Does object-oriented ontology = Buddhism? Tim Morton has been making intriguing sounds to that effect, and Levi Bryant has begun to ask him the hard questions about how and whether that might be possible — of how to “square the circle” of independent substances (OOO) with Buddhism’s conditioned genesis (a.k.a. dependent arising, codependent origination).

Tim’s task strikes me as quite challenging, especially because Buddhism is conventionally thought to be as relational as philosophical traditions can get. Levi has a clear exposition of conditioned genesis, which he rightfully depicts as the cornerstone metaphysical principle on which Buddhist practice, psychology, and soteriology are all built.

It’s necessary, however, to think carefully about Buddhism’s relationality. One of the popular metaphors for thinking about conditioned origination is the idea of Indra’s jeweled net. Levi uses the image of a spider web, but the idea is the same. He writes:

When you encounter a spider web, if you pull one thread, the rest of the threads come with it. It is impossible to isolate one thread from all the other threads. They are all entangled with one another. So it follows, as a consequence, that nothing is the origin of itself. To be sure, discrete entities contribute something to their becoming, but they are never entirely their own authors. Second, as a consequence it is already a bit of a misnomer to speak of selves and things. Because beings belong to a fabric, mesh, or web of relations, authoriship is already and necessarily a complex event. Thus, for example, I am only one element in the writing of this post. This post is also necessarily authored by Morton (who’s pushed me to look more into Eastern thought), the texts I’ve read, the other things that have impacted me in my life, this computer, the internet, etc., etc., etc. Only a madman, as Lacan elsewhere suggests, would ever think she is the author of anything. Finally, third, insofar as being is interactive (conditioned genesis is, above all, a thesis about causality), it follows that for every event on the part of one object, this event produces reactions or effects in all other things. Those reactions or effects, in their turn, as events, produce effects and reactions in everything else. Thus, being or existence is necessarily characterized by ceaseless becoming. [italics added; and note that the original italics have not been preserved here, so please read Levi's post to get the full meaning of it]

Where we need to tread very carefully, to my mind, is in extending Buddhism’s relationality from a specific one — which says that every thing is conditioned by causes other than itself, and in turn serves as a cause conditioning other things — to a kind of generalized principle of all-encompassing relationality, which would say that everything is related to everything else, equally and in all ways. The latter is true only in the sense that we can (analytically) connect everything to everything else if we trace the causes backwards or forwards via other things to other things, and so on indefinitely. This is what the theory of evolution, essentially, says: that every life form on Earth can be traced back to a single origin point, and that therefore every organism is related to every other one. If there is a law of cosmic evolution, that law is the same. But it is not true in the sense that everything in the universe is directly causally related to everything else, and certainly not in the sense that everything is equally related to everything else.

Because reality is process, ceaselessly becoming, events are conditioned by the specific causal factors that give rise to them, and give rise to the events that are conditioned by them in turn. Reality is, in this sense, directional (the direction they take being the arrow of time). The Buddhist literature, which is vast, is sometimes not clear about this, and there’s some divergence in perspectives on this point. That’s why I find Whiteheadian process philosophy to be a useful clarifying dialogue-partner. It is clear about two things: the asymmetrical nature of process/becoming (though here it is not always Whitehead himself who is clearest), and the creativity that is inherent to every occasion of becoming that makes up the (unfolding) universe. (On the latter point, it’s Whitehead all the way.) This creativity — the act that constitute every actual occasion — is what prevents this ontology from being the kind of closed-in system of conditioned and determined relationality that it sometimes gets mischaracterized as.

So if the universe is a net or web, it is not a static net but one that produces itself in a new form at every moment, in every piece of itself. Every jewel making up Indra’s net is a unique and distinct jewel, different from all the others by virtue of being its own particular set of relational conditions. This “its own” shouldn’t, of course, be understood in the sense of being its own “property.” These relations are always in process and one can neither possess them nor prevent them from proceeding forward and “slipping away” (withdrawing, to use an OOO word); the desire to do either, as Levi points out, brings about suffering. Nevertheless, this moment — and now this one, and now this one — is real and it offers possibilities unique to itself. This thing at this moment may be conditioned by its various causes, and may be a condition contributing to things that come after it, but it isn’t a condition contributing to things that came before it or that happened simultaneously somewhere else, far removed from it. It is a specific constellation of causes that never exactly repeats itself, since at the very least, the next moment will be not n but always n+1.

One of the best articulations of this argument about Buddhism and process metaphysics that I’ve seen is (the late) Peter Kakol’s excellent book Emptiness and Becoming: Integrating Madhyamika Buddhism and Process Philosophy, published by New Delhi-based publisher D. K. Printworld, but deserving to be read widely, imho. Kakol argues that Whitehead’s student Charles Hartshorne presents the clearest distillation of an asymmetrical process-relational ontology. Hartshorne is also one of the thinkers who has gone farthest in integrating Whitehead with C. S. Peirce, and as I’ve mentioned before, he’s someone I need to work through more carefully than I have. Hartshorne’s theological predilections had thrown me, and no doubt others, off his scent for a long time. Fortunately, the theology, from what I can tell, is probably no more than there is in Whitehead, and while for both it’s an essential piece, it’s at a level of generality that can be taken as is, or it can be “de-theized,” as Donald Sherburne, Nicholas Rescher, and other process philosophers have tried to do in various ways.

I should mention that I have nothing against theological thinking per se. I find Whitehead’s process spin on Christian theology to be as exciting as anything twentieth-century theology produced. But there’s something about the whole Protestant theological tradition that I’ve always found stuffy and constraining — it just doesn’t feel wild enough for me no matter how far you twist it. Give me archetypes, deities/saints, miracles, and speaking-in-tongues any day; the process of making sense of them is much more interesting than theorizing about the One. I’m being a bit flippant here, but the point is that the universe is incredibly rich, complex, creative, and mysterious, and the images we use to taste it with (I mean that pretty literally) need to be flexible and similarly complex and mysterious, and Protestantism, to my knowledge, never developed the kind of tradition that did that very well. (Not that it doesn’t have its own strengths, of course — connections to democracy and individuality being relevant there.)

Thanks to Tim and Levi, I am looking forward to much more OOB-ism (and variations thereof).


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