Donnerstag, 26. Juni 2014

Transcendence in Indian Thought

I've written this little essay for Dominik Wujastyk's brilliant lecture "Historical Introduction to Yoga philosophy and Early Indian Traditions of Meditation" and I've got to say it helped me quite a lot to find a stance towards Indian thought. As - I think - many do nowadays, I've always felt quite attracted to "Indian" thought (I am aware of how broad a term that is), sometimes even felt rather intimidated by the more radical concepts of Nirvana and so forth. But I think I have found something, where I do defer from what Indian thought aims for and I've tried to express this in this little essay...very short summary: that our modern societies might be able to think even closer to immanence than the ancient Indian.
This could fill books. See it as a starting point. I'll for sure come back to that.


Transcendence in Indian Thought

Quite often Indian thought or teachings are characterised as philosophies or theologies of immanence.
"Our" Occidental tradition with a strong heritage of the three major monotheisms Judaism, Christianity and Islam have always been strongly leaning towards a thinking of transcendence. A good and heavy-weighted example is Plato, to whom the material, present world does only receive form and significance by a superior and eternal sphere of ideas. These proverbial platonistic ideas are the reason why we are able to identify two different objects as the same things, like two different chairs - they share the idea of the chair. Our entire world is therefore structured and made possible by a transcendent sphere of ideas, that is guaranteeing its meaning as well as being.
This necessity of a transcendence can be deemed as inherently occidental, most occidental thinkers - not to speak of religions - needed to refer to some transcendence that is external to our material, perceptible world to explain the same. Prior to the Renaissance this transcendence was mostly a mix of platonistic ideas and the monotheist JHWH / God / Allah. With the slow emergence of modern natural science (that is inherently immanent), the occidental notion of transcendence was exposed to its inherent deficiencies and needed to be replaced to the cogito (Descartes), the human consciousness (Kant, Husserl), the Weltgeist (Hegel), language (Frege, Russell, most of analytical philosophy, as Wittgenstein shows) and even sexuality (Freud).
With Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Foucault and Deleuze modern western philosophy developed an occidental concept of immanence, which gained proximity as well as inspiration from Indian thought, which was "discovered" around the time of Schopenhauer. Indian traditions like Yoga, Buddhadharma or Jainadharma1 have never had a mind-body-dualism in the occidental understanding, god (Ishvara) wasn't the transcendent being that created the world - for those traditions everybody or -thing was part of one concept (Brahman), time wasn't understood as some linear concept pointing towards paradise and the human wasn't a privileged or outstanding being with free, autonomous will. The above mentioned occidental thinkers were drawing closer to such an understanding of the world and so it seems clear, that Indian thought bore a lot of inspiration for Western thinkers. To put it into the words of Mircea Eliade: Indian thought since the Upanishads has always had one main concern: that of the conditionality of the human [Bedingtheit der menschlichen Verfassung]. Beginning with Hegel and getting stronger ever since this conditionality found its way into occidental thinking.2 The big impact of the so called "discovery" of the unconscious by Sigmund Freud could have never taken place in India, for they always had a strong concept of the unconscious which didn't need to monopolise (or transcend) the libido as source of the unconscious.3
All of this explains the huge attraction of Western thought to Indian philosophy which is, as stated above, often classified as "thinking of immanence". In my latest reading I have discovered that this labelling might overshot the mark and might not be more than a wishful projection of occidental thinkers.
As already mentioned, transcendence was established in the occidental tradition by a dualistic approach that saw the material world and the body on one side, and the spiritual world and the mind (spirit, soul) on the other. Even today, contemporary scientists like Colin Renfrew still feel the need to clarify, when they conceive mind as something material4, which shows how deep-rooted the occidental dualism is.
It is true that within Indian thinking, this dualism can not be found in such a way. The mind and the body are both seen as part of one cosmos5. Thinking and acting are both seen as to be carried out on one monistic level. This can be highlighted by the following example: in the Mahabharata there is a section on the senses and their respective organs. The task of a Yogin is to withdraw his senses from their objects and focus them in a sixth organ - that of the mind, in Edgertons translation: the thought-organ.6 In one of the most important books of occidental philosophy, Περὶ Ψυχῆς - On the soul by Aristotle there is also much talk about the senses, their respective qualities, purposes and organs. But contrary to the Mahabharata, Aristotle can't locate a thought-organ or - as we call it today - brain. Aristotle makes it clear that there can not be a sixth organ for thought and clarifies: "the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it."7 This is paradigmatic for the occidental body-mind-dualism, which has to locate the ideas of thinking in some transcendent sphere.
This above exemplified dualism does not exist within Indian dualism. The need to explain thought by some transcendent sphere - and thereby establishing some guarantee for certainty, as can be best observed with René Descartes - seems not to be shared by Indian concepts. But although Indian philosophies locate the senses (material) and thought (mind) in the same world, it would be to quick to label Indian philosophy as a monism, in which everything is understood immanent and in relation to everything else. To me it seems that Indian philosophy does have a dualism, but that it locates it somewhere completely different then Western traditions do, which makes it hard for "us" to discern it and explains, why we tend to label it as a monistic philosophy of immanence.
Since the thought-organ is located in the material world, there can neither be a cartesian concept of certainty (which relies on some transcendent sphere of thought, that guarantees the validity of 'I think') nor an occidental human exceptionalism, for the difference between cosmos and human is one of degree, not essence8. Among others, these two key divergences make Indian thought so attractive for a secular, modern Europa, that is receding from transcendence since Schopenhauer.
But, as I mentioned above, Indian thought does not manage without transcendence - it is simply located somewhere else. From the Yoga-Sutras, to Buddha or Isvara Krsna, the whole of existence is pain and suffering. Nevertheless, none of the Indian philosophies result in despair - it is from this point, that all of them take their soteriological motivation.9 The universal worldly suffering is seen positively as some incentive for the liberation of the human. Every metaphysical undertaking and even the field of logic (where some striking parallels can be found to Wittgenstein) is oriented towards ending this universal pain.10
In order to achieve this liberation, all those Indian philosophies seem to need some transcendence, which is either called the self, or the spirit. This self is "what one really is, different from one's body and even from one's mind" and "[t]his core of one's being, this self, what one really is, does not act."11
The definition of egoism, that results from this concept, is that the egoist is that kind of person, that things "he is the doer", although his self never acts. He confuses to be his self as part of the material world (that includes the mind and consciousness).12 A rather radical ethical standpoint results from this, which can be summarised by this rather bizarrely funny sentence from the Samannaphala Sutta: "Even if with a razor-sharp discus a man reduce all life on earth to a single heap of flesh, he commits no sin."13
This self is ontologically different14 from mind and body and is what I think one has to identify as the element of transcendence in Indian thought. Furthermore - and closely related - this is also were an Indian dualism can be traced down, which is different from the occidental one, for it locates thought and act on one side of the dualistic concept. This true self can not be found by cognition, but can only be revealed to the human - which is another signifier for transcendence.
As we have seen, the cosmos is a source of universal pain, from which all major Indian philosophies want to liberate the human, by showing him, that the true self is not part of the cosmos. The soteriological practices defer between different Indian traditions - for example Jainadharma is pretty much outspokenly directing you directly to end your life15, whereas a Yogin is still alive, when he gets reunited with that primordial self16.
Nonetheless for all those Indian traditions the aim is to untie oneself from the cosmos, doing your part of undoing or removing the cosmos, that is universal pain and (re-)uniting with the real self.17 This is some clear act of transcendence and is also identified by Mircea Eliade as such18.
So - to conclude this very quick argumentation - to me it seems unjustified, that Indian thought is labeled as a philosophy or theology of immanence. To some extent it might be true to claim that Indian philosophy has always had an immanent world view - if we understand "world" as the material cosmos in which we act and think. And from this draws the fascination of Indian thought for the occidental world, that from at least Plato to Kant has not been able to understand this same world by a concept of immanence, for thought has always been something transcendent.
But although Indian thought has perhaps had an immanent world view, it seems to me that it could not really bare that world that was identified as universal pain and suffering, and therefore had to establish some transcendence to undo that horrible world.
The modern, secular occidental world seems to have developed and still is developing a concept of immanence, for which the Indian traditions have been and are a huge source of inspiration. But if we understand the mission of contemporary philosophy as developing a philosophy of immanence19, we should also see where Indian philosophy has its limits i.e. becomes transcendent.
Michel Serres points out, that within the last 70 years, modern medicine has changed the - at least occidental or, sadly, rich - world in such a way, that - for the first time for humankind - no longer pain and illness are the norm, but sanity and health.20 So, thanks to penicillin, antibiotics and all other remedies of modern medicine, we might be able to see the world as immanent but not painful. With health becoming the norm, the world might become endurable enough, to not need to establish some however natured transcendence.

Kilian Jörg, 7-9th May 2014, Vienna

1Elmar Holenstein claims that the terms "Buddhism" or "Jainism" are very Western ones that do not really do justice to the real Indian concept. The teachings of Buddha don't have anything to do with ideology, which is usually expressed with the "-ism"-ending. According to him, it is much more understood as a way, or, in Sanskrit, dharma. Consequently, he proposes to use the terms Buddhadharma instead of Buddhism, Jainadharma instead of Jainism. I believe that this is a wonderful idea to overcome some imperialism that is transported within our language and intend to follow his proposal. See: page 28 of Holenstein, Elmar: Philosophie-Atles: Orte und Wege des Denkens. Dritte Auflage. Ammann Verlag: Zürich 2004.
2compare p. 4-5 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
3compare p. 53 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
4compare p. 115 of Renfrew, Colin: Prehistory - the making of the human mind. Phoenix: London 2008.
5compare p. 29 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
6p. 261 of Edgerton, Franklin: The Beginning of Indian Philosophy - selections from the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, Upanishads and Mahabharata. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA 1965.
8compare p. 30 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
9compare p. 19 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
10compare p. 29 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
11p. 28 of Bronkhorst, Johannes: Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2007.
12p. 30 & 37 of Bronkhorst, Johannes: Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2007.
13p. 48 of Bronkhorst, Johannes: Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2007.
14compare p. 23 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
15p. 23 of Bronkhorst, Johannes: Greater Magadha - Studies in the Culture of Early India. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2007.
16compare p. 103-4 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
17compare p. 50 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
18compare p. 107 of Eliade, Mircea: Yoga - Unsterblichkeit und Freiheit. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt / Main 1985.
19which is of course highly debatable, but at least how I - mostly - read Deleuze and similar authors.
20p. 16-8 of Serres, Michel: temps de crises. Éditions Le Pommier: Paris 2009.

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Montag, 16. Juni 2014

white men tripping

This is a little essay I wrote about Mescaline - or drugs in general - for the wonderful lecture of Dominik Wujastyk about Yoga Philosophy. It is way to short to put forth the original argumentation I had in mind and as a result it is more a giving you my opinion than arguing for it (a very very blurry line seperates those two). However - I like my opinion expressed in it, would like to hear other opinions and hope to find the time & motivation to rewrite the whole thing in more appropriate detail.
Aldous Huxley, R.C. Zaehner and Gilles Deleuze tripping 
the peyote cactus
Mescaline is a psychedelic alkaloid that naturally occurs in the Peyote cactus that is native in Texas and Mexico. The indigenous people of those regions have used the hallucinogenic, visionary effects of the drug for millennia in religious contexts.
Western scientific interest in the drug and its visionary potential started in the late 19th century and had its climax in the 50ies and 60ies of the last, until it subsequently got illegalized around the 1970ies in almost all Western nations. Together with LSD, the effects of Mescaline attracted many people in the 50ies and 60ies and frequently was subject to artistic as well as scientific research by notables as different as Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, Carlos Castaneda, Allen Ginsburg, Antonin Artaud, Henrix Michaux and Ernst Jünger.
In this short essay I will compare the experiences of two early experimenters with synthesized Mescaline - those of Aldous Huxley and those of Robert Charles Zaehner. Both experiments have taken place in "serious" universities and have been carried through and observed by reputable scientists.
Aldous Huxley - to put it almost mildly - was extremely fascinated by the drug's hallucinogenic effects and was inspired enough to write the now-famous essay "Doors of Perception" (1952) as well as the sequel "Heaven an Hell" (1954) in which he analyses his trip, contextualizes it with a lot of human and especially art history and deduces something one could almost call an entire epistemological system as well as a concept for mysticism.
Following the french philosopher Henri Bergson (1859 - 1941), Huxley concludes from his experience with Mescaline, that the "function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive [...] is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge." (81) Under normal, sober circumstances the brain acts as a filter, extracting the important information from the vast mass of sensory input and thereby forming us to one clearly defined self and enabling us (=that self) to survive.
Although this process of simplification and filtration is necessary for survival, humans have always strived to temporarily transcend from "selfhood and the environment" (30), to escape from "the homemade universe of common sense" (27) and have done so by means of various intoxicants, religious ceremonies and ascetic practices. Huxley also puts forth the theory that great artists, especially painters, have the ability to perceive the everyday world less filtered than normal people and are able to express those experiences in their medium, which he shows with the examination of artworks by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Botticelli or the poet William Blake.
But art is only a medium, that can convert this unfiltered experience Huxley calls the "Mind at Large" or that of "Suchness" (derived from Meister Eckhardt's Istigkeit) into the everyday world, it is "only for beginners, or else for those resolute dead-enders, who have made up their minds to be content with the ersatz of Suchness, with symbols rather than with what they signify." (12)
To those, who want to experience the real thing, this Suchness as such, Huxley recommends to take Mescaline.
Aldous Huxley
It seems that in earlier days, humans were capable of reaching this "blessed" state much easier by means of candle light, coloured glass and the like (compare 53-59). But in our modern days of permanent over-stimulation and subsequent desensitization, something more is required for most people and Huxley argues that Mescaline caters to these requirement much better than for example opium, cocaine, alcohol or nicotine. It "is not yet the ideal drug" (33) but works out pretty well to satisfy "a principal appetite of the soul" to reach the state of "the blessed Not-I" (6) - to escape from the normal every day status of the world that is structured by common sense and language.
In this property of dissolving the mundane self, Mescaline has huge similarities to Schizophrenia, which "has its heavens as well as its hells and purgatories" (25) but those bad trips are only very seldom encountered by Mescaline takers. It "only brings hell and purgatory to those who have had a recent case of jaundice, or who suffer from periodical depressions or chronic anxiety." (26) For others, it can satisfy this basic human need for dissolution of the self, can help to cast light on the yet dark and unexplored regions of the mind and thereby help us to better understand "such ancient, unsolved riddles as the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and consciousness." (2)
Robert Charles Zaehner, a British academic with specialisation on Eastern Religions, couldn't draw so much inspiration and enthusiasm out of his experience with Mescaline. For him the experience was rather trivial. It was "interesting and it certainly seemed hilariously funny. All along, however, I felt that the experience was in a sense 'anti-religious'. I mean, not conformable with religious experience or in the same category. In Huxley's
R.C. Zaehner
terminology 'self-transcendence' of some sort, but transcendence into a world of farcical meaninglessness." (2262)
In his experiment - which took place three years after Huxley's - it took Zaehner relatively long for the drug to kick in. He explains this by his "indeed, very strong" conscious resistance to the drug. He admits "that as the day approached on which [he] was to take the drug, [he] had become increasingly uneasy. [He] dreamt about it three nights running and, quite irrationally, feared either that it might be fatal, or that it might make [him] permanently mad." After taking the drug, he seemed to have fought the effects of it, finding "the fact that one is losing control of oneself" (213) displeasing.
While waiting for the drug to kick in, Zaehner proposed a promenade through Oxford with his experimenters, which he continuously called "guests" and seemed in fact to be very concerned to appear smart as well as entertaining to them. Back in their room, the drug had finally kicked in and he felt more and more separated from his body, that "seemed momentarily to be leading an autonomous life of its own" (216) The experimenters started showing him objects they have agreed upon in advance, but non of the objects had any great effect on him other than appearing unbearably dull and pointless. To this feeling of complete ridicule towards artworks he would otherwise adore, Zaehner burst out in a storm of laughter, which he could't control for hours. He calls all the books, paintings and music he gets to see "silly", "rather stupid" and has the same opinion of the entire experiment, which all "take [...] so seriously" (219). He expresses contentedness, that things don't change under the influence of Mescaline in the way he might have expected to (225), sees all art as pointless and laughs about it, while asking to be left alone and not be shown any more items, saying: "Well, if you'd only let me get some control of myself instead of drugging an honest chap." (224) All of this leads to Zaehner's conclusion, that there is not much to be obtained from Mescaline experiences and his dismissal of Huxley's enthusiasm. He states, that he would not take it again, but purely because of moral reasons, because he thinks that "artificial interference with consciousness [...] is wrong." (226)
For me it seems, that Zaehner - however consciously - has already in advance made up his mind against the possibility of positive effects of Mescaline and has therefore strongly and successfully decided to fight it. While Huxley readily embraces the self-dispersing effects, Zaehner fights them all the way through, trying to "control [him]self". From my own experience as that of others, I know that trying to grasp on the "normal self" while on drugs, is the worst idea you can have and often results in a fearful trip. It is of course frightful to see your mundane self along with all its little certainties being blown away, but if you decide to take a drug, you have to go along with it's flow to enjoy or even benefit from it. Zaehner didn't seem ready for that - he clinched unto his normal self.
An other thing that is interesting is, that, while Huxley seemed to have been left in relative peace while being on Mescaline, Zaehner was unceasingly bothered by his experimenters to look at certain objects to feel something special. To this Zaehner protested and couldn't find anything special in the experience. This, however, is not surprising, for when on Mescaline, you should be free to do your own musings - Huxley had the most intense impression of Suchness when looking at a chair that just happened to be standing there. As I have quoted above, he rejected art as only being a symbol of Suchness, while Mescaline enables him to experience Suchness as such - on whatever kind of object. So, from Huxleys standpoint, it should not be too surprising that Zaehner has laughed about the ridiculousness of artworks, for he saw their "true" nature - unfortunately, Huxley might say, Zaehner wasn't left alone enough to do his own drugged musings, randomly finding Suchness in arbitrary objects.
All of this would require a much more detailed argumentation, but to me it seems, that Zaehner wasn't ready to leave the world of common-sense that is structured by language (he is in fact - and with increasing difficulty - trying to put names on things he sees) and has therefore not experienced this exciting world of Suchness Huxley is praising. This is why he found the experience rather trite and trivial.
Deleuze & Guattari
However, I do not want to end this short essay with a one-sided appraisal of Huxley and Mescaline, for I think Huxley is taking it a bit too far. He sees some sort of ultimate truth in the visions of Mescaline, that seems rather naive to me. It is a very important lesson to lose your self and Mescaline can surely help you with that. Still - I do not see why the world behind language, this Suchness should have more meaning or truth than the world that is structured by it. For me, it seems that truth and meaning are merely functions of language and to apply it to something beyond or outside language, is simply a ontological misunderstanding. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari put it very well, when he says that drugs have fundamentally changed our concept of perception - also to those who have never taken any. For him, this losing of the mundane self and its common sense is something to be embraced, but he suggests to reach this state un-drugged and permanently, for it is then a much more trustworthy and stable result and doesn't carry all the dangers of drugs (addiction, etc.) with it. "To reach the point, on which it doesn't matter any longer, if you do take the drug or not, because the general conditions of perception of time and space have already changed that much"3 is Deleuze & Guattari's demand.
So it is not the drug that changes our world-view, but a world-view is in the making, that can be found as well in the experience of drugs. But this world-view should become a general condition of how we see the world, and not just some rare escape triggered by intoxicants, for they carry too much dangers with them, of which not the smallest two are 1) seeing too much truth and meaning in the effects of drugs and 2) reinforcing the old, conservative world-view by seeing the Not-self experiences as merely a rare exception to the norm, rather than the new norm.


1 the following page numbers refer to the this edition: Huxley, Aldous: the Doors of Perception - includes Heaven & Hell. Thinking Ink: London, New York, Sydney 2011.
2 the following page numbers now refer to this edition: Zaehner, R.C.: Mysticism - Sacred and Profane - An Inquiry into some Varieties of Praeternatural Experience. At the Clarendon Press: Oxford 1957.
3 p. 389 of Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Fèlix: Tausend Plateaus. Merve Verlag: Berlin 1992. - my translation.