Whitehead and Buddhism

This paper was delivered at the Buddhist College in Budapest, March 6, 2002. Used by permission of the author.


Whitehead's concept of reality can support the deepest insights of both the Buddhist and the Christian traditions. We do not have to choose between them; we can embrace both. This possibility of being both Buddhist and Christian is being lived out today by hundreds if not thousands, especially among Catholics in Japan, but not only by them. The author is convinced that this is a promising direction for the future.

Obviously, the comparison of one philosopher with a great tradition is awkward. Still some generalizations are possible. I will begin with some large and obvious differences.

Whitehead was a mathematical physicist interested in developing as coherent and intelligible a cosmology as possible. He was certainly not indifferent to its existential and religious meaning for those who accepted it. Nor was he unaware of its provisional character. He identified his project as that of speculative philosophy, understanding that to be the process of formulating hypotheses, testing and modifying them. He strove for as much objectivity and accuracy as he could attain, believing that there is real human value in conceptual understanding.

The Buddha and those who followed him most closely were critical of devoting efforts to speculate about the nature of the world. The goal was the relief of suffering and the attainment of enlightenment. This process required detachment from concepts rather than their pursuit. Ideas of various sorts may have usefulness on the way to enlightenment, but they are not part of enlightenment itself.

Nevertheless, certain ideas did become central to the Buddhist tradition. These included the rejection of substances and the notion of impermanence. These were explained by such central concepts as pratitya samutpada, which, for many Buddhists, has a quasi-metaphysical character. Although all of this, for Buddhists, subserves religious purposes, it is also deeply a part of the Buddhist worldview.

It is these features of Buddhism that Whitehead's conceptuality so closely resembles. No Western thinker has more emphatically or systematically rejected the idea of substance. Included in that rejection is also the rejection of permanence. Nothing remains the same. To be an actual occasion is to occur and then become part of the past, succeeded by other actual occasions. Experiences are fully actual, but they do not occur to a subject. Any idea of an enduring "subject" or "self" can only be an abstraction from the flow of experiences.

Furthermore, Whitehead's analysis of each occurrence as an instance of "the many becoming one" is remarkably like the analysis of pratitya samutpada by many Buddhists. We often translate that into English as "dependent origination." For Whitehead, also, we could understand each actual occasion as an instance of "dependent origination." Thus the replacement of substance by "the many becoming one" in Whitehead and by "dependent origination" in many Buddhists is very similar.

The similarity is sufficient that a few Buddhists have decided that Whitehead's detailed account of how an occasion of experience arises out of other occasions can be appropriated for Buddhist use with little or no revision. I claim them as Whiteheadian Buddhists.

There are, on the other hand, others who find it important to make a clear distinction between Buddhist thought and Whitehead on this point as well as others. My friend and discussion partner, the Zen missionary to the United States, Masao Abe, is one of these. He insists, following some well-established Buddhist traditions that, although at the level of ordinary experience and thought there is a difference between past and future, at the deepest level of experience, the enlightened level, this difference disappears. Pratitya samutpada expresses what is seen from this level. Whitehead's conceptuality, in Abe's view, remains at the ordinary level.

Abe is certainly correct that for Whitehead the difference between past and future is metaphysical. Whitehead strongly opposed those Western thinkers who ultimately denied the reality of temporal succession. He would certainly not be more appreciative of this denial coming from a Buddhist. Hence, there is a real issue here.

If it is essential to Buddhist thought to hold that the process of dependent origination originates in the same way from the future as from the past, then there is a deep conceptual difference between Buddhist ontology and that of Whitehead. For Whitehead, future events do not exist. What will happen in the future is still not determined. An occasion arises from the now determinate past. It anticipates a future and even seeks to influence it. But the causal efficacy of the past and the anticipation of the future must be clearly distinguished.

It is for Buddhists to say whether a lack of difference between past and future is essential to their thought. I know that not all Buddhists agree to that. Some share the Whiteheadian view that past and future differ and that that difference remains even from the fully enlightened perspective. I am encouraged to think that we Whiteheadians need not part company with Buddhism as such over this difference, although certainly we disagree with some Buddhists.

Even if there can be agreement on the nature of events and experiences, there is a striking difference in evaluation. Whitehead developed this aspect of his philosophy quite apart from existential or religious concerns. For Buddhists, the realization that nothing is permanent, that I am myself nothing but an instance of dependent origination, is profoundly liberating. Here, by "realization" I mean, not the sort of conceptual affirmation that is found in Whitehead's philosophy, but the making of this fact experientially real. That entails a fundamental freedom from the supposition that there is a permanent self about which one can reasonably be concerned. Nothing of this sort is discussed by Whitehead.

Indeed, it is striking that those attracted to Whitehead in the West often resist this doctrine of no continuing self more than anything else in his philosophy. They think they can appropriate much else while holding on to a stronger doctrine of ontological selfhood. I am quite sure that they are wrong, but my point here is that Whitehead's lack of appreciation of the religious importance of the no-self doctrine leads some of his readers to think they can follow him in general without appropriating this doctrine.

The response of others among Whitehead's admirers is to appreciate the possibility, through our encounter with Buddhism, to learn of the positive existential and religious importance of this doctrine. The dialogue with Buddhists has been extremely important for Whiteheadians for this reason. We may not change our conceptuality, but we discover implications of that conceptuality that are of immense importance. Some of us have been drawn to become practitioners of traditional Buddhist meditation of one sort or another.

Recognizing the danger of identifying views that arise in quite different contexts, I nevertheless do believe that somewhat different lines of reflection have led, in this case, to the same understanding of reality. This is quite reassuring to me and other Whiteheadians, since we believe that Buddhists have been testing this hypothesis for a long time. I hope it can prove reassuring to Buddhists as well, since Whitehead shows its extensive relevance and value in the interpretation of scientific findings. There is growing interest today among physicists in Whitehead's vision, and that implies, basically, in the Buddhist vision as well.

I turn now to a feature of Whitehead's analysis that has not been highlighted or thematized in Buddhism. This is the note of self-determination. It is not absent, I think, in Buddhist thought, but the issue of freedom and determinism that has been so important in Western philosophy has not be debated very clearly in Buddhist circles. One can read some Buddhist discussions as deterministic. The denial of any ultimate difference between past and future makes any theory of self-determination very difficult.

On the other hand, there certainly seems to be the possibility of breaking the chain of causation. Also there is exhortation to live in some ways rather than others, implying the ability of hearers to make decisions. Hence, I do not believe that what Whitehead emphasizes is in contradiction to Buddhism. On the contrary, I believe that as Buddhists participate in contemporary global conversation, they may find Whitehead's analysis of self-determination useful.

Whitehead's full statement is that "the many become one and are increased by one." This reflects the difference between past and future on which I have already commented. Otherwise, it seems quite compatible with Buddhist analysis. However, it opens the way to asking whether the new "one" is simply the product of dependent origination or whether the process of origination also introduces some originality. Whitehead believes that it does so. The new "one" is not simply the vector resultant of the past occasions that come together to constitute it.

Whitehead distinguishes from the initial conformal phase a second phase that he calls supplemental. The occasion is informed not only by past occasions but also by possibilities. These are those possibilities that are relevant to that particular past. But here there are alternatives. Just which possibilities will be realized in the process of synthesizing the past is not determined by the past. It is decided in the moment. That is, there is an element of self-determination in each occasion. That is why we hold ourselves and others responsible for some aspects of our beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. We could have decided differently.

It is important to emphasize that this self-determination is quite limited. We cannot determine just what past will form us. Karma in the sense of the causal efficacy of the past is not affected by our decision. But just what we will do with that karma in this moment is important for the future. And even if, moment-by-moment, the novelty and spontaneity is quite small, over time it can change the impact of the past on the present quite dramatically. The presence of self-determination in each occasion is a matter of great importance.

For Whitehead, this importance is not limited to issues of human morality, although he is keenly concerned about these. Without this element of novelty and self-determination, the world would be a machine, what William James called a block universe. In such a universe, evolution could not have occurred. Actually, there could be no life at all. Certainly there could be no thought or meaningful communication. Hence, just as important as the fact of dependent origination is the fact of self-determination. Since so much of contemporary thought, or the assumptions of contemporary thought, deny that there is any freedom of this sort, it is dangerous simply to take it for granted, as some Buddhists seem to do. It is well to have a way of articulating clearly how the present can be something more than the sheer outgrowth of the past, and Whitehead offers the needed explanation.

One reason some Buddhists may not want Whitehead's help on this topic, however, is that it is connected with his theism. For Whitehead, God is the reason that there is freedom or self-determination in the world. Obviously, many Buddhists do not want to be drawn toward theism. In any case, the connection should be explained.

Perhaps the main reason that determinism has had such a hold over modern thinkers has been that they could not see how anything other than the past could have efficacy in the present. To explain what happens in any moment is to show how and why it happens, and this explanation is entirely in terms of efficient causes. Such efficient causes are always entities or events. One cannot appeal to abstractions to explain concrete reality.

Whitehead was sympathetic with this objection to the affirmation of freedom. Everything that explains what happens must be an actual entity. The relevant possibilities that inform an occasion and call for decision cannot simply float into the occasion from nowhere. There must be an actual entity that mediates between pure possibility, which is fully abstract, and the occasions that are coming into being in the world. He called that entity God. His own sense of religious importance focused on God rather than on the realization of no-self. Christian process theology has followed Whitehead in this focus.

My friend, Abe, regards this as another point at which Whitehead is simply incompatible with Buddhism. Buddhism cannot allow for a cosmic actual entity on which we depend for life and freedom. I agree that Buddhism cannot accept the traditional doctrine of God as developed in the West. But I do not agree that Buddhism as a whole and in general is precluded from considering the reality of God as Whitehead conceived God.

First, for Whitehead, God is not a substance. Instead God is an instance, albeit the all-inclusive instance, of dependent origination. In Whitehead's full analysis, God originates not only from all the possibilities God mediates to the world but also from all the occasions that have ever occurred in the world. God depends on creatures. Creatures depend on God. God does not violate the basic Buddhist understanding.

Second, Buddhism is not wholly lacking in moves in the direction of such a God. The Sambhogakaya can be understood in some such way. In Pure Land Buddhism, Amida as the Sambhogakaya is one on whom the believer relies, much as one may rely on the Whiteheadian God. Granted, the functions of Amida are more purely soteriological, whereas Whitehead's God also has a creative role in the whole course of events. But some Pure Land thinkers do not see that acknowledging a wider role for the Sambhogaya would violate any fundamental Buddhist principle.

Some Buddhists, of course, regard talk of the Sambhogakaya as itself a concession to unenlightened needs. In that case, the connection to Whitehead disappears. For Whitehead there truly is a divine element in the whole of things apart from which there would be no life, or thought, or freedom, or love. In short grace is real. For some Buddhists, any talk of grace distracts attention from the need to discipline one's mind and heart. But for others, the denial of grace is the denial of hope. This means that a Whiteheadian theist sides with some forms of Buddhism against others. My only claim is that there is nothing in Whiteheadian theism that is fundamentally in conflict with the deepest and most widely accepted Buddhist insights.

I believe also, as you would guess, that Whitehead's understanding of God is profoundly Christian. It is in sharp tension with much in orthodox Christianity, but on many of the points of difference, it is more biblical than the philosophical theological development of the traditions under Greek influence. The Greeks celebrated imperviousness to external influence and, accordingly, insisted on God's impassibility and immutability. The Bible represents God as deeply affected by what happens in the world and profoundly interactive with the world. The tradition absolutizes God's power and affirms that God is literally omnipotent. The Bible takes for granted that human beings make their own decisions, often contrary to God's desires and purposes. When the word "almighty" appears in our European translations of the Bible, these are following the Septuagint in its substitution of this word for Shaddai, a proper name that has no such connotation. The God revealed in Jesus is far more like the gracious Love described by Whitehead than the omnipotent ruler located in a heavenly sphere that so many suppose is the Christian God.

My conclusion, you will guess, is that Whitehead's conceptuality can support the deepest insights of both the Buddhist and the Christian traditions. We do not have to choose between them; we can embrace both. This possibility of being both Buddhist and Christian is being lived out today by hundreds if not thousands, especially among Catholics in Japan, but not only by them. I am convinced that it is a promising direction for the future.

Of course, there remain massive problems. Even if one can conceptually affirm both sets of insights in a coherent way, the existential and religious developments informed by these insights often remain different. Consider, for example, the attitude toward personal existence.

Both Buddhists and Whiteheadian Christians understand that there is no substantial identity underlying personal life. There is a succession of occasions that are largely informed by their inheritance from the personal past. In fact, the relation of an occasion to its personal past is not ontologically different from its relation to other past events. Personal existence is a relative matter.

Given this conceptual understanding, two evaluations are possible. There is a tendency among Buddhists to oppose any clinging to personal existence. Enlightenment entails the deep realization that what is is just the present occasion in which the whole world comes together. There is no underlying self, uniting this occasion to others. What comes to be in the future will not be, or have, an identical self. In this way one can cease to think of oneself as a person, the same person now and in the past and future.

Christians, on the other hand, prize personal existence. This prizing does not depend on the substantial understanding of self that has so often accompanied it. The recognition that personal existence is not ontologically grounded may add to the concern to retain and strengthen it. One needs to own what one has been and be concerned for what one will be. Ethical responsibility to fulfill commitments made in the past depends on this strengthening of personal existence. Also, the importance of developing good habits entails the belief that these will shape one's future personal existence.

Deep differences in the traditions are apparent here. On the whole, Buddhists are focused on a final spiritual liberation or realization that lies fully beyond the ethical realm. It cannot be attained apart from a disciplined, moral life, and when it is attained the compassion that follows leads to behavior that transcends the need for ethical concern. On the whole, the Bible depicts the ethical and the religious in intimate continuity. Like Buddhism, it seeks to go beyond ethics, teaching that love fulfills the law without the burden of obligation and conformity to rules. But this fulfillment is more an extension and completion of the ethical than disconnection from it. It does not go beyond the need for rationally guided action for the common good. It does not set aside personal responsibility.

These are among the topics on which dialogue between Buddhists and Christians can be particularly fruitful. We do not have to debate whether there are substantial objects or substantial selves. Let us agree that for two and a half millennia Buddhists have been right about this and about much else. But this does not mean that the Jews gained no wisdom or insight through their extraordinary history of life with God. They gained a sense of history, for example, that I find convincing and inescapable. And this is connected with the way many of us understand ourselves as having some small role to play in that ever-changing historical scene. There is nothing to prevent Buddhists from integrating such understanding into their own tradition, and in fact this is happening. Buddhism is being transformed through its encounter with the Abrahamic faiths. Christianity is being transformed through its encounter with Buddhism. Whitehead's philosophy can give us an account of how such transformations occur in a healthy and creative way. In this way, also, it is relevant to the appropriation of Buddhist insight in the West.