The Way of Negation Some remarks on some Prajnaparamita texts by Jaan Kaplinski

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In one of the most important mahayanist texts, the Heart Sutra, we read:

Therefore, in the Void there is ---

no Ignorance and Also No Ending of Ignorance, Until We Come to No Old Age and Death and No Ending of Old Age and Death.


Also, There is No Truth of Suffering, Of the Cause of Suffering, Of the Cessation of Suffering, Nor of the Path.


There is No Wisdom, and There is No Attainment Whatsoever.

These sayings, attributed to Buddha himself, are in flagrant contradiction to the basic principles of what is most often called "Buddhism".

In any textbook on history of religions, in any encyclopedia we find that among the very essentials of Buddha's dharma there are the Four Noble Truths, namely the truth about suffering, the truth about the cause of suffering, the truth about the (possibility of ) cessation of suffering and the truth about the way leading to the cessation of suffering.

At the same time, both the Mahayanists for whom the Heart Sutra and other prajnaparamita sutras are texts of utmost importance, and other Buddhists who consider the Four Noble Truths to be cornerstones of the Dharma, consider themselves Buddhists, and often see no reason to enter into violent polemics.

How have they, how can we reconcile some assertions with their negation?

How can we accept the idea that there is suffering that has a cause, and seeing it clearly can lead to cessation of suffering with the idea that there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, and no cessation of suffering?

If we consider Buddhism a kind of a logical, non-contradictory theory built on some dogmatic assertions, the coincidence of an assertion with its negation is impossible: if a logical system contains contradictions (e.g. in it both A and non-A are true), then everything is possible, everything goes.

Of course, nowadays there are so-called para-contradictory logical calculi, but here we can ignore them, largely because they have, as far as I know, no parallels in the Buddhist logic.

There are other possibilities to explain such concidences.

We can suppose, that these truths are not absolute, but relative, conditional.

This means that if some conditions are fulfilled, then the Four Noble Truths are true, otherwise not. And if some other conditions (possibly quite different of or even opposite to the former ones) are fulfilled, the negation of these four Truths are true. In this way, we can have a contradiction-free metatheory or more correctly, a family of such theories depending of the conditions set for the truth-value of specific propositions.

For example, we can say that for a beginner or somebody otherwise incapable of understanding the deepest and more sophisticated truths of the Dharma, the Four Noble Truths are true, they are a must until one realizes their limitations and reaches a deeper understanding.

Then, he/she can move on to a different level, casting aside the former formulations of the Truth(s) as deficient, and even false.

Such process of gradual self-perfecting, moving closer to the full realization of Buddha's truth, reaching perfect enlightenment, can have many levels, and on each of them, the former understandings, former formulations of it lose their significance, even their truth-value.

This can lead to paradoxical utterances so popular in Mahayanist teachings.

In the West, we can recall the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein who, in the end of his Tractatus writes that one who understands his sentences must cast them aside as a ladder used to climb up and becoming useless after the climber has reached his/her destination.

Such meta-theories intending to solve contradictions in a religious teaching are not a peculiar feature of Buddhism.

We can find them in the monotheistic religions, especially in Judaism and Islam.

Here, it has often difficult to reconcile some apparent contradictions in the Holy Scriptures, and even more, to reconcile the Scriptures themselves with ideas and formulations born from intensive personal experiences or necessities of everyday life.

Every theology is more or less an attempt to reach a compromise, be it logical or practical, between often contradictory demands of the maximalist teaching of the Scriptures and the demands of human nature often somehow neglected by the charismatic founder figures of these religions.

Thus, Jesus apparently was convinced that he and his followers were living in the last days of this world, this aeon (olam), and some worries and precepts had become meaningless in the light of the approaching End.

But, as this End hasn't arrived, the Christians had to formulate their own rules of behaviour, had to accommodate themselves to the life in this world, to marry, to give birth to children, to educate them, to buy and sell things, even to make war.

The Christians have more or less succeeded in finding their way, to believe in Christ and his teachings that vehemently condemn the values and the ways of this world, but at the same time live, work and enjoy their lives here and now.

But the contradiction inherent in Christianity is still there, and periodically breaks into the open with the apprearance of a radical eschatological sect preacing the imminent end of the world and the necessity of uncompromisingly and unwaveringly following the true teachings of the Christ watered down and corrupted by the official churches.

In Catholicism and in some Eastern Churches such contradictions have been partly solved by giving the radicals the possibility to follow their ways, to go to monasteries, while the common folk continues to live their lives in this sinful and far-from-perfect world.

In Judaism and Islam, there exists a tradition of mystical re-interpretation of the scriptures.

These are not criticised or cast aside, but thought to contain many meanings which can be roughly divided into litteral and profane versus deep and hidden ones. Some islamic mystics have said that every word of the Koran has ninety nine hidden meanings.

The Jewish Kabbalists speak of four different levels of meaning of the Torah. In both these traditions, there exist several techniques for discovering such hidden meanings of the holy scriptures, for example gematria based on the fact that letters of the alphabet have numerical values.

This gives the interpretes endless ways of converting words into numbers and vice versa and to prove nearly everything they want to prove.

There have been religious sects and movements in Islam, Christianity and Judaism which declared that they are not subject to previous laws and taboos, that with them a new era of freedom has begun. Thus, The islamic Ismailiya adepts declared in 1164 that "the fetters of law (sharia)" had been destroyed.

The "brothers and sisters of free spirit" in medieval Europe proclaimed a similar arrival of the age of freedom.

The Jewish Sabbateans and Frankists, i.a. my ancestors, demonstratively broke several important toraic precepts.

Has such negation of law something to do with the negation expressed in Mahayana sutras?

There have certainly been antinomian tendencies and movements in Buddhism, but they are not as important as such movements in religions where rules and precepts are very important, and minutiously codified in religious law based on Holy Scripture.

In Buddhism, rules as well as belief are less important than understanding, realization, a word we should more often instead of the somewhat solemn "enlightenment".

I.a. the Japanese "satori" means "understanding". Now, if understanding is the most important thing, then it is natural that other things are judged accordingly.

Ig observing rules, reciting mantras, participating in elaborate rituals helps you to achieve the Understanding, then these things are good, otherwise not. And as there are many types of human beings, rituals and rules are probably for not all of them.

Although it would be very risky for anybody to believe he or she is "above rules". Such a belief can lead to disastrous consequences for the person himself/herself and for other people close to him.

Breaking ethical rules or pushing aside taboos is dangerous, thus such things are quite rare in Buddhism.

Here, loving kindness toward other sentient beings is overwhelmingly the prevailing attitude, influencing people's behaviour.

Thus in the field of ethics. However, in the intellectual field, Buddhism is quite often precisely an antinomial teaching and practice.

From Buddha himself on, Buddhist teachers have emphasized the importance of getting rid of all mental stereotypes, ideas, suppositions, images, beliefs.

The ideas of Nirvana and Sunyata are a very clear indication of this tendency.

But at the same time, the teachers have often been conscious of the danger that opposition to stereotypes, the effort of getting rid of preconceived ideas can itself become a stereotype, a preconceived idea that we must get rid of. And this idea of getting rid of the idea of getting rid of preconceived ideas is, in its turn an idea to be got rid of, and thus ad infinitum.

We have a kind of an infinite ladder leading us to the complete understanding, to the perfect Enlightenment.

No human being, no god or hero can climb to the end of this ladder, it would need an infinite number of lives.

Enlightenment is infinitely far from us, and remains so, because an infinite ladder remains infinite, notwithstanding the number of steps we have climbed upwards. Here we are confronted with a major existential paradox.

To overcome it, we must do something different from solving our small problems one by one, finding answers to specific moral or intellectual questions.

We must ask ourselves whether there isn't something wrong with our most basic attitudes, whether we have perhaps created ourselves this infinity of problems or to be more correct, whether all these problems are a part of our so-called identity, a part of ourselves or what we believe to be ourselves.

Perhaps there is a mechanism generating this infinity, and if we succeed in finding it, we can somehow put an end to this infinity, to this endless.

Perhaps we could simply step aside from this ourselves for a moment to see more clearly what we are and what we are not and find out whether our problems are created by what we are or by what we are not.

Perhaps it is also worth asking ourselves whether our understanding, our idea of Buddhism is also a part of this ourselves, and whether it isn't appropriate to step aside of it, to abandon it at least for a while. Aren't Buddha, Buddhism, Nirvana, Dharma, Sangha, the Four Noble Truths our ideas, part of our stream of consciousness?

Can some of our ideas help us? Save us? There are serious reasons to be sceptical about it.

And perhaps remember what the great chan teacher Linji (Rinzai) has told when he urged his students to kill the Buddha or admonished them not to look for Buddha but look into themselves.

Buddhism, as we see it in Prajnaparamita sutras, is an attempt to transcend any religion, including Buddhism itself, as an ideology, a theory, a part of our psychology, our self.