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.

Schopenhauer and Buddhism

My current project is writing a paper on Schopenhauer and Buddhism for presentation at the workshop on “Reception of Buddhism in German Culture,” which will be organized at Chulalongkorn University next month. So this is something I have been thinking for a while.

This led me to go back to Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Idea” translated by Haldane and Kemp. The copy from the library that I borrowed is so worn out that it literally crumbles when I open it, so I have to take a rather special care of the book. Moreover, the book has been eaten quite a lot by boring insects. So there is a lot of dust deposited by the book wherever I put it down. So reading it is quite an experience.

As is well known, Schopenhauer expounds that idea that the ultimate reality that underlies what we perceive is the will. The will manifests itself through our body; Schopenhauer said that the body itself is the objectification of the will. What this means is that the will, being the ultimate driving force behind reality, comes to be perceptible empirically only through its action of the consciousness that recognizes itself when it engages in a thought process directed at something. Since only human beings are capable of this action, Schopenhauer says that the will reveals itself through our own (as conscious human beings) act of willing, that is, thoughts, desires, or movement of the consciousness toward something else. And since Schopenhauer has argued earlier that material reality itself is ultimately speaking projection of the individual mind, material or external reality is just a picture that the will puts up. The world is at the same time both “will” and “idea”. It is “idea” in the sense of something directly perceptible as one thing rather than another. It is the same with Locke’s view. The German term for this is Vorstellung, which is perhaps better translated as “representation.” But somehow Haldane and Kemp translated as “idea” so we are stuck with this term in the book.

So the idea of the paper is that I will compare this with the Buddhist teaching, especially Nagarjuna’s view on Emptiness. The will and Emptiness are the same in that they are supposed to be ultimate reality. But there the similarity ends. Nagarjuna himself stated emphatically that Emptiness itself is empty, in that one should not reify Emptiness itself and take it as just another form of ultimate reality. On the contrary, “Emptiness” is just a name for whatever reality that is there for us, only when it is not conceptually or linguistically fabricated. There is absolutely no distinction or difference between Emptiness and perceptible reality. Schopenhauer’s will, on the other hand, has the characteristic of always driving and striving. This is lacking in Emptiness.

This is all for now. I’ll certainly come back to this later.

Class on Nagarjuna

The class on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) that I taught today and yesterday is now finished. There were seven students in the course; not much, but enough for intensive questions, answers and discussions. We worked together to understand the deep meanings behind the dense text of the Fundamental Wisdom, and I think we succeeded quite well in doing so.

The teaching was based on the text of Fundamental Wisdom that I translated into Thai. We were all exhausted in the end because we spent the whole day from 9 am to 4:30 pm both Saturday and Sunday reading almost all the chapters of the book. There are twenty-seven chapters in the Mula, so it was quite a feat covering almost all of them. We read all the verses in the chapters that we read closely, which were about twenty-five, and in the chapters that we skipped I tried to give a summary of the conclusion and the main argument.

We began by praying to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, to invoke his blessings so that we succeed in understanding the text. Then we began with the Dedicatory Verse, which according to the Garfield translation is as follows:

I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha
The best of teachers, who taught that
Whatever is dependently arisen is
Unceasing, unborn,
Unannihilated, not permanent,
Not coming, not going,
Without distinction, without identity,
And free from conceptual construction.

This verse kind of summarizes the main point that Nagarjuna would like to make. Things are unceasing, unborn, unannihilated, unmade, not coming, not going, and so on. Understanding this thoroughly amounts to understanding the whole text. Whatever is dependently arisen is of the nature of being ’empty’ or śūnya in Sanskrit. As such, it is free from any kind of imputation as to its essential or substantive characteristic, either being made or born, being unborn, being permanent, being impermanent, and so on. This is an outstanding feature of the Madhyamika philosophy. It uses logic, but in the sense it apparently violates any possible laws of logic. The idea is to force us to come face to face to the real nature of things itself — the nature that is completely free from any conceptual construction and imputation.

We were all exhaused at the end of the day, but after the course was completed around 4:30 pm I think everybody came back with a better and deeper understanding of the Madhyamika teaching. What I emphasized during the course was that the distinctions between the different schools of Buddhism was not as great as some might think. For example, the two main schools of Mahayana Buddhism are the Madhyamika and the Yogācāra. The latter is known for its teaching of “Mind Only,” that is that everything that appears is ultimately speaking a projection of the mind itself. There appears to be a clear difference from that of the Madhyamika. However, when we examine closely, we find that the ultimate reality spoken of by the Madhyamika — emptiness or ordinary things themselves considered as free from any conceptual imputation — is not too different from the basic projection of the mind position of the Yogācāra. In both cases the idea is that reality as ordinarily conceived, as things with their own seemingly permanent nature and substantive identity, is not tenable. The difference seems to be only on how this basic reality itself — we might call this ‘things as they are as such’ or ‘suchness’ or ‘dependent origination’ — is called.

I think this is a very promising start, and it marks another occasion where a serious attempt to understand Madhyamika philosophy is made. Another thing I said during the course was that Nagarjuna’s teaching was not in any way any addition or deviation from the Buddha’s original teaching and had nothing that the Theravadin could not accept, if understood properly.