[Buddha-l] Bot being able to imagine annihilation [confused]

Richard Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Tue Jun 1 10:58:38 MDT 2010

On Jun 1, 2010, at 10:25 AM, lemmett at talk21.com wrote:

> That might appear confusing again so I'll add what I think I already know Buddhists believe about annihilation. The Buddha argued against annihilation but it is not clear (to me) if this was just because of the presuppositions of annihilationists or whether I am right and phenomenological mortality is inconceivable.

The former. The Buddha said that there are two views that are not at all helpful in eradicating eliminable forms of discontent. One view is that the self is annihilated at death (or in nirvana). The ohter is that the self continues to exist after death (or in nirvana). This claim about the unhelpfulness of those views can be interpreted in several ways. 

One way is to emphasis that no matter what one's view about personal survival may be, one experience of life as unsatisfactory will remain unchanged. Since views about such things are not the root cause of discontent, one's time is better spent in dealing with those matters that are the root causes of one's discontent. So on this reading, the question of annihilation continued existence is simply irrelevant. 

A second way is to emphasis that both lemmas presuppose that there is a self in the first place. But if that presupposition is false, then neither of the two alternatives can be true, just as if I do not eat meat, it cannot be true that I will continue to eat meat and it cannot be true that I will stop eating meat. One contemporary Buddhist author who has favored this interpretation is Thich Nhat Hanh, who has said words to this effect: enlightenment (or nirvana) is not annihilating the self, but discovering that there never was a self to be annihilated.

> He gave a four fold negation of his existence after death but again I don't understand whether this means I am right and phenomenological mortality is inconceivable or even if it does or does not occur.

The four lemmas are choices of what might happen if there is a tathagata in the first place. If there is no such entity, then all questions about what happens to that entity at death have no answer. Nāgārjuna used the tetralemma for all kinds of possible positions one might take about what happens to things or about relations among things. What all those positions have in common is that they presuppose that things have essential natures. His position, of course, is that things do not have essential natures, and therefore nothing can truthfully be said about them. It's as if he is saying that every proposition is a sentence that has a predicate but no subject.

I have no idea at all what phenomenological mortality means. I am guessing it may have something to do with whether anyone can imagine oneself to be non-existent. This is a version of Freud's observation that it is impossible to imagine oneself as having died and entered into oblivion, because it is logically impossible to imagine oneself as a being that has no capacity to imagine or think. (Freud was deeply indebted to Descartes on this matter.) So if your claim is that one cannot imagine oneself nonexistent and cannot therefore imagine oneself as having attained nirvana (if nirvana is a kind of total absence of further consciousness) and therefore cannot aspire to nirvana (because one cannot aspire to that of which one cannot conceive), then you are in the company of Descartes and Freud. Whether you regard that as good company or bad is a matter of taste. 

But I am just making a wild guess at what you might mean by phenomenological mortality. Being a philosopher, I would much rather make wild guesses than actually know answers. As you probably know, answers kill philosophy. That notwithstanding, I invite you to tell what what you actually mean by phenomenological mortality and to explain what on earth that has to do with Buddhism in any of its forms.

Richard Hayes
Department of Philosophy
University of New Mexico

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