Currently, I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphysics and ontology. Bear with me here. I know it is a common view that the Buddha did not have an ontology to speak of. Some suttas speak of various metaphysical questions that are to remain “unanswered” and other suttas speak of how the “world” is just the realm of the ayatanas, and to speak of anything beyond this is problematic.
One could say that because of this, the Buddha either remains totally agnostic about ontological questions which ask what existence is or “brackets” the question as western phenomenology does (i.e. puts it aside).
But I have been pondering this and I think things are not that simple. For one, the Buddha’s doctrine of karma and rebirth seem to necessitate at least some implicit metaphysical commitment. That commitment would be to non-physicalism (non-materialism). Basically, I do not think that the Buddha could have held that karma and rebirth are true without at least also agreeing that physicalism cannot be true.
There are also various statements in the suttas which seem to indicate the Buddha’s Dhamma is not absolutely agnostic about ontology. To state that “there is an afterlife” is making a statement with ontological implications. So is stating that “whether or not Buddhas arise in the world, there is the stability and fixity of the Dhamma” (SN 12.20).
Can we say anything about the implicit and background ontology that could have informed the Buddha’s worldview? I think its possible, and I think that the closest candidate is a kind of Idealism, perhaps one similar to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. There are various possibilities for an early Buddhist ontology, mainly panpsychism, property dualism, neutral monism or idealism. While there are no obvious and straightforward statements in the EBTs which absolutely support any of these (probably because ontology was seen as a minor concern at best), I think idealism is the one that most closely matches the EBT worldview.
This is because I am beginning to think that in the suttas, the mental is primary. Not only because of the centrality of karma and rebirth and the power of the mind to free us from this cycle either. If one looks at the cycle of dependent origination, it begins with a mental quality, ignorance. Likewise, karma begins with cetana, a mental quality. Also, the three unwholesome roots which are the foundational cause for our bondage are also all mental. It seems then that the foundation of the world of birth and death is a mental one. Likewise, the Dhammapada states that mind is primary and it creates dhammas. While it is true that this whole first section of the Dhammapada deals with ethics, I do not think that you can separate ethics completely from ontology. Definitely not when it is closely tied with the issue of rebirth and karma.
Another reason I am beginning to think that there was a kind of implicit idealism in early Buddhism is that there are realms of existence that are purely mental, the arupa realms. If this is so, then it seems that mental processes can exist without the support of bodily processes. Also, in the Agañña sutta, the cyclical nature of the world is described. When the physical universe is destroyed, sentient beings move into a realm where they have “mind made bodies”. It seems that while sometimes sentient beings exist with physical bodies, they don’t need to exist in this way. Sometimes, all you need is the mental. This points to the primacy of the mental in early Buddhism.
Yet another reason I have is related to siddhis. If the mind is able to break the “laws” of what we consider the normal behavior of matter, then perhaps matter is not fundamental after all…
Of course, there are good scientific and philosophical reasons to think that matter and physicality is not fundamental. The contemporary philosopher Bernardo Kastrup has recently defended a very robust form of idealism based on philosophical and scientific reasons. Various scientists have begun to realize that even space-time is probably not fundamental. But I am focusing on early Buddhist reasons here for why the mental might be more primary than the physical.
Now, the main qualities I think one can attribute to the early Buddhist metaphysical idealism are the following:
- Mind is process oriented and dynamic. It is not static, but always changing, like a steam or a flame.
- This ontology is non-essentialist and non-eternalist. There are no atmans (unchanging essences at the center of persons), nor is there an eternal monistic substance like Brahman or God. In this sense, it is very different than Christian and Hindu Idealisms.
- This ontology is neither an absolute monism, nor a pluralism. You cannot say there is only one thing absolutely, but you also cannot say there are definitely many things that are totally separate either. It is a middle way between these extremes.
- It is philosophically pessimistic. The standard processes of the mind (explained through dependent origination) produce suffering and are grounded in greed, hatred and delusion. In this sense, it resembles Schopenhauer’s idealism more than any other system, since he posited the ultimate reality as a blind Will which creates a world filled with suffering.
*The goal is to reach the cessation of mental processes. Since mind is rooted in greed, hatred and delusion, the ending of these (nibbana), is the extinguishment of mind and the end of suffering. This cessation transcends the concepts of existence and non-existence. The ontological nature of nirvana is left unanswered.
Thoughts? Am I crazy? Which ontological theory do you think is closest to the views of the EBTs? Does it matter? I welcome all criticism.