My thoughts and activities in Dharamsala

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Where there is smoke there is fire

The cold is really starting the bear down around these parts, well at least around Sarah. Since campus is located at a lower elevation than McLeod Ganj, the cold that is felt here is not the same as is felt up there and at the over environs. The cold here is a strange kind of cold. It never frosts in the morning, insects are still flying, the forest is still green and I have even seen flowers in bloom but you freeze your ass off, well at least I know that I have been. Though is it cold I am still wearing flip flops causing some of my schoolmates to ask me if I am not cold? I would say (imagine a Mr. T accent) “Damn straight I am cold; I am wearing four layers of clothes, fool!” I have always hated wearing shoes because then my feet can’t breathe and they get itchy. But in either case it is still cold. Being from NYC, one might feature that I could walk around in this weather in boxers, some folks here don’t layer up that is for sure but they are made of Tibetan high mountain stock; this cold ain’t got shit on a proper NYC winter, with blizzards, northeasterners and a wind that feels like subtle razor blades are slashing at whatever bits of flesh one might have exposed.

My stock is Caribbean, my family is Panamanian. Cold was not bred into our genes. I am genetically disposed to hot weather. Panama has two seasons hot and dry and wet and dry. That’s da bomb. I remember when I lived there as a little jit that one never knew cold, besides from eating raspáo (shredded ice packed and stacked in a paper cone drenched in sweeten condensed milk and a multicolored array of artificial juices of ones choice, yum!) or from drinking a cold soda. Seeing that I don’t like the cold makes it all the funnier that I would end up studying a philosophy that came from one of the coldest, highest places on earth with folks who come from the coldest mountain areas in the world. It is weird how shit can work out, an oxymoron like Jamaican bobsledding.

What has been my savior are these rubber whoopee cushion looking things that I can pour hot water into. I have two them. One was given to me by a cool Romanian lady, a polyglot, a classmate from my first year and the other one I bought in Mcleod Ganj. What I do is after I fill them up with hot water I wrap them in a shawl which holds in the heat and take it with me wherever I go. When I sleep, I hug on it like a little kid hugging a teddy bear sucking on the thumb, I am out nice and roasty toasty under my covers in no time. Everyone is now so used to seeing me with this bundle that they it called my baby, since it look like I am holding one. During study time in the temple, I have my favorite spot by a pillar where I can rest my back on it and stretch out my legs with the table at my chest so that I can read and write and I will place the bundle at the end of the mattress so that I can place my feet on them. It is mighty cold in the temple with its stone floors. Even now as I am typing I have it placed on my lap and when my hands get too cold I just stop and stick ’em inside and go, “aaaahhhh” for a bit having a mini hand heating orgasm before I continue typing. Even though it is a funny kind of cold I will relish in it for now because in a little over two years we will move up those thousands meters or so up the hill to McLeod Ganj where winter time is less likely to be joking. Luckily up there at Dialectic School, January and February are the vacation months.

This week I have learning to adjust without my tooth. Eating is definitely interesting, at times I have forgotten that I had the tooth removed (phantom tooth) and go in for a chomp to find emptiness (not in the Buddhist sense unfortunately) of the tooth. The food just hits my sensitive unhealed gum and stays intact mocking me in my attempts to destroy it. So I have chew on one side of my month which is quite awkward. Also since my studies require a lot of talking, with all the downloading, chanting and debating, my tongue has been making that spot around the absconded tooth very sore.

A few days ago while I was downloading some texts on the roof of the administrative building, I looked down at the village below and saw a man gathering some brush to get ready to light a fire. At that time I was working on downloading the syllogism: Regarding the subject, on a mountain pass, there is fire because there is smoke (du ldan la la chos can, me yod de, du ba yod pa’i phyir). According to the format that we use, the reason has to pervade or entail the predicate. Here the reason is because there is smoke, and the predicate is that there is fire. Which leads to this statement, it follows that if there is smoke there is necessarily fire (du ba yod na me yod pas khyab par thal), reasonable enough right. Even in English we say, “Where there is smoke there is fire”. But this common phrase taken as a proposition to be analyzed would not make sense if it was pushed a bit. It made me think that how in Buddhist philosophy and maybe in western philosophy too; we are forced to look deeper at commonly assumed notions that are taken for granted (like the white horse being white debate that I briefly explained in an earlier entry) and end up finding a lot of subtle and contradictory issues within them.

When the above statement, “Where there is smoke, there is fire” is pushed a person might say, ‘Well only a moron will assume that everywhere that there is smoke there is fire’, but I wonder if that is necessarily the implication or the assumption taken when the phrase is heard. I figure that most folks don’t even think about it and just nod their heads in agreement but they probably would not go beyond that. That was the case with my classmates when Gen la stated the original syllogism: Regarding the subject, on a mountain pass, there is fire because there is smoke, to us in class this week. Obviously we accepted. Then came the next question, it follows that if there is smoke there is necessarily fire. We also accepted this, most particularly because the acceptance of the first question implies the acceptance of the second question but it is stated in this format of pervasion or entailment for both testing and clarification purposes. It is there is where our assertion falls a part. Then Gen la throws at us: the subject, in the mouth of the uncle who is smoking a cigarette, it follows that there is fire because there is smoke, you asserted the pervasion (tha mag ‘then bzhin pa’i aa khu du ldan gyi kha’i nang du chos can, me yod par thal, du ba yod pa’i phyir, khyab pa khas). This leaves us in a position similar to having your king being placed in check in chess. The moves that Gen La used were simple and a common procedure learnt from day one. Since we accepted the pervasion the only thing we can say is that the reason is not established, which will mean that we will be accepting that there is no smoke in the mouth of the uncle who is smoking a cigarette. That just ain’t going to work, right! We were caught in our own contradiction made apparent by Gen la’s questioning. So the statement does not work, well at least so far.

I am sure I have mentioned this in the past, though we started with a syllogism, Gen la used the consequence (thal ‘gyur, prasaoga) form to debate us. That is rendered in English as “it follows” (thal, prasajyate). The consequence as the sense of taking the other’s assertion, checking it and seeing how far it can go until it breaks down into nonsense. I have seen in some places where the Latin reductio ad absurdum was used to describe the consequence. In the consequential debate style the challenger asks questions in direct dependence on the assertion of the defender and draws out the fallacies of the assertion. When sitting as defender, when we hear that “it follows” (thal) statement we know that our own assertions are being flung back at us and it does not necessarily imply the view of the challenger.

In Tibetan thal is a non-volitional verb normally meaning “to overdo”, “to get carried a way with”. This is what Gen la has done with us; we accepted that if there is smoke there is fire, and he has carried it to it follows that there is fire in the mouth of the uncle smoking a cigarette because there is smoke. The Tibetan syllogism would not have the term, “it follows” stated in it. Both the syllogism and the consequence each have their own very technical requirements that needs be met order for them to be considered correct. In the “Presentation of Signs and Reasonings” we are learning in detail about the technical requirements needed in syllogisms by analyzing what it needed to make a valid reason, though we debate using consequences. It is also said that the syllogisms used here are based on the style of debate used in Ancient India translated from the Sanskrit were the dependence on the consequence is more of a Tibetan innovation made by the scholar and abbot of Sangphu monastery Cha ba Chökyi Senge (phya pa chos kyi seng ge) in twelfth century. It won’t be until some years down the road when we will get heavily into the technical requirements of the consequence which I assume lays at the heart of, what Tibetan Buddhist hold to be the most refined philosophical view, that of the Middle Way Consequence School (dbu ma thal ‘gyur pa, prasaogika madhyamika), where talks are all about emptiness (shunyata).

As I was watching this villager building his fire, watching the smoke rise into the sky, I wondered what his assumptions were, what his villager’s mental paradigm were with his intimate knowledge of fire building. I have worked with fire a lot back in my hobbled days on the streets learning how to balance the air flow keeping the fire burning for maximum heat but not smoky. I was taught the phrase, “less smoke, more fire” as the key to proper fire building and maintenance. Fire goes back to that primordial cave-manish, or cave-womanish if you prefer, side of us, that basic urge of survival against cold and hunger. In referring to seeing smoke that one can correctly ascertain or infer that there is fire, HHDL states in “The Universe in a Single Atom”:

The formal introduction to inference as a principle of logic for young trainee monks (and these days, adult laity and nuns) involves the illustration of how one may infer the presence of fire from a distance by seeing a column of smoke over a mountain pass, and from fire it would be normal in Tibet to infer human habitation. One can easily imagine a traveler, thirsty after a long day’s walking, who feels the need for a cup of tea. He sees the smoke and thus infers fire and a dwelling where he can get shelter for the night. On the basis of this inference, the traveler is able to fulfill his desire to drink tea (and to warm up because Tibet is very cold). From an observed phenomenon, directly evident to the senses, one can infer what remains hidden.

It amazes me that something so primal like fire, probably the first and importantly grandest of all human achievements would have such philosophical depth and dialectical confusion within it though at the same time it does not surprise me. This syllogism has been so difficult to debate, so much so that I have started calling it one punk of a syllogism; so far none of us have found a way to not get caught in a contradiction. During last’s night all-night debate (meaning we got Saturday off, wooo hooo!), the last group that sat as defenders which had some really bright students in it were caught in so many contradictions that it was ridiculous. I have found out that in the higher classes this same syllogism comes up again and again and causes even more confusion. There is more to this cave-man T.V. that what meets the eye.


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