Metaphysics of buddhism
The historical Buddha, also known as Gotama Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, and Buddha Śākyamuni, was born in Lumbini, in the Nepalese region of Terai, near the Indian border. He is one of the most important Asian thinkers and spiritual masters of all time, and he contributed to many areas of philosophy, including epistemology, metaphysics and ethics. The Buddha’s teaching formed the foundation for Buddhist philosophy, initially developed in South Asia, then later in the rest of Asia. Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy now have a global following.
In epistemology, the Buddha seeks a middle way between the extremes of dogmatism and skepticism, emphasizing personal experience, a pragmatic attitude, and the use of critical thinking toward all types of knowledge. In ethics, the Buddha proposes a threefold understanding of action: mental, verbal, and bodily. In metaphysics, the Buddha argues that there are no self-caused entities, and that everything dependently arises from or upon something else. This allows the Buddha to provide a criticism of souls and personal identity; that criticism forms the foundation for his views about the reality of rebirth and an ultimate liberated state called “Nirvana.” Nirvana is not primarily an absolute reality beyond or behind the universe but rather a special state of mind in which all the causes and conditions responsible for rebirth and suffering have been eliminated. In philosophical anthropology, the Buddha explains human identity without a permanent and substantial self. The doctrine of non-self, however, does not imply the absolute inexistence of any type of self whatsoever, but is compatible with a conventional self composed of five psycho-physical aggregates, although all of them are unsubstantial and impermanent. Selves are thus conceived as evolving processes causally constrained by their past.
Although there are many differences in the metaphysics of Theravada and Mahayana, Buddha was not devoid of such opinions himself. Buddhist philosophy begins with nirvana, the end of enlightenment. It translates as ‘to blow out’ or ‘to extinguish,’ and that can call into question exactly what kind of religion promises its followers that this is their reward for devotion. But the idea of total nonexistence is connected to self-awareness and infinite being.
“Deprived of fuel, the fire goes out, and this is nirvana . we must be precise as to what is to be extinguished. It is the boundaries of the finite self. It does not follow that what is left will be nothing . It is boundless life itself.”
When an enlightened Buddhist has achieved nirvana, then, when he dies he will be released from his finitude and into the infinite – impossible to describe, perhaps, but that is to be expected, for as Buddha taught, “after we eliminate every aspect of the only consciousness we have ever known, how can we speak of what is left?” .
To the Mahayanist, nirvana may be seen as God. It is an impersonal force, but it is infinite, good, peaceful, and Truth and Reality itself. But it is not a creator, nor is it personal or graceful towards humans in any way. On the contrary, Theravadans understand that that “If absence of a personal, Creator-God is atheism, Buddhism is atheistic”.
“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature before than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”
What can we gather from these verses? First, that God has revealed Himself to everyone; no one is inexcusable when they say they don’t believe in Him. Second, that by rejecting Him, they turn to the worship of created things rather than Creator. This is not just true of ancient forms of paganism, but equally is true of modern atheism (consider atheist Lawrence Krauss’s statement, “Forget Jesus, the stars died for you”) and is certainly true for the autonomous, humanistic thinker such as Buddha and those who follow him. They worship man in general by exalting Mankind as the judge of everything else or may even worship the Buddha. So yes, it is possible to adhere to a godless religion – in fact, it is impossible not to be religious regardless of one’s professed beliefs.
With that settled, and keeping in mind that nirvana can account for both theistic and atheistic Buddhism, it is time to move on to metaphysics. Although Buddha didn’t say much about his views on this subject and largely left his followers to quarrel over them after him, he did hold such views. In fact, Smith makes this refreshing statement.
Such honesty is admirable! There are quite a few people nowadays who claim to have no such ultimate beliefs, that they are neutral and approach science and religion objectively. The result shows itself to be fallacious when such statements are made as in this quote from an anthropology textbook: that we are to do “objective fieldwork conducted from a relativistic viewpoint” (Bailey and Peoples, 66). Everyone must be subjective to their ultimate standards, and to claim to be otherwise is but a faulty ultimate standard.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Buddha’s philosophy is his view of the soul. India had strong beliefs in the reincarnation of human souls, and Hinduism’s Atman was considered a distinguished infinite person from the finite self. But Buddha believed in anatta, or ‘no soul.’ There is nothing, he thought, that outlived the body; granted, he accepted some form of reincarnation, but it was more of some “finite desire” that passed on than an actual spirit. Like a flame passing from candle to candle, its essence passed from person to person until one of its humans reached nirvana to become a “holy one who has extinguished all such desire”. Here he would be released from the constraints of this world. “If increased freedom brings increased being, total freedom should be being itself”. In this way, a person who has achieved nirvana has not connected to his Atman but is released from anything connected to earthly life.
“The ultimate destiny of the human spirit is a condition in which all identification with the historical experience of the finite self will disappear, while experience as such not only remains but is heightened beyond all recognition.”
Think about this. The Buddhist tries to bring every sensation and passing thought into notice. In releasing from the finite self – and becoming one with the infinite universe – bringing every thought and sensation into focus means becoming omniscient. It means reaching omnipresence through meditation. Autonomy is a self-deifying worldview, and this further shows how the man who rejects God will worship created things – in this case, himself.
Buddha also believed in Karma, and that “Each life is in its present condition because of the way of the lives that led up to it were lived” . But why should such consequences be applied to a life that isn’t a part of continued soul, but only a flicker of “finite desire”?
Another problem with Buddha’s metaphysics was his notion on its unimportance, all the while stressing morality, compassion and helping others. Smith quotes from the Majjhima Nikaya:
“[I]t is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death, that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their opposite are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow and despair . . . I have not spoken to these views because they do not conduce to absence of passion, or to tranquility and Nirvana. And what have I explained? Suffering have I explained, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering have I explained. For this is useful.” (Smith, 96)
But are such metaphysical questions really that irrelevant to helping others? Consider the question of life after death. If it really doesn’t matter either way, there is the possibility that people don’t live on after they die. And if that is the case, why bother helping them? They will soon die and be released from their sorrows and forget they ever had them. You will soon die and forget your guilt at not helping them. Why would compassion be necessary if nothing in this life means anything? When teaching others to help people in need, it is important to realize that they will live on and that how they live in this life will affect them forever. Metaphysical questions give meaning to the world around us and their answers give us reason to act in certain ways.