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The Bodhi Tree and the Turin Horse

Gotama and Nietzsche, In Extremis —

Related Posts: Shame and Connection, Affective Encounters on the Path
Weaving the World_Part 2, The Politics of Internal Transformation



The stories could not be more different, but they resonate with each other in interesting ways. The meditative adept, half-starved from the rigors of ascetic practice, sits beneath the peepal tree (henceforth known as the bodhi tree) and, after a final encounter with the spirit of evil, attains an awakened state. Touching the earth, the adept raises his eyes to the morning star (the planet Venus, actually) and the shift takes place. Many years later, in the city of Turin in Northern Italy, a philologist, his body wracked by illnesses and dysfunctions of all kinds, reads a passage in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment about a horse being whipped. Feeling an odd excitement, he closes the book and walks out onto the crowded streets. There, as if by the operation of fateful symmetries, the philologist encounters a draft horse being savagely whipped in precisely the manner described in the novel he had just put down. Weeping and crying out, he throws himself on the horse, losing his sanity.

To suggest a parallel between these two moments of transformation may be provocative, but it also sheds light on how personal and social transformation align in our troubled world. The ascetic, whose name was Gotama (aka the Buddha Shakyamuni), spent the rest of his life traveling Northern India teaching about what he had experienced beneath the bodhi tree; the philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche, spent his days in silence behind the walls of a Swiss sanitarium. Despite the lurid scene on the street in Turin, those who visited him often commented on his serenity, and a close reading of Nietzsche’s late works and private letters suggests his breach can be viewed as the same kind of shift encountered by Gotama without the mental stability of a meditation practice. In both cases it is as if a powerful eversion of the mind had taken place, the structures supporting the sense that we are separate from the world dissolving once and for all.

Several years ago now a passage in a book gave me a direct experience of what this kind of shift might be like. “The essentially empty nature of consciousness is identified as the self,” I read, “and objective reality is projected onto its luminous aspect” (53). The book was Creation and Completion by the 19th century Tibetan adept Jamgon Kongtrul, translated by Sarah Harding. As if those words, translated across languages and time, had magically conveyed the ineffable core of practice, I felt abruptly the inseparability of the world around me from mind itself. Later I encountered a similar passage, this one written in the 13th century by the Zen master Dogen, capturing the implications of this sense of things: “I came to realize clearly that my mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and trees, the sun and the moon and the stars.” These words appeared in a footnote in an important essay by David Loy on Derrida, along with Loy’s explanation: “If the dualism between inside and outside is a construct, the result of an ‘invagination’ of the outside (which is therefore not an outside), it raises the possibility of a ‘de-vagination.'” It is interesting to locate this idea at work in artistic practice as well. On its most basic level, for example, we can think of a poem as tracing this kind of eversion of the mind. We can think of a painting or a piece of music this way too. We judge the quality of these artistic objects according to how purely and completely they fit this description—how well they present that fragment of everted mind. The force of a line, the placement of color, a dancer’s pause—these are designed to trigger and invoke an experience of non-separation—which is what we are after when we walk through the doors of a museum, or take a book of poems down off the shelf.


It makes sense to define some of the basic terms here, especially the Buddhist concept of sunyata. Typically translated as “emptiness” the term is not used to describe a spatial quality—such as how a container is “empty” or void—but rather to indicate the way an entity is “empty of self-being” or “empty of essential form.” In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, in which both Kongtrul and Dogen practiced, every entity has a form aspect and an emptiness aspect. A flower growing out of a garbage heap, to deploy a traditional image, exists both as form—the flower—and as an array of conditions—the water in the ground, the sunlight being photosynthesized into sugar, the minerals in the garbage, etc.—arising together in an emergent expression (emptiness). In most cases, then, what we tend to perceive is the form aspect of things, and this contributes to our pervasive and imbalanced sense of being entirely separate and apart from each other and from the world. Language, with its fixed and determinate meanings, continually reinforces our inherent bias in the direction of apparent form, and this imbalanced mode of perception is then amplified over and over again by the exchange economy, which continuously affixes values to the separate forms established by language.

Writing about the Dogen statement quoted above, Loy suggests that sunyata can be viewed as a radically extended version of the important concept of différance (written with an a instead of an e) in contemporary poststructuralist philosophy. Derrida coined the term to underscore the interdependence of all signifiers, the way every signifier is “empty of self-being;” Gotama extended this idea of codependent arising to all entities, the material as well as the semiotic or conceptual. All entities, according to this view, are empty of self-being, and also non-separate from the mind that perceives them. Okay, so what, then, is the form aspect of mind or consciousness? Kongtrul names it: luminosity—a basic clarity in which experience arises and unfolds. For me, this description brings with it a taste of a fundamentally different way of relating to experience, the world around us suddenly shifting closer in highly intimate ways. And yet, with mind, unlike with other objects, what we tend to perceive, according to Kongtrul, is not this luminous form aspect, but rather the emptiness aspect, which becomes the suffering self, the object of perpetual restless becoming. The luminosity of mind, meanwhile, we project onto the world and onto others, as if we were entirely separate from it.

Beginning, perhaps, with Henri Bergson (or was it Nietzsche? Or Spinoza himself?) there has been a growing comprehension within Western thought of non-separation, a concept explored directly by Merleau-Ponty (for example) and then given empirical weight by (for example) Maturana and Varela and many others. On an empirical level these thinkers underscore that there is simply no clear boundary you can point to where mind ends and world begins; along the vector of emptiness (or co-dependent arising) we are truly non-separate from experience. You can taste this experience of non-separation directly via samatha breath meditation, it just takes some time. But assuming for the moment you accept that what I write might be true, you can see already the staggering implications—an error or imbalance so vast and so pervasive and basic so fundamentally seeded into human experience at every level—this is bound to have immensely destructive effects. As the species now confronts the specter of collapse and extinction on every horizon, that error, that little glitch in the software, is just begging to be corrected. And this is where Nietzsche’s insights about our relationship to debt, and about the creditor-debtor relationship operating like an engine at the core of our collective life, point toward transformation.

Before looking at how these issues connect to contemporary political economy, it is important to underscore that even here language itself fights against clarity. The Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism, for example, famously emphasizes that form and emptiness are not reliably distinct, and Gotama’s famous “middle way” involves learning to operate in both realms simultaneously, without preferring either, and without getting lost in hidebound conceptual distinctions. That we are both separate and non-separate at the same time is, moreover, not simply a matter of semantics or false appearances, but a true contradiction. There is no deeper resolution of this paradox—it cannot be resolved. At root what happened under the bodhi tree—perhaps on the street in Turin as well—was the embrace of this fundamental contradiction, and a final loss of “common sense.”


Since this contradiction—literally, against (contra) diction or language—is simply the way things are, perhaps the more salient issue becomes our deep commitment to the idea of non-contradiction, and the “metaphysics of common sense” this commitment gives rise. In the grip of this deluded view—according to which a-thing-is-what-it-is-goddamn-it-and-don’t-try-to-confuse-me—we cannot perceive our basic situation. This is precisely the ignorance Gotama located at the root of all suffering. This ignorance operates stronger then ever today, despite the fact that our most advanced empiricists—our esteemed physicists—locate a similar incommensurability at the roots of the material world, where individual bits of matter and energy themselves exist simultaneously—and in an utterly paradoxical way—as both waves and particles. Common sense is also where these arcane philosophical distinctions and concerns connect to contemporary politics, an arena in which our susceptibility to reductive platitudes—always the specialty of the authoritarian ruler—is sealing the deal on our demise.

Since we are on some level materialists, it is interesting to locate these dynamics within the raging social and cultural pathologies of poverty, injustice and environmental degradation. This is where for me Gotama’s dharma aligns most suggestively with Western traditions of thinking linked to Nietzsche. As it happens, certain critical thinkers in the West—and for the record I have in mind Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in particular—value Nietzsche for his subtle understanding of the centrality of debt in our collective life. At the core of this understanding is Nietzsche’s concept of “promise behavior”—the stable, unified, form-based version of identity that made economies of exchange possible in the first place, and that also entrap us within a set of machinic social and cultural processes. By machinic I mean automatic, reactive and entirely out of our control.

What David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5000 Years suggests so beautifully is how the religious innovations of the Axial Age, dharma included, were from the beginning a response to debt, and how the arrival of metal coinage in the 6th century BC only amplified the social dynamics and pathologies associated with debt. We begin to see here how debt is the materialization, in the social sphere, of sunyata, the emptiness aspect of mind. Within the realm of separation, debt arises from an odd kind premonition of the non-separate—a kind of sacrilegious echo or parody of the divine. Forced into reductive categories of common sense, it is as if the non-relationality of the awakened state gets bastardized into the creditor-debtor relationship at the heart of economies of exchange. The tragedy is precisely if we allow that dynamic to define us, which it certainly will if we don’t see it, and seeing it requires an active engagement with contradiction, paradoxa and aporia. This, again, is what art and awareness practices provide in different ways.

Our continually frustrated efforts to ground a stable, unified identity, a self on a journey governed by a sensible narrative logic, not only blinds us to our true freedom but entraps us in a vast mechanism of injustice and destruction. It’s enough to make you want to hug a horse. The result is a situation in which every moment of experience, individual or collective, delivers the same stark choice: either more of the same, or something new. In a thousand voices the world begins to force this question: how do we act in a way that does not reinforce the encoded modes of power and knowledge? On a neuronal level, how do we say “no” to behavioral imperatives based on lack and separation, and recognize ourselves and each other in the luminosity of the world? In all its five elements the world begins to present the same answer. And that answer, perhaps, can unfold in the mode of revelation—as beneath the bodhi tree—or via dis-integration—as on the street in Turin.


  1. I appreciate this essay and think of Dogen’s observation as I read it:

    “That the myriad things come forth and experience themselves is enlightenment.”

    Thank you.

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