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Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.

A friend read the previous post on ibn Sīnā and Śāntideva and asked (on Google+) what exactly I meant by “incompleteness”. It was a great question and made me realize there was a bit of confusion in my own thinking.

The point of connection I saw between the two different thinkers was above all at the level of understanding the world. The idea is that both thinkers would say we can’t understand the world just in terms of the set of entities that normally appears to us (like people and trees). Unless we either add God to the picture (ibn Sīnā) or remove the self from it (Śāntideva), we misinterpret everything else. That’s the thrust of the MacIntyre quote that the post had centred around: adding God to the world is not just a +1 to the set of entities, and removing the self is not just a -1. The presence or absence of God or self changes the nature of everything else.

That is to say that the “incompleteness” that the Muslim and the Buddhist can agree on is an epistemological incompleteness. MacIntyre’s original quote noted: “theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a ground beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible…” (emphasis added this time) A world without God, for ibn Sīnā, cannot be adequately understood; it is incomplete in the sense that our knowledge of the entities in the world has a fatal gap, until we add God to make sense of them. Śāntideva – and other Buddhists including Aśvaghoṣa and Dharmakīrti – would say the same about a world with selves. Our knowledge of the world has a fatal gap until we remove the confusion that is the self. It is not just that by positing selves in the world we add one illusory kind of thing that isn’t there (as if we had posited unicorns). It is that by positing those selves we misunderstand the nature of everything else, as ibn Sīnā would say we do if we don’t allow God as an explanation.

But there is also a big difference between the two, one which I wasn’t seeing last time because of the ambiguity in the word “incompleteness”. Śāntideva and ibn Sīnā would not agree on ontological incompleteness – that is, the idea that things themselves, and not merely our knowledge of them, actually are incomplete. For I say that for Buddhists “all of those things [in the world] are indeed taken to be radically incomplete, lacking.” And that is a point on which ibn Sīnā would disagree and disagree strongly. The things of the world would be lacking, radically incomplete, if there were no God. Such a world, I believe, is described well by the existentialists. But of course as far as ibn Sīnā is concerned there is a God, and for that reason the things of the world are not actually lacking or radically incomplete at all. It is only our understanding of them that is incomplete, insofar as we miss the presence of God.

Buddhist views are very different. For Buddhists, unlike for Muslims (or other monotheists), there is a fundamental lack in all the things of the world. They are impermanent, essenceless (which is to say not-self) and unsatisfactory, anitya, anātman, duḥkha. To the extent that there is a lack in the things for ibn Sīnā, it is that they are incomplete without God; they require God to be complete. But – this is the key point I missed – they have God! God exists, for ibn Sīnā, and therefore we can see that things actually are complete if we understand them correctly – they all point beyond themselves to the ultimate truth that is God.

Buddhists, like existentialists, have no God – early and Madhyamaka Buddhists, at any rate. They do often tend to relate to godlike beings, such as the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, but in monotheistic terms these beings are more like angels or even saints than gods; they did not create the world, they do not underlie it. The world itself has no omnibenevolent creator making it, no fundamental goodness and order underlying it. There is karma, but while karma responds to goodness and badness, it is not itself good or bad, it is simply there, as gravity is there. (That is referring to gravity as an atheist would understand it; for ibn Sīnā gravity would need to be fundamentally good, because God created it.) On an early Buddhist understanding, karma is itself something we’re trying to get out of; an arhat, a perfected person, is no longer subject to it.

In short, for Śāntideva, the world actually is incomplete and lacking, and we misunderstand it if we don’t see this lack – a lack at least partially expressed in the notion of non-self. For ibn Sīnā it’s just that the world would be incomplete without God. But since he takes God to exist, for him the world is complete; it is as it should be. The similarity between the two is that we don’t adequately understand the world, it is incomplete in intelligibility, without the key idea of God or non-self.