This essay is devoted to comparing and contrasting the teaching of Interdependent
Transformation (Pratityasamutpada) with other views of ultimate
nature that are widespread at this time. This is done in the hope that
such comparing and contrasting will clarify the Dharma, the teaching of
the Buddha, which leads to the cessation of sorrow and full awakening to
the deathless and unborn.
1. Comparing Interdependent Transformation With Other Views Of Ultimate
One way of comprehending Interdependent Transformation, and of deepening
my awareness of this view, is to contrast Interdependent Transformation
with other views of ultimacy. The purpose of engaging in this kind of contrast
is to remove ignorance. It is primarily ignorance which keeps us in bondage.
It is primarily ignorance which functions as the source for the generation
of suffering in all its forms of greed, anger, hatred, clinging, craving
and delusion. There exists an intimate connection between the ideas we
hold, the views we have, and our interaction with the world. From this
perspective, examining our core understandings, is a completely practical,
and necessary part of our practice, for without the clarity of right view,
we will continue to generate suffering for ourselves and for others. As
Bhikkhu Bodhi puts it:
Ignorance is the non-understanding of realities, a spiritual blindness
... preventing us from seeing things as they are. Its antidote is wisdom,
a way of understanding things free from the distortions and perversions
of subjective predispositions, clearly, correctly, precisely. As the opposite
to ignorance, wisdom is the primary instrument in the quest for enlightenment
and the attainment of deliverance. In classical Buddhist iconography, it
is the flaming sword whose light dispels the darkness of delusion and whose
blade severs the fetters of the passions.
At its highest level of development, wisdom takes the form of a transcendental
act of understanding which crosses the bounds of mundane experience to
realize nirvana, the supramundane reality
This process of contrasting the Buddha’s understanding with other views
is rooted in the discourses themselves, particularly the Brahmajaala
Discourse, or “The All Embracing Net Of Views”. In this discourse the
Buddha examines 62 speculative views as to the nature of ultimacy, finding
all of them wanting. The examination is very thorough. I will not repeat
what this wonderful discourse has to offer. Instead, inspired by this discourse,
I will attempt to examine what I have observed as widely held views as
to the nature of ultimacy current in the world today. I will then contrast
these views with the view of Interdependent Transformation, as I understand
it. In this way, the view of the Buddha will become clearer, its meaning
more precise, and the ability to function from that understanding will
2. The Meaning Of Ultimate Nature
The realization of Interdependent Transformation is a realization as to
the ultimate nature of all existing things and of existence as such. Furthermore,
this view of ultimate nature has liberative capacity and potential. This
view of ultimate nature differs from the view of ultimate nature that others
What do I mean by the term “ultimate”? By ultimate nature I mean the nature
that all existing things have. An ultimate analysis, therefore, is an analysis
which reveals, or uncovers, that aspect of existing things which all existing
things have in common.
Traditionally, Buddhism divides human experience into six spheres; eye,
ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. These six spheres have different objects
of experience. The eye experiences shapes and colors, the ear experiences
sounds, the nose experiences smells, the tongue experiences taste, the
body experiences touch, and the mind experiences thoughts and emotions.
An ultimate analysis means an analysis which reveals what all of these
objects of experience have in common, what all of these objects of experience
share. Looked at in this way, it becomes clearer why an ultimate analysis
presents us with serious difficulties for it is not at all obvious what
the smell of pine incense, the touch of sand, the shape of a leaf, the
sound of a melody, and a mathematical function all have in common.
Perhaps they have nothing in common. However, all of these things exist,
so they at least have in common that they exist. But what, then, does it
mean to exist? Put in this way, an ultimate analysis responds to the question
of what it means to exist at all. What is the manner in which things, all
Responding to this cluster of questions, different traditions offer different
understandings. For some traditions, things have in common their source.
For some traditions, things have in common an underlying substance, or
primal material or energy, and things are simply modifications or modes
of this underlying substance. There exist many different approaches and
The first contrast I wish to point to is that between the world view of
animism and that of Interdependent Transformation. In the animistic understanding
of existince everything has a hidden animating spirit or soul, which is
that thing’s true nature. In the animistic world existence is thick with
spirit presence, everything lives, rocks and rivers and clouds and mountains
all have a spirit dimension. All of these apparent things also have a spirit
aspect to them which is their true nature. The tendency is to regard this
spirit or soul dimension as separately existing and in some sense immortal.
For this reason, in answer to the question of what constitutes ultimate
nature, animism tends to regard the whole realm of the spirits as more
real than the world of appearances in which we live. The world of appearances
is in some way derivative and less substantial than the realm(s) in which
the spirits of things have their presence. The two traditions that I think
have carried this view to its most sophisticated level are Jainism and
The view of Interdependent Transformation might not deny the existence
of spirits, but it would deny that the spirits, or souls, are more real
than the apparent phenomena. For example, it is common in the Buddhist
Discourses for deities of various kinds, from various realms, to visit
the Buddha and request teachings. The Buddha himself seemed to have taken
for granted the existence of numerous nature spirits as well as higher
kinds of deities.
However, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, these manifestations
are just another manifestation of existence and the Buddha did not teach
that they represent a higher or more advanced form of existence. The mountain
and the spirit of the mountain are both dependently arising phenomena and
as such have equal ontological status. The mountain and the spirit of the
mountain are transforming and as such have equal ontological status. The
mountain and the spirit of the mountain function as causal bases for other
phenomena and in that sense have equal ontological status. In addition,
the spirit of the mountain does not exist independently, for as a dependently
arising phenomenon, by definition does not exist separately from the causal
matrix of existence as such. Finally, the view of Interdependent Transformation
would not regard the spirit presence as immortal; perhaps very long-lived,
but not immortal. In the unfolding causal matrix, impermanence would overcome
even the most exalted deity.
A widely held view of ultimate nature is often referred to as pantheism.
This view comprehends ultimate nature as some kind of primal substance
out of which all things emerge. The most common metaphor for this view
is waves and water. The phenomena that we perceive are the wvaes, but their
true nature is water, which all phenomena share. From this perspective,
the appearances of this world are considered to exist as modifications
of this primal substance. The transcendent substance unites all existing
things, constitutes what all existing things have in common, and is in
a profound sense more real than appearances because appearances seem to
exist in a way that things have differentiating natures whereas in reality,
from the perspective of pantheism, the ultimate nature of things is this
primal substance. The two great elucidations of this view are the Upanishads
of Indian philosophy and Spinoza in the west.
Interdependent Transformation, in contrast, is a non-substantial view of
ultimate nature. The metaphor for Interdependent Transformation most widely
used within the Buddhist tradition is Indra’s Net. In this metaphor the
places where the threads of the net cross are occupied by jewels. The facets
of the jewels reflect all the other jewels in the net. Now, drop the threads.
Now drop the jewels: or rather the jewels are nothing more than the endless
reflections and refractions off of all the other jewels.
The common nature, from the point of view of Interdependent Transformation,
that nature which all things share, is their dependency, their reliance
upon conditions for their existence, not their substance. The dependent
nature of all existing things manifests as a quality of those things, but
does not imply an underlying substance or essential nature. Just as a green
chair and a green table share the color green without implying that they
have a common substance, so the qualities that emerge from Interdependent
Transformation, such as dependence, interdependence, process, contingency,
etc., mark all existing things, but do not imply a substantial presence
or essential nature. This, in part, is what Buddhism means when it says
that things are “empty”; they are empty of substance, empty of essence,
but they are full of the causal matrix which is their true nature.
Another understanding of ultimate nature is referred to as “emanationism”.
The great elucidator of this view in the west was Plotinus and through
his considerable influence all subsequent neo-platonism and much of early
Christian theology. There are also modern manifestations of this kind of
view, particularly among Theosophists and related groups. The basic view
here is that there is a constantly present source from which all things
emerge. Spirituality is comprehended as a task of ascending higher and
higher, closer and closer, to this ultimate source of all things.
A model for the emanationist view of existence is a series of concentric
rings. In the center is the source (God, The One, The Light, The Nameless).
The closer one is to this source the more spiritual and ethereal one becomes.
In a monotheistic context, for example, angels are closer to the source
than humans, and therefore angels are more spiritual than humans. Humans
do have the opportunity, however, to ascend to the divine through contemplation
The teaching of Interdependent Transformation differs from emanationism
because there is no specific source from which the ultimate nature, as
illuminated in this view, of all things arises. As Prashastrasena, an ancient
Indian commentator, put it, Nirvana is unlocated, or has no location. A
model often used for Interdependent Transformation is referred to as “Indra’s
Net” which depicts a network, a fabric, of interconnectedness. The point
here is that nirvana, or ultimate reality, has no locus/location, either
in time or in space. Rather, Interdependent Transformation exists spread
out over all of existence. One way of comprehending this is to think of
Interdependent Transformation as a quality, or group of qualities, which
qualify all existing things. Therefore, as a transcendental quality, Interdependent
Transformation is present in all existing things, but does not negate any
existing thing. As present in all existing things, it is present everywhere
equally, but simultaneously has no particular location from which this
ultimate nature springs.
From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation the metaphor of ascent
into a spiritual domain is inappropriate. Instead, spirituality is comprehended
as awakening to, or understanding, or realizing, the primal interconnectedness
of all things. This interconnectedness, these qualities of interdependence,
of dependence, of transformation, of creativity, manifest equally everywhere,
or, as I like to say, everywhere in particular.
Another view of ultimate nature comprehends that things possess a specific
essence, which is their nature, and which distinguishes that thing, or
group of things, from other things. This was Aristotle’s great contribution
to western thought. The view of essence supports the idea that definitions
not only have importance for clear thinking, but they have metaphysical
import. To define something correctly means to uncover that thing’s essential,
and therefore eternal, nature.
The view of Interdependent Transformation contrasts with essentialism.
While essentialism seeks to find out what distinguishes one thing, or group
of things, from other things, Interdependent Transformation comprehends
all things as having a common nature and asks what it is that all things
have in common. In response to that question, the view of Interdependent
Transformation comprehends things as having the nature of depending for
their existence upon other things, and for this reason they have no essence
because essence implies that which distinguishes, meaning separates, one
thing from another thing. This is what is meant, or part of what is meant,
when Buddhism says that things are empty of self-nature; it means that
they lack essence and that their true nature is not what distinguishes
one thing from another, but rather that which makes all things equal.
Another approach to ultimate nature comprehends the eternal as consisting
in number. I refer to this view as Pythagoreanism, after the philosopher
Pythagorus, who first developed and presented this point of view. This
view has had a profound influence in the west; in some ways this view of
number as ultimate distinguishes western culture from other cultures in
I don’t think it is difficult to comprehend the appeal of this point of
view for some people. Numbers and their relationships seem to have an eternal
validity to them. The Pythagorean Theorem seems to be always true. From
the point of view of Pythagoreanism, humans discover the relationships
between numbers and numbers exist in a realm which is more real, more actual,
than the realm of sensory appearances. From this perspective all things
can be reduced to numbers and their relationships, and in a sense, it is
those numbers and their relationships which allows things to exist at all.
Though this view may seem very abstract, it has profoundly influenced western
thought. For example, the drive in science and technology to transform
observation into numerical data is rooted in this point of view. The idea
is that by transforming observations into numbers and their relationships,
we gain access to something deeper and more real than mere empirical observation.
Thus a formula that describes events is comprehended as providing a deeper
understanding of those events than a simple description of those events.
I believe this is a source for the enduring appeal of mathematics for many
mathematicians. Numbers and their relationships seem to provide access
to the eternal; in a sense their is something luminous about numbers. In
a world where everything shifts and changes, it seems that numbers offer
access to a region of stability, of surety, and of logical coherence. This
is very appealing to a certain kind of person.
The Buddhist view, based on Interdependent Transformation, differs from
Pythagoreanism. From the Buddhist perspective, numbers also exist dependently,
numbers also arise due to causes and conditions, numbers also transform
and are subject to change. This is not, however, obvious and requires some
investigation in order to comprehend how this fits in with the overall
view of Interdependent Transformation.
First, numbers depend upon a particular kind of consciousness in order
for them to appear in the world. Dogs do not have the kind of consciousness
which gives rise to numbers. Angels do not seem to use numbers and I suspect
it is because angles do not have the kind of consciousness which views
existence from a number basis. Human consciousness is structured in such
a way that yeilds a numerical sense. If this seems like a puzzling way
to put it, I am not saying that numbers are subjective, I am saying they
are dependent upon a particular kind of consciousness, a particular structure
of awareness. For example, it is the particular human structure which allows
humans to have a three-dimensional awareness. Similarly, the human structure
construes things in a numerical manner.
Alfred North Whitehead, a superb mathematician of the 20th century, pointed
out that numbers depend upon very specific conditions in order for them
to apply. He used the example of adding two drops of water to two drops
of water into a bowl. You don’t get four drops of water. You get one large
drop of water. Whitehead’s point is not that numbers lack profundity or
have great explantaory power. I understand Whitehead as saying that the
range of applicability is limited and dependent upon certain conditions.
The primary condition that numbers depend upon is that we perceive things
discretely. The perception of things as discrete, though, depends upon
our perceptual apparatus. For example, dogs perceive many discrete olfactory
objects that humans completely miss. More broadly, the perception of things
as discrete is, at some level, a misunderstanding. If analyzed, things
do not exist discretely. Rather they exist in terms of tendencies of merging
and inclinations for transforming.
From the Buddhist perspective of Interdependent Transformation, numbers
also exist embedded in the web of existence. For this reason numbers are
not exempt from the ultimate nature of all existing things; that of arising
due to causes and condition, that of constantly transforming, etc.. Ontologically,
numbers have no priority.
Platonism in western thought means that ideas are more real than the things
of this world. Furthermore, Platonism is the view that the things of this
world are, in some sense, bad copies, or instantiations, of ideas.
Plato believed that truth could not change. But all the things of this
world change. However Plato, impressed with mathematics and an emerging
logic, comprehended that certain things remained eternally true and valid;
namely, the pure ideas which inhabit a realm which never changes and remains
immutable. For Plato it was the existence of this realm of unchanging ideas
which made truth possible, for these unchanging ideas were reflected, in
a distorted way, in the things of this world.
Plato had an enormous influence on western culture. He still does. The
core belief that truth does not change, that mutability is a sign of a
lesser ontological status, remains very widespread. These core ideas were
transferred to Christianity through the writings of Augustine, who had
been a committed Platonist prior to his conversion to Christianity. Augustine
remained a great admirer of Plato and in a sense, Augustine’s theology
is a synthesis of Platonism and Bible-based views.
Like Plato, Augustine regards mutability as a sign of a lesser ontological
status. For both of these philosophers, there is something repulsive about
change and mutability. They don’t quite put it that way, but it seems to
me that their writings are permeated by vague feelings of disgust with
the changing, and therefore, from their perspective, unreliability of things.
For both of them, this leads to a strongly world-negating view. The ultimate
does not reside in the world of changing things, it lies somewhere else,
in that which does not change. Plato and Augustine would disagree about
the nature of that which does not change, but they would agree that the
ultimate can not change.
Many schools of Buddhism would agree with this fundamental view. The logic
of these schools of Buddhism runs something like this: All things are impermanent.
Impermanence causes suffering. Therefore, to reach nirvana means to abandon
all that is impermanent, which means everything that we perceive and interact
with. From this perspective, such schools of Buddhism derive a sense of
existence as systematically repulsive and as inherently a source of suffering.
There is a great deal of support for this view in the Discourses. Many
of the Discourses speak of existence as repulsive, something to be overcome,
and of all existing things as impermanent and therefore unlovely and a
source of suffering. The logic alluded to in the above paragraph is often
Against this there is the Third Noble Truth, the truth of cessation. I
regard the Third Noble Truth as the great message of the Buddhadharma.
It is the message that has attracted countless millions of people down
through the centuries, from widely divergent cultures, to the Buddhadharma.
That it is possible to bring an end to suffering, grief, sorrow, lamentation
and despair is such a profound, such a positive and liberating message,
that immediately upon hearing this Third Noble Truth many people find themselves
attracted to its source.
However, and this is the point I want to emphasize, the Third Noble Truth
of cessation is a process. Cessation means to change, to bring about a
particular kind of change. If change itself constituted suffering, then
the cessation of suffering would generate suffering. If impermanence itself
constituted suffering, then the ending and impermanence of those things
which cause suffering would themselves generate suffering. All of us would,
therefore, be ontologically trapped in the condition of despair. This is
existentialism, not Buddhism.
I believe, given the nature of the Third Noble Truth as a process, that
it is necessary to look more deeply at those passages in the Discourses
which equate impermanence and/or change with suffering. By looking more
deeply I mean upon encountering such passages we need to ask ourselves
what is the logic here, why is the equation being made? In other words,
why do the Discourses assert that impermanence means suffering?
I think the resolution to this is found in those Discourses that equate
realization/nirvana with non-clinging. The human gesture to cling to that
which changes, flows, and transforms, produces a sense of futility, and
this sense of futility gives rise to suffering, a sense of existence as
unsatisfactory. But this sense of existence as unsatisfactory has as its
basis the mind which thinks that things should remain static. It is this
projection onto existence of this preference for the static which gives
rise to clinging which gives rise to suffering.
This leads to the conclusion that it is not impermanence and change itself
which causes suffering and despair, but the mind which clings to that which
changes. The transformation of that gesture of clinging is what leads to
enlightenment. One moment of non-clinging is a moment of nirvana, a moment
From this perspective, existence is not repulsive; existence only seems
repulsive when we attempt to make existence conform to our desire that
something not change. That simply is not going to happen. In other words,
it is not mutability, change, and process which need to be abandoned; rather
it is the desire for the static, the non-changing, which needs to be abandoned.
When those are abandoned, then the ultimately real emerges as change and
transformation itself. That is how the Discourses can say that “nirvana
I will have more to say regarding this topic in the Discussion on the marks
of existence. But to return to Platonism, the view of Interdependent Transformation
comprehends ideas as just another aspect of existence and does not privilege
ideas over other domains. This is why in Buddhist psychology there are
six senses: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The mind sense means
that sense which perceives thoughts and feelings, just as the eye sense
perceives colors and shapes. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation,
visual objects arise due to causes and conditions, and mental objects such
as thoughts and feelings also arise due to causes and conditions. In addition,
thoughts arise due to non-thought causes, just as sounds may arise due
to non-sonic events. From this perspective thoughts completely participate
in the world in a network of interdependent relationships; thoughts and
ideas have no privileged or independent existence. Thoughts are simply
another realm, and thoughts arise, change, and transform, just like all
the other things of the world.
The view of theism is the view that there exists a deity, or deities, that
are more real than the world in which we dwell. Typically, the deities
and the realm in which they dwell are considered in some sense immortal,
and therefore desirable. The purpose of religious practice in such a context
is to somehow gain access to this realm of the gods.
I have already discussed this view in my comments on Animism and in the
section on “The Twilight of the Gods” from the essay Udumbara.
The difference in the view of theism to that of Animism and Pantheism is
that Theism regards the realm of the God(s) as in some manner separate
from the realm in which we dwell. Animism tends to regard each existing
thing as having a soul, and so the spiritual realm is deeply intertwined
with the physical realm. Pantheism regards all existing things as modifications
of a primal nature. Theism comprehends the God(s) and their realm(s) as
existing apart from the world in which we humans live. Heaven is somewhere
Though this is a somewhat subtle distinction, the same analysis that applied
to Animism also applies here. Namely, that the view of Interdependent Transformation
regards the Gods themselves as dependent upon causes and conditions for
their existence. The Gods do not exist separately, unchangingly, or in
a manner that basically differs from that of any other existing thing.
For this reason the Buddha would state that liberation is not a matter
of gaining access to another dimension. Liberation is a matter of awakening
to, or realizing, the nature of all existing things.
This is the big one, the view that concerns most westerners. There is a
long and venerable history of discussion between the monotheistic tradition
and Buddhism. This dialogue between the two traditions often centers on
whether or not at core these two traditions have a common understanding.
The need for this dialogue appears because at a certain obvious level Buddhism
simply does not have a supreme being, what the monotheistic tradition generally
means by God.
I distinguish two components of ultimacy that are unique to the monotheistic
tradition. Given that the monotheistic tradition believes in the existence
of only one God, the monotheistic tradition conceives of God as the ultimate;
furthermore God in this tradition is the creator of all existence and also
bears moral responsibility for the activities which occur in this existence.
Both of these components are absent from the Buddhist tradition. The Buddhist
tradition lacks a being who has created existence. Instead, from the perspective
of Interdependent Transformation, Buddhism conceives of existence as always
existing, without beginning and without end. Furthermore, from the perspective
of Interdependent Transformation, there is no specific locus of creation,
no specific being is responsible for bringing existence into existence.
Rather, creativity is an aspect of all existing things and therefore the
source of existence is the things of existence, spread out over all of
existence, throughout all space, throughout all time.
John Reynolds, among western scholars I am familiar with, has written with
clarity on this issue:
As for the existence of God, of the Creator of heaven and earth, this is
the concept central to religion as we know it in the West. Was the Buddha
an atheist or an agnostic in relation to the existence of a Supreme Being
or God? ...
In the Suutras there is found a Buddhist account of Genesis. [This account
appears in several sources both in the Mahayana and the Theravada Canons.]
In reply to questions from His disciples, the Buddha explained that the
humanity found on this planet earth once inhabited another planetary system.
Ages ago when the sun of that world went nova and the planet was destroyed
in the ensuing solar eruptions, the bulk of its inhabitants, as the result
of their arduously practicing the Dharma for ten thousand years, were reborn
on one of the higher planes of the Form World or Ruupedhaatu, a
plane of existence known as Aabhaasvara or “clear light.” Here they
enjoyed inconceivable bliss and felicity for countless aeons. Then, when
their great store of past karma came onto maturity, our own solar system
and planet earth began to evolve and some among their numbers were reborn
on the lower planes of the Ruupadhaatu in the vicinity of the nascent
earth. This plane of existence where they found themselves reborn is known
as Brahmaaloka. The first of these beings to reawaken and be reborn,
upon seeing the solar system evolving below him, exclaimed in his delight,
“I am the Creator!” In this way, he came to believe that he was the actual
creator of the universe which he saw about him, for he did not remember
from whence he came and was born without any parents. But in actuality
the manifestation of this universe was due to the collective karma of all
in that company and his own individual manifestation, which was a case
of apparitional birth, was due to his own great stock of meritorious karma
coming into maturation at that time because the requisite secondary conditions
The principle here, derived from the core insight of Interdependent Transformation,
is that all things appear from a causal base. This understanding is extended
to the existence of entire universes or world systems. The Dalai Lama makes
this same point in his commentary on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s
Way of Life, the Ninth Chapter on Wisdom. Verse 124 speaks directly
to this discussion:
124. ... [I]f Creation were dependent upon conditions, the complete collection
of those causal circumstances would be the cause, and not Ishvara
[Note: Ishvara was a common name for God in ancient India, similar
to Yahweh.] If the complete conditions were assembled, Ishvara
would be powerless not to create; and if they were absent, there would
be no creation.
The Dalai Lama’s Comment:
If creation and destruction are dependent upon a collection of causal conditions,
the totality of those conditions would be the cause, and not a God who
is independent of and uninfluenced by events. If the causal conditions
were assembled, Ishvara would be powerless not to create the resultant
phenomena; and if they were not assembled, those phenomena would not be
Transcendent Wisdom, the Dalai Lama, translated by B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion, Ithaca, New York, 1998, page 93.)
Both of the above quoted passages are rooted in the understanding of existence
as a causal matrix, the view of Intedependent Transformation. It is somewhat
astonishing to think of God as deluded, as Reynolds suggests. God thinks
he has created this world system because, due to his karma, he was the
first conscious being in this world system. Unaware of his past karma which
created the conditions for his rebirth in this world system, and not observing
any other conscious beings in this world system, God then concludes that
he is the creator of this world system. Unaware that there are other world
systems, incalculably numerous, God/Ishvara concludes that he is the creator
of all of existence.
It takes some time to take in all the implications of such a world view.
It is breathtaking in scope and rich in implications. One of the implications
is that being reborn as God is not, from a Buddhist perspective, a fortunate
rebirth. It is not a rebirth that will lead to liberation, to nirvana,
and the cessation of all sorrow because such a rebirth re-enforces the
idea that there is something that exists independently, and it is this
very idea/belief/feeling that is the source of sorrow.
It might seem that this is the end of the story; Buddhism doesn’t believe
in a creator Deity that bears moral responsibility for existence while
the monotheistic tradition has this view at its core. The two traditions,
However, God has many names and many meanings and Interdependent Transformation
has many facets. Though the view of Interdependent Transformation does
lead to a view of existence that in some respects differs from that of
the monotheistic tradition, we should not stop at this conclusion. I have
previously mentioned in the discussion on the basic implications of Intedependent
Transformation that this core view of the Buddha means that all things
exist dependently. Because the monotheistic tradition regards God as the
creator of all existing things and of existence itself, the monotheistic
tradition views all things as existing dependently, as in a totally dependent
state. From this perspective, the perspective of dependence, the Buddhist
and Monotheistic tradition share a common insight into the transcendent
nature of all existing things.
Or take the view that God is love. It is out of God’s love that existence
emerges. Existence is an expression of the generosity and benign nature
of God. In the Buddhist tradition it is the realization that all things
exist interdependently that gives rise to the blossoming of the compassionate
heart. Love and Compassion are always present, but they are covered over
by ignorance, self-concern, and distraction. I think that these two insights
are very close for they both proclaim that in some sense love and compassion
are the true nature of existence, that love and compassion blossom when
we comprehend the transcendental.
What I am suggesting is that even if I put aside the idea of a Creator
Being, even if I put aside the idea of a Being who bears moral responsibility
for existence, there are still significant, broad areas for dialogue between
the two traditions because there is more to the idea of God than the idea
of a Creator. From a Buddhist perspective, the most important aspects might
lie outside of the Creator view.
How do we access this broader understanding that lies at the core of the
monotheistic tradition? I would suggest using those traditions centered
on positive theology. Positive theology is that theology which explores
the Divine Names and Attributes of God. For example, Dionysius the Areopagite
wrote a theological work called The Divine Names. I think it would
be an excellent place to start making such a comparison. For example, Dionysius
... Since it is the underpinning of goodness, and by merely being there
is the cause of everything, to praise this divinely beneficent Providence
you must turn to all of creation. It is there at the center of everything
and everything has it for a destiny. It is therefore ‘before all things
and in it all things hold together.’ Because it is there the world has
come to be and exists. All things long for it. The intelligent and rational
long for it by the way of knowledge ...
Realizing all this, the theologians praise it by every name ... they give
it many names, such as “I am being,” “life,” “God,” the “truth.” These
same wise writers, when praising the Cause of everything that is, use names
drawn from all the things caused: good, beautiful, wise, beloved, God of
gods, Lord of Lord, Holy of Holies, eternal, existent, Cause of the ages.
They call him source of life, wisdom, mind, word, knower, possessor beforehand
of all the treasures of knowledge, power, powerful, and king of Kings,
ancient of days, the unaging and unchanging, salvation, righteousness and
sanctification, redemption, greatest of all and yet the one in the still
breeze. They say he is in our minds, in our soul, and in our bodies, in
heaven and on earth, that while remaining ever within himself he is also
in and around and above the world, that he is above heaven and above all
being, that he is sun, star, and fire, water, wind, and dew, cloud, archetypal
stone, and rock, that he is all, that he is no thing.
Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, translated by Colm Luibheid, “The Divine Names”, Paulist Press, Mahway, New Jersey, 1987, pages 54-56.)
Now, turn to the Buddhist tradition and uncover the names that the Buddha
in the Discourses uses for nirvana. He uses such terms as the “cessation
of suffering”, “the non-clinging”, “peace”, “serenity”, “the lovely”, “the
unconditioned”, “love”, “the unborn”, “the deathless”, etc.. Just as the
core view of the monotheistic tradition is multi-faceted, so also the ultimate
goal and core notion of the Buddhist tradition has many facets and many
names. Once I move away from a fixation on the idea of God as a creator
of existence, I am actually able to find a lot of similarity between these
core views, many overlaps. It is useful to compare these two because how
they arrive at these core understandings, such as dependence, differs,
but often the core understandings themselves are amazingly similar. Thus,
both traditions are mutually enriched by broadening their understanding.
This is not the place to go into a systematic treatment of these two core
views. It would require a book in and of itself. I believe what would be
required is to compare and contrast the facets of ultimacy that each tradition
has lived with down through the centuries. In addition to comparing and
contrasting, I would also suggest comprehending how each tradition arrives
at this understanding.
I believe the result of such a project would produce a mosaic of overlapping
and divergent understandings. From the perspective of a particular facet
X, the two traditions have a shared view. From the perspective of facet
Y, the two traditions diverge. From the persective of how they arrive at
the same view X, there will also appear similarities and contrasts. When
engaging in this project it is also important to keep in mind that monotheism
is not a uniform tradition; it is actually more accurate to say “monotheisms”,
and the same applies to Buddhism. The personalism of Christianity, for
example, is something not shared by Judaism or Islam. Similarly, the view
of the ontological status of suffering is quite different in different
Buddhist traditions. Though this complicates the task, I do not consider
it an insurmountable obstacle as long as one maintains a broad focus.
This may seem like a lot of work, but I believe the results of such a project
would be an ability to speak clearly to each other, from the views that
each tradition holds, and come to a genuine and deep mutual understanding
and appreciation. A good way to start such a project would be to compare
two specific core texts, such as The Divine Names with something
like the Udana in the Buddhist tradition. This may seem to narrow
the focus from the broad focus I just suggested. However, the virtue of
taking two specific works and comparing them is that it grounds the investigation
in a specific work and tradition so that it reduces mere speculation.
The dialogue between monotheism and Buddhism has been going on for a long
time. I believe such an exchange can prove fruitful for both traditions.
I would hope that such an exchange of views could be expanded to include
other traditions as well, such as the western philosophical tradition,
the secular humanist tradition, and the many spiritual traditions in the
world today. With a good heart, mutual respect, and the capacity to perceive
all people as equal, such an endeavor will help all concerned.
2.9 The Ontological Grid
One way that I have found helpful in clarifying the differences between
understandings of ultimacy is an approach I refer to as the ontological
grid. I derive it from the writings of John the Scot Eriugena, a philosopher/theologian
who lived in the 800’s. His central work is called Periphyseon, On The
Division Of Nature. This work, in dialog form, opens with a basic categorical
The division of nature seems to me to admit of four species through four
differentiae. The first is the division into what creates and is not created;
the second into what is created and creates; the third, into what is created
and does not create; the four, into what neither creates nor is created.
Of these four, two pairs consist of opposites. The third is the opposite
of the first, the fourth of the second. But the fourth is among the things
which are impossible, and its differentia is its inability to be.
(Periphyseon, On The Division Of Nature, by John the Scot Eriugena, translated by Myra L. Uhlfelder, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1976, page 2.)
I have found it helpful to reconfigure this teaching in grid form:
According to the traditional interpretation of monotheism, only one thing
falls into Category 1, namely God. God creates all existing things, and
existence itself, but God is not created. Continuing with the traditional
interpretation, Category 2 consists of things such as humans and other
conscious entities such as angels and animals. Humans are created, by God,
and they create other things. Category 3, according to the traditional
interpretation, designates the material world, consisting of things like
rocks and sand and wind and waves. These things are created but do not
create anything else, at least in an intentional and conscious way. Category
4 consists of nothingness, and according to the traditional interpretation
nothingness can not exist and is therefore of no concern. John the Scot
considers Category 4 a logical impossibility (which, incidentally, the
Madhyamika’s of Buddhism would completely agree with).
From the Buddhist perspective of Interdependent Transformation, only Category
2 exists. All things exist in such a manner that they are both created
and create, or to put it more accurately, creating. And all things are
doing this simultaneously.
But what about those passages in the Buddhist Discourses which speak of
the unconditioned? Isn’t the unconditioned, a name for nirvana, the same
as Category 1? It would seem to be the case that the unconditioned means
I will have more to say about this in an essay on nirvana, but for now
I want to offer the following consideration; that it is precisely the nature
of things as Interdependent Transformation which is in itself the unconditioned.
In this sense the conditioned as such is the unconditioned. It is not the
case that specific things are the unconditioned, but the quality of being
conditioned, which marks all existing things, is the unconditioned. The
conditioned is the unconditioned because the conditioned has no beginning.
The conditioned is the unconditioned because it has no ending. The conditioned
is the unconditioned because it is unborn and deathless. The conditioned
is the unconditioned because it exists everywhere, everywhen and as a quality
qualifying all existing things. Conditionality is never not present and
is therefore unconditioned. It is for this reason that Buddhism can say
that nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana.
So from another perspective, one could say that the Buddhdharma, from the
perspective of nirvana and realization, merges Categories 1 and 2 into
a unity and it is the realization that both Category 1 and Category 2 exist
simultaneously in all existing things that constitutes awakening.
To continue with the ontological grid: I have found it helpful to place
the various spiritual traditions on the grid. This tool helps me to comprehend
where various views are similar and where they diverge. For example, my
understanding of Brahmanism and Pantheism is that they consider only Category
1 as real. Whereas John the Scot views only Category 4 as unreal, Brahmanism
and Pantheism consider Categories 2, 3, and 4 as illusory; for them only
Category 1 has any genuine ontological status.
This ontological grid scheme doesn’t work in all cases. But even in those
cases where it doesn’t work in a neat way, I find that it helps me to clarify
for myself the view under consideration. Perhaps the reader will also find
2.10 Apophaticism and Mysticism
By apophaticism I mean that doctrine which views ultimacy as completely
non-conceptual. The apophatic view is that concepts and ultimacy dwell
in two different dimensions and that therefore in order to access ultimacy
I must completely negate all conceptuality. When conceptuality is completely
negated, ultimacy can be accessed.
Prominent elucidators of this view are Dionysius the Areopagite, Lao Tzu,
and Chuang Tzu. Apophaticism usually leads to various forms of mysticism,
the belief that ultimacy can be accessed only through a direct experience
lacking in conceptual content. In some traditions this experience can only
happen through grace; this is prominent in, for example, Christian mysticism,
though it is possible to prepare for the moment of grace through various
disciplines. In other traditions conceptuality is systematically set aside
through various meditative practices in order to enter into the experience
of the ultimate.
Against this view are those who regard conceptual activity as not only
not a hindrance to comprehending ultimacy, but also a necessary component
for experiencing ultimacy. Prominent elucidators of this view are Spinoza
and the great Sages of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism such as Tsong
Khapa, and many others. This view comprehends the primary obstacle to ultimacy
as ignorance. The purpose, then, of conceptual activity, in a spiritual
context, is to overcome ignorance through applying my capacities for reason
and analysis. When so applied in a rigorous manner, the actual nature of
existence, the ultimate nature of existence, appears and ignorance vanishes.
From this perspective conceptual activity is a gate to realization and
From the perspective of interdependent transformation I do not think it
is possible to reject conceptual activity as an efficacious means for experiencing
ultimacy. My primary reason for saying this is that interdependent transformation
is a view that all things have, or are marked by, a dependent and interdependent
nature. Words are things in existence. From the perspective of interdependent
transformation, words do not differ from rocks and clouds and cars and
birds. From the perspective of interdependent transformation, all existing
things, including words have this dependent and interedependent nature.
Because words have this nature, it is possible to access ultimacy through
words and conceptuality.
The words of the Dharma are particularly well suited for accessing ultimacy,
the realm of Interdependent Transformation. They are particularly well
suited because they are self-referentially consistent. By self-referentially
consistent I mean that when the Dharma speaks of ultimate nature, the words
themselves exemplify, exhibit, instantiate the meaning to which they refer.
For example, if I say that all things appear in this world dependent upon
causes and conditions, those very words, “dependent upon causes and conditions”
appear in this world due to, dependent upon, causes and conditions. The
words themselves thoroughly exhibit this ultimate nature and I do not need
to go anywhere else in order to access and experience this ultimate nature.
This leads to what I refer to as “the kensho of reading”. It is
that experience I have when reading the Discourses, and everything in existence,
not just the reading, not just the words, not just the concepts, but everything
in existence falls into place, everything is in balance, perfect and complete.
Because all things possess, rely on, and dwell in this ultimate nature,
it is possible to access ultimacy through any and every thing which exists;
provided that our attention is tuned and focussed on that ultimate nature.
Ultimate nature is not, therefore, confined to words and concepts, but
ultimate nature does not in any respect shy away from words and concepts.
Ultimate nature, from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation,
is not non-conceptual, but also ultimate nature is not conceptually specific
or limited only to the conceptual realm. However, having said this, it
is nevertheless the case, that the Dharma simultaneously speaks of ultimate
nature, points to ultimate nature, and displays ultimate nature. The simultaneous
speaking and displaying makes Dharma Discourse, the study, reading, and
contemplating of Dharma Discourse, the smoothest path to realization.
Apophaticism rests on the idea that ultimate nature is somewhere else,
than the realm in which we live. Utterly removed from, and different from,
the realm of experience, ultimacy can then only be accessed through a step
by step process which disengages me from this realm in which I dwell. In
other words, apophaticism and mysticism are dualistic, creating a division
in existence, minimally between the conceptual and ultimacy, and in extreme
cases between ultimacy and everything which I experience.
My understanding of the Dharma does not regard the realm in which I dwell
as removed from the ultimate nature of Interdependent Transformation. Ultimacy
does not exist somewhere else. It is not a matter of contacting some other
domain in order to access ultimacy. Rather it is a matter of shifting our
attention so that I can perceive and comprehend the actuality of things.
From this perspective, my understanding of existence is misconstrued and
my perception of things is askew. The purpose of Dharma study and practice
is to correct these misunderstandings, both conceptually and perceptually,
to overcome ignorance and the habits that give rise to this ignorance.
When that is done, the ultimate nature of all existing things and existence
itself, stands forth as the Interdependent Transformation nature which
permeates all of existence, unlocated, ever present, never far.
I realize that this way of comprehending the Dharma sets me at odds with
those traditions which regard the ultimate nature of existence, Buddha
Nature, Nirvana, as something which can not be accessed through study and
thinking. I can only say that at one time I agreed with this view, but
that my undersanding has now moved to a view which encompasses thought,
conceptuality, study, and thinking within the domain of ultimacy without
ejecting anything else from that domain. To set thought aside, from the
perspective of Interdependent Transformation, makes no more sense than
asking someone to set aside hearing, or to set aside seeing. Just as all
visual phenomena have the nature of Interdependent Transformation, just
as all sonic phenomena have the nature of Interdependent Transformation,
so also all thoughts, all concepts, also have the nature of Interdependent
Transformation. For this reason rejecting thoughts and concepts means limiting
the extent of the play of ultimate nature. But Buddha Nautre as Interdependent
Transformation marks all existing things. Marking all existing things,
this nature marks all thoughts. Marking all thoughts and concepts, thoughts
and concepts, when comprehended in their totality, and as Interdependent
Transformations, graciously display the true nature of all existing things.
Words also have a luminously clear nature. Thoughts also sparkle with elemental
transformative energy. Concepts also shimmer with the ever flowing and
present energy of all things. Rejecting nothing, the words of the Dharma
compassionately guide me to ultimate realization.
Materialism is the view that existence consists solely of matter. Anciently,
this meant that the ultimate constituents of existence consisted of irreducible
atoms, the word “atom” means something like unbreakable, or basic. This
view has fallen on difficult times and one would be hard put to find someone
among scientists and philosophers who holds this view in its pure and naive
form today. Nevertheless, there are implications of the materialistic view
which are held fairly widely. For example, the idea that everything that
truly exists must be quantifiable often has a materialistic basis. Also,
the idea that “you only live once, make the best of it,” arises out of
materialistic assumptions. Finally, the idea that the meaning of life lies
primarily, or even entirely, in the acquisition of material goods and possessions
is an expression of a materialistic world view.
In constrast to the materialistic view, the Buddha taught the primacy of
relationship and process. By primacy of relationship and process I mean
that from the perspective of Interdependent Transformation the term “things”
designates, first, relationships, and second, becomings and begonings,
appearings and disappearings, that all things are coming-togethers and
passing-aways. In a sense, the Buddha considered matter illusory, a result
of the grossness of our senses and the inability to generally infer universal
truths such as impermanence and change. This inability to infer impermanence,
change, and transformation to all things arises because our experience
of things does not immediately display to us their transient and process
nature. Some things do; such as melodies, storms, and shifting sand. But
many things do not display this nature, though if we think about it, contemplate
it, we can infer these qualities to all things. This is one of the primary
reasons why spiritual practice is necessary: We need to remind ourselves
of the central truths of impermanence, change and transformation. When
we remind ourselves of these truths, we take a step in overcoming the materialistic
world view, which in many ways is so prominent in our culture at this time.
Step by step, little by little, our understanding grows, deepens, and the
rivering realm of reality opens to our understanding and our perception.
In traditional Buddhist sources, such as the Discourses, nihilism means
one of two things: 1) that our actions have no moral consequences, and
2) that nothing actually exists. Modern nihilism fairly well maps onto
this usage and generally expresses itself as the view that life is meaningless.
The view that nothing really exists is, however, not widely held in an
explicit sense in materialistic culture such as ours. However, there is
a sense in which materialism is also a form of nihilism even at this basic
level. In scientific materialism it is often viewed that the real constituents
of nature are atomic and/or sub-atomic realities. Some forms of scientific
materialism, under the influence of pythagoreanism, assert that the mathematical
expressions of scientific laws are the actual constituents of existence.
This leads to a view of existence that more or less dismisses appearances
as less real than what the particular view comprehends as the actual constituents
of existence. Although this usually does not dismiss altogether the reality
of appearing forms, the really real lies somewhere other than the realm
in which human beings normally live and interact. This removes meaning
from our daily lives, and from this perspective I consider it a form of
Within a religious context nihilism means that view which holds that existence
is fundamentally unreal. This is an extreme view, but one that has some
currency within some traditions. The Buddha would have encountered that
view in his wanderings when he encountered other teachers. It is the view
that all appearances are an illusion and that nothing except God/Brahman/Being
exists. The Buddha considered this view a form of nihilism because it undermined
the efficacy of ethical activity. If all appearances are ultimately illusory,
then activities do not have any real or genuine consequences. If activities
do not have any real or genuine consequences, then the attempt to cultivate
awareness, compassion, and wisdom through spiritual practice and discipline
is ultimately futile.
It is in the arena of moral consequences, or karma, that the Buddha
most strongly diverges from the nihilistic view. The Buddha advocated an
ethically based life as foundational for all forms of spiritual practice,
including meditation and study. This is because he regarded ethical activity
as consequential in nature.
This view of ethical activity as having consequences arises from the Buddha’s
primal realization of Interdependent Transformation. All activities are
also things, within the context of Interdependent Transformation. Just
as a brick thrown against a window produces consequences, so also the activity
of my life has consequences, both for myself and for other people. The
realm of these consequences is the realm of ethics. From the perspective
of Interdependent Transformation, it is no more puzzling to say that my
actions have ethical consequences than it is to say that material objects
as they move through the world produce consequences. Just as the nature
of material consequences may be difficult to comprehend, the nature of
ethical consequences in the world may be difficult to comprehend, but that
does not mean that they do not exist.
Because the Buddha considered ethical consequences, or karma, as
a subset of the overall causal matrix of Interdependent Transformation,
the Buddha did not draw on an outside agency to impose ethical rules on
a recalcitrant humanity. Rather, when the Buddha speaks about ethical consequences,
he points out that certain activities produce certain results, that my
interaction with others engenders certain results, just as planting a seed
will produce a certain kind of plant depending upon the seed.
I think that we can all comprehend what the Buddha meant on an ordinary
level, though most of the time I fail to follow through on the implications
of such experiences and observations. For example, I have known cynics
who view all human motivation with suspicion. Sure enough, such people
soon loose the friendship of people who are sincere and not duplicitous.
The consequences of cynical activity in the world are to engender interactions
which themselves are consistent with that world view. Or take someone who
is chronically angry. Soon such a person becomes isolated, and often sinks
into a kind of despair as a consequence of their chronic anger. There are
many such examples that come to mind.
Because of the Buddha’s insight into Interdependent Transformation the
Buddha was able to generalize from these observations and develop a theory
of karma which consistently uncovers the efficacy of ethical causality.
Furthermore, the Buddha would apply these insights to spiritual disciples,
pointing out their karmic consequences, both in this life and in future
lives. Once again, this is the reason for the ethical basis in the precepts
for all Buddhist practice. But beyond this basis, spiritual practice itself,
such as meditation and study, have ethical implications. This is why in
the Zen tradition they say that the practice of meditation is itself an
expression of the ethical precepts of the Buddhadharma. The same understanding
applies to other forms of Buddhist practice. They are all embedded in the
context of Interdependent Transformation and applied to human interaction
as ethically expressed.
Nihilism, in terms of the idea that nothing actually exists, is overcome
by Interdependent Transformation through understanding that though things
do not exist separately, or in isolation, that does not imply that things
do not exist at all. The idea that things do not exist is an extreme view
and one that is explicitly rejected by the Buddha. The tendency that first
appears when considering the Buddha’s view is to fall into nihilism. This
is because the Buddha rejects the view of substantiality, which in a Buddhist
context means the existence of things as separately existing essential
natures. Because we have a strong psychological investment in the idea
of separately existing things, and particularly in the idea of a separately
existing self, we tend to interpret what the Buddha says as meaning that
things do not exist at all. That is, however, a misunderstanding. The Buddha
does not say that things do not exist. Rather, the Buddha says that things
exist dependently and interdependently. Or to put it another way, to exist
means to exist as a dependent and interdependent existant. Furthermore,
from the perspective of the Buddha, no other mode of existing exists.
The key to this understanding is that Interdependent Transformation rejects
both substantiality and non-existence. Interdependent Transformation is
an understanding and realization of the manner in which all things exist.
From this perspective, Interdependent Transformation affirms existence,
overcomes nihilism (both ethically and ontologically), and clarifies the
ultimate nature of all existing things.
The view that being constitutes the ultimate nature of all existing things
is a very powerful and widely held view, which has been touched upon in
several of the categories above already. Briefly, the view of being states
that there exists an unchanging nature which all things have by virtue
of the fact that they exist. Furthermore, being is that aspect of existence
which is self-sufficient, not dependent, existing independently. This view
is elaborted with great elegance by such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle,
Aquinas, and many others. It is a view which asserts the supremacy of Category
1 on the ontological grid.
Against this view, the Buddha asserts that to exist means to exist dependently/interdependently
and that there is no such thing as an independently existing, self sufficient
entity or nature. This has been covered above. What I want to mention here,
is that there is a great deal of confusion among Buddhist scholars regarding
the use of the term being. I think it is necessary to understand that the
term being has two meanings. The first meaning is something like, “the
core nature of existence”, meaning that nature which designates what it
means to exist. The second meaning is “an unchanging separately existing
and self-sufficient nature.” It is the second meaning which is problematic.
The western philosophical and theological traditions have consistently
used the second meaning as the criteria for the term “being.” However,
there exist other views as to the core nature of existence, such as the
view of Interdependent Transformation. It often happens that translators
of Buddhism into western language use the term “being” to designate the
core nature of the Buddhist view. I regard this as a deeply misleading
mistake. It arises from a failure to distinguish the two meanings of the
term being. This makes sense if one has adopted the view of being as ultimate.
Western culture has, by and large, done exactly that. So there is a cultural
habit of mind, that whenever we run across a theory of ultimate nature,
that we then designate that theory by the term being. However, this distorts
the presentation of that theory by implying that the theory designates
something that exists in an unchanging and separately existing manner,
when that might not be the case.
The solution is to use the term being to designate what philosphers and
theologians have designated by that term for many centuries. And then to
use alternate terms to designate what a non-being based view of ultimacy
comprehends as ultimate nature. One term I suggest for consideration is
the term “ultimacy”. When I use that term I mean that which all things
have in common, what it means to exist as such. From a being-based view,
to exist ultimately means to exist in an unchanging and separately existing
manner. From the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, to exist
ultimately means to exist dependently and interdependently. For this reason,
I think of Interdependent Transformation as the transcending of essence
and the abandoning of being, into the modality of interdependence as ultimate
(Note: Further discussion of this topic appears in my book The Presence
of Eternity, Section 2.)
The view of personalism in a narrow sense is the idea that ultimate nature
resides in a particular person. The greatest tradition that rests on this
view is Christianity. Christianity regards ultimate nature as embodied
in the person of Jesus. This is what distinguishes Christianity from Judaism
and Islam (in a way, the rise of Islam can be understood as a revolt against
the personalistic aspects of Christianity).
Interestingly, personalism as a view combines with many other ontological
stances. Thus one can have a monotheistic personalism and a monotheistic
impersonalism. Hinduism also has this kind of division with an impersonal
form in Advaita Vedanta and a personal form in the traditions which regard
Krishna as the ultimate nature of existence. One can have a polytheistic
impersonalism, as in Plotinus and Proclus, and one can have a polytheistic
personalism as in Celsus. In the Buddhist tradition, the Pure Land School
comes close to a personalist form in its central focus on the Buddha Amitabha.
The personalism/impersonalism axis of understanding ultimate nature, in
other words, appears to transcend specific cultures and traditions and,
I think, tells us something central about the human psyche and how humanity
accesses the transcendent. Karen Armstrong writes:
Judaism, Christianity and -- to a lesser extent -- Islam have all developed
the idea of a personal God, so we tend to think that this ideal represents
religion at its best. The personal God has helped monotheists to value
the sacred and inalienable rights of the individual and to cultivate an
appreciation of human personality. The Judeo-Christian tradition has thus
helped the West to acquire the liberal humanism it values so highly. These
values were originally enshrined in a personal God who does everything
that a human being does: he loves, judges, punishes, sees, hears, creates
and destroys as we do. Yahweh began as a highly personalized deity
with passionate human likes and dislikes. Later he became a symbol of transcendence,
whose thoughts were not our thoughts and whose ways soared above our own
as the heavens tower above the earth. The personal God reflects an important
religious insight: that no supreme value can be less than human. Thus personalism
has been an important and -- for many -- an indispensable stage of religious
and moral development. The prophets of Israel attributed their own emotions
and passions to God; Buddhists and Hindus had to include a personal devotion
to avatars of the supreme reality. Christianity made a human person the
center of the religious life in a way that was unique in the history of
religion: it took the personalism inherent in Judaism to an extreme. It
may be that without some degree of this kind of identification and empathy,
religion cannot take root.
Yet a personal God can become a grave liability. He can be a mere idol
carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs, fears and desires.
We can assume that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing
our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. When he seems
to fail to prevent a catastrophe or seems even to desire a tragedy, he
can seem callous and cruel. A facile belief that a disaster is the will
of God can make us accept things that are fundamentally unacceptable. The
very fact that, as a person, God has a gender is also limiting: it means
that the sexuality of half the human race is sacralized at the expense
of the female and can lead to a neurotic and inadequate imbalanace in human
sexual mores. A personal God can be dangerous, therefore. Instead of pulling
us beyond our limitations, “he” can encourage us to remain complacently
within them; “he” can make us as cruel, callous, self-satisfied and partial
as “he” seems to be. Instead of inspiring the compassion that should characterize
all advanced religion, “he” can encourage us to judge, condemn and marginalize.
It seems, therefore, that the idea of a personal God can only be a stage
in our religious development. The world religions all seem to have recognized
this danger and have sought to transcend the personal conception of supreme
A History of God, by Karen Armstrong, Ballantine Books, U.S.A., 1993, pages 209-210.)
A personal view of God is necessarily limited, whereas the ultimate nature
of existence has no limits. This limitedness of view embodied in personalism
breeds contention and strife between religions. For example, in a dispute
between those who regard Krishna as ultimate, and those who regard Jesus
as ultimate, and those who regard Isis as ultimate, how could anyone decide?,
by what criteria would one of these persons displace the others?
I believe that one of the appeals of Buddhism in the west at this time
is that the personalistic stance of Christianity has become more and more
difficult to maintain, and that the failure of personalism has left an
opening in western culture for different forms of religious expression,
such as Buddhism, to enter. Keiji Nishitani, in his book
Religion and Nothingness, in a chapter titled “The Personal and the Impersonal”
argues that in western culture the comprehension of God was united with
a particular cosmological doctrine. Because God was seen as expressed in
this cosmological arrangement, it was theologically argued that one could
approach God through nature as expressed in this cosmological design. When
science undermined this cosmology, at every level, this cut off the traditional
route to God that had functioned effectively in the west for many centuries.
This is the source of the resistance to scientific development and thought
among orthodox and fundamentalist religions in the west. Furthermore, when
science undermined this cosmology and explained nature in terms not requiring
a personal God, it left many feeling that existence now lacked a sacred
However, others (I am thinking of people like Spinoza) responded to this
developing situation by concluding that the ultimate nature of things might
not be inherently tied to a particular cosmological view; and this is where
Buddhism has found a niche among some westerners. Because Buddhism does
not have a strong cosmological commitment, Buddhism was seen to offer a
resolution, in some sense, to the displacement of the sacred dimension
which had occurred with the blossoming of scientific understanding.
It is my understanding that the Buddha taught a rigorously impersonal view
of ultimate nature. I have yet to run across a designation of nirvana that
includes any kind of personalism. Nirvana is peace, nirvana is bliss, nirvana
is unborn, nirvana is deathless; all of these elucidations of ultimacy
as nirvana do not entail any specific personal form. I think that this
impersonalism arises from the Buddha’s insight into impermanence. As indicated
previously, the Buddha exteneded this insight into the celestial domains,
regarding deities also as impermanent. This applied to even those great
deities, such as Brahma and Vishnu, who create entire world systems. They
too will pass away, though they live incredibly long lives from the human
perspective. From the Buddhist perspective, the God of monotheism is also
impermanent, not unborn, and not deathless.
For those allied with a particular form, and a personalistic stance, this
rigorous impersonalism can seem cold and remote. The plus side of this
impersonalism, however, is that an impersonalistic view allows that ultimate
nature, Buddha Nature, Nirvana, is accessible to anyone, no matter what
their form. This blossomed in Great Vehicle Buddhism into the idea that
all sentient beings, no matter what their form, have Buddha Nature. In
this context Buddha Nature is that capacity that all sentients have to
realize the ultimate and transcendent, to enter into the deathless element
of existence. From this perspective, impersonalism is an optimistic view.
In a larger context, I think of personalism as any view which argues that
ultimate nature has a specific form. For example, materialistic atomism
I would regard as a form of personalism. I realize this may strike readers
as an odd way of using the term personalism. In defense, I comprehend the
core of personalism as an insistence on a specific, graspable, form for
ultimacy. Thus I would regard anthropomorphic forms of personalism, such
as those centered on Jesus or Krishna, as a sub-set of this tendency.
In the history of Buddhism this tendency manifests as Abhidharma,
which is founded on “dharma theory.” As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
The Abhidhamma may be described as a philosophy because it proposes
an ontology, a perspective on the nature of the real. This perspective
has been designated the “dhamma theory” (dhammavaada). Briefly,
the dhamma theory maitains that ultimate reality consists of a multiplicity
of elementary constituents called dhammas. The dhammas are
not noumena hidden behind phenomena, not “things in themselves” as opposed
to “mere appearances,” but the fundamental components of actuality... The
familiar world of substantial objects and enduring persons is, according
to the dhamma theory, a conceptual construct fashioned by the mind
out of the raw data provided by the dhammas. The entities of our
everyday frame of reference possess merely a consensual reality derivative
upon the foundational stratum of the dhammas. It is the dhammas
alone that possess ultimate reality: determinate existence “from their
own side” (saruupato) independent of the mind’s conceptual processing
of the data.
I think of Abhidhamma as a form of atomism, only a psychological form of
atomism, rather than the materialistic form of atomism that western thought
is familiar with. I sense in the development of Abhidhamma the same tendency
as the more blatant forms of personalism; the attempt to fix ultimate reality
onto a specific form and/or formal structure.
If I return to the core understanding of Interdependent Transformation,
I view the Buddha’s teaching as that which comprehends ultimate existence
as interdependence itself, without any kind of substance or essence, either
material or formal. This explains why, in criticisms of Abhidharma within
Buddhism, the criticism has centered on the idea that Abhidharma reifies
a thought construction, and in that very reification, subverts the core
teaching of the Buddha. In the Heart Sutra, when it says, “All dharmas
are marked with emptiness”, it is this point that the Sutra is making.
If we extend the rigorous impersonalism of the Buddha’s teaching to encompass
all types of fixed doctrine, and all attempts to reify a form into ultimacy,
then that impersonalism of the Buddha would also systematically reject
the attempts of Abhidharma to find ultimacy in dharma/dhamma theory. From
the perspective of Interdependent Transformation, nothing exists independently,
nothing exists from its own side. It is precisely that inability for anything
to exist independently, on its own terms, or from its own side, that is
undermined by this core realization.
When I refer to the Buddha’s rigorous impersonalism, I mean that it is
precisely Interdependent Transformation which constitutes ultimate reality
in the teaching of the Buddha. Interdependent Transformation has no form,
but functions to give rise to all forms. Interdependent Transformation
has no color, no taste, no texture, no sound, no emotion, no thought, etc..
But without Interdependent Transformation, none of these things would exist.
It is awakening to the reality of Interdependent Transformation which constitues
Nirvana and allows for the blossoming of the unrestricted heart of compassion.
3. On Having A View
In a number of discourses the Buddha states that clinging to a view constitues
a hindrance to realization. At other times, the Buddha emphasizes the importance
of having a right view in order to progress on the path to realization.
And, of course, right view is the first aspect of the Eightfold Path. I
have found integrating both of these understandings a significant challenge.
Here are a few of my own thoughts on this.
First, I think that everyone has a view of ultimate nature. In most cases
this view is not consciously held. But it is implied as a basis for many
disparate understandings that an individual has. One of the great gifts
that philosophy presents to humanity is to bring to conscious awareness
just what constitutes these core understandings. By bringing these views
to the surface, it is possible to gain clarity regarding these basic views,
and if necessary, to change and adapt them.
By “view” I mean here a metaphysical view regarding the ultimate nature
of existence. Some would deny that they have such a view. There are famous
examples of philosophers and scientists who deny that they hold any kind
of metaphysical position. Examples include Sextus Empiricus, Newton, some
pragmatists, and some modern deconstructionists and post-modernists.
By “view” I mean here what Aristotle referred to as “first principles”.
Aristotle argued that it is not possible for people to have any kind of
discussion, about any topic, without there being some agreement on first
principles. First principles are kind of like starting points. Since, for
the most part, we agree on basics, it is not often that first principles
come up for discussion, which is one of the reasons why many people who
have a view, or first principles, are unaware of the content of these views
that they hold. For example, in any kind of discussion, there is the assumption
that there exist inferential connections between statements, and these
inferences are usually not explicitly stated, but their validity is assumed.
Aristotle would argue that these basic inferential understandings constitute
first principles. Aristotle placed discussion of these in his metaphysics,
not in his logic. Why? Because Aristotle regarded these first principles
as starting points which made any discussion possible; they were basic
to all forms of inquiry.
Both the sceptic and the modern deconstructionist offer arguments for their
point of view; even if their point of view consists of nothing but a critique
of views they disagree with. The validity of the critique, however, depends
upon assumptions as to the validity of inference and these assumptions,
in turn, are metaphysical, and/or ontological, in nature. In other words,
I consider Aristotle correct on this central point; it is one of the great
contributions Aristotle made to show how views, or first principles, function
as a basis for inquiry.
In contrast, have you ever had a discussion with someone that just went
nowhere because you could not agree on even the basics? Most of us have
had this kind of experience. It is very frustrating. Before one even starts,
one feels kind of defeated. Not defeated in the sense of refuted, but defeated
in the sense of not being able to communicate. This happens because, within
the confines of the subject being considered, the two parties can not form
a common view, or a shared sense of first principles. Political discussions
often seem to manifest in this way.
Scientists, such as Newton and Skinner, who argue that they do not have
first principles, or a metaphysical view, also ignore that they make claims
for the validity of their inferences. This implies that there exists a
connection between their statements and the world to which those statements
refer. What is the nature of that connection? It is not obvious. What is
the nature of the inferences that they make and why should we consider
such inferences valid? Once again, that is not obvious. In the case of
Newton, with the passage of time it has become clear that he did hold metaphysical
assumptions, and I would suggest that this also applies to all scientists
without exception, as well as all sceptics, agnostics, and post-modern
chronocentric deconstructionists. The point is that any kind of inference
assumes the validity of logical structures, and these logical structures
are based on metaphysical views, summed up in first principles.
Likewise, any kind of refutation assumes that there exists standards by
which to judge the validity of reasons and arguments. Ultimately, these
kinds of standards rest upon a metaphysical view, once again articulated
by first principles. Therefore, even the radical sceptic has a view, or
the sceptic would not find it possible to even disagree with others who
hold contrary views.
There are a few fields of human endeavor in which first principles are
clearly stated. These can serve to help us understand how they function,
and, perhaps, how we can simultaneously have a view without clinging to
that view. The clearest example of this is mathematics, and especially
geometry. The axioms which form the basis for geometrical systems function
as first principles for the articulation of space which that system offers.
These axioms are starting points, stipulations. In order to engage in that
system of geometry, one must simply acquiesce to their function as starting
points. If I do not agree with an axiom, I might still be doing geometry,
but I would be doing a different form of geometry. This is how there exist
numerous kinds of geometry, because of varying axiomatic starting points.
Similarly, in the realm of music, I can think of scales as musical axioms,
or starting points. Major, minor, etc., represents basic structures which,
once chosen, influence every aspect of the musical composition. Whether
a piece is in major or minor is stipulated by the composer. To argue about
this is to argue that the composer should not have written the piece at
Having a metaphysical view, or first principle, means having an understanding
of what it means to ultimately exist, what is the nature of existence as
such. There are many possible views on this subject, just as there are
many possible forms of geometry and many possible musical scales.
It is worthwhile mentioning that first principles, or views, are not obvious.
I bring this up because western philosophy, probably under the influence
of Descartes, has sometimes adopted the idea that first principles should
be self-evident, clear, and not subject to challenge. In contrast, Greek
philosophy did not regard first principles as obvious. For example, it
is not obvious that parallel lines never connect; but it is stipulated
as a principle of Euclidean Geometry. Similarly, the law of the excluded
middle is not obvious; but it is stipulated as a first principle by Aristotle,
a starting point in all of his discourse.
I consider Interdependent Transformation as the first principle of Buddhism.
It is not obvious. It is precisely the fact that this first principle is
not obvious, and in many ways even counterintuitive, that creates the necessity
for a path to understanding this view. If Interdependent Transformation
were obvious and self-evident, there would be no need for study and practice;
the truth of Interdependent Transformation would simply present itself.
I regard having first principles, or views, as part of what it means to
exist as a human being. I think having such views come with living a life
as a human and that all humans have such a view. Just as humans have organs
such as a liver and a pancrease, all humans have a metaphysical view. And
just as humans are not normally aware of their internal organs, so also
most humans are not aware of their view. From this perspective, when the
Buddha speaks of having Right View, I think he means, first, to raise to
conscious awareness the view that one has of ultimate nature, of what it
means to exist. And second, to examine that view and see if it really holds
up to experience. Right View as Interdependent Transformation means that
the Buddha finds the view of Interdependent Transformation as a view that
is consistent with existence and simultaneously leads to liberation, to
nirvana, and the cessation of all sorrow.
But how do we arrive at this view of Interdependent Transformation without
clinging to that view, and thereby engendering suffering, since clinging
is the cause of suffering? I believe this can be accomplished by applying
the view of Interdependent Transformation to itself. Just as all things
arise dependently, so also the view of Interdependent Transformation arises
dependently. Just as all things are in transformation, so also the view
of Interdependent Transformation is also constantly in transformation.
The tendency is to try and find a view that exists outside of causation
and change; but the view of Interdependent Transformation comprehends causation
and change as ultimacy itself. Therefore, when comprehended fully, the
view itself negates the tendency to cling to view. I believe that is one
of the reasons why the Buddhist tradition regards comprehending Interdependent
Transformation as in and of itself having liberative potential.
Let me illustrate how this can work with an example. If I discursively
raise the thought that all things appear dependent upon causes and conditions,
the appearance of that very thought arises due to causes and condition.
If I then contemplate the thought that the thought that all things arise
due to causes and conditions arises due to causes and conditions, I then,
once again, generate the insight that this thought also arises due to causes
and conditions. Schemtically, it works like this:
1. All things appear due to causes and conditions.
2. The idea (1), “all things appear due to causes and conditions”, appears
due to causes and conditions.
3. The idea (2), also appears due to causes and conditions.
4. The idea (3), also appears due to causes and conditions.
5. The idea (4), also appears due to causes and conditions.
This gives me the experience of the dependent nature of things, since ideas
constitute things, so that the contemplation of the idea simultaneously
provides the means for the direct experience to which the idea refers.
The idea of dependence is luminously permeated by the transcendent reality
of dependence itself.
This contemplation also gives me the experience of vastness because the
infinite regress which this contemplation engenders has no end. Having
no end, I directly experience the vast context out of which, and dependent
upon which, ideas appear.
This contemplation also gives me the experience of non-clinging, and therefore
the experience of nirvana itself. The nirvana I experience in this contemplation
is probably not as thorough or as deep, or as enduring, as that of a fully
realized Buddha, but it is of the same quality, of the same kind, differing
only in degree. I experience non-clinging in this contemplation of Interdependent
Transformation, as the dependent nature of the idea I am contemplating,
because with each step in this process I must let go of the appearing idea
in order to observe how that idea arises due to causes and conditions,
which gives rise to the next level of contemplation. This experience of
non-clinging helps me to understand how, in this instance, Right View does
not, in this case, generate fixation, suffering and clinging. For the experience
of releasing each level of understanding into the next level allows me
to experience the meaning of cessation as the end of suffering in a clear
and direct manner.
Finally, this kind of contemplation, allows me to directly experience the
ocean of awareness of which conceptualization forms only a small part.
With each step in this contemplation, as I follow through on the infinite
regress that this contemplation generates, I perceive a vaster context
of conscious awareness out of which ideas arise. Soon, as this process
unfolds, the ocean of awareness becomes directly accessible and perceivable.
It resembles shifting my awareness from a small island on which I dwell
to the ocean which surrounds this island. It resembles becoming aware of
the galactic context in which the earth, and the solar system, live out
there existence. This broadening of awareness is in itself profoundly liberating.
4. The Buddha’s Unique Teaching
The Buddha has offered humanity a unique teaching centered on the understanding
and realization of Interdependent Transformation. From that primal insight
grows the entire Buddhadharma and all the schools and interpretations which
collectively we refer to as Buddhism. Because of the unfortunate history
of religion which has often erupted into violent sectarian disputes, the
claim that the Buddha’s teaching is unique may provoke a negative reaction
in some people. The fear is that by claiming that the Buddha offered a
unique teaching I am also making a claim for unique worthiness and therefore
disparaging other forms of spirituality. Such a conclusion, however, does
For example, I would also claim that Mozart has offered humanity a unique
interpretation of the sonic domain. This does not mean that other forms
of music do not have value. Or, I would also claim that Euclid has offered
humanity a unique interpretation of space. This does not mean that other
interpretations of space do not have value.
However, to understand Mozart, I have to listen to Mozart. To understand
Euclid, I have to accept his axioms. To understand the Buddhadharma, I
have to begin where the Buddha began; specifically, the primal insight
of Interdependent Transformation.
5. The Garden Of The Spirit
I have mentioned this before, but I consider it important enough to repeat
here. To say that the Buddha has offered us a unique teaching does not
imply that other teachings have no value. Because of the history of religion,
people tend to think that that is what someone means when they make an
assertion of this kind. However, I look at it differently.
Mozart has offered us unique music, but that does not mean that other music
is not valuable. Millay has offered us unique sonnets, but that does not
mean other sonnets are not valuable. It is in this spirit that I understand
what it means to say that the Buddha has a unique teaching, a teaching
that differs from other spiritual traditions. Once again, this does not
meant that other spiritual traditions do not have value, do not have something
to offer. It simply means that the song of the Dharma is not the same song
as the song of monotheism, or the song of platonism, etc..
I like to think of spirituality as a garden with many blossoms. It is the
variety which makes the garden beautiful. Monotheism is the Sunflower,
turned toward the one source. Buddhism is the Lotus, with its roots woven
deep into the web of existence. May all the blossoms of the spirit bear
6. A Pluralistic Multiverse
The difficulty in writing an extended philosophical analysis is that people
will tend to think that I mean this analysis to be the only possible analysis.
This is due to the history of philosophy, and religion, and how they have
viewed their self-appointed tasks as metaphysicians and theologians. To
clarify this, contrast how mathematicians view their own works. A mathematician
might spend a great deal of time and effort formulating a systematic presentation
of set theory. However, in the field of mathematics, it is unlikely that
the mathematician would view their work as final, or as the only possible
presentation of set theory. This is particularly true since the creation
of alternate inferential systems, beginning in the 19th century, which
have made mathematical thought much more fluid.
Theoretical constructs and philosophical investigations have their value,
but their value does not reside in their completeness or their finality.
The value of philosophical investigation lies in its capacity for clarification.
Philosophical investigation has the great virtue of bringing into conscious
awareness ideas and views that for the most part have remained hidden,
yet have strongly effected how we interact with the world and how we comprehend
the world. By comprehend the world I mean how we conceptually organize
our experience, and how we tend to expect experience to manifest.
Everyone has an overall view, which I think of as metaphysical presuppositions
or stipulations. I say that everyone has such views because any time a
person makes an inference, there is implied by that inference metaphysical
assumptions about the nature of causality, the relationships between concepts,
and the relationship between concepts and sensory existence, and the relationship
between words and words. However, most people do not have a conscious awareness
of their own metaphysical views. Just as most people can sing a tune, yet
do not have knowledge as to how music is constructed and written, so also
people make inferences all the time without having an awareness as to the
foundations out of which these inferences spring. Because people in general
lack this awareness, if their metaphysical view is flawed, or dysfunctional
in some way, it remains very difficult to correct, alter, or modify the
view. This is one reason why I consider philosophical investigation such
a great gift to humanity; because it allows humanity to perceive such flaws,
or misplaced inferences, or tenuous assumptions and then, after perceiving
these, to attain the clarity with which to modify, alter, and expand one’s
understanding. As Alfred North Whitehead put it, “... [A]ll constructive
thought, on the various special topics of scientific interest, is dominated
by some such scheme, unacknowledged, but not less influential in guiding
the imagination. The importance of philosophy lies in its sustained effort
to make such schemes explicit, and thereby capable of criticism and improvement.”
(Process and Reality, by Alfred North Whitehead, Free Press, Corrected
Edition, New York, 1978, page XIV.)
However, to clarify metaphysical views and assumptions does not infer that
one view is innately superior to another. I am encouraged in this view
of philosophical investigation as always open, as always tentative, by
Alfred North Whitehead’s comments in his preface to his great work, Process
and Reality. There he says, after laying a foundation for his view
of the nature of philosophical investigation, “There remains the final
reflection, how shallow, how puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the
depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest
hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition
of folly.” (Ibid.)
On the other hand, I think it would be a mistake to assert that all metaphysical
views are equal, that none are better than any others. That also would
be going to an extreme. Clealry some metaphysical systems are dysfunctional.
In terms of the Dharma, most views, or metaphysical assumptions, do not
lead to the cessation of suffering. Using this standard, one can say that
the Buddhadharma is supreme.
In other words, I am attempting in this work to bring to the foreground
the overal view of the Buddhadharma, which I refer to as Interdependent
Transformation. The purpose of bringing this view to the foreground is
to make it possible for both myself and others to comprehend and perceive
how this core understanding weaves its way throughout the Buddhadharma,
and to become consciously aware of this weave. By becoming consciously
aware of this weave of Interdependent Transformation it becomes possible
to enlarge our understanding, help others to understand, and to transform
our understanding so that it becomes an effective means for teaching others
the way to liberation.
My purpose is not to produce a final or definitive statement about Interdependent
Transformation. Nor is my purpose to produce a final and definitive statement
about ultimate reality. Rather, my purpose lies in illuminating, to the
best of my ability, a way of comprehending existence which many have found
conducive to their own happiness and the happiness of others. I fully expect
that others will also, in the future, compose illuminations on Interdependent
Transformation which others will also find useful, which may in significant
respects supercede and surpass what is done herein.
However, it is my view that, in a sense, no illumination of ultimate nature
is ever completely surpassed or rendered in some way useless. Here my view
somewhat diverges from that of Whitehead and others in the western philosophical
tradition. As I understand it, the western philosophical tradition regards
ultimate reality as in some sense unitary. The elucidations of that ulimate
nature sort of hover around, or spotlight portions of this ultimate nature.
In that sense all such illuminations are useful. But there remains an assumption
that there exists a universe, a singular ultimate presence.
I tend to think of existence as more fluid and more diverse. For this reason,
I tend to use the term multiverse rather than universe. There are many
ultimate natures all of which have many aspects. In other words, the situation
in which we find ourselves is more complex, and more beautiful, than we
can imagine. I don’t think that it is reducible to a singular nature.
For this reason, I regard illuminating the nature of Interdependent Transformation
as illuminating one aspect of a complex multiversal presence. I don’t consider
this project as in some sense an explanation for everything. Nevertheless,
such a project, the illumination of ultimate nature, has value because
it grants us clarity, and it forms the ground upon which true happiness
and contentment can be built, and ultimately the cessation of all sorrow.
My attitude towards Interdependent Transformation is similar to Aristotle’s
attitude towards what Aristotle refers to as “first principles.” By first
principles Aristotle means accepted, or stipulated, starting points that
make further discussion possible.
Aristotle’s first principles consist of three views: 1) the law of identity
or A is A; 2) the law of contradiction, or nothing can be X and not-X;
and 3) the law of the excluded middle, or something must be either X or
not-X. Aristotle considered these three laws as first principles which
made any conversation and further inquiry possible. Aristotle regarded
them as the starting points for all of his philosophical work, which is
why they are elucidated in his Metaphysics.
Aristotle points out that in order to have any kind of discussion, there
must be some point of agreement. Otherwise we will just talk past each
other and the discussion will be fruitless. In philosophical discussions,
these first principles function as the starting points from which it is
possible to continue having a discussion.
Aristotle’s famous laws function like axioms in a geometrical system. Once
the axioms are stated, the rest of the system flows from these core notions.
However, the axioms themselves determine the nature of the system. To go
outside of, or to abandon, these axioms means to engage in some other activity.
For example, if one abandons the law of the excluded middle, one is no
longer operating within an Aristotelian framework. Logicians who do abandon
the law of the excluded middle, for this reason, refer to their logic as
non-Aristotelian. Abandoning the law of the excluded middle is neither
good nor bad, but it is a consequence that such an abandonment leads to
an activity of the mind that is no longer a part of what Aristotle had
in mind. Similarly, if one abandons Euclid’s parallel postulate, one is
no longer engaging in Euclidean geometry; one is doing something else.
That is why those who do abandon Euclid’s parallel postulate refer to their
activity as non-Euclidean. Once again, that something else is neither good
or bad, but it isn’t Euclidean geometry. Or to pick a less exalted example,
if one abandon’s the rules for moving different chess pieces on the chess
board, one is no longer playing chess. One is doing something else. That
something else may be a wonderful new game, but it is not chess.
Similarly, I think of Interdependent Transformation as the first principle
of Buddhism. Everything else in Buddhism is rooted in this primal understanding
and awareness. If I pursue wisdom, or spirituality, outside of this understanding,
then I would suggest that that something else is not Buddhism. That does
not make the something else bad, or unworthy of study. It also does not
make it good or worthy of study. But I think it does mean that one has
ventured into some other, non-Buddhist, realm of thought and spirit.
It is the overall understanding of the Buddhist tradition that the Buddha
discovered something about the ultimate nature of existence that has great
value. The great value of that discovery is that it leads to the cessation
of sorrow and the liberation of the heart and mind through awakening to
the deathless and unborn. To say that the Buddha discovered someting of
great value, however, does not imply that others have not also discovered
something of great value. In my personal explorations of wisdom traditions
I have learned much of great value from non-Buddhist views. With a heart
open to the multiverse, I walk the Buddhist path.