Buddhism, dependent arising, and the erasure of polytheism

(No, we are not all trying to be atheists.)

In my last post, I discussed how a noxious mix of philosophical misunderstanding, hegemonic monotheism, and respectability politics have given rise to the false claim that “Advaita Vedānta is monotheism.” In the present post, I’d like to examine another, quite similar erasure of polytheism; namely, the false claim that “Buddhism is atheistic,” which arises from a noxious mix of philosophical misunderstanding, hegemonic atheism,1 and respectability politics.

Of course, an unbiased look at the actual practices “on the ground” among Asian Buddhist communities ought to be enough to dismiss the charge of atheism. Just consider the vast array of celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and other Gods, Goddesses, and various divine beings who are invoked and honored, both in the routine practices of ordinary people, and in the writings of Buddhist philosophers and other intellectuals. Yet still, the charge recurs that, for whatever reasons, “they don’t really mean it.” This seems to me to be an argument in utterly bad faith.

While I can’t possibly address every version of that argument in a single blog post—nor, frankly, should I or anyone else have to do so—I would like to consider what, in my experience, is one of the more popular of these arguments, which is based on an incomplete understanding of the Mahāyāna doctrine of dependent arising.

I’ll be thinking along with the tradition of the brilliant and influential philosopher Dharmakīrti (c. 7th cent. CE), whose work defined the terms for four centuries of philosophical debate among Hindus and Buddhists in India, and continues to be one of the two pillars of philosophical learning (along with the work of Nāgārjuna) among Tibetan Buddhists down to the present day. For some later Buddhist scholars, such as the 11th century textbook-writer Mokṣākaragupta, Dharmakīrti was known as “the Supreme Lord of Reasoning” (Nyāyaparameśvara). Which is all to say, Dharmakīrti was no minor figure. His work represents a major, highly influential current in Buddhist philosophical and religious thought.

For our purposes here, the key ontological principle in Dharmakīrti’s work is the claim that to exist just is to stand in causal relations, and that to exist as a certain kind of thing just is to stand in certain kinds of causal relations, but not others.2

As a first pass toward understanding this principle, consider a carrot seed. This seed stands in the place of an effect, with respect to the previous mature carrot plant which produced it (and to the various other causes—sunlight, nutrients from the soil, etc.—which contributed in an accessory way to that production), and it stands in the place of a cause, with regard to the effects that this seed itself is capable of producing: whether that effect is a new carrot plant, or a contraceptive action in a human woman who ingests the seed, or simply the visual awareness of a tiny little seed resting on the ground or in the palm of someone’s hand. But there are a great many other causal relations in what the carrot seed does not stand, at least in any interesting way:3 the carrot seed will never (directly) produce a rice sprout, nor an oak tree, nor were rice sprouts or oak trees among the seed’s causes. So the seed exists, in general, because it stands in causal relations. And it exists as a carrot seed (rather than an acorn or a rice grain) because of the specific causal relations in which it does, and does not, stand.

More generally, everything that exists is conditioned by various causal factors, in a bewilderingly complex variety of ways. Such things take their nature, or their being (bhāva), from these other, interdependent causal factors, and so they are said to lack svabhāva: “intrinsic nature,” or literally, “own-being.” On the flipside, then, whatever does not participate in any way in this network of cause and effect—that is, in the process of what the Buddhists call “dependent arising”—would have an intrinsic nature (svabhāva).

But a thing which possessed such an intrinsic nature, thereby standing entirely outside the network of cause and effect, would by that very token not exist. Or, more modestly, we would never be able to know that such a thing existed, since one of the causes of any act of awareness is the object of which the cognizing agent is aware. But since, by hypothesis, this object stands entirely outside the web of causal relations, it could not even contribute to producing an awareness of itself, and so such an awareness could never arise. So at a minimum, whatever does not participate in this messy, interdependent web of causality would for all practical purposes not exist. And Dharmakīrti and his heirs are always careful to discuss existence in terms of something’s ability to satisfy various practical purposes (in Sanskrit, arthakriyāsāmarthya).

On this view, in the final analysis, the only things that exist are those which are utterly enmeshed in the web of causal relations, at once constituting and being constituted by each other at every moment: a situation symbolized poetically by image of the “Net of Indra.”

The Buddhist philosopher of the Dharmakīrti school, then, will apply this analysis to all of the Devas, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and the like—to all the divine beings in the Buddhist cosmos—in just the same way that it is applied to human beings, and to all the other material and immaterial contents of the world. Yet this is not at all to deny the existence of the Gods, and it is certainly not to deny the Gods’ existence to any greater degree than the existence of anything else. Rather, it is to assert that the Gods, like human beings, carrot seeds, rice sprouts, and rivers, exist only within an interdependent web of causality. On Dharmakīrti’s account, all of these beings, from the Gods to the carrot seeds, lack any isolated, discrete intrinsic nature (svabhāva); but that is simply to say that they do exist, in the only way that anything can.

So while there is much more that could be said for and against this philosophical and theological approach—and it is not, at the end of the day, a metaphysics I personally find compelling—calling such thinkers “atheists” would be totally unwarranted.


1 While I think that Edward P. Butler, following the ancient Neoplatonists, is quite correct that (in most/all of the respects that matter), monotheism is a form of atheism, a defense of that claim is beyond the scope of the present essay.

2 This basic principle pervades the work of Dharmakīrti and his successors, but a few important instances of it are in Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇaviniścaya, kārika 55, and his Pramāṇavārttikasvavṛtti, 149.27–150.2 (Gnoli).

3 The caveat “at least in any interesting way” is meant as a gesture toward the more refined form of Dharmakīrti’s view, according to which, on a (nearly) final analysis, all of the things which exist at one instant of time are, in some way or another, causes of all the things which exist at the immediately subsequent moment of time.

One thought on “Buddhism, dependent arising, and the erasure of polytheism

  1. I think another error made by many atheists in this subject (certainly one I made, when I was an atheist) is to treat Buddhism as a monolith with every Buddhist following the exact same theology, when in reality there’s a rich diversity of Buddhist views and practices.

    Liked by 1 person

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