The Buddha’s Conception of the Universe (Warder)

The Buddha’s Conception of the Universe (from Outline of Indian Philosophy, by Prof. A. K. Warder, 1956, 1960, 1964, Delhi 1971)

The Buddha’s conception of the universe is thus of natural and impersonal forces and processes, of conditions and phenomena, transient, with no enduring substances. It is not correct to speak of persons ‘who’ do things, but only of events which occur. It is enough to describe the ‘qualities’ (a possible translation of ‘dharma’, which we have otherwise translated ‘phenomena’) and the conditions under which they appear. There is no justification for assuming any substance, not definable apart from these qualities, in addition to the qualities we observe. This is a conception of the universe which is de-personified, de-anthropomorphised, a collection of natural forces and phenomena to be described without postulating any unnecessary entities, or in fact any entities at all, only the minimum of observable qualities. It is a thoroughly empiricist conception. It implies a whole critique, an analysis, of metaphysical concepts (such as ‘soul’), worked out in detail by later Buddhist philosophers, and of metaphysical statements (such as ‘the universe is eternal’). No doubt in many of the texts the language of the ordinary people of India is used, with its ‘persons’ and its popular conceptions of all kinds. But this is popular preaching for the sake of teaching moral precepts to ordinary people, in language they can understand; we are expressly told in the properly philosophical, or we might say scientific, texts, that to be accurate we must drop the personifications of everyday language: if taken literally, such personifications will lead to untenable metaphysical extremes such as an eternal, and therefore unchanging, soul, or the annihilation of a soul which persisted for a lifetime only. Nirvana, finally, is not the annihilation of a soul, or the release of a soul, it is simply the cessation of a process, of a sequence of events.

The Doctrine of Pratitya-samutpada (Narain)

The doctrine of pratitya-samutpada (from The Madhyamika Mind, by Prof. Harsh Narain, Delhi 1997)

The doctrine of universal relativity (pratitya-samutpada) is the stepping stone to the doctrine of sunyata. The knowledge of the former at once leads to the knowledge of the latter. Their relation is so intimate that Nagarjuna has no hesitation in identifying the two. He observes, “What is relativity we call sunyata. It [sunyata] is relative being (upadaya prajñapti). It is the middle path”. This proposition is pregnant with implications. The Madhyamika turned pratitya-samutpada, literally and originally conditioned/dependent origination, into pratitya-samutpada as dependent or relative being, as relativity. He had better replace the term with pratitya-samutpapada. In this sense, however, he expresses pratitya-samutpada otherwise as upadaya-prañapti (relative appearance, relative being, relativity). In fact, pratitya-samutpada, which emerged in the Pali canon as a theory of causation, became at the Madhyamika´s hands tantamount to a veritable denial of causation. Indeed, Nagarjuna´s verdict is that what has come into being through causes and conditions has in fact not come into being at all, and, since it has not come into being, it is sunya, void, pure and simple. It is significant that Candrakirti interprets pratitya-samutpada to mean ´non-origination by nature´ (svabhavenanutpadah).

Nagarjuna’s suggestion is that his denial of the world does not imply belief in another order of reality like the Absolute, immanent in or transcendent to phenomena. It is quite in conformity to the spirit of the Prajñaparamita texts, which refuse to set sunyata over against the dharmas and to acknowledge positive knowledge of any such reality in the highest wisdom conceived by them. Nagarjuna himself expresses the view that sunyata is nothing other than existents and that there is no existent without sunyata. Advayavajra follows suit. Prajñakaramati expresses himself categorically against the attempt to install sunyata over against the realm of being: “Sunyata is not different from being, for being itself is of the nature of that; otherwise, in the event of sunyata’s being different from being, there would be no essencelessness of the dharmas.”

More Questions and Answers

question Do you not agree that the vast common ground shared by all people without exception everywhere is predominantly secular? Is it not crucial to develop awareness in society of this fact so that it may become the universally accepted basis for conflict prevention and resolution all over the world?

answer The common ground shared by all ‘isms’ is indeed essentially secular or non-religious. Whether they admit to it or not, all religions and beliefs contain and share a very large secular, nonmetaphysical component. Take, say, the universal struggle against evil, caring for our children or, more simply, eating. We must all eat, whatever our religion or belief. The need to eat, the biological requirement to nourish ourselves, obviously belongs to the neutral common ground of all people without exception. Now, some people say grace before eating. Clearly, only this ritual of saying grace can be said to belong in any way legitimately to the particular religious belief involved, but certainly not the basic need to eat as such. The universal need to eat pertains entirely to the shared secular component we speak of, and it is in our view quite presumptuous for any religion to interfere with this natural human necessity and others, like clothing and sexuality, which all obviously belong unconditionally to the whole of existence. (cf. radical mediocrity)

We therefore say ‘First our common ground, then our religion or belief’, and the ten principles underpinning all our Foundation’s initiatives all essentially belong to, and sustain, the common ground we speak of. They are, for your ready reference, the following unequivocal principles of (1) the secular state; (2) a multicultural society; (3) liberal democratic government; (4) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (5) gender equality and education for all; (6) fair trading and sharing; (7) non-violence and peace; (8) Common Ground conflict resolution; (9) the care for health and environment; and (10) international cooperation and solidarity.

question The human community cannot reclaim its common ground until it can move religion completely off of the property. The various religions of the world are sitting directly on top of it, having hijacked the common ground from its rightful owners. I am referring to the community property of morality and ethics and to the common cause and condition that is fully addressed by the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path and The Four Signs of Being of Buddhism and certain other secular sources of practical wisdom.

answer Though officially less radical than you, deep in his heart the writer could not agree more – what religion as the main rationale for the present socio-economic organisation of humanity is doing to his beautiful world, to the only world we have, is a source of much pain to him. Nevertheless, he of course accepts and supports that, as stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; that this right includes freedom to change his or her religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his or her religion or belief in teaching, worship and observance’. When we speak of a multicultural society we indeed mean one freely allowing cultural and religious pluralism and diversity of choice.

question What is ‘radical mediocrity’?

answer La condition humaine postmoderne (Henk Oosterling), utopia vulgaris (John Willemsens). Radical mediocrity, as we understand the term, is our common ground with the cultural overlay caused by our dependency on modern media (tools and appliances, travel, communication, and access to information) which stifles our individuality and, with it, our critical ability. Some see the concept ‘radical mediocrity’ more positively, as having a potential for a new kind of person, an ‘interbeing’ or ‘zwischenmensch’, a ‘dividual’, instead of an ‘individual’, the challenge being to uncover and develop the spiritual and creative dimension of such a postmodern society – the core of radical mediocrity would be affirmative because ‘we want to be connected to all others’. (cf. Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching, which propounds the opposite.)

The term “dukkha” in Buddhism (Law)

The term “dukkha” in Buddhism (from Concepts of Buddhism, by Bimala Churn Law, Amsterdam 1937) The term dukkha is taken in Buddhism in a most comprehensive sense so as to include in it danger, disease, waste and all that constitutes the basis or cause of suffering. In the terminology of one of the earliest thinkers of Buddha’s time, sukha (pleasure) and dukkha (pain) were conceived as two distinct principles, one of attraction, integration or concord and the other of repulsion, disintegration or discord. Considered in this light, sukha was taken to be the principle of harmony and dukkha, that of discord. In the medical texts roga or disease which is just an instance of dukkha is defined as that condition of the self, the physical self, when the different organs do not function together in harmony and which are attended with a sense of uneasiness. And arogya or health, the opposite of disease, is defined as that condition of the self when all the organs function together in harmony and are attended with a sense of ease. Thus the problem of dukkha is essentially rooted in the feeling of discord or disparity. Birth, decay, or death is not in itself dukkha or suffering. These are only a few contingencies in human experience which upset the expectations of men. From the point of view of mind, dukkha is just a vedana or feeling which is felt by the mind either in respect of the body or in respect of itself, and as a feeling, it is conditioned by certain circumstances. In the absence of these circumstances there is no possibility of its occurrence. Whether a person is affected by dukkha or not depends on the view he takes of things. If the course of common reality be that being once in life, one can not escape either decay or death, and if the process of decay sets in or death actually takes place, there is no reason why that person should be subject to dukkha by trying to undo what cannot be undone. Thus dukkha is based upon misconstruction of the dhammata or law of things or the way of happening in life. If the order of things cannot be changed, two courses are open to individuals to escape from dukkha: (1) to view and accept the order as it is, and (2) to enquire if there is any state of citta or consciousness, on attaining to which an individual is no longer affected by the [common] vicissitudes of life. The Buddhist answer to this enquiry is that there is such a state of consciousness.