In my last post, I began a look into some of the philosophical underpinnings of the Buddha’s worldview, and how this view shaped his orientation towards finding happiness and peace within the world. In the Kaccayanagotta Sutta, a discourse given to the seeker, Kaccayana Gotta, the Buddha summarizes and rejects two common metaphysical views of his day.
Kaccayana, the seeker, directly asks the Buddha: What is right view? And the Buddha answers:
“By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.” (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
I concede that at first glance such an utterance is rather dense and opaque, and I plan to devote a few more posts towards unpacking its significance. But the basic interpretation is this: when one views the world from the cloudy, and faulty, perspective of either permanent existence or non-existence, one is bound to suffer.
So, let’s begin with one end of the polarity, namely that of existence. Unadorned, the word existence as a metaphysical position can be a bit confusing. It does not refer to one’s ordinary experience of existing as a person, or that of other entities existing within one’s perception. Rather, in the Indian philosophical context, the notion of existence refers to something very specific — to something that possesses permanent and independent existence. In other words, an entity (be it a person, an object, or a dimension of reality) exists either for all of time, or outside of time, or it exists in a way that it is not dependent on causes or conditions.
This idea of permanent existence is a very old idea that dates back, at least, to the time of the early Vedas (1500 BCE – 500 BCE). Buddhist scholar, David Kalupahana explains:
“Existence or astitva was no ordinary empirical existence but the existence of a permanent and eternal substratum in man as well as in all aspects of nature. In man, it was the immutable self (atman), that remained in bondage to the impermanent psychophysical personality and which returns to its ultimate abode, the universal self (Brahman).” (Kalupahana, 1991)
In other words, the ancient Indian notion of existence is not our everyday sense of existence as a person, but rather a view of existence that proposes there is something within the changing, impermanent flow of life that is somehow unchanging, somehow essential, somehow more real than the passing show we encounter with our senses. For the schools that embrace this view of existence, liberation is predicated on realizing and uniting with this essential aspect of reality.
Let’s pause for a moment.
As modern practitioners of yoga and meditation, I think it’s important to consider this view of existence because, in a certain sense, this old Vedic view is still very much alive and thriving in the current spiritual scene. This view of existence shows up in many ways, and I’ll list just a few:
- True Self teachings (capital letters are always a good indicator that something pure, essential, unchanging is being invoked); I’m not my thoughts, I’m not my feelings, I’m not my body, I’m the unchanging Witness of all of these. (Personally, I was a big fan of this one for a long, long time before I considered its untenability.)
- A teaching that ascribes one’s true essential nature to any or all of these qualities: luminosity, bliss, freedom, radiance, happiness. The idea here being that these qualities are lying dormant in the core of the individual or that they are somehow intrinsic to the nature of the Universe. Practice, in this model, is a way of reconnecting with or uncovering these qualities. In other words, these qualities are not developed through a process of learning, growth, and understanding; they are simply uncovered.
- A teaching that describes our normal perception of the world as being an illusion. Behind this illusion exists a pure (and more real) dimension that is made manifest by spiritual practices and purifications.
Obviously, these teachings are not mutually exclusive, either. And you may even wonder why these views are problematic at all. My main concern, which I’ll explore later, is that these teachings promote unverifiable idealism and world-renouncing escapism.
For now, as always, my main intention is to stimulate curiosity around views and ideas that we may have absorbed in our practice without question, reflection, or re-evaluation — views and ideas that may not serve the ongoing development of wisdom and compassion.
Originally published on May 12, 2016