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Buddhism as Philosophy and as Religion

by Sangharakshita

... best made by pointing out that it is impossible, in a universe wherein each part exists only in dependence on every other part, for one thing to be in a state of flux or becoming without every other thing being at the same time in such a state. If ever one phenomenon was static and unchanging all other phenomena would be static and unchanging too. The assertion that the universe is unchanging, that it is what William James would call a 'block-universe', or the belief that Reality is a static somewhat, is therefore sufficiently disproved by the discovery of even one phenomenon in a state of flux or becoming. This discovery is of course one which is made daily in empirical experience.

The position that Reality is permanent and unchanging and that it only appears to change is logically indefensible, and ultimately results in a dualism between the world of appearance and the world of Reality which can be overcome only by denying the existence of the world of appearance altogether.

This denial was actually made by Parmenides and the Eleatics in Greece, and by Gaudapada and Sankara in India. The logical consequence of such a position is the theory of Maya which, instead of solving the difficulty, helps to make it worse. For it is impossible to explain how the unreal originates from the real, the imperfect from the perfect, the dynamic from the static, Maya from Brahman, without admitting that the former was present potentially in the latter, which is tantamount to admitting that Reality is partially unreal, partially imperfect etc. Even to deny the origination of Maya from Brahman, as the Ajatavada of Gaudapada does, is not sufficient to solve the problem, since it fails to explain why, granting that Maya does not originate, it nevertheless even appears to originate. And if Maya is held to exist or to appear to exist, but not to originate from Brahman the result is simply a duplication of the old Sankhyan Purusha-Prakriti dualism with all its attendant perplexities. This and numerous other difficulties which are involved in such fallacious statements as 'It changes in appearance but not in Reality' can be avoided only by viewing the whole of Reality as one single grand Becoming, which is not simply the aggregate but the at-one-ment, the concrete unity, of all `individual' becomings.

Just as the Buddha's doctrine of Paticca Samuppada is, historically speaking, a protest against the static Atman-Brahman conception of certain Upanishadic thinkers, Heraclitus' doctrine of 'everything flows' (panta rhei) is a protest against the abstract Being of the Eleatic philosophers. It is therefore hardly surprising to find the teaching of the great Ephesian philosopher can serve equally well as an exposition of at least a part of the teaching of his even greater Indian contemporary. Prof. W. T. Stace writes: "Not only do things change from moment to moment. Even in one and the same moment they are and are not the same. It is not merely that a thing first is, and then a moment afterwards, is not. It both is and is not at the same time. The at-onceness of "is" and "is-not" is the meaning of Becoming. We shall understand this better if we contrast it better with the Eleatic principle. The Eleatic described all things under two concepts, Being and not-being. Being has, for them, all truth, all reality. Not-being is wholly false and illusory. For Heraclitus both being and not-being are equally real. The one is as true as the other. Both are true, for both are identical. Becoming is the identity of being and notbeing. For becoming has only two forms, namely, the arising of things and their passing away, their beginning and their end, their origination and decease. Perhaps you may think that this is not correct, that there are other forms of change besides origination and decease. A man is born. That is his origination. He dies. That is his decease. Between his birth and his death there are intermediate changes. He grows larger, grows older, grows wiser or more foolish, his hair turns grey. So also the leaf of a tree does not merely come into being and pass out of being. It changes in shape, form, colour. From light green it becomes dark green, and from dark green, yellow. But there is after all nothing in all this except origination and decease, not of the thing itself, but of its qualities. The change from green to yellow is the decease of green colour, the origination of yellow color. Origination is the passage of not-being into Being. Decease is the passage of being into not-being. Becoming, then, has in it only the two factors of being and notbeing, and it means the passing of one into the other. But this passage does not mean, for Heraclitus, that at one moment there is Being, and at the next moment not-being. It means that Being and not-being are in everything at one and the same time. Being is not being. Being has not-being in it." (A Critical History of Greek Philosophy, London, 1946, pp.74-76.) Both Heraclitus and the Buddha are able, unlike the Eleatics and Advaitists, to view the whole of existence as governed by one principle, the principle of Becoming. And since they considered events to be intrinsically dynamic it was not necessary for them to violate the unity of their conception by introducing some secondary principle in order to account for the origin of motion, change or becoming.

Existence and becoming are convertible terms. To exist means to become.

That the Buddha was not only a philosopher but even a critical philosopher is demonstrated by the masterly fashion in which He handled the various sophisms of His day. It is an easy matter to declare that one's opponents are wrong; but it is difficult to point out not only where but why they are wrong.

It is still more difficult to make a scientific classification not only of all extant but indeed of all possible philosophical points of view in accordance with a single schematic principle. Most difficult of all is to deduce such a principle from one's own tenets. The Buddha has done all these things. In the Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya He has classified sixty-two schools of philosophers into two groups, the first comprising those who maintain the doctrine of Eternalism (Sassatavada),the second those who maintain the doctrine of Annihilationism (Ucchedavada). A moment's reflection will show that the first group of doctrines identify Reality with abstract Being, while the second group identifies it with equally abstract not-being. The Buddha and Heracleitus, on the other hand, identify it with Becoming, which is the concrete unity or at-one-ment of Being and not-being. The sixty-two views so classified are consequently all one-sided, and therefore mutually antagonistic. They see only a portion of the Truth, thus their author's are not philosophers in the sense of Plato's definition of the term, or at least not successful philosophers. But the Buddha's doctrine of Reality as Becoming enabled Him to take a thoroughly synoptic view of existence and thus to propound a system of thought which is truly philosophical. The Madhyamika school of Developed Buddhism is so called by its adherents simply because their doctrine of Sunyata follows a Middle Path between the two extreme views of Eternalism and Annihilationism.

The Buddha's beautiful Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant is intended to illustrate not the popular but indolent doctrine that all religions and philosophies mean the same thing, but the essentially synoptic character of the Buddha-thought in comparison with the one-sided and mutually contradictory statements of the unenlightened sectarians. (cf. B. M. Barua, Prolegomena to a History of Buddhist Philosophy, Calcutta; 1918, page 8.) Just as the king in the parable was not only able to see that the blind men were all partly right and partly wrong, but also why they were so, and to what extent, the Buddha was not only able to declare that the sectarian thinkers were partly correct in their conclusions and partly incorrect, but to indicate in addition the source and scope of their mistakes. He may therefore with justice be designated as the first critical philosopher in the history of human thought.

Since the philosophy of the Buddha equates Reality and Becoming we must conclude that whatever is real also becomes. This raises the problem of whether the Highest Good aimed at by religion is something which becomes or, more accurately, whether it is a becoming. The same problem is stated in terms of Buddhist thought as: Does Paticca Samuppada include Nibbana? The question is important, for upon the nature of the answer depends the status of Buddhism as a philosophy. Many people, even those who were brought up under the beneficent influence of the Buddhist traditions and who profess to follow it, will be found to hesitate before giving an answer to this question. Some may even think that the conception of Nibbana as becoming is a plain contradiction in terms. Yet the Buddha has undoubtedly identified Reality with Becoming, and the assertion that Becoming does not include Nibbana therefore means either that Nibbana is not real, which is impossible, or that Becoming does not exhaust the whole of Reality which implies that the Buddha was not a philosopher, since He did not view existence as a whole and was therefore unable to make any statement about it as such. The acceptance of the latter alternative would compel us to believe that the Buddha was like the one-sided sectarians of His own parable. Buddhism would then be without any philosophical foundation. The whole edifice of the religion would be in imminent danger of ...

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