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Emptiness, Creativity & Feminist Ecology: An Introduction to Process Buddhism

Emptiness, Creativity & Feminist Ecology: An Introduction to Process Buddhism by Kazi Adi Shakti

The following article was originally published in the final issue of Process Perspectives, the news magazine from the Center for Process Studies.  

The present historical juncture is marked by a convergence of crises that span across various aspects of our lives. The gravity and complexity of this multi-faceted, multi-scale problem demands a basic diagnosis that transcends disciplinary boundaries while still being immanently applicable to every domain in a manner uniquely suited for each. Anything less is necessarily partial, one-sided and provisional, being incapable of getting to the fundamental root of the krisis. A major contending diagnosis of precisely this nature comes from the ecofeminist movement, and is given an elaborated form in Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature: we suffer from the dis-ease of dualism, which structures relations of hyperseparation between contrasting poles of experience which may otherwise exist in mutually intertwined, reciprocal relationship. The dis-ease of dualism is a fractal network of multiple nested contrasts including (but not exhausted by) the contrasts of self and other, subject and object, masculine and feminine, mind and body, humanity and nature.

Some of these dualisms are more modern and yet to reach full maturity, while some are more ancient and thus deeply entrenched and naturalized. Yet the common basis of all forms of dualism is that they do not simply signify an abstract conceptual opposition but feature as the constitutive elements of a relational structure of power. At our present point of history, this structure of power privileges a “white, largely male elite” over those who occupy “the feminine sphere, the natural sphere and the sphere associated with subsistence” (22), including racialized and colonized others, who are dispossessed of their power. Each side of this duality of power is identified with one aspect of any given dualistic contrast. Thus the value-hierarchy by means of which the self-interested elite exclude, deny, denigrate, exploit and background the interests of those dispossessed others mirrors the hierarchy of dualism in which One assumes mastery over the Other, subject over object, masculine over feminine, mind over body, humanity over nature.

The relationship that the One has over the Other is structurally isomorphic in its organization to what Giorgio Agamben has identified as the paradoxical logic of sovereign or absolute power: the One, the sovereign, who is the supreme representative of bios (qualified or political life), inclusively-excludes the Other, the sacrificial body representative of zoe (“vita nuda” or bare life), wherein the One only includes the Other as part of its own constitution through its systematic negation or exclusion, which parallels the fact that the One is “at the same time outside and inside” the order of its own domain (Agamben 1998). Initially born eons ago from primeval attempts at erecting rationally ordered civilization from the “primordial chaos” of nature, more recently the developments of modern colonialism and the transnational economic calculus of capitalization has generalized this paradoxical logic of inclusive-exclusion to every possibly applicable domain of experience in which there can be identified an “other” to render as passive, exploitable resource by an actively exploiting “self” who one-sidedly enjoys the fruits of the others’ labor at their expense. 

This logic of inclusive-exclusion is paradoxical because at the same time that the master depends upon the slave for the constitution of his own identity, he denies that relationship of dependency that he has with her. It is not in spite of, but because of the paradox of the relation that the One, the Master, has with his constitutive Other, the Slave, that he is even afforded the possibility of affirming himself over and against her. To the extent that the master denies and eliminates the other, to that extent the master ultimately denies and eliminates himself. This self-elimination of the master by means of the elimination of the other is reflected in the world-historical process wherein humanity is pushing the limits of the biosphere to the brink of collapse and thereby on the verge of collapsing its own ability to sustain itself. This is a real possibility if we fail to adequately resolve this krisis and arrest this seeming inevitability.

Yet to the extent that we have yet to arrive beyond that threshold of self-annihilation and have yet to arrest its trajectory, the Master’s dualistic model of being continues to operate and is becoming increasingly consolidated. Key to this operation and consolidation of the master model is the exaltation and universalization of a particular model of reason posed over and against the body and nature. This universalist conception of reason is not just defined as being emotionally disinterested and dispassionate but is also androcentric and, critically, anthropocentric. A major feature of Plumwood’s elaboration and analysis of the master’s dualistic model of being is the critique of extant attempts at dealing with the problem of anthropocentrism, attempts which she finds to be both inadequate in diagnosing the root of the issue and as contributing to that very problem. Two major traditions or movements she criticizes in this manner are the post-mechanistic philosophy of process thought and the spiritual deep ecology movement. Although she has much to criticize of the two she recognizes the possibility of process-oriented and spiritually-oriented critiques of anthropocentrism to function as allies to the ecofeminist cause of anti-dualism and liberation from the Master model, on the condition that they can genuinely account for the failures and inconsistencies that she identifies. 

The present article (which is a shortened version of the larger exposition currently in progress) will briefly assess Plumwood’s ecofeminist criticism of process and deep ecological spirituality (and by extension, due to its proximity, Buddhism) in order to offer the possibility of a creatively synthesized and open-ended Process Buddhism that can account for these criticisms and together form a robust conception of the human-nature relation that can not only serve as a reliable ally but even function as a major participant in ecofeminist revolution. The primary test for “Process Buddhism” is whether it is capable of being free from the two extremes of radical exclusion and incorporation that form the structure and dynamic of that living misplaced concreteness that is the Master’s model of being, since it is precisely on these grounds that Plumwood forms her critique of both process thought and spiritual ecology. When brought together coherently and in a self-consistent manner, process thought and Buddhism can rectify the issues and risks found in each when taken in isolation. Implicit in this argument is the notion that ecofeminism can provide the meaningful and necessary axiological motivation required to imbue Process Buddhism with a concrete practical purpose. This way, Process Buddhism is not just an abstract philosophical framework, but a concrete mode of praxis that dependently originates out of compassionate engagement with others while constituting itself as a creatively advancing novel concrescence of its own prior achievements.

Plumwood dedicates a small but important subsection of Feminism and the Mastery of Nature to an evaluation and critique of process, a tradition which she acknowledges is a major “contemporary position which aims to replace the mechanistic model and to break down mind/nature dualism” (Plumwood 1993, 128). A major thread in her critique of the process tradition is the view that although process aims to bridge human-nature hyperseparation with its organic panpsychist alternative to mechanical materialism, it nonetheless subtly reaffirms it through overreach: process only overcomes the problem of difference through recourse to sameness and the elimination difference, which for Plumwood is an illegitimate and unnecessary move that undermines the capacity for relational engagement. Although Plumwood does mention Whitehead at the outset of her critique, the bulk of her criticism focuses on an article by Jay McDaniel in which he argues for a Whiteheadian process-theology of ecology sensitized by the critical challenges quantum physics poses to the classical model of matter as inert and lacking creativity and sentience (McDaniel 1983).

The major issues that Plumwood has with process thought in general and with McDaniel’s article in particular is that: she disagrees with the notion that “mind is made of the same ‘stuff’ as matter”, considers the idea that subatomic particles “have freedom and make choices and decisions” to be “doubtful and extremely stretched”, and thinks that the process view of experience and evolution “builds in an anthropocentric hierarchy” (Plumwood 1993, 130). For Plumwood, by illegitimately asserting that mind and matter are made of the same stuff and that there is a basic continuity between the freedom of choice between subatomic particles and complex organisms, process thought implies that all things experience in the same way, with differences in complexity marked along the same unitary axis. For Plumwood this is to assimilate the being of non-human others into a human-centered view of experience. Such an account “does not so much seek to affirm a basis for continuity as to erase difference, especially the difference between experiencers and non-experiencers” (130). Although process thinkers aim to de-anthropocentrize, they nonetheless end up being anthropocentric by generalizing experience only on the basis that it conforms to a human idea of what it means to be an experiencer, such that human experience occupies the apex of an evolutionary continuum that configures the natural world as inferior and less complex by comparison, a position that “seems to offer little prospect of a real challenge” (130) to the problem of anthropocentrism and by extension the problem of dualism.

Plumwood raises some serious and important questions that must be accounted for by any process thinker who wishes to align herself with the ecofeminist project. While Plumwood’s critique of process may be valid when considering the ideas of some process thinkers who have interpreted and added to Whitehead’s speculative ontology, so far it is unclear to what extent her criticism actually penetrates the depth of Whitehead’s own elaboration of his “philosophy of organism”. Whitehead does indeed aim to go beyond the dualism of mind and matter while also being critical of both absolute idealism and mechanistic materialism, but his alternative is likewise neither a neutral monist or dual-aspect form of panpsychism. This would be to betray his own fundamental insight that the actual entity—the basic existential unit of his categorical scheme—is an actual occasion, an event with a dipolar psycho-physical constitution, not an enduring substance with distinct physical and mental aspects. For “the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change is completely abandoned” (Whitehead 1929, 29). Since an actual occasion is an event, or more precisely a process of concrescence or coming-together, it cannot be ontologically divided into mental or physical parts, attributes or qualities, but it can be analyzed in terms of complementary functions and phases that have either subjective or objective character: “An actual entity is at once the subject of experience and the superject of its experiences. It is subject-superject, and neither half of this description can for a moment be lost sight of” (29). For Whitehead, mentality and physicality are thoroughly relative in the sense that they are not neatly delineated attributes of a substantive entity but are different yet complementary ways of analyzing any given actual occasion of experience.

Plumwood’s criticism of the idea that Process thinkers illegitimately extend consciousness to things which likely don’t have it plays on a certain ambiguity between notions of things having “feelings” and things having “consciousness.” But “feeling” has an important technical meaning in Whitehead’s thought, and bears only minimal resemblance to what is colloquially understood as “feeling”. For Whitehead the “feelings” that an actual occasion feels are “prehensions” (from the Latin prehendere meaning “to catch hold of; to seize”) of other, past actual occasions, where the past occasions are actually appropriated into the constitution of the presently prehending occasion’s own process of being-becoming. In fact, an analysis of the actual occasion reveals that it is “nothing but the concrescence” (211) or coming-together of prehensions, such that when an actual occasion is feeling another actual occasion through prehension, it is really feeling other feelings. The whole process of concrescence can be understood in simplest terms as a serial procession starting with appropriation, moving into phases of integration and hybridization leading to a novel achievement of a unified feeling or satisfaction. In Whitehead’s extensive continuum of internally related processes of experience, it is feeling all the way down.

Throughout the course of the life of an actual occasion, which involve “physical” prehensions of actual entities as datum for appropriation and “conceptual” prehensions of pure potentials for integration, “consciousness is not necessarily involved”. For Whitehead “there are many species of subjective forms” and consciousness is just one of them (24). Crucially, while “consciousness presupposes experience” experience itself does not presuppose consciousness, for consciousness “is a special element in the subjective forms of some feelings” (53, emphasis mine). Consciousness as a subjective form only comes to arise at the higher phases of those concrescent processes composing an integral nexus or structured society of manifold streams of occasions whose mental poles are regnant. And while consciousness plays a unique role in its ability to perform high level conceptual abstractions, consciousness is not necessarily exalted as an essentially more valuable achievement in the processive universe since in exchange for its capacity for abstraction it also has difficulty attuning to those earlier phases of the concrescence concerning the appropriation and integration of past occasions as initial datum by which the actual world is somatically felt through what Whitehead calls “perception in the mode of causal efficacy” as distinct from the later, more reflective disposition of “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy.” Hence “it follows that the order of dawning, clearly and distinctly, in consciousness is not the order of metaphysical priority” (162).

Diagram show an array of "decorative" or "ornamental" plants. The Encyclopedia Americana, v. 22, 1920, a two-page spread between pp. 208 and 209.

Diagram show an array of “decorative” or “ornamental” plants. The Encyclopedia Americana, v. 22, 1920, a two-page spread between pp. 208 and 209.

Having elaborated some of the details of Whitehead’s own account of process, we see that Plumwood’s critique of Process thought has not penetrated as deeply as one might initially have thought (notwithstanding the force and importance of her concerns!). Whitehead’s event ontology is a difference that makes a difference in how the rest of his speculative philosophy must be understood, since it would be inconsistent to say that, on the one hand, there are “attributes” of mind and matter predicated of some underlying stuff or “substance” which are, on the other hand, simply relative and relational roles of the constitution of any given occasion, since the latter notion would undermine the former. In reality mind and matter are different yet complementary ways in which a given occasion of process can express itself, depending on how we are looking at its functioning: whether partly as subject, partly as superject or as holonic subject-superject. The nature of the subject is that it is something which feels or prehends antecedent occasions, including them as part of its own constitution. The nature of the superject is that it is an accomplished concrescence of feelings subsequently taken up as datum for the novel prehensions of a succeeding occasion. The nature of the subject-superject is that it is a presently abiding locus of feeling, which is feeling other feelings, to be felt by more feelings. So while consciousness and high level conceptual abstraction might be a special hallmark of the human being as we understand it, feelings are much simpler and ubiquitous, but also greater in depth and breadth. For Whitehead, it is not the case that conscious awareness is the consummate achievement of all process, since this would undermine the very insight of process that all is process. Consciousness might play a special role in the unfolding of cosmic evolution, but nothing in the philosophy of organism indicates, with any air of finality and ultimate certitude, that consciousness—let alone human consciousness—is the most important achievement.

Plumwood herself admits that a “less totalising” form of process thought that is not so “devoted to the erasure of difference” may have something to offer “in the search for an alternative to mechanism” (Plumwood 1993, 130). A major thrust of the present concern is that a creatively synthesized and open-ended Process Buddhism, particularly one informed by Madhyamaka dialectics, can precisely produce for us a consistently humble process thinking that is less enthusiastic to erase difference under the name of the same, and more open to the intentional dynamics of nature that exceed capture by anthropocentric, conceptual grasp. But in order to clarify the role that Madhyamaka might play in helping build such a Process Buddhism, we must turn to Plumwood’s concern over the far more extreme version of anthropocentrism and absolutism she accuses of deep ecological spirituality, and ask to what extent Buddhism is complicit in these same issues—which is an important concern given the existing partnership and reciprocity between ecologically engaged Buddhism and the deep ecology movement.

Plumwood begins her critique of deep ecological spirituality by outlining the difference between radical exclusion and incorporation. The tendency of radical exclusion “corresponds to the conception of self as self-contained and of other as alien which denies relationship and continuity” while incorporation “corresponds to the totalising denial which denies the other by denying difference, treating the other as a form of the same or self” (155). In spite of the seemingly contradictory nature of the two moves, they form the bipolar characteristics of the Master model held together by a logic of inclusive-exclusion, and any one move is deployed whenever it is convenient for the Master to assert himself over and against the Other; the Master is consistently inconsistent in this manner. Plumwood is emphatic that although we want to overcome hyperseparation (which is the unity of radical exclusion and incorporation) we should not confuse hyperseparation with the simple separation between self and other that forms the basic conditions for genuine mutual recognition, interaction, dialogue and transformation. Conflation of simple separation with hyperseparation, in conjunction with the aim to go beyond radical exclusion, ends up just eliminating the difference that makes true relationship possible, turning the other into a representation or instance of the self. Thus Plumwood states: “The other side of the self-contained master identity then is the incorporating, totalising, or colonising self, which recognises the other only as part of the empire of the same, as colonised or as assimilated to self” (157). 

While Plumwood identifies in Process a soft form of incorporationism, she identifies a much stronger form in some varieties of deep ecological spirituality “which analyse the problem as one of separation and difference (for which the cure is taken to be merger or holism), rather than as one of dualism and hyperseparation” (160). For Plumwood this misdiagnosis leads to an overreach where attempts to solve the extreme problem of radical exclusion comes in the form of affirming the opposite extreme of incorporation. Advocates of deep ecology put forth various accounts of an expanded sense of self, whether directly or indirectly, but for Plumwood they all adhere to some version of a “cosmology of unbroken wholeness … a metaphysics which insists that everything is really part of, indistinguishable from, everything else.” (177). For Plumwood, rather than functioning as critiques of egoism, these accounts entail an “enlargement and extension of egoism” that risks or commits “the obliteration of distinction.” Against this tendency, Plumwood insists that, “an adequate account of the ecological self must be able to recognise both the otherness of nature and its continuity with the human self” (160) rather than excessively stressing continuity at the expense of otherness. The error of deep ecological inflations of the self amounts to an unbridled form of the very same universalising tendency found in the master model, and thus ironically generalizes it even further in the name of anthro-de-centrism.

Although deep ecology has advocates from many spiritual and mystical traditions, there is a strong thread of Buddhist influence within the movement. Daniel Henning has put forth a sustained book-length engagement on the similarities and synergies between engaged Buddhism and deep ecology (Henning 2002), and Arne Næss, who coined the term “deep ecology,” has also written about their resonances (Næss 2010). Julie Gregory and Samah Sabra argue that a main point of convergence between the two is their intent “to disrupt deeply entrenched dualistic thinking with an aim toward addressing imminent environmental issues” (Gregory & Sabra 2008, 61), and they derive most of their view of engaged Buddhism from the eminent Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh, who himself has stated in dharma talks that “Ecology in Buddhism should be deep ecology” (Green Dharma, n.d.). Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism and general systems theory (who was explicitly named by Plumwood) has had a major influence on the deep ecological movement through her scholarship and activism. These are just the brightest highlights of the significant influence Buddhism has had on deep ecology and how the deep ecological movement has in turn influenced the view and conduct of engaged Buddhists around the world. Considering that Plumwood’s critique of deep ecology involves characterizing it as a totalizing form of holistic idealism where everything different is part of the same underlying continuum of consciousness, it is no surprise that Buddhists might align themselves with the spiritual deep ecology movement given the fact that there have been major idealistic tendencies in the history of Mahāyāna Buddhist thought and practice since at least the 4th century (Finnigan 2017).

Mahāyāna or “Great Vehicle” Buddhism is often illustrated as being driven by two chariots: Asaṅga’s Chariot of Vast Conduct and Nāgārjuna’s Chariot of Profound View. Each are major representatives of the two schools of Mahāyāna: Yogācāra (“yogic practice”) and Madhyamaka (“middle way”). Due to its basic doctrine of Vijñāptimātra or Cittamātra (“Consciousness-” or “Mind-Only”), Yogācāra thought is considered by most Tibetan and Western scholars to be a variety of metaphysical idealism whether explicitly at the level of philosophical theory or implicitly at the level of phenomenological practice. Apart from Asaṅga (fl. 4th century C.E.) other influential figures of the Yogācāra tradition would include Asaṅga’s brother Vasubandhu (fl. 4th-5th century C.E.), and the logico-epistemologists Dignāga (c. 480-540 C.E.) and Dharmakīrti (fl. C. 6th/7th century C.E.). Each of these important Mahāyāna figures have advanced various arguments for Buddhist idealism, the general view that external objects do not exist because they are simply appearances entirely generated by, or are the nature of, the mind. 

In his highly influential Trisvabhāvanirdeśa (“Treatise on Three Natures”) Vasubandhu states that what appears to exist (parikalpita-svabhāva or the “imagined nature”) is simply a projected virtual image or representation in the mind of what is in actuality non-existent, and that this appearance appears in the form of a dualistic subject-object structure. When that projected appearance is made absent or removed from the interconnected causal nexus upon which it depends (paratantra-svabhāva or the “dependent nature”) i.e. when that appearance is realized to be non-existent, what remains is the true essence of reality (pariniṣpanna-svabhāva or the “absolutely accomplished nature”) which is by nature the absence of duality and of the nature of unity without duality (Vasubandhu 1989). So it is foundational to the view of Cittamātra that external objects do not exist and that what appears to be entities “out there” are just virtual images manifesting in one’s own mental continuum through the force of karmic seeds or tendencies ripened from past activity. In Vasubandhu’s Vimśatikāvijñaptimātratāsiddhi (“Twenty Stanzas on Consciousness-Only”) we find a sustained argument against the reality of external objects largely on the basis that since everything we consider to be necessary for experience is afforded to us in dreams, there is no legitimate reason to posit extra-mental bases for experience (Vasubandhu 1989).

Whether or not this actually counts as a form of metaphysical idealism is debated amongst contemporary scholars of Yogācāra but it is arguably methodologically idealist in the sense that the mind gains preeminent status over everything else in experience, in both explanatory and practical terms. While Yogācāra is not synonymous with Western phenomenology, some of its contemporary defenders (notably Dan Lusthaus) have likened it to a variety of phenomenology as a means to argue against the idea that Yogācāra is committed to a variety of metaphysical idealism. Lusthaus considers it “thoroughly inappropriate” to consider Yogācāra idealist because it does not admit of a cosmic creator mind, does not hold that the self or subject is non-reducible, and does not consider the Other to be essentially unknowable but that instead Yogācāra invites us to “see the Other completely and unobstructedly, which is to say, no longer as an Other at all” (Lusthaus 2006, 5, emphasis mine). Yogācārins do not end on “the conclusion that consciousness itself is ultimately real (paramārtha-sat), much less the only reality” for they have actually “suspended the ontological query that leads to either idealism or materialism, they instead are interested in uncovering why we generate and attach to such positions in the first place” (6).

Yet all that this ever establishes is that Yogācārins might not be committed to an ontological project. Arguably Yogācāra still amounts to a functionally implicit form of idealism. Tom Sparrow argues in his recent book The End of Phenomenology that phenomenologists never quite escape having certain ontological commitments even though they resist the notion “that phenomenology necessarily ends, or should end, in idealism” (Sparrow 2014, 86). This is because they are epistemologically committed to the view of what Quentin Meillassoux calls the correlationist circle, which “consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another” (Meillassoux 2010, 5). Correlationism is invariably idealist because the possibility of accurate, non-dogmatic thought or perception of the conditions of the correlation between thought and being is foreclosed from the outset, since whatever condition is conceived or perceived is, by virtue of being conceived or perceived, circumscribed by the bounds of correlation. Correlationism can come in either “weak” or “strong” forms but regardless, “every variety of correlationism is exposed as an extreme idealism” (Meillassoux 2010, 18). For Sparrow and Meillassoux the phenomenological tradition is committed to a form of strong correlationism since even when phenomenologists (like Husserl) affirm the existence of a “real world,” they still consider the posit that there might be some mind-independent reality which transcends the immanence of transcendental subjectivity “nonsensical” (Sparrow 2014, 29). So according to the Speculative Realists, phenomenology’s commitment to a correlationist framework renders it methodologically idealist even if it intends to suspend or bracket off metaphysical claims about the ontological nature of reality.

Given this, it is difficult to save Yogācāra from the charge of idealism by recourse to its deep affinity with the phenomenological tradition. Even though an explicit aim of Yogācāra is to go beyond subject-object duality, like the phenomenologists’ refusal to admit the knowability of a reality outside of correlation the Yogācāra rejection of external, mind-independent objects ensures that there is a residual subject-perspective that remains preeminent in the final analysis. This residue is indexed by svasaṃvedana or the idea that consciousness is by nature self-reflexive or self-cognizing, where in addition to being aware of cognitive content it is also simultaneously aware of that very awareness. This notion of an innately self-reflexive consciousness does not eliminate the subject-object structure so much as it retains it by subtly privileging the subject.

Given our understanding of Yogācāra Buddhism as a variety of idealism it would fall under the scope of Plumwood’s ecofeminist critique of holism. The rejection of mind-independent external objects, the elimination of the Other qua other, and the configuration of non-duality as the self-reflexive subject amount to an over-reactive and over-reaching “obliteration of distinction” that obstructs mutual transformation and recognition through “reciprocity and mutuality” and undermines the possibility for a “dance of interaction” between self and other. It amounts to an extreme form of incorporation which “denies the other by denying difference, treating the other as a form of the same or self” (155). Like the deep ecologists who aim to overcome human-nature dualism by eliminating any possibility of separation in a cosmological view of undivided wholeness, Yogācāra conflates separation with hyperseparation when it aims to overcome subject-object duality by—whether explicitly and metaphysically or implicitly and methodologically—assuming the supremacy of an innately self-reflexive subject, for whom appearances are the nature of mind only.

Although certain formulations of process thought have the potential to come into alignment with Plumwood’s ecofeminist mission, considering the above problems it may seem substantially more difficult to make Buddhism amenable in the same way. But Yogācāra is by no means representative of the whole of the Buddhist tradition, let alone the Mahāyāna. The Madhyamaka tradition has extensively engaged in dialectic and dialogue, polemic and reconciliation, with the Yogācāra tradition over the course of its history. Investigating this history and configuring a proper relationship between these two traditions is of special importance for a Process Buddhist synthesis in order to ensure coherence, but lies beyond the scope of this article. It should just be noted that many Mādhyamikas in both India and Tibet have severely criticized the Yogācāra view of Cittamātra or mind-only and svasaṃvedana or self-reflexive awareness on the basis of their idealist character and metaphysical overreach. Inquiry into these debates will disclose that the same accusations that Plumwood charges against Deep Ecological spirituality can be charged against Yogācāra. This is especially the case when recognizing that some elements of Yogācāra positively affirm the very positions that Plumwood criticizes, such as the elimination of the other qua other. While Yogācāra only “resolves” the problem of radical exclusion between self and other by recourse to the opposite extreme of incorporating the other into the self, the Madhyamaka emphasis on the lack or emptiness of intrinsic nature (whether of existence or non-existence, mind or non-mind) makes it much more difficult to posit either an inherent difference or inherent identity between self and other. Therefore Madhyamaka contra Yogācāra is the likely candidate for Buddhist allyship with the ecofeminist program of anti-dualism, paving a middle way beyond the ecocidal extremes of radical exclusion and incorporation. Yet we may still be open to the possibility that some articulations of Yogācāra do not neatly fit into our presentation, and thus may be more amenable to allyship with ecofeminism. 

The Madhyamaka or “Middle Way” lies at the heart of the Buddhas’ teachings and was taught right from the very beginning of the historical Buddha’s pedagogical career. In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or “Discourse on Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” (trans. Thanissaro 1993), the Buddha taught that “there are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth,” which are sensual self-indulgence and austere self-mortification, both of which are “ignoble” and “unprofitable” paths based in ignorance and resulting in duḥkha or suffering. Buddhas or “awakened ones” realize—experientially for themselves—the middle way that avoids these two extremes, leading to direct knowledge and unbinding of the transmigratory cycle of rebirth. Here the middle way is rendered equivalent to the Noble Eightfold Path concerning the proper view, meditation and conduct conducive to such awakening, informed by the Four Noble Truths concerning the diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and treatment for the problem of suffering. This sutta also refers to the basic insight of pratītyasamutpāda or the principle of dependent origination as idaṃpratyayatā or “mutual conditionality”: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”

The principle of the Middle Way or Madhyamaka is foundational to all Buddhism, as well as the attendant themes of the noble truths and eightfold path leading to awakening and unbinding. There is no Buddhist school or system of thought, including Yogācāra, that would reject Madhyamaka as a basic principle. Yet the association of the Madhyamaka as a school of thought begins with the 2nd century scholar-monk the Ācārya Nāgārjuna (c. 150-250 C.E.), whose Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (“Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way”) and its companion sequel the Vigrahavyāvartanī (“Refutation of Objections”) bring the philosophical implications of the Madhyamaka to its zenith. With thoroughgoing, consistent application of Madhyamaka insight, Nāgārjuna conducts an immanent dialectical critique of Buddhist and general philosophical categories. What is continuously disclosed throughout the body of the text as well as in the final analysis is the knowledge or insight that there is nothing that can function that is not dependently originated from prior and extant conditions and thus subject to cessation when the conditions of its support are no longer present. All things are śūnyā or “empty” of svabhāva or “own-being” that would allow it to exist and function independently. Therefore, there is nothing that can be grasped as a basis for holding a view or dṛṣṭi about reality. Not even emptiness can function as a view about reality since it too does not have an intrinsic nature: emptiness itself is empty. Emptiness is not to be considered a substantial basis or source of things but is simply a qualification of the actual nature of phenomena and thus is itself “a dependent concept” and just that recognition “is the middle path” (Nāgārjuna, 24.18). Hence, the Ācārya Nāgārjuna salutes the Buddha “Gautama, who, based on compassion, taught the true Dharma for the abandonment of all views” (27.30).

Abandoning views does not mean abandoning the value of truth, however. According to Nāgārjuna the Buddha’s teachings rests on the distinction between two truths: saṃvṛtisatya or “conventional truth” and paramārthasatya or “ultimate truth” (24.8-9). Conventional truths concern those worldly and dharmic phenomena which are the purview of cognitive actors who are not conditioned by defective sense-organs and mental processing and whose findings are validated by social consensus with other similarly non-defective cognitive actors, thus rendering them empirically and epistemically valid, reliable and reproducible. Ultimate truth concerns the truth of emptiness, or the lack of intrinsic nature of conventional truths and phenomena, and is the realization of highly excelled beings on the path to awakening. There is clearly a priority for ultimate truth because it alone is Nirvāṇa, but Nāgārjuna emphasizes that the ultimate truth is not taught independently of conventional truth, since the latter is a means to the realization of the former (24.10). In a way we can understand the abstract concept of emptiness itself to be a conventional truth, but a necessary one that serves an important role in the process of coming to realization of the actual, non-conceptual emptiness that is the ultimate truth.

While the original Indian Mādhyamikas following along the path laid out by Nāgārjuna never distinguished between types of Madhyamaka, on the basis of contention between Bhāvaviveka (c. 500-570 C.E.) and Buddhapālita (fl. 5th-6th centuries C.E.) along with the later Candrakīrti’s (c. 600-650 C.E.) defense of Buddhapālita, Tibetan Buddhists would produce a doxography of views in which Madhyamaka would be placed above the Buddhist realists and idealists and subdivided the Madhyamaka in a similar pattern. A fine-tuned analysis of the dialectics and polemics involved in this context can be found in the full-length version of this essay. For now it will suffice to emphasize the importance of ascertaining the manner in which Madhyamaka is suitable to participate in a creative synthesis with process thought in order to most thoroughly and consistently account for the problems of dualism.

An overarching reason for why the “appropriate form” of Madhyamaka for a Process-Buddhist synthesis needs to be decided is that not all forms are suitable for partnership with speculative philosophy; in fact some are actively hostile to it. At the same time, it is not as easy as simply choosing those forms of Madhyamaka that have historically been component parts of reconstructive philosophy, since the best examples of such syntheses involve integrating Madhyamaka with Yogācāra (with the latter being relegated to a conventional truth that is an imperfect expression of the former’s ultimate truth) and we have so far found Yogācāra to be unable to pass Plumwood’s ecofeminist test of dualism. Plumwood’s insistence on the urgency for the development of a general framework that adequately accounts for human-nature, self-other continuity without erasing difference is based on engaging with conventional i.e. worldly concerns. A framework that embraces continuity at the expense of recognizing difference at the level of conventional truth cannot function in the way that the ecofeminist movement requires. What is needed is a framework that is able to seamlessly integrate conventional and ultimate levels such that there is no question of either radical exclusion of the two truths or incorporation of one into the other; we require an account of conventional truth wherein phenomena exist not in spite of but because of their ultimate truth, and where ultimate truth does not undermined conventional truth but rather sustainably preserves its continued integrity and functional efficacy.

Considering that we have, at least tentatively, ruled out Yogācāra (at least in this presentation) on the basis of its seeming inability to escape Plumwood’s ecofeminist critique of unbounded holism, and the fact that many Mādhyamikas have advanced criticisms of Yogācāra’s metaphysical overreaches, Madhyamaka would appear to be the appropriate representative of the Buddhist side of a Process-Buddhist synthesis that is axiologically aligned with ecofeminism, since they both share a skepticism of, and are actively resistant to, difference-obliterating holism. Yet considering the historical and contemporarily persisting controversies surrounding the distinctions between different varieties of Madhyamaka—whether between Svātantrika (“autonomism”) and Prāsaṅgika (“consequentialism”), or Zhentong (“other-empty”) and Rangtong (“self-empty”)—what exactly the “proper” approach entails is far from simple. And beyond the issue of how to properly delineate the Madhyamaka approach, there is also another aspect of the issue that is quite pertinent with regards to a Process Buddhist synthesis. As McClintock and Dreyfus state: “one of the fundamental conundrums at the heart of the debates concerning the Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika distinction” is the question of “how can one use and at the same time undermine philosophical notions?” considering that “from its incipience, the Madhyamaka tradition has been defined by, and criticized for, its radical undermining of classical philosophical notions such as truth and objectivity” (McClintock & Dreyfus 2003, 32).

How scholars of the past have struggled to bring together the radical viewlessness of the Madhyamaka while preserving some way of approaching the relative world effectively can give us a lot of insight into how to conduct our own synthesis of Buddhism and process thought. If so much of the controversy surrounding the proper delineation of the ideal Madhyamaka approach concerns the degree to which Madhyamaka undermines any pretense to holding onto a view of the world, one might be justified to think that the Madhyamaka might be incompatible with at best, or hostile to at worst, a reconstructive project like that of Whitehead’s process-relational, pan-experiential philosophy of organism. Yet when properly deployed, the Madhyamaka not only poses no risk to the viability and integrity of a reconstructive project but can, in fact, function as its necessary self-critical supplement. Consider that the whole issue of the “real” or “proper” Madhyamaka approach results from a fundamental distortion of the liberative insight of Madhyamaka i.e. the middle way disclosing the emptiness of intrinsic nature, beyond the extremes of either affirming existence or denying it. When the Madhyamaka is configured as a doctrine or view, or even as a meta-theory of doctrines or a view about views, it is necessarily divorced from concrete embeddedness in a particular context of dialectical analysis and turned into an abstract stand-alone system with purported or assumed self-sufficiency—begging the question as to whether or not such a system even deserves to be called “Madhyamaka”. Alternatively, when the Madhyamaka is configured as a methodological or operative procedure that cannot function independently of embeddedness in particular analyses, then the entire edifice of polemic and debate over the “proper” “form” of Madhyamaka collapses. 

The account of the Madhyamaka as operative procedure rather than meta-theoretical doctrine resurrects the original deployment of Madhyamaka as a middle path that exceeds the limit of any and every extreme position, whether positive, negative, both or neither. This way of deploying Madhyamaka insight is the only “proper form” of Madhyamaka tout court because it is not a view or position to hold onto or argue for. Any given deployment of the Madhyamaka is a context-dependent yet context-insensitive (McGuire 2015, 16) novel improvisational choreography of which every other purported “form” of Madhyamaka can only be counted as decontextualized, partial phrases. Rendered properly as a context-dependent procedure of immanent critique rather than a context-independent model of transcendent reflection, we can discern that Madhyamaka is not antagonistic to philosophy any more than it is sympathetic to it, since it functions entirely outside of its domain. The Madhyamaka movement operates beyond the dualistic dichotomy of accepting or rejecting theses.

This opens up the possibility of a mutual integration and synthesis of Buddhist deconstructive negative dialectics with Whitehead’s reconstructive dialogical panentheism without requiring both to occupy the same domain in the same manner, a move that would otherwise force us to subordinate one to the other in order to reconcile their characteristically distinct approaches to reality. Such a non-hierarchical integration can be analogized to the way in which a telescope is attached to a firearm: while both can function independently of each other, when the scope is attached to the firearm as an auxiliary component it enhances the precision, and thus overall efficacy, of that firearm. Yet to say that the scope is “subordinated” to the firearm or that the firearm is “superordinate” over the scope makes no sense considering that neither was ever designed to achieve what the other was; their difference in kind makes it impossible to judge one in terms of the other, but not impossible to be brought together as component parts of a holistic and more powerful configuration. 

With a Process-Buddhist synthesis, we ensure that each side of this non-contradictory, complementary unity only functions with regards to its appropriate domain: while the process side embarks on a reconstructive project aiming to describe reality in all of its elements, the Buddhist side is consistently subjecting this reconstructive project to dialectical analysis. The Process side functions to develop an abstract framework adequate for the description of reality as a means or platform to assist in direct concrete engagement with it, while the Buddhist side ensures that this framework never even gets a chance to reify any of its abstractions and in so doing ensures the genuine possibility of concrete engagement. Partnered together, process thought can live up to its own imaginative reflection of reality as an unceasing creative advance, and Buddhism gains the opportunity to express its own probative power into the emptiness of intrinsic nature. The resulting synthesis is a coherent and consistent system that is nonetheless incomplete and open-ended by design.

In contrast to the serially nested pluri-perspectivism of Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, the simultaneous dual perspectivism of Tsongkhapa, the perspective-less perspective or view-less view of Gorampa, the quasi-Hegelian synthetic perspectivism of Mipham or the absolutist perspectivism of Dölpopa’s Zhentong, in Process Buddhism, there is only ever one empty perspective in constant process of creative advance. This way Process Buddhism is able to more consistently fulfill the concept of Madhyamaka as freedom from views, since the Buddhist dialectical component never supplies a view or perspective of its own, but only functions to eliminate inconsistencies and assumptions of intrinsic nature from the one creatively advancing perspective in-process. It can realize the fact that “there is neither cessation nor origination, neither annihilation nor the eternal, neither singularity nor plurality, neither the coming nor going” of anything (Nāgārjuna, Dedicatory Verse), not because it reflects upon and contains these truths as a context-independent set of tenets or views allowing it to form an identity of itself as “the Madhyamaka”, but because it discloses them in every context-dependent procedure of deconstructive analysis that it conducts. Process Buddhism can also trust and preserve the value of “the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (Whitehead 1929, 3) while constantly subjecting this system to negative dialectical analysis, not in order to destroy it but to relinquish our attachment to it and the idea that it could ever provide us with a perfect reflection of our aesthetic experience of reality—only then can we ensure that such a system can be “coherent, logical… applicable and adequate” (3). The ultimate fact of emptiness does not eliminate but supports the ultimate value of creativity.

What can be known as the most generic features of Process Buddhism are the two ultimate principles of Open/Emptiness and Inclusive-Transcendence. The principle of Open/Emptiness is the non-foundational principle that nothing can be said to exist that does not depend on prior (causal) and extant (mereological and imputational) conditions outside itself, which is synonymous with the fact that nothing can be said to exist independently or with an intrinsic nature; therefore all things are pregnant with possibilities beyond themselves, neither reducible to nor other than how they appear. When subject to analysis, any given occasion or nexus of occasions cannot be found to arise from itself, from another, from both itself and another, or from neither itself nor another; hence that occasion or nexus is realized to be open/empty: without foundation and never having ever been. This exemplifies the conclusion stated at the outset of Nāgārjuna’s kārikā: “Not from itself, not from another, not from both, nor without cause: never in any way is there any existing thing that has arisen” (Nāgārjuna, 1.1.). 

The principle of Inclusive-Transcendence is the governing principle that the manifold diversity of experiences which constitute an extensive, communal reality come into communion and coalescence as a novel occasion of experience that integrates the preceding occasions as part and parcel of its own process of self-realization. Brought about by a decisive act of creative synthesis, the conclusion of this concrescent becoming results in the satisfaction of being, a being which realizes itself, not as a final, independent achievement but as an addition to the community that gave birth to it and continues to nurture it; hence that being includes its creative others yet transcends them as a novel creature in its own right. This exemplifies Whitehead’s succinct formulation of the philosophy of organism in his Process and Reality: “The many become one, and are increased by one. In their natures, entities are disjunctively ‘many’ in the process of passage into conjunctive unity” (Whitehead 1929, 21).

Open/Emptiness and Inclusive-Transcendence themselves are not beings, entities, substances, properties or even essences. They are principles because they are the most generic characteristics applicable to and exemplified by all realities, realities which are neither entirely abstract/universal nor entirely concrete/particular but both at once. The principles are not entire ly abstract or universal, because they refer to actual aspects of the world. The principles are not entirely concrete or particular, because they are virtual qualities without discernible boundaries. They are both abstract/universal and concrete/particular because they are generic qualities that are always instantiated by any actual occasion of experience. They are not entirely immanent because they are not of the world, but they are not entirely transcendent either because they are in the world. Therefore they are both immanent transcendentals: conditions for the possibility of experience that cannot be found outside of experience (Kakol 2009, 306-7).

Open/Emptiness cannot be an object of direct empirical perception nor does it refer to the subject of such experience, but rather is the very fact that subjects and objects are mutually implicating and conditioned entities that dependently originate from one another and lack intrinsic nature, free from the extremes of existence, non-existence, both and neither. Inclusive-Transcendence cannot be rationally comprehended in its totality but rather is the living aesthesis of the cumulative creative advance into novelty whereby the many become one and are increased by one. Therefore neither principle makes it possible to possess a final, fixed, stable, enduring, perfect, and complete apprehension of reality. But it can be possible to embody a final, fixed, stable, enduring, perfect and complete synchronization of these two ultimate immanent transcendentals, which is synonymous with recognizing and living, in experiential praxis, their inseparable unity. They are inseparably united because they are conditions for each other: without the creativity of inclusive-transcendence, there could be nothing to realize as being open/empty since open/emptiness is a dependent concept imputed onto actual things, and without the possibility of open/emptiness there could be no creative novelty since novelty necessitates that things are not reducible to the way in which they appear. In this way, we can understand that these two ultimates themselves are open/empty parts of an inclusively-transcendent process: since each is the necessary condition for the possibility of the other, neither one can be said to have an intrinsic nature of its own, therefore, they are two complementary aspects of a reality that exceeds them. All things are open/empty realities that are the achievements of a process of inclusive-transcendence, realities which themselves form the constituent parts of a reality qua process that includes and transcends them and bound to be realized, too, as open/empty. 

The embodied, experiential knowledge or gnosis that all things are the indivisible unity of the principles of Open/Emptiness and Inclusive-Transcendence is the basis for overcoming the radical exclusion of humanity from nature and for obstructing incorporation of one into the other. It overcomes radical exclusion because the creative process of inclusive-transcendence implies that things are interdependently connected components of a communalizing process, each experientially participating and engaging with the community on the basis of their own unique contributions and motivations. It obstructs incorporation because open/emptiness experientially discloses the fact that nothing can be said to exist intrinsically and independently, therefore there is no possibility of a subsumption of the diversity of all realities into one final eminent reality because such a subsumption presupposes intrinsically different things being brought into an intrinsic identity. This living gnosis of the indivisible unity of the two ultimate immanent transcendentals is free from the extremes of radical exclusion and incorporation that ought be avoided by those who go forth on the revolutionary path of ecofeminism, and this living gnosis is the praxis of Process Buddhism. The synthesis of Process and Buddhism, while being coherent and consistent, is necessarily incomplete (because it is an actual part of the very creative advance it refers to) and open-ended (because it is not an exception to its own rule/law/dharma that all things are open/empty), therefore it could never stand in for reality itself, but merely functions as a means of facilitating optimal, authentic, direct engagement with it. With all this we have done some, albeit still cursory, work to establish the notion that a coherent and consistent Process Buddhist synthesis can not only function as a potential ally to, but can be an actual agent of, ecofeminist revolution in order to aid in the realization of our planetary homecoming as an Earth Community—a community, or Great Communion, which is that much closer to realizing Plumwood’s assurance of the ecofeminist Promised Land, Whitehead’s ideal of harmonious civilization, and the Bodhisattva’s aspiration for the universal salvation of all.

The late Peter Paul Kakol’s Emptiness and Becoming was arguably the first systematic attempt to produce an actual Process Buddhist synthesis beyond simple dialogue, and I have drawn from it lightly here. A major motivation driving Kakol’s synthesis was the need for an adequate meta-theoretical account of interreligious dialogue and multi-dimensional typology of world-view analysis in order to understand how to adequately reconcile differences between competing worldviews in the manner of an “asymmetrical interdependence” that respects the important and unique contributions of each in the context of a shared process of mutual transformation and creative synthesis, beyond the limits of liberal pluralism and conservative monism and without the need to resort to absolute criteria for judgment (310-20). Considering that much of the radical ecological movement (which includes deep ecologists, social ecologists and ecofeminists) has recognized at this point that in order to resolve the ecological crisis we need to practice some form of prefigurative politics by means of an ecology of tactics, the importance of Kakol’s work on the role Process Buddhism might play on the world stage of inter-faith dialogue and world-view analysis cannot be overstated, since it provides a powerful framework for holding many diverse strategies under the auspices of an overarching yet non-totalizing aim. My own work in Process Buddhism aims to build upon and continue the legacy Kakol left us with, and because ecology is a topic Kakol only dedicates one small paragraph to (343), in this short article (and the longer essay it has been derived from) I sought to initiate what can be understood as a cursory first step in establishing the deep affinities between Process Buddhism and ecofeminism, as a motivated response to the urgent call to ameliorate our planetary crisis; to find justice for those who have suffered because of the crisis, to alleviate the suffering of those who currently face it, and to prevent as much suffering as possible for those who are yet to experience it.

According to Plumwood’s analysis, we are in the “fourth stage” (Plumwood 1993, 193) of the historico-logical development of the Master model of being that Plumwood extrapolates from her analysis of dualism. It is the stage in which the Master model becomes embodied in a global “Rational Economy” that “appropriates all the remaining space on the earth” while denying living beings, who strive to move to their own rhythms outside of the constraints and pressures of the Rational Economy, a space and place to call home. Its operations are as destructive of the sociosphere as they are of the biosphere, throwing off any democratic or social control and offering the false but deadly choices of either incorporation or elimination. It is the realization of “the Cartesian dream of complete control over the other of nature and the final destruction of all resistance that earth has to offer… [harnessing] all global energy-flows to the Rational Economy” (193). It is when the instrumentalisation of nature takes its most totalising form, where devouring the enslaved Other into the Master’s Self is the raison d’être, modus operandi, and summum bonum of its operations.

The Master is necessarily blind to, or ignorant of, the ultimate principles of Open/Emptiness and Inclusive-Transcendence, for the former discloses the dialectical consequence that the elimination of the other entails at the same time the elimination of the self, while the latter reveals that one’s individuality is supported by the divine grace of the community with which one is dialogically interdependent. Since understanding either would entail a destabilization of the Master’s identity, while understanding both would entail a total loss of that identity, he could not accept them even if he were forced to recognize them. As Plumwood explains,

the master’s denial of dependence and his self-de- ception with respect to the conditions of his own life carry grave dangers, which include, of course, self-destruction. Since he is set on a course of de- vouring the other who sustains him, the story must end either with the death of the other on whom he relies, and therefore with his own death, or with the abandonment of mastery, his failure and transformation (195).

The Master has only one of two options: enlightenment or extinction, either one of which spells out the complete cessation of who he thought he really was and a return to the conditions that made his life possible. The very fact that we are still thinking and talking about the fourth and final stage of the Master’s grasping at power and control tells us that the process has not yet ended; the moment is still open/empty and in-process, and we can still make all the necessary interventions required to compel the master to realize, in actual practice, that his own being is open/empty (i.e. he has no independent existence) and that he forms a part of a process that includes and transcends him (i.e. he is not the final eminent reality). For Plumwood, “if we are to survive into a liveable future, we must take into our own hands the power to create, restore and explore different stories, with new main characters, better plots, and at least the possibility of some happy endings” (196). I offer Process Buddhism as one of many, living contributions to the possibility of those happy endings


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Kazi Adi Shakti

Kazi Adi Shakti is an artist and independent researcher studying and theorizing on the intersections of Process thought, Madhyamaka Buddhism, Western Marxism and Ecofeminism, with a special focus on the unique role each might play in a holistic soteriology that includes them all. Kazi blogs regularly on her site, Kazi graduated with a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art where she majored in Interdisciplinary Sculpture with a focus on computer modeling, 3D scanning and digital fabrication. She currently works as a specialist in the 3D digitization industry, working with museums and cultural institutions to capture and produce high-fidelity virtual representations of historical artifacts as part of the on-going process of their conservation and documentation.