contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Nirvana

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.

MADE OF THE SUN, MOON AND STARS

“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”

If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.

“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017

HUNGRY GHOSTS

“These various spirits may live on the earth, beneath its surface, in the ocean or in the air. Although there are many different kinds, traditionally they are all pictured as one type, a kind of caricature expressing their hungry nature. They have tiny mouths, long thin necks and huge, swollen bellies, which can of course be a sign of starvation as well as greed. Their inability to satisfy their hunger manifests in different ways, according to whether they have distorted perceptions of the external world, of their own inner condition, or both.

“In the first cases, some search desperately for food and drink, but can never find any. Some imagine that they can see it in the distance, like a mirage, but when they get nearer, it turns out to be an illusion. Others can see a feast laid out for them and are just about to eat it when fearsome guards appear and chase them away.

“The second category of hungry ghosts have food available to them, but their mouths and throats are so small, and their stomach so large, that they would never be able to consume even a fraction of the amount they need. They have long, grasping fingers, with which they frantically grab and try to swallow whatever they can, but it only makes them feel more and more empty.

“Hungry ghosts in the third category are subject to various inner and outer hallucinations, so they cannot benefit from their food. For some of them, food and drink burst into flames inside them and burn them from within. For others, it turns into revolting substances like blood, pus and urine, which they eat; still others find that they are biting into their own flesh; and for some, food becomes inedible material, like iron or straw.

“The basic subjective feeling of this realm is overwhelming deprivation, a sense of poverty combined with greed. Paradoxically, the hungry ghosts are surrounded by an environment of richness and abundance; everything they want is already there, but their hunger prevents them from enjoying it. Self-preservation is very strong, so there is little sense of openness or relaxation. They are totally obsessed with trying to satisfy their own needs, so they cannot afford to feel the pain of others or arouse the slightest generous impulse. Birth in this condition of existence is the result of extreme avarice, meanness and stinginess.”

Francesca Freemantle Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2003

NOTE: In Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, there are six realms of existence in the wheel of life: two higher realms of gods and jealous gods, two intermediate realms of humans and animals, and two lower realms of hungry ghosts and hell-beings. Although not liberated from the wheel of life, the divine realms are places of reduced suffering and greater freedom. The results of positive actions outweigh the negative. In the lower realms, negative karma is very strong.

But these issues are not just something for another life. To Tantric Buddhists, nirvana and samsara are one. Every moment can be seen as a new birth. All realms are part of our lived experience, here and now. We do not have to look outside for hungry ghosts, or hell-beings (locked in a distorted logic of aggression that always puts the blame on others). They are part of us. There are times when we see them and times when we don’t.

DEFINING ‘SECULAR’

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism (1) explores what a “nonreligious, this-worldly, secularised Buddhism” might look like. This post is part of my own inquiry into what it means to feel ‘secular’ whilst  engaged in ‘spiritual’ practices and connected with modern Paganism. Batchelor uses ‘secular’ in three overlapping senses:

  1. A general contemporary usage where ‘secular’ stands in contrast to whatever is ‘religious’ – the two terms being clearly polarised whilst not very clearly defined.
  2. A Latin derived sense of ‘this age’ (saeculum) – referring to “those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social and environmental experience of living on this planet”.
  3. A Western, historical-political sense, acknowledging a 2-300-year period of ‘secularisation’ that has transformed the whole culture to the point where most people can live “almost their entire lives without giving religion a thought”.

Stephen Batchelor talks about an “uncompromisingly secular reading” of the Buddha’s teaching, in which “one returns to the mystery and tragedy of the everyday sublime. Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human”. He is an admirer of Ludwig Feuerbach, a student of Hegel who came to reject his teacher’s emphasis on the primacy of Spirit in the unfolding of history and advocated instead a liberal, materialist and atheist view of the world. “Feuerbach’s basic idea is simple. ‘Religion’, he wrote in the preface to his most famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841) ‘is the dream of the human mind. But even while dreaming we are not in heaven or the realm of Nothingness. We are right here on earth’”.

In this way, Batchelor acknowledges all three senses of ‘secular’: a distancing from traditional religious belief, an affirmation of the world and time, and the rise of modern secular belief systems – Feuerbach was an early influence on Karl Marx. I like the way Batchelor teases out these meanings, especially his acknowledgement of ‘movement in time’ aspects as well as ‘not religious’ ones. I am more open and agnostic about the language of ‘heaven or the realm of Nothingness’ alongside that of being ‘right here on earth’. If we treat these as states rather than places, then I can see them intertwined dimensions of being. But I do not hold this as an ideology.  I stand, rather, in openness and unknowing: the direct experience of At-Homeness in a flowing now is my ground and source, with or without a cosmic warranty.

Another sense, that of interconnectedness in the web of life, grows out of my At-Homeness – and this is firmly situated in place, time, and history. That place and time, right now, is one of distress, division and confusion, facing runaway climate change as a collective existential threat. My inquiry asks to to be alive to this collective wounding, and to contribute to a healing. In previous inquiry phases, I worked with modern Druidry and Paganism, focusing largely on the ‘nature’ aspect, but also on the powers of imagination and deep cultural stories. I then turned to other paths with a stronger emphasis on contemplative practice and its benefits. There is a treasure trove of resources in all of these these explorations, and I shall continue to draw upon them in my new inquiry cycle.

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

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