Reality, a process: Interdependence, Emptiness and Physics

At a teaching I attended in 2002, the Dalai Lama said that the principle of “dependent origination is the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism.”

bodhi-treeIndeed, it is. In one of the versions of the Buddha’s crucial night of analytical discovery via meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree, it is precisely dependent origination that he realized.  This analysis is a core teaching and the foundation for the philosophy of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school and nearly the entire Mahayana tradition.

In early Buddhism, dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada) was primarily used to explain the law of causation, the chain of cause, effect, and conditioning:

Ignorance > Karma > Consciousness > Name-Form > Senses > Contact > Feeling > Craving > Grasping > Becoming > Old age and death > Rebirth

The fundamental state of being is ignorance, conditioned by the imprints or seeds of past actions, habits and relationships (karma), which gives rise to consciousness, which is joined to name-form (the psycho-physical entity, specifically the embryo in the womb), which activates the six-senses; the senses come into contact with objects of desire and as a result, feeling, craving and grasping arise; these factors cause and condition the becoming of life and all that is becoming (existing) is subject to old age and death, and with the theory of rebirth, everything is set to be repeated in a future life, a continuum of consciousness within an seemingly endless cycle of birth and death.

By the time the Mahayana tradition was established, the focus of the analysis was less on how things come to be and more about how nothing can exist by itself, that everything is interconnected and inter-related. This is one reason why I prefer to describe pratitya-samutpada as interdependence. Dependent origination or dependent arising sounds too much like a form of creationism.

For Nagarjuna, the architect of Madhyamaka philosophy, interdependence was synonymous with emptiness (sunyata). In one respect, Nagarjuna’s teachings were a response and rejection of earlier Buddhist teachings presented in the Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali), texts that contained detailed analyses of dharmas or “things”, which became the theoretical foundation for the Buddhist conception of reality. In the Abhidharma view, individuals are empty of “self”, but dharmas have own-being (svabhava). These dharmas are the building blocks of the universe and while they have only a momentary duration, their nature is fixed and irreducible. This concept projected a reality that was particle-like, similar to the Newton/Cartesian view of reality. In science, quantum physics deconstructed that view. In Buddhism, it was the Prajna-Paramita sutras and the commentaries by Nagarjuna which destroyed the Abhidharma view.

The true nature of reality (paramarthasatya) can be termed as the “emptiness of own-being” (svabhava-sunyata) and “interdependency” (pratitya-samutpada). Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka’s taught that neither an individual nor dharma have an own-being that exists by its own right.

In a recent post, I mentioned the Sanskrit word parikalpita, meaning imaginary or the “imagined.” The Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms defines it as “Counting everything as real, the way of the unenlightened; The nature of the unenlightened, holding to the tenet that everything is calculable or reliable, i.e. is what it appears to be.” Paraikapita is one of the three natures (tri-svabhava) that imagines a duality between subject and object. This imagined reality is an illusion, a thought construction superimposed on the true reality. Like a veil, it conceals the truth of emptiness/interdependency and all we see in our ordinary experience is an apparent reality, in which things appear to exist by their own right and seem to possess a nature or being that is permanent, independent, unconditioned and designed.

Mu Soeng Sunim in his book Heart Sutra Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality, gives us a glimpse into how emptiness and interdependency compare to modern physics:

Energy, whether of wave of particle, is associated with activity, with dynamic change. Thus the core of the universe – whether we see it as the heart of the atom or our own consciousness – is not static but in a state of constant and dynamic change. This energy – now wave, now particle – infuses each and every form at the cellular level. No form exists without being infused by this universal energy; form and energy interpenetrate each other endlessly in a ever-changing dance of the molecules, creating our universe. This universal energy is itself a process . . .”

In this way, we could also say that reality is a process.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, any duality between subject and object is considered to be imagined (parikalpita again); there is no independently existing ‘experiencer’ apart from the experience, and experience can be also designated as a process. As Sumin notes, in the world of subatomic physics there are no objects, only processes. Atoms consist of particles but these particles are literally empty.

2001a2So, we are aware now that reality is not particle-like but more like the nature of space. The common idea of space is an empty three-dimensional area. But there is no empty space (if by empty space, one means nothingness), space is actually permeated with an impalpable continuum. But the three dimensional aspect we perceive is somewhat of an illusion, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is not the full reality. Not long ago some researchers, attempting to find a solution to the puzzle of space-time dimensionality, using a supercomputer, found that when the universe was created by the Big Bang, it had 10 dimensions – 9 spatial and 1 temporal – but only 3 of the spatial dimensions expanded. As I understand it, since only 3 dimensions expanded, and ours is an expanding universe, this accounts for the appearance that we live in a 3 dimensional reality. As Shakespeare said, “there are more things in the universe than are dreamt of in your science books.” Or, something like that.

One of the great benefits of Buddhism is that it helps us to see things as they are without having to become physicists, and we are encouraged to consider the possibility of seeing things differently, from various angles. Nothing is fixed, static. Many people tend to equate emptiness with nothingness. A better way to look at it is to think of emptiness as an expanse, particularly an expanse of mind, for one aspect of emptiness is that it means awareness, it is the penetrating insight into the actual nature of reality. Since Buddhism is also concerned with the problem of suffering, it’s helpful to view it as an expanse as well. Lex Hixon, in The Mother of the Buddhas, writes,

The relative truth of existence is that it is an expanse of suffering beings, a condition which is the motivation for the precious Mahayana commitment to universal conscious awakening. This relative truth of suffering must not be swallowed up, even subtly, by the absolute truth that Reality is an inherently selfless expanse, empty space, intrinsically peaceful.”

2001bAwareness is an expanse and like the universe, it should be ever expanding. That is why I don’t accept anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, “supreme perfect enlightenment.” If awareness is not static, then neither is enlightenment; it too is a process.

Finally, interdependency or pratitya-samutpada – the insubstantiality, the interconnectedness, the expansiveness of reality – is not only the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism, it is also the ground of the diverse world. Emptiness is the cause of interdependency and emptiness is not only a synonym for interdependence, it is also a synonym for something else:

That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its saha (mundane) nature is itself Nirvana in its unconditioned (ultimate) nature.”

– Nagarjuna, “Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra”


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