Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Object-Oriented Buddhism 14—A Buddhist Fourfold

Antirealism has had its fling with Buddhism. But Buddhism asserts that things are real—in particular, Buddhas!

Deconstruction has claimed Buddhism as its own. But the only aspect it's really like is the cutting edge of Madhyamika reasoning (Prasangika style to be exact). And as Nagarjuna said, if you believe in that as a system, you are incurably insane. It tend towards nihilism—as does deconstruction.

The eco crew claimed Buddhism, believing that phenomenological “embeddedness” in a lifeworld constituted a blow to Cartesian dualism. But Harman and I agree that this kind of talk is just a “new and improved” version of anthropocentric dualism.

The process crew wants a turn too. But process philosophies are materialisms: the processes have to be of something. Essentially they are forms of atomism in a rather gooey guise. They can maybe have the first two forms of Buddhism (the ones that developed egolessness and interdependence), which developed forms of atomism.

But for sure process philosophies have trouble with the other seven or whatever the number is (I'm counting all the different tantras as separate forms of Buddhism here). If there's one thing these Buddhisms aren't, it's materialism.

But OOO? We've got realism: check. We've got objects but not matter as atoms or goo: check. We've got irreductionism: Buddha himself says a chariot is not reducible to the sum of its parts—check. We've got emptiness: check—because objects are withdrawn and not what they appear to be as present-at-hand. We've got a critique of relationism: check—that's what emptiness is, a critique of relationism, because if you have relations then you have atomism in some form. We've got a critique of cause and effect: check—because the Middle Way (Madhyamika) sees it as absurd. We've got a noncorrelationist view—because correlationism is what Buddhism calls “ego.” (Buddhism agrees with Harman that phenomenological “embeddedness” is just a touchy-feely upgrade of the lucid Cartesian ego. What a shame most people see Buddhism as an “embeddedness” philosophy.) We've got anti-anthropocentrism, because a wallaby, heck even a peanut or even a neutron star could become enlightened (
why not? at least in the Vajrayana they could). What else?

Graham Harman's Tool-Being provides the first detailed and straightforward interpretation of Heidegger's notorious das Geviert (fourfold), an account of the thing that has baffled and embarrassed many a Heideggerian for decades. I like this account very much, not the least because it's isometric with an esoteric Buddhist account of objects! I only figured this out today so bear with me if this post contains errors. But Harman encourages us to dream about the fourfold and be in a fever about it—this pretty much describes my feelings right now.

I must say I find this among the more stunning aspects of Harman's OOO, especially insofar as it makes a good deal of sense out of what is often dismissed as a poeticism. Moreover, the parallel with esoteric Buddhism is uncanny. Caveat: I am by no means suggesting you have to be a Buddhist to be an OO philosopher. I am however suggesting that Buddhism is a kind of OOO.

In Harman's view of the quadruple object (the title of his imminently forthcoming book), and in Buddhism, each entity has four different aspects. Harman derives the model from Heidegger's fourfold: Earth, Gods, Mortals, Sky. Rather than each of the four being a specific ontic being, each aspect is included in every single object in the Universe. Hold that thought since Buddhism says the same thing.

(Graham Harman, Tool-Being, p. 203)

Earth and Gods correspond to objects as concealed, “subterranean” entities. Mortals and Sky correspond to objects in their “as-structure” sense, as present-at-hand (as they appear, in Buddhist-ese). So concealed and revealed is the first axis.

Now comes the second axis—something specific vs. something at all (beings and being). Earth and Mortals pertain to objects in their something-at-all-ness. Gods and Sky pertain to objects in their specificity. Got that?

Harman uses the example of a goblet filled with wine. There is the goblet as a something at all, apart from my access to it (Earth); the goblet as specific something, apart from my access (Gods); the goblet as it appears to me as something at all (Mortals); and the goblet as it appears to me as something specific (Sky). When I say my access I might as well say “this bottle of wine's access” or “this table's access”—just to be clear.

It's not easy at first but I suggest you play with this model to become acquainted with it. It's actually not hard to fall in love with it.

Okay, now for the Buddhist parallels.

Earth. In esoteric or Vajrayana Buddhism (and the most esoteric school, Dzogchen) this is known as ground, which is as near as anything to “earth,” particularly in Harman's sense. Earth or ground is not soil and roots, not under your ontic feet, not even “an” Earth, but the withdrawn matrix (ground Tantra) in which everything occurs, or as Harman puts it, the total contexture of being. Tantra comes from the same word as “text” so Harman's “contexture” comes very close to this. Not as in “writing” qua language but as in weaving.

Gods. Harman takes this to mean specific things that arise out of the matrix. Again, in esoteric Buddhism an object as such is called a deity. Same term! The practitioner acknowledges this by considering human and non-human entities alike as “gods” and “goddesses.” Thus water is Mamaki, a female Buddha, and so on. I know it sounds freaky.

Mortals. The withdrawn aspect of a specific entity. The “experience” of being (Harman, “something at all”), which in Buddhist-ese is emptiness. It finds a good though limited human analogy in Heidegger's Angst. Sometimes referred to in Buddhist-ese as “baby rigpa.” Could easily apply to nonhuman and nonliving entities if you think “experience” as “encounter.” The manuals do say that you experience it automatically when you experience a massive shock (such as dying or being born…) so the uncanny creepiness of Heidegger's Angst is quite close. It's just that for Buddhists, the experience is much more open than that. But yeah, panic kind of puts you there. Pity you snap out of it in 0.001 seconds.

Sky. Specific entities in their luminous or appearing aspect (Harman, “something in particular”). Heidegger writes quite beautifully about the sparkle of things, “the wandering glitter of the stars”—a sparkle that concurs intimately with esoteric Buddhist language. In Buddhist-ese, sky is luminosity. Esoteric Buddhism is full of sky imagery, imagined as a kind of luminous canvas on which things appear.

So as you can see, this is a remarkable state of affairs. What we have are two ontologies that are exactly isometric in their appeal to a fourfold structure.

For fun let's venture into even more uncharted territory a little. Actually, esoteric Buddhism already has a FIVEFOLD structure. These are five Buddha families. Every single entity in the Universe contains all five simultaneously yet one is foregrounded in any specific situation. The five are called Buddha, Vajra, Padma, Ratna and Karma. You can read about them here and here. They correspond to the five wisdoms, which are five aspects of enlightened mind: all-encompassing space (Buddha), mirrorlike wisdom (that reflects emptiness, Vajra), discriminating awareness wisdom (picking out details, Padma), the wisdom of equanimity (Ratna, associated with the realm of the gods), all-accomplishing wisdom (Karma). They also correspond to confused states of mind and to elements: space, ignorance (Buddha), water, anger (Vajra), fire, desire (Padma), earth, pride (Ratna), wind, jealousy (Karma).

The following is totally made up by me on the spot and it could be wrong. But this looks like a good fit to me.

Buddha = Earth.
Vajra = Mortals.
Padma = Sky.
Ratna = Gods.
Karma = [?] The blank stands for the way all of these go together, spontaneously perfect. Technically unless you're enlightened you don't ever experience enlightened Karma energy. So maybe that would be a Buddhist explanation for why objects appear to have a fourfold rather than fivefold structure.

The “higher” Buddhism goes (sorry I'm biased), the more like OOO it seems. There is a rather rough and ready fit between Pratyekabuddhayana interdependence and tool-being. There is a much better fit between Mahayana emptiness and withdrawal vs. as-structure. And there is an almost perfect fit between Vajrayana emptiness–luminosity and the fourfold object.

I find this coincidence remarkable. OOO is the ONLY non-Buddhist view I've ever seen that can cope with the depth and vastness of Buddhist ontology. And with the magic.

1 comment:

matthew said...

I like this connection very much, it has helped to deepen my understanding of the Fourfold.

A couple of comments:

1. Have you read Julian Young's 2002 account of Heidegger's Later Philosophy? It provides a lucid, and more or less consistent with Harman, analysis of the Fourfold but goes further to derive a weak ethics of dwelling from the analysis. It is written well before OOO and hence misses its radicalisation of the Fourfold beyond consciousness but nevertheless it has much to recommend it, not least as it directly addresses the question of ethics.

2. Within that account, you will find one answer for your question of what in Heidegger equates to Karma. In precisely the way you describe Karma as the way the four interplay, so Young points to the cross at the centre of the Fourfold and the crossed-out Sein as pointing to (a) the way the four interplay that is not in itself a being and (b) the sublime or radiance of the fourfold showing up in a way that also points to the dark or hidden.