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Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Ditching the Raft 2: Interdependence

So here’s the nutshell: the one concept that links everything together in Buddhism and is the ‘unified foundational theory of reality’ (which I never made explicit in the last article) is INTERDEPENDENCE. It links everything together from the smallest quarks to the largest objects in the Universe, and it connects the ‘inner world’ of personal experience with the mezo-level complexity of the social world and ecosystems, with ‘outer world’ of the cosmos. Interdependence is the impetus for our sense of responsibility and the measure of our ethical response. Interdependence, or dependent origination, is the pattern of existence, the pattern of reality at every scale. It is ‘non-self’, in that everything that exists is made up in its constituent parts of—and dependent for its existence on—things which are ‘not self’. This is also, as Nagarjuna said, the essential meaning of ’emptiness’ or shunyata.

But no more Emptiness for me. Emptiness is a useless concept. It does, literally, nothing, except act as an escape clause, a spiritual bypass for people who don’t want to feel responsible for anything. It requires too much arguing for or arguing against, too much explanation, too much haggling, and it yields, literally, nothing. It’s useless—and just because historically it’s been an important Buddhist concept, doesn’t mean that I have to use it or give it another thought. So what. Be gone, emptiness. Ditch that part of the raft for good.

If as Nagarjuna argues, ’emptiness’ is essentially interdependence, then just use interdependence. It does a lot more work as a concept and is highly productive, yielding many more concepts and connections.

With interdependence, I can link together all the scientific theories of ecology and systems theory, with sympoiesis and autopoiesis, with evolution and psychology and culture, with physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and all the rest. Interdependence is a pattern-concept that connects everything. It connects the inner and outer worlds. It is the foundation for ethics, and it helps us understand why we suffer: because we are interdependent, dependent on others for survival and nurturing, for social bonding, and when those bonds are abusive or damaged, we are traumatized and we suffer. It explains suffering, and it also explains how to relieve suffering: heal the trauma and reactivity in meditation, and connect with other people—create a healthy, loving and compassionate interdependence.

The other so-called ‘marks of existence’ are also useful: impermanence is essential, because it explains that everything is changing. Non-self we have already explained as interdependence. And suffering, or dukkha, as I have written elsewhere, is best translated as ‘insecurity’. Because things are impermanent, we are insecure; we can’t rely on anything or anyone to ‘be there’ forever. We use things up, we run out of stuff. The people we depend on move away or die. Thus suffering, or ‘dukkha’ is our existential insecurity, that there is nothing we can truly rely on, our ‘groundlessness’ as Pema Chodron would say. But insecurity is just a result of impermanence. So the governing principle is impermanence because it’s an essential feature of reality at every scale.

Because everything is interdependent, everything I do affects everything and everyone else (karma). This is clear from the science of ecology and climate change. Thus, I have an ethical responsibility of ‘non-harming’, ahimsa. This is a core ethical principle that is derived from the foundational principle of interdependence. However, it’s a negative, i.e. non-harming. Its positive counterpart is compassion, or care. I care for the suffering and well-being of everyone because I’m part of them and they are part of me—again, interdependence.

I also don’t need rebirth, because at this point, it’s scientifically foolish to entertain the notion. Who cares if I’m ‘reborn’ as some other being? What difference does it make? Those are parts of the raft I can ditch for good.

So I have some useful Buddhist concepts: interdependence and impermanence, and their associated ethics: ahimsa and care. I don’t need rebirth or emptiness. The rest of the stuff is optional. All I really need is interdependence. It’s the one unifying and foundational concept for everything. Which is exactly what Buddha supposedly said when he awakened to dependent origination.

No Gods, No Masters.

If all I really need from Buddhism is interdependence, upon which I can hang and string together any number of dharmas, theories and practices, then I can let go of the rest. Just because I use one or two tools in the toolbox, doesn’t mean I’m compelled to use them all. I use what I need when I need it. With just interdependence and impermanence, suddenly the whole burden of dharma seems much lighter.

I most certainly don’t need a Buddhist institution of any kind. And I don’t need teachers or lamas or gurus.  I can ditch those parts of the raft as well.

Interdependence. Succinct and elegant.

 

 

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3 comments on “Ditching the Raft 2: Interdependence

  1. Shaun Bartone
    2019/07/09

    [Holopoiesis] The issue with abandoning emptiness in favor of dependent origination is that the latter ceases to become fully understood without its necessary counterpart. Prasangika-Madhyamikas criticize the Svatantrika-Madhyamikas who tend to do something similar and equate emptiness with dependent origination. What happens when you equate dependent origination with emptiness, such that you are left with either emptiness or dependent origination alone, is that you reify whichever side you end up privileging. In the case that you are left with dependent origination, like with the Svatantrikas, one ends up subtly positing dependent origination *itself* as inherently existing with own-being or svabhava, which contradicts the truth of emptiness. This contradicts Nagarjuna’s statement that the two truths (of emptiness and dependent origination) is itself empty of inherent existence and is merely a conventional truth. So dependent origination, or “interdependence,” is *not* the final truth or meaning of the Buddha’s teaching. There patently is *no* final truth or meaning, which is to say that the Buddha’s teaching is empty of inherent existence, which is to say that the Buddha’s teaching is interdependent with the search for truth and meaning.

    The thing with the two truths is that they were developed simultaneously and for each other, much like how the form of a hammer and a nail are constructed with each other in mind. What becomes of a hammer with no nails, and what becomes a nail with no hammers? We become lost as to what they are useful for. Sure, we can just use a hammer as an axe and a nail as a sharp stick…but then the question becomes, why not just use an axe or a sharp stick?

    The inability to separate dependent origination from emptiness is subtly revealed at the end of your post, where you retain interdependence alongside impermanence. But emptiness is merely the unification of the three marks of impermanence (anicca), unease (dukka), and indeterminacy or non-self (anatta). Or said differently, emptiness is the reason for the three marks.

    I think I understand your intentions. Buddhist dharma, especially with its reception in the West, can become just another authoritarian means to subjugate, domesticate and passify its followers, especially with appeals to transcendent mystical states or difficult to comprehend technical terms. Yet if we remember that dharma is empty of inherent existence, and that dharma is dependent upon its context, then the issue is not the dharma itself but the socio-political contexts within which it is embedded, and within which it is interpreted. So your own flavor of the dharma, one which takes bits and pieces and abandons all the rest, is dependent upon the prevailing socio-political and economic context in which people with spiritual inclinations reject the need to establish themselves in a lineage or tradition in favor of a personalized system composed from disparate elements from a whole bunch of different systems. The result amounts to bricolage, where seemingly unrelated parts merely sit next to one another, rather than an integrated system of mutually entangled and mutually coordinating parts.

    I am afraid to say, but from the Prasangika system, it is impossible to separate emptiness from dependent origination. In order to pretend that one can, one has a deficient conception of the meaning of either. A full understanding of one can only be ascertained by way of the full understanding of either. This may appear as impossible, because if I don’t know one, how can I know the other? This is why the path is a gradual process. Gradually and incrementally, we understand each, and eventually our knowledge is great enough that our understanding becomes an instant realization (but of course, not yet the final realization).

  2. Shaun Bartone
    2019/07/09

    In reply to:The issue with abandoning emptiness in favor of dependent origination is that the latter ceases to become fully understood without its necessary counterpart. Prasangika-Madhyamikas criticize the Svatantrika-Madhyamikas who tend to do something similar and equate emptiness with dependent origination. What happens when you equate dependent origination with emptiness, such that you are left with either emptiness or dependent origination alone, is that you reify whichever side you end up privileging. In the case that you are left with dependent origination, like with the Svatantrikas, one ends up subtly positing dependent origination *itself* as inherently existing with own-being or svabhava, which contradicts the truth of emptiness. This contradicts Nagarjuna’s statement that the two truths (of emptiness and dependent origination) is itself empty of inherent existence and is merely a conventional truth. So dependent origination, or “interdependence,” is *not* the final truth or meaning of the Buddha’s teaching. There patently is *no* final truth or meaning, which is to say that the Buddha’s teaching is empty of inherent existence, which is to say that the Buddha’s teaching is interdependent with the search for truth and meaning. The thing with the two truths is that they were developed simultaneously and for each other, much like how the form of a hammer and a nail are constructed with each other in mind. What becomes of a hammer with no nails, and what becomes a nail with no hammers? We become lost as to what they are useful for. Sure, we can just use a hammer as an axe and a nail as a sharp stick…but then the question becomes, why not just use an axe or a sharp stick? The inability to separate dependent origination from emptiness is subtly revealed at the end of your post, where you retain interdependence alongside impermanence. But emptiness is merely the unification of the three marks of impermanence (anicca), unease (dukka), and indeterminacy or non-self (anatta). Or said differently, emptiness is the reason for the three marks. I think I understand your intentions. Buddhist dharma, especially with its reception in the West, can become just another authoritarian means to subjugate, domesticate and passify its followers, especially with appeals to transcendent mystical states or difficult to comprehend technical terms. Yet if we remember that dharma is empty of inherent existence, and that dharma is dependent upon its context, then the issue is not the dharma itself but the socio-political contexts within which it is embedded, and within which it is interpreted. So your own flavor of the dharma, one which takes bits and pieces and abandons all the rest, is dependent upon the prevailing socio-political and economic context in which people with spiritual inclinations reject the need to establish themselves in a lineage or tradition in favor of a personalized system composed from disparate elements from a whole bunch of different systems. The result amounts to bricolage, where seemingly unrelated parts merely sit next to one another, rather than an integrated system of mutually entangled and mutually coordinating parts. I am afraid to say, but from the Prasangika system, it is impossible to separate emptiness from dependent origination. In order to pretend that one can, one has a deficient conception of the meaning of either. A full understanding of one can only be ascertained by way of the full understanding of either. This may appear as impossible, because if I don’t know one, how can I know the other? This is why the path is a gradual process. Gradually and incrementally, we understand each, and eventually our knowledge is great enough that our understanding becomes an instant realization (but of course, not yet the final realization).
    Hi holopoiesis: I appreciate your very sophisticated and nuanced Buddhist argument about Madhyamika, and here I will give my first response. I no longer accept any Buddhist argument about the existence or non-existence of objects or the nature of reality. For me, the only reliable proof is science, esp. physical science. Why? Because physical science can be proven with experiments. This is a ‘materialist’ approach, but I have found it to be a way out the conceptual morass that is Madhyamika–which btw is nothing but ‘concepts’ and ‘views.’ The physical science we have today explains this issue far better than Buddhism ever could, although, nice try guys–you did the best you could without the science. Physics tells us that ‘matter’, indeed the universe itself, is mostly empty, that is, consisting almost entirely of empty space. But it is not totally empty. There is no scientific experiment that has ever proven or partially substantiated the idea that ‘everything is empty.’ In fact, I just heard a lecture by Sean Carroll the other day in which he said that the experimental science on the voidness of the vacuum of space, which would determine whether it contained any energy at all, showed that it is not completely empty. The expectation was that a vacuum would be completely empty of any energy. However, they found that though it was extremely small, it was a non-zero sum. So even a vacuum of space is not completely empty. In fact, other experiments show that vacuums of space are roiling with ‘virtual’ particles that pop in and out of existence all the time. The basic model of the atom shows that the amount of space between the nucleus and the electrons is vast (on that scale), and that atoms are mostly–but not completely–empty. Carroll’s lecture (Beyond Dark Matter and Dark Energy) had a pie chart showing that 5% of of the Universe is matter consisting of every particle ever discovered, 25% is Dark Matter, and the other 70% is Dark Energy. So although ‘reality’ is mostly empty, it is not completely empty.

    The first goal of ‘ditching the raft’ is to replace uninformed Buddhist philosophy with science. Science tells me the nature of reality, not Buddhism. Even the Dalai Lama said that where science offers a better explanation, we go with science, not Buddhism. But as I argued in my essay, science only explains the ‘outer’ world, but it says little or nothing about the ‘inner’ world. Furthermore, the real genius of Buddhism is how it connects the inner and outer worlds of experience. So you’ll get Sean Carroll and other scientists talking about their sense of ‘awe and wonder’ about the universe, but that does not connect it with either an ethics or a path of personal development, which is what Buddhism does. That’s what Buddhism offers that western science does not.

    I have my own ‘madhyamika’: there are no ‘objects’ per se, and science can prove this, but there is matter/energy arranged in particular patterns. The ‘objects’ we experience are just that, our experience, which would be something like the Yogacara school. However, these virtual ‘objects’ have characteristics that can be measured, which science can also prove, yet they are also mostly–but not completely–empty. So let’s take a large granite rock. Put the granite rock on a scale–it weighs 300 pounds. So from a scientific perspective, this rock is mostly empty AND IT ALSO weighs 300 pounds. Both statements are true, according to the science. The ‘weight’ is actually a measure of gravity, molecular density, crystalline structure, and it has a number of other characteristics that can be measured, such as ‘hardness’, porosity, etc. (Even the smallest known particles–quarks–have characteristics that can be measured: spin, mass, velocity, etc.)So the granite rock has a number of characteristics that can be measured–which is empiricism, of which I am a staunch advocate–and it is mostly, but not completely, empty. That’s the science.

    This video is a version of his Dark Energy lecture geared toward non-scientists:

  3. don socha
    2019/07/10

    It seems that not just humans, but those of us privileged enough to have been educated on interdependence, are in a unique position, as the only sort of being lucky and capable enough to act in a way that not only accounts for interdependence, but appreciates and can therefore foster greater diversity as a result, not simply in a material sense, but in a conceptual one as well.

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