The Four Axioms

By Romana 05/28/2008

This is a discussion of the Four Axioms of Tibetan Buddhism, also known as the Four Foundations, but when one speaks of foundations, Tibetan Buddhism has a variety of teachings under the scope of sets of four foundations.

Years ago, I considered it amazing that most of reality could be explained by four one-line axioms.  Now, in addition to being a Tibetan Buddhist, I also consider myself to be a Process Theologian; I have greatly changed my point of view.

I will examine these axioms in terms of being necessary and sufficient, upon which to build a body of teachings that are strongly based in observed reality.  I also want to note that there is an integral, unspoken axiom: that mind and matter always go together.  There is no awe or astonishment over the appearance of mind and living things; they are just part of the way things are.

These axioms can lead to the truth, or dharma; however, be must be careful not to over-conceptualize while ignoring the usefulness of these axioms.

The Four Axioms are:

·      Everything is transitory: Anicca

·      Everything is frustrating: Dukkha,

·      Everything is without essence: Sunyata, and

·      Nirvana is bliss: Asankhata.

Everything is transitory: the doctrine of impermanence
Impermanence is a necessary element of reality; it is supported by modern physics.  All of reality is in motion, so there can be no steady-states.  All religions, including Buddhism, have sought ways to overcome this axiom, since the constant creation and perishing is annoying, especially to intelligent beings, who often seek ways to avoid the natural order of things, especially death.

Impermanence is part of the underlying mechanisms that make life possible.  Evolution is all about impermanence, since the old order must always make way for the new order, which can often be more complex, advanced, and novel.  Human judgment has a tendency to over-analyze reality; from a materialist point of view, reality can be brutal, unforgiving, mindless, and filled with sadness and loss, as well as being preoccupied with exuberant sexuality.  However, reality is also adventuresome, joyful, interesting, peaceful, and bountiful.  The future can always offer hope and promise.

This axiom does not seem to be sufficient and probably needs corollaries.  

Corollary 1: The Law of Karma
All actions have consequences: the doctrine or law of karma.  Karma means action.  Karma describes the origins of the problems we experience with reality, and it explains the need for some kind of ethical behavior.
We are submerged in a universe of interrelated actions.  Our actions can have consequences both for ourselves and for others, and we can be subject to the actions caused by others and a variety of natural processes.  This is not good or bad in itself; it is just the way reality works, and all possible types of realities would likely be similarly based.

Corollary 2: The Law of Time
The ticking of time divides all moments into past, present, and future.  The present is the least definable, because it is always eroding and perishing.  The past is gone forever, and the future can be uncertain, even if it brings promise and hope with it.  Time is both transcendent and imminent.  It is transcendent, because it can seem perpetual, due to its length compared to individual lives, even if it itself is subject to change.  Time is immanent, because it marks of the moments of our lives, and limits how long we will live.

Corollary 3: The Law of Contingency
Part of reality is unpredictable.  Objective reality would be impossible without all the randomness and choice of options that drive atomic physics.  Conceptual reality also requires the need for optional choices; otherwise, our lives would just decay into a monotonous sameness.  Our observational selection bias also creates an additional source of randomness, since true reality makes it too obscure for us to understand the nature of all the actual processes that can affect us.

Corollary 4: The Law of Emergence
All the processes that make up reality will evolve: the doctrine of emergent phenomena.  Not only can life evolve, but reality itself can evolve.  There is also the occurrence of whim: when organisms spontaneously exhibit behavior that is new and unexpected.  The quest for secure expectations is doomed to failure.

Everything is frustrating; the doctrine of suffering
Frustration is a necessary axiom, but it is not just about suffering; it is actually about misguided expectations.  The correct term, dukkha, is usually not even translated, but it has a great deal to do with dualisms, the creation of opposites where none actually exist.  Reality simply is; it is imperfect. It is not a plot to force us to endure all the frustrating stuff, when what we really want is to experience just the convenient and pleasant stuff.

Written history has been punctuated by the struggle of human beings to overcome nature and all its ongoing processes, so that we can become responsible only unto ourselves.  Such lofty expectations have been frustrating, since our visions have outstripped our abilities.

This axiom is sufficient to describe our lack of balance in the world, so long as we recognize that most of the frustration is our own doing.  If we chose to keep believing one-sided economic and political lies, the fallacious steady-state reality we are attempting to create will just collapse into more frustration.

Everything is without essence: the doctrine of emptiness
This necessary axiom shows how conceptual logic works.  Subjectivity is just judgment, an evaluation done using biased reasoning.  All things are empty of any actual conceptual content.  This can be difficult for us to see, since we live in a world filled with subjective evaluations that are taken to be inherently absolute.

This axiom is sufficient to describe how subjective content in the form of thoughts, information, and relationships are laid on top of lifeless objective structures.  This is the nature of mind and matter going together.

This is the way reality works.  It is subjective freedom constantly tugging against objective constraints.  Fortunately, we are never able to build absolute states out of subjective concepts, since that would be the same as death.

Nirvana is bliss: the doctrine of liberation
Nirvana is a necessary axiom that is impossible to describe.  Nirvana is not heaven.  It is not a state, or even an idea.  It is not a place where one can go, since nothing can ever happen there.  Nirvana can be contemplated during meditation, but it can only be sensed during the gaps that occur in reality.

Nirvana is unconditioned reality, that can only be compared to conditioned reality, also referred to as phenomenal existence or Samsara.   Yet, Nirvana and Samsara are said to be an essential unity.

Nirvana is often associated with the extinction of ego or self.  This is unfortunate reasoning devised by many who want to escape the complications of reality, because they really do not understand the nature of emptiness.  Nirvana is actually about creation: phenomenal reality arising from unconditioned, stateless reality.  Since Nirvana has neither descriptions nor rules, it allows for the promise of experiences.  Desire to fulfill the promises leads to creation.

To understand how this works, one must turn to quantum mechanics.  Physicists now think that we live in a multiverse, which is a collection of individual universes.  The multiverse contains both active and passive processes and structures.  The multiverse is also filled with what is called vacuum energy, which is caused by the quantum fluctuations of particles of matter and energy that are instantaneously created and annihilated.

So the multiverse can be considered to be a fluctuation in Nirvana.  Our perception of the nearly infinite age of the multiverse is just a conditioned judgment.  The desire to visit Nirvana is like the desire to go home, but it is the home we can never actually visit.

In the past, Buddhism has
been a religion of celibacy, asceticism, and avoidance.  Yet, I claim that the Four Axioms show such views to be extreme, since they are not balanced.  The Middle Way is all about balance and the avoidance of extremes.

To quote Alfred North Whitehead, the renowned Process theologian, “Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity.” The Four Axioms are our guide to the development of a self-correcting philosophy.