A Mahayana Buddhist Analysis of the Themes of Outer Wilds

A Mahayana Buddhist Analysis of the Themes of Outer Wilds

Original article published on my blog here (it’s a bit out of date compared to this post now though): https://justonky.wordpress.com/2021/08/03/a-mahayana-buddhist-analysis-of-the-themes-of-outer-wilds/

This article analyze and contrasts various themes and ideas presented in Outer Wilds through a Mahayana Buddhist lens. My opinions and theological analysis are my own, and do not necessarily reflect any specific schools of Buddhism.

UPDATED to add thoughts on Subjective Idealism vs Quantum Mechanics

Process vs Substance (; or Dynamic Processes vs Static Building Blocks in game design and metaphysics)

In the game design of Outer Wilds, the developers focused on a philosophy of movement and change (both spatially and temporally). The planets of the solar system rotate and orbit, sand flows between the Hourglass Twins, Brittle Hollow breaks apart, and Giant’s Deep toss islands into outer space.

And of course, the stars go supernova one by one and your own Sun explodes.

In philosophy, there is a thing known as Process Metaphysics which is contrasted with Substance Metaphysics.

In Process Metaphysics, phenomena are understood as inherently “empty” of substance. There is no “material” substance or element, no mind element, no essentialist nature or essence to things.

There is no bird-ness that makes a bird a bird, and no men-ness that makes men like men.

It’s tempting for a substantialist to argue that of course the DNA of a bird makes a bird and the Y chromosome makes men like men.

But we know this is not true. Genetics are malleable things, birds are a taxonomic category invented by humans, and gender is a social construct. In truth what makes a bird different from a human, we’re evolving every generation, how can we say what is a bird and what is a cat and what is human except that we’re different phases of changes.

Right now we’re homo sapien, right now that bird is a bird. But millions of years ago, birds and humans had a common ancestor in the Sarcopterygii (the lobe-finned fishes). All tetrapods (mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians) did. From a certain point of view, we’re still considered a kind of lobe-finned fish! Anthropocentric constructs do not mean that it is representative of reality. The words we made up to categorize phenomena does not confer upon them a substantial reality. Your average human tends to grasp reality as substances, because it is easy. Be it material (“things are made of atoms”) or religious (“we have souls”) or psycho-social (“men and women have male and female natures”). This kind of thing is strongly rejected by process philosophies.

The things which can be said to be Substance Metaphysics:

  • Greek Elements
  • Newtonian Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Substance Dualism (Christian metaphysics)
  • Substance Monism (Materialism or Idealism)
  • Classical Monotheism
  • Classical Polytheism
  • Essentialism (people who believe in concepts like “true essences”)

The things which can be said to be Process Metaphysics:

  • The Chinese Elements (The Five Processes)
  • Taoism
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Natural Selection and Evolution
  • Marxism
  • Hegelian Dialectics
  • Process Philosophy
  • Process Theology
  • Aztec Metaphysics

Of course, Buddhism is a process philosophy. It’s core metaphysical ideas are Anatman (no self/soul), Anatta (impermanence), and Dukkha (dissatisfaction due to clinging onto changing reality). These three marks of existence complements the central idea of interdependent origination (that all phenomena are codependent with each other as processes, not as substances).

Several fundamental building blocks of Outer Wilds design jives so well with this particular system of religion. The Outer Wilds forces you to acknowledge the dynamism and movement of phenomena, be it spatially or temporally.

Is the Eye sentient?

Perhaps the Eye wanted to be found (could it be sentient?). Maybe it chose us.

— Ember Twin Eye Shrine district

Yes and no. It depends on which ontological stance is correct. If the materialists are right, then the Universe has no awareness. Even our seeming consciousness is not really real. If the idealists are correct, then the Universe is all mind, even supposedly material things like matter.

The key argument of ontological materialists is that experiential phenomena arises from non experiential phenomena. We have no idea how this is possible. This is known as the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

An argument that attempts to solve the consciousness problem is that all matter has awareness. The extrinsic “material” of the intrinsic “awareness”. This idea is panpsychism, the theory that reality is inherently self-aware, and that our human and animal sentience are derived from the intrinsic consciousnesses of our material building blocks.

What do Buddhists say? First of all, sentience is a quality only sentient beings have. Sentient beings are aggregated (or compounded phenomena), meaning sentience is not normal for phenomena to have unless they’re arranged a certain way. Sentience does not come from souls (souls don’t exist in Buddhist metaphysics).

However, sentience is not the same as awareness. Buddhism would argue that all phenomena have awareness, but not all phenomena have sentience (not without the right conditions).

Basically, all things are alive (in the sense they have awareness), but not all things are equally alive. Some things are more alive than others (humans are generally more alive than rocks).

We should also carefully note that sentience (experience through senses) and sapience (human-like experience) are totally different concepts, and are frequently confused together in popular works of science fiction and fantasy.

Ship of Theseus and Non-Self (; or is the You from a previous Time Loop still you? Is a past life still you? Are the travellers at the end of the game real selves or figments of my imagination?

“Wait, then it’s just our memories being sent back in time to us, right? Then… are we really experiencing multiple time loops, or not? That’s pretty deep… Like, maybe our consciousnesses have been through all these loops, but maybe our bodies haven’t, because technically the loops never happened. Meaning we’re receiving memories of things that will never happen to us. Cool, huh?”— Gabbro

“I learned a lot, by the end of everything. The past is past, now, but that’s… you know, that’s okay! It’s never really gone completely. The future is always built on the past, even if we won’t get to see it. Still, it’s um, time for something new, now.”

— Rieback

Questions like this presupposes that “you” is some kind of substance or soul that exists and can magically continue to be who you are despite changing bodies and even timelines. Buddhism rejects the very self as substantial. The self is a sequence of events, existing interdependently with other aggregates (including the bodily processes). In fact, a sentient being is called a “namarupa” which means “psycho-physio organism”. The mind and the body are a codependent whole.

Taking just your memories and flinging it into the past is basically a new life, but one whose foundations are built on what came before. You inherit the conditions of your previous self, just as we inherit the conditions of our parents and ancestors and the conditions of our culture and economy.

This is how Buddhist Rebirth works. We are continuities of causal events, NOT a soul which magically moves from vessel to vessel. For this reason, Buddhists do not actually believe in reincarnation. We are heirs of our inherited conditions, and that is the case each and every moment. I inherit whatever it was I did a second ago, as I inherit from my own parents.

Of course, what makes me, me? Let’s talk about the Ship Theseus.

In the ancient Greek thought experiment, the Ship of Theseus, a ship has its components slowly changed over time until nothing of the original ship was left. Is that ship still the same ship?For Buddhists, who don’t believe in souls and substances, the answer is, it doesn’t matter.

And yes, this does mean that Solanum and all the Travelers at the Campfire at the end are not figments of your imagination. They might be only parts or echoes of their full persons, but they are still heirs of their own actions and are legitimate continuities of their previous selves.

“I tell you what, this has been really fun. And I got to help make something pretty cool, so I’ve got no complaints. I mean, not me, exactly, but close enough. It’s the kind of thing that makes you glad you stopped and smelled the pine trees along the way, you know?”

— Gabbro

AN 5.57: ‘I am not the only one who is owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator; who — whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir. To the extent that there are beings — past and future, passing away and re-arising — all beings are the owner of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatever they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.’

Subjective Idealism vs Quantum Mechanics

The Quantum Moon probably exhibits macroscopic quantum behavior

— Solanum

But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden… no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.

— George Berkeley (the primary developer of contemporary Subjective Idealism)

Outer Wilds proposes that some things are macroscopic quantum phenomena, notably the Quantum Moon, the Quantum Moon Shards, and of course the Eye. Presumably the Hearthians and the Nomai are both aware of the normal, microscopic quantum mechanics as well.

The question is, is Quantum phenomena limited to the Quantum Moon and the Eye?

What we’re really asking here is, to what extent does our subjective experiences shape the Universe we experience? This is really about the interpretation of the Observer Effect and of Quantum Superposition as presented in Outer Wilds.

Buddhists don’t really have a conception of Quantum Mechanics (except perhaps their theories about the Dharma-dhatu and the nature of Buddhas, which are known as Tathagathas, or “thus come, thus gone”). Buddhists do have a lively tradition of Buddhist Atomism, though it rejects classical atomism in various ways, notably that it denies substances exists. Buddhist Atomism describe matter as dynamic flashes of energy, not as substance materials.

The Buddhist Yogachara School (one of the early schools of Mahayana) developed a complex model of how human sensation and cognition is interdependent with the world. It is one of the first theories of subjective idealism to be developed in philosophy.

Subjective Idealism argues that the only world we know is the one we experience through our sense faculties. That outside of our sense faculties the world basically doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if there really is a “reality” out there, but what matters is this is the Universe we understand, contextualize, and experience. And that, even though it appears we have shared experiences, each of us basically experience our own version of reality. It is closely related to the concept of representationalism (that our experienced reality is a representation of the real world, a cognitive virtual reality basically).

The Yogachara School posits a model of “Eight Consciousnesses”, the eye, nose, ear, mouth, and body consciousnesses, which are born from the sense organs’ contact with ‘sense objects’ (colour, light, scent, etc), which interacts with the ideational consciousness (cognition), which itself shapes its biases according to subconsciousness (the obscuration consciousness), which derives from the non-sentient matrix of causal energies known as the Alaya Consciousness. This dynamic system is basically what forms our subjective experience of the world.

Buddhism also argues that our subjective experiences is what creates our world. The world is the world we experience (and you and your dog would not experience the same world, because you both have different psychologies and physiologies). Whether there is a “real” world or not is irrelevant.

For example, to a tremendous extent, our human reality is shaped by natural selection and evolution. There is no way to know what reality is really like outside the human sense faculties and our intepretation of the information we receive from those faculties.

Causality, neither determinism nor non-determinism, and Uncertainty (; or did the Eye plan for things to happen, or do things just happen because random things happen?)

Did the Eye deliberately call out to us by sending the signal, or did we hear the signal by coincidence?

We could be seeing meaning where there is none. Suppose the signal was produced incidentally.

Does that mean the Eye is any less important, though?

Perhaps the Eye wanted to be found (could it be sentient?). Maybe it chose us.

Does the Eye desire something from us? Could it need us in some way?

Maybe it doesn’t have to be us.

— Sunless City Eyeshrine District

“Many in my clan have believed the Eye called to us for a particular purpose. When I was a child, I used to believe the Eye was malevolent, to have lured my clan to this star system only to then vanish from them so completely.

— Solanum

In Buddhist metaphysics, neither determinism nor non-determinism is true. Rather some things are conditioned, but some things are completely random. We can’t choose our circumstances, but we can choose what we do in those circumstances (though whether free will exists in Buddhism is an ongoing debate. From our perspective, we have conditional free will. But whether in reality we have free will, or if we’re just the product of complex aggregated systems is impossible to determine for humans).

Anyway, far from the stereotypical notion of karma, in Buddhism, causality is governed by the Five Niyamas (the causal forces of dharma, physics, genetics, psychology, and karma experienced as retribution), an analysis proposed by the Buddhist Saint Vasubandhu, based on close readings of the original Buddhist sutras.

In the words of the Venerable Kobutsu Malone: In Buddhist cosmology, “Karma Niyama” is only one of five categories, known collectively as “The Five Niyamas,” that define causality. The other four are Dharma Niyama (the laws of nature) [the mechanism by which Buddhahood is possible from aggregated phenomena], Irthu Niyama (seasonal changes and climate) [physics], Biija Niyama (genetic inheritance) [genetics], and Chitta Niyama (the will of the mind) [psychology]. If we are to clarify our understanding of causality, we are required to pay attention to socio-political, economic, and ecological sciences. A sixth “Niyama” could even be brought into the picture to account for the social structures that have spontaneously or deliberately formed in all communities of sentient beings. While the modern “chaos theory” was not delineated in the Buddha’s time, as such, elements of its structure can be found in the Five Niyamas. Despite the prevalent misperception in the Buddhist community, even in so-called “orthodox” circles comprising clergy and teachers, that “karma” is the sole force active in the universe, “chaotic” forces are also present but rarely, if ever, mentioned, let alone taught, studied, or comprehended.”

Super Novas, Big Bounce, and the Oscillating Universe Model (or; death is inevitable, but so is life)

Star has reached end of natural life cycle. Now approaching red giant stage.

— Sun Station evacuation notice

“Oh, hello… Come, sit with me, my fellow traveler. Let’s sit together and watch the stars die.”

— Chert

In the sermon of the Seven Suns, the Buddha described how our Sun would get progressively larger and more hot until it burns the worlds.

Aňguttara-Nikăya, 7.66: Again after a vast period of time a sixth sun will appear, and it will bake the Earth even as a pot is baked by a potter. All the mountains will reek and send up clouds of smoke. After another great interval a seventh sun will appear and the Earth will blaze with fire until it becomes one mass of flame. The mountains will be consumed, a spark will be carried on the wind and go to the worlds of God….Thus, monks, all things will burn, perish and exist no more except those who have seen the path.

In Buddhist cosmology, worlds are arranged in a system of vertical (planes of reality), horizontal (worlds in each plane), and temporal cosmology (expansion and contraction of space).

In the Vertical Cosmology and Horizontal Cosmologies, you have different planes of sets of worlds stacked on top of each other, organized into small world systems (a thousand worlds), mid-world systems (1 million worlds), and large world systems (1 billion worlds) known as trichiliocosm (which are infinite in number). Not unlike how in a Universe you have clusters of galaxies tied by fibres of matter, galaxies, and solar systems. All arising, all changing over time, and all eventually becoming something else.

There is life in all of these infinite worlds of various kinds, including in the darkness of space, where each being believes itself to be the sole creature in the universe being unable to see other creatures.

In the Temporal Cosmology, the universe expands, forming sentient beings who form subjective worlds (via their subjective experiencing of the Universe), until the Universe reaches its zenith. This usually means that the Narakas (hell worlds) have been formed. After a vast length of time, sentient beings stop experiencing certain worlds, those worlds cease to exist, and thus the Universe becomes smaller. The Universe eventually begins to contracts, destroying the lowest worlds first before contracting backwards until the worlds of the devas (the non-human sentient beings of greater power) are destroyed. In different cycles, the extent of the destruction is different. Sometimes only most worlds but the highest are destroyed, sometimes it’s all destroyed. The Universe then enters a period of rest before the winds of karma begin blowing and it expands again.

This kind of cosmology, of eternal expansion and contraction, is known as an Oscillating Universe model.

The Eye and the Dharma-dhatu (; or reality is experienced as modalities, not as it really is. Our understanding of truth is a reflection. The truth itself is the capacity to reflect and encompass all phenomena, Buddhahood is veridical awareness)

“From this, we can hypothesize that the Eye represents extreme changeability.”

— Solanum

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, p. 157: You can also think of the nature of mind like a mirror, with five different powers or ‘wisdoms.’ Its openness and vastness is the wisdom of all-encompassing space [or dharmadhatu], the womb of compassion. Its capacity to reflect in precise detail whatever comes before it is the mirror-like wisdom. Its fundamental lack of any bias toward any impression is the equalizing wisdom [or wisdom of equality]. Its ability to distinguish clearly, without confusing in any way the various different phenomena that arise, is the wisdom of discernment. And its potential of having everything already accomplished, perfected, and spontaneously present is the all-accomplishing wisdom.

The Dharma-dhatu is the ‘dimension’, ‘realm’ or ‘sphere’ of the Dharma. It can be said to be an ultimate reality, but this an ontological distinction only. The dharma-dhatu is not separate from this same reality we experience everyday. It can be described as an interdependent whole. The process of all processes. Or the unified processes of all processes of its constituent processes.

The Dharma-dhatu is translated in a Dzogchen text as the “field of all events and meanings”. It is the closest to the Mahayana Buddhist conception of God.

The Dharma-dhatu forms modalities through which sentient beings interface with it. These interfaces are what we call Buddhas, or Purelands.

In the Trikaya theory, a Buddha has three Bodies. Two of these bodies are what sentient beings perceive of the Dharma-dhatu (like the Eye reflecting what is in our head or what is around it)

The Nirmanakaya (the Emanation Body) are what we might call the historical Buddha. They are Buddhas which appear in space and time, often as flesh and blood beings.

The Saṃbhogakāya (the body of communal enjoyment) are what appears as visions (as found in meditation or theophanic experiences) or as Purelands (spheres of space that fulfill certain needs of sentient beings).

The Dharmakaya (The Truth Body). The unified body of the “real” Buddha, the rest are modalities or subjective experiences sentient beings have of this body. The Dharmakaya is merely the personal appellation of the Dharma-dhatu (which is the total process, not just a particular part of it).

An important thing to reiterate is that none of these bodies, excepting perhaps the Dharmakaya, really exist at all, they exist only in our experience of reality. Without the subjective experiences of sentient beings, Buddhas don’t exist, let alone Purelands.

It is a well worn notion that Bodhisattvas and Buddhas only exist because Sentient Beings exist. Without sentient beings, there would be no Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and no worlds either (as “worlds” are defined in Buddhism as a nexus of the experiences of sentient beings; their subjective reality giving rise to different subjective worlds. For example, for Nagas, water is grottos, for Devas, water is azure stone, for Pretas, water is fire, and for humans, water is water).

Eternal Recurrence, Ecosystems, and Teleology (;or is there meaning to life, the universe, and everything?)

“Well, what are any of us doing here, really?…Nah, I’m just kidding. I’m out here exploring our solar system, same as you.But I tell you what, outer space really gives you room to think. It’s quiet and peaceful out here.I mean, it’s usually quiet and peaceful. Sometimes a cyclone comes by and lifts my little island paradise clean out of the water. Then: less peaceful.”

— Gabbro

It’s undeniable that Buddhism rejects a Creator God, Creationism, Beginnings, Souls, Substances, and even Reincarnation.

But does Buddhism reject teleology (that things have meaning and purpose)?

It’s something of an Eurocentric holdover that Buddhism has been terribly misunderstood ever since the West came into contact with it. The Catholic Encyclopedia labels Buddhism a Nihilistic philosophy, but this isn’t quite right.

It is scary for a philosophical system to reject substances, because we’re deeply attached to the idea that we really exist as substantial things and that our reality is made of neat orderly building blocks, and is designed. But rejecting all of these doesn’t make one a nihilist. In fact, it is life affirming and no-self is the same as realizing we’re part of a greater whole. An ecosystem of events and meanings which extends beyond our self-processes.

Buddhist metaphysics describes causes, but do not really describe purpose, let alone ultimate purpose (in a given context, obviously religion has purposes, techniques have purposes, and sutras have purposes, even life has purpose; but ultimately, life just is).

Life just is. At least, the Buddhists argue that we’re destined to go on this endless journey towards full Buddhahood, but doing so is not some kind of “salvation”, but simply realizing the potential of sentient beings (their natural ability to attain Buddhahood under the right conditions). We do not stop existing and do not go somewhere else. It is often said that Samsara is Nirvana. We’re here to stay forever, one way or another. This is the opposite of nihilism, it reaffirms that life is the ultimate meaning (though Buddhists will continue to debate this one and different schools have different end goals).

Though this continued existence and Buddhahood itself has nothing to do with a “self” (which by nature is “static” and unchanging, and thus contrary to reality). There is no immortality, no continuation of a personality, no Heaven. Only the awareness of one’s part in the ecosystem of things, only the continual change.

Even Buddhas exist under conditions, and are reliant on sentient beings to give them form, meaning and purpose.

Sūtra of Mahā-Prajñā-Pāramitā Pronounced by Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva: All Buddhas pronounce the Dharma to teach and transform sentient beings, each delivering as many sentient beings as the innumerable sands of the Ganges [river], enabling them to enter nirvāṇa.

Yet the realm of sentient beings neither increases nor decreases.

Why not? Because the definite appearances of sentient beings can never be captured. Hence, the realm of sentient beings neither increases nor decreases.”

“Śāriputra then asked Mañjuśrī, “Given that the realm of sentient beings neither increases nor decreases, why do Bodhisattvas always pronounce the Dharma to sentient beings, as they seek anuttara-samyak-saṁbodhi?”

Mañjuśrī replied, “Because the appearances of sentient beings are empty, there are neither Bodhisattvas seeking anuttara-samyak-saṁbodhi nor sentient beings to whom they pronounce the Dharma. Why not? Because I say that, in all dharmas, not a single dharma can be captured.”

The Buddha asked Mañjuśrī, “If sentient beings do not truly exist, why do you speak of sentient beings and their realm?”

Mañjuśrī replied, “The appearance of the realm of sentient beings is just like that of the realm of Buddhas.”

The Buddha next asked, “Is there a place for the measure of the realm of sentient beings?”

He replied, “The measure of the realm of sentient beings is inconceivable.”

The Buddha next asked, “Does the appearance of the realm of sentient beings abide in something?”

He replied, “Open sky does not abide, nor do sentient beings.”

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Justin C. Hsu

Designer, Artist, and Consumer of Pop Culture.

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