From the earliest records we have of ancient Indian philosophy, we can see that the nature of the cosmos and man’s relationship to the cosmos was of great concern. From Brahmanism, to Vedanta, to Classical Yoga and beyond, there is a reoccurring metaphysical theme, and that is: what is the nature of reality, and how does one engage with that reality in such a way so as to to escape pain and suffering and attain liberation.
A clarification of a few terms will be of help here.
First, metaphysics. For some reason, when I started hearing this word in college, I associated the word, incorrectly, with ‘other worldly’ topics: past lives, angels, crystals, reincarnation, etc. I had taken the prefix, meta, literally ‘beyond’, to imply something beyond the ordinary physical world.
But in philosophy, the term metaphysics refers to a traditional branch of inquiry that attempts to understand the nature of what is, the nature of being, or what there is ultimately.
Within the traditions of Indian thought, this pursuit of understanding the ultimate nature of being was intimately linked to another heavy word: soteriology, or doctrine of salvation. In other words, attempting to understand the nature of reality was not some casual, intellectual hobby, but rather deeply connected to one’s very liberation from pain, suffering and the entire birth-death-rebirth cycle.
So let me return to my post that began the discussion to see how the Buddha seems to take a curious stance in the middle of these metaphysical discussions. In the Kaccayanagotta Sutta, The Discourse Given to Kaccayana Gotta, the Buddha summarizes two common metaphysical views of the day, and then proposes his own view from the middle.
A seeker, Kaccayana, directly asks the Buddha: What is right view? I might add that Kaccayana is implying, “What is the correct view of the world, or the cosmos, in order to be liberated from dukkha (pain and suffering)?”
And the Buddha answers:
“By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence & 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.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
As I discussed in the last post, ‘existence’ here refers to a kind of essentialism, whereby there is something in the cosmos that is taken to be eternally real, permanent and true, whether that be conceived as a dimension of the cosmos, or an eternal condition of being.
‘Non-existence’ is the opposite of this view, stating that nothing, ultimately, exists: nihilism.
So, if I were to paraphrase the Buddha’s response to Kaccayana, it might sound something like this: When one examines one’s own experience (seeing the origination of the world [within one’s experience]), one will see that everything is a process, and therefore the notion of a ‘permanent existence’ does not arise. But similarly, by virtue of having subjective experience at all dispenses with the notion that nothing exists – the process of experiencing anything implies a kind of existence, albeit an impermanent existence.
Recently, I heard a wonderful talk given by Stephen Batchelor where he asserts that the Buddha was not a metaphysician. The Buddha, in Batchelor’s view, was not concerned with the issue of what is and what is not. Rather, between the metaphysical quandary of what is and what is not, the Buddha focused on the immediacy of one’s own experience as a basis for developing skillful actions and behaviors within one’s life. In this regard some might say that the Buddha was an ethicist, rather than a metaphysician.
In conclusion, my intention behind this recent thread of posts is to spark curiosity, and possible re-evaluation, around the ways we often approach meditation practice. For a long, long time, I practiced in a way that attempted to attain a metaphysically correct perception/experience. In the forms of Insight Meditation that I practiced, this was described as ‘seeing things as they truly are.’ The implication being that there is a ‘correct’ way of seeing. But by loosening the metaphysical edge of this approach, and honing closer to my actual experience (whether it’s ultimately correct or not), I’ve come closer to appreciating what the Buddha might have meant by a Middle Path.
Originally published on July 15, 2016