imposing categories—practical v. metaphysical


Widely in popular presentations of Buddhist thought, one hears that emptiness (śūnyatā) and the absence of essence (anātman) are deep, obscure, difficult teachings, profound and confusing, with authors and speakers then going on to something else supposedly more amenable to ordinary people with their immediate day to day concerns. At times the implication appears to be that the teachings of emptiness and absence of essence need not be understood in order to gain the practical benefits of meditation. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if it is being recommended that one actively avoid the ideas. Such a move evidences an intellectual elitism, and effectively serves as an open invitation to ignore the teachings of emptiness and the absence of essence. At first glance, this may look to be just another instance of good old American anti-intellectualism. But then, that fails to account for academic treatments that follow a similar course.

In his “Ethical Thought in Indian Buddhism,” (in A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, ed. Steven M. Emmanuel, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) Christopher W. Gowans imposes a distinction between metaphysical and practical, which appears in the following—

A partial explanation of the absence of such investigations [i.e., systematic theoretical investigation into the nature of ethical concepts and principles that is common in the Western philosophical tradition] is that Buddhist thought was always oriented towards a practical aim, overcoming suffering, and the wisdom that was thought to be necessary for achieving this aim was primarily a metaphysical rather than an explicitly practical wisdom: the realization that there is no self or that all things are empty of inherent existence. (432, insertion from 431)

Setting aside the questionable assertion that the aim of Buddhist thought was always overcoming suffering, and not awakening, the semiotic opposition between metaphysical and practical immediately suggests that metaphysical is impractical.Yet, if—as Gowans indicates and as seems accurate to me—it is insight into the teachings of emptiness and absence of essence that are necessary for achieving the overcoming of suffering awakening, then what could possibly be more practical?

Aside: We should also note the historical and cultural contingency of the opposition of the categories of practical and metaphysical, and ask whether they are appropriate for Buddhist thought.

It has, however, long seemed odd to me that emptiness and the absence of essence are treated as somehow mysterious, difficult, obscure. They are in fact, the most obvious characteristic of our immediate experience—nothing that exists is unchanging. Right there in front of your face, in your immediate daily very practical experience is this truth. What could be simpler, what could be more obvious? What could be more practical?

2 thoughts on “imposing categories—practical v. metaphysical

  1. Hi Richard, thank you for this post.
    One of my first introductions to Buddhism was a series of lectures by Prof. David Eckel (quite good by the way), which included a track on the doctrine of Emptiness. He begins the lecture stating that “this most difficult Mahayana concept…one that I’ve spent most of my adult life studying…is perhaps the most profound and challenging religious concepts in the world–one that if you can grasp or just get a taste of, will help not just with the basic categories of Buddhism, but lots of other categories in life in a radical way…”.
    Ah, if I could have but a taste of it!
    I agree with you; so simple, obvious and practical; and one that for some time I made unnecessarily difficult. It just seems to me that one would have to be carrying some pretty heavy mystical baggage to think otherwise.
    Thanks again,

  2. Interesting post, thanks.

    I agree that it is somewhat puzzling that emptiness is often presented as so difficult to understand that we should not even discuss it. In some sense, it seems quite obvious. On the other hand, our conceptual categories are powerful–and it is very difficult to avoid the assumption that what is constructed is not “real,” and the only thing “really real” is what those constructed thing are made up of (atoms, human nature, neurons, whatever). This is why social constructionism is so frightening even to otherwise quite intelligent philosophers, historians, anthropologists, etc.

    In the field of LIterature, everyone “knows” that a poem or a novel is a historical artifact, a product of its time and place, an intervention in some particular discourse or ideology; and then, everyone proceeds in the very next breath to explain the universal and timeless human truths that are the “deep” meaning we must find in the text, if it is to be considered worth reading at all.

    Conceptual cagetegories are the hardest thing to reflect on critically. Often because they construct the ways we do our reflecting: All that metaphysical and theoretical stuff is not crucial to the on-the-ground practical work of helping people, so we can put that off until after all the problems have been solved.

    You seem to have posted a number of reflections on this isssue (some are listed as “related” posts under this one). I hope it is part of a project you are working on?


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