The Buddhist perspective of globalisation

by Shelton A. GUNARATNE, Lanka Daily News, April 23, 2007

Minnesota, USA -- The Buddhist view of globalisation is embedded in its cardinal doctrine of interdependence or dependent co-arising (paticca samuppada in Pali), also translated as dependent co-origination, conditioned genesis, or conditioned co-production.

Samyutta Nikaya explains paticca samuppada as a four-part formula: “This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that becomes not; from the ceasing of this, that ceases” (Macy1991, 39).

Accordingly, nothing can exist independently or autonomously. Trinh Xuan Thuan explains that according to this concept, “The world is a vast flow of events that are linked together and participate in one another.

There can be no First Cause, and no creation ex nihilo of the universe, as in the Big Bang theory. Since the universe has neither beginning nor end, the only universe compatible with Buddhism is a cyclic one” (Thuan 2001, 206).

Buddhism sees no need for invoking an anthropic principle or any notion of design. Reality appears through the dynamic interaction of interdependent matter and flows of consciousness, which have co-existed for all times.

As Joanna Macy explains: In this [dependent co-arising] doctrine, [all] factors, mental and physical, subsist in a web of mutual causal interaction, with no element or essence held to be immutable or autonomous. [Our] suffering is caused by the interplay of these factors and particularly by the delusion, craving, and aversion that arise from our misapprehension of them.

We fabricate our bondage by hypostatising and clinging to what is by nature contingent and transient. (Macy 1991, 18)

Macy asserts that one cannot apprehend the meaning of dependent co-arising aside from the doctrine of impermanence (anicca), the first of the three characteristics of existence, the other two being suffering (dukkha) and no-self (anatta).

All that a sentient being perceives and feels and thinks is anicca. Thus, dependent co-arising is the pattern of change itself.

This view of order within change parallels the view of contemporary complexity science. In the sixth century B.C.E., it was a radical view in contrast to the unilinear causality views of both the Vedic (Hindu) and the non-Vedic schools.

Analytical theorising of the nature of causal relationships reached a high degree of sophistication and complexity in the later Abhidharma Pitaka, a scholastic elaboration of the philosophic aspects of Buddhism.

Abhidharma makes a distinction between the mental and physical realms, and between conventional (or relative) reality, which we are familiar with in our daily lives, and ultimate (or absolute) reality, which has the quality of vacuity.

Thuan explains, “Conventional reality concerns the transformation and change of things in the phenomenal world. These changes are governed by causal laws that are similar to the physical laws discovered by science in Nature.

In that sense, the Buddhist view of conventional reality is very much like that of a scientist, with the difference being that. Buddhism [also] introduces the laws of karma” (Thuan 2001, 208)

Conventional reality, however, is mere appearance (maya). On the deeper level, phenomena do not have an objective existence. The act of observation and analysis changes the information that nature sends to the observer.

“Human beings cannot observe nature in an objective manner. There is constant interaction between our inner world and the outer world. The inner world, when projected onto the outer world, prevents the scientist from seeing the ‘bare’ objective facts. We only see what we want to see” (Thuan 2001, 208)

Quantum mechanics, as clarified by Heisenberg and Bohr, makes it clear that the very act of observing can modify reality because of the interdependence between observer and reality. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, Bell’s theorem, and the Aspect experiment provide conclusive proof of the interdependence of particles in the subatomic world.

The difference between conventional reality and ultimate reality can be compared to that between a photon (what the observer can see) and the wave function that correlates it with its antiphoton, which may be separated by billions of light years (what the observer cannot see).

Thus, modern physics confirms that everything depends on everything else, and that reality is not local. Moreover, the concept of interdependence implies ongoing change (impermanence) of all elements constituting conventional reality.

The Buddhist view is that “consciousness has co-existed, co-exits and will co-exist with matter for all times. The same goes for the animate with the inanimate” (Thuan 2001, 213). From the Buddhist perspective, “one can thus interpret the Big Bang as the manifestation of the phenomenal world from an infinite potentiality already in existence.

Once it has come into existence, the universe goes through a series of cycles, each composed of four cycles: birth, evolution, death and a state where the universe is pure potentiality but has not manifested yet itself. This cyclic universe has no beginning nor an end” (Thuan 2001, 210-211).

The foregoing analysis makes it clear that globalisation, from the Buddhist perspective, means the ongoing process of change encompassing all elements in Nature, both physical and mental, which are mutually interdependent. Globalisation, therefore, cannot relate only to humankind aside from the context of everything else in Nature.

The writer is Professor Mass Communications Department, Minnesota State University