The view from somewhere and the new ecumenism

by Winton Higgins

— this is based on a talk given to Bluegum Sangha in Sydney, Australia on 17 April 2012


When I checked the Bluegum Sangha website on Sunday to see what I was supposed to be doing tonight, I saw I was to give a dharma talk instead of my usual gig these days, sutta study. So I wondered what to talk about. Then I noticed that in three weeks’ time the veteran insight teacher Victor von der Heyde is scheduled to perform a duet for us with the local Uniting Church minister, Michael Barnes, who knocked the socks off us when he last spoke here.

Now there’s something to talk about! That, and what such a dialogue exemplifies: a new ecumenism that goes beyond the old inter-faith routines where we explored our differences and similarities and decided to tolerate each other. That routine typically involved us semaphoring sweet-nothings to each other from our respective fortresses of Revealed Truth. The same fortresses from which we used to exchange fire in more sectarian times (and some still do).

In the new ecumenism we often find our fortresses melting into thin air, and then we also find ourselves on the same page (to change the metaphor) because we’ve shredded our respective old pages which contained our divergent truth-claims.

An important cultural and philosophical shift is going on here, one we need to get our heads around.


The Buddha rejects the metaphysical view from nowhere
Let’s start with the Buddha’s rejection of metaphysics in a parable familiar to most of you, from the shorter discourse to Mālunkyāputta:

Suppose a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends brought a surgeon to treat him. And suppose the man were then to say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; until I know whether the man who wounded me was tall or short or of medium height; until I know whether the man who wounded me was dark or brown or golden skinned; until I know whether the man who wounded me lives in such a village or town or city; until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; until I know whether the bowstring that wounded me was fibre or reed or sinew or hemp or bark; until I know whether the shaft that wounded me was wild or cultivated; until I know with what kind of feathers the shaft that wounded me was fitted – whether those of a vulture or a crow or a hawk or a peacock or a stork; until I know what kind of arrow it was that wounded me – whether it was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or oleander.’

All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die. So, too, if anyone should say: ‘I will not lead the spiritual life under the Buddha declares to me, ‘the world is eternal’ etc., that would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.

If there is the view ‘the world is eternal’ etc, the spiritual life cannot be lived. Whether or not the view ‘the world is eternal’ etc. is valid or not, there is birth, there is ageing, there is death, there are sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair, the cure for which I prescribe here and now.

The Buddha’s rejection of metaphysical starting points – all those ‘revealed’ truth-claims and certitudes – is clear. His rejection chimes well with today’s ‘post-metaphysical’ thought, something I’ll return to. Someone finds herself in a predicament, so deal with that! It’s more of a paramedic’s view than a metaphysician’s or a theologian’s.

Since we’re all embedded in our own predicaments all of the time and have no choice but to respond to them, the Buddha is suggesting we think and act from that vantage point, instead of distracting ourselves with ‘the view from nowhere’, as Thomas Nagel puts it in his book Mortal questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979). In his words:

The attempt is made to view the world not from a place within it, or from the vantage point of a special kind of life or awareness, but from nowhere in particular and no form of life in particular at all.

The view from nowhere pretends to be the detached view, that of objective truth-telling. The supreme irony is that it is the viewpoint of religious and other dogmas, the view that needs to be objectively correct, a place of furious (often murderous) attachment. This idea of truth casts a shadow of domination and violence, as Hannah Arendt, Gianni Vattimo and many others point out. See for instance, Arendt, quoted on p12 of A farewell to truth by Gianni Vattimo (Columbia University Press, 2011).

Those who couldn’t resist the Q&A debate on ABC-TV eight nights ago between über-atheist Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell, on whether God exists, would have seen what an unedifying and endlessly repetitive spectacle that conflict over objectivist truth-claims sets up. The abandonment of such truth-claims, in contrast, allows for constructive ecumenical dialogue, like the one I’m sure we’ll hear in three weeks’ time.


Our views keep us stuck

As we’ve seen many times, the Buddha saw views (ditthi) – including view-from-nowhere truth-claims – as a big obstacle to insight and spiritual practice as a whole. That’s part of the message in the sutta quoted above. Just how big an obstacle can be seen from his pointed memoir, in the discourse on The noble search about his inner conflict over whether to teach or not, immediately after his awakening experience:

I considered: ‘This dharma I have reached is deep, hard to see, difficult to awaken to, quiet and excellent, not confined by thought, subtle, sensed by the wise. But people love their place [alaya]: they delight and revel in their place. It is hard for people who love, delight and revel in their place to see this ground [idam tthanam]: the this-conditioned [ida paccayata], conditioned arising [paticcasamuppada]. And also hard to see in this ground: the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all bases, the fading away of craving, desirelessness, stopping, nirvana. Were I to teach the dharma and others were not to understand me, that would be tiring and vexing for me.

This is from Stephen Batchelor’s translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Note how he draws such a stark contrast between ‘place’ and ‘ground’. ‘Their place’, that people are fatally attached to, includes their world views, their sense of knowing a knowable universe and their place in it, their familiar truth-claims. Their attachment here almost convinces the new Buddha to despair about teaching from an entirely different reality construct, one he calls ‘this ground’.

In a move typical of him, the Buddha here snitches a key term, ‘ground’ or ‘ground of being’ (tthanam) from the ascendant Brahmanical tradition of his time: it presented Brahma (or God) as the ground of being. This was one of many takes on ‘substance ontology’, a subset of the view from nowhere and its truth-claims. This still-dominant idea proposes that a permanent something or someone substantiates (sub-stantia, Latin for ‘stands under’, supports) our phenomenal world: for theists it’s God, for idealists it’s Spirit, for materialists it’s matter, and in between are all those who’ve proposed atoms, water etc. etc. that ultimately supports the world we know, secures its existence, its reliability, and thus constitutes the ultimate truth about it.

But the Buddha’s ‘ground’ dumps this whole substance idea in favour of dependent arising. Everything is in flux – the effect, and in its turn the cause, of a shifting, contingent reality; there is no substance underpinning it at all – it is impermanent and not-self. Announcing essentially the same insight, Shakespeare in The tempest has Prospero refer to ‘this insubstantial pageant…[that] leaves not a rack behind.’


The view from somewhere (and someone)
This contingency-based mindset opens up the possibility of our deeply understanding the process of our existence – including our ethical responsibilities – by grounding them in our own immediately accessible experience, without the distractions of second-hand metaphysical truth-claims.

Let’s listen to the Buddha performing another of those conceptual snitches from Brahmanism, one of whose working concepts was/is ‘the All’ (sabba), meaning the entire phenomenal world, which was the expression of the ultimate ‘All’, Brahma himself. Of course, this is just a variation on the ‘substance ontology’ I mentioned a moment ago. In radical contrast, here’s the Buddha in his Discourse on the All:

Practitioners, I will teach you the All. Listen to this.

And what is the All? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile sensations, the mind and thoughts. This is called the All.

If anyone should say: ‘I reject this All, I shall make known another All’ – that would be a mere empty boast. If that person were questioned s/he would not be able to reply and, further, would meet with vexation. Because that All would not be within her/his domain [i.e., experience].

The last bit reiterates the Buddha’s sense that metaphysical truth-claims are mischievous obstructions. But the positive teaching that comes before it announces a view from somewhere and someone – be it the man with the arrow stuck in his flesh, or you or me at a particular time, in a particular predicament, facing a particular ethical dilemma, and paying attention.

Today this teaching would put the Buddha in a particular modern philosophical camp, phenomenology. In fact, the brief Discourse on the All works pretty well as a modern phenomenological manifesto. It makes clear that the dharma is a situated first-person discourse, not a detached one voiced from nowhere. It thus brings the Buddha into a relation with the main figure in this school, Martin Heidegger, who announced the end of metaphysics and made a concept of being-there (Dasein, which could also be rendered as ‘being-here’) the centrepiece of his analysis of the human condition, of our engaged and embedded agency, in his 1927 classic, Being and time.

Heidegger’s subsets of being-there include being-in-the-world, being-one’s-self, being-with-(others), and being-towards-death, on which he bases an ethic of authenticity – deciding and acting from our actual situation as finite beings, in our ‘average everydayness’ (not the view from nowhere), in aid of what we really care about, what actually concerns us. These are matters of great significance for all of us who think in post-metaphysical terms, far from the hue and cry of competing truth-claims.

Not surprisingly, then, Heidegger and his ethic of authenticity have profoundly influenced Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich and John Macquarrie (an important translator of Being and time), and Christian philosophers such as Charles Taylor and Gianni Vattimo. [See Taylor, ‘Engaged agency and background in Heidegger’ in Charles Guignon (ed.) The Cambridge companion to Heidegger; and Vattimo, After Christianity (New York & Chichester: Columbia University Press), and A farewell to truth.] Nor is it surprising to find his influence in the first two identifiable works of today’s secular Buddhism: Ñanavīra Thera’s Clearing the path of 1965, and Stephen Batchelor’s Alone with others: An existential approach to Buddhism of 1983.


In sum
Of course, other inspirations might lead us to abandon truth-claims, and what I’ve been talking about are merely the leading edges of Christianity and Buddhism, those that support what I’m calling the new, post-metaphysical ecumenism. The mainstreams of these traditions continue to base themselves in magical and metaphysical belief systems, appeals to revealed truths that seem ever less plausible in a secular culture. These mainstreams thus have distinct disadvantages today: they contribute incoherent elements to our understandings of our actual forms of life; they divide us, with potentially violent consequences; and their often rigid moral codes muddy the already complex ethical waters we must navigate as self-responsible moral agents who care about others and the consequences of our actions.

Christians, Buddhists and others who want to leave this morass behind have a lot to talk about.


Many of the ideas expressed here are a response to Stephen and Martine Batchelor’s teachings in Australia in 2010 and 2012.


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