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Archive for June 2011

Nondualism as First Philosophy

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Western philosophy can no longer avoid the formidable challenge posed by nondual philosophy derived from India.


The philosophy of India has been known to the west for well over two hundred years. The first scholars to approach the topic in a serious way were philologists and comparative religions scholars of the German universities of the nineteenth century. Through that milieu the stamp of eastern thinking left its mark on our larger culture, through the far reach of Germany’s influence on philosophy, theology, religious studies, and psychology.

It is well known that the post-Kantian philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was profoundly influenced by the Upanishads, and their influence can be found all over his work, including his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation. Some of the sense of the Upanishads entered mainstream post-Kantian philosophical discourse through Schopenhauer and then through his admirer Friedrich Nietzsche, whose parable “How the ‘Real World’ Finally Became a Fable” in Twilight of the Idols bears a deep resemblance to eastern anti-metaphysical ideas.

In Integral Psychology Ken Wilber traces the route by which eastern ideas found their way into German experimental psychology. These ideas helped shape core constructs such as the unconscious and psychodynamics, and I would refer the interested reader to that book.

Apart form historical influence, we also find a deep philosophical affinity between post-Kantian Germany and the east. It was first pointed out to me by an Oxford student vacationing in Kathmandu that the basic arguments of Kant and the Tibetan exegete Je Tsong Khapa are extremely similar. Both of them are empirical realists and transcendental idealists.

In Kant, we find this duality embodied in his famous distinction between the appearing object, or phenomenon, and the thing-in-itself, or noumenon. The phenomenon that we perceive, Kant argued, always appears to consciousness having already been structured by categories that constitute the necessary conditions for any possible experience, like space, time, and causality. Of the thing in itself, we can neither know nor say anything.

This is remarkably similar to Je Tsong Khapa’s interpretation of the central Buddhist doctrine of the Two Truths, which distinguishes between the conventional object of experience and the ultimate truth of that object. The conventional object is the appearing phenomenon, and like Kant’s phenomenon, when it appears to the mind it has already been structured by categories that are active in the mechanisms of perception. Drawing from the great Indian epistemologist Dharmakirti, Je Tsong Khapa argues that the object that appears to consciousness is always fused with its “meaning-generality,” or the conceptual framework by which we associate objects with comparable phenomena of their category. Whenever we see a leaf, for example, we perceive not just the image of the leaf, but also the concept of “leaf” by which we immediately recognize it as a leaf.

And as with Kant’s noumenon, Je Tsong Khapa affirms that the nature of the thing-in-itself, its ultimate truth, is, by virtue of its transcendental status, unknowable and ineffable. The ultimate truth of a phenmenon is its intrinsic nature, prior to its formulation by conceptual or perceptual terms.

Where Kant and Je Tsong Khapa part ways is that Kant believes the absolute truth of any phenomenon to be beyond human reach, while Je Tsong Khapa believes that ultimate truth can be directly perceived through yogic contemplation, and this direct perception has the power to liberate from suffering.

The German Romantic zeitgeist, then, bears deep affinities with several perennial themes of eastern nondualism. These ideas found their way from Germany into mainstream Liberal Protestant theology in the nineteenth century by way of Friedrich Schleiermacher. While not well-known today, Schleirmacher exerted a deep influence on the American Transcendentalists, and through them, on the whole of Protestant theology, especially in the United States.

Schleiermacher was a post-Kantian theologian who argued that the concept of the subject as something that is ultimately separate from its object is a mere concept. The sense of a non-specific and all-pervasive deity that you find in the Transcendentalists owes much, I believe, to his influence, though it was no doubt confirmed by their experiences. One can see the obvious similarity between this neo-Kantian Liberal Protestant doctrine and the deconstructive posture of Buddhism.

What we have here then is a high western culture that is receptive to and influenced by ideas from the east over the course of two centuries. Little wonder, then, that when Asian teachers began to arrive in the west in the early twentieth century, they found a receptive audience that welcomed them with enthusiasm and curiosity. I believe that a major reason that westerners have been receptive to philosophical and religious traditions such as Buddhism is because our own intuitions have been prepared for these teachings for more than two hundred years by constant cultural assimilation. These internalized ideas have come round again from the outside, through what James Joyce called a “commodius vicus of recirculation,” and are recognized as familiar and intuitive concepts when they re-arrive.

A lack of familiarity with intellectual history has led to a widespread inability to recognize this process, by which an estranged influence returned home from without. This failure lends itself to interpretive distortions of a rather serious nature — that will be the topic of a future post. For our current topic, the essential point here is that it is both inaccurate and misguided to regard eastern philosophy as a remote path from our western intellectual tradition. The two streams have been intertwined for a great stretch of modernity.

Nor can it be argued that the nondual traditions of India are irrational, mystical, or religious in their character, based on radical forms of experience and opposed to western logic. This idea holds no water, as a close analysis of the rational arguments of Buddhist philosophy will quickly show. To a large degree, this mistaken view comes from a problem of taxonomy. By various intellectual vicissitudes, relating largely to who studies what in which university department, Nagarjuna and Shankara are regarded as religious thinkers, while Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Berkeley are considered philosophers. This specious distinction does not withstand scrutiny, and I submit that any definition of “philosopher” that excludes Chandrakirti, Dharmakirti, and Je Tsong Khapa also excludes Thales, Parmenides, Zeno, Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato.

The question of whether or not Indian Buddhism rejects western logic, particularly the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle, has been dealt with at length in a previous post (see Reason and Its Limits).

We have good reason then, on the grounds of intellectual history, to engage seriously with eastern philosophy. Fortunately, this is now quite easy to accomplish. We have reached a critical mass of excellent translations of primary source material and commentaries, which are widely available and may be analyzed by philosophers who lack knowledge of Sanskrit, Tibetan, Classical Chinese, and other difficult languages.

I realized that we had crossed a threshold a few years ago when I saw an excellent translation of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyeltsen’s Treasury of Advice offered for sale by a homeless street vendor in downtown San Francisco. This material is everywhere.

The main tradition of scholarship from which I have most benefited is the work of the great Tibetologist P. Jeffrey Hopkins and his students, who have produced an integrated body of translations and exegetical work based on the Gelukpa tradition of scholarship. Reading a dozen of the books they have published through Snow Lion Press will give any careful reader an extremely good grasp of how the system hangs together.

The study of nondual philosophy is not only historically warranted and practically feasible at this date, it is also philosophically essential. I recently stumbled on a reminder to this effect when reading Jürgen Habermas’s introduction to his Theory of Communicative Action, in which he states that western philosophy has “withdrawn self-critically beyond itself” and abandoned its posture of attempting to articulate general claims about the world and its nature. “All attempts,” he claims, “at discovering ultimate foundations, in which the intentions of [Descartes’] First Philosophy live on, have broken down.”

Not so. The philosophical nondual traditions of India are alive and well, as religious constructs integrally tied to the soteriological project of meditation, and as potent philosophical arguments. There is no longer a legitimate basis for avoiding its challenge.

Although I have compared nondualism to Kantian post-idealism and German Romanticism, it would be a serious error to reduce the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna to a western analog. In recent years it has become common to interpret Buddhist philosophy through a phenomenological lens, such as the effort by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch to read Nagarjuna in this way (see The Embodied Mind). A worse example is Herbert Güenther’s Heideggerian reading of the Dzogchen tradition, which has fortunately already become anachronistic. Understanding by analogy is a dangerous practice, because comparisons both reveal and conceal. Nagarjuna is not a phenomemologist any more than Kant is a Buddhist, and their arguments must be assessed on their own terms.

Buddhist philosophy makes a case for an ultimate truth that may not be expressible, but can be sufficiently understood to serve as the ground for a subsequent logic, epistemology, and general model of the world. How that argument works is beyond the scope of this post, but it is worth noting that after centuries of fierce debate, the Hindus of the first millennium were unable to refute Nagarjuna’s arguments. Many of the great masters of Hindu Vedanta eventually integrated his core beliefs.

This is not to say, of course, that Buddhist philosophy is superior to Hindu philosophy – clearly Nagarjuna himself owed a great deal to the Upanishads. My point is simply that it has been the experience of many philosophers, myself included, that Nagarjuna’s fundamental position is unassailable.

Written by Mesocosm

June 30, 2011 at 8:48 pm

In Which Larry Warns of Apocalypse and Exhorts Loving your Brother

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I met Larry on a Thursday afternoon in the east end of Golden Gate Park. He struck me as a cross between Socrates and the guy who says “It’s Gonna Rain,” in the Steve Reich piece. He was sitting on a bench with a grey-bearded fellow who muttered occasional comments and encouragement like a Greek chorus.

Larry from New Jersey: Do you believe in the Bible? I mean, do you believe in the Bible?

Mesocosmic: [pause] That depends on what you mean by “believe.”

Larry: I mean do you believe it, have you read it. Look around here now — look at all these trees and all this grass, and everything that you see here. Do you know what can end all of this? What can destroy everything that you see and bring it down to nothing?

Mesocosmic: Time?

Larry: Locusts. Locusts! I mean millions of locusts, billions of them. Everywhere, eating everything. That’s what it says in the Bible — that’s what God can do. All the technology in the world won’t matter then.

And I mean, they’ll be eating all the plants and the animals too – they can eat down a corpse like nothing. In minutes! That’s what the Bible says. The Bible doesn’t say anything about horses eating everything, or about nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons! What can man do? What can technology do? Technology comes from man, and man makes mistakes. Man makes mistakes. We have limits.

I’m talking about the end of everything, and the dead being down in the Earth, and down in Hell, and we’ll all be dead. Look around you. Everyone you see, in eighty years, they’ll all probably be dead. You, me, him — all of us. Are you listening to me?

Mesocosmic: Yes, I’m listening. I’m listening and thinking about what you’re saying.

Larry: It don’t say nothing about nuclear weapons. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe I came from a monkey, that we all came from monkeys, or that we came from outer space. I don’t believe that.

Mesocosmic: So …

Larry: What?

Mesocosmic: So, technology comes from man, and because man is flawed, technology is flawed — it is just an extension of our own nature.

Larry: That’s right.

Mesocosmic: So what should we do, then? What should we do about all this?

Greek Chorus: Uh-huh! Good question.

Larry: What should we do? I’ll tell you what we should do — we have to tell one another, he who lives of this world dies of it.

That’s what it says in the Bible, to love your neighbor as yourself. That means if your brother doesn’t have a shirt, you should give him the shirt off of your back, and give it to him. Look around. A thousand years ago — sooner even! — we didn’t have any of this stuff. Love your neighbor as yourself. We don’t need stuff. We have to keep this thing moving, and help one another. That’s what we have to do.

Written by Mesocosm

June 23, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Posted in Ephemera

San Francisco Classical Music 101

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A user-friendly introduction to the classical music scene in San Francisco, intended to help and encourage people who may have an interest in attending performances, possibly for the first time. We’ll look at where to get started, what the deal is, how expensive tickets are, and where to find music that you love, even if you aren’t very familiar with classical music. I hope you find it useful.

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments field, or send me an email (contact info here).

Getting Started: An Overview of the Scene

If you have any interest in classical music, you’re in luck. San Francisco boasts a world-class symphony, the second-largest opera company in the United States, and an audience hungry enough to attract the best ensembles and soloists in the world. The city is a mecca for early music from the Renaissance and earlier (see “Early Music on the Rise“), and experimental music is well represented by the Other Minds festival and the new Ojai North series.

Getting started can seem daunting, in part because there is so much. But it’s actually quite easy once you find something you’re interested in – usually a matter of picking up the phone or logging into the box office website.

Let’s start with a look at some of the heavies.

The San Franicso Symphony is currently under the directorship of Michael Tilson Thomas, a vital and forward-thinking conductor. The SF Symphony frequently features brilliantly-programmed evenings, blending repertoire favorites with less familiar work. The recent Schubert-Berg series, for example, featured programs pairing the straight Romantic composer Franz Schubert with the far-out twelve tone composer Alban Berg, who is sort of the late-period John Coltrane of classical music. In 2011 Thomas performed Mozart’s towering Requiem Mass back-to-back with Morton Feldman’s introspective and hushed Rothko Chapel. The two pieces could not be more different, and the juxtaposition was fascinating.

Thomas is well respected for his intelligent, precise, and agile interpretations of scores — expect brisk, clear phrasing. He is a great advocate of contemporary American classical music by composers like Steve Reich, John Adams, and Charles Ives  — keep an eye on the American Mavericks series in 2012 if that grabs you. Thomas also does a mean Beethoven, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Mahler.

The SF Symphony performs at Davies Hall near the Civic Center, and is surprisingly affordable. You can get better seats at a bit of a discount if you buy season tickets, but that means planning well in advance. If you’d like a low-cost option that’s more casual, I have had some great experiences on the second balcony – particularly toward the front. You can usually get away with tickets up there for around $30, and can select your own seats on the Box Office website.

Keep your eye on the Goldstar discount ticket broker – they often have symphony tickets for half-off.

No less extraordinary is the San Francisco Opera, which usually produces around ten operas a year, seven in the fall and three in the summer. Sadly, we recently lost a treasure with the departure of musical director Donald Runnicles. He is a great interpreter of Wagner and has premiered exciting work, like Olivier Messiaen’s Saint-François d’Assise, a fascinating opera about the saint that incorporates faithful transcriptions of bird song into the score.

Runnicles was replaced by Nicola Luisotti in 2009. Early indications are that under his direction the opera will favor mainstream Italian opera by masters like Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini. I’m more interested in challenging opera than the beautiful arias and melodrama myself, but the more conservative programs of the last two years may reflect the fact that the Opera is facing difficult financial times and needs to fill seats with better-known works (see “David Gockley seeks to overhaul S.F. Opera funding“).

Seeing an opera performance can be an experience of unparalleled beauty and power, if you find a piece that you respond to musically and dramatically. It tends to be expensive, though, with good seats running $125 and up. However, when I was doing opera on the cheap I made regular use of the Standing Room option, which I highly recommend. If you arrive at the box office an hour or so before showtime you can buy standing room seats for $10. There is a rail along the back of the orchestra level where you can stand, and the view and acoustics are excellent. This is a great option for exploring opera on a budget, as you won’t often find discount seats through Goldstar.

Tip: the SF Opera website reports the run-times for their shows — personally I don’t like to stand for longer than three hours.

The San Francisco Ballet shares the War Memorial auditorium with the SF Opera, typically producing ten performances in the spring. I am a newbie to Ballet but have had a very good time with it in the last few years. If the idea of music without action leaves you cold, but opera isn’t your style, it’s a great way to go. It is very difficult to get bored at the ballet. My anecdotal sense, for what it’s worth, is that the Ballet audiences skew about 10 years younger in average age than opera.

The SF Ballet offers a varied repertoire, mixing narrative showcases like “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Nutcracker” with masterpieces by the exalted choreographer George Balanchine with edgy modern pieces like Helgi Tomasson’s harrowing and evocative “The Little Mermaid.” Resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov usually puts on a few works a year, and they are always outstanding. This year’s premier of his stunning “Raku” brought down the house, and rightfully so. His sense of style, elegance, and beauty are second-to-none, and he uses just the right amount of story, giving an emotional structure to his dances without cluttering them with pantomime.

SF Ballet also does not seem to show up on Goldstar, but it is rather cheaper than the opera. Excellent seats can be had in the $50 range.

There are more modest symphony orchestras in Oakland and Berkeley, with shorter seasons. I am not as familiar with their orchestras, but the reviews I’ve read for Oakland performances have kept me away.The Philharmonia Baroque is a first-class period orchestra, and is not to be missed.

Concert Serieses. Es.

San Francisco and the East Bay abound with performances in smaller venues, which are often excellent and a good bargain. The best way to track these is to check out the FIND EVENTS engine on San Francisco Classical Voice. Select a few simple options and you can check out what’s happening in your part of the Bay in the next month or two, ranging from chamber music in nearby churches to operas at the Memorial opera house. Top talent can be found in the CalPerfs series in Berkeley and the San Francisco Performances series. In recent years they have presented superstars like Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams, Anonymous 4, Hilary Hahn, Jordi Savall.

Tips for Finding Music you Like

If you might be interested in attending but you don’t know where to start, don’t panic! Start with what you do know. It’s hard to go wrong with Beethoven, for example. Everyone knows something by Beethoven, right? Duh-duh-duh-DUHHHH….

If you get the bug and want to come back for more, it’s easy to move from things you know and like to things you don’t know but will probably like. Get a sense of how adventurous you are. Do you like hearing stuff you are acquainted with, or do you like boldly checking out new composers and styles? That’s a question you can easily answer with a little bit of experimentation. If you’re a Beethoven fan, try attending a symphony that you aren’t familiar with. If you’ve heard the 5th a million times, try the 4th, or the 8th.

Fortunately the SF Symphony makes it easy to stick close to home and find new things, because of their tendency to mix things up. I discovered one of my favorites composers, Thomas Adès, when his violin concerto was sandwiched between symphonies by Mozart and Haydn, a regular chestnut sandwich.

If you want to sample almost any piece before buying tickets, check YouTube. Everything is there.

You can follow genres, or performers you like, or composers. If you respond to a composer, try to read a little bit about him or her, and find out who they liked. Do you love Bach? Try Dietrich Buxtehude then. Bach loved Buxtehude’s music so much that he walked 250 miles in the German winter, on foot, to visit him. Buxtehude’s influence is unmistakable in Bach’s composition.

A Note on Etiquette

Expect to see people dolled up to the nines, especially at the opera, but you won’t draw nasty looks if you wear jeans. At the symphony the convention is to applaud when the entire work is complete, not between movements. If in doubt, just wait and see. No talking during the performances, please!

I walked into the opera cold several years ago on a friend’s advice, and it literally changed my life. So … if you’re curious, I hope this gives you some help.

Useful Resources

San Francisco Classical Voice – The best place to find out about events, hands down. Also includes articles, news, and reviews.
SF Symphony – Season and box office.
SF Opera – Season and box office.
SF Ballet – Season and box office.
San Francisco Performances – Excellent solo and small ensemble series in San Francisco.
Cal Performances – Excellent solo and small ensemble series in Berkeley, as well as theater and dance.
SF Early Music Society – Good resource for early music.
Gold Star – Offers discount tickets to many events. Highly recommended if you’re on a budget.
San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman – Insightful and articulate criticism and reviews.

Written by Mesocosm

June 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Stewart Brand’s Optimism

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Stewart BrandStewart Brand, founder of the Long Now Foundation, looks to the future more than most. But unlike many futurists he sees better times ahead, based on the best available evidence. This interview from The European gives a good overview of his perspectives on topics ranging from nuclear power to population density.

On the topic of political violence in the modern world he observes:

“We like to think that we are living in a very violent time, that the future looks dark. But the data says that violence has declined every millennium, every century, every decade. The reduction in cruelty is just astounding. So we should not focus too much on the violence that has marked the twentieth century. The interesting question is how we can continue that trend of decreasing violence into the future. What options are open to us to make the world more peaceful? Those are data-based questions.”

(via Arts & Letters Daily)


Update – Brand’s ideas about the history of violence are based in part on the research findings of psychologist Steven Pinker, whose A History of Violence appears on

Written by Mesocosm

June 7, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Posted in Ephemera, Links

Tagged with ,

Creative Misinterpretations: SF Opera’s Ring Cycle

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The San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen gets many things right, and a few things very wrong.

Note: This post contains spoilers.

It is perhaps a quixotic gesture at this late date to criticize non-traditional productions of Wagner’s mighty Ring, but the San Francisco Opera’s current production illustrates the pitfalls of such an approach. The production is superb in many aspects. Under the commanding baton of Donald Runnicles the orchestra offers a dynamic and bracing interpretation, and a dazzling collection of vocal and acting talents includes not one but two superb Siegfrieds in Jay Hunter Morris and Ian Storey, as well as audience-favorite Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and David Cangelosi in a surprisingly engaging turn as Mime, a character I never thought I could love.

So with all due respect, and much is due, let us turn to the staging.

Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez caused a scandal when they set the opening of Das Rheingold at a hydroelectric dam in their 1976 Bayreuth production. Today the action of The Ring is transposed to different times and places so often, it has become the norm. The LA Opera recently offered an abstract version with design elements suggesting a “Star Wars” influence (video here), and the New York Met is currently staging a version set around a large contraption of moving planks (video here). Seattle remains a holdout of traditional stagings and costumes.

Director Francesca Zambello has set the San Francisco Opera’s current production in a landscape evoking urban decay and ecological catastrophe. The corrupting influence of this Ring is measured by anthropogenic contamination that chokes the land with pollution, steadily worsening over the course of the four operas.

Das Rheingold sets the wheels in motion in the Industrial Revolution. Signs of trouble are clearly visible on the horizon when Walküre shows plutocratic gods in a corporate boardroom Valhalla. By the time Siegfried opens the world has been overrun. We find our hero living with Mime in a trailer parked in a squalid urban waste land strewn with rubbish. One wonders if Siegfried purloined his bear from a nearby zoo. By Act III of Götterdämmerung, the weary, land-bound Daughters of the Rhine heap bags of trash into piles.

The Industrial Revolution was well underway in Germany when The Ring was written, so it goes without saying that if Wagner had wished to tell a story about pollution and decay, he would have done so. Indeed, many of the core themes of Wagner’s musical drama are strikingly contemporary in resonance, such as his criticism of the exploitation of labor.

The interpolation of the environmental theme, then, is without question an addition to Wagner’s work. To get a sense of why The Ring is uniquely unsuited to the superimposition of extraneous themes, let us briefly review what Wagner had in mind when he wrote the work.

Wagner’s Theory of The Ring

Richard WagnerWagner wrote the music and the libretto for The Ring over a period of some twenty-six years, and no other work in the standard repertoire has been so thoroughly documented by its composer. Wagner left copious writings behind in which he clearly set out his compositional theory. One of the great miracles of The Ring is the degree to which he succeeded in reaching his stated goals.

Wagner’s central conception was to present an experience of music and drama united into a coherent statement that operates simultaneously on the levels of story, imagery, and music, with each level interacting with the others. In the service of this vision, he employed the leitmotif for which the work is famous — a device that he did not invent; but developed far beyond all precedent.

A leitmotif is a musical theme that is paired with a corresponding image, action, or idea. Wagner used leitmotifs to organizes and bind the musical structure of this colossal composition, and to constantly translate the the language of the libretto into the emotional and intuitive register of music. This interaction creates a synergy between the dramatic meaning of the opera and its expressive musical themes. The aggregate effect over the course of this long work is so powerful that certain motives become drenched with meaning, sometimes to such an extent that it seems impossible to remember a time when the motives did not clearly signify their particular resonance. They become as ingrained as the melody of “Happy Birthday.”

Wagner described The Ring as a unified art work, or Gasamtkunstwerk. He probably did not invent this concept, but raised it from a state of obscurity to a term in universal parlance by the success of The Ring.

In his influential essay “The Artwork of the Future” Wagner describes his conception of a unified art work:

Just as the joinery of my individual scenes excluded every alien and unnecessary detail, and led all interest to the dominant chief mood, so did the whole building of my drama join itself into one organic unity, whose easily surveyed members were made out by those fewer scenes and situations which set the passing mood: no mood could be permitted to be struck in any one of these scenes that did not stand in a weighty relation to the moods of all the other scenes, so that the development of the moods of all the other scenes, the constant obviousness of this development, should establish the unity of the drama in its very mode of expression. (1)

Wagner laboriously composed The Ring to produce a specific effect, based on the meticulously-designed concord of all of its various elements. We need not speculate, then, on how he would have felt about the interpolation of a foreign layer of symbolism on his work. Any extraneous element or theme a director adds to The Ring not only introduces new elements into a work that is already extremely dense with musical and dramatic ideas, but disrupts its carefully conceived unity.

This has a direct and predictable dramatic effect. Throughout the San Francisco production I found that when the scenes were set in a traditional vein, I was completely absorbed in what I was experiencing. When foreign design elements were at play, the spell was broken, and I was put into a intellectual relationship with the material. I would think about what was being shown and why, instead of feeling like a part of the world.

Image Confusion

Ring PosterLet us consider the San Francisco Opera’s program cover (pictured left). We have an image of a Valkyrie, possibly Brünnhilde, in silhouette, holding a spear. Around the base of the spear coils a sinewy vine, suggestive of the Ash Tree.

This image is an amalgamation of some of the important symbols in the drama, apparently chosen at random and assembled into an incoherent form. The spear belongs to Wotan; Brünnhilde does not wield it, nor can she be coherently associated with its many meanings. The spear, carved as it is from the wood of the cosmic Ash Tree, symbolizes the process by which spontaneous natural forms are perverted when harnessed, such as when the Rhine Gold is forged into a ring. That makes it an ill fit with the new growth suggested by the seedling, about which I’ll have more to say later.

These points are not important in themselves, but they are typical of the production. The creative team sometimes seems to either not know or not care what the images mean and how they function. But The Ring was designed as a unified work of art organized by ideas and meanings, so the symbols are integral to the structure.

Perhaps the most disturbing dissonance in the production is the contradiction that sometimes separates the lyrics from what we are seeing. When Siegfried travels through the forest, he sings about the forest setting, but those references are stricken from the supertitles. Likewise, when we we meet the Norns in the prelude to Götterdämmerung, they are laying cables instead of weaving threads. The lyrics describe weaving while the supertitle translations refer to “laying cable,” which is a jarring dissonance. Presenting the audience with a contradiction pushes them out of the scene, and arbitrarily falsifying the translation of the libretto strikes me as a cheap tactic.

But something deeper than dramatic effect is at stake. Wagner has something to say about the relationship between the human spirit and nature. In his Siegfried, we get to know a hero who is a spontaneous man of action, unburdened by the corrupting influences of political entanglements or social bonds. His qualities of character are rooted in his love of the forests in which he dwells. We travel with him through that landscape and pause together to hear beautiful motives that have been described by musicologists as the “song of the birds” and “forest murmurs.”

Das Rheingold - Seattle OperaIn Götterdämmerung Siegfried at last wakens from the dark spell that has made him forget who he is and has turned him into a monster. He returns to his true self when he returns to the woods, and remembers the song of the bird. It is a song to which he had ceased to listen, and a song that closely resembles that of the Rhine Daughters, the charming agents of uncorrupted nature. His memory of what the bird taught him reminds him of his own identify, his love, his passion, and his commitments, which had been displaced by the bargains and deceits of the Gibichung court.

This beautiful relationship between Siegfried’s character and nature is all but destroyed when he is moved to a junkyard, and when his references to the natural world are blocked from his dialog. Ironically, this is apparently in the service of an environmental message. Which environmental message will resonate more deeply with audience members: Wagner’s carefully interwoven themes of nature developed throughout The Ring in mutually-reinforcing dialog, music, character, and action, or Zambello’s image of the Rhine Daughters heaving sacks of rubbish?

Spoiler alert!

Zambello’s final revision in the last moments of The Ring is the great interpretive blunder of the cycle, one that shows her to be tone deaf to Wagner’s work and to tragedy as a whole. The apocalyptic image of the world-ending fire — a fire lit by the funeral pyre of the two principle characters — sets up a tepid scene of a child bearing a new sapling onto stage and planting a new World Tree as the drama’s final gesture.

Surely if there is one thing that any director of tragedy must know, it is Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. Tragedy functions by inviting the audience members to participate in the action on the stage through their identification with the the characters, and to undergo thereby a symbolic death of tremendous psychological power. Zambello’s sapling is a facile gesture that disrupts the climax of Wagner’s towering tragedy and robs the audience of catharsis.

In Wagner’s conception, a legendary love has led to dreadful death, and the feeling of these events is of such magnitude that it is mirrored in the destruction of the heavens. The world itself breaks apart under the strain of its own contradictions. All things are consumed in fire and are washed back into the great primordial waters of the overflowing Rhine, from which all things arose in the very beginning of Das Rheingold. We have a classical depiction of the human heart exploding past the bounds of limit, rupturing the very power of form to bind the world into shape. This puts us squarely in a line with Aeschylus and Aristotle, by way of Schopenhauer.

The cute little girl with the tree could not be more counter to that effect, and by capping the gargantuan climax with that moment, its force is compromised and its message rejected. It disrupts the catharsis of The Ring and robs the audience of the payoff to which the entire opera has built, replacing it with a gesture of that is merely sentimental.

The fact that re-interpretations of The Ring have become commonplace does not give directors license to use them without care. Directors should ask themselves if their changes will add more than they subtract, and with a work as carefully composed as The Ring, they rarely will.


1. Wagner, Richard. ed. by Goldman, Albert and Evert Sprinchorn. On Music and Drama. Da Capo Press. 1964. pp. 227-8.

Written by Mesocosm

June 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Reason and Its Limits; Logic and Contradiction in Buddhism

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Buddhism is widely perceived as a mystical tradition that rejects logic and focuses on an inexpressible ultimate reality. It that correct?


1. Inexpressible Dharma

HakuinMy first exposure to Buddhism was through Paul Reps’s book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a collection of koans, or riddle-like stories that exemplify points of practice. In some schools of Zen Buddhism, koans are taken by monks as objects of contemplation. These evocative stories can be quite straightforward, but often seem to be crafted to bewilder students with their provocative and paradoxical qualities. Consider this koan from the classical collection The Gateless Gate:

“Wukuan complained when he saw a picture of bearded Bodhidharma: ‘Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?'” (1)

On the surface there appears to be little to this story other than the obvious contradiction. Why does Wakuan describe the bearded image as beardless? Does he in fact believe that Bodhidharma does not possess a beard in some sense? Is he trying to provoke his audience by asking a question with a premise that is clearly false? Or is it a comment on the fact that this is a picture of a man with a beard, and not a man with a beard?

Other koans seem to have a kind of logic to them, but it is the logic of a poem or a dream.

When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out,
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water! (2)

Like a poem, this little story beautifully renders a direct image of Chiyono’s experience. But at the risk of being pedantic, we can note that a comparison is implied between the water holding the moon and the mind holding an image. The nun’s experience of liberation is somehow like the evacuation of water from the bucket, suggesting that the ordinary mind and its images are vacated, leaving a clarity deeper than ordinary perception.

In Mahayana Buddhism this kind of clarity is described as emptiness. Most Mahayana schools identify the direct realization of emptiness as the central experience that liberates Buddhists from the otherwise-endless suffering of the mind, which is bound by appetites and fears to the ceaselessly-turning wheel of time.

In 1893 at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Soyen Shaku introduced Zen to an English-speaking audience. It was a major milestone in the transmission of Buddhism to the United States, and a first step in establishing Zen as one of the dominant Buddhist traditions that would flourish in the New World.

Soyen Shaku’s presentation was translated into English by his student D. T. Suzuki, who himself went on to write several books introducing Japanese Zen Buddhism, including the classic Zen and Japanese Culture. These works inspired young authors like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, who incorporated Zen ideas into their writing and helped them to reach a wider audience. Kerouac’s notebooks clearly convey the seriousness with which he took his study, and the sincerity of his thinking about its implications. (3)

Zen is a unique tradition with deep roots in the native cultures in which it flourished, in this case China and Japan. It is distinctive for its enigmatic and poetic writing style. So reticent is Zen that the first manual of meditation was not written for several centuries after the school’s founding in China, despite the fact that the word “Zen” mean “meditation”, and Zen is the Meditation School. I know students who have spent an entire year in meditation, during which time the only instruction they were given by their Japanese teachers was “Just sit.”

The enigmatic style of Zen teaching is particularly striking in contrast with the Indian Buddhist schools from which it ultimately derives, which are frequently extremely verbose and scholastic. The earliest schools of Buddhism produced thousands of extant texts presenting techniques, practices, stories, precepts, and ethical teachings.

Zen came early to America, and the experience of Zen as a non-rational or even anti-rational tradition has taken hold in the popular imagination. Douglas Hofstadter’s widely-read Gödel, Escher, Bach, for example, discusses several koans, commenting that “[t]his type of paradox is quite characteristic of Zen. It is an attempt to ‘break the mind of logic.'” (4)

For those whose primary exposure to Buddhism has been through Zen, it can be tempting to speculate that Buddhism as a whole eschews rational analysis and logic. Some have mistakenly argued that Zen is rooted in a larger context of mystical “Eastern religions” that all reject logic as a veil obscuring the inexpressible final nature of the cosmos. This view has been popularized by books such as by Fritjof Capra’s facile The Tao of Physics, which falsely states that the religious teachings of Asia constitute one essential message, pointing to a world beyond words.

This view fails to account for the great diversity among various Buddhist traditions, which vary dramatically in style and content. That is to say nothing of the so-called “Eastern religions” as a whole, about which no generalization may safely be made. Consider, for example, that Sanskrit and Pali, the great literary languages of Indian Buddhism, are Indo-European languages, and have more in common with English, Greek, and Latin than they do with Tibetan, Chinese, or Japanese.


2. The Plot Thickens – Tibetan Scholasticism

Monks DebatingHaving based my own rudimentary concept of Buddhism on Zen, I was surprised when I began to study Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the teachings of the Dalai Lama. I remember the shock I felt when he stated that if a point of Buddhist doctrine conflicts with scientific findings, then the doctrine must be revised or discarded. In reference to the ancient cosmology of Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma, the Dalai Lama observed that “Buddha was not here to teach the distance between the Earth and the moon.”

The Dalai Lama follows the Gelukpa (dge-lugs-pa) school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is on the far side of the analytical continuum from Zen. Perhaps more than any other school of Buddhism, the Gelukpas embrace rational analysis as the key to practice. The school’s founder Je Tsong Khapa (1357–1419) wrote thousands of pages of scholastic instructions and doxographical works analyzing countless points of practice (in addition to founding what would become the largest monasteries in the world, and mastering yogic practices of extraordinary difficulty). His colossal overview of Buddhist practice The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment is properly regarded as a masterpiece of world religious literature, and has been recently translated in its entirety into English by an excellent committee of scholars. (5)

As with Zen, the Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelukpas is oriented on the direct experience of emptiness, which is an experience that somehow transcends ordinary rational thought. However, the Gelukpas believe that logical analysis is key to generating that experience, which arises through the focused application of a kind of deconstructive analysis during meditation. Then, like a fire consuming fuel, the realization of emptiness consumes the conceptual mediation that serves as its base.

The tension between rational insight and the reason-transcending epiphany that is its final aim is a primary theme in Gelukpa doctrine. In one recent study of Gelukpa epistemology and logic, the scholar-practitioner Anne Klein observed:

Gelukbas [=Gelukpas] must remain cognizant of the fact that inexpressibility as an epithet of the ultimate is frequently mentioned in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist texts. As generations of scholars have noted, this description has in no way impeded a massive scholastic tradition that has grown up in an endeavor, presumably, to be informative about the ultimate truth. And in the Buddhist context … this is not really an irony. The Dalai Lama once remarked, having cited the importance this textual material has for realizing the inexpressible ultimate, “After all, it is not that inexpressible.” (6)

That line conveys a great deal of the Dalai Lama’s remarkable intelligence and wisdom, as well as his humor.

3. Indian Mahayana Buddhism and the Law of Contradiction

If we arrange Buddhist teachings on a continuum then, with Japanese Zen on one end, representing the apparent rejection of philosophy and logic, we might place the Gelukpa school on the other end, representing the acme of rational scholastic analysis. Yet both traditions are based on the same goal: the direct experience of emptiness, which somehow frees the mind from the grip of suffering through a surrender or transcendence of ordinary conceptual thought. The final realization may not be that inexpressible, but it is inexpressible, and even for the Gelukpas it cannot ultimately be described by logical terms.

NagarjunaThe doctrine of emptiness is relatively late in Buddhism. While the historical Buddha probably gave some teachings on the roughly comparable concept of selflessness around the sixth century BCE, emptiness became a core teaching much later, in the work of the earliest-known proponent of Mahayana Buddhism, the Indian philosopher-sage Nagarjuna (c. 2nd Century CE). Zen and all of the Tibetan schools of Buddhism regard Nagarjuna as a central figure in their lineage.

In his great work Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Nagarjuna systematically analyzes several different aspects of ordinary perception and conceptual thought, such as our sense of agent and action, objects in motion, time, and so forth. For each category, Nagarjuna deconstructs the conceptual basis which we depend upon in order to think of things as … well, things.

Generally if I think of a table, I think it is a “thing” that has its own separate existence and identity, a solidity, persistence, and independence that we might describe as its “inherent existence.” This assumption about the nature of existence of any thing we might name underlies our perceptions and pervades the concepts by which we describe, imagine, and remember phenomena.

Nagarjuna argues that if we carefully examine the implications of our innate sense that things exist in and of themselves, that sense will lead us into contradiction. For example, Nagarjuna inquires “Is fire the same as the fuel it consumes, or are they different?”

If fire is different than the wood – that is, if fire has its own independent existence completely distinct from wood – then the fire could burn without wood. If it exists in and of itself, it would burn without relying on fuel. However, if fire is the same as the wood – if they are one and the same object – then you could never find wood without fire. Nor can they depend upon one another AND possess that quality of inherent existence, for if they exist in a relationship of mutual dependence, how can they exist independently?

Having considered and rejected all the possible ways that inherently-existing fire and inherently-existing wood might relate or not relate to one another, Nagarjuna concludes with this koan-like verse:

Fire is not dependent on fuel
Fire is not independent of fuel.
Fuel is not dependent on fire.
Fuel is not independent of fire. (7)

Now we approach the heart of our topic, for deep in this key argument, in which he establishes the crucial doctrine of emptiness that defines many Buddhist schools, we have an apparent statement of contradiction. Do Buddhists following Nagarjuna reject logic in the western sense?

For millennia, western logic has been based on the law of non-contradiction, described by Aristotle in his Metaphysics as “the most certain of all principles.” The law holds that a thing cannot be both X and not X. The sky cannot be dark and not dark at the same time, a box cannot weigh a hundred and twenty pounds and also not a hundred and twenty pounds. Yet Nagarjuna apparently states that fire is X and fire is not X. Does this constitute a rejection of one of the central tenets of classical logic?

Zen Buddhism and the Gelukpa school of the Tibetans offer two rather different ways of interpreting this kind of statement, based on on their substantially different frameworks. Generally speaking, the Zen position is to take this as a matter of contemplation, not analysis.

This verse of Nagarjuna’s does not differ much from Wukuan’s question “Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?” In that sense, it is not a thing to be reasoned, it is a point of practice. Holding the apparent contradiction firmly may generate a tension that propels the mind forward, past the concepts upon which the contradiction is based. Then, perhaps, the bottom will fall out of the pail. No more moon in the water!

The Chinese master Wu-men said “To have a Buddha view and a Dharma view is to be enclosed by two iron mountains.” Robert Aitken comments, “The Buddha view is that all is empty. The Dharma view is that all is karma. One is the First Principle, the other is the Second Principle. You are caught in principles. What is the way out? The eucalyptus trees stand motionless in the night air. Only a faraway rooster can be heard.” (8)

The Gelukpa approach is to analyze this apparent contradiction until it resolves into a coherent proposition. In their view, the statement only appears to be contradictory on the surface. Clearly Nagarjuna is not arguing that there is no such thing as fire. You could easily refute such a position by lighting his socks on fire.

Nagarjuna is making a deeper and more subtle argument, that the fire does not exist in the way that we usually think. Fire does not exist inherently, in and of itself. His teaching is not intended to refute fire, it is to refute our exaggerated sense of the substantiality of things, which is inextricably interwoven with the appetites and fears that turn the wheel of suffering.

By this reading, we could rewrite Nagarjuna’s verse as follows:


Fire is not [ultimately] dependent on fuel
Fire is not [ultimately] independent of fuel.
Fuel is not [ultimately] dependent on fire.
Fuel is not [ultimately] independent of fire.

In other words, fire and fuel exist in a relationship of mutual dependence, and they cannot be coherently posited as existing independently. Thus, there is no contradiction. (9)

One might argue that this is a cheap move on the Tibetans’ part, one that neuters the contradiction of Nagarjuna’s verse by reinterpreting it, resolving the koan and thus depriving it of its force. But Nagarjuna gives us clear evidence that this is what he has in mind. In the chapter “Examination of the Four Noble Truths,” he explains that he is not refuting existence, he is refuting independent existence.

“That which is dependent origination
Is explained to be emptiness. (10)

In other words, things should be though of not as independent objects, but as dynamic patterns that cannot be extricated from the webs of cause and effect in which they are expressed, and by virtue of which they gain their characteristics.

These are only two possible points of view with respect to logic and analysis, and it should be noted that these traditions are not monolithic. We have focused on doctrinal analysis made for the most part by educated monastic elites, but the picture of practice and its meaning changes dramatically when viewed from the perspective of the laity. For the great majority of lay Buddhists in Asia, Buddhism has served the same basic functions that most religious traditions serve, providing cosmological and ethical support that enables people to accept life’s sorrows and to give a sense of meaning to their experience.

Although the main aesthetic thrust of the tradition is poetic, not analytical, there is also a wonderful tradition of study and analysis in Japanese Zen, and its single-minded focus on non-rational epiphany should not be mistaken for anti-intellectualism. The learned scholar Okumura Shohaku once memorably protested to an group of students, “Sometimes I hear American students saying that they do not need to study. I do not know where they get this. This is totally wrong!”

The Gelukpas have long been criticized for intellectualism and are sometimes caricatured as Buddhists who do not meditate, or monks who would rather read about enlightenment than achieve it. One of the most interesting critics of the Gelukpa was the twentieth century savant Gendun Choephel, himself an unorthodox Gelukpa scholar and one of the great religious minds of his day. Choephel criticized the canonical Gelukpa interpretation of Nagarjuna in his gripping Ornament of the Thought of Nagarjuna. (11) He argued that the systematic insistence of the followers of Tsong Khapa on qualifying and limiting every statement made by Nagarjuna threatens to soften the impact of his teachings to the degree that it loses its transformative power.

Choephel argues for a less-qualified interpretation of emptiness that radically confronts every thought and perception, leaving no aspect of your life untouched. His willingness to critically engage his own tradition was highly unusual, and tragically contributed to making him a political target later in his life. But that fascinating story is best left for a future post.

Ultimately the image of Buddhism as a tradition that holds the power of reason side-by-side with reason’s limits presents us with a grand koan to which we must provide our own answers.

Update: I added a brief addendum.


1. Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Doubleday. p. 93
2. ibid., p. 34
3. Kerouac, Jack. Some of the Dharma. Penguin. 1999.
4. Hofstadter, Douglas. Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. Basic Books. 1999. p. 249.
5. Cutler, Joshua et al. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment; Volumes I-III. Snow Lion. 2000-4.
6. Klein, Anne C. Knowledge and Liberation. Snow Lion. 1998.
7. Garfield, Jay. Ocean of Reasoning; A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarikia. Snow Lion. 2006. pg. 258
8. Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier. North Point Press. 1991. pg. 289
9. Readers interested in formal logic are referred to the outstanding technical commentary “Is Buddhist Logic Non-Classical or Deviant?” in:
Tillemans, Tom J. Scripture, Logic, Language; Essays on Dharmakirti and his Tibetan Successors. Wisdom Publications. 1999. pp. 187-205
10. Garfield; op.cit. pg. 503
11. Lopez Jr, Donald S. The Madman’s Middle Way. The University of Chicago Press. 2006.

Written by Mesocosm

June 3, 2011 at 12:59 am