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For purposes of this question I define “uncertainty” as a willingness to entertain doubt or acknowledge incomplete knowledge with regards to the truth of the matter about what one knows of a particular question of subject. And I define “the truth of the matter” as an objective fact about some aspect of reality which is independent of observer or context and is not contingent in any way.

For a long while I have regarded myself as unusually capable or comfortable with uncertainty. Having a general willingness to see the gray in every question and to acknowledge my own incomplete knowledge. To see and entertain the viewpoints of others and to grant that my own viewpoint is not certain. A general comfortability with complexity that is above average. And this is something I prided myself in thinking of as beneficial.

However, I recently realized that a lot of what I define as “uncertainty” presupposes an objective fact of the matter that is not contingent. And that it handcuffs me at times in that I can be of two, three, or more minds about something and unsure of the proper course to take.

Moreover, it occurred to me that this is not compatible with the doctrine of emptiness which I understand quite clearly as saying that for every conception that I have... it is not undergirded by a genuine non-contingent fact of the matter.

So with that...

Is uncertainty as defined above incompatible with emptiness?

If so, how? If so, what repercussions can be seen as occurring with this misunderstanding? What is an appropriate definition of uncertainty or one that is compatible with emptiness or how things really exist?

If not, why not? Where is the error in my thinking?

A question that might be related, but different is Is lack of doubt a form of self-cherishing?

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    I'm struggling to understand the question. Either we are uncertain or we are not - it's not a choice - and the connection with emptiness is unclear to me. Are you thinking that we choose to have doubts and be uncertain? In what way is this a choice? . – user14119 Feb 8 at 12:04
  • Hi PeterJ, yes it is apparent to me that the question is mystifying or at least if is not well understood what I am actually asking. Sorry for that. I am saying that uncertainty as defined presupposes an objective answer. An ultimate truth of the matter. And my understanding of emptiness does not include that there exist objective truths of the matter. All truths are relative. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 8 at 14:44
  • So insofar as uncertainty presupposes an objective truth of the matter it seems to me incompatible with emptiness. I guess in order to answer the question you first have to understand emptiness conceptually the same way that I do and I am not sure others do. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 8 at 14:45
  • FWIW, I am not sure anyone else on this forum shares my conceptual understanding of emptiness which is informed by Nagarjuna. That may be just because I am wrong of course. There are times when I have felt others have come close, but of course it is very hard to verify that someone else shares your conceptual understanding especially with a concept so subtle as emptiness. I have the most confidence that Ruben - interestingly a Theravada practitioner - has an inkling of what I (mid)understand. We have had some beneficial dialogue. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 8 at 14:57
  • So Ruben, if you see this, would love to hear your answer and if you understand my question... – Yeshe Tenley Feb 8 at 14:58
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Something more everyday (less esoteric) for you: Dogen's wholehearted way

The concentrated endeavor of the way I am speaking of allows all things to come forth in realization to practice going beyond in the path of letting go. Passing through the barrier [of dualism] and dropping off limitations in this way, how could you be hindered by nodes in bamboo or knots in wood [concepts and theories]?

You need certainty in what you are doing. So you need conviction in right view, if you're practicing in Theravada Buddhism. But you can practice zazen with conviction only in zazen (though quite what that amounts to I'm not so sure).

So don't worry too much! You're in a good place if you can drop -- all -- the rest of it.

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    This answer is helpful and crystallizes for me part of what I am getting at. That this uncertainty causes a lack of concentration and conviction in my actions that I think is unhelpful and often finds detrimental to myself and others. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 9 at 12:17
  • go to a zazen retreat -- no-one will be mad :) ? @YesheTenley – user2512 Feb 9 at 12:20
  • oh i guess that zazen is the buddha dharma :) ? @YesheTenley – user2512 Feb 9 at 12:57
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When fish move through water, however they move, there is no end to the water. When birds fly through the sky, however they fly, there is no end to the sky. Fish and birds have never once, since antiquity, run out of water or run out of sky. When their need for water or sky is great, its availability is great, and when their need for water or sky is small, its availability is small. Acting this way, fish and birds realize their limitations yet at every moment somersault freely through their realm; but if a bird leaves the sky it will die at once, and if a fish leaves the water it will die at once. So we understand that water is life and that sky is life. Birds are life, and fish are life. It may also be that life is birds and that life is fish.

The experience of our own existence is also like this. If a bird or a fish decided to move through the water or the sky only after getting to the end of water or utterly penetrating the sky, it would never find its way or its place in the water or sky. When we have found our own place in our own realm, we have arrived at potential. When we maintain our own true way, our action is potential itself.

Our own way and our own place are neither great nor small; they are neither subjective nor objective; they have not existed in the past nor do they arise in the present; they are just as they are. In maintaining our own true way and abiding in our own place, to consider one thing is to explore only that one thing, and to perform one action is to fully participate in that one action. In this state, we exist in our own space and practice our own way, and awareness of ourselves is not conspicuous. The reason this is so is that our own thoughts and actions and the realization of potential appear together and are experienced together.

Do not assume that we can be conscious of potential, or that potential can be recognized by the intellect. The experience of potential is not necessarily a cognitive realization.

Realization is the state of ambiguity itself [kahitsu -- how can it be convulsively decided that]

Dogen

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  • i think this may be a misreading of the translation -- it's asking how we can be conclusive about realization. not, then, that uncertainty is realization. hth – user2512 Feb 9 at 7:43
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Case 5 of the Mumonkan
Kyõgen's "Man up in a Tree"

Kyõgen Oshõ said, "It is like a man up in a tree hanging from a branch with his mouth; his hands grasp no bough, his feet rest on no limb.

Someone appears under the tree and asks him, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?' If he does not answer, he fails to respond to the question. If he does answer, he will lose his life.

What would you do in such a situation?"

Mumon's Comment

Even if your eloquence flows like a river, it is of no avail.

Though you can expound the whole of Buddhist literature, it is of no use.

If you solve this problem, you will give life to the way that has been dead until this moment and destroy the way that has been alive up to now.

Otherwise you must wait for Maitreya Buddha and ask him.

Mumon's Verse

Kyõgen is truly thoughtless;
His vice and poison are endless.
He stops up the mouths of the monks,
And devil's eyes sprout from their bodies.

So this part of your question struck me:

For a long while I have regarded myself as unusually capable or comfortable with uncertainty. Having a general willingness to see the gray in every question and to acknowledge my own incomplete knowledge. To see and entertain the viewpoints of others and to grant that my own viewpoint is not certain. A general comfortability with complexity that is above average. And this is something I prided myself in thinking of as beneficial.

I can't help but wonder if you've ever been truly uncertain. Every shade of gray you see, every conflicting idea, is just another manifestation of certainty. You can hold it in your mind, consider its merits, and weigh its value against what you already know. Nothing here is really uncertain as all that you take to be uncertainty depends on preexisting conditions. Every novel idea is just showing you what you already know albeit from a different point of view.

What answer can you hope to hear when all of the Buddhas of past, present, and future have hung their mouths on the wall? What words will save your life when you are hanging from a branch by your teeth?

Real doubt leaves us dumbfounded. There is nothing comfortable about it. The kind of doubt that stops up your head with cotton and hits you in the forehead like an unseen cabinet in a dark room is the kind of doubt that is truly productive. There are no edges to hold onto. Your previous ways of engaging the world won't help you move real doubt a single inch. In that doubt, we are helpless and begging for our life. We are desperate and unsure of which way to turn. In the midst of such great doubt, we are also completely empty.

To see doubt is to see emptiness. To see emptiness, we have to begin with doubt. With faith and determination, both can resolve into wisdom. Only on the other side of great doubt can we hope to learn anything new.

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Emptiness is simply nothing,not even the concept of nothing ,but really nothing , including all your concepts and ideas about what it is or what is compatible with it .Just drop All that and emptiness remains .

Uncertainty is simply a manifestation seen in emptiness . Anything can be recognised ,including your definitions about uncertainty .And your idea of incompatibility is also seen from that place .

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There's a quote from the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi that reads (my phrasing):

Call those people whom the universe aids 'the favored'. Those who reach for that state through learning seek what learning cannot grasp. Those who reach for that state through effort seek what effort cannot achieve. Those who reach for that state through reason seek what reason cannot fathom. The favored know to stop reaching where reaching is pointless. Those who do not, break on the lathe of heaven.

Uncertainty is a product of the mind: it is a solution to a problem of partial knowledge in complex contexts; an attitude in which we measure and calculate with what we do not know as well as with what we do know. It's perfectly normal and natural, and when cultivated it's a powerful intellectual tool; every philosopher, thinker, scientist, and academic builds a close relationship with uncertainty, at least within their own fields.

In emptiness there is no uncertainty, because the active mind — the part of the mind that reasons, anticipates, plans, seeks alternatives, etc — is put to rest. It's like floating in a boat in the middle of a lake, where questions that might provoke uncertainty — e.g., "Is it better to float here, or should I float over there? — are completely irrelevant.

Of course, in emptiness there is no certainty, either. Emptiness transcends dualisms...

Certainty is authentic: it is natural for us to be certain of what we believe we know. Uncertainty is honest and conscientious: it keeps us from the pitfalls of dogmatism and zealousness. We need both, until we reach that state where we need neither. Just don't cling to them.

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I found the question tricky to understand but this comment made it clear.

"I am saying that uncertainty as defined presupposes an objective answer. An ultimate truth of the matter. And my understanding of emptiness does not include that there exist objective truths of the matter. All truths are relative."

I note you're a student of Nagarjuna, as am I. Interpretations vary wildly.

Nagarjuna proves there is a truth of the matter, viz. that all positive views are logically indefensible thus by implication false, and genuine Reality is beyond conceptual fabrication. These would be demonstrable truths true in all universes.

The way I see it the absurdity of positive theories is a relative truth, an outcome of logical analysis. Their falsity would be an objective truth for him, verified in experience or by identity, but would be a relative and uncertain truth for those who infer their falsity from their absurdity.

Nagarjuna shows that we need not be uncertain. He refutes all false views to reveal the correct one. So I'm not sure how uncertainty comes into his.

You say " it occurred to me that this is not compatible with the doctrine of emptiness which I understand quite clearly as saying that for every conception that I have... it is not undergirded by a genuine non-contingent fact of the matter."

This would be because Reality is beyond conceptual fabrication. In this case every conception we have will be wrong. But this is a certainty! We can be certain that all extreme views are wrong and certain that all our ideas are wrong. After this there's not much room for uncertainty.

So I see Nagarjuna as giving us certainty, or at least showing how it may be acquired. We can know with certainty that all positive or extreme views are logically indefensible, and in this case Reality must be either absurd or beyond conceptual fabrication. The first idea would seem redundant when there's a better one available.

This is a demonstrable result and as such a certainty, but the demonstration depends on the rules of logic and reason so produces only relative knowledge. Nagarjuna does not depend on demonstrations but on experience and realisation so for him this would be certain and absolute knowledge.

So I'm wondering what uncertainty has to do with this, or why you would doubt there is an objective truth of the matter. This is not what Nagarjuna proposes. He proposes there is an objective truth and he knows it, and it is the falsity of all extreme views and the truth of emptiness.

Have I grasped what you're asking or is this off-topic? It's a fascinating issue.

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  • You are close to the heart of my question, but not quite there yet. Not wanting to concentrate on Ultimate Truth or the non-deceptive non-conceptual direst perception emptiness. This is not what I have in mind when I say, “there is on objective truth of the matter.” I am rather wanting to talk about mundane conceptual truths. In particular, the truth about what is going through the minds of other people and my interactions with them. Often times I am uncertain and do not act with conviction or confidence as a result. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 9 at 12:08
  • And the thought occurred to me that this uncertainty causing my lack of conviction is based implicitly on the idea that there is an underlying objective, non-contingent, fact of the matter, about what other people are thinking or what is going through their minds. But this is incompatible with my understanding of emptiness. Therefore, perhaps this way of acting with uncertainty and a lack of conviction is incompatible. What do you think? – Yeshe Tenley Feb 9 at 12:14
  • i don't yet see how an understanding of emptiness can be incompatible with the idea there is an objective truth as to what others are thinking. Your way of acting with uncertainty looks like common-sense to me. You assume there is a truth of the matter and concede you do not know it. This causes what you call uncertainty but what the Desert Fathers would have called discretion and caution. One thing though, I don't yet understand why you doubt there is a truth of the matter. – user14119 Feb 9 at 19:32
  • Because all truth is utterly contingent. There is no objective - non-contingent - truth of the matter. Never was and never will be. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 9 at 20:05
  • @YesheTenley - Now you've flummoxed me. Are you saying the Buddha did not know know or teach truth? Are you saying there is no fact of the matter as to the nature of Reality? – user14119 Feb 10 at 10:28
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The answer to your question is No, uncertainty is not incompatible. I dont believe you could possibly find something that is not “compatible” with emptiness? To quote your definition: emptiness is “Ultimate Truth or the non-deceptive non-conceptual direst [sic] perception” right? This is also how i perceive emptiness and might i add that for me it is a fixed point in space that i “go to”. So whether i am uncertain or not it is there. Whethere i am ignorant or not it is still there. Wether i am too lazy or tired to go there (because it is cold scary lonely and taxing to go there makes me VERY HUNGRY) it is always there. I like this question. The uncertainty of which you speak is particularly entertaining. The problem you give us is that you believe that you appear to other people as uncertain/unsure of yourself when you in fact are. And the people who you appear uncertain to this is so vague. Are “the people” in question women?

It sounded to me like the problem your having takes place in time. You obviously know ultimate truth if you experience emptiness. So youre not uncertain. But u fear to be seen as such (probably not so much by people you arent sexually attracted to). I get it it the uncertainty ur referring to is your own. You dont know for sure that you appear this way to women but the possibility is there and u dont like that. The true problem is that women may or may not see u that way u dont know because oestrogen is so radically different than your world.

And when you asked if uncertainty is incompatible you meant with your attainments? Like how can i be perceived by women as being uncertain when i am does this mean i am not who or what i believe myself to be/identify with?

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  • You wrote, The problem you give us is that you believe that you appear to other people as uncertain/unsure of yourself when you in fact are -- I don't see that the OP says that -- nothing about how the OP appears to other people; and nothing about "women". It's about whether "uncertainty" is good when people's "views" or "statements-of-fact" contradict each other, especially about complex topics -- whether it's good and especially whether it's compatible with emptiness. – ChrisW Feb 16 at 0:25
  • In the comments on feb 9 specified “and others” – 4N4G4M1N Feb 16 at 1:45

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