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