Red sunset, Helsinki, 2006
I've occasionally run into a particular problem when debating stuff with Buddhists. I've dubbed it the "Svaha!" fallacy. It has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of not only Buddhist philosophy, but the basis of philosophy itself: confusion between the phenomenological and the metaphysical.
A metaphysical philosophy purports to deal with reality "as it really is." It looks for universal, permanent truths, immutable laws, and things that 'really exist.' We're natural metaphysicians: it rarely occurs to us to question whether something right in front of us 'exists' or 'is real,' or wonder how it exists. Instead, we tend to treat things as existent, permanent, and distinct by default. It is only through a certain amount of reflection that the flaws in this approach become apparent. A great deal of ink has been spilled in attempts to resolve these problems without stepping out of the metaphysical mode of thinking. Plato is the quintessential metaphysician. Other notable metaphysicians include Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine of Hippo.
An alternative solution to the problems with metaphysical thinking is to discard the notion of permanent, objective, and universal truths, either in part or in toto. Instead, we can attempt to describe reality as we experience it. This approach is called phenomenological, from "phenomenon," which in this context means 'something that exists in experiential reality (but not necessarily in objective reality, whatever that may mean).' Some famous phenomenologists include Siddhartha Gautama, Arthur Schopenhauer, Edmund Husserl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Baudrillard, and a bevy of French postmodernists, some of which actually have something interesting to say.1
The metaphysical and the phenomenologicalMost philosophies have both metaphysical and phenomenological sides. Many are heavily weighted in one direction or the other. Karl Marx's system includes descriptions of the way religious belief is used to shackle proletarians to the factory wheel, or the way class consciousness could be used to mobilize them, for example, but these observations are always secondary to the universal, immutable laws of dialectical materialism that he claimed to have discovered. Conversely, Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy includes the concept of the noumenon, or "real" reality, and a big part of it involves the relationship between noumena and phenomena.
The tricky bit about phenomenologies is that because they deal with the world as it is experienced, they include a heavy subjective component. The operating assumption is that any individual's internal experience is subjectively absolutely true. Since different individuals experience things in different ways and have trouble communicating their experiences, we run into the problem of reconciling a variety of contradictory truths. Phenomena are tricky little bastards; fluid, ephemeral, and hard to pin down.
What does 'true' mean anyway?In order to be useful, a phenomenological philosophy has to have some mechanism for testing what it says. This is called an epistemological basis. Usually this involves some intersubjective component—different individuals comparing their ways of experiencing the world, using the conceptual structure of the phenomenology they purport to share. For example, the chaotic, incoherent, slapdash, self-contradictory mess of a phenomenology we call "science" relies on experimental verification and peer review by a bunch of arrogant, ornery, territorial, and stubborn characters. That works pretty well.
Most phenomenological philosophies aren't even all that interested in things that lie outside the framework. Schopenhauer's noumenon doesn't really do all that much, and scientists aren't the least bit concerned about what propositions about something 'really existing' 'really mean.'
Metaphysician: But does √-1 really exist?Buddhism is slightly unusual in that it is almost purely phenomenological, but the point of the entire exercise lies in that tiny bit of terrain that's outside any and all of its conceptual structures. Teachers go out of their way to emphasize that the Great Matter, nirvana, emptiness, your Original Face, the One Bright Pearl, whatever you want to call it, cannot be found in any of the masses of volumes written for, by, and about Buddhism. They're just fingers pointing at the moon; small peaks surrounding Mount Sumeru; painted rice cakes. The trick is to teach yourself to experience it directly; to open the Dharma eye; to become enlightened.
Scientist: Who cares? Now let me look at that radio, I think there's a resistor on the blink.
UpayaThe purpose of Buddhism gives it its epistemological basis. This is upaya, or skillful means: the value of a concept, practice, or philosophical structure in helping an individual to open the Dharma eye. If it helps you along, it should be treated as 'true,' if it hinders you, as 'false,' and if it does neither, as irrelevant.2
This mechanism is entirely compatible with the fundamental metaphysical assumptions of Buddhism—that no phenomenon has any ontological, independent existence, that all phenomena are interdependent, and that all phenomena are impermanent. Or, in the shorter, simpler Mahayana version, that all phenomena are fundamentally empty.
The mechanism of upaya makes it possible to construct quite elaborate and very remarkable conceptual structures without losing sight of the purpose of the exercise. Even traditions like Zen, which de-emphasize philosophy, include a quite a lot of it. Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō, for example, is a remarkable book, and a remarkably coherent, intelligent, and well thought-out one too. These systems can have a great deal of internal coherence, they can have a lot of explanatory power, and they can be highly useful in their intended purpose, even as it is recognized that these structures are 'constructions of that which was not,' to use Vasubandhu's excellent expression.
How to speak when words are empty?There are two fruitful ways of conducting a meaningful argument within a phenomenological framework.
One is to evaluate any given proposition while taking the phenomenological framework itself as a given. For example, we might discuss whether 'socially engaged Buddhism' is upaya or not, while taking the Bodhisattva precepts, the goal of liberating all beings, and the observations about anger, delusion, greed, attachment, and 'idiot compassion' as givens.
The second one is to evaluate the validity of the phenomenological framework itself, relative to the testing mechanism that the phenomenologists agree upon. So, for example, if a Theravadin and a Soto Zen Buddhist both accept upaya as a valid epistemological basis, they could have a constructive discussion about their respective enlightenment models.3
This way lies madnessSometimes something else happens. Instead of taking either of these two approaches—challenging a particular phenomenology relative to the shared epistemological basis, or challenging a particular claim within a shared phenomenology—a disputant challenges the validity of any phenomenology, by pointing out that the phenomenology is, in fact, a phenomenology, and not a metaphysical philosophy, and therefore any proposition made within the framework of that phenomenology, or indeed any phenomenology, is without metaphysical validity. He's discarding the epistemological basis—upaya, for example—that the structure is built on and for, thereby rendering every statement meaningless, not just the particular proposition he was disputing!
Emptiness is form, form is emptiness. Therefore, your argument is invalid. Svaha!This is an understandable mistake. Since we are natural metaphysicians, and Buddhist philosophy first appeared in circumstances where metaphysical philosophy was dominant, Buddhist teachers and philosophers have spent far more time on countering the danger of mistaking phenomenology for metaphysics than on the danger of sliding from phenomenology into solipsism or nihilism. Someone who isn't too sophisticated intellectually might not even be aware of this second trap, and fall right into it when first encountering, say, a pithy Zen story about 'mouths flapping,' demonstrating the dangers of excessive philosophizing.
Buddhist philosophers themselves were very much aware of this danger, and went to considerable lengths to point it out. They knew full well that the phenomenologies they were dealing in are 'constructions of that which was not,' but they pointed out that nihilism—the facile assumption that that makes them useless or irrelevant, that nothing exists, that all is subjective—is just as big a mistake as the facile assumption that they constitute permanent, immutable, universal, objective truths. They point out that 'existsm' is not the same as 'existsp'. Whether the selfm existsm is debatable, but it's pretty obvious that a selfp existsp, in most everyday phenomenologies at least. The famous kōan Mu puts you bang-splat in the middle of this paradox: if everyone has Buddha-nature, what the hell did Joshu mean with his "has not?"
Drying driftwood, lighting a firePerhaps Buddhist practice is like trying to make a fire out of driftwood pulled straight out of the sea. You need a spark to light it, but you have to get the wood dry first. Zen tradition has a lot of sparks in it. They're bright and scintillating and dance prettily, some are funny, and most make for great quotes. They'll also do nothing whatsoever unless the wood is dry (except maybe set your hair on fire). I could easily look up "the solution" to the kōan Mu on the Internet, but it wouldn't enlighten me any more than buying a Zen master's robes from eBay. Polishing a tile won't turn it into a mirror. Zazen won't turn you into a Buddha. Zazen is for drying the wood.
The 'Svaha!' fallacy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of not only Buddhist philosophy, but the very basis of philosophy itself. Anatta, anicca, paticca-samuppada, and śunyatta aren't win-any-debate-for-free cards. Phenomenologies and the constructs that make them up may or may not be 'truem,' but they can still be 'truep.' They can be upaya for evaluating whether something is upaya. That misunderstanding leads to a hopeless dead end, both intellectually and spiritually. The only things you'll find there are nihilism, solipsism, or the towering ontological cathedral the system was first set up to dismantle. Not to mention lengthy debate that yields only frustration.
1My main beef with postmodernists is that they're shaky on epistemological basis. This makes them slide very easily into solipsism or nihilism. All discourses are subjectively true, yes, but if you're compelled to treat all of them as 'truep,' then you're rapidly on the path to madness.
2Which doesn't mean it couldn't be true in some other context, using some other epistemological basis. Buddhist philosophers would probably file finding the Higgs boson under 'irrelevant,' but would cheerfully recognize that it's a worthwhile exercise in the context of scientific endeavor.
3Conversely, a scientist and a Theravadin would have much more trouble having a constructive discussion, because their epistemological basis is different. A scientist would have a great deal of trouble even finding a meaningful definition of 'enlightenment' workable in his epistemological framework.