To understand Advayavada Buddhism it is necessary to accept in the first place the preeminence of wondrous overall existence over mankind and that existence cannot, by definition, be anything but just right as it is. Secondly, that the objective of the Middle Way, being the correct existential attitude expounded by the Buddha, is the abandonment of all fixed views and to reconnect and reconcile us with wondrous overall existence – indeed, that in its dynamic Eightfold Path form, the Middle Way is an ongoing reflexion at the level of our personal lives of wondrous overall existence becoming over time. Now, as the Eightfold Path leads us towards better and better, it follows, inductively if you will, that, in human terms, existence as a whole becomes over time towards better and better as well. Inversely, we experience as good, right or wholesome those events which are in agreement with the overall indifferent pattern and direction of existence – it is for this reason that they are experienced thus. The reference standard, you see, is wondrous overall existence. It is not mankind, with its various civilizations and plagues, let alone, however well intentioned, our subjective sense of relative beauty.
Embracing Physicalism in Buddhism (from Buddhism and Techno-physicalism: Is the Eightfold Path a Program?, by Mark Siderits, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu 2001)
If embracing physicalism [i.e. that all that exists is physical in nature] means leaving open for the present whether or not to accept the doctrine of karma and rebirth, then we must ask how crucial this doctrine really is to Buddhism. What I would suggest is that while this doctrine has played an important role in many Buddhist cultures, it is not crucial to the central project of Buddhism. Indeed, if I take myself to live only one life instead of the indefinitely many lives promised by rebirth, then the fact of my own mortality takes on even greater significance, for I cannot then defer seeking a solution to the problem of suffering to some future life. Now within many Buddhist cultures it has been thought that some persons are unable to seek and attain Nirvana in this life. The doctrine of karma and rebirth holds out the promise to such people that if they perform karmically meritorious acts in this life, they will be reborn in more auspicious circumstances in which the attainment of Nirvana will be easier. So if karma and rebirth were rejected, then since Nirvana would not be open to all, this might make the Buddhist path seem less appealing. (Of course this would not show that the Buddhist analysis is itself false.) But we must ask why Nirvana is thought to be unattainable for some individuals in this lifetime. If this is simply because they find the path too difficult compared to the attractions of mundane life, then perhaps Buddhist need to redouble their efforts to convince these people of the truth of suffering. If, on the other hand, Nirvana is unattainable for some due to such life circumstances as extreme poverty and degradation, then it would seem incumbent on Buddhists to work to eliminate such social evils and thus make Nirvana genuinely available to all.
One sometimes hears it said that in the absence of the doctrine of karma and rebirth (or some other doctrine promising ultimate retribution for immorality), people would have no reason to obey the dictates of conventional morality. But even if this were true, it is not clear why this would constitute a reason for Buddhists to espouse the doctrine. And in fact, Buddhists have good reason to reject this claim. On the basis of the doctrine of nonself it is possible to construct an argument for a general obligation to seek to prevent pain regardless of where it occurs. That is, the doctrine that is central to the Buddhist project may itself be used to support a basic duty of beneficence, arguably the core of all forms of conventional morality. So if it is essential for a spiritual path to provide some support to conventional morality, Buddhism can do so without reliance on the doctrine of karma and rebirth.
So far we have been discussing the central project of Buddhism as taught in early Buddhism and Abhidharma. I said earlier that the Mahayana teaching of the essenceless of the elements might complicate matters. In Madhyamaka this doctrine is taken to mean that the very notion of how things ultimately are is empty. So there is no ultimate fact of the matter as to whether reality is wholly physical, both physical and mental, or only mental in nature. According to Madhyamaka we should, however, embrace at the conventional level whatever account of the world best accords with successful practice. So if physicalism should turn out to cohere better with our going theories, then Madhyamaka would grant it the status of conventional truth.
It is with Yogacara [Vijñanavada] that real difficulties arise. For this school the doctrine of the essenceless of elements is taken to indicate their ultimate nature, specifically their ineffability. And while it would of course be a mistake to say that ineffable elements are mental in nature, Yogacara does claim that it would be nearer the truth to say that they are mental than that they are physical in nature. (Note: This is because for Yogacara the path to the realization of the ineffability of the real goes through the doctrine of impressions-only as a key stage: one first realizes that there could only be inner impressions and not external objects, then sees that the notion of the mental relies crucially on the distinction between “inner” and “outer”, and thus one abandons any attempt at characterizing the reals.) So this school’s views are incompatible with physicalism. And Yogacarins claim that their idealist teaching of impressions-only represents the most effective way of realizing the truth of nonself. If this is correct, then the Buddhist project is indeed incompatible with physicalism. But Abhidharmikas and Madhyamikas deny that embracing an idealist metaphysics is required in order to attain the fruit of the Buddha’s teachings. And there are interesting and complex arguments developed on all sides in this dispute.
Nagarjuna and Madhyamika Buddhism (from Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, by Prof. Karl H. Potter, 1963, Westport, Conn. 1976)
Nagarjuna, the most famous exponent of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, contends that there is no basis on which one can posit a dependence relation of the asymmmetrical sort sought by Vasubhandu and Dharmakirti. When the Buddha said that everything was interdependent he meant just what he said. He did not mean that some things depended on other things which were themselves independent, a theory which other philosophers, both Buddhist and Hindu, have espoused; he meant that all things are on a par, dependent on one another. Nagarjuna develops a rather unusual terminology for the status of all things. Since they are interdependent, he says, and since to depend on something else is to have no nature of one’s own (no svabhava, to use the technical Buddhist term), they must be without any nature, that is to say ‘void’ (shunya). Nagarjuna’s philosophy is frequently called shunyavada, the doctrine of the void.
Nagarjuna harps upon the concept of dependence. That which depends upon something else is less real than something else. This, argues Nagarjuna, is accepted by all philosophers. But all the other philosophers conclude that there must be some positive reality upon which other things depend but which does not depend on anything else.. Even among the Buddhists, the logicians think there are elements which do not depend on others but are depended on, and the idealist Yogacaras suppose that everything else depends on consciousness but not vice-versa. But these theories are all wrong, says Nagarjuna, and proceeds to show by a masterly dialectic that they are.
Is Nagarjuna a skeptic? No, since he allows that causality has a limited play: that is what the dialectic itself shows. Causality is what the dialectic demonstrates, since causality is interdependence. The skeptic, such as the materialistic Charvaka, does not even go so far as to admit the interdependence of things. Nagarjuna may with reason claim that if the empirical world were not ordered by the principle of dependent origination even the dialectic would fail. Nagarjuna is not anti-rational; in fact, he elevates reason to the position of the prime means of attaining freedom. Unlike skepticism, his is a philosophy of hope: we can achieve freedom by our own efforts, through remorseless application of the dialectic.
Yet freedom is release from the conceptual, for Nagarjuna as for all Buddhists. This seems to be an insoluble paradox. How can we free ourselves from the conceptual by indulging in a dialectical play which is conceptual through-and-through? The answer is that through application of the dialectical method we convince ourselves that everything is interdependent, and we develop a special kind of insight (prajña) into the void itself. This insight has no content, i.e. its content is the void. It is nonsensuous and nonconceptual, although it is rational in the sense that it is developed through a rational procedure.
The Nirvanic Realm, Here and Now (from Nagarjuna, A Translation of his Mulamadhyamakakarika, by Prof. Kenneth K. Inada, 1970, Delhi 1993)
It is sometimes said that Nagarjuna appeared at the right moment and at the right place in Buddhist history to provide the necessary corrective measures to Buddhist philosophical analysis of man’s nature and thereby initiated a ‘new’ movement within the Mahayana tradition. First of all, however, it must be remembered that he did not appear out of a vacuum but rather that he came after a long period of Buddhist activity in India proper. At least six or seven centuries had transpired between the historical Buddha (6th century B.C.) and Nagarjuna (circa 2nd-3rd centuries A.D.), a time in which Buddhists actively explored, criticized, and propagated the Buddhist truth. This is the period which produced the eighteen contending schools of the Abhidharmika system discussed earlier and also the time which saw the germs of the break in the interpretation of the nature of the summum bonum (Nirvana) between the Hinayana (inclusive of modern Theravada) and Mahayana traditions.
At the same time, secondly, it should be noted that the Mahayana tradition in its earliest phase, i.e. pre-Christian period, had already produced some of the most attractive and arresting thoughts in Buddhist history, thoughts which are considered most fundamental to all subsequent developments in the tradition. Sutras relative to this period concentrate on the universal and extensive sameness (samata, tathata) in the nature of man, his supreme wisdom (prajña) and compassion (karuna), all of which describe the concept of a bodhisattva or enlightened being. They expound ad infinitum the purity, beauty and ultimate rewards of the realization of this supreme realm of being in language which is at once esthetic, poetic and dramatic but which at times are painfully frustrating to the searching rational mind.
For example, the empirically oriented mind would not be able to accept and adapt simple identities of the order (or realm) of wordly (mundane) and unworldly (supermundane), empirical and nonempirical, common everyday life (Samsara) and uncommon enlightened life (Nirvana), pure (sukha) and impure (asukha), and finally, form (rupa) and emptiness (shunyata). In the final identity of form and emptiness, a climax in the ideological development is reached where the sutras, in particular the whole Prajñaparamita Sutras, elaborate on the point that all forms are in the nature of void (shunya). Thus, such forms in the nature of a sentient creature or being (sattva), a soul or vital force (jiva), a self (atman), a personal identity (pudgala) and separate ‘elements’ (dharmas) are all essentially devoid of any characterization (animitta, alaksana). The quest for voidness or emptiness is thoroughgoing with the aim being the nongrasping (agrahya) and at once the emptiness of the personal experiential components (pudgala-shunyata) and of the personal ideational components (dharma-shunyata). This is the final goal of the Nirvanic realm, here and now, without residues (anupadhishesa-nirvana-dhatu) and achievable to all.
Needless to say, the understanding of the above identities is the constant challenge and the most profound feature of the Mahayana, if not the whole Buddhist philosophy. Unquestionably, Nagarjuna was faithful to this lineage of ideas and he tried his hand in cristalizing the prevailing ideas. He came to bundle up the loosely spread ideas, so to speak, and gave a definite direction in the quest of man.
Buddhism is about Solving a Problem (from Taking Conventional Truth Seriously, by Jay L. Garfield, in Moonshadows – Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy, by The Cowherds, Oxford 2011)
Buddhism is about solving a problem – the problem of the omnipresence of suffering – and the central intuition of Buddhism is that the solution to that problem is the extirpation of ignorance. Epistemology is located at the foundation of morality and gets its point just from that location. The mechanism of the extirpation of ignorance is the competent use of our authorative epistemic instruments. What that use delivers is hence, at least indirectly, always of soteriological significance – always instrumental to liberation. Inasmuch as that is the central moral virtue, and inasmuch as epistemology is so tightly bound to the soteriological project, it is also the central epistemic virtue, and what we call the goal of epistemic activity is truth. Conventional truth is hence no to truth as blunderbusses are to buses or as fake guns are to real guns but rather is simply one kind of truth.
One of the Buddha’s deepest insights was that there are two truths and that they are very different from one another. They are the objects of different kinds of cognition, and they reflect different aspects of reality. They are apprehended at different stages of practice. Despite the importance of the apprehension of ultimate truth, one can’t skip the conventional. Despite the soteriological efficacy of ultimate truth, even after Buddhahood, omniscience and compassion require the apprehension of the conventional.
Nagarjuna’s deepest insight was that, despite the vast difference between the two truths in one sense, they are, in an equally important sense, identical. We can now make better sense of that identity and of why the fact of their identityis the same fact as that of their difference. Ultimate reality is, as we know, emptiness. Emptiness is the emptiness not of existence but of intrinsic existence. To be empty of intrinsic existence is to exist only conventionally, only as the object of conventional truth. The ultimate truth about any phenomenon, on this analysis, is hence that it is merely a conventional truth. Ontologically therefore, the two truths are absolutely identical. This is the content of the idea that the two truths have a single basis: That basis is empty phenomena.Their emptiness is their conventional reality; their conventional reality is their emptiness.
Nonetheless, to know phenomena conventionally is not to know them ultimately. As objects of knowledge – that is, as intentional contents of thought, as opposed to mere phenomena – they are objects of different kinds of knowledge despite the identity at a deeper level of those objects. Hence the difference. But the respect in which they are different and that in which they are identical are, despite their difference, also identical. A mirage is deceptive because it is a refraction pattern, and it is the nature of a refraction pattern to be visually deceptive. The conventional truth is merely deceptive and conventional because, upon ultimate analysis, it fails to exist as it appears – that is, because it is ultimately empty. It is the nature of the conventional to deceive. Ultimately, since all phenomena, even ultimate truth, exist only conventionally, conventional truth is all the truth there is, and that is an ultimate and therefore a conventional truth. To fail to take conventional truth seriously as truth is therefore not only to deprecate the conventional in favor of the ultimate but also the deprecate truth per se. That way lies suffering.
Introduction to Spinoza’s Ethics (from Prof. Stuart Hampshire’s Introduction to Prof. Edwin Curley’s translation of Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics, 1994, London 1996)
Spinoza begins his Ethics with arguments to prove that there must be a single self-subsistent substance, to be identified as ‘Deus sive Natura’, ‘God or Nature’, which is the cause, directly or indirectly, of all things, and which is self-created. This statement is a denial of the possibility of a transcendent creator, distinct from his creation, and a denial of the first principles of Judaism and of Christianity. God must be immanent in the natural order, the creator in its creation, if we are to avoid the incoherence of thinking of two substances in reality: a creator distinct from his creation. There could not have been an act of creation, as Jews and Christians claim that there has been; this would imply that God had reason to choose to create the actual world rather than other possible worlds. But what reason could there be other than the creator’s nature which made the actual world the only possible world? We must think of the natural order as the unfolding of God’s nature in accordance with eternal laws which consitute his essential nature. The origin of things is not to be found in an act of will, but rather in the rational order which constitutes God or Nature. These arguments for God’s immanence undermine the orthodox tradition of Western morality and metaphysics, and they remove the need for any intermediary between God and man in the form of a Church and of a priesthood. We do not need any privileged revelation of God’s intentions and we must not apply to God any part of the vocabulary that is applicable to finite human minds. […]
Spinoza was always denounced during his life, and for a century afterwards, as not only an atheist, but also as a materialist and a determinist: that is, he claimed that all things, including persons, are determined in their actions by the laws of physics. The phrase ‘Deus sive Natura’, ‘God or Nature’, gives a sense in which he was an atheist, but he was a materialist with a difference and also a determinist with a difference. Human beings do not have supernatural souls and their processes of thought are inseparably linked to bodily processes. This entails that, for every change in a human mind, which can be explained in psychological terms, there must be a replica in the body which is a change to be explained in the terms of physical laws. This seems a form of materialism. Our mental powers and our physical powers are indissolubly linked – but we can learn to understand the natural order, at least in part, sub specie aeternitatis, under its aspect as an eternal framework and system of natural laws. Our knowledge of the intellectual order of things will always be fragmentary, because our powers of mind are limited and the intellectual order is unlimited and infinite. This is materialism with a difference, because God or Nature is as much an intelligible system of thought as a system of material objects. Spinoza’s so-called determinism is the belief that all behaviour, whether of human beings or of other natural creatures, is to be explained by causes, but by causes of two contrasting kinds: causes that are eternally valid as explanations of their effects, and causes that are valid as explanations at a particular time and in particular circumstances. Any living thing’s desire to avoid pain and death is an example of a cause of the first kind: my desire to avoid my particular neighbour provides a cause of my behaviour which explains it within the common order of causes in nature and sub specie durationis. The first kind of explanation is a complete explanation and the statement of it is a necessary truth. The second kind of explanation is incomplete, because the chains of causes stretch back in time without limit and stopping-point in the common order of nature. Our knowledge of this second kind of cause must always be comparatively unreliable because imperfect. There is an absolute distinction in Spinoza’s philosophy between understanding some part of the intellectual order of things, which is knowledge of eternal truths, and the contrasting knowledge of things as they exist at a particular time in the common order of nature. Mathematics and the fundamental laws of physics (laws of motion) and laws of psychology (laws of thoughts) belong to the first category; the useful truths of medicine and of statecraft belong to the second category.
The Thought of Hinduism (from History and Future of Religious Thought, by Prof. Philip H. Ashby, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1963)
We have noted that very early, Indian thought was concerned with the question of order in the structure of existence. In their perception of the environment and their sensitivity to that which lay behind it, the early thinkers discerned a uniformity and pattern despite the sometimes chaotic external appearance of existence and events. There is a power, a law or unity of laws which constitutes the Order (rta, rita) of empirical existence. Like the Tao of Chinese thought, it is that Power which works in and through the universe of being, directing the individual powers and entities toward symmetry and meaning in their collective activities. And, while its working or movement may possibily be discernible to man, its purposes, or lack of them, are beyond man’s ultimate understanding.
In conjunction with the emergence of such thinking, there was a growing conviction that, behind all that is, is a Unity which includes within Itself that which appears, from the perspective of man, to be disparate and non-cohesive. In the early periods of beginning speculation this was limited mainly to a unification of the separate deities and their powers, but even at this early stage the unification was more in the nature of an identification wherein the individual deities were coming to be conceived not so much as distinct entities gathered together into a greater whole, but rather as one undivided Unity perceived by man in different aspects or functions.
With the coalescence of the conception of Order (rta, rita) with the conviction of a Unity (Brahman), there was a resultant flowering of the belief in a divine order and propriety of things, a Dharma which extends to all existence and beings. And while the word Dharma has many meanings and usages, each of them conveys, at least in part, the thought of a transcendental, yet imminent and all encompassing imperative norm inherent in the structure of existence. The empirical realm has its Dharma, all sentient life has its Dharma, and man in particular has his Dharma as an individual and as a member of society. This Dharma flows from the absolute Unity which is at the beginning, middle, and end of all things. It is a norm which is integrally inherent in its Source (Brahman) and is not to be conceived as separate from It. It is of the nature of the Unity behind the apparent diversity of existence that It, in Itself, gives to the universe of being a structure, a pattern, a telos.
We must be careful to note here that such Order is not to be considered as necessarily meaningful or conformable to human standards. Human perceptions of order are derivable from this inherent structure, but the structure is not to be appraised by anything other than itself. The value of the Order, therefore, its goodness or its evil, is not a legitimate matter for speculation or question. The Order is what It is, and because of It, there is that which is proper and improper, valuable and non-valuable. The given is good, in a metaphysical sense, simply because it is given. There is nothing else that is possible since all potentiality is embodied in the given.
The Ethics of Fundamental Consciousness (from The Enlightenment Process, by Judith Blackstone, Rockport, Mass. 1997)
Our true relationship with the universe contains an inherent ethical perspective. As we realize that our own essential being is a dimension of consciousness that is also the esssential being of all other life, we feel an underlying kinship with everyone we meet. We can use the metaphor of a musical instrument. If we are all basically pianos, even if we meet a piano playing a tune quite different than our own, we can feel in our being the potential to play his tune also. When we know our self as the pervasive ground of life, we have learned the basic language of all beings, including animals and plants. In this shared field of fundamental consciousness, we do not need to adopt a static attitude of goodwill that obscures the richness of our feelings and the directness of our contact with our self and others. To actually experience the heart of a bird, or the subtle awareness of a tree, or the complex emotions in another person, evokes a spontaneous response of empathy and compassion.
There is also a more subtle manifestation of ethics in fundamental consciousness. This is expressed in the Sanskrit word dharma. In Buddhist tradition, this word has several connotations. It means the Buddhist metaphysical understanding of the universe and enlightenment, the teaching of this understanding, and the living of this understanding. The direct translation of ‘dharma’ is ‘justice’. To live dharmically is to practice the justice of enlightenment. But this practice is not a preconceived set of behaviours. It is the alignment of oneself with the metaphysical laws of the universe and the great benevolence inherent in those laws. To the extent that we have realized fundamental consciousness, we are unified with the wisdom and love of the whole, and with the spontaneous unwinding towards enlightenment of all forms in creation. In this dimension, our own choices of action are the choices of the universe, and all our actions serve the progression towards enlightenment of all life, including our own. We do not have to shame ourselves into doing good works. Our own truth will benefit the truth of the life around us.
The idea that we can be aligned with the will of God also exists in Western religion. In Judaism, there is the concept of the mitzvah, which has a range of meaning from a good deed to a general attitude of justness and benevolence towards others. Jewish scholar Abraham J. Heschel writes: “Every act done in agreement with the will of God is a mitzvah”. Hassidic writer Reb Zalman Schachter defines mitzvah as “the divine will doing itself through the vehicle of the now egoless devotee”. Christian interpreter Maurice Nicoll writes: “When Good comes first, a man acts from mercy and grace. Then he is made Whole. When he is Whole, he no longer misses the mark”. In this quote we have the idea that the individual becomes whole by being good. And we have the more subtle idea, very similar to the Buddhist idea of dharma, that he is now right on target, that he does not ‘miss the mark’. That mark is the action that benefits everyone involved.