Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Appearance from Emptiness, Empty Appearance

I read the following section in a book yesterday. It so eloquently explains "....the secret of understanding reality lies in the union of emptiness and appearances. When things are empty, they appear; when they appear, they are empty" as stated near the end.

The section is by Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk residing at the Shechen monastery near Kathmandu in Nepal. He is coauthor of the critically acclaimed The Monk and the Philosopher and is the official French translator of H.H. The Dalai Lama.

I don't know if you're interested in such topic or feel comfortable with the kind of writing and analytical discussion; but just the same, I keyed in the paragraphs from the book, in case you want to read them. The note in brackets is mine.

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Buddhism rejects the idea that anything can be causeless. If a result could happen without any cause, absolutely anything could lead to absolutely anything else, since what is causeless depends on nothing. So an effect must depend on its causes and conditions. This seems simple, but things become more complicated when we remember that Buddhism also rejects the notion of “objective” reality. The reductionist way of looking at causality supposes that an inherently existing entity with intrinsic properties acts on other entities by altering their properties. But Buddhist logic points out the insurmountable problems that arise when we consider phenomena as concrete, independent entities. So our view of causality is more complicated. In order to truly understand the Buddhist view, we should go through the traditional Buddhist analysis of this problem of causality.

We start with the realization that there can be only four sorts of causality, or means of production, in the world. A thing can be born (1) from itself; (2) from something else; (3) from itself and something else; or (4) neither from itself nor from something else. Then we work our way through the possibilities.

The first step is to acknowledge that a thing can’t be born of itself. If it contained all of its own causes, it would then multiply indefinitely without anything being able to stop. When all of the necessary causes are present, the event in question must occur. What’s more, if a thing was born of itself, this would mean that it already existed. Production would then be unnecessary. If what had already been born was born again, then the process would never stop.

And what about the second possibility, which is more similar to our usually idea of causality and those of science? Can a thing be produced by “something else”?

Buddhism accepts this sort of causality in terms of relative truth. In absolute terms, however, it affirms that if the cause and effect were totally distinct, then causality couldn’t operate. The reasoning goes like this: at the moment when the cause is about to vanish and the effect is about to appear, do the cause and the effect, considered as real, separate entities, have a “point of contact,” even for just a fleeting instant?

If yes, the cause and effect exist simultaneously when they are in contact. The effect thus doesn’t need to be produced, given that it already exists and the cause is unnecessary. What’s more, two simultaneous entities can’t work on each other in casual terms, because they can’t act on each other in the present instant. (This goes back to what Heisenberg said: “Two simultaneous phenomena cannot be connected by any direct causal action.”) On the other hand, if the cause and effect have no point of contact and are totally unconnected, causality breaks down. The two entities have nothing to do with each other and so can’t be in a cause-and-effect relationship. What’s more, if the cause has nothing to do with its product, anything could be born from anything else. In the words of Chandrakirti:

If something could be produced by something intrinsically “other,”
Then darkness could be born of fire
And anything could be born from anything.

Anything could be born from anything, because if the “cause” entity is “other” in terms of the “effect” entity, all phenomena are equivalent in the sense that they are all “other” in terms of the effect. In that case, any phenomenon could have been the cause. If the cause has already disappeared when the effect appears, then this comes down to saying that the effect happened with no cause and is an ex nihilo creation. In other words, if the cause vanishes before the result arrives, then the result never will arrive. A seed can’t vanish before giving birth to a shoot. Nor can the cause remain unchanged when the result arrives, just as a seed can’t give birth to a shoot without vanishing. To sum up, a concrete autonomous entity can’t produce another one. If the “result” entity already exists at the same time as the “cause” entity, either it doesn’t need to be produced, or it takes part in its own production, which is meaningless. If it doesn’t exist, its production is impossible, given that a billion causes can never produce something from nothing. Nagarjuna summed up this argument in the following quatrain:

If the entity of the effect already exists
What does a cause have to produce?
If the entity of the effect does not exist
How could a cause produce it?

And Atisha added, in the Torch of the Path to Enlightenment:

Something that exists already cannot, logically, be born.
Just like nonexistent thins – which are like flowers in the sky.

So this is Buddhism’s conclusion: What seems to us to be a cause-and-effect relationship can only be possible if neither the cause nor the effect exists independently and permanently. We thus come back to the phrase “because everything is emptiness, everything can exist.” The nonreality of phenomena is the precondition for their appearance. These “simple appearances” then evolve according to a law of causality based on interdependent phenomena with no inherent existence. To quote Nagarjuna once more:

There is not the slightest thing
That does not come from a dependent origin
And therefore there is not the slightest thing
That is not emptiness.

Modifications of these interactions bring about the chain of cause and effect, without its being necessary to postulate the existence of separate entities, each containing all of its own properties – what physicists call “local” properties.

Let’s now turn to the last two possibilities. Something can’t be born both of itself and of something else for the same reasons as in the preceding arguments. So, can something be born neither of itself nor of anything else? No, it can’t. For it could be born with no cause, anything could be born anytime, anywhere, and anyhow.

So that leaves us with what?

The only solution is interdependence, a co-production in which phenomena condition one another mutually within an infinite network of dynamic, impermanent causality, which is incomprehensible to a linear way of thinking, which is innovative without being arbitrary, and which eludes the two extremes of chance and determinism. To sum up, an inherently existing object can’t have a cause and can’t depend on anything else. If everything existed in this fashion, nothing would come about, causality wouldn’t operate, and the world of phenomena would be permanently frozen. The fact that things seem to happen in the world of appearances, or relative truth, is possible only because cause and effect have no intrinsic existence. It is said in Prajnaparamita’s Transcendent Knowledge:

They have no ending and they have no origin;
They are not nothing, nor are everlasting;
They do not come, they do not go;
They are not one, they are not more than one.

A correct understanding of emptiness thus stops us from falling into the traps of realism [permanent existence] or nihilism. Meditation on emptiness attenuates the belief in the real existence of things. But you mustn’t become attached to emptiness as a belief. If you do, you will relapse into nothingness. In the Garland of Jewels, Nagarjuna writes, “Since we find nothing real, how can we find something unreal? Indeed, the ‘nonexistent’ can only be conceived of in relation to what is existent.” In his Fundamental Treatise on Wisdom, he concludes:

When emptiness is wrongly understood,
It leads the ignorant to their perdition.
And thus in neither “is” nor “is not”
Does the sage abide.

According to Buddhism, the secret of understanding reality lies in the union of emptiness and appearances. When things are empty, they appear; when they appear, they are empty. Over and above the limitations of simple theoretical rationality, a true understanding of this statement can only be reached by means of direct contemplation. As it is said in Transcendent Knowledge:

People say, “I see a space” –
But how can space be seen? Examine what this means.
In such a way the Buddha spoke of “seeing” the ultimate nature of things;
He found no other word than “seeing” to express himself.