Tuesday, 17 January 2017


A common intuition among Buddhists is that there is no-self (anattā), that things are empty (sunyata) and that real things are in some way an illusion.  What is not usually recognised is that this same idea has resurfaced time and time again in western philosophy since the time of Plato.  Another unrecognised aspect of no-self is that it potentially causes some problems for some teachings related to Nirvana.

In order to understand the problem of emptiness (sunyata) and nirvana, it is instructive to briefly (we'll do it very briefly -in a single paragraph) look at the historical debate in the West.  Plato was a realist and taught that abstract things such as numbers were actually real.  He taught that somewhere in the realm of forms (εἶδος or eidos) abstract forms, such as numbers exist in a state more real than the particular things we can see.  Plato thought that forms are the purest of all things being transcendent to our world and super-ordinate to matter and true knowledge is the ability to grasp the world of forms by one's mind.  Plato’s forms were, he taught, a blueprint of perfection, a perfect non-material realm that really exists somewhere.  The rejection of these Platonic forms became known as the ‘problem of universals’ and the rejection of ‘universals’ and ‘forms’ became known as ‘nominalism’ meaning ‘name’ in Latin.

No-self (anattā) is a type of nominalism because ‘self’ has no independent existence except as a name. Emptiness (sunyata) is an example of Buddhist nominalism because both reject abstract concepts, general terms or universals insisting they have no independent existence but exist only as names. Therefore, various objects labelled by the same term have nothing in common but their name. This whole thing will sound very familiar to anyone who has ever looked at Buddhist teachings.

William of Ockham
There are different types of western nominalism such as 'conceptualism' which explains things as conceptualized frameworks situated within the thinking mind (Strawson, 2006). The conceptualist view approaches the metaphysical concept of universals from a perspective that denies their presence in particulars outside the mind's perception of them which again will be very familiar to Buddhists.  They argue that universals exist only because the human mind observes the natural world and creates categories (names) for the many individual objects it sees. None of these ideas, concepts, categories, or “names” exist apart from the specific objects to which they are attached.

These particulars are not a separate reality but only a creation of the human mind. Thus, when we observe fire we ignore the differences such as size, shape, colour, fuel, heat, or smokiness, and concentrate on what we believe are the similarities. We create the phenomena “fire” which helps us bring order to our world. There is no separate “fireness” in which the variety of individual objects we label “fire” participate.

Nominalists claim that values such as 'true' and 'false' are abstract objects as well which are rejected.  The same goes for 'good,' 'evil,' 'right' and 'wrong' and all other universals.  Related to this nominalistic insight is the realisation that things are on analysis ineffable for in order that things be readily describable we need some kind of realist theory of universals (not going to go into why here, but trust me on this one – ask me or do research if that intrigues you).  That things are conceptualist and thus particulars are ineffable will be found explicitly amongst Buddhist philosophers and implicitly among Buddhist teachers.  

From the earliest times Buddhist philosophers were nomanilists and we find it taught in the Abhidharma (Siderifts, 2007, p 213) but it was not until Dignāga (c. 480 – c. 540 CE) that Buddhist philosophy became consistent on this point (Siderifts, 2007, p 213).  In this respect, some Buddhist concepts can sometimes betray the intuition of nominalism such as some understandings of Nirvana as 'unconditioned' and 'eternal'. 

Nirvana is sometimes described as being a 'pure' thing in itself much like Plato’s forms.  Nirvana is often said to be “unconditioned” (asamskrta),  “devoid of cause and effect" (visankhara/asankhata), “the unconditioned element” (asankhata-dhatu), “the unborn” (ajāta) or “the unarisen” (abhūta), “uncreated” (anutpattika) and so on.  This description of Nirvana certainly doesn’t sound like it has been created by the thinking mind due to a matrix of 'cause and effect' as standard Buddhist philosophy would suggest.

As such Buddhists potentially have their own version of the ‘problem of universals’ since they have to explain what on earth the unconditioned (asankhata) means when describing Nirvana and Buddha-nature.  There are however nominilistic explanations of Nirvana such as the Lankavatara sutra describing four types of teaching of Nirvana which were meant for different types of people on the path (Suzuki, 1932, p 169):

1) people who are suffering, or who are afraid of suffering, and who think of Nirvana;
2) there are the philosophers who try to discriminate Nirvana;
3) there are the class of disciples who think of Nirvana in relation to themselves;
4) the Nirvana of the Buddhas.

The Nirvana of the Buddha’s is to recognise “that there is nothing but what is seen of the mind itself; ...recognising the nature of the self-mind, one no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination; is where there is no more thirst nor grasping; is where there is no more attachment to external things. Nirvana is where the thinking-mind with all its discriminations, attachments, aversions and egoism is forever put away; is where logical measures, as they are seen to be inert, are no longer seized upon; is where even the notion of truth is treated with indifference because of its causing bewilderment...”

The Lankavatara sutra recognises that there are many different ways in which the ‘unconditionedness’ of Nirvana can be understood but teaches that the Nirvana of the Buddha’s is one of ‘conceptualist nomonilism’ and thus Bankei kununim (1622-93) advised us to “abide as the Unborn” or in other words don’t start making conceptual universals such as “me,” “Buddhism,” “enlightened,” “unenlightened,” “young,” “old,” "good," "evil,"  and so on.

The upshot of this is that nominalism applies even to 'emptiness' (ie, emptiness is empty) and to claim that 'enlightenment' or 'Buddhism' can be defined and said to be 'X, Y or Z' runs contrary to the core insights of the Buddhist tradition.

Mark Siderits, 2007, Buddhism as Philosophy, Ashgate Publishing Ltd

Strawson, 2006, "Conceptualism. Universals, concepts and qualities: new essays on the meaning of predicates." Ashgate Publishing, 2006

Suzuki, 1932, Lankavatara,  George Routledge & Son, London

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