On Right View: Beware Reductionism and Postmodernism!

This is my first, somewhat embarrassing, attempt at putting Badiou’s “hypertranslation” idea into practice. I was inspired by Tom Pepper’s essay The Truth of Anatman, which includes (I think) the first and only instance of this using Buddhist material.

Here I’ll be making use of the Kaccayanagotta Sutta. Given that I can’t actually read Sanskrit or Pali, I had to make due using a hodgepodge of translations. So, essentially, this is a terrible hypertranslation of multiple questionable translations of the Kaccayanagotta Sutta. I hope to get better at doing this with practice, but for now, here’s a quick and dirty version of it. Obviously, the point here isn’t to engage in bickering about “what the Buddha really said” or some such boring debate. The point is to do something with Buddhist material for its own sake.

The motivation behind this post is a frustration with the popular Buddhist meme that to think is the greatest sin, because to think is to “cling to views.” Obviously, that is itself a view, and an extremely idiotic one at that. I think its prevalence among Buddhists probably comes, in part, from a philosophically perverted understanding of this Sutta. So my intention with this post is to re-write it in a way that addresses this misunderstanding.

SN 12: The Connected Discourses on Causation

Part 15: On Right View

Thus have I heard: The blessed one was once living at Savatthī, in the monastery of Anathapindika, in Jeta’s Grove. Then the Venerable Kaccanagotta approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘right view, right view.’ In what way, venerable sir, is there right view?”

Replied the Blessed One: “This world of the 21st Century, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence.

The former notion, that of existence, gives rise to the view of the reductionist. Being attached to the notion of existence, which depends upon an attachment to the metaphysical assumption of eternalism, the reductionist mistakenly believes that the reality of every phenomenon lies in its constituent material parts, and can be explained as such. This includes the view that the only things that are “real” are those that exist independent of social formations, and which can be explained via reductionism. The reductionist view fails to account for the mind as social formations, dependent on the social practices in which humans engage. And what does the reductionist view lead to? The reductionist view, failing to account for the mind as social formations, dependent on the social practices in which humans engage, leads to silly ideologies such as posthumanism and ‘Rational Optimism’, in which all human problems are merely ones of insufficient technology, and can always be solved by an eternal magical force called ‘the free market’.

The latter notion, that of nonexistence, gives rise to the equally incorrect view of the postmodernist. Being attached to the notion of nonexistence, which depends upon an attachment to the metaphysical assumption of annihilism, the postmodernist mistakenly believes that there is no reality in any phenomenon, that all phenomena are ‘mere’ social formations, and, being so, that they are not ‘real’, and that all explanations of phenomena are equally (in)valid. The postmodernist view fails to account for phenomena as dependently arisen with quite real material and social conditions that are predictable, stable, and open to investigation. And what does the postmodernist view lead to? The postmodernist view, failing to account for phenomena as dependently arisen in quite real material and social conditions that are predictable, stable, and open to investigation, leads to immature repudiations of all forms of scientific study, and a ridiculous “anything goes” approach to understanding the world.

But for one who sees the origin of phenomena as it really is with correct wisdom, which is to say, with an understanding that they are dependently arisen, not mere illusion, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to phenomena. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, which is to say, with an understanding that with the cessation of the dependent conditions, so do the conditioned phenomena cease, there is no notion of existence in regard to phenomena. That is not to say one should adhere to a metaphysical rejection of all ontological assertions as invalid; that would merely be another way of siding with the postmodernist. Rather, it is the metaphysical assumptions implied in each of these common-sense notions of existence and non-existence that are flawed and contingent.

This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by grasping to philosophical systems and dogmas, or by aversion to any forms of rigorous thought. But one with right view does not cling to philosophical systems or dogmas, nor does she flinch from the necessity for rigorous thought. He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only dukkha arising, what ceases is only dukkha ceasing. Her knowledge about this is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view.

Thus there is only one question one should deem worthy of asking: ‘Under what material and social conditions does this particular manifestation of dukkha arise, and what mechanism leads to their cessation?’ As long as there is consciousness, this question will need to be engaged. To engage in this question, thought must be used as a tool for investigation. To grasp at final philosophical answers, or to throw up one’s hands at the futility of thought, both of these serve to reject thought, and so fail to actually address suffering.

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