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.


Three Questions about the Future

Recently somebody asked me three questions about what I think about the future. I thought it’s interesting so I am posting the questions and answers here.
QUESTION 1: What is your greatest hope for 2021?

My hope is that people will come to their senses and seriously start to trust one another and open up themselves to others. For example, I have talked with both Israelis and Palestinians and they both have valid reasons for their grievances and distrust of the other side. But real peace cannot take place when people like these do not trust each other. They need to move on. I am not saying that they should forget the past. That’s not possible. But they need to realize that the other side are real people with real hopes, concerns, worries, fears, as they do. Most of all people need to open up toward one another completely and without any reservations.

That’s the most important thing. However, in the areas of technology and business I would hope that there’s a new business model for technology innovation that is different from what we are having at the moment. Perhaps in ten years we will be less obsessed with protecting intellectual property rights and are more committed to a newer business model that is more based on altruism; that is, instead of protecting innovation with stringent legal mechanism, people should collaborate and share more. The drive for technological innovation will be more the benefits of all people and the betterment of the world. This will be possible in a context where firms become more fused with one another both domestically and globally.

QUESTION 2: What is your greatest fear about 2021?

My greatest fear is environmental disaster. We are having a very serious flood in Thailand, the like of which has not been seen before. It seems like things have become more disastrous year by year. So if nothing is done now, in ten years the disaster could be much more than just tenfold.

QUESTION 3: What is your greatest expectation (what you think is most likely to happen) in 2021 that is different from 2011?

In politics there is emerging a trend where the people are starting to take matters into their own hands. They are losing their confidence in the politicians and the electoral system. This is not a bad thing, and it points to a birth of a new political system where the elected politicians have more limited role and power than they do now. Power will be more diffused to the normal citizens. The tie between politicians and business corporations will also be loosened. We are seeing this trend not only on the streets of Manhattan, but in the ‘Arab Spring’ phenomenon and other similar events in other parts of the world. I think this trend will continue and will become more mature in the next ten years. Right now things are just starting.

Spinoza and the Problem of Evil

This Tuesday the class on Spinoza was resumed again. It was cancelled last week because I had to prepare for an international workshop (so we have to move the final exam one week further to allow for a make up). Today we talked about one of the most serious problems in philosophy, that is the problem of evil. We tried to see how Spinoza and his concept of God could deal with this problem. And it is a very controversial one.

For a review, the problem of evil is how one can explain the apparent contradiction that happens when there is a God who is by nature benevolent and omnipotent on the one hand, and the fact that there are terrible things in the world such as earthquakes, tsunamis, genocides, ethnic cleansings on the other. How could it be that a benevolent and all powerful God could allow such montrosities to happen? Either God is not benevolent, since he allows these terrible things to befall us, or he is not all powerful, since he could not have prevented these things from happening.

The standard answer in theology is that we humans have free will. God created a world with evils in it because this would test the love of human beings toward God himself. Love would not be real if it is not tested; that is, if, despite of obstacles and hardships, humans still love God out of their free will. However, this has a problem of having God creating evils in the first place. What kind of God is he who puts obstacles to his creatures to prove that they really love him?

Well, I am not a Christian theologian, so I won’t talk any more about how the theistic God fares in the problem of evil. Let us look instead at what Spinoza has to say. According to one of the propositions in the Ethics, there is an astounding pronouncement: Everything there is, is in God, and God’s being reflects an infinite of attributes or properties.

This means that everything is in God from the beginning; furthermore, everything is an expression of God himself and partakes of his nature – since God himself is indivisible. This means that the evils are godlike too. There is no place for an evil to be except in God, and as God. This is indeed astounding, especially if one is familiar with the theistic conception of God.

So it appears that all the evils are parts of the one, indivisible God or Substance. But according to the standard problem of evil, this cannot be because that would mean that God is not benevolent and because the evils would be contrary to God’s nature. However, for Spinoza his God is totally impersonal. The typical problem of evil occurs when we are kind of let down by God. For someone whose family has just been struck down by a huge tsunami, he might question his belief in God, saying “Why did you do this to me?”. That is, he puts the blame on God for allowing this disaster to happen. But one can no more put a blame on Spinoza’s God than on the water itself when it struck. The tsunami flood is coming to your house forcefully, but do you say to the water, “Hey, water, why are you doing this to me? Why are you flooding me, taking away my possessions and loved ones?” You might continue cursing the water. But everybody knows that this is an absurd action. The water can’t take the blame because it just functions as a result from some prior events, such as a rupture in the tectonic plates undersea. And the rupture is caused by some other events, which can be fully explained by seismologists, and so on.

So who is to blame? Do you blame the moving tectonic plates? Or the underground force that moves them? Or any cause of that force? Or the earth itself for having been constituted in this way? All these are absurd of course. But this is Spinoza’s God. You can’t blame him, just like you can’t blame the continental plates for causing the earthquake. These events just happen because they are caused to do so. That’s it.

So what can we say, out of all this, for Spinoza’s God and the problem of evil. For natural evils like tsunamis, we say that they are natural events, which are themselves caused by further natural events. And the fact that tens of thousands of people died in Japan a few months ago because of the huge tsunami was just because they happened to live along the coastline hit by the wave. We do feel very sad for them, and if we are the Japanese directly hit by the wave, then we feel much more intensely. This is totally natural. But there’s no one to blame. Everything happens because the causes and conditions are such and such. When we understand this, we feel that there is less need to find someone to blame, which is not useful to anybody. Instead we focus our energies to helping each other in the time of need without worrying ourselves why the disaster happens to us and not to others or why a benevolent supreme being could do something like this.

And this is Spinoza’s way toward blessedness. We lead our lives totally in accordance with reason.

But what about the problem of evil? Spinoza would say there is no such problem. The “evils” are so because of our own limited perspective. This does not mean that the evils deliberately perpetrated can be condoned, such as the man-made evils such as the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s killing fields, and so on. We should do what we can, in fact we have to, in order to stop those evils, but there is no denial that they are parts of the natural order too. This make them real and palpable, all the more reasons for us to fight and defeat them.

Avatar and Spirituality

Last Saturday my son Ken and I went to see the movie Avatar together. It was Children’s Day in Thailand, and I first thought of taking Ken to the newly opened “Thailand Knowledge Park” at the Central World Shopping Mall. We did spend some time there but in the end we went to see the movie which was already shown at the same shopping mall. It was a very big movie, both in length (almost three hours) and in the content.

The theme of the movie is the fight between those who want to exploit nature for private gains and those who fight to protect it. This is of course a very well worn theme, but the setting of the movie, in an imaginary, remote planet far, far away from earth, kind of made up for this redundancy. The remote setting also adds to the urgency of the theme. It kind of made us think the matter through again. A group of people went all the way from earth to the planet Pandora to mine a very expensive kind of mineral there. The journey takes more than five years on board of space ships, and it takes more than five years to travel there. Those who have their missions at the planet have to have their bodies frozen up. The main character in the movie said that it felt like a bad sleep.

Pandora is not exactly uninhabited. There is a tribe of people there, the Na’vi, who is twice taller than an average human and much stronger. Their problem, however, is that they are forest dwelling people and do not have much technology beyond bows and arrows. Their sacred dwelling place, a very huge tree where they live inside, happens to be on top of a huge amount of deposit of this mineral so desired by the earth people. So this is the seed of the conflict. All efforts by earth people to persuade the Na’vi people to leave their sacred tree have failed, and the only way out was a violent conflict. Much of the movie then is on this fight scene which is really exciting for my son and others of his age. I don’t need to say who wins in this fight. This is easy to guess.

However, what I would like to say about this movie is that it encapsulates some very interesting ideas in philosophy and spirituality. The Na’vi people believe that the world and their forest is an expression of the Mother Goddess they call “Eywa.” Eywa is nature and everything else; thus everybody is already part of Her. We learn that she “does not take side” in conflicts between people. She only takes care of the “balance of life.”

So there have been some blogs (such as this one) saying that the movie is perhaps advocating pantheism, the idea that everything is identical to God. However, some (like the author of the same blog) say that instead of pantheism, the idea presented is more panentheism, the view that everything is included in God, that God exceeds the whole totality of nature. The difference between the two is that pantheism believes that everything is God and God is everything. God is nature (‘nature’ is the catch all word for everything, anything whatsoever) and nature is God. Like Spinoza said, ‘God’ and ‘Nature’ are two interchangeable words, meaning absolutely the same. Panentheism, on the other hand, believes that God is more than nature. Nature is part of God, and here panentheism agrees with pantheism, but God is more than nature. There is part of God that is not in nature.

Nonetheless, I am not saying here whether pantheism or panentheism is the correct interpretation of the movie. What I would like to say is about my reflection of the movie, its spiritual message, so to speak. The message is clear enough. We need to protect nature. For the Na’vi people, their sacred tree and the Tree of Souls, which is some kind of center nervous control for Eywa herself, cannot be exchanged for anything. These are their lives, their very beings; thus they are very sacred places indeed. We moderns have lost much touch with this idea of nature being sacred. For us nature is merely an object to be exploited, bought and sold, but for the Na’vi and close to home for many indigenous people it is very different.

Another message from the movie concerns globalization and its role in changing indigenous cultures. This is very close to us, but somehow we need a setting light years from our home to get the message across. Now globalization does not limit itself only to earth, but spans across the galaxy. This illustrates how greed is really limitless, a message that the Buddha gave us more than two millennia ago. Thus, apart from the philosophical discussion on pantheism and panentheism (I believe, contrary to others, that the message is rather pantheistic, but I have to talk about this in another post.), the message is that greed is to be avoided or at least limited. There is indeed no end to what we want to take. Even the whole universe would not be enough, let alone an extra-solar planet like Pandora. But before we really get to be able to travel to Pandora, perhaps we need to learn to live within our means and control our exploitation of nature within this earth. Otherwise going to Pandora might be nothing more than mere fantasy.

Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha

Green Tara

Here is a very beautiful and moving video on the Mantra of Bodhisattva Tara – “Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha” (or “Soha” in Tibetan pronunciation). The basic color of Tara is green, as Green Tara is the original form of the Bodhisattva, who has a large number of emanations in different shapes, colors and forms to serve the needs of sentient beings in various ways, and the maker of the video aptly put green as the predominant theme color, as well as lush forests, which are the abode of Green Tara. And the music accompanying the Mantra is very, very beautiful, as if the composer is inspired by Tara herself! May all who watch this video be blessed and protected by Tara!