I have a Buddhist friend who finds Whitehead and Process Philosophy too optimistic about the human condition. Influenced by Abrahamic traditions, they often talk as if the world can be made a better place and then stay that way, maybe forever. My friend is himself something of an activist. But he does not live with the idea that an improved state of affairs will last forever. "Nothing lasts forever," he says, "we must make our peace with impermanence." What he seeks among Whiteheadians and Process Philosophers is a way of looking at things that is more honest about the futility of seeking permanence and that finds joy in, not apart from, the letting go. This page is for him
Quotes to Get Started
This conception of an actual entity in the fluent world is little more than an expansion of a sentence in the Timaeus: “But that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in at process of becoming echoing and perishing and never really is.” Bergson, in his protest against “spatialization,” is only echoing Plato‘s phrase ‘and never really is.’
The ultimate evil in the temporal world is deeper than any specific evil. It lies in the fact that the past fades, that time is a ‘perpetual perishing.’ Objectification involves elimination. The present fact has not the past fact with it in any full immediacy. The process of time veils the past below distinctive feeling.
Completion is the perishing of immediacy: ‘It never really is.'
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality
The Four Noble Truths in Whiteheadian Perspective
For the mechanistically minded, the really real things of the universe are objects devoid of sentience and desire. It will seem odd to mechanists to think that the very essence of the universe is feeling and desire, and more specifically, an unfulfillable desire for permanent existence.
It will not be odd to Buddhists, who have long asserted that all existing realities are permeated by tanha, a misplaced craving for permanence, and that we must make peace with impermanence.
Nor will it be odd to philosophers and theologians influenced by Whitehead's "Process and Reality," who believe, along with Whitehead, (1) that the entire universe is filled with feeling and desire, prehending and a subjective aiming at satisfaction, (2) that the real internal constitution of actual entity is not lifeless vacuity, but rather a desire for satisfaction, which, once realized, loses its subjective immediacy, such that the entity becomes, but never really is, and (3) that the ultimate evil we face as human beings is the fading of the past because time is a perpetual perishing.
True, Whitehead believes that after it loses its immediacy, an actual entity nevertheless exists as an objectively immortal object in the successive history of the universe. It becomes, as it were, part of the karma of the universe. Still, the entity's desire for a continuation of its subjective immediacy is unfulfilled. It seeks but does not find.
To many Westerners, this "seeking without finding" can also seem unjustifiably depressing. Buddhist ideas of impermanence and parallels in Whitehead can seem overly negative and depressing. We like our eschatons: our images of a state of affairs where things last forever.
Nevertheless, Buddhists beg to disagree. The better option, they say, is to relinquish the desire for permanence and make peace with impermanence. This is the Buddhist way. Buddhism does not end with this idea. It offers four truths: We suffer because we seek permanence, which cannot be found; the cause of our suffering is the clinging to permanence; release from this clinging is possible; and there is a way to find this release: the eightfold path. The path has three dimensions: learning to think in ways that are honest about the reality of our situation, becoming mindful of the world and ourselves, and understanding the many dimensions of consciousness, of which ordinary waking consciousness is but one; and acting in ways that are beneficial for us and the world. But honesty begins with a recognition that, after all, the permanence we seek, and that everything seeks, is unattainable. Whitehead himself did not want to end with the frustration of desire. He said that the longing for permanence does have a kind of meaning, but that it lies in God, not in us. Even as the subjective immediacy of each moment of our lives may pass out of existence, the meaning and beauty of the moment may live forevermore, not in us, but in a Peace that surpasses our own personality. He puts it this way:
"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 to avoid 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 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 coordinations wider than personality. Here the real motive interests of the spirit are meant, and not the superficial play of discursive ideas."
I do not mean to suggest that Buddhists will agree with Whitehead on this. Some may say that what Whitehead means by Peace is what Buddhists mean by Nirvana. Others may say that this kind of affirmation misses the point of the fathomless serenity of Nirvana. What I can say is that, for philosophers and theologians influenced by Whitehead, this is one way of interpreting and learning from Buddhism.
What is to be learned? At the very least, it is that we must make peace with impermanence and seek a higher good where our own personality, our own personal cravings, drop away. Is this bad news? Did not even the inaugurator of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, say that we must lose our lives in order to be saved? And might not this loss of life include the relinquishment of a desire for permanence, nevertheless trusting in something more, beyond our personalities, in which life has meaning? Such is a Whiteheadian reading of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddhists are right. We must let go.
The invitation to let go can be especially challenging for those of us who are committed to social justice, ecological sustainability, and the well-being of life on earth. We like to imagine that, once some meaningful degree of these states of affairs is realized on earth, they will last forever. But they won't. They, too, will pass. This doesn't mean that they aren't worth seeking. But our seeking for them must be complemented by a deeper insight: It is that all things pass, and that a truly beloved community includes people who do not cling to images of permanence because they know that peace, not permanence, is the highest good.