This cheeseball video (which I refer to in the podcast as the source of my pronunciations of “Nagarjuna” and “Madhyamika”) reveals that Nagarjuna had a midwestern accent and some goofy iMovie effects at his disposal. He likes using the same font as Avatar, too. And is that a ney flute I hear? Hell, yeah!
My design in doing a Buddhism episode was really to look at contributions that specific thinkers have made to still-current debates on metaphysics and epistemology, but as we found, it’s awfully hard not to get sucked into the tenets of Buddhism more generally, and of course being churlish about a world religion is going to raise more hackles than my casting aspersions on Rousseau or Plato.
I don’t know, therefore, how much I’ll feel the need over the next couple weeks to blog about the heartfelt but sometimes creepy presence of Buddhism on the web and in the margins of our culture. Following one’s independent spiritual journey is very much in the spirit of what I like about philosophy, meaning that this is the part of living religion that I can’t much object to on the grounds that children are being brainwashed into it, but at the same time, well, this video gives ample aesthetic grounds to object to the whole pursuit.
At around 3:40, the narrator gives the “fire and fuel” example that is a variation of the point we touched on about causality. Can we distinguish between a fire and what is burning? I’m going to ignore the narrator’s attempt at a modern insertion: “Even at an atomic level, the fire-fuel units can be simplified indefinitely.” That sentence does not make sense to me given what I know about chemistry. The narrator states “not only can the fire and fuel be considered neither the same nor different because of the indistinguishable boundary, but the concepts of same and different do not apply.” Stated this way, this is plainly wrong. Fuel, prior to ignition, is certainly not fire, and when it is ignited, fire is one of a few products of the chemical reaction.
There is a general problem of causality and change here, but the video doesn’t express it. Specifically, how can a cause (fuel plus other things) produce an effect (fire and other things), particularly if the cause goes out of existence as the effect is produced? A cause has to connect somehow with the effect, yet how can this be if the cause doesn’t exist simultaneously with the effect? The relevant chapter in Nagarjuna’s Foundation Stanzas is here.
Here’s an excerpt:
7. If fire and wood eliminated each other, even though fire is something other than wood, it would have to connect with wood.
8. If fire were dependent on wood and wood were dependent on fire, of what becomes fire and wood dependently, which would be established first?
9. If fire were dependent on wood, [already] established fire would be established [again]. Firewood also would be [such] even without fire.
10. If a thing (A) is established dependently (on B), [but] if what it depends upon (B) is established also in dependence on that very thing (A), what would be established in dependence on what?
11. How can a thing (A) which is established dependently (on B) be dependent (on B) when it (A) is not established? If one asks, “how can establishment be dependent?” It is not reasonable for it (A) to be dependent.
12. There is no fire that is dependent on wood; there is also no fire that is not dependent on wood. There is no wood that is dependent on fire; there is also no wood that is not dependent on fire.
I think that Nagarjuna is precipitous in #12 here in throwing away the whole game because he can’t come up with an account that makes sense of the relation between the cause and the effect, but it’s a legitimate philosophical problem, and if you can figure out what N. is saying (instead of just parroting it like the guy on the video in a way that does’t make a lot of sense and doesn’t clarify the philosophical issue), then N’s deliberations here constitute an interesting and more detailed treatment than anything of comparable antiquity that I’m familiar with from the West. (We’ll have to dig into those Pre-Socratics more for me to confirm that.)