Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ajahn Punnadhammo ponders "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

An interesting take on the premise surrounding Stephen Hawking's new book The Grand Design and the general issues surrounding can be found at Bhikku's Blog, written by Canadian born Theravadan monk Ajahn Punnadhammo.

There is a lot of truth to what is written there, especially the point about the limits of the human mind in speculating on such matters is something too often missing from the discussion of such issues.  Yet it is valuable to take a look at some assumptions made as well for comparative purposes, in this case to my own reflections on the issues raised by the press coverage of Hawking's book. 

Because Bhikku Ajahn Punndhammo (referred to as BAP hereafter) uses theism to compare and contrast a Buddhist view, it is helpful first to distinguish between the uses of the term.  In some circles, it refers to the idea that there is any meaning or point to existence other than the most limited, superficial and subjective notions.  Closely related to this (and often connected with it) is the notion that there is a source to existence which isn't explained strictly in terms of what humans describe as and refer to as natural laws.  In such cases, many Buddhists and forms of Buddhism would be labeled theistic.

Then there is the view that such a source and meaning are connected to or can be identified with a non-localized consciousness.  And again, this would lump even more Buddhists within theism.  A further stage suggests this consciousness has what we would identify as personal qualities such as volition which is expressed in the meaning of existence.  It is here that a number of Buddhists would be split away from theism.  And finally, there is the idea that this consciousness is  a kind of super-being who is just superlative in every way compared to an ordinary person (the biggest, the smartest the best).  This idea sometimes devolves into what has been called "the great big guy in the sky", and at this point virtually all Buddhists would break away from theism.  This latter view happens when symbols and metaphors are taken too seriously.

This can be mapped out on a scale of degrees of theism:

0 - no meaning or purpose except what we make for ourselves

1 - there is some meaning that isn't purely individualistic and subjective

2 - there is a source to existence beyond the (known) material world connected to its meaning

3 - there is a cosmic, non-localized awareness or consciousness associated with the source above

4 - the universal consciousness has qualities we might describe in personal terms like volition

5 - the universal consciousness is an aspect of a distinct individual set apart from the rest of the universe, a super-being with superlative qualities above all others
This gives us a way to distinguish between ideas that might otherwise be blurred together or conflated.  For example, atheism would be at one extreme next to zero.  Some atheists might flirt with a space closer to one, but many would not.  In the area around one and two we can find beliefs such as animism and pantheism.  The immanence of the Divine is emphasized above all.  As we approach three on our scale, we are in the range of Eastern concepts such as the Tao, which itself has been compared to aspects of Buddhist ideas such as shunyata, nirvana and dharmakaya.  Transcendence in terms of description or intellectual understanding is balanced with the immanence of  Divine's constant manifestation as and through all things. The corresponding ideas about God in the West are similarly ineffable and associated with the apophatic traditions of theology.

Between three and four we find ideas such as panentheism.  Here, the idea of God being beyond human comprehension or language still holds, but there are more aspects of the Divine about which we can gain a rough intuition.  This is possible because, in a sense, God is seeking us as we seek God.  Moving on to the other end of our scale, we come the God who is reduced to a being alongside other beings in the minds of his or her followers.  Transcendence is mistaken to be and hence traded for mere greatness, while immanence as expressed through terms like omnipresence becomes a strictly and vaguely ethereal quality. 

With our scale in place, let's examine BAP's ideas in order that his well-informed, generous and insightful comments on the matter may be more fully appreciated:

On the other side are the theists whose answer is that a transcendent, pre-existing entity, being or force willed the creation and set out the laws. This answer seems more complete but still doesn't offer a final solution because of course it begs the question, why is there a God anyway? Again, why is there something, even a transcendent something or someone, rather than nothing?

[T]he later Buddhist tradition definitely leaned toward the idea that universe was both beginingless and endless, infinite in both directions and fundamentally cyclical in nature. This was in line with the general trend of Indian thought which is in stark contrast to the linear, eschatological view of Zoroastrian Persia and the monotheistic religions of the west.

If we allow for the sake of argument that the universe may not have a single moment of origin, while this doesn't put to rest the question of why there is something rather than nothing, it does shift the emphasis somewhat and would tend against the idea of a creator. Schopenhauer addressed this from a philosophical perspective and said that there is no logical necessity for a first origin and that such an original moment would be a fundamental break in the chain of causality.

First, let us keep in mind that while there are a wide variety of views within Buddhism and western traditions like Christianity, some are over- or under-represented.  For example, if one never outgrows a literal view of the poetic and metaphorical language about God, one will seek out congregations and denominations with a similar view where such ideas are reinforced.  When these groups become entangled with hot button political issues such as Young Earth Creationism, they and their ideas become much more visible.  While people with a range of views on our scale may exist within most Christian communions and denominations based on age, personality, experience, etc, this historical and theological diversity can often be drowned out in the public square.

Next, let us keep in mind there are traditional views of the Divine in which reducing God to a mere link in a causal chain, no matter how pre-eminent the link, is unacceptable.  I have written about this elsewhere as it relates to this subject, so I won't repeat the essay here.  In the kind of theology I discuss, God does not "exist" as thing alongside other things, but is the basis for existence itself.  So to use the analogy on the table, God would be the steel in the chain, the shape of the steel, and that in which the chain exists.  This is God as the source, not God as a cause, even a first cause.  God is the name we give to the answer to the question "Why?", and more specifically, "Why is there something (including gravity and the quantum field) rather than nothing?"  It encompasses the compulsion and profundity surrounding this inquiry, a humble and awed response to such mystery, not a pat or full and direct answer.

Now, I don't intend to chide BAP here, or to suggest that he should have spent time writing about such ideas when other forms of theism are more typical of what people imagine or expect.  Yet it is worth exploring and sharing these ideas to foster dialogue and understanding.

As for linear versus cyclic, BAP is again correct in his historico-cultural summary.  And again, there is more depth in the West than one might suspect on this matter. Much has been made of the innovation of a linear view of time and existence and its importance in the development of movements such as the rise of science.  But I want to look at the nature of the distinction between these two perspectives.  The Celtic culture provides an interesting twist -- literally.  The Celts didn't invent it, but they seemed to have a fondness for the spiral.  Viewed from one point of view, movement along a spiral seems to be going round and round in cyclic fashion, while from another angle the movement appears to be in a straight line.

In a similar fashion, I promote the view that creation is not a single static event, but a dynamic affair as phenomena appear from our point of view to arise and dissolve continuously, which nonetheless is perceived by us to move in a single direction (the arrow if time).  While a Buddhist may see this as the relationship between emptiness and form, it can also be seen as the interface between God's transcendence and immanence.

This leads us into the next statement of interest:

Another question raised by this debate is the reality of a transcendent element. Here, the Buddhist shares some ground with the theistic thinker but there are important differences in their understanding of the transcendent. The Unconditioned in Buddhism (the experience of which is called Nibbana or Nirvana) is completely ineffable, which means that it cannot be described in words or grasped in thought. This makes sense because words and thought are products of the conditioned realm. When the Buddha spoke about Nibbana it was always either in poetic similes or in negations; telling us what it is not. However, without forgetting its' ineffable nature we may venture on some approximations; it is outside time-and-space, it is neither physical not mental but sui generis in a category of its' own, it is not subject to change, suffering or cause-and-effect. In Christian theological language, the Nibbana-element is both trascendent (wholly other, "not-this") and immanent (present here-and-now.) Close Pali analogues would be lokuttara (lit. "Beyond the World") and sanditthiko (lit. "Able to be Seen Now").

 This transcendent element seems to have some parallels with the concept of God but is different in that the Unconditioned is never conceived of as a person, being or entity that can through the power of its' will intervene in the Conditioned realm. For it to do so would be a violation of its' fundamental nature as outside of cause-and-effect. The closest approach to the Buddhist idea of the transendental found within theistic thought might be the apophatic view of the God-head held by the Eastern Orthodox or perhaps the Unmanifest in Jewish Kabbalah.

While BAP is right in pointing out ideas from Eastern Orthodox and Kabbalah, the same kind of perspective does exist in Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant circles.  Theologians such as Paul Tillich made a career out of such a perspective and would immediately recognize the above description of the Unconditioned as matching that which he used for God.  God as not "a" person or "a" thing, but as the ground of being, the substance of existence, the source of reality.  Nor is this just an old view preserved here or there or an idea reserved for philosophers.  You can find it in the teaching of priests such as Father Thomas Keating, the writings of monks such as Brother Wayne Teasdale, and working understanding of many laypeople.

A distinction can be made between being a person and the qualities we associate with person-hood, hence just as one can discuss the difference between a cosmic awareness and a localized expression of self-awareness (i.e. sentient beings), one can discuss the difference between person-ness and individual persons.  That is, God is not merely a person but not somehow less than a person.  BAP also notes:
In line with the practical nature of the Buddha's teaching, the only real argument for the reality of this transcendent element is experiential.
Again, he is right on target, as I have discussed elsewhere. And how do many Buddhists in meditation and Christians (and Jews, and Muslims, etc) practicing contemplative prayer attempt to describe this experience? Frequently it is expressed as boundless wisdom and compassion.

What BAP wrote is not in anyway inaccurate as far as I can tell, and he is justified in his characterization of the Abrahamic traditions. What he describes is still common and popular in Christianity today, despite being the result of what I consider be a theological train wreck that was a few hundred years in the making. But like any good Buddhist or any good Christian, I am convinced that out of crisis comes opportunity, and I am committed to work for better theology and better understanding between sacred traditions.

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