Whitehead and Chinese Philosophy: The Ontological Principle and Huayan Buddhism’s Concept of shi

1. Whitehead and Chinese philosophy

I was quite excited when, some thirty five years ago, I read Process and Reality, and saw that Whitehead wrote, even only in passing, that his philosophy of organism seemed to “approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to Western Asiatic or European thought” (PR 7). Later, I realized that, apart from a very general impression of Chinese philosophy, this comment indicates little more than Whitehead’s intuition of general similarities between his philosophy and Chinese thought. Certainly, Whitehead probably had more knowledge of Indian philosophy, including Indian Buddhism: according to Victor Lowe, Whitehead’s familiarity with Indian philosophy might come from the influence of his elder brother, Henry Whitehead, who served almost thirty years as Bishop of Madra in India, and James Wood, his colleague at Harvard, an expert on Indian philosophy (Lowe 1990, 194-95). This might lie in the background to his writing about Buddhism in Religious in the Making. Thus, I contend that, historically speaking, Whitehead’s discussion of Buddhism resembles Indian varieties more than Chinese ones (such as the Chinese Mahayana Buddhism as developed in the Sanlun, Weishi, Huayan, Tiantai, Chan and Jingtu Schools) and is even further removed from autochthonous Chinese philosophies like Confucianism and Daoism. Nevertheless, this does prevent us from discussing the possible relation between Whitehead’s thought and Chinese philosophy. Especially now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is clear that there could be mutual enrichment between Whitehead’s philosophy and Chinese philosophy, when we consider the following important trends in the twenty-first century.

The first important change is the move from human-centrism to the view that human beings are part of nature. Philosophies in the twentieth century tended to be too human-centered: phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, critical theory, neo-Marxism, hermeneutics, and even post-modernism, all focused on human affairs, with little attention paid to nature. Unfortunately, as long as human beings remain blinkered by human-centered discourses, the difficulties they face become unsolvable. Nevertheless, with the emergence of the ecological movement, new discoveries in astronomical physics and new interest in the universe, we nowadays concern ourselves more with nature and the cosmic dimension of human experience. This leads us to an urgent need of philosophy of nature and the necessity to reintegrate human beings in nature. Whitehead’s efforts in the philosophy of nature and Chinese philosophy’s emphasis on the optimal harmony with nature will surely continue to inspire solutions for the problem of humanity’s place in nature.

The second is the shift from an ontology of substance to an ontology of dynamic relation. The ontology of substance since Aristotle has been replaced in the twentieth century by the ontology of event, in the early writings of Whitehead, such as the Principle of Relativity, Knowledge of Natural World and the Concept of Nature. Now, in my view, an ontology of events should yield to an ontology of dynamic relation, which has been the basic vision of existence supposed by Chinese philosophy. For example, the Daoist concept of dao penetrating all things (dao tong wei yi), the Confucian concept of ren that represents the inner connectedness of the human with all things, and the Buddhist concept of interdependent causation (yuanqi) all imply an ontology of dynamic relation. In Whitehead’s Process and Reality, we see also a philosophically articulated ontology of dynamic relation. For Whitehead, each actual entity, by its prehensions and objectification, is related to and directs itself towards other actual entities. Whitehead’s three principles—the principle of relativity, the principle of process, and the ontological principle—offer us an image of cosmic process in which all actual entities are dynamically related in a process of being and becoming, in which one and many unify and differentiate in an ever-extending cosmos.

The third fundamental change is that all countries in the world are now facing the challenge of globalization, understood basically as a process of deterritorialization. This involves all humankind on the globe as a whole, and is proceeding in every domain of human activities—health care, technology, environment, economics, politics, education, culture, religion, etc. I define globalization as follows: Globalization is a historical process of deterritorialization or cross-bordering, by which human desire, human universalizability and interconnectedness are to be realized on the planet as a whole, and to be concretized now as global free market, trans-national political order and cultural globalism.[1] Here “deterritorialization” should be understood in a broader sense, as a process of crossing borders, or going beyond oneself to the Multiple Other.[2] Globalization is indeed the present historical stage of realizing the unceasing process of human “strangification” and a further invitation to generosity to the other. What impresses me greatly in Whitehead’s philosophy is the persistent cosmological or ontological energy of each being’s going beyond itself by the dynamism of prehension and objectification, as each actual entity is oriented towards multiple others and contributes thereby to the constitution of multiple others. This is very similar to the Confucian concept of shu or tui (extension); to the Daoist concept of the dao’s giving birth to countless things and the sage’s always giving himself to many others; and to the Chinese Buddhist concept of huixiang (turning one’s merit towards others).

Indeed, this is a moment of history when people feel both close to each other and very vulnerable. Now should be the critical moment for opening oneself toward the Multiple Other rather than keeping within one’s self-enclosure. In responding to today’s conflicts created by the self-enclosure of different parts (e.g. different disciplines, economic interests, cultures, political and religious groups), we should be more concerned with each other and the possibility of mutual enrichment. In order to overcome antagonism by appealing to effective dialogue, I have proposed in recent years “strangification”[3] and “language appropriation” as viable strategies. The neologism “strangification” may appear strange in English, yet is much more understandable in Chinese, where the etymology of waitui signifies the act of going outside of oneself to the Multiple Other, or going outside of one’s familiarity to strangeness and to the foreigners. This act presupposes the appropriation of language by which we learn to express our ideas or values in languages understandable to others. In their turn, “strangification” and “language appropriation” presuppose an original generosity toward the other, without limiting oneself to the claim of reciprocity, and without which there is no reciprocity. In my view, the original generosity is the sine qua non of social relationships and ethical rules.

Whitehead’s philosophy offers us an onto-cosmological vision that is always inspiring in the search for a profound philosophical foundation for understanding creativity, generosity and strangification, most urgent for the world today in the process of globalization. Chinese Philosophy and Whitehead’s philosophy will surely be mutully inspiring and mutually enriching for each other, especially because of their common concern with creativity, harmony and universal relatedness.

2. Creativity, Harmony and Universal Relatedness

The philosophy of Whitehead—despite its deductive character[4] that differs significantly from Chinese thought—agrees well with some basic Chinese ideas, especially the notion of cosmic creativity. Whitehead puts “creativity” in the Category of the Ultimate.[5] For him, “creativity” is the principle of togetherness, by which many enter into one, a complex unity; it is also the principle of novelty, by which the new complex unity adds to the many and they in turn strive for a new togetherness. Taken together, creativity is the Ultimate metaphysical principle of “novel togetherness,” in which there is the unceasing advance from disjunction to conjunction, creating thereby a novel entity other than the entities given in disjunction. The novel entity is at once the togetherness of the “many” it finds, and is one among the disjunctive “many” which it leaves: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (PR 21). Creativity is therefore not limited to the Christian understanding of creatio ex nihilo, according to which only God creates, while other seeming creations by creatures simply imitate God’s creativity. Now, in the Whiteheadian sense, there is creativity wherever there is integration of many into one and the adding of a novel one to the many. This process from many to one and from one to many is quite similar to the ultimate principle, established by Yijing (the Book of Changes) of unceasing creativity (shengshend buxi), and Huayan Buddhism’s idea of mutual penetration of one and many.

Whitehead’s emphasis on harmony is also very close to the Chinese notion of mind or heart. Both of them do not limit themselves to a static and purist vision of harmony. They cherish instead a dynamic idea of harmony that brings differences, contrasts and tensions to an optimal harmony. Take for example Whitehead’s Categoreal obligations. The first category, that of Subjective Unity, states that many feelings in an incomplete phase are compatible for integration by reason of the unity of their subject (PR 26). According to the seventh category, that of Subjective Harmony, the valuation of conceptual feelings is determined by the adaptation of those feelings to the contrasted elements congruent with the subjective aim (PR 27). The first category has to do with the data felt, whereas the seventh with the subjective form of the conceptual feeling. Both jointly express a pre-established harmony in the concrescence of any subject (PR 27). This is to say that the many, when integrated into one, should be able to maximize their harmonious integration, though still keeping with the difference of many, thus forming a contrasted tension in harmony.

The ideal of harmony is also cherished by Confucianism, Daoism, and Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, especially Huayan Buddhism. Though quite different from each other, both Confucianism and Daoism would agree with what the Yijing says: “The way of the Creative works through changes and transformation, so that each thing fulfills its true nature and destiny and comes into permanent accord with the Great Harmony” (Wilhelm 1977, 371; italics added).[6] The problem is: if each thing and every person are allowed to fulfill their own nature, how, as many, can they come together to achieve an optimal harmony or to be in accord with the Great Harmony? Confucian and Daoist answers differ: Confucianism attempts to achieve harmony by appealing to the ren in each person and to the coordination by li, the ritual, that is to be transcendentally founded on it; Daoism refers to the original union with the dao and the spontaneous coordination of all beings by their following the dao’s original generosity in working for the goodness of the Multiple Other. Huayan Buddhism, on the other hand, would emphasize the ontological vision of mutual penetration of one and many, thus offering a world vision of what Thomé Fang calls “comprehensive harmony,” very much closer to Whitehead’s vision (Fang 1981, 294). This is one of the reasons why I choose in this paper to compare Whitehead and Huayan Buddhism.

Now, both concepts of creativity and harmony are closely related to and founded on the vision of universal relativity, or dynamic relation among all things in the universe. In this paper, I will take Whitehead’s philosophy and Huayan Buddhism as illustration, focusing on Whitehead’s ontological principle as central to his vision of process and relativity. The ontological principle refers to actual entities as the final explanation of all, including eternal objects. This principle leads to the idea that all eternal objects rely upon God’s thoughts or conceptual prehensions to exist. In Huayan Buddhism, we have a similar principle in which we find the Gate of Relying on shi (actualities, events or phenomena) in Order to Explain All Dharmas (especially Buddha’s laws) and Create Understanding. Furthermore, Huayan Buddhism puts the emphasis on the mutual penetration of one and many, depicting thereby a vision of universal relatedness, or better, an ontology of dynamic relation. Huayan’s philosophical doctrine of universal causation of realms of dharmas says that the Absolute Mind, non-substantial and uncaused, is the ontological foundation upon which all things, including the realm of events or phenomena, the realm of principles or reasons, the realm of events and principles mutually penetrated, and the realm of all events, all arise. There are some philosophical problems involved in this comparison, to be dealt with in this paper, to show an ontology of dynamic relation inviting creativity, optimal harmony and enlightenment.

3. Process, Relativity and Ontological Principle

We should say the dynamism of going outside of oneself to others, understandable metaphorically as an original generosity to the Multiple Other, and contributing thereby to the constitution of the Multiple Other, as a kind of gift to the other, is essential to Whitehead’s ideas of creativity and universal relativity leading to optimal harmony. We should make explicit this original generosity and gift from Whitehead’s Category of Explanation (Category XVIII) that presents the ontological principles, together with the Category IV that presents the principle of relativity and Category IX that presents the principle of process.

The principle of relativity says that all entities, both actual and non-actual (such as eternal objects, feelings and propositions),[7] have the potentiality for being an element in a real concrescence of many into one. In other words, it belongs to the nature of a “being” that it is a potential for every “becoming.” This is the “principle of relativity.”[8] This means that all actual entities, with their vector energies, always go outside themselves to become objectified, together with objects and feelings, in the concrescence of many others, or better of the Multiple Other. The term “concrescence” etymologically comes from the Latin concrescere, which signifies the process of growing together in biological sense, such as many cells growing together. In Whiteheadian metaphysics, it means the process of many actual entities integrating into a complex unity: “the production of novel togetherness is the ultimate notion embodied in the term “concrescence” (PR 21). Therefore, the many in question are related to each other internally and dynamically by this dynamic energy of going outside of each being to the Multiple Other.

The principle of process says that how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its “being” is constituted by its “becoming.” This is the principle of process. According to Category VIII, there are two descriptions required for an actual entity: one is analytical of its potential for “objectification” in the becoming of other actual entities, while the other is analytical of the process which constitutes its own being (PR 23). The term “objectification” represents a process somewhat similar, though in different context, to my understanding of “strangification.” Both concepts are commonly concerned with the process of going outside of oneself to the Multiple Other.

For Whitehead, the doctrine of objectification is not limited to mental or conscious activity, as Descartes and Locke would conceive. Rather it refers to the extensive continuum that exists in the “mutual objectification” by which actual entities prehend each other (PR 76). I understand the term “extensive” as the character of extending to the Multiple Other, in which the act of objectification happens and we can translate mutual objectification as a primary process of communication even before mental or consciousness come into play. This extensive character, if seen from one actual entity, is called “prehension” of that entity, but, conversely, when seen from the other, it is called “objectification.” That is why Whitehead defines a nexus as “[…] a set of actual entities in the unity of the relatedness constituted by their prehension of each other, or—what is the same thing conversely expressed—constituted by their objectification in each other” (PR 24).

But, we may ask, where does this original generosity ultimately come from? Whitehead’s answer is found in his Category XVIII, the Category of Explanation:

That every condition to which the process of becoming confirms in any particular instance has its reason either in the character of some actual entity in the actual world of that concrescence, or in the character of the subject which is in process of concrescence. This category of explanation is termed the ‘ontological principle’. It could also be termed the ‘principle of efficient, and final, causation’. This ontological principle means that actual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one ore more actual entities. It follows that any condition to be satisfied by one actual entity in its process expresses a fact either about the ‘real internal constitutions’ of some other actual entities, or about the ‘subjective aim’ conditioning that process(PR 24).

This principle, namely the ontological principle, allows us to understand that, unlike Plato’s Ideas, for Whitehead, eternal objects do not give us the ultimate explanation of everything, and thereby saves us from a Platonic reading of Whitehead’s philosophy. Eternal objects themselves should find their reasons in an actual entity. Even if eternal objects represent the ideal constituents of cosmic and individual experiences, these ideal constituents should themselves have their ultimate explanation in an actual entity. For Whitehead, they exist in the conceptual prehensions of God, or, in the thinking of God, the Ultimate Actual Entity. This is the reason why for Whitehead, God is needed to explain why there are ideals in the world. According to Whitehead, God, in his primordial nature, conceives with His conceptual prehension the entire realm of eternal objects. His magnanimous mind is generous in conceptually prehending all possible worlds of potentialities constituted by eternal objects. Again, in his consequent nature, God perceives with his physical prehension the totality of the real world. As Whitehead writes: “Thus the consequent nature of God is composed of a multiplicity of elements with individual self-realization. It is just as much a multiplicity as it is a unity; it is just as one immediate fact as it is an unresting advance beyond itself” (PR 250). Here, at the end of his system, Whitehead is giving us a hint that God does not stop and will never stop. He is still changing: “But the principle of universal relativity is not to be stopped at the consequent nature of God. This nature itself passes into the temporal world according to its gradation of relevance to the various conscrescent occasions” (PR 350). In my language, God is still strangifying. Sometimes this is called by Whitehead the Superjective nature of God.

We see from the Category of the Ultimate that the Creativity that proceeds from many to one and again from one to many involves in its own creative process a kind of ontological generosity. I have argued elsewhere that Creativity itself is generosity;[9] but in Whitehead’s vision of cosmological process, this is to be realized through the contrast between God and the world. In referring to the ontological principle, we understand that it is God who in his thinking perceives the nature and structure of all eternal objects, and that he adapts the eternal objects so as to become suitable for ingression into the real world; and that He uses the ideality of eternal objects to attract and engage the world of actual entities into a more universalizable and intensely related integration. The world is going into ever larger and more intensely integrated societies, and God perceives them all in his consequent nature, so as to immortalize the inner values and meaningfulness of all that happened, is happening and will happen, in his physical prehensions and his loving memory of them all. God still goes on objectifying in endless adventures.

This is a Whiteheadian vision of creative creativity, which could be said to work by the logic of dynamic contrast. On the one hand, the socialization of actual entities needs to refer to eternal objects in order to attain their universalizable characters and objective structures. On the other hand, all possible universalizable characters and objective structures unfoldable by eternal objects should only be realized by the social activity of actual entities, to go from potentiality to actuality. In this process, the world goes towards higher and higher degrees of complexity, that is, towards the fuller realization of the universalizing characters and intelligible structures brought by eternal objects to this world. Eternal objects are the ideal paradigms that attract creative novelty in the cosmic process of creativity: to create is always to introduce new eternal objects and their abstract hierarchy in the real world, or to realize them in a new way or new shape. The process of creativity is penetrated through and through by the dynamic contrast between God’s thinking and his operating the eternal objects in the real world constituted by the sum total of all actual entities. Therefore, the contrast between God and the World is the ultimate dynamic contrast pushing the universe in an unceasing process of creativity and strangification. Concerning the dynamic contrast between God and the World, Whitehead writes:

It is true to say that God is permanent and the World fluent, as that the World is permanent and God is fluent. It is true to say that God is one and the World many, as that the World is one and God is many. It is true to say that, in comparison with the World, God is actual eminently, as that, in comparison with God, the World is actual eminently. It is as true to say that the World is immanent in God, as that God is immanent in the World. It is as true to say that God transcends the World, as that the World transcends God. It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the World creates God. God and the World are the contrasted opposites in terms of which Creativity achieves its supreme task of transforming disjoined multiplicity, with its diversity in opposition, into concrescent unity, with its diversity in contrast. In each actual entity there are two concrescent poles of realization—‘enjoyment’ and ‘appetition’, that is, the ‘physical’ and the ‘conceptual’. For God the conceptual is prior to the physical, for the World, the physical poles are prior to the conceptual poles (PR 348).

For me, the truth implied in this dynamic contrast of God and the World is not that God would satisfy Himself with this contrast, or that He would prefer to stay in this situation of contrastive tension, but rather that this is the logic or economy by which God the Ultimate Explanation of all, as made clear by Whitehead’s ontological principle, always goes beyond. In other words, God always strangifies in the World in the making, and that the optimal harmony is always to work out by way of contrasting tensions, not to say contradictory oppositions.

4. Huayan Buddhism’s Gate of Relying on shi and Ten Mysterious Gates

When we come to Huayan Buddhism,[10] we find, in its doctrine of Ten Mysterious Gates (shi xuan men), that the Gate of Relying on shi (actualities, events, phenomena) to Explain Dharmas (or Laws) and Produce Understanding is somehow similar to Whitehead’s ontological principle, especially when combined with the doctrine of Causal Dependence of the Realm of Dharma. The doctrine of Ten Mysterious Gates expresses the idea that all things in the world are involved in a network of dynamic relation; or in Huayan’s term, the realm of dharmas is such that all shi (actualities, events, phenomena) penetrate each other without any obstruction. Through understanding the Ten Gates, one can enter the Mysterious Sea of the Great Huayan Sutra. These Ten Gates mutually approach each other and penetrate each other, act and function on each other without obstructing each other. This doctrine was said to be proposed by Du Shun, the first patriarch, and elaborated by his disciple Zhiyan and by Zhiyan’s disciple Fazang, in what is sometimes called the Old Ten Mysteries (Gushixuan).[11] Then, Fazhang, in his Huayanjing Tanxuanji propose New Ten Mysteries (Xinshixuan), which were further developed by Chengguan, the fourth patriarch.

Concerning this particular Gate of Relying, Zhiyan, in his Huayan Yisheng Shixuanmen, explains that it is “focusing on intellectual understanding, in relying on shi (event, actualities or phenomena), to manifest the dharma of li, using various kinds of shi to illustrate various kind of li. By this we are approaching one of Buddha’s Laws in illustrating it by a particular event or phenomenon.”[12] In this perspective, Su Shun seems to put emphasis on the epistemological priority of shi. Zhiyan’s disciple, Fazang, in the explanation of this Gate, says that understanding an event—

In this case the li of no birth and death—is similar as to seeing dust. Fazang therefore seems to refer to li as the emptinesss or without-self-nature of each event or actuality. For Fazang, dust as round and small, and this resembles shi; whereas the nature of the dust is empty, as is li. Since shi has no substance of its own, the shi as shi, or event as event, should follow always the li and be understood with reference to it.[13] In this perspective, Fazang’s understanding of this principle seems to put emphasis on the epistemological priority of li.

5. Dependent Causation of the Realm of Dharmas

This Gate, because of the network of explanation constituted by the mutual penetration and mutual support of all ten mysterious gates, should always be understood in the context of the doctrine of ten mysterious gates, itself very much related to the doctrine of six characters and the doctrine of universal causation of realms of dharma. Briefly, the doctrine of six characters says that each dharma possesses the six characteristics of universality, particularity, similarity, difference, integration and disintegration, so that each dharma is at once one and all and the world is in a perfect harmony. When one dharma arises, all dharmas arise, and vice versa.

The doctrine of “universal causation of realm of dharmas” involves two concepts—the “Dependent Causation,” according to which all things arise from dependent causation, and “Realm of Dharma” (Dharmadātu), according to which the universe includes four realms—the realm of events, the realm of principles or reasons, the realm of events and principles or reasons mutually penetrated, and the realm of all events mutually penetrated. The following quotation from Fazang may help us to understand its meaning:

This little particle of dust arises through causes. This means a dharma. This dharma is manifested in accordance with wisdom and possesses a variety of functions. This implies a realm. Because this has no nature of its own, it can never be divided nor equalized. It is harmonious without the twofold character of similarity and difference and is identical with reality. It is like the realm of empty space, which extends everywhere, permeates everything, manifests itself wherever it may be, and is always very clear. But this one particle of dust and all other dharmas do not know each other. Nor do they perceive each other. Why? Because each of them is a complete perfect realm of dharma, universally involving everything, and apart from it there is no other realm of dharmas. Therefore they no longer know or perceive each other. Even if we speak of knowing or perceiving, it is none other than the realm of dharmas knowing and perceiving itself, and at bottom there is no other of dharmas to be known or to be perceived […]. If neither nature nor character exists, it becomes the realm of dharmas of principle. Without both fact and character are clearly in existence without obstacle; it becomes the realm of facts. When principle and fact are combined without obstacles, the two are at the same time one and one is at the same time two. This is the realm of dharmas.[14]

Here the term “realm” (ji) could be understood as the actual differentiation and limitation in the case of shi (events, actualities and phenomena), and as “true nature”(xing) in the case of li (principles or reasons or laws). I tend to express the distinction between li and shi is another, more Chinese way. This is reflected in what Fazhang writes in Huyan Yuxin Fajie Ji: “when we talk about the ‘Mind of True Thusness,’ there li means the true view; whereas when we talk about the Mind as life and death, there shi means the mundane view.”[15] But instead of taking Sanlun Buddhism’s position of negative dialectics, Huayan Buddhism positively affirms the realm of shi and li mutually penetrated, and the realm of all shis mutually penetrated.

The concepts of li and shi refer also to the two Gates manifested by the One Mind in the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, the book that has most influenced all schools of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism.As Du Shun, the first patriarchal of Huayan Buddhism, says:

To say that the two gates of li and shi are roundly fused into One Reality, is to see again two gates in this Reality: the first is the Gates of the Mind of True Thusness, the second is the Gates of Mind of Life and Death. The Gates of the Mind of True Thusness is the li, whereas the Gates of Mind of Life and Death is shi. This is to say emptiness and being are not two, they exist in themselves roundly fused together, although they differ in being either manifest or implicit, but they have no obstruction to each other.[16]

Therefore, li and shi are the two manifestations of the One Mind, which is the Mind of all sentient beings. This is quite different from God with his conceptual prehensions, as in the case of Whitehead’s philosophy.

6. Li, shi and the One Mind

Ultimately speaking, both li and shi should refer to the doctrine of dependent causation for their ultimate explanation. This doctrine emphasizes that Mind, which is non-substantial and therefore uncaused, is the ontological origin from which all things arise.

For example, when a dust is perceived, it is a manifestation of one’s own mind, it means that one’s own mind is the cause. It is only because of the cause before us that dharmas of the mind arise […]. Now that we understand that causes are really not causes, any arising will be wonderful. So long as the substance of things arising through causation is void, there will never be any arising even though there seems to be, and if it is understood that substance is in accordance with causes, there will always be arising even if there seems to be none.[17]

This reference to the Mind as the ultimate explanation of the dependent causation of all dharmas, is quite similar to Whitehead’s ontological principle that refers to God’s conceptual prehensions as the ultimate ground on which all other actual entities, eternal objects and reason arise. Both of them refer to Mind as conceiving all li and shi. They differ in that, for Whitehead, God is the final interpretation of actual entity. He is the greatest among all actual entities. But for Fazang, the Mind, though it could it manifest through li and shi, is itself not to be seen as one of the shi.

For Du Shun, to say that li and shi are mutually penetrated, is to say that li comprehends and penetrates all differentiated and limited shi events and all shi events identify themselves with li. To say that all shi events are mutually penetrated is to say that, all shi events, when comprehended by li and identify themselves to li, reflect li in all other shi events and reflect them in all Realm of shi events in accordance with li. It is worthy of mentioning here that Huayan’s concepts of li and shi will have great impact on the neo-Confucianism of the Song Dynasty.

The relation between li and shi, as two manifestation of the One Mind, depicts a world of perfect harmony, as shown by the theory of Ten Mysterious Gates, according to which all things are co-existing, interwoven, interrelated, inter-penetrating, mutually inclusive, reflecting one another. But what do li and shi mean? Briefly put, li means principle, universal, reason, the abstract, law, noumenon, judgment, knowledge, whereas shi means a thing, actuality, event, the particular, the concrete, phenomenon, matter (Chang 1963, 142). Fazang explains thus:

It means that as the character of dust has already ceased to be, deluded consciousness also perishes. Because an event has no true nature, it follows principle and become perfectly harmonized with it. Because true nature involves events, therefore principle follows fact, is in complete accord with it. Thus they always exist and but are at the same time ever empty, for Emptiness does not destroy existence. They are always empty but at the same time ever existent, for existence does not obstruct Emptiness. The Emptiness that does not obstruct existence can harmonize all phenomena, and the existence that does not destroy Emptiness can complete everything. Therefore, all phenomena clearly exist before us and one does not obstruct the other (Chan 1963, 424).

If the li and shi could be mutually penetrated and thereby let all shi events be mutually penetrated, there is one in many and many in one, and the whole universe is an organic whole—as in the Net of Indra, where every particular pearl reflects all the others. Therefore there is mutual inclusion and mutual implication of one and many:

the one and the many established each other. Only when the one is completely the many can it be called the many, and only when the many is completely the one can it can it be called the many. There is not a separate one outside the many, for we clearly know that it is one within the many. There are not the many outside of the one, for we clearly know they are the many within the one. The reason is that they are not many (separately) and yet they can be many coincided with the one, and that it is not independently one and yet it can be one coinciding with the many. Only when we understand that dharmas have no self-nature can we have the wisdom about the one and the many (Chan 1963, 423).

But this ultimate reference to the One Mind has the consequence of reducing the dimension of Multiple Other and the dynamic energy to strangify, to go beyond, and this can be seen in the historical development of Huayan Buddhism. As we know, the influence of Awakening of Faith in the Mahayanas on later Chinese Buddhism was overwhelming. Not only Huayan, but all other schools of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, such as Tiantai, Chan and Pure Land, come to take the One Mind as Ultimate Reality. The fourth patriarch of Huayan Buddhism, Chengguan (738-839 A.D.) has also studied Tiantai and Chan Buddhism. Especially under the influence of Chan, and his own re-reading of the certain verses,[18] Chengguan changed the concept of li in Fazang’s philosophy into the concept of xin (heart), and the concept of nature of principle (lixin) into the concept of nature of heart (xinxing). He seemed to have been fond of Tiantai’s method of zhi guan (cessation and insight) and the doctrine of mutual prehension of li and shi. In his response to the Emperor Shun’s question concerning the Essential Dharma Gate of Mind, he says:

In order to attain the origin of pure heart
One should understand that the self is empty.
In body and form you’ll find nothing real.
All thoughts and deliberations have no true origin, really.
All of a sudden the spiritual enlightenment arise
Penetrating all worlds immediately.
Like the real gold discovered from hidden treasure
As if the sun shines off the darkness misty.
If you compare your heart to the Buddha
You’ll see your heart with Buddha forms an identity.[19]

It seems that what Chenguan was seeking was to see the Buddha’s heart in our ordinary heart, to achieve Buddha’s wisdom on the basis of the spiritual resources of one’s own wisdom. Without further support from the state and deprived of praxis accessible to general public, Huayan was to become merged in Chan Buddhism, though in itself it could still be seen as a most comprehensive system of philosophy.

7. Aftermath of the One Mind

In Chan’s idealistic position (and that of Tiantai and later Huayan), we find infinitely rich spiritual resources in the Mind that is one’s own, to be realized also in the details of everyday life. This is one of the most important contributions of Chan Buddhism to Chinese wisdom. Yet it is also here that Chinese Mahayana Buddhism tends to lose its dimension of the Multiple Other. Chan Buddhist interprets the life of wisdom as the enlightenment of one’s own heart in everyday life and in ordinary virtues. In everything great or small, there is the dao of enlightenment, and there is no need of any transcendence whatsoever. As Huineng says:

If one’s heart is even, there is no need of obeying obligations. If one’s act is right, there is no need of practicing dhyāna (concentration). There is gratitude when one is filial and nourishing his parents; there is justice when the superior and the inferior are sympathetic one to another. When one knows how to cede to elders, there is harmony among the noble and the mean […]. Prajñā is to be sought in one’s heart, there is no need of searching for metaphysical truth in the external world. Just to listen, to say and to cultivate one’s self in this way, the Western paradise appears just in the present moment (TSD 48, 352).

It is here that the openness and unconditional generosity to the Multiple Other in Buddhism have undergone a radical process of reduction in Chan Buddhism. Chan Buddhism radicalizes the proposition “All sentient beings can become Buddha” into “all sentient beings are originally already Buddha.” If all sentient beings are already Buddha in their hearts, they have no need of any exteriority. Also, since the self-nature of everyone, the bhūtatathatā, reveals itself in the self-sameness of the absolute mind/heart, there is no place for the Multiple Other.

Chan Buddhism has long penetrated both the intellectual and everyday life of the Chinese people. We should say that the loss of dimension of the Multiple Other in Chan Buddhism has brought huge changes to Buddhism in China. According to Nāgārjuna and Asanga in the Indian tradition, the Buddhist way of life should lead to compassion and altruism for the benefit and enlightenment of the Multiple Other, of all sentient beings. Yet Chan Buddhism would interpret it as the enlightenment of one’s own heart in everyday life. Though this has the merit of unfolding the infinitely rich resources in people’s minds and infusing Buddhism into everyday life, it has also limited Chinese life and philosophy, removing the necessity for openness to the Multiple Other, to go outside of one’s self to outsiders and foreign lands.

This has had a huge effect on Chinese thought, unfortunately making it more insular and self-regarding. Today, greater efforts should be made to bring Chinese culture back to the dimension of the Multiple Other. There we need the strategy of strangification and the original generosity toward the Multiple Other, in order to give Chinese culture, already rich in immanent spiritual resources, a new cultural dynamism, complemented by infinite resources from the Multiple Other.

8. Conclusion

In contrast to Huayan’s tendency to reduce the Multiple Other and the comprehensive harmony of the Many to One Mind, the most inspiring idea of Whitehead’s philosophy today is that every actual entity tends towards the Multiple Other by its own dynamic energy, that every actual entity receives objectifications from the Multiple Other and objectifies itself upon the Multiple Other. When thinking of God, the final interpretation for Whitehead, besides His primordial nature that apprehends conceptually all eternal objects, and His consequent nature that apprehends physically the whole universe, there is His superjective nature, by which God, out of his own generosity, again and again goes out of Himself and projects Himself into the Universe. This unceasing process of strangification has important cosmological and religious consequences: the process of cosmic creativity should not be seen as a process of self-reflexion or bending upon itself. Inspired by Whitehead, the whole process of creativity is ever enlarging, enriching and intensifying process by the generous dynamism of going to the Multiple Other. Although Whitehead’s philosophy concerns itself too much with the cosmic process without paying enough attention to the human life-world and human historicity,[20] as I see it, his vision of cosmic strangification could inspire us also on the level of human affairs, such as a new social and political theory. The reason is that, before we can establish any sort of reciprocity as the principle of society (see, for instance, Mauss’ Essai sur le don), there must be a generous act of going outside of oneself to the Multiple Other. The idea of reciprocity, although introducing notions of intersubjectivity, presupposes still a philosophy of subjectivity. But for me, the new principle for society and ethics today should base itself on the original generosity and strangification as act of going outside of oneself to the Multiple Other.[21]

In other words, the spiritual resources that I can find within my own mind/heart are never sufficient. If they were sufficient, then the Truth of Reality Itself would become finite, which is not the case. Therefore, my mind/heart should always be enriched by my unconditional openness and generosity to the Multiple Other. The Multiple Other, either as all things in nature, or as so many people, or as the divine and the ideals, always demands respect from me and my act to go outside of myself to them in an originally generous act.

On the other hand, self-transcendence and strangification create moments of nothingness that also bring experience of enlightenment. Here Whitehead’s cosmology might itself benefit from Huayan Buddhism in particular or Chinese Mahayana Buddhism in general. In my view, nothingness or emptiness has a profound meaning, not limited to the ontic level of non-being. It extends to spiritual freedom and ontological possibilities or potentialities. In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, according to my interpretation, we can discern three basic meanings of the term “emptiness” (kong). First, at the ontological level, emptiness means that all things come and go by (inter)dependent origination and therefore without any substance of their own. Second, at the spiritual level, emptiness means that the spiritual achievement of a sage consists in total freedom, not to attach himself to any achievement, neither being nor non-being, neither dualism nor non- dualism; he should not attach himself to any spiritual achievement, not even to that of emptiness. Finally, at the linguistic level, emptiness means that all words we use are artificially constructed, without any correspondence to reality.

In my view, the most important of these senses of emptiness is the spiritual one, and this is also what is most emphasized by Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. For example, although all these three meanings could be found in Sengzhao’s On the Emptiness of the Unreal, he would interpret it, using Daoist language, as the spiritual achievement of a sage:

Unless one possesses the wisdom and special penetration power of a sage, how can he harmonize his spirit with the realm of neither being nor non-being? The sage moves within the thousand transformations but does not change, and travels on ten thousand paths of delusions but always go through.[22]

I would say that this spiritual freedom or emptiness is most important for human self-cultivation, a factor neglected by Whitehead’s cosmological discourse. It is in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Philosophy that we can learn the richest resources for self-cultivation and the mind/heart’s spiritual freedom.


[1] This definition concerns more the process of globalization rather than its political implications. Politically, some might be in favor of globalization, while others against it. Mine is only a philosophical attempt to define it as a historical process.

[2] I use the concept of “Multiple Other” to replace, ontologically and ethically, the concept of “the Other” used by Levinas, Derrida and Deleuze. For me “the Other” is abstract and artificial. In reality, we are born into the context of the Multiple Other, and at no time do we simply face “the Other.” Keeping the concept of “Multiple Other” will justify a position that is ontologically, ethically sound, and that is the basis of the good life.

[3] The idea of strangification was first proposed by F. Wallner of the University of Vienna, as an epistemological strategy for interdisciplinary research. This concept was later extended by me to intercultural interaction and religious dialogue.

[4] This is true especially in the Process and Reality, where Whitehead starts by positing his Categorical Scheme before illustrating it with examples from the history of philosophy and generalized experiences.

[5] I understand that Whitehead’s system of Categories is a deductive system, in which the Category of the Ultimate is to be interpreted further by the other three Categories, such as those of Existence, of Explanation and of Obligation (or Categoreal Obligations).

[6] Where Baynes’ translation reads “receives,” I have substituted “fulfilled” as more faithful to the Chinese.

[7] There are four main types of entities: the two primary types are actual entities and pure potentials (eternal objects); the other two are hybrid types—feelings and propositions or theories (PR 188).

[8] Whitehead’s original text reads: “(iv) That the potentiality being an element in a real concrescence of many entities into one actuality is the one general metaphysical principle character attaching to all entities, actual and non-actual; and that every item in the universe is involved in each concrescence. In other words, it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’. This is the ‘principle of relativity’”(PR 22).

[9] See Shen 2004, 9-13. I acknowledge with appreciation Michel Weber’s comments regarding this paper and regarding two types of generosity—the generosity of the Ultimate and the generosity that is realized through the dynamic contrast of God and the World. According to Weber, “Perhaps the two generosities have to be distinguished: fundamentally, the ontological generosity belongs to the Ultimate, which boils down to the concept of creativity. I see the ultimate as being dipneumonous, as having two lungs: the world and god. Second, God expresses a refined form of generosity, a generosity that lures the occasions towards higher intensities of experience.”

[10] Huayan School is named after its core scripture, the Avtamsaka Sutra (The Flowery Splendor Scripture), which has three Chinese translations—the 60 Chapters version, the most popular one, translated in 420 A.D. by Buddhabhadra (359-429 A.D.); the 80 Chapters version, translated in 699 A.D. by Sikshananda (652-710 A.D.); the 40 Chapters version, translated in 798 A.D. by Prajna. In India, we do not find a school of Buddhism that relies only on one sutra. The first patriarch of this school is Du Shun (557-640 A.D.) who might have launched some basic philosophical positions of Huayan School, such as the Dharma of dependent causation, the mutual penetration of li and shi. His disciple, Zhiyan (602-668 A.D.), the second patriarch, started to systemize the doctrine of five divisions of Buddha’s teaching and that of Causal Arising of Realms of Dharma (Dharmadhātu). Zhiyan’s disciple Fazang (643-712 A.D.), the third patriarch, was conventionally recognized as the real builder of this school’s philosophical system, later to be carried on by Chen Guan (738-839 A.D.), the fourth patriarch and Zongmi (780-841 A.D.), the fifth patriarch.

[11] Here are the Ten Gates: (1) The gate of simultaneous completion and mutual dependence; (2) the gate of full possession of the attributes of purity and mixture by the various storehouse; (3) the gate of mutual compatibility and difference between one and many; (4) he gate of mutual identification of all dharmas existing freely and easily; (5) the gate of the completion of the secret, the hidden, and the manifest; (6) the gate of the compatibility and peaceful existence of the subtle and the minute; (7) the gate of the realms of the Indra’s net; (8) the gate of relying on events in order to explain dharmas and create understanding;(9) the gate of different formation of separate dharmas in ten ages; (10) the gate of the excellent completion through the turning and transformation of the mind only (Wing-tsit Chan, 1963, 411-13).

[12] Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text No.1868.0518c06.

[13] Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text No. 1875.0630b03; Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text No. 1875.0631c27.

[14] Taisho shinshu daizokyo, Vol. 45, pp. 627-628 (English translation in Chan 1963, 415).

[15] Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text No. 1877.0644a01 (my translation).

[16] Du Shun, Hua Yan Wu Jiao Zhi Guan, in Zhongguo Fojiao Sixiang Ziliao Xuanbian (Selected Materials of Chinese Buddhist Thought), Vol.2, Book 2, p.7.

[17] Taisho shinshu daizokyo, Vol. 45 pp. 627-628 (English translation in Wing-tsit Chan 1963, 414).

[18] For instance the verse “Heart, like a painter, is able to depict the worlds. All five elements come from it. No dharma was not produced by it” in the Avatamsaka Sutra in 80 Chapters version, Taisho shinshu daizokyo, Vol. 10, p.102

[19] In Zhongguo Fojiao Sixiang Ziliao Xuanbian (Selected Materials of Chinese Buddhist Thought), vol.2, book 2, p.375 (my translation).

[20] It is true that Whitehead’s later works such as Adventures of Ideas and Modes of Thought attempt to remedy this, although they do not do so entirely.

[21] This could also be seen in Derrida’s ethics of gift and Levinas’ Totalité et Infini, characterized by Derrida as a “masterpiece of generosity” (chef-oeuvre de générosité).

[22] Taisho shinshu daizokyo, Vol. 45, pp. 152-153.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Chan, Wing-tsit. 1963. Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, Princeton University Press).

Chang, Chung Yuan. 1963. Creativity and Daoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art and Poetry (New York, Harper & Row).

Du Shun, Hua Yan Wu Jiao Zhi Guan, in Zhongguo Fojiao Sixiang Ziliao Xuanbian (Selected Materials of Chinese Buddhist Thought), Vol.2, Book 2, p.7.

Fang, Thomé H. 1981. Chinese Philosophy: Its Spirit and Its Development (Taipei, Linking Press).

Lowe, Victor. 1990. Alfred North Whitehead, The Man and His Work, Volume II: 1910–1947 (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press).

Wilhelm, Richard, and Cary F. Baynes. (1977). The I Ching or Book of Changes (Princeton University Press).

Author Information

Vincent Shen
Department of Philosophy
University of Toronto, Ontario, M5S 1A2, Canada

How to Cite this Article

Shen, Vincent, “Whitehead and Chinese Philosophy: The Ontological Principle and Huayan Buddhism’s Concept of shi“, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <http://encyclopedia.whiteheadresearch.org/entries/thematic/theology-and-religion/whitehead-and-chinese-philosophy/>.