The Form of the World

2019 Newsletter 12


India has a renewed government with a few new faces, the most unusual of whom is the new minister for external affairs, Subramanyam Jaishankar, a career diplomat who is now in the Cabinet Committee on Security, which instantly makes him one of the most powerful people in the country.

He's known to be an incisive thinker, an important quality at a time when India faces many external challenges - from the vagaries of the Trump era to the rise of China to international negotiations on Climate Change. It's a tough neighborhood that's only going to get more complicated.

I was reading an article about the challenges the new MEA faces when I ran into:

China sees Modi as a decisive leader and supported him by throwing him two pre-election lifelines. First, a day before the commencement of the Second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing on April 25-27, China removed the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the north and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast of India from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) map on its website. New Delhi has boycotted the forum since China launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which New Delhi says violates India’s territorial integrity.

Second, China reversed its decision to oppose the designation of Masood Azhar as a global sponsor of terror, which is an emotional issue for Indian voters. Azhar, the founder and leader of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been active mainly in the Pakistani-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir.

I am not a fan of the current Indian PM, or of Xi Jinping, but the Chinese "adjustments" reinforced my belief that the 2019 election was an international event. If you set aside the specific governmental structures - multiparty (authoritarian?) democracy in India and single-party authoritarian rule in China, what I see is a return to the historical norm where the Eurasian landmass is governed by one of four civilizational configurations: China, India, the Middle East and Western Europe. If you add Russia as a distinct configuration different from Western Europe (being Orthodox rather than Catholic-Protestant) you get five.

Surely each configuration has its theory of statecraft; both the formal institutions that guide the configuration (constitutions, parties, elections etc) and the day to day intuitions through which decisions are made. Should we make a deal with the protestors on the street or send men in tanks to shoot them? History matters while making these choices. Of course, configurational influences are only one among many - the psychology of individual leaders matters, who they trust matter. The configurational culture is just one among many influences.

Whatever happens in one of these configurations impacts the others. Russia, China and India straddle the old and the new - they are civilizational configurations that also happen to be nation states. Western Europe was inching towards that goal for a while but recent events are working against increasing political unity. Like every other aspect of the networked era, size matters when it comes to geopolitics. It's not clear that the nation-state is a viable political unit in the long run, but to the extent it is, India, China and Russia have an advantage over the other two in that they have the political heft to resist the vagaries of globalization and climate change.

A configuration is a loose unity: its parts come and go. They are also porous - both historically and contemporaneously - and by marking these distinctions, we aren't committing ourselves to a clash of civilizations thesis. Nevertheless, each configuration gives us access to distinct perspectives on the pursuit of life and liberation. I believe the keystone concepts of every configuration are of importance to the others. Equally importantly, every configuration can use its engagement with other configurations to develop and transform its keystone concepts. Kautilya would have learned a lot by reading Aristotle. Aristotle would have learned a lot by reading Kautilya.

We can learn a lot by reading both of them. Like Gandhi said:

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.

He also ended that quote with

But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any

We will ignore that ending; it’s OK to be blown off our feet every once in while. But not at gun point and not for five hundred years. European domination saw certain keystone concepts such as democracy and capitalism spread across the world. Has the time come for keystone concepts and ideas from other configurations to travel the world? If so, which ones?

I am keeping my eye on two Indian concepts circumnavigating the earth:

  1. Dharma.

  2. Samsara.

Perhaps I should say: navigating the world once again, since both of them are central to Buddhadharma and have inspired poets, philosophers and yogis from India to Japan for a couple of thousand years. We can learn a lot from that era of globalization of Indian ideas during which Buddhadharma was transformed through its encounter with China and Japan.

Photographer: Ray Hennessy | Source: Unsplash

Beginner’s Mind

It's a pity that Indians don't know much about China. We keep looking west. I wasn’t exposed to Chinese ideas or literatures growing up: no Romance of the Three Kingdoms, no Dream of the Red Chamber, not even Journey to the West, despite it being a mythologized version of Xuanxang's (Hiuen Tsang) trip to India way back when. I had a vague impression that Vikram Seth had translated Chinese poetry and that the beat poets were inspired by Zen, but that was the extent of my understanding.

I read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind sometime in the mid nineties, a couple of years after I left India for graduate school. It blew my mind. Here was a book written in precise, modern language talking about ideas originating in my part of the world, ideas that I had imbibed as a child but didn't know how to articulate as an adult. Suzuki Roshi taught me that Dharma has a way of transcending its spatial and temporal boundaries. Since then Zen has been replaced by Tibetan Buddhism in the march of Buddhadharma in the modern world. While I deeply appreciate Tsongkhapa, I like the beginner's mind even more.

ZMBM also introduced me to an East Asian sensibility, the cultural watershed of Chinese civilization. That aesthetic has a long shadow from literature to painting to the design of the Mac. I am particularly attached to classical Chinese poetry. These lines of Tu Fu (in David Hinton’s flowing translation here) keep speaking to me:

So different from the images in classical Indian texts, spare rather than flowery, minimalist design a millennium before the Mac. Buddhadharma’s encounter with China birthed a subtle beauty. Makes me think it's smart to use another tradition's classics to clean my glasses than to wipe the dust on my own.

But you need a lineage worth reorganizing first. I am fortunate in having two. From my grandmother I inherited India, faith and stories. From my grandfather - numbers, bookkeeping and argument. They were both obsessed with form: the shape of things, sitting up straight and when to eat a ripe mango. More than enough material even after the dust is removed.

I believe philosophy is created in the street, in the hustle of ideas. Some of those ideas make their way into the tower where they are bottled and sold to the whole world. Indian philosophy has spent too many years in the tower. It needs to travel to China and America, but not to Harvard and Tsinghua but the streets of Shanghai and San Francisco.

Photographer: Ismael Paramo | Source: Unsplash


Inherited words bite you young and recruit your brain into singing their tune. The womb precedes the street. I have a couple of those: Dharma is one, Samsara is another. More may be lying dormant, waiting for the right moment to capture a brain area.

Samsara is an interesting term. It's simultaneously concrete and abstract. Concrete because it's a word for the world around us, the world of heart breaks and passion and dew drops reflecting the morning sun. Abstract because the word comes packaged inside a theory that claims a cyclical pattern of existence trapping us for eternity.

Why was I born human in this lifetime? Now that I am here, what will make me thrive?

Those are some questions about Samsara people from my part of the world have asked over the years. They are natural questions; questions about our fate, about the human condition. You may not be interested in multiple lifetimes. Fine, stick with this one. Still: why the human birth? What makes the ape go nuts?

Photographer: Danielle | Source: Unsplash

Which is why Samsara is eminently suited to replace the universe as the object of intellectual concern.

  • Why eminently suited? Because it is a collective term for all the beings who occupy a portion of our reality.

  • Why replace? Because the universe is the world seen through the eye of god, the view from nowhere. The universe belongs to no one. Samsara, on the other hand, is our world. It belongs to all of us.

Here’s this rather wild idea I have: why not study the form of the world, i.e., the contours of Samsara just as scientists have studied the forms of the universe, especially through mathematization?

It’s not an outlandish idea if I may say so myself. I can even think of a couple of reasons why it’s an idea worth exploring. . A line from the Heart Sutra ( Prajnaparamitahrdya Sutra in Sanskrit) says:

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form.

Let me offer a quick pointer as to why I find this phrase an important entry into the form of the world. Consider how "form" is used in two important modern knowledge systems:

  1. Form as in formal, as in the formal sciences such as logic and mathematics.

  2. Form as in information.

In both of these uses, form denotes a way of "capturing" the world, or what's known as carving the world at its joints. In formalizing the world, we believe we have distilled its essence. That's the dream behind the physicist's "theory of everything" isn't it, of a small set of laws that captures everything there is. It's the human version of god, who doesn't need laws because he can see the whole universe. We get the second best experience: as his chosen species, humans are allowed to grasp the code of creation. 

But emptiness in the Buddhist usage of that term points to an entirely different insight: that there's no possibility, even in principle, of capturing everything. It says that nothing exists on its own; it's always dependent on something else. Combining emptiness and form leads to a radical claim: not only is it impossible to capture everything in a single law or set of laws, it's in the very nature of form to be elusive.

Photographer: Jeremy Bishop | Source: Unsplash

The formal sciences fail at the task of capturing the world not because they have reached their limits but because form resists capture at its core. And form eludes capture because the world eludes capture - the view from nowhere can never succeed. The Buddha used that argument to deny the existence of the self. We can use a variation of the same argument to undercut the foundations of the formal sciences and venturing further, to undercut the foundations of all science. 

I find that interesting. 

The first sign that forms might be empty is noticing how many there are. In Darwin’s famous words:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Traditionally, biology is a science of form, of which there are many even as all organisms share a genetic code. Why are there are so many forms? What makes some thrive and others disappear? How does a form of life fit its circumstances? This is the question of Samsara in evolutionary disguise. As far as I know, there are two deep, scientifically grounded approaches to these questions:

  1. Statics. The approach favored by D'Arcy Thompson in his monumental "On Growth and Form." Thompson's approach is to explain the form of an organism (say, the shape of an Amoeba) as an equilibrium of forces that impinge upon the organism. The static theory is centered on matter and forces.

  2. Dynamics. This if of course the far more famous answer, the one initiated by Darwin in his Origin of Species. Darwin focuses on change, i.e., how does one type of organism arise from another? In the gene centric view, the theory of change is primarily one of information and how it's transmitted.

So there you go: two theories of form, one privileging matter, the other privileging information. Can the two be combined? If so, how? That's the question. 

Photographer: LYCS Architecture | Source: Unsplash

Forms show up in the social sphere too, where they manifest as new institutional structures: startups, networks, companies, platforms and variations on those themes.

If anything, we underestimate the diversity of social forms, confusing labels for the underlying structure. Consider the all too common question: why do some companies thrive while others fail? Why did Microsoft beat IBM? Why did Google beat Microsoft? And so on. The assumption being that all companies have the same form, like teams playing a cricket match.

Is asking "Why did Microsoft beat IBM?" the same as asking "Why did CSK beat KKR?" Of course not. Sports teams are constrained to having the same form. We don't have eleven member cricket teams playing twenty one member cricket teams. Companies aren't like that; neither are organisms. They differ in size, shape and structure. Amazon is a company, Walmart is a company and Costco is a company but one is a platform while the other two are not.

What happens when two forms collide? Who wins? Is it possible for multiple forms of social organization to thrive simultaneously?

Photographer: Pop & Zebra | Source: Unsplash

The Road Ahead

That's it for today's tour of endless forms most beautiful. I am not interested in finding the one form that rules them all; much better to sketch the forms of the world and trace their connections with a light pencil.

Sorry if it meandered from one topic to another and even more sorry if it introduced abstract arguments without substantiating them. There's a method behind the madness. Imagine phenomenology if it arose in Gaya instead of Gottingen and you are halfway there.

I wanted to give you sense for the landscape I am going to cover over the next few months - future essays won’t be as scattered. I also expect to add a podcast at some point; Substack gives me that option.

Next week: Samsaric Media. Background reading: McLuhan and media forms.