Non-contentiousness and the Spirit of Open Dialogue

There was a death in the family so I have been away for a week. I traveled up to beautiful Oak Harbor, Washington, a small community on Whidbey Island, some 30 miles north of Seattle, to attend the memorial service and to see my 93-year old father. I might write about this visit and Whidbey Island in a future post, but today I want to deal with something that has been on my mind for a few days. It’s a subject I have written about before and I may use some wording from those previous posts.

It is difficult to have a discussion with someone who speaks as though what a word means to him or her is the only meaning possible and when another person uses another meaning, it is ill-defined. I find it impossible to converse with anyone who insists there is but one absolute reality and any other other point of view is merely a false narrative. I must admit, however, that I am sometimes guilty of the same offense.

We Buddhists feel we have a pretty good grip on the true nature of reality, but I think, as a rule, we are not overly insistent about it, and our reality is somewhat open-ended. Additionally, those of us familiar with the Middle Way philosophy of Nagarjuna know that from the perspective of the ultimate truth (as opposed to the relative), views are empty. K. Venkata Ramanan, in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, writes,

The rejection of views which is an essential point in the philosophy of the Middle Way means that no specific view, being specific, is limitless, and no view, being a view, is ultimate. The ultimate view is not any ‘view.’ ‘Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.’”

It is easy to see that contentiousness is the root of the majority of our world’s problems. Ramanan tell us that Nagarjuna regarded non-contentiousness (anupalambha) as belonging to the very heart of the Buddha’s teachings. A Sanskrit word, anupalambha literally means non-perception, that is to say, things (dharmas) are ultimately ineffable, ungraspable. Nagarjuna used the word to refer to argumentativeness, and also non-clinging.  In philosophy, as in daily life, to make exclusive and absolute claims is an extreme form of clinging. It is a primary source of suffering. For Nagarjuna, non-contentiousness is upaya, the “skillfulness of non-clinging.”

A couple of weeks ago, President Obama, at a White House dinner, spoke of “the freedoms that bind us together as Americans,” including the “inviolable right to practice our faiths freely.” Note that he said “faiths,” plural. Some might deny that there is such a right, to practice whatever faith you choose. But “right”, in the plural, implies what is morally correct, good, just, and honorable. We should be tolerant of other faiths, lifestyles, and points of view. The great challenge for all of us, myself included, is not only to practice tolerance, but learn about things which with we do not agree.  If we are truly secure in our own ideology, acquainting ourselves with opposing ideas cannot harm but only benefit through enlarging our mind and our viewpoint.  The best way to learn is through the exchange of intellectually honest and open dialogue, another learning challenge, for each one of us should continually strive to improve our skillfulness of discourse.

Ramanan quotes Nagarjuna as saying,

The wayfarer that can understand this does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

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