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In Beacon of Certainty (tr. Pettit), Mipham Rinpoche addresses key questions about how to practice based on Madhyamaka philosophy. The first question has to do with distinguishing absolute negation from implicative negation.

  • An affirming negative (or “implicative negation”) “expresses the absence of one predicate while implying some other.” (Pettit 109)

    In short, this is not a good way to conceive how appearances are empty of any true and inherent existence: because the implied object has to somehow stand apart and have some kind of inherent existence that is immune from further analysis.

  • A non-affirming negative (or “absolute negation”) “simply excludes something, without implying anything else.” (Pettit 109)

    This is a much more fruitful stance because it does not hold some kind of appearance as standing separate from emptiness; and therefore it can serve as a conceptual segue to meditative experience of the coalescence of emptiness and appearance.

I think this distinction is a very powerful tool in overcoming the tendency to take appearances as concrete realities that somehow have emptiness within them; and to understand how appearance and emptiness coalesce. Is there a similar distinction within Theravadin buddhism? It seems like this would be a useful distinction when exploring the 3 Dharma seals, particularly that of not-self (sabbe dhammā anattā). But I've never encountered such an analysis when reading in the Pali Canon or Theravadin commentaries.

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From a practicing (non-academic) Theravada perspective philosophical analysis/speculation of this form would be simply considered playing with vaci-sankhara (verbal formations). Realization of anattā for a Theravadin comes from meditative practice alone. No amount of fiddling around with words or expertise in the written Pali scriptures or associated philosophical intricacies brings one any closer to the goal. Any and all thoughts one has about anattā are merely formations based on craving (tanha) which must be let go before one can actually realize anattā. There is a feeling associated with every sense object that comes in contact with the senses. Based on this feeling one perceives the object as good, bad, or neither and then one's intellect explores this object as a source of happiness, unhappiness, or neither respectively. In this case one's mind comes into contact with an idea about anattā and it evokes some feeling. If this feeling is positive then one will be attracted to the idea (as a source of happiness) and will attempt to further justify this idea with the intellect. Similarly, if the idea evokes a negative feeling then the intellect will attempt to refute this idea as it perceived the idea as a source of unhappiness. The irony is that both of these explorations about anattā (really intellectual exploration about any subject) are psychologically based on self-view (sakkaya-ditti). The intellect is always biased by the fundamental perceptions one has about the object that are based on nothing more than feelings. In order to realize the truth about anything these thoughts (explorations of the intellect) must be abandoned.

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I don't recall any discussion of this nature in any early Buddhist texts or books about early Buddhist philosophy. Mind you I think the early Buddhists were much clearer that their ideas applied only to experience, and were thus far less likely to stumble into the kind of ontological speculation about existence and non-existence that plagues Buddhist thought from Nāgārjuna onwards. They were not bogged down in the Two Truths debacle for example. In other words they probably had less need for this kind of distinction.

An important touchstone of this view on what Buddhist analysis applies to is the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) which says that neither existence (astitā) nor non-existence (nāstitā) apply to the world of experience (loka). Famously Nāgārjuna cites a version of this text by name, but he is still stuck with Two truth style arguments that insist on the language of astitā/nāstitā and are thus completely misleading about the nature of experience.

I'm sure that if one is mistakenly trying apply the idea of pratītyasamutpāda outside the domain of experience, then major philosophical problems do ensue that require ad hoc solutions. But if one is clear from the outset that there are no ontological implications to the Buddhist analysis of experience then one is much less likely to start drawing ontological conclusions and be in need of some kind of corrective.

I think this is an interesting example of the kind of difficulty that crops up in later Buddhism due to losing sight of scope of the early Buddhist texts.

  • Thank you for your response. Let me clarify - I am not interested for speculative reasons, but rather in order to inform meditative experience. It may well be that early Buddhism lacks this analysis, but given the complex intellectual framework of Abhidharma your rejection of 'ontological speculation' seems somewhat extreme. – Alan W Aug 24 '15 at 15:59
  • I'm also interested in informing meditative progress. The Abhidharma was a mistake that Nāgārjuna tried, but ultimately failed, to put right. The Prajñāpāramitā authors also rejected the incipient Realism of the Abhidharma. How extreme it is seems to me irrelevant. As far as meditation goes, all it means is that we are only talking about mental states. Which really isn't extreme at all. It's not my view btw, it's the view of early Buddhism. – Jayarava Aug 24 '15 at 17:36
  • @AlanW I've deleted the later comments as they deviate from the Q and A format. For extended discussion please use the chat facility - it may help you dig into these issues future should you wish to do so. Many Thanks – Crab Bucket Aug 26 '15 at 18:01
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The Theravada school doesn't use what the Tibetans would call analytical meditation, so the question doesn't even come up as to whether or not the object of negation is to be negated through an implicative or non-implicative negation.

Instead of the rational analysis type of meditation, the Theravada school relies on a more experiential process of setting one's mindfulness on the objects of experience as they arise and simply watching them, and then the three characteristics appear not through rational analysis, but through direct experience.

If you want a good freely available book on how this is done in the Theravada school, I would recommend the Ven. Nyanaponika Thera's book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. You can find it freely available legally just by googling "the Heart of Buddhist Meditation" PDF.

  • Thanks - one of the first books on Buddhism I tried to put into practice, and I welcome the suggestion to look into it further! In searching for it online I ran across an essay which is helping me to better understand the driving difference of perspective here and in other answers: accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_27.html. I greatly respect Bhikkhu Bodhi so I hope this is a fair statement of the differences in perspective. – Alan W Aug 24 '15 at 17:25

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