On Timothy Morton, Je Tsongkhapa, and David Bohm: touching “suchness”
It’s been a while since I posted here. The mood has to come upon me, I guess. I’ve been reading an awful lot. Thupten Jinpa’s book on Tsongkhapa, Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, Ivakhiv’s Ecologies of the Moving Image, bits and pieces of Mark Lussier (on Blake), and Brian Massumi. It’s all ecophilosophy, isn’t it? Today I’m thinking mostly about Morton. I’m not quite ready for a full response, but there’s stuff milling around in my mind.
Morton takes up the idea of the aesthetic, I think as it’s been raised by the process-relational camp (Massumi, Shaviro, maybe Bennett, maybe Braidotti) but reads it through deconstruction and speculative realism. I also notice a strong flavor of Tsongkhapa here: when Morton posits that causality and the aesthetic are indivisible, it echoes Je Rinpoche’s idea that the world of appearance definitely has some sort of existential status, but one that’s interdependent and not to be analyzed. It may not be “really” real, but one doesn’t want to denigrate or negate it, because that would be nihilistic. Morton takes pains to remind us that postmodern “cynical distance” is just wrong – because there’s no distance at which to stand, and because things aren’t illusions of language or mere concepts.
This actually seems to be part of Morton’s critique of process-relations – that it goes too aesthetic, so that all there seems to be is possibility and creativity, the “flow of the self.” Morton directs us to take notice of hyperobjects, precisely because they’re not “infinity” but vast finitudes. (I can’t help trying to figure out what Spinoza – who critiqued the Cartesian notion of substance that Morton also targets – would make of this). Maybe later. What I want to ponder for a moment right now is the “mystic” experience that Morton sees as slightly insidious to ecological thought.
Morton gives us thought experiments, and some pretty good ones, about non-locality and weird time. When one meditates, it’s not a thought experiment, though. Let’s describe it. One feels a kind of expansion, mainly in the frontal lobe, but really all through the brain. It is accompanied by a blissful feeling, and a definite increase in the “luminosity” of awareness. There is also, unmistakably, a sound. One could call it the sound of silence, but it’s really quite an extraordinary sound. To listen to it is to feel the bliss intensify, and that very intensification is sound of what I can only describe as the hum of bare life, or the ceaseless interchange of everything with everything else. One can’t really speak of matter as distinct from energy, here. One can’t say it’s just energy, because it’s so palpable, so experiential. Indeed, if the mind grows sufficiently absorbed, one can very clearly see infinite infinitesimals dancing a kind of patternless pattern in the air. Should one still call it air if it’s filled with such flowing creation-destruction? So, I think this is what indigenous cultures refer to as spirit or the sacred. One has to qualify that, immediately, with Tsongkhapa’s thorough rejection of any sort of underlying intelligence, spirit, or mind as the metaphysical basis for reality – or, as that which truly exists. Apparently, one can only know it actively, through attention. To try to know it conceptually is not to know it but to reify it – it is to be grossly inattentive to it, which is a shame. So, we have to discriminate between the act of attention (which Tsongkhapa calls “cognizing”) and the act of knowing, which is actually unknowing, or ignorance. I think it’s on this basis that Tsongkhapa warns about the stupidity of just resting in a blank, reflective, non-intellectual mind. Shamatha (calm abiding) needs to happen simultaneously with Vipassanā (penetrating insight). Still, I’m not convinced that Vipassanā is necessarily a state of analysis, so much as one of sharp attention. In other words, when the mind is not knowing (falling back on habitual preconceptions), then it must be highly attentive. In that sense, the danger is coming to know (or be too comfortable with) the warm fuzzy feeling of meditative absorption. Tsongkhapa says it will not clear away our unknowing, or our basic ignorance, which is the root of of suffering.
I think, as intellectuals, we need to look more carefully into the living experience of meditation. Why does the sense of self seem to change, and how to describe that change? It seems to be some sort of subtle shift. Material reality becomes both more vivid and less “real” – as one approaches nearer to the threshold of sheer life, sensing the active interrelations that (neither energy nor matter, but somehow both?) furiously at work, one experiences a sense of living interconnectedness or interrelationship, what one might call an ecological “inter-being” rather than a solid self. To me, that makes sense: one can’t have both at the same time, a living sense of interrelationship and a solid sense of self or identity. Indeed, the former is an antidote to the latter. To experience interrelationship is to relax the need for grasping at the world, because the active experience of relationship is an antidote to the insecurity that makes us cling to forms of existence (ideologies, institutions). When I talk to friends and neighbors who are extreme skeptics, I notice not only the pain they’re in over the state of the world and the utter hypocrisy of human beings, but their unwillingness to be content with what Morton (like Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) calls warm and fuzzy feelings of compassion. So, it really seems necessary to get directly to this non-dual wisdom – and to encounter it as an experience, so that doubt (and with doubt, fear, hatred, fixed opinions, a strong sense of “you” and “me,” not to mention a terrible fear of death) subsides. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often talks of the need to study, reflect, and meditate to eventually develop a firm conviction, and deep confidence, in the intimate relationship between emptiness and appearance, or in the fact that the self does not exist in the way it seems to exist. Thought, after all, is precisely what doesn’t want to end – yet precisely that which makes us insecure, giving us concepts and ideas to cling to, which are always fragmentary, and which always impede attention and relationship. As David Bohm – in dialogue with J. Krishnamurti (in The Ending of Time) – explored, thought is time, and time is knowledge. In other words, thought isn’t relationship.
Interestingly, Tsongkhapa doesn’t want us to call this “suchness” (or this very active cognition of emptiness in meditation) buddha nature. According to Jinpa, he’s ok with linking it to “clear light,” but apparently not if we view this clear light as a metaphysical ground or essence. Anyway, in other traditions – Tibetan Buddhism, and maybe some indigenous traditions – the point is not just to theorize or change the way we think, but to actually experience compassion at a “depth” (or flat ontology) of interrelations. Are any western intellectuals calling for that? (Did Deleuze?) Dare we?