Merlin Sheldrake, in his book Entangled Life, discusses the way all life, on this planet at least, seems to be underpinned by fungal networks, mycorrhizal webs connecting tree to tree, plant to animal, bacterium to lichen. He remarks, of his research on fungal networks (which is facilitated by the wider international academic and commercial scientific community), “It is a recurring theme: look at the network, and it starts to look back at you.” (Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life (p. 240). Random House. Kindle Edition.)
Much of our unthinking outlook on things, even in the twenty-first century, is conditioned by a Cartesian, atomistic outlook inherited from the seventeenth century. This has crept into our religious and spiritual thinking too, so that we tend to understand God as a “thing” over against other things, and we ourselves as separate individual selves who continue, or don’t continue, after death. Perhaps this is as wrong a way of looking at life as was the early Darwinian view of evolution as divergence, separation, competition between organisms (Sheldrake, op cit., pp. 80-82) rather than as interconnection, often cooperative interconnection, within ecosystems.
For a long time now, Paul Tillich’s understanding of God as “Ground of Being”, beyond being, not to be understood as object vis à vis any subject but preceding the subject-object disjunction (Theology of Culture, p.15) has made perfect sense to me. Tillich somewhere in Systematic Theology refers to God as Ground of Being as “Being-itself” – a concept which has always seemed to me very close to Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit, “isness”.
This sense of the ground’s relation to “things” in creation, human and other beings included, is, at least metaphorically, much more like the relation of a network to its nodes than anything else I can think of.
It’s extraordinary how quickly time moves, and with it, understanding of our world. Only in recent years have we come to recognise that apparently ‘non sentient’ forms of life are not only sentient, but apparently social too. Trees have been shown to communicate with one another, to share resources with one another, and to be interdependent in ways that were hitherto unimaginable. Or perhaps – imaginable, but impossible to demonstrate.
With this growing recognition that the world around us is alive in ways that we hadn’t realised, has come a renewed interest in the panpsychism, an idea that has its roots in centuries old philosophy which suggested that consciousness exists beyond ‘just’ the animal kingdom. Panpsychists think that consciousness of some sort may exist at a molecular level, which, when you come to think of it is pretty mind blowing. Although given the subject matter, that seems like exactly the wrong term, or perhaps exactly the right one.
Now, I don’t know anything much about panpsychism as a philosophy of mind, but it has been suggested that the concept of Buddha-nature may in some Buddhist traditions be interpreted as implying a form of panpsychism. Dōgen Zenji, the importer into Japan of the Sōtō Zen school, wrote:
Therefore, the very impermanency of grass and tree, thicket and forest is the Buddha nature. The very impermanency of men and things, body and mind, is the Buddha nature. Nature and lands, mountains and rivers, are impermanent because they are the Buddha nature. Supreme and complete enlightenment, because it is impermanent, is the Buddha nature.
This impermanence, the dependence of things for their origin, one upon another, is surely the very place where we fall to the ground of all that is, or seems to be.
“Everything passes; everything changes; just do what you think you should do.” (Bob Dylan, ‘To Ramona’) Perhaps somehow we can be still enough to know.