Reversion in Buddhism?

My PhD reading on Wang Bi the third century AD Neo-Daoist philosopher revealed the scholarly view that in his elevation of wu or “emptiness/non-being” as metaphysically and spiritually preeminent, Wang Bi prepared the way for the eventual popularity of Mahayana Buddhism in China.

In other words, Wang Bi’s metaphysical interpretation of wu gave Chinese thinkers an entry-point for the Buddhist concept of Sunyata or “emptiness”.

Reversion

So I am surprised to find in a description of Sunyata allusions to something that in a Daoist context is called ‘reversion’:

Calmness and extinction are the opposite of rising and falling. They are another way to express that there is no rising and falling. Rising and falling are the common characteristics of worldly existence. All phenomena are always in the cycle of rising and falling. However, most people concentrate on living (rising). They think that the universe and life are the reality of a continuous existence.

Buddhism on the other hand, promotes the value of a continuous cessation (falling). This cessation does not imply that it ceases to exist altogether. Instead, it is just a state in the continuous process of phenomena. In this material world, or what we may call this “state of existence”, everything eventually ceases to exist. Cessation is definitely the home of all existences. Since cessation is the calm state of existence and the eventual refuge of all phenomena, it is also the foundation for all activities and functions.

The Amitabha Buddha who was, and is, revered and praised by Buddhists around the world, radiates indefinite light and life from this “state of cessation”. This state is a continuous process of calmness. It will be the eventual refuge for us all. If we think carefully about the definitions of calmness and extinction, then we can deduce that they are the true natural end-points of rising and falling. The true nature of the cycle of rising and falling is calmness and extinction. Because of this nature, all chaos and conflicts in the state of rising and falling will eventually cease. This is attainable by the realisation of prajna.

I have often seen references to impermanence in the context of Sunyata, and of course if Sunyata underlies the rising and falling of existences, then Sunyata is metaphysically prior. But I have never before seen rising and falling depicted as a cycle with human values attributed to either end of the cycle. Yet as we see above, the text describes our (incorrect) tendency to focus on the ‘rising’ part of the cycle when in fact ‘falling’ is identified as the ‘home’ and ‘foundation’ of existences, activities, and functions, such that Amitabha is depicted as radiating light and life from the “state of cessation”.

This sounds strikingly similar to the Daoist principle of reversion that Edward Slingerland has elucidated so well in his discussion of wu-wei in the Laozi (Daodejing), and which I quoted previously in my Easter Vigil Notes:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.

[…]

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

It would be intriguing and encouraging indeed if the Buddhist interpretation quoted earlier is representative of Mahayana more generally. I’ve not come across it before, though most of what I have read has been far more preoccupied with maintaining the peculiar integrity of the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, and advancing ’emptiness’ against the more compelling evidence of our senses.

Indeed, absent the ‘necessary/contingent’ distinction presented in Christian-Hellenic philosophy, I’m not sure I could ever have grasped ’emptiness’ appropriately either. Buddhism has the handicap of having originated in opposition to a religious metaphysics that had – as far as I understand it – overplayed the idea of a divine, imperishable substratum of being. So we end up with quite challenging attempts to explain ’emptiness’ as things kinda sorta both existing and not existing, which I find very unsatisfying.

Much better, in my admittedly eccentric opinion, to explain Buddhism as the realisation of the contingency of all creation, without the corresponding necessity of a creator. And yet I think the creator is there, in the very modest positive depictions of Sunyata. Buddhism is like an apophatic theology written by someone deeply traumatised by an excessive cataphatic upbringing.  Imagine someone raised in the context of an overly superficial evangelical protestantism where God is essentially depicted as an immortal superhero, subsequently having an experience of “divine darkness” a la Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in, of course, an entirely pre-Christian and non-Judaic context:

The divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, “Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it.” In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.

Easter vigil notes

Another reading that caught my attention over the Triduum was the Easter vigil Epistle from Romans I:

If in union with Christ we have imitated his death, we shall also imitate him in the his resurrection. We must realise that our former selves have been crucified with him to destroy this sinful body and to free us from the slavery of sin. When a man dies, of course, he has finished with sin.

But we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with him; Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over him any more.  When he died, he died, once for all, to sin, so his life now is life with God; and in that way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.

Paul has never made a great deal of sense to me, and it was not until recently that I learned he is not supposed to ‘make sense’ in terms of proposing a fully developed, explicit theological system. Still, I can’t help but wonder about the nature of “union with Christ”, and in what sense we have “imitated his death”. How have we died with Christ? A friend explained it in the Catholic context of sacramental theology, which led to an interesting but inconclusive discussion. Coming from a more naive realist perspective, the key phrase would seem to be “you must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus”, with consideration and imitation the operative factors.

In this light, what struck me was another point of comparison from my reading in Daoism, specifically the work of Edward Slingerland – Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China – which includes an intriguing analysis of dyadic metaphors of higher and lower terms in the Laozi:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.

[…]

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

In practice this spiritual ideal of embracing the lower half of the dyad and thus emulating the Way extends into some very familiar territory:

The Way does not discriminate between injury or kindness and choose its response accordingly, but nourishes equally all of the myriad things. It thus gives things life without demanding “justice” in the Confucian sense—that is, demanding to be honored and showered with ritual gratitude:

The Way gives [the myriad things] life, raises them;
Causes them to grow, nourishes them;
Perfects and matures them;
Cultivates and protects them.
Giving birth to them and yet laying no claim;
Acting, but not dwelling upon the action;
Leading without being domineering—
This is called mysterious Virtue [xuande]. (chapter 51)

So rather than discriminating—imposing human distinctions upon the world— one should emulate the Way and stick to the “lower” path: that is, to the element of dyadic distinctions (such as kindness in the dyad “sternness/kindness”) that is closest to the Way. Thus we read in chapter 79 that the sage “takes the left-hand tally, but exacts no payment from the people,” The left-hand tally is the half of a contract held by the creditor, and “uprightness” in the Confucian sense would demand that this contract be fulfilled—that the debt incurred by the creditor be paid. The Laozian sage, however, is undemanding in the same manner that the Way is undemanding, understood in terms of the social metaphor of the mother: he gives to the people and yet asks for nothing in return, holding fast to kindness and discarding the sort of sternness that would demand a quid pro quo.

So much of this is reminiscent of aspects of Christ’s teaching, such as the parable of the unmerciful servant, or the passage: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Finally, the promise of salvation in its various expressions, whether it be the remedial passages of the beatitudes (“the meek shall inherit the earth”), or Christ’s own reference to the book of psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone. This is the LORD’S doing; It is marvelous in our eyes” likewise brings to completion this dyadic paradox in which “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”:

This method of sticking to the conventionally lower, more encompassing term—and thereby attaining in reality the higher term—is referred to by Laozi in chapter 22 as “holding to oneness” (zhiyi):

The crooked will be whole;
The bent will be straight;
The empty will be full;
The exhausted will be renewed;
The few will win out;
The many will be thrown into confusion.
Therefore the sage holds to oneness
And in this way serves as the shepherd of the world.
He has no regard for himself, and so is illustrious;
He does not show himself, and so is bright;
He does not brag, and so is given merit;
He does not boast, and so his name endures.
It is only because he does not contend that no one in the world is able to contend with him.
When the ancients said, “The crooked will be whole,” these were not
idle words. Truly they return us to wholeness [quan guizhi]