God Shadowed By Emptiness: Thomas Aquinas vs. The Buddhist Nagarjuna

Emptiness shadows theism. With regard to Thomas Aquinas’ method for grounding existence in being as opposed to change or emptiness (as the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna did), what I find interesting is how, despite himself, emptiness nevertheless shadows Aquinas’ theism. What I mean is that Aquinas’ deity, when push comes to shove, appears empty–and in Catholicism, the negative theology of its mystics (“God is not this, not that, etc.”) also seems to suggest this. I think it’s quite interesting that Aquinas went silent toward the end of his life, apparently abandoning words–and perhaps even an ongoing interest in apologetics.

So these are starting points of suspicion for me, but this doesn’t let Nagarjuna off the hook.

Being shadows Buddhism. As with Aquinas, Nagarjuna also appears to have a problem–but in reverse. Nagarjuna’s deconstructions and logic chopping appear to bring one to a sense of mystery as to where emptiness actually gets its extraordinary power to fructify in the first place. Being shadows Nagarjuna. His arguments bring one to mystery, stillness, and silence as well.

So this too makes me suspicious. Are Nagarjuna and Aquinas converging on non-being and being in such a way that they’re looking at different sides of the same coin? It seems that less separates them than initially meets the eye.

The cosmos is shadowed by emptiness. God, if God exists, made a cosmos that appears empty and without inherent meaning–and I don’t just mean that God made a cosmos that possesses vast spaces between the randomly scattered stars and galaxies, and contains (at least on our little planet) creatures that suffer and die. I mean empty as in: no self in the self that exists; no thing in the thing that exists; no cosmos in the cosmos that exists. Nothing has an independent existence. For Nagarjuna, everything is empty because it is interconnected, transitory, conditioned, contingent, and consists of parts–no flower in the flower.

By contrast, Aquinas grounds this emptiness with the positing of a necessary, first, independent, and unconditioned Being. This Being does not consist of parts, and guarantees, as the ultimate Being, that what appears empty, interconnected, transitory, and conditioned does in fact have substance–some sort of salvageable being in the midst of change–and in some cases (as with humans), an eternal being that can go to heaven and be with God.

So everybody admits–even Christians and Muslims–that there looks to be no net beneath the flight of appearances; that things like the Holocaust and dark matter (95% of the known universe) seem to make the cosmos quite absurd and random–but the theist claims there’s a deity who underwrites the empty, contingent, conditioned, changing, interconnected, time and space bound things of which the universe consists, assuring with his own Being their full and independent existence.

But I’m not so sure if Aquinas’ necessary Being thesis isn’t whistling in the dark. Nietzsche was also not so sure about this.  (Okay, Nietzsche was actually quite contemptuous of the necessary Being thesis.) And God, in any case, has a problem. A big problem.

God himself appears empty. It’s not just the universe, but God himself, who appears empty.

In other words, even in positing a necessary Being, that Being takes on problematic characteristics. Emptiness hounds God. God is supposed to be ultimate Being–not empty, not contingent, not conditioned, not changing, not interconnected or dependent on other things in time and space. God is supposed to exist (have Being, or rather, be Being itself; be transcendent; be One). Yet, in terms of personality, God sure seems to like interconnection, emptiness, the transitory, and diversity–for he made so much of these things. If one didn’t know better, one might conclude that the many and transitory are all that is. That’s certainly all we see. We don’t know why God made a cosmos of evolution, vast time and space, emptiness, and multiplicity, but–if he exists–he did.

And God never actually shows himself; never actually reveals his independent Being. It makes one wonder. Aquinas would say that the many are in need of the One to exist–to have being–but perhaps it goes the other way as well. Maybe, to really exist–to have being–the One also needs the many.

So when you take a hard look at the idea of God, he is said to be Being Itself, yet he appears to be indistinguishable from Nagarjuna’s prolific emptiness, from nothingness. He seems in need of the cosmos to exist to ground him; he seems in need of a non-dual solution to his own being–which would make him as empty of essence as everything else.

And even Thomas argues that God can only be analogized–never described, captured, or seen. The best response to him is stillness and silence. Not even Moses can look at God and live. And in the end, Thomas gave up talking of him. God has attributes that make him completely Other from what we know. It’s hard therefore to say what it means to declare, “He exists.” He’s more mysterious than Oz, beyond space and time, not consisting of matter, and yet The Most Existent Being, unconditioned, grounding all other beings. Quite strange, paradoxical, and unsettling.

Maybe God’s not there at all. Because there’s actually much less distance between Nagarjuna and Aquinas than might first be imagined–at least with regard to the apparent facts, that the cosmos appears empty and bereft of meaning–this suggests that there’s less distance between atheists and theists as well. The old joke that an atheist just believes in one less god than the monotheist is actually quite telling, for it implies that the difference between Nagarjuna and Aquinas consists of a similar irony: Nagarjuna just believes in one less non-empty Being than Aquinas.

Does the Emperor have clothes? It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that there would be dissenting non-theists in the crowd saying, “Um, let’s stop the pretend. The Emperor has no clothes. The empty cosmos is what we see–and what is. We can let the ontology go.” But this generates panic; an earthquake in the religious believer. “Whattt!!! God has to be the clothing that gives form to the transitory cosmos! We simply can’t bear to live in so naked and empty a universe! It means Nietzsche; it means Buddhism! Absent an ultimate Being, we, as humans, are groundless and without a compass–so we need to believe in God–if, for no other reason, to get our bearings on morality, reason, and sanity.”

Is emptiness bliss or nightmare? Buddhists like Nagarjuna and Dogen, and atheist philosophers like Nietzsche, tend to shrug at theist nerviness and hysterics about the death of God, pointing to emptiness as the clue for living in the now. “No, we don’t have a permanent or independent essence, but wow-wee–just look at what’s going on right now!” They treat emptiness as the space for interconnection, possibility, light, jazz, play, relief–and even happiness. But for Aquinas and other theists, an empty cosmos–and a deity indistinguishable from nothingness–is grounds for a nightmare. We need solidity and “rocks in place”–to echo Thoreau.

But the reality is that there is no solid footing anywhere. Only the merest gossamer gown of ghostly adornment separates Nagarjuna and the atheist from Aquinas and the theist.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to God Shadowed By Emptiness: Thomas Aquinas vs. The Buddhist Nagarjuna

  1. Anonymous says:

    What if a child didn’t understand why he had to suffer cancer chemo therapy?

    The parent could reassure him, but what if the child was still concerned. Then the parent showed him it was going to be OK, by going through the treatment himself. Wouldn’t that comfort the child?

    What if God actually did that for us? Isn’t compassion (suffering with) superior to empathy (understanding another’s suffering)?

  2. Aaron Siering says:

    I came here as a person who before converting to Catholicism took both Lay and Bodhisattva vows and then whose practice of Catholicism was practically a continuation of that Buddhist practice wondering if anyone else was putting Aquinas together with Buddhist philosophy.

    Good thoughts and a very interesting blog post.

    A couple of points though. Aquinas never gave up apologetics, in fact, he died on an apologetic mission. However, he did have a mystical experience, a couple of months before he died, where he declared all of his writing (in relation to that experience) just so much “straw”. Many persons don’t realize the Aquinas was not just one of history’s most preeminent theologians but also one of the Church’s greatest mystics.

    God is unknowable in his total transcendence. He is actually beyond the categories of being and non-being. Consequently, I don’t think that it is accurate to say that Aquinas “grounded” God in being, but more aptly that God is the ground for Being, itself. Then from Being comes the possibility for non-being. The logic here then compels that in order for anything to either exist or not exist there must be a God as Aquinas described “him”. That is as noncomposite, pure act. God pre-exists both being and non-being–where non-being can only follow from being. Consequently, the question why is there something rather than nothing is already predicated upon erroneous premises, i.e. that nothing could even exist before something existed.

    I said that God was unknowable but this isn’t completely true. God is indirectly knowable through his creation of which we are a self-aware part. In knowing creation we can, at least as much as we are able to ever know a No-thing-something, know God. In many Islamic mystical writings, there was the charge by the legalists that what was being celebrated was a heretical polytheism (in the form of pantheism). In a sense, then, to know the universe is to know God, but the universe is not God–and once someone understands this is self-evident that “God” exists because there is being–although granted this being is empty of any intrinsic existence, in itself.

    With this said the distance between Aquinas and Narajuna closes to nothing. They were indeed speaking of the same things from different perspectives.

    Lodro Parchin

  3. Aaron Siering says:

    P.S. I mean to say that yes all of reality is an analogy for God, which is the same insight that Mahamudra provides for us and this at bottom the experience of both Aquinas and Narajuna.

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