In my metaphysics courses, I am currently teaching Buddhist thought. I find Buddhism powerfully attractive due to its emphasis on living a life characterized by non-hurtfulness, compassion, and the diminution of suffering. While one might be able to do all sorts of conceptual contortions to show that such concepts are present throughout the history of Western thought, it’s my view that these concepts are almost entirely absent. The closest one comes is the thought of the Epicureans and the Stoics, yet even there, while we get an emphasis on diminishing suffering (though not in that language), we don’t encounter much in the way of discussion of anything resembling a discussion of either compassion or non-hurtfulness. And here it should be understood that the diminution of suffering, and the pursuit of compassion and non-hurtfulness is restricted not simply to the human, but to existence in general. In my view, we need to make a place for these values. This is the way it is with most ethical philosophies: They boil down to the exhortation or imperative “don’t be an asshole!” It’s a shame that generally moralists are the biggest assholes of all. So it goes with the narcissism that ethical thought often invites despite itself.
Now, I’m just easing my way into various strains of Eastern thought (I’m nearly a complete virgin), so please go easy on me. However, my hunch is that the ethical system of Buddhist thought follows almost directly from the metaphysical of conditioned genesis. What, then, is conditioned genesis? The term “conditioned” should be understood, I think, as a verb, “to condition”. Something conditions something else when it affects that way through some sort of action. “Genesis”, of course, refers to the production of something. Thus, for example, when you cook dinner at night, you are engaged in an act of genesis that produces a meal. When the two terms are put together, you get the thesis that all entities are a product of their interactions with other entities. Contrast the wine grape approached in an Aristotlean manner from the wine grape approached in a Buddhist way. The Aristotlean would focus on the qualities of the grape: it is purple, round, has such and such a taste, etc. The Buddhist wouldn’t reject these qualities, but rather than drawing our attention towards the object taken in isolation would instead direct our attention outward, focusing on the relationships and interactions of the grape. Hence the Buddhist would attend to the soil conditions, the sunlight, the weather conditions, the other plants in the region, the smog of California, the animals and the insects that contribute to producing these particular qualities.
The concept of conditioned genesis thus leads to a few conclusions as to the nature of reality or what being qua being is. First, it leads to the conclusion that there are no individuals in isolation, but rather that reality is a web or fabric in which all entities are interconnected and interactive. The metaphor of reality as a “web” should be taken rather literally. When you encounter a spider web, if you pull one thread, the rest of the threads come with it. It is impossible to isolate one thread from all the other threads. They are all entangled with one another. So it follows, as a consequence, that nothing is the origin of itself. To be sure, discrete entities contribute something to their becoming, but they are never entirely their own authors. Second, as a consequence it is already a bit of a misnomer to speak of selves and things. Because beings belong to a fabric, mesh, or web of relations, authoriship is already and necessarily a complex event. Thus, for example, I am only one element in the writing of this post. This post is also necessarily authored by Morton (who’s pushed me to look more into Eastern thought), the texts I’ve read, the other things that have impacted me in my life, this computer, the internet, etc., etc., etc. Only a madman, as Lacan elsewhere suggests, would ever think she is the author of anything. Finally, third, insofar as being is interactive (conditioned genesis is, above all, a thesis about causality), it follows that for every event on the part of one object, this event produces reactions or effects in all other things. Those reactions or effects, in their turn, as events, produce effects and reactions in everything else. Thus, being or existence is necessarily characterized by ceaseless becoming.
One major source of our suffering is the desire to hold on to things as fixed and enduring. What Gotama shows, if he’s right, is that becoming is a necessary and unavoidable metaphysical truth. In the order of desire, there are thus two ways in which we suffer, deeply connected to the nature of time. One has to do with nostalgia or a relationship to the past. If we mourn over the loss of a past– a past that, as Proust suggested, was very likely never present –then the world of the present turns to ashes and becomes bland as it necessarily resembles the loss of this past. Will I someday curse the world because it is no longer the world that existed when my daughter was four? Will I therefore be unable to take joy in my daughter or the world in the present? Such is the suffering produced by nostalgia. By contrast, we can suffer our future. By imagining a future that would be abiding– what is known as utopianism –we come to see everything in the present as deficient.
From Gotama’s point of view, both of these psychic structures are forms of foolishness precisely because being is necessarily characterized by ceaseless becoming. As a consequence, nostalgia for the past– like that found in the character of the uncle in Napoleon Dynamite –is foolishness because nothing can ever remain as it is, but is doomed to necessarily passing away (Gotama is the ultimate anti-Platonist). Likewise, utopianism towards the future is foolishness because it is metaphysically impossible to produce an abiding present that wouldn’t be subject to the order of becoming. We can see that the political difference between the left and the right largely maps on to different temporal attitudes. The right mourns for a past that has been lost and that must be reproduced in the present, while the left aims at world of being free of becoming in the future that would be fixed and abiding. Both end up concluding that the present is crap because it is neither the idyllic past or the hopeful future.
This is my take, anyway, of what the Buddhist are getting at with the four noble truths and the eightfold way. Now Morton has been writing a great deal lately about overlap between OOO and Buddhist thought. It is here that we get at the issue of squaring the circle. My question to Morton– and I do not pose it in an antagonistic spirit, by any means –is how it is possible to square the circle of endorsing the autonomy or independence of substances as OOO does, with the thesis of conditioned genesis? How is it possible to think these two things together. One of the aims of the eightfold way, I take it, is to abolish both the conception of self and things, so as to encounter reality as an anonymous fabric or web of interactive relationships. Yet this is precisely what OOO cannot do, for OOO insists on the irreducibility of substances in the sense described in my prior post today. Consequently, if we’re to go the Buddhist route Timothy is proposing, we require some substantial metaphysical revisions that both do justice to relation and substance. I am eager to hear how Morton squares this circle and am deeply sympathetic to the project. Another way of putting the question would be to ask what it means to be Buddhist when one abandons the idea that it means overcoming self and things.
I apologize to Ian for writing so many posts today.