Essay: Process Buddhism a comparative of Process-Philosophy and Madhyamika Buddhism

Firstly I would like to say It was a pleasure studying under Professor Purushottama Bilimoria, the bloke's a legend. From it I have been able to write one of my most metaphysically complicated essays yet.

Firstly I will give an overview of process philosophy showing the view that reality is based on a relationship between conceptual contrasts that lack symmetry and how we derive value that is intrinsic vs instrumental. Then I will outline some Madhyamika Buddhism, highlighting, by use of the tetralemma negation the Madhyamika view on emptiness. An emptiness on worldviews is then presented by way of Hegelian dialect to show that no world view is ever complete, comparatively the Buddhist two truths view is then given, highlighting again the view on emptiness. A comparison is then made concluding that Process philosophies positive conventional view and Buddhisms negative emptiness of emptiness view are in an asymmetrical relationship combining into a Process Buddhist Philosophy.

Relative (dependent) (intrinsic value)




Absolute (independent) (instrumental value)




The latter or absolute side is included in the former, this is because they are special cases of their contrasts, an example is given by Peter Kakol :

Being, or that which does not become, can be understood as a special case of becoming, in the sense of being the extreme limit, or zero point, of becoming. (Kakol,2018,207)

Thus the relative has primacy over the absolute. Becomings exist that are not owned by beings, for example, the flash of lightning.

The dependent includes the independent, just as a whole is dependent on its parts.

Thus an event is a dependent/concrete and particular becoming which includes the independent/abstract and universal being. “It is a basic insight of process thought that ‘dependent on’ is not the same as ‘included in’ rather, the dependent is the inclusive and the independent is the included” (Ibid, 208)

Every event includes past events and is to be included in future ones. Thus effects include their causes. Events in the present are in the process of becoming, each event is a perspective on the past which is expressed or felt, ultimately meaning there exists nothing but views of views or feelings of feelings.

The present moment can be represented as the moment before a wave function collapse where there are still possibilities before an actuality. The possibilities are represented in quantum mechanics as probabilities within a quantum system, the collapse is, for example, when the electron has appeared around an atom. The wave function is a helpful way to imagine the creative contingency that is said to be in Process Philosophy. Events synthesize past events into a unique perspective, as there are multiple ways of doing this there is thus an element of creative contingency or an element of quantum uncertainty. It is also within this present moment of possibilities where you can likely find an argument for free will, however, that is not for this paper.

Events, processes, and becomings have primacy thus they have relative, intrinsic value, which is higher than the absolute’s instrumental value. However, the value depends on two factors: Power of the experience & Depth of inclusivity.

Therefore something of great instrumental worth that raises or helps communities value. Protects our ecosystem or is vital for a cell’s dependence on its molecules is seen as great value.

There is an interesting crossover here in Process Buddhist ethics proposed by Peter Kakol that shows how we are entwined with our community values and why great instrumental worth, is so valuable.

The individual (relative) and Society (absolute):

Individual and society abstract from actual events, the abstractions as a whole contain parts. An individual has the mind which provides a unity with events that is not there for society. The individual’s mind is thus a dominant event series that is inclusive of the society. Therefore there is a relation of inclusion between individual and society, this inclusion is a kind of dependence (one of a whole being dependent on its parts) Thus we have asymmetry in relation to society and a successful conceptual contrast that puts every individual as dependent on society as it's internal relation means it wouldn’t be the same individual if removed from society. Thus our individual’s intrinsic value is dependent on society’s instrumental value so if something is of great instrumental worth that helps society it is given great value.

Due to the asymmetrical nature of events, there is no possibility for outside entities that are outside the process of events. The nature of independence and interdependence are derived from asymmetrical events and exist only as an abstraction within the system of an event.

“If there is divinity it cannot be outside the process of events thus must be an everlasting event, or most likely an inclusive transcending series of events” (Kakol,2002,209)

A divine view in this way is from the perspective of the universe, God’s relation to the universe is akin to the mind and the body. So the divine view seems to be something close to a pantheistic view, there is also a Kantian element of transcendence as to where we draw higher values from:

The divine-perspective is a non-local, all-inclusive objective view of things. Despite that, it is subjective itself. The way I imagine this is to think back to our earlier relation that the individual has with society, God or the divine has a relation with the universe, this brings about a grading of intrinsic value of events and instrumental value of structures that is universal and can represent an axiological standpoint for the universe that guides us in a way that maximizes value. This process, which to me seems so similar to individual and society gets its difference in value from a process of inclusive transcendence where more inclusive values have higher transcendence.

That is an outline of Process philosophy and ethics to help us understand the metaphysics of value, process philosophy also draws similarities with a very important feature in Buddhist philosophy called, dependent co-arising - All dharmas arise dependent on other dharmas if x exists x1 exists if x1 ceases x ceases,

“In its original form, this principle means that things, the way they appear to us, are not spatiotemporally invariable, but dynamic and processional” (Prasad,2018,51)

A Process Buddhist view: “Dharma taken as an event ontologically is not a single spatiotemporal point instant, but a complex combination of factors which has a conditioning role to other factors” (Kakol,2019,209). The process is akin to the analogy of the stream of a river whereby we imagine a successively flowing river as a whole but the flow of the river is a temporal object conditioned by factors and conditioning other factors. It is both the river and the point in the river yet to be actualized.

Dharma’s in a Buddhist sense can be thought of as karmic essences and cosmic law and order. In the karmic sense Dharmas carry on through life after you pass away carrying your karma with you - this is akin to the process thought that an event is made up of all previous events and is yet to make up all future events. The two merge beautifully.

I will now outline some Madhyamika philosophy which I will then develop using our process philosophy frame above to find merging points in relation to our doctrines.

Madhyamika philosophy

The fundamental teaching of Madhyamika philosophy is that enlightenment consists in following the middle path between extremes. Again, I will refer to the relation between individuals and society. The Madhyamika would say that the middle path and thus the correct one, is found between the extreme of individual and societal consideration.

Concepts that we use to characterize reality are conventionally valid but reduce to absurdity when analyzed logically. This is because all views imply their own negation meaning they are logically dependent on opposing views that contradict them.

So the concept of being is derived from its negation of not being. Thus it is empty as it cannot stand alone. It is also true that the observation from this, that everything is empty, is also an empty observation.

The Madhyamika uses a tetralemma which is a method of 4-way negation. The first two ways are the above, and valid syllogisms. The third is that a new view comes out of the two views, which also becomes invalid, I.e the invalid view that everything is empty. The fourth postulate the view of bi-negation in its own right, which is invalid as it comes from two contradictions. This process can continue onto Infinitum.

Thus we get the Buddhist view - the emptiness of emptiness. Which is the idea that all views are to be overcome, including this one “the Madhyamika neither affirm nor deny that ‘all views are empty;”. (Kakol,2018,214). This is the ultimate truth.

Conventional truths, for example, our concepts used so far may reduce to absurdity but hold importance in getting one to the path of enlightenment. Nagarjuna believes the Buddha’s teachings are conventional views organized progressively (Ibid,214). A Process Buddhist view then would give more weight onto the conventional side for Buddhist thinkers, and a heavier weight onto emptiness for process thinkers.

For Madhyamika, the most important conventional views are one's that deny that things have an independent existence and instead are dependent on other things (dependent co-arising).

The emptiness of world views

While I could go into this section deeper I am simply going to highlight the similarities of process philosophy and Madhyamika when it comes to world views and how this equates to emptiness, the purpose of this is to segway into the next section.

The essence of world-views for process philosophy is Hegelian. Every world-view is in relation to another world view, changing it into a continuous process. So you have a world view as a thesis - the antithesis arises to the world view, there is then synthesis and it repeats continuously. This leads process philosophy to the following view, that the temporal process as described above is itself a function of the incompleteness of views. This leads to a never-satisfiable procession of views that constantly transcend and include all previous views. This never-satisfiable procession is also true for perspective entities and events.

Following the never-ending procession of events, it is agreed there is no theory of everything that is complete.

The Madhyamika view we have already covered - it is a process of reduction that reduces everything to absurdity.

Process philosophy can be considered a positive progression that leads to a never-ending procession. Madhyamika is a never-ending series of negations.

The Buddhist conclusion from their negation is the emptiness of emptiness. If a Process Buddhism was to be formed and adopt the theory of emptiness I think the theory of emptiness would be the relative dependent value in an asymmetrical relationship with the positive never-ending procession in Process Philosophy representing the instrumental value. The Process Buddhist view may well then consider this view empty, leading us to a Process Buddhist view on emptiness.

The doctrine of two truths:

The two truths in the Madhyamaka Jnanagarbha

“The sage taught the two truths, conventional (Samvarti) and ultimate (Paramartha). That which corresponds to appearances is conventional, whereas ultimate truth is the reverse” (Thakchoe,2018,217).

So the appearance of anything is conventionally real whereas the ultimate truth, as we have explored above, is the realization of the emptiness in convention, it is in this sense that ultimate reality is the reverse of the conventional. Conventional truth is also classed as deceptive and contradictory. We saw it's contradictory nature in Nagarjuna’s use of the tetralemma it's deception lies in the fact that things don’t appear to reflect their ultimate reality. If the appearance of anything were to correspond to its ultimate reality, then the cognition of the perceiver would have to be an enlightened being. Appearances, however, are never the object of cognition by an enlightened being, as an enlightened being sees past the appearances.

Nagarjuna’s doctrine of two truths:

All phenomena are empty of essence/nature (Svabhava)

To have Svabhava is to exist independently, to have a quality independent of language or conceptual imputation.

Nagarjuna thinks that in our ordinary pre-reflective engagement with the world we take ourselves to exist in a way that makes us believe we exist independently and that our knowledge and language reflect nature rather than the other way round (Garfield,2018,314)

A lot of Buddhism denies this status to macroscopic objects. This would be where a merging with process philosophy would put more weight on macroscopic objects conventional importance. Whereby even if ultimate nature was the emptiness of emptiness it would not deny the above nature to macroscopic objects, process philosophy would reduce the nature by which macroscopic entities are experiencing the conventional world.

Nagarjuna thinks that phenomena are empty of essence, what this is saying is that they are dependently originated and non-permanent. Wholes are dependent on their parts and vice versa, events, and objects depend on a variety of conditions for their objects. Identities of phenomena we encounter conventionally such as events and objects are dependent on conceptual processes like our interest. This multilayered structure above means nothing has independence and interdependence and emptiness are thus the same thing (Ibid,314)

This is the ultimate truth again - the emptiness of all phenomena. As we know there is one step further to reach the emptiness of emptiness. Which is a step to say that the emptiness of all phenomena depends on its existence on that which is empty. Emptiness is thus empty.

We have now seen how Nagarjuna comes to the conclusion of emptiness is thus empty through the two truths and through the negative deconstruction of the tetralemma. The advantage of the two truth path is that it has highlighted what was said previously on the merging of Process Philosophy raising the value of conventionality. The Buddhist view can seem quite nihilistic when appearances are essentially illusions and everything is empty I think it may be presented this way simply because the negative deconstruction that the Buddhists apply to reach the ultimate truth is exactly that, negative. But combining this with a positive view on conventionality that is Process Philosophy we are able to view the world where experience and spirit are given higher importance, which is in line with the Buddha’s teaching and the middle path. If conventionality can be given more importance without sacrifice to the ultimate truth. Then by following the Buddha’s teaching better conventionality means a better path and process to Buddhism. Process philosophy seemingly brings out the conventional nature of the Buddhist universe revealing the nature behind the path to enlightenment. I actually have a lot of hope for the combination of the disciplines. Whitehead wanted to reverse what Plato has done and instead of having the forms as perfection the focus is that the physical experience of being is perfect and that forms are devoid of reality. The forms, in fact, would not even make a conventional reality in Buddhism as they are conceptually imagined. I hope that this essay has made some sense of what is a quite complicated philosophy in process Buddhism and that the reader too will have hope for the further development of these two disciplines.

(This essay did follow a Buddhist narrative that i took out to make it easier for the reader however I have retained the conclusion)

I will now give a final conclusion on the narrative on the essay, highlighting what has been shown.

Whether it is process philosophy or Dharmas, It has been shown in this essay that there is no final worldview and that everything reduces to absurdity. If there is a god, the god is tied up within the transcending series of events.

Nothing can arise that is not causally connected to something else. This was shown logically during the tetralemma deconstruction that everything implies its own negation, it has also been shown that dependent origination is what gives rise to what we take as conventional truths

The ultimate truth is the emptiness of emptiness. It is derived from the asymmetrical or non-dual nature of the relative and the absolute. The ultimate truth is the reductio ad-absurdum argument taken up by Nagarjuna. I also proposed that the ultimate truth is the relative that is in an asymmetrical relationship with the infinite precession of positive conventionality that process philosophy proposes.

To hold a position would be to hold something that is not in line with what the ultimate truth states. If you were to hold a position that stated the ultimate truth is the emptiness of emptiness, your position would thus be empty. The position that is held is thus the ultimate truth is neither not empty nor not not empty.

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This is a more casual follow up to a previous essay I wrote. Reading and understanding it is not necessary but it would add depth to this article. The essay can be found here: