I’ve been thinking lately about MacIntyre’s explanation of the Muslim philosopher ibn Sīnā and the ways in which ibn Sīnā’s concept of God requires us to rethink the entire world around us if we accept it:
From [atheists’] standpoint a theist is someone who believes in just one more being than they do and who therefore has the responsibility for justifying her or his belief in this extra entity. But from the standpoint of the theist this is already to have misconceived both God and theistic belief in God. To believe in God is not to believe that in addition to nature, about which atheists and theists can agree, there is something else, about which they disagree. It is rather that theists and atheists disagree about nature as well as about God. For theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with atheists involves everything. (God, Philosophy, Universities p. 47)
What’s drawing my attention is that you could write a very similar passage to characterize Buddhism. Specifically, something like this could well be said about the non-self (anattā/anātman) doctrine, which Buddhist logicians like Dharmakīrti took to be the central doctrine they needed to justify. A Buddhist version of the passage, which took non-self as the primary Buddhist metaphysical doctrine, would be almost a mirror image of the original:
From non-Buddhists’ standpoint a Buddhist is someone who believes in just one fewer class of being than they do and who therefore may have the responsibility for justifying her or his lack of belief in this class of being. But from the standpoint of the Buddhist this is already to have misconceived both the nonexistence of self and Buddhist lack of belief in the self. To believe in non-self is not to believe that in addition to the rest of nature, about which Buddhists and non-Buddhists can agree, there is one further class of entity, the self, about which they disagree. It is rather that Buddhists and non-Buddhists disagree about all of nature. For Buddhists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with non-Buddhists involves everything.
Such a paragraph, I think, fairly describes both Śāntideva’s metaphysical and ethical views and those of other (non-Mahāyāna) Buddhist writers, like Aśvaghoṣa in his Buddhacarita. The main inaccuracy in it would be the presentation of “nature”, for Buddhists rarely identify one unified singular entity that could be referred to collectively as “nature”. In this they are quite unlike their Sāṃkhya and Yoga opponents, who identify everything other than the self (puruṣa) as a singular entity called prakṛti. By contrast, in mainstream and Madhyamaka Buddhist thought, worldly phenomena are typically plural, with no unity – referred to as “compounded things” (saṃskṛta dharmas) or “aggregates” (skandhas). But – this is key – all of those things are indeed taken to be radically incomplete, lacking. They are fundamentally characterized by their impermanence (anitya), their status as suffering or unsatisfactoriness (duḥkha) – and their being anātman. For human beings to be anātman means they have no self – but for other phenomena, it may be best understood that they have no essence, no nature. As Nāgārjuna would put it, they have no svabhāva, no “own-being”.
Buddhists and Muslims then share a view that there is something radically incomplete about the manifold things around us as they present themselves to us, and to understand those things we need to understand that incompleteness. The difference is that for Muslims like ibn Sīnā, they can be completed by the ultimate referent and essence that underlies them, which is God. For Buddhists, however, there is no such ultimate referent, no ultimate completeness. Rather, it is the incompleteness itself that is ultimate; to reach a satisfactory state beyond suffering or disappointment, we must transcend all of those things (including our own selves) that have impermanence and disappointment as their nature. Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita is a powerful exposition of this view, showing in lyrical and evocative Sanskrit poetry how the Buddha-to-be came to his vision by seeing how the phenomena of the world are always impermanent and subject to decay, and that no form of life dependent on them could be ultimately satisfactory.
I find this point gives me a firmer grasp on the four ethically significant metaphysical claims in my previous article. I had identified four metaphysical claims of Śāntideva’s that each underlie an ethical claim, but hadn’t adequately described the connections between those metaphysical claims. They are all claims about the essencelessness, the incompleteness, of various kinds of phenomena. If you see things as truly having no “self”, you will see the idea of a decision-making agent as reducible to causal conditions, and therefore avoid blaming others; you will see sexually attractive bodies not as whole bodies but as the fluids that make them up; you will see yourself not as a person to be prioritized but as a collection of free-floating dukkha; and you will see all things as without essence and therefore unworthy of attachment. Or so Śāntideva claims.
And so Śāntideva’s non-self, like ibn Sīnā’s God, goes very deep down. It is not merely one entity subtracted or added to the other entities in the world; it requires us to understand all those others differently, and indeed to act differently if we see correctly. So metaphysical debates about God and the self are not merely the frivolous quibblings of pedantic Aspergians; their results have fundamental consequences for the way we understand the entire world.