“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Buddhism, Nihilism, Objects

I've been having a fascinating discussion with Christopher Ireland concerning my recent essay in Adbusters. I'm reproducing it here as it elucidates some issues I've explored on the blog. And it may be interesting for non-Buddhists to see issues such as nihilism and existence being debated within Buddhism. The conversation is ongoing.

Here is the passage in my essay  we've been discussing:

Modern life presents us with a choice:

1) The essence of things is elsewhere (in the deep structure of capital, the unconscious, Being).
2) There is no essence.

At present I believe that the restriction of rightness and coolness to this choice is one reason why planet Earth is in big trouble right now. And I believe that the choice resembles a choice between grayish brown and brownish gray.That’s why I believe in option 3):

3) There is an essence, and it’s right here, in the object resplendent with its sensual qualities yet withdrawn.

C: wherefore Nagarjuna? Or is 3) a modern reformulation of Yogacara?

T: Does Nagarjuna argue that nothing exists?

C: No, he doesn't, but he does argue that things don't have essences.

T: This glass is identical to this pen, since it has no essence?

C: In terms of having no essence, then of course the pen and glass are identical. You know how all the arguments go at least as well as I do. Causes and conditions. Interdependent arising. My question really is, therefore, why you would choose 3) over 2)?

T: You see emptiness as different from the glass?

C: Emptiness isn't a thing, and as such can't be different or identical to things. If I say to you that I have no money, you can't then ask me to give you the money I don't have.

T: Do you disagree with the phrase "emptiness is no other than form"?

C: Not at all. Emptiness is the interdependence of form - without form there would be no emptiness to speak of. And if form really did have independent essence, there would be no form to speak of either.

T: For something to be interdependent with something else, it has to be different, right? If it was the same, it couldn't be related to it--because it would be exactly the same. Yes?

C: Difference is relative to identity. There would be nothing that appeared the same if there wasn't anything that appeared different. Why do some things appear different whilst others appear identical? Is this difference and identity a characteristic of the object? Or a characteristic of the mind of the observer? Where is difference and identity?

T: This glass is the same as an "identical" glass?

C: If two things were identical in all aspects we could never see them as two things. Then we have the situation described by the Goliath and Lumpl example ( http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience/#5.5 ). We could say that emptiness is a defence of a negative answer to the "grounding problem". Does OOP offer a positive answer to this problem?

T: Hi Christopher. I seem to be making some progress here towards understanding your position. It seems as if for you, emptiness is the essence of things: it subtends the glass and the pencil equally. Now you may not like the term "essence" but here and in my piece it doesn't mean "ground." To think it thus is more like what you are doing, so ironically you seem to adhere to position 1). I put it to you that you are really advocating position 1). The essence of things is "elsewhere" than their form. No matter how this glass appears to me, really it is not a glass, just an appearance of one. Yet you are worried about the idea of essence at all, and so you also want to assert 2: "there is no essence."

In Madhyamika this is known as rangtong: "emptiness of self." "Lack of essence" as you say. Yet your agreement with me about the difference between a glass and an identical glass suggests that there remains a puzzle concerning what to do with appearances. For the rangtong view, the glass is only a mistaken appearance of a generalized emptiness.

But there is a higher view of emptiness, known as shentong, "emptiness of other." This is the fully Prasangika Madhamaka view, via which I have been questioning you. Emptiness is not just blah or nothing at all. It is endowed with all the qualities of a Buddha. The glass is not empty despite its glass-ness, but because of it. Position 3) is akin to the shentong view of emptiness.

I highly recommend that you read Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness.

Most Westerners do indeed think that emptiness is nothing at all or that it underlies things (somewhere between positions 1 and 2). This view tends towards nihilism, which as I suggest, is part of the big problem modernity has. Either there is no essence (2)--emptiness is just "lack of essence." Or there is an essence, but not in appearance.

This is a big mistake, first introduced by Hegel. See my essay "Hegel on Buddhism," which you can find online. The glass analogy was first used by my teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche. For him, the reason why the glass embodies emptiness is not because it isn't real--but because it is. This is because he accepts the highest possible view of emptiness, the shentong.

The key to my diagnosis of nihilism was when you said that emptiness was neither "in" nor "not in" the glass. This is the fourth possible mistake Nagarjuna outlines in his tetralemma. The neither-nor position is nihilism. On this view, it doesn't matter that the glass is a glass. Likewise, it might not matter whether you meditate or commit a murder: both are equally devoid or essence, right? Danger.

1 comment:

Daniel Taghioff said...

If emptiness is not a thing, but a lack (of essence) then one must ask what is there.

What is there is a multiplicity. A multiplicity of objects and of relations if you like. The point is that to seek an essence is the problem, even an essential lack, which posits the lack as an object/essence in itself (which is the basis of nihillism).

That is why "objects" is a problem. It may be a corrective to seeking relations, but it is also an attempt at an essence. Why should the world in all its multiplicity primarily be made of "objects" and why should those objects "withdraw" rather than also overflow in all their multiplicity?

Indeed how can "object" or "difference" be one essence? To say so is to attempt some kind of Zermilo Frankel formulation of everything, but that is not possible, when you approach everything or the infinite, as Cohen and Godel have shown, for the continuum hypothesis as well as for the axiom of choice, Zermilo Frankel ceases to be able to decided either way. In other words no singularised set function

If you ignore multiplicity you are forced to create quasi objects to explain how relations can exist overlain on objects. But the answer is simple, all is multiple, all is sets of sets if you like (as Cohen and ZF require and Badiou elaborates), so all interaction is partial, some parts of a multiple interact more than others and this makes objects in relation respond distinctively, it is the basis of emergence and articulation.

So no, essence does not lie in objects here and now, that is to priviledge the immediate and the bounded. The issue is even simpler, there are no essences, only the dynamic multiplicity that we sometimes, in their slow motion, see as objects.

Yes, objects have distinctive dynamics and internal coherence by definition, but everything does to some degree. However whatever you say about them is an attempt to place a "set function" in front of multiplicity, it is an attempt to essence. To abandon essences is not to go to nihilism, it is to acknowledge the incredible fullness of everything, in all its multiplicity.