Substance and Emptiness

One of the questions I got from my paper on Spinoza and Buddhism on the Self that I gave at the symposium on “Philosophies in Dialog” the other day was that how could I compare Spinoza’s Substance and Nagarjuna’s Emptiness. The issue is a very large one and by itself it deserves a whole project of its own. But here in this blog I can only give a very brief sketch of what I am thinking at the moment.

First a little bit of background, Spinoza’s Substance is the totality of everything. It’s the only thing that exists by itself without being dependent on any other. In fact there is no *other* because Substance is the only thing that exists. Other things are just parts of Substance. Another name of Substance is God; another one is Nature. This is the ultimate reference point in Spinoza’s system, the starting point where everything in his thought follows.

Nagarjuna’s Emptiness, on the other hand, is not so straightforward. In fact Buddhist philosophy does not seem to want to say anything directly about this totality of all things taken as one big entity. In fact “Emptiness” is strictly speaking an aspect, or one could perhaps say at “attribute”, of this ultimate reality. Reality is by nature “empty” – this is a basic tenet of all schools of Buddhist philosophy. But even though it is considered as an attribute, then I think something interest could emerge when we compare it with Spinoza’s Substance.

When Buddhists talk about ultimate reality, it is usually couched in terms of its main characteristics; that is, that ultimate reality is interdependent, always changing, lacking in substance, and so on. This seems to point to a strong contrast with Spinoza’s Substance. If ultimate reality in the Buddhist views “lacks substance” then how could it even be comparable to Substance in Spinoza’s system? Aren’t we then comparing light and darkness, a pair of totally opposite qualities? But things are not that straightforward. For Spinoza’s Substance also cannot be directly described. This is not possible because for a thing to be describable (as, for example, a car is described as a vehicle with four wheels) there has to be a more general concept which is then qualified down to the level of the thing to be described. This is simple Aristotelian logic. But Spinoza’s Substance is the whole totality and “there is nothing greater” (Spinoza’s own words from the Ethics). So it can only be understood through the two possible “Attributes” that we can conceive, namely extension and thought. And even thought it cannot be described we know that it necessarily exists.

The Buddhist is not so metaphysical in this respect. Of course there are things like rocks and chairs, but their identity depends on others. I think Spinoza would agree on this point. So the problem boils down to: How would a Buddhist, or Nagarjuna himself, say anything about the totality of everything? What is the equivalence of Spinoza’s Substance in Buddhist philosophy?

The Buddhist talks about reality in this sense too. This is clear from the fact that Buddhists often talk about the whole totality of things when they characterize it as being always changing, lacking in substance, and so on. So ultimate reality is whatever that lacks substance, always changing, being such that any part of it is always dependent on others, and so on. This “whatever” is one and the same as rocks and chairs in one way of looking at it, but in another it is not the same because rocks and chairs are always parts of it. One way to look at this is to conceive the totality of everything here as whatever that consists of rocks, chairs, stars and also all mental episodes. This has to exist because there has to be something that possesses those characteristics of always changing, lacking in substance, and so on. And then we need to bear in mind that when we talk of this whatever we are not reifying it. This whole totality also share the same characteristics as all its parts.

However, that it is the totality of all things – this is not changing. Or to put it in another way, that it is a fact that all things do change all the time, this fact does not change. And in this point we can, I think, still compare this ultimate reality according to the Buddhist with Spinoza’s unchanging Substance. After all Substance for Spinoza is nothing more that a collection of all things, and all things do also change continuously. It is the whole collection, taken by itself, that does not change.

3 thoughts on “Substance and Emptiness

  1. bert0001 March 29, 2015 / 11:42 pm

    Thank you for this great ‘little’ post.
    I don’ know Spinoza’s work, and only humbly read Nagarjuna in a couple of translations. If you write Interdepence with a capital letter, perhaps the capital S from Substance of Spinoza forms an equality. Or not, or neither this or the other, nor both.🙂

  2. soraj March 30, 2015 / 11:10 am

    🙂

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