ON THE ESSENCE OF BUDDHISM: Practicing Awareness and Acceptance (Part 3)

(LAOS, Ban Xieng Mene) A bell at the entrance of the Wat Xieng Mene. (Photo taken by the author.)

Proceeding from the earlier parts of this essay, the Fourth Noble Truth is nothing more than the practical guide on how to overcome delusion. Called the Noble Eightfold Path, this guide prescribes eight “right practices” designed to bring one’s way of acting, thinking and being in the world into alignment with the reality of the world (as opposed to acting, thinking and being in the world in a deluded way). This path involves a clear sequence with regard to the eight practices. Three of the practices (right speech, right action and right livelihood) involve the correct way of acting and embody Buddhist morality or shila. Another three of the practices (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) involve the correct way of thinking and embody Buddhist meditation or samadhi. The remaining two practices (right view, right thought) involve the correct way of being and embody Buddhist wisdom or prajna. This correct way of being is nothing other than the way of being of one who has been freed of delusion—or to use Buddhism’s own terms—one who has “awakened” from delusion. Hence, the culmination of the Noble Eightfold Path lies in achieving wisdom, and one can view morality and meditation as foundational practices without which wisdom can never be achieved (or can perhaps still be achieved but only with extreme difficulty). Again, the stress here is on overcoming delusion—if one loses sight of this intention, the Noble Eightfold Path degenerates into nothing more than a mere set of dogmatic rules for living.

To recap what I have said so far about the central tenets of Buddhism: (1) life is suffering, (2) suffering is caused by desire, which is nothing but the twin poisons of lust and hate, (3) desiring is caused by the third poison of delusion, which is nothing but the illusory belief in permanence (both of the self and the world) and the insistence on what is not, and (4) suffering can therefore be overcome by a continuous awareness of the impermanence of all existence (including the self) and a radical acceptance of what already is. Now, what allows me to reduce the practice of Buddhism to the disciplines of awareness and acceptance? How can I justify this positive simplification of its essence?

First of all, if one accepts my earlier thesis that the key to overcoming suffering lies in overcoming delusion, one will have to accept my second thesis, which is that awareness is fundamental to dispelling delusion. If one simply observes one’s self, the world and others, one cannot fail to grasp the notions of non-self or anatman, impermanence or anitya, and suffering or dukha. The liberating power of awareness and its importance in realizing freedom from suffering is precisely why meditation or samadhi is so central to Buddhism. In essence, meditation is nothing but the active awareness of all things, including the self.

However, mere awareness is not enough (though it is a rigorous discipline in its own right). In fact, on its own, awareness can easily lead to a more heightened experience of suffering. There is a corollary discipline required, which is the discipline of a very radical acceptance. This acceptance is nothing more or less than the acceptance of how things already are, without wanting them to be otherwise and without lamenting their eventual and inevitable passing away. If one examines the different notions and practices developed or emphasized by the different Buddhist schools (and there are countless), one can perceive that for all their surface variety, their fundamental intent is simply to dispel the delusions of the self and/or permanence and to intensify one’s capacity for accepting what already is. Ultimately, the diverse Buddhist notions, practices and schools are simply different devices for achieving the same aim, and the variety stems from the other fact that, as the Buddha himself recognized, different cultures—and even more fundamentally, different individuals—require distinctive approaches.

ON THE ESSENCE OF BUDDHISM: Practicing Awareness and Acceptance (Part 2)

(LAOS, Luang Prabang) A monk visiting the Royal Funerary Carriage of the Wat Xieng Thong. (Photo taken by the author.)

With regard to the notion of the non-existence of the self (or the notion of non-self, for short) referred to in the first part of this essay, the concept being negated here is the idea of an enduring, stable identity. The problem posed by the self conceived of as this identity is that, by its very nature, it demands its constant consolidation and preservation. For example, if an identity is constructed on material terms, then it constantly desires wealth; if it is constructed on intellectual terms, then it constantly desires knowledge; if it is constructed on social terms, then it constantly desires affiliation. In short, the self, as identity, is a major source of desires because its perpetuation requires an attachment to certain things and an aversion towards others.

Furthermore, an identity’s demand for consolidation and preservation requires, in turn, a corollary belief in—perhaps even an insistence on—the existence of permanence. This is because transience irrevocably demands the destruction of identity, whether partially or wholly. If one loses one’s wealth, one loses the identity “affluent.” If one knows less than another, one loses the identity “brilliant.” If one is left by one’s partner, one loses the identity “loved.” Hence, the delusion of permanence serves the delusion of the self. This is not to say though the relation between both delusions is uni-directional. Seen from another perspective, the delusion of the self is a particular instance of the delusion of permanence. (After all, if one did not believe in permanence to begin with, how could one believe in the notion of a stable, enduring self?)

To stop the movement of desiring then, it appears that all that is necessary is to realize how delusional it is to believe in permanence. Things constantly change. Wealth gets spent, knowledge gets eroded, partners leave or die. But beyond seeing the impermanence of things, it is vitally important to recognize the impermanence of the self itself. The very identity that demands the constant satisfaction of its desires is itself subject to change and can therefore be posited to not exist. The Buddhist notion of the “five heaps” or skandhas is precisely meant to underscore the transient nature of this aggregate that is called the self. That is, the five things that human beings derive their identity from—their bodies (rupa), their feelings (vendana), their perceptions (samjna), their habitual mental attitudes (samskaras) and their consciousnesses (vijnana)—are all actually subject to change. One may covet wealth today but may weary of its responsibilities tomorrow. One may desire knowledge today but may tire of its implications tomorrow. One may crave companionship today but may desire solitude tomorrow.

But apart from the delusion of the self and the delusion of permanence, there is the delusion of desire itself. That is, there is a fundamental aberration in wanting things that are not present and in not wanting things that are present. This aberration consists of the ultimately futile resistance to what already is. Now, while it is possible to trace the genesis of this attitude to the abovementioned delusions of the self and permanence, I have chosen to treat it separately because, by and large, it seems to account for the most widespread (if rather patently undramatic) form of suffering present today—which is simply the general feelings of boredom, irritation, unease, anxiety and fear that constitute the daily emotional backdrop of the lives of most human beings. That is, one can suffer every day as a result of things that, on reflection, pose absolutely no threat to any illusory sense of identity, and it is a suffering that arises from a refusal to accept what already is (a refusal that can span anything from the sublime, i.e., why isn’t the world a better place?, to the mundane, i.e., why is my favorite brand of coffee out of stock?).

But to return to what I was saying earlier, one can stop the movement of desiring by seeing its futility and recognizing its inanity. In the first place, all desires are eventually frustrated by the transient nature of things; they may be satisfied at times, but never at all times. Second, desires themselves are transient; attachments can turn into aversions and aversions can turn into attachments. Third, desires are, by definition, insoluble: what can ultimately be served by insisting on what simply is not at the present? Hence, as the Third Noble Truth points out, the key to overcome suffering lies in overcoming the third poison of delusion—which simply involves the realization of the futility and inanity of desiring. In the next part, I shall describe how the Fourth Noble Truth serves as Buddhism’s practical guide on overcoming delusion.

ON THE ESSENCE OF BUDDHISM: Practicing Awareness and Acceptance (Part 1)

(LAOS, Ban Xieng Mene) A statue of the seated Buddha at the altar of the Wat Xieng Mene. (Photo taken by the author.)

The challenge in defining the essence of Buddhism lies not only in the fact that, like all other great wisdom traditions, it has given rise to a contentious multiplicity of interpretations, but also in the fact that in its relations to knowledge, it stands much closer to orthopraxic mysticism rather than orthodoxic religion. What I mean to say is that although Buddhism involves a constellation of ideas and concepts whose oftentimes paradoxical relations are capable of being unraveled, succeeding in this intellectual and theoretical endeavor often comes at the expense of the existential and practical one. Why this is so will become clear later on, but at this point, I will voice the thesis that the essence of Buddhism is this: to bring about the cessation of suffering through awareness and acceptance. All the ideas and notions in Buddhism’s vast conceptual network can be ultimately subordinated to this central insight, and I shall attempt to do so using its Four Noble Truths as the guiding framework.

The First Noble Truth is simply that life is suffering or dukha. Life itself, with its vicissitudes, its injustices, its sudden reversals in fortune, is suffering. Closely allied to this notion of suffering are the Buddhist notions of samsara, nirvana and karma. Samsara, as the cycle of birth, death and rebirth that continuously delivers one to the suffering that is life, is undesirable. Nirvana, as the cessation of the cycle of samsara and, hence, the final deliverance from the suffering that is life, is desirable. Karma, as the accumulation of merit (punya) or demerit (papa) gained during the cycle of lives, determines how far one is from samsara or nirvana. In short, to be in samsara is to endure suffering, to achieve nirvana is to escape suffering, and the state of one’s karma determines the extent of suffering one must still undergo.

The Second Noble Truth is that suffering in life is caused by desire or tanha. The definition of desire in the Buddhist context is elaborated by two of what it refers to as the “three poisons” or kleshas: lust and hate. Simply put, desire is wanting the presence of something absent (lust) or the absence of something present (hate). To have a craving for something that is absent or a loathing for something that is present is what leads to suffering. (It is important to note that lust and hate are inseparable. They express the same phenomenon, only their cognitive and emotional emphases are different.)

The Third Noble Truth follows logically from the Second Noble Truth, which is that to cease suffering or dukha, one need only overcome desiring or tanha. This is where the notion of the third poison or klesha comes in, which is delusion or ignorance or avidya. We desire things because we are deluded about or ignorant of reality. Buddhism explicates what it takes to be the genuine structure of reality through its notion of the “three marks of existence.” One of the three marks, suffering or dukha, has already been discussed. The two other marks, the non-existence of a self or anatman and the absence of permanence or anitya, expose the two most fundamental delusions that are the origins of desire and suffering. That is, we desire things and consequently suffer because we possess the delusion that a self exists and that permanence exists. In the next part, I shall examine these notions more carefully as they are crucial to understanding the essence of Buddhism as stated earlier.

ON POSTMODERNITY AND AMBIGUITY: Tracing the Origins of Fundamentalism

One of the reasons why I decided to enter the academic field of philosophy was the belief that it would help me make sense of a profoundly bewildering postmodern world. I didn’t enter it with the hope that it would provide answers—rather, I joined it with the expectation that it would train me to formulate them.

Of the many things that puzzled me about contemporary life, the crisis in religion was the most personally perplexing. It has been said that religion today—contrary to most secular expectations—is actually experiencing a global revival. It has also been said that the “litmus test” of a religion is its ability to inspire compassion.[1] What I could not account for was how the recent rise in religious fervor has been paradoxically accompanied by a rise in religious fundamentalism. In short, how could piety rise, on the one hand, and compassion wane, on the other?

When I first began my explorations of the world of fundamentalism, my initial assumption was that the phenomenon is an unfortunate by-product of the emphasis of certain strains of thought inherent in a given religious tradition. In other words, my hypothesis was that any tradition that emphasized the exclusive, elitist and divinely-revealed aspect of religion would betray a tendency to devolve into fundamentalism. (In particular, the traditions I had in mind were the three related monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam with their shared conceptions of a God who is historical, personal, self-revelatory and other.)

However, the research I subsequently undertook indicated that I had the causality reversed. It is not the emphasis on certain aspects of thought in religion that leads to fundamentalism. Rather, fundamentalism itself is a response to a contemporary malaise that then requires the emphasis on certain doctrines and practices in religion.

Briefly, fundamentalism, especially in how the religious writer Karen Armstrong conceives it, is a radically defensive mechanism that seeks to preserve religion in an aggressively secular world. In her definitive book on the subject, she talks at length about how the different fundamentalisms have attempted—and still attempt—to achieve their goal of restoring the sacred in a largely desacralized world.[2]

However, certain ideas contained in Ms. Armstrong’s work indicate another possible root for fundamentalism—and one which goes beyond simply bringing back the sacred into a secular society. This other possible root appears to me to be the uniquely contemporary difficulty of finding ultimate value and meaning in an aggressively pluralistic and postmodern society.

My hypothesis is this: fundamentalism is simply one of several responses to the thoroughly contemporary dilemma of finding ultimate value and meaning in a world that offers a plethora of competing value systems and frameworks of meaning—most of which cannot be said to be demonstrably superior to the others. The intractable difficulty posed by having to choose amongst such systems (when in the past, culture and heritage dictated one’s choice) can lead easily to nihilism, relativism—or in the case of fundamentalism—absolutism.  (I use absolutism here, as represented by the phenomenon of fundamentalism, to refer to the rigid adherence to a system of doctrines and/or practices that provides rules for how one is to live and what one is to live for.)

This pluralism of postmodern society is a uniquely contemporary phenomenon, not because diversity never existed in the past, but because the extent of the contemporary individual’s awareness of and exposure to diversity as a result of globalization is unprecedented in history. This diversity brings with it a multiplicity of choices, not just in terms of material goods but even in nonmaterial ends, i.e., those ends represented by religion. As writers like Alvin Toffler and Barry Schwartz have observed, the sheer number of choices that confront the contemporary individual are approaching—or perhaps have already even exceeded—the level of the individual’s psychological capacity to handle.[3] In other words, fundamentalism may be seen as the collective expression of individuals’ psychological reaction to existential overchoice.

The value of fundamentalism as a defensive mechanism in the face of postmodern pluralism lies in the fact that it obviates the need for deliberation in the act of making choices. It provides a comprehensive system of answers to whatever questions about value and meaning its adherents can ever raise. Once the initial assent to the system is made, no other form of deliberation need ever take place.

At the same time, however, the validity of an absolutist/fundamentalist system is directly proportional to the extent that it can denigrate the claims of other competing systems. Absolutist/fundamentalist systems are necessarily intolerant, because to concede the validity of other systems would mean that it has failed in its attempt to provide a superior and comprehensive system of answers and solutions for its adherents. 

So far, what has been described here is a hypothesis that seeks to account for fundamentalism in a manner different from (though not at all contradictory to) the account provided by Ms. Armstrong. At first glance, it appears to be a superficial hypothesis: how can something as apparently trivial as a bewildering array of choices lead to irrational dogmatism? My response here, based not just on research but also on personal experience, is that the absence of a defining anchor such as the one provided by religion can be a fundamentally agonizing and disorienting experience, and hence, there can be tremendous psychological relief to be found in adhering devotedly to a system that offers to give “all the answers.”  

Having described the problem, the question now is whether there are any solutions. At this point, the only one that comes to mind for me as a potential starting point is Hannah Arendt’s admonition for people “to think”.[4] I merely say starting point—and it’s a problematic starting point at that—for the simple reason that the problem seems to preclude the solution. In other words, how can one blithely tell people to think, when their inability or incapacity to think is the very origin of the problem in the first place?

[1] Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: A Memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 347.

[2] Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (London: Harper Perennial, 2004).

[3] Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004); Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Bantam Books, 1972).

[4] Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” in Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 159-189.

ON MODERNITY AND IDOLATRY: Explaining the Death of God

. . . a proof for the existence of God can be constructed
by means of the most rigorous formal logic and yet prove nothing,
since a god who must permit his existence to be proved
in the first place is ultimately a very ungodly god.
The best such proofs of existence can yield is blasphemy.

– Martin Heidegger

Jean-Luc Marion, in the first two chapters of his book God Without Being, meditates on the differences between the idol and the icon.[1] His distinction rests on the opposing manners in which the idol and the icon signify the divine. With the idol, the divine is reduced to the dimension of human thought, with the deity manifesting itself only to the extent allowed by the worshipper’s vision. With the icon, on the other hand, the irreducibility of the divine to the dimension of human thought is precisely recognized, and the deity manifests itself on its own terms, blinding the worshipper’s vision through sheer excess. Both the idol and the icon can be constituted perceptibly through the object, or, intelligibly through the concept. The latter mode of idolatry is especially insidious, for Marion, and he points out how conceptual idolatry has come to dominate most of the discourse regarding the divine. In fact, Marion asserts, both theism and atheism are idolatries, in that regardless of whether they affirm or deny the deity, their affirmation and negation rest on a conception of the divine—hence, a reduction of the divine to an object thinkable for thought.

On the basis of Marion’s thought, one may therefore conclude that three of the foremost modern philosophers—Descartes, Hume and Kant—are idolaters. The first one presumes to prove God’s existence; the second subjects Him to the demands of empirical evidence; and the third postulates Him as the necessary guarantor of the world’s moral order. More specifically:

(1) According to Descartes, God must exist, because if I know myself to be a finite and imperfect being, yet I also find that I have a concept of an infinite and perfect Being, it is impossible that this conception of an infinite and perfect Being should come from a finite and imperfect being such as myself. Hence, this idea of an infinite and perfect Being can only have come from the infinite and perfect Being Itself.

(2) According to Hume, the only acceptable proof for existence is empirical evidence, yet most of the arguments for the existence of God are: (a) not based at all on observable experience (i.e., arguments for the need for a Necessary Being and the “impossibility” of infinite regress are merely logical presuppositions); (b) can be countered by opposing observable experiences (i.e., the observation that the universe has an apparent order and structure can be easily refuted by counter-observations of the chaos and meaninglessness of natural calamities); and (c) can even be countered on the level of logic (i.e.,. the existence of “religious” feelings can be attributed to an identification with nature rather than an intimation of the divine). Hence, all of these “rational” proofs for the existence of God are merely assumptions. We can choose to believe that God exists, but we can never rightfully claim to have established His existence conclusively.

(3) According to Kant, we can never prove the existence of God because His manifestation (if He exists) occurs outside what can be perceived by our forms of intuition and our categories of understanding. Yet, our reason “demands” a belief in God’s existence, despite the fact that it can never conclusively demonstrate it, because without a God, morality in a world that does not necessarily reward the upright would be absurd.

In quite diverse ways, these three modern thinkers reduce God to an idol (whether as an idol to venerate in the case of Descartes, an idol to presuppose in the case of Kant, or, an idol to question in the case of Hume). In all three cases, whether theistic or atheistic, God is subjected to the necessary demands of reason.

(Deliberate or not, this idolatry is practically inevitable because, to use an argument of Marion’s, no matter how lofty or elevated the qualities attributed to God by reason may be—i.e., perfect, infinite, etc.—they still place him within the bounds of intelligibility. They place him at the threshold of that intelligibility, to be sure, but within its parameters, nonetheless. It is here that Marion concedes the enormous difficulty of a non-idolatrous “discourse” on God, for discourse by its very nature tends to be intelligible, and what is intelligible tends to be what is circumscribable, and what is circumscribed is rendered limited, hence finite—hence, an idol. How Marion proposes to escape this idolatry, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.)

That God must be subject to the demands of reason is conceivably a function of the era to which Descartes, Hume and Kant belonged. This was the age of the birth and ascendancy of modern experimental science, where the rigid application of reason and logic was seen to produce results spectacular beyond anything previously imagined. Reason’s effectiveness in the material domain was such that it seemed only “reasonable” to extend its dominion to the spiritual domain.

This was a marked shift from the medieval perspective, which, although it had believed in the “reasonableness” of God, had always retained a sense of His ultimate ineffability (a sense maintained by the practice of the via negativa, where every positive pronouncement regarding God must be reversed in recognition of the fact that any and every positive pronouncement regarding Him radically fails Him). Modernity, in its enchantment with reason, eroded this sense of ultimate ineffability by firmly locating God within—and only within—the bounds of reason. In short, in the transition from the medievals to the moderns, God lost his iconic status and became an idol.

The inevitable consequence of this idolatry, Marion points out, is precisely the “death of God” as diagnosed by Nietzsche. Because idols draw their motive power from their worshippers, they reflect the imperfection and finitude of their very human worshippers. Hence, any idol, regardless of how initially sublime, lends itself inevitably to eventual decay and ridicule. Because the modern God is a necessary God of reason, any argument that attacks the ground of that necessity and of that reasonableness attacks the very divinity of that God and makes Him an object of disbelief and ridicule. God’s death becomes inevitable when Descartes’ modified ontological proof is refuted, when Hume’s demand for empirical evidence is unsatisfied, and when Kant’s postulation of a moral guarantor is nullified. The price we pay for a God limited to the bounds of our reason is a God whose divinity and duration is precisely tied to the limits of our reason.

This, in turn, may account for the disorientation and feeling of “loss” that characterizes our time. As contemporaries succeeding the moderns, we find as our legacy the broken and toppled figure of the previous age’s idol. Having seen the idol for what it is, or rather, for what it is not, the question emerges—after centuries of venerating the idol, can we find our way back to the icon?

[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

ON POSTMODERNITY AND AMBIGUITY: Defending the Need for Certainty

. . . if metaphysics is indeed defined as the thought of a universal foundation,
it cannot not founder when the self-evidence of the obligation
of a foundation of being is called into question.

– Jean-Luc Marion

Ever since Nietzsche questioned the very point of the metaphysical enterprise with his question, “Why ask a why?”, the status of metaphysics has never quite remained the same. In a rallying cry taken up by Heidegger and subsequent others, the notion of the need for foundations and structures has fallen into a state of relative disrepute, with Descartes and his modern successors roundly condemned for having led philosophy into the long aporia of foundationalism.

There is certainly much to commend in Nietzsche’s basic insight. An overweening concern for comprehending, grasping and explicating reality in terms of grandiose structures leads to a viewpoint that ignores reality’s fundamentally dynamic and fluctuating character. Such a viewpoint, failing to recognize as it does a crucial aspect of reality, is bound to have its inadequacy exposed in the long run—if only because reality will always assert its essential truths. In a sense, what Nietzsche did was to reveal the inadequacy of a school of thought that had excessively dominated Western philosophy since Parmenides—namely that reality is fundamentally static and unchanging.

But Nietzsche’s accomplishment simply swung the pendulum from one extreme to another. He re-inaugurated the Heraclitean school of thought that emphasized the radically mutable character of reality, and therefore implied the futility of any search for a lasting and stable foundation. The point of this essay, however, is not to present a debate between foundationalism and anti-foundationalism (an argument that has exercised countless philosophers for the last two thousand years), but rather to highlight why the debate exists in the first place and why it continues to endure.

The answer lies in a phenomenological examination of the human being’s basic relationship to ambiguity. Phenomenologically speaking, human beings are profoundly uncomfortable with uncertainty. It is all too easy to presume that the human being’s deep-seated anxiety with regard to change is a uniquely contemporary phenomenon—especially with all the attention in recent decades being focused on the accelerating pace of change in a post-industrial, globalized world. But even a cursory look at the work of great thinkers from ages past (i.e., Augustine from the medieval period, Descartes from the modern period) will reveal that human beings have always been radically and profoundly unsettled by change and uncertainty. In the face of change and uncertainty, a human being will always look for something to hold on to—something immutable and eternal and absolute that will serve as an antidote to the nauseating and disorienting vicissitudes of life and reality. For Augustine, it was God. For Descartes, it was the cogito (and, as an apologetic Catholic afterthought, God). For countless others after them, it was some abstract principle or another (i.e., reason, freedom, etc.).

So while Nietzsche and his followers hold the intellectual currents of the day, the vast majority of human beings will look for a solution less intellectually rigorous but perhaps more existentially consoling. Nietzsche himself recognized the strain involved in his philosophy, when he designated the few who would be able to live it the “übermensche.” For really, what can be more monumentally superhuman than building an anchor for oneself in perpetually shifting sands—where the landscape changes day by day and the horizon offers no guiding landmark?

So to answer Nietzsche’s implicit question, “Why ask a why?”, I would respond: because we are not roses, who can bloom without whys.* It’s certainly possible to condition ourselves into states of being where we no longer ask “why?” without actually sinking into a state of utter apathy—in a nutshell, this encompasses the entire Buddhist solution to change and suffering—but the key word is “condition.”  What would benefit philosophy, beyond the endless argumentation over the existence or absence of foundations and absolutes, would be a recognition and acceptance of the human being’s existential unease with flux and change (evidenced by an entire medieval to contemporary vocabulary that names the condition, i.e., restlessness, homelessness, alienation, dislocation, disorientation, etc.).

For whether or not a foundation actually exists, a human being, by nature, will be compelled to posit one (even if his or her absolute foundation is a belief in the absence of all foundations). In a way, a performative contradiction is inherent in any insistence on the absence of over-arching principles or structures. In the same way that Husserl points out that human beings always perceive phenomena as unities of meaning, human beings will always have a natural tendency to view life and reality as possessing an over-arching unity of meaning. It’s exciting, intellectually, to believe in the dissonant, ephemeral and fragmented vision of reality that Nietzsche, and subsequent philosophers all the way up to Derrida, promulgates—but how many people can sustain such a belief existentially, without lapsing into nihilism or absurdity?

What is consoling is that, philosophically speaking, attempts are being made to find some sort of over-arching principle that does not possess the dogmatic rigidity of an absolute foundation. The focus in recent decades on discourse and dialogue constitutes a large part of these contemporary attempts, as does a modified conception of “truth,” where truth is no longer necessarily eternal or immutable (or if it is, its attainment—at least in this world—is recognized as falling short of the ideal). The attempts reflect genuine efforts to not merely perpetuate a millennia-old debate, but to find ways of synthesizing two radically divergent yet fundamentally accurate conceptions of reality. Reality does change, and in the times we live in, it is changing ever faster and ever more profoundly. Yet here we are still, grappling with the same questions grappled by the ancients before us. And while that fact may lead one to a sense of futility regarding any real progress in the human condition, it may also give one a sense of consolation—that at the end of the day, the foundation that ties us all together is not to be found in some over-arching and transcendent principle, but in our immanently fumbling and ever-questing humanity.

* This is an allusion to a quote by the German poet and mystic Angelus Silesius: “Die Rose ist ohne warum; sie blühet, weil sie blühet…” (The Rose is without ‘why’; she blooms, because she blooms…”).

ON THE S’VETÂS’VATARA UPANISHAD: Celebrating the Faces of God (Part 8)


In this essay, we examined the Hindu Upanishads with a particular focus on the S’vetâs’vatara with a view toward determining whether the apparent disunity of Hindu religious thought has something positive to contribute to the contemporary religious experience. In tracing the development of the Vedas, starting from the Samhitâs and ending with the Upanishads, we noted the paradoxical harmony of a religious thought that began with outer-directed forms of pagan worship and ended with inner-directed practices of mystical union. We identified this underlying harmony as the gradual movement of interiorization that occurred in the shift from the Vedic to the Hindu religion.

Later on, when we examined the Upanishads themselves, we noted yet another source of disunity: the appearance of contradictory conceptions of the ultimate reality that seemed irreconcilable with the originary Upanishadic doctrine of monism. Yet again, we discovered the key to understanding this disharmony: namely, the refusal of sense experience to bow down to merely intellectual prerogatives. Ultimately, the Upanishads found ways to reconcile the perceptions of the senses with the speculations of the intellect—reconciliations that may not necessarily be the slightest bit satisfactory to a Western reader accustomed to the rigid dogmatism of logic. A Western reader may understandably say: Yes, I can understand how different solutions may be called for with regard to this problem of the one and the many, but why must these different solutions be placed side by side in the same text in seemingly random fashion with no attempt made whatsoever to explain the transitions? Why does the S’vetâs’vatara Upanishad, for instance, put the different positions of monism, pantheism, cosmogonism and theism side by side in irreconcilable fashion, rather than merely selecting one position and explicating it consistently throughout?

But I would assert, on the other hand, that to insist on such a consistency would be to destroy the very contribution that the Upanishads make to the human religious experience. Nagler pinpoints the source of this contribution when he observes that Hinduism’s strategy is not to be consistent, but to be cumulative. Throughout the entire history of the evolution of India’s religious consciousness, “outworn forms of religious worship were virtually never discarded,” and as D.S. Sarma once observed, the sages of India worked towards moving people beyond their “rather low type of sacrificial religion . . . without in any explicit manner breaking away from the traditions of the past.”[1] The outcome of this cumulative strategy has been as practical as it has been profound:

Thanks to its paradigm of diversity and its cumulative strategy for preserving culture, those individuals and communities who respond to outward forms of worship have kept their place and dignity in the system, while at the other extreme individuals who have really had mystical experience have been unusually free to transcend all religious forms and not only follow their own path but become beacons for the cultures as a whole.[2]

In short, through their ardent pursuit and devout expression of spiritual truth—regardless of the many logical contradictions that their religious quest has yielded—the Upanishads exemplify not merely a tolerance for but a celebration of the many faces of God. As Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, “By whatever path human beings follow, they are working their way to Me.”[1] Ultimately, it is an outlook that has much to contribute to a world that has far too many religions—and far too little faith.

[1] Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 268; D. S. Sarma, The Upanishads: An Anthology (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1970), 2, quoted in Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 269.

[2] Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 269-70.

[3] Bhagavad Gita 4.11, quoted in Nagler, “Reading the Upanishads,” 270.