ABSTRACT: Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy is compared with Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. After briefly introducing the philosophies of Whitehead and Buddhism, some similarities between them are examined. The primary areas of convergence are (1) impermanence and process as fundamental aspects of reality, (2) the emptiness and lack of substance of things, (3) the relational and dependent nature of things, (4) the notion of ignorance and mistaken perception, (5) the possibility of freedom from ignorance and mistaken perception, (6) the emphasis on subjective and experiential aspects of reality, and (7) the fundamental limitations of language and philosophical systems in characterizing reality. The paper concludes with a discussion of an important distinguishing feature of Buddhist philosophy, namely, its dialectical method of criticism.
According to Whitehead, “the actual world is a process, and...the process is the becoming of actual entities” (PR, p. 22). These actual entities “are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real” (PR, p. 18). An actual entity is not an inert and permanent substance, but a relational process of becoming: “how and actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is. ...Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming’” (PR, p. 23). This process of becoming is a creative synthesis into one actual entity of its many relations to other actual entities. Whitehead calls the process of unification a concrescence of prehensions, where prehensions are the ways in which other entities are taken in by, and felt within the entity, and where the concrescence is the creative process of pulling together these diverse prehensions of other actual entities into a novel, organic unity. Thus, “actual entities involve each other by reason of their prehensions of each other” (PR, p. 20). Because of this mutual co-constitution, “you cannot abstract the universe from any entity...so as to consider that entity in complete isolation. ...In a sense, every entity pervades the whole world” (PR, p. 28).
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).
Dependent arising is also intimately related to the doctrine of impermanence: if things existed independent of causes and conditions, they would be permanent and unchanging; but since phenomena are impermanent and capable of change, they must arise in dependence upon causes and conditions. Another consequence of dependent arising is the law of cause and effect governing all action (karma). Because all phenomena arise in dependence upon other things, all events are the effects of previous events. The moral consequence is that our intentions result in actions that have inevitable causal consequences. Unwholesome intentions and actions result in a perpetuation of suffering, while wholesome intentions and actions result in beneficial effects, culminating in liberation from the cycle of suffering.
As Inada (1971) points out, however, Whitehead’s actual entities are not just processes of becoming. They also have an “objectively immortal” aspect that represents their potential for being prehended by other actual entities. An actual entity, according to Whitehead, is both a subject presiding over its own process of becoming, and a superject exercising its function of objectively immortality. These two irreducible aspects of the actual entity relate to the philosophical problem of acknowledging both permanence and change in reality. “There is not the mere problem of fluency and permanence. There is the double problem: actuality with permanence, requiring fluency as its completion; and actuality with fluency, requiring permanence as its completion” (PR, p. 347). Is there a Buddhist correlate, though, to the superject that represents the permanent aspect of reality? Inada suggests there is, since the Buddha taught not only the doctrine of impermanence, but also taught that there are certain structural features of experience, such as “the five skandhas, twelve ayatanas, and eighteen dhatus” (Inada, 1971). These experiential structures, however, do not actually correspond well with Whitehead’s notion of objective immortality. For example, consider the five components of phenomena (skandhas): form and matter (rupa), sensations (vedana), perceptions (sanna), psychic dispositions or constructions (samkhara), and consciousness or conscious thought (vinnana). These Buddhist structures of experience more closely resemble various phases of concrescence in the becoming of an actual entity. The objective immortality of an actual entity, on the other hand, represents the entity’s potential for prehension by other entities, not phases of its concrescence. Rather than following Inada’s suggestion, I would suggest that a more accurate Buddhist correlate to Whitehead’s concept of superject is the notion that every impermanent phenomenon, every fleeting drop of experience, does not simply disappear without any trace, but always leaves behind consequences that enter into other moments of experience. In other words, the karmic consequences of each impermanent phenomenon constitute its objective immortality. Another way of stating this is that an entity’s relatedness to other entities (i.e., its emptiness of independent existence) is its permanent aspect.
An important instance of this mistake is the Cartesian assumption that the human subject is a fundamental essence prior to human thought. Whitehead inverts the priority: “The philosophy of organism...conceives the thought as a constituent operation in the creation of the occasional thinker. The thinker is the final end whereby there is the thought. In this inversion we have the final contrast between a philosophy of substance and a philosophy of organism” (PR, p. 151). Similarly, a distinguishing feature of Buddhist philosophy is the doctrine of no-self (annata). As Buddhist practitioner-scholar B. Alan Wallace explains, the self “is not a physical, psychic, or spiritual substance propelled through time; rather it is a sequence of dependently related events. It is dependent upon the body and the mind that are its basis of designation, upon other causes and conditions that give rise to the present state of its continuum, and upon the mental designation of the self” (CR, p. 160). The self, however, is not a mere vacuity. Although it does not have an independent, separate essence, it nevertheless still has a dependent, interrelated existence. Whitehead echoes this with his statement that an actual entity is not lacking being entirely—rather, “Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming’” (PR, p. 23). Thus, both Buddhist doctrine and Whitehead’s philosophy avoid the extremes of substantialism and nihilism, and propose that things have a relational, interdependent type of existence.
Causal efficacy, however, is only one of two major ways in which an actual entity prehends other actual entities: “In each concrescence there is a twofold aspect of the creative urge. In one aspect there is the origination of simple causal feelings; and in the other aspect there is the origination of conceptual feelings. These contrasted aspects will be called the physical and the mental poles of an actual entity. No actual entity is devoid of either pole” (PR, p. 239). The physical and mental poles of the actual entity, in other words, correspond to the dependence of the entity upon efficient, physical causes and upon final, conceptual causes, respectively. As Whitehead explains, “the creative process is rhythmic: it swings from the publicity of many things to the individual privacy; and it swings back from the private individual to the publicity of the objectified individual. The former swing is dominated by the final cause, which is the ideal; and the latter swing is dominated by the efficient cause, which is actual” (PR, p. 151).
We have already seen that dependent arising in the sense of dependence upon efficient causes is the correlate in Buddhism to Whitehead’s efficient cause that dominates the physical pole of an actual entity. Is there a Buddhist correlate to Whitehead’s final cause that dominates the mental pole of an actual entity? Indeed, a very similar idea is found in other meanings of the Buddhist concept of dependent arising. In addition to arising in dependence on efficient causes, the doctrine of dependent arising also means that things exist or are established in dependence upon conceptual designation: “Events are dependent for their very existence upon the power of the mind and convention that designates them” (CR, p. 145). Thus, in addition to depending on their physical efficient causes, things also exist in dependence upon mental designation. In other words, an actual entity depends for its very determination as a particular existent upon the ingression of eternal objects through intellectual prehensions.
The notion of dependent arising in Buddhism thus encompasses both physical and mental forms of prehension. Because it encompasses all the ways in which things depend upon each other, Inada (1975) suggests that this Buddhist concept is nearly identical to Whitehead’s principle of Creativity, which accounts for the integration of the plurality of actual entities into a web of interdependence. Although there is certainly a similarity between the two concepts, the Buddhist concept of dependent arising lacks the aspect of novelty that is essential to Whitehead’s principle of Creativity. In other words, the principle of Creativity implies more than just the interdependence of things—it also implies that the process of arising is an advance into novelty, and this aspect of the principle of Creativity is not present in the Buddhist doctrine of dependent arising.
Although Whitehead’s philosophy did not originate in a soteriological context, it nevertheless contains ideas remarkably similar to the Buddhist doctrine of ignorance. First of all, like Buddhism, Whitehead associates the experience of suffering or evil with loss of things to the flux of becoming: “The world is thus faced with the paradox that, at least in its higher actualities, it craves for novelty and yet is haunted by terror at the loss of the past, with its familiarities and its loved ones. It seeks escape from time in its character of ‘perpetually perishing’” (PR, p. 340) “The ultimate evil in the temporal world...lies in the fact that the past fades, that time is a ‘perpetual perishing’” (PR, p. 340). 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.
Another similarity between the Buddhist doctrine of ignorance and Whitehead’s philosophy is the idea that our normal conscious experience is mistaken or delusive. In Buddhism, due to our deep ignorance of dependent arising, we habitually perceive things as if they were separate essences. This mistaken perception, says Nagarjuna, is intimately related to the fact that we do not see the causal connections between things: “If you perceive the existence of all things in terms of their essence, then this perception of all things will be without the perception of causes and conditions” (FWMW, p. 69). Whitehead presents a very similar view. For him, the more fundamental relational prehensions in the mode of causal efficacy are no longer apparent at the derivative level of presentational immediacy associated with normal consciousness: “The former mode [of causal efficacy] produces percepta which are vague, not to be controlled, heavy with emotion: it produces a sense of derivation from an immediate past, and of passage to an immediate future. ...The percepta in the mode of presentational immediacy have the converse characteristics. In comparison, they are distinct, definite, controllable, apt for immediate enjoyment, and with the minimum of reference to past, or to future” (PR, pp. 178-179). In other words, the distinct, definite, and isolated percepta of presentational immediacy are created by a process of ignoring the interdependence of things at the level of causal efficacy. “Consciousness is only the last and greatest of such [formative] elements by which the selective character of the individual obscures the external totality from which it originates and which it embodies” (PR, p. 15). The result of this obscuration is that “consciousness only dimly illuminates the prehensions in the mode of causal efficacy” (PR, p. 162).
When the level of causal efficacy is ignored, the abstract, derivative percepta of presentational immediacy are mistaken as being the original concrete aspects of experience. This “‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’...consists in neglecting the degree of abstraction involved when an actual entity is considered merely so far as it exemplifies certain categories of thought. There are aspects of actualities which are simply ignored so long as we restrict thought to these categories.” (PR, p. 7). These ignored aspects of actualities are exactly their dependence upon causes and conditions. Thus, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness is none other than the ignorance of the truth of dependent arising.
Whitehead’s philosophy was not created as a religious philosophy, as Buddhism was, with an explicitly soteriological purpose. Nevertheless, Whitehead does state that philosophy should reveal what has been obscured, and should serve to correct our mistaken perceptions: “Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. ...The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection [of consciousness]. It replaces in rational experience what has been submerged in the higher sensitive experience and has been sunk yet deeper by the initial operations of consciousness itself” (PR, p. 15). In other words, the propositions of philosophy represent in rational experience what has been ignored or obscured by consciousness. Transformation is then effected by the inherent power of propositions as a lure for feeling at a deeper experiential level: “The proposition becomes a lure for the conditioning of creative action. In other words, its prehension effects a modification of the subjective aim” (PR, p. 273). Thus, the possibility of our own transformation is based on the creative ingression of intellectual feelings above and beyond physical prehensions in the mode of causal efficacy. “The doctrine of the philosophy of organism is that, however far the sphere of efficient causation be pushed in the determination of components of a concrescence...beyond the determination of these components there always remains a final reaction of the self-creative unity of the universe” (PR, p. 47). Whitehead’s name for this unity is the primordial nature of God. In addition to providing us with our potentiality for creative transformation, the consequent nature of God is also “the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands” (PR, p. 351). Inada (1975) suggests that the Buddha or Tathagata corresponds to the primordial nature of God, while the Bodhisattva corresponds to the consequent nature of God, whose purpose is the attainment of value and intensity of feeling in the temporal world. This correspondence seems accurate insofar as the Bodhisattva is dedicated to compassionate action in the world for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Bodhisattva, however, is not God but a highly evolved sentient being. As for the correspondence between the Buddha and the primordial nature of God, this would be more accurately stated as the correspondence between Buddha nature and the primordial nature of God, since the Buddha Gautama was also not God but an awakened sentient being.
The Buddha and Whitehead, however, had different responses to these limitations of philosophy and language. For Whitehead, it implied that metaphysics was always subject to revision in light of deeper experience, insight, and understanding. The Buddha went further, though, to assert that it is possible to experience truth in an immediate, non-conceptual way. “It is possible to experience a reality that transcends all conceptual frameworks once one’s mind is freed from all conceptualization. When first abiding in such a realization, one has no awareness of conventional reality at all. As one proceeds to full awakening, the challenge is to integrate this profound insight with one’s experience of relative truth, in all its diversity” (CR, p. 150). This incomprehensible, integrated wisdom is appreciative of the unique value of each particular standpoint, and at the same time is not limited to any one point of view. It is even acknowledged that the Buddhist dharma itself cannot be put forward as an absolute truth. As the teaching of the way to end suffering, the Buddhist teaching is therefore not independently established as a final, absolute truth, but is rather a compassionate, responsive, dependent arising in relation to ignorance and suffering. To cling on to the Buddhist doctrines as absolutes, therefore, is inconsistent with the most fundamental principles at the basis of those very doctrines. In the words of Nagarjuna (FWMW, p. 83):
I prostrate to Gautama
Who through compassion
Taught the true doctrine,
Which leads to the relinquishing of all views.
The dialectical process does not even end there. If the discovery of emptiness is itself grasped and reduced to a conceptual conclusion or final experience, then Nagarjuna’s method can be applied again to reveal the emptiness of this object of grasping (i.e., the emptiness of emptiness). Another very subtle form of grasping can take place when Nagarjuna’s critical technique is itself grasped onto as a final truth. A consistent application of the dialectical method then will reveal that the technique is itself dependent on grasping. If there is no grasping to extremes, there can be no criticism. Therefore, even Nagarjuna’s own technique is empty. The dialectical method, therefore, has the ultimate effect of undermining itself, just as the successful application of any medicine will result in a state of health wherein the medicine is no longer useful. If there is no fixity or grasping, then Nagarjuna’s method is unnecessary, just a medicine is no longer necessary after an illness is cured. As long as we are poisoned with habits of grasping and suffer its consequences, however, the medicine of emptiness is relevant and valuable.
Thus, to the extent that Whitehead’s philosophy has medicinal powers to dispel our ignorance of dependent arising, it is essentially in harmony with the spirit of the Buddhist teachings, even if it differs in some of its details. In spite of their differences, however, there are many significant similarities between these two philosophies. It is my hope that this paper will foster deeper understanding of both Whitehead’s process philosophy and Buddhist teachings, and help all sentient beings in their creative advance toward Buddhahood.
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(c) 2000 Thomas J McFarlane