Bibliomancy, Indian Philosophy, Radical Monism, Hegel and The Buddha
There’s a coffee shop in my town that is one of the oldest businesses in the downtown area. This place has survived drought, pestilence, plague and severe earthquake. Because it’s old, it has old stuff inside. There’s a bookshelf with a complete set of The Encyclopedia Britannica. I grabbed a volume at random. It turned out to cover ‘Humidity’ through ‘Ivory Coast’. I flipped it open at random and landed on ‘Indian Philosophy’. That was cool. I had a little bit of experience with Indian philosophy, this would be a fun refresher. Bibliomancy take me away.
So I am in the Indian Philosophy section. I soon come to a breakdown of the various categories and history of philosophy in India. I land pretty quickly on Radical Monism. Radical Monism posits that there is only one thing in existence, spirit. This is one of my favorite threads in philosophy. (I’m a philosophy major and lapsed philosophy grad student.)
As you survey your way through philosophical traditions, from the ancient Indian thinkers, the Greeks, German thinkers, etc. you can pick up on a thread across the traditions where they are trying to reconcile whether reality consists of a bunch of stuff or a few things or just one single thing. This touched on an educational series I’ve been watching lately called Cosmos. This is a remake of the old Carl Sagan series, but this time with Neil Degrasse Tyson. Mr. Degrasse Tyson’s version is really good because the CGI work is quite stupendous. One episode in the series quoted Carl Sagan as saying,
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
I love this quote because it comes from a famously scientific mind, but speaks to ancient philosophical principles. But back to the Bibliomancy. So Radical Monism pops up. I grab the encyclopedia’s index and track down other references for that. (Believe it or not, aside from writing code, worming my way through books like this is one of my other principle joys.) So I eventually land on Hegel who talked about Monism. This will be an awful reduction on my part, but he said there was only one thing and that the one thing came to be know through a dialectic process of inquiry and discussion requiring the delving into all realms of knowledge. You dive in, pull things apart, reconstruct and in the end come back to the same thing, except now you know the one thing.
Yes, don’t be surprised that when we find our way fortuitously into Indian Philosophy, we then meander into the realm of The Buddha. Another awful reduction coming up… Nirvana is that state beyond suffering, duhkha. For the Buddha, duhkha was suffering based in the attachment to things impermanent, both pleasurable and painful. We know the one cosmos through it’s myriad states, substances and modes, but this apprehension is duhkha. It is false compared to the apprehension that all things are one, unified and in this way, nothing. More on that last part some other time.
Ok I took it too far, too philosophical, at least, too coffee-house-philosophical. What’s the point of all of this for a blog that talks mostly about business? What matters to me about an underlying philosophy, a philosophy that underpins ones decisions, acts and deeds is that it is strong and resilient enough to guide one through the myriad ways in which we encounter problems and suffering in our lives, our working lives especially.
My way of interacting with my friends, family, clients and business colleagues over the years has been grounded in some sort of a vague Radical Monism. There is but one thing, one mind, seeking to know itself through myriad forms. I think a noble way to guide one’s professional life is to commit to the idea that we are all one, in this together, part of a whole. We serve one another best when we are complete and separate individuals who can articulate and advocate for distinct and well formed positions, but who in the end acknowledge that we are all of one thing, in this together, trying to come to know this one reality and one another in unity with it. I think this view does not require a God or sacred texts. They help as pointers. They help as they are yet more forms and things to know, but they are not a predicate, they are duhkha, unreal, incomplete.
What’s real is that we have stuff to do together. It may all seem absurd sometimes, but all this coming and going, doing and undoing serves a greater purpose—that of knowing.
Let me leave with this passage from the book I flipped open in the coffee house just now. It’s quite an elegant and concise summary of Buddhism.
“Nirvana is a state of utter extinction, not of existence, but of passions and suffering; it is a state beyond the chain of causation, a state of freedom and spontaneity. It is also a state of bliss. Nirvana is not the result of a process; were it so, it would be but another perishing state. It is the truth—not, however, an eternal, everlasting substance like the atman of the Upanishads, but the truth of utter selflessness and insubstantiality of things, of the emptiness of the ego, and of the impermanence of all things. With the realization of this truth, all ignorance is destroyed, and consequently, craving, suffering, and hatred.”
Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 9, 1973.