In reading about Zen I see encouragement to question "notions". Understand them as to some extent misrepresenting the things they represent. The map is not the territory. I'm not sure how to interpret that and I can think of a couple different meanings.

Consider a statue like The Statue of Liberty. To some it represents a country with a history of slavery and Jim Crow laws and the statue is a lie. To others, it represents a land of opportunity, an escape from tyranny. To someone else, a statue is just a bunch of copper, the copper itself being made of atoms, the atoms made up of quarks. The statue has no "romantic" or "pessimistic" meaning.

Does Buddhism make a distinction between the emotional notions like "freedom" and "tyranny" versus more material notions like "copper" and "atoms"?

I could see the distinction mattering in terms of suffering. If you see a statue and it reminds you of unpleasant things, you suffer. If you just look at the statue and just see a bunch of copper, it won't make you suffer. If "All Emotions are pain", then even positive associations with the statue are a painful thing. Neutral associations like "The Statue is made of copper" seems to be of a different substance, a concept more directly "pointing at" what it refers to whereas the emotionally loaded notions in a since "point away".

Are both kinds of notions the kinds of notions to be wary of? Even still, are there distinctions made between the two?

3 Answers 3


Does Buddhism make a distinction between the emotional notions like "freedom" and "tyranny" versus more material notions like "copper" and "atoms"?

Buddhism discerns phenomena through the idea of skandhas, meaning that our experiences consists of five components. The rupa skandha pertains to material properties, and vedana regards the emotional qualities. Thus far these skandhas correspond to your example. Further, skandhas also consists of perception, mental factors, and consciousness.

Are both kinds of notions the kinds of notions to be wary of? Even still, are there distinctions made between the two?

One purpose of understanding the world through the concept of skandhas is that we get a closer examination of what our perceptions actually consists of. Building on this, buddhism concludes that our experiences are ever transforming and impersonal, which in turn means that they're an unreliable base for understanding the world, and how to act in it, so yes, both notions - as well as the other skandhas - are crucial to be wary of. If we fail to realize this, suffering becomes a fact. Instead, breaking out of this illusion with the aid of the noble eightfold path is an alternative to liberate us from this suffering.


It does not matter if the Statue reminds us about freedom, or France, or poverty, or Trump's immigration policy, or copper and atoms - all of these are just thoughts and interpretations.

What matters is, are these thoughts harmonious ("conducive to peace" in Buddhist lingo) or do they have an element of dis-harmony in them, a seed of conflict or clash ("conducive to suffering"). Any time there is clash, there is suffering (assuming we take it seriously). This includes situations like e.g. the ethical or philosophical conflict between the Statue's Poem's message and the current immigration policy. This clash is a conflict of ideas in your mind and is a type of suffering. This also includes situation when two people with two conflicting sets of ideas look at the Statue and attempt to discuss what they see/think. If they are serious about taking their sides, the clash between their interpretations becomes suffering for both.

The point is, reification of our interpretation as reality is what actualizes the clash and makes it into suffering. Being acutely aware of the basic mechanism behind perceptional and interpretative conflicts leads to a more philosophical stance which does not create the basis for conflict and suffering.

Hence "the map is not territory" - because when we remember that map is mere map, we don't fight over whose map is reality (conflict=>suffering!), and we don't get frustrated when the landscape in front of our eyes mismatches our map-driven expectations (conflict=>suffering!).

So it's not about so-called "objective" (scientific) observation vs. symbolic meaning. It's about the relative nature of any and all observation, and not getting caught up in it as a way to peace.

The next question to ask is how does the Buddha see the Statue of Liberty and how should we see it if we want to be like the Buddha. At the first approximation, the right way to see the statue is from phenomenological perspective, as a stimulus for the process of interpretation. Thus the phenomenological perspective is the Buddhist equivalent of your seeing in terms of atoms - what scientific materialists would call the most objective mode of perception. Retaining mindfulness of the perceptual mechanisms at all times is an important stepping stone in the Buddhist practice.

The real perspective of Buddha is far more radical than seeing things in terms of their phenomenology. To explain this point, let me draw a parallel between our perspectives and the planetary model of atoms. If we compare any single interpretation to a specific location of the electron, then the Buddha's perspective is like seeing the entire electron cloud as its orbital function. Buddha integrates all known factors of interpretation without collapsing them into one simplified position.

This is why Buddha's perspective is not "conducive to suffering" and is as "conducive to peace" as possible - because the orbital function is never in conflict with any single position of the electron. Meaning, Buddha's perspective is never in conflict with any single human perspective, it is a superset of whatever is actually valid in each of them.

As my root guru once said,

Buddha is like a lawyer - sees situations from all sides at once.

Now, since you tagged your question with Four Noble Truths, let me map this back to them. Suffering is that experience when something is perceived as irreparably "wrong". The nature of suffering is conflict between "wrong" and "right" (or actual and expected, which is same thing). Origin of suffering is attachment to one of the sides and declaring it "right", "the way things are supposed to be". Cessation of suffering is peace that comes from not creating the conflict, through not attaching to a side, through transcending the limits of simplified positions. Path leading to cessation of suffering is methodical application of the principle of not creating conflict and the causes of conflict, hence not creating suffering and the causes of suffering - from coarse, to intermediate, to subtle.

Not creating long term causes of conflict is tricky. It's definitely NOT being a pushover always accepting other opinions. As said, it requires being above one-sided opinions, and in touch with reality behind all perspectives; being able to translate between different views. Above all, it requires being consistent at NOT letting confused one-sided agendas drive one's behavior.

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    I would just note that this avoidance of one-sided views is explained by Nagarjuna's metaphysics and doctrine of 'Two Truths'. Extreme views would be unhelpful simply because they are wrong.
    – user14119
    Nov 21, 2019 at 15:23
  • Or the other way - extreme views are considered wrong because, being one-sided, they are faulty and unhelpful.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Nov 21, 2019 at 19:44
  • You may have highlighted the difference I was getting at. I wasn't altering your words but It seems important sometimes to note that avoiding one-sided views is not just about their unhelpfulness or their tendency to cause friction but is a matter of avoiding wrong (and demonstrably wrong) views. I.e. not just a pragmatic matter but a philosophical/logical one. I feel this point is quite often missed. .
    – user14119
    Nov 22, 2019 at 10:36

I think most buddhist teachers would view this emotion/material distinction as a mistake. Thinking of the Statue of Liberty (SoL) as a lump of copper atoms is just as much a 'notion' as seeing it as a symbol of freedom or of tyranny, and is just as subject to emotional attachment. It may be a mere fact that the SoL is made out of copper, but that 'mere fact' is not something we would ever mention or think about except in an emotional context (e.g.: "Bob was trying to imbue that lump of copper with some kind of moral significance; how dumb is that?").

Notions themselves are not the problem; attachments are. We only worry about notions to the extent that notions are what we attach to. The SoL is a lump of copper, and a symbol of freedom, and a symbol of tyranny, and a work of art, and other things, all at the same time. It's only when we commit ourselves to one facet of the SoL being true and the others being false that we find ourselves mired in misery, because each of those facets is impermanent, and will betray our expectations.

Don't fall into the materialist fallacy. Mystical teachings are not about the world; they are about our relationship to the world.

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