Sunday, February 07, 2010

Lankavatara Sutra Chapter 2, Sections XLI and XLII

As usual, this non-teacher is using this translation.

To the Buddha, Mahāmati asks,

The chain of origination as told by the Blessed One depends on a cause producing an effect, and that it is not a theory established on the principle of a self-originating substance. The philosophers also proclaim a causal origination when they say that all things rise conditioned by a supreme spirit, Iśvara, a personal soul, time, or atom. How is it that the rise of all things is explained by the Blessed One in another terminology bearing on causation but in its meaning not different? Blessed One, the philosophers explain birth from being and non-being, while, according to the Blessed One, all things coming into existence from nothingness pass away by causation, that is to say, the Blessed One has Ignorance from which there rises Mental Conformation until we reach Old Age and Death.

And the Buddha replies that his viewpoint...

is not a causeless theory of causation which results in an [endless] interconnection of causes and conditions. I speak of "That being so, this is" because of my seeing into the nature of the external world which is nothing but Self-Mind and because of its unreality of grasped (object) and grasping (subject). However, Mahāmati, when people clinging to the notion of grasped and grasping fail to understand the world as something seen of Mind itself; and, Mahāmati, by them the fault is committed as they recognise the external world as real with its beings and non-beings, but not by my theory of causation.

What then follows in the next chapter is quite, um, sensible, given the sensibilities at the time, however, it is illustrative of the caution one should take in using religious texts as predictors of science...

Mahāmati asks,

[I]s it not because of the reality of words that all things are? If not for words, Blessed One, there would be no rising of things. Hence, Blessed One, the existence of all things is by reason of the reality of words.

And the Buddha replies:

Even when there are no [corresponding] objects there are words, Mahāmati; for instance, the hare's horns, the tortoise's hair, a barren woman's child, etc. —they are not at all visible in the world but the words are; Mahāmati, they are neither entities nor nonentities but expressed in words. If, Mahāmati, you say that because of the reality of words the objects are, this talk lacks in sense. Words are not known in all the Buddha-lands; words, Mahāmati, are an artificial creation. In some Buddha-lands ideas are indicated by looking steadily, in others by gestures, in still others by a frown, by the movement of the eyes, by laughing, by yawning, or by the clearing of the throat, or by recollection, or by trembling.

Interesting, at least to me, is that (obviously) the concept of irrationals was unknown to the writers of this Sutra, which would mean that the converse is true as well, that there are ideas for which there are no words.

But the "big point" of the text is - at least as seen by a guy who has the benefit of having read a bit of 20th century Western philosphy of linguistics- that the correspondence between words and reality is rough at best, and while the phenomenal symbolic representation of existence arises from beings,the phenomenal symbolic representation of existence is not really isomporphic to existence.

That's my take-away. But if you're thinking that you can get "literally true" predictive science here, well, I don't buy that...

Mahāmati, even in this world that in the kingdom of such special beings as ants, bees, etc., they carry on their work without words.

We know that bee dances have "meaning" to bees (and I think ants have a similar mechanism, but I plead ignorance), but given that these folks were not in posession of the scientific method, it's understandable that they would express their observations this way.

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