The Lack of Being One or Many

When asked what an object, let's say a baseball, is made of, many people today will reply that it is made of atoms. If pressed, some can describe the world of subatomic particles, protons, electrons and so forth. Upon further investigation, a small army of different kinds of particles can be found inside that baseball, and the largest machines ever built are employed to find out just how many more are in there. Regardless of our current ability to physically dissect the components, however, questions remain; which part(s) of an entity can be described as "being" that entity? Is there any part of a baseball that can be said to exist absolutely as itself?

There are tests, independent of current technology, that a baseball can be put through which, if carefully pursued, can shed light on the nature of its existence. These tests, while very ancient, are still employed by the best of theoretical physicists today, who refer to them as "thought experiments". Our thought experiment comes to us from Santaraksita, the eighth century Indian scholar who, along with Tibet's King Trisong Detsen, was responsible for the founding of Tibet's first monastery. In a treatise entitled Ornament for the Middle Way, Santaraksita explains the meaning of various sutras that relate to the concept of the lack of being one or many. The Descent into Lanka Sutra says:

The entities of things are like
Appearances [of things] in a mirror
Which do not exist there
Because of lacking oneness or otherness (8)

Santaraksita renders this in syllogistic form:

A] These things propounded by ourselves and others [i.e. baseballs, etc.],
B] do not inherently exist, like a reflection,
C] because they lack in reality a nature of unity or plurality (9)

This argument captures the crux of the Madhyamika theory of emptiness and existence. An excellent elaboration of the proofs was produced by the 18th century Tibetan scholar Jang-gya, and it is with his guidance that we will find a way through the complexities of establishing the logical consistency of the argument. The criteria for establishing proof in Buddhist logic are threefold, in that there are three relationships or "modes" within the syllogism that must be correct in order for the proof to be established. In the above syllogism, A and B together make up the probandum, or that which is to be proved. A is the subject, and B is the predicate, of the probandum. C is the sign, or reason.

The first of the three modes is called the property of the subject - the sign must be a property of the subject (C must be a property of A). Here, "lacking in reality a nature of unity or plurality" is said to be a property of "things", including our baseball of course.

The second of the three modes is called the forward pervasion - the sign is pervaded by the predicate (C is pervaded by B). The sign must be a member of the class of phenomena represented by the predicate. This means that "lacking in reality a nature of unity or plurality" is pervaded by (is coextensive with or a subclass of) "not inherently existing".

The third of the three modes is called the counterpervasion. Here, the negative of the sign is pervaded by the negative of the predicate (-C is pervaded by -B). In other words, the sign must not belong to the class of phenomena represented by the negative of the predicate. Thus, anything that did have a nature of unity or plurality would have to exist inherently.

In less technical terms, the argument can be reduced to a few basic points. There is no such thing as a truly existent unity, for reasons given below. If there is no particle that exists as an inherent unit, no amount of (non-inherently existing) particles will ever amount to an inherently existing plurality or composite. If a carbon atom is not a truly existing unit, the baseball made of carbon (and other) atoms must also not exist inherently. Since "one and many" exhaust the possibilities (nothing could be more than one and less than many), the conclusion is that there is no thing that exists inherently. All things are empty of true existence.

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Copyright © 2005 Dan Haig