Early Buddhist Ontology

Every saying has a background. Firstly you need to find what did Buddha actually say. Secondly try to understand that based on Buddha’s age. Then you will find your answer. Otherwise, the debating will never end, becaused the evidences are contradictory.

But this position is not “agnostic”, it’s critical, it explicitly states that certain questions can’t be answered by “exists” “doesn’t exist” “is the same” “is different”, that is not the same as being agnostic, it is to have a position, the position being that any of the standard positions are incoherent.

but to deny that physicalism could be true is not the same as endorsing Idealism as true.

physicalism might be paraphrased as saying “the mind is the same thing as the body” and you are right the Buddha does not endorse this view. But idealism might be paraphrased by saying “the body is one thing, the mind is another” but the Buddha rejects this view too.

may I ask how? I don’t really see this. (for example plenty of Christians believe in a physical resurrection, so their commitment to an afterlife is not a commitment to a non-physical realm)

Here I agree with you , and as I think Kaustop has pointed out, it’s a problem for a variety of physicalisms too, because it is hard to explain how there can be physical laws, which are non-physical things, in a universe without non-physical things.

I would go further and say that there are statements that rule most of them out, refusing to endorse “the mind is one thing and the body is another” pretty much rules out substance dualism for example.

So I would say there is an explicit ontology in the EBT’s, that is dependence, and it is contrasted to various idealisms, materialisms and skepticisms by showing how phenomena and concepts work in dependance on grounds that are themselves dependent on grounds and so on, turtles all the way down, whereas physicalism makes materials the fundament beyond which nothing can go and Idealism makes such a substance of the mind. the EBT’s staunchly reject this picture.

Anyway, I have only read your OP so far and thought I would give my thoughts, now on to reading the replies!!


MN 62 seems contrary to the above solipsist view. Also SN 22.79. Also the intro to SN 22.59. Also SN 22.1. Also AN 9.15. Also SN 22.48. Also SN 12.20 and AN 3.136.

According to SN 12.20 = SA 296, the Buddha teaches “arising by causal condition” (paticca-samuppada) and “phenomena arisen by causal condition” (paticca-samuppanna dhamma). So, he does not teach ontology and metaphysics.
Page 150 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (80.4 KB)

Yes, I agree with this. I am actually disagreeing with those who think he Buddha had no metaphysics at all…

Ok, but I wasn’t making this argument…

That is not what Idealism is…

Because if you hold that after the body is disintegrated, something else continues on after that to take up another body, then you cannot believe that only the physical exists.

I already said this in the OP, this is why I argued that physicalism must be rejected by the EBT POV

I don’t think you really understand what I was saying in the OP or what Idealism entails. You can have a non-foundationalist and non-substantialist form of idealism, an idealism which is based on dependent arising (indeed, that is what the Yogacara school holds) and just holds that the mental is primary.

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I think you misunderstand what I was trying to say here. I was not endorsing solipsism. I was also not endorsing the view that there are no external rupas and internal rupas.

I was merely saying that the metaphysical nature of rupa is not so clear cut, and certainly it is not the same as modern views of what is “physical”. This means that while I agree the EBTs say there are internal and external sense stimuli that are called “form”, this does not entail that they must be “physical” in the way this term is understood today or in some metaphysical sense (as part of some kind of dualism for example). This leaves open the possibility that these “forms” are in some sense a kind of non-physical phenomena.

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I don’t see anything here which rejects all metaphysics tout court.

Indeed, if we ask questions like, what is causal condition? what is dependence? what is it that is arising dependently? We have entered the realm of metaphysics.

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Respectfully, your ideas are very strange to me. I have studied Buddhism for a long time and gain the impression your concerns are largely a recent Western internet fad/phenomena. Did you actually read the suttas I offered?

Metaphysics and ontology are definitely not a “recent internet fad” @CurlyCarl , and I resurrected this thread in the hope that @Javier might have a conversation with me about the subject, and I am very excited to compose my response to his reply!

The EBT’s are the inheritance of not only all Buddhists but also of the whole world, including those of us who try to understand things “philosophically”.

The EBT’s are NOT the sole intellectual property of orthodox Theravadans. And I would just also gently remind you that this site is not a site for the promotion/discussion of Theravada orthodoxy, but for the EBT’s, though of course the Theravada perspective is an important and significant perspective on the EBT’s both historically and now, just not the only one.

Anyway, after some to-ing and fro-ing I have decided that this site is the best place i have found to discuss my thoughts on the EBT’s, despite definitely not being a Theravada Buddhist, and despite that seeming to be the most commonly expressed perspective here.

So get used to plenty more threads about ontology and metaphysics, mahayana perspectives (although i don’t identify with that school either) and various secular speculations etc- because I’m here to stay (as long as the mods will have me) :slight_smile:

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Of course it matters.

What do you think about this understanding?

For Candrakīrti, the two forms of cognition are nondeceptive in delivering conventional and ultimate knowledge, respectively, as they satisfy the criterion for being an authoritative epistemic instrument. They are, at the same time, empty of any intrinsic nature. That is, they are ontologically empty, deceptive, false and illusion-like in spite of being epistemically nondeceptive.

All epistemic instruments, including rational insight, are empty of intrinsic nature because they are produced phenomena; all cognitions are deceptive because they exist in one way and appear in a different way. While they are conditioned phenomena and become what they are in virtue of their epistemic objects ( prameya ) and utterly lack any mode of ontological foundation, cognitions do appear to be intrinsically characterized , intrinsically given as cognitions.

Therefore, the distinction between what counts and what does not count as an epistemic instrument (both conventional and rationally warranted), in Candrakīrti’s view, should not be drawn on the basis on the ontological character of the cognition in question. All cognitions are ontologically deceptive, false, and illusory. Nonetheless, it is not contradictory for cognition to be ontologically false and deceptive and at the same time epistemically nondeceptive and reliable. While rational insight is ontologically unreal, deceptive, and illusory, epistemically it effectively apprehends the nature of the principal object it is engaged with: ultimate reality.

I actually agree with you here, I thought as I was posting, “maybe the body and mind are the same thing applies equally well to idealism as to physicalism just the other way round”, their both kind of monisms after all, but then went with my first instinct for the sake of getting a conversation started rather than treating a web forum like an academic publication :slight_smile: I guess what I was trying to gesture towards is that the “identical, different” unanswered questions seem to make many of these ontologies difficult, if it is wrong to affirm that the body and the mind are different things, but also wrong to affirm that they are the same thing, then it seems on it’s face (at least to me) that it’s difficult to maintain either physicalism (as a picture of the mind supervening or reducible to the body) or idealism (taken as the body supervening on or reducible to “mind stuff” in some sense).

I suppose that really the only things that are rules out technically are monism (mind and body are identical, but could be identically physical or identically mental) and dualism (mind and body are different substances). But I do think the “vibe” is more a rejection of monism/dualism AND physicalism/idealism as incoherent.

I am not sure this holds, I have been trying to wrap my head around the whole further facts thing and Parfit and all that, having recently started reading Siderits’ more recent book based on @Dhammanando 's recommendation (and finding it just as infuriating as his earlier one tbh) but I am just not sure it makes any sense to me, physicalism as a thesis that there are no further facts just seems impossible to get of the ground, as you at least need physical laws and so on to get you to the argument that said laws explain everything without recourse to non-physical entities, so they seem like further facts to me, not to mention numbers, etc…

I guess what I am trying to gesture at is that if you are a physicalist and a nominalist then you need to worry about justifying such things as natural laws and numbers being in fact not further facts but somehow just “talk” but if you at least grant the physicalist that they can have such talk then I think you can’t deny them rebirth, after all, they already think that something continues after you die, all the atoms are still bouncing around in the void, there are still causal facts about the future, why couldn’t a purely physical situation instantiate a continuity between an organism at time t and an organism at time t2? I mean the problem is there for the physicalist even before you die, its no harder afterwards. (one way I like to speculate about is some kind of quantum entanglement based idea, like if there is an entanglement between similarly entropic regions at arbitrary distances, and the “conscious collapse” Wigner types are right after all, then when you die the entangled particles in the other region of space with similarly low-entropy jiggle into a vessel for your “perspectival-chain” or whatever)

I mean, yeah, that’s why I replied to your post, I would love to hear more of your thought on this subject as I really like thinking about it, and as for what Idealism (or Physicalism) entials, well, yeah, again, I am not sure what exactly is entailed by what, and I tend to find that a lot hinges on the particulars of a given picture about a given philosophy, Plato and Berkeley and Schopenhauer might all be broadly classed as “Idealist” but it’s not like their philosophies all entail the same things.

Anyway, my main thought is precisely that the Buddha, even in the earliest EBT’s was in fact directly addressing these questions as per the unanswered questions and the fire analogy etc, and I think it’s fruitful to try and uncover what that philosophical picture was, whereas I find a lot of those in the field (especially Siderts) simply gloss the EBT material in a very standard, reflexive, “the Buddha didn’t do metaphysics” way, and then more or less start their arguments from the Abhidhamma on, creating, IMO, a bias towards a particular set of questions by making (a version of) the anatta doctrine primary rather than conditionality (of which anatta is merely the sort of passive inverse IMO).

I am unable to see the questions like, what is ‘conditioned arising’, will enter into the realm of metaphysics?

‘Conditioned arising’ is about phenomena (in connection with dukkha, its arising, its ceasing, and the way leading to its ceasing), not about metaphysics.

that is precisely a metaphysical statement, using a word (phenomena) which has it’s current usage and semantics because of the contributions of one of the greatest metaphysicians in the history of philosophy (Kant) who was the first European to elucidate the problem you are referring to, in a work on metaphysics.

The claim "there is no such thing as metaphysics because it is not possible to get past phenomena to a more fundamental “Reality” is metaphysics.

So, what is “reality” of dukkha, according to “conditioned arising”?

Yes. But my impression is Mahayana is not EBT. If rupa was phenomenology, I imagine rupa would be subjective. The following does not sound subjective:

The four primary elements, and form derived from the four primary elements.
Cattāro ca mahābhūtā, catunnañca mahābhūtānaṁ upādāyarūpaṁ.
This is called form.
Idaṁ vuccati rūpaṁ.
SN 12.2

“Rāhula, the interior earth element is said to be anything hard, solid, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes: head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, undigested food, feces, or anything else hard, solid, and appropriated that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This is called the interior earth element. The interior earth element and the exterior earth element are just the earth element. This should be truly seen with right understanding like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

MN 62

‘Boil’ is a term for this body made up of the four primary elements, produced by mother and father, built up from rice and porridge, liable to impermanence, to wearing away and erosion, to breaking up and destruction. And that boil has nine orifices that are continually open wounds. Whatever oozes out of them is filthy, stinking, and disgusting. Whatever leaks out of them is filthy, stinking, and disgusting. So, mendicants, have no illusion about this body.”
AN 9.15

And why do you call it form? It’s deformed; that’s why it’s called ‘form’. Deformed by what? Deformed by cold, heat, hunger, and thirst, and deformed by the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and reptiles. It’s deformed; that’s why it’s called ‘form’. SN 22.79

Mendicant, this is not how the question should be asked: “Sir, where do these four primary elements cease without anything left over, namely, the elements of earth, water, fire, and air?” DN 11

The “reality” I think is the way or lawfulness of how dukkha arises. If must arise in a fixed way according to natural law. In other words, it must start with ignorance & end with death. There is no other way for dukkha to arise other than via the 12 conditions; just as there is no other way for water to arise apart from oxygen & hydrogen. There is no other way for dukkha to cease apart from with cessation of the 12 conditions.

yes, but neither is Theravada. both these schools of thought grew up hundreds of years after the Buddha, and both of them are full of ideas and positions that are not clearly evident in the EBT material, both think that they have got it right while the other has got it wrong, both rely heavily on a secondary literature (in the Theravada case the abhidhamma in the Mahayana case the prajnaparamita etc) and both , to me, often miss the point of things, hence I am not an adherent of either school, preferring to read from both, and from the western philosophical tradition, in order to come to an understanding.

Not sure what you mean here, phenomenology is a philosophy or way of talking about something, forms are forms, not ways of talking.

Appealing to the visceral sense of rupa doesn’t really bear on the question as far as I can see, no one is attempting to deny that bodies are there (and gross).

So, “conditioned arising” is about natural law of phenomena, not about metaphysics.

“natural law” is a metaphysical concept.

I already quoted some suttas. Regards. :slightly_smiling_face: