“Emptiness and Arising: An Analysis of the Concept of Life through the Lenses of Madhyamika Buddhism and Process Philosophy”

Madhaymika (Middle Path) Buddhism claims to stake out a middle path between origination and extinction, destruction and permanence, identity and difference, and coming and going. By negating both the existence and non-existence of these conceptual opposites, this philosophy suggests a new, relational ontology of phenomenological emptiness, in which all things arise in dependence on other things (pratitya-samutpada). This view stands in stark contrast to most Western approaches, which tend to focus on existence alone. One large exception to this rule is the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, which also outlines a relational ontology by locating being within a larger process of continual becoming. In this paper I hope to bring these two approaches to making sense of reality together around the question of life. Can Madhaymika’s deconstructive negative dialectics shed new light on the concept of life through dismantling its opposites (life/death, substance/process, being/non-being)? How does Whitehead’s understanding of life as “the origination of conceptual novelty” complement this view? In particular, I will argue that attention to these two philosophies may help clarify some of the underlying difficulties in defining the concept of life in traditional Western scientific terms.