Buddhism and History (or historicism)

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Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby Jikan » Sat Mar 30, 2013 1:09 pm

It seems to me that the word "history" is another word for "samsara." Think of F. Jameson's quip: "history is what hurts." History is a field in which determinant causes work each other out in reciprocal relation, things come together and things fall apart. Dependent origination. So to my mind it seems worthwhile to consider how the Buddha's teachings might inform an understanding of how history works: the ways in which things we take for granted as "real" come into being.

Of course, I'm not the first person to think this thought.

For a project I've been working on, I'm reading Ken Jones' book The New Social Face of Buddhism (2003), with interest. I'd been reading David Loy's books too; according to Loy, history is more or less psychological; primitive man recognizes his own emptiness as "lack," freaks out, and in attempting to comb over this existential bald spot, externalizes his activities to make himself feel real to himself. Jones more or less reproduces this position as a rationale for engaged Buddhist practice: the lacking self is "the ultimate maker of history," and hence he makes it his task to extrapolate a Buddhist theory of history from a Buddhist theory of the self (more or less Loy's theory of the self).

Shorter version: Loy and Jones argue that history is all about the self's anxiety. I think that the anxious self is itself a modern thing, a product of history. Besides, isn't recognition of one's self-emptiness the beginning of liberation, and not the opposite as Loy and Jones seem to have it? It seems more plausible to suggest that dependent origination may offer a more straightforward and comprehesive understanding of historical time and the formations that arise in it.

Anyway, I'd like to put this bunch of questions out as a topic for discussion: what does Buddha Dharma have to say about history? Is this even a worthwhile line of inquiry?
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby randomseb » Sat Mar 30, 2013 2:05 pm

I could put forth the notion that due to dependant origination, history is a product of this very moment, and not the other way around. The past and the future radiating out from the now. There is only this nowness. But who would believe a thing like that? Things would have to be constantly changing without anyone being aware of it.

We do have a tendency to assume time works in one direction only, and our view of the world, of history, of science, all work around this assumption.

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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby Jikan » Sat Mar 30, 2013 2:12 pm

randomseb wrote:
We do have a tendency to assume time works in one direction only, and our view of the world, of history, of science, all work around this assumption.

:juggling:


True story.

I wonder though if the sutras also think in similar terms of past, present, and future: linear time. Buddha makes predictions of future lifetimes (so the future is knowable), describes events in past lifetimes as past... and if this is Kali Yuga, or mappo, then the logic of linear time is at work again in the categories we assign to particular historical periods.

Maybe it's axiomatic: samsara is experienced as linear time. Just speculating there.
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby randomseb » Sat Mar 30, 2013 2:57 pm

Can you imagine what would happen if some venerable teacher suddenly up and says "by the way, the past you seem to think happened, that yesterday, they are not actually real, just illusions of your mind"? People would go hmmm! This teacher is crazy! Let's go look for the dharma elsewhere!

Well. They do tell you to nevermind the past, nevermind the future, just focus on now.. There is only this now to awaken to.. This is a standard theme in buddhism, as far as the sutras I've read go.

But for fun I contemplate what this means on a quantum level, as in giving rise to the apparent reality due to collapsing the quantum probility states by applying awareness to things and so establishing an observer/observed effect (which real science had shown causes change) and so our mind's internal modal of the world, that is to say the only thing we actually ever experience, imposes itself into the void and so we have reality, and then this propagates and gives rise to everything in a dependent origination effect, spontaneously generating the entire lifetime of the universe in that instant, and then dismantling it at the end of that awareness moment back into the void, ready for the next awareness instant to apply form to nothingness.

See? I am :crazy: and thought about these things instead of doing intense practice!
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby Indrajala » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:00 pm

In conventional reality, A leads to B, which leads to C, and not the other way around.

I don't see anything wrong with common history where things are understood chronologically and narrated accordingly.

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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby jeeprs » Sat Mar 30, 2013 11:34 pm

Interesting topic!

The first thing I would consider is the basic idea behind Mircea Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return. This is the idea that archaic man's behavior is governed by myths and archetypes and a cyclical, or cosmic, view of time, whereas modern man, for the most part, is governed only by himself and his own ability to "make" history, and therefore has a linear, or historical, view of time, a position that is without any "transcendant" models, myths, or archetypes.

Within this model, all the Indian religious cosmologies, Buddhism included, understand the world in terms of cycles of creation and destruction or growth and decay. This is basic to the very idea of Samsara, which means 'cycling' or 'circling'. As is well known, Vedic cosmology generally understands the world in terms of sequences and cycles, and even depicts such cycles in realistic time-frames. (A 'day of Brahman' is calculated in terms of billions of years.)

It is not hard to superimpose such ideas on some modern cosmological models which speculate that the so-called 'Big Bang' is something which might also occur cyclically. (Nietzsche also seemed to have some intuitive grasp of this idea although as always the way he developed it culminates in meaninglessness and nihilism.)

But the upshot is that in such cyclical views of the world, history has no ultimate significance, it is something that is 'transcended' (i.e.by being liberated from it) rather than fulfilled.

However another factor in Western thinking is the Christian idea of the Eschaton - the Second Coming, or Reign of Christ - which is deeply embedded in the Western historical imagination. Indeed the very idea of 'progress' was in many respects, driven by the belief that science was a way for humankind to play its part in 'realizing' the kingdom on earth (see The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science Peter Harrison). Also there is the deep-seated idea of 'the End of the world' which has been frequently (and obviously wrongly) predicted by various Christian movements, notwithstanding the fact that science has actually produced the means to effect such an apocalypse (as all of us who have been born since WW2 are aware.)

So the upshot is that Christian historicism is very much linear as opposed to cyclical - a definite story with a beginning (creation) middle (incarnation) and end (the return). And such ideas operate at a very subconscious or unconscious level (in fact it is interesting to speculate that even Richard Dawkin's atheism is modelled on Christian historicism, as discussed here).

Jikan wrote:I think that the anxious self is itself a modern thing, a product of history. Besides, isn't recognition of one's self-emptiness the beginning of liberation, and not the opposite as Loy and Jones seem to have it? It seems more plausible to suggest that dependent origination may offer a more straightforward and comprehesive understanding of historical time and the formations that arise in it.


I don't think that is quite fair to David Loy. I think Loy is perfectly well aware of the teaching of emptiness and its relation to our sense of lack. What he says is that whereas Buddhism actually enables us to live with our own self-less-ness, through the 'realization of emptiness' as a religious discipline, modern thinking has no model or metaphor to deal with it. Therefore all it can do is encourage us to cover it up, or fill it up, with possession, achievement, identity and so on. So I think Loy's understanding is thoroughly informed by Buddhist principles, in fact he is an ordained teacher in one of the Zen lineages (I forget which). I think there is also a deep link between David Loy and Erich Fromm's earlier work on the 'fear of freedom'. This too is based on the understanding of the essential 'groundlessness' of individual identity.

anyway that's more than enough for one post but again, very interesting topic.
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby tobes » Sun Mar 31, 2013 3:57 am

I have thought a lot about this question, and have arrived at a very problematic and untenable position: a historicist who is skeptical about (being able to know) history!

The logic of pratītyasamutpāda means that we cannot understand reality in any other way than through its dynamic, causal, relational unfolding. I think that this puts all Buddhists on a historicist footing, at least on a conventional level.

It also means that we cannot isolate specific causes and conditions, and treat them independently: the multiplicity of causes and conditions are infinitely regressing. They are epistemically inaccessible.

"History" is an imputation of meaning. It requires crafting that multiplicity of causes and conditions into a narrative. How can that be done without selectively choosing which causes and conditions to emphasise, and which to ignore? And how much is not even available for consideration?

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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby randomseb » Sun Mar 31, 2013 4:50 am

jeeprs wrote: What he says is that whereas Buddhism actually enables us to live with our own self-less-ness, through the 'realization of emptiness' as a religious discipline, modern thinking has no model or metaphor to deal with it.


Well this is not exactly accurate, as modern biology clearly defines all of our experiences that we seem to have as actually being a product of our own mind, not an experience of "out there", but rather our brain's constructed inner modal of "out there", an inner representation of the world. As such, the forms we experience are empty and non-existing.

Knowing that what I appear to see through my eyes in my experience of the world is actually, literally still inside my own head, how ever distant something is, because that is really how the biology of it works, has really helped me come to terms with things. The forms I see are empty of any actual existence other than being the fabric of my mind. It's like when you hallucinate and seem to see a form, it isn't actually something placed "out there", it's a glitch in this internal modal of the world (Buddhist texts call this seeing flowers in the sky, often enough). And we form this modal from the very beginning of our experience and build it up throughout early life and beyond and then we take this internal Matrix as being real and "out there". What's "out there" is significantly different from how we experience it, and may not even exist unless something is observing it, as Einstein was quoted as complaining about.

Look up retina on wiki for a specific biological description of how this works for the eyes, and you'll see it specifically says this.. what you are seeing right now while reading this.. this is just an internal representation of the world.

It's all electrochemical signals flashing across our nervous system, which our brain translates into our experience of things, simply put.

So in this way, modernity does support the notion that apparent form is an emptiness, and that our "essence of mind" is not just "in here", à la zen. Ponder this when looking at some distant object.. That is still your own mind you are experiencing, your mind stuff taking on a form. And since it's already there, why think about the object a second time by adding a discoursing internal dialog about it?

But you have to make the leap from intellectually knowing the biology of neurology to what it actually means in terms of experience, you know?

:focus:

As a post above says, "history" is only ever just a tiny snapshot of a global system, and that makes understanding that system and how it changes over time very difficult if not impossible, because the smallest variable could have significant effects.. Some ant was walking down the sidewalk scouting for a food source, and a kid playing there went ewww and tried to kick it but missed and hit a pebble that ended up in the street and a passing car ran over this pebble got stuck in the wheel treds and accelerated the wear and tear on the tire after months on the road, and the driver eventually needs to stop to get new ones and goes to the bank to get some cash and a gang robs that bank just then and takes the driver as one of the hostages but things go wrong and he gets murdered and the robbers are eventually stopped and go to jail for decades and one is eventually released on parole but the driver's son has a hatred thing going because of years of a pain and loss induced grudge brewing and so gets his gang to go after the released robber and kill him savagely, but the other robbers hear of this and a little gang was takes place that escalates and draws in a bunch of people and.. So on and so forth.. Poor little ant, just wanted to find food for his colony, but will the history books remember him? Nooo

:popcorn:
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby tobes » Mon Apr 01, 2013 12:41 am

randomseb wrote:
As a post above says, "history" is only ever just a tiny snapshot of a global system, and that makes understanding that system and how it changes over time very difficult if not impossible, because the smallest variable could have significant effects.. Some ant was walking down the sidewalk scouting for a food source, and a kid playing there went ewww and tried to kick it but missed and hit a pebble that ended up in the street and a passing car ran over this pebble got stuck in the wheel treds and accelerated the wear and tear on the tire after months on the road, and the driver eventually needs to stop to get new ones and goes to the bank to get some cash and a gang robs that bank just then and takes the driver as one of the hostages but things go wrong and he gets murdered and the robbers are eventually stopped and go to jail for decades and one is eventually released on parole but the driver's son has a hatred thing going because of years of a pain and loss induced grudge brewing and so gets his gang to go after the released robber and kill him savagely, but the other robbers hear of this and a little gang was takes place that escalates and draws in a bunch of people and.. So on and so forth.. Poor little ant, just wanted to find food for his colony, but will the history books remember him? Nooo

:popcorn:



Brilliant, I love it.

That's exactly the issue. Historical narratives never consider the ants! Or me going to the toilet this morning. But there are trillions of ants walking around and billions of humans going to the toilet this morning ~ that's creating motion and change, that's history happening that will never be recorded.

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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby jeeprs » Mon Apr 01, 2013 12:58 am

Where historicism is helpful is in understanding how mentality changes over time. Different historical periods produce very different kinds of mentalities or mind-sets. I'm sure one of the reasons that early Buddhism was so metaphysically sparse was because the people in those times had a completely different 'mind-set'. So over the course of history, as means of expression and the nature of society changed, it was necessary to introduce new ways of conceptualizing the teachings (equating with the subsequent 'turnings of the wheel'). Not because the actual content of the sassana had changed, but the minds of the receivers was different.

This is still happening. We are all very much people of our times. But this manifests in ways that we can barely comprehend, exactly because we're products of the times, and embedded in those ways-of-thinking, which seem natural and obvious to us.

I think one of the Western philosophers who was really aware of this was Hegel. His notion of the 'dialectic' is really important in that regard.

So - I don't agree that historical perspectives are out of reach, or barren.
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby randomseb » Mon Apr 01, 2013 3:42 am

Well also a history record is often a reflection of the mind of the writer and no one else, and you know what they say about victors and history!
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby tobes » Mon Apr 01, 2013 5:51 am

jeeprs wrote:Where historicism is helpful is in understanding how mentality changes over time. Different historical periods produce very different kinds of mentalities or mind-sets. I'm sure one of the reasons that early Buddhism was so metaphysically sparse was because the people in those times had a completely different 'mind-set'. So over the course of history, as means of expression and the nature of society changed, it was necessary to introduce new ways of conceptualizing the teachings (equating with the subsequent 'turnings of the wheel'). Not because the actual content of the sassana had changed, but the minds of the receivers was different.

This is still happening. We are all very much people of our times. But this manifests in ways that we can barely comprehend, exactly because we're products of the times, and embedded in those ways-of-thinking, which seem natural and obvious to us.

I think one of the Western philosophers who was really aware of this was Hegel. His notion of the 'dialectic' is really important in that regard.

So - I don't agree that historical perspectives are out of reach, or barren.


One of the things that plunged me into my current dubious position of skepticism was an engagement with Hegel. I read (with a few others, thankfully) Adorno's Three Essays On Hegel - which was amazing enough for me to decide that it was time to actually attempt Hegel.

Thus far I've spent a good year on the Phenomenology with a few others, and our lack of progress is simply astonishing! But we're committed, and we try.

I'm not confident enough to say that his dialectical logic is wrong - I think he is definitely the most misunderstood and badly read thinkers in any canon, and too often otherwise bright minds make disparaging remarks about Hegel without bothering to actually go through the dialectic.

However, one thing that has consistently emerged - perhaps more from Adorno's interpretation than from Hegel himself - is the problematic of the universal and the particular.

I have found that my Buddhist presuppositions have lead me to a position where there is only the particular, which has no necessary relationship to the universal. The universal is simply not there. This is relevant to the study of history in the following way:

Without a universal, you are left with a radical contextualism - which lends itself to positivist or micro historical methods. i.e. small scale studies of what happened at point Y during time X. You don't really have anything available which can put those particularist and contextual findings into a large meta-narrative.

Hegel (and Adorno's) whole project was to do precisely that - to see the particular as a necessary part of a larger unfolding.

At the moment, for me, it is a big challenge to think in that way - but it is a challenge I am willing to undertake.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I take your point, that Hegel has something to teach us in this regard.

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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby jeeprs » Mon Apr 01, 2013 6:46 am

Well, you've studied a lot more Hegel than I have! I didn't cover him in my (very patchy) undergraduate philosophy courses, but I've picked up a few of his ideas from various sources. One of which was actually T R V Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. In fact I owe much more of my understanding of the nature of dialectic (in the sense of the tension between the poles of an argument) to that book, than to Hegel proper. But the basic idea in Hegel that I'm interested in is that history is 'Mind coming to realize itself' (although he doesn't put it exactly like that. He then went on to proclaim that this whole process had reached its apogee in Prussian civilization, which seems grandiose in the extreme. And I agree that he is willfully obscurantist and difficult, and in some ways took the whole Western philosophical tradition into a dead-end street.)

All that said, the mystical side of Hegel has always appealed me, even though I don't know much of the detail. (Some worthwhile essays here on Hegel's religious philosophy by Robert Foster Wallace.)

Tobes wrote: I have found that my Buddhist presuppositions have lead me to a position where there is only the particular, which has no necessary relationship to the universal.


That is really interesting. I have discovered that Buddhist philosophy is formally 'nominalist' and eschews universals. But I tend towards the opposite view, namely, realism - that universals (and numbers, logical laws, and so on) are real. But I'm aware that my views on the subject are far more Platonist than Buddhist. That might have something to do with my cultural background. I am still thinking through all of that.
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby randomseb » Mon Apr 01, 2013 1:16 pm

Investigate the nature of biology and physics, and you'll possibly come to a point of convergence between the apparent realness of things and buddhist philosophy. You may come to understand on an intuitive level why what appears to be real is actually, literally a dream, an illusion. Not as some abstract spiritual concept, but as a direct understanding of the nature of your experience of reality, which is the only way we ever experience reality, through an internal process.

Whether or not there is some "third realm" from which form is seeded from via some kind of archetypal blueprints or whatever platonism posits is beside the point.

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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Mon Apr 01, 2013 1:37 pm

Jikan wrote: It seems to me that the word "history" is another word for "samsara."

Before there was history, there was prehistory, and there was samsara.
samsara predates history.

Jikan wrote: what does Buddha Dharma have to say about history? Is this even a worthwhile line of inquiry?

What the dharma teaches is that since beginningless time, beings have wandered in samsara.
"beginningless" can have a number of meanings,
depending on whether or not you are applying the context of linear time.

I think what you are trying to get at may have some merit for discussion,
otherwise you wouldn't bring it up.
But I can't tell exactly what it is you are trying to get at.
"History" isn't a thing.
It is a vague notion of some concept of what we regard as "the past".
it isn't something that unfolds, like unrolling a carpet.
Its a general accumulation of previous events.
So, it would be helpful if you detailed a little more what you mean by "history".
If you are talking about the history of what propels beings into a state of samsara
then there are all sorts of things that can be considered.
A primitive "cave man" fashions a bowl out of mud, for example,
goes to sleep, wakes up the next day, sees what he created the day before and says
"Me make that!"
(We know from movies and television that cave men only spoke in the present tense, no doubt because there wasn't sufficient past-tense to affect spoken language! :rolling: )
So, right there you can imagine the beginnings of some idea of self,
because one now possesses tangible proof (a mud bowl) that one has previously been.
Buddhist theory (12 links of dependent origination, skhandas, etc.) actually refines the origins of the self/other dichotomy to a much more basic level.

To this day, people create or purchase those things which provide some tangible evidence of "who they are" not just at that very second, but over some notion of linear time. But mostly, I think what we do is inherit identity as a kind of cultural baggage, and this becomes history. So, we have the history of the Romans, or the history of the Chinese, or the history of the automobile, or the history of Buddhism or whatever.
We conceptualize these categories based on a random selection of characteristics that differentiate one group from another, but in fact, these groupings are also illusory concepts. So, for example, you can read about the history of the Tibetan people, but all you are really reading about is the history of a limited number of shared characteristics of some humans, because in fact, every Tibetan person is different.

"History" assumes a lot which, in Buddhist analysis of things, is rather vague and ambiguous.

This doesn't even begin to bring into account that there are not really any divisions of seconds, years or centuries. It's not as though a clock started ticking at the moment of the big bang. This is all something we've just made up. Days and nights don't actually exist. It's merely the effect of a shadow on this spinning ball we're all on. There is no time except at this very moment, and that moment itself has no duration whatsoever.

Really, all of time is just the continuous, infinite unfolding of right now.
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby jeeprs » Mon Apr 01, 2013 11:12 pm

Randomseb wrote:Whether or not there is some "third realm" from which form is seeded from via some kind of archetypal blueprints or whatever platonism posits is beside the point.


Unless it is basically the same as the alaya-vijñāna....
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby tobes » Tue Apr 02, 2013 11:34 pm

jeeprs wrote:
Tobes wrote: I have found that my Buddhist presuppositions have lead me to a position where there is only the particular, which has no necessary relationship to the universal.


That is really interesting. I have discovered that Buddhist philosophy is formally 'nominalist' and eschews universals. But I tend towards the opposite view, namely, realism - that universals (and numbers, logical laws, and so on) are real. But I'm aware that my views on the subject are far more Platonist than Buddhist. That might have something to do with my cultural background. I am still thinking through all of that.


Yes, I can't think of any Buddhist tradition that isn't deeply nominalist and anti-realist. However, there are definitely strong realist tendencies in other more orthodox Indian schools. It might be interesting for you to pursue the dialectics between the Buddhists and the Nyayas and maybe the Grammerians.

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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Wed Apr 03, 2013 4:18 am

tobes wrote:I can't think of any Buddhist tradition that isn't deeply nominalist and anti-realist.

Correction:
What Buddhism argues is that anything which can be truly divided or reduced to components
does not have any intrinsic reality.
As such, and in that context, notions such as "realist" or "anti-realist" don't really mean anything.

But there are two things that can be considered as "real" or universals:

One is depth, meaning the space in which all appearances arise.
Space can be conceptually divided by measurements, of course.
You can imagine divisions in the space between two objects by millimeters or inches.
Space can also expand and contract.
But the "fact of depth itself is something that truly cannot be reduced or divided.
It's like slicing air with a knife. Nothing happens. Depth has no component parts.
You could suggest that height and width are components, that they come before depth,
and mathematically, this may be an accurate statement
but that is not what is being expressed here.
Depth is universally true.

The other is the ground of awareness,
which is only experienced as mind when met with an object of awareness.

Depth, and the ground of awareness are both 'givens', or "universals", meaning that
they cannot be denied, and they cannot be reduced to any other component parts.
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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby tobes » Wed Apr 03, 2013 11:17 pm

PadmaVonSamba wrote:
tobes wrote:I can't think of any Buddhist tradition that isn't deeply nominalist and anti-realist.

Correction:
What Buddhism argues is that anything which can be truly divided or reduced to components
does not have any intrinsic reality.
As such, and in that context, notions such as "realist" or "anti-realist" don't really mean anything.

But there are two things that can be considered as "real" or universals:

One is depth, meaning the space in which all appearances arise.
Space can be conceptually divided by measurements, of course.
You can imagine divisions in the space between two objects by millimeters or inches.
Space can also expand and contract.
But the "fact of depth itself is something that truly cannot be reduced or divided.
It's like slicing air with a knife. Nothing happens. Depth has no component parts.
You could suggest that height and width are components, that they come before depth,
and mathematically, this may be an accurate statement
but that is not what is being expressed here.
Depth is universally true.

The other is the ground of awareness,
which is only experienced as mind when met with an object of awareness.

Depth, and the ground of awareness are both 'givens', or "universals", meaning that
they cannot be denied, and they cannot be reduced to any other component parts.
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Anti-realism is just a technical term to describe a range of ontological/mathematical/logical positions - most basically the denial of the possibility of an epistemically accessible mind-independent reality.

Some earlier Buddhist traditions might be outside of that position, but it clearly applies to and is appropriate to describe most orthodox Mahayana traditions.

I'm not sure about your claim that depth and awareness are universals. I remember learning that in the Gelugpa tradition, space and emptiness were the only two 'things' considered to be permanent. I think this is what you are alluding to - but is permanent synonymous to universal?

Can 'depth' be conceived without reference to mind or consciousness conceiving (or perceiving) it?

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Re: Buddhism and History (or historicism)

Postby Jikan » Fri Apr 05, 2013 12:41 am

I think tobes is generally right on the ontological question. Ultimately, the world we experience by means of our sense-organs is not what anyone would call "real" in a conventional sense. Where the debate comes in among Buddhist traditions and individual Buddhists has less to do with describing the ultimate meaning than with the relative or conditional meaning.

The relative emphasis (or lack thereof) of the concept of "suchness" is one example. I was going to put forward the example of the Surangama Sutra's discussion of emptiness, but it occurs to me that I don't understand that one very well at all and should instead start a topic on it in case anyone else is confused or has some clarity to offer. I digress. A better example for present purposes might be The Awakening of Faith, which puts a strong emphasis on suchness.
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