Disengaging Things (Draft of Introduction)

 Disengaging things


Kenneth W. Daly


“Bhikkhus, I do not dispute with the world;
rather, it is the world that disputes with me.”  The Buddha


No Dharma whatsoever was ever taught by the Buddha to anyone.  Nāgārjuna


I tell you this: There is no Buddha, no Dharma, no training and no realization. What are you so hotly chasing? Putting a head on top of your head, you blind fools? Your head is right where it should be. What are you lacking?  Linji




Introduction: from Aristotle to Buddha

Two formulas for and in flux:

Three marks of existence

Dependent origination

Examples of thing-talk

(1)   Done thing: karma

(2)   Good things: merit

(3)   The end as place or thing: nirvana.

(4)   Things cause: the law of causation

(5)   The real thing: dhamma theory

(6)   The thing itself: identity view

(7)   No[as]thing: emptiness

(8)   Made things: fiction and truths

(9)   Fitting things together: knowledge

(10)   Word things: nominal nominalism

(11)   Neither this nor that thing: dueling duality

(12)  Buddha[as]thing: buddhanature

(13)  All things are enlightened:  original enlightenment

(14)  Things taught: (true) Buddhism

(15)  It’s all one thing: interpenetration

(16)  Form as thing: “Oriental aesthetics”

If it’s all about flux, why do we still talk in terms of things?

How to disengage things

Don’t ask, and learn.

Don’t say, and tell us well.

Do. Milk the cow.  Light the lamp.  Play the lute.

Don’t do and it gets done.

Now to engage signlessly, aimlessly, openly


Introduction: from Aristotle to Buddha

When I was reading Aristotle, I began to question “things.”  Aristotle, or more precisely his translators, use the word “thing” so often that it became distracting, especially when Aristotle was talking about processes and activities (becoming, learning, feeling, reasoning) or their features, such as habit or faculty.1

What got me going about “things” was my unease with Aristotle’s analysis of change and time, beginning with his Physics where he asserts:

… every change is from something to something—as the word itself indicates, implying something ‘after’ something else, that is to say something earlier and something later ….3

W.D. Ross renders a similar passage in the Metaphysics as:

it is a different thing that is being moved and that has been moved, and that is moving and that has moved ….

The first time I read this passage I was struck by the implication that moving a thing turned it into “a different thing.”4  In another translation, Ross avoids “thing”:  “what is being moved is different from what has been moved, and what is moving from what has moved.” Thought-provoking, but not so counter-intuitive. In the original Greek, I did not find any noun equivalent to the English word “thing.”  Only a third person neuter pronoun meaning “other” or “different.”5

Jowett makes a similar change in his translation of the Politics.  In 1957, working with Twining, he writes “justice is a thing.” His 1970 translation in the Complete Works puts it as “what is just.”6  Comparing these translations I noticed that the word “thing” carries different associations and conveys more substance than the word “what.”

Aristotle may espouse a substance philosophy, but it seemed to me that his translators’ repeated use of “thing” made him sound more of a stick-in-the-mud than he really is.  I wondered whether the problem might be the way English uses “thing” like the pronouns “it” and “what.”  The thing about this usage … aha! you see right there how easily “thing” slips into a sentence that’s all about doing … the thing about this usage is that “thing” connotes substance, material, structure, stasis, even when that’s not what the speaker or writer intends.

As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the chief philosophical use of the word “thing” is for “that which has separate or individual existence.” In everyday speech, as just noted, we use “thing” like “it” and “what.”  My problem is with philosophers and translators of philosophers who forget the difference.  Aristotle’s translators would probably defend their uses of “thing” as not having this technical philosophical meaning.  I would argue that they certainly do imply it or, to use a current political buzzword, such uses serve as “dog-whistles” for substance ontologies.

Regardless of translation issues, Aristotle views our world as consisting of structured substances that change from state to state, stage to stage, or place to place while maintaining a fixed essence, nature, and identity.  So, even if he’s not using the word pragma, it may be appropriate for a translator to use “thing.”  For instance, in a passage from On the Soul J.A. Smith inserts the word “thing” to convey the import of one of Aristotle’s technical terms:

It comes about as reason requires: the actuality of any given thing can only be realized in what is already potentially that thing, i.e., in a matter of its own appropriate to it.  From all this it is plain that soul is an actuality or account of something that possesses a potentiality of being such.7  [bold added]

The word that Smith translates as “the actuality of any given thing” is entelechia, a word that Aristotle apparently made up, so it’s come into English transliterated as “entelechy.”  Online, Perseus translates entelechia as “full, complete reality.” No surprise then that Ross reinforces the abstract noun “actuality” with the words “of any given thing” to emphasize what Aristotle was trying to get at.

What’s interesting is Ross’s insertion of the word “soul” into the second instance of entelechia in this passage.  Earlier in Book II, Aristotle explicitly used the Greek word psyche (ψυχή) to define soul as an entelechy: “the soul is an actuality of the first kind of a natural body having life potentially in it.”8

The more I read, the more I became dissatisfied with Aristotle.  When I was younger, I had been very attracted to Heraclitus and his view of the world as constant flux. I knew of Whitehead’s “process philosophy,” but was not ready to tackle his neologisms.

Around the same time an anger management counselor introduced me to Buddhist thought. I became aware that for Buddhists we and our world arise as moments during constant change, and that our stress and dissatisfaction arise from trying to hold on to these fleeting moments.  Later I found more elaborate expressions of these features that drew me further into Buddhist philosophy:

Reality according to Buddhists is kinetic, not static; but logic, on the other hand, imagines a reality stabilized in concepts and names.  The ultimate aim of Buddhist logic is to explain the relations between a moving reality and the static constructions of thought.  (Stcherbatsky i 2)

The substance ontology advocates the permanence aspect and tries to explain the phenomenon of change.  The no-substance ontology, on the contrary, accepts the reality of change alone and explains the experience of permanence as a conceptual superimposition.  (Bhatt and Mehrotra 1)

[T]he Buddha … emphasizes not what things are but how they operate.  Given that all things are dependently originated … he does not give us a different answer to the same question “what is man?” but asks an altogether more sophisticated question: “how is man?”  …  The Buddha thus substitutes processes for objects.  (Hamilton (1996) xxiv)  [Yes, even she uses “things.”]

My interest in “moving reality” changed from the theoretical to the personal during my wife’s terminal illness.  While reading Barbra Clayton’s book on Śāntideva’s moral theory, I encountered a quote from the Buddha’s final words to his disciple Ananda.

Enough, Ananda, do not sorrow, do not lament.  Have I not explained that it is the nature of things that we must be divided, separated, and parted from all that is beloved and dear?  How could it be, Ananda, that what has been born and come into being, that what has been compounded and subject to decay, should not decay?  It is not possible.  (DN ii 144)

For reasons I’m still exploring I found great comfort in these words in the face of my wife’s stage IV brain cancer, comfort in its original sense “with strength.”  In the immediate situation I found and read the whole Maha-parinibbana Sutta.  Then I spent a good part of the first year of her illness studying the Dīgha Nikāya in which this sutta appears.

Having other matters on my mind, I did not ask whether Clayton’s translation of the Pali has the same problem with “thing” that I had found in translations from Aristotle’s Greek. Now I can see that it does, and it doesn’t.  Where Maurice Walshe and Thanissaro Bhikkhu follow the practice of the Greek translators and use “things” to translate gerunds (“all things that are pleasant and delightful”), she just has “all that is beloved and dear.”  But Clayton inserts a phrase (“the nature of things”), which does not appear in any of the other translations.9   Now that I’m paying attention, the phrase “the nature of things” does not merely blow a dog-whistle; it sets off alarm bells. It sounds too much like the Thomist neo-scholasticism that I was taught in college.  And it’s totally unnecessary.

As I said, the emotions associated with this passage overwhelmed any such questions.  Later, as I read more and more Buddhist writing, I observed that many Buddhist philosophers pay lip service to constantly changing, but then use terms that treat processes as things.  Philosophers call this practice “reification,” from the Latin words for “thing” and “to make.”  That word “reification” itself illustrates my point.  The word reifies, makes a process into a thing.  We then use the word ambiguously to refer to the process as if it existed as an entity standing on its own, and also to the results of that process abstracted from the activity.  As we shall see, reifying is built into talking1in the broadest sense of using words in a particular language.  “Time” is a good example of reifying process, activity, motion, especially when we talk1as if time were some envelope within which activity occurs.  Same with “space.”  My problem is not with reifying.  I’ve just reified repeatedly in the preceding sentence.  My problem is with not paying attention to how we’re reifying when we talk, especially when we talk as if we’re above or beyond reifying.9a

My examples so far might have given the impression that my problem arises mostly from nitpicking over translations.  As I hope to show in this essay, some Buddhist writers and thinkers reify not just when they are inattentive, or even just when they are using what Buddhists call “skillful means” to communicate more readily.  No, this tendency to reify underlies the ideas and themes central to a number of schools of Buddhist thinking and sometimes confuses the way Buddhist practice is discussed.

Take “mindfulness,” for instance.  Some Buddhists do not like the way in which “mindfulness” practice has become popular and something of a big business.  There have been symposia and magazine issues devoted to whether “mindfulness” should be divorced from the context of other Buddhist beliefs and religious practices. There have been few, if any, challenges to the way that the word “mindfulness” itself reifies the practices the term supposedly encompasses.  Buddhists who worry that “mindfulness” has become a commodity should look into the way the word itself turns a practice into a product.9b

The word “mindfulness” just layers one static fixity on top of another—mind-full-ness.  Instead of talking1about being aware, being present, attending, focusing, i.e., doing, we are talking about some-thing we have, not only have, but are “full” of.  Talking in terms of “mindfulness” draws our attention to ourselves, to closing around some-thing we have.  In this self-centering “mindfulness” provides our first instance of the process that Buddhists call papañca (Skt. prapañca), which can be translated as “reification.”

To be clear, the practices usually advocated under the rubric of “mindfulness” can help us attend to the present moment, to become free of our selves and their worlds of things. I am not questioning these practices, just the term “mindfulness.”  One of the tasks of this essay will be to show why it is important to avoid talking1in terms of reifications, why talking in terms of “things” makes a difference in how well we live.

Perhaps my questions about “mindfulness” can become more clear by looking at another word that gets tossed around in self-help literature, “meaningfulness.”  To mean is an activity; meaning is the gerund of that verb.  As Robert Kegan describes so well, we grow from “object-grasping” infants to meaning-making adults:

Meaning is, in its origins, a physical activity (grasping, seeing), a social activity (it requires another), a survival activity (in doing it, we live). Meaning, understood this way, is the primary human motion, irreducible.  It cannot be divorced from the body, from social experience, or from the very survival of the organism.  Meaning depends on someone who recognizes you.  Not meaning, by definition, is utterly lonely.  Well-fed, warm, and free of disease, you may still perish if you cannot ‘mean.’10

All that activity tends to get lost when we talk only in terms of “meaningfulness.”  If we make “meaning” into some-thing of which some-thing else can be full, we’ve gotten two layers away from doing, from meaning. Then we add –ness to construct another noun, yet one more layer abstracted from doing, and try to bring that abstraction down to earth by talking about more things that have meaningfulness. All we’re doing is talking as if the activity of meaning is being imported from the outside.

At least the gerund “meaning” preserves its origins as a verb.  “Mind” comes from old verbs for “to remember.”  The Pali word sati, translated as “mindfulness,” also comes from a verb for “to remember.” It’s easy to forget that nouns like “mind” and satiare not things.  They are activities that we collect under a name. Just because it’s a noun does not mean that mind is a thing with which can fill another thing.  Nor can we manufacture a third thing called “one-thing-filled-with-another-thing-ness.” Sati is  “minding,” as in “minding the store.”

Buddhist tendencies to reify did not just appear recently, or just in English-speaking countries. Many Buddhists today recite the Heart Sutra, which encapsulates the Perfection of Wisdom reaction to the reifications of the Abhidharma scholars by systematically negating each of the things (dharmas) propounded in these writings, even including the Four Noble Truths.

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no end to suffering, no path to follow.
There is no attainment of wisdom,
and no wisdom to attain.11

Yet many who recite the Heart Sutra espouse the reification “Buddhanature” without hesitation.

Jay Garfield’s recent book Engaging Buddhism covers much of the back and forth over the centuries as Buddhist philosophers have struggled with how to employ “the static constructions of thought” to convey insights into a “moving reality.” (Stcherbatsky)   This essay is titled “disengaging things” to highlight this struggle as it arises in Garfield, in the Buddhist writers he discusses, and in others he doesn’t.  It should be noted that Garfield also introduces an excellent study in how Buddhists can avoid reifying, Laura Guerrero’s Ph.D. dissertation “Truth for the Rest of Us:  Conventional Truth in the Work of Dharmakīrti,” which will also be discussed here.  In working through these issues I also read Sue Hamilton’s Identity and Experience and Early Buddhism where, as indicated in the quote above, she explores how the Buddha “substitutes processes for objects,” i.e., things.  Finally, I explored the Japanese school of Critical Buddhism, in which Zen scholar priests examine the reifications in their own tradition and its antecedents, connecting these seemingly abstract philosophical issues to real world issues like war, militarism, and social inequality.

In his book Garfield attempts to bring Buddhist philosophy (ancient through modern) into a dialogue with contemporary Anglo-American (aka “analytic”) philosophy.  As he himself tells us, his survey is comprehensive without being exhaustive.  He touches on earlier Western philosophers, particularly Hume and Kant, and explores a bit of Continental phenomenology, but generally ignores pre-Renaissance European philosophers.  In that context, it is ironic that he uses Aristotle to describe “What I Am Up To”:

To engage with Aristotle philosophically is to take him as a conversation partner, not as a topic of conversation; to talk with him, not about him. (15)

The irony is that other than a few references to Aristotle, Garfield does not converse with Aristotle as much as he does with other Western and Buddhist philosophers.

Similarly, except for his chapter on ethics, Garfield tends to ignore writings within 500 years of the life of the Buddha.  He mentions Theravāda, the only surviving school from this earlier era, respectfully, but does not engage Theravāda directly in conversation, except concerning ethics.

Even though I start this project from a Theravāda standpoint, in the same way that Garfield starts from Tibetan scholarship, and even though I may quote the Pali canon perhaps more than he does, I do keep in mind Peter Gregory’s caution:

It is thus impossible for us to reconstruct with any degree of certitude the content of the Buddha’s enlightenment or what the Buddha “originally” taught. Nor does the Pali Canon present a complete picture of “early” Buddhism. From its inception in the collective memory of the early monastic community, the Pali Canon never represented a full account of the Buddha’s teaching. Rather, it was and still is a selective version of the Buddha’s teaching preserved by one segment of the sangha, and we can only presume that some of the Buddha’s teachings addressed to other groups were never included. (Gregory in H&S 295)

I mention these limits on Garfield’s engagement with Buddhist and Western philosophers not to criticize, but just to note what choices he has made to focus his efforts.  Such choices are necessary in a work of this scope. As he states at the outset, “… I am not self-consciously striving for completeness, or even fairness, in coverage, only touching base with the ideas I have found most useful in my philosophical explorations.” (4)

My comments are made in the spirit of Garfield’s “Methodological Postscript.”

We must extend the same principle of charity in reading contemporary texts, making the best of them, as opposed to constructing the straw men that fuel the bushfires of academic debate.  In that way we can learn from each other’s thoughts, and move Buddhist philosophy along. (334)

Or as Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda puts it in the introduction to his work on the term papañca:

This work has failed in its purpose if its critical scrutiny of the occasional shortcomings in the commentarial literature makes anyone forget his indebtedness to the commentaries for his knowledge of the Dhamma.11a

My project is not to criticize Garfield.  He aims to show Westerners how some Buddhists philosophize and to show Buddhists how their interests intersect with contemporary Western philosophizing.12  He succeeds for the most part in his project, as he’s defined it.  Mine is different.

I want to disengage from things by calling out language that presents thoughts without thinking, words without talking1, entities without becoming, events without happening.

This disengagement is not an end in itself.  It is a means to open up living, talking1, and thinking, a means that we can let go of. That’s the gist of the quotes on the front page of this essay.  Even the Buddha said that his teaching was just a raft to get us across the river, a raft we won’t need to drag around once we get there. (MN 22) To quote Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda12aagain:

One might distinguish between the relatively true and false in theory, between the precise and the vague in terminology, between the scholastic and the wayward in phraseology, but one has to remember that as concepts they are all one. Nor should one seriously regard some concepts as absolute and inviolable categories in preference to others, and pack them up in water-tight cartons labelled ‘paramattha’ [ultimate Truth].

NOTES  (not edited yet)


SN 22.94.  The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya.  Bodhi, Bhikkhu, translator.

MMK XXV.24.  Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. .Siderits, Mark and Katsura, Shōryū, translators.

Linji lü. Schloegl’s translation, The Zen Teaching of Rinzai, 21.a.  http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachings/Translations/Teachings_of_Rinzai.pdf

*  Except when quoting another author, I will employ the following convention:

Dharma (with a capital D) refers to any doctrine or teaching attributed to the Buddha.

Dhamma (with a capital D) will be used specifically in reference to the Pali canon.

dharma and dhamma in italics are the Sanskrit and Pali words with a wide range of meanings, very similar to the English word “thing,” as will be discussed. I will tend to use the Pali word dhamma just to break the associations dharma has acquired in English.


  1. To help make this piece more readable I use words like “talk,” “speak,” and “say” to encompass all forms of communication, not just oral.When I use “write,” I’m referring to that specific form of communication.  Besides, neither Aristotle nor the Buddha wrote the untranslated texts that we read as their words today.  What has come down to us are notes or transcriptions from their oral teachings.
  1. In his Metaphysics, he says1that a man is a “thing,” even a musician is a “thing.” In the Nicomachean Ethics, he first tells us that three “things” are found in the soul (passions, faculties, and states), and then that three “things” in the soul control action and truth (sensation, thought, desire). Existence is a “thing” to be loved.  In his Politics, three “things” make men good and excellent (nature, habit, and reason).  Aristotle.  1049b17-19. 1105b21-28.  1139a18. 1168a6. 1332b5-9.  These numbers refer to pages and lines in one edition of the Greek text that is commonly used to enable finding a passage whatever edition one is reading.  A similar system is used for the Pali canon of Buddhist suttas.
  1. 225a1.Hardie and Gaye note that Aristotle is referring to the Greek word for “change” μεταβολή “in which Aristotle construes μετα in the sense of ‘after’.”  (fn. 31, Collected Works 380)
  1. We’ll see that some Buddhists sound like this then they talk about impermanence, as a way of denying that there is ever any persisting “thing.”I was not familiar with these writers when I first read Aristotle.
  1. 1048b32-34: οὐδὲ γίγνεται καὶ γέγονεν ἢ κινεῖται καὶ κεκίνηται, ἀλλ᾽ ἕτερον, καὶ κινεῖ καὶ κεκίνηκεν.First Ross translation, Aristotle, Complete Works ii: 1656. Ross’s other translation: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.9.ix.html
  1. 1282b 20.
  1. 414a25-28.οὕτω δὲ γίνεται καὶ κατὰ λόγον· ἑκάστου γὰρ ἡ ἐντελέχεια ἐν τῷ δυνάμει ὑπάρχοντι καὶ τῇ οἰκείᾳ ὕλῃ πέφυκεν ἐγγίνεσθαι. ὅτι μὲν οὖν ἐντελέχειά τίς ἐστι καὶ λόγος τοῦ δύναμιν ἔχοντος εἶναι τοιούτου, φανερὸν ἐκ τούτων.
  1. 412a27.διὸ ἡ ψυχή ἐστιν ἐντελέχεια ἡ πρώτη σώματος φυσικοῦ δυνάμει ζωὴν ἔχοντος. Ross translation.
  1. Alaṃ ānanda mā soci, mā paridevi – nanu etaṃ ānanda mayā paṭikacceva akkhātaṃ sabbeheva piyehi manāpehi nānābhāvo vinābhāvo aññathābhāvo. Taṃ kutettha ānanda labbhā ‘yantaṃ jātaṃ bhūtaṃ saṅkhataṃ palokadhammaṃ, taṃ vata tathāgatassāpi sarīraṃ’ māpalujjiti. Netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati.

“Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve, do not lament! For have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change, separation, and severance? Of that which is born, come into being, compounded, and subject to decay, how can one say: ‘May it not come to dissolution!’? There can be no such state of things.  (Vajira/Story trans.) http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html#chap5

Enough, Ananda, do not weep and wail!  Have I not already told you that all things that are pleasant and delightful are changeable, subject to separation and beoming other?  So how could it be Ananda—since whatever is born, become, compounded is subject to decay—how could it be that it should not pass away? (Walshe)

“Enough, Ananda. Don’t grieve. Don’t lament. Haven’t I already taught you the state of growing different with regard to all things dear & appealing, the state of becoming separate, the state of becoming otherwise? What else is there to expect? It’s impossible that one could forbid anything born, existent, fabricated, & subject to disintegration from disintegrating.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.5-6.than.html#chap5

9a.  I am not using the term “reification” in this essay as it is used by Marxists.  Georg Lukacs’s (1971: 83 ff.) seminal piece on “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” expands on Marx’s insight in Capital that “with commodities … a definite social relation between men … assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.” (Marx 1967:72)   A future line of inquiry that might yield some insights would be to compare this notion of reification with how the term is used in this paper, and more generally to compare these two process philosophies.  Each school emphasizes its soteriological purpose. As Marx puts it in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it.” (Marx 1967: 402)  Nevertheless, many members of each can’t resist the temptation to engage in ontology.  This paper examines some of the dead-ends and detours that result when Buddhists try to do ontology.  Let it suffice here to mention the doctrinaire, catechetical rigidities of Engels’ dialectical materialism as further expounded by Stalinists in the 20thCentury.

9b.  See, for example, Eskow and Gordhamer exchange in Tricycle in 2012.

  1. Kegan 18-19.
  1. http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/heartsutra.html

11a.  Ñāṇananda x.

  1. Garfield strives to communicate in contemporary academic English.Garfield, for example, uses “aretic” where “virtue” would do just as well.  “Justified True Belief +/- Gettier” means next to nothing outside the analytic literature.  His book sounds at times like what it may be: a collection of journal articles that could have been better edited by removing repetition and better connecting the dots from one chapter to another.

12a.  Ñāṇananda 42.