So I wanted to try and give a quick precis of my current understanding of the philosophy of the Buddha as presented in the early Buddhist texts, especially DN and MN.
Basically if you find yourself alive in the world, you find yourself amongst a bewildering array of phenomena and experience.
The first, perhaps what we might call perennial response to this, captured beautifully in Plato’s cave analogy, is to say that behind the diversity of changing appearances is a hidden stable reality, of immortal souls and fundamental essences. I think this may be refereed to in the EBT’s as “the first cosmology”.
This is a very profound idea and one worthy of deep consideration, for example it underwrites all of modern physics, where deep and subtle laws of matter and space underwrite the bewildering array of planets, stars, lifeforms and technologies we see around us.
There is a “second cosmology” however, a kind of rejection of the first, ironically espoused (unironically) by many physicists, that in our terminology we might call “materialism”. this is the claim that there is no hidden reality over and above the mere physical stuff we see and interact with here and now. in as much as we are here and now we are physical systems and when we die those physical systems will dissipate and we wont be here anymore.
This picture is often seen as a more “hard-nosed” or “realistic” point of view, that contrasts with the “airy-fairy” or “head in the clouds” spiritual or idealistic view of the first cosmology. instead of a man behind the curtain, there is nothing behind the curtain.
Both these views have their adherents today, and had their adherents in the Buddhas time. Seeing that intelligent, well meaning, educated persons can legitimately arrive at either of these positions a third response developed, what we now call skepticism, whereby it is asserted that while the answer to the question “is there something behind all this or nothing” may be legitimately asked, we will never know the answer, we are doomed to be forever ignorant of the truth.
This brings us to what I take to be the Buddha’s position in all this, which is to reject the notion that we can never have knowledge, and reject both the cosmologies of something behind the curtain and nothing behind the curtain, and maintain that within the theater itself we can uncover relations between and amongst phenomena that can resolve our ignorance and allow us true knowledge.
Taken from an ontological perspective this is done by first rejecting four alternatives:
A’s are real
A’s are really B’s
both A’s and B’s are real
neither A’s nor B’s are real
(and the “fifth” alternative of the Ajnana that we can’t know which)
and instead asserting:
A’s can appear
A’s appear with the appearance of B’s
A’s disappear with the disappearance of B’s
B’s can disappear
This is the Buddhas “conditionality” that he puts in place of the “reality”(s) described by each of the 4 alternatives. (and the ignorance entailed by the bracketed fifth)
This then is the fundamental contribution early Buddhism makes to the ancient Indian philosophical debates, rejecting the metaphysical monism of the Brahmans and the metaphysical pluralism of the Jain, and equally rejecting the materialism of the Lokayata and the skepticism of the Ajnana, The early Buddhists claim that knowledge is ascertainable from inside the theater of experience, without a need to posit the presence or absence of entities or ontology outside of experience or phenomena as we are given them. (and in fact denying the possibility or coherence of attempting to do so)
This is to my mind an epochal and fundamental philosophical contribution, and one that is, as is often claimed in the suttas, subtle, and hard to fully grasp, I am certainly not claiming o understand it, just that this basic picture, of responding to the four alternatives by rejecting them all and asserting conditionality, is the picture we see in DN and MN in particular, but really throughout the EBT’s as a whole.
So there you go. Just as a final note, I want to be clear that I don’t really take the philosophy stuff to be the core of the Buddhist project, rather it is human freedom that is the point of it all, the philosophical groundwork just licenses the praxis of human liberation, I just feel like getting to grips with the philosophy has been a pretty big barrier for me, with many false starts and dead ends, and in recent times, thanks in no small part to suttacentral and discuss and discover, the picture has started to become clearer for me, as I have been able to take a real birds eye view of ideas and arguments at a 4 Nikaya (and sometimes more) wide level.
I would be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on this both in terms of whether it reflects the Buddhist position, and in terms of it’s clarity of presentation if it does.
Much Metta Mates.