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How do you understand the distinction between conceptual and non-conceptual experience? And what role, if any, does this play in your practice?


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17. From Ethics to Epistemology



Suffering is not to be ended; suffering is to be embraced. This is the fundamental tenet of secular dharma.


The two seminars today will focus on the core distinction between the a task-based ethics which seeks a path of human flourishing, which starts with the embracing of suffering (four tasks), and a truth-based metaphysics, which seeks to bring suffering to an end which starts by understanding its origin (four noble truths).


The epistemological turn describes the movement in the history of Buddhism when the four tasks turned into the four truths.


I think it possible that these two versions of the dharma began diverging during Gotama’s lifetime, the task-based ethics being the frame for those living and working in the world, the truth-based metaphysics the frame for renunciant monastics. Since only the monastic version has come down to us, this is what is now considered to constitute “Buddhism”.


My view is that Gotama himself did not elaborate a metaphysical theory about what caused suffering, but was only concerned with how we can respond ethically to suffering by embracing it, letting go of the reactivity it triggers, coming to rest in nirvana stillness, then embarking on a way of life.


From a fairly early date, for those who followed the truth model, ignorance rather than craving began to be understood as the root cause of dukkha. (An early theory of ignorance as the cause of suffering is found in Suttanipata 728 seq.)


Although ignorance (avijja) is not even mentioned in the Buddha’s first three discourses, it appears consistently as the first link of the twelve links of dependent origination, thus serving as the origin of life itself, including craving and suffering.


Yet on three or four occasions in the suttas, we find what appear to be earlier versions of the 12 link theory, where ignorance is absent. The links then start with consciousness and namarupa.


In all Buddhist orthodoxies, the four noble truths are presented as the framework for the twelve links: understanding how ignorance gives rise to suffering and how by eliminating ignorance suffering can be brought to an end.


In this way, the entire project of the path has to do with epistemology. We suffer because of an epistemological error — we take what is impermanent for permanent etc. To end suffering therefore means to correct that epistemological error so that we understand things “as they really are.”


Exactly why this should be so is not explained. It is an unquestioned article of Buddhist faith.


The goal of traditional Buddhist monastic training therefore is to reach unwavering certainty about the nature of Truth.


But Buddhists do not agree about what truth is ….


When the Dalai Lama visited Switzerland in 1979, where I was studying as a Tibetan Buddhist monk at the time, he used the occasion to share his current thinking on how Buddhism should be introduced to a modern audience. Rather than follow the traditional Tibetan approach in first presenting guru devotion, renunciation or buddhanature, he thought it best to begin with the doctrine of Ultimate and Conventional Truth. Once this philosophical perspective was established, he said, the next step would be to introduce the Four Noble Truths. Together, these would provide a rational foundation for then taking refuge in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and thereby becoming a Buddhist.


The Dalai Lama regarded the Nalanda tradition of textual study and debate, in which he had been educated, to be founded in logic and critical reason rather than unquestioning faith. The kind of enquiry pursued in this training possessed, for him, the rigor of scientific investigation. The approach is summed up in a verse attributed to Gotama, which is frequently cited by Gelug lamas:


Just as a goldsmith assays gold

By rubbing, cutting and burning,

So should you examine my words.

Do not accept them out of faith in me.


Here, it seemed, the values of the European enlightenment coincided with those of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Reason rather than scriptural authority would be the basis for our studies. This was the spirit in which I would pursue my quest for certainty.