Getting Saved, Riding Bikes: Sort of the Same Thing

Embarrassingly enough for a religion major who studied ancient Greek once upon a time and who should perhaps have known or been able to parse it already, I have learned a new word in the course of our readings: soteriological, meaning related to salvation, as in: “the three-nature theory in the MSA/Bh should not be interpreted as an ontological model simpliciter, but as a soteriologico-ontological model, identifying three progressive stages of ontological realization, culminating in the perfected, non-conceptually-constructing awareness of thusness” (D’Amato, 185). (Obviously, replacing “salvation” with “enlightenment” is a somewhat ham-fisted move, but for the purposes of D’Amato, Garfield et al., it seems logical.)

Yogacara is, after all, a yoga and by its nature rooted in praxis. It examines the nature of truth, including through the three-nature theory, not merely for its own sake but as part of a guiding project towards enlightenment. Madhyamaka, on the other hand, has built into it a fundamental gap between comprehending and fully comprehending emptiness; I’m thinking here of Professor Kassor’s example about being able to describe versus knowing experientially how to ride a bicycle. At least in my understanding, to attain enlightenment is to attain the experience, not just the theoretical knowledge, of all phenomena as essence-less—to learn how to ride the bike.

If we wish to push the metaphor further, we can say that the way to learn to ride a bike is to practice. Yet madhyamaka texts such as the Mulamadhyamakakarika seem to offer more descriptions of the phenomenology of bike-riding than training wheels, let alone advice on how to practice. What does it mean for a theory to be “soteriologico-ontological”—not just a description of the nature of being, but a description of the nature of being for the purpose of attaining enlightenment? Does it mean that compared to the philosophy of emptiness, coming to a fuller understanding of the three natures helps you to grasp specific aspects of riding the bike?

I want to comprehend that phenomena are without essence. No matter what troubles I have detaching from essentialism, I want to root them out. Madhyamaka is beautiful to me, elegant in the way that it makes no compromises—absolutely nothing that exists exists independently, not even the mind. (I don’t believe this makes me a nihilist, but I wouldn’t be too torn up if it did; there are worse things to be.) But where does madhyamaka give me a place to start?

Yogacara’s theory of three natures—the imagined, the dependent, and the perfected—breaks down madhyamaka’s sweeping declaration of interdependence and complicates it. This nuance serves as training wheels rather than demanding that I get on and start riding immediately, already knowing instinctively how not to fall over. The only problem is that keeping the mind intact as essential might mean render the goal of enlightenment completely different. Is yogacara training for some mode of transport that isn’t a bike at all?

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2 Responses to Getting Saved, Riding Bikes: Sort of the Same Thing

  1. Emma says:

    Your point that Madhyamaka is beautiful and elegant in the way that it makes no compromises really resonates with me. I feel similarly compelled to work towards the point where i can understand essencelessness, despite the tendency of my mind and senses to object.

    I also tend to distrust religious/spiritual/existential concepts that appear to be understandable through reason alone, since that seems way too easy to me; if you think you can understand a thing without living it or practicing it, you’re missing something. Because of this, I can understand why Yogacara could be practically helpful in terms of–as you put it–helping to understand more specific aspects of riding the bike. However, when it comes down to it, I still prefer Madhyamaka, even though–and perhaps because–it is hard. I don’t think that you need to fully grasp a concept in order to commence with its praxis, and in fact in the case of Madhyamaka I think this would be impossible. So we just have to deal with the fact that studying a bike is not the same as learning how to ride one.

  2. jolsen says:

    Thanks so much for explaining the meaning of soteriological as I kept meaning to look up the meaning (haha), but didn’t! Related to salvation, that’s beautiful. I am struggling to write about Yogacara in my final paper and I love your description of the bike and training wheels and how perhaps Yogacara is training for another mode of transport. I think the problem I keep having is that I am so familiar with the other schools at this point that mind-only school just seems not-quite-right or like you said, might alter the goal of enlightenment compared to the other schools. Thanks for a great post!

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