Mystification and other Buddhist disasters

One present rhetoric offers novice Buddhist adherents the powers of mystification. That rhetoric is the simple (-minded) confusion of the idea of emptiness with some profundity. It becomes a secret language that one painfully learns to wield, and gives the power of mystifying others. Knowing how to deploy the term marks insider status and serves to exclude the illiterati.  

Almost invisible or rather inaudible usages hide behind the surface expression, and conspire toward this mystificatory potency. To say: the self is an illusion, for example (and a common one at that) only operates effectively in relation to an implicit, unspoken, and presumptive reification of the self, and then garbs itself in the showy raiment of shuddering revelation. Depending as it does on that reification, it has no efficacy toward actually dissolving that reification. Asserting that the self is an illusion necessitates the counter–balancing belief that there is something more real hiding behind the glamour. This is how the emptiness of the self is tortured into a claim that there is some real true self, and how meditation becomes tortured into a technology for finding it. 

A seemingly minor grammatical transformation, however, strips emptiness of its mystficatory potency. The difference between a statement of identity (self is/= illusion), and a simile (self is like an illusion) is seemingly such a small thing. The latter, however, allows us to actually think about what is being said, rather than being forced into a posture of submission. 

In the Seventy Stanzas Nagarjuna introduces a set of similes applicable to the emptiness of the self of which being like a magical illusion is one. Others are bubbles on a stream, the circle one sees when a firebrand is wheeled round in the dark, a dream and so on. Seeing magical illusion as one of these makes it possible to think emptiness by juxtaposing these similes, by asking in what ways is emptiness like a magically created illusion, bubbles on a stream, a dream and so on? The answer, once seen, is obvious: By being the consequence of causes. 

There is no profundity here, just the obvious nature of all existing things to break, wear out, tarnish, fall down, fall apart, need to be cleaned, watered, oiled, washed, shaved, trimmed, propped up, weeded, swept, vacuumed, put in the trash, put in for recycling, composted, and so on and on. Emptiness is nothing other than this. 

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One thought on “Mystification and other Buddhist disasters

  1. This is something that comes up very often. However it must be said that sometimes the older Buddhist texts also drop the ‘like’. In the Aṣṭasāhasrikā for example we find “rūpameva bhagavan māyā, māyaiva rūpam”. (p.8 in Vaidya’s edition).

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