October 19, 2006

Inherent Existence

INHERENT: involved in the constitution or essential character of something : belonging by nature or habit : Synonyms: intrinsic, innate, inbuilt, natural, inborn

EXISTENCE: 1a obsolete: reality as opposed to appearance, 1b: reality as presented in experience, 1c: the totality of existent things, 2: a particular being 2d : sentient or living being : LIFE, 2a : the state or fact of having being especially independently of human consciousness and as contrasted with nonexistence, 2b: the manner of being that is common to every mode of being, 2c: being with respect to a limiting condition or under a particular aspect, 3: actual or present occurrence Synonyms: survival, continuation, life, subsistence, being, reality, way of life

Buddhists have this concept of emptiness. The way I understand it is through a simple phrase: all things are empty of inherent existence. Or, nothing exists in and of itself. Nothing comes from nothing. Everything comes from somewhere and is dependent on causes and conditions for both its existence and our perception of its existence. Because nothing exists in and of itself, one could say that nothing really exists at all, therefore it is empty. Everything is empty. Sounds rather nihilistic, but I think that is an overly simplistic understanding.

It’s a very obscure concept (and yet very simple as most Buddhist concepts are) and I must admit I have only the lightest intellectual understanding of it. What got me thinking of it today was Professor Potter in my Philosophy of Law class. Apparently there are two different schools of thought in legal philosophy: positivists who believe law is grounded in moral principles, and realists who believe there is no such abstract thing as law, it is simply the opinions of judges (and other ‘lawmakers’).

This goes back to a conception of moral theory. Does an objective and independent morality exist? Or is morality simply a fabrication of human culture and subject to the whims of society? Do we discover morality or do we create it? Does morality have inherent existence?

Until today, I probably would have said yes, morality exists as an absolute whether we understand it or not. Then Professor Potter used the words ‘inherent existence’ which brought me back into my Buddhist teachings where those words are used commonly when discussing emptiness. Previously, when saying that things are empty, I was thinking of things, objects, physical structures, both living and inanimate. What about concepts? What about things which are not things?

If nothing inherently exists, does objective morality exist? Or justice? Or love?

Buddhists certainly think love exists. Loving compassion is a central teaching and the foundation upon which we as human beings have the ability to build a good world. So love exists, but does it inherently exist? Is it still empty? Is love merely a human construct? It doesn’t particularly bother me if it is. But what about morality? The idea that morality is a completely human construct is a little more worrying.

Thankfully, Buddhism also teaches about ultimate and relative reality. Most people do not have a conceptualization of ultimate reality because most of us aren’t Buddhas. So far we’ve had one enlightened Buddha in the past two and a half thousand years, so I’d say having an understanding of ultimate reality is fairly rare. Thus, I don’t feel to bad for my lack of understanding. Most Buddhist teachings are, by necessity, couched in relative reality. (Doesn’t that sound funny: “relative reality?”)

From the standpoint of relative reality, I think I can safely conclude (for now, and not without reservations) an objective morality exists, even if it is ‘empty.’


Lumina said...

Love it.

pooner said...

Nice. This is good. I'm reading a book called "How to see yourself as you really are." by the Dalai Lama. I'm so confused on this stuff but it is extremely interesting and meaningful.

Good stuff.

pooner said...

By the way, I only came across this because I googled "apparent arising" with no good results and then tried "inherent existence" and came upon your blog.

Monica said...

Thanks, pooner. According to my site statistics, this post has been one of the most frequent gateways to my blog because apparently a lot of people are googling 'inherent existence.' So you're not the only one in the boat. I only hope I got it somewhat correct and am not confusing all those poor people. :-)

Tim said...

Here is an attempt at scratching the surface of the definition of inherent existence:

When i first read about it i tried to understand it through its definition but that was a road block. Instead, you have to realize that nothing exists independently but rather everything depends on first its dependance on cause and effect, secondly its dependance upon its parts and thirdly its dependance upon its observers thoughts or conceptuality of its existence.

When reading the Dalai Lamas teachings one exercise that helped me was to look at a table ( or what we call a table haha)

When you look at a table and try to say that it exists independently it is impossible. Looking at the table you see it has legs, a top, screws and so forth. None of these things on there own are a table but the addition of these things together become a whole, and our perception of the combination of these things make "a table".

This realization kinda of freaked me a bit i must say and i my initial reaction was a sense of empitness, that "nothing exists at all". But the Dalai Lama in his book quickly saved me from this by stating that of course objects exist it would be silly to think otherwise. the proof that they exists is that they perform and have functions and that these things, the screws top and legs are only parts because of the existence of the whole.

Alas, this is as far as i have gotten and i must say i am feeling a bit lost now

Monica said...

Lost isn't such a bad starting place. Good luck!

Matt Vogt said...

Great post and discussion guys! Yes, I read the book as well as googled inherent existence hahha!

the table example is great as well as when you look at your hand knowing that it isn't you, or mine. When I did this I felt detached from the mind-body which was really interesting.

Indeed inherent existence is tough to remember when reading the book - - it does help with the ideas of ownership and sense of permanence. Knowing that things appear to stand as they are but are actually a glimpse of a causality continuum opens the door for us to be at-one with reality - - we see existence itself as dependent-arising.

Cool quote:
1) All persons and things are dependent upon their causes and upon their parts and cannot exist independently of them. They are dependent-arisings; consequently they are empty of inherent existence. Because all phenomena are dependent-arisings, they have a nature of emptiness.
2) Conversely; as beings and things have no independent or inherent nature, they must rely on other factors. They must be dependent-arisings.
3) The emptiness of forms is not separate from forms. Forms themselves, which are produced and disintegrate due to the presence of conditions, are by their own nature empty of inherent existence.
4) This absence of inherent existence is their final reality; their mode of abiding, their final mode of being.
5) In sum, the production and disintegration, increase and decrease, and so forth of forms are possible because forms are empty of self-powered existence. Phenomena such as forms are said to dawn from within the sphere of the nature of emptiness.


Good luck guys!


Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm reading that book too. Got stuck on the word 'inherent'. Thought I would read the entire book, get the general 'vibe' of the thing, and then re-read, assuming by osmosis it would start making more sense the more often I read it. But couldn't get past not understanding what 'inherent' really meant! So looked it up the dictionary - didn't help! So googled it and here I am... I understand the table... but was immediately conscious that 'table' is a human label... its title and its existence being so closely linked with human input makes me wonder about inherent existance of other things eg in nature, eg emotions.. I will continue to read the book, maybe the answers are awaiting me in there! :)

Still Learning said...

If everything arises from causes and conditions, does this imply that there is no such thing that we call randomness.

Assume that we have a coin that is perfectly identical on both sides (no head or tail - both sides are the same) and we drop it at 90 degree on a perfectly smooth table and in a perfectly, non-bias environment/room, should the coin, after bouncing (with the edge hitting the table) many times, eventually stand on its edge instead of falling to the side to show the "head" or "tail" because the cause and condition are the same for both sides of the coin.

Monica said...

That is possible. However, it is unlikely we'll ever find "perfect" conditions. How the coin lands will depend on microscopic inconsitences in it's mass and density, the surface on which it lands, the air through which it passes, the angle at which it is dropped, etc. What you call randomness is actually the result of causes and conditions too complex for us to understand and too small for us to measure.

Now, this starts to sound an awful like like determinism. That we just live in a universe full of atoms bumping into atoms. In which case, everything was predetermine from the moment of the big bang. But there are several theories in quantum physics which seem to account for free will. I can't explain them, but I have heard them and they are quite interesting. Physicists are highly underrated philosophers. :-)

Happy musing!

Eve said...

Reading the Dalai Lama's book too, googled "inherent existence" too, having trouble understanding too, wound up here too! :)

How I understand it right now is that I do not have inherent existence because I could not exist on my own without the atmosphere, without my parents having sex, without me eating and sleeping. I also do not have inherent existence because if I sit in the sun I burn, as time goes by I age, after I read the Dalai lama's book I change my behavior.

I think the "emptiness" confused me more. But I have resolved that by letting go of my feelings about being "empty" like it meant "shallow" or "worthless". When all it means is empty of inherent exist and because of that I can change with conditions- I can adapt to my surroundings. I am a dependent arising and that makes me flexible to the universe.

It also gives me a sense of being connected to the "whole" which I think has given me the most comfort. It has reminded me to take my ego down a notch (or two). I could not exist without pretty much everything else existing around me. It forces me to tap in to my compassion because when this is the case, we are all sharing this place and I have to take care of it not only for me but for you and vice versa. What I do does not just effect me but everyone and everything. If I destroy it, I destroy myself.

Lastly, it gives me a sense of the grandeur of it all. And how small a piece I am. And how little I actually control. Which at first was disconcerting but slowly also became a comforting thought in that this whole thing out dates me by millions and billions of years, I just need to understand that to take this form, as human, is a gift and enjoy it while I have it. Do what I can while I am here and when my "form" changes, go with it because it is all part of the big process.

DougM said...

In response to Eve's comment:
To understand the philosophical meaning of emptiness look at the simple object of a cup. We say the cup is empty if it does not contain any liquid or solid. This is the ordinary meaning of emptiness. If you remove the liquid or solid is the cup empty? No. Now it's full of air, but it still contains space, light, radiation as well as its own substance. So, from a physical standpoint the cup is always full of something. but from the Buddhist point of view, the cup is always empty; meaning that the cup is devoid of inherent existence. By that I mean the cup exists, but like everything in this world, its existence depends on other phenomena. The cups existence depends on external circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks for this page, interesting, just heard about the concept of emptiness a few days ago. little complicated. The more you read the more you get it, because the realisation is only a small part, then you have to get your brain to think like that all the time, hence meditation. Anyways, my advice is to read the heart sutra supposed to be very good in addition to the book you have mentionned at the top of the discussion.
Good luck :)

Jerry Martin said...

Your question reminded me of something I learned in a philosophy class: argument by analogy is in principle unverifiable. Perhaps a mind could cause the coin to stand on its edge:)

Jerry Martin said...

Wow! beautifully expressed. I smiled after I read it!