| Part III: A Metaphysical Dialogue
In Parts I and II we tried to see how our questions about the relationship between enlightenment and contemplation, and metaphysics emerged in the concrete in the midst of the East-West dialogue. We saw that they were at once pervasive and obscure, and pose serious challenges for Christianity.
Now we need to explore the nature of enlightenment, not as it expresses itself in the East there is an enormous literature about that but from a Christian philosophical perspective. What kind of dialogue can Christians have with Eastern religions if they have no idea what enlightenment is? This kind of exploration is quite different in perspective from that of Christians who have gone to the East, seriously practiced different forms of meditation, and then look at Christianity with Eastern eyes. Rather, what we want to do is to ask whether Christian metaphysics has anything to say about Eastern enlightenment.
Paradoxically we will begin our inquiry outside the borders of Christianity in order to avoid some of the baggage that accompanies the very idea of metaphysics, even metaphysics in a Christian context.
We have had the occasion to cross the trail briefly of the metaphysics of St. Thomas which I feel could play a major role between Christianity and Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet I am keenly aware at how far-fetched such a program might appear in the East. Nor do I think that the Catholic participants in either the Zen-Christian dialogue or the Hindu-Christian dialogue have, for the most part, a special place in their hearts for such an approach. Zen certainly and even advaitan Hinduism in its own way with their emphasis on transcending discursive thought makes such an approach seem quite unlikely. What we need is a bridge between East and West.
Hadi ibn Mahdi Sabzawari
To build such a bridge we will first go as far away as we can from the world of Thomism, and travel to the town of Sabsavar in Khurasan in Persia in the 19th century. There on a little farm, dressed in a ragged robe, and living simply and sharing the farms fruits with the poor and his students, we find Haji Mulla Hadi ibn Mahdi Sabzawari (1797/8-1878), one of the greatest metaphysicians of his age who helped bring about a revival of interest in one of the most profound thinkers in the world of Islamic philosophy, Sadr al-Din Shirazi (1571/2-1640), known as Mulla Sadra.
Each day Sabzawari would go off and teach at the local madrasa, or religious school. His Ghurar al-faraid, which was also called Sharh-i manzumah or Commentary on a Philosophical Poem, was to become one of the most popular metaphysical textbooks in Iran even in modern times.
Until fairly recently Western philosophys awareness of Islamic metaphysics stopped at the Middle Ages with Avicenna and Averroes who had played an important role in Christian scholasticism. But this lack of Western awareness certainly didnt stop Islamic philosophy from continuing to develop, especially in Iran, in an unbroken tradition stretching down to our own days. Like any scholasticism, Eastern or Western, that has endured over the centuries, it will take a certain effort on our part to penetrate beyond its formulas and set expressions and discover its metaphysical heart.
Ironically, one of the best ways to gain some idea about the insights of the metaphysics of Mulla Sadra as expounded by his great commentator Sabzawari is to go even further afield to Japan where a child has been forced by his father to do zazen, and rebelling against this experience, decides to study linguistics. By the time he was eighteen Toshihiko Izutsu was teaching Russian at the university level and he went on to learn Arabic, Persian, Turkish, as well as other European and Indian languages, and became an Islamic scholar both at McGill University in Canada and in Teheran where he lectured on Ibn Arabi. His linguistic skills were to come together with his keen philosophical intellect to make him one of the great modern students of comparative Eastern religions. In his later years he gave himself over to the task of trying to bring into focus a metahistorical, or meta-philosophical view of the common metaphysical core that could be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, as well as Islam, and he did this by putting his appreciation of language at the service of philosophy. Together with Mehdi Mohaghegh he translated Sabzawaris Sharh-i manzumah from Arabic into English, and he wrote a special introduction to it, printed separately, called The Concept and Reality of Existence, which is one of the most profound studies of the Islamic metaphysics of Mulla Sadra of whom Sabzawari was one of the leading 19th century exponents.
The metaphysics of Mulla Sadra and Sabzawari is rooted in Aristotle and Plato on the one hand, and Islam on the other. The philosophy of the Greeks, probably with some help with early Middle Eastern Christian thinkers, was taken into the Islamic world. There the theme of the relationship between essence and existence, which had remained implicit in Aristotle, began to receive a clearer formulation. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the leading figures in the revival of traditional Iranian philosophy and its transmission to the West, puts it like this: "There is no issue more central to Islamic philosophy and especially metaphysics than wujud (at once Being and existence) in itself and in its relation to mahiyyah (quiddity or essence) To understand the meaning of these basic concepts, their distinction and relationship, is, therefore, to grasp the very basis of Islamic philosophical thought."1
The development of this doctrine can be traced in the Islamic world first to al-Kindi and al-Farabi. Al-Farabi, for example, is thought to be one of the first of the Islamic philosophers to try to reconcile the Greek idea of a necessarily existing universe and the biblical idea of creation. He states in his Gem of Wisdom that essence and existence are distinct in existing things. Existence is not part of the constitutive character of a thing, that is, something that makes it what it is, but an accessory accident. Etienne Gilson, the great Christian historian of philosophy, comments, "This important text marked the moment when the logical distinction introduced by Aristotle between the conception of essence and the affirmation of existence became the sign of their metaphysical distinction."2
Al-Farabis thought was taken up by Avicenna who was the last great common figure in the development of both Western and Eastern philosophy. During the course of the 20th century there has been considerable discussion among scholars about just what Avicenna meant by his doctrine on the relationship between essence and existence and how well he was understood both in the West and the East. According to some modern Islamic interpreters of Avicenna, for example, Thomas Aquinas, reading Avicenna through Averroes, misunderstood Avicennas idea that existence was an accident of essence by understanding accident as the kind of accident that inheres in a substance. On the other hand, one of the modern commentators of Mulla Sadra, Fazlur Rahman, felt that Mulla Sadra, himself, misunderstood what Avicenna was saying. In any event, Avicenna was to play a pivotal role in posing the problem of the relationship between essence and existence. 3 Later, Suhrawardi, the great illuminationist philosopher gave primacy to essence, at least on the surface of his thought, but his doctrine of light was to become an important element in Mulla Sadras thought.
Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya Qawami Shirazi had been born in Shiraz in 979-980/1571-72 and had gone on to study in Isfahan with some of the great masters of his day. His life can be divided into three parts: first, his education in Shiraz and Isfahan, then a long period of withdrawal from the world in which he went to live in the little village of Kahak near the holy city of Qum, and devoted himself to spiritual practices, and finally, a return to a public life of teaching and writing in Shiraz.4 He was a prolific writer with his and pride of place is given to his massive al-Hikmat al-muta aliyah fil-asfar al-aqliyyat al-arbaah (The Transcendent Theosophy concerning the Four Intellectual Journeys of the Soul), commonly known as Asfar, or Journeys. He died in 1050/1640 at Basra, returning from his seventh pilgrimage to Mecca. Mulla Sadra created a new way of doing philosophy which combined the study of the Koran with what we understand in the West as philosophy, together with a deep intuitive perception of reality that transcended concepts.5
Our particular task here is to look at the possibility of a dialogue between this Islamic scholasticism and that of Thomas Aquinas, and in doing this to focus on two essential points: the relationship between essence and existence that stands at the heart of each tradition, and the intuition that each sees giving birth to this fundamental insight.
Izutsu, who had some knowledge of western scholasticism, rightly insisted that it was no longer acceptable to limit and terminate the study of Islamic philosophy to the role it played in medieval western philosophy, but rather it is necessary to realize that it continued not only to exist but to flourish into the 20th century. "A comparative study," he writes in his masterful study on Islamic metaphysics The Concept and Reality of Existence, "of these two different forms of scholasticism, Eastern and Western, would surely yield a number of important results which might even go beyond the horizon of comparative philosophy to affect the very Problematik of the significance of philosophical thinking in general."6
Now it is a striking fact that while in the history of western scholasticism Thomas Aquinas is credited with recognizing the primacy of the act of existing, Mulla Sadra played a similarly revolutionary role in Islamic metaphysics. This remarkable convergence did not go unnoticed by Izutsu and others, but it is worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on its significance. Both eastern and western scholasticism, working independently from the Middle Ages, have in the persons of Thomas Aquinas and Mulla Sadra and their schools distilled a partially common tradition rooted in Greek, and Islamic philosophy viewed in the context of biblical monotheism, and arrived at very similar insights into the primacy of the act of existing, and in the way this insight is achieved. It is as if two metaphysical experiments, which had run for centuries independently of each other, had turned up with almost identical conclusions.
But remarkably similar or convergent results do not mean complete identity, and we need to look more closely at how this primacy of existence expressed itself in each tradition.7 In the East there arose two principal schools. One of them championed the principality of existence while the other the principality of essence. And in Mulla Sadra we have the first fully conscious and reflective articulation of the primacy of existence in the Islamic metaphysical tradition. And now we have arrived at our first question: how does his concept of existence relate to that of Thomas Aquinas?
The starting point for metaphysical activity is much the same. Here is how Izutsu sums it up: "It pertains to the most elementary and fundamental structure of our daily experience that we constantly encounter in our lives an infinity of things. We find ourselves surrounded by them and we cannot escape from the consciousness of the presence of various and variegated things. The actual presence of things is their "existence". They are there. They do exist, as we ourselves exist. On the other hand, they are not there in the form of pure "existences." They "exist" as various and variegated things: man, horse, stone, tree, table, etc. This latter aspect of their "existence" is called "quiddity."8
Jacques Maritain, one of the finest 20th century Thomist metaphysicians, will say virtually the same thing, and he insists that it takes more than a general sense of existence to become a metaphysician. Otherwise everybody would be one. Somehow we must see into the mystery that everyday things present to us as Izutsu has already begun to do in the passage we have just seen. How can things be truly different through and through, be a stone, for example, or a horse, and yet both be said to exist? We need a metaphysical insight, which Maritain called the intuition of being, and Izutsu asserts much the same thing: "For, in the view held by Mulla Sadra and Sabzawari, "quiddity" and "existence" do not stand on the same ontological level. Their view is based on a profound and extraordinary experiential intuition of "existence" which is of a Sufi origin."9
So here we have arrived at our second question about this insight into existence which is inextricably joined to what is seen in the doctrine of the primacy of existence. Izutsu also calls this insight a "personal mystical intuition,"10 a certain "mystical or gnostic experience," or "superconsciousness,"11 "a sudden illumative realization,"12 and "a super-sensible intuition."13
These expressions also find their parallels in Maritains writings, and so we are faced with a remarkable convergence of these two metaphysical traditions which both insist on the primacy of the act of existing and a metaphysical intuition in order to achieve it.
But lets probe the matter a little further and look at the content of this intuition, or the precise relationship between essence and existence. For Izutsu, quiddity is "that which is given in answer to the question: what is it?"14 while existence is precisely that which neither has a quiddity nor is a quiddity.15 And while conceptually "each concretely existing thing can be divided into "existence" and "quiddity," in reality they are both "completely unified with one another, there being no real distinction between them."16 The world of reality "is diversified into an infinity of particular "existences" (wujudat), i.e., particular acts of existence."17 For the principality of existence school, the world is not made up of existent quiddities, "it is rather the reality of "existence" which is determined and delimited quiddity-wise in the form of particular "existences" (wujudat) from which the abstract concept of existence is extracted."18 In reality, existence precedes essence and they are not on the same ontological level, and it is a "profound and extraordinary experiential intuition of "existence" that allows us to realize this."19 Through this perception we realize "all "quiddities" are found to be deprived of their seeming self-subsistence and turn out to be nothing other than so many partial determinations and delimitations of the unitary reality of "existence."20
This whole analysis of the relationship between essence and existence could be reproduced almost word for word from the perspective and sources of Western scholasticism, and the last passage is particularly significant, for it expresses a radically existential point of view that in the West reached its high point in William Carlos The Ultimate Reducibility of Essence to Existence in Existential Metaphysics. This work which has been rather completely ignored in the West is precisely what Izutsu goes on to cite to illustrate the kind of existential point of view he is taking, and he does so in the form of a quotation from the Jesuit metaphysician Norris Clarkes preface to Carlos book.21
Quiddities that appear as independent existing things to us and strike us most forcefully because of their differences are, in reality, according to Izutsu, "modalities of existence," "intrinsic limitations or determinations of "existence"," "they are merely interior modifications of the all-pervading "existence."22
Izutsu insists on this point because it is central to his understanding of Mulla Sadras metaphysics. "The reality of "existence" in its absoluteness is unlimited and undetermined. In itself it cannot be anything particular; it is in this sense "nothing," quiddity-wise."23 Instead of understanding quiddities as extrinsic determinations of existence we must understand them, Izutsu tells us, as intrinsic determinations. And once again, Izutsu turns to William Carlo to explain what this idea of intrinsic modification means. This is what Izutsu feels that Mulla Sadra saw when he had his deep metaphysical insight. He quotes Mulla Sadra to the effect "all of a sudden my spiritual eyes were opened and I saw with the utmost clarity that the truth was just the contrary of what philosophers in general had held As a result (I now hold that) the "existences" (wujudat) are primary "realities", while the "quiddities" are the "permanent archetypes" (ayan thabitah) that have never smelt the fragrance of "existence." The "existences" are nothing but beams of light radiated by the true Light which is absolutely self-subsisting Existence except that each of them is characterized by a number of essential properties and intelligible qualities."24
What Izutsu has done without directly intending it is to set the stage for a dialogue between Islamic and Thomistic scholasticism, or more precisely, between Mulla Sadra and Thomas Aquinas and their schools. Izutsu, himself, had no desire to enter into the internal debates of Thomism. When it comes to a question of whether Carlo was giving an adequate reading of St. Thomas, he says rather pointedly that he is "not interested to discuss" it.25 Izutsu, writing in 1969, may have been aware that there had been some negative comments about Carlos book, which had appeared shortly before, and perhaps thought it best to side-step anything that might embroil him in needless controversy and was not directly relevant to the point he was making, which was that Carlos interpretation of St. Thomas is the same as Mulla Sadras central metaphysical insight.26
But lets return to our properly metaphysical inquiry. Particular existences are reflections of Absolute Light or Existence. Thus, they cannot be looked at as "independent and self-subsistent entities without any relation to their source "27 Thus, these existences are real, but not independent. Their reality comes from their relationship to the metaphysical sun, which is their source. This leads to a grasp of the analogical gradation of existence, for the one reality of existence exhibits "varying grades and stages in terms of intensity and weakness "28 The question of whether the relationship of the source and the particular existents is the same in both Mulla Sadra and Thomas Aquinas thus begins to emerge. Izutsu will ask, "Is there no essential difference between the Absolute, i.e., the necessary Existent and the possible "existents"?"29 In the highest stage of existence in a state of pure and absolute transcendence, the Absolute is pure existence. In the next stage existence is a state of free indetermination. It is in potentia in relation to all possible existents, and at the lowest stage existence manifests itself as concrete individual existents.
Lets review some of the central points in the metaphysics of Mulla Sadra by looking at the reflections of Fazlur Rahman on Mulla Sadras Asfar in his Philosophy of Mulla Sadra. For Mulla Sadra "Nothing is real except existence."30 Essences do not exist in reality. Only existence does. The mind looks at things and abstracts essences. Through its normal conceptual working it knows essences, but not existence because existence is not a concept, and if it wants to know existence it needs a special intuition.
God is absolute existence, and for Mulla Sadra, the Platonic ideas are not separate or external to his essence. God is pure existence and manifests Himself in contingent beings, which are modes of existence (anha al-wujud). Creatures are, in fact, only modes of existence, but the mind in its normal conceptual working discovers essences in them. Essences only exist in the mind, and they exist there because of the attenuation of existence. God as pure existence has no essence, and essences are nothing in themselves. "Essences, therefore, constitute negation of and are dysfunctional to existence. Existence is positive, definite, determinate and real; essences are vague, dark, indeterminate, negative and unreal."31
For Mulla Sadra there is no real distinction in things between essence and existence. There is only existence in all its modes, and it is in these modes that the mind finds essences. "Far from essence being something positive which acquires existence, essence per se is nothing positive at all. Indeed, in external reality, essence is simply not there. What is there is a mode of existence. When this mode of existence is presented to the mind, it is the mind that abstracts an essence from it, while existence escapes it, unless it develops a proper intuition for it."32 Existence is the sole reality, and it cannot be conceived, but only intuited directly.
Even when Mulla Sadra quotes Avicenna who believed there was a real composite of essence and existence in things, he understands him to say that the distinction exists only in the mind and not in things. For Sadra existence exists in various modes which are more or less perfect, and he goes on to develop a view of existence as tashkik by which he brings out its ambiguous or analogical nature. All things exist, so in a certain sense they are one. But existence, itself, creates fundamental differences among things, and so in another sense they are many.
Mulla Sadra had started out as an essentialist before he had his realization of the sole reality of existence, and he was also an existential monist, that is, inclined to the view that only God existed, but he changed his understanding of this, as well. Fazlur Rahman still finds a tension in this thought between his insistence that God, alone, is, and his assertion that contingent beings also exist. Sadra will say, "In the Abode of Existence, there is no other inhabitants save God."33 But he will also say, following his principle of tashkik, "that it is impossible that Gods being, itself, should form the existence of contingents."34
In short, Mulla Sadra experienced a powerful intuition in which he saw that existence alone was reality, and God was pure existence without essence. Creatures, in contrast, were manifestations of Existence. They were modes of existence, and in them there was nothing but existence, but the mind abstracted essences from them.
So far it would be difficult to find beyond certain hints anything in Izutsus and Rahmans profound expositions of Islamic metaphysics that differ fundamentally from what can be found in the metaphysics of Aquinas. But our inquiry is not at an end. We need to look into the question of the relationship between pure existence and the concrete existents more fully, and we can do this by examining another of Izutsus essays which he called "The Basic Structure of Metaphysical Thinking in Islam."
Creator and Creation
As I have said before, many of the key notions of the metaphysics of Mulla Sadra finds strong parallels in that of St. Thomas, and while I am not claiming that the two are identical, in each existence plays the primary role and essence is in one manner or another reduced to it. In the case of Mulla Sadra, essences do not exist in things. There are only modes of existence, and in St. Thomas, especially in his more radical commentators like Carlo, essence is nothing existing in itself. It is a refraction or a contraction of existence.
But the question that faces us now is whether it is the same insight or intuition that produces this profound sense of the primacy of existence in both traditions. In the highest kind of knowledge, which is the knowledge of existence, Izutsu tells us that the human subject is completely identified with its object. The identity of the knower and the known in the act of knowledge, itself, by way of an intentional existence, or presence, is a well-known Thomistic principle. But is this what Izutsu is saying? It doesnt appear that it is, for he goes on to state that while ordinary knowledge works through concepts and objectifies things, and even turns existence into a concept, this intuition works "from the inside, by mans becoming or rather being, "existence" in itself, that is, by mans self-realization."35 We have returned by a very different route to the question of nonduality.
By intuition, or illumination, or tasting, we can come to this sort of knowledge, but only if we transcend our egos. "For the subsistence of the individual ego places of necessity an epistemological distance between man and the reality of "existence" be it his own "existence." The reality of existence is immediately grasped only when the empirical selfhood is annihilated, when the ego-consciousness is completely dissolved into the consciousness of reality, or rather, consciousness which is Reality."36
This is where the Islamic idea of fana, or annihilation, enters, and we begin to depart from a Thomist view of the intuition of being. Indeed, fana can reach such a pitch that there is an annihilation of annihilation in which there is "the total disappearance of the consciousness of mans own disappearance."37 For Izutsu this kind of annihilation finds its exact counterpart in the shunyata, or emptiness, of Buddhism. It is an annihilation which is not only a subjective state, but "the realization or actualization of absolute Reality in its absoluteness."38
In our ordinary consciousness we first look at the things around us as self-subsistent entities; we see the waves and do not pay attention to the sea from which they come. When we gain some intuitive insight, we become enamored with the oneness of things and tend to believe that the contingent things around us dont really exist; we see the ocean, but consider the waves illusory. But when our insight deepens and we can exercise both reason and intuition, we see both the waves and the ocean. "The one selfsame "existence" is seen at once to be God and the creature, or absolute Reality and the phenomenal world, unity and multiplicity."39 We have reached "a fundamental intuition of the single reality of "existence" in everything without exception."40 This is what is called the oneness of existence, or wahdat al-wujud.
In the West with St. Thomas the intuition of being is expressed in a philosophical way. However much it was born and nourished in the context of Christian mysticism and theology, it was distinguished from them. But in Mulla Sadra something different is going on. A remarkable existential metaphysics emerges, but this time under the powerful sun of nondual experience, and this is why his doctrine of creation is pulled in two directions.
The real issue centers on the question of nonduality, expressed in this case in the relationship between the Absolute and the contingent, or the Creator and the created. Many of the formulations that Izutsu has presented to us as basic to Islamic thought are acceptable from a Christian metaphysical point of view. The Absolute, for example, can be said to be that which alone exists in the full sense of the term, but when Izutsu writes, "that the Absolute, insofar as it is the Absolute, cannot really dispense with the phenomenal world,"41 we have entered into a territory that is strange to Christianity and of questionable compatibility to it. He goes on to say, "in the realm of the extra-mental reality, the Absolute cannot even for a single moment remain without manifesting itself."42 A little later he amplifies this thought: "Both in Vedanta and Islam, the Absolute at this supreme stage is not even God, for after all "God" is but a determination of the Absolute, insofar at least as it differentiates the Absolute from the world of creation."43 The absolute principle that he is putting forward is a metaphysical vision of unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity that is neither monism nor dualism, and thus we could say is a nondualism which he feels is shared "by many of the major philosophical schools of the East."44 It is our task next to look more closely at this common nonduality.
The kind of Islamic metaphysics that culminates in Mulla Sadra and Sabzawari still attracts considerable interest in Iran,45 and beyond, for example, in Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam. Unfortunately, Christian philosophers for the most part have not made contact with that tradition, with some exceptions like David Burrell,46 or Jason Escalante.47