The Metaphysics of Cumulative Penetration Revisited

by Kenneth K. Inada

Kenneth K. Inada is Professor of Philosophy, SUNY at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 154-158, Vol.13, Number 2 Summer, 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Inada discusses Hua-yen thought. In Appearance and the latter Reality Whitehead agrees in a descriptive sense, with the dharmadhatu is seen as a “merging” phenomenon where such characteristics as harmonization, mutual identity, and penetration, and interfusion are rightly applied.

Professor Steve Odin’s "A Metaphysics of Cumulative Penetration: Process Theory and Hua-yen Buddhism" (PS 11:65-82), is a highly stimulating and challenging essay not only for Whiteheadian and Buddhist studies, but also for its comparative value.1 He has presented a searching analysis of Whiteheadian metaphysics of cumulative penetration, but his treatment of Buddhism in general and Hua-yen in particular in terms of that metaphysics leaves much to be desired, thereby marring the comparative nature of the whole essay. It seems that he has deliberately set up Hua-yen as a straw man only to be burned mercilessly down to the ground with massive Whiteheadian metaphysical support. As a consequence, the reader is left with a partial view of Hua-yen thought, condensed to a closed, muffled, ineffective, and flat system, relatively speaking.

After translating and presenting the famous passage from Ûisang’s work, Ocean Seal, Odin culls from it the principal descriptive elements of ‘‘harmonization," "non-obstruction," "interpenetration," "mutual identification," "all is one and one is all," "interfusion," "mutual containedness, etc., to depict the nature of dharmadhatu (p. 66). He finally concludes that the dharmadhatu is the "all-merging field of suchness" (p. 67). For an instant I felt that there was a typographical error for "all-emerging field of suchness," but that was not the case, for in the synopsis he reiterates that Hua-yen establishes a "total nonobstruction, interpenetration, and mutual identification in all-merging dharmadhatu" (p. 68). Thus "Hua-yen must be understood as having posited a theory of cocausation or ‘simultaneous-mutual-establishment’ wherein each dharma is causally supported or causally conditioned by every other dharma in the universe, not only by its predecessors, but by its contemporaries and successors as well" (ibid.). And finally, its theory is framed in a "symmetrical structure of causal relations" (ibid.).

Having concluded that Hua-yen has a symmetrical structure as opposed to Whiteheadian asymmetrical nature, Odin systematically excludes Hua-yen from any function of cumulative penetration. Thus Hua-yen is categorically denied the Whiteheadian notions of creativity, novelty, freedom of decision, production of novel togetherness, creative advance, negative prehension, primal mode of causal feeling, sympathetic concernedness, aesthetic-value immediacy through di-polar contrast, transpersonal Peace, etc., etc., and instead it is reduced to an impotent metaphysics, characterized by or assigned to a "static Felt Totality" (pp. 77, 81), and "theory of total determinism or necessitarianism" (p. 71). For Hua-yen, therefore, there is no room for creative synthesis, the many cannot become one and are increased by one, for whatever is has achieved is "complete ontological cohesiveness and solidarity, but at the expense of creative advance, emergent newness and the production of novelty" (p. 71).

These are indeed strong indictments against Hua-yen metaphysics which cannot go unnoticed. The denial is unconvincing and questionable. There are several premises involved in his approach that have created this one-sided interpretation of Hua-yen thought. The basic or primary flaw, which is common among interpreters of Buddhist thought, is the categorical confusion of the terms dharma and Dharma. The latter, Dharma as capitalized, refers to the truth of existence captured and enunciated by the historical Buddha. It is the Norm, the Nirvanic content, the real freedom and peace that we all seek after. On the other hand, dharma, or more commonly used in the plural, dharmas, refer to the factors of experience. They delineate the manifold phenomena of the experiential process and are thus the basic ingredients in understanding the Buddhist metaphysics of experience. Several early Buddhist schools of thought, such as the Theravada, Sarvastivada and Vijnanavda, maintained different sets of dharmas, which numbered from 75 to 100 dharmas, and focussed on the physical and mental realms of experience. For example, all sense faculties with their sense data were classified as dharmas of the physical realm and all psychological traits, such as greed, hatred, and delusion, were dharmas of the mental realm.

In basic Buddhist metaphysics, the Dharma incorporates all dharmas but not the other way around, i.e., the dharmas singly or collectively cannot be identified with the Dharma. Epistemically, the Dharma belongs to the realm of the enlightened, and the dharmas, to the unenlightened. They are totally different with respect to the categories of being and cannot he identified with each other, except when one is speaking of the progress from the unenlightened to the enlightened realm of existence.

Now the famous verse from the Ocean Seal alluded to earlier refers to the Dharma, not dharmas. Thus the Dharma-nature us ‘round and penetrating," and "the true Dharma nature is profound, mysterious and sublime." The harmony of Samsara and Nirvana, the merging of the Universal and the Particular, even the particle of dust that contains the ten directions, etc. -- all these are seen or known from the standpoint of the enlightened realm, the Dharma nature of things. Such being the case, to introduce dharmas in place of the Dharma is certainly to place the cart before the horse. The dharmadhatu is a delineation of the ideality of existence as seen by the enlightened, and thus the conventional designation of past, present, and future factors or events are transcended in virtue of the enlightened nature of things.

But the dharmadhatu is much more than a mere "simultaneous-mutual-establishment of dharmas," for it is a moving phenomenon. What makes it move? Odin rightly introduces the concepts of relational (dependent) origination (pratitya-samutpada) and emptiness (sunyat), but he immediately confuses the issue by identifying them without any qualification. His fondness for Stcherbatsky’s translation of sunyata as "universal relativity" may be the problem here. The translation gives a lofty metaphysical status to sunyata, a sense of the relativity of’ all dharmas in tile universe, so Odin rather hastily identifies it with the dha rmadhatu. But sunyata as emptiness or voidness is not an all-containing receptacle of being, nor is it a strict supporter or upholder of any or all dharmas.

The famous verse (24:18) of Nagarjuna cited by Odin (p.67) shows the identity of relational origination and emptiness, but it goes further to assert that emptiness is also identified with the middle way in virtue of the conceptual nature of grasping at the relational structure of things (prajnaptir unpadaya). Although all the doctrines mentioned in the verse are important, the most basic phenomenon or concept is still relational origination, which depicts the way of all happenings or experiential processes. Being such, without admitting any dichotomies, such as subject and object, or any dharma for that matter, the experiential process is devoid or empty of any self-subsisting entities (nihsvabhava), thereby establishing emptiness as the fact of the epistemological nature, according to Madhyamika thought. Emptiness then is not a metaphysical concept as such, depicting a status of existence, but an experiential fact of epistemological non-assertion of any substantiality either internal or external to the process. This nature of experiential fact, emptiness, makes possible the all in one and one in all metaphysics. In consequence of this Hua-yen asserts the dynamic movement of the dharmadhatu within the context of relational origination (fa-chieh yüan-ch’i),2 all of which is to be captured by the aspiring Buddhist in meditative discipline.

The dynamic movement depicted by relational origination is the key to understanding the life process. The nature of the dharmadhatu was illustrated graphically by, for example, The Treatise on the Golden Lion by Fa-tsang, the Third Patriarch of Hua-yen Buddhism but up to that point, it was mere descriptive metaphysics. Fa-tsang’s illustration must be carried to its ultimate conclusion, i.e., the lion in all its vitality must rise and move and scamper off; otherwise, there will be no lion to speak of, and every description will be limited to staticity and impotency.

In the dharmadhatu, then, there is no determinism or necessitarian elements. The historical Buddha very early in his discourses it should be recalled, admonished those who would uncritically entertain such notions as fatalism, chance, and divine fiat in understanding the experiential process. There is no reason or basis to believe that Hua-yen Buddhists deviated from this fundamental teaching. Yet, it cannot be denied that a kind of Buddhist determinism coupled with fatalism always persists because of the concept of karma. This concept is not indigenous to Buddhism, but in its popular usage it continued to carry a strong deterministic connotation that was current at the time. Buddhism, however, transformed it into a nondeterministic action concept. It became a vital part of the doctrine of relational origination, i.e., the active volitional force that propels the wheel of life to turn on and on.

In this respect, the early Buddhists spoke of existence in a twofold sense, i.e., the active component (kamma-bhava) and passive component (upapatti-bhava) both working in tandem, but the active component remains the motive force in the experiential process. It should be noted that this karma function has an asymmetrical tendency in that it avoids the symmetrical and deterministic flow of events. The famous sutra, Anguttara-Nikaya (pp. iii, 99), for example, asserts that we can in no way extinguish our suffering if we are to reap according to our past deeds (karma), but, on the other hand, we can extinguish it if what we reap accords with our present deed. It can readily be seen that the former is a deterministic statement which keeps tile deed and fruit symmetrically bound, while the latter is nondeterministic, functioning in the microscopic realm where the deed and its fruit, so-called, are not separate events but coterminously involved in the momentary existence, and where the making of the present is bound to the past content. In this way, the karmic nature is asymmetric and can be applied to the dynamics of the dharmadhatu, for, after all, it is the force in relational origination.

Relational origination is a holistic process in which there is neither absolutism covering the total metaphysical sphere of existence nor focus on any particular thing or object. It functions in the nature of the Buddhist middle way, attaching to nothing either substantial or non-substantial and involving in its train the dharmadhatu, which is at once the content of experiential fact in the microscopic as well as macroscopic processes. But the two processes are only two aspects of the self-same reality, where one is "internal" and the other "external." This is quite akin to the Whiteheadian analysis of two kinds of process or fluency, which Whitehead expands thus: "One kind is the concrescence which, in Locke’s language, is ‘the real internal constitution of a particular existent.’ The other kind is the transition from particular existent to particular existent. This transition, again in Locke’s language, is the ‘perpetually perishing’ which is one aspect of the notion of time" (PR 210/ 320). There is much to explore further on this similarity of basic metaphysics of process.

In sum, then, Hua-yen thought must be understood in two senses. In its descriptive sense, the dharmadhatu is seen as a merging" phenomenon where such characteristics as harmonization, mutual identity, and penetration, and interfusion are rightly applied. In the dynamic sense, the dharmadhatu is seen as an "emerging" phenomenon where the dynamics of relational origination is very much in evidence. In the final analysis, the former is Appearance and the latter Reality. On this point both Hua-yen and Whitehead agree.



1It has now been incorporated in a full-length study: Process Metaphysics and Hua-yen Buddhism: A Critical Study of Cumulative Penetration vs. Interpenetration, by Steve Odin (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982, xxi, 242 pp., $33.50).

2The dharmadhatu in relational origination (fa-chieh yüan-ch’i) delineates the dynamics of the dharmadhatu with all its elements, i.e., as it is constantly evolving, and does not merely depict the fact of interpenetration, interfusion, or mutual identification of the elements themselves. Thus, it is interpenetration based on relational origination and also, mutual identification based on relational origination. Put another way, relational origination is that which gives substance to the mutually identifying and mutually penetrating phenomena, thereby completing the whole experiential process.