Persons, Things and Other Ephemera:

John Dewey and Hua-yen Buddhism



Paper Submission for the 2009 SAAP Conference


            John Dewey and Hua-yen Buddhist philosophers share a perspective on dependent origination or conditional existence which denies the substantial existence of persons or things.  Both philosophical perspectives consider persons as well as all things as fundamentally relational and temporal.  Dependent origination is central to both metaphysical perspectives as well as to their respective ethical prescriptions.  Despite this, Dewey and Hua-yen Buddhists hold widely divergent ethical prescriptions.  This paper analyzes the metaphysical similarities as well as the ethical differences between these thinkers in order to develop a broader ethical perspective on dependent origination. 



Introduction and Hermeneutic Caution

            Tu-Shun (557-640) and Fa-tsang (643-712) were Hua-yen Chinese Buddhist philosophers.  John Dewey (1859-1952) was an American pragmatist philosopher.  Because of this divergence of time and culture, in any comparison of the two there are obvious dangers of reading Hua-yen thought through the lens of pragmatism.  To compound the problem, Dewey acknowledges no influence of Hua-yen or even Buddhist thinking of which I am aware.  Despite this caution, I want to outline in this paper several metaphysical similarities between these very different thinkers.   I take heart that I am not alone in juxtaposing these two philosophical traditions.  Several philosophers have pointed out commonalities between pragmatism and Chinese (and also Buddhist) philosophical thought.[1] 

            My approach is to first focus attention on these metaphysical similarities between Hua-yen Buddhism and Dewey’s pragmatism.  They share a perspective on emptiness, to use Hua-yen terminology, or dependent origination.  I will introduce this concept through a discussion of the Buddhist perspective on personal identity.   Buddhists famously deny the existence of atman, a Sanskrit term loosely translated as soul, in favor of a doctrine of an atman, or no self.  Hua-yen Buddhists (and Mahayana Buddhists more generally) extend this conception of an atman to include all beings, not just human beings.  I will demonstrate that Dewey, too, acknowledges the dependent origination of all persons and things.  But Dewey constructs a very different practical ethic from this concept of dependent origination from the ethics of Hua-yen Buddhism.  The second half of this paper analyzes and critiques both of these ethical perspectives that originate in a shared metaphysical principle of dependent origination or emptiness.  

1.  Personal Identity, An-atman and Self in Process

            The classical Buddhist approach to personal identity is expressed in a dialogue between King Menander and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.  Nagasena begins by claiming that while his fellow monks call him Nagasena, that name entails no substantive metaphysical implications.  As James Giles puts it, “Although we may use words like "self" and "I," we should  not be led  into  thinking  that  they  actually  refer  to something, for  they  are but  grammatical  devices.”[2]  Despite appearances, Nagasena does not exist as anything more than a collection of parts or aggregates.  King Menander challenges Nagasena that if this idea of personal identity is true, no one should listen to him as he is insubstantial.  In response, Nagasena demonstrates that the chariot that brought Menander to the meeting is also simply a collection of aggregates, yet everyone acknowledges that the chariot has the power to transport individuals.  Just as the chariot retains its power without existing as a substantial entity, so too do individuals.  Despite our everyday assumptions that persons possess a substantial soul or self, most Buddhists argue that there is no such metaphysical substance and our names merely delineate a conventional collection of aggregates.   

            This skeptical approach to personal identity is widely accepted in most Buddhist traditions, including Hua-yen.  Tu-Shun analyzes persons into eleven materials and seven minds.  He writes, “At this point it is finally realized that [a person] is born of a combination of many conditions, so the idea of person finally disappears.”[3]  Hua-yen philosophers accept this fundamental doctrine shared among a variety of different Buddhist traditions.   

John Dewey holds a very similar position regarding personal identity.  As he puts it, “There is no one ready-made self behind activities.  There are complex, unstable, opposing attitudes, habits, impulses which gradually come to terms with one another and assume a certain consistency of configuration.”[4]  A person, for Dewey is a collection of attitudes and habits, what Buddhists call aggregates.  Just as Buddhists claim that there is a conventional name applied to these aggregates, Dewey talks about a consistency of configuration of the aggregates.  Neither position allows for an enduring self or soul.  Dewey suggests that a proper understanding of this aggregated self dissolves the philosophical debate between egoism and altruism, writing, “What makes the difference in each of these cases is the difference between a self taken as something already made and a self still making through action.  In the former case, action has to contribute profit or security to a self.  In the latter, impulsive action becomes an adventure in discovery of a self which is possible but yet unrealized.”[5]  The commonly held belief that all actions are selfish implies a substantive self that pre-exists.  A self that is continually in the process of change and flux, expansion and contraction, overcomes all descriptions of its activities as either selfish or altruistic.[6] 

2. Dependent Origination and the Philosophical Fallacy

Both Dewey and Hua-yen Buddhists place this critique of substantial personal identity within a broader critique of substantial metaphysics.  They argue that not just all people, but all things are insubstantial.  Dewey’s analysis begins with what he calls the philosophical fallacy.  This fallacy “consists in the supposition that whatever is found true under certain conditions may forthwith be asserted universally or without limits and conditions.”[7]  Philosophers generalize from specific cases to universal truths.  Philosophers also tend to objectify and reify generalized objects, making them into substantive causes for events.  Dewey writes that we “convert[] consequences of interaction of events into causes of the occurrence of these consequences.”[8]  Dewey’s favorite example of this is the philosophical objectification of mind.  In assuming a dualistic metaphysics, philosophers often reify and objectify consciousness or mind.  In fact, Dewey argues that consciousness is an eventual function of complex organism-environment relations.  He writes, “Perceptive consciousness is a process, a series of heres and nows.”[9]  Mind is enduring and contextual and provides shades of background meaning for the flights of consciousness.[10]  But it too is intermediate and relational.  In claiming that the mind or consciousness exists prior to events and is substantial we are guilty of the philosophical fallacy, of objectifying and reifying what are properly seen as processes and consequences.  

In Experience and Nature, John Dewey extends his anti-substantialist metaphysics to all things.  He writes, “The stablest thing we can speak of is not free from conditions set to it by other things.”[11]  We commit the philosophical fallacy anytime we explicitly or implicitly posit a substantive object in place of temporal and relational events.  Since all things are conditional, all things are temporal.  Or, as Dewey puts it, “Every existence is an event.”[12]  Events exist within, and for a limited, time.  The conditional nature of existence implies that all things come into existence at a particular time in consequence of particular conditions and all things pass away also as a result of conditions.  Nothing exists independently; nothing exists atemporally. 

            Events, for Dewey, are “ongoing, and hence, as such unfinished, incomplete, indeterminate.”[13]  Dewey cautions us against the temptation to reify endings of events, a version of the philosophical fallacy.  So, for Dewey an end “may be indifferently an ecstatic culmination, a matter-of-fact consummation, or a deplorable tragedy.”[14]  Ends are not necessarily sought after, nor can they be independent of conditions.  The objectification and reification of events begins in the process of communication.  Communication implies meaning and in meaning, the events of primary experience take on “representatives, surrogates, signs and implicates, which are infinitely more amenable to management, more permanent and more accommodating than events in their first estate.”[15]  Because of this permanence and accommodation, language tempts us to think of objects as eternal and non-conditional.  Buddhists also see language or naming as entailing the danger of reification.  For Dewey, this is just one example of the philosopher’s fallacy, transforming conditioned events into eternal ends, objects or ideals. 

Hua-yen philosophers agree with Dewey on the conditional nature of all things; they call this conditionality dependent origination or emptiness.  As Thomas Cleary writes, for Hua-yen philosophers, “The appearance of discrete phenomena is an illusion.”[16]  All objects are relational and as such depend for their very existence on other objects.  Tu-Shun claims that the four illnesses are “1. Grasping the body as one self, 2. Grasping the four gross components, 3. Grasping the five clusters, and 4. Grasping the twelve sense media.”[17]  Tu-Shun extends Nagasena’s analysis of the emptiness of self to the aggregates that constitute the self.  As Cook puts it, “For something to be empty means to be empty of independent being, which is synonymous with existing only in dependence upon the other.”[18]  Hua-yen Buddhists follow most Mahayana teachings on emptiness.  It is not just human beings that are empty, but all beings are empty of independent existence, or dependent on other beings. 

Tu-Shun’s quote also relates emptiness to the Four Noble Truths of the Buddhist tradition.  The Buddha taught that life is dukkha, or suffering, and that the origin of this suffering is in our craving or grasping.  One source of grasping is the craving for our own substantiality and eternality through time which is overcome in the Buddhist recognition that there is no self.  But craving and grasping occur anytime we reify and objectify what are empty and temporally fleeting objects.  This suggests that Hua-yen philosophers also relate dependent origination to the temporally fleeting nature of all things.  When we view the world as temporal and dynamic, as a series of events not objects, it becomes obvious for both Tu-Shun and Dewey just how interdependent all events are.  Conversely, interdependence requires that events be temporally placed.   

            Buddhist emptiness does not imply nihilism.  In following the Madyamika Buddhism, Hua-yen philosophers emphasize that emptiness does not imply non-existence.  Because emptiness implies dependent relations, there can be no emptiness without existing things.  As Tu-shun puts it, “Things which exist interdependently have no inherent nature or identity of their own—it is precisely this nonindependence this nonabsoluteness, in Buddhist metaphysics called ‘emptiness,’ which allows things to exist relatively and interdependently.”[19]  Because emptiness and existence are mutually dependent, even emptiness is empty; it has no substantive existence.  Emptiness is not nihilism; it is simply another way of saying that all things are conditional and relational.

3. Toward a Fully Relational Metaphysics:  The Jewel Net of Indra

Dewey argues not only that everything is conditional, but that an eternally stable object would be useless.  He writes that such an object “would have no applicability, no potentiality of use as measure and control of other events.”[20]  Eternal objects would be of no use for dealing with the events in our lived experience.  Indeed, pragmatism relies on the fact that “consequences will take care of themselves if conditions can be had and managed.”[21]  Since all existing events are empty, we can focus our attention on securing their conditions.  A practical ethics requires dependent origination.   

            For Dewey, the dynamic non-substantial self implies a self that is entirely relational.  He writes, “Natural operations like breathing and digesting, acquired ones like speech and honesty, are functions of the surroundings as truly as of a person.  They are things done by the environment by means of organic structures or acquired dispositions.”[22]  Humans are completely immersed in this web of relations.  But the fact of dependent origination does not itself produce meaning for Dewey.  Rather the breadth and depth of meaning is largely based upon the processes of communication and language.  Dewey writes, “When we attribute meaning to the speaker as his intent, we take for granted another person who is to share in the execution of the intent, and also something independent of the persons concerned through which the intent is to be realized.  Persons and things must alike serve as means in a common shared consequence.  This community of partaking is meaning.”[23]  Through meaning and communication, human beings have the potential to be related within a vastly broader web of interrelations with other persons and events. 

            Hua-yen Buddhism goes much further than Dewey in positing relations among events.  The favorite metaphor of Hua-yen philosophers is that of Indra’s Jewel Net.  Here, the universe is compared to an infinite net with jewels strung in each eye.  The jewels are so polished that each one reflects all the other jewels, including all the other reflections ad infinitum.  For Hua-yen Buddhists, dependent origination implies that everything is already related to everything else in the universe as well as the whole universe itself.  As Cook puts it, “Perhaps to pluck a flower is indeed to make a star in Orion tremble to its molten core. Only a Buddha really knows.”[24]  Dewey urges us to create meaningful relations in a world where everything is conditional; Hua-yen Buddhists argue that we should recognize that every event is inherently related to every other event. 

            Fa-tsang’s metaphor of the barn and rafter illustrates the relationship of the part to the whole in Hua-yen thought.  As Cook writes, “The building makes it a rafter, but at the same time it is equally obvious that it is the rafter which acts as a condition for the existence of the building.”[25]  And since every other part has the same relation to the whole building, every part is the cause for the creation of the whole.  In addition, every part has sole power in creating the whole, meaning that “once integrated into the whole building, the rafter assumes the causative power of the whole building and thus acts as a total cause for it.”[26]  Each individual part has complete power to create the whole.  This is because each individual part is only a part in conjunction with the whole.  What is true with barns and rafters remains true however you divide up the universe.  If each part did not have complete power to create the whole, then we would end up with a nihilistic universe, simply a collection of parts that constitute nothing. 

4. Ethical Implications

For Buddhism and pragmatism, theoretical discussions are only significant if they produce changes in practice.  As Cook puts it, “Primarily, Buddhism is a praxis, something that one does.”[27]  As we have already indicated, Dewey’s philosophy intends to produce more meaningful primary experience.  But Dewey differs significantly from Buddhism regarding the ethical implications of dependent origination.  In these final sections of my paper, I will outline some ethical differences between Hua-yen Buddhism and John Dewey’s pragmatism and critique each perspective using the tools of the other.  

For Hua-yen philosophers, a proper recognition of emptiness and dependent origination itself necessitates compassion.  Fa-tsang writes, “Seeing that form is empty produces great wisdom and not dwelling in birth and death; seeing that emptiness is form produces great compassion and not dwelling in nirvana.”[28]  Compassion is a necessary consequence of dependent origination because of the infinite interrelatedness of all things.  When we view the world in this manner, we recognize that we are dependent upon every last being in the world.  This perspective is that of a Bodhisattva who vows to renounce her own enlightenment so that she can work to bring all beings, including all blades of grass to enlightenment.  For Hua-yen Buddhists, this Bodhisattva ideal is simply working through in practice the implications of dependent origination.   

According to Fa-tsang, compassion involves “maintaining dignified, well-regulated exemplary conduct… treating beings gently and harmoniously, honestly and straightforwardly… [and] accepting suffering in place of all sentient beings.”[29]  These prescriptions can be traced back to the metaphysical concept of dependent origination or emptiness and the resulting Jewel Net of Indra.  With a relational metaphysics, we understand that our existence is conditional on the use of other beings and that my perspective on this use must involve these beings’ perspective as well.  This ensures a gratitude and respect for the sacrifice of other beings.  In addition, Cook suggests that Hua-yen ethics implies a reciprocity and fair-mindedness, writing “I must be prepared to accept the fact that I am made for the use of the other no less than it is made for my use.”[30]  If we understand the world as a Jewel Net of Indra, then we necessarily act with compassion, respect and fair-mindedness.

Dewey’s writings do not emphasize these Buddhist traits of gratitude and compassion.  Instead, he focuses ethical attention on the social nature of morality and the reconstruction of our social institutions to provide more secure and meaningful lives.  This involves what Dewey calls, aesthetic experience.  He describes it as follows:  “A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives its solution; a game is played through; a situation, whether that of eating a meal, playing a game of chess, carrying on a conversation, writing a book, or taking part in a political campaign, is so rounded out that its close is a consummation and not a cessation.  Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency.  It is an experience.”[31]  When many of the emotional, practical, theoretical, perceptive and other components of experience cohere into a unified, organic experience, we experience the world aesthetically.  Aesthetic experience is a matter of creating and appreciating the connections and relations among the diversity of much of experience.  As such, it arises from Dewey’s analysis of dependent origination and the conditional nature of events in the universe. 

Dewey admits that much of our experience is anesthetic.  Anesthetic experience consists of a loose association of perceptions and actions that do not cohere into aesthetic experience or it is too rigidly organized to develop a complexity of meaning that aesthetic experience possesses.  Our social world is organized in many ways to preclude aesthetic experience.  For Dewey, the practical imperative is to rework social institutions, especially educational institutions, to provide the means for the individual to live a life that includes a rich diversity of aesthetic experiences.  Unlike Hua-yen thinkers, Dewey views aesthetic harmonization as a moral imperative, not a fact about the world.  The extent to which relations are harmonized, the extent to which experience is aesthetic depends fundamentally on the reconstruction of our social institutions. 

5. Evaluation and Conclusions

This disagreement between Hua-yen thinkers and Dewey is all the more interesting because they begin with very similar metaphysical perspectives.  Both consider all beings to be events that are dependent or conditioned by relations.  Both avoid all notions of substantial or reified begins.  In this final section, I would like to outline the insightful criticisms that each perspective could provide for the other. 

Dewey would criticize Hua-yen Buddhists for committing the philosophical fallacy.  Hua-yen thinkers take the obvious fact of emptiness or dependent origination and “assert it universally or without limits or conditions,” which is Dewey’s definition of the philosophical fallacy.  Dewey would object to the extension of the idea of relatedness or dependent origination to an infinite extent as described in the Jewel Net metaphor.  If one assumes that every conventional object in the universe is interdependent with every other object, then compassion and gratitude may take center stage from an ethical perspective.  But from Dewey’s perspective, this relies upon the assertion of universal interdependency.  The plucking of a flower is posited to have radiating consequences throughout the universe, but for Dewey the real work is to determine the causes and consequences for this action, not to assume that they exist beforehand. 

Buddhists would criticize Dewey’s ethical prescriptions in two ways.  First, they would criticize his pluralist and partial world as nihilistic.  Dewey’s ethical prescriptions imply that it is up to us to create meaningful relations among objects and that language is a particularly useful tool to achieve this creation.  This creation of aesthetic experience is always partial and temporary.  From the Hua-yen perspective, Dewey implies that there is no coherent or unified world.  But dependent origination and the part/whole relationship implies that there must be such a world.  Since every event is both a part and a whole, every part of the universe already must be related to every other part through the part/whole relationship.  In denying this, Dewey reduces the universe to a collection of partially related events. Hua-yen philosophers would criticize Dewey for insufficient understanding of the implications of dependent origination. 

In addition, they would criticize Dewey for being insufficiently attuned to the emptiness intrinsic in objects.  If we get too attached to aesthetic experiences, it can blind us to the inherent emptiness of these experiences and also to the relationships that keep those experiences operative.  If the Buddha is right about craving and grasping being the cause of suffering, then Dewey’s grasping after aesthetic experiences is simply another cause of suffering within the world. 




[1] See, for example, Ewing  Y. Chinn, “John Dewey and the Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle Way,” Asian Philosophy vol 16, no 2, July 2006, 87-98.  Also, David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking from the Han:  Self, Truth and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture, (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 1998).  Hall and Ames focus mainly on Taoism and Confucianism in relation to pragmatism.   T.P. Kasulis, Zen Action: Zen Person (Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 1981), writes about the connection of Zen and Dewey regarding the primacy of experience over knowledge.  My interpretations of Tu-Shun, and Fa-tsang rely on Thomas Cleary’s translations and Francis Cook’s interpretation of their thought.


[2] James Giles, “The No-Self Theory:  Hume, Buddhism and Personal Identity,”  Philosophy East and West, Volume 43, No 2, April 1993, 185. 

[3] Tu Shun, “Cessation ad Contemplation in the Five Teachings of the Hua-yen,” in Thomas Clearly ed., Entry into the Inconceivable:  An Introduction to Hua-Yen Buddhism, (Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 1983), 49. 

[4]  John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, An Introduction to Social Psychology, (New York:  The Modern Library, 1957), 138.  Originally published in 1922.

[5] Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 139. 

[6] See Murray G. Murphey, “Introduction” in The Middle Works of John Dewey, vol 14 (Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), xi. 

[7] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, An Introduction to Social Psychology, (New York:  The Modern Library, 1957), 175.  Originally published in 1922.

[8] Dewey, Experience and Nature, 214. 

[9] Dewey, Experience and Nature, 247. 

[10] This is similar to William James’s metaphor of the stream of consciousness as perchings and flights, as Dewey notes on p. 254. 

[11] John Dewey, Experience and Nature 2nd edition (LaSalle, Ill:  Open Court Publishing, 1989), 61.  Originally published in 1929; first edition in 1925.

[12] Dewey, 61. 

[13] Dewey, 132.

[14] Dewey, 82. 

[15] Dewey, 138-139.

[16] Cleary, 27. 

[17] Cleary, 46. 

[18] Francis Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism:  The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park, PA:  The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 42. 

[19] Cleary, 25. 

[20] Dewey, 62. 

[21] Dewey, 92. 

[22] Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, (15). 

[23] Dewey, Experience and Nature, 153. 

[24] Cook, 117. 

[25] Cook, 80. 

[26] Cook, 81. 

[27] Cook, 109. 

[28] Cleary, 156. 

[29] Cleary, 158. 

[30] Cook, 119. 

[31] Dewey, Art as Experience, John Dewey:  The Later Works, 1925-1953 vol 10, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale, Ill:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1987 [1934]), 43.  See Steven Fesmire, John Dewey and Moral Imagination:  Pragmatism in Ethics (Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press, 2003) for an analysis of Dewey’s ethics that relies heavily on aesthetic experience.