Stop Making Sense

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, wrote a post today called Nirvana as Asphyxiation. He’s been reading Emil Cioran, whom he quoted as having written:

In the Benares sermon, Buddha cites, among the causes of pain, the thirst to become and the thirst not to become. The first thirst we understand, but why the second?

Bill goes on to examine the question of salvation. What lies at the end of the path? Annihilation of self? Why should we desire that? But if not that, then what? Some sort of “life of Riley” upgrade? A fluffy cloudscape, and an eternity of harps and halos? Might wear thin after the first million years or so. An endless carnal romp with a half-gross of raven-haired virgins? Not bad for a weekend in Vegas, but as a reentrant “lockout groove” for aeons without end? I’d rather play the record again. So Bill has set himself, and the rest of us, a philosophical problem. I quote from his post:

It is the problem of elaborating a conception of salvation that avoids both annihilationism and reduplicationism.

But is this, in fact, a philosophical problem at all?

I am aware of the irony of the question, but it is a serious question anyway. We can certainly philosophize profitably about our lives, about moral questions, about the intellectual framework within which we order our thinking. We can use the tools of philosophy to examine philosophy itself, to reason about reasoning.

But can philosophy see its own boundaries? Are there such “edges”, places where reason “hits the wall”, where the way is barred? I think the problem is more subtle than that, and for the philosopher, most seductively so. Perhaps that which is accessible to reason is not bounded, but is nevertheless finite, as is the surface of a sphere. The philosopher looking for the frontiers of Reason’s domain, then, will never find them, and so might imagine that there is no place that philosophy cannot go.

Is enlightenment such a place? The spiritual teachers, one and all, tell us so. Yes, our reason is a vital tool, a tremendous gift, and it is essential for our initial growth, our worldly growth, the process that enables us even to approach the path. But for those who possess the gift in full measure – those who are are admired and praised for the potency of their intellect, and who profit and prosper in the world due to its power – it can be a terribly difficult weapon to lay aside. One feels disarmed, and vulnerable. But unless we can learn some new skills – unless we can strip away some of the mighty apparatus of habit and personality that we have been wearing for so long – we can only get so far. We automatically assume an active posture – we are the “higher” acting on the “lower” – in our relationship to the problems and questions we face in the outer world. But for inner work something different is required – we must be active, instead, in relation to ourselves, in order that we can make ourselves passive in relation to the Divine. And this is why we must learn to still the chatter, to quiet the mind.

What makes us think that, in our present state, we can write word-strings that sum up the experience of being Awakened? No. We are drawn to the work because we are dissatisfied, and because we sense, somehow, that there are possibilities. If we are fortunate we find others who can help – seekers like ourselves, and those who are further along to guide us. After we have worked for a while we may experience astonishing glimpses of what it is we are working toward – inexpressible and momentary, but nevertheless reassuring and heartening.

Frank Zappa once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Philosophizing about enlightenment might be like that too.

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One Comment

  1. Henry Verheggen says

    Well said, Malcolm. I heard a story: There was a teacher who described samsara as “the son of a barren woman”. Well one day he was having a session with his students, when he got called away for a few minutes. The students got into an argument. When he came back and saw what was going on he laughed and said, “See now they are arranging the marriage of the son of the barren woman.”

    Posted February 18, 2006 at 11:07 am | Permalink