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In this new, clearly-written, book (on some counts his 73rd) Noble Peace prize winner Tenzin Gyatso - known to most as 'Kundun' or 'His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama' - sets out to explain the Buddhist doctrine of Paticca Samuppada (translated here as 'Dependent-Arising') and what it entails about the nature of the self, the world and our place within it. In so doing this pacifist 'simple Buddhist monk' who has his own website (http://www.dalailama.com/) and travels with bodyguards aims to help the reader to overcome a self-deception that he takes to be the fundamental source of a variety of 'destructive emotions that lead to actions contaminated by misperception' (p.46). The origins and nature of the false conceptions thought to give rise to such afflictive emotions is best understood within the context of the Buddhist philosophical tradition from which Gyatso's thought has emerged.
Buddhist philosophy traditionally divides into five interrelated writing genres: Prajñāpāramitā Sutras (scriptures dealing with the perfection of wisdom), Madhyamaka or Śunyavada Sutras (scriptures advocating a middle way between nihilism and eternalism as a method for approaching Prajñāpāramitā), Vinaya Sutras (advocating the Theravada code of strict rules for monastic discipline known as the Patimokkha), Abhidharma Sutras (metaphysical scriptures that attempt to construct a systematic description of all phenomena e.g. the final book of the Tripitaka canon of the Theravada school of Buddhism.), and Pramana Sutras (scriptures dealing with the sources of knowledge).
While it engages with themes from all five genres, How to See Yourself is founded upon the Madhyamaka 'middle way' tradition of denying that the nature or essence of any phenomenon is independent from that of any other. This outlook, most famously expressed by the hugely influential Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarrjuna (c. 150-250 CE) and his later follower Chandrakirti (c. 600-650 CE) who through his commentaries on Nagarrjuna's work developed the Prasaṅgika ('logical consequence') approach of establishing ultimate truth by first eliminating all views with absurd or contradictory logical consequences. In contrast to the Svatantrika approach, which begins with positive assertions about that nature of phenomena (e.g. that they may posses inherent existence without possessing absolute existence), this method reaches conclusions by eliminating alternative views through the use of Reductio ad Absurdum arguments viz. arguments that aim to demonstrate the absurd consequences of following views and arguments to their logical extremes. There are parallels here with the reason employed by Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Sign of Four (1890): 'When you have eliminated the impossible, that which remains, however improbable, must be the truth'.
Gyatso's application of the 'logical consequence' heuristic leads him to claim that phenomena are 'empty of their own inherent existence' in that they 'do not exist in their own right' (p. 81). Hence the aforementioned notion of Dependent-Arising: phenomena do not exist independently of the causes and conditions from which they arise. What is less clear is whether, on this view, it is all phenomena that arise dependently or merely those that tend to capture our attention. While Gyatso asserts that "all phenomena arise dependently" (p.49 my italics) referring to external conditions as well as to "the fact that all phenomena -- impermanent and permanent -- exist in dependence upon their own parts" (p. 56), he often makes more qualified claims such as that "all impermanent phenomena…come into existence dependent upon certain causes and conditions" (p.51, my italics).
There are several possible explanations for this oddity, complicated further by the fact that the text uses the phrases "does not exist as it appear" and "does not ultimately exist" interchangeably (cf. p. 160).The simplest, perhaps, is that something has been lost in the generally fine translation by Jeffrey Hopkins. Another possibility is that - like the captain of the H.M.S. Pinafore who in Gilbert and Sullivan's musical boasts that he's "never, never sick at sea" but when questioned ("what, never?") immediately qualifies his claim: "well, hardly ever!" -- Gyatso finds the exceptions unimportant. A third, more plausible, explanation is that while Gyatso typically uses the term 'phenomenon' to refer to any object, state of affairs, or occurrence that may be perceived by the senses he occasionally also uses it in a looser sense which also covers what Kant called 'noumena' viz. the things that make up the underlying reality which causes us to perceive phenomena. In short, there may be things that do not arise dependently but which, being imperceptible, would not count as phenomena in the narrow sense. While it is not self-evident that the permanent/impermanent distinction maps onto the perceptible/imperceptible distinction perfectly, there is a long philosophical tradition that dates at least as far back as Plato in the West and even further in the East according to which eternal but imperceptible forms (such as those of Truth and Beauty) exist inherently while the impermanent phenomena that make up the world of sights and sounds exist only in so far as they relate to the former.
Whatever its precise scope, Gyatso's claim is not merely that phenomena owe their existence to certain causes (in the sense that they would not have come into existence without them) but the considerably more radical thesis that phenomena are illusory (or 'like illusions' to use the translator's phrase) because, contrary to appearances, they have no independent existence (they do not exist in and of themselves). Radical though this thesis may be, it should be confused with the anti-realist view that they are illusions (i.e. that they do not exist at all, but only appear to do so):
[A]lthough persons and things are empty of existing the way they appear to be established in their own right, they are not utterly nonexistent; they can act and can be experienced. Therefore being like an illusion is not the same as appearing to exist but actually not existing, like the horns of a rabbit, which do not exist at all (p. 176ff.)
Indeed Gyatso uses Prasaṅgika to point out that if phenomena are empty of existence because they arise dependently on various (real) causes and conditions then they themselves must be real enough (p65).
So why should we think of all phenomena as dependent-arising? One obvious answer, which finds its modern Western expression in the chaos theory notion of 'sensitive dependence on initial conditions'- popularly known as the Butterfly Effect (the term originates from Ray Bradbury's short story Sound of Thunder in which the killing of a pre-historic butterfly alters human history) - is that everything in the universe is causally interlinked in a way that makes it incoherent to suppose that any one part of it could have been different without this having a deep impact on the whole.
While such thoughts have their origins in early Buddhism, they have appeared in various guises throughout the centuries, from Homer's Iliad to Hollywood's Sliding Doors. Sartre, for example, warns further that there is no clear dividing line between facticity and its transcendence, each new situation we find ourselves in being the result of both. A similar thought motivated Nietzsche's amour fati and the desire for eternal recurrence which follows from it (cf. The Gay Science, § 341) since, given such interdependence, to wish for any aspect of the past to be otherwise is to desire a self-negation that only tragedy could call for. Other thinkers influenced by related Buddhist insights include Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, Chrysippus, Virgil, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud, Jung, Heidegger, and (more recently) Galen Strawson.
To give a rather simplistic illustration of the dependence in question, my being identical the author of this review is dependent on numerous phenomena including not only an incredibly long (if not infinite) string of events without which I would never have been born, brought up, taught English, trained in philosophy etc. but also the entire prehistory that brought about the existence of the 14th Dalai Lama and all the further events (and the people they involved, each with their own strings of prehistory and personal history) that collectively made it possible for him to write this book as and when he did, the life and work of his translator Jeffrey Hopkins, the journal MetaPsychology as created and sustained by Christian Perring, the word-processing technology we both rely on, and so forth. Each of these in turn arises from a dependence on a vast number of other dependent phenomena. More importantly, my writing this book review may (directly or indirectly) come to affect both my character and my relation to other people in such a way that I could not rationally come to regret writing it unless I also regretted the majority of effects this came to have on me (many of which I may not be aware of). It would seem that to rationally wish away any part of the history of the world that led to this moment is to (knowingly or otherwise) I must be willing to negate any part of my current self that was formed as a result of the events in question.
While such thoughts concerning interrelatedness are central to Gyatso's outlook, they do not capture the force of his 'logical consequence' approach in its entirety. After all, thoughts regarding dependence might - for all that has been said so far - motivate one (as it arguably did in Nietzsche's imagination) to treat certain others as obstacles to be defeated or removed at any cost. Yet nothing could be further removed from the Buddhist ideology not only permeates this book but clearly manifests itself throughout Gyatso's personal life (think of his attitude towards China and the recent Olympics held there). By demonstrating that interrelatedness implies oneness in the sense that none of us are held to exist in and of ourselves (Chapter 11) Gyatso aims to show that s/he who knows thyself will stop acting selfishly as they come to realise that we are over-dependent upon things that we detach ourselves from and too attached to things that we misidentify with, thus wanting to possess them. This view is motivated by a combination of the Socratic suggestion that all vice stems from ignorance and the somewhat suspect conflation of dependence and identity (p. 82) which gives birth to a metaphysics of interpersonal identity at a global level (p.6).
So it is that Gyatso's view of the world leads to his philosophy of the self. In order to fully understand how the world relates to us it is not, we are told, sufficient to understand the nature of the (so-called 'external') world; we also need to also see ourselves as we really are. Thus we are lead into various issues in the philosophy of mind pertaining to what we might call logic of the self. Gyatso begins by arguing that:
"There is no person to be found either separate from mind and body or within mind and body" (p.127).
He calls this view "name-only", but takes care to distinguish it from nominalist views according to which terms such as "mind" and "I" do not refer to actual things. If anything, both his general outlook and the underlying methodology of examining the logical relations between mental concepts is reminiscent of that employed by the post-war Oxford linguistic philosopher Gilbert Ryle who in The Concept of Mind (1949) attacked the Cartesian conception of a mind as a ghost residing within a machine-like body:
"it seems to you that there is a Jane who owns her mind and body...this perspective is mistaken".
The question is not whether minds or selves or persons exist but in what sense they can be said to:
"They definitely do exist; how they exist is the issue" (p.161)
Guatso's arguments in the second half of the book support an answer to this question already familiar to us from the first half: "dependently". While they all strive towards the same conclusion they are uneven in quality. For instance, the whole book is littered with gobbets of wisdom from past Buddhist masters -- a heuristic not easily distinguished from that of appealing to authority. On p.49, for example, he quotes approvingly Nagarjuna's claim that "when there is long, there has to be short. They do not exist through their own nature". Yet this only makes sense as a claim about our concepts of being short and long, not about short and long things themselves. Elsewhere (earlier in the book) he conflates the notion of a person with the ever-elusive self or "I" that persons are sometimes said to have, which subsequently leads him to the absurd conclusion that people are not located anywhere (p. 63). At other times he simply relies on unquestioned assumptions that are central to the teachings of Buddhism. The following piece of reasoning is a paradigmatic example:
'If "I" and the mind-body complex are exactly the same, it would be impossible to think of "my body" or "my head" or "my mind" or surmise that "my body is getting stronger." Also, if the self and mind-body are one, then when the mind and body no longer exist, the self would no longer exist" (p. 141)
What exactly is wrong with the view that the self ceases to exist when both mind and body cease to exist? Nothing, other than the fact that it contradicts the fundamental Buddhist belief in reincarnation (p.142). Given that he is himself supposed to be the reincarnation of the reincarnation of each of the previous thirteen Dalai Lamas of Tibet, this is hardly a belief that he might be expected to readily abandon. Still, an argument that hinges on it is unlikely to convince many, certainly not the religious and political leaders diagnosed as self-deceived in the book's Introduction.
Perhaps this is why each chapter of the CD and book end with a number of meditative reflections intended to assist with the internalization of the Buddhist outlook. The repetitiveness of the book is no doubt also intended to perform the meditative function of helping the reader to overcome habitual association (see Gyatso's How To Practice, Stages of Meditation, and The Dalai Lama's Book of Daily Meditation). If you plan to meditate, I would especially advise you to stay clear of the audio-CD version of the book. Indeed I found Hopkins' narration so irritating that after listening to just the first CD I could no longer tolerate being dependent upon it. In this I do not seem to be alone. As a reviewer at Audiophile Magazine put it:
'Jeffrey Hopkins's slow and tired narration creates an obstacle to appreciating the lesson. The fact that he's the translator and a preeminent Dalai Lama scholar doesn't compensate for this flaw in his performance'.
© 2008 Constantine Sandis
Constantine Sandis is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Oxford Brookes University and New York University in London (NYU-L)