attempting to escape contingency: converting nirvana into an absolute

All values are social values, that is, they originate from and are maintained by social relations, relations that involve differences in power. By values I mean here all values, both moral and aesthetic.

Being based in social relations, however, values are clearly contingent, that is, they are dependent on who has what power at what time and place. They are not eternal, absolute, permanent or unchanging, and consequently awareness of their contingency can create existential anxiety, angst—the unsettling awareness of one’s own contingency, mortality, limitations. To resolve such anxieties, some set of values (and concomitant substantiating beliefs) can be exalted, raised up to the status of being eternal, absolute, permanent and unchanging.This is self-deception and bad faith—fooling oneself and others into accepting the absolute status of some values, concealing not just the contingency of those values, but the contingency of one’s own life as well.

Employing the distinction between morality as informal and ethics as formalized, this exaltation seems to be the psychologically significant function of philosophical ethics, to raise up some set of values (or more narrowly some one pedantically precise expression of those values) as more than merely contingent social constructions.

By operating within the conceptual domain of philosophical ethics, the creation of “Buddhist ethics” as a field participates in this same process of attempting to identify (interpret) how some particular set of moral values is not contingent, but rather rationally defensible against all critiques, the values so formulated comfortingly take on the quality of being permanent, eternal, absolute, unchanging.

The thought that one knows, holds to, acts upon some set of absolute, eternal, permanent, unchanging values then helps to conceal from oneself one’s own contingency and limitation, one’s own impending death. This bifurcation into two opposites is foundational to American popular religious culture, and has a history in Western thought dating from Plato, and the Orphic and Pythagorean background of Plato’s thought. More proximately, the mind-body dualism of Descartes structures American popular religious culture and thereby structures interpretations of Buddhism within that culture.

Cartesian dualism evolved into an epistemological tradition that separated the mind as rational, thinking, immaterial, and private from the body as an irrational, corrupt, and physical substance that merely provided public, physical exertion on the material world. This bifurcation of the person into mind and body has subsequently given rise to many other dualisms, including subjective as opposed to objective, knowledge as opposed to experience, reason as opposed to feeling, theory as opposed to practice, and verbal as opposed to nonverbal. Cartesianism has also led to the romantic view of the body as the last bastion of what is natural, unspoiled, preconceptual, and primitive in experience. Bodily movement is viewed as behavior, with little relevance to language, thought, or consciousness, and not as meaningful action (Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., Embodiment and Cognitive Science, Cambridge, 2005; p. 4).

Descartes’ formulation of the dualism of mind and body is motivated by his desire to prove the existence of the soul. Although often overlooked by those promoting Descartes as the origin of modern philosophy, this theological dimension of the mind-body dualism and all of its concomitant pairings (including the pernicious pairing with male & female) continues to play a role in the conceptualization of an ethics of the absolute.

Such self-delusion becomes dangerous when the bifurcation is made reflexive, in the form that those holding those values are also inherently good, while those who do not are seen as inherently bad. According to Christopher M. Driscoll (White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion, Routledge 2016), though such moralistic bifurcation can be identified with any number of oppositional pairings, it is also racialized, whiteness being identified with the good, blackness with the bad.

In some contemporary forms of Buddhism nirvana is often treated as some kind of absolute—permanent, eternal, and unchanging. Such interpretations often point to the permanent, eternal, absolute and unchanging absence that is nirvana as extinction, and present it to themselves and others as a presence. Instead of identifying the absence created by the extinction of mistaken conceptions and misplaced affections (jñeyavaraṇa and kleśavaraṇa, which obscure our abilities to know directly the reality of impermanence and contingency, nirvana is rhetorically transformed into a synonym for heaven—an eternal state of blissful happiness, something to be desired and worked toward assiduously and even grimly in some cases. Ethics becomes absolutized as the standard for evaluating whether actions are contributing to moving toward such a permanently blissful state. This hypostatization of an absolute as the goal of practice operates to provide the illusion of meaningful orientation, purpose, goal of life, which would otherwise stand revealed in its full relational contingency. As Driscoll says “White religion offers adherents the perception that life has intrinsic meaning, that the social world is as it should be, and that the bricolage offered by human reality fits together in a manner that makes ‘logical’ sense” (9).

Making nirvana an absolute is just as much an act of self-delusion and bad faith as is making any set of values absolute. They may be temporarily comforting, but…like all self-delusion and bad faith, concealing contingency from oneself requires constant attention and therefore the act undermines itself. In the present moment, there are no absolutes, only the changing present moment.


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