Experience and knowledge

The relationship between “experience” and “knowledge” is one that crops up repeatedly, in conjunction with the issue of the relationship between “practice” and “principle”. On this issue, I find quite different opinions in the (mostly western) Buddhist community and the classical Indian, both Hindu and Buddhist sources. I find the emphasis on technical practice in modern Buddhism similar to the emphasis on technicality in other domains, say, science and philosophy.

While this emphasis is correct in many respects, because our beliefs about our world are rather mistaken, it seems to me that technical practice of any kind evolves quickly into its own world, one that on top of having the drawbacks of “conventional Samsara” is also disconnected from existential concerns and lived reality. I noticed this very clearly when I got exposed to abstract mathematics, which I thought was an entry into the absolute (I was but a naive child), but now is very much its own world with problems that are mostly technique driven.

It is this aspect of modern technology that is rightly criticized (say, by Gandhi) as being abstract and far from experience. On the other hand, I see the criticism as being misplaced, i.e., the problem is not abstraction, but the disconnect from existential concerns. If by abstraction, we mean, a form of insight that takes us away from common sense, then abstraction is essential, since common sense is hardly authentic experience. In fact, the notion of “authentic experience” is an abstract notion. For these reasons, I find the unthinking emphasis on practice and experience doubly troubling for their disconnect from principle and their unconscious reification of a technical world. At the same time without a genuine practice, it is hard to get a grip on the relevant issues.

Leave a Reply