Ontological Extremism, a Middle Way, and the Light of the Mind
What is real? Who am I? In Buddhism the Abhidharma of the Sarvastivada and Vaibhashika Schools, along with Democritus, Aristotle and our Greek materialist efflorescence—Metaphysical Realism/Materialism—cling to the pre-modern realist atomist paradigm wherein appearing spacetime reality consists of indivisible atomic matter particles (atomism) that have an ultimately physical, objectively real, permanent, absolute, even eternal existence. This view is the prevailing ontology of 21st century Scientific Materialism: the ultimate nature of reality is only physical. Epistemic access to the mental/spiritual is reduced to physical brain states.
We shall see that these apparently separate atomistic parts abide interdependently in causal relationship with one another within a more inclusive matrix. These interactions are physical, mental and socio-cultural. The simplest parts require relational, then more holistic descriptions of their participation in ever more inclusive holonic part-wholes, ultimately embraced in a unified whole of which the parts are all participating instantiations. Thus, it follows that the parts cannot be separate from the whole. Conceptually, the Particular precedes the General. Alas, generality is innately infected by an annoying cognitive cloud of subjective vagueness. Hence, first arises and descends the involutionary gross physical parts; then their ascending evolutionary subtler interdependent relations and interactions; then, if you’re lucky, emerges spooky numinous nondual (subject/object unity) awareness (noein) of this boundless whole, primordial ground which perforce subsumes and embraces this gift of multiplicity.
For recent particle physics and cosmology the totemic idol of atomic baryonic matter, our beloved protons and neutrons, is presumed to be observer–independent, arising from “empty space” random quantum fluctuations (quantum foam) of the vacuum ground state—quantum zero point energy field (ZPE)—total energy density of space (Ωtot≈1). Astoundingly, positive universal mass/energy, minus negative gravitational energy equals a total universe energy of zero! From this quantum zero emptiness potential emerges, ex nihilo, from nothing, what “inflationary hot Big Bang” theorist Alan Guth calls “the ultimate free lunch”, physical spacetime cosmos itself. Such realists—physicists or Buddhists—are essentialists who believe that reality exists absolutely, just as it appears. Yes, this Big Science meta-narrative is observer-independent. Here the clamorous world of spacetime stuff is a procrustean, separate, stridently objective “real world out there” (RWOT), with or without an observing consciousness to behold it.
Relativistic Quantum Field Theory (QFT, QED), with parallel Buddhist Middle Way view and praxis have radically changed all this. Both are observer-dependent and ontologically relative; in short, “what is” is real not only by way of our senses, but by our linguistic, deep cultural background materialist “web of belief”. On this non-essentialist view, phenomena exist not absolutely or independently, “from their own side”, but interdependently, via a vast web of causal, interconnected relations relative to we observers, and the reifying concept-belief biases that enact our realities. Thus do we enter the brave new world of “ontological relativity”.
On the realist, monistic materialist/physicalist view, reality as it appears to our senses is a perfect “mirror of nature” (Rorty), a kind of immaculate perception that represents a non-participative eternal barrier between inherently unitary human consciousness and a separate Platonic RWOT. Here, we and the world are a duality of essentially separate things.
This classical Newtonian scientific paradigm, the observer-independent, theory/model-independent, realist/materialist ontology is opposed by Buddhist Middle Way, as we shall see; and by the Indian Idealism of most of the Hindu Sanatanadharma—the hoary Vedas and Upanashads. Just so, it is opposed by Buddhist Idealists, the Yogachara or “Mind Only” (chittamatra) school of Asanga and Vasubandhu. Here phenomena are adventitious, existing only as mental, relational processes, not physical/material objects of knowledge. There is no knowing, experiencing subject or self, and no object known. There is only experience arising from the “mind seeds” of the alaya vijnana, substrate “storehouse consciousness” ground which produces a reified illusion (vidya maya) that objects and a “self” or ego-I that perceives them are physically, objectively “real”. This idealist view nicely parallels the proto-idealism of quantum non-locality.
The ontology of Metaphysical Realism (a physical RWOT) is also opposed by Western Objective Idealists—Bradley, Royce, McTaggart. Monistic metaphysical Idealism then, broadly construes material reality as unreal (avidya maya), a mental apparition or illusion appearing to a perceiving consciousness. Here too, the ultimate nature of reality is mental, or mind.
Metaphysical Dualism, a third ontology, sees reality as being constituted of two distinct substances—one physical, one mental. Since Descartes, such dualism has fallen on hard times (the interaction problem). Yet, Neodualist Panpsychists (everything is/has consciousness), including “hard problem” founder David Chalmers—have energized Philosophical Dualism.
Shakyamuni Buddha told in his seminal Heart Sutra: “Form is empty (stong pa/shunya); emptiness (stong pa nyi/shunyata) is form…all dharmas are emptiness…in emptiness there is no form…no ignorance, no end of ignorance…no path, no wisdom, no enlightenment, no non-enlightenment”. Radical emptiness transcends, yet decorously embraces physical/mental form. What shall we make of such radical empiricism? Is it realism; idealism; skepticism? For Middle Way Madhyamaka, it’s a bit of all three. Spacetime form (E = mc²) is relatively real, but not ultimately real. We’ll see that form arising from its spacious emptiness ground is empty/absent intrinsic, absolute, permanent self-existence. Yet it’s “real” enough to embrace causality—cause and effect, karma—and relative-conventional spacetime relation. Healthy skepticism?
Well, ontologically speaking, what is real? Buddha asks us to “abide by means of Prajnaparamita“, the “perfection of wisdom”, this bright indwelling wisdom presence of boundless whole that is emptiness—our already present primordial awareness wisdom—and thereby “fully awaken to unsurpassed, true, complete enlightenment”. And yes, it takes a bit of trans-rational mindfulness practice to understand the prior and present unity of this Middle Way “Two Truths”—relative and ultimate—as utterly empty of self or essence; or as Nagarjuna told, without “a shred of inherent existence”. Thus does this Buddhist “no-self” Two Truths dominant trope reveal the subtle, compelling logic of the trans-conceptual, our wisdom in a minor key.
Therefore, for perspectival, nonlocal realist Middle Way Madhyamaka spacetime phenomena do indeed exist nominally, relatively, conventionally; just not inherently, absolutely or ultimately. This great gift of a really real objective reality is the gift of the Madhyamaka view, a subtle centrist balance between the ontic extremes that are the non-existence/nihilism of Metaphysical Idealism, and the naive existence/permanence/self of Metaphysical Realism/Materialism.
Kant’s robust Transcendental Subjective Idealism—a duality of nominally real, objective “phenomena” with subjective, ineffable, conceptually transcendent “noumena”—parallels Madhyamaka Prasangika’s Two Truths duality, objective Relative and subjective Ultimate, the pragmatic Middle Way view of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. Further, Kant’s centrist Critique of Pure Reason (1781) portends the Post-modern critique of Modernity’s valorization of reason.
Again, on the anti-essentialist view, reality appears not observer-independently, but interdependently (Buddha’s “Dependent Arising”, pratitya samutpada). Spacetime form is ontologically relative and observer-dependent: our appearing realities supervene, or are dependent upon our conceptual, linguistic deep cultural background “web of belief” (Quine 1969).
Is such a middle way unity of these Two Truths—relative form and ultimate emptiness—contemplatively realizable? Is there a centrist Path that bestrides our competing knowledge paradigms (exemplars), the epistemic extremes of descending, realist, atomist/materialist, objective science (form), and the ascending idealism of subjective spirituality (emptiness)?
Yes. Between these two philosophical extremes—the local realist/materialist reification of a permanent, absolute, substantial, independently existing physical and mental phenomenal reality “out there”, and an idealist nihilist negation of it—abides the mean that is the great Prasangika synthesis, the centrist, Nalanda Buddhist Middle Way Consequence School (HH The Dalai Lama 2009).
Madhyamaka Prasangika is the foundation, on the accord of Longchen Rabjam (2007), and HH The Dalai Lama (2009), of the nondual view and praxis of Vajrayana Buddhist Nyingma School’s Dzogchen, the Great Completion—that acausal, trans-conceptual “correction” or “completion” of the inherent duality of these Two Truths of Middle Way Prasangika, and indeed of the entire great Buddhist Mahayana Causal Vehicle (Klein 2006; Boaz 2015 a).
Dzogchen exegesis reveals a centrist Prasangika synthesis of the Two Truths, relative/ultimate, with an optimistic, freeing soteriology—a nondual (advaya, “not one, not two”) view and practice for an expedited human liberation/enlightenment—happiness itself; the happiness that cannot be lost. We cannot become happy/enlightened in some future; but we can be happy here now. As 2nd century Dzogchen/Ati Yoga founder Garab Dorje told, “It is already accomplished from the very beginning”, deep within us. Ultimate Truth Great Completion, our original innate, innermost clear light wisdom awareness—Buddha mind—is always already present! We practice being present to presence of That. Such is the “epistemology of presence” (Klein 2006).
Recent cosmology’s tautological, but non-trivial Anthropic Principle, in contradistinction to the Copernican Principle, restricts possible physical ground states to those that can support life (environmental selection). Our quite unlikely universe with its preposterously fine-tuned physical constants exists that numinous kosmos—consciousness itself, primordial source/ground in which this all arises—may evolve to self-reflexively (rang rig) know itself. The Strong Cosmological Anthropic Principle of Barrow and Tipler—with the Dzogchen view—suggest that a contemplative, noetic (unified subject-object, body/mind/spirit) knowledge of this unbounded kosmic whole, home of our merely physical cosmos, is required for the fruition of human realization of this great process, this “unity of awareness and emptiness”.
On the accord of Buddhist Vajrayana epistemology, this perfect understanding is our primordial wisdom Buddha mind (samatajnana), the nondual Great Completion that is perfect sphere of Dzogchen. Indeed, this is the very nature of mind, vast “supreme source” in which, or in whom our relative-conventional realities arise and participate. And on this view, That (tat) is who we actually are, our “supreme identity”. Heady wine indeed to dualistic concept-mind, ensnared as it is in William Blake’s “mind-forged manacles”—our materialist ideological grail quest for absolute objective certainty. Do we not limit ourselves most by clinging to, and defense of our closely held web of belief, this veiled dimension of “concealer truths” (samvriti satya)? Yet, wonder of wonders, there remains this selfless, splendent sky-like light of mind nature, always present throughout all our cognitive states, objective, subjective and nondual.