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Turtles All The Way Down - Tao As First Cause? (page three)


Continued From Page Two

By way of elaborating on this “signless, boundless, all luminous” consciousness, in which “name and form are wholly destroyed,” Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro go on to say that the basic idea is that:

“when the dualistic, discriminative process is checked then the ‘thing-ness,’ the solid externality of the world and the “me-ness’ of the mind are seen as essentially insubstantial. There is no footing for apparent independent existence of mental or material objects of an independent subject.”

The destruction of “name and form” (nama/rupa) is equivalent to the destruction of “subject and object” -- i.e the dissolution of subject/object dualities. In this passage, “destroyed” is the English word chosen to translate “nirodha” -- which typically is rendered as “cessation” but can also mean “cut off” or “held in check.” Interestingly, debates among translators about how best to render “nirodha” open up to a much more affirmative view of phenomenal appearances, than is often associated with the Hinayana Buddhist path in particular. Here, for instance, Venerable P.A. Payutto offers insight into ways that nirodha has been mistranslated:

“... Generally speaking, the word ‘cease’ means to do away with something which has already arisen, or the stopping of something which has already begun. However, nirodha in the teaching of Dependent Origination ... means the non-arising, or non-existence, of something because the cause of its arising is done away with. For example, the phrase “when avijja is nirodha, sankhara are also nirodha,” which is usually taken to mean, “with the cessation of ignorance, volitional impulses cease,” in fact means that “when there is no ignorance, or no arising of ignorance, or when there is no longer any problem with ignorance, there are no volitional impulses, volitional impulses do not arise, or there is no problem from volitional impulses.” It does not mean that ignorance already arisen must be done away with before the volitional impulses which have already arisen will also be done away with.

Where nirodha should be rendered as cessation is when it is used in reference to the natural way of things, or the nature of compounded thing ....

... Therefore, translating nirodha as “cessation,” although not entirely wrong, is nevertheless not entirely accurate ....”

Tao As Ontological First-Cause

So, coming back to our original question, about the extent to which it’s fair to consider Tao as something akin to an Aristotelian “first cause” ... As I see it, Tao is best understood as an ontological rather than a temporal “first cause.” Tao is not so much a static primordial “entity” which “sets things into motion,” in a Newtonian fashion -- as it is the ever-present yet ever-illusive quicksilver essence of a universe that is intrinsically alive, and manifests continuously as the holographic dance of the ten-thousand-things.

In the same way that the translation of nirodha allows for volitional impulses to “not be a problem,” so it is that understanding Tao as an ontological first cause -- (what Wei Wu Wei refers to as being) “at right angles to” the appearances of various cause-and-effect mechanisms -- allows for the continuous arising/dissolving of phenomenal appearances to be experienced as “no problem.”

Tao is the realm transcendent of (while simultaneously being the true substance of) nama/rupa -- of subject/object and all subsidiary dualistic polarities -- and so transcends the moving/unmoved, changing/unchanged polarities also -- offering resolution to the seeming paradox of the “unmoved mover.”

To the extent that we’re looking for “first cause” or “origin of the universe” as a Newtonian space-time event -- Tao is not the answer. To the extent that we’re looking for firm materialist ground, or some kind of ultimate conceptual meaning -- Tao is not that. But to the extent that we’re willing to follow the infinite regress (of elemental building-blocks, linguistic signs, turtles or whatever) to its finally a-logical conclusion, and beyond ....

... a playful first-cause effortlessly emerges, again and again, infinitely closer than we could ever imagine.


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