Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Toward a Zen Ontology

"I teach that the multitudinous-ness of objects have no reality in themselves but are only seen of the mind and, therefore, are of the nature of a dream. I teach the non-existence of things because they carry no signs of any inherent self-nature. It is true that in one sense they are seen and discriminated by the senses as individualized objects; but in another sense, because of the absence of any characteristic marks of self-nature, they are not seen but are only imagined. In one sense they are graspable, but in another sense, they are not graspable."
-- Shakyamuni Buddha, The Lankavatara Sutra

Ontology is the study of being--the study of what it means to exist, why we exist, and how we know we exist. From the observation of the impermanence of all things, Buddha's ontology postulates that all things are empty of self-nature and can be known only in relationship, which is why they can appear, change, and vanish. Going all the way, Buddha teaches that ultimate reality itself lacks any inherent nature, and is completely empty. This total emptiness is not like a dark space, which has size, duration, and energy, but is a complete lack of all existence, non-existence, particularities, meaning, and properties. Absolute emptiness--called the Void, or the ground of Reality--is even lacking in the property of emptiness, which is the reason anything seems to exist at all.

If you can allow yourself to see this without fear, you'll see that the Void is not somewhere beyond the edge of the universe; the Void is so close that is it touching you, living you, being you and everything you seem to experience. There is no distance, physical or conceptual, between your consciousness and the Void. If there is, then there must be something creating that distance, and no such thing has ever been found.

The benefit of the Buddhist ontology is that it destroys all of the dualities which in western thought lead to paradoxes and moral ambiguities. Buddhism doesn't leave a space for us to exclude outsiders. What is particularly fascinating is that Buddhism encompasses both an objective analysis of reality and a moral prerogative to practice compassion and personal development; in spite of the great abstraction in some of the Buddha's teachings, the end message is not purely intellectual--it is very much grounded in the needs of the human heart and spirit.

How the Buddhist ontology implies the importance of compassion is what I have attempted to explain step-by-step below, connecting it to some western ideas to show that the Buddha's teachings are not as foreign as we might think:

- Ultimate Reality: Things are only meaningful when they can be compared and contrasted to other things. The totality of reality, lacking anything outside itself, is undefinable and meaningless (an idea explained by Alan Watts). Thus, it can be conceived of as a Void so empty it is empty of any inherent nature, including the nature of emptiness (the logic of this statement was first put forward by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, and recently examined rigorously by the philosophers Jay Garfield and Graham Priest).

- Non-emptiness: the impossibility of complete emptiness implies the realm of being and non-being. Although being and non-being is perceived as a duality, one cannot exist meaningfully without the other, and so these should be viewed as two faces of a single reality, the Void.
An abstract object of infinite complexity:
The graph of the Mandelbrot set

- Being: perceived as form and substance (like Plato's world of ideal forms and their particular manifestations in reality), or in modern parlance, abstract and concrete objects. Abstract objects include ideas and mathematical structures; in other words, virtual information. Ideas can be said to exist eternally and independently, but only virtually so as to not violate the fundamental principle of emptiness (like Descartes' thought about the triangle: the idea of a triangle exists even though it does not exist physically). Concrete objects exist conditionally, and upon closer inspection do not have any inherent nature, but are simply defined and experienced through networks of relationships (determining these relationships is the field of science). Because math encompasses and describes relationships, and we now know that material things can be completely described, at least in principle, with math (the central point of physicist Roland Omnes' book "The Philosophy of Contemporary Science"), concrete objects can be considered a subset of abstract objects which encode the properties of dependence and change. What makes a virtual concrete object--such as our own mind--seem "real" to us will be answered below.

- Abstract objects: Because the Void lacks any inherent nature, there is nothing to limit the amount or variety of abstract objects which may be implied to exist virtually. Therefore, all possible sets of virtual information may exist, including the logically consistent set of relationships called "The Universe." Quantum decoherence is the statistical relationship by which all events within the Universe are consistent throughout history (Omnes) and remain unaffected on a macroscopic level by alternate possibilities, whether or not those possibilities have equal ontological status in reality. Double slit experiments suggest that alternate realities do have equal ontological status and freely interact with our own, but only do so on a submicroscopic level in which decoherence does not dominate. This can be interpreted to mean that our reality is only as real or unreal as other possibilities, and therefore there is not an essential and abiding quality that separates what we call reality from what we call possibility. Nevertheless, there is a reason why our experience seems real to us whereas alternate possibilities do not reach our perceptions, to be explained below.

- The Universe: contains sentient beings and inanimate matter. This duality is undermined by the knowledge that sentient beings are made entirely of matter, and matter is capable of manipulating information. Sentience therefore is not an intrinsic property of life, but is itself a network of cognitive and physical relationships which can exist as virtual information in the Void. A logically consistent structure of sentient information is what we call a mind.

- Sentience: the direct experience of reality as a mind. Having constructed a conceptual foundation for sentience stemming from the Void, the ultimate mystery remains: What makes this experience real and vital? If this world is just a virtual concept in a void, why am I alive and subjectively experiencing this and only this, day after day? The reason is emptiness: there is neither an observer nor not an observer, there is neither an inside to experience subjectively nor an outside to experience objectively. Therefore, there seem to be transient minds who experience the universe in some ways subjectively and in some ways objectively. The mystery of existence is witnessed directly in the mind.

- Mind: Each mind and everything to which it relates comprise a structure of information that may exist virtually and eternally in emptiness, and it is illuminated from within and without by absolute emptiness, which cannot fail to be aware because a complete lack of awareness would imply a particular nature, which violates the principle of emptiness. The Void is neither experiencing nor not experiencing its lack of self in each of us. At the same time, it is neither expressing nor not expressing its lack of nature in everything we perceive and can't perceive. Therefore all phenomena we perceive--whether conceptual, material, or psychological--are expressing emptiness, and we may come to understand emptiness--the true nature of reality--by observing it as it manifests in every moment of our daily lives--inside and outside our minds. Observing one's own mind through meditation is the most direct way to experience and understand reality, because awareness itself is emptiness in action.

- Understanding: Because all beings lack an absolute difference and share the mark of emptiness, there should be no abiding obstacles to prevent the recognition and expression of our common nature, intellectually and emotionally. Thus, for a human being, compassion is the full expression of true understanding.

- Most importantly, because there is not an abiding difference between the understanding, the action, and the one who acts and understands, to simply practice compassion is true understanding itself, whether or not the above ideas make any sense at all!