something, anything, nothing


16x20_webOLD NOTEBOOKS: Geneva, Switzerland: (originally dated September 29, 2012) I get on the Airport bus crowded with people and all their baggage, but I’m not going to catch a plane, I have to teach a new English class in the airport building, and feeling a bit nervous about that. Staff entrance, visitors’ ID, then I’m led along corridors to an elevator and down two or three floors into a network of underground rooms. Door opens and I’m in this claustrophobic space. No windows of course, a large white board, the smell of whiteboard markers, harsh penetrating fluorescent tube lighting. Find the air vents, adjust the air flow by remote and I can breathe better.

Three large athletic men enter; customs officers and senior security people, I see from my notes; shake hands with everyone. There’s a relaxed informal locker-room awareness of each other; deference among them, recognition of something about one individual I guess must be the most senior. Anyway I’m the foreigner in the group, and I have to give an account of myself.

Introductions over and we get started with the class. Pretty soon, something comes up, one of them stands, as if to attention, asks me a question about the use of ‘anything’ rather than ‘something’. After he’s asked the question there’s a hesitation, as if he’s going to say something else, then I notice he’s just observing my body behavior, the professional investigator…

So we’re looking at each other like this, and after I realize he’s finished talking in fact, I’m giving an answer to his question while gradually realizing I’m having a kind of out-of-body experience. I can hear my voice saying the words; the echo in the concrete room, feel the moisture and movement of the mouth but everything else is somehow unfamiliar.

It seems to work ok, I manage to articulate properly and tell him that ‘anything’ is usually used either in a negative context: “I don’t have anything”, and it’s also used in the interrogative form; you might ask a person: “Do you have anything to declare?” Me saying this with a smile, thinking of the Customs Declaration, and hoping to get the intensity to lighten up a bit.

No reaction (maybe he didn’t understand). So I continue with the example: “If you thought that person did have something to declare you could say: “Do you have something to declare?” Still no reaction from this hypnotic look and I’m feeling really weird. He sits down and discusses with the other two in French and they seem to agree about this. I’m still kinda not ‘here’… maybe it’s the underground room, the intensity of the officer’s stare

Somebody else in the group asks a follow-up question and an interesting discussion follows on from this. I sit down with them and can feel myself get back to ‘normal’ – learn not to pay attention to ‘the look’. Class time, comes to an end, shake hands (everybody shakes hands in the French culture), and I’m up in the elevator out along the corridors to the exit and the fresh air.

Wait at the Airport bus stop, it comes, and we’re off into town. The bus is full of wide-eyed people just arrived from distant parts of the world, large suitcases blocking the passageway. How can I say that there is no self, because, if there is no self, who/what is it that realizes this? There’s this feeling that I’m not here – clearly in the public eye but vanished away, invisible. Bus speeds off to town with passengers all speaking loudly in different languages.

Are you an object being watched by another Presence? Or are you the Presence in whose view an idea of yourself is watched? [Mooji]

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Notes also from David Loy: Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: 
Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same?) Image source

29 thoughts on “something, anything, nothing

  1. Thanks for the ref to the David Loy piece. I think he commits a few conceptual errors – particularly in his criticism of Samkhya – but IMHO it’s a great example of rhetorical metaphysics (of which I’m rather fond, as you may have noticed from my blogposts).

    How can I say that there is no self, because, if there is no self, who/what is it that realizes this?

    No-one, of course.
    That’s the trick, isn’t it?

    I’m not sure if Loy misses this in his essay or whether he founders on the inability of language to express it. He certainly seems to take a few runs at it but sometimes seems to get tangled up in the concept of ‘the knower’. Pure consciousness has no object – certainly not itself. It has no awareness and nothing of which to be aware. It ‘knows’ nothing. It simply abides. It just is.

    • Thanks for this I’m no expert and rhetorical metaphysics? But I’d be interested to know the main points of your take on Loy’s criticism of Samkhya. It might be something you’d like to write a post about, or you could just reply with something in plain words…
      This is an old reblogged post and the phrase ‘Pure consciousness has no object’ hadn’t ocurred to me at that time. I can see the logic of it now but it’s still a puzzle, of course, and I kinda like it left as a question…

      • Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) is probably the best known rhetorical metaphysician out there, but I’m not really very fond of his work.

        I’m a metaphysical anti-realist so what I like about rhetorical metaphysics is that it allows you to explore how you feel about various metaphysical constructs (or at least their articulation) without getting all tied up in rational consistency, completeness or claims to validity. It’s a kind of intellectual masturbation I guess, but I think it can keep your mind flexible and open so long as you don’t descend into polemics.

        Also I’m still floundering around looking for ways to articulate my own limited perception of reality so I like to collect good examples of how other people try to do so – even though I’m pretty sure it’s a fool’s errand.

        But I’d be interested to know the main points of your take on Loy’s criticism of Samkhya.

        Well, firstly he seems to think the lack of connection between purusha and prakrti is some kind of fail.

        There’s several dualistic metaphysical systems – such as non-theistic parallelism – in which the fundamental components of the universe (typically mind and matter) don’t interact at all but nonetheless serve in tandem to create our perception of reality.

        In non-theistic parallelism dualistic reality is simply what we perceive and that perception is only possible inasmuch as the near-infinitely fecund potentialities of mind and matter happen to overlay each other. Time doesn’t flow and cause-effect doesn’t exist. We assemble them by connecting very similar overlays between mind and matter in the same way a film is assembled by connecting very similar still pictures. There is no reason we couldn’t all have completely disconnected notions of time and causality but as our subjective realities – including our perception of the actions of others – is created by our notions of similarity and connection we have no way of perceiving the entirely separate reality-flows experienced by others (remember Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five?). Instead we assemble the frames of their movie into one approximating our own.

        Theistic parallelism, OTOH, has a separate creator god that makes sure mind and matter stay synchronised even though they don’t effect each other.

        In postulating parallelism between mind/matter and pure consciousness Samkhya is quite akin to David Chalmers’ take on the relationship between the causal universe and consciousness.

        Loy also asks “[S]ince there is supposedly an infinity or at least a very large number of completely distinct, unrelated purushas … [h]ow can they all occupy the same infinite space without affecting each other?”.

        That seems to me to express a profound ignorance of the nature of space and interactions.

        To take a concrete counter-example, physicists would have it that my body is currently occupying the same space as a huge number of passing neutrinos, yet we don’t interact except on the most vanishingly rare occasions.

        To get a little more abstract, space is actually space-time (according to Einstein). Would Loy ask how multiple objects could occupy the same time without interacting?

        Even if purushas are mutually exclusive in space, there is no reason there couldn’t be an infinite number of spatial dimensions in which prakrti is not manifest at all. That would allow plenty of scope for as many fully independent purushas as you like without the need for crowding or interpenetration. This is consistent with some aspects of quantum theory (e.g. the superposition of quantum states before wave function collapse and the many-worlds interpretation).

      • Agreed, he’s expecting there to be more of a connection between purusha and prakrti than, say, non-theistic parallelism which, as you say, ‘don’t interact at all but nonetheless serve in tandem…’ He doesn’t get around to thinking dualistic reality is simply what we perceive and similar overlays between mind and matter in the same way a film is assembled by connecting very similar still pictures, and perception is only possible in as much as mind and matter happen to overlay each other. Our notions of similarity and connection are like this because we have no way of perceiving the entirely separate reality-flows experienced by others.
        Now the next book I’m going to read is Slaughterhouse Five, which is on my bookshelf 2000 miles away from here. I read a summary of Billy Pilgrim. It sounds like I need to read this.
        One question, Loy wrote this as part of a thesis for University of Singapore, and received his Ph.D in 1984. Might it not be possible this piece of writing hasn’t been updated since then? Apologies, it’s something I should have checked before using it as a quote…

      • Well, Chalmers didn’t become known for his theories of consciousness until the late 90s so I guess Loy couldn’t have known about them in 1984. And I’d suppose Loy would have been exposed to other metaphysical systems over the past 30 years and so his views are likely to have changed a bit.

        Still, dualistic ontologies in which the universe arises from completely separate and non-interacting fundamentals have been with us for a long time and I would have thought a philosophy PhD candidate would have been familiar with at least some of them. And his almost brusque dismissal of Samkhya – a system that has survived centuries of robust critiques in its native land – strikes me as more a reflection of prejudice than scholarship. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig gives the concept of maya a similarly short shrift.

      • Sorry I don’t know much about Samkhya to contribute here but I see enough to be aware that the distinction is very small and therefore puzzled by his almost brusque dismissal of Samkhya. I don’t really want to comment on the way Loy presents his argument but might speculate that he thought it necessary to create a polemic in order to bring stronger focus on the comparison betweeen Early Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta (including aspects of Mahayana), which is itself a convenient dualism. And this strengthens his writing a bit considering the fact that the Buddha didn’t comment on the subject in the final analysis. So, without that literary manipulation the article would have been a bit inconclusive.
        The Buddhist/Advaita comparison is what the article is aiming at. There are a few things here that interest me. Shankara tries to describe reality from outside; to look upon the whole of reality objectively… as if the philosophizing intellect were itself outside that whole. The Buddha realized that we cannot get outside of reality and describe it as an object; philosophizing is inevitably contained within that – conceptual structures act as an obstruction to enlightenment… the question is the answer – and the Buddha chose to remain silent when asked questions pertaining to this. A more definite conclusion is that ‘pure consciousness has no object’ as you said earlier. For some reason Loy chose to stay with the difference…

      • I think Loy’s examination of the differences between how Advaita and Buddhism express things is valid. I’ve said myself that Advaita looks out from the inside while Buddhism looks in from the outside. Ultimately of course neither do either but to communicate something in words you need to take a stance somewhere – even though as Loy so aptly puts it “Archimedes had no platform from which to move the earth”.

        But as I’ve also mentioned before, one thing I was ultimately forced to concede to Bhikkhu Bodhi is that there is a real ontological difference between the two thought systems in that Shankara tries to explain maya in terms of Brahman whereas I think the Buddha was pretty scrupulous to avoid defining a relationship between nirvana and samsara. The Buddha didn’t need to claim samsara is an illusion or that there is something different about the levels of ‘reality’ between samsara and nirvana – he just said samsara must be transcended if you want to end suffering. He tries to keep it strictly practical. What’s more, he doesn’t need to confront or defeat other ontological beliefs, making Buddhism more compatible with the ontological claims of other belief systems.

        I also found some of the distinctions Loy makes between Mahayanan and Theravadan metaphysics to be quite informative.

      • About your final para in this comment, I’m interested. What do you make of this sentence: “Insofar as Theravada Buddhists have made a metaphysic out of the Buddha’s phenomenology, one is happy to discomfort them.”?

      • I can’t imagine what he means there. Although different strands of Buddhism, notably Vajrayana, incorporate non-phenomenological metaphysics it seems to me that all Buddhist metaphysics is overwhelmingly phenomenological and practitioners would argue it’s the Buddha’s phenomenology they are following.

        While it’s true that Theravadans seem more likely to deny their realist metaphysics are metaphysics at all, different Mahayanans hold to a range of realist and idealist metaphysical systems that are very clearly expounded as such. My feeling is that with the arguable exception of Zen, metaphysics is far more central to Mahayanan doctrine than to Theravadan. I think most scholars would agree Nagarjuna was the most prominent Buddhist metaphysician and he wasn’t a Theravadan.

      • Loy is obviously more of a Mahayanist than Theravadin. Could be, in the centuries that have gone by, the Nagarjuna teachings, and others like it, have received more attention than the Theravadin where the Buddha appears inconclusive about this question.

  2. I think I would have an out of the body experience, too, if someone was staring at me intently. Maybe it is my Aspie dislike of eye contact but still… Interesting post. You always bring the reader there. Of course, I like but do not totally comprehend the Mooji quote. Thank you!

    • Yes the airport security guys were really something.
      I think the statement means that the old idea of “God the creator” being outside and creating this world is the first question Mooji asks us; ‘another Presence that watches us.’ Or, as Mooji is saying, are we the Presence (“God”) itself watching ourselves (and everything else in the world). Substitite the word Presence or “God” for consciousness. A kind of total subjectivity…

  3. Tiramit, I liked this one a lot. Great writing. I felt like I was the person in the room teaching the French men English. : )
    Suzanne
    learningtocry.wordpress.com

    • Thanks Suzanne. A few people have said they feel they’re there in the story, I don’t know why this is, maybe because I don’t usually tell the story in past time – I use the simple present tense mostly. So there’s this feeling of being present…

  4. With no SELVES, who packs all those suitcases? 🙂 My daughter is going to visit Chiang Mai in August – to help out at an orphanage and experience Thailand. I kept asking myself as this trip unfolded for her, where have I heard of Chiang Mai before, and then I remembered that you had taken me there previously with your words 🙂 !

    • Hi Marga, I suppose there is a self that packs suitcases…. I’m wondering if I might be in Chiang Mai in August, taking care of M. Not impossible. Can you give me some idea of dates and how long your daughter will be staying there?

      • She will be there the first half of August, staying with an American family, while volunteering. I will be back in touch as the date draws closer to see where in the world you may be 🙂 Sending her so far feels a little scary to one of my selves, as she still feels like a young one my instinct wants to protect.

      • I think I may be there in late July, let’s see how things go nearer the time. About that protective feeling, you’ll need to get a few of your other selves over to give you some support. She will be okay Chiang Mai is a very safe place…

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