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The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: Georges Dreyfus on Buddhism

I consume enough books that it takes time to see which ones rise to the surface of my memory and stay with me. Georges Dreyfus’ The Sound of Two Hands Clapping is one of one of them. Both a memoir of the fifteen years he spent training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and a cross-cultural comparison of Buddhist and Western philosophical education, Dreyfus makes more good points about philosophy, scholarship, and life in general than the sum total of many other books. Apart from the inherent value of reading work by someone who has immersed themselves in several wildly divergent cultures, Dreyfus cogently and reasonably articulates broader points about study, tradition, and debate. Here I’ll summarize a handful that were most useful to me. (Extensive excerpts of the book are available online.)

Dreyfus writes with admirable clarity and focus, possibly attributable to his fifteen years of intense and incessant study and debate at the Drepung Loseling monastery in Karnataka, which houses about 3000 monks. He was the first westerner to gain the title of Geshe, a degree taking at least 12 years to complete and which seems roughly the work equivalent of three PhDs.

Dreyfus is resolutely anti-mystical. He shows little interest in the esoteric traditions of Buddhism, rightly wary of the Western appropriation of tantra and other “secret teachings.” He distrusts both the romanticization of foreign cultures as well as the polarized we-vs-them assessments that often substitute for genuine comparative engagement. Instead, Dreyfus focuses on Tibetan Buddhism’s dialectical investigation and debate into reality, knowledge, and being.1 He has written in more explicitly philosophical terms elsewhere, but his focus in the book is primarily on the monastic academic culture and their practices of learning and training, as well as the culture’s relation to its philosophy.

By showing the importance of the life of the mind in this tradition, I present a picture of Buddhism that differs from standard representations. Instead of straining my ears to listen to the mystical sound of one hand clapping, I focus on practices such as debate, where the sound of two hands clapping can literally be heard loud and clear. In this way I make clear the important role played in Buddhism by the tradition’s rational and intellectual elements. These elements have often been misrepresented as precursors of scientific inquiry or rejected as clerical corruption of an originally pure message. In The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, which examines the role and nature of rationality in Tibetan monastic education, I contend that each of these views seriously distorts the nature of rationality in traditional Buddhist cultures. My claim is not that Tibetan culture is uniquely spiritual or that monasticism is the only focus of intellectual life. Tibet also enjoys a secular culture with political institutions, literature, music, folklore, and so on. Moreover, there are traditional nonmonastic forms of education, both religious and secular, as we will see later. Nevertheless, it remains true that the sophisticated intellectual culture that developed in the large monastic institutions has been at the center of traditional Tibetan life for centuries. Hence, an examination of the ways in which Tibetan monks are educated can provide an important view of the depth and richness of Tibetan culture. It can also correct the excessive emphasis on the mystical and romantic that at times have been the focus of Western understanding of Tibetan culture.

Those who describe traditional Tibetan monastic education and compare it to modern education also are in danger of overemphasizing differences. This tendency is common in academia, where subtle distinctions are often reified into separations that obscure more fundamental commonalities. Dan Sperber puts it well: “[A]nthropologists transform into unfathomable gaps the shallow and irregular boundaries they had found not so difficult to cross, thereby protecting their own sense of identity, and providing their philosophical and lay audience with what they want to hear.”

The dominant Ge-luk school of Tibetan Buddhism, in which Dreyfus studied, is descended from the philosophical school of Madhyamaka, founded by Nagarjuna in India in the second century and elaborated significantly by Candrakirti in the 7th century. A key figure in Madhyamaka’s Tibetan lineage is Tsongkhapa (or Dzong-ka-ba, 1357–1419), who wrote an immense commentary on Nagarjuna (Ocean of Reasoning) and originated the Ge-luk school. The predominant aspect of Ge-luk, as portrayed by Dreyfus, is its exhaustively rigorous emphasis on scholasticism and debate.2

The result, Dreyfus writes, is an unabashed intellectual elite:

The construction of a universe of meaning is not unique to Tibetan scholastic traditions or to scholasticism in general. Most religious traditions, however, do not take the doctrinal and intellectualist approach adopted by scholasticism. Rather, they emphasize the role of myths and rituals in constructing a universe available to large groups. While these mythic dimensions obviously exist in scholastic traditions, they play a lesser role than abstract doctrines, which are used to refine and develop the culturally accepted universe of meaning and reinforce the conviction of their participants. This, I suggest, is a distinguishing feature of scholasticism as a religious phenomenon that concerns the intellectual elites.

Dreyfus emphasizes that the monastic lifestyle encourages rigorous study and concentration beyond what most will ever experience in a university. Study is a life practice–an intense one–rather than a pursuit of a goal. So Dreyfus’ portrait of the monastery in which he lived is not one of a site of transcendence but of intense academic study, as well as a fair amount of physical hardship. (Dreyfus’ tale of the malnutrition of his first year or so is unsettling.)

I believe that these hardships played an important role in the life of these scholars. They created an atmosphere that led monks to develop new habits and stifle old ones, particularly those antithetical to monasticism. Immersed in a life of singular intensity, scholars ignored the usual desires and redirected their attention to soteriological concerns. Hardships helped in this process, strengthening the scholars’ resolution and providing the pressure that effected their transformation. Discarding one’s hedonistic desires is never easy, but the task’s difficulty is magnified when one is living in comfort, with pleasures readily available. To break away from such desires, it is helpful to enter a new situation from which those pleasures are absent. That is what monasticism is supposed to provide.

But mere absence is not enough. The pressure of the milieu and the hardships encountered help break the hold that desires have on one’s mind, creating new patterns in which soteriology is central. Hermits report undergoing a similar experience. Their career often starts with great difficulties: they lack food, fall sick, experience mental problems, and so on. But once they overcome these difficulties, they progress quickly and easily. This pattern, equally clear in the life of many saints, suggests that those initial difficulties are not just obstacles but vital elements of the story. They create the kind of pressure under which inclinations can be reordered. After this transformation, the practice becomes easy, effortless, and intensely fulfilling.

So, too, the great hardships and the intense discipline of Tibetan scholars push them toward the change in inclinations necessary to achieve their goal. This reordering is also greatly enhanced by the narrative unity that scholars find in their existence. As I will show in chapter 8, providing such unity is one of the central tasks of scholastic education, which is often less a direct preparation to meditative practice than an intellectually rigorous framework in which Buddhist practice makes sense. Developing a meaningful narrative structure contributes powerfully to the effectiveness of the discipline. It confirms the value of the tradition and justifies its members in the sacrifices that they have made. It gives them a sense of purpose and achievement, encouraging a decisiveness and resolution that serve them well in their future religious and worldly endeavors.

The sheer immanence of the monastic life is what comes through, as with my favorite anecdote in the book, concerning the comparative lack of emphasis placed on meditation:

A monk at the Nam-gyel monastery expressed a typical view when I asked him why he was not meditating. Visibly becoming defensive, he said, “You Westerners are really quite funny. You all want to become a great meditator and become buddha in this life like Mi-la-re-pa. You think it’s easy. You do not realize how difficult this is and how much sacrifice one must be ready to make. In Tibet, there were hundreds of thousands of monks, and one or two managed to achieve realization.” Many traditional Buddhists would agree with his reply. This stance is often combined with the cosmological vision of the degenerate nature of the times (snyigs dus), a view pervasive in most Buddhist traditions. Many of my teachers shared this outlook, arguing that our time is too degenerate to allow much spiritual development. One put it this way: “We are not strong enough to reach realization in this lifetime. But we can prepare ourselves so that when Maitreya [the next buddha] comes, we will be in good shape and become one of his chief disciples.” The traditional cosmology suggests that the wait will be rather long, and hence there seems to be no compelling reason to rush toward enlightenment.



On the other hand, meditation-like practices in study are present in abundance in Ge-luk monastic life. Primary among them is rote memorization, the slow assimilation of texts until they are second nature. Texts–not just fundamental philosophical texts, but manuals of conduct–are learned eidetically rather than semantically. Texts are recited out loud many times until perfect recall is achieved.

The young monk then proceeds to memorize the passage given to him the night before. He loudly reads it from his text bit by bit, rocking his body back and forth. He starts with the first word or two of the first sentence or line of a stanza (often but not always the text is written as poetry; the verses of seven, nine, or eleven syllables, grouped in four-line stanzas, are easier to retain than prose), reciting that element until he has mastered it. He then moves on incrementally until he has memorized the whole sentence, which he recites, still in a loud voice, several times. The same process is repeated for subsequent sentences; and after memorizing each, he recites the sentences that he has just memorized. Thus, by the end of the session, the whole passage forms a whole that can be integrated with the passages he has already memorized.

The process of memorization is aural. Without relying on visual mnemonic devices, Tibetan monks memorize their texts by vocalizing them. The only support is a tune to which the words are set. In certain monasteries (such as Namgyel, where monks are expected to memorize an enormous amount of liturgical material), the text is memorized to the same tune to which it is later chanted. In scholastic monasteries or in smaller monasteries, there is no fixed tune. But in both cases, students concentrate entirely on the text’s sonic pattern, ignoring other associations as much as possible.

Meaning is only examined after the sounds of the text have been internalized.

By dissociating texts from meaning before committing them to memory, the monks seek to make memorization a form of implicit memory, ingraining texts in the mind as if they were a motor skill. By contrast, when we memorize a text that we already understand we rely mainly on semantic memory— easier to acquire but less stable. It is open to the retroactive interference of subsequent learnings, especially those having to do with the same subject. Without completely erasing the old memory, new ones take over and modify it in the light of new knowledge. Texts that we memorize without understanding their meaning are not so prone to reconstruction, because of the artificiality of their inscription, which occurs in a mnemonic subsystem not influenced by semantic memory—hence, the practice of memorizing texts without understanding them. What comes with difficulty goes with difficulty.

These important benefits are not unlike those provided by meditative training, which is even more effective in giving its practitioner the ability to be attentive and concentrate, as well as the experience of mental calm. The advantage of memorization over meditation is that it is easier. In meditation, one’s mind focuses on purely internal objects (when it focuses at all), easily wandering off unnoticed for several minutes. In memorization, the mind is given a clearly defined external task and kept to it by the loud vocalization and the tune that are part of the process. Hence, to memorize is a relatively painless way to acquire the stability and discipline essential to monastic training.

This educational process reflects the belief that knowledge needs to be immediately accessible rather than merely available.

For many reasons, this sort of memorization has suffered a huge decline in western culture over the last century (following a more gradual decline in the centuries before that), and the effects on cognitive structure and processing should not be underestimated. I have always been quite poor at rote memorization, while having a great talent for remembering organized structures–learning grammatical rules was always far easier than memorizing vocabulary. I retain conceptual abstractions rather than exact phrasings. So I suspect I generally do not process texts, even those I know well, in the way that Dreyfus describes here, and this is no doubt an deficiency on my part–though it has some concomitant advantages.



Having absorbed the key texts, the students then spend years debating them. The debate is fierce, competitive, and sometimes brutal. Dreyfus tells of the daily debates between students that go on for hours, one monk demolishing his opponent to great crowd approval. The whole section at that link is worth reading, but here are some key excerpts:

Tibetan debates involve two parties: a defender (damchawa), who answers, and a questioner (riklampa). The roles of defender and questioner imply very different commitments, as Daniel Perdue explains: “The defender puts forth assertions for which he is held accountable. The challenger raises qualms to the defender’s assertions and is not subject to reprisal for the questions he raises.” The responsibility of the defender is to put forth a true thesis and to defend it. Hence, the defender is accountable for the truth of his assertions. The questioner, on the contrary, is responsible only for the questions he puts forth. His questions must be well-articulated, must logically follow from the points already made, and must be relevant to defeating the defender. Their truth content is irrelevant, however, for his task is not to establish a thesis but to oblige the defender to contradict either previous statements or common sense.

Let us take the example of a debate about the definition of impermanence, which is “that which is momentary.” The debate starts by delineating the agreement between both parties. The questioner may ask for further clarification, with such questions as “What doesmoment mean in this definition?” “Does it refer to a brief moment or to a longer one?” The defender may answer that the moment implied by momentary is brief. The questioner then proceeds to draw consequences, thinking that he has enough to go on. He may start, “It follows that things last only for a short moment since they are momentary.” This statement is framed to embody the defender’s answer concerning the meaning of momentariness and is considered the root consequence (tsawé telgyur), which derives from the root thesis (tsawé damcha) that the defender must be made to contradict.

The questioner’s task is then to oblige the defender to back off from his acceptance of the root statement, forcing him to make the no-pervasion answer that contradicts his main thesis. To do so, the questioner will draw unwanted consequences from the defender’s position, pushing him to make counterintuitive statements until he reaches the point of absurdity.

Sometimes, however, things escalate and one party may start to taunt the other: “Come on, answer; you think you know so much, don’t you?” Things can get even more heated, and ridicule may follow. A skilled rhetorician can be devastatingly effective in a large public gathering, hurling a clever name that may stick to a person for the rest of his life. It is hard not to fall apart when one is ridiculed in front of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of scholars and students. Shoving matches are also common, when several people attempt to put their questions to the defender. Noisy demonstrations of victory and sarcasm to humiliate one’s opponents are often observed, particularly when the questioner has obliged the defender to contradict his basic point and expresses his victory by saying, “The root thesis is finished.” While saying this, he slaps his hand in a particular way. Instead of hitting one palm against the other, as in the usual accompaniment to every statement, he hits the back of the right hand against the left palm to signify that the defender has contradicted himself. In this psychologically intense moment, the questioner expresses his glee at crushing his adversary. Some take a sadistic pleasure in repeating “The root thesis is finished” several times, with sweeping gestures and humiliating comments. Stein describes a particularly colorful and graphic expression of victory: “The winner of the debate is borne in triumph on his colleagues’ shoulders, sometimes, it seems, humiliating the loser (in Sikkim, the loser has been known to get on all fours, with the winner riding on his back and spurring him on with his heels).”

This intense physical and emotional involvement explains why Tibetan scholars love debate so much. They become excited when they talk about it and miss it once their training is finished. Older scholars often advise students to savor their times as debaters: “This is the best time in the life of a scholar. After this, all fades in comparison.”

Yet such intensity also can be dangerous. There are clear cases of monks using debate for the sole purpose of settling old scores or advancing their own ambitions. In twelve years of practicing debates, I have sometimes seen abuses committed. I have seen people attempting to wound and humiliate their adversaries or becoming genuinely angry. These cases are rare, however, and most debates reflect an honest interest in intellectual exchange.

These debates seem most reminiscent of the early eristic Socratic dialogues (thought to be an Athenian pastime in Gilbert Ryle’s account), though with a more explicit, culturally agreed-upon set of rules. Competition and a clear sense of victory or defeat are explicitly employed to further study.

The final examinations for becoming a Geshe include several lengthy oral exams running up to ten hours in front of a hostile audience:

Candidates then defend their view in front of the whole monastery in a formal debate. One cannot fail but one can be humiliated in this difficult trial, which requires the candidate to spend up to ten hours answering questions on any topic related to the curriculum. This examination also involves a strong psychological element, since the defender stands against the entire audience (numbering several hundred to several thousand), which is expected to support and help the questioner. When the defender hesitates in answering, the audience joins the questioner in pressuring him by loudly intoning “phyir, phyir, phyir.” If the answer is still not forthcoming, the questioner may start to make fun of the defender with the vocal support of the audience. Conversely, if the questioner falters, members of the audience may jump in and pick up the debate. At times, several questioners bombard the defender with a variety of questions. Sometimes they may join in unison as they forcefully press their points. When the defender loses, the whole audience joins the questioner in loudly slapping their hands and pointedly proclaiming, “Oh, it’s finished.”

Withstanding such intense psychological pressure is not easy. Being jeered or ridiculed by thousands is a disconcerting experience. Some candidates fall apart, becoming rattled, angry, or unable to answer. Most candidates, however, are able to withstand the pressure because of the long training they have undergone. It is crucial to remain calm and good-humored, while keeping an eye out for sharp rejoinders that can turn the presence of a large crowd to one’s advantage. I remember an incident that took place while I was answering in Sera Jé. The abbot, Geshé Lozang Tupten who was my teacher, made a joke at my expense, implying that my answers were weak. The whole assembly burst into laughter. I was not fazed and without blinking I replied, “Some may laugh, but I challenge them to back up their laughter!” The audience exploded. I had won the exchange

After that, it’s not surprising when Dreyfus expresses disappointment at the lack of even moderately vigorous debate in his American graduate school:

My greatest disappointment in coming to an American university was the lack of debate. I remember at first trying to debate in classes with other students or with the professor, but such attempts usually ended badly. In one class, I was told that debating was not what “gentlemen” should engage in. In another, the professor was only too delighted to debate me in his area of specialization, where he obviously had the upper hand, but this made the other students uncomfortable. “How can you be so harsh toward a student?” they asked him. “Oh, don’t worry. He is well trained. He can take it,” was the reply. As I have tried to make clear, the monastery allows for freer encounters. There nobody is offended at being defeated in debate or even made fun of. I find this culture of disagreement too often missing in American higher education, where students and faculties are at times overly sensitive and preoccupied with their reputations.



There is a tension at the heart of such philosophical debate within a tradition, which should be familiar to anyone who has studied in almost any philosophical school, from Christian Scholasticism to Midrash to analytic philosophy: the existence of unquestioned, agreed-upon foundational views allows for fervent and unfettered debate about consequent issues, but the foundation must remain untouched. (The higher stakes in Tibetan Buddhism emerge when Dreyfus tells of murders committed between competing schools.) For all the debate the inquiry is fundamentally more limited.

The issue of a canon becomes crucial here, since there needs to be some selection of texts to memorize and debate, and the lack of consensus in our culture today no doubt contributes to an unwillingness to have students privilege any particular text with such obsessive attention and assimilation.

This embedded and confident rationality also results from the constitutive role of the great texts of the tradition, which do not just inform but form fields of study. Because scholasticism proceeds by examining and, in the final analysis, appropriating constitutive texts, the understanding that is derived from their studies remains embedded within the tradition. Scholastic reason can be used to critique certain aspects of the tradition but finds it difficult to question the tradition as a whole, for it necessarily remains within the parameters determined by the basic texts. Such a procedure is strikingly different from modern scientific rationality, which is based on a readiness to cast aside previous theories in the light of new facts. Such readiness should of course not be exaggerated, as Thomas Kuhn has made clear in drawing a distinction between normal and revolutionary sciences; a good deal of science involves working within an established paradigm. Nevertheless, the scientific enterprise in principle is prepared to let go of past theories, to reject the familiar disciplinary matrix and shape a new one. The same is not true of scholasticism, which is inconceivable without the constitutive texts around which it revolves. Unlike great scientific texts, these are not held provisionally as a basis for problem solving. Although their exact interpretation may be up for grabs, there is nothing tentative in how scholasticism regards its great texts. They are the authority within their own domain and the given basis of the tradition, which evolves as scholars constantly reappropriate their content. As we have seen in previous chapters, this means not that such a tradition is uncritical but that its critical spirit remains within the orbit of the tradition delimited by the scholastic curriculum.

I find this a significant point, since it unites the religious aspects of scholasticism with its scholarly methodology. The functional aspects of study as a method of training the mind are not, in the end, aimed at generating radically new knowledge, but in training the mind and reifying a fundamental substrate. There is value in the method apart from that goal, but the survival of the culture relies on a conservative and traditional closure to debate.

The closure presupposed by tradition distinguishes rational scholastic practices from the practices of modern scholars. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the boundedness of scholasticism necessarily implies a dogmatic and uncritical spirit. To flourish, scholasticism needs freedom to interpret its own constitutive texts. In the Tibetan tradition, debate provides this freedom of inquiry, which allows scholars to examine rigorously the content of the tradition, though that examination is limited in its scope. Questions may be raised, but they may not undermine the foundations of the tradition, particularly its constitutive texts. In Tibetan scholasticism, when such limits are transgressed, authorities (secular or monastic) step in to restore what they perceive to be the integrity of the tradition, thus illustrating the reality and limits of this tradition’s freedom of inquiry.

It is not coincidental that the most memorable and inspirational figure in the book is the teacher who most strongly pushes at the boundaries of what can be questioned. This teacher, whom Dreyfus clearly reveres and vividly describes, is his mentor Geshe Nyi-ma-gyel-tsen (Gen Nyi-ma for short, also called Gen-la (revered teacher) by Dreyfus).

Geshe Nyi-ma-gyel-tsen (Gen Nyi-ma)

Gen-la’s appearance also reflected his approach to life, which he devoted entirely to intellectual and religious pursuits rather than to superficial external refinements. He often showed little concern for personal grooming and paid little attention to his robes. Often his students had to clean him up. His eyes were his most striking feature, however. Because his eyelids could not stay open on their own, he had to hold a finger to the side of his right eye. This, combined with his shortsighted peering, gave him a wrathful appearance that was, to say the least, not very attractive. The unpleasant impression would be heightened when Gen-la read: as he kept his two eyelids open with his two hands, his big red eyes would bulge out. Students would often comment that it had taken them several weeks to get used to Gen-la’s appearance and to be able to look at him. 19 But his influence on his students and their admiration for him were so strong that after some time students would completely forget their first impression. Some students would even go as far as to unconsciously mimic Gen-la, putting their hands by their eyes.

Gen Nyi-ma emerges as a somewhat Pyrrhonist skeptic, subtly questioning even the foundations of Buddhist philosophy through intense discussion. (The way Dreyfus describes him, he vaguely resembles Burton Dreben.)

In accordance with his predilection for questioning and contrary to most teachers, Gen-la rarely commented on a text or explained a point but proceeded almost entirely through debates. He would pick up a term in the text and would start to explore its meaning; as he sat, he snapped his debates to students who were in charge of answering. The class would continue only as long as his students were able to answer. Most of the time, Gen-la was able to shoot down any answer put forth by his students. This was no small achievement, for his teachings often attracted seasoned scholars. Sometimes, however, students were able to answer Gen-la quite well and even put him in jeopardy. On those rare occasions students would stop, slightly embarrassed, as soon as it had become clear that they had established their points. They would then defer to Gen-la’s summary of the argument, but it was clear to everybody, Gen-la included, that they had won the argument.

Following Gen-la’s classes was a treat for good scholars but quite difficult for those with minds less well prepared. Gen-la considered himself a poor teacher. He was fond of quoting a student who had told him, “Gen-la, when I come to see you I think I have some understanding of the topic. After your class, I am completely confused and have lost the little I knew!” Gen-la viewed his classes not as channels for imparting some truth but as means to further the inquiry. Hence, his teachings were thrilling for those who could follow them, for they had the impression—quite rightly—of being taken on a search for greater understanding by one of the best minds of their time. But the classes could be very difficult for those who had not yet gained the knowledge and experience required by his probing questions.

I feel Dreyfus is hinting at a certain underlying commonality to philosophical debate, in which the processes taken by the ruthless examination of words and concepts breaks free from what those particular concepts may be and their culturally conditioned particulars. Certainly Dreyfus prizes this approach over any particular doctrine. This “throwing away the ladder” approach sometimes becomes explicit, as with this quote of Gen Nyi-ma:

“We are getting pretty good at debating on Madhyamaka but this is not the real understanding of emptiness, for it is bound by conceptual elaborations (prapañca, spros pa). We could even defeat a person who had realized emptiness! Such a person would be able to see through conceptual elaborations but could not answer our questions.”

Gen-la’s comment puts scholastic studies in their proper perspective. They are means to develop an insight into the nature of reality but are unable in and of themselves to bring to full maturity the process that they start.

And I think Dreyfus ultimately endorses a pragmatic account of the tension between a foundationalism that establishes starting principles but limits debate and a skepticism that exceeds the boundaries set:

Gen-la understood and valued intellectual complexities, realizing that the Indian sources of the tradition have a diversity of views not easily exhausted by any party line. He also emphasized the deconstructive dimension of inquiry—the central insight of the Madhyamaka tradition, that reality is essenceless and hence no distinction can be completely consistently maintained. Yet he was quite aware of the potential risks of his approach. No relativist or nihilist, he held that the ability of the mind to undermine concepts must be at some point restricted. One day, he told me: “The inquiry has by itself no limit. One must decide for oneself what the limits are. For me, the limits are determined by Dzong-ka-ba and his direct disciples.” This statement was obviously an invitation—but it was also an admission that “reasonable people” (here teacher and student) could disagree, since there is no intrinsic essential property that can separate conflicting approaches. The point is not that no distinction can be made, but that such distinctions are fragile and that to remain within the circle of acceptable views one must recognize that fragility. I remember answering by mumbling something about the importance of the great Indian texts.

The comparative open-endedness of science comes, then, in recognizing that the foundations are simply to be shifted and thus seen as contingent even though they cannot be wholly abandoned. In the famous words of Wilfrid Sellars, “For empirical knowledge, like its sophisticated extension, science, is rational, not because it has a foundation but because it is a self-correcting enterprise which can put any claim in jeopardy, though not all at once.”

Dreyfus, I think, articulates a somewhat similar principle in discussing the tempering of tradition-bound (yet eristic) scholasticism with a more intuitive and creative approach achieved through less structured inquiry:

For example, in the search for the view of emptiness, the other main goal of the scholastic training, deeper understanding is reached by the gradual cultivation and internalization of the Madhyamaka mode of inquiry through thinking and meditation. In this way, ordinary subjectivity, particularly our obsession with our own self-importance, is disrupted and we gain the ability to deal with things, ourselves included, without grasping onto them. This understanding is quite different from the purely intellectual approach developed by debate.

Yet scholasticism also has definite strengths, for it fortifies concentration, develops confidence and resolution, and trains the mind in the art of inquiry, an ability without which deeper understanding is impossible. Thus, far from being an obstacle to higher religious pursuits, scholasticism is an important step toward appropriating the tradition. However, such an appropriation is constituted less by standard doctrinal formulations than by an inquisitive mind that can see through the limitations of its constructions and yet remain within the orbit of the tradition.

And this balance, for Dreyfus, seems to be something that can and should be sought in both of the traditions in which he has studied. Nonetheless, Dreyfus’ final assessment seems to be that within both Western and Ge-luk traditions, as well as many others, there are skeptics and there are believers, or at least those who want to be believers:

The reasons for my preference for Gen Nyi-ma are not difficult to find; they have to do with my own background. Because I had been raised in an intellectual family, I found myself at ease with an approach based on realizing the complexities of the tradition. My response had little to do with my being a Westerner, however. Other Western students found his approach to Buddhism much less appealing. Some thought that it was a distraction from more essentially religious concerns such as meditation. Others became profoundly uncomfortable: they wanted certainties and were not ready to question fundamental concepts. One could even say that many Western Buddhists seem particularly lacking in their abilities to reflect on and problematize the basic concepts of their newly adopted tradition. Terms such as wisdom, path, and enlightenment are used as if their referents were perfectly self-evident. I particularly remember a Western friend of mine who would often question me about points of Buddhist doctrine. At first, I would answer him by laying out the different opinions and the subjects of debate, but he would respond impatiently, “I am not asking for a list of possible opinions, I am asking for an answer.” I would then have to choose, more or less arbitrarily, what seemed to be the most appropriate answer and give it to him as the answer, keeping to myself the realization that this was just one interpretation among many. The ability to tolerate complexities is certainly not a Western birthright.

It should be evident that I am with Dreyfus and Gen Nyi-ma. In comparison to Gen Nyi-ma’s searching approach, such people as Dreyfus’ friend should feel somewhat embarrassed.


  1. Dreyfus has been associated with the recent school that could be termed “analytical Buddhism,” people such as Jan Westerhoff, Mark Siderits, and Miri Albahari who have explicated various philosophical schools of Buddhism both in current philosophical terminology and in their historical context.
  2. Dreyfus mentions the current Dalai Lama a few times, having met him in person on several occasions. He emerges as a rather savvy reformist, gently pushing generally progressive change while trying to keep the factions happy. Pace Christopher Hitchens, he seems to have displayed considerably better judgment than most would have in his place. Dreyfus does not deny the authoritarian structure of Ge-luk institutions nor the all-too-familiar politicking that goes on within them, but neither do they come off as so different or worse than what we experience here in the west. Kelsang Wangmo became the first female Geshe in 2011, and I get the sense that this could not have happened without the Dalai Lama’s wider efforts.

Galen Strawson, Buddhist Philosophy, and Radical Self-Awareness

The recent intersection of analytic philosophy and philosophical Buddhism has been a very heartening sign for me. Not only does it move the discussion away from what I’ve always felt to be the dead-end of Kripkean essentialist metaphysics, but it’s also produced some serious thinking about logic and selfhood and mind that manages to respect the problems of language without being wholly overcome by them.

I take it that Nagarjuna, originator of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, was himself doing this almost 2000 years ago. This mindset is most useful in approaching questions about consciousness and the self, where appeals to intuition seem to break down and there seem to be a lack of first principles even by the usual standards of philosophical arguments.

Galen Strawson’s advocacy of panpsychism as well as a general interest in mental phenomenology places him close to those the constellation of people such as Georges Dreyfus, Jan Westerhoff, Mark Siderits, and Bronwyn Finnigan, who have all treated Buddhist philosophy in depth. His essay “Radical Self-Awareness,” included in the recent anthology Self No Self, continues the overlap. Siderits co-edited the anthology, which has a fair bit of Asian philosophy in many of the essays, but Strawson only touches on it briefly, which makes it more notable that the overlap is still quite visible.

First some background. I think of Strawson as fundamentally a monist as much as a panpsychist. The term “neutral monism” doesn’t seem to be in vogue, but my own sense has been that the term “materialism” loses a lot of its meaning when the material is simply that single type of stuff that makes up reality and that stuff happens to be called matter. I don’t have a problem with calling it materialism, but it’s distinctly different from a view that works up metaphysically from contemporary physics and biology.

When I say that the mental, and in particular the Experiential, is physical, and endorse the view that “experience is really just neurons firing,” I mean something completely different from what some materialists have apparently meant by saying such things. I don’t mean that all aspects of what is going on, in the case of conscious experience, can be described by current physics, or some nonrevolutionary extension of it. Such a view amounts to radical “eliminativism” with respect to consciousness, and is mad.

My claim is different. It is that the Experiential (considered just as such)—the feature of reality we have to do with when we consider experiences specifically and solely in respect of the Experiential character they have for those who have them as they have them—that “just is” physical.

Galen Strawson, quoted in SEP “Neutral Monism”

Onto consciousness and the self. Using the example of meditation, Strawson proposes that we can have a contentful, thetic experience of the “self” in the absence of any other experiential content.

The attainment of such self-awareness, for brief periods in the unpractised (and the incompetent, such as myself), seems to involve a state that has no particular content beyond the content that it has in so far as it’s correctly described as awareness or consciousness of the awareness or consciousness that it itself is, awareness that includes in itself awareness that it is awareness of the awareness that it itself is, but does so without involving anything remotely propositional (contrary to what the word ‘that’ suggests to many) or thetic in the narrow and apparently necessarily distance-involving, object-of-attention-posing way.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness

I take this to be akin to what Denis Diderot described as reverie, which he simply describes as experience in the absence of the limits given by sense experience:

There are no limits at all. I seem to exist as a single point, I almost cease to be material and am only conscious of thought. I have lost the sense of position, motion, body, distance and space. The universe is reduced to nothing and I am nothing to the universe.

Denis Diderot, D’Alembert’s Dream

Strawson terms this a kind of sensory experience of its own: contentful thetic self-awareness in the absence of any other content. It is “a cognitive experiential modality.” Both Diderot and Strawson invoke a concept similar to what Miri Albahari has called, in the context of Theravadan Buddhism, the “two-tiered illusion of self,” first of the continuity of self, and second of the boundedness of self.

The second illusion, boundedness, is the important thing here. If experience requires that subjectivity be bounded in some way to distinguish itself from that which is not-itself, and whatever is left on the “itself” side must constitute both subject and experience both. In the case where the not-itself has been removed from the picture, I don’t see a way to distinguish subject from content. (Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, makes a similar point in arguing against solipsism.)

The term “thetic” is tricky because it implies an attention to experiential content, in the form of some actual activity. Yet the content and the awareness seem too deeply entwined here to be termed thetic or non-thetic. Or more properly, anything falling outside the traditionally thetic realm may not deserve even the term “non-thetic consciousness.” The point remains that this experience qualifies as experience. But as Husserl implied when he said that the relation between consciousness and the object of consciousness is not a real relation, this kind of experience leaves precious little room for a metaphysical dualism of subject and content.

Strawson continues:

But one can also go beyond this, I propose, into a state of direct thetic having-is-the-knowing acquaintance, a state of holding the sensation of blue in full attention, in which one’s experience ceases to have, as any part of its content, the structure of subject-attending-to-something. The Kantian conclusion is then triggered: ‘nothing which emerges from any affecting relation can count as knowledge or awareness of the affecting thing as it is in itself ’ that this awareness precisely is identical with the subject itself.

[and thus, after some argument]

[15] the subject of awareness (that which wholly constitutes the existence of the subject of awareness) isn’t ontically distinct from the awareness of which it is the subject

[16] the subject of awareness is identical with its awareness.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness”

So what you end up with is a metaphysical identity of a seeming process with a seeming object. (Or, likewise, the identity an object with the sum of its modalities and properties.) I think this is exactly right. The problem with traditional “Cartesian” views is that they seek to establish the existence of a distinct subject having the experiences, metaphysically separating the two and requiring the existence of the subject through either entailment or just as a pure free lunch.

And I think that it does reveal that a major part of the problem has been linguistic, or even grammatical, as nouns like “subject” and “self” have been used that we usually take to imply metaphysically autonomous entities rather than extremely loose linguistic concepts that do overlapping duty in metaphysical, epistemological, phenomenological, and socio-cultural contexts.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the abstract notion of “subjectivity.” “Subjectivity” has been a punching-bag for the continentals and even some of the analytics, and has meant so many different things from Descartes to Husserl and beyond that it’s simply become a very dangerous term to use. The classic “Cartesian” model (which may not actually be Cartesian) envisions a unary subject having experiential content “occur” to it.

This is, evidently, rather vague, and I think it’s because of the vagueness that the generally received notion of metaphysical “subjectivity” frequently amounts to nothing more than something/anything that is “experiential” or “conscious.” In this way subjectivity (a property) is more convincing than the self or the subject (both objects), which is why the term has been batted about more.

Ironically, that may not actually be so far off from the truth. The notion of the subject has been built up into a metaphysical tank, but the message which I take from Strawson is that the self and the subject can be deflated without much harm to subjectivity qua subjectivity. I think ultimately that this falls out from basic metaphysical principles, as Strawson hints:

Some like to think that there can be subjectivity or experience without a subject. That’s why it’s important to bring out the full import of the notion of subjectivity or experience by stressing the fundamental sense in which it can’t exist without a subject. But there’s a no less important point in the other direction. If all you need to know, to know that there is a subject, is that there is subjectivity or experience, then you can’t build more into the notion of a subject than you can know to exist if subjectivity or experience exists.

I think, in fact, that the object/property distinction is metaphysically superficial—that there is no ‘real distinction’ between (a) the being of an object, considered at a given time, and (b) the being of that object’s propertiedness, that is, its whole actual concrete qualitative being at that time, that is, everything in which its being the particular way it is at that time consists.

Galen Strawson, “Radical Self-Awareness”

I think that a lot of western metaphysical mistakes have come precisely from the need to establish concrete entities as “holders” for properties that go over and above being descriptive containers for them into being metaphysically distinct entities. But this is to make subjectivity itself into a metaphysically distinct entity rather than a property, and that very idea seems incoherent.

In a footnote, Strawson points out that Kant had already been here:

In his famous letter to Herz, Kant writes that ‘the thinking or the existence of the thought and the existence of my own self are one and the same’ (1772: 75). Although Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza often write as if the subject is ontically distinct from its states of experience or awareness, they’re all committed to the view that the concrete being of a substance (considered at any given time) is not ontically distinct from the concrete being of its attributes at that time (whatever modes of the attributes are currently instantiated).

This does have perplexing implications for ontology. D.M. Armstrong talks about the problems of the “thick particular,” the idea of a baseline object which has non-relational aspects in addition to its properties, and suggested a “thin particular” as a more viable alternative. As I understand it, the thin particular is that which concretizes its properties or attributes (which, at least for Armstrong, are universals). But I don’t see how either (a) the thin particular itself nor (b) the concrete instantiation on of attributes on top of a thin particular can rightly be called an object. I think it’s impossible that one can be called an object without the other also being an object, as it seems that the addition of a property to a particular could not yield objecthood, yet calling both objects requires too thick a particular.

I won’t defend that position further here. But I’m convinced that the razor-thinness of the sort of particular that Kant is talking about poses some serious questions about “objecthood.” Hence, I’m drawn to single-substance monism, which Strawson entertains but does not endorse:

This is not to say that reality contains anything that actually makes the grade as a thing or object or substance. The Buddhist doctrine of ‘dependent origination’ suggests that nothing does. An alternative view is that only one thing does—the universe. On this view, Parmenides and a number of leading present-day cosmologists are right. There’s really only one A-Grade thing or object or substance: the universe. (Nietzsche and Spinoza agree that nothing smaller will do.)

At least under a neutral monist standpoint, the Buddhist Madhyamaka view could also be said to be loosely in agreement with Spinoza, allowing that sunyata (emptiness) is the single “substance.” Whether or not it qualifies as a substances seems to be a terminological point rather than a metaphysical point, as long as sunyata is neither discrete nor quantifiable, which I take to be one of the implications of Madhyamaka’s focus on the emptiness of emptiness: i.e., it’s misleading and spurious to say that “nothing exists.”

That said, the Buddhist notion of substance, svabhava, is distinctly different from the western notion of substance, so I will leave that to the experts to resolve. Jan Westerhoff’s excellent book Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka provides the clearest explanation of svabhava that I have read.

At any rate, I find that the evaluations of the cultural and linguistic forms into which consciousness and subjectivity have been shunted offer a lot as far as undermining both metaphysical and ontological received ideas. The continuities between vastly different traditions point out both recurring conceptualizations and recurring problems.

This approach offers a more rigorous alternative to the much-ballyhooed Object Oriented Ontology movement, which, as far as I can tell, takes many of the above questions in precisely the wrong direction by proposing a steroidal essentialism and yielding a Kripke-Heidegger Frankenstein monster. When Graham Harman writes–

For an object is to be defined not by its external efficacy, but rather by its internal reality. To be real is not to have an effect on something outside oneself, but simply this–to unify notes.

To offer another metaphor, we need a kind of subatomic or nuclear metaphysics, but one that probes the interiors of all sizes of objects, not just minute physical atoms.

The universe resembles a massive complex made up of numerous caverns, outer walls, alleyways, ladders, and subway systems, each sealed off from the others and defining its own space, but with points of access or passage filled with candles and searchlights that cast shadows into the next. The cosmos is similar to a rave party in some abandoned warehouse along the Spree in East Berlin, where the individual rooms are each surprisingly isolated from all external sources of music, flashing lights, perfumed odors, and dominant moods-but in which it is quite possible to move from one space to the next, and in which the doorways are always flooded with faint premonitions and signals of what is to come.

Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics

–I feel the monster’s cold, Gnostic breath on my shoulders and retreat to reverie.

Nagarjuna’s List of 119 Auspicious Mental Events

This list is given as part of a posited rebuttal to Nagarjuna’s position that mental events are without substance, part of the general theory of emptiness that is part of the Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy.

People who know the state of things have the 119 auspicious things in mind.

Thus the following are auspicious in one of their aspects: (1) cognition, (2) feeling, (3) discrimination, (4) volition, (5) touch, (6) attention, (7) aspiration, (8) devotion, (9) effort, (10) memory, (11) meditative stabilization, (12) wisdom, (13) equanimity, (14) practice, (15) complete practice, (16) attainment, (17) noble intention, (18) freedom from anger, (19) joy, (20) effort, (21) zeal, (22) connection with ignorance, (23) perseverance, (24) freedom from obstacles, (25) possession of power, (26) aversion, (27) absence of repentance, (28) grasping, (29) not grasping, (30) recollection, (31) firmness, (32) special adherence, (33) freedom from effort, (34) freedom from delusion, (35) freedom from exertion, (36) striving, (37) aspiration, (38) satisfaction, (39) being disjoint from the object, (40) being not conducive to liberation, (41) birth, (42) enduring, (43) impermanence, (44) possession, (45) old age, (46) utter torment, (47) dissatisfaction, (48) deliberation, (49) pleasure, (50) clarity, (51) grasping the discordant, (52) affection, (53) discordance, (54) grasping the concordant, (55) fearlessness, (56) reverence, (57) veneration, (58) devotion, (59) lack of devotion, (60) obedience, (61) respect, (62) lack of respect, (63) suppleness, (64) ebullience, (65) speech, (66) agitation, (67) attainment, (68) lack of faith, (69) lack of suppleness, (70) purification, (71) steadfastness, (72) gentleness, (73) repentance, (74) anguish, (75) confusion, (76) arrogance, (77) grasping the unfavorable, (78) doubt, (79) pure discipline, (80) inner serenity, (81) fear; moreover, there is (82) faith, (83) bashfulness, (84) rectitude, (85) being not deceived, (86) pacification, (87) being without fickleness, (88) conscientiousness, (89) kindness, (90) discriminating comprehension, (91) freedom from anger, (92) freedom from desire, (93) lack of self-infatuation, (94) lack of attachment, (95) lack of hatred, (96) lack of ignorance, (97) omniscience, (98) non-abandonment, (99) affluence, (100) modesty, (101) lack of concealment, (102) unobstructed intention, (103) compassion, (104) loving kindness, (105) non-discouragement, (106) absence of passion, (107) magical powers, (108) lack of attachment, (109) lack of envy, (110) a mind free from eradication, (111) patience, (112) renunciation, (113) lack of gentleness, (114) being in accordance with one’s resources, (115) merit, (116) attainment of the state of non-conception, (117) being conducive to liberation, (118) lack of omniscience, (119) uncompounded phenomena.

Nagarjuna’s Vigrahavyavartanı (The Dispeller of Disputes), tr. Jan Westerhoff

Westerhoff theorizes that the “inauspicious intruders” in the list were added later as part of a list of mental events of all types. It’s still a pretty fantastic list.

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