What makes Buddhism different?
We as Buddhists don't make real something eternal that stands on it's own, so we don't see the cosmos the same way as monism (one-ism) does. Which is why we don't consider a monist ideation of the liberated state as actually signifying "liberation." We see that a monist is still binding to a concept, a vast ego... an identity even if beyond concept or words, is still a limitation to the liberated experience of a Buddha. We see that even the liberated state is relative, though everlasting due to the everlasting realization of inter-dependent-co-emergence. We don't see any state of consciousness or realization as being one with a source of absolutely everything. We see the liberated consciousness as just the source of our own experience, even though we ourselves are also relative to everything else. The subtle difference is a difference to be considered, because it actually leads to an entirely different realization and thus cannot be equated with a monist (one-ist) view of the cosmos at all which we consider a bound view and not equal to the liberated view.
Also... there is the concept of the creative matrix in Buddhism and this matrix is without limit and is infinite. But it's not an eternal self standing infinite. It's an infinitude of mutually dependent finites... or "infinite finites" that persist eternally without beginning or end and without a source due to mutual, interpersonal causation you could say.
It's not that a Buddhist does not directly experience a unifying field of perception beyond being a perceiver that is perceiving... but, the Buddhist does not equate this even subconsciously, deep within the experiential platform of consciousness, with a source of all being. It's merely a non-substantial unity of interconnectivity, not a vast and infinite oneness that is the subject of all objects. That would not be considered liberation from the perspective of a Buddha. That would merely be a very subtle, but delusional identification with an experience that originates dependent upon seeing through phenomena, where the consciousness expands past perceived limitations. Even this consciousness that experiences this sense of connection with everything, beyond everything is also considered a phenomena and is empty of inherent, independent reality. Yet persists for as long as the realization persists, which for a Buddha is without beginning nor end.
Take care and have a wonderful night/day!!
Two Sutras (Discourses by Buddha) on the Mistaken Views of Consciousness
In these sutras, the Buddha warned against mistaken understandings of the I AM and non-dual experience/realisation prior to the Anatta insight (i.e. Thusness Stage 1~4). Shurangama Sutra in particular maps well with Thusness/PasserBy's Seven Stages of Enlightenment
First Sutra (Shurangama Sutra)
(41) Ananda, you should know that the good person has thoroughly seen the formations skandha as empty, and he must return consciousness to the source. He has already ended production and destruction, but he has not yet perfected the subtle wonder of ultimate serenity.
He can cause the individual sense faculties of his body to unite and open. He also has a pervasive awareness of all the categories of beings in the ten directions. Since his awareness is pervasive, he can enter the perfect source. But if he regards what he is returning to as the cause of true permanence and interprets this as a supreme state, he will fall into the error of holding to that cause. Kapila the Sankhyan, with his theory of returning to the Truth of the Unmanifest, will become his companion. Confused about the Bodhi of the Buddhas, he will lose his knowledge and understanding.
This is the first state, in which he creates a place to which to return, based on the idea that there is something to attain. He strays far from perfect penetration and turns his back on the City of Nirvana, thus sowing the seeds of externalism.
(42) Further, Ananda, the good person has thoroughly seen the formations skandha as empty. He has already ended production and destruction, but he has not yet perfected the subtle wonder of ultimate serenity.
He may regard that to which he is returning as his own body and see all living beings in the twelve categories throughout space as flowing forth from his body. If he interprets this as a supreme state, he will fall into the error of maintaining that he has an ability which he does not really have. Maheshvara, who manifests his boundless body, will become his companion. Confused about the Bodhi of the Buddhas, he will lose his knowledge and understanding.
This is the second state, in which he creates a specific ability based on the idea that he has such an ability. He strays far from perfect penetration and turns his back on the City of Nirvana, thus sowing the seeds for being born in the Heaven of Great Pride where the self is considered all-pervading and perfect.
(43) Further, the good person has thoroughly seen the formations skandha as empty. He has already ended production and destruction, but he has not yet perfected the subtle wonder of ultimate serenity.
If he regards what he is returning to as a refuge, he will suspect that his body and mind come forth from there, and that all things in the ten directions of space arise from there as well. He will explain that that place from which all things issue forth is the truly permanent body, which is not subject to production and destruction. While still within production and destruction, he prematurely reckons that he abides in permanence. Since he is deluded about non-production, he is also confused about production and destruction. He is sunk in confusion. If he interprets this as a supreme state, he will fall into the error of taking what is not permanent to be permanent. He will speculate that the God of Sovereignty (Ishvaradeva) is his companion. Confused about the Bodhi of the Buddhas, he will lose his knowledge and understanding.
This is the third state, in which he makes a false speculation based on the idea that there is a refuge. He strays far from perfect penetration and turns his back on the City of Nirvana, thus sowing the seeds of an distorted view of perfection.
(44) Further, the good person has thoroughly seen the formations skandha as empty. He has already ended production and destruction, but he has not yet perfected the subtle wonder of ultimate serenity.
Based on his idea that there is universal awareness, he formulates a theory that all the plants and trees in the ten directions are sentient, not different from human beings. He claims that plants and trees can become people, and that when people die they again become plants and trees in the ten directions. If he considers this idea of unrestricted, universal awareness to be supreme, he will fall into the error of maintaining that what is not aware has awareness. Vasishtha and Sainika, who maintained the idea of comprehensive awareness, will become his companions. Confused about the Bodhi of the Buddhas, he will lose his knowledge and understanding.
This is the fourth state, in which he creates an erroneous interpretation based on the idea that there is a universal awareness. He strays far from perfect penetration and turns his back on the City of Nirvana, thus sowing the seeds of a distorted view of awareness.
(45) Further, the good person has thoroughly seen the formations skandha as empty. He has already ended production and destruction, but he has not yet perfected the subtle wonder of ultimate serenity.
If he has attained versatility in the perfect fusion and interchangeable functioning of the sense faculties, he may speculate that all things arise from these perfect transformations. He then seeks the light of fire, delights in the purity of water, loves the wind's circuitous flow, and contemplates the accomplishments of the earth. He reveres and serves them all. He takes these mundane elements to be a fundamental cause and considers them to be everlasting. He will then fall into the error of taking what is not production to be production. Kashyapa and the Brahmans who seek to transcend birth and death by diligently serving fire and worshipping water will become his companions. Confused about the Bodhi of the Buddhas, he will lose his knowledge and understanding.
This is the fifth state, in which he confusedly pursues the elements, creating a false cause that leads to false aspirations based on speculations about his attachment to worship. He strays far from perfect penetration and turns his back on the City of Nirvana, thus sowing the seeds of a distorted view of transformation.
He may speculate that there is an emptiness within the perfect brightness, and based on that he denies the myriad transformations, taking their eternal cessation as his refuge. If he interprets this as a supreme state, he will fall into the error of taking what is not a refuge to be a refuge. Those abiding in Shunyata in the Heaven of [Neither Thought nor] Non-Thought will become his companions. Confused about the Bodhi of the Buddhas, he will lose his knowledge and understanding.
This is the sixth state, in which he realizes a state of voidness based on the idea of emptiness within the perfect brightness. He strays far from perfect penetration and turns his back on the City of Nirvana, thus sowing the seeds of annihilationism.
(47) Further, the good person has thoroughly seen the formations skandha as empty. He has already ended production and destruction, but he has not yet perfected the subtle wonder of ultimate serenity.
In the state of perfect permanence, he may bolster his body, hoping to live for a long time in that subtle and perfect condition without dying. If he interprets this as a supreme state, he will fall into the error of being greedy for something unattainable. Asita and those who seek long life will become his companions. Confused about the Bodhi of the Buddhas, he will lose his knowledge and understanding.
This is the seventh state, in which he creates the false cause of bolstering and aspires to permanent worldly existence, based on his attachment to the life-source. He strays far from perfect penetration and turns his back on the City of Nirvana, thus sowing the seeds for false thoughts of lengthening life.
(33) Further, in his practice of samadhi, such a good person's mind is firm, unmoving, and proper and can no longer be disturbed by demons. He can thoroughly investigate the origin of all categories of beings and contemplate the source of the subtle, fleeting, and constant fluctuation. But if he begins to speculate about self and others, he could fall into error with theories of partial impermanence and partial permanence based on four distorted views.
First, as this person contemplates the wonderfully bright mind pervading the ten directions, he concludes that this state of profound stillness is the ultimate spiritual self. Then he speculates, "My spiritual self, which is settled, bright, and unmoving, pervades the ten directions. All living beings are within my mind, and there they are born and die by themselves. Therefore, my mind is permanent, while those who undergo birth and death there are truly impermanent."
Because of these speculations of impermanence and permanence, he will fall into externalism and become confused about the Bodhi nature. This is the third externalist teaching, in which one postulates partial permanence.
Finally, if your pure, bright, clear, and unmoving state is permanent, then there should be no seeing, hearing, awareness or knowing in your body. If it is genuinely pure and true, it should not contain habits and falseness.
How does it happen, then, that having seen some unusual thing in the past, you eventually forget it over time, until neither memory nor forgetfulness of it remain; but then later, upon suddenly seeing that unusual thing again, you remember it clearly from before without one detail omitted? How can you reckon the permeation which goes on in thought after thought in this pure, clear, and unmoving consciousness?
Ananda, you should know that this state of clarity is not real. It is like rapidly flowing water that appears to be still on the surface. Because of its rapid speed, you cannot perceive the flow, but that does not mean it is not flowing. If this were not the source of thinking, then how could one be subject to false habits?
That's why your seeing, hearing, awareness, and knowing are presently strung together by subtle habits, such that within the profound clarity, existence and non-existence are both illusory. This is the fifth kind of upside-down, minutely subtle thinking.
Second Sutra (Mulapariyaya Sutta: The Root Sequence)
- "He directly knows Unbinding as Unbinding. Directly knowing Unbinding as Unbinding, he does not conceive things about Unbinding, does not conceive things in Unbinding, does not conceive things coming out of Unbinding, does not conceive Unbinding as 'mine,' does not delight in Unbinding. Why is that? Because he has known that delight is the root of suffering & stress, that from coming-into-being there is birth, and that for what has come into being there is aging & death. Therefore, with the total ending, fading away, cessation, letting go, relinquishment of craving, the Tathagata has totally awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening, I tell you."
- That is what the Blessed One said. Displeased, the monks did not delight in the Blessed One's words.
- One time the Buddha to a group of monks and he basically told them not to see Awareness as The Source of all things. So this sense of there being a vast awareness and everything just appears out of that and disappears back into it, beautiful as that is, he told them that’s actually not a skillful way of viewing reality. And that is a very interesting sutta, because it’s one of the only suttas where at the end it doesn’t say the monks rejoiced in his words.
- This group of monks didn’t want to hear that. They were quite happy with that level of insight, lovely as it was, and it said the monks did not rejoice in the Buddha’s words. (laughter) And similarly, one runs into this as a teacher, I have to say. This level is so attractive, it has so much of the flavor of something ultimate, that often times people are unbudgeable there.
- The Buddha taught that clinging to views is one of the four forms of clinging that tie the mind to the processes of suffering. He thus recommended that his followers relinquish their clinging, not only to views in their full-blown form as specific positions, but also in their rudimentary form as the categories & relationships that the mind reads into experience. This is a point he makes in the following discourse, which is apparently his response to a particular school of Brahmanical thought that was developing in his time — the Samkhya, or classification school.
- This school had its beginnings in the thought of Uddalaka, a ninth-century B.C. philosopher who posited a "root": an abstract principle out of which all things emanated and which was immanent in all things. Philosophers who carried on this line of thinking offered a variety of theories, based on logic and meditative experience, about the nature of the ultimate root and about the hierarchy of the emanation. Many of their theories were recorded in the Upanishads and eventually developed into the classical Samkhya system around the time of the Buddha.
- Although the present discourse says nothing about the background of the monks listening to it, the Commentary states that before their ordination they were brahmans, and that even after their ordination they continued to interpret the Buddha's teachings in light of their previous training, which may well have been proto-Samkhya. If this is so, then the Buddha's opening lines — "I will teach you the sequence of the root of all phenomena" — would have them prepared to hear his contribution to their line of thinking. And, in fact, the list of topics he covers reads like a Buddhist Samkhya. Paralleling the classical Samkhya, it contains 24 items, begins with the physical world (here, the four physical properties), and leads back through ever more refined & inclusive levels of being & experience, culminating with the ultimate Buddhist concept: Unbinding (nibbana). In the pattern of Samkhya thought, Unbinding would thus be the ultimate "root" or ground of being immanent in all things and out of which they all emanate.
- However, instead of following this pattern of thinking, the Buddha attacks it at its very root: the notion of a principle in the abstract, the "in" (immanence) & "out of" (emanation) superimposed on experience. Only an uninstructed, run of the mill person, he says, would read experience in this way. In contrast, a person in training should look for a different kind of "root" — the root of suffering experienced in the present — and find it in the act of delight. Developing dispassion for that delight, the trainee can then comprehend the process of coming-into-being for what it is, drop all participation in it, and thus achieve true Awakening.
- If the listeners present at this discourse were indeed interested in fitting Buddhist teachings into a Samkhyan mold, then it's small wonder that they were displeased — one of the few places where we read of a negative reaction to the Buddha's words. They had hoped to hear his contribution to their project, but instead they hear their whole pattern of thinking & theorizing attacked as ignorant & ill-informed. The Commentary tells us, though, they were later able to overcome their displeasure and eventually attain Awakening on listening to the discourse reported in AN 3.123.
- Although at present we rarely think in the same terms as the Samkhya philosophers, there has long been — and still is — a common tendency to create a "Buddhist" metaphysics in which the experience of emptiness, the Unconditioned, the Dharma-body, Buddha-nature, rigpa, etc., is said to function as the ground of being from which the "All" — the entirety of our sensory & mental experience — is said to spring and to which we return when we meditate. Some people think that these theories are the inventions of scholars without any direct meditative experience, but actually they have most often originated among meditators, who label (or in the words of the discourse, "perceive") a particular meditative experience as the ultimate goal, identify with it in a subtle way (as when we are told that "we are the knowing"), and then view that level of experience as the ground of being out of which all other experience comes.
- Any teaching that follows these lines would be subject to the same criticism that the Buddha directed against the monks who first heard this discourse.
p.s. With due respects to Thanissaro Bhikkhu who is a venerable from the Theravadin tradition of Buddhism, his comments on "the Dharma-body, Buddha-nature, rigpa" is not in accord with what is taught in the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, since in these traditions the Dharmakaya (dharma body)/Buddha Nature/Rigpa is explained as empty as well. It is however a common misunderstanding even among Buddhists.
Also see: Rigpa and Aggregates
As my friend Vajrahridaya said:
- Ah, but this is not at all what Rigpa or Dharmakaya means. Rigpa is basically the consciousness of emptiness of dependent origination, so also originates dependently and is not some self supporting universal awareness. But since all aspects of the so called "universe" are inherently empty always, so Rigpa is always, only in as much as it is recognized.
- p.s. Namdrol could clear this up, as he has access to untranslated Tibetan texts and could talk about what Rigpa means. He has said that it is not established as well. Rigpa is only inherent in the sense that all compounded things are inherently empty always. Just like the Buddhas first statement. "Mind and it's phenomena are luminous, uncompounded and free since beginningless time." Or something to that effect in maybe not that order. If someone has the quote?
An Essay On The View Of
by Jim Wilson
This essay is devoted to comparing and contrasting the teaching of Interdependent Transformation (Pratityasamutpada) with other views of ultimate nature that are widespread at this time. This is done in the hope that such comparing and contrasting will clarify the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, which leads to the cessation of sorrow and full awakening to the deathless and unborn.
1. Comparing Interdependent Transformation With Other Views Of Ultimate Nature
One way of comprehending Interdependent Transformation, and of deepening my awareness of this view, is to contrast Interdependent Transformation with other views of ultimacy. The purpose of engaging in this kind of contrast is to remove ignorance. It is primarily ignorance which keeps us in bondage. It is primarily ignorance which functions as the source for the generation of suffering in all its forms of greed, anger, hatred, clinging, craving and delusion. There exists an intimate connection between the ideas we hold, the views we have, and our interaction with the world. From this perspective, examining our core understandings, is a completely practical, and necessary part of our practice, for without the clarity of right view, we will continue to generate suffering for ourselves and for others. As Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it:
- Ignorance is the non-understanding of realities, a spiritual blindness ... preventing us from seeing things as they are. Its antidote is wisdom, a way of understanding things free from the distortions and perversions of subjective predispositions, clearly, correctly, precisely. As the opposite to ignorance, wisdom is the primary instrument in the quest for enlightenment and the attainment of deliverance. In classical Buddhist iconography, it is the flaming sword whose light dispels the darkness of delusion and whose blade severs the fetters of the passions.
- At its highest level of development, wisdom takes the form of a transcendental act of understanding which crosses the bounds of mundane experience to realize nirvana, the supramundane reality
- ( The Discourse on the All-Embracing Net of Views, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1978, pg. 2.)
This process of contrasting the Buddha’s understanding with other views is rooted in the discourses themselves, particularly the Brahmajaala Discourse, or “The All Embracing Net Of Views”. In this discourse the Buddha examines 62 speculative views as to the nature of ultimacy, finding all of them wanting. The examination is very thorough. I will not repeat what this wonderful discourse has to offer. Instead, inspired by this discourse, I will attempt to examine what I have observed as widely held views as to the nature of ultimacy current in the world today. I will then contrast these views with the view of Interdependent Transformation, as I understand it. In this way, the view of the Buddha will become clearer, its meaning more precise, and the ability to function from that understanding will increase.
The realization of Interdependent Transformation is a realization as to the ultimate nature of all existing things and of existence as such. Furthermore, this view of ultimate nature has liberative capacity and potential. This view of ultimate nature differs from the view of ultimate nature that others hold.
What do I mean by the term “ultimate”? By ultimate nature I mean the nature that all existing things have. An ultimate analysis, therefore, is an analysis which reveals, or uncovers, that aspect of existing things which all existing things have in common.
Traditionally, Buddhism divides human experience into six spheres; eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. These six spheres have different objects of experience. The eye experiences shapes and colors, the ear experiences sounds, the nose experiences smells, the tongue experiences taste, the body experiences touch, and the mind experiences thoughts and emotions. An ultimate analysis means an analysis which reveals what all of these objects of experience have in common, what all of these objects of experience share. Looked at in this way, it becomes clearer why an ultimate analysis presents us with serious difficulties for it is not at all obvious what the smell of pine incense, the touch of sand, the shape of a leaf, the sound of a melody, and a mathematical function all have in common.
Perhaps they have nothing in common. However, all of these things exist, so they at least have in common that they exist. But what, then, does it mean to exist? Put in this way, an ultimate analysis responds to the question of what it means to exist at all. What is the manner in which things, all things, exist?
Responding to this cluster of questions, different traditions offer different understandings. For some traditions, things have in common their source. For some traditions, things have in common an underlying substance, or primal material or energy, and things are simply modifications or modes of this underlying substance. There exist many different approaches and possibilities.
The first contrast I wish to point to is that between the world view of animism and that of Interdependent Transformation. In the animistic understanding of existence everything has a hidden animating spirit or soul, which is that thing’s true nature. In the animistic world existence is thick with spirit presence, everything lives, rocks and rivers and clouds and mountains all have a spirit dimension. All of these apparent things also have a spirit aspect to them which is their true nature. The tendency is to regard this spirit or soul dimension as separately existing and in some sense immortal. For this reason, in answer to the question of what constitutes ultimate nature, animism tends to regard the whole realm of the spirits as more real than the world of appearances in which we live. The world of appearances is in some way derivative and less substantial than the realm(s) in which the spirits of things have their presence. The two traditions that I think have carried this view to its most sophisticated level are Jainism and Shinto.
The view of Interdependent Transformation might not deny the existence of spirits, but it would deny that the spirits, or souls, are more real than the apparent phenomena. For example, it is common in the Buddhist Discourses for deities of various kinds, from various realms, to visit the Buddha and request teachings. The Buddha himself seemed to have taken for granted the existence of numerous nature spirits as well as higher kinds of deities.
However, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, these manifestations are just another manifestation of existence and the Buddha did not teach that they represent a higher or more advanced form of existence. The mountain and the spirit of the mountain are both dependently arising phenomena and as such have equal ontological status. The mountain and the spirit of the mountain are transforming and as such have equal ontological status. The mountain and the spirit of the mountain function as causal bases for other phenomena and in that sense have equal ontological status. In addition, the spirit of the mountain does not exist independently, for as a dependently arising phenomenon, by definition does not exist separately from the causal matrix of existence as such. Finally, the view of Interdependent Transformation would not regard the spirit presence as immortal; perhaps very long-lived, but not immortal. In the unfolding causal matrix, impermanence would overcome even the most exalted deity.
A widely held view of ultimate nature is often referred to as pantheism. This view comprehends ultimate nature as some kind of primal substance out of which all things emerge. The most common metaphor for this view is waves and water. The phenomena that we perceive are the waves, but their true nature is water, which all phenomena share. From this perspective, the appearances of this world are considered to exist as modifications of this primal substance. The transcendent substance unites all existing things, constitutes what all existing things have in common, and is in a profound sense more real than appearances because appearances seem to exist in a way that things have differentiating natures whereas in reality, from the perspective of pantheism, the ultimate nature of things is this primal substance. The two great elucidations of this view are the Upanishads of Indian philosophy and Spinoza in the west.
Interdependent Transformation, in contrast, is a non-substantial view of ultimate nature. The metaphor for Interdependent Transformation most widely used within the Buddhist tradition is Indra’s Net. In this metaphor the places where the threads of the net cross are occupied by jewels. The facets of the jewels reflect all the other jewels in the net. Now, drop the threads. Now drop the jewels: or rather the jewels are nothing more than the endless reflections and refractions off of all the other jewels.
The common nature, from the point of view of Interdependent Transformation, that nature which all things share, is their dependency, their reliance upon conditions for their existence, not their substance. The dependent nature of all existing things manifests as a quality of those things, but does not imply an underlying substance or essential nature. Just as a green chair and a green table share the color green without implying that they have a common substance, so the qualities that emerge from Interdependent Transformation, such as dependence, interdependence, process, contingency, etc., mark all existing things, but do not imply a substantial presence or essential nature. This, in part, is what Buddhism means when it says that things are “empty”; they are empty of substance, empty of essence, but they are full of the causal matrix which is their true nature.
Another understanding of ultimate nature is referred to as “emanationism”. The great elucidator of this view in the west was Plotinus and through his considerable influence all subsequent neo-platonism and much of early Christian theology. There are also modern manifestations of this kind of view, particularly among Theosophists and related groups. The basic view here is that there is a constantly present source from which all things emerge. Spirituality is comprehended as a task of ascending higher and higher, closer and closer, to this ultimate source of all things.
A model for the emanationist view of existence is a series of concentric rings. In the center is the source (God, The One, The Light, The Nameless). The closer one is to this source the more spiritual and ethereal one becomes. In a monotheistic context, for example, angels are closer to the source than humans, and therefore angels are more spiritual than humans. Humans do have the opportunity, however, to ascend to the divine through contemplation and prayer.
The teaching of Interdependent Transformation differs from emanationism because there is no specific source from which the ultimate nature, as illuminated in this view, of all things arises. As Prashastrasena, an ancient Indian commentator, put it, Nirvana is unlocated, or has no location. A model often used for Interdependent Transformation is referred to as “Indra’s Net” which depicts a network, a fabric, of interconnectedness. The point here is that nirvana, or ultimate reality, has no locus/location, either in time or in space. Rather, Interdependent Transformation exists spread out over all of existence. One way of comprehending this is to think of Interdependent Transformation as a quality, or group of qualities, which qualify all existing things. Therefore, as a transcendental quality, Interdependent Transformation is present in all existing things, but does not negate any existing thing. As present in all existing things, it is present everywhere equally, but simultaneously has no particular location from which this ultimate nature springs. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation the metaphor of ascent into a spiritual domain is inappropriate. Instead, spirituality is comprehended as awakening to, or understanding, or realizing, the primal interconnectedness of all things. This interconnectedness, these qualities of interdependence, of dependence, of transformation, of creativity, manifest equally everywhere, or, as I like to say, everywhere in particular.
Another view of ultimate nature comprehends that things possess a specific essence, which is their nature, and which distinguishes that thing, or group of things, from other things. This was Aristotle’s great contribution to western thought. The view of essence supports the idea that definitions not only have importance for clear thinking, but they have metaphysical import. To define something correctly means to uncover that thing’s essential, and therefore eternal, nature.
The view of Interdependent Transformation contrasts with essentialism. While essentialism seeks to find out what distinguishes one thing, or group of things, from other things, Interdependent Transformation comprehends all things as having a common nature and asks what it is that all things have in common. In response to that question, the view of Interdependent Transformation comprehends things as having the nature of depending for their existence upon other things, and for this reason they have no essence because essence implies that which distinguishes, meaning separates, one thing from another thing. This is what is meant, or part of what is meant, when Buddhism says that things are empty of self-nature; it means that they lack essence and that their true nature is not what distinguishes one thing from another, but rather that which makes all things equal.
Another approach to ultimate nature comprehends the eternal as consisting in number. I refer to this view as Pythagoreanism, after the philosopher Pythagorus, who first developed and presented this point of view. This view has had a profound influence in the west; in some ways this view of number as ultimate distinguishes western culture from other cultures in the world.
I don’t think it is difficult to comprehend the appeal of this point of view for some people. Numbers and their relationships seem to have an eternal validity to them. The Pythagorean Theorem seems to be always true. From the point of view of Pythagoreanism, humans discover the relationships between numbers and numbers exist in a realm which is more real, more actual, than the realm of sensory appearances. From this perspective all things can be reduced to numbers and their relationships, and in a sense, it is those numbers and their relationships which allows things to exist at all.
Though this view may seem very abstract, it has profoundly influenced western thought. For example, the drive in science and technology to transform observation into numerical data is rooted in this point of view. The idea is that by transforming observations into numbers and their relationships, we gain access to something deeper and more real than mere empirical observation. Thus a formula that describes events is comprehended as providing a deeper understanding of those events than a simple description of those events.
I believe this is a source for the enduring appeal of mathematics for many mathematicians. Numbers and their relationships seem to provide access to the eternal; in a sense their is something luminous about numbers. In a world where everything shifts and changes, it seems that numbers offer access to a region of stability, of surety, and of logical coherence. This is very appealing to a certain kind of person.
The Buddhist view, based on Interdependent Transformation, differs from Pythagoreanism. From the Buddhist perspective, numbers also exist dependently, numbers also arise due to causes and conditions, numbers also transform and are subject to change. This is not, however, obvious and requires some investigation in order to comprehend how this fits in with the overall view of Interdependent Transformation.
First, numbers depend upon a particular kind of consciousness in order for them to appear in the world. Dogs do not have the kind of consciousness which gives rise to numbers. Angels do not seem to use numbers and I suspect it is because angles do not have the kind of consciousness which views existence from a number basis. Human consciousness is structured in such a way that yields a numerical sense. If this seems like a puzzling way to put it, I am not saying that numbers are subjective, I am saying they are dependent upon a particular kind of consciousness, a particular structure of awareness. For example, it is the particular human structure which allows humans to have a three-dimensional awareness. Similarly, the human structure construes things in a numerical manner.
Alfred North Whitehead, a superb mathematician of the 20th century, pointed out that numbers depend upon very specific conditions in order for them to apply. He used the example of adding two drops of water to two drops of water into a bowl. You don’t get four drops of water. You get one large drop of water. Whitehead’s point is not that numbers lack profundity or have great explanatory power. I understand Whitehead as saying that the range of applicability is limited and dependent upon certain conditions. The primary condition that numbers depend upon is that we perceive things discretely. The perception of things as discrete, though, depends upon our perceptual apparatus. For example, dogs perceive many discrete olfactory objects that humans completely miss. More broadly, the perception of things as discrete is, at some level, a misunderstanding. If analyzed, things do not exist discretely. Rather they exist in terms of tendencies of merging and inclinations for transforming.
From the Buddhist perspective of Interdependent Transformation, numbers also exist embedded in the web of existence. For this reason numbers are not exempt from the ultimate nature of all existing things; that of arising due to causes and condition, that of constantly transforming, etc.. Ontologically, numbers have no priority.
Platonism in western thought means that ideas are more real than the things of this world. Furthermore, Platonism is the view that the things of this world are, in some sense, bad copies, or instantiations, of ideas.
Plato believed that truth could not change. But all the things of this world change. However Plato, impressed with mathematics and an emerging logic, comprehended that certain things remained eternally true and valid; namely, the pure ideas which inhabit a realm which never changes and remains immutable. For Plato it was the existence of this realm of unchanging ideas which made truth possible, for these unchanging ideas were reflected, in a distorted way, in the things of this world.
Plato had an enormous influence on western culture. He still does. The core belief that truth does not change, that mutability is a sign of a lesser ontological status, remains very widespread. These core ideas were transferred to Christianity through the writings of Augustine, who had been a committed Platonist prior to his conversion to Christianity. Augustine remained a great admirer of Plato and in a sense, Augustine’s theology is a synthesis of Platonism and Bible-based views.
Like Plato, Augustine regards mutability as a sign of a lesser ontological status. For both of these philosophers, there is something repulsive about change and mutability. They don’t quite put it that way, but it seems to me that their writings are permeated by vague feelings of disgust with the changing, and therefore, from their perspective, unreliability of things. For both of them, this leads to a strongly world-negating view. The ultimate does not reside in the world of changing things, it lies somewhere else, in that which does not change. Plato and Augustine would disagree about the nature of that which does not change, but they would agree that the ultimate can not change.
Many schools of Buddhism would agree with this fundamental view. The logic of these schools of Buddhism runs something like this: All things are impermanent. Impermanence causes suffering. Therefore, to reach nirvana means to abandon all that is impermanent, which means everything that we perceive and interact with. From this perspective, such schools of Buddhism derive a sense of existence as systematically repulsive and as inherently a source of suffering.
There is a great deal of support for this view in the Discourses. Many of the Discourses speak of existence as repulsive, something to be overcome, and of all existing things as impermanent and therefore unlovely and a source of suffering. The logic alluded to in the above paragraph is often explicitly formulated.
Against this there is the Third Noble Truth, the truth of cessation. I regard the Third Noble Truth as the great message of the Buddhadharma. It is the message that has attracted countless millions of people down through the centuries, from widely divergent cultures, to the Buddhadharma. That it is possible to bring an end to suffering, grief, sorrow, lamentation and despair is such a profound, such a positive and liberating message, that immediately upon hearing this Third Noble Truth many people find themselves attracted to its source.
However, and this is the point I want to emphasize, the Third Noble Truth of cessation is a process. Cessation means to change, to bring about a particular kind of change. If change itself constituted suffering, then the cessation of suffering would generate suffering. If impermanence itself constituted suffering, then the ending and impermanence of those things which cause suffering would themselves generate suffering. All of us would, therefore, be ontologically trapped in the condition of despair. This is existentialism, not Buddhism.
I believe, given the nature of the Third Noble Truth as a process, that it is necessary to look more deeply at those passages in the Discourses which equate impermanence and/or change with suffering. By looking more deeply I mean upon encountering such passages we need to ask ourselves what is the logic here, why is the equation being made? In other words, why do the Discourses assert that impermanence means suffering?
I think the resolution to this is found in those Discourses that equate realization/nirvana with non-clinging. The human gesture to cling to that which changes, flows, and transforms, produces a sense of futility, and this sense of futility gives rise to suffering, a sense of existence as unsatisfactory. But this sense of existence as unsatisfactory has as its basis the mind which thinks that things should remain static. It is this projection onto existence of this preference for the static which gives rise to clinging which gives rise to suffering.
This leads to the conclusion that it is not impermanence and change itself which causes suffering and despair, but the mind which clings to that which changes. The transformation of that gesture of clinging is what leads to enlightenment. One moment of non-clinging is a moment of nirvana, a moment of realization.
From this perspective, existence is not repulsive; existence only seems repulsive when we attempt to make existence conform to our desire that something not change. That simply is not going to happen. In other words, it is not mutability, change, and process which need to be abandoned; rather it is the desire for the static, the non-changing, which needs to be abandoned. When those are abandoned, then the ultimately real emerges as change and transformation itself. That is how the Discourses can say that “nirvana is samsara.”
I will have more to say regarding this topic in the Discussion on the marks of existence. But to return to Platonism, the view of Interdependent Transformation comprehends ideas as just another aspect of existence and does not privilege ideas over other domains. This is why in Buddhist psychology there are six senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The mind sense means that sense which perceives thoughts and feelings, just as the eye sense perceives colors and shapes. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, visual objects arise due to causes and conditions, and mental objects such as thoughts and feelings also arise due to causes and conditions. In addition, thoughts arise due to non-thought causes, just as sounds may arise due to non-sonic events. From this perspective thoughts completely participate in the world in a network of interdependent relationships; thoughts and ideas have no privileged or independent existence. Thoughts are simply another realm, and thoughts arise, change, and transform, just like all the other things of the world.
The view of theism is the view that there exists a deity, or deities, that are more real than the world in which we dwell. Typically, the deities and the realm in which they dwell are considered in some sense immortal, and therefore desirable. The purpose of religious practice in such a context is to somehow gain access to this realm of the gods.
I have already discussed this view in my comments on Animism and in the section on “The Twilight of the Gods” from the essay Udumbara. The difference in the view of theism to that of Animism and Pantheism is that Theism regards the realm of the God(s) as in some manner separate from the realm in which we dwell. Animism tends to regard each existing thing as having a soul, and so the spiritual realm is deeply intertwined with the physical realm. Pantheism regards all existing things as modifications of a primal nature. Theism comprehends the God(s) and their realm(s) as existing apart from the world in which we humans live. Heaven is somewhere else.
Though this is a somewhat subtle distinction, the same analysis that applied to Animism also applies here. Namely, that the view of Interdependent Transformation regards the Gods themselves as dependent upon causes and conditions for their existence. The Gods do not exist separately, unchangingly, or in a manner that basically differs from that of any other existing thing. For this reason the Buddha would state that liberation is not a matter of gaining access to another dimension. Liberation is a matter of awakening to, or realizing, the nature of all existing things.
This is the big one, the view that concerns most westerners. There is a long and venerable history of discussion between the monotheistic tradition and Buddhism. This dialogue between the two traditions often centers on whether or not at core these two traditions have a common understanding. The need for this dialogue appears because at a certain obvious level Buddhism simply does not have a supreme being, what the monotheistic tradition generally means by God.
I distinguish two components of ultimacy that are unique to the monotheistic tradition. Given that the monotheistic tradition believes in the existence of only one God, the monotheistic tradition conceives of God as the ultimate; furthermore God in this tradition is the creator of all existence and also bears moral responsibility for the activities which occur in this existence.
Both of these components are absent from the Buddhist tradition. The Buddhist tradition lacks a being who has created existence. Instead, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, Buddhism conceives of existence as always existing, without beginning and without end. Furthermore, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, there is no specific locus of creation, no specific being is responsible for bringing existence into existence. Rather, creativity is an aspect of all existing things and therefore the source of existence is the things of existence, spread out over all of existence, throughout all space, throughout all time.
- As for the existence of God, of the Creator of heaven and earth, this is the concept central to religion as we know it in the West. Was the Buddha an atheist or an agnostic in relation to the existence of a Supreme Being or God? ...
- In the Suutras there is found a Buddhist account of Genesis. [ This account appears in several sources both in the Mahayana and the Theravada Canons. In reply to questions from His disciples, the Buddha explained that the humanity found on this planet earth once inhabited another planetary system. Ages ago when the sun of that world went nova and the planet was destroyed in the ensuing solar eruptions, the bulk of its inhabitants, as the result of their arduously practicing the Dharma for ten thousand years, were reborn on one of the higher planes of the Form World or Ruupedhaatu, a plane of existence known as Aabhaasvara or “clear light.” Here they enjoyed inconceivable bliss and felicity for countless aeons. Then, when their great store of past karma came onto maturity, our own solar system and planet earth began to evolve and some among their numbers were reborn on the lower planes of the Ruupadhaatu in the vicinity of the nascent earth. This plane of existence where they found themselves reborn is known as Brahmaaloka. The first of these beings to reawaken and be reborn, upon seeing the solar system evolving below him, exclaimed in his delight, “I am the Creator!” In this way, he came to believe that he was the actual creator of the universe which he saw about him, for he did not remember from whence he came and was born without any parents. But in actuality the manifestation of this universe was due to the collective karma of all in that company and his own individual manifestation, which was a case of apparitional birth, was due to his own great stock of meritorious karma coming into maturation at that time because the requisite secondary conditions were present.
- ( [http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1559391448/dharmajssutra-20 Self-Liberation Through Seeing With Naked Awareness, translated by John Myrdhin Reynolds, Snow Lion, Ithaca, NY, 2000, pages 97-99.)
The principle here, derived from the core insight of Interdependent Transformation, is that all things appear from a causal base. This understanding is extended to the existence of entire universes or world systems. The Dalai Lama makes this same point in his commentary on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the Ninth Chapter on Wisdom. Verse 124 speaks directly to this discussion:
- 124. ... [If Creation were dependent upon conditions, the complete collection of those causal circumstances would be the cause, and not Ishvara [Note: Ishvara was a common name for God in ancient India, similar to Yahweh. If the complete conditions were assembled, Ishvara would be powerless not to create; and if they were absent, there would be no creation.
- The Dalai Lama’s Comment:
- If creation and destruction are dependent upon a collection of causal conditions, the totality of those conditions would be the cause, and not a God who is independent of and uninfluenced by events. If the causal conditions were assembled, Ishvara would be powerless not to create the resultant phenomena; and if they were not assembled, those phenomena would not be produced.
- ( Transcendent Wisdom, the Dalai Lama, translated by B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion, Ithaca, New York, 1998, page 93.)
Both of the above quoted passages are rooted in the understanding of existence as a causal matrix, the view of Intedependent Transformation. It is somewhat astonishing to think of God as deluded, as Reynolds suggests. God thinks he has created this world system because, due to his karma, he was the first conscious being in this world system. Unaware of his past karma which created the conditions for his rebirth in this world system, and not observing any other conscious beings in this world system, God then concludes that he is the creator of this world system. Unaware that there are other world systems, incalculably numerous, God/Ishvara concludes that he is the creator of all of existence.
It takes some time to take in all the implications of such a world view. It is breathtaking in scope and rich in implications. One of the implications is that being reborn as God is not, from a Buddhist perspective, a fortunate rebirth. It is not a rebirth that will lead to liberation, to nirvana, and the cessation of all sorrow because such a rebirth re-enforces the idea that there is something that exists independently, and it is this very idea/belief/feeling that is the source of sorrow.
It might seem that this is the end of the story; Buddhism doesn’t believe in a creator Deity that bears moral responsibility for existence while the monotheistic tradition has this view at its core. The two traditions, therefore, diverge.
However, God has many names and many meanings and Interdependent Transformation has many facets. Though the view of Interdependent Transformation does lead to a view of existence that in some respects differs from that of the monotheistic tradition, we should not stop at this conclusion. I have previously mentioned in the discussion on the basic implications of Intedependent Transformation that this core view of the Buddha means that all things exist dependently. Because the monotheistic tradition regards God as the creator of all existing things and of existence itself, the monotheistic tradition views all things as existing dependently, as in a totally dependent state. From this perspective, the perspective of dependence, the Buddhist and Monotheistic tradition share a common insight into the transcendent nature of all existing things.
Or take the view that God is love. It is out of God’s love that existence emerges. Existence is an expression of the generosity and benign nature of God. In the Buddhist tradition it is the realization that all things exist interdependently that gives rise to the blossoming of the compassionate heart. Love and Compassion are always present, but they are covered over by ignorance, self-concern, and distraction. I think that these two insights are very close for they both proclaim that in some sense love and compassion are the true nature of existence, that love and compassion blossom when we comprehend the transcendental.
What I am suggesting is that even if I put aside the idea of a Creator Being, even if I put aside the idea of a Being who bears moral responsibility for existence, there are still significant, broad areas for dialogue between the two traditions because there is more to the idea of God than the idea of a Creator. From a Buddhist perspective, the most important aspects might lie outside of the Creator view.
How do we access this broader understanding that lies at the core of the monotheistic tradition? I would suggest using those traditions centered on positive theology. Positive theology is that theology which explores the Divine Names and Attributes of God. For example, Dionysius the Areopagite wrote a theological work called The Divine Names. I think it would be an excellent place to start making such a comparison. For example, Dionysius writes:
- ... Since it is the underpinning of goodness, and by merely being there is the cause of everything, to praise this divinely beneficent Providence you must turn to all of creation. It is there at the center of everything and everything has it for a destiny. It is therefore ‘before all things and in it all things hold together.’ Because it is there the world has come to be and exists. All things long for it. The intelligent and rational long for it by the way of knowledge ...
- Realizing all this, the theologians praise it by every name ... they give it many names, such as “I am being,” “life,” “God,” the “truth.” These same wise writers, when praising the Cause of everything that is, use names drawn from all the things caused: good, beautiful, wise, beloved, God of gods, Lord of Lord, Holy of Holies, eternal, existent, Cause of the ages. They call him source of life, wisdom, mind, word, knower, possessor beforehand of all the treasures of knowledge, power, powerful, and king of Kings, ancient of days, the unaging and unchanging, salvation, righteousness and sanctification, redemption, greatest of all and yet the one in the still breeze. They say he is in our minds, in our soul, and in our bodies, in heaven and on earth, that while remaining ever within himself he is also in and around and above the world, that he is above heaven and above all being, that he is sun, star, and fire, water, wind, and dew, cloud, archetypal stone, and rock, that he is all, that he is no thing.
- ( Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, translated by Colm Luibheid, “The Divine Names”, Paulist Press, Mahway, New Jersey, 1987, pages 54-56.)
Now, turn to the Buddhist tradition and uncover the names that the Buddha in the Discourses uses for nirvana. He uses such terms as the “cessation of suffering”, “the non-clinging”, “peace”, “serenity”, “the lovely”, “the unconditioned”, “love”, “the unborn”, “the deathless”, etc.. Just as the core view of the monotheistic tradition is multi-faceted, so also the ultimate goal and core notion of the Buddhist tradition has many facets and many names. Once I move away from a fixation on the idea of God as a creator of existence, I am actually able to find a lot of similarity between these core views, many overlaps. It is useful to compare these two because how they arrive at these core understandings, such as dependence, differs, but often the core understandings themselves are amazingly similar. Thus, both traditions are mutually enriched by broadening their understanding.
This is not the place to go into a systematic treatment of these two core views. It would require a book in and of itself. I believe what would be required is to compare and contrast the facets of ultimacy that each tradition has lived with down through the centuries. In addition to comparing and contrasting, I would also suggest comprehending how each tradition arrives at this understanding.
I believe the result of such a project would produce a mosaic of overlapping and divergent understandings. From the perspective of a particular facet X, the two traditions have a shared view. From the perspective of facet Y, the two traditions diverge. From the persective of how they arrive at the same view X, there will also appear similarities and contrasts. When engaging in this project it is also important to keep in mind that monotheism is not a uniform tradition; it is actually more accurate to say “monotheisms”, and the same applies to Buddhism. The personalism of Christianity, for example, is something not shared by Judaism or Islam. Similarly, the view of the ontological status of suffering is quite different in different Buddhist traditions. Though this complicates the task, I do not consider it an insurmountable obstacle as long as one maintains a broad focus.
This may seem like a lot of work, but I believe the results of such a project would be an ability to speak clearly to each other, from the views that each tradition holds, and come to a genuine and deep mutual understanding and appreciation. A good way to start such a project would be to compare two specific core texts, such as The Divine Names with something like the Udana in the Buddhist tradition. This may seem to narrow the focus from the broad focus I just suggested. However, the virtue of taking two specific works and comparing them is that it grounds the investigation in a specific work and tradition so that it reduces mere speculation.
The dialogue between monotheism and Buddhism has been going on for a long time. I believe such an exchange can prove fruitful for both traditions. I would hope that such an exchange of views could be expanded to include other traditions as well, such as the western philosophical tradition, the secular humanist tradition, and the many spiritual traditions in the world today. With a good heart, mutual respect, and the capacity to perceive all people as equal, such an endeavor will help all concerned.
2.9 The Ontological Grid
One way that I have found helpful in clarifying the differences between understandings of ultimacy is an approach I refer to as the ontological grid. I derive it from the writings of John the Scot Eriugena, a philosopher/theologian who lived in the 800’s. His central work is called Periphyseon, On The Division Of Nature. This work, in dialog form, opens with a basic categorical scheme:
- The division of nature seems to me to admit of four species through four differentiae. The first is the division into what creates and is not created; the second into what is created and creates; the third, into what is created and does not create; the four, into what neither creates nor is created. Of these four, two pairs consist of opposites. The third is the opposite of the first, the fourth of the second. But the fourth is among the things which are impossible, and its differentia is its inability to be.
- (Periphyseon, On The Division Of Nature, by John the Scot Eriugena, translated by Myra L. Uhlfelder, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1976, page 2.)
According to the traditional interpretation of monotheism, only one thing falls into Category 1, namely God. God creates all existing things, and existence itself, but God is not created. Continuing with the traditional interpretation, Category 2 consists of things such as humans and other conscious entities such as angels and animals. Humans are created, by God, and they create other things. Category 3, according to the traditional interpretation, designates the material world, consisting of things like rocks and sand and wind and waves. These things are created but do not create anything else, at least in an intentional and conscious way. Category 4 consists of nothingness, and according to the traditional interpretation nothingness can not exist and is therefore of no concern. John the Scot considers Category 4 a logical impossibility (which, incidentally, the Madhyamika’s of Buddhism would completely agree with).
From the Buddhist perspective of Interdependent Transformation, only Category 2 exists. All things exist in such a manner that they are both created and create, or to put it more accurately, creating. And all things are doing this simultaneously.
But what about those passages in the Buddhist Discourses which speak of the unconditioned? Isn’t the unconditioned, a name for nirvana, the same as Category 1? It would seem to be the case that the unconditioned means the uncreated.
I will have more to say about this in an essay on nirvana, but for now I want to offer the following consideration; that it is precisely the nature of things as Interdependent Transformation which is in itself the unconditioned. In this sense the conditioned as such is the unconditioned. It is not the case that specific things are the unconditioned, but the quality of being conditioned, which marks all existing things, is the unconditioned. The conditioned is the unconditioned because the conditioned has no beginning. The conditioned is the unconditioned because it has no ending. The conditioned is the unconditioned because it is unborn and deathless. The conditioned is the unconditioned because it exists everywhere, every when and as a quality qualifying all existing things. Conditionality is never not present and is therefore unconditioned. It is for this reason that Buddhism can say that nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana.
So from another perspective, one could say that the Buddhdharma, from the perspective of nirvana and realization, merges Categories 1 and 2 into a unity and it is the realization that both Category 1 and Category 2 exist simultaneously in all existing things that constitutes awakening.
To continue with the ontological grid: I have found it helpful to place the various spiritual traditions on the grid. This tool helps me to comprehend where various views are similar and where they diverge. For example, my understanding of Brahmanism and Pantheism is that they consider only Category 1 as real. Whereas John the Scot views only Category 4 as unreal, Brahmanism and Pantheism consider Categories 2, 3, and 4 as illusory; for them only Category 1 has any genuine ontological status.
This ontological grid scheme doesn’t work in all cases. But even in those cases where it doesn’t work in a neat way, I find that it helps me to clarify for myself the view under consideration. Perhaps the reader will also find it useful.
2.10 Apophaticism and Mysticism
By apophaticism I mean that doctrine which views ultimacy as completely non-conceptual. The apophatic view is that concepts and ultimacy dwell in two different dimensions and that therefore in order to access ultimacy I must completely negate all conceptuality. When conceptuality is completely negated, ultimacy can be accessed.
Prominent elucidators of this view are Dionysius the Areopagite, Lao Tzu, and Chuang Tzu. Apophaticism usually leads to various forms of mysticism, the belief that ultimacy can be accessed only through a direct experience lacking in conceptual content. In some traditions this experience can only happen through grace; this is prominent in, for example, Christian mysticism, though it is possible to prepare for the moment of grace through various disciplines. In other traditions conceptuality is systematically set aside through various meditative practices in order to enter into the experience of the ultimate.
Against this view are those who regard conceptual activity as not only not a hindrance to comprehending ultimacy, but also a necessary component for experiencing ultimacy. Prominent elucidators of this view are Spinoza and the great Sages of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism such as Tsong Khapa, and many others. This view comprehends the primary obstacle to ultimacy as ignorance. The purpose, then, of conceptual activity, in a spiritual context, is to overcome ignorance through applying my capacities for reason and analysis. When so applied in a rigorous manner, the actual nature of existence, the ultimate nature of existence, appears and ignorance vanishes. From this perspective conceptual activity is a gate to realization and enlightenment.
From the perspective of interdependent transformation I do not think it is possible to reject conceptual activity as an efficacious means for experiencing ultimacy. My primary reason for saying this is that interdependent transformation is a view that all things have, or are marked by, a dependent and interdependent nature. Words are things in existence. From the perspective of interdependent transformation, words do not differ from rocks and clouds and cars and birds. From the perspective of interdependent transformation, all existing things, including words have this dependent and interedependent nature. Because words have this nature, it is possible to access ultimacy through words and conceptuality.
The words of the Dharma are particularly well suited for accessing ultimacy, the realm of Interdependent Transformation. They are particularly well suited because they are self-referentially consistent. By self-referentially consistent I mean that when the Dharma speaks of ultimate nature, the words themselves exemplify, exhibit, instantiate the meaning to which they refer. For example, if I say that all things appear in this world dependent upon causes and conditions, those very words, “dependent upon causes and conditions” appear in this world due to, dependent upon, causes and conditions. The words themselves thoroughly exhibit this ultimate nature and I do not need to go anywhere else in order to access and experience this ultimate nature.
This leads to what I refer to as “the kensho of reading”. It is that experience I have when reading the Discourses, and everything in existence, not just the reading, not just the words, not just the concepts, but everything in existence falls into place, everything is in balance, perfect and complete. Because all things possess, rely on, and dwell in this ultimate nature, it is possible to access ultimacy through any and every thing which exists; provided that our attention is tuned and focused on that ultimate nature. Ultimate nature is not, therefore, confined to words and concepts, but ultimate nature does not in any respect shy away from words and concepts. Ultimate nature, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, is not non-conceptual, but also ultimate nature is not conceptually specific or limited only to the conceptual realm. However, having said this, it is nevertheless the case, that the Dharma simultaneously speaks of ultimate nature, points to ultimate nature, and displays ultimate nature. The simultaneous speaking and displaying makes Dharma Discourse, the study, reading, and contemplating of Dharma Discourse, the smoothest path to realization.
Apophaticism rests on the idea that ultimate nature is somewhere else, than the realm in which we live. Utterly removed from, and different from, the realm of experience, ultimacy can then only be accessed through a step by step process which disengages me from this realm in which I dwell. In other words, apophaticism and mysticism are dualistic, creating a division in existence, minimally between the conceptual and ultimacy, and in extreme cases between ultimacy and everything which I experience.
My understanding of the Dharma does not regard the realm in which I dwell as removed from the ultimate nature of Interdependent Transformation. Ultimacy does not exist somewhere else. It is not a matter of contacting some other domain in order to access ultimacy. Rather it is a matter of shifting our attention so that I can perceive and comprehend the actuality of things. From this perspective, my understanding of existence is misconstrued and my perception of things is askew. The purpose of Dharma study and practice is to correct these misunderstandings, both conceptually and perceptually, to overcome ignorance and the habits that give rise to this ignorance. When that is done, the ultimate nature of all existing things and existence itself, stands forth as the Interdependent Transformation nature which permeates all of existence, unlocated, ever present, never far.
I realize that this way of comprehending the Dharma sets me at odds with those traditions which regard the ultimate nature of existence, Buddha Nature, Nirvana, as something which can not be accessed through study and thinking. I can only say that at one time I agreed with this view, but that my understanding has now moved to a view which encompasses thought, conceptuality, study, and thinking within the domain of ultimacy without ejecting anything else from that domain. To set thought aside, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, makes no more sense than asking someone to set aside hearing, or to set aside seeing. Just as all visual phenomena have the nature of Interdependent Transformation, just as all sonic phenomena have the nature of Interdependent Transformation, so also all thoughts, all concepts, also have the nature of Interdependent Transformation. For this reason rejecting thoughts and concepts means limiting the extent of the play of ultimate nature. But Buddha Nature as Interdependent Transformation marks all existing things. Marking all existing things, this nature marks all thoughts. Marking all thoughts and concepts, thoughts and concepts, when comprehended in their totality, and as Interdependent Transformations, graciously display the true nature of all existing things. Words also have a luminously clear nature. Thoughts also sparkle with elemental transformative energy. Concepts also shimmer with the ever flowing and present energy of all things. Rejecting nothing, the words of the Dharma compassionately guide me to ultimate realization.
Materialism is the view that existence consists solely of matter. Anciently, this meant that the ultimate constituents of existence consisted of irreducible atoms, the word “atom” means something like unbreakable, or basic. This view has fallen on difficult times and one would be hard put to find someone among scientists and philosophers who holds this view in its pure and naive form today. Nevertheless, there are implications of the materialistic view which are held fairly widely. For example, the idea that everything that truly exists must be quantifiable often has a materialistic basis. Also, the idea that “you only live once, make the best of it,” arises out of materialistic assumptions. Finally, the idea that the meaning of life lies primarily, or even entirely, in the acquisition of material goods and possessions is an expression of a materialistic world view.
In contrast to the materialistic view, the Buddha taught the primacy of relationship and process. By primacy of relationship and process I mean that from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation the term “things” designates, first, relationships, and second, becomings and begonings, appearings and disappearings, that all things are coming-together's and passing-away's. In a sense, the Buddha considered matter illusory, a result of the grossness of our senses and the inability to generally infer universal truths such as impermanence and change. This inability to infer impermanence, change, and transformation to all things arises because our experience of things does not immediately display to us their transient and process nature. Some things do; such as melodies, storms, and shifting sand. But many things do not display this nature, though if we think about it, contemplate it, we can infer these qualities to all things. This is one of the primary reasons why spiritual practice is necessary: We need to remind ourselves of the central truths of impermanence, change and transformation. When we remind ourselves of these truths, we take a step in overcoming the materialistic world view, which in many ways is so prominent in our culture at this time. Step by step, little by little, our understanding grows, deepens, and the rivering realm of reality opens to our understanding and our perception.
In traditional Buddhist sources, such as the Discourses, nihilism means one of two things: 1) that our actions have no moral consequences, and 2) that nothing actually exists. Modern nihilism fairly well maps onto this usage and generally expresses itself as the view that life is meaningless.
The view that nothing really exists is, however, not widely held in an explicit sense in materialistic culture such as ours. However, there is a sense in which materialism is also a form of nihilism even at this basic level. In scientific materialism it is often viewed that the real constituents of nature are atomic and/or sub-atomic realities. Some forms of scientific materialism, under the influence of pythagoreanism, assert that the mathematical expressions of scientific laws are the actual constituents of existence. This leads to a view of existence that more or less dismisses appearances as less real than what the particular view comprehends as the actual constituents of existence. Although this usually does not dismiss altogether the reality of appearing forms, the really real lies somewhere other than the realm in which human beings normally live and interact. This removes meaning from our daily lives, and from this perspective I consider it a form of nihilism.
Within a religious context nihilism means that view which holds that existence is fundamentally unreal. This is an extreme view, but one that has some currency within some traditions. The Buddha would have encountered that view in his wanderings when he encountered other teachers. It is the view that all appearances are an illusion and that nothing except God/Brahman/Being exists. The Buddha considered this view a form of nihilism because it undermined the efficacy of ethical activity. If all appearances are ultimately illusory, then activities do not have any real or genuine consequences. If activities do not have any real or genuine consequences, then the attempt to cultivate awareness, compassion, and wisdom through spiritual practice and discipline is ultimately futile.
It is in the arena of moral consequences, or karma, that the Buddha most strongly diverges from the nihilistic view. The Buddha advocated an ethically based life as foundational for all forms of spiritual practice, including meditation and study. This is because he regarded ethical activity as consequential in nature.
This view of ethical activity as having consequences arises from the Buddha’s primal realization of Interdependent Transformation. All activities are also things, within the context of Interdependent Transformation. Just as a brick thrown against a window produces consequences, so also the activity of my life has consequences, both for myself and for other people. The realm of these consequences is the realm of ethics. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, it is no more puzzling to say that my actions have ethical consequences than it is to say that material objects as they move through the world produce consequences. Just as the nature of material consequences may be difficult to comprehend, the nature of ethical consequences in the world may be difficult to comprehend, but that does not mean that they do not exist.
Because the Buddha considered ethical consequences, or karma, as a subset of the overall causal matrix of Interdependent Transformation, the Buddha did not draw on an outside agency to impose ethical rules on a recalcitrant humanity. Rather, when the Buddha speaks about ethical consequences, he points out that certain activities produce certain results, that my interaction with others engenders certain results, just as planting a seed will produce a certain kind of plant depending upon the seed.
I think that we can all comprehend what the Buddha meant on an ordinary level, though most of the time I fail to follow through on the implications of such experiences and observations. For example, I have known cynics who view all human motivation with suspicion. Sure enough, such people soon loose the friendship of people who are sincere and not duplicitous. The consequences of cynical activity in the world are to engender interactions which themselves are consistent with that world view. Or take someone who is chronically angry. Soon such a person becomes isolated, and often sinks into a kind of despair as a consequence of their chronic anger. There are many such examples that come to mind.
Because of the Buddha’s insight into Interdependent Transformation the Buddha was able to generalize from these observations and develop a theory of karma which consistently uncovers the efficacy of ethical causality. Furthermore, the Buddha would apply these insights to spiritual disciples, pointing out their karmic consequences, both in this life and in future lives. Once again, this is the reason for the ethical basis in the precepts for all Buddhist practice. But beyond this basis, spiritual practice itself, such as meditation and study, have ethical implications. This is why in the Zen tradition they say that the practice of meditation is itself an expression of the ethical precepts of the Buddhadharma. The same understanding applies to other forms of Buddhist practice. They are all embedded in the context of Interdependent Transformation and applied to human interaction as ethically expressed.
Nihilism, in terms of the idea that nothing actually exists, is overcome by Interdependent Transformation through understanding that though things do not exist separately, or in isolation, that does not imply that things do not exist at all. The idea that things do not exist is an extreme view and one that is explicitly rejected by the Buddha. The tendency that first appears when considering the Buddha’s view is to fall into nihilism. This is because the Buddha rejects the view of substantiality, which in a Buddhist context means the existence of things as separately existing essential natures. Because we have a strong psychological investment in the idea of separately existing things, and particularly in the idea of a separately existing self, we tend to interpret what the Buddha says as meaning that things do not exist at all. That is, however, a misunderstanding. The Buddha does not say that things do not exist. Rather, the Buddha says that things exist dependently and interdependently. Or to put it another way, to exist means to exist as a dependent and interdependent existant. Furthermore, from the perspective of the Buddha, no other mode of existing exists.
The key to this understanding is that Interdependent Transformation rejects both substantiality and non-existence. Interdependent Transformation is an understanding and realization of the manner in which all things exist. From this perspective, Interdependent Transformation affirms existence, overcomes nihilism (both ethically and ontologically), and clarifies the ultimate nature of all existing things.
The view that being constitutes the ultimate nature of all existing things is a very powerful and widely held view, which has been touched upon in several of the categories above already. Briefly, the view of being states that there exists an unchanging nature which all things have by virtue of the fact that they exist. Furthermore, being is that aspect of existence which is self-sufficient, not dependent, existing independently. This view is elaborted with great elegance by such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and many others. It is a view which asserts the supremacy of Category 1 on the ontological grid.
Against this view, the Buddha asserts that to exist means to exist dependently/interdependently and that there is no such thing as an independently existing, self sufficient entity or nature. This has been covered above. What I want to mention here, is that there is a great deal of confusion among Buddhist scholars regarding the use of the term being. I think it is necessary to understand that the term being has two meanings. The first meaning is something like, “the core nature of existence”, meaning that nature which designates what it means to exist. The second meaning is “an unchanging separately existing and self-sufficient nature.” It is the second meaning which is problematic.
The western philosophical and theological traditions have consistently used the second meaning as the criteria for the term “being.” However, there exist other views as to the core nature of existence, such as the view of Interdependent Transformation. It often happens that translators of Buddhism into western language use the term “being” to designate the core nature of the Buddhist view. I regard this as a deeply misleading mistake. It arises from a failure to distinguish the two meanings of the term being. This makes sense if one has adopted the view of being as ultimate. Western culture has, by and large, done exactly that. So there is a cultural habit of mind, that whenever we run across a theory of ultimate nature, that we then designate that theory by the term being. However, this distorts the presentation of that theory by implying that the theory designates something that exists in an unchanging and separately existing manner, when that might not be the case.
The solution is to use the term being to designate what philosophers and theologians have designated by that term for many centuries. And then to use alternate terms to designate what a non-being based view of ultimacy comprehends as ultimate nature. One term I suggest for consideration is the term “ultimacy”. When I use that term I mean that which all things have in common, what it means to exist as such. From a being-based view, to exist ultimately means to exist in an unchanging and separately existing manner. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, to exist ultimately means to exist dependently and interdependently. For this reason, I think of Interdependent Transformation as the transcending of essence and the abandoning of being, into the modality of interdependence as ultimate reality.
The view of personalism in a narrow sense is the idea that ultimate nature resides in a particular person. The greatest tradition that rests on this view is Christianity. Christianity regards ultimate nature as embodied in the person of Jesus. This is what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism and Islam (in a way, the rise of Islam can be understood as a revolt against the personalistic aspects of Christianity).
Interestingly, personalism as a view combines with many other ontological stances. Thus one can have a monotheistic personalism and a monotheistic impersonalism. Hinduism also has this kind of division with an impersonal form in Advaita Vedanta and a personal form in the traditions which regard Krishna as the ultimate nature of existence. One can have a polytheistic impersonalism, as in Plotinus and Proclus, and one can have a polytheistic personalism as in Celsus. In the Buddhist tradition, the Pure Land School comes close to a personalist form in its central focus on the Buddha Amitabha.
The personalism/impersonalism axis of understanding ultimate nature, in other words, appears to transcend specific cultures and traditions and, I think, tells us something central about the human psyche and how humanity accesses the transcendent. Karen Armstrong writes:
- Judaism, Christianity and -- to a lesser extent -- Islam have all developed the idea of a personal God, so we tend to think that this ideal represents religion at its best. The personal God has helped monotheists to value the sacred and inalienable rights of the individual and to cultivate an appreciation of human personality. The Judeo-Christian tradition has thus helped the West to acquire the liberal humanism it values so highly. These values were originally enshrined in a personal God who does everything that a human being does: he loves, judges, punishes, sees, hears, creates and destroys as we do. Yahweh began as a highly personalized deity with passionate human likes and dislikes. Later he became a symbol of transcendence, whose thoughts were not our thoughts and whose ways soared above our own as the heavens tower above the earth. The personal God reflects an important religious insight: that no supreme value can be less than human. Thus personalism has been an important and -- for many -- an indispensable stage of religious and moral development. The prophets of Israel attributed their own emotions and passions to God; Buddhists and Hindus had to include a personal devotion to avatars of the supreme reality. Christianity made a human person the center of the religious life in a way that was unique in the history of religion: it took the personalism inherent in Judaism to an extreme. It may be that without some degree of this kind of identification and empathy, religion cannot take root.
- Yet a personal God can become a grave liability. He can be a mere idol carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs, fears and desires. We can assume that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. When he seems to fail to prevent a catastrophe or seems even to desire a tragedy, he can seem callous and cruel. A facile belief that a disaster is the will of God can make us accept things that are fundamentally unacceptable. The very fact that, as a person, God has a gender is also limiting: it means that the sexuality of half the human race is sacralized at the expense of the female and can lead to a neurotic and inadequate imbalance in human sexual mores. A personal God can be dangerous, therefore. Instead of pulling us beyond our limitations, “he” can encourage us to remain complacently within them; “he” can make us as cruel, callous, self-satisfied and partial as “he” seems to be. Instead of inspiring the compassion that should characterize all advanced religion, “he” can encourage us to judge, condemn and marginalize. It seems, therefore, that the idea of a personal God can only be a stage in our religious development. The world religions all seem to have recognized this danger and have sought to transcend the personal conception of supreme reality.
A personal view of God is necessarily limited, whereas the ultimate nature of existence has no limits. This limitedness of view embodied in personalism breeds contention and strife between religions. For example, in a dispute between those who regard Krishna as ultimate, and those who regard Jesus as ultimate, and those who regard Isis as ultimate, how could anyone decide?, by what criteria would one of these persons displace the others?
I believe that one of the appeals of Buddhism in the west at this time is that the personalistic stance of Christianity has become more and more difficult to maintain, and that the failure of personalism has left an opening in western culture for different forms of religious expression, such as Buddhism, to enter. Keiji Nishitani, in his book Religion and Nothingness, in a chapter titled “The Personal and the Impersonal” argues that in western culture the comprehension of God was united with a particular cosmological doctrine. Because God was seen as expressed in this cosmological arrangement, it was theologically argued that one could approach God through nature as expressed in this cosmological design. When science undermined this cosmology, at every level, this cut off the traditional route to God that had functioned effectively in the west for many centuries. This is the source of the resistance to scientific development and thought among orthodox and fundamentalist religions in the west. Furthermore, when science undermined this cosmology and explained nature in terms not requiring a personal God, it left many feeling that existence now lacked a sacred dimension.
However, others (I am thinking of people like Spinoza) responded to this developing situation by concluding that the ultimate nature of things might not be inherently tied to a particular cosmological view; and this is where Buddhism has found a niche among some westerners. Because Buddhism does not have a strong cosmological commitment, Buddhism was seen to offer a resolution, in some sense, to the displacement of the sacred dimension which had occurred with the blossoming of scientific understanding.
It is my understanding that the Buddha taught a rigorously impersonal view of ultimate nature. I have yet to run across a designation of nirvana that includes any kind of personalism. Nirvana is peace, nirvana is bliss, nirvana is unborn, nirvana is deathless; all of these elucidations of ultimacy as nirvana do not entail any specific personal form. I think that this impersonalism arises from the Buddha’s insight into impermanence. As indicated previously, the Buddha exteneded this insight into the celestial domains, regarding deities also as impermanent. This applied to even those great deities, such as Brahma and Vishnu, who create entire world systems. They too will pass away, though they live incredibly long lives from the human perspective. From the Buddhist perspective, the God of monotheism is also impermanent, not unborn, and not deathless.
For those allied with a particular form, and a personalistic stance, this rigorous impersonalism can seem cold and remote. The plus side of this impersonalism, however, is that an impersonalistic view allows that ultimate nature, Buddha Nature, Nirvana, is accessible to anyone, no matter what their form. This blossomed in Great Vehicle Buddhism into the idea that all sentient beings, no matter what their form, have Buddha Nature. In this context Buddha Nature is that capacity that all sentients have to realize the ultimate and transcendent, to enter into the deathless element of existence. From this perspective, impersonalism is an optimistic view.
In a larger context, I think of personalism as any view which argues that ultimate nature has a specific form. For example, materialistic atomism I would regard as a form of personalism. I realize this may strike readers as an odd way of using the term personalism. In defense, I comprehend the core of personalism as an insistence on a specific, graspable, form for ultimacy. Thus I would regard anthropomorphic forms of personalism, such as those centered on Jesus or Krishna, as a sub-set of this tendency.
- The Abhidhamma may be described as a philosophy because it proposes an ontology, a perspective on the nature of the real. This perspective has been designated the “dhamma theory” (dhammavaada). Briefly, the dhamma theory maintains that ultimate reality consists of a multiplicity of elementary constituents called dhammas. The dhammas are not noumena hidden behind phenomena, not “things in themselves” as opposed to “mere appearances,” but the fundamental components of actuality... The familiar world of substantial objects and enduring persons is, according to the dhamma theory, a conceptual construct fashioned by the mind out of the raw data provided by the dhammas. The entities of our everyday frame of reference possess merely a consensual reality derivative upon the foundational stratum of the dhammas. It is the dhammas alone that possess ultimate reality: determinate existence “from their own side” (saruupato) independent of the mind’s conceptual processing of the data.
- (A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, a translation of the Abhidhammattha Sangaha, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Buddhist Publication Society, Pariyati Editions, Seattle, 1993, page 3.)
I think of Abhidhamma as a form of atomism, only a psychological form of atomism, rather than the materialistic form of atomism that western thought is familiar with. I sense in the development of Abhidhamma the same tendency as the more blatant forms of personalism; the attempt to fix ultimate reality onto a specific form and/or formal structure.
If I return to the core understanding of Interdependent Transformation, I view the Buddha’s teaching as that which comprehends ultimate existence as interdependence itself, without any kind of substance or essence, either material or formal. This explains why, in criticisms of Abhidharma within Buddhism, the criticism has centered on the idea that Abhidharma reifies a thought construction, and in that very reification, subverts the core teaching of the Buddha. In the Heart Sutra, when it says, “All dharmas are marked with emptiness”, it is this point that the Sutra is making.
If we extend the rigorous impersonalism of the Buddha’s teaching to encompass all types of fixed doctrine, and all attempts to reify a form into ultimacy, then that impersonalism of the Buddha would also systematically reject the attempts of Abhidharma to find ultimacy in dharma/dhamma theory. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, nothing exists independently, nothing exists from its own side. It is precisely that inability for anything to exist independently, on its own terms, or from its own side, that is undermined by this core realization.
When I refer to the Buddha’s rigorous impersonalism, I mean that it is precisely Interdependent Transformation which constitutes ultimate reality in the teaching of the Buddha. Interdependent Transformation has no form, but functions to give rise to all forms. Interdependent Transformation has no color, no taste, no texture, no sound, no emotion, no thought, etc.. But without Interdependent Transformation, none of these things would exist. It is awakening to the reality of Interdependent Transformation which constitues Nirvana and allows for the blossoming of the unrestricted heart of compassion.
3. On Having A View
In a number of discourses the Buddha states that clinging to a view constitutes a hindrance to realization. At other times, the Buddha emphasizes the importance of having a right view in order to progress on the path to realization. And, of course, right view is the first aspect of the Eightfold Path. I have found integrating both of these understandings a significant challenge. Here are a few of my own thoughts on this.
First, I think that everyone has a view of ultimate nature. In most cases this view is not consciously held. But it is implied as a basis for many disparate understandings that an individual has. One of the great gifts that philosophy presents to humanity is to bring to conscious awareness just what constitutes these core understandings. By bringing these views to the surface, it is possible to gain clarity regarding these basic views, and if necessary, to change and adapt them.
By “view” I mean here a metaphysical view regarding the ultimate nature of existence. Some would deny that they have such a view. There are famous examples of philosophers and scientists who deny that they hold any kind of metaphysical position. Examples include Sextus Empiricus, Newton, some pragmatists, and some modern deconstructionists and post-modernists.
By “view” I mean here what Aristotle referred to as “first principles”. Aristotle argued that it is not possible for people to have any kind of discussion, about any topic, without there being some agreement on first principles. First principles are kind of like starting points. Since, for the most part, we agree on basics, it is not often that first principles come up for discussion, which is one of the reasons why many people who have a view, or first principles, are unaware of the content of these views that they hold. For example, in any kind of discussion, there is the assumption that there exist inferential connections between statements, and these inferences are usually not explicitly stated, but their validity is assumed. Aristotle would argue that these basic inferential understandings constitute first principles. Aristotle placed discussion of these in his metaphysics, not in his logic. Why? Because Aristotle regarded these first principles as starting points which made any discussion possible; they were basic to all forms of inquiry.
Both the sceptic and the modern deconstructionist offer arguments for their point of view; even if their point of view consists of nothing but a critique of views they disagree with. The validity of the critique, however, depends upon assumptions as to the validity of inference and these assumptions, in turn, are metaphysical, and/or ontological, in nature. In other words, I consider Aristotle correct on this central point; it is one of the great contributions Aristotle made to show how views, or first principles, function as a basis for inquiry.
In contrast, have you ever had a discussion with someone that just went nowhere because you could not agree on even the basics? Most of us have had this kind of experience. It is very frustrating. Before one even starts, one feels kind of defeated. Not defeated in the sense of refuted, but defeated in the sense of not being able to communicate. This happens because, within the confines of the subject being considered, the two parties cannot form a common view, or a shared sense of first principles. Political discussions often seem to manifest in this way.
Scientists, such as Newton and Skinner, who argue that they do not have first principles, or a metaphysical view, also ignore that they make claims for the validity of their inferences. This implies that there exists a connection between their statements and the world to which those statements refer. What is the nature of that connection? It is not obvious. What is the nature of the inferences that they make and why should we consider such inferences valid? Once again, that is not obvious. In the case of Newton, with the passage of time it has become clear that he did hold metaphysical assumptions, and I would suggest that this also applies to all scientists without exception, as well as all sceptics, agnostics, and post-modern chronocentric deconstructionists. The point is that any kind of inference assumes the validity of logical structures, and these logical structures are based on metaphysical views, summed up in first principles.
Likewise, any kind of refutation assumes that there exists standards by which to judge the validity of reasons and arguments. Ultimately, these kinds of standards rest upon a metaphysical view, once again articulated by first principles. Therefore, even the radical sceptic has a view, or the sceptic would not find it possible to even disagree with others who hold contrary views.
There are a few fields of human endeavor in which first principles are clearly stated. These can serve to help us understand how they function, and, perhaps, how we can simultaneously have a view without clinging to that view. The clearest example of this is mathematics, and especially geometry. The axioms which form the basis for geometrical systems function as first principles for the articulation of space which that system offers. These axioms are starting points, stipulations. In order to engage in that system of geometry, one must simply acquiesce to their function as starting points. If I do not agree with an axiom, I might still be doing geometry, but I would be doing a different form of geometry. This is how there exist numerous kinds of geometry, because of varying axiomatic starting points.
Similarly, in the realm of music, I can think of scales as musical axioms, or starting points. Major, minor, etc., represents basic structures which, once chosen, influence every aspect of the musical composition. Whether a piece is in major or minor is stipulated by the composer. To argue about this is to argue that the composer should not have written the piece at all.
Having a metaphysical view, or first principle, means having an understanding of what it means to ultimately exist, what is the nature of existence as such. There are many possible views on this subject, just as there are many possible forms of geometry and many possible musical scales.
It is worthwhile mentioning that first principles, or views, are not obvious. I bring this up because western philosophy, probably under the influence of Descartes, has sometimes adopted the idea that first principles should be self-evident, clear, and not subject to challenge. In contrast, Greek philosophy did not regard first principles as obvious. For example, it is not obvious that parallel lines never connect; but it is stipulated as a principle of Euclidean Geometry. Similarly, the law of the excluded middle is not obvious; but it is stipulated as a first principle by Aristotle, a starting point in all of his discourse.
I consider Interdependent Transformation as the first principle of Buddhism. It is not obvious. It is precisely the fact that this first principle is not obvious, and in many ways even counterintuitive, that creates the necessity for a path to understanding this view. If Interdependent Transformation were obvious and self-evident, there would be no need for study and practice; the truth of Interdependent Transformation would simply present itself.
I regard having first principles, or views, as part of what it means to exist as a human being. I think having such views come with living a life as a human and that all humans have such a view. Just as humans have organs such as a liver and a pancrease, all humans have a metaphysical view. And just as humans are not normally aware of their internal organs, so also most humans are not aware of their view. From this perspective, when the Buddha speaks of having Right View, I think he means, first, to raise to conscious awareness the view that one has of ultimate nature, of what it means to exist. And second, to examine that view and see if it really holds up to experience. Right View as Interdependent Transformation means that the Buddha finds the view of Interdependent Transformation as a view that is consistent with existence and simultaneously leads to liberation, to nirvana, and the cessation of all sorrow.
But how do we arrive at this view of Interdependent Transformation without clinging to that view, and thereby engendering suffering, since clinging is the cause of suffering? I believe this can be accomplished by applying the view of Interdependent Transformation to itself. Just as all things arise dependently, so also the view of Interdependent Transformation arises dependently. Just as all things are in transformation, so also the view of Interdependent Transformation is also constantly in transformation. The tendency is to try and find a view that exists outside of causation and change; but the view of Interdependent Transformation comprehends causation and change as ultimacy itself. Therefore, when comprehended fully, the view itself negates the tendency to cling to view. I believe that is one of the reasons why the Buddhist tradition regards comprehending Interdependent Transformation as in and of itself having liberative potential.
Let me illustrate how this can work with an example. If I discursively raise the thought that all things appear dependent upon causes and conditions, the appearance of that very thought arises due to causes and condition. If I then contemplate the thought that the thought that all things arise due to causes and conditions arises due to causes and conditions, I then, once again, generate the insight that this thought also arises due to causes and conditions. Schemtically, it works like this:
- All things appear due to causes and conditions.
- The idea (1), “all things appear due to causes and conditions”, appears due to causes and conditions.
- The idea (2), also appears due to causes and conditions.
- The idea (3), also appears due to causes and conditions.
- The idea (4), also appears due to causes and conditions.
This gives me the experience of the dependent nature of things, since ideas constitute things, so that the contemplation of the idea simultaneously provides the means for the direct experience to which the idea refers. The idea of dependence is luminously permeated by the transcendent reality of dependence itself.
This contemplation also gives me the experience of vastness because the infinite regress which this contemplation engenders has no end. Having no end, I directly experience the vast context out of which, and dependent upon which, ideas appear.
This contemplation also gives me the experience of non-clinging, and therefore the experience of nirvana itself. The nirvana I experience in this contemplation is probably not as thorough or as deep, or as enduring, as that of a fully realized Buddha, but it is of the same quality, of the same kind, differing only in degree. I experience non-clinging in this contemplation of Interdependent Transformation, as the dependent nature of the idea I am contemplating, because with each step in this process I must let go of the appearing idea in order to observe how that idea arises due to causes and conditions, which gives rise to the next level of contemplation. This experience of non-clinging helps me to understand how, in this instance, Right View does not, in this case, generate fixation, suffering and clinging. For the experience of releasing each level of understanding into the next level allows me to experience the meaning of cessation as the end of suffering in a clear and direct manner.
Finally, this kind of contemplation, allows me to directly experience the ocean of awareness of which conceptualization forms only a small part. With each step in this contemplation, as I follow through on the infinite regress that this contemplation generates, I perceive a vaster context of conscious awareness out of which ideas arise. Soon, as this process unfolds, the ocean of awareness becomes directly accessible and perceivable. It resembles shifting my awareness from a small island on which I dwell to the ocean which surrounds this island. It resembles becoming aware of the galactic context in which the earth, and the solar system, live out there existence. This broadening of awareness is in itself profoundly liberating.
The Buddha has offered humanity a unique teaching centered on the understanding and realization of Interdependent Transformation. From that primal insight grows the entire Buddhadharma and all the schools and interpretations which collectively we refer to as Buddhism. Because of the unfortunate history of religion which has often erupted into violent sectarian disputes, the claim that the Buddha’s teaching is unique may provoke a negative reaction in some people. The fear is that by claiming that the Buddha offered a unique teaching I am also making a claim for unique worthiness and therefore disparaging other forms of spirituality. Such a conclusion, however, does not follow.
For example, I would also claim that Mozart has offered humanity a unique interpretation of the sonic domain. This does not mean that other forms of music do not have value. Or, I would also claim that Euclid has offered humanity a unique interpretation of space. This does not mean that other interpretations of space do not have value.
However, to understand Mozart, I have to listen to Mozart. To understand Euclid, I have to accept his axioms. To understand the Buddhadharma, I have to begin where the Buddha began; specifically, the primal insight of Interdependent Transformation.
5. The Garden Of The Spirit
I have mentioned this before, but I consider it important enough to repeat here. To say that the Buddha has offered us a unique teaching does not imply that other teachings have no value. Because of the history of religion, people tend to think that that is what someone means when they make an assertion of this kind. However, I look at it differently.
Mozart has offered us unique music, but that does not mean that other music is not valuable. Millay has offered us unique sonnets, but that does not mean other sonnets are not valuable. It is in this spirit that I understand what it means to say that the Buddha has a unique teaching, a teaching that differs from other spiritual traditions. Once again, this does not meant that other spiritual traditions do not have value, do not have something to offer. It simply means that the song of the Dharma is not the same song as the song of monotheism, or the song of platonism, etc..
I like to think of spirituality as a garden with many blossoms. It is the variety which makes the garden beautiful. Monotheism is the Sunflower, turned toward the one source. Buddhism is the Lotus, with its roots woven deep into the web of existence. May all the blossoms of the spirit bear fruit.
6. A Pluralistic Multiverse
The difficulty in writing an extended philosophical analysis is that people will tend to think that I mean this analysis to be the only possible analysis. This is due to the history of philosophy, and religion, and how they have viewed their self-appointed tasks as metaphysicians and theologians. To clarify this, contrast how mathematicians view their own works. A mathematician might spend a great deal of time and effort formulating a systematic presentation of set theory. However, in the field of mathematics, it is unlikely that the mathematician would view their work as final, or as the only possible presentation of set theory. This is particularly true since the creation of alternate inferential systems, beginning in the 19th century, which have made mathematical thought much more fluid.
Theoretical constructs and philosophical investigations have their value, but their value does not reside in their completeness or their finality. The value of philosophical investigation lies in its capacity for clarification. Philosophical investigation has the great virtue of bringing into conscious awareness ideas and views that for the most part have remained hidden, yet have strongly effected how we interact with the world and how we comprehend the world. By comprehend the world I mean how we conceptually organize our experience, and how we tend to expect experience to manifest.
Everyone has an overall view, which I think of as metaphysical presuppositions or stipulations. I say that everyone has such views because any time a person makes an inference, there is implied by that inference metaphysical assumptions about the nature of causality, the relationships between concepts, and the relationship between concepts and sensory existence, and the relationship between words and words. However, most people do not have a conscious awareness of their own metaphysical views. Just as most people can sing a tune, yet do not have knowledge as to how music is constructed and written, so also people make inferences all the time without having an awareness as to the foundations out of which these inferences spring. Because people in general lack this awareness, if their metaphysical view is flawed, or dysfunctional in some way, it remains very difficult to correct, alter, or modify the view. This is one reason why I consider philosophical investigation such a great gift to humanity; because it allows humanity to perceive such flaws, or misplaced inferences, or tenuous assumptions and then, after perceiving these, to attain the clarity with which to modify, alter, and expand one’s understanding. As Alfred North Whitehead put it, “... [A]ll constructive thought, on the various special topics of scientific interest, is dominated by some such scheme, unacknowledged, but not less influential in guiding the imagination. The importance of philosophy lies in its sustained effort to make such schemes explicit, and thereby capable of criticism and improvement.” (Process and Reality, by Alfred North Whitehead, Free Press, Corrected Edition, New York, 1978, page XIV.)
However, to clarify metaphysical views and assumptions does not infer that one view is innately superior to another. I am encouraged in this view of philosophical investigation as always open, as always tentative, by Alfred North Whitehead’s comments in his preface to his great work, Process and Reality. There he says, after laying a foundation for his view of the nature of philosophical investigation, “There remains the final reflection, how shallow, how puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” (Ibid.)
On the other hand, I think it would be a mistake to assert that all metaphysical views are equal, that none are better than any others. That also would be going to an extreme. Clearly some metaphysical systems are dysfunctional. In terms of the Dharma, most views, or metaphysical assumptions, do not lead to the cessation of suffering. Using this standard, one can say that the Buddhadharma is supreme.
In other words, I am attempting in this work to bring to the foreground the overall view of the Buddhadharma, which I refer to as Interdependent Transformation. The purpose of bringing this view to the foreground is to make it possible for both myself and others to comprehend and perceive how this core understanding weaves its way throughout the Buddhadharma, and to become consciously aware of this weave. By becoming consciously aware of this weave of Interdependent Transformation it becomes possible to enlarge our understanding, help others to understand, and to transform our understanding so that it becomes an effective means for teaching others the way to liberation.
My purpose is not to produce a final or definitive statement about Interdependent Transformation. Nor is my purpose to produce a final and definitive statement about ultimate reality. Rather, my purpose lies in illuminating, to the best of my ability, a way of comprehending existence which many have found conducive to their own happiness and the happiness of others. I fully expect that others will also, in the future, compose illuminations on Interdependent Transformation which others will also find useful, which may in significant respects supercede and surpass what is done herein.
However, it is my view that, in a sense, no illumination of ultimate nature is ever completely surpassed or rendered in some way useless. Here my view somewhat diverges from that of Whitehead and others in the western philosophical tradition. As I understand it, the western philosophical tradition regards ultimate reality as in some sense unitary. The elucidations of that ulimate nature sort of hover around, or spotlight portions of this ultimate nature. In that sense all such illuminations are useful. But there remains an assumption that there exists a universe, a singular ultimate presence.
I tend to think of existence as more fluid and more diverse. For this reason, I tend to use the term multiverse rather than universe. There are many ultimate natures all of which have many aspects. In other words, the situation in which we find ourselves is more complex, and more beautiful, than we can imagine. I don’t think that it is reducible to a singular nature.
For this reason, I regard illuminating the nature of Interdependent Transformation as illuminating one aspect of a complex multiversal presence. I don’t consider this project as in some sense an explanation for everything. Nevertheless, such a project, the illumination of ultimate nature, has value because it grants us clarity, and it forms the ground upon which true happiness and contentment can be built, and ultimately the cessation of all sorrow.
My attitude towards Interdependent Transformation is similar to Aristotle’s attitude towards what Aristotle refers to as “first principles.” By first principles Aristotle means accepted, or stipulated, starting points that make further discussion possible.
Aristotle’s first principles consist of three views: 1) the law of identity or A is A; 2) the law of contradiction, or nothing can be X and not-X; and 3) the law of the excluded middle, or something must be either X or not-X. Aristotle considered these three laws as first principles which made any conversation and further inquiry possible. Aristotle regarded them as the starting points for all of his philosophical work, which is why they are elucidated in his Metaphysics.
Aristotle points out that in order to have any kind of discussion, there must be some point of agreement. Otherwise we will just talk past each other and the discussion will be fruitless. In philosophical discussions, these first principles function as the starting points from which it is possible to continue having a discussion.
Aristotle’s famous laws function like axioms in a geometrical system. Once the axioms are stated, the rest of the system flows from these core notions. However, the axioms themselves determine the nature of the system. To go outside of, or to abandon, these axioms means to engage in some other activity. For example, if one abandons the law of the excluded middle, one is no longer operating within an Aristotelian framework. Logicians who do abandon the law of the excluded middle, for this reason, refer to their logic as non-Aristotelian. Abandoning the law of the excluded middle is neither good nor bad, but it is a consequence that such an abandonment leads to an activity of the mind that is no longer a part of what Aristotle had in mind. Similarly, if one abandons Euclid’s parallel postulate, one is no longer engaging in Euclidean geometry; one is doing something else. That is why those who do abandon Euclid’s parallel postulate refer to their activity as non-Euclidean. Once again, that something else is neither good or bad, but it isn’t Euclidean geometry. Or to pick a less exalted example, if one abandon’s the rules for moving different chess pieces on the chess board, one is no longer playing chess. One is doing something else. That something else may be a wonderful new game, but it is not chess.
Similarly, I think of Interdependent Transformation as the first principle of Buddhism. Everything else in Buddhism is rooted in this primal understanding and awareness. If I pursue wisdom, or spirituality, outside of this understanding, then I would suggest that that something else is not Buddhism. That does not make the something else bad, or unworthy of study. It also does not make it good or worthy of study. But I think it does mean that one has ventured into some other, non-Buddhist, realm of thought and spirit.
It is the overall understanding of the Buddhist tradition that the Buddha discovered something about the ultimate nature of existence that has great value. The great value of that discovery is that it leads to the cessation of sorrow and the liberation of the heart and mind through awakening to the deathless and unborn. To say that the Buddha discovered something of great value, however, does not imply that others have not also discovered something of great value. In my personal explorations of wisdom traditions I have learned much of great value from non-Buddhist views. With a heart open to the multiverse, I walk the Buddhist path.