contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Buddhist philosophy

EXPLORING ‘EMPTINESS’: CARLO ROVELLI AND NAGARJUNA

A modern western humanist learns from an ancient Buddhist philosopher. Carlo Rovelli’s book Helgoland (1) is mostly about the development of quantum mechanics in the early to mid-twentieth century and the scientists who developed it. The title references ‘Werner Heisenberg’s sojourn on the remote island of Helgoland working on the maths. But one chapter concerns the second century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, and how his work has helped Rovelli to frame a philosophical understanding of quantum phenomena.

“When speaking about quanta and their relational nature I had frequently met people who asked: Have you read Nagarjuna? … Though not widely read in the West, the work in question is hardly an obscure or minor one: it is one of the most important texts in Buddhist philosophy. … The central thesis of Nagarjuna’s book is simply that there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else.

“The resonance with quantum mechanics is immediate. Obviously Nagarjuna knew nothing, and could not have imagined anything, about quanta – that is not the point. The point is that philosophers offer original ways of re-thinking the world, and we can employ them if they turn out to be useful. The perspective offered by Nagarjuna make perhaps make it a little easier to think about the quantum world (2).

“If nothing exists in itself, everything exists only through dependence on something else, in relation to something else. The technical term used by Nagarjuna the absence of independent existence is ‘emptiness’ (sunyata): things are ‘empty’ in the sense of having no autonomous existence. They exist thanks to, as a function of, with respect to, in the perspective of, something else.

“If I look at a cloudy sky – to take a simplistic example – I can see a castle and a dragon. Does a castle and does a dragon really exist, up there in the sky? Obviously not: the dragon and the castle emerge from the encounter between the shape of the clouds and the sensations and thoughts in my head; in themselves they are empty entities, they do not exist. So far, so easy. But Nagarjuna also suggests that the clouds, the sky, sensations, thoughts and my own head are equally things that arise from the encounter with other things: they are empty entities.

“And myself, looking at the star, do I exist? No, not even I. So who is observing the star? No one says Nagarjuna. To see a star is a component of that set of interactions that I normally call my ‘self’. ‘What articulates language does not exist. The circle of thoughts does not exist.’ There is no ultimate or mysterious essence to understand that is the true essence of our being. ‘I’ is nothing other than the vast and interconnected set of phenomena that constitute it, each one dependent on something else. Centuries of Western speculation on the subject, and on the nature of consciousness, vanish like morning mist.

“Like much philosophy and much science, Nagarjuna distinguishes between two levels: conventional, apparent reality with its illusory and perspectival aspects, and ultimate reality. But in this case the distinction takes us in an unexpected direction: the ultimate reality, the essence, its absence, is vacuity. It does not exist.

“If every metaphysics seeks a primary substance, an essence on which everything may depend, the point of departure from which everything follows, Nagarjuna suggests that the ultimate substance, the point of departure … does not exist.

….

“The illusoriness of the world, its samsara, is a general theme of Buddhism; to recognize this is to reach nirvana, liberation and beatitude. For Nagarjuna, samsara and nirvana are the same thing: both empty of their own existence. Non-existent.

“So is emptiness the only reality? Is this, after all, the ultimate reality? No, writes Nagarjuna, in the most vertiginous chapter of the book: every perspective exists only in interdependence with something else, there is never an ultimate reality – and this is the case for his own perspective as well. Even emptiness is devoid of essence: it is conventional. No metaphysics survives. Emptiness is empty.

“Nagarjuna has given us a formidable conceptual tool for thinking about the relationality of quanta: we can think of interdependence without autonomous essence entering the equation, In fact interdependence – and this is the key argument made by Nagarjuna, requires us to forget all about autonomous essences.

“The long search for the ‘ultimate substance’ in physics has passed through matter, molecules, atoms, fields, elementary particles … and has been shipwrecked in the relational complexity of quantum field theory and general relativity. Is is possible that a philosopher from ancient India can provide us with a conceptual tool with which to extricate ourselves?”

“The fascination of Nagarjuna’s thought goes beyond questions raised by contemporary physics. His perspective has something dizzying about it. It resonates with the best of much Western philosophy, both classical and recent. … He speaks about reality, about its complexity and comprehensibility, but he defends us from the conceptual trap of wanting to find it an ultimate foundation.

“His is not metaphysical extravagance: it is sobriety. It recognizes the fact that to inquire about the ultimate foundation of everything is to ask a question that perhaps simply does not make sense.

“This does not shut down investigation. On the contrary, it liberates it. Nagarjuna is not a nihilist negating the reality of the world, and neither is he a sceptic denying that we can know anything about that reality. The world of phenomena is one that we can investigate, gradually improving our understanding of it. We may find general characteristics. But it is a world of interdependence and contingencies, not a world that we should trouble ourselves attempting to derive from an Absolute.

“I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and learn better. This has always been the strength of scientific thinking – thinking born of curiosity, revolt, change. There is no cardinal or final fixed point, philosophical or methodological, with which to anchor the adventure of knowledge.

“I am not a philosopher; I am a physicist: a simple mechanic. And this simple mechanic, who deals with quanta, is taught by Nagarjuna that it is possible to think of the manifestation of objects without having to ask what the object is in itself, independent from its manifestations.

“But Nagarjuna’s emptiness also nourishes an ethical stance that clears the sky of the endless disquietude: to understand that we do not exist as autonomous entities helps us free ourselves from attachments and suffering. Precisely because of its impermanence, because of the absence of any absolute, the now has meaning and is precious.

“For me as a human being, Nagarjuna teaches the serenity, the lightness and the shining beauty of the world: we are nothing but images of images. Reality, including ourselves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which … there is nothing.”

(1) Carlo Rovelli Helgoland global.penguinrandomhouse.com 2020 (Translated by Erica Segre & Simon Carnell, 2021) Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who has made significant contributions to the physics of space and time.

(2) The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika: Translation and commentary by Jay L. Garfield. Oxford: The University Press, 1995. Nagarjuna, who lived in South India in approximately the second century CE, is the most important, influential and widely studied Mahayana Buddhist philosopher. At the time of publication Jay L. Garfield was Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hampshire in India Program, an exchange program with the Tibetan Universities in exile, at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts. His translation is from a Tibetan, rather than Sanskrit, text.

AT-HOMENESS REVISITED

A year ago, I wrote: “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that”(1). This post is to re-affirm this insight and to take it forward.

I wrote of a ‘flowing now’ since ‘now’ is not a frozen unit of time but a living stream of experience. Past and future can indeed be conceived and imagined, but only within the flowing now. The experience of At-Homeness can either steal up of itself or I can invite it by slowing down and attentively companioning the flow as it moves, whatever is going on. It is a way of marking this space and time as sacred. My opening and attention are a sacrament, the means through which the flowing now – all that I can be sure of in this life – is recognised and blessed.

I didn’t invent the term At-Homeness. It comes from the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’, who say (2) “that the beginning of a bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing”. For them, an enabling and loving attention to the body and its processes gives the felt sense of At-Homeness a chance to ripen. My experience of Focusing over the last 15 months tells me this is true. My experience of Headless Way (3) opens up a world of vivid shapes and colours, all boundaries gone, no self in sight. Immersed in this world, I experience a lightness of being, and stillness in a world of movement. This, too, is At-Homeness in the flowing now.

I sense now, more clearly than before, that I am not at home in the realm of abstractions and absolutes. I do not find Sophia there. I flourish, rather, in processes and relationships. I can stand as awareness only through being aware (a process) of something/someone (a relationship). I find the love and magic in the cosmos, as well as its stresses and horrors, only within the play of movement and connection.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’ provides the most helpful presentation of a non-dual spirituality (4). “The insight of inter-being is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space, we call emptiness ‘inter-being’; looking from the perspective of time we call it impermanence”. Another modern Buddhist writer adds (5), “if you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation … the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

Reading this, I am pushed uncomfortably into the recognition of my own volatility. I explored this theme in October 2017 (6). However, because I found Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on long periods of sitting meditation, not right for me, I appear to have lost some of this insight, at least consciously. I am somewhat comforted that ‘At-Homeness in a flowing now’ at least preserves the gist, and the simple practices I’m using work well within an ‘inter-being’ framework. This is not so much because of its Buddhist origin, as because as an approach it seems to me to be on the side of life, relationship and movement. It brings me down to earth and closer to Sophia (Prajnaparamita, Guanyin).

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) Peter Campbell & Edward McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) www.headless.org/

(4) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(5) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/

PYRRHO, SCEPTICISM, ARNE NAESS

In my last post  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/spiritual-truth-claims/ ‎I introduced Pyrrho of Elis, a Pagan Greek philosopher who, returning from an extended visit to India, sounded a new note in Greek philosophy. In the Greek cultural context, this was heard as a variant form of Scepticism. Originally a skeptikos was “a seeker, one who inquires or examines, considers, deliberates etc.” (1) though over time Scepticism came to signify a kind of compulsive doubting, as it does now. The extract below shows the distinctiveness of Pyrrho’s project, and its likely debt to Buddhist ideas of the time.

“Pyrrhonism is commonly confused with Scepticism in Western philosophy. But unlike Sceptics, who believe there are no true beliefs, Pyrrhonists suspend judgement about all beliefs, including the belief that there are no true beliefs. Pyrrhonism was developed by a line of ancient Greek philosophers, from its founder Pyrrho of Elis in the fourth century BCE through Sextus Empiricus in the second century CE. Pyrrhonists offer no view, theory or knowledge about the world, but recommend instead a practice, a distinct way of life, designed to suspend beliefs and ease suffering. Since beliefs are attachments to what is not evident, they say, and are therefore distorting, uncertain, and subject to challenge and contradiction, they generate anxiety and fear, compounding suffering. By suspending judgement on beliefs, Pyrrhonists seek to liberate themselves from attachment to things nonevident; having achieved this, they claim a certain tranquillity (ataraxia) follows. Only appearances are evident, they say, these being sensations and thoughts which we cannot help having, which are involuntary, and it is by them rather than by our beliefs that we should live.

“Pyrrhonism bears a striking similarity to some Eastern non-dogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka Buddhism. Indeed, its origins can plausibly be traced to the contacts between Pyrrho and the sages he encountered in India, where he travelled with Alexander the Great. Even though Pyrrhonism went on to develop in a Greek idiom without reference to Eastern traditions, the similarity is remarkable, suggesting a commonality of insight not much explored. Although Pyrrhonism has not been practised in the West since ancient times, its insights occasionally have been independently recovered, most recently in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. They remain relevant, perhaps more than ever, as an antidote to today’s cultures of belief.” (1)

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher now associated with the the deep ecology movement and coiner of the term ‘ecosophy’, was a modern admirer of Pyrrhonism and wrote a book about it in 1968 (2). I intend to follow this up in my continuing inquiry, partly to find out how his engagement with Pyrrho and Greek Scepticism may have informed his later development..

  1. Adrian Kuzminski Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism New York: Lexington Books, 2008
  2. Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968)

See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/arne-naess-as-philosophical-vagabond/

 

 

 

 

 

SPIRITUAL TRUTH CLAIMS

Traditional spiritualities tend to be organized around metaphysical propositions that can neither be convincingly demonstrated nor refuted. Stephen Batchelor (1) gives examples: ‘God is love’, ‘creation arose from the breath of the One’, ‘bliss is eternal union with Brahman’, and ‘you will only come to the father through me’.

In the specific case of Buddhism, Batchelor questions the classical understanding of how craving causes suffering: “Craving is the origin of suffering because … it causes actions that lead to your being born, getting sick, growing old and dying”. These existential realities in themselves, and not simply how we deal with them, are included in the word dukka, which we translate as suffering. The overall claim makes sense only within the metaphysical framework of karma and rebirth.

Batchelor worries that, with a proposition of this kind, “one finds oneself in the language game ‘In Search of Truth’.” If you believe them to be true, then you qualify to be a Buddhist. If you don’t, you don’t qualify. “One is thus tacitly encouraged to take a further step of affirming a division between ‘believers’ and ‘nonbelievers’, between those who have gained access to the truth and those who have not. This establishes the kind of separation that can lead to cultish solidarity as well as hatred for others who fail to share one’s views. ‘When the word truth is uttered’ remarked the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, ‘a shadow of violence is cast as well”.

I have noticed for myself that even in modern paths, where experiential and inquiry methods are favoured over blind belief, there can be a powerful narrative of ‘getting it’ or ‘not getting it’. There is no recognised space for getting something else. To me this suggests a continuing immersion in the language game ‘in Search of Truth’. I follow Stephen Batchelor in taking a secular turn partly for this reason, and my solution is a stance of positive sceptical openness. An ancient Western tradition, Pyrrhonism, supports this view. Its founder, the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, developed this teaching after returning from India, where he had accompanied the army of Alexander ‘the Great’. Pyrrhonism was understood in the Greek world as a variant form of the influential Sceptic school. It has parallels with currents in early Buddhism, sharing the notion of an inner peace linked to freedom from attachment to beliefs. But Greek philosophers were not monks, and it did not create a renunciate religious culture of the Indian kind. I will look at this tradition more closely as part of my continuing inquiry.

  1. Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017

 

Towint

The pagan path. The Old Ways In New Times

The Druids Garden

Spiritual journeys in tending the living earth, permaculture, and nature-inspired arts

The Blog of Baphomet

a magickal dialogue between nature and culture

This Simple Life

The gentle art of living with less

Musings of a Scottish Hearth Druid and Heathen

Thoughts about living, loving and worshiping as an autistic Hearth Druid and Heathen. One woman's journey.

The River Crow

Druidry as the crow flies...

Wheel of the Year Blog

An place to read and share stories about the celtic seasonal festivals

Walking the Druid Path

Just another WordPress.com site

anima monday

Exploring our connection to the wider world

Grounded Space Focusing

Become more grounded and spacious with yourself and others, through your own body’s wisdom

The Earthbound Report

Good lives on our one planet

The Hopeless Vendetta

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.

barbed and wired

not a safe space - especially for the guilty

Down the Forest Path

A Journey Through Nature, its Magic and Mystery

Druid Life

Pagan reflections from a Druid author - life, community, inspiration, health, hope, and radical change

Druid Monastic

The Musings of a Contemplative Monastic Druid

sylvain grandcerf

Une voie druidique francophone as Gaeilge

ravenspriest

A great WordPress.com site

Elaine Knight

Dreamings, makings and musings.