a swirling pattern of motion and change; that is, it ascribes substance to a phenomenon that doesn’t have any. The actual table is continuously engaged in the process of negating itself. At each moment, it changes into a new configuration and thereby negates the existence of the configuration that it had assumed in the prior moment. Constant self-negation is the only feature of the table that does not change over time. Once it has been dismantled, the table will no longer be a piece of furniture with four legs, but it will still be negating itself by participating in the dynamical activity of perpetual change. It will no longer be a surface for holding objects, but it will still be undergoing some kind of transformation, perhaps from chopped blocks of wood to kindling for a fire. It is worth emphasizing that I am equating change with the act of self-negation, since by becoming something else, the table is inherently discarding or abandoning its previous form.
It might seem that if the table is negating itself, then it does not exist. But this is a ludicrous claim, since there is obviously some kind of material configuration in which the table exists. I would agree that, at every moment, the table is comprised of zillions of atoms that form a larger structure, but not in a way that the mind can readily conceptualize. The mind conceives of the table at a particular moment as a “snapshot,” a frozen picture of the table’s physical state. But this mental representation of the table is an illusion since it is an atemporal intellectual abstraction. The table is never actually frozen in time; it is only frozen in the mind, where it is treated as a fixed concept. If change is truly occurring at all moments in time, then the table must always be in transition between two states, so it would be more accurate to characterize the table at a single moment as a blur and not as a definite structure. (However, even “blur” is a mental concept, not reality!) The table is neither the configuration that it is transitioning from nor the configuration that it is transitioning towards; rather, it is, at all times, something in between. It would be wrong to think of this “in-between” state as itself a static configuration, since this conception of the table would reduce it to a frozen snapshot. In other words, because the table is perpetually caught in the process of shifting between forms, its very essence is to not be one form or another. Yet the two halves of the preceding sentence contradict each other; if the table is never any one form, then it cannot be said to shift from one form to another. This paradox actually yields an even deeper insight: because the concept of “change” always presupposes a transformation from one form to a different form, the essence of the table cannot be change.
If you’ve followed my logic thus far, this conclusion should be deeply puzzling. My entire argument seems to be founded upon the premise that the table, along with all other phenomena, is experiencing perpetual change. Because none of the table’s features are static, it would appear that its essence cannot be anything other than change. But if it is always changing, then the table can never be identified with any one particular material configuration or “form”; by the time that the mind has labeled it with a concept, it will no longer be the same. Even if we accept that the identity of the table is not the precise structure of atoms and molecules that comprise it, but rather something more general, any concept of the table is an abstraction that is situated outside the passage of time. “A surface with four legs” amounts to a fixed, unvarying description of an object that is changing dynamically through time. Even a description that acknowledges the constant activity occurring within the table, such as “a highly mutable surface with four legs,” is itself entirely inert and unchanging. Concepts and words don’t move through time. Thus, any fixed conception of the table does not faithfully capture the transient reality of what the table is.
So, the table does not really have a form that we could properly ascribe to it. Yet change implies some difference between two distinct forms. How, then, could the table be changing? To put it another way, if the table is constantly undergoing change, then it is, in some respect, unchanging. Yet clearly, the table is not unchanging either, precisely for the reason that I’ve already established: the atoms within it are continually in motion. Rather, the table is permanent in its impermanence, so its essence cannot be apprehended with an either-or logical framework. Much like apophatic theology claims that we are limited to understanding God as what He is not, we can only know what the table is not. It is not this or that form, nor is it the change between the forms, nor is it, paradoxically, unchanging. To paraphrase Nagarjuna, the nature of the table is not to have a nature. The table negates its fixed essence because it is always changing, yet the constancy of its change means that it does have a fixed essence. We arrive, finally, at the Logic of Not: the table is not, therefore it is.
Meditation and “no-mind”
Obviously, what I have said so far doesn’t apply only to tables. In general, the mind can never catch up with the constantly flowing – and changing – stream of experience. This moment is already gone by the time that the mind recognizes it as “this moment.” By attaching a concept to any phenomenon, it seeks to grasp at the phenomenon as though it were something that persisted through time, when in fact it is utterly impermanent. Because we grasp at things with our minds, we perceive that they have essence, yet in reality their only essence is “no-essence.” Even upon recognizing that a phenomenon is constantly changing, the mind will try to label its essence as “change,” but even “change,” when conceived of as a concept, is itself fixed and unchanging.
The Logic of Not encapsulates the real essence of all phenomena, but it cannot be grasped by the mind. It is logically incoherent, at least according to our conventional standards of logic and reason. How, then, can we understand it, if not through the mind? The answer lies in meditation, which is essentially the process of letting go of all thoughts, concepts, and other “mind-objects.” The Zen Buddhist philosopher Eihei Dogen, who I have cited before, describes the fundamental purpose of meditation in beautiful yet paradoxical terms: it is to “think of not-thinking by not thinking.” Can we rationally comprehend this idea? No, but that is precisely the point. Through meditation, we aim to completely empty the mind by simply observing our thoughts, without becoming emotionally or intellectually absorbed in them.
What exactly does it mean not to be absorbed? The mind is conditioned to attach a certain emotional “valence” (such as rage, disgust, envy, or joy) to many – if not all – the thoughts that it experiences. But if we do not react to a thought in the way that we are conditioned, then we let go of our psychological attachment to it. For instance, if we no longer become angry when we think of someone who has wronged us, then the thought loses its emotional grip over us. It becomes insignificant and illusory. Thus, when we do not grasp at our thoughts, we discover that they are empty of any substance. We can reach the same conclusion with thoughts that do not appear to trigger an immediate emotional response. Many meditative practices involve “seeing things for what they truly are,” not in the way that the mind conceptualizes them. For instance, they may instruct meditators to focus on the act of seeing a table as it is, and not as a “table.”
When all concepts are perceived to be empty, the mind surrenders its attachment to the notion that certain phenomena are dualistically opposed to each other. Indeed, if “light” and “darkness” are equally empty, then there is no substantial difference between the two; they are non-dualistically related to each other. It is very difficult to articulate what exactly it is like to experience this non-duality, especially since light and darkness aren’t physically the same as each other. Perhaps it is best described as the intuitive recognition that the either-or logical framework fails to capture the holistic nature of a light/dark phenomenon. As Dogen once said, “When one side is illuminated, the other side remains in darkness.” Indeed, we perceive that an object is light because the other objects around it are darker, and in fact the concept of “light” would be meaningless except in relation to “darkness.” In other words, the essence of light is entirely dependent on what is not light. This complementarity is neglected in an either-or view, which divides the world into mutually exclusive categories of light and darkness and thereby amounts to a partial, one-sided perspective. Apprehending the non-duality between these categories by letting go of the either-or, conceptual mind yields a more complete, and therefore more objective, understanding of the way that things are.
In the Zen tradition, the non-discriminatory mind – one that doesn’t separate the world into either-or dichotomies – is described as “no-mind,” which, I think, is equivalent to the purest form of consciousness. This kind of consciousness is essentially the clear, empty mirror that reflects all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that we experience. It is the direct, immediate experience of the world, one that isn’t overlaid with the concepts that the mind seeks to impose on perceptual phenomena. The mind liberates itself from its habitual tendency to label an object as this or that and instead steeps itself in the felt sensation of just plainly noticing it. The mind drops all presuppositions of what, for example, a table is, what it is used for, how it looks, its location in space, its characteristics, and so on; it perceives the table as it is projected onto our pure consciousness, with no thoughts, judgments, or other designations attached to it.
The nature – or, should I say, no-nature – of pure consciousness is aptly illustrated in a passage from the Bahiya Sutra, an ancient text about a Buddhist disciple named Bahiya. Bahiya immediately became enlightened upon hearing these words from the Buddha:
Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: in the seen only the seen; in the heard only heard; in the sensed only the sensed; in the cognised only cognised.
Practicing in this way, Bahiya, you will not be “with that.” When you are not “with that,” you will not be “in that.” And when you are not “in that,” then you will be neither here nor there nor in between the two.
In “pure seeing,” the Buddha implied, not only is there no real object that is being seen, but there is also no real subject that is doing the seeing. There is no “I” that is seeing, because even “I” is a concept of the mind; there is only, as Dogen would put it, seeing that sees seeing. Thus, even the consciousness that reflects the emptiness of the objects that it experiences is itself empty of any substance. In the words of the philosopher Shigenori Nagatomo, “[Pure consciousness] is absolutely nothing in the sense that it cuts off any polar [i.e. either-or] concept. Where there is absolutely nothing, there is no determination whatsoever except its own self-determination via negation.”
Pure consciousness is the negation of all concepts, i.e. all the things to which the mind imputes substance and reality. If it is the very embodiment of negation, then how could it be substantial? The mind will find this notion of consciousness to be deeply puzzling, because even if it is nothingness, that nothingness nevertheless exists. This paradox, as I have stressed throughout this blogpost, cannot be comprehended by the either-or mind. Transcending this form of logic, we determine that consciousness is realized because it is negated. But if its essence is not to be, then what is it?
It is what it is.
(1) These quotations may be somewhat loose translations of the Diamond Sutra. I couldn’t find identical translations anywhere else online. The ones that I cite in the blogpost are taken from a paper that explicitly argues for “both-and” logic, so it’s possible that the author twisted the quotations slightly in order to strengthen his claims.