My first year Philosophy professor was an adamant Christian. He operates under the guise of one who cares more about truth than orthodoxy. The more I came to know him, though, the more scripted and forced this persona seemed. His main point of interest was his insistence that, ontologically speaking, Christianity offered the most accurate, fulfilling and sound alternative through which we can explain all aspects and all areas of existence – a fact worth noting if only to guffaw at the irony of it all. After two years and five classes together, I have realized just how insecure his beliefs really were.
“Therefore I lie with her and she with me.”
He was always reminding us that he was a Christian because he thought it was the best fit, the truest… not out of tradition, of course. To bolster his position (I think more for himself, than anyone else) he would say that Buddhism is ridiculous because ‘they literally believe that nothing exists”… again, catching the verbal irony? This semester past I took metaphysics with him, and at least a dozen times or more during the year he made a quip about how Buddhism is ridiculous because they ‘literally believe in nothing.’
I’ve found that the over simplified explanation of the Buddhist teachings he offered is extremely far from the truth – almost shamefully so. I always sensed he was straw-manning Buddhism, but since I myself wasn’t too educated on the teachings of Buddhism, I had nothing to counter him with.
Buddhism is not based on the simple, infantile belief that nothing exists – like a ‘brain-in-a-vat’ thought experiment. Buddhism teaches that for every effect there are many causes; much like for many causes there are many effects. Central to understanding this is the idea of ‘Dependent Arising’, or ‘Dependent origination’ (Pratityasamutpada). It’s the idea that everything arises in dependence of multiple causes and multiple conditions.
Buddhists also believe that there is no ‘I’ or ‘mine’; no owner, or subject-of-an-object. They don’t believe that there is any unified intrinsic self. But rather they believe we are a collection of dependent aggregates, impermanent and constantly subject to change. This is also true of Dukkha or ‘objects’ that cause suffering. Using the word ‘nothingness’ as a noun is an incorrect way of expressing the Buddhist ideas, and of interpreting what the true meaning of nothingness is. I think this way of manipulating the information is at largely responsible for a nihilistic misunderstanding of nothingness ; it can’t be a noun because by definition there is no object to be had.
An easier way to traverse these ultra murky waters is to apply our vague and limited understanding of quantum mechanics to things like nothingness and dependent origination (meditating on one point acts as a cause to help us meditate on another point, it’s effect). Think of a table, for example. Most of us conveniently label that thing we eat at with four legs and a large flat open surface (sometimes round, other times square or rectangular) a table. Only most people probably know that tables don’t just pop into existence – ex nihilo nihil fit. Christians believe that’s exactly what happens (or rather, happened); God spoke and *poof*, things were created out of nothing. Which is also possibly another reason my professor did not express a deeper understanding of nothingness – he is a realist he despises nominalists. No self (anatta) is extended to all objects, so that all things are emptiness (sunyata), without inherent existence (svabhava).
Sure there are things in each person that seem to have an inherent self, but an inherent self presupposes a single cause, and a single effect. Buddhism is founded on the belief that things are very complicated. Whereas Christians like my professor believe in single causes, a prime mover and abstract entities. Buddha taught that when you die, your aggregates come together to form a new being. A person is not born the same way twice, no matter how ‘good’ their Karma. Christians believe essence precedes existence; they teach that each one of us has a unique immaterial soul and upon death (although the ‘time’ elapsed during this period is still a tad unclear) we are given a new body and a new earth. Christianity teaches that what sets humans apart (and above) angelic beings is that one of our inherent qualities that cannot be subtracted is the fact that we have a body. Buddhism teaches that the aggregates that compromise ‘us’ can come together in many forms.
Nothingness is much more complex than I was taught, and then many believe. I’m just beginning my journey, so bear with me if I paint a very rough picture of things.
Buddhists, for the most part, believe in a cycle of re-birth, in Karma. If you read a Buddhist book or text you’ll encounter words like ‘nothingness’ and ‘karma’ and (especially) ‘liberation and ignorance’. Liberation, as you might have expected, is freedom from the cycle of re-birth; freedom in the form of enlightenment and nirvana. Ignorance in Buddhist terms represents a way of looking at the world and interacting with ‘objects’ in the world. An ignorant man does not understand dependent origination. They look at Dukkha as real independent entities. The Buddha says that if we meditate on nothingness we can be freed from our ignorance and liberated form samsara. The first step is to understand that things aren’t so cut-and-dry as most westerners like to think they are. A table isn’t just a table. A table is many effects with many causes; wood, rain, trees growing, the sun, carpenters, engineers, a place to eat, a place for work, to store things etc…
Buddhism at the very least is incredibly intellectually stimulating. It doesn’t bait you with needlesly overcomplicated jargon and concepts. It’s inherently complex; I can’t open up a
‘psalty’ version of the ‘book of the dead’ and expect my child to understand the overarching narrative. Another nail in the coffin for Christianity, unfortunately.
Buddhism isn’t weighed down by the senseless doctrine of most western religions, nor is it confined to determinism like Laplace’s demon. It is at the same time both reverent and romantic, impermanent and deterministic.