Friday, July 25, 2014

The chicken or the egg?

A fellow seeker sent me a private message concerning the limitations of language. The person will remain incognito except to say they are from an East Indian culture and are therefore a Kalyanamitra (the Sanskrit word for spiritual friend). To reply to their inquiry I’d like to explore the paradox of the chicken/egg. This paradox has confounded human intelligence since first consideration. It seems obvious that one can’t come before the other but how, we wonder, is it possible to solve this paradox? It is indeed a puzzle, known as a tangled hierarchy that arises when, by moving in one direction we return to where we began. From a conditional perspective there is no way to solve this puzzle since one of these (either the chicken or the egg) is conditioned on the other. So long as we continue thinking in the cause and effect way we remain in the trap of conditions. But how else can we think? So long as we are confined within the sphere of conditional reality there is no other way of thinking; one thing leads to what seems to follow but can’t.

The same sort of paradox applies to philosophy: a pathway to follow that will lead us to a desired end. The issue that turns both of these upside down is the limitation of reality that is constrained purely with the bounds of conditions or said another way, within the constraints of dependencies or contingencies. And why should we accept these constraints?

The interdependent nature of conditional life points clearly to contingencies and conditional dependencies, at least that part of life that appears. But the more central issue is this business of appearances. Is it possible that appearances are likewise contingent upon non-appearances? Rational logic confirms that only at the moment of conception both a mother and a child come into being. How is it possible for a woman to be a mother without a child? And how can a child exist without a mother? Such things are obvious but what is not obvious is the relationship between appearances and non-appearances.

If we can substitute equivalences we might make some headway in grasping this seeming conundrum. In the study of mathematics we are taught that things that are equal, are equal to other things that are likewise equal. Thus if A=B and B=C, then A is said to equal C as well. So let’s give this a shot: lets call “appearances” conditional and “non-appearances” unconditional.  Now we have the material for some spiritual math. The law of dependent origination says that nothing exists independently. Instead things arise together (and are only understood) given a contextual framework. Thus the color black can only exist and be understood given the contextual framework of non-black and this understanding helps us to solve the chicken/egg, appearance/non-appearance problem.

The Buddha, and later Nāgārjuna, correctly stated that neither essence nor non-essence exist independently. So what does this have to do with the conditional and unconditional paradox? Actually it is not so difficult to grasp so long as we accept the rule of dependent origination because that rule says that neither conditional reality nor unconditional reality can possible exist as independent matters. We can’t of course detect anything unconditional since by definition conditions rely upon other conditions to be detected.

All conditional matters are detectable and we call such matters measurable dimensions of form. But what about the opposite of form: no-form? Can any form exist without an opposite? The Buddha said no. In fact he said that all form is the same thing as Śūnyatā (emptiness). In the Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra the  Buddha said, “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.” Now lets’ return to the equivalency arrangement. Which comes first: a pathway (philosophy) that leads to an end? Or an end that leads to a philosophy? As a side note, this is somewhat like the politician who notices where his constituency is going and rushes to the head of the line to proclaim leadership. Suppose that the end and the beginning are one and the same thing? Suppose that at the level of unconditional reality there is no difference between a beginning and an ending? How can there be such a difference since detectable differences require other detectable differences (or so it appears)? But appearances aside, conditional reality and unconditional reality arise together and the unconditional dimension of every sentient being lies at the heart of us all. It is that dimension that lures each and every one of us away from attachment to material matters that seem to define us. It is that very indefinable heart of wisdom and compassion that says to us all “is this material world all there is? Must I become content with this despicable reliance on competition, alienation, hostility and greed?” 

As good as any philosophy might be, it can never touch that undetectable heart. For any philosophy to be of ultimate worth it must begin following the realization of our true, indefinable nature of perfection. Otherwise the path will lead us back to where it all begins (yet never begins, or ends) and then we will realize there is no path to lead us to where we are already, and have never moved away from. My Kalyanamitra asked a question for which there is no acceptable conditional answer and to even attempt such an answer would be disingenuous. Perhaps if they can grasp the significance of this reply, which moves the discussion beyond the realm of conditions, they will look at the question in a more enlightened way.
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