Quora answer: How is Buddhism not nihilism?

Feb 04 2012

First you have to understand what Nihilism is, which is a western idea. Best book on that is the one by Stanley Rosen called Nihilism. Nihilism is basically a loss of meaning when you were in one side of a conflict and you come to believe that both sides are essentially the same, so there is a loss of meaning, anomie, and alienation that occurs. Best example is Achilles in the Iliad. Nietzsche and then Heidegger said that this was the central phenomenon in the Western worldview, and I believe this is correct. When looked at carefully we find that our society, and culture is filled with extreme artificial nihilistic opposites that are basically the same and detract us from the real concerns, for instance Democrats and Republicans are basically the same although they appear to be in conflict it is really incumbents of either party that really hold sovereignty, i.e. make laws for others that do not apply to them. First it was Teaparty and now occupy Wallstreet and many have made the comment that they seem to have similar goals and the real difference is age. It used to be that Skepticism was the strawman that philosophers universally criticized and now it is nihilism, in spite of the fact that most philosophies are nihilistic one way or another. Rosen shows this in the comparison of Wittgenstein and Heidegger’s philosophies.

Buddhism is only nihilistic in the sense that it seems to be a ruse which uses nihilism against the Indo-European worldview in order to destroy the belief in Being and return people to an understanding of existence. It interprets existence as nondual emptiness. It does not believe in the reality of the physical world but is phenomenological and only believes that everything is a product of consciousness. It deals with the problem of the wheel of Samsara (birth and death) and the production of Karma that bind us to that wheel and it offers a way out called Nirvana which is evaporation of the “soul” what ever that is which keeps us in the illusion of endless birth and death in cyclical time. But even though emptiness seems negative, it is really a negation of all four points in the tetralemma (A, ~A, Both, Neither) and points toward something else which is a strictly aconceptual and non-experiential viewpoint called prajna which gives us an understanding of the world that is what might be called non-attached, since it seems everything, including the self as essentially empty. This is not a belief in NOTHING, it is not Heideggarian Being which is No Thing. It is essentially a way to see existence below the veneer of illusion called Being produced by our Indo-European worldview. It is essentially seeing things they way they really are if we do not project our values on them, which are normally false, or not well founded at least. If there is a value that is there after all the illusions are blown away, then it is considered part of existence. For instance babies have seven natural emotions that all babies all over the world have, and that would be part of existence. But much of our emotions and feelings are projected onto situations, and thus are part of the epiphenomena of the illusions of Being.

So Buddhism is definitely now Nihilistic as was thought by early interpreters in Europe, because negation is still part of the logical alternatives and emptiness is non dual beyond all the logical alternatives. That nonduality once you take that stance is actually very positive because it leaves a lot of illusion projected by Being away, and that just leaves the illusions that are part of existence which are not as virulent. For instance in Buddhism they always give the example of seeing a rope and thinking it is a snake. This is a very deep ingrained response in us and therefore has roots in our existence even though we know it is an illusion after the fact. For instance the rock beside the road that no one cares about and no one bothers to pick up is what exists. But anything we project value upon beyond bare necessities of life are in fact false values, because they are unnecessary for the viability of our lives. Buddhism seeks to understand these values as illusions, and it tries to compare them with really important things like death. It basically says that it is these illusions that cause our suffering, because they are false projections. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_Truths

The word for suffering used in Buddhism is dukkha which really means something more akin to dissatisfaction. Basically it is saying that anything that is an illusion ultimately leaves us dissatisfied in some very fundamental way. And so even in pleasure we can experience this dissatisfaction even if we are not suffering per se for instance with a dread disease. the key to getting out of that suffering is called the Eightfold noble path http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_Eightfold_Path. It is basically to connect to Rightness (RTA) which is an indo-european nondual which originally meant something like Cosmic Harmony in the Vedas. But in later hinduism it is called following ones Dharma which was a Caste Role. But since Buddhism is anti-caste it redefines Dharma as meaning the right way to live ones life, and that involves many of the same values developed by Jainism which is another older similar religion to buddhism which was not so radical, i.e did not reject Being as far as I have been able to ascertain. But it includes positive virtues like non-violence, compassion, giving to others, etc all positive virtues.

Try to practice yourself the eight fold path for a day. It is very difficult to bring cosmic harmony into ones life and to express this nondual of RTA, Arte in Greek, Dharma, etc. But if we could all do it it would make the world a very different place. A kind of positive utopia that we dream about but know will never happen in our lifetimes. But a Bodhisatva takes a long view he has myriad lifetimes to save all sentient Beings, which he has vowed to save before he himself enters Nirvana and gets out of the cycle of Birth and Death by creating Karma. The Enlightened one can follow the eight fold path effortlessly. He is that path incarnate. On a practical level it seems very positive to me and unlike Nihilism except that it uses Nihilism as part of the skillful means to dismantel the world of Being and point toward existence. These skillful means are a give given to the enlightened that they can teach how to escape from illusion and indicate the nature of enlightenment with ease so people understand and though their transmission the people can become enlightened themselves.

Buddhism is a direct and isomorphic transformation of the structure of the Indo-European worldview out of Being into existence. It does this by representing all the nondual levels within the western worldview as part of the Buddhist path. So for instance the Buddha set down the rules of the order of Buddhism among the Sanga of his time. And they have been basically the same from the time of the Buddha till now. This is because the Buddha taught 40 years or so and thus there was plenty of time to transmit his teaching wholly to his disciples. There are three jewels: Dharma, Buddha, Sangha which correspond to the three Special Systems, Dissipative Order (Prigogine), Autopoietic Symbiotic (Maturella and Varella) and Reflexive Social (O’Malley, Sandywell). These jewels seen as special systems are models of nonduality. Buddhism is modeled on the Special Systems that separate the Meta-levels of Being from each other and form a multi-schema picture of nonduality. Non-duality is based on negative entropy, and negative entropy is the introduction of order and organization locally against the pressure of entropy globally. Thus Buddha by the way he led  his life, by his teaching (the Dharma) and by his ordering of the life of the Sangha gave a complete picture of his way of viewing existence within the framework of the Western worldview, which is by seeing the nondual core of the worldview. So the first and most superficial of the nonduals in the Western worldview is order, and the Buddha orders his concepts by numbers as seen in the Abhidharma, and he orders the lifestyle of his followers by his rules of ordination of monks into the Sanga.

Next level below order of the Indo-European nonduals is RTA, and we have noted how the eight fold path is the focus on this nondual in every aspect of ones life.

The next level down is the Good and that is approached though the four noble truths. Note the emphasis on the Aspect of Truth. Buddhists reject identity by saying the self is empty Anatman. They reject reality because they do not believe in external reality. They reject presence because their goal is absence, absence of suffering. So in Buddhism there is a symmetry breaking in the aspects and only Truth is embraced fully, and since truth has to do with speech, it is the truth of the Dharma that is paramount. With respect to the other Dharmas buddhism emphasizes Difference, Illusion, Absence as fundamental nature of things. The Four noble truths emphasize Dukkha and says that life is suffering. Basically suffering or dissatisfaction arises from attachment to desires, and when desire ceases then suffering ceases. And the cessation of suffering leads ultimately to complete cessation of karma and thus to nirvana.

In the Theravada version and the version translated by An Shigao, the Four Noble Truths are given definitions:

  1. The Nature of Suffering (or Dukkha):

“This is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”[5][6]

  1. Suffering’s Origin (Dukkha Samudaya):

“This is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.”[5][6]

  1. Suffering’s Cessation (Dukkha Nirodha):

“This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.”[5][6]

  1. The Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering: (Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada Magga)

“This is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.”[7][8]

Now the good is opposite bad and evil both. So the four noble truths emphasize the negative side of life and how we suffer, but not only that how even in pleasure there is suffering or dissatisfaction ultimately. It is interesting to think about the ephemeral nature of life in relation to knowledge. Every experience good, bad otherwise is fleeting. And this fleeting nature of experiences leaves us with dissatisfaction and that dissatisfaction becomes a craving for more of what is good, and even if we do achieve it it just leads to more desire and craving. So ultimately the negative view of existence as fundamentally dissatisfying has to do with our own nature of finite living creatures in a fleeting world of experience where the only thing that has any permanence at all is knowledge. So the Four Noble truths seek to give us knowledge of the intrinsic nature of our existence, which is that we seek good, rarely find it and if we do it is fleeting.

But the Four Noble truths are even deeper than that because the Good is actually intrinsic variety production. And Buddhism emphasizes that we ourselves are not unified or totaled or supported by a continuous substrate of Being, so that we ourselves are sources of variety, the variety of desires that relate to the variety of the things in the world we deem good. But what is good for one is not good for another, and so what we seek may not be ultimately what is good for us, and thus not only are we caught in illusion, but also delusion as we work toward ends that are not in our own best interests based on who we are in our uniqueness. The Four Noble Truths are actually a very deep critique of the goodness of life. It says that actual goodness in life comes from enlightenment which is a kind of knowledge, because knowledge is the most permanent thing. Getting actual Goodness out of life is through prajna, a kind of knowledge about our relation to the good, i.e. the intrinsic variety production, in nature, in ourselves, and due to our uniqueness. It basically says that the pursuit of happiness is a false path, because even if you get everything you think you want, you will still be dissatisfied.

The next nondual down in the Western worldview is fate. Fate we see in the wheel of Samsara and the idea of Karma and rebirth based on past actions in former lives. This is a metaphor for each moment of consciousness being produced by dependent arising from the last moment. In other words there is no real causality, but only the arising together of phenomena. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sa%E1%B9%83s%C4%81ra_(Buddhism); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sa%E1%B9%83s%C4%81ra; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheel_of_Life)

Wheel of Birth and Death

This wheel of Birth and Death describes the Buddhist view of Fate, It’s sources, the three posions, how it is generated by a cycle of causation, and how what it leads to the Six Realms.

The next level down beyond fate are the Sources, and this is dealt with in Buddhism with the idea of Dependent Origination. The sources are in a kind of quasi-causality which does not arise nor does it ever dissipate, where everything arises together already connected so that the idea of the separation of cause and effect is an illusion.
Dependent Arising http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prat%C4%ABtyasamutp%C4%81da

Finally there is the Root which is Nonduality.
Non-dual: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nondual

Buddhism addresses all the layers of the nondual within the Indo-European and thus the Western worldview as well as the Hindu Worldview from which this heresy was originally spawned, taking its core structure with it. Now Buddhism is coming to the Western worldview, which is completely dualistic, and has fought a long battle with its own nondual heresy Islam that has taken over the center of the Western worldview, now called the Middle East, as if it was oriental. Nothing oriental about Islmo-Greco-Roman culture based on Greek philosophy. Aristotle’s metaphysics was itself an attack on nonduality explicitly citing the Tetralemma.

The Indo-European worldview is nihilistic at its core even though the kernel is nondual, constantly producing artificial extreme opposites which are then discovered to be actually the same, and thus sapping meaning from the world as those caught up in its struggles who find that they are for nought. Buddhism uses nihilism as a form against the worldview itself in order to take people out of Being into Existence interpreted as emptiness. On the surface is the myriad dualities. At the Core is the production of nihilism where the artificial extreme opposites are always from some point of view achieved by an anagogic swerve ultimately the same sapping meaning from the world. But at the kernel of the worldview is its nonduals which hide in the interstices and discontinuities inscribed in the core of the worldview. Buddhism takes these nonduals as its core pattern, and then addresses each one with an appropriate analysis. Because Buddhism is directed at the nondual kernel of the worldview it is actually a way to avoid nihilism and get out of it by using the tricks of the Indo-European worldview against itself. And because it has this basis in the Hindu version of the Indo-European worldview it also works for the Western version which has become world dominant via colonization, economic dominance, and now globalization. All other worlds are becoming subservient to the now dominant Western meta-worldivew. But that dominant Western worldview rooted in dualism has a weakness which is its nondual core. Buddhism draws out that nondual core and by that transforms the selves that are conditioned by the structure of the Western worldview by dependent arising. By dependent arising we are connected not just to the dualities on the surface, or on the core nihilism production, but also the nondual core. Each of us also has that same nondual kernel. And it is to this kernel that Buddhists appeal with all the various turnings of the Wheel of dharma.


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