Sunday, November 13, 2016

Systems Science and Buddhist Emptiness

I have been reading Modern Buddhism, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (2013). The central message in this book is the section titled "Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta" (starting on page 101). That chapter is about emptiness (or non-existence), which is possibly the single most difficult teaching of the Buddha for most people to grasp (including me). The chapter may be the best explanation that I have personally come across. It may be that is speaks to me because I can see connections to systems science, which is an area of interest in my day-job.

Bamboo forest, central Taiwan


I was recently explaining to a student how important it is to clearly define the spatial and social boundaries of the systems that one is researching, because that will tell you what variables are relevant and valid to measure and what variable are not. In this student's case, there are four geographic (spatial) systems that are fairly easy to define. Three of them are small, separate islands, and the fourth is the combined group of three islands, which is administered as a single "village" government. These all exist as subsystems in a spatial hierarchy extending to the country and the globe, and there are, of course, many alternative ways that one could divide the geography of this place, such as coastal and inland, higher and lower elevations, settled and unsettled areas, different types of landforms or vegetation, and more. Fortunately, in this study, these other spatial scales are mostly not relevant.

There are, however, social systems that also need to be defined. Examples of possible social systems that could be studied are: government, religion (maybe different kinds), businesses/livelihoods (both all and grouped into different types), residents (maybe of different social classes and ethnic or language groups), physical infrastructure (utilities and roads/paths), the NGO/civil society (which can have multiple interests), and more.

In my opinion, there are an infinite number of ways in which both spatial scale and social scale could be defined, meaning the potential systems than can be studies are also infinite. How we define the best systems to study depends on the nature of the research question that is being asked (and its theoretical foundations), and the types of responses or results that the research question and methodology anticipates. In turn, the research questions and methods adopted are driven by the literature that has been consulted and established in the researcher's mind in preparing the study.

Rice paddy fields, Shan State, Myanmar

  • "The instant you speak about a thing, you miss the mark." - Wumen Huikai (Chan Buddhist Monk, 1183–1260)
Recognizing that I may miss the mark, here is how I currently understand the Buddhist concept of emptiness, based on the book Modern Buddhism. Emptiness is the essential nature of all things -- everything. Emptiness is also known as "non-self" in reference to ourselves. What struck me is that Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains this in a similar way as I describe what a system is. Every object that we think is real, is actually a system of component parts that only has meaning because we (individually and collectively) give it meaning. (Buddha used the concept of "aggregates" to explain how multiple components come together to enable our different perceptions of the system that we become aware of.)

He uses a car as an example (p.105). If we try to understand exactly what part of the car is the car, we cannot do it, because the car is not found in any of its parts. Nor is it found in all of its parts piled together. It only exists as a system of parts that are connected to each other and operate together in a certain way. We "know" a car when we see it because we have been taught that when these feature come together in this configuration, then it is called a "car".  This system-building process is also true for each component that goes into making a car -- each has it own name -- down to the smallest screw, which also is made up of particles, none of which is a screw in itself.

In the opposite direction, we define the car a a system that is separate from the roads, driveways, parking areas, fuel supply, brand name and image, color scheme, surrounding air molecules, owners, vehicle taxes, dead bugs on the windshield, and innumerable (infinite) other components to which it is almost always, or very often, connected. That is because we have drawn a system boundary around the "car", based on our social conventions.

This path of logic applies to everything that we see as materially existing, including the human body. They are all systems composed of finer elements that are independent systems in themselves. And they are also deeply connected to components that, within our normal conceptualizations of them, are usually considered external them. In reality, there is no car and there is no body without the mental constructs that we hold of their existence.

Another possible way of thinking about this comes from a story told by Oliver Sax in his 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. It is about a man who was blind for 50 years and whose sight was restored through an operation. Upon seeing for the first time, all he saw was a mass of colors and lights that had no organized structure. It was not until a doctor spoke that some of those colors and lights came together to form a human face. Because of his age, his brain was never able to fully conceptualize, or structure, the mass of visual information that he was now exposed to. (Apparently this story was made into a movie in 1999, titled "At First Sight".)

This story points to two things. The first is that there is definitely a real and useful evolutionary biology in us that seeks to structure the world into simpler systems than actually exist. The second is that structures do not exist in reality until we form them. While this example is related to visual reality, Buddhism says that this is true of all reality.

With this in mind, it is possible to conceive of a civilization that is equally intelligent as ours on another planet, but which constructs its reality systems in an entirely different way than we do on Earth. This would make for significant challenges in communication, as it already does on our planet between the subtle (and maybe not-so-subtle) differences that exist between different cultural (and political) groups today.

Because everything that we perceive as reality is a mental construct, there is nothing real in reality. As a friend of mine often says, "there is no there there". For Buddhism, the only thereness is emptiness (or the awareness of emptiness/non-existence) because emptiness is all that is left when the mental constructs (the systems) are taken away. As ephemeral as they may be, once we have defined a system at our gross level of awareness, we have also defined the variables that we use to test it and to understand it, just as with the systems defined for social science and physical science research, described above.
  • "The purpose of realizing emptiness is to end attachment." - Gautama Buddha
With an awareness of the ultimate emptiness that underlies all things, we are no longer attached to our expecting or requiring a system to behave in a fixed way. Instead, we appreciate all of the systems we encounter (that is, everything that we encounter through our awareness) as being equally valuable and full of wonder. This is the foundation of Buddhist enlightenment and happiness. (Although, again, enlightenment is one of those things that is fundamentally non-describable).


As I said above, emptiness is the essential nature of all things -- everything. In Buddhism, the awareness or experience of emptiness is the ultimate happiness and satisfaction, free of the vicissitudes of our emotions and attachments. System science has some theoretical considerations that come fairly close to that. In general systems theory, all systems are subsystems of other systems and complete independence (a closed system) does not exist (Klir, 1969. Approach to General Systems Theory). In addition, systems are in constant flux. System boundaries, therefore, do not exist as fixed entities except in our minds, usually based on assumptions. If we did not have a preconceived idea of what the boundaries "should" look like, they would not be there. Phenomenology, as a social science research approach (as I understand it), seeks to reduce preconceptions by fully recognizing them, and then investigates social phenomenon with an openness to all possibilities and without prejudice. Emptiness, however, is not quite within the realm of system science -- maybe quantum physics....

So, as this is about Buddhism, I am posting it here on my Buddhism blog. Since it is also about system science, I am also posting it on my community resilience blog, This version tends to speak more to Buddhism related topics, whereas the other version of this post discusses the system science side a little bit more.

And of course, as always, ... "this, too, shall pass."

UPDATES above are Underlined.

UPDATE: 18 November 2016 - Another perspective on non-existence from Modern Buddhism (page 120), which also has significance for systems building:

"If all the necessary atmospheric causes and conditions come together, clouds will appear. If these are absent, clouds cannot form. The clouds are completely dependent upon causes and conditions for their development; without these they have no power to develop. The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend upon factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent, or independent, existence and  are mere imputations of the mind."

UPDATE: 22 November 2016 - So I like the Sutra part (first 1/3) of the book, Modern Buddhism (2013, available free online), which is what my discussion above is all about, However, I am not so crazy about the Tantra part (remainder) of the book, which feels too much like "religion" for my tastes. I have also been reading about the author, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and the controversies related to his New Kadampa Tradition, which I find somewhat disturbing. You can find out more by searching online about this.