Thursday, June 20, 2013

"My Nietzschean Reading of Buddhism (Part II): On Illusion" (Contd.)

"Astonishing! Everything is intelligent!" - Pythagoras



When I say that the world is different to different people or things, it may seem like I'm suggesting a sort of absolute relativity, or that I'm implying that how we see the world is how the world is. As Ani Choying Dolma put it, "Phool ko aankhan ma phool lai sansara." But that's not really what I am trying to say. It's much more complex.

To say that the world is just the way we see it is to imply that the world is inert or passive. The world is something we can study or look at objectively. That we are somehow unattached or unaffected it. This is the premise on which science is built. We (subject) take things (object) to lab and observe them interact with each other, and all the while we assume that we neither affect those things nor are we affected by them. We just observe it with ghostly objectivity. But as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle realized, this is not true. We affect things and at the same time we are affected by them as well.

The point I'm making is that things are not inert or passive. Our perception of things is not just merely what we make of them, but it is equally the effect or the impression of the things on us. Their being act upon us just as much as our being act upon them. That is to say, the world is NOT a stage upon which we act; the world acts as well. Everything is alive! 

So though everything is relative, it is not absolute relativity. Things maybe different to different people, but still there is the "thing" itself acting upon us as well. This is what makes the world so complex and intriguing for me. The world is not whatever we make of it, it still imposes a certain kind of limit on us. For example, we can't look at an ordinary chair and call it a "cloud." That would be far-fetched and absurd. But we can call it an insect or a flower (because it may look like them to some), or we can call it "politics" (since people talk about "chair" in politics all the time), or "status"(as in different job position such as chairman, etc.), or a child's game  (as in musical chairs), or Van Gogh (for it might remind one of Van Gogh's chairs), and so on. In fact, there is an infinite number of ways we might be able to perceive a chair, and yet it's not anything goes. It can be an infinite number of things, but it can't be just whatever one wishes it to be.

One way to make sense of this is to think of how we interpret movies. Take, for example, The Matrix. This is a movie which can be (and is) interpreted in a million of ways. It can be seen as a Buddhist allegory, or a story about Man VS Machine, or as a film version of Plato's Cave or Descartes' Meditations, or Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, or how Capitalism turns us into mere energy, or how our modern life is being thoroughly controlled, or it can be seen as a mere hip action flick, or a mythology, or even a love story, and so on.... But we can't say that the Matrix is a biography of some old prostitute in Mumbai. That would be absurd. That is to say that while we can read that movie in an infinite number of ways, we can't read it just any way we want. The Matrix is not whatever we make of it. It still imposes a certain limitation and demands to be read in a certain way. That's why not all interpretations of the movie are equally valid. So you can't just say, "Well, it's my reading of the movie! It is no better or worse than yours." What excites me is that there are good and bad reading of a movie (and other things)! We still can judge things! We can say that a certain reading/ interpretation is better than others, some are weaker, and some are far-fetched. Therefore, it is such a joy when someone reads a movie intelligently and tells us something new or interesting about it which we didn't realize. He/she is literally giving us a new way to look at the movie. On the other hand, if someone interprets a movie badly, it tells us little to nothing about the movie. All it does is to reveal to us what a dumbass he/she is. That's what Derrida means when he says, "We don't read the text; the text reads us." That is to say our opinions, our views, our interpretations of the text tells more about ourselves than it does about the text itself. In fact, your opinions (whether you liked or disliked) change absolutely nothing about the text. But it does reveal a lot about the kind of person you are. What is of value is not what you think of the text, what your evaluation or judgment is, but how you read it and what you make of it.

Now, look at the world in the same way. (In fact, Derrida says, "There is no outside the text." By which he means that everything is text, the things around us are text, and we ourselves are also text, our interpretation of the text is also a text, and so on.. In fact, the whole world is nothing but a text which we can read and interpret.) If the world is a text which can be read and interpreted, then your saying "The world sucks!" reveals nothing about the world and it makes absolutely no difference to it, either. That is to say, your opinions, your judgment about the world is of no value whatsoever. They don't matter at all. What is of value and what matters is what you make of the world. So our attempt always should be not to judge the world, but to find ways of saying something interesting about it, to find ways to make it exciting and enriching. In short, our attempt should always be to give a good reading of the world.

Friday, June 14, 2013

My Nietzschean Reading of Buddhism (Part II): "On Illusion"

"What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet." - Woody Allen
Besides the Four Noble Truths, perhaps the most popular Buddhist notion is the notion that Everything is illusion (Maya). This is generally interpreted as meaning that reality exists only in our mind; it does not exist objectively (i.e. it does not exist on its own, independent of our mind). Now, for me, this is to see Buddhism as Idealism. Idealism posits that things exist only in our mind. It is our mind that validates the existence of these things. How else would we be able to know things if it weren't our mind perceiving them? Without our mind, we would never know that these things exist. Moreover, as our mind changes, the way we see things changes, too. Say, for example, when you are high or delirious, the objects around you start to move and float, or you see a person split in two (certain mushrooms have that effect). Anyway, the point is that the object around you changes as your mind changes. And this seems to strongly suggest that reality indeed exists only in our mind. This notion, which came into prominence mainly from Kant onward, is so influential that Saussure, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Butler, Irigaray, Lacan, Zizek, and, in fact, 99% of the 20th century philosophers were all idealists in one way or the other. Perhaps it was one of the reasons why Buddhism suddenly became so popular in the 20th century.

But to say that the world exists only in our mind is to say that our mind constructs the world. Which means, the world is part of the mind, and not vice versa. Now I find this very very dubious and unconvincing, for it would imply that if the mind (or, if I may say, the brain) is destroyed, the world would cease to exist. But, as far as we can tell, that does not happen. You can smash someone's brain to pulp, but the world would still continue to exist. "The brain is part of the material world; the material world is not part of the brain," as Bergson would have it. Also, if I look at you and then I turn around and not think about you, you certainly wouldn't disappear. But that's the sort of consequences idealism entails.

One could also argue that what the Buddhists mean when they say "Everything is illusion" is that everything is literally an illusion. That is to say, there is no reality in the sense that literally nothing exists. This sort of extremist view is usually proposed by some of the Mahayana Buddhists. They say that reality exists neither subjectively (in mind) nor objectively (by itself); it literally does not exist. Therefore, everything is illusion. I think there is a whiff of Cartesian idea of the Evil Genius in this. Descartes argued that everything in this world could just be an absolute illusion created by an Evil Genius who is out to completely deceive me. So maybe things really don't exist. Now, personally, I find this view very hard to digest. I constantly touch, feel, see, hear, smell things all around me.. I'm literally affected by them all the time... and to say that these things don't exist is a bit too much for me. How can something not exist when it is already existing? (I know you might argue about stuff like mirages and hallucinations, but wait till I get to Nietzsche...)

"All exists,' Kaccayana, this is one extreme. 'All does not exist,' this is the other extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the dhamma by the Middle Way." - Samyutta Nikaya 

Another interpretation is to say that Everything is illusion because what we see is not how things really are. In reality, things do exist but they are entirely different from what our mind perceives of them. This, I'd say, is to see Buddhism as Realism. Realism posits that there is reality, things do exist objectively, but they are completely different from what our mind perceives of them. For example, what we see of the tree is not the real tree, it is a mere illusion (or, to use a fancy word, epiphenomenon) of our mind; the real tree is something else. Now, implicit in this theory is the idea that if we remove the veil of illusion, we would be able to see the reality of things, that is, we would be able to see things exactly as they really are. This sounds similar to the Buddhist notion of removing your illusions to see the reality of things. I also find this notion at play in Wachowski Brothers' "The Matrix." In that movie, Morpheus unplugs Neo from the Matrix (that is to say, he liberates Neo from the illusory world he has been living in) and shows him the real world as it really is in reality. Morpheus himself has escaped that world of illusion and is living in reality. But, as I watch the movie, I keep thinking, "Well, the real world looks kind of incredibly boring. What's the use of waking up from illusions then?" In fact, Morpheus himself calls it "The DESERT of the Real." There is not much happening there: it's barren, people eat plain food and wear plain clothes and don't have much fun. In contrast, the illusory world seems much more exciting, inviting, and full of life.  

Morpheus' argument for pursuing reality is that the illusory world is not real; it is just an illusion. It is the Matrix. You are being deluded and you will never know.  But then I think to myself, "Well, I'll never know that it is an illusion, so I will be living it thinking it's real. And, as for the real world, what does it matter if it's real; it is barren, empty, boring. Now to choose that kind of world just because it is real seems to me quite foolish. Like Cypher, the villain of the film, I too would want to live in the Matrix instead of the reality. In other words, if I knew beforehand what reality is like, and then if I was given the choice, I'd have taken the blue pill. Ignorance would indeed be a bliss. So what if it is all illusion! Why privilege reality? (Well, this is not a criticism of the movie per se; I think it's a great film that works on multiple levels.)

And this is the kind of attitude I find in Nietzsche. He isn't concerned about knowing whether something is real or illusory; what he is concerned about is whether it is beautiful for him or not.  That is to say, rather than looking at the world from the point of view of truth, he looks at it from the point of view of aesthetics. What Nietzsche hilariously does is to shift the whole terms of argument: rather than asking whether the world is real or illusory, true or fake, he asks whether the world is beautiful or ugly. And by doing that, he makes the whole question of reality and illusion irrelevant.

That is not say that he does not have the answer. What he is saying is that the question itself is wrong. (Buddha, from what I've read, used to do the same thing: he sometimes wouldn't answer a disciple's question, but that was not because he did not have the answer, but because he would be aware that the question itself is wrong.) Nietzsche does not even believe in the distinction of reality and illusion to begin with. For Nietzsche, Reality IS Illusion. That is to say, all there is is illusion and nothing else. But that is not to say that nothing exists, or that reality does not exist. On the contrary, what he means is that reality exists and that reality in itself is illusion. There is no some secret reality lurking behind illusion, something that we can see once we remove the veil of illusion (as in The Matrix). There is nothing but illusion. Or, to flip it around, there is nothing but reality.It really doesn't matter which side you take. That is to say, the dichotomy or duality of reality and illusion disappears. They both become one and the same thing.

For example, we tend to suppose that the ordinary, normal life is the real life, and dreams, visions and  hallucinations are not real. But Nietzsche says that dreams, visions, and hallucinations are realities, too. In fact, they are not any less real than the normal waking life. It is just that they are a different kind of reality.

"Ok, they may be realities, but how are they illusions at the same time?" you may ask. Well, one way to think about this incredibly complex idea is to consider Nietzsche's relation to truth. For Nietzsche, objective truth (i.e., absolute truth, the Truth with capital T) does not exist. Consider an object, say, a red wall. When I look at the wall, what I see is something solid, unmoving, bright, rectangular, and rose-colored. Now, a color blind person might see the wall as colorless, or maybe black. And, our immediate response is to say that we are right and the color blind person is wrong because, well, he is color-blind and he does not see the red color. But Nietzsche says that is not the case (and this is what makes Nietzsche so radical and exciting). He says both perceptions of the wall are equally correct and, at the same time, equally incorrect. What does he mean by that? Well, what he means is that there is no "correct perception" per se. All we ever have is different perceptions ad infinitum. This will become clearer if you think of other creatures. A bird perhaps would see that same red wall entirely differently than we do. It might see it as green, grainy, and full of holes. Likewise, a dog would see it still differently. Or, think of the predator from the movie Predator: he sees everything in terms of mere fluids of red and green and blue, all he sees is raw colors. And it would be extremely presumptuous  and solipsistic of us to say that only our perception is the correct or the real one. All these different creatures see the same thing differently. Or to flip it, the same thing is different to different creatures. The red wall is not just one thing but a multiple thing. It becomes different things to different things and none of them is the red wall and all of them is the red wall. That is to say that things don't exist objectively; there is no "thing-in-itself." All there is is the inter-relationship between one thing and another. The phenomena of the red wall occurs in the relationship between the red wall and the thing that perceives it. Reality is neither subjective nor objective. It is both and it is neither. It is somewhere in between.

It is even a difficult thing for (Man) to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives an entirely different world from the one that man does, and that the question of which of these perceptions of the world is the more correct one is quite meaningless, for this would have to have been decided previously in accordance with the criterion of the correct perception, which means, in accordance with a criterion which is not available. But in any case it seems to me that the correct perception—which would mean the adequate expression of an object in the subject—is a contradictory impossibility. For between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation: I mean, a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign tongue—for which there is required, in any case, a freely inventive intermediate sphere and mediating force. - Nietzsche (On Truth and Lies in an Extramoral Sense)

Things are real in the sense that our perception of things is a reality, too. It is something that happens. It exists. It's a truth. It is illusion in the sense that it is a truth; not the truth. Our perception of the thing is by definition a limited, local truth and not the whole truth of the thing. And that is all we can ever have. If we try to find the truth by changing our perception or looking at the thing from a different perspective, all we have is another perception of that thing, another a truth... ad infinitum. That is to say, it is illusion all the way. Or, in other words, it is reality all the way.