Sunday, 24 June 2012

Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics

Victor Mansfield

Here's an article from the archives, but well worth revisiting. It's by the late Victor Mansfield, Department of Physics and Astronomy Colgate University Hamilton, based on a talk given at the Physics and Tibetan Buddhism Conference,  University of California, Santa Barbara January 30-31, 1998


'I hope to show that understanding a little about time in modern physics helps us more deeply appreciate some of the most profound ideas in Buddhism. Furthermore, I will also suggest that some appreciation of Middle Way Buddhist ideas could aid in the development of physics. Thus a nontrivial synergy between these two very different disciplines is possible, one that results in deeper understanding and more compassionate action. While time may be a devouring tiger, appreciating these ideas might help us attain equanimity and encourage us to act more compassionately toward each other and the planet...."

"I’ll review the principle of emptiness within the Middle Way Consequence School (Prasangika Madhyamika, which I abbreviate by Middle Way) through a little story. Nearly thirty years ago a very holy man gave me some fresh carrot juice to drink. What a tasty elixir! I returned home determined to grow some fresh carrots of my own on our little farm. (Actually, I was determined to get my wife to grow them.) However, the soil in my part of the world is heavy and stony, and the carrots that first year were stubby and misshapen. I thought, "If only I had a garden tiller, I could whip that heavy soil into the most beautiful carrot bed." I could not afford one of those fancy tillers that a delicate ten-year-old girl can operate with one hand. My rototiller is a test of my manhood, a bucking bronco requiring strength and stamina. Of course, time destroys both people and equipment, and my tiller soon suffered from a long list of woes. It requires the patience of an advanced Bodhisattva to start, it only works at the deepest setting, it no longer has a reverse, and it cannot run in place and so bolts ahead . . . when you can manage to start it. However, I only use it a few hours a year, so I suffer with it and consider it a perverse sort of challenge.

One beautiful spring day a few years ago the rototiller was taking me for my annual ride while it bathed me in the blue smoke of burning oil. I was musing on carrots and rototillers and suddenly had a tiny enlightenment. The second of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths tells us that suffering is caused by desire. My desire for that delicious carrot juice had chained me to this rototiller for a quarter of a century! A desire for fresh, sweet carrot juice initially seemed innocent and "spiritually correct," in that good health is an aid to practicing dharma, but look where it led. Desire does generate suffering. However, those blue clouds bellowing from the burned out muffler along with that shattering noise and vibration urged me to deeper reflection. Upon what is that carrot-desire based?

Objects of Desire

The Middle Way clearly answers that desires and aversions are based upon the false belief in independent existence, the idea that beyond my personal associations, relationship, and names for carrots, there is a real, substantial, inherently existent entity. This substantially existent object, that entity that "exists from its own side," is the basis upon which we project all our desires and aversions, all our craving for and fleeing from objects.

This innate and unreflective belief in inherent existence divides into two pieces. First, that phenomena exist independent of mind or knowing. That "underneath" or "behind" the psychological associations, names, and linguistic conventions we apply to objects like carrot or rototiller, something objective and substantial exists fully and independently from its own side. Such independent objects appear to provide the objective basis for our shared world. Second, we falsely believe these objects to be self-contained and independent of each other.[2] Each object being fundamentally nonrelational, it exists on its own right without essential dependence upon other objects or phenomena. In other words, the essential nature of these objects is their nonrelational unity and completeness in themselves.

Since it is so critical to identify inherent existence carefully, let me say it in other words. Consider the carrot stripped of its sense qualities, history, location, and relation to its surroundings. All but an advanced practitioner of the Middle Way believes that this denuded carrot has some unique essence, some concrete existence that provides the foundation for all its other qualities. This core of its being, this independent or inherent existence, is what the Middle Way denies. The carrot surely has conventional existence; it attracts rodents and makes great juice. It functions as a food. However, it totally lacks independent or inherent existence, what we falsely believe is the core of its being. In other words, the object or subject we falsely believe independently exists is not actually "finable upon analysis." When we search diligently for that entity we believe inherently exists, we cannot actually find it. It’s independent being does not become clearer and more definite upon searching. Instead, phenomena exist in the middle way because they lack inherent existence, but do have conventional existence.

While reifying carrots, I simultaneously reify the one who desires carrots and consider him as inherently existent too. Out of the seamless flux of experience, I falsely impute or attribute inherent existence to both the subject and its object of desire and thereby spin the wheel of samsara. In this way, perception is a double act that simultaneously generates a false belief in inherently existent subjects and objects, gentleman farmers and their carrots. Then our time is occupied with cherishing our personal ego, putting its desires before all else, pushing others aside to satisfy those desires, and running after objects we falsely believe inherently exist. We think those objects will make us happy, but in fact they can never satisfy us. Perhaps time "is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire." Was not this the point of the Buddha’s fire sermon?

According to the Middle Way, we can put out the fire by deeply appreciating the doctrine of emptiness, the lack of inherent existence in all subjects and objects, in all phenomena. This requires not only an intellectual formulation as given here, but a profound transformation of our whole being at many levels—a process that usually takes many life times..."

The description of emptiness given so far is negative, a thoroughgoing denial of what we wrongly believe is the core of existence. Next, let me turn to a more positive description of phenomena, including carrots. If phenomena don’t independently exist than how do they exist? 

The Middle Way tells us that they dependently exist in three fundamental ways. First, phenomena exist dependent upon causes and conditions. For example, carrots depend upon soil, sunlight, moisture, freedom from rodents, and so forth. Second, phenomena depend upon the whole and its parts. Carrots depend upon its greens, stem, root hairs, and so on and the totality of all these parts. Third, and most profoundly, phenomena depend upon mental imputation, attribution, or designation. From the rich panoply of experience, I collect the sense qualities, personal associations, and psychological reactions to carrots together, and name them or designate them as "carrot." The mind’s proper functioning is to construct its world, the only world we can know. The error enters because along with naming comes the false attribution of inherent existence, that foundation for desire and aversion.

For the Middle Way, dependent arising is a complementary way of describing emptiness. We can understand them as two different views of the same truth. Therefore, contrary to our untutored beliefs, the ultimate nature of phenomena is its dependency and relatedness, not isolated existence and independence.

One of the difficulties in understanding emptiness is that we can easily assent to the importance of relatedness, while falling prey to the unconscious assumption that relations are superimposed upon independently existent terms in the relation. In fact, it is the relationships, the interdependencies that are the reality, since objects or subjects are nothing but their connections to other objects and subjects.

We might ask what would phenomena be like if they did in fact inherently or independently exist. The Middle Way explains that inherently existent objects would be immutable, since in their essence they are independent of other phenomena and so uninfluenced by any interactions. Conversely, independently existent objects would also be unable to influence other phenomena, since they are complete and self-contained. In short, independently existent objects would be immutable and impotent. Of course, experience denies this since our world is of continuously interacting phenomena, from the growth of carrots nourished by sun, rain, and soil, to their destruction by rodents. From the subjective side, that we do not independently exist implies that it is possible to transform ourselves into Buddhas, exemplars of infinite wisdom and compassion.

Critics of the Middle Way often say that if objects did not inherently exist, they could not function to produce help and harm. Carrots lacking independent existence could not give sweet juice or make soup. The Middle Way turns this around 180 degrees, and answers that it is precisely because objects and subjects lack independent existence that they are capable of functioning. So the very attribute that we falsely believe is at the core of phenomena would, if present, actually prevent them from functioning.

Now how does all this relate to the Middle Way notion of time? As I mentioned above, if phenomena inherently existed then they would of necessity be immutable and impotent, unable to act on us or we on them. Since, in truth, phenomena are fundamentally a shifting set of dependency relations, impermanence and change are built into them at the most fundamental level. That the carrot exists in dependence upon causes and conditions, its whole and parts, and on our attribution or naming is what makes it edible, allows me to experience it and be nourished by it. 

More important for impermanence, these defining relations and co-dependencies and their continuously shifting connections with each other guarantee that all objects and subjects are impermanent, ceaselessly evolving, maturing, and decaying. In short, emptiness and impermanence are two sides of the coin of existence and therefore transformation and change are built into the core of all entities, both subjective and objective. In this way, the doctrine of impermanence is a direct expression of emptiness/dependent arising. 

Because I lack inherent existence and am most fundamentally a kinetic set of shifting experiences, with no eternal soul, as we normally understand it, then "Time is the substance I am made of." Borges’ compact sentence seems like a Middle Way aphorism. Being substantially of time guarantees my continuous transformation and death. Indeed, time "is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire." These philosophic truths of emptiness and impermanence are central to Buddhist practice, and I return to them later. Now let us turn to physics and its view of time.

Time in Modern Physics

As mentioned in the introduction, we all have a natural belief in the absoluteness of time, meaning that, for example, one minute is the same for all observers. Let me again proceed by way of example... "   continued, read the full article at Buddha Net


Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Mind

How things exist - according to Buddhism and Science

Rational Buddhism

Inherent Existence in Buddhist Philosophy

Mereology and Buddhism: Mereological Dependence in Buddhist Philosophy

Roger Scruton on Algorithms, Data Structures and Mental Attribution

The Church-Turing-Deutsch Principle and Buddhist Philosophy

Madhyamaka Conceptual Designation: Conceptualism, Universals and Category Recognition



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