Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Buddhism, Nondualism, Christianity: Preliminary Thoughts on Love and Ontology

During a lecture today, something came to me. Theravade Buddhist ontology (that of original Buddhism) teaches that there are no substances, only attributes that arise and pass away ceaselessly. This makes personhood (with its enduring self: a continuent) impossible. If personhood is impossible on this ontology, so then is love, since love requires a lover a loving and a loved (a triadic arrangement by necessity).

On the other hand, nondualistic ontology (that of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism and Zen Buddhism) affirms that there is a substance (Brahman), but that this substance has no qualities or attributes: Nirguna Brahman. So, there is purportedly a Universal Self, but lacking any determinable nature, since there are no qualities. (Keith Yandell rightly argues that the idea is incoheren; if something exists it must have at least some qualities or features of its existence.) But a substance with no qualities cannot allow for persons either, since there is but one substance (no pluralisty; all is one) and that substance cannot be considered personal. If it were personal, it would have the qualities of personality. If nondualism disallows persons, it excludes love as well.

Thus, both Buddhism and nondualism evacuate reality of persons and love, each in its own way: attributes without substance (Buddhism: all is many) or substance without attributes (nondualism: all is one).

Christianity asserts that God is one substance in three persons (one and many). God possesses both essence and attributes. God is personal, even tri-personal (without being tri-theistic). Love, therefore, has an ontological rootage and explanation. "God so loved the world..." (John 3:16).


1. If love is real and valuable, a worldview should be able to explain or account for it and not eliminate it. This is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the truth of a worldview.

2. Neither original Buddhism nor nondualism can fulfill (1)

3. Therefore, both original Buddhism and nondualism are false.

4. Christianity, however, can account for the reality of love, based on the very character of God as love.

5. Therfore, Christianity fulfills (1) and passes a necessary test for the truth of a worldview.


Yossman said...

As Frame would put it: the rationality - irrationality dialectic. Love requires personalities to exist. Any worldview that obliterates personalities, renders love void and thus itself unliveable.

Unknown said...

Dr Groothuis:

Thank you for this concise and insightful post: the comments on substance and quality were especially helpful, given my current and recent readings.

I'm sure you've read Pirsig and I wonder what your take is. In keeping with this post, it would seem to me that his "Metaphysics of Quality" would argue for both substance and quality. But I may be wrong: I've read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a couple of times - which is a really good read, I must say - but have not yet finished Lila.

I value your opinion of Pirsig, given your expertise and my layman's understanding. Any light you might shed would be very much appreciated.

(BTW, the "Phaedrus" name is my biker handle. Otherwise I'm known to bloggers as Dr Mike.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, well said and defended. Also, simply put - Christianity, unlike Buddhism, provides an answer to the one and many problem.

D. A. Armstrong said...

Interesting argument. It certainly presupposes a certain view of love. I'd think it not be very compelling due to premise 1. Perhaps this is one of those arguments that adds to the case for God's existence, but is not an conclusive argument. In any case, I've got some things to think about here. I've got a good friend who is Buddhist.

Will Freely said...

Thank you Dr. Groothuis!

It occurs to me as I read this that love is a potentially very cogent point to push Buddhists on, from an apologetic standpoint!

Paul D. Adams said...

How might Islam fit within this schema? Is the Trinity a key here?
Was it Augustine that once alluded to the triad of relationships (Lover = God the Father, Loved = God the Son, Love = God the Holy Spirit) amongst the persons of the Godhead? If so, then only Christianity can rest on the ontological foothold of love. If not, then Islam and perhaps Judaism may be able to speak here as well.

Unknown said...

Your post - which was very good - brought to mind Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I suspect you have read.

In particular (and in contrast to Zen Buddhism), I got the impression that Pirsig advocated both substance and quality - certainly Quality. Is that your impression as well?

I would value any feedback you might have on this matter or re Pirsig and his Metaphysics of Quality in general. I think he misidentifies the transcendent Creator, anthropomorphizing Quality to keep from recognizing the God of Scripture.

I do recognize that it is somewhat of a rabbit trail and apologize for that.

Thank you.

Tom said...

And if "personhood (with its enduring self: a continuent)" is impossible, what sense does RE-incarnation make? Who is being reincarnated if there is no "who"?

Bill Honsberger said...

There is no "who" to be reincarnated as the doctrine of anatta denies the individual atman of Hinduism. What there is by contrast is a collection of aggregates called skandhas, which include things like will, consciousness, body, etc. This does however remove the claim of justice that people use for reincarnation as the buddhists claim that the skandhas of the current person come from five different sources. Except another problem is raised in that in his enlightenment experience claimed to see all of his past lives at onces. If there was no enduring self, then who saw what???

Paul D. Adams said...

What gets reincarnated if no self to reincarnate? Read about the 5 Skandhas ( or

Kevin Winters said...

Dr. G,

While there is no enduring self in most forms of Buddhism, there is the manifestation that, for example, you and I are. Thus, there really is something that loves and something to love, namely these manifestations. My manifestation has a particular pattern, one that is often comprised of grasping, aversion, and ignorance (the unenlightened state). The other side of this, in the enlightened state, is the possibility of genuine altruistic compassion and love.

Furthermore, the understanding of shunyata/emptiness is the very ground of the possibility of love and compassion: I am not ontologically seperate from you (i.e. your manifestation) because you are a cause and condition of my existence in this moment (my skandha structure would not be what it is without your presence in the world). Thus, the manifestation of love (rather than aversion, grasping, or ignorance) in my structure of skandhas is extended to your manifestation. Though my manifestation does not have substantial existence, there is a coherent sense (within Buddhist metaphysics) in which I can extend love to you, in which my manifestation can have the structure of love rather than grasping, aversion, or ignorance.

Kevin Winters said...


"Will" is not a skandha: form, feeling, perception, conceptualization, and consciousness are the five skandhas.

What is perpetuated in reincarnation (according to one line of thought in Buddhism) is my karma, most helpfully translated as "habitual tendencies" ("cause and effect" is more or less correct, but doesn't have the conceptual richness that "habitual tendency" has). Thus, my skandhas have a habitual structure of thougth, feeling, and action that continues throughout my life and throughout my reincarnations.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


That is a Buddhist understanding of it, but it is essential that Buddhism denies the self as substance. My critique assumes that and gives a metaphysical analysis.

Collections of states are not selves; these collections cannot support love, which requires selves that enter into real relationships.

Buddhists are literally trying to pull something out of nothing. As humans made in God's image, they know love is real and good; as Buddhists, their worldview denies this possibility. This is a point of tension (as Schaeffer puts it) in Buddhism. The closer to reality, the farther from Buddhism; the closer to Buhddism, the farter from reality.

Kevin Winters said...

Yes, it is true that Buddhism, generally speaking (there are exceptions), denies the existence of a substantial self. But it is far from clear why a substantial self is necessary for the existence of love.

It is certainly unclear how "collections cannot support love". By seeing my 'self' as composed of the five skandhas, these skandhas essentially receive their meaning and content only by being related to the objects of each skandha (the objects for mind are thoughts, the objects for sight are visible properties, etc.; the skandhas without their objects are nothing in Buddhist thought), which the Buddhists have meticulously documented. This is the concept of inter-being that has been written by teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa, and the Dalai Lama himself. Buddhist skandhas are not atomistic parts, but completely interrelated (co-dependent) aspects.

Thus, to be a manifestation of skandhas is essentially to be related to objects (dharmas), some of which are people. This means that to be a manifestation of skandhas is essentially to have a "real relationship" with other manifestations. These relationships are part of what constitutes my being (part of my causes and conditions), so how can they be 'unreal relationships'? How this relationship manifests itself (i.e. clinging, aversion, ignorance, or love) will depend on the structure of the manifestation.

Again, you haven't demonstrated that a manifestation cannot love and that a substantial entity is necessary for love.

Paul D. Adams said...

So me understand here.

Are you suggesting that "'self' as composed of the five skandhas," [a.k.a. "interrelated (co-dependent) aspects"] are like shadows or manifestations of a reality that itself does not exist?

As I understand, Buddha taught there is no enduring, substantive reality beneath or supporting the skandhas or manifestations or shadows. While there are movements, changes, etc. there is no one or thing as the "do-er" of the movement/change. What exists is merely process or flow of manifestations without any causal connections to an ultimate metaphysical reality (simile, the Buddhist doctrine of "dependent origination" or all manifestations depend upon other manifestations, ad infinitum).

Not only is there no substantive self, but there is no substance whatsoever; only change, process, flow. Hence, nothing, including the skandhas, can explain itself. All one can be certain of is a sense of impermanence and dependency; these are the only ultimate metaphysical realities.

Thus, the fundamental "I" or "me" that stands under or behind my shadow or manifestations (i.e., actions) really does not exist. What exists is the "doing," not the "do-er." Everywhere we turn, culture screams for a sense of self (self-esteem, self-loathing, self-love, etc.) and this sense of self was basically the problem, according to Buddha. Detachment rather than attachment to the substantive self is the real hope; the real answer to our woes.

Consequently, love is merely a relationship between shadows or actions.

If the above is proximately responsible to Buddhist teachings, then I have to ask:

1. Why did Buddha reject the Hindu caste system as unjust? In fact, what constitutes "justice"?
2. How exactly can manifestations/shadows actually "relate to" other manifestations/shadows? What is the portal through which they relate and what is the nature of that relationship? Why call it "love" for example and not "indifference," which seemingly would fit better with the doctrine of anatman?
3. How would/could Buddha contend with Descartes' cogito ergo sum? How, for example, would he finish the proposition, "I think, therefore...."?

Paul D. Adams said...

You state that "the understanding of shunyata/emptiness is the very ground of the possibility of love and compassion"

How do you know this to be true? Saying something to be so does not make it so.

Also you purport "the skandhas without their objects are nothing in Buddhist thought"

So, there are shadows and realities (i.e., "objects")?
The logic seems to be:
1. If objects, then skandhas.
2. skandhas.
3. Therefore, objects.

But, if I understood you rightly, this violates the modus ponens rule of logic.

Kevin Winters said...


I don't have the time at the moment to address your first response, but for your second: skandha's and objects, according to interdependent co-origination (inter-being), are not implicatory, but mutually implicatory. This is the case because, within at least Mahayana Buddhist thought, the skandha's themselves require each other in order to exist, to be manifest.

"...none of these five [skandhas] can exist by itself alone. Each of the five [skandhas] has to be made by the other four. They have to co-exist; they have to inter-be with all the others" (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding, 9)

But, and this is the important point that Buddhist teachers have repeated again and again, that doesn't mean that form or consciousness does not exist, only that it does not exist intrinsically: e.g., in order to have consciousness, one must have objects of which to be conscious which requires a body (form) with its organs of perception.

"Emptiness does not imply non-existence; emptiness implies the emptiness of intrinsic existence, which necessarily implies dependent origination. Dependence and interdependence is the nature of all things; things and events come into being only as a result of causes and conditions. Emptiness makes the law of cause and effect possible" (The Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sutra, 117).

I think it would be helpful to refer to a point of contact: the fine tuning argument is essentially arguing that the existence of human beings requires a precise set of causes and conditions that are necessary for our existence, for our coming into being. The Buddhist 'twist' to this argument (though Buddhist thought on this has been in existence for longer than the fine tuning argument) is that these causes and conditions are part of my being because I could not exist apart from them. Similarly, as the objects of the sense organs co-exist with the skandha and that skandha exists only because of wider causes and conditions allows it to manifest, then both the object of the sense organs and the wider causes are both causes for my existence in this moment.

There's more, but I don't have enough time to go further into it at the moment.

Kevin Winters said...


First off, there is a terminological problem in your exposition: "shadows or manifestations of a reality that itself does not exist". There cannot be a "shadow" of something that does not exist. The metaphor of a shadow in Buddhist thought refers to the impermanence of phenomena, which is the same thing in relation to the self: the self, as an interdependent manifestation, cannot exist eternally because the causes and conditions of its existence will not exist for an eternity.

The "doing" and the "do-er" is a good distinction: before its interactions with Western cultures, Chinese, for example, did not have a "do-er" in their language. It was not, "I eat," but, "There is eating." Despite the non-existence of an I in that language the culture seems to have thrived, so it didn’t seem to create any obvious problems.

Lastly, I wouldn't say that "love is merely a relationship between shadows or actions," again because your use of "shadow" is mistaken. As I've argued, a manifestation does have an existence: my computer does exist. But it's existence is not self-sufficient nor enduring. In the same way, there is nothing wrong with saying that I exist, but it must be said with the understanding that I am not separate from the conditions for my existence, which extends to the state of the cosmos as well as your post (both are part of my existence).

I'll address your questions in my next comment.

Paul D. Adams said...

Thanks for taking the time to offer your responses. Let me be brief and ask a focused question after a summary of my understanding based upon your writing here.

For Buddhists, then, what is commonly referred to the self/person/individual is comprised of five, causally connected, ever-changing events (a.k.a. "skandhas") but the self/person/individual is not identical with one of them nor all of them together. Since there is no other part/event/perceptible substance that can be identified with what is commonly known as the self/person/individual, it follows that the self/person/individual does not exist. Instead of some enduring substance, which Christians refer to as a soul, there merely appears a series of ever-changing, causally connected events that the Buddhist calls the five "skandhas," which are form, feeling, perception, conceptualization, and consciousness.

On what principle does the Buddhist individuate between one skandha and that of another? What exactly is an essential defining property of say "feeling" and how does one know this property is not true of say "perception?"

Kevin Winters said...

We need to be careful not to move into nihilism: the self does exist, just not as a substantial, self-existent thing. If we could not say that the self existed then we would likewise not be able to say that my computer exists, which would be wrong. Buddhism does not deny the existence of objects, but their independent existence.

Also, your continued use of "merely" continues to ignore (or just not realize the exact function of) interdependent co-origination and inter-being. It is like saying that, in naturalistic materialism, I am "merely" matter in motion. The Buddhist understanding is not reductionistic, but is incredibly holistic. Each skandha/aggregate is more than itself for the simple reason that it requires the other aggregates, with their particular structures, functions, etc., in order to exist.

Yet this shouldn't seem too strange: when you ask me about who I am, I do not start spouting off my 'necessary properties' that make me who I am. Similarly, when I ask you to tell me about someone that you know very well, you do not refer to static properties that persist through time. Rather, in both cases, we refer to patterns: how they tend to respond in particular situations (through stories), their quirks, etc. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we focus almost (if not) exclusively on supposedly 'contingent' properties (within the substance-property metaphysic). Of course, the substance-property proponent would then say that we really are enduring substances with necessary and sufficient properties, even though we don't speak, think, or describe each other in those terms. The proper response, I think, would be: if our understanding of each other is primarily about patterns (and only philosophers speak about substances and necessary properties for identity) and there can exist a language in which the 'I' does not play a role (which language existed and was used for thousands of years), why must we assume that enduring substances are needed for meaning (or, in the case of this topic, meaningful relationships)? We seem to get along just fine without assuming or using necessary and sufficient properties, except for in a few exceptional cases (which most philosophers seem to think should be the rule, not the exception).

Now, to answer your question: the skandhas are different from each other. "Form", for example, is the material elements (earth, air, fire, and water), our sense organs, and other derived forms. These can be studied in various ways, from the everyday (pragmatic) to the scientific. Similarly, "feeling" is our experience of something as either positive, negative, or neutral and has six classes and various kinds. Our feelings are not our form, though they are intimately and essentially related.

So far you have given me no indication that I am addressing your questions or clarifying matters. Am I?

pgepps said...

This could potentially be a cogent argument against Buddhism, provided only Christians of a certain metaphysical bent were party to the conversation. This is often a challenge in apologetics.

A Buddhist simply will not recognize the problem, or the appropriateness of this sort of logic; he will point out that attachment to the concept of no-self, or of self, is a fall into causation. It is a part of the trap the Buddhist practices to get out of.

I say this with some clarity because I just read a refutation of this argument in Thanh's Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers--a work, by the way, I would not accept as true. Just as having a place in this discussion.

Graham said...

The Christian desire to prove others 'wrong' is unsettling.

I am afraid reading through both your blog and the posted comments, I see a fundamental point being missed. Whilst the non-dual is central to Buddhist philosophy, that philosophy also recognises conventional reality. The first, termed the 'Ultimate Truth' is most famously described in the Heart Sutra, and I recommend a google search for the text and explanations.

The 'Relative Truth' in Buddhist philosophy recognises duality - the existence of subject and predicate (although both empty of form). It is in this environment of subject and predicate that love and compassion - both central to Buddhist philosophy - can thrive.

'The Way of the Boddhisattva' is a 9th Century poem by a Buddhist monk, and its central themes are achievement of love and compassion. It remains a central pillar of the Mahayana School of Buddhism, and is an extraordinary exposition. I recommend Pema Chodrun's guide 'No Time to Lose'.

The conclusion in your blog is therefore based on an incorrect assumption, and cannot stand.

Christ's teachings are in no way incompatible with Buddhist teachings. Let us all seek understanding and loving compassion together.

Graham said...

I am fascinated by the comment by Soulcraft - East of Eden about one and many.

I have been unable to trace you, so I have to use this forum to ask if by your comment you mean you have solved the 'not one, not many' conundrum?

That is wonderful! I would love to know the answer. Please let me know at

Graham said...

Of course, Soulcraft - East of Eden, do respond in this more open forum. It is really quite exciting.