Whitehead and Nagaijuna

Whitehead and Nagarjuna

Mosa-Dharma and Prehension: Nagarjuna and Whitehead Compared

by Ryusei Takeda and John B. Cobb, Jr.

Ryusei Takeda is a member of the faculty of Ryukoku University in Kyoto. He is a priest of the Jodoshinshu sect.

John B. Cobb, Jr. is a co-editor of this journal and a member of the faculty of the School of Theology at Claremont. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 26-36, Vol. 4, Number 1, Spring, 1974. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dialog between Buddhists and Westerners moves back and forth between two levels: the conceptual and the religious, valuational, or existential. On the conceptual level Buddhists insist on nothingness while Westerners characteristically speak of being and think of things as having substantial reality. Associated with this conceptual difference are profound religious ones.

However, the traditions of being and substance are not the only ones in the West. There are also traditions of process with roots in the Greeks, but largely new beginnings with Hume and Hegel. These traditions reduce the conceptual opposition between Buddhist and Western thought. Yet even the advocates of process philosophies rarely approximate the Buddhist religious sensibility.

This paper undertakes to examine the conceptual relation between Buddhism and Western process thought and to consider whether there remain conceptual differences that explain the continuing religious differences. Instead of characterizing the two complex movements in general terms, we select one spokesman of each: Nagarjuna and Whitehead. Nagarjuna, a second century Indian Buddhist, is the single most influential thinker of Mahayana Buddhism. Whitehead is, in the view of many, the most penetrating and inclusive of Western process thinkers.

Nagarjuna’s major attention was devoted to carrying through Buddhist negation to its fullest extent. He believed that the categories used by earlier Buddhists in the negation of the phenomenal world were themselves left unnegated. This led to a false hypostatizing of a reality distinct from the phenomenal world.

Nagaijuna sees that even Buddhists fall into the view that there are real existent things (bhava). He shows that this is bound up with the idea that some things exist in themselves or possess sell-existence (svabhava). A main purpose of his argumentation is to expose the error of the idea of svabhava, that is, of self-existence or of things existing in themselves. When he does this, then the emptiness or voidness (sunyata) of all things becomes apparent.

Svabhava, self-existence, is understood by Nagarjuna to mean that by virtue of which a thing has its being. He understands that to be svabhava is also to be unproduced, that is, not to be constituted by something other than itself. If things (bhava) have no self-existence (svabhava), then they do not possess being and they are constituted from beyond themselves.

The meanings Nagarjuna hears in svabhava are close to those the Westerner hears in substance. Of course, the two words are not identical in history or connotation. But the Western common-sense attribution of substantial existence to tables, stones, persons, and even concepts is very close to what Nagarjuna is striving to overcome. Hereafter substantial existence and substance will be used as equivalent to svabhava as that is used by Nagarjuna.

Nagarjuna’s arguments are generally illustrated at what Whitehead calls the macroscopic level. He shows that tables and stones do not have substantial existence since they are products of multiple factors including human sensation and thought. But Nagarjuna’s ontological teaching can be more fully grounded on the basis of Whitehead’s microscopic analysis; for although Nagarjuna does not employ this distinction, he clearly intends to go into the realm prior to human perception and conscious experience.

The view of substantial existence of a self is bound up with the idea of an agent. When there is an action there is supposed to be someone who acts. The agent is supposed to exist prior to and apart from his act. Nagarjuna devotes much of his attention to denying the existence of such agents. He writes, for example: “It is said: ‘The “goer” goes.’ How is that possible, when without the ‘act of going’ (gamma) no ‘goer’ is produced? Those who hold the view that the ‘goer’ goes must [falsely] conclude that there is a ‘goer’ without the ‘act of going’ since the ‘act of going’ is obtained (icchata) by a ‘goer’” (M 2:9-10). Similarly, there is no seer who sees, no desirer who desires, and no producer who produces (M, chapters 3, 6, and 8).

Whitehead makes the same point. “It is fundamental to the metaphysical doctrine of the philosophy of organism that the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change is completely abandoned (PR 43). He argues that “a feeling cannot be abstracted from the actual entity entertaining it” (PR 338). He terms this entity a subject-superject in order to make clear the contrast to the notion of subject in the philosophies of substance. These “presuppose a subject which then encounters a datum, and then reacts to the datum. The philosophy of organism presupposes a datum which is met with feelings, and progressively attains the unity of a subject” (PR 234). In Whitehead’s conception, the process does not start from the subject. Instead, the subject is, as it were, thrown up by the process. It comes into being only in virtue of its feelings.

In contrast to earlier Buddhist philosophies Nagarjuna does not deny the substantial character of the ordinary world in favor of another sphere of being supposed to be more real. In Buddhism this world of ceaseless flow and change is known as samsara, and to samsara is opposed nirvana, the world of nonorigination and nondestruction. The early Buddhist tradition attributed to nirvana four qualities denied to samsara: permanence, bliss, purity, and substantiality. Thus nirvana was hypostatized as a mode of reality opposite to that known in ordinary experience.

Nagarjuna, however, applies his critique of substantialist thinking as much to nirvana as to samsara. This leads to the denial that there is any real separation of nirvana from samsara. The separation is made by the false supposition that nirvana and samsara are two self-existent things (svabhava). Hence Nagarjuna writes: “There is nothing whatever which differentiates samsara from nirvana; and there is nothing whatever which differentiates nirvana from samsara. The extreme limit of nirvana is also the extreme limit of samsara; there is not the slightest bit of difference between these two” (M 25: 19-20).

Of course, the words nirvana and samsara continue to have different uses even in Nagarjuna’s language. Their relation may be clarified through a remark of Whitehead: “Civilized intuition has always, although obscurely, grasped the problem as double and not as single. There is not the mere problem of fluency and permanence. There is the double problem: actuality with permanence, requiring fluency as its completion; and actuality with fluency, requiring permanence as its completion” (PR 527). Accordingly, nirvana does not reach its perfect fulfillment without full realization of samsara; and samsara does not reach its full realization without perfect fulfillment of nirvana. Nirvana can attain its totality only within the fluency of samsara; and samsara can manifest its wholeness only within the permanence of nirvana.

Nagarjuna’s central thesis is that whatever is supposed to be substantial, whether in the sphere of samsara or in that of nirvana is actually nothing but pratitya samutpada, which is translated as dependent co-origination. That is, what appear to be things with substantial existence turn out to be processes to which many elements contribute, each of these elements being in turn nothing other than such a process. At no point does analysis arrive at anything that exists in itself. And dependent co-origination in its turn must not be hypostatized as a thing or substance.

Whitehead’s doctrine is very similar. The macrocosmic objects of presentational immediacy, which Nagarjuna has primarily in view, are constituted in much the way Nagarjuna supposes, with important contributions by the human sense organs and mental activity. On the other hand, considered apart from human experience, they are composites of microcosmic processes. These microcosmic processes (concrescences or actual occasions) in their turn do not exist in themselves but only as foci of their data momentarily unified and transmitted beyond themselves. “An actual entity, on its subjective side, is nothing else than what the universe is for it, including its own reactions” (PR 234). Something very much like what Nagarjuna understands by pratitya samutpada is expressed by Whitehead in his account of creativity as an ultimate notion. Creativity is that “principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively” (PR 31). For Whitehead, as for Nagarjuna, these conjunctions in their turn “are disjunctively ‘many’ in process of passage into conjunctive unity” (PR 32). “The most general term ‘thing’ — or equivalently ‘entity’ — means nothing else than to be one of the ‘many’ which find their niches in each instance of concrescence. Each instance of concrescence is itself the novel individual ‘thing’ in question. There are not ‘the concrescence’ and the ‘novel thing’: when we analyze the novel thing we find nothing but the concrescence (PR 321). In Nagarjuna’s sense, all things are sunyata, or empty.

There is an apparent difference between Nagarjuna and Whitehead with respect to the subject-object distinction. Whitehead makes extensive use of this distinction whereas Nagarjuna polemicizes against it. However, what is negated by Nagarjuna is negated also by Whitehead. That is, contrary to substantialist views, there is no object apart from a subject. and no subject apart from an object. Whitehead explains this more intelligibly through his concept of prehension, which functions as a transaction relating an experiencing subject to a datum as its object. The datum of the prehension can be an actual entity, an eternal object, a proposition, or a nexus, but in no case can it exist independently as an object. (Even eternal objects exist only through envisagement.) It is through being felt that the datum becomes an object” and then it is the object of that subject’s feeling. Insofar as the actual entity as datum can be described without reference to a subject prehending it, that actual entity is only potentially an object. It is actually an object only as prehended in a concrescing subject. Thus, the object never exists in itself as object. As Nagarjuna never tires of pointing out, consideration of any element of that concrete transaction — whether of the subject, the activity, or the object — as if it existed in itself involves abstraction and false substantialization. In Whitehead’s terms, it is an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

The area of fundamental philosophical agreement between Nagarjuna and Whitehead could readily be expanded. They both understand that direct intuitive insight (for Nagarjuna, prajna) is prior to discursive reasoning. Both know that language can never grasp and embody what is intuited.

Both have doctrines of cause and effect that deny their substantial and independent existence. Whitehead’s doctrine of causal efficacy could illumine the Buddhist idea of Karma. Also both insist on the importance of the causal relation without allowing a resultant determinism or fatalism that would imply man’s helplessness.

Both recognize that time is doubly removed from the substantial character sometimes attributed to it. First, it is a function of processes. In Nagarjuna’s words: “Since time is dependent on a thing (bhava), how can time [exist] without a thing?” (M 19:6). Second, the things on which time depends have no substantial character.

If Nagarjuna and Whitehead agree so extensively in their dissolution of all being into becoming or process, we might expect that the religious or existential meaning of their thought would be similar as well. But here the basic difference of Buddhism and typical Western thought reappears. For Nagarjuna the conclusion drawn from the absence of substantiality is that all is sunyata, or emptiness. Ontologically sunyata is dependent co-origination or the inextricable interrelatedness of all things including human experience. Its existential realization is the enlightenment that brings freedom from attachment.

The same ontological situation Nagarjuna describes as emptiness Whitehead calls the creative advance into novelty. To recognize the absence of substantiality for him paves the way for the perception of the presence of value in all things. The direction in which Whitehead sees gain is in the widening of horizons of concern rather than in nonattachment.

The contrast is not a simple one. For Nagarjuna the existential realization of the interconnectedness of all things leads to the compassion of the Bodhisattva who sees that all must gain release together, although at the deepest level there is neither release nor need for release. On the other hand, Whitehead is aware that “Decay, Transition, Loss, Displacement belong to the essence of the Creative Advance” (Al 368-69), and this recognition of all things as process leads toward viewing life as “a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience” (SMW 275). But to ward off this final threat to the Western sense of meaning he appeals to the consequent nature of God as the locus in which events add up in such a way that their real value is established.

Hence it remains that fundamentally similar ontological doctrines have given rise to profoundly different religious attitudes. One interpretation of this situation could be that Whitehead inherited a Western tradition of meaning and value and failed to recognize that his onto-logical analysis radically undercut this tradition. Another interpretation would be that Nagarjuna inherited a Buddhist tradition and simply made use of his ontological analysis to interpret it. There is truth in both these interpretations. Fundamental valuation is partly independent of ontological analysis, and both Nagarjuna and Whitehead were undoubtedly shaped by their religious traditions. But it is also true that fundamental valuations are affected by ontological vision, and both men were deeply sensitive to this relation within their own thought. Hence it is appropriate to probe further to discover the point at which their valuation divides.

Basic to Whitehead’s vision of creative advance into novelty is his understanding of prehension. A prehension is a process of appropriation of a particular element” by an actual entity from its universe (PR 335). The word prehension is a technical one devoid of valuation, favorable or unfavorable.

Nagarjuna, on the other hand, employs for this same activity of appropriation of which the entire process, as in Whitehead, is composed, the term mosa-dharma. He begins the thirteenth chapter of the Mulamadhyamalcakarikas with the statement: “A thing which is constituted by mosa-dharma is deceptive” (translation Ours) “Mosa” is derived from the verb stem “mus” which means to steal, rob, plunder, or carry off (1:824). Mosa is originally an act of stealing or plundering, but more generally, delusion and deception. It is then easy to understand why Nagarjuna could state as evident that whatever is constituted by mosa-dharma is deceptive. With this conceptuality the whole creative advance is continuous distortion. As this vision is existentially appropriated, dis-attachment is furthered. The negative connotations of mosa-dharma have anchored in the world view of Buddhism a profoundly negative evaluation of the world of process (samskara).

If mosa-dharma is identical with prehension and prehension is a value neutral word, we must ask whether the use of so negative a concept is a fateful accident of the history of language or whether it has justification in what is actually involved in the prehensive act. Clearly the value-laden terminology does have a fateful character for those who use it, but the full explanation does not end there. The negative element the Buddhist emphasizes as constituting the act of appropriation also appears in Whitehead’s analysis of prehension.

To conceive of a prehension as mosa-dharma is to focus on the absence of “truth” in the relation of the entity that is prehended in a physical feeling and the way it is objectified, that is, between the initial datum and the objective datum. “There is a transition from the initial data to the objective datum effected by the elimination. The initial data constitute a multiplicity, or merely one ‘proper’ entity, while the objective datum is a ‘nexus,’ a proposition, or a ‘proper’ entity of some categoreal type. There is a concrescence of the initial data into the objective datum, made possible by the elimination, and effected by the subjective form. The objective datum is the perspective of the initial datum” (PR 338). “Thus the initial data are felt under a ‘perspective’ which is the objective datum of the feeling.” Thus the initial data “are felt under an abstraction” (PR 353). This abstraction which objectifies the initial datum under a perspective involves an element which the Buddhist sees as falsification.

That this “falsification” is central to reality as Whitehead understands it is clear from his discussion of decision, of which the elimination effected by physical feelings is a part. “‘Decision’ cannot be construed as a casual adjunct of an actual entity. It constitutes the very meaning of actuality” (PR 68). Decision is that “whereby what is ‘given’ is separated off from what for that occasion is ‘not given’. . . The word ‘decision’ does not here imply conscious judgment, though in some ‘decisions’ consciousness will be a factor. The word is used in its root sense of a “cutting off” (PR 68). This means that “cutting off” is the very meaning of actuality. And cutting off has connotations quite similar to those of mosa. Thus the Buddhist sense of an absence of truth in that process that constitutes the entirety of things is reinforced.

The Buddhist understanding of truth is completely neutral to the world of morality. It is most fully characterized by the Sanskrit term tattva, which literally means thusness or suchness. This term has been translated as truth in Chinese. For Buddhism, to be true means for something to be as it is or such as it is. But nothing is ever quite as it is when it is the objective datum of a prehension. Hence, prehension is in fact distortion.

Whitehead recognized this problem about truth. For him, too, the truth that matters most is the relation of the way the world is experientially appropriated to the way it is in itself. In Adventures of Ideas he discusses this as the relation of appearance to reality. Reality corresponds to the initial data, and appearance includes the objective datum along with supplementation especially in sense perception. Whitehead writes: “There is the Reality from which the occasion of experience springs — a Reality of inescapable, stubborn fact; and there is the Appearance with which the occasion attains its final individuality — an Appearance including its adjustment of the Universe by simplification [i.e., elimination], valuation, transmutation, anticipation. . . . Sense perception, which dominates the appearance of things, in its own nature re-arranges, and thus in a way distorts. Also there can be no mere blunt truth about the Appearance which it provides. In its own nature Sense perception is an interpretation, and this interpretation may be completely misleading” (AI 377-78).

Furthermore, this recognition that prehension involves deception is by no means religiously neutral to Whitehead. He sees it as tending to cut the nerve of striving, and for him this would involve the abandonment of all worthwhile goals. ‘A feeling of dislocation of Appearance from Reality is the final destructive force, robbing life of its zest for adventure. It spells the decadence of civilization, by stripping from it the very reason for its existence” (AI 378).

Nagarjuna and Whitehead thus agree that prehensions are deceptive, indeed necessarily so. For Nagarjuna this reinforces the dis-attachment from the activity of creating appearances and from the products of that activity. It thus leads to the release that as a Buddhist he seeks. For Whitehead it constitutes a problem, a threat to the beauty, adventure, and peace that are his ultimate goals. Hence Whitehead distinguishes between the inevitable element of difference between appearance and reality and the destructive dislocation of appearance from reality. He needs some grounds for assurance that the latter can be avoided. He asks, therefore, about the existence of a “factor in the Universe constituting a general drive towards the conformation of Appearance to Reality. This drive would then constitute a factor in each occasion persuading an aim at such truth as is proper to the special appearance in question. This concept of truth, proper to each special appearance, would mean that the appearance has not built itself up by the inclusion of elements that are foreign to the reality from which it springs. The appearance will then be a generalization and an adaptation of emphasis, but not an importation of qualities and relations without any corresponding exemplificaton in the reality” (AI 378).

Whitehead’s struggle with the existential implications of his own ontological vision bears witness to the profound connection that exists in Nagarjuna between the ontological analysis and its religious issue. Whitehead senses a strong pull in the same direction. Unlike Nagarjuna Whitehead feels that a move in that direction would mean anaesthesia or sleep. He might have said also emptiness, but he would then have heard only the negative meaning in the word. The religious, in distinction from the systematic, importance of God for Whitehead appears clearly in this light. God as the “adventure of the universe as one” (the Consequent Nature), in which the passing flux finds permanence, grounds the importance of life. God as the “factor in each occasion persuading an aim at such truth as is proper to the special appearance in question” (the Primordial Nature) assures that appearance need not be destructively dislocated from reality. Because of God man can affirm the creative advance in spite of perpetual perishing and the inevitable deceptiveness of appearance.

Thus for Whitehead, as in the Western tradition generally, belief in God, perception of intrinsic value in events, and finding meaning in a forward movement, belong together. It is not possible to say whether Whitehead primarily perceives intrinsic value in events and finds meaning in a forward movement because he believes in God or whether he primarily posits God to ground the otherwise threatened value and meaning. Both procedures seem to characterize his thought. In any case he rightly recognizes that value and meaning are bound up with his belief in God as an ontological reality.

Concern for value and meaning in events in their discriminable particularity also moves Whitehead’s total enterprise in a direction quite different from that of Nagarjuna. In rejecting the notion of svabhava or substance in favor of emptiness or dependent co-origination, it is not Nagarjuna’s purpose to explain how things are dependently co-originating. He intends instead to help one obtain that way of looking at the world that reveals things as they are. His consuming concern is to observe reality as it is in its totality and wholeness, svabhava or substance in favor of emptiness or dependent co-origination, or creative flux as the occasion for probing into reality by the analytic and anatomical methods that have been so successful in the sciences. Recognizing that the actual is beyond expression in language, he nevertheless undertakes to make it as intelligible as possible through novel verbal characterizations. Thus he elaborates a conceptuality for improved interpretation of the flux, whereas Nagarjuna is content to show the inadequacy of all conceptualization.

The Buddhist rightly sees that Western belief in God is at the center of the difference between the two traditions. The Buddhist objection to such belief is not primarily that of the skepticism generated in the West by empiricism, phenomenalism, and scientism. Buddhist thought is full of entities that are similarly vulnerable to these approaches. Neither is the Buddhist objection the Nietzschean refusal to tolerate a superior being because of its repressiveness to men. The Buddhist objects that God is viewed as substantive and that belief in him leads to attachment to the world.

Both objections reflect a correct understanding of most Western thinking — Jewish, Islamic, Christian, and modern philosophical. However, in Whitehead a nonsubstantialist view of God has been developed. God, too, is an instance of creativity, or process, or dependent co-origination. God cannot be abstracted as subject from the world that is his object or as object from the world that subjectively feels him. God is, or exists, for Whitehead, not in some eminent sense, but in just the sense in which any other actual entity is or exists. Hence the objections Nagarjuna raises against tendencies to attribute substantial reality to the Buddha M, chapter 22), and which apply a fortiori to traditional Western doctrines of God, do not apply to Whitehead’s doctrine. Since the notion of substantial existence is a vacuous one, questions about the existence or nonexistence of God, when existence is supposed to be substantial, are meaningless questions, as Nagarjuna shows. Whether among the processes of dependent co-origination is one that has the character Whitehead affirms of God is ontologically an open question for the Buddhist.

Indeed, in the Shin tradition, the strongest in Japan, where Nagarjuna is highly respected, there is a doctrine of Amida Buddha which has interesting affinities with Whitehead’s doctrine of God. Amida does not have substantial existence, but Amida’s vow to save all sentient beings is affirmed as an ultimately potent force in reliance on which salvation occurs.

Whitehead remarks that “what is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world” (PR 532). That reciprocal relation is affirmed as the foundation for “faith” in Shin Buddhism. The two processes of “transforming” and “passing back” characterize the content of the karuna (compassion) embodied in Amida.

This suggests that ontologically even Whitehead’s doctrine of God need not be a final block to the appropriation of his thought by Buddhists. The term, of course, is too fraught with objectionable connotations to be acceptable. But Whitehead is not wedded to the word. In the passage just quoted he speaks of a “reality in heaven” rather than of God. In Adventures of Ideas, the primordial nature of God is called “eros,” and the consequent nature is termed the “adventure of the universe as one.” Given this fluidity of language, there remains no necessary conceptual obstacle to Buddhist appropriation of aspects of Whitehead’s thought even about God. Perhaps it may be Christians whose traditional understanding of the divine is more seriously challenged.1

There remains the religioexistential question. For Nagarjuna, as for Buddhism generally, the conceptual analysis serves the end of release through nonattachment and nondiscrimination. Whitehead discerns a drive toward novelty or appearance without dislocation from reality and a unified adventure that “embraces all particular occasions but as an actual fact stands beyond any one of them” (AI 380). This encourages him to seek peace, not through nonattachment but as “a positive feeling which crowns the ‘life and motion’ of the soul” (AI 367).

Is the peace Whitehead seeks finally alien to the Buddhist, and if it is, is this bound up with features of his doctrine of God which the Buddhist must accordingly reject? We do not know the answer to this question, but we are sure it should not be given hastily. Nagarjuna’s understanding of the realization of sunyata differs from Whitehead’s understanding of peace. But sunyata is not the anaesthesia against which Whitehead warns, and peace is not the attachment opposed by Buddhism. To suggest the possible fruitfulness of further work from both sides this paper concludes by presenting quotations from Streng’s book about Nagarjuna and from Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, and adding a few further comments.

“Nagarjuna’s answer to the problem of negating sorrow was a form of therapy which sought to clarify the basis for self-understanding at the most profound level. . . . Being aware of emptiness was sarvajuata (all-inclusive understanding) because it expressed the real nature of knowing (as being empty) and remedied the harmful misapprehension of self-existent things. Thus to know emptiness was to perceive things as empty of independent and self-established selves. Such an awareness, when fully developed, was felt as a tranquility arising out of the indifference to distinctions” (2:163-64).

“The awareness of ‘emptiness’ is not a blank loss of consciousness, an inanimate empty space; rather it is the cognition of daily life without the attachment to it. It is an awareness of distinct entities, of the self, of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and other practical determinations; but it is aware of these as empty structures. Wisdom is not to be equated with mystical ecstasy; it is, rather, the joy of freedom in everyday existence” (2:159-60).

“The importance of ‘emptiness’ for transforming action (karma) from a binding force to a liberating one is seen when we realize that emptiness does not destroy everyday life but simply perceives its nature as being empty. Thus the ideal is not dissolution of the structures of existence, but the awareness that these structures are empty, i.e., that they exist in mutual dependence. The ability for the notion of karuna (compassion, pity) to play a growing role in the expression of Mahayana Buddhism is not so surprising if we remember Nagarjuna’s cosmology of relatedness which was a correlate to the denial of self-sufficient entities. It is also important here to emphasize that this relatedness is not a static principle; rather, ‘relatedness’ is the situation of active change. This understanding of sunyata, expressed from the mundane point of view, is the basis of a ‘becoming’ ontology which moves either for the binding, polluting, and illusory activity, or for the releasing, purifying, and enlightening activity. Thus the bodhisattva, i.e., one whose being consists in enlightenment (bodhi), can be seen to have an awareness of emptiness while directing the spiritual energy of the dis-integrating character of emptiness toward all beings” (2:168).

Whitehead describes peace as follows:

“. . . Peace . . . is not the negative conception of anaesthesia. It is a positive feeling which crowns the ‘life and motion’ of the soul. It is hard to define and difficult to speak of. It is not a hope for the future, nor is it an interest in present details. It is a broadening of feeling due to emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its coordination of values. Its first effect is the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling arising from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. Thus Peace carries with it a surpassing of personality. There is an inversion of relative values. It is primarily a trust in the efficacy of Beauty. It is a sense that fineness of achievement is, as it were, a key unlocking treasures that the narrow nature of things would keep remote. There is thus involved a grasp of infinitude, an appeal beyond boundaries. Its emotional effect is the subsidence of turbulence which inhibits. More accurately, it preserves the springs of energy, and at the same time masters them for the avoidance of paralyzing distractions. The trust in the self-justification of Beauty introduces faith, where reason fails to reveal the details.

“The experience of Peace is largely beyond the control of purpose. It comes as a gift. The deliberate aim at Peace very easily passes into its bastard substitute, Anaesthesia. In other words, in the place of a quality of ‘life and motion,’ there is substituted their destruction. Thus peace is the removal of inhibition and not its introduction. It results in a wider sweep of conscious interest. It enlarges the field of attention. Thus Peace is self-control at its widest — at the width where the ‘self’ has been lost, and interest has been transferred to co-ordinations wider than personality” (AI 367-68).

Surely the similarities are striking, but differences remain. Nagarjuna finds release from selfhood and its accompanying bondage through the cessation of a false activity. Whitehead loses “self” by expanding the range of interest to wider co-ordinations. It is true that when the Buddhist following Nagarjuna gains release from self he has compassion toward all sentient beings, but he would probably not invest himself in the particular co-ordinations of value of which Whitehead speaks. Discrimination of particular patterns of value is not characteristic of Buddhist enlightenment. Whether nondiscrimination in this sense is essential to Buddhism or only a profound, but inessential, consequence of its negative evaluation of process remains to be seen.




M — Nagarjuna. Mulamadhyamakakarikas Trans. in Frederick I. Streng, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967.


1. Monier-Williams. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. New Delhi: Matital Banarsidoss, 1970.

2. Frederick J. Streng. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Mcaning. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967.




1Additional comment by Ryusei Takeda: “I would like to make one more statement with respect to the religious relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy. Through the comparison of Whitehead and Buddhism I have come to the point where one question has occurred to me: Would it be too far out of place to argue that Whitehead’s philosophical achievement could be more relevant to Buddhism than to traditional Christianity? Of course we cannot ignore the fact that Whitehead himself comes from the Christian tradition, nor the fact that he has brought severe, although sporadic, strictures against Buddhism. But, despite these facts, I have been so much impressed by Whitehead’s philosophy as to be willing to hazard a bold assumption: The religious aspect of Whitehead’s philosophy is the kind of religion which Buddhism has been seeking for.”