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.’