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.

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Spinoza

Last Tuesday I taught a course on Spinoza for the first time. It is part of the course on Modern Philosophy, starting with Descartes and supposedly ending with Kant. Spinoza figures prominently in this story, and his thought is the most interesting of all the philosophers in the modern period, or in any period for that matter.

We read Spinoza’s Ethics together in the class, trying to understand what is meant in Spinoza’s terse, geometrical language. As one who has only a little familiarity with Spinoza’s thought and writing knows. Spinoza presents his masterpiece “in geometrical order” meaning that he emulates the style of Euclid when he presents his philosophy. This is perhaps the only piece in the history of Western philosophy which is presented as axioms, definitions, propositions, and proofs. And the subject matter is not about points, lines, triangles, or squares, but God, substance, attributes, modes, human emotions, in short everything dealt with in any other substantial philosophy.

Spinoza’s most startling insight is his idea that God is everything. He does not say this as a metaphor; there is no place for metaphors in the Ethics. He means this literally. A standard theistic understanding of God is that he is the creator of the world, so he cannot be everything because that would mean that he is one and the same as his creation, but that is exactly Spinoza’s point. God is a “cause of itself” — he creates himself, and he is the only one entity in the whole universe who does this. In fact it is the universe itself that is God himself, or it is God himself who is the universe. Being a cause of himself God in fact has no beginning because that would mean that there has to be something that exists before God which acts as his cause, but that would contradict the statement that God is the cause of himself. Since God has no beginning, he does not have an end either.

I told my students that if God is indeed everything, then we ourselves are God. Not merely parts of God, but God himself. So I am God, you are God, and so on. This is so because God has infinite attributes, and Spinoza says that an attribute expresses an essence of God. Since there are an infinite number of attributes, that must mean that I myself am an attribute of God also, so are you, and so is everybody else. An attribute expresses God’s essence, so in a sense I am God’s essence, or in other words I am God. (How else can one count the infinite number of the attributes without sooner or later coming across myself or each of my students in the Modern Phil class? You can list the standard properties commonly attributed to God such as benevolence, omnipotence and so on, but after a while you will run out of these and have to start counting properties such as “being Soraj Hongladarom” and others.)

Heady stuff, huh? Western interpreters tend not to interpret Spinoza so as to make him appear a mystic, but in the context of Thailand and other Asian cultures Spinoza makes for a very interesting, if very difficult, read. People naturally tend to compare his thoughts with the major philosophies both in India and in China. We talked about Brahman and the Tao as something comparable to Spinoza’s God. In Buddhism we can certainly compare him with Emptiness. Emptiness is everything too. Well, it is both everything and nothing at the same time, but Spinoza’s God is like that too.

We also talked about Spinoza and the pre-socratic philosophers, most notably Parmenides, with whom Spinoza shares a lot of things in common. God is certainly one, and for Parmenides the substance of everything is, well, “The One.” Scientifically minded western philosophers tend to make fun of Parmenides, saying things like “Oh, Parmenides taught that everything is one, and that I am not it.” We can certainly say the same thing about Spinoza’s God. Someone might say, “Spinoza says that all is one, that is God, but I am not He.” But as I said before Spinoza has an answer to this in his view about the infinity of God’s attributes.

But you might wonder how can God be one if I am God and you are God and that I and you are not one? But in Spinoza’s vision you and I are one. You and I only appear separate from the point of the view of the finite intellect, but from the infinite point of view you and I are certainly one. This is the Buddhist perspective too. Each of us expresses God’s attribute in a different way, but deep down we are both a part of the infinite whole that constitutes God, or nature. As the infinite whole has no real parts, there is absolutely nothing that separates you from me, or me from you.

Spinoza uses his vision of God here as a basis for his thinking on ethics, especially on how we humans could achieve “blessedness” in our lives. But that will take us too long. So let’s wait until I talk with my students again next Tuesday.

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.