I have been reading Modern Buddhism, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (2013). The central message in the first part of this book is the section titled "Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta" (starting on page 101). That chapter is about emptiness (or non-existence), which is possibly the single most difficult teaching of the Buddha for most people to grasp (including me). The chapter may be the best explanation that I have personally come across. It may be that is speaks to me because I can see connections to systems science, which is an area of interest in my day-job.
I was recently explaining to a student how important it is to clearly define the spatial and social boundaries of the systems that one is researching, because that will tell you what variables are relevant and valid to measure and what variable are not. In this student's case, there are four geographic (spatial) systems that are fairly easy to define. Three of them are small, separate islands, and the fourth is the combined group of three islands, which is administered as a single "village" government. These all exist as subsystems in a spatial hierarchy that extends to the country and the globe.
There are, of course, many alternative ways that one could divide the geography of this place, such as coastal and inland, higher and lower elevations, settled and unsettled areas, different types of landforms or vegetation, and more. Each of these is a distinct system in itself. The data variables that one collects must at at the scale of the system that is being studied. If it is not at the same scale, then it is describing a different system. In the case of my student, data that only describes one island should not be used to describe all three islands, and data that describes all three island should not be inferred as descriptive of only one of the islands. (There are ways to extrapolated data to larger and smaller scales, though this must be done with caution to maintain validity.)
In addition, there are, however, social systems that also need to be defined within the spatial systems. Examples of possible social systems that could be studied are: government, religion (maybe different kinds), businesses/livelihoods (both all and grouped into different types), residents (maybe of different social classes and ethnic or language groups), physical infrastructure (utilities and roads/paths), the NGO/civil society (which can have multiple interests), and more.
In my opinion, there are an infinite number of ways in which both spatial scale and social scale could be defined, meaning the potential systems than can be studies are infinite. How we define the best systems to study depends on the nature of the research question that is being asked (and its theoretical foundations), and the types of responses or results that the research question and methodology anticipates. In turn, the research questions and methods adopted are driven by the literature that has been consulted and established in the researcher's mind in preparing the study.
- "The instant you speak about a thing, you miss the mark." - Wumen Huikai (Chan Buddhist Monk, 1183–1260)
He uses a car as an example (p.105). If we try to understand exactly what part of the car is the car, we cannot do it, because the car is not found in any of its parts. Nor is it found in all of its parts piled together. It only exists as a system of parts that are connected to each other and operate together in a certain way. We "know" a car when we see it because we have been taught that when these feature come together in this configuration, then it is called a "car". This system-building process is also true for each component that goes into making a car -- each has it own name -- down to the smallest screw, which also is made up of particles, none of which is a screw in itself.
In the opposite direction, we define the car a a system that is separate from the roads, driveways, parking areas, fuel supply, brand name and image, color scheme, surrounding air molecules, owners, vehicle taxes, dead bugs on the windshield, and innumerable (infinite) other components to which it is almost always, or very often, connected. That is because we have drawn a system boundary around the "car", based on our social conventions.
This path of logic applies to everything that we see as materially existing, including the human body. They are all systems composed of finer elements that are independent systems in themselves. And they are also deeply connected to components that, within our normal conceptualizations of them, are usually considered external them. In reality, there is no car and there is no body without the mental constructs that we hold of their existence.
Another possible way of thinking about this comes from a story told by Oliver Sax in his 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. It is about a man who was blind for 50 years and whose sight was restored through an operation. Upon seeing for the first time, all he saw was a mass of colors and lights that had no organized structure. It was not until a doctor spoke that some of those colors and lights came together to form a human face. Because of his age, his brain was never able to fully conceptualize, or structure, the mass of visual information that he was now exposed to. (Apparently this story was made into a movie in 1999, titled "At First Sight".)
This story point to two things. The first is that there is definitely a real and useful evolutionary biology in us that seeks to structure the world into simpler systems than actually exist. The second is that structures do not exist in reality until we form them. While this example is related to visual reality, Buddhism says that this is true of all reality.
With this in mind, it is possible to conceive of a civilization that is equally intelligent as ours on another planet, but which constructs its reality systems in an entirely different way than we do on Earth. This would make for significant challenges in communication, as it already does on our planet between the subtle (and maybe not-so-subtle) differences that exist between different cultural (and political) groups today.
Because everything that we perceive as reality is a mental construct, there is nothing real in reality. As a friend of mine often says, "there is no there there". For Buddhism, the only thereness is emptiness (or the awareness of emptiness/non-existence) because emptiness is all that is left when the mental constructs (the systems) are taken away. As ephemeral as they may be, once we have defined a system at our gross level of awareness, we have also defined the variables that we use to test it and to understand it, just as with the systems defined for social science and physical science research, described above.
- "Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth." Alan Watts (1915-1973)
As I said above, emptiness is the essential nature of all things -- everything. In Buddhism, the awareness or experience of emptiness is the ultimate happiness and satisfaction, free of the vicissitudes of our emotions and attachments. System science has some theoretical considerations that come fairly close to that. In general systems theory, all systems are subsystems of other systems and complete independence (a closed system) does not exist (Klir, 1969. Approach to General Systems Theory). In addition, systems are in constant flux reacting to and in unison with their larger context. System boundaries, therefore, do not exist as fixed entities except in our minds, usually based on assumptions. If we did not have a preconceived idea of what the boundaries "should" look like, they would not be there. Phenomenology, as a social science research approach (as I understand it), seeks to reduce preconceptions by fully recognizing them, and then investigates social phenomenon with an openness to all possibilities and without prejudice. Emptiness, however, is not quite within the realm of system science -- except maybe quantum physics (see link below)....
So, I am posting the original version of this to both my Buddhism blog and this Community Resilience blog. The reason I wrote this was mostly to think things through in my own mind, and I will update it from time to time, since the topic is big and an important on in both my gross-level working life and my slightly less gross life. The version on this blog site is likely to get more systems science-related updates (see below).
14 November 2016: "One of the most important quantum [physics] insights is that the nature of change itself changes. We are living through such a “change in change.” Worldwide connectivity in all its forms—transportation, energy, communications—is the change emerging from within the system that ultimately changes the system itself."
- Additional insights on systems and globalization from the perspective of quantum physics. This quote comes from http://qz.com/834735/want-to-understand-how-trump-happened-study-quantum-physics/, by Parag Kahnna, published in Quartz (11 Nov 2016)
18 November 2016: - Another perspective on non-existence from Modern Buddhism (page 120), which also has significance for systems building:
- "If all the necessary atmospheric causes and conditions come together, clouds will appear. If these are absent, clouds cannot form. The clouds are completely dependent upon causes and conditions for their development; without these they have no power to develop. The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend upon factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent, or independent, existence and are mere imputations of the mind."