The Basic Error of Western Thought:
Final or absolute reality is conceptually based
The dream of a final, scientifically based explanation of reality and God has displaced and concealed the authentic contemplative means to attain true understanding.
The Basic Error of Western Thought
1. The belief that final or ultimate reality is conceptually based and calculable
2. The fundamental change in methodology from contemplation to calculation
Error 1. Ultimate knowing must be based on truth having the validity of scientific fact which can be stated in a proposition
Science projects the dream that in each area of inquiry, when all relevant information ultimately becomes available, we will be able to assemble a final theory that will explain or describe reality objectively. Metaphysics has taken this over as the project of philosophy. What is reality? How did it come about? What is the God that exists eternally throughout all the past and all the future? Or, what is the substratum and structure of all material reality? The very fact that we formulate the question already presupposes that there is an answer. The hidden dream of Western philosophy is to state that culminating proposition and come up with the formulation of reality, which is unchangeable and absolute. We will then have arrived!
This project has been a miserable failure. Like a mirage in the desert, this eternally true formulation always disappears as we approach it. Indeed, much of modern philosophical endeavor is about destroying this delusion. Science and scientism, the intellectual tendency out of which the question took form, also contributed to the demise, because looking for this God in a context of scientific or historical veracity becomes absurd. But the real problem is not that “God” does not exist, it is that the West has been looking for “Him” out there in the objective universe. When Nietzsche says, “God is dead,” he adds, “We killed him off.” We killed him off by selling our soul to the perspective of objective science — its all inclusive powers of understanding, and its child, materialism, which is the belief that everything is materially determined and that the objective laws of this determination are knowable and can be formulated and stated in a final form.
Any theory or body of information is conceptually based and always expressed in some linguistic formulation. That conceptual base is always relative. Martin Heidegger showed that there is no stated truth of Being, only a great evolving story, which is expressed by the world history of the thought of Being and its theoretical articulation. Being evolves through the relative ways in which it is thought. The unfolding conceptualization of Being throughout Western history is, in one sense, according to Heidegger, the nature of Being: its foundational nature however is never to be known through conceptualization, but only to be contemplated. Restoring this capacity to the West was Heidegger’s great project.
Error 2. The fundamental change in methodology from contemplation, the disciplined observation of consciousness, to calculation or reasoning about the nature of reality
The erroneous dream of Western thought described above is based in the loss of the capacity for the disciplined observation of consciousness, once known as contemplation. The West has totally lost this capacity, though it existed richly in the pre-Christian Western mystery schools and to some extent into the early Christian era. Contemplation is the central discipline of the great Asian religions, but the hegemony of Western thought and the perspectives of science have largely stamped it out.
For contemplation, looking at consciousness and looking at emptiness are basically the same. This seems absurd to the Western mind. Therefore, everything in the ancient and Asian world that is based in contemplation is incomprehensible.
What Husserl and Heidegger essentially did with the discovery and development of phenomenology was to begin to open the possibility and lay the groundwork for a radical return of Western thought to authentic contemplation. Phenomenology shifts our gaze, which is fixed, on what-is (objectively) and its description or explanation in propositions, to what primordially shows itself and reveals itself. Our crude and misleading word for this is “consciousness,” which is basically misunderstood to be one entity among the things of reality, and which science regards as irrelevant because it cannot be quantified. The difficulty Westerners have had with Husserl, and particularly the notorious obscurity of Heidegger’s formulations, is precisely because we in the West have lost this capacity for contemplation. In order to achieve the basic skill of phenomenology to observe what primordially shows itself, while it is simply the actual way we primordially apprehend reality, seems to us impossibly difficult. The language Heidegger evolved in order to describe this view seems opaque to the point of being ludicrous.
We relate to forms created in the mind through thought processes. This is very different from gazing directly into consciousness. Two expressions from Asia which describe this gaze point up the absurdity of the Western misunderstanding: contemplating the navel and the third eye.
Contemplating the navel is not sitting and staring at the opening in the base of your belly. It refers to the hara or d’antien, the state produced by the experience of focusing awareness upon the internal sensation in the lower center of the body, four finger widths below the navel. It is experience which has a focus, but no object. This is not object directed empiricism, but stilled, internal sensation which occurs by holding awareness of that area in the field of the inner body. With practice, directing inner awareness to the dark emptiness of the internal hara permits a focus that is stable and without thought. Yet, if one can sustain this internal gaze it becomes clear that one is looking into the dark silent center of consciousness out of which all that is perceived and thought, indeed pure power emerges. So it is like looking into the kernel of energy from which the universe is created in a moment-to-moment silent big bang. To take this into a calculation and determine metaphysically that this is the ultimate truth is to take the wrong direction. The Zen Master would strike you a blow. Simply stay in the calm abiding awareness. At rest in this silence, the source begins to reveal itself. This is radically empirical, meaning that it is experiential but not the experience of “real” objects or their causal relations.
The “third eye” is that inner directed awareness that sees and observes consciousness and its processes. It contrasts with the physical eyes that perceive the visible world, the grounding reality of empirical and material consciousness. Like the navel, the third eye is an external figure used as a metaphor for the capacity to observe objectless consciousness. Yet once this seeing is trained to remain stable and unswerving, what it sees is the ground of all experience. This is eternal, not in the sense that it has been and will be forever objectively present, but in the sense that it is always present to experience. It is, in fact, the precondition of any experience.
You cannot know the absolute or God in the past or future, you can only have a present concept about it as an entity existing in the past or future. No matter how your faith dictates that you believe it, this is all just a story, subject
to the relative mind, its r
eferences, and its error. The bad news for those who want to reason it out conceptually is that the existence of an everlasting God, what comes to be known as divine, can only really be experienced, contemplated in the present. The brilliance of Zen is that there is no story. The good news is that those who know how to contemplate this present as a presence have no need whatsoever for proofs of the existence of God. To them, the “nature of God” comes in time to reveal itself and requires no explanation or justification. What we call the true nature of God is in fact a state in which consciousness apprehends itself.
The difference between contemplation and calculation is delineated by Heidegger in one of his later essays, Was Heisst Denken? (“What is called thinking?” or, alternatively, “What calls up thinking?”) Heidegger understood that we can only look directly into Being in the present, observing presencing, a systematic form of contemplation which came out of the method of phenomenology. This perspective tries to focus on what shows itself and how it reveals itself by “bracketing out” or looking beyond what-is or what is real or any explanation whatsoever. In the course of his endeavors, after many wrong turns, Heidegger determined that we can do this by direct contemplation (phenomenological ontology and its later derivative attitudes) or by looking into the root ways that language brings Being forth (Heidegger’s idiosyncratic use of the German language and study of seminal Greek words).
Had Heidegger turned his view towards Sanskrit, he would have found all of this in a most rarified and sophisticated form. After completing my study of Heidegger, in Europe, I had the great honor and pleasure of studying the Upanishads for two years as Senior Research Fellow in Banaras Hindu University at the Center for the Advanced Study of Philosophy. I discovered that Heidegger’s bridge into a more contemplative approach to Being leads into a deeper understanding of the Sanskrit tradition. Much of what Heidegger was discovering was already well established in many of the traditions and schools of Indian thought and of the greater Asian (Buddhist and Taoist) tradition.
The Upanishads are the very perfection of what Heidegger in his later thought called dichterisch Denken, “poetic (dense) thought.” Most of Indian thought is a reflection on these ancient poems of Being, written in commentaries. Coming to contemplative understanding through a kind of archeology of language reaches its fulfillment in the ancient study of Sanskrit called “Nirukta”. Western scholars think of Nirukta as a form of etymology, but this perverts its real intention into Western scientific categories. The Nirukta is in fact a very sophisticated process of deriving Sanskrit words back into the roots of consciousness from which they came. However, this is not for the purpose of understanding objectively the historical evolution or structure of the language, but rather to illuminate Being (or how our consciousness shows itself forth as Being). It is an elaborate and sophisticated aid to contemplation, as indeed are all the great renewals of thought in the Sanskrit tradition. It keeps revising itself in the absolute necessity of remaining pure in contemplation and not degenerating into mere philosophizing. It is only Western minds (and Indian minds that try to legitimize themselves in terms of Western philosophy) that turn the contemplative treasures of India into hypotheses and propositions about the nature of reality. As the Buddha said, “Such questions do not fit the case.”
Contemplation is of course not observing a tabula rasa. Emptiness is no blank slate on which the mind and its calculations are projected, rather the contemplation proceeds deeper and deeper into the source, the absolute and simple giving forth of all that is. (This is expressed in the German words for “There is x.” Es gibt x actually means “It gives x.”) The giving forth is the moment-to-moment creating of reality. But as soon as the experience of the source gets articulated, the habit of mind by which the West latches onto its first fundamental error, the dream of an explanation, is once again, infernally, set in motion.
During the eighteenth century Enlightenment Western intellectuals came to dream that reason, calculation, could lead to genuine happiness. Our attempts in this direction have not produced happiness. Though the benefits of technology have created the space for happiness to happen, the dream has basically failed. No, reason and calculation do not lead to happiness, but genuine contemplation can lead to bliss.