It’s Only Words

The other day I read a online presentation that sparked some thoughts:

Someone says Buddhism is X. Someone else says that’s incorrect, Buddhism as X is bogus; Buddhism is Y.

Now, if X means Buddhism is about beings from outer space, then I’d agree, that’s bogus. But if X means Buddhism is about awareness, that’s not bogus. Although, I would add that Buddhism is about many things and it’s difficult to pin it down with just one word.

In this presentation, it seems that “awareness” is being used for the Buddhist term sati, which is usually translated as mindfulness. Frankly, I’m not too sure about the wisdom of denouncing mindfulness as a bogus teaching. But, regardless of that, mindfulness, awareness, are only words.

I looked for some nuance or context that would bring this contention that awareness is bogus into focus for me, but the presentation suddenly jumped to a somewhat convoluted explanation of bodhicitta.

For me, this brings up the subject of non-contentiousness, because it seems like that this is just an example of someone objecting to the meaning of a term for no apparent purpose, perhaps other than for the sake of objecting.  Or, it could be a case of someone thinking they know better than the ancient masters who developed these terms.

As I noted in an earlier post, Nagarjuna stressed the importance of non-contentiousness (anupalambha) in the Buddha’s teachings. He suggested that the tendency to seize, to cling, is the root of conflict and suffering.  One of Nagarjuna’s goals was to remove the ground of contention and quarrel among the Buddhist schools, and he advised all to avoid contention and instead, fare on the way of non-contentiousness and non-clinging.

In Middle Way philosophy, non-exclusive understanding is the key to the skillfulness of non-clinging. K. Ramanan, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Maha-Prajnaparamita Sastra, writes,

To be aware of the possibility of different formulations of one and the same truth from different stand points is to rise above the exclusive clinging to any one of these formulations as absolutely true. This is the non-exclusive understanding that lies at the root of the Buddha’s skillfulness.

Two persons may learn to associate entirely different referents for any particular word. One is not more right than the other, although someone might say that someone else is incorrect because the referent is not in accord with common usage. Furthermore, any word can be used to designate any referent, and in fact most words are used to designate several different referents; and several different words may designate the same referent.

Normally what one person considers a thing “to be”, i.e. what the word designates, is what the thing is to that person and does not imply that some other usage may, or may not, be right or better for someone else if the other person prefers it. And yet, some people will write and speak as if they believed that if another person’s meaning is different from what it is to them, then the other person cannot be right.

Ultimately, we find that all designations are meaningless. As Karl Jaspers explains in his essay on Nagarjuna:

When I speak, I suppose that the signs (nimitta) that I employ “signify” things . . . but designation and differentiation leads us into error. Designation and thing designated cannot be one, nor can they be different. For if they were one, the word would burn when we said “fire.” If they were different, there could be no designation without a thing designated, and conversely no thing designated without a designation; hence they cannot be different. Thus designation and thing designated are neither the same nor different; thus in [Nagarjuna’s] discourse, they are nothing at all.

Yeah, it kind of gives me a headache too. But the point is that in using language there is no other way to communicate other than with significations (signs, labels) attached to the words we use, which includs the referents, the meanings, the context. Yet, all these are traps and every word, every sentence only entangles us further in exactly what we are trying to escape from – that is, to not live by signs or appearance of meaning, to rise above differences and distinctions, and to see the world in a broader context.

To obtain this understanding is what Nagarjuna called “The State of Prajna-paramita” – the state of transcendent wisdom, freedom from conflict, the state of mind where all contention ceases.

The term anupalambha, used  here in the sense of “non-contentiousness”, literally means “non-observing, non-perception”, which refers to the absence of preferences and distinctions (see Seng-ts’an’s Verses on the Heart Mind). In Middle Way philosophy, it stands for the “voidness of all appearance.” This is what it means when in the larger Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra it says “real prajnaparamita is the cessation of all appearances.”  But it’s not actually the disappearance of designation and differentiation, but rather the dissolution of our desire to seize them.

So, when in the Heart Sutra, it says, “all dharmas [things] are marked by emptiness” it really means that ultimately things are un-marked, that they arise without any significant appearance, designation or differentiation that we can seize. It is the appearances of things, their designations, which are illusions, and empty; not necessarily the things themselves.

When words are signs for ideas in which there is nothing outside of the idea that corresponds to the idea, when there is no referent but only the fiction of one, then the idea can be called bogus, for it is only a pretended idea referring to a pretended referent.


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