Buddhas are Mere Hypostatizations

Instead of thinking that a Buddha is either an omniscient being who has simultaneous cognition of all truths, or an insentient being with no mind or mental processes whatsoever, let us consider that a Buddha is not a being at all but a mere hypostatization: a virtual projection of the mind based on avidyā/agnosis/ignorance; an imaginary object which obscures the spontaneous occurrence of vidyā/gnosis/wisdom.

A “hypostatization” can be defined as a quasi-universal form which appears as a particular individuated entity, produced as a “foregrounded absence” through the cognitive “exclusion of the other” (apoha). Said a bit more simply, a hypostatization is an appearance of a thing produced by the mind when excluding from recognition everything that is deemed irrelevant to the acquisition of the thing in question.

A stock example used to illustrate this point is that of a cow, where the universal form of “cowness” is said to be actively constructed through the cognitive exclusion of every particular thing which is not-cow (such as a horse, or a donkey, or humans, or blades of grass, or the sky, etc.) rather than pre-existing as either a natural kind or platonic ideal. To see the appearance of a real or imagined cow is to see or conceive of a hypostatization, where a “cow” comes into the focus of one’s mind by bringing to the “foreground” the “absence” of everything that is not a cow. To then believe that this mere appearance of a cow refers to an independently existing, objective cow with a being of its own (svabhāva) is to reify this hypostatic appearance by treating it as if it were a substantially existent entity.

If Buddhas are mere hypostatizations, there is no possibility of being or becoming a Buddha. For hypostatizations are not the sort of thing that can have any positive existential content to grant them the status of beings in their own right, so there is nothing which is “yet to be” a Buddha that later “comes to be” a Buddha. One cannot actually be a Buddha, in the same way that one cannot be a mirage, magical illusion, a reflection on a mirror, a character on a TV screen, a 3D computer model, or a virtual hologram—no matter how real such illusions appear to be.

If we cannot be or become Buddhas, then what does this make of the Buddhist path? Simply, it completely undermines it. If the result of the Buddhist path cannot be found, then a path which culminates in that result also cannot be found, which also means that the Buddhist path is completely groundless with no way to work through a path towards some consummated result. The one who recognizes that Buddhas, like all things, are mere hypostatizations with no real being of their own, know that there is no path which can be progressively ascended through deliberate effort (as the gradualists say), nor a result to immediately realize in a single moment (as the subitists say). There is nothing but the spontaneous occurrence of wisdom in this very instance of recognition.

However this does not mean that there is no use at all for Buddhism, even if it is, ultimately, entirely useless. For so long as there are ignorant beings to conceive of them, there will be Buddhas saving them. So long as Buddhas are saving ignorant beings, they are teaching them the Dharma, which leads them on the Way away from confusion about their ultimate condition and brings towards an awakening to it. So long as there is the Dharma there will be beings following it, who will benefit from the teachings in exactly the way that the teachings were designed to benefit them.

The curious thing about vidyā/gnosis/wisdom is that, since it opens up the possibility for anything to happen, it is open to the possibility of being counter to itself: by lapsing into ignorance. Hence, while it is impossible for wisdom to simultaneously exist along with ignorance (since they are mutually exclusive), it is possible for the former to lapse into the latter (because wisdom asymmetrically includes its own opposite). Thus, conventionally or relatively speaking, the same person can be on a Buddhist path and make meaningful use of it in one moment, while in another moment intimately recognizing the fact that, ultimately speaking, their path is utterly useless and incapable of producing the sublime fruit of awakening.

The only thing we can say that actually “changes” over time when oscillating between striving on a Buddhist path in some moments and abiding in the space of uncontrived pathlessness in other moments is gaining confidence of the fact that a spiritual path is not, and has never been, actually necessary to fully realize the awakened state, since everything we need is already right here, sitting on the palm of our hand. Eventually, one gains enough confidence to realize that the very distinction between being on a path and not being on a path dissolves, and one starts to abide permanently in perfect wakefulness while unlocking their maximum capacity to help others on their own path to awakening.

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