Dhamma: Ontological Epistemological? Or both?

Epistemology can be summarized as the study of what we can know, experience.

Ontology can be summarized as the study of what does or not exist.

The Buddha we find in the EBTs was concerned about addressing an issue of epistemological​ nature:

  • By affirming the experience of suffering, the Buddha calls us to gain direct knowledge and insight into its origination and causes. (First Noble Truth)

  • By doing so, the reality and possibility of suffering coming to an end is unveiled and proposed as a natural consequence of its causes being abandoned. (Second Noble Truth)

  • The end of suffering is thus not proposed as a magic destination of the being or even a theoretical state of annihilation. It is instead referred to as something perfectly feasible and achievable in vivo and in loco. The ending of suffering is for one to verify and eventuate in himself/herself. (Third Noble Truth)

  • Lastly, a clear and reasonable roadmap is presented as a path to be developed individually and towards putting on an end the experience of suffering in oneself. The path of individual development proposed is sustained by right understanding / view and is framed in a way to help one getting in place all factors needed for gradual but irreversible abandoning of fetters and destruction of taints to occur. (Fourth Noble Truth)

At the same time, when asked ontological questions such as the origin of the universe, the destiny of awakened beings(i.e. tathagatas, arahants) the Buddha always reminds that such speculations are totally useless towards the noble truths and ennobling tasks on which his Dhamma are founded - see SN44.8.

Nevertheless, here and there we find hints of ontological affirmations which later on were used as basis for ontological systematization such as the many Abhidhamma projects and as well the fivefold niyama theory of everything addressed elsewhere.

In the AN3.136 the Buddha tells us how due to a orderliness of the Dhamma (dhamma niyama) the three characteristics or properties of impermanence, not-self and suffering do stand.

In big-picture suttas like the AN10.12 and AN11.12 we see the Buddha stating knowledge & vision of release - a synonym for nibbana - is nothing but the byproduct of an transcendental dependent origination which starts with virtue and requires no act of will / exertion of volition. And in the SN12.23, by pointing us a process of proximate causation, the Buddha provides us with the missing link between this dependent origination of nibbana and the dependent origination of suffering.

All that said, I would like to start a conversation by proposing three opening questions for discussion:

  • What are he limitations of reading the Dhamma only from a epistemological perspective?

  • Similarly, what are the limitations of reading the Dhamma only from a ontological perspective? Is it even posible?

  • To what extent does the Buddha of the EBT really endorsed investing time in ontological questions?

  • Is it the case that it is not so simple and maybe the Dhamma cannot be framed exclusively in as ontological or epistemological terms?

Thanks for your contribution!


This is a complex question. I don’t think the Buddha was interested in ontology per se, except perhaps when it came to the self, but his system did bring ontology along in its wake, as any system would.

To an extent this is what my paper was about: Was the Buddha an Anti-Realist?

So if it interests you, you could look there for one answer to the question … :anjal:


Interesting questions!
The study of what is experienced is rather “phenomenology” and not “epistemology”. But even in Western philosophy, these previous two, along with ontology, have been since long no longer viewed as three totally separate fields. It is only a question of emphasis in view, examination, and representation, in that any phenomenon under examination necessarily involves all these three aspects or dimensions.

Another point is that ontology is not only about what exists, but also what is “real”, or rather, what “really exists”. Thematically this is closely Dharmic.

Nothing can be exclusively framed in this way! And the limitations are stifling of understanding anything from any single perspective! :).

I lost a lifetime of this lifetime chasing the phantom of truth in Western Philosophy! I’m not saying it wasn’t useful, it still is to this day, but Dhamma is something else! In western philosophy, you read, you just read like hell, and you think, conceptualise, and evaluate thoughts and ideas! In Dhamma, you attend to experience, you attend like hell, and you contemplate that experience and that attending itself. In western philosophy you embrace the mind, you identify with it, in Dhamma you do the exact opposite! In Western philosophy truth is to be “known” for its own sake, there is nothing beyond that, no answer to the question “what do I do with this truth, especially given that I will still die, soon!” but the Buddha wants us to know the truth for the sake of a transcendental experience that goes beyond death and birth. It is just a totally different thing. I’m not discouraging you though from bringing in this with that! Good luck and be careful! :).


My understanding is that the dhamma is experiential. If it is ontological or philosophical in any way it is only in support of or secondary to, the experiential or practical. jmo


The way I understand all new things not experience is ontological.
For example, there was a time the teaching of Jhana was ontological nature to me.
With some practice, it has become epistemological.
Teaching such as final Nibbana is still ontological in nature.
Saddha is a major aspect in liberation. Why Saddha is so important is due to the ontological nature of the Buddha’s teaching.
Buddha gave us a strategy to handle this problem in the sutta “Safe bet”


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@Matt I agree also.

A certain measure of contemplation, conceptualisation, and even analysis, is naturally required to understand anything including Dhamma, by a human being. But there are also “right & wrong” qualities and quantities of thinking, and “right & wrong” times to resolve to thinking or attend to experience. I believe balancing these variables is among the most important skills to be developed by any sincere and intelligent practitioner, and in many occasions it is so tricky to accomplish this balance.

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You see how sporadic and unsubstantial is the mind?! The author of this topic has evidently by now lost all interest in those questions that he himself had raised half a year ago! :).

Who the hell gave me a like?

I am still around and interested in reading people’s views on this. Mind that there are other questions at the OP which I encourage us to tackle:

What are he limitations of reading the Dhamma only from a epistemological perspective?

Similarly, what are the limitations of reading the Dhamma only from a ontological perspective? Is it even possible?

To what extent does the Buddha of the EBT really endorsed investing time in ontological questions?

Is it the case that it is not so simple and maybe the Dhamma cannot be framed exclusively in as ontological or epistemological terms?

Few supporting links, to let us agree in the terminology if the discussion:

I was just joking :).



'By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, “non-existence” with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, “existence” with reference to the world does not occur to one. SN22.90, SN12.15.

When one sees with right insight the position that ‘the world exists’ is not seen to be correct. Now, the ordinary worldling automatically thinks, then the alternative option must be ‘the world doesn’t exist’. However this is also not seen to be the correct position. Then, there is a third, causally arisen, experiential position. There is only phenomena or experiences arising and passing away. ie they are impermanent. Their arising occurs in a certain way- that is they arise due to certain causes; causes which are specific to the effect. Contact gives rise to Vedana for example, and not Vinnana. There is also no Self to be seen driving these experiences …or experiencing them. No Self is found anywhere at all…

The practice of seeing this is Vipassana- giving rise to knowledge of phenomena as they really are (yatabhuta nana). The rest is Epistemology.

with metta



If we want a Western philosophical category in which to pigeonhole the Dhamma, I would say it’s not ontology nor epistemology; but ‘empiricism’. As Bhikkhu Sujato pointed out in one of his talks, empiricism has a Greek root but if we look at the same word in Latin the meaning becomes a bit more clear: experientia, it is about experience. Of course, empiricism is all wrapped up in modern science and the scientific method, what I’m talking about here is the broader sense that would including internal observation.

Epistemology - experience/empiricism, inference, and the voice of another

In Buddhist terminology, we have paccakkha (saṃskṛta: pratyakṣa) as the primary means of knowledge. Epistemology as the wiki points out is really concerned with theory of knowledge, that is how we come to know things, what knowledge is, what are valid modes of knowing, etc. As such, I don’t think the EBTs spend much time on such questions, just that in terms of valid modes of knowing empirical/experiential knowledge is foremost, “things as they really are”, “this, I have seen”, “knowledge and vision”, etc. In Indian philosophy, epistemology is known as pramāṇa (Pāḷi: pamāṇa) meaning ‘measurement’. So besides direct experience, we also have anumāna which means inference or logic, this is usually inductive rather than deductive. In other words, inference based on experience rather than theory, and usually in service of leading to something experiential/practical. Lastly, there is śabda (Pāḷi: sadda) the word of another, someone more wise or authoritative in the sense that they are further along the path or more accomplished in morality, wisdom, etc. Other means of knowledge are invalid, and can lead to confusion, as evidenced in kālāma sutta and some other places. The common point in all of these is that the Dhamma is all about lessening of dukkha (to the point of cessation), in other words:
sandiṭṭhiko - visible in this world, to be self-realized, to see here and now
akāliko - immediate, bearing immediate fruit, timeless
ehipassiko - inviting to come and see, inviting investigation, experimentation in experience
opanayiko - leading inwards, leading towards nibbāna
paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī - to be experienced/known by the wise/intelligent, personally

Dogma/metaphysics/speculation VS practical/experiential/realization
In the EBTs I don’t see much time wasted arguing about doctrine or orthodoxy, but much more emphasis on practice or orthopraxy. One famous example is a refusal to answer speculative questions as recorded in MN63 and MN72, MN63 also includes the arrow simile. (Hopefully, @Gabriel_L’s list of questions are not a modern version of Vacchagotta’s list… jk jk :sweat_smile:) AN4.77 Acinteyya sutta, suggests metaphysical speculation will lead to vexation.

Ontology in the later tradition
If you want Buddhist philosophy, particularly ontological, I think you have to go to the Abhidhamma where there are all sorts of ontological categorization going on with cetasikas, kalapas, svabhāva, etc. Or, in my opinion, more in-line with EBT thinking, Nāgārjuna and the early Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras. Nāgārjuna, some scholars have argued, was not so much proposing some new theory so much as deconstructing the invalid argumentation of the early Abhidhammikas, and using his philosophy/ontology only as a means to get at what had been foremost in the early period, the experience.

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Not sure if you would agree, but I think ‘the world’ in this passage refers to the subjective world and the cessation of that world to the point that one couldn’t even consider ‘the world exists’ refers to an actual experience in deep samādhi, specifically the ‘arūpa’ states. Likewise, “for one who has seen the end of the world as it actually is” is not about the apocalypse of the Earth, but of subjective experience.

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Dear @Matt, the problem is that empiricism, as a practice, applies differently in Western and Buddhist traditions. This must be pointed out. Buddhist empiricism is fundamentally “introspective”, while that of the European Renaissance is fundamentally based on the observation of external phenomena, particularly through controlled experimentation. The ‘fork’ here is evident, in itself and certainly in where each path lead to. All that we can say confidently is that empiricist and dharmic traditions both employ “direct observation” as the basic means of the investigation of truth. But from this we cannot conclude that they observe the same things, or even in the same way, or for the same purpose; to the extent that they no longer even agree on the very definition of what you call “experience”. And that’s why when you finally do compare both the methodology and truth, between Dhamma and Western empiricist traditions, you will agree that the similarities and points of agreement, are but little tiny islands seperated from each other across the vast ocean of irreconcilable difference. And in that sense I believe although it does rely on direct observation, it is quite simplistic to say that Dhamma has been an “empiricist” tradition in the same way some Western traditions have been. And this appears more clearly when you do compare Dhamma specifically with Western empiricist psychological traditions, such as Behaviourism for example.


And indeed with Behaviourism Dhamma and western wisdom come closest, but, you will agree, the vast ocean is still in between!

In the arupa states the problem still remains ie as an extant immaterial ‘world’.

This is explaining the difference between ignorance (avijja) and knowledge of things as they really are (yataubhuta nana). That is, the ‘conventional’ world and the ‘world’ of aggregates, elements and sense bases. The conventional world is 3 dimensional, seamless with free-will and selves to execute actions. It has good and bad, and is generally good enough. The world of aggregates constantly causally arising and passing away. It is ‘automatic’ - works well on its own without the need for a doer. It is made up of fleeting phenomena arising sequentially. The difference between the TV picture and the pixels. I hope that makes sense.

With metta

What is a ‘jhānic’ experience in your view?

Seriously questionable view of abhidhamma as also the later (Matt 2017-09-01 17:55:52 UTC #12) simplistic assertions about ontology in abhidhamma. Take a good hard look at Noa Ronkin’s “Early Buddhist Metaphysics” (2005) (1).

Yes. Shoe-horning dhamma into Western philosophical categories is the sort of common reduction in Western interpretations that Alexander Piatigorsky (in “The Buddhist Philosophy of Thought”, 1984 (2) ) recognizes as crucially missing the fundamental Buddha teaching to radically deconstruct every such mental construct.

Phenomenology was mentioned, but not pursued, unfortunately, as it is arguably the closest of Western methods to the Buddha’s teaching – observing and deconstructing experience purely in terms of phenomena arising and passing, discerning the mind’s fabrication of “subject”, “object”, etc. (“transcendental reduction” in Husserl’s terms), and how, when adequately seen and known , it can be transformed, the mind released from bondage to that conditioning. (Piatigorsky uses phenomenological methodology.)

(1) Noa’s book can also be found in .PDF form at ahandfulofleaves.org, but may still be under copyright. In paperback it can be bought for $35-45. When I bought it, only hardcover was available, at ca. $140.

(2) http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/The%20Buddhist%20Philosophy%20of%20Thought_Piatigorsky.pdf
(no copyright notice)


I’m not sure phenomenology is entirely in concordance with this sutta:

But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. Kacchayanagotta sutta SN12.15

This seems to be saying that the ‘final truth’ of it cannot be determined and whatever we knew before about reality should be abandoned! In short, detachment is the only viable option. The Buddha also says elsewhere: to know something fully, is to detach from it.

To fully know phenomena:

"By & large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments, clingings (sustenances), & biases. But one such as this does not get involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on ‘my self.’ He has no uncertainty or doubt that just stress, when arising, is arising; stress, when passing away, is passing away. In this, his knowledge is independent of others. It’s to this extent, Kaccayana, that there is Right view (Samma ditti).

With metta

“Ontology” is a s/w loaded word, as the Western, particularly the Anglo-Saxon mind is so firmly entrenched in the “ontological bias” – the seemingly unquestionable “reality” of the normal “things” of life. In the dhamma perspective, this might be called “mundane”, commonly shared delusion. That may sound to damning; better perhaps to focus on the practice of observing, getting to know how phenomena appear (e.g. “things”), are shaped by, posited as “things” by the mind and it’s needs and preferences.

Phenomenology deals with that to, in the sense that the mind learns to observe how
it uses bare sensations in a process to create a sense of there’s “something” here (for instance a “subject”) perceiving “something” there (“object”). Perfectly understandable in a world of conditioned behavior coping with the organism’s self-interest (survival, self-satisfaction, etc.)

Perhaps a way to grasp the radical nature of the insight possible along these lines, is to consider the experiential world of a snake, or an cat. Do they perceive “real things” the way we do? Does my cat know what a chair “is” as we do, or rather just as a jumping target, perching place, and a good scratching surface? But of course, we humans are so superior that our world of “reality” is genuine, where lower animals are limited by their inferior cognitive abilities. A justifiable, expedient conceit (our “superiority”), perhaps only to be grasped if we ran into some extra-terrestial being faculties were analogously superior to ours (as ours relative to the snake or cat). Were they (the “ETs”) benevolent, they might devise ways of utilizing our learning capabilities to realize how relatively limited human “reality” is, conditioned by developmental history. OR possibly to be grasped by some mental system of cultivation, method whereby the mind gets to know and understand itself more comprehensively – like the Buddha’s teaching, or transcendental phenomenology (the latter having methodological similarities with the dhamma, but not here being posited as equivalent, as it lacks the driving soteriological focus of the Buddha: the purpose of releasing the mind from it’s self-fashioned “suffering”).

Buddha dhamma (Theravada sort, according to some) is fulfilled in the realization of a transcendent mental ability (lokuttara) that sees through mundane conditioned exigencies to the degree that the mind is released from behaviors which bind it into modes of samsaric “suffering”. Now, this “supra-mundane” mental experiencing is difficult to imagine, short of its realization. In fact, most flavors of “secular”, otherwise quasi-Theravadan, Buddhisms prefer to dismiss this idea and focus their practice on more or less psychologically stabilizing the mind in the face of the perils of human existence – e.g. eudaimonia, or “fulfilled” human life.

Similarly, Edmund Husserl’s “transcendental phenomenology” was rarely understood or pursued by his followers in the phenomenology movement, who for the most part ended up in realms of psychological optimization. Husserl, on the other hand, engaged in a mental developmental process, a cultivation or practice, wherein he found his version of “transcendental” awareness in some sense deeply enlightening and liberating. When, in the 1920’s, he ran across Karl Neumann’s German translations of major parts of the Pali Canon, he couldn’t stop reading it, cover to cover, and felt a profound correspondence between the Buddha’s teaching and his own phenomenological undertaking. This he voiced in an essay contributing to a book of essays in commemoration of the life and work of Neumann (written in 1925 but first published in English in 1989). Reference and some discussion found here:

Transcendental phenomenology, by the way, has been more or less systematically ignored in the English-speaking world, other than it’s watered-down psycho-therapeutic offshoots, precisely, IMO, because it so radically exposes the ontological bias.


Others too have argued that the power of the “Truth” in the Buddha’s dhamma
is an ontological quality, that is it most “really is”. This, however, I find to be a misinterpretation of the meaning of “ontology” as it’s consistently used in Western tradition, going back to Aristotle.

And then there’s the notion that in the depths of nibbanic realization, all constructs, including the “dhamma” itself are relinquished. (Or is that more a Mahayana view, as, for
instance, in the “Heart Sutra”?)