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February 01, 2011

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"Obviously, many people mistake the void as a nihil negativum, rather than a nihil privativum. On a closer look, a nihil negativum is unthinkable. We can only deny something that exists. There is no absolute nothingness. The doctrine of anatta uses a nihil privativum, it defines the aggregates to be empty of self like the dark means the absence of light. No one would of course conclude from that "light does not exists'" -- Clyde

The Lotus Sutra reverses the prior teachings of the Buddha. The Aggregates themselves, this very body and mind, the body and minds of others, and the body and nature [mind] of the environment are the repository of self. There are those people who see the Buddha in all things substantial and insubstant-ial and those who do not. It is difficult to see the Buddha. Those who do, have ended suffering. Those who don't, are still in its throws.

It seems to me the issue isn’t whether some Buddhists believe that one or some combination of the Aggregates, including consciousness, is the self (I’ve not met a Buddhist who holds that view though there may be some.), but whether there is some essential personal self.

Some Buddhists hold the view that there is a true self and some Buddhists hold the view that there is no essential self. Both sides quote sutras and ancient commentaries, and make wonderful arguments.

But the Buddha’s teachings, as he stated, were intended for ‘the end of suffering’. As such, he asked us to reject what was unskillful and caused harm, and to follow what was skillful and brought benefit. So, it’s not that you need to reject what works for you, but allow others what works for them – and what ‘works’ is what leads others to living a life that brings benefit and joy to themselves and the world.

Obviously, many people mistake the void as a nihil negativum, rather than a nihil privativum. On a closer look, a nihil negativum is unthinkable. We can only deny something that exists. There is no absolute nothingness. The doctrine of anatta uses a nihil privativum, it defines the aggregates to be empty of self like the dark means the absence of light. No one would of course conclude from that "light does not exists"

Oh, I wanted to add a comment on a third common way of handling this sutta. Many Buddhists, alternatively to getting involved in the dilemma, conclude that the Buddha's silence is the Buddha's way of trying to get us to set aside entirely the question of the self. It's the sort of sweep it under the rug solution.

To me, this seems to run contrary to the story of Vaccha's conversion. It is precisely by questioning the Buddha and pondering directly on the matter that Vacchagotta arrives at a conversion into Dhamma. This was a persistent theme with Vaccha, and ultimately he is satisfied with much more than mere silence regarding the nature of the one who is liberated from suffering (as was shown in my last post). The Tathagata is affirmed in an undeniable way, not swept under the rug or avoided by silence. And then, obviously, there are other cases where the self is affirmed quite explicitly in soteriological contexts.

It is not that the Buddha maintains (as Steven Collins theorizes) a strict taboo on speaking of the self when anatta is part of the message (when ISN'T it???), it is that there must be a foundation for what he does say about it to be understood. Affirming the self to one whose sense of self is bound up with the five khandhas would be an unfortunate affirmation of that one's wrong view. But affirming the self to a disciple who understands that the five khandhas are not the self is another matter entirely and not avoided by the Buddha. In fact one of the more familiar and famous exhortations to his disciples is to have only the self as their island and refuge (please tell me how the impermanent/suffering/disease/tumor/dart/alien/impure/inessential/death-bound five khandhas can be one's island and refuge from suffering!)

The Buddha's silence in this specific case thus seems to me to have more to do with a lack of foundation on which to build in Vaccha's case at that point in time. It is notable that the Buddha in this sutta does break his silence to Ananda, an insider.

The fascinating thing about this sutta is that many Buddhists dogmatically maintain as correct Dhamma the very error that Vacchagotta makes.

Encountering the Buddha's anatta teaching, they, like Vaccha here, thus assume "the Buddha must mean then that there is no self! I understand!". Obviously, such an error is rebutted in this sutta as mere confusion of those who have no understanding of Dhamma (Vaccha in this sutta is yet unconverted).

Alternatively, some others try to solve the dilemma by merely averaging eternal existence and utter non-existence by imputing to the Buddha the affirmation of an *impermanent self (for those familiar with the tetralemma, this turns out to be the "both" lemma; so thus a mistake; more on this below). These others have not really gotten anywhere because an impermanent self is the doctrine of annihilationism, which is actually mentioned in this sutta by way of stating that the utter denial of self is equivalent to it as wrong view. And why shouldn't it be equivalent since in either case the impermanent khandhas are the yardstick. They avoided one wrong view by asserting another that is in any case for the Buddha equivalent to the first. A case of frying pan vs. fire.

The only solution to the dilemma is that of transcendence. Such transcendence is finally offered in explanation rather than silence in the sutta where, significantly, Vacchagotta finally is converted to Dhamma:
"Freed from the classification of form, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea."
Clearly, this neither describes a self that can be pointed to concretely nor a mere hollow expression signifying nothing that really exists. The comparison hardly evokes the idea of non-existence or mere conventionalism. Rather the comparison is to something that exists so really and vastly that it overwhelms and transcends the comprehension of sensory-based consciousness (the salaayatana). Explaining the simile, when one stands on the shore of the ocean, one cannot even perceive the entirety of the ocean on its surface, much less see to any extent beneath.

It also elides the other two possible lemmas, that of "both existing and not existing" (impermanence) and that of "neither existing nor not existence" (which describes illusory or indeterminate existence, like the "water" of a mirage --it is phenomenal, so it is not that there is nothing happening, yet it does not exist as it appears to be). Similarly to the first two lemmas, rather than describe something impermanent, it describes something unlimited, and rather than describe something illusory, it describes something overwhelmingly real, as the great ocean cannot be denied.

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