Not-Self: Thought Experiment 3

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, January 27, 2011

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, a dream.

The Diamond Sutra.

Are clouds objects? Do they exist? Two answers suggest themselves immediately: yes and no. Let’s try to rationalize each.

But first, consider that a number of causal factors are involved when you see a cloud:

  • Air. A cloud is something air does.
  • Humidity. This is water vapor, that is, water molecules suspended in gas. Air tends to pick up water vapor at warmer temperatures, and to precipitate it at lower temperatures.
  • Crystallization. If the temperature of the air is low enough water molecules suspended in the air will freeze to form ice crystals.
  • Optics. If water vapor is still liquid, light will pass right through it, invisibly. If it hits a water crystal, on the other hand, light will be dispersed. This is what gives the area of the sky the white appearance that we perceive as a cloud.
  • Pressure. The temperature of the air depends a number of factors, but all things being equal, lower pressure means lower temperature means increased likelihood of freezing.
  • Altitude. Higher altitude generally correlates with lower pressure, and so also becomes a causal factor in a cloud.
  • History. Water vapor that crystallizes in the air was probably picked up as warm air passed over a warm body of water, then carried to a higher altitude or longitude, perhaps as the air passed over a mountain.
  • Geography. Mountains, bodies of water, latitude, etc. influence history, pressure, temperature, water vapor content, and so on, and so are also causative properties of clouds.

In short a cloud clearly illustrates the principle of dependent co-arising, this is the notion that everything arises from causes and conditions; because this arises that arises, seen more globally as the network of contingency that could be said to form the basis of Buddhist metaphysics. For instance, because the parameters of temperature, pressure, humidity, and so forth vary, clouds are predicted to appear and disappear accordingly, and the do. So, do clouds exist, are they objects?

  • Of course not, silly. We can easily recognize that there is no cloud separate from the circumstances that seem to give rise to “the cloud.” The cloud is not found in any one condition, not in the water vapor alone, nor in the geographic formations, nor in temperature, nor in the optical properties of water crystals. Neither is it found anywhere else: It doesn’t enjoy a separate existence; it cannot go home at the end of the day to take a break from causes and conditions.
  • Of course they exist, you unrepentant fool. What gives us rain, and ends drought, allowing animals, plants and human economies to survive, carving out the landscape to give us rivers and valleys and even the Grand Canyon, which also exist, by the way? What is it that has has the shadow, which also exists, that brings gloom to us worldlings. How can it have a shape? None of humidity, pressure, air and the rest has a shape. I don’t know where it goes at the end of the workday but it is certainly on the job in the meantime.
  • Ah, but clouds don’t give us rain, my esteemed feeble-minded dweeb. Rain drops form when larger ice crystals form at low temperatures and fall from the sky. They don’t need clouds to do this. Hah! Try to get out of that one.
  • Hey look! There’s a cloud that looks like a bunny riding a unicycle.
  • What? Where? Oh yeah, wow, it does!

A cloud straddles the edge of form and emptiness. For instance, a cirrus cloud seems to be more a kind of texture than an actual object, while a cumulus cloud seems to be more of a full-fledged object. What comes between these two poles, waffles. The view of the network of contingency in constant flux, challenges commonsense notions of existence. According to Second Century Buddhist philosopher-monk Nagarjuna, emptiness is dependent co-arising. A cloud is no more that a very simple summary of what is actually a complex set of circumstances and relationships among diverse intersecting causal factors. Alternatively, it is nothing more than the mind’s attempt to track a bit of intractable reality. Clouds seem to lay bare something fundamental not only about the nature of reality but also about the nature of mind. Although clouds are a good starting point for this investigation, almost everything we can say about clouds generalizes to all phenomena. Even YOU!

How about your car. Is it an object? Does it exist? If we remove a part, say, the horn, does your car still exist, is it the same car? Suppose over a span of five years, after many breakdowns and fender benders, you replace one part after another each with a new factory  part, until no original part remains. Is it still the same car? Suppose every time you replace a part you give your kids the old part that you have replaced. Your video-weary kids decide to knock the dents out, regrind or otherwise refurbish the parts that they receive, just for fun. Delighted to find they have enough parts obtained in this way, they then decide to make their own car from the parts. Pretty soon there are two very similar cars in the driveway. Which is the original car? You are like the original car, or rather you used to be. Even if you have yet to experience an organ transplant, at a lower level every molecule in your body has been replaced. Are you the same you? If your kids saved the molecules you lost and made a new person from the material, are you now the other guy?

When asked whether there is a self or is no self, the Buddha refused to answer. It is a meaningless debate. But what is surprising is how many aspects of things are not-self. As an object we expect something to be fixed, identifiable, independent and long-lived, but we are hard-pressed to find anything or any particular aspect of anything that has those properties. An object, or a self, is difficult to pinpoint. Among the various interdependent constituents that an object has, just what exactly is the object?

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