The most common, practical application of Nagarjuna’s philosophy is mentally deconstructing compound objects. This sounds technical but is relatively simple with practice. It is one of the most important Buddhist practices, but it is not exclusively Buddhist, in fact it is universally applicable because it is based on reason and sound philosophical principles.
Buddha famously taught ‘anātman’ (no-self). He taught that people are made up of five constituent parts or ‘aggregates’: form, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness. Form = body and the other four = mind. People are compound objects because they are composed of these multiple constituent parts. The ‘trick’ come when you search for a real self or essence among these parts — when you look for the +real+ person. Buddha said that if you systematically look for the real person within the body and mind you will not find it, and the implication is therefore that it doesn’t exist: that there is no real person, self or essence in the aggregates. You have mentally deconstructed the compound object that is the person and found ‘anātman’ (no-self). The same technique can be used on any compound object (i.e. anything which has parts), e.g. tables, chair, cars, sports teams, armies, forests, trees, leaves etc. In the passage below David Edwards deconstructs the England football (‘soccer’) team using Nagarjuna’s technique ( http://www.medialens.org/index.php/current-alert-sp-298539227/cogitations-archive/67-the-curious-case-of-the-disappearing-football-team-part-1.html )
“What do we mean by ‘the England football team’? On the face of it the question is absurd – obviously we mean the squad of players, and maybe the manager and his coaching staff. But when we check more carefully something curious happens. Consider the players: is David Beckham the England football team? Obviously not – he is merely a part of the team, not the team itself. If Beckham were the England team then that would mean all the other players were also England teams – there would be eleven England teams on the pitch every time they played. Is Wayne Rooney the England team? Again, obviously not. All of the players are merely ‘parts of the team’, not the team itself. People were not unhappy because any individual player had failed to win Euro 2004 – if completely different players had been involved, they would have felt the same – but because something beyond the individuals involved, ‘the England team’, had failed to win. The England team is understood to be the collection of players. But we have already agreed that each of the players, individually, is not the team. So when we consider the collection, we are considering a collection of parts that are all +not+ the England team. It seems remarkable to suggest that by bringing together individuals – none of whom are the England team – they might suddenly transform into an actually existing ‘England team’. Again, if we remove, one by one, the individuals who are not the England team – Beckham, Rooney, Lampard – there is nothing left, no England team. In fact, of course, ‘the England team’ is merely a mental label that we apply to a collection of individual players, but this collection does not actually exist as an object or entity; it is just a product of the mind. The public, then, is upset or delighted because a non-existent entity, a mental label, ‘England’ – a label that they themselves have applied to a group of individuals – has ‘lost’ or ‘won’. In reality, of course, a non-existent entity can neither win nor lose – a label is just a label, a mental construct.
“It is not just the England team that goes missing on closer inspection. When we search for a forest we only ever find trees. The trees are considered part of a forest, but actually they are part of nothing inherently existent – the forest is just a label in our minds. Similarly, leaves, twigs, branches and trunks are deemed to be parts of things called ‘trees’ – but a leaf is not a tree, nor is a twig, nor is a branch, nor is a trunk, nor is bark, nor is a root. What on earth, then, is ‘a tree’? In fact a ‘tree’ is just a label applied to a collection of parts – it is nowhere actually to be found, just like ‘a forest’ and just like an ‘England team’. Remarkably, this understanding applies to all phenomena made up of parts. If we look for an ‘army’, we will only ever find individual soldiers, generals, tanks and guns – the term ‘army’ is just a label. If we look for a ‘book’, we will only ever find individual pages, none of which is a book. If we search for a car, we will find wheels, doors, windows, nuts, bolts and bumpers – none of which is the car – but which we label ‘car’ and then mistake for an actually existing object. Reggie Ray at Naropa University, Colorado, asks: “Where is the essential nature of the car located, exactly? If we begin removing parts of the car, at which point does it stop being a car? The answer is that there is no point at which it stops being a car other than when I stop thinking of it in that way. Moreover, in taking the car apart, ten people would probably have ten different points at which they felt that the essential nature of car had ceased to be. This indicates clearly that essential nature is not something residing in the object, but rather something that resides just in our own thinking. The car, in and of itself, possesses no essential nature.” (Ray, Indestructible Truth, Shambhala, 2000, p.408)”
The phrase ‘inherent existence’ means absolute or real existence, or existence ‘from the side of’ the object. Following Nagarjuna we can conclude that everything in the world is empty of inherent existence: if we go looking for the real object we will not find it. However, this doesn’t mean that objects are completely devoid of existence: they can have a relative or conventional existence. If you offer to give me a lift to the airport in your car I will say ‘thank you very much’ rather than deny your car exists. Even though there is no real car to be found in its parts, your ‘car’ functions as a workable, conventional label to describe a set of gears, wheels, seats etc which can convey me to the airport. The problem is that these conventional labels become sticky. We get so used to them, and they work so well, that we assume that something ‘out there’ in the world really corresponds to the label. In technical terms we ‘reify’ (or thingify) the label.
What is the relevance of this to Sufi Islam? The immediate relevance is that Nagarjuna’s technique is philosophically valid and demonstrates that compound objects have no essence or real existence, whether or not we are atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians or whatever, therefore we need to take it on board. Moreover, from the position of ‘tanzih’ (incomparability) Sufism accepts that nothing in the world is real, because ‘there is no real but the Real (Allah)’, and Allah is not in this world. Nagarjuna’s philosophy therefore helps us to understand Sufism, particularly the work of Ibn Arabi.
Once we have established no-self (anātman), or ’emptiness’ (shunyata) as Nagarjuna called it, then we can enjoy considering how things appear from their emptiness or lack of self. In so doing we move from the ‘profundity of the ultimate’ which Buddha expressed as “form is empty” to the ‘profundity of the conventional’ which he expressed as “emptiness is form”. In a similar way, once we have established Allah’s Oneness, we can enjoy considering how the myriad things appear.
Islam places creativity and art at the centre of human existence. Everything humans produce has an aesthetic quality, even the way we drive or speak. Art is the ability to generate beauty and we can all be artists in whatever we do, by doing it beautifully. This is ihsan. For example, our relationships need the quality of ihsan. Sound relationships are creative, and are based on the recognition of others’ souls. Human beings are the summit of creation, not to exploit others but to help the rest of creation to flourish. The Muslim as khalifa is a gardener, an artist, a carer of ophans. If we behave in these beautiful ways we will naturally embue our surroundings with beauty, just as the “classical mosques were built in the form of peoples’ souls” (1) as natural expressions of beauty rather than deliberate artistic creations.
Human beings have a special ability to distill and recycle beauty, meaning that we take the beauty of the natural world in through our senses, receive inspiration from the spirit (ruh), and then +add+ to the beauty of the natural world through our artistic creations. This cycle of creativity is the true source of sustainability.
Al-Ghazali said that “True art is in hearth and earth” (1). Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) comments that ‘earth’ represents the natural realm and ‘hearth’ represents the human realm. The natural world, particularly its mineral and vegetal forms, provides inspiration for Muslim art. The human form is not a basis for Muslim art and AHM criticises Michelangelo as a “pagan restoration” – not monotheistic. AHM said there is something ‘theophanic’ about the human face which naturally draws our attention and changes the nature of a space, therefore human images are not suitable in a place of worship. However, even with regard to the mineral and vegetal, Muslims go beyond the outward forms and observe the underlying archetypes. In mosques we rarely see actual pictures of flowers or trees, but instead we see patterns of sacred geometry which abstract the underlying archetypes from the natural world and create serenity in our hearts.
(1) Abdal Hakim Murad, Al-Ghazali Retreat 2012
(2) ‘Contentions’, 17th set, number 2
In the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ Aristotle writes: “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.”
Aristotle defines politics as the master art with the other arts and sciences its servants. Politics is responsible for prioritising the other arts and sciences and allocating resources to them. In recent years the political structures of the state have abdicated this role to ‘the market’. In effect, political power has been transferred to the market, meaning the banks and global financial institutions.
The financial markets allocate resources to the most financially lucrative trades, those with the highest rates of return. They prefer to pay no attention to the human or environmental effects of these trades. Our political system is the rule of money, where money chases ever more money with little regard for anything else, and all other ends are subservient to this. Money has incorrectly become an end in itself.
We need to replace this pathological system with an alternative politics which allocates resources where they will benefit people and the environment. To accomplish this we need alternative definitions of wealth, based around human well-being and the true value of the natural world.
The spirit is impractical. The spirit is of no use. It cannot be used. Any attempt to use the spirit contravenes its nature. Impractical spirituality is based on this recognition. Rather than try to use the spirit, impractical spirituality enjoys the beauty of spirit for its own sake.
To directly seek practical applications of the spirit such as ‘spirituality in the workplace’ is to miss the point. Sure, we can appreciate the beauty of the spirit anywhere: in the home, workplace, in the car, or on a plane — but attempts to put the spirit to use in those places are like trying to form water into a chair.
Better to let the spirit use us, because the spirit is not ours to command. In Arabic the path of the spirit (ruh) is called Ruhaniyat.
“They ask thee [Mohammed] concerning the spirit. Say: “the spirit comes by command of God. Only a little knowledge of it is given to you, (O men!)” Qur’an 17:85
I would like to compare attitudes to religion across three periods of history: the traditional period, the modern period, and the post-modern period. Religions are generally associated with the traditional period, when they held sway, whereas the modern period is characterised by religion’s loss of dominance. It should be noted that different people, countries and areas of the world are at different points in the cycle: even within the same city it is possible to find modern and even post-modern people living in close proximity with traditional people.
Religion has survived in the modern period, although it has lost its dominance. Modern religion has different characteristics from traditional religion. A good place to find a systematic characterisation of modern religion is Donald Lopez’ book “A Modern Buddhist Bible” where he writes:
“Certainly, modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present. Modern Buddhism rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism, it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual over the community. (p.ix)”
Lopez also points out that modern Buddhism, like other modern expressions of religion, seeks to associate itself with the ideals of the European ‘Enlightenment’ such as “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy” (p.x).
Regarding the modern notion of progress which identifies “the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies”, this is in sharp contrast to the traditional religious notion of degeneration (found in both Islam and Buddhism), which views the original teaching / revelation period (via the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha respectively) as the ‘Golden Age’ and all subsequent generations as degenerating, more or less steeply, in virtues and accomplishments. Modernism is enamoured with the idea of progress and views the present as the most progressive age, looking down upon the ‘backwardness’ of previous ages, even the times of Mohammed and the Buddha.
The trick with modernism, as with all ideological prisms, is to recognise it as such from within. It appears so neutral, so objective, yet it is anything but. For example, the project of presenting Ibn Arabi’s philosophy to a ‘modern’ audience presupposes that such an audience even exists – in fact ‘modern’ times may be over, and the assumptions of modernism may be as (ir)relevant as the assumptions of Victorian Christianity.
Unlike modernism, post-modernism is not opposed to traditional religion. Post-modernism is basically looking for good stories (texts) and religions provide these (though it is worth noting that post-modernism prefers to relativise rather than accept any one story’s claim to absolute truth). The real strength of post-modernism comes from inhabiting the text: only by immersing oneself in the text and appreciating it from its own perspective can the story exert its full weight and narrative drive. Modernism, weighed down by its positivist agenda and burden of ‘objectivity’, can never cross the threshold of the religious text – it can only view it as a ‘spectacle’, like a tourist visiting Westminster Abbey. That is why modernists cannot truly appreciate religion.
Like traditionalists, post-modernists can and do step over the threshold of participation, and experience the force of the religious text. In this respect both are the “blind followers” so derided by modernists. The difference is that, unlike traditionalists, post-modernists retain a ‘knowing’ attitude (almost like Orwellian double-think) which enables them to simultaneous immerse themselves in and retain distance from the text.