Quotation by Thomas J. McFarlane from Process and Emptiness: A Comparison of Whitehead’s Process Philosophy and Mahayana Buddhist Philosophy

“…One of the core doctrines in Buddhist philosophy is that everything exists as a dependent arising (pratityasamutpada). According to the Buddha, all phenomena are dependent arisings, meaning not only that any process of arising is dependent upon prior causes and conditions, but also that the existence or establishment of any phenomenon is dependent upon other phenomena. In the Madhyamika (“Middle Way”) school of Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of dependent arising is also taken to mean that everything exists in dependence upon its own parts, and that everything exists in dependence upon the thought which designates it. In all these cases, the notion of dependent arising implies that phenomena lack independent existence. This implication is often expressed in terms of the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata): all phenomena are empty of any independent, separate essence of their own. This lack of inherent existence, however, does not imply that things do not exist at all. They do exist—but their existence is a dependent, not an independent, existence. The doctrine of dependent arising, therefore, avoids the extremes of substantialism (i.e., things exists as independent, separate essences) and nihilism (i.e., things do not exist at all).

Although both Buddhism and Whitehead associate evil and suffering with impermanence, they differ in that Whitehead roots evil in the impermanence itself, while Buddhist doctrine roots suffering not so much in impermanence but in our failure to come to terms with it.

The Buddha taught that it is possible to become free of suffering by cutting the root of our ignorance. This is possible because the truth of dependent arising implies that our very habits of ignorance are themselves impermanent, and thus all sentient beings will ultimately be liberated. In the Buddhist context, this liberation cannot be attained by mere intellectual understanding. It requires a profound transformation of the mind, typically over many years of contemplative practice.

Buddhist philosophy is formulated as a means to the end of liberation from suffering, and not as a final dogmatic metaphysical system. Although Whitehead’s philosophy was not formulated for explicitly religious purposes, he still has a similar attitude toward dogmatism: “In philosophic discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (PR, p. xiv). Whitehead and Buddhism also share a similar view of the limitations inherent in language. In Buddhism, the ultimate truth is ineffable, and cannot be formulated or expressed in thought or concept. As for Whitehead, he assures us that “philosophers can never hope finally to formulate these metaphysical first principles. Weakness of insight and deficiencies of language stand in the way inexorably” (PR, p. 4). “Language, in its ordinary usages, penetrates but a short distance into the principles of metaphysics” (PR, p. 167)”


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