The Buddha on Metaphysics and the Nature of Reality
The Buddha’s main concern was to eliminate suffering, to find a cure for the pain of human existence. In this respect he has been compared to a physician, and his teaching has been compared to a medical or psychological prescription. Like a physician, he observed the symptoms – the disease that human kind was suffering from; next he gave a diagnosis – the cause of the disease; then he gave the prognosis – it could be cured; finally he gave the prescription – the method by which the condition could be cured.
His first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, follows this pattern. First, the insight that “life is dukkha.” Dukkha is variously translated as suffering, pain, impermanence; it is the unsatisfactory quality of life which is targeted here – life is often beset with sorrow and trouble, and even at its best, is never completely fulfilling. We always want more happiness, less pain. But this ‘wanting more’ is itself the problem: the second noble truth teaches that the pain of life is caused by ‘tanha’ – our cravings, our attachments, our selfish grasping after pleasure and avoiding pain. Is there something else possible? The third noble truth says yes; a complete release from attachment and dukkha is possible, a liberation from pain and rebirth. The fourth noble truth tells how to attain this liberation; it describes the Noble Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana, the utter extinction of the pain of existence.Another main teaching of Buddhist metaphysics is known as the Three Marks of Existence. The first is Anicca, impermanence: all things are transitory, nothing lasts. The second is Anatta, No-Self or No-Soul: human beings, and all of existence, is without a soul or self. There is no eternal, unchanging part of us, like the Hindu idea of Atman; there is no eternal, unchanging aspect of the universe, like the Hindu idea of Brahman. The entire idea of self is seen as an illusion, one which causes immeasurable suffering; this false idea gives rise to the consequent tendency to try to protect the self or ego and to preserve its interests, which is futile since nothing is permanent anyway. The third mark of existence is that of Dukkha, suffering: all of existence, not just human existence but even the highest states of meditation, are forms of suffering, ultimately inadequate and unsatisfactory.
The three marks of existence can be seen as the basis for the four noble truths above; in turn the three marks of existence may be seen to come out of an even more fundamental Buddhist theory, that of Pratityasamutpada: Dependent Origination, or Interdependent Co-arising. This theory says that all things are cause and are caused by other things; all of existence is conditioned, nothing exists independently, and there is no First Cause. There was no beginning to the chain of causality; it is useless to speculate how phenomenal existence started. However, it can be ended, and that is the ultimate goal of Buddhism – the ultimate liberation of all creatures from the pain of existence.
Sometimes this causality is spoken of as a circular linking of twelve different factors; if the chain of causality can be broken, existence is ended and liberation attained. One of these factors is attachment or craving, tanha, and another is ignorance; these two are emphasized as being the weak links in the chain, the place to make a break. To overcome selfish craving, one cultivates the heart through compassion; to eliminate ignorance one cultivates the mind through wisdom. Compassion and wisdom are twin virtues in Buddhism, and are cultured by ethical behavior and meditation, respectively. It is a process of self-discipline and self-development which emphasizes the heart and mind equally, and insists that both working together are necessary for enlightenment.
If Buddhism can be seen as a process of personal development, one may well ask: what is a person, if not a soul or self? In keeping with the ideas of dependent origination, Buddhism views a person as a changing configuration of five factors, or ‘skandhas.’ First there is the world of physical form; the body and all material objects, including the sense organs. Second there is the factor of sensation or feeling; here are found the five senses as well as mind, which in Buddhism is considered a sense organ. The mind senses thoughts and ideas much the same as the eye senses light or the ear senses air pressure. Thirdly, there is the factor of perception; here is the faculty which recognizes physical and mental objects. Fourth there is the factor variously called impulses or mental formulations; here is volition and attention, the faculty of will, the force of habits. Lastly, there is the faculty of consciousness or awareness. In Buddhism consciousness is not something apart from the other factors, but rather interacting with them and dependent on them for its existence; there is no arising of consciousness without conditions. Here we see no idea of personhood as constancy, but rather a fleeting, changing assortment or process of various interacting factors. A major aim of Buddhism is first to become aware of this process, and then to eliminate it by eradicating its causes.
This process does not terminate with the dissolution of the physical body upon death; Buddhism assumes reincarnation. Even though there is no soul to continue after death, the five skandhas are seen as continuing on, powered by past karma, and resulting in rebirth. Karma in Buddhism, as in Hinduism, stems from volitional action and results in good or bad effects in this or a future life. Buddhism explains the karmic mechanism a bit differently; it is not the results of the action per se that result in karma, but rather the state of mind of the person performing the action. Here again, Buddhism tends to focus on psychological insights; the problem with bad or selfish action is that it molds our personality, creates ruts or habitual patterns of thinking and feeling. These patterns in turn result in the effects of karma in our lives.
Many other metaphysical questions were put to the Buddha during his life; he did not answer them all. He eschewed the more abstract and speculative metaphysical pondering, and discouraged such questions as hindrances on the path. Such questions as what is Nirvana like, what preceded existence, etc., were often met by silence or what may have seemed like mysterious obscurity. Asked what happens to an Arhant, an enlightened one, upon his death, the Buddha was said to have replied: “What happens to the footprints of the birds in the air.” Nirvana means ‘extinction’ and he likened the death of an arhant to the extinction of a flame when the fuel (karma) runs out. He evidently felt that many such questions were arising out of a false attachment to self, and that they distracted one from the main business of eliminating suffering.
It is sometimes claimed that the historical Buddha was unconcerned about the nature of reality. For example, the Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor has said, “I honestly don’t think the Buddha was interested in the nature of reality. The Buddha was interested in understanding suffering, in opening one’s heart and one’s mind to the suffering of the world.” Some of the Buddha’s teachings appear to be about the nature of reality, however. He taught that everything is interrelated. He taught that the phenomenal world follows natural laws. He taught that the ordinary appearance of things is an illusion. For someone who wasn’t “interested” in the nature of reality, he certainly spoke about the nature of reality quite a bit. It is also said that Buddhism is not about “metaphysics,” a word that can mean a lot of things. In its broadest sense, it refers to a philosophical inquiry into existence itself. In some contexts, it can refer to the supernatural, but it isn’t necessarily about supernatural things.
However, again, the argument is that the Buddha was always practical and just wanted to help people be free from suffering, so he wouldn’t have been interested in metaphysics. Yet many schools of Buddhism are built upon metaphysical foundations. Who is right?
The ‘Epiontic’ Dependently Originating Process of Cyclic Existence According to Early Buddhist Metaphysics Some modern Western interpreters of Buddhist teachings and philosophy claim that the original teachings of the Pali Canon were staunchly anti-metaphysical. In this article I axe-mine the early Buddhist worldview and demonstration that this assertion is deeply mistaken. Whilst the early teachings of the Buddha clearly rejected dogmatic metaphysical positions which the Buddha characterized as being ‘extreme’, he also implicitly, yet clearly, taught a subtle metaphysical view of the process of reality which is consistent with the modern quantum ‘depiction’ (epistemological perception creates ontology) perspective of ‘quantum Darwinism.’ Central to this viewpoint is a non-materialism which indicates that the ultimate process of reality is of the nature of mind; The assertion that the ultimate nature of reality lies between the extremes of ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’, ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’; 3) the assertion that the epiontic mechanism operates as ‘kamma’, or ‘karma’, a central mechanism for the functioning of conditioned samsaric (cycle of dissatisfactory lives) reality.
On the basis of these fundamental insights the doctrines of ‘rebirth’ and ‘dependent origination’ are shown to be crucial metaphysical components of the overall early Buddhist worldview as taught by the Buddha. These doctrines are also shown to be consistent with modern quantum theory. On the basis of this investigation recent claims that the 3-lifetimes model of dependent origination is mistaken are shown to be desperately misleading.
The Quantum Truth of the Buddhist Metaphysics of the ‘Two Truths’ or ‘Two Realities’ (by Graham P. Smetham): Abstract: According to the ‘Buddhist’ writer Stephen Batchelor the core Buddhist doctrine of the ‘two truths’ or ‘two realities’ is a major mistake on the part of Buddhist practitioners and philosophers throughout the ages. Although this doctrine has been central to Buddhist thinking since the time of the Buddha, Batchelor says that it is a serious mistake, and is completely unscientific. This article show that it is Batchelor who is desperately mistaken because modern quantum theory has validated the metaphysical claim that the ‘classical’ or ‘conventional’ world is an illusion which is derived from the deeper quantum realm. Thus the division into the ‘classical’ realm and the ‘quantum’ realm maps onto the Buddhist distinction between the ‘conventional’ mode of reality and the ‘ultimate’ mode of reality. Far from Buddhist philosophy being ‘unscientific’, it is Batchelor who displays ignorance of modern science.
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