Process Philosophy and Buddhism

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Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby rachmiel » Fri Feb 08, 2013 2:58 pm

After decades of almost utter lack of interest in Western philosophy, I've been dipping a toe in to see "how the other side lives."

I was happily surprised to run into a fairly recent school of Western philosophy called: process philosophy. In its essence it's quite similar to Buddhist Pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination).

If you're interested, here's an interesting article:

Process and Emptiness: A Comparison of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy and Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy

Enjoy! :-)
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby conebeckham » Fri Feb 08, 2013 5:45 pm

Long ago, in a different life, a young college student took a course on Jungian psychology, Tibetan Buddhism, and Process Philosophy. The Tibetan part of the course was taught by a Gelukpa Geshe, using the Heart Sutra as foundational text. Alfred North Whitehead's philosophy was taught by a professor.

That ex-young college student doesn't remember anything about that philosophy--except that it was really difficult to understand. The Heart Sutra, on the other hand, was wonderful. And so, here I am. :smile:
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby rachmiel » Fri Feb 08, 2013 6:17 pm

Pretty much ALL of Western philosophy is hard to understand. Or, at least, hard to read. Imo complexity is fetishized in most Western philosophical works. The more labyrinthine the wording/syntax, the more (the appearance) of gravitas. Which is one of the main reasons I've steered clear of it for so long.

But, like I say, I'm curious about the other side of the tracks.
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby Astus » Fri Feb 08, 2013 6:22 pm

At college I studied some Process Philosophy and Process Theology. But it couldn't come alive for me, unlike Buddhism, so it just remained philosophy (i.e. "words talking about words"). But it doesn't mean that it can't work for others, since I know the teacher really loved it. Stoic and Cynic philosophy are different for me. :)
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby rachmiel » Fri Feb 08, 2013 6:37 pm

Astus wrote:At college I studied some Process Philosophy and Process Theology. But it couldn't come alive for me, unlike Buddhism, so it just remained philosophy (i.e. "words talking about words"). But it doesn't mean that it can't work for others, since I know the teacher really loved it. Stoic and Cynic philosophy are different for me. :)

Process theology doesn't really do it for me; it loses me at "theo" ... ;-)

But I find "secular" process philosophy very exciting. Almost overwhelming at times. Take a walk and, instead of seeing objects, see processes: tree as seed to seedling to sapling to mature tree to aging tree to dying tree to dead branches/trunk to soil: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust ... everywhere, everything. A vortex of interactive life cycles, births and deaths. The web of causal interdependency.
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby Pete Mcr » Sat Feb 09, 2013 6:14 pm

I look forward to reading this comparison with Whitehead.

I studied philosophy at uni, and still continuing to have a great affinity for the subject 10yrs later. What I took from Western philosophy is largely the process of inquiry into truth, wonder about the world, and desire to live an authentic life. My more recent interest in Buddhism seems to be a natural extension of this.

The works of Western philosophy can be (crudely) divided into 2 camps: 1) Continental philosophy; and 2) analytic/Anglo-american philosophy. I studied and enjoyed both enthusiastically, but by no means found this easy. Though Whitehead is usually sat in the latter camp (with Betrand Russell), the Continental tradition has more in common with Buddhism than analytical philosophy. One sub-school of the Continentals is phenomenology and existentialism (Husserl, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty), who explore experience and our relation to existence/being: they discuss themes such as consciousness, the body, time/impermanence, nothingness, authenticity, death, being-in-the-world, responsibility, self-deception, being-with-others, wholism, etc. Their method is strictly to describe (rather than interpret/analyse) facets of our existence. In fact, some say that Heidegger’s Being and Time is an attempt to marry up phenomenology with Eastern philosophy… though Heidegger himself joined the Nazi party and kicked out his Jewish teacher from the faculty!

Though this tradition echoes more with Buddhism, much can be taken from the other, analytic tradition, such as its use of tight reasoning to break down confusing meaningless concepts (i.e. false speech).

I agree that the original texts of philosophy are often initially impenetrable, but reviewing them alongside some secondary texts can be very rewarding.
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby rachmiel » Sat Feb 09, 2013 7:03 pm

Pete Mcr wrote:I look forward to reading this comparison with Whitehead.

If you want to discuss, please let's do, right here in this thread.

I studied philosophy at uni, and still continuing to have a great affinity for the subject 10yrs later. What I took from Western philosophy is largely the process of inquiry into truth, wonder about the world, and desire to live an authentic life. My more recent interest in Buddhism seems to be a natural extension of this.

Did a specific philosopher or philosophical work (set of works) lead you to Buddhism?
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby 5heaps » Sat Feb 09, 2013 7:11 pm

the point of impermanence is not that dependent arisings are momentary. anyone can understand that. its point is that things do not have the power to endure of their own accord: therefore the disintegration of things is uncaused and is obtained during their production ie. your death is guaranteed and is part of you because you happened to be born
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby Tom » Sat Feb 09, 2013 9:37 pm

5heaps wrote:the point of impermanence is not that dependent arisings are momentary. anyone can understand that. its point is that things do not have the power to endure of their own accord: therefore the disintegration of things is uncaused and is obtained during their production ie. your death is guaranteed and is part of you because you happened to be born


I'm not quite sure what you are getting at here? The point of the teaching on impermanence is to corrects the mistaken idea that dependent things (more specifically caused things) are permanent things. This was further developed into the thesis that all such things are actually momentary.

Both Vasbhndhu's Vināsitvānumāna argument that destruction is not caused, and later, Dharmakiti's Sattvānumāna argument from existence (and causal power) are just attempts to prove momentariness and thus impermanence and not explanations of the point/purpose of impermanence.
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby Pete Mcr » Sun Feb 10, 2013 3:03 pm

rachmiel wrote:If you want to discuss, please let's do, right here in this thread.


Firstly, I'm new to Buddhism and very new to Whitehead's process philosophy. And because of knowing little of the two, I cant critique the author's comparison. But I'm grateful that the paper is dusting off a long underused philosophy brain! I reckon, looking at the date of his text Process and Reality of 1929, that he has been used but uncredited by many philosophers (such as JP Sartre and Carl Rogers). At the moment, I can really only state that Whitehead confuses me in these places:
    1) I don't understand this notion of everything (inanimate) is 'becoming'. Becoming what? Becoming what it is? This does not make sense (e.g. a seed is becoming a seed). Becoming what it will be? This presupposes that it has a future (a seed is becoming a tree). In my view, an inanimate object (a seed) simply is; sure, it has conditions, physically connecting with other inanimate objects (soil, water, a previous tree), and it may become something else (a tree); but whilst in a state of being a seed, it remains nothing other than itself, a seed. I'm more inclined to believe that consciousness unifies temporal aspects of this animate object, its past-present-future, into what it 'may become'; the possibility of it becoming a tree presupposes a unifying consciousness.
    2) He identifies the being of an object with causation, how it has come about (its past). So a tree is reducible to how it has come about, through photosynthesis etc. Not sure about this, as to my understanding being/brute existence simply is...how a thing has come about is a reflective concern of consciousness (via reason and scientific explanation) not of the thing itself.
    (3) He seems to use the notion of God as a get-out-clause to these problems, a supernatural phenomenon that synthesises the being of indifferent inanimate objects into having a past (how it came to be) and future ('becoming'). I guess this is a matter of faith, but in my view this synthesis does not need to go beyond the consciousness of sentient beings, our Buddha nature having the capacity to do this most spectacularly.

I'm still grappling with this paper, Whitehead and Buddhism, so I don't have any sacred, hard, fastened opinions about any of this.

rachmiel wrote: Did a specific philosopher or philosophical work (set of works) lead you to Buddhism?


Short answer: Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness -> All Existentialism/Phenomenology -> Carl Rogers, Client-Centred Therapy -> Eugene Gendlin, On Focusing -> Reginald Ray, Touching Enlightnment -> interest in Buddhism

Long answer: Buddhism's notion of Dependent Arising seems similar to Heidegger's concept of Being-in-the-World-with-Others-Towards-Death, and Sartre's Transcendence-Transcending within Facticity. In terms of the 4 noble truths, all Existentialists say much about (1) 'There is suffering' and (2) 'There is a cause of suffering', and to my understanding this overlaps with Buddhism, considering self-deception/bad-faith/inauthenticity (denying brute facts such as choice/freedom/responsibility, body, death) and objectifying others as primary causes of suffering; existentialism notes that this manifests in despair, anxiety and shame; Buddhism regards this as 'ignorance of dependence arising', as far as I know.

But, in much of existentialism, fairly little is said about (3) 'There is there an end to suffering': they often suggest there is no end (e.g. "Hell is other people"), though hints are made about authenticity/good faith being a very rare but positive goal. Furthermore, very, very little is said about (4) 'There is a path to the end of suffering'... Secondary literature attempted to find this path in Existentialism, and Sartre briefly mentions Pure Reflection, phenomenological understanding and conceptualisation as a means to authenticity. Because of this absence, I moved away from philosophy towards practical ideas that can help further in living and being with others. Hence Buddhism (and client-centred therapy).

Can I ask, does 'Dependent Arising' refer only to consciousness/sentient beings, or inanimate objects too?
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Re: Process Philosophy and Buddhism

Postby 5heaps » Sun Feb 10, 2013 9:14 pm

Tom wrote:The point of the teaching on impermanence is to corrects the mistaken idea that dependent things (more specifically caused things) are permanent things.

yes but thats just gross impermanence and its largely useless since it only gets rid of false learned views. you need subtle impermanence, which is not merely momentariness, to remove the innate view of permanence and to actualize a buddhist path. for example vaibhashika cannot posit momentariness without qualifying it as functioning and substantially knowable and therefore cannot produce shravakas. likewise scientists realize that the cup which appears very solid and unchanging is in fact utterly momentary, but this is completely useless and is not a means to an end to anything meaningful for the purpose of dharma. thats why momentariness is not the point of impermanence.
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