Early Buddhist Ontology

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.


Within the suttas we find teachings such as these:

When this had been said, the wanderers said to Anathapindika the householder, “We have each & every one expounded to you in line with our own positions. Now tell us what views you have.”

“Whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not me, is not what I am, is not my self. This is the sort of view I have.”

“So, householder, whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. You thus adhere to that very stress, submit yourself to that very stress.”

“Venerable sirs, whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not me, is not what I am, is not my self. Having seen this well with right discernment as it actually is present, I also discern the higher escape from it as it actually is present.”

AN 10.93

“A monk whose mind is thus released does not take sides with anyone, does not dispute with anyone. He words things by means of what is said in the world but without grasping at it.”

MN 74

The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern view, doesn’t discern the origination of view, doesn’t discern the cessation of view, doesn’t discern the path of practice leading to the cessation of view, and so for him that view grows. He is not freed from birth, aging, & death; from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.

AN 7.54

Only this is true; anything otherwise is worthless,’ is a viewpoint. The extent to which there are viewpoints, view-stances, the taking up of views, obsessions of views, the cause of views, & the uprooting of views: that’s what I know. That’s what I see. Knowing that, I say ‘I know.’ Seeing that, I say ‘I see.’ Why should I say ‘I don’t know, I don’t see’? I do know. I do see.”

AN 10.96

"A person who associates himself with certain views, considering them as best and making them supreme in the world, he says, because of that, that all other views are inferior; therefore he is not free from contention (with others). In what is seen, heard, cognized and in ritual observances performed, he sees a profit for himself. Just by laying hold of that view he regards every other view as worthless. Those skilled (in judgment)[1] say that (a view becomes) a bond if, relying on it, one regards everything else as inferior. Therefore a bhikkhu should not depend on what is seen, heard or cognized, nor upon ritual observances. He should not present himself as equal to, nor imagine himself to be inferior, nor better than, another. Abandoning (the views) he had (previously) held and not taking up (another), he does not seek a support even in knowledge. Among those who dispute he is certainly not one to take sides. He does not [have] recourse to a view at all. In whom there is no inclination to either extreme, for becoming or non-becoming, here or in another existence, for him there does not exist a fixed viewpoint on investigating the doctrines assumed (by others). Concerning the seen, the heard and the cognized he does not form the least notion. That brahmana[2] who does not grasp at a view, with what could he be identified in the world?

“They do not speculate nor pursue (any notion); doctrines are not accepted by them. A (true) brahmana is beyond, does not fall back on views.”

Sn 4.5

“Amid those who are self-constrained, the Stable One
would not posit as categorically true or false
anything seen, heard, or sensed,
clung to and considered truth by others.

Since they have already seen this dart
to which people cling and adhere,
saying “I know, I see, it is just so,”
the Tathāgatas cling to nothing.”

AN 4.24

See the world, together with its devas,
conceiving not-self to be self.
Entrenched in name & form,
they conceive that ‘This is true.’

In whatever terms they conceive it
it turns into something other than that,
and that’s what’s false about it:
it’s deceptive by nature.

Undeceptive by nature
is Unbinding:
that the noble ones know
as true.

They, through breaking through
to the truth,
free from hunger,
are totally unbound.

Sn 3.12

His deliverance, being founded upon truth, is unshakeable. For that is false, bhikkhu, which has a deceptive nature, and that is true which has an undeceptive nature—Nibbāna. Therefore a bhikkhu possessing this truth possesses the supreme foundation of truth. For this, bhikkhu, is the supreme noble truth, namely, Nibbāna, which has an undeceptive nature.

MN 140

What are we to make of these suttas? To me they describe a higher level of practice and understanding. When we begin on the path we have to make use of views, mundane Right View. Then as we progress or reach the end of the path we have supramundane Right View and Right Understanding. Once we have that we no longer have “views”. Another was to look at it is a move from synthetic a priori to analytic a priori. When we have mundane Right View, or when a non-Buddhist has a view of Theism or Materialism, then we are making synthetic a priori claims about the world. We are trying to explain the “world out there” in an ultimate sense. When we have supramundane Right View we do not do that. Instead we simply note what has come to be in experience and look to the origin of what has come to be. We look at the relationships between phenomena instead of trying to ultimately describe them by building a grand ontological theory. Why does this happen? Because of coming to know nibbana and anatta. All said speculative theories about the world come to be when there is a notion of “I am”. When there is a notion of “I am” there begins the thinking of how “I” relate to X, and so we begin to build these speculative philosophical or religious theories:

“Householder, there are many different views that arise in the world. For example: the world is eternal, or not eternal, or finite, or infinite; the soul and the body are the same thing, or they are different things; after death, a Realized One exists, or doesn’t exist, or both exists and doesn’t exist, or neither exists nor doesn’t exist. And also the sixty-two misconceptions spoken of in the Supreme Net Discourse.

These views come to be when identity view exists. When identity view does not exist they do not come to be.”

SN 41.3

Of course rebirth and kamma are synthetic a priori claims. They are views bound up with the idea of self. The Buddha also assures us that they happen to be true but from the time of stream-entry onward, after we have first glimpsed nibbana and the emptiness of all dhammas, we give up mundane right view. We let it go, as now we only see the relation between dhammas. Our perverted vision has begun to correct itself.

Those are my thoughts at any rate.


I was wondering about the four great elements of rupa in relation to an idealist model, though in the suttas they appear to be abstractions - since sense-objects are actually derived form (derived from form).

I think rupa is not even meant to be referring to “external” objects or “matter” in the classical physics sense, only the impressions, the “forms” that we experience that have certain qualities, such as solidity, liquidity and so on. As such, it is a particularly subjective and mental thing. Indian Buddhist philosophers like Dignaga and Dharmakirti wrestled with this issue as well. But ultimately, I do not think that one finds a theory of matter or physical objects in early Buddhism, and it’s possible that this is because the Buddha didn’t have one.

This is another reason to think an idealistic ontology is more compatible with early Buddhism than anything else.


The way I see it, the distinction between mundane and supramundane right view is not that sharp or absolute. Instead, they are closely connected. In this sense, I do not think that mundane right view is completely ignored after stream entry. After all, two of the three knowledges of a Buddha relate to karma and rebirth. Because of this, I do not think one can so easily ignore ontological concerns.

I do agree that these concerns are tangential, and so not as central as the more practical concerns, but I also think they can be useful in limited ways. After all, if having a coherent ontology can help certain people gain more confidence in the Dhamma and particularly in ideas like kamma and rebirth, this directly feeds into right view and thus into the pragmatic practice of the path. On the other hand, physicalist/materialist ontological presuppositions (whether consciously affirmed or unconsciously assumed) will hinder one’s confidence in the Dhamma.

Like I said, I used to think that all ontological questions were pointless, but now I think that some ontological issues are of limited importance. That doesn’t mean of course that I think that all ontological questions are important, clearly the Buddha rejected many such questions as not useful. However, I do not think the question of whether the mind is primary and more fundamental than matter is one of these “unanswered” questions.


If you take ontology as necessarily associated with some form of absolutism, then the focus on the mind in the EBT has little to do with idealism, and more to do with acknowledging how Kamma operates.

Not knowing the ultimate, the mind attempts to ground itself in some kind of absolutism (clinging) hence the practice is often described as “going against the grain”. That does not necessarily mean the ultimate is known by the mind, but knowing it regulates the aggregates including the mind. As long as there is a grain to go against, then the focus on the mind is warranted. That does not translates into the primacy of the mind over the body nor that one can exist without the other. Even the description of arupa Jhanas cannot escape referring to physicality, and whether this reference takes the form of presence or absence, it means the practitioner is still operating in the realm of ontology (existence and non-existence).

All in my opinion.

@Javier Could you elucidate this in a little more detail?

Well, that would take me away from the focus of this thread. However, I think Sujato gave good solid reasons to think that consciousness ceases completely at paranibbana (*edit!), and that nibbana is not a kind of consciousness. See the following blog posts:

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I will have to disagree here. Not all ontological theories are absolutist. Both in western and eastern thought, there are plenty of non-absolutist ontological theories. For example, both Madhyamaka and Yogacara I would consider as non-absolutist. Also, I think some western theories of anti-foundationalism and process philosophy are not absolutist.

Did you read my post which lists the main qualities of the kind of ontology I was proposing? It is non-eternalist, non-essentialist, etc. How is that absolutist?

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Thank you, I’m looking forward to reading these blog posts. I think I see that you’re referring to when the body breaks up at death and not when one awakens in this life.

They are absolutists in the sense that they claim their theories to correspond to reality. For a theory to correspond to reality, assuming an essence that endures change is implied, even if verbally denied. That essence can take a positive or negative form (presence or absence) depending on how the theory is constructed.

Hi Bundokji!
I disagree. What if what keeps moving is not an entity (in an ontological sense), but information? If information is what keeps moving, without needing entities existing permanently, then I would qualify such notion as absolutist. Information refers to a “how” things (what things?) are specifically arranged.

I am not sure if i understand your point. What problem have you solved when you replaced “entity” with “information”?

Whether that presence is of an entity or information, existence is still assumed. Entities do not need to exist permanently to conclude an essence. In fact, the impermanence of entities forms the basis for both confirming and denying an essence. For example, the ability to delay death would negate essence, while the irreversibility of death would confirm it.

What I was trying to say was that it’s hard for me to talk about information and to assign the label “essence” to refer to it. I think that one might think in an informational theory that does not need the persistence of material things, but only the persistence of information.
I may be wrong, though (maybe such theory is not sustainable). But maybe, if there is something as fundamental particles, there could be the case that the “persistence” of that particle over time (even if it’s moving through space) necessarily involves the change of the “constituents” of that particle (that, although described as fundamental, it could come to existence thanks to exaltations in some inmaterial field) so movement could be described and could ultimately be the “change” in the fundamental field, and in every instant of movement there would be changes in the field, but persistence in some information, like, for instance, the kind of particle (and the propierties of such kind) that it’s moving.

I may be not saying anything, since I’m no expert in physics nor metaphysics. I’m just letting my imagination run. I write this because something useful (even its refutation) may come out of it.

Kind regards!

In Bhantes recent talk here…

Linked directly in the below post by Gillian

The framework of looking at suttas from the 4 perspectives of

May be very useful.

The talk (2) itself is really worth listening to, if even just for this section, which is much broader than the Itivutakka, and gives a very nice way to navigate some of these issues.


The Week 2 Talk is on YouTube here.



The question of early Buddhist ontology is one that got me to write my paper awhile back on whether the Buddha was an anti-realist. (Hint: I don’t think he was). That said, although I think it’s possible to derive an ontology (e.g) of aggregates, realms, and so on from the early dhamma, one has to be a bit circumspect about it.

Traditionally ontology is often intended to delimit ultimates: those parts of reality more basic than which we cannot find. While such claims are made in the abhidhamma, early Buddhist dhamma was more pragmatic. That is, though it is perhaps reasonable to suppose that there is nothing more basic than the aggregates, this is not something the Buddha ever claims. Similarly, although an event-based ontology makes a lot of sense given early Buddhist presuppositions, the Buddha never really formulates such a theory.

Further I do think that if the Buddha were to stumble upon contemporary discussions of ontology he likely would consider them not useful to the life of practice, except insofar as they were understood pragmatically. That is, I don’t think the Buddha was interested in philosophical foundationalism. For these reasons I think it’s best to say the Buddha proposed an inchoate metaphysics, and one that was perhaps intended to remain inchoate.

Depending on how we understand jīva and sarīra in MN 63, he may have included the mind-body problem among the unanswered questions. I’m inclined to think he did, but I suppose it’s debatable.

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Thank your for your input Doug, it will provide much food for thought. I will read your essay soon. I agree that there is an inchoate metaphysics in early Buddhism, though I just happen to think its more idealistic. I happen to agree with Rupert Gethin who states in a paper of his:

I do not want to imply here that all Indian Buddhism shares an explicit and definite metaphysics and ontology, but I am suggesting that there is a general, underlying orientation, which tends to locate reality in the mind and its processes rather than in something “out there” which is other than the mind… To put it another way, there is a loosely “idealist” tendency to all Indian Buddhist thought. It is no accident that one of the most important and influential philosophical schools of Indian Buddhism, the Yogacara, expounded an idealist ontology.

Regarding the points you made in the post above.

Insofar as I am interested in a possible ontological theory which is compatible with early Buddhism, it is precisely pragmatic concerns which drive that interest! Particularly the concern that having a robust ontology can help one ground karma and rebirth in a rational way and thus aid one in attaining and maintaining right view.

That is, I don’t think the Buddha was interested in philosophical foundationalism. For these reasons I think it’s best to say the Buddha proposed an inchoate metaphysics, and one that was perhaps intended to remain inchoate.

Well, one can have an ontology without positing foundationalism per se. That is, I can be an idealist in a general sense, but not necessarily holding that this is an absolute foundation for all reality (after all, in this ontological theory I have sketched above, nibbana is not a consciousness, so all reality is not grounded in one thing after all). Anyways, I am working on a paper on this issue, but it might take me a awhile, I will share when done.

Also, I think you are right that at the Buddha’s time, he taught while retaining the metaphysical issues in the background. However, people in India at the time lived in an enchanted animistic thought-world, we do not live in that world anymore. The Buddha adapted his teaching to suit his audience. So perhaps that inchoate ontology should not be left inchoate anymore. This possibility is what I seek to investigate.

Do you really think jīva is referring to mind or the mental in a general sense in this case? Because it usually refers either to life force/vital life principle, or to an atman. I thought that was the main interpretation of this passage (that it refers to an atman, in the way it is used in Jainism). Why do you think it refers to “mind”? If it does, it would be a rather rare usage of the term, for he could have used citta, viññāṇa, or mano instead, which are the standard words for mind in the EBTs.


He did explicit state that he agrees with the “wise” that inconstant aggregates do exist (SN 22:94), which would correspond to a process metaphysics (Noa Ronkin in Early Buddhist Metaphysics suggests using the term process is more in line with the suttas with event metaphysics more an Abhidhamma development):

And what is agreed upon by the wise as existing in the world that I too say, ‘It exists’?

Form that’s inconstant, stressful, subject to change is agreed upon by the wise as existing in the world, and I too say, ‘It exists.’
Feeling … Perception … Fabrications…
Consciousness that’s inconstant, stressful, subject to change is agreed upon by the wise as existing in the world, and I too say, ‘It exists.’

To be clear this doesn’t account for Unbinding which by definition is not inconstant, so process metaphysics is only applicable in terms of what we cling to.

With that being said, the Buddha then goes onto say that for those who see the world “with right discernment,” questions of existence of non-existence do not occur (SN 12:15):

But when one sees the origination of the world as it has come to be 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 has come to be with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.

From this, I would say that early Buddhism is advocating a form of epistemological idealism but not an ontological idealism. In other words, we know what we know through the mind (Dhp 1: Mind is the forerunner of phenomena), but the question of what exists and what doesn’t exist is put aside.

This is most in line with Husserlian phenomenology and his method of phenomenological reduction. In fact, it could be argued that SN 12:15 is describing the ultimate level of phenomenological reduction.

This does imply however that any pure physicalist conception of the world is untenable like you posit. In a way you could say a form of “ontological idealism” is what we attain when reaching the end goal and liberating the mind, but this way of thinking is unskillful since it has the potential to lead to a Buddha-nature type of view. If we don’t practice and reach the goal, it would not be “true” for us.


Thanks @Javier. Yes, I think Gethin is onto something in the broad sense of say Indian Buddhism as versus the philosophy of ancient Greece. The Buddha was interested in ending suffering through an understanding of our internal, psychological processes. The Greeks were more interested in finding harmony with the external world. But these are subtle differences and wouldn’t say indicate that the Buddha was an idealist, though his system might as you say be “more idealistic” in certain respects than some others. Idealism is so to say a more “sophisticated” and narrowly philosophical sort of theory of the world than I find in early Buddhism. (There is also evidence against the Buddha being a literal idealist, which I go into in the paper).

Sure, as I see it that was the intention of the early abhidhammikas: to flesh out the philosophy of the Buddha by crossing the “t’s” and dotting the “i’s”. This required them, among other things, to foundationalize it so as to tie up the loose ends. That’s fine so far as it goes, and I have to say it interests me at times too, but in that direction lies scholasticism.

True, and as I say I do think it’s debatable, but I don’t think it could be a literal soul in the sense of an atman, because in that case I doubt the Buddha would have left its identity with the body an unanswered question. Elsewhere he says quite clearly that the body couldn’t be our “self” since it is always changing. My sense is it probably literally means something like “life force” in this context, and our life force is at least arguably identified with viññāṇa in DN 15, where it both supports and is supported by nāmarūpa. In other words, in this context I read jīva as something like a gloss for viññāṇa or some closely related concept. As I say, I could be wrong. But in that case I’m not sure what it was that Māluṅkya was so concerned about. :slightly_smiling_face:

Thanks @viriya. Yes, I deal a bit with Ronkin’s approach in my paper as well. This is a fair point, though if process philosophy isn’t understood in event terms I’m not sure exactly what it amounts to. That said, this could simply be another case of inchoate metaphysics.