'Munitz' concept of the world .. A Buddhist response

By Kenneth K. Inada
Philosophy East and West
Vol. 25

. p. 309 The challenge posed by Munitz' paper, "The Concept of the World,"(1) (all page references refer to this paper, unless indicated otherwise) is formidable, but inviting from the Eastern point of view. Few challenges of this nature have been met in the past, but now it is quite appropriate to engage in a serious East-West dialogue. The subject matter is just right and the presentation to the point. Although it would be presumptuous to expect definitive resolutions, the dialogue should hopefully open up new vistas and avenues of approach to the varied and persistent questions in and of metaphysics. Let me, first of all, commend Munitz for presenting a clear and concise analysis of a Western metaphysical position. We who represent Eastern traditions have thus an easy focal point on which to concentrate. This should make our dialogue that much simpler and easier to carry out. I for one see that he has left the door open for a fruitful exchange and I shall therefore set out to take the opportunity to pry open that door a little wider so that another vision of reality can be seen, experienced, and appreciated. The first major concurrence of Munitz and the Buddha is on the central issue of metaphysics itself. Munitz says: "Metaphysics as the study of Being attempts to discover, if it can, what Being is; but it cannot do so by studying the properties, however generic and widely shared these may be, of the multiplicity of entities or beings, the individual things or events that experience discloses" (p. 192). He will concentrate on Being rather than on beings and thus steer clear away from the "purely categoreal investigation" (p. 197) . And in developing his approach, he will treat the concept of Being as synonymous to "existence as a whole" or "the world" (p. 194). The Buddha has, from the very beginning, admonished those who would relish in system building and adhere to the extremes of existential and nonexistential elements.(2) That is to say, ill bids those who would treat life and death as if they were entifiable objects, or even subjects, and thereby surround these concepts with a host of tangible elements and build up a structure, nay a superstructure, of being. The approach is neither profitable nor fruitful (or conducive to the way to nirvaa.na as the Buddhist is wont to say) since, in the final analysis, it tends to stray away from "things as they are" (yathaabhuutam), that is, the real content of being.(3) As we all know, there is a place for objects of perception and of the mind, but these objects are not to be taken us independent entities, isolated and abstracted from the realm of the so-called existence as a whole. Thus the Buddhist would also refrain from being carried away by "purely categoreal investigation" of beings or entities as such. There is a second, and, perhaps more important, concurrence of ideas. This is best illustrated by Munitz' assertion of the existence of a paradox. The revelation and understanding of the paradox is very crucial to our dialogue. He states: p. 310 The asking of the question, "What is the world?" and the possible "answering" of it turn out to have certain paradoxical qualities associated with them. On the one hand the question, "What is the world?" is in some ways the most important and basic question that philosophy can ask; and yet there is no answer to it (p, 197). He goes on to say: One of the reasons there is no answer to it, is that philosophical analysis shows all one might do in ''answering" the question is to utter a tautology and say. "The world is the world," or else show that the very form of the question, by asking ostensibly for a definition, a description, or an identification, in the use of the "what" form of question, cannot, in the case of the world, be satisfied at all (pp, 197-198). And finally the significance of the paradox: On the one hand, one of the great values of philosophy is to have performed here the kind of analysis which, in forcing us to take apart our initial question, makes us see why it cannot be answered, and why in a certain sense it is an improper question and should not have been asked; at the same time, the very same analysis that accomplishes this dissolution of the question, this therapeutic lifting of a false hope and an intellectual snarl, also yields thereby the occasion for a deeper insight into what the world is (p. 198; italics his). In the same paragraph, he ends by saying that it is "an insight that shows a certain kinship with religious experience and mysticism" and that "we have an immediate awareness of its existence." First of all, it is regrettable that such a phrase as "religious experience and mysticism" has to be employed. I am sure Munitz feels the same here. We have been compelled and conditioned, if you will, to employ such a phrase because anything "external or outside" the realm of the ordinarily accepted epistemlogical process, which includes the logical or rational scheme of things, is rejected outright or dismissed as having no place or cogency. There has been a self-imposed limitation in the process from time immemorial. That is to say, our rational nature has subtly and "unconsciously" prejudiced against itself by not permitting unseen or intangible realms and entities to remain in the epistemological process. Rather, as we are now cognizant, the attention and focus have constantly been directed toward an ever-narrowing and limiting focus on the so-called elements of existence. We have been seeing the elements at the expense of the total landscape. Thus, in the paradox, Munitz has first called to attention the limitations of logic and language, that is, that the various schemata utilized fail, in the final analysis, to deal successfully with the nature and structure of beings. Yet, on the other hand, from the proper or rightful understanding of the limitations of that body of knowledge accrued from logic and language issues forth insight into the greater dimensions of Being. What Munitz is saying, in short, is that, as a philosopher cannot help but deal in metaphysical accounting of things, it p. 311 is precisely within the function and context of metaphysics that he must extricate himself from the very metaphysical entities exposed and move on to something beyond. Language and logic have added much to the descriptive and explanatory power in man but these remain in the nature of complementary and supplementary roles. Metaphysics should then go beyond in the nature of our understanding of the hyphenation, meta-physical. We must capitalize on this last statement. I believe there is no difficulty here in introducing the Buddhist view. The Buddhist has always maintained that man in his rational and metaphysical accounting of things is only presenting an aspect (anta), a fragment of total existence. Thus, man's consciousness or conceptual process is labeled as vij~naana, which literally means discriminative knowledge. Every corpus of knowledge, from the basic senses to the imaginative and speculative realm, is an instance of a process resulting from a basic bifurcation or dichotomization. The basis of that bifurcation is the very notion of a self-existing self(aatman) or a soul (jiiva) or a personal identity (pudgala). These notions refer to a fragmented status of existence and thus any fact or knowledge gained or originating from this status is already deficient or "tainted," as the Buddhist would say. What is more, the bifurcation takes on metalevel dimension in that, in very sophisticated ways, the mind continues to abstract and fragment upon what had already started as abstractions and fragmentations. For example, unsophisticated minds confuse the notions of atoms and subatomic particles with regard to reality. It is difficult to keep them as only models for understanding. In this situation, the idealistic claim that thought equals reality is hard to accept. The other side of the limitations of logic and language is the meaningful use of them. When one indulges in explaining either, the other side is also being clarified. Thus, for example, to know the limits of language is to know the full use of language, and vice versa, to use language meaningfully is to know the limits. In our discussion, Munitz, I believe, has illustrated this situation admirably in Sections II and III, respectively titled "The World as a Totality" and "The World as Individual." In them, he has demonstrated the limits of language and logic insofar as the treatment of Being is concerned. He has concluded with the inability of language to express the "final" status of the world. He asserts that the term, "the world," refers to a unique, irreducible and primitive idea; and he goes on to say that "to acknowledge, on the other hand, that there is an irreducible and primitive sense of the term, "the world," which cannot be constructed out of the single primitive idea of "an object in space and time," is to take a long additional step in the working out of an acceptable ontology" (p. 219). Further: we cannot treat the term "the world" in our present sense as any kind of referring expression, or descriptive expression. The existence of the totality of objects in space and time is not itself a totality or an individual, or indeed any other p. 312 normal or familiar type of concept. Another way of exressing this is to say that the world is transcendent (p. 220). Also, "the world is transcendent because it does not lend itself to description by other concepts, etc." (p. 228); yet. "we must be prepared to leave room for such a term as 'the world', although its 'logic' is so unique that none of our ordinary criteria will apply to it; that nevertheless this is precisely its character" (p. 221), The concept of "the world" is unique, not subject to application or reference to anything else, or not another element subject to a categorical analysis or classification. It is transcendent in the unique sense of being aloof to any referential nature, any logical construction, any language-game, in short, nonassimilative to any element within the contingent nature of things. This means that the concept of "the world" or Being has a totally different nature from that of beings, where the latter is amenable to a categorical scheme. The discussion, at this point, brings to question the Buddhist doctrine of the twofold nature of truths. On the one hand, there is the conventional or relative nature of truth (sa.mv.rti-satya), and on the other the nonconventional or supreme (unique) nature of truth (paramaartha-satya) Outwardly, they seem to suggest the Platonic division of appearance and reality, but there is more to it than that.(4) For the Buddhist, the whole realm of existence short of enlightenment (nirvaa.na) comprises the nature of conventional truths. This is the realm of sensuality, of perception, of reason, of logic, and of general intelligence. Yet, this is not enough for the Buddhist; he wants to strive for the ultimate goal, the realm of wisdom which is coextensive with the total realm of existence. In the conventional nature of truth, there is epistemological clarity and distinctness, to use Cartesian terms, but in the supreme nature of truth there is only ontological clarity in the sense of going beyond the merely clear and distinct ideas occurring in the mind. This latter I take it to be quite close, if not similar, to the sense of the "transcendent" that Munitz uses for "the world." Let us expand. First, to assert that there are two realms does not mean to say that these realms are absolutely and mutually exclusive; if anything, they are mutually inclusive in a very unique sense, that is, not in epistemological but ontological ways. Stated in another way, it is to say that the ontological realm governs or lies at the bottom of all epistemological functions. Consequently, it is permissible to assert that both the unenlightened and the enlightened exist in the same epistemological and ontological spheres and yet, paradoxical as it may seem, where the unenlightened cannot comprehend the nature of function of the enlightened, the latter can clearly comprehend the former. The former, in other words, remains with the constructed or created epistemological structures and elements, for example, a categorical scheme, and never experiences the total ontological sphere, though the former is in- p. 313 evitably in the latter. The latter, on the other hand, goes beyond these epistemological structures to the pure ontological facts of experience. But going beyond here does not mean abandonment or relinquishment; indeed, the epistemological elements are all there. The former is exclusivistic or abstractivistic, and the latter, inclusivistic. These terms, to be sure, are conventional terms but in the case of the second term, inclusivistic, the content of which will end in a paradoxical quality as was the case with Munitz in his search for the referring role or nature of "the world." It is difficult again to avoid the sense of the transcendent. The early Buddhist refers to the realm of conventional existence as lokiya. Literally, it means the world or realm of existence but only in the unenlightened sense, for, there is the other more important realm of existence known as lokuttara, literally, the realm that is beyond the merely conventional. Thus from the ordinary intellect's point of view, there seems to be a transcendent realm beyond the ordinary nature of things and from the enlightened standpoint, ordinary things are always deficient of reality. From the latter, all concepts in the conventional realm of existence must be characterized as pseudo or quasi-ontological. In this way then all facts or distinction derived in and from the conventional realm are in the makings of ignorance (avidyaa) and therefore in the nature of suffering (du.hkha) . The terms ignorance and suffering are generic terms relative and comparative to the true ontological nature of beings. They refer to the self-imposed or other-imposed falsely created elements which become obstacles or hindrances to clear (that is, ontological) perception. Thus, when the Buddhist talks of defilements (kle`sa), he is referring to any and all elements that obstruct or "taint" true knowledge. So long as we self-perpetuate this realm of existence there is seemingly no way out. Yet, within the conventional realm of existence there is a way out; that is, man must attempt to rightly view his true ontological situation. This is the basic message of the Middle Path. Munitz, I believe, has also taken a similar ontological stance on this matter, if not in content at least in spirit. Or, the door is left ajar for a fruitful exposition and exchange. In the final section, Munitz insightfully says: We do not start with the term "the world" and attempt to give it a definition, either verbal or ostensive, for no such ordinary definitional techniques are possible. It is rather the other way around. We have an awareness or experience of the world, and we call that of which we have this experience "the world" (p. 232). And thus, "the world is not used, it is had" (p. 232-233). I believe we are on the right track. We normally and unconciously a situation where there is an existent individual, that is, the subject, with initiates and becomes aware or experiences the world. As pointed out earlier, this is a basic ontological error in that bifurcation has already set in. Without p. 314 falling into that error, Munitz goes on to say that the world is transcendent without giving a positive description of it and that transcendence means "to employ a second-order term to express the fact that no first-order descriptive terms we should wish to apply to the world in attempting to give a satisfactory account of the world will in fact serve" (p. 233). One ought to be extremely careful not to revert to a metaphysical game that Munitz has been careful to avoid all along. The Buddhist, on the other hand, explains the situation by asserting that all categorical schemata, that is, metaphysical accounting, originates in the nature of the speculated concept called the self (aatman). Any "knowledge" derived from this premise only lies in the realm of conventional knowledge. There is no doubt about the "awareness and experience of the world" on this premise. However, the larger question is, whether perceptual process under this scheme will present the continuity, clarity, and vigor necessary for that experience to be even called that? In Munitz' analysis of the world as transcendent, the latter experience seems, at least to me, to be momentary, fragmentary, and a kind of on-and-off affair. This point has to be clarified. On the Buddhist side, precisely because the world that the existent individual or self (aatman) constructs is conventionally bound, there is nothing lasting, intense and clear. As stated earlier, this realm of existence is limited and in the nature of ignorance, that is, in reference to the sense of ontological clarity. It is the ontologically imperfect realm. As a consequence, the Buddhist answer will be that the ontologically perfect realm can be arrived at by taking an aloof position to all concepts, notions, elements, etc., which hinder all perceptions and experiences. And, seriously speaking, the notion of transcendence applied by Munitz to "the world" should be extended over to every conceivable item in the experiential process. This may be a strange way of speaking, but it should be a part of the mystery of existence, so aptly demonstrated by Munitz, but not only with reference to the world but more fundamentally to the "individual" in the making. If this is acceptable, then it is a small jump to understanding why the Buddhist postulates a nonself doctrine (anaatman) as the final and ultimate realm of existence. This ultimate realm of existence refers naturally to the nonconventional nature of things. We must pursue the issue further. What I am proposing here is that the concept of transcendence should be arrived at in an inclusive way. By this I mean to say that we should not only arrive at this experience from the "logical" route as demonstrated by Munitz but also set out to seek a more "open" and all-encompassing route, which gets at the core of the nature of being. So, paradoxical as the approach may seem, the nature of the end or goal (that is, transcendence) that we seek to understand must always be present in the means in which we are engaged, although the present state of understanding that we have of the perceptual process does not allow for the vision of this transcendent nature. The perceptual mechanism that we describe and relate is limited and self-restrictive. Its focus on the end p. 315 result has overshadowed, sometimes denied outright, the existence of the ever-present nascent nature or ontological content in any process. Thus, the transcendent nature felt by the individual should not be a nature coming as a goal or a final unique experience but rather as part and parcel of the individual's nature itself. It should be spontaneous in the way of self-revelation, self-assertion, and self-enjoyment. As can be seen in the earlier statements, there is no escape from the predicament of using terms which are objective or metaphysical in meaning and intent. Such terms as "self-restrictive, "self-revelation," "self-enjoyment," and "individual" are descriptive indicators and are not intended as referents to something objective or entifiable. They are intended rather to point at the central area in which true reality resides. That area is in our ordinary perceptual process, though we tend to veer away from it. Thus, first of all in analyzing the process, the Buddhist cannot postulate an abstract subject or an object, or both, prior to the process. There is no doer or a deed but only doing in the strictest sense. The process, from birth, is continual in the manner of total relational origination (pratiityasamutpaada) . This is the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness or momentary existence where life is a series of coming into being and going out of being and where the so-called creative origination occurs within a total relational field. It is popularly referred to as the Wheel of Life. The term, "being," used above does not refer to an enduring entity because the whole process is dynamic through and through. Yet, there is a matrix for that dynamic process. A structural analysis can be presented by way of the five "aggregates" of being (pa~ncaskandhaa) , (5) but they remain as vital components in the total perceptual process. In this analysis, again, there are no subjective or objective components as such, for any or all elements are mutually bound to each other and thereby implicate each other. The five aggregates are convenient, if not conventional, ways in which we can come to an understanding of the experiential process. They are not absolute elements. As the Buddhist would say, the becoming wheel (pratiityasamutpaada) reveals no beginning, no maker, no experiencer; it is void, never halts, for it is constantly spinning.(6) In the previous statement, there is one term which comes close to Munitz' concept of transcendence, that is, void. This term is technically known as `suunya or `suunyataa, in the abstract. It not only describes the true status of all elements in the process, conventionally speaking, but also advances the ontological state of being, nonconventionally or supremely speaking. But basically it is the realm of existence devoid of any characterization. Since nothing is relatable or assimilable in the ultimate sense and since the existential flow is a fact, the Buddhist concludes that all must be in the nature of voidness or emptiness or suchness. This is the Buddhist ontological principle. There are other terms similarly used in Buddhism, for example, tathataa (thatness) and dharmataa (true state of all elements). The knowledge and sustainment of the supreme realm is naturally the goal in Buddhism. The term nirvaa.na is used for p. 316 that achievement, and the achiever is known as a buddha (enlightened) or even a bodhisattva (enlightened being). When Munitz speaks of the "act of transcendence" in which man knows the world differently and uniquely (p. 233), I am reminded greatly of the concept of bodhisattva. The crucial question now is, how does one go about achieving the nirvaa.nic realm of existence? This is, of course, the central quest of all Buddhists. The answer usually presented in the texts is to follow the eightfold Noble Path, that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. There is no time to elaborate on these steps, but suffice it to say that, in essence, the Noble Path means to rightly understand the state of universal suffering and to work toward liberation (mok.sa, nirodha) by means of right meditative discipline (`samathavipa`syanaa). Since it is so difficult to understand the true nature of suffering, meditation becomes a hollow thing for most of us. As stated earlier, the Buddhist concept of suffering strikes at the core of ontological nature of being. As to the concept of meditation, most people do not know its real intent and purpose. Some seek external help just as in prayers offered or hope for a miraculous event to occur, and some earnestly attempt to discover "secret" powers within oneself. Real Buddhist meditation is, in principle, to secure the nature of the whole man by having his potential nature be what it is without the usual clutterings or hindrances ruling over him. It is to exhibit the "unity," "totality," "wholesomeness," etc., without searching for a basis for them. The goal is the unique and proper function of being qua being. Consequently and paradoxically, suffering (du.hkha) and nirvaa.na are only two sides of the same reality of being. I have thus concluded with just a few basic comparative notions in both Munitz and Buddhism, hoping to widen the door of approach in viewing the transcendent nature of the world. Much needs to be explored in the dialogue, and I welcome any responses to the above. NOTES 1. Milton K. Munitz, "The Concept of the World," in Language, Belief, and Metaphysics, Volume I of Contemporary Philosophic Thought: The International Philosphy Year Conferences at Brockport (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1970), pp. 190-235. 2. This is the admonition expounded in the famous Middle-Path Doctrine. Samyutta-Nikaaya, III, 134-135. Pali Text Society Translation Series, The Book of Kindred Sayings, Part III, pp. 3. There should be no difficulty here in accepting Munitz' use of Being for my use of being. Both terms are devoid of any separate or independent status of anything. 4. Indeed, a comparative study of Platonism and Buddhism would be an awesome project but one that must be carried out in the near future. Both philosophies have existed nearly the same period of time and have influenced the minds of peoples of the leading European and Asian civilizations. p. 317 5. The five "aggregates" of being are ruupa (corporeal nature), vedanaa (general feeling or sensitivity) , sa.mj~naa (primitive imagery) , sa.mskaara (play of imagery) , and vij~naana (discriminative knowledge). The essential point is to see the "aggregates" in terms of genetic and continuous functions. They begin with simple nature or feelings and end up in sophisticated and even abstract contents. 6. Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa; Chapter XVII, 576. Bhikkhu ~Naanamoli Translation, The Path of Purification, pp. 666f. (Colombo, Ceylon: R. Semage, 1956).