Buddha and Wittgenstein on Metaphysics
Monday, March 08, 2004

Part 1: Buddha and Wittgenstein on Metaphysics

Part 2: Wittgenstein Revisited

Part 3: TAO


Part 1:


Buddha and Wittgenstein on Metaphysics

- a comparison -

[ An explanation why the Buddhist position on mind or soul is similar to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s position. How do they compare with regard to metaphysics? What’s significant to my understanding? ]

Both Wittgenstein and Buddha discounted the idea of Soul or Atman; Wittgenstein because he denied an underlying, unifying essence to language or thinking (Philosophical Investigations, 1953), which position is a curious reversal of his earlier proposition in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), and Buddha because he denied any need to penetrate what he posited were merely mental projections or illusions of an imaginary idea of self (What The Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula).

In Tractatus, Wittgenstein searched for what he believed was an underlying essence to the complexity and diversity of language, while in his Philosophical Investigations he struggled to demonstrate that such a prospect could only be illusory. He conducted a logic-based examination of language, as it related to thinking and objectification and, ergo, to discovering any underlying Self.

Buddha avoided the question of whether or not there exists Soul or Atman. He simply ceased the pursuit of such distractions - such as the hunting for meaning behind mind’s abstractions - to develop a means for welcoming Enlightenment. Buddha thought such attempts at confirming or denying Atman only distracted Man from acquiring Enlightenment, which could occur, he claimed, only after one surrendered self-protection and self-preservation to the purpose of becoming Enlightened.

For Wittgenstein, it was language that failed to provide proof of existence of any metaphysical phenomena. For Buddha, it was the ego-based and illusory mind states underpinning all thought systems of his time - all of which he painstakingly employed in his search for Enlightenment - that failed to prove the metaphysical.

While their positions are similar in rejecting the metaphysical, Buddha and Wittgenstein's personal circumstances, which strongly influenced their respective conclusions on the matter, were very different.

Wittgenstein was driven more by an intellectual interest in the philosophical questions of his time while Buddha was compelled to uncover the Truth out of compassion for his suffering fellow man.

Wittgenstein examined logic and language in the comfort of modernity, although he did try to live an austere life by giving away his inherited wealth (Wittgenstein did write much of Tractatus under the hardship of serving in WW I and while a prisoner of war). But Buddha tested the limits of his physical and emotional endurance in searching for an underlying Answer before abandoning the search.

Where Wittgenstein attempted to unravel the complex, language-based relationship between subject and object, in order to uncover the subject’s nature, Buddha surrendered to what he believed no word nor string of words could convey--an Enlightenment found through a teaching that Buddha actually lived, in order to instruct his fellow man and provide a middle path; a path far removed from the two extremes of seeking an abject deprivation from worldly things and the hedonistic pursuit of them.

My understanding: The question of whether or not the metaphysical exists can certainly be denied (Wittgenstein) or it can easily be dismissed as unimportant to the necessity of learning to live in the now (Buddha). However, where the general consensus of experience determines how any one of the countless human perceptions is identified by the human utterance that names it (or how a word, or string of words, identifies one or many human perceptions of things), the language for metaphysical meanings likewise is found to have its origins in the consensus of human experience.

If human experience ever can prompt research into mysterious phenomenon, like ghosts or demons or heaven (and human experience usually does trigger research into life’s mysteries), then accounts of the metaphysical ought not be so readily denied or dismissed until a definitive, scientific finding is forthcoming.

Many kinds of phenomenon have remained unseen and misunderstood for centuries, leaving only secondary clues to their existence, which were mostly denied and dismissed by those not privy to the actual clues. And yet they eventually were found to exist by improvements in science and understanding. Many metaphysical accounts have their origins not in the fantasies or dreams of men and women, although some can be attributed to such, but through the consensus formed by language--in their relating their experiences to one another and to a doubting scientific community and public, experiences they perceived to be of a nonphysical nature, and while in a mental state that could be described as a “normal frame of mind."

For example, several of my friends have had ghost experiences while going about their normal activities. One was fishing on a river when his deceased father appeared to him on the shore. Another was looking into the window of an empty house when a translucent figure appeared in front of her. And another, a child, was raking leaves in his yard when a vaporous light in the shape and appearance of his deceased, adult friend manifested before him. All such cases can be denied or dismissed, but the vast collection of accounts of ”ghost” experiences recorded over the centuries begs scientific investigation.

Wittgenstein’s generation was full of discussions and writings on the metaphysical, with spiritism and spiritualism taking the lead--and with a long history of metaphysical accounts, stretching from ancient Egypt to Plato to the whole of his generation’s spiritual religiosity to ignite his curiosity. Did not Buddha have reports from his contemporaries of ghosts or of near-death and out-of-body experience?

What would Buddhism be today if Buddha’s consciousness had “projected” out of his body to rest upon a limb of that banyan tree--looking down to find his body below, still deep in meditation? There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of such accounts - spoken and written - about individuals having experienced their consciousness “leaving” their physical body. Again, were there not those kinds of experiences reported to Buddha by his contemporaries?

One can expend much thought in unknotting riddles of language in relation to self and try solving the mystery of self-awareness in relation to objective experience (Wittgenstein), or one can try plumbing the depths of mind in contemplative and meditative states to get beyond illusory experience (Buddha), but what it all must ultimately come to for humans’ collective understanding - of understanding their purpose for existing at all - is individual experience, along with the language-based consensus that is formed from the collective accounts of numerous individual experiences.

Is there Soul or Atman? To which side does the greater consensus fall? Many people claim to have had an out-of-body experience (OBE). In their common language - acquired from others who have written on the phenomenon - they’ve come to a consensus, a conclusion, that each is relating the same kind of phenomenon. Either their experiences were an actual occurrence on a continuum that encompasses both the physical and what’s called the “metaphysical” (possibly an as-yet-to-be discovered continuum) or there exists a condition for human consciousness that is precariously connected to, if not entirely removed from, all that humans hold dear in the physical world--or they are self-deluded. But why would accusations of self-delusion apply any more to those claiming an OBE than to Buddha for his claim of Enlightenment?

Would that we all could philosophize like Wittgenstein or experience Buddha’s Enlightenment . . . Would that Wittgenstein and Buddha had had an out-of-body experience . . .

Part 2:


Wittgenstein Revisited


- my radical perspective -

[ What is the significance of Buddha’s Flower Sermon? How would one best distinguish between pure experience and the language about it? What is the insignificance of language to Zen? ]

Buddha’s error in dissociating language from meaningful experience is not unlike Wittgenstein’s separating a word from the thing or experience it describes--separating language from the conditions, immediate and peripheral, that relate to experiences or things cataloged and stored in the brain/mind apparatus.

Why is it an error?--because language is as much a part of nature as a river or bird or lotus flower. Do not rivers sing in their travels to the ocean? Do not birds communicate, one to another, in their morning song? Is a lotus flower truly silent in its birth, growth and death? Nature is full of sound--of language, so how is it that the language of humans is somehow unnatural or apart from nature?

Buddha’s Flower Sermon is a case in point. When Buddha held up a golden lotus for all his disciples to see without uttering a single word as to his purpose, he befuddled his followers and stirred them to wonder at his meaning--excepting one follower, Mahakasyapa, who only smiled at Buddha’s gesture and, by his smile, subsequently garnered for himself both Buddha’s blessing and the designation “successor.”

But Buddha and Mahakasyapa’s mutual understanding was not without communication through language! Both surely ran through internal dialogue during the Flower Sermon. Buddha may have said to himself about his charges’ bafflement, “What dolts!”--while Mahakasyapa may have thought, “Why, the Buddha looks particularly goofy this morning,” then smiled about his irreverent judgment. It’s highly improbable that either one was capable of initiating their external actions without conducting internal language. Ergo, the Buddha could not have arrived at the decision to conduct the Flower Sermon without thinking (internal dialogue) about his plan, nor could Mahakasyapa smile without having said to himself, “What is my goofy-looking master trying to say this morning?”

So, although there seemed to be no apparent external dialogue, each used language to either plan and/or analyze the situation. Is nature ever without language? No! One atom bumping into another is a form of communication between atoms - of language - albeit language in its basest, vibratory form.

What is the difference between speech and body language?--only the vibratory (electrical) differences between sound (molecules of air) hitting the eardrums and light (particles or waves) hitting the retina of the eyes. Did Buddha really communicate less effectively through his body language or Mahakasyapa through his smile, than if they had shouted out in clear words what each wished to relate? [The inability of Buddha’s charges to understand may speak more of their ignorance than of any failure by him to communicate. And Mahakasyapa’s irreverent thought and Buddha’s misunderstanding of a smile might be attributed to their having missed breakfast.]

A bird’s song or a human’s speech is nature expressing itself. Why this was not clear to Buddha is puzzling. How could he have thought that any aspect of human experience could be apart from nature, since his own teaching admonished anyone for denying the unity of all in the All--or unity in undifferentiated wholeness, everywhere and forever. How is it possible that anything, or any aspect of anything, within nature can be apart from nature? There is nothing apart from nature, including human language.

Here’s what Buddha and Wittgenstein missed in their analysis of how language relates to human experience:

1. Language and human experience (things and the sets or strings of conditions of things) are illusory; both are part and parcel of an ever-changing, and thus ephemeral physical universe.

It has been said about Reality: “Anything that changes is not real” (from an avante-garde thought system, A Course In Miracles). If it is true that all matter is in a constant state of change, then, by the above definition, matter is not real. Reality must be changeless if the term “reality” is to retain the true meaning that it would convey.

2. Mind is incapable of distinguishing the difference between an experience of a thing that’s vividly imagined and the “real” thing--or even between a powerful word and the thing the word identifies.

I once had a friend who boasted that he could - while awake - bring himself to orgasm using his imagination, and without any physical stimulation. I submit that there is no difference between the images he must have conjured up to achieve such a feat and the words that would describe them. Hypnotism supports this view. One may examine the power of words used by a hypnotist, which evoke very “real” mental and physical responses in his subjects, and who claim to have experienced feelings and events indistinguishable for them from actual environment-induced feelings and events.

3. It is impossible to differentiate between a word and the thing it describes, since both are experienced in the brain/mind apparatus, and so long as the mind agrees with the word/thing association.

In other words, if I think the word “rock” while kicking one with my foot, all three conditions - the rock, the imaged word “rock” that represents the rock, and the pain from kicking it - are experienced in the brain/mind apparatus. It is as easy for me to recall the pain of kicking the rock by thinking the word “rock,” as it is to recall the pain by looking at one; both kinds of perceptions occur in the brain/mind apparatus.

It has been said that language is twice removed from “reality” (the picture-script writing of the Chinese language being once removed, since it looks something like the thing it represents). But the word “rock” and the “actuality” can become interchangeable in the mind of the perceiver, although he may distinguish the two by believing that the rock exists outside his mind (an explanation of this point would require several pages, but the final paragraph on the last page sums up my meaning quite well).

4. There is no difference between simple word/thing associations and word/abstraction associations.

The word “love” can relate for me all the conditions (things and the sets or strings of conditions of things) comprising a certain love experience as well as the word “rock” can relate for me the pain from kicking one. All of it is experienced in the brain/mind apparatus, outside of which nothing exists (the brain actually is a manifestation of mind and, ergo, as unreal as the rock).

Abstract ideas like justice or hope or love are merely more complicated experiences in physical/matter “reality,” that is, more intricate; they comprise more conditions for relating their meaning to us.

For example, rather than listing the many kinds of “love” experiences that we humans may experience and communicate to one another (assigning a specific term to distinguish the many kinds of love experiences), we get caught up in trying to use that one word to describe seemingly innumerable kinds of love-related events and, then, become so befuddled by the confusion that we create the word “abstract” to identify the confusion.

“Justice,” for another example, is merely a set of complicated conditions that humans may experience and relate, rather than some hard-to-identify “abstraction.” What distinguishes the relationship of the word “rock” to a rock from the relationship of the word “justice” to the experience of justice, say, in law, is that the word “rock” describes a static or near-static condition of a thing (a thing usually at rest and having easily identifiable features) while the word “justice” comprises a non-static set or series of conditions of things (things like a man breaking the law, getting caught, and serving time in jail). Since both the rock and justice are experienced in the brain/mind apparatus, both are indistinguishable for purposes of establishing this fact: Language is not twice removed from nature; it is not apart from nature. Language is nature!

The significance of Buddha’s Flower Sermon to his students' learning is found in its demonstrating the value of intuition over language (a false distinction, I believe). Language, the teaching instructs, is a block to true, fundamental experience and meaningful communication.

I would avoid distinguishing between “pure” experience and the language about it, since both are mind stuff.

Zen Buddhism takes the dissociation between language and experience to an extreme, teaching that language builds a false reality, builds stereotypes, dilutes experience, and inhibits the highest modes of experience. Tell that to the woman living in California who “swooned” (fainted) whenever she heard or read words related to sexuality. One can’t say that sexual words for her are twice removed from the actual experience.

Zen stresses the NOW, which experience is missed through use of language, according to the teaching. This is not to say language can’t be useful to Zen Buddhists, who value it when it conveys intuitive ideas or gut feelings, which insights they call “live language”--as opposed to the "dead language" of descriptions, explanations, and predictions.

The fundamental underpinning of Zen is realization, or awareness (non-ego). Be aware! Well, this scribbler agrees: "The power of realization within you is called Mahaprajna, meaning great wisdom. This is the root of the teaching, the source of all streams of Buddhistic thought" [Buddhism and Zen, by Senzaki and McCandless].

Alas, all of it - words, things like rocks and trees, sets or strings of conditions for identifying things like justice and love, the feelings that words may evoke in us and the mind stuff they identify - is experienced within the brain/mind apparatus. Nothing really exists outside the mind. To get bogged down in differentiations between words and the things they would identify, whether rocks or “abstractions,” is to miss discovering Reality: the changeless, eternal and undifferentiated experience that all of us must eventually awaken to, according to the author of A Course In Miracles, purportedly to be that of Jesus himself.

Quoting from A Course In Miracles: “The body is a limit imposed on the universal communication that is an eternal property of mind. But the communication is internal. Mind reaches to itself. It does not go out. Within itself it has no limits, and there is nothing outside it. It encompasses you entirely; you within it and it with you. There is nothing else, anywhere or ever” [Text, pg. 360].

Part 3



- a curious contradiction -

[ Is Taoism a feminine teaching?--an examination of three aspects of Tao which demonstrate its overly feminine bent. ]

Jacob Needleman, philosopher and scholar of comparative religion, writes in the introduction to Gia-Fu and Jane English’s translation of Lao Tsu’s manuscript, Tao Te Ching (Lao Tsu is the fifth-century BC founder of the Tao teaching): ”Metaphysically, the term Tao refers to the way things are; psychologically, it refers to way human nature is constituted, the deep, dynamic structure of our being; ethically, it means the way human beings must conduct themselves with others; spiritually, it refers to the guidance that is offered to us, the methods of searching for the truth that have been handed down by the great sages of the past--the way of inner work. Yet all these meanings of Tao are ultimately one.”

Needleman states that the term Tao may be loosely translated as “way” or “path,” but even to offer a translation, he asserts, is to miss what really lies beneath any definition of Tao--that is, to try defining Tao is to miss its meaning.

While the Tao can’t be adequately described, aspects of it can be examined to give clues about its application in human experience and its manifestation in nature; yet any distinction between man and nature is not the Tao, since all things - organic and inorganic - comprise, according to the teaching, an undifferentiated wholeness where such distinctions are meaningless.

The late Alan Watts, scholar and teacher of Taoism, relates his own understanding and makes a curious comment that gave me pause to question its balance and consistency, regarding the masculine and feminine aspects of Tao: “the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology . . .,” he writes [TAO The Watercourse Way, page 21]. Why would Watts make such a clarification?

Technology is a product of “yang,” a Taoist term for identifying the positive/masculine principle. The negative/feminine principle in Taoism is called “yin,” which appears to dominate the teaching and all Eastern religions. Is Alan Watts apologizing for the overwhelmingly feminine aspects of Tao - in Chinese thinking - by raising this clarification at all?

This overemphasis on the feminine principle in Chinese culture might originate from either the influence of Taoism on the Chinese mind or, possibly, from genetic-based hemisphericity that’s peculiar to the brain of Asian people; a psychological wiring of the brain that might account for Lao Tsu’s creating the thought system in the first place (I’ll explain this later).

Taoism stresses the need for humans to balance the yin and yang [TAO The Watercourse Way ]. If this is true, then the Chinese mind has somewhat missed the mark. The very underpinning of Taoist thinking requires an ebb and flow, a yin and yang - a balance - and yet Taoism, as practiced in China and Japan, has taken on an overwhelmingly feminine bent.

If the balance of opposites is so vital to the practice ofTao , then why is the feminine emphasized over the masculine; why do practitioners and scholars of the teaching refer to it as “feminine” rather than, say, using the term “androgynous”?

“Know the male, but keep the female” is one of Lao Tsu’s teaching in the Tao Te Ching [Needleman’s introduction, page xxvi]. That idea clearly is an emphasis on the feminine over the masculine. Where is the balance in only knowing the masculine while keeping the feminine? Another example is “Know the strength of man, but keep a woman’s care!” [page 30]. This line, too, clearly indicates a subtle rebuff of masculine principle while favoring the feminine.

I would be very curious to discover Lao Tsu’s thinking on what exactly comprises the masculine energy, since all of nature is feminine---weather a rock, river, or active volcano. His writings are devoid of any real revelation about the masculine, or, at least, I’m unable to find any.

Getting back to Alan Watts’ reference to technology, he seems to be indirectly apologizing for the lack of interest in material development in China, as compared with its predominance in the West. Could it be that he recognizes that that question would be raised by the Western mind, too?--that to the Western observer, like Watts, there appears to be a lack of true balance between the masculine and feminine aspects in Taoism and extant Eastern cultures.

There are, for example, several aspects of Tao relating to its application in human thinking and behavior, all of them being feminine in content and application. Three examples are the ideas “te,” “wu wei,” and “li.”

Te translates as “virtuality” [Tao The Water Course Way] or non-ego directed power, which I conclude attempts to surrender the masculine, self-directed human will (action) to the “will” of nature--such as not trying to paddle one’s boat against strong wind and waves. Since nature itself is universally accepted as feminine even in the Western mind, there seems to be a total emasculation of humans’ will to live in the Taoist’s scheme of things--in applying te to daily living.

Would the Tao aspect of te discourage - if not deny altogether - the development of, say, meteorology? Wouldn’t Taoism have us bend with nature, rather than try developing a system for predicting its behavior and resisting its power?

Another aspect is wu wei, meaning non-action, which suggests an even greater feminine passivity than te. Wu wei epitomizes Tao’s emphasis on the natural ebb and flow in the universe; it counsels complete non-ego action in the face of even impending disaster. If one is to be true to wu wei’s premise of non-action, then to save one’s own life would be an ego-based action and wrong.

Here feminine passivity is taken to an extreme, leaving one to accept what comes and not taking action to interrupt or avoid nature’s forces--its natural ebb and flow.

The principle of li, which springs from the Tao idea of non-law (wu-tse ) reveals the natural order of things, like the patterns of grain in wood or jade. Li is a feminine aspect that identifies in nature an orderliness, requiring of Tao practitioners a respect for the existent patterns found in nature--and a willingness to be congruent with, rather than at cross-purposes to, that grain or pattern.

These aspects of Tao have the purpose of teaching us to live life, as Alan Watts writes, “as an integral feature of the world process, and not as something alien and opposed to it.”

In view of the horrific suffering that nature has inflicted on human life, one wonders about the origins of such passivity in the Eastern mind:

I postulate that the differences between the Eastern mind and the Western mind corresponds to the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain---termed “hemisphericity.” While the left hemisphere is masculine (logical, constructive, and algorithmic) the right hemisphere is feminine (spatial, musical, and emotional). I believe that the Asian mind is, generally speaking, right-brained-dominant while the Western mind is left-brained-dominant. This hypothesis might explain the differences in Eastern and Western cultures, as well as the kinds of religious thought systems each has produced over the centuries. Is there a genetic component to the kinds of religious teachings we embrace? Are our brains wired for certain kinds of religious experience? 
- a comparison -

03/01/2004 - 04/01/2004 /

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