Tuesday January 6, 2009
The house I am living in at the moment has very curiously designed door handles. I do not know precisely what it is about these handles, but hardly a day goes past when I don’t find myself snagging shirts and jumpers and other assorted bits of clothing on these obstacles. In part, I am sure, it is a matter of the inelegance of my gait. If I moved with more skill, if I held myself with more poise, if I slipped through the house with the grace of Ruldoph Nureyev, then perhaps I could diminish the regularity of this perpetual snagging. Or, perhaps, were I more high-minded, I could practice a greater mindfulness when it comes to door handles; but of all the things in the world of which one can, at any one moment, be mindful, door handles come rather low on my list of favoured objects. So, as it is, I’m just getting used to the snags and holes, and the occasional spillages of coffee as my trajectory through the house is momentarily inhibited by protruding bits of metal. It wouldn’t be so bad if the door handles looked nice…
As with the body, so with the mind. I have been noticing recently how, as I go about my daily business, the mind finds itself getting snagged by passing thoughts, getting itself entangled, so that the fluidity of thought is as impeded as is the fluidity of physical movement by those wretched door handles. I have been noticing how my thoughts tend to petrify into fixed opinions and views, and when they do, not only do they lose their fluidity, but it also they seem to lose their close relationship with the world.
Recently I wrote in passing about the idea of two truths as one of those slippery ideas that, cropping up again and again throughout the Buddhist traditions, finds itself doing different kinds of work in different kinds of places. Here I want to look at one way in which this idea has been put to use, as this throws a little light, I think, upon this process whereby the mind finds itself getting snagged and snarled-up. This comes from the philosophical school designated by the term Sautrāntika, and – as is usual for this blog – I’m much more interested in mounting smash-and-grab raids to see what is useful to think with than in learned exegesis (there are plenty of learned exegetes out there, if you know where to look…) Anyway, in the Sautrāntika perspective, there is a distinction made between “conceptual” truths that are the objects of thoughts, and “nonconceptual” truths, that are the objects of direct perception. Conceptual truths are considered “permanent”, and nonconceptual truths are considered “impermanent”.
Now, before we got on to why this might matter, it is worth asking what on earth this might mean. Permanence, in this sense, is not to be equated with longevity and impermanence with brevity of existence. Instead, within this view something is said to be impermanent when it changes moment by moment – impermanence, that is to say, is the fluidity, the flux that Heraclitus spoke of when he supposedly said that one cannot step into the same river twice.1 Meanwhile permanence is a kind of stability by virtue of which things do not change moment by moment, but remain fixed.
A distinction is being made here between the thoughts we have about the world – which tend towards fixity or (if they must have some kind of dynamism) which tend to be continually recreated in their own image, and the flux of direct experience which, as we all know, is changing moment by moment, and is never stable. The frameworks of thought are the conventially true things, the quicksilver changes of experience are the ultimately true things.
What this does, I think, is rather interesting. Firstly, when in the Western traditions we think of what is ultimately true, we often think of something big and important and stable and unchanging, something that lurks behind or beyond the world, whether a God, or what Kant thought of as the conditions of the possibility of what-have-you, or laws, or principles. This Sautrāntika view not only turns this upside down (the ultimate truths are the very things that are impermanent!), but is also rather more homely and rather less grand. One way of reading it is as a call to empiricism and away from dreamy mysticism or from the wilder shores of speculation. It reminds us to pay attention to the fluidity, to recognise that when thoughts find themselves snagged it is because the thoughts themselves are not keeping up with the world, because they have become too fixed and rigid, because, useful as they are, they are in need of revision. To pay attention to ultimate truth is not to seek the hidden face of things, not to lay bare a secret that lurks behind the world, but to return to a closer attention to experience, to asking what is actually going on here?
And the point of making the distinction between conventional and ultimate truth in this way, I think, is this: we are perpetual storytellers, and the stories that we tell assist us through the world. But, as Jerome Bruner says somewhere, there is no greater tyrrany than that which arises when we become trapped within (or snagged upon) a single tale. Or, as Michel Serres writes, as judicious as an idea appears to be, it becomes monstrous when it rules alone.
1 Cratylus, incidentally, trumped Heraclitus by saying that you could not step into the same river once, in part, no doubt, because a step takes time, and if the river truly is in flux, then as one steps, one is not stepping into the same river at the beginning or at the end of one’s step. Nāgārjuna, just to push the boat out into this particular river a bit further, might trump Cratylus’s card by contending that there is nobody to step, whether into a river or anywhere else, nor is there anything to step into, nor, for that matter, is there any stepping to be done: Neither an entity nor a nonentity / Moves in any of the three ways / So motion, mover / and route are nonexistent. (Garfield, 1996). But I digress…
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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