Apophatic Periphraxis: Nibbāna the Inexpressible
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- Apophasis means talking about a subject that remains tacit, unspoken.
- Periphraxis refers to circumlocution, indirection or euphemism.
- An example of apophasis is the KITE essay.
- An example of periphaxis is a woman complaining that she ‘doesn’t have anything to wear,’ when her real concern is that her wardrobe makes her look fat.
Another example of both apophasis and periphraxis is this series: if you haven’t watched our previous videos, especially Matrix Learning, Apophatic Antifragility and the previous videos in this series, much of what we say here won’t make sense. That is because this video treats that material as apophatic, and you lack the required background and context.
Similarly, discussions of the Buddha’s teaching also will not make much sense unless you read, study and practice the Theravāda Suttas, which are themselves apophatic with regard to nibbāna. Nibbāna is given in the Suttas as an axiomatic, undefined and indefinable term. Nibbāna transcends everything—including being, nonbeing, conceptual thinking and language—even consciousness.
The Buddha’s teaching is thus both apophatic and periphrastic, especially with reference to nibbāna. This is one of the factors that imbue it with deep, transcendent antifragility, as we discuss in our series Apophatic Antifragility.
Note that papañca is almost always periphrastic and/or apophatic. It’s hardly ever about what it superficially seems to be about; the origin or referent is missing. There’s a vacuum in the center of the vortex of conceptual thought. This is not anyone’s doing; it arises spontaneously from the nature of language itself. But the Buddha’s teaching is intentionally periphrastic, a device—and that makes all the difference.
Grammatical forms are especially subject to papañca. Verbs are said to ‘conjugate’—a term reminiscent of biological proliferation—from roots into a variety of ‘tenses’; while nouns ‘decline’ from the nominative (subjective) to the accusative (objective), with a variety of gender, number, possessive, dative and other ‘cases’ depending on the specific language.
From Concept and Reality:
“… the expansion or diffusion of thought as envisaged by papañca tends to obscure the true state of affairs, inasmuch as it is an unwarranted deviation giving rise to obsession. This particular nuance in the meaning of the term becomes obvious when papañca is used to denote verbosity or circumlocution (periphraxis). In fact it is probably this latter sense found in common usage, that has assumed a philosophical dimension with its transference from the verbal to the mental sphere.”
“Like the legendary resurrected tiger which devoured the magician who restored it to life out of its skeletal bones, the concepts and linguistic conventions overwhelm the worldling who evolved them. At the final and crucial stage of sense perception (phassa or contact), the concepts are, as it were, invested with an objective character.
“This phenomenon is brought about mainly by certain peculiarities inherent in the linguistic medium. As a symbolical medium, language has an essential public quality about it. This public quality has necessitated the standardization of the symbols (words) as well as of the patterns of their arrangement (grammar and logic), and these, therefore enjoy a certain degree of stability. Thus the letter, as the smallest unit of language, was called an aksara (stable or durable) and language itself was associated with God and eternity by the ancient Indian philosophers.
“Now, the vague percepts, which are already tainted with a notion of stability owing to the limitations of the sensory apparatus, become fully crystallized into concepts in the realm of ideation. Nouns, abstract nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs—in short, the whole repertoire of language—assumes a certain substantial character by virtue of its relative stability. It is probably this particular phenomenon that is hinted at by such oft-recurring phrases in the Suttas as thāmasā parāmassa abhinivissa voharanti: “Having seized tenaciously and adhering thereto, they declare…” and takkapariyāhata: “Hammered out on the anvil of logic…” cited in connection with dogmatic theories, which themselves are called diṭṭhijāla: “veritable networks of views”.
“The vicious proliferating tendency of the worldling’s consciousness weaves for him a labyrinthine network of concepts connecting the three periods of time through processes of recognition, retrospection and speculation. The tangled maze with its apparent objectivity entices the worldling and ultimately obsesses and overwhelms him. The Buddha has compared the aggregate of consciousness to a conjuror’s trick or an illusion (māyā), and we may connect it with the above-mentioned image of the resurrected tiger.”
Indian Vedic philosophy starts from the assumption that consciousness is absolute, transcendent and eternal. The Buddha rejects this eternalistic assumption and instead begins from nibbāna, which is beyond even consciousness. Therefore, nibbāna is unknown and indeed unknowable; yet it can be experienced, and this experience is associated with the most profound freedom and pleasure.
How do we talk about such an entity as nibbāna? We can’t grasp nor discuss nibbāna directly, for one cannot say that it is, is not, both is and is not, nor neither is nor is not. Nibbāna is the wildcard—the Joker in the Buddha’s deck, the very stratagem that gives his teaching the power and possibility of self-transcendence.
So the Buddha installed nibbāna in the realm of the apophatic, and tacitly talked around and about it. Or he assigned it to the class of periphraxis, and spoke of it in euphemisms: ‘the unconditioned’, ‘the deathless’, ‘the goal’, ‘extinction’, ‘cessation’, etc. All this is to keep the living experience of nibbāna undefined, dynamic, and prevent it from crystallizing into a ‘concept in the realm of ideation.’
Lack of awareness of the periphrastic strategy of the Buddha’s teaching is the source of much consternation and confusion. The Commentaries unsuccessfully try to skirt the Buddha’s strategy of apophasis by redefining nibbāna in terms of verbal roots. Indian philosophers like Śankarācārya used the same trick to usurp the traditional interpretation of the Vedas and misuse them to justify monism.
The commentator Buddhaghosh, a Brahmin trained in South India, applied the same technique to the Suttas. And then he burned the original commentaries because he could not tolerate the idea of an undefined—nay, undefinable—term being the apophatic subject of the Buddha’s teaching. Being merely a scholar and logician—not a practitioner who could experience the benefits of nibbāna for himself—he thought it was a mistake. So he introduced the concept of nibbāna as an eternal absolute into the Suttas—missing the point that the Buddha worked hard throughout his teaching to avoid that exact strategic error.
The transcendent power of quantum computing is due to the counterintuitive fact that as long as the quantum wave function remains undefined, it can assume any properties simultaneously, up to all possible values for all operators. But once the wave function is measured, it collapses into ordinary, non-paradoxical reality. Powerful quantum effects such as tunneling occur only as long as the system remains unobserved.
We lionize and celebrate adventurers and pioneers who brave the risks of the unknown and bring it within the realm of the knowable. But life gains juice, taste and a sense of adventure precisely because so many things are unknown and unknowable—for example, the future. A life where everything is completely known, or even knowable, and controlled would be an unbearably dull routine. And this indeed is the source of the ennui, alienation and anomie that plagues so much of modern ‘civilized’ life: we are quite literally bored to death by its reliable predictability. Thus, humanity’s material success has become the cause of its spiritual failure.
Similarly the Buddha saw clearly that if nibbāna were reduced to any conceptual definition, his teaching would lose its charm, its mystery, its power of self-transcendence, and become commonplace. Once defined, nibbāna would become the origin of papañca, leading to papañca-sañña-sankhā, an avalanche of conceptual deviation and proliferation, and actual ‘liberation in the signless’ would become impossible. So he created a fantastically subtle, ontologically sophisticated semantic structure—the Theravāda Suttas—just to avoid that problem.
Buddhaghosh sabotaged the Buddha’s most powerful device by defining nibbāna, bringing it within the conceptual realm of the knowable, and making the basis of enlightenment sila (religious morality) instead of pañña (intuitive insight and wisdom). That unfortunately opened up a Pandora’s Box of papañca, obscuring the Buddha’s original intent and reducing his teaching to a religious philosophy. The avalanche of papañca triggered by Buddhaghosh’s mistake continues to the present day, and this explains precisely why Buddhists who accept his mistaken view uncritically cannot attain enlightenment.
We are deeply indebted to great monks like Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Ñānananda for their insights into the nonconceptual nature of nibbāna, opening up access to the Path realizations for all.
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