Imagine …. a vast and deep ocean. In its depths: absolute stillness. On its surface: waves large and small, arising and subsiding. Occasionally the surface (in clear and direct resonance with the depths) finds a mirror-like stillness – but for the most part there are waves — of various colors, shapes and sizes — appearing and then disappearing.
Now, let’s use this image – of an ocean with waves – to explore the difference between the absolute and the approximate Ultimate, also known as the “real” and the “nominal” Ultimate.
The Absolute/Real Ultimate
In this metaphor, the depths of the ocean — primordially still and silent – represent the absolute/real Ultimate. This is the “Tao that cannot be spoken.” It is our True Nature: non-conceptual, non-phenomenal, limitless, transpersonal, primordially perfect and indestructible. It is closer than close: so close that it is easily overlooked. We know it directly by (knowingly) being it. It is Sat-Cit-Ananda: Being-Consciousness-Joy. It is the awareness that is aware of these words, right now.
The Approximate/Nominal Ultimate
In this metaphor, the waves along the ocean’s surface represent phenomena: the gross and subtle “things” of body, mind and world; of “self” and “other.” The waves represent anything that can be named: anything to which we can affix a conceptual/linguistic label. The waves also represent these conceptual/linguistic labels themselves – which are none other than subtle (i.e. “internal” or thought-based) phenomena.
Now, what’s important to notice is that both names (i.e. conceptual labels) and their purported referents (i.e. the phenomena to which they refer) belong, in this metaphor, to the same category: they are, equally, waves. So for instance: both the word “cat” and the small furry mammal (or at least the perception of such) to which this word refers are phenomena: waves upon our metaphoric ocean.
So the word “cat” – a phenomenal wave – points to a set of perceptions (of small furry mammal) – which is another phenomenal wave. This, in general, is how human language typically functions.[Note: for our purposes here, we can remain agnostic around the issue of to what extent, if any, the small furry mammal exists independently of mind’s labeling of it as a “cat.”]
What those who propose a distinction between the absolute/real Ultimate and the approximate/nominal Ultimate are suggesting is that conceptual labels (which are subtle phenomena) don’t necessary have to refer only to other phenomena. They can also be used to point to the non-phenomenal “dimension” of the absolute/real Ultimate.
So, for instance: while the word-wave “cat” points – along the horizontal surface of the ocean – to the perception-wave “small furry mammal,” the word-wave “Tao” (at least potentially) points – at a “right angle” – downward to the non-phenomenal depths of the ocean.
The referent of the phrase “approximate/nominal Ultimate” is, in this example, the word “Tao.” The approximate/nominal Ultimate are the linguistic formulations designed specifically to point toward the non-conceptual (and hence non-linguistic) absolute/real Ultimate.
There are not actually two Ultimate Realities. There is only one (without a second) ocean depth.
A Special Kind Of Wave
The approximate/nominal Ultimate are a category of waves designed specifically to point to the ocean depths rather than simply to other waves. Once they have served this function – and we experience directly the ocean depths – we then come to understand, to see directly, that the actual substance (water!) of all waves is not-separate from that of the ocean depths.
So in reality all waves – those designed to refer to other waves, as well as those designed to point to the depths of the ocean – are “made of” water. But to come to this understanding often requires an encounter with the approximate/nominal Ultimate: with a teacher utilizing words such as “Tao” or “Dharmakaya” or “Pure Awareness” – to point us in the direction of the ocean depths, in the direction of that which has been hidden in plain view: the essential “water-ness” of all waves, regardless of their color, shape or size.
Responding To Objections
Now, keeping in mind our discussion thus far, let’s return to some of Mr. Priest’s objections to the distinction between the approximate/nominal Ultimate and the absolute/real Ultimate. In his article Beyond True and False (which I introduced in my previous post) he writes:
Philosophers in the Mahayana traditions hold some things to be ineffable; but they also explain why they are ineffable, in much the way that I did. Now, you can’t explain why something is ineffable without talking about it. That’s a plain contradiction: talking of the ineffable.
Here it seems that Mr. Priest has overlooked the distinction, within Tibetan Buddhism, between the Svātantrika and Prasaṅgika interpretations of Madhyamaka. While the latter eschews any affirmative statements about Ultimate reality, in favor of a purely deconstructive (via negativa) approach; the former finds value in putting forth positive affirmations (a la the approximate/nominal Ultimate).
Mr. Priest wonders:
“Anyway, what did Nagarjuna make of this problem? Nothing much. He didn’t even comment on it.”
Imagining how Nagarjuna (were he to stroll into a 21st-century philosophy conference) might respond: “Yeah, I didn’t comment on this “problem” because I actually don’t consider it to be a problem. My philosophical system is designed to deconstruct any and all conceptual positions, by showing how absurd consequences follow from them. That’s all: end of story.”
Here Mr. Priest offers his objection to Gorampa’s distinction between the “real” and “nominal” Ultimate:
Gorampa was troubled enough by the situation that he attempted to distinguish between two ultimate realities: a real ultimate reality, which is ineffable, and a ‘nominal’ ultimate reality, which is what we end up talking about when we try to talk about the real ultimate. But wait a minute – the nominal ultimate is obviously effable: by definition, it is the reality that we can talk about. In that case, if we say that ultimate reality is ineffable and we are actually talking about the nominal ultimate, what we are saying is false. Thus Gorampa’s proposal refutes itself.
While it’s true that the nominal Ultimate is effable (i.e. phenomenal, conceptual) – what’s not true is that the nominal Ultimate is “the reality that we can talk about.” As mentioned above, the phrase “approximate/nominal Ultimate” does not refer to a second reality/Ultimate – rather it refers to the linguistic/conceptual pointers toward the absolute/real Ultimate. In and of itself, the nominal Ultimate is effable – is conceptual, linguistic; but what it points to (viz. the real Ultimate) is ineffable.
Just so, Mr. Priest’s category “i” – within his proposed new system of mathematical logic – belongs to the approximate/nominal Ultimate. It is a linguistic pointer toward that which lies beyond language. Its function is to point beyond the mind’s conceptual categories. Mr. Priest also conjectures:
If one wishes to explain why something is ineffable, one must refer to it and say something about it. To refer to something else is just to change the subject.
Once again, the approximate/nominal Ultimate does not “refer to something else.” The approximate/nominal Ultimate are nothing other than the words/phrases used to point to the absolute/real Ultimate.
Also, the project of the nondual spiritual traditions is not primary to “explain why something is ineffable” – as it is to skillfully point to and facilitate a direct experiential encounter with the ineffable. This process never involves “referring to something else” (viz. the nominal Ultimate) in the sense of “changing the subject” — as though this “something else” were actually a replacement for the “real (no)thing.”
This isn’t to say that discussion of words like “Tao” or “Dharmakaya” or “Pure Awareness” doesn’t happen. It does. But hopefully with an understanding of how the words are functioning – as pointers to This which is neither phenomena, nor concept, nor word – and could never be; but which, paradoxically and simultaneously, is the true substance of all phenomena, concepts and words.