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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

One Response

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  1. Excellent post on all accounts. The Vedantic integration of Nagarjuna, Guenther’s ridiculous interpretations along phenomenological lines, etc. Wonderful!


    February 15, 2015 at 10:01 am

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