Thursday, July 5, 2012

Transcending but not eliminating conceptual categories

A continuation from the IPS Batchelor thread follows. On p. 4 of this thread I discussed that section of Integral Spirituality where Wilber discussed Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche on how conceptual mind was a necessary condition of meditative experience, with Wilber summing it up thus: "Meditative experience per se--that simply does not exist." Along these lines I found this paper from Sonam Thakchoe on Scribd, "Transcendental Knowledge in Tibetan Madhyamika Epistemology." I used his book The Two Truths Debate extensively in this and the predecessor threads. While I mostly agreed with Thakchoe's book presentation of Tsongkhapa against Gorampa, I also said that I still didn't buy the former's adherence to a strictly nonconceptual realization of ultimate truth. Nevertheless, this paper looks interesting. A few excerpts:

"Tsongkhapa...argues that language can partly express ultimate truth, although not entirely, and that thought has some access to ultimate truth, although not fully. In this respect, he is able to advance the view that ultimate truth can be an object of knowledge even with respect to the conceptual mind. In contrast, Gorampa...argues that language is utterly incapable of expressing ultimate truth, and that thought is utterly incapable of knowing ultimate truth. In so doing he is able to advance the view that ultimate truth is not an object of knowledge with respect to the conceptual mind at all.... Tsongkhapa and Gorampa both maintain the position that ultimate truth is an object of knowledge at least in as much as it is accessible to 'transcendental wisdom’—also referred to as ‘non-conceptual wisdom,' or as ‘wisdom of the arya’s meditative equipoise.' As matter of fact, this is one of the few areas where the Tibetan Prasangika Madhyamikas...generally agree" (131-2).

"Since ‘seeing ultimate truth by way of not seeing’ also means ‘transcending of conceptual elaboration’, the distinctions between Tsongkhapa’s and Gorampa’s positions regarding the way in which ultimate truth is realised can be further articulated by considering the criterion that determines the ‘transcendence of conceptual elaboration’. At issue here are a number of questions including the question whether the transcendence of conceptual elaboration calls for a total obliteration of conceptual categories?—Is there perhaps a way of transcending conceptual elaborations without actually eliminating them?" (138).

""On the view espoused by Tsongkhapa, ultimate wisdom (non-conceptual wisdom or ultimately valid cognition) is described as ‘transcendental wisdom’ in the sense that it is directed to the transcendental sphere —towards supramundane or unconditioned nirvana—but it is nevertheless mundane in terms of its scope and its nature. Transcendental wisdom still operates entirely within the range of the conditioned world—it is itself dependently arisen and does not imply a shift to a metaphysically unconditioned sphere. Only reality as it is given within their own five aggregates is accessible to the meditator and is knowable directly through their personal experience.... It is crucial for Tsongkhapa to emphasize the coordination between transcendental and empirical wisdom, and therefore also the ontological unity between samsara and nirvana, since it is on this basis that Tsongkhapa argues that transcendental knowledge is qualitatively equivalent to the knowledge of phenomena as dependently arisen.... In spite of the fact that wisdom destroys the mental tendencies for the proliferation of prapanca, such wisdom nevertheless leaves the categories of prapanca intact....Once transcendental knowledge is achieved,the meditator still makes use of dualities in respect of certain practicalities—to distinguish between, for instance, skilful and unskilful action, afflictions and non-afflictions—and yet the habitual tendency to proliferation of prapanca ceases since the meditator has become aware of the fact that such dualities are part of ongoing processes, rather than inherently persisting discrete entities.... It is Tsongkhapa’s contrasting emphasis on the unity of the two truths that is the basis for his insistence on the merely epistemic and psychological character of the transcendence associated with ultimate truth and transcendental wisdom" (144-6).


  1. An interesting thing about the article is that both camps describe a specific state of consciousness as ultimate knowledge. Granted they differ on what it means, T seeing it as “merely epistemic” and G seeing it as an ontic metaphysical reality. But it seems this state is unanimously described as “ceasing of bodily and mental processes, called 'vanishing' or 'dissolution'.... The usual dichotomy between subject and object dissolves....[they] are engaged with each other nondualistically” (134). Here there is still content to consciousness so it doesn't appear to be nirvikalpa (complete cessation without object).

    Also of note is that progression that leads to conceptual proliferation, which is an obstruction to nondual knowledge. “Feeling leads to perception....and categories...leads to thinking, and thinking leads to desire, desire in turn leads to [duality]” (139). However for T it is not concept in itself that is bad, just its proliferation that leads to a reified separate self sense with its seeming inherent existence. Hence one can transcend the bad and leave the good, whereas for G the whole ball of wax is bad and must be eliminated, and the nondual state of knowledge/reality is the only good.

    Another problem in terms of postmetaphyics is the unanimous description of this knowledge as 'ultimate.' Even though T sees such knowledge as epistemic and therefore ontologically not metaphysical it is still interpreted metaphysically as 'ultimate' within its mythic-rational, cultural-spiritual system per several posts above. Also per above (Batchelor thread) I provided one way to interpret such a state postmetaphysically, as a baseline tonic state that indeed gets glossed over with all of our self-proliferated bodily aches, disturbing emotions and incessant monkey mind. And returning to this baseline state via meditative discipline restores us to our ancient origin (body and brainstem, delta waves) so that when we return to the higher levels we can do so with some equanimity and balance (integrated brain, gamma waves), keeping them intact without the proliferation or the alienated ego. But we can drop the metaphysical baggage of calling the baseline state either ultimate reality or knowledge.

  2. This is one reason I like Bryant's onticology, since it gets to this 'bottom' of any suobject's affective interaction with the world. Such 'affect' is not emotion in the human sense but rather even an inanimate suobject's interaction with another. And we might even find a more postmetaphysical homeomorphic equivalence to a nirvikalpa (causal) state in that a suobject's virtual proper being is that non-relational potential not yet entered into actuality, a state of no discernible contents. A state that is the transcendental (yet immanent) condition for the duality of actual contents.

  3. I found another free online article by Thakchoe at Scribd, "The relationship between the two truths."* This article is from '03, the previous one from '05, both pre-dating The Two Truths Debate. Material from both though was incorporated into the latter book, and this provides at least some of that material for those that cannot buy the book. There are also copious quotes from the book earlier in the Batchelor thread, and especially in the Gaia predecessor thread.


  4. Thakchoe also wrote in 2011 the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for "The theory of two truths in Tibet."* He goes into more specific detail on how the different Tibetan schools saw the various points.



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