Something and Nothing

The problem that led me into Buddhism was the metaphysical dilemma that arises when we ask whether the universe began with something or nothing. Paul Davies writes about this problem at length in his book The Mind of God and gets nowhere definite with it. Most philosophers, scientists and theologians struggle with it in vain.  This would be because they do not see how to ‘sublate’ this distinction and thus overcome the dilemma.  So we see physicists arguing for ex nihilo creation as if it were a sensible idea, and others arguing for the eternal existence of matter on the same basis.  It is always found, however, that neither idea is sensible, and this would be why the dilemma is still a very real one for modern science and western academic philosophy.

Accordingly, when first delving into Buddhism I scoured the sutras for clear metaphysical clues on such problems. I found very few. They are there of course, but well hidden.  I did find one very relevant passage, however, and we see in it the solution for the Something-Nothing problem. Not a clear and transparent clue, maybe, but at least a discussion of the problem and the suggestion of an available solution.  Here is what the Buddha has to say to his audience of monks.  ‘Demons’ here would be mental disturbances, and not little men with horns!

Further, in his cultivation of samadi which, as a result of his pointed concentration of mind, can no more be troubled by demons, if the practiser looks exhaustively into the origins of living beings and begins to differentiate between views when contemplating the continuous subtle disturbance in this clear state, he will fall into error because of the following four confused views about the undying heaven.

i. As he investigates the origin of transformation, he may call changing that which varies, unchanging that which continues, born that which is visible, annihilated that which is no more seen, increasing that which preserves its nature in the process of transformation, decreasing that whose nature is interrupted in the changing process, existing that which is created, and non-existent that which disappears; this is the result of his differentiation of the eight states seen as he contemplates the manifestations of the fourth aggregate. If seekers of the truth call on him for instruction, he will declare: ‘I now both live and die, both exist and do not, both increase and decrease,’ thus talking wildly to mislead them.

ii. As the practiser looks exhaustively into his mind, he finds that each thought ceases to exist in a flash and concludes that they are non-existent. If people ask for instruction, his answer consists of the one word “Nothing,” beyond which he says nothing else

iii. As the practiser looks exhaustively into his mind, he sees the rise of his thoughts and concludes that they exist. If people ask for instruction, his answer will consist of the one word “Something,” beyond which he says nothing else.

iv. The practiser sees both existence and non-existence and finds that such states are so complicated that they confuse him. If people ask for instruction, he will say: “The existing comprises the non-existent but the non-existent does not comprise the existing,” is such a perfunctory manner as to prevent exhaustive enquiries.

By so discriminating he causes confusion and so falls into heresy which screens his Boddhi nature. The above pertains to the fifth state of heterodox discrimination (samskara) which postulates confused views about the undying.

Sakyamuni Buddha, The Surangama Sutra, Trans. Lu K’uan Yu, B. I. Publications, New Delhi, 1966 (p. 222)

The ensuing quote from Chuang-Tsu is typical. Funny, confusing, seemingly disordered, self-deprecating, rigorous, full of meaning and in complete agreement with the Buddha.

Now I am going to tell you something. I don’t know what heading it comes under, and whether or not it is relevant here, but it must be relevant at some point. It is not anything new, but I would like to say it.

There is a beginning. There is no beginning of the beginning. There is no beginning of that no beginning of beginning. There is something. There is nothing. There is something before the beginning of something and nothing, and something before that. Suddenly there is something and nothing, I still don’t really know which is something and which nothing. Now, I’ve just said something, but I don’t really know whether I’ve said anything or not.

     Chuang-Tsu, Inner Chapters, Trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Amber Lotus Publishing 2000

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12 Responses to Something and Nothing

  1. johsh says:

    thats an excellent quote from the Surangama Sutra, no surprise Nagarjuna shows up again in the construction of arguments.

    Nagarjuna, in a way, was game-changer as much as his inspiration the Buddha. Most of the buddhist scriptures that came after nagarjuna (dead ~250AD) , including the above (~700AD), heavily influenced buddhist thought ever since. They also had huge impact on hinduism, and its non-dual-movement called advaita vedanta – supposedly nagarjuna was hindu brahmin converted to buddhism.

  2. johsh says:

    knowing all this why did buddha choose 4 noble truths as his main teaching, his masterstroke of wisdom. This is interesting to contemplate.

    One aspect to observe here is how similar our mind works to that of other natural processes. So human thought/consequences are as real as apple falling from tree. The nature of reality is that of karma – you create your world, truly (or in other words, world is you, you the world). In this context, the only purpose of anything in this world including the “something or nothing” exercise, is to act as an anchor for shaping our thought world. Any other anchor can only end-up creating something (aka “karma”).

    Often misunderstood, Karma is not of one’s consequences, but rather of one’s creation. This is as real as it gets for morality argument.

    In a way, the 4th truth is all about building “one’s own perfect world” or doing perfect karma (dharma) . This is the differentiating feature of buddhism. Some hindu adherents including advaita (non-duality folks) and tantric explored different short-cuts to nirvana, but they all eventually had to transcend the “something and nothing” exercise and nagarjuna is glad to help out with rigorous logical reasoning. Side note, there is karma yoga from Bhagavad Gita another excellent scripture. Interesting how all these scriptures come to same conclusion.

    That quote from Chuang-Tsu is a perfect closing.

  3. dondeg says:

    So which is it, Peter???? Something or nothing??? You got me so confused!!!! 🙂 :p


    • PeterJ says:

      Lol. It’s not my fault.

      Neti, neti. Not this or that. Not something or nothing. Confusing is hardly a strong enough word. Language grinds to a halt about here and the intellect struggles. .

      I suspect that only direct experience can help make any real sense of this – even if logically it works just fine. In discursive philosophy we’d have to take an instrumental approach and just concede that it works, leaving aside the issue of understanding as being beside the point. I doubt if anyone understand materialism as a complete theory since it is logically absurd – and at least this one is okay in logic.

      If this view is correct then an understanding of the Buddha and Chuang-tsu’s words here would mean an understanding of the ground of all existence, and we’d all be sceptical if someone told us that this could be easy to understand by analysis.

      At the same time, I don’t think it need be all that difficult to understand the idea that the world can be reduced to a phenomenon to which the categories of thought cannot be applied. It is far from an unknown idea in western thought, just a regularly rejected one.

      • dondeg says:

        You know I was just joking…right? :~

        But it was worth it to hear you say: “I doubt if anyone understand materialism as a complete theory since it is logically absurd”. Got me to read your Materialism/Perversity again

        Good times, My Friend, good times!

        Did you see? I started posting on Weyl. He pretty much came to dualism too, just like Penfield. But I like Penfield’s dualism better because of its scientific implications. Weyl seems to confine himself to the more standard philosophical positions. Still, its great to see someone of his stature have such a sophisticated understanding of the issues.

        Anyway, thanks for turning me on to his writings, Peter. You should pop over to my blog and start a discussion if you have time.



      • johsh says:

        Everything! : you, the world, nothing, something. 🙂

        Buddha or Chuang-tsu are talking about real experience, not some logic to analyze. Its like somebody logically describes their experience of “love” in words, and we are all here trying to analyze the logic, conveniently ignoring the important part (to love).

        If you (re)read bible at 10yrs, 20yrs, 30yrs, is one’s “logic”/analysis the same or does the meaning change. World of difference.

  4. PeterJ says:

    Hi Don. Pardon me – I wasn’t sure you were joking. I’ll check out your posts of course. I’ve not been wordpressing for a couple of weeks.

    Hi Josh. Not sure what you’re getting at here. You seem to be preaching to the converted.

    • dondeg says:

      That’s the best kind of joke: when one is not sure. Kind of like life itself! 🙂 Yeah, I have been very busy too. Please take your time. Of course I will very much look forward to your comments. Talk to you soon, Peter! Thanks! Don

    • johsh says:

      i sensed some uncertainty…may be misunderstanding on my part. dont mean to be preachy.

      Here is another way i look at it.

      Why i comment, in general ? My comments are not necessarily to “you”…bear with me:

      1. When i read, or hear, or see, Its really a part of myself (call it consciousness) that understands it and my “current self” responds to it. So its just really me talking/learning/responding to myself. You may ask, why bother if its all just me. This has to do with transforming my “current self”, which requires full wisdom, which requires exploring the full landscape, and thats where my reading this blog, or anything else, comes in. And any misunderstanding, or comments to it/responding, is just part of learning/clarifying process.

      2. Its also a kind of a ritual. To reinforce the truth, whenever and wherever there is a chance. Rituals are so underrated, they are powerful tool in anybody’s toolbox (for anything).

      3. I do sincerely hope it triggers some thoughts in others who reads your blog and these comments. I wholeheartedly hope it benefits them. And hopefully they counter my comments, prove me wrong, which is wonderful . please see #1 above.

      Life gets really interesting once we start fully seeing the world is you, and you the world. When this is perfected (rituals help), freedom comes with it, then no fear. All the negatives slowly fall off…there is no point/place for them (Its all just you, and you everything). I would probably rate “fear” as one of the top things to fully understand and TRANSCEND. (“ego” goes first. “fear” second).

  5. Pingback: Krishnamurti’s Notebook and the Meaning of Enlightenment | The World Knot

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