Monday, May 10, 2010

Emptiness: Diamond Slivers

In the realm of phenomena there are four ways in which something can come into existence: from itself, from another, from both, and from nothing. These possibilities are exhaustive as there are no other ways in which something could come into being. If it can be demonstrated that an inherently existent being cannot come about in one of these ways, then it would also be demonstrated that an inherently existent being is a contradictory, and hence impossible, phenomenon. This is the Diamond Slivers: referring simultaneously to enlightenment (often depicted as a diamond) and the capacity of diamonds to cut other things (like delusions). The question, then, is how an inherently existent being comes to be, or if it can come to be. It seems obvious that things do come to be, like a tree growing in earth or the birth of a human being, so it makes sense to inquire into how this happens.

We define inherent existence as “the existence of something by the power of its own intrinsic or essential character” (Guy Newland, Introduction to Emptiness, 127). Or, as Lama Tsong Khapa puts it, “an inherently existent entity cannot be posited as having causes, conditions, or effects” (Ocean of Reasoning [hereafter OR], 97). This is an entity that continues to exist through time rather than being a temporary manifestation as a result of causes and conditions. It itself remains unchanged as the various causes and conditions around it change. Common examples of this are early psychological accounts of personality (which were thought to be relatively permanent), selfhood/identity (which is thought remain identical and persist through time), and, more subtly, the deluded thought or desire that composite things remain. Can such a being actually exist in a world where arising occurs?

Arising From Self

If a phenomenon inherently existed, there would be no reason for it to come into being as it would already exist. This has two absurd consequences: (1) phenomena would not come into being as all inherently existent phenomena would already exist; or, (2) if the inherently existent phenomena would come into existence again, it would produce an infinite regress as there would be no reason for it to stop its continual process of coming into existence. One aspect of the second consequence is that there would never be an opportunity for an effect to come to fruition as the cause would always ‘be busy’ re-manifesting itself. In short, the coming into being of the inherently existent phenomenon is either unnecessary or eternally redundant. In the words of Lama Tsong Khapa:

There would be no point in such a thing as a sprout arising again because it would have already achieved its status. Since the purpose of arising is to achieve one’s own status, when this has already been achieved there is no need for it to arise again... The absurd consequence would follow that it would never be the case that such things as the sprout would not arise again, because even once it has come into existence it would have to arise again.
OR, 61.

So, even as we accept the apparent continuity in relation to, e.g., personal identity, if this self were inherently existent it could not re-manifest without being unnecessary or redundant, nor could it cease to be since it inherently exists, nor could an effect ever be brought about. These are unacceptable as they are contrary to valid observation of phenomenon and, as such, should be rejected. Thus, an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from itself.

Arising From Another

This possibility is the most commonsensical approach as we naturally see, e.g., that a sprout emerges from its seed. But if we accept that the seed and sprout exist inherently, this is untenable. If the cause and the effect inherently existed from their own sides and thus are inherently independent beings, then there is no reason why one should cause the other. Per their inherent existence, they both already exist independent of each other and, as such, there is no significant reason for them to be coupled. As such, there is no reason why a sprout could not emerge from any inherently other phenomenon. As Chandrakirti puts it,

Anything could arise from anything else, because
All nonproducers would be equivalent in that they are other.
Madhyamakavatara, VI:14cd.

Furthermore, “if they existed distinctly through their own characteristics it would not make sense for them to be dependent” (OR, 67). In short, there are two problems with inherently existent phenomena arising in dependence on other inherently existent phenomena: (1) there is no reason for the inherently existent cause to bring about a specific inherently existent effect; therefore, (2) if one inherently independent cause can bring about a given independent effect, then there is no reason why any given inherently independent cause cannot bring about any inherently independent effect as all are equally other to each other in their mode of existence. Because of this, there’s no reason why impulsively buying a car or mindlessly eating a carrot cannot cause a rash or bring about enlightenment, or that a grape seed would sprout a great oak in mid-air.

Also, in our everyday understanding we accept that things are dependent on each other: the seed is a cause for the sprout and the semen is the cause of the child. As Lama Tsong Khapa put it,

Although the seeds sown are not the child or the tree, in virtue of having sown them one can regard oneself as having given rise to the child and having planted the tree. This is because, for instance, although the hand and the eye are not the person, when the hand is hurt or one sees material form with the eye one can assert that ‘I am hurt’ or ‘I see material form.’ In ordinary life, there is no convention of referring to parents and children like that; therefore, the two things mentioned in the previous example are causes and effects in virtue of belonging to the same continuum.
OR, 69.

Since inherently existent phenomena contradict our valid observations, these logical consequences are unacceptable. Thus, an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from another inherently existent phenomenon.

Arising From Itself and Another

One common response today is to try to ‘resolve’ the issue by simply tying together two problematic approaches, as if doing so somehow resolves the difficulties. However, this just compounds them, meaning that asserting this kind of causation has all of the difficulties inherent in both of the previous two arguments. Thus, an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from both itself and another inherently existent phenomenon.

Arising From Nothing

The final possibility is manifestly absurd:

If there were causeless arising, arising, which by its nature is spatiotemporally restricted, would be causeless. It would follow that if something could arise from any one thing, it would be able to arise from anything, and it would follow that all efforts would be pointless.
OR, 69.

So there are two problems: (1) valid observation shows that all arising occurs within limited spatiotemporal spheres, like a seed requiring soil, water, and sunlight to sprout; (2) anything could arise from anything or nothing, like a Bengal tiger arising ex nihilo in the middle of a shopping mall. Thus there would be no basis from which we could accomplish anything as there is no causal relationship between what we do and their effects, or any such connection would be merely coincidental. Again, this possibility contradicts our valid observations of phenomenon and as such is unacceptable. Thus, an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from nothing.


Since it has been demonstrated that an inherently existent phenomenon cannot arise from any of the four exhausted alternatives—from itself, from others, from both itself and others, and from nothing—we must conclude that inherent existence is both logically and experientially false. Since independence is not internally consistent nor logically consistent with arising, all composite phenomena must exist in dependence on others (i.e. non-inherently).

1 comment:

  1. Dear Kevin,
    i haven't read your blog fully, but in browsing came across your assertion that "semen is the cause of the child". At the risk of being dismissed as a "feminist", are there not two seeds that cause a child - the ovum being one (even though, as some might say, less important?)