What is experience? III

The biggest issue is: what is experience? All the Indian traditions have been busy with answering this question. But both posing this question and answering it are themselves experiential, as far as the Indian traditions are concerned. For instance, according to the so-called Buddhist traditions, the structures-in-experience are not given in the experience itself: the impermanence and transience of experience has to do with the realization that the description of the experience provides a sense of permanence because all descriptions of experience ‘create’ structures. Here, it has to do with structures like ‘self’, specific emotions, and such like. But that does not mean that the Buddhist tradition says that our ‘experience’ of a tree, or a stone or a car, etc. is illusory. That is, they do not say that the ‘experience’ of the external world is an illusion.

Accessing the truth of experience that in such an experience, there is no structure to be experienced (if I may put it in a simplistic way) does indeed constitute enlightenment, according to the Indian traditions.

But this entire issue, despite its absolute importance, is not the one I am addressing myself to in ‘The Heathen…’ (In “How to speak for Indian traditions: an agenda for the future”, I start investigating the issue of ‘experience’ in the sense in which we speak of it in the Indian traditions, especially when we speak of enlightenment.) I hope to begin looking at this issue in one of my projected books. We need to have clarified many notions before we approach the notion of experience, especially if we want to talk intelligibly about the Indian traditions. Otherwise, we will repeat the foolish claims of generations of Indologists and specialists in the study of Indian ‘religions’ that, for example, the advaitic tradition claims that the world is an illusion, i.e., the advaitins are made to say such foolish things as: ‘there is no difference between my experience of having an arm chopped off and drinking water when one is thirsty’, and such like. (How does one distinguish between the ‘illusion’ of having an arm chopped off, and the ‘illusion’ of drinking water when thirsty? What differentiates one illusion from another? Are there different ‘kinds’ of illusion?)

To understand the claim in ‘The Heathen…’ about structuring experience, we should not problematize the notion of ‘experience’. We need to keep this notion steady and vague, the way we do it when we do other sciences, and when we are not studying experience itself.