A Meditation on Buddhist ideas of contingency and emptiness in relation to Western Trinitarianism

Today I was doing some reading on Indian philosophy, and in particular on the ideas of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna who argued powerfully that the ultimate source of the empirical world is "emptiness" which cannot be fully identified with, nor fully distinct from, the chain of causality (or dependent origination) which upholds the empirical world. For Nagarjuna this emptiness cannot be identified with either existence or non-existence, because both of these states of (non)being are contingent on a whole host of other causes. And emptiness as such is ontologically distinct from the entire contingent world of dependent origination, and hence the ultimate emptiness which grounds the world cannot be said to exist or not exist in any meaningful sense. Thus it is erroneous to think of ultimate reality as a "being" that (a) exists, or (b) doesn't exist, or (c) exists and doesn't exist, or as (d) neither existing or not existing. In short, no categories apply meaningfully to describe the ultimate reality that grounds the world, and thus this reality is purely "empty".

Yet, if we step back from existence and non-existence as primary descriptive categories, there is a reality that precedes, and grounds, and is the source of, all being and non-being, existence and non-existence. This is possibility or potential. Being and non-being are merely the first and most important actualizations of possibility, from which all further actualizations emerge. It is improper to call this possibility a "thing", or a "being", or an "entity", for it transcends and gives rise to all things, beings, and entities as a function of the actualization of their potential. Thus "possibility" is logically prior to the entire world of being, becoming, and non-being. Further, it is improper to say that this possibility exists or does not exist, since it is itself the ground of all existence and non-existence. In the words of Buddhism, this possibility is emptiness. But it is an emptiness that is Real in a way more primal and definitive than any contingent reality that emerges from it.

In the words of Theism, this possibility is uncreated and non-contingent, as it transcends all categories and beings in the multiverse of contingent things. Although this transcendent possibility is beyond personality, beyond power, beyond knowledge, beyond goodness, yet it is proper to speak of it as personal, as well as infinitely powerful, knowledgeable, and good, since the possibility for all personhood, power, knowledge, and good is implicit within the infinite potential which gives rise to all worlds. In fact, this Real Emptiness which is the Ground of all worlds must necessarily be experienced in a threefold way in relation to any universe, no matter how many dimensions are contained in that universe.

First, this Emptiness must necessarily transcend any category or being or cause or effect within any contingent universe. Although some concepts may form helpful analogies to point toward the Transcendent, the Transcendent will necessarily exceed and remain un-inscribed by such concepts in any possible universe (and this applies even to the flawed and partial definitions of transcendence we use). Hence the first aspect of this Ultimate Reality will be the Transcendent Emptiness from which all possibility flows.

The second aspect of the Ultimate in relation to a partial and contingent universe will be the infinite possibility discussed above. Every possible contingency and reality which will or could be realized in any possible world is held in the timeless infinity that transcends all else. Thus, the Ultimate Reality will necessarily be perceived as the Infinite Pattern of Potential that grounds and gives rise to all worlds, and which is the necessary basis for all existence and non-existence, as well as every being and non-being. To borrow the language of Greek Neoplatonic thought, this Infinite Potential would be likened to a "Divine Mind" in which every possible "form" or "pattern" is present as a possibility, awaiting the opportunity to be actualized in the space and time of a contingent universe.

This leads to the third necessary aspect of the Ultimate in relation to the contingent: The experience of actual being and becoming. If the Ultimate is both the Transcendent Reality and the Infinite Possibility that gives rise to any particular universe, there is a sense in which the universe "lives and moves and exists" within and because of this Divine Ground. We get the sense that this two-fold Ultimate somehow constantly enables the actual existence of all particular beings in the universe; The sense that this universe of plurality is somehow a self-expression of this two-fold Ultimate. And thus the Omnipresent Actuality, or Immanent Being, of all particular beings, becomes the third aspect of this now three-fold Ultimate. The Ultimate is also experienced as the power of being which brings about the actualization of possibility within the field of space and time.

So, now we have this Ultimate "emptiness" experienced in a necessarily threefold manner from the standpoint of any contingent and finite world, as Transcendent Reality/Emptiness, Infinite Possibility/Pattern, and Immanent Being/Becoming. And, as shown above, since personality, power, knowledge, and goodness is implicit within the host of possibilities that gives rise to any possible world, it is fair to say that this Ultimate Reality is personal, knowledgeable, powerful, and good, in ways which are analogous to our experience but not confined to it.

For followers of Christ, this accords well with the Divine Reality experienced in the person of Jesus Christ, who both embodied the Divine while calling God his "Father", and who poured out his Holy Spirit to be the continuation of his presence after he was absent in body. From this experience, as is well known, Christ's later followers created an interpretive concept for understanding the threefold relation of God in Christ, which we call the Trinity. In this concept, the singular Divine Life is experienced in three Persons, who are eternal and necessary self-expressions of the one God. God is Father, the Transcendent and Benevolent Source of all worlds. God is Son, the Divine Message and Pattern (Greek Logos), by whom God made all worlds, and in whom God is personally known through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. And God is Spirit, the personal power of God, through whom God gives life and existence to the entire universe, and by whom God is personally present to those who are conscious of God.

This, of course, is a very particular application of the idea that Ultimate Reality is necessarily experienced as Transcendent Reality, Infinite Possibility, and Immanent Being, as we see this worked out in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Without Jesus, it would be entirely possible to debate the moral character of Ultimate Reality. Because, in case you have not noticed, Infinite Possibility does not only include the potential for good beings and things, it also includes the potential for non-being, destruction, suffering, and death. In short, there is the possibility for evil implicit with the Ultimate. And without a definitive self-disclosure of the Ultimate, it would be entirely unclear whether the Ultimate was benevolent or malevolent or apathetic. Given the state of the Universe, it would be as consistent to say that the Ultimate wills evil and destruction, or that the Ultimate is simply unconcerned about what happens in the universe, as it is to say that the Ultimate is "good" or "loving".

But what the Incarnation of Jesus definitively shows us is that the Ultimate is self-giving, self-emptying Love, who participates in our sufferings, and works within the universe to bring about fulfillment and restoration (as witnessed by Jesus' sacrificial death and victorious resurrection). Much more could be said about this. And it is important to note that all the Great Religions-- those that have lasted centuries and nourished the lives of countless millions-- have a similar insight into the goodness and redemptive will of the Ultimate. From Buddhism to Hinduism to Judaism to Sikhism to Islam to Chinese religions, there is a unified theme of the Goodness of the Ultimate, and the desire for this Goodness to bring peace and love and fulfillment to the Created order. Even Secular Humanism, which eschews Ultimate Reality as such, has a strong intuition into the inherent goodness and value of full human flourishing and care for the world we live in.

So, we return to the Transcendent Emptiness that gives rise to all worlds. Why should there be something rather than nothing? Why give rise to any universe, with all its beauty and ugliness, joy and pain, life and death? We see in Christ and in the Great Religions an insight that there is a level of Reality that is not contained in the world of "is", "being", and "becoming". Our own language bears witness to this with the language of value. We speak not only in terms of "is" and "is not", but also in terms of "should" and "should not", of "ought" and "ought not". In this distinction between descriptive (is) and prescriptive (ought) language, we have another subtle insight into the Transcendent Reality that grounds us, which is witnessed in the pan-religious insight that the Divine ultimately wills our good, our life, our blessedness. For instance, when we say that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect, and we ought to work for the fulfillment and human flourishing of all people, we are speaking a language of value that flatly transcends and even contradicts the facts we can observe. There has never been a society where this was a reality, and in fact many societies have given complex justifications for why the opposite should happen, and some people "should" be deprived of life, liberty, or human flourishing.

So, in a world where suffering and death is ever present, and where people have often defended this order of suffering and death as "the way things are", where does this weird moral instinct come that all persons ought to be treated with dignity and humanity? And how has this Transcendent Value infected all of the Great Religions and Worldviews to the extent it has? Perhaps it is because the Transcendent Emptiness which gives rise to all worlds is also the Eternal Value that says "Let there be life! Let there be light!", and which makes "something" out of "nothing", because this "something" is inherently valuable to the Divine Life as a recipient of Divine Love. Again, we might never have this insight into the Primal Emptiness if it were not for the revelation which comes through Christ and the Great Religions. But since this insight into the Transcendent Value of Love is nearly universal across time and culture (even if it was frequently the minority view held by those despised by the rich and powerful), perhaps it is wise to incorporate this into our threefold understanding of the Ultimate.

The Transcendent aspect of "God" is thus both "empty" AND "good", valuing life for it's own sake, and willing the self-giving overflow of Divine Love to make all worlds. The Eternal self-expression of this Love is the Infinite Pattern of Possibility, which founds and gives rise to any actual world. And the overflow of Divine Life from the Transcendent Goodness through the Infinite Possibility, is the Immanent Being who brings to actualization every being in the universe, and who nourishes them and empowers them to grow and evolve into all the fullness of their Divine Potential. And not only does the Ultimate participate in the Universe as the Immanent Being, or Spirit, that upholds all things. The Infinite Pattern becomes finite in a particular human person in history, in Jesus of Nazareth, to reveal to us the depths and riches and character of the Transcendent Good who he calls "Father". It is this Father who draws us into his Infinite and Transcendent Love, through the mediation of Jesus, by the power of his Spirit.

And thus, having begun by contemplating the abstract emptiness of a Buddhist sage, we are drawn at last to a passionate and personal relationship with the Ultimate Source of our existence, who is encountered in a threefold manner as Transcendent Goodness, Infinite Possibility, and Immanent Being, in the persons of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit: One God in Glory Everlasting. Amen.

Postscript: The picture at the top is an illustration of the Trikaya, or "Threefold Body" of the Buddha. It is an interesting Buddhist idea that ultimately reality is experienced in Transcendent, Immanent, and Personal modes through the Buddha. There are interesting convergences and divergences here with the Christian idea of God as Triune.

Thanks for reading my incoherent babble. May strength and compassion and wisdom fill your life. // Nate.

Post a Comment
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.