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A Research Paper on The Metaphysics of Buddhism

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This paper investigates the role of Buddhism as a philosophical system and in the socio-cultural context as well. I would like to investigate about how Buddhism despite not having a distinctive and clear sense of metaphysics, it still managed to be one of the most widely accepted ideas. I would also like to investigate why Buddha was silent about metaphysics in the first place, and whether this silence leads to the demise of Buddhism in India. This paper would also focus on the theory of four noble truths and its different interpretations by different schools of Buddhism.


According to the traditional principle of classification, most likely adopted by orthodox Hindu thinkers, the schools or system of Indian Philosophy are divided into two broad classes, namely orthodox and heterodox. Mimamsa, Vedanta, Sankhya, Yoga and Nyaya- Vaisesika come under the category of orthodox. It’s not because they believe in God, but rather, they believe in the authority of the Vedas. Under the heterodox category come in the Carvakas, Jainists and Buddhists as they don’t believe in the authority of the Vedas. Buddhism comes under the category of a heterodox philosophical system, as it didn’t believe in the authority of Vedas. Buddhism questioned the authority of the Vedas and emphasized individual agency. This idea of individual agency is directly opposed to the brahmanical position, wherein an individual’s existence was thought to be determined by his or her birth in a specific caste or gender.

The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha’s life is fairly well-known. He was born in the royal family of Kapilavastu; he renounced the world early in life. He was inclined to believe that the world is full of suffering because of the sights of disease, old age and death. He explored several paths including bodily mortification which led him to a near death situation. Abandoning these extreme methods, he meditated for several days and finally attained enlightenment. He laid down the foundation of both Buddhist religion and philosophy which in course of time, spread far and wide to different parts of the world.

It is important to the note the anti speculative character of Siddhartha, as he always avoided metaphysical questions as to whether the soul as different from the body, whether it survived death, whether the world was finite or infinite. He found it to be useless to contemplate about metaphysical questions, as he thought they distracted man from attaining his ultimate goal, Arhatship or Vimutti. Instead of discussing metaphysical questions, which are ethically useless and intellectually uncertain, he focused on the urgent matter: ending misery. His teachings came to be known as the four noble truths (catvari aryasatyani). They are a) Life in the world is full of suffering. B) There is a cause of suffering. C) It is possible to stop suffering. D) There is a path which leads to the cessation of suffering (dukkha- nirodha-marga).

The first noble truth about suffering is completely based on the idea of pessimism. Birth, old age, disease, death, sorrow grief, wish, despair, in short, all that is born of attachment, is misery. Buddha has the support of all important Indian thinkers. Even though Carvaka materialists would criticize this condemnation of life in the world and point out the different sources of pleasure that exist in life along with those of pain. But Buddha and other Indian thinkers would reply that worldy pleasures appear as such only to short-sighted people. Their transitoriness, make pleasure lose their charm and turn them into positive sources of fear and anxiety. The pessimistic attitude seems to prevail, as during that time period, new kingdoms and cities were developing and social and economic life was changing in a variety of ways (mid first millennium BCE). Many people were dissatisfied with existing religious practices and confused by the rapid social changes.

The second noble truth is about the cause of suffering, based on the doctrine of natural causation. According to it, nothing is unconditional; the existence of every event depends on some conditions, there must be something which being there our misery comes into existence. This is reflected in the following way; life’s suffering is due to birth according to Buddha. If a man weren’t born, he wouldn’t be subjected to death. Birth again has its condition, the will to live. The will to live is because of mental clinging to objects of the world. Mental clinging to objects is due to our thirst for objects, which is due to previous sense- experience, tinged with pleasant feelings. But sense experience couldn’t arise but for contact, contact of sense- organs with objects. This contact again depends on the six organs of cognition which depend on the mind-body organism (nama-rupa) which is dependent on consciousness. Consciousness is dependent on the last effect of the impressions of our past experience. Impressions are dependent on ignorance (avidya). If the transitory, painful nature of the worldly existence were perfectly realized, there would not arise in us any karma resulting in rebirth. This view, as Buddha makes himself clear, avoids two extreme views: on the one hand eternalism or the theory that something existing can be annihilated or can cease to be. Buddha claims, therefore to hold the middle view. The twelve links has been popularized among Buddhist and devout Buddhists remind themselves of this view by turning wheels which are made to symbolize the wheel of causation. In sculptures as well, wheel stands for the first sermon of the Buddha, given at Sarnath. These twelve links are sometimes interpreted to cover the past, the present and the future life which are causally connected, so that the present life can be conveniently explained with reference to its past condition and its future effect. The belief in the theory of Karma is only an aspect of this explanation. Although it does directly challenge the divine theory of origin of Brahmans, as they tried to persuade people into following the norms with that reasoning.

The third noble truth about cessation of suffering is about how if the conditions of misery are removed, misery would cease. Although in general people assume that the state of cessation of all misery would mean a state of inactivity which isn’t the case. This is because even after attaining enlightenment, Buddha led an active life travelling, preaching, founding brotherhood. Also, state of nirvana doesn’t mean extinction of existence as Buddha couldn’t have said to be liberated unless he had died and his attainment of perfect wisdom would have turned out to be a myth. Even after attaining enlightenment, the liberated saint can continue to live in any form. It is a part of one of the ten indeterminate questions which Buddha repeatedly refuses to express any opinion on. Buddha’s silence on this could be interpreted as state of liberation is something which can’t be described in terms of ordinary experience.

The fourth noble truth about the path to liberation lies down that there is a path to follow in order to be free from the state of misery. The path recommended by Buddha consists of eight steps or rules and is therefore, called the eightfold noble path (astangika-marga). This path is open to all, monks as well as laymen. The importance attached to conduct and values rather than claim of superiority based on birth, the emphasis placed on metta (fellow feeling) and Karuna (compassion), especially for those who were younger and weaker than one, were ideas that drew men and women to Buddhist teachings. This eightfold path starts with right views a mere intellectual apprehension of the fourfold truth. The mind isn’t purged of the previous wrong ideas and the passions or wrong emotions arising from old habits of thinking speaking and acting. There is a conflict between the old habits and the new ones. This resembles the cognitive and behavioral approach in Psychology in terms of understanding abnormal behavior. Cognitive approach locates the cause of psychological distress in irrational thoughts about the world and behavioral approach asks to replace maladaptive behaviors with adaptive ones.

In summing up his teachings, Buddha himself once said: “Both in the past and even now do I set forth just this: Suffering and cessation of suffering, addressing a larger and more immediate issue on hand rather than engaging in mere speculation”.

In spite of Buddha’s aversion to theoretical speculation, he never wanted to accept, nor did he encourage his followers to accept, any course of action without reasoning and criticism. He was extremely rational and contemplative. Although in some stories in Sutra Pitaka, his miraculous powers are described, but others suggest that the Buddha tried to convince people through reason and persuasion. Different aspects of his Philosophy came to be interpreted in different lights by his followers, due to Buddha’s silence on the ten metaphysical questions. Soon after passing away of Buddha, the neglected metaphysics takes over, despite of the heedless warning by the founder. Buddhism gave rise to about thirty schools, not counting the minor one. Many of them get into deep waters of metaphysical speculation.

Some Buddha philosophers are nihilists (sunyavadins) others are subjective idealists (yogacaras) others are critical realists (Sautantrika) and rest are direct realists (Vaibhasika). The first two come under Mahayana and the other two under Hinyana. Shunyavadins have a middle view as they avoid extreme views by denying, both absolute reality and absolute unreality of things and asserting their conditional existence. Its negative description of the transcendental, and its conception of nirvana as the attainment of unity with the transcendental self approaches very close to Advaita Vedanta Philosophy. The Yogacara view is called Vijanavada or subjective idealism because it admits only that there is only one kind of reality which is of the nature of consciousness and objects which appear to be material or external to consciousness are really ideas or states of consciousness. The Sauntrantikas believe in the reality not only of the mind but also of external object. Therefore it’s also called theory of the inferability of external objects (bahyanumeya-vada). Its epistemology resembles ‘representationism’ or the ‘copy theory of ideas’. Whereas the Vaibhasika agree with the Sauntrantika regarding the reality of both the mental and the non mental, the Vaibhasikas, like many modern neo realists, point out that unless we admit that external objects are perceived by us, their existence can’t be known in any other way.

In respect of religion Buddhism is divided as we know into the great schools, the Hinyana and Mahayana.

Representing faithfully the earlier form of Buddhism the Hinyana, like Jainism, stands as an example of a religion without God. The place of God is taken in it by the universal moral law of karma or dharma which governs the universe in such a way that no fruit of action is lost and every individual gets the mind, the body and the place in life that he deserves by his past deeds. The life and teachings of Buddha furnish the ideal as well as the promise or the possibility of every fettered individual’s attaining liberation. The organized church (sangha) of his faithful followers adds strength to spiritual aspirations. So an aspirant is advised to take the threefold solemn vow (tisarna): ‘I take refuge in Buddha, I take refuge in Dhamma, and I take refuge in the Sangha’.

The Hinyanist hopes to obtain liberation in this or any other future life by following Buddha’s noble path. His goal is Arthaship or Nibbana, the state that extinguishes all his misery. Hinyana is therefore a religion of self help. This path is meant only for the strong, who are all too few in this world.

As the fold of Buddhism widened in course of time, it did not come to include not only the few select persons fit to follow this difficult ideal, but also multitudes of half-convinced nominal converts who understood the path nor had the necessary moral strength to follow it. The bulk of people, who accepted Buddhism on grounds other than moral, brought it down to their own level. They came with their own habits, beliefs and traditions which soon became a part of the new faith they accepted. The teachers had to choose between upholding the number at the cost of the ideal. A few sturdy ones preferred the first. But the majority couldn’t resist the temptation of the second. They came thus to build what they were pleased to call the Greater vehicle, or the Mahayana, contrasting it with the orthodox faith of the former, which they nicknamed the lesser vehicle, Hinyana.


Buddha had an anti speculative attitude and when asked about metaphysical questions, he always remained silent. According to him, the indeterminate questions are ethically useless and intellectually uncertain. He always focused on sorrow instead, because it was the most urgent matter that had to solve immediately. Therefore, the ten indeterminate questions are ethically unprofitable and were thus not discussed by him.

Despite his aversion to theoretical speculation, he never wanted to accept nor did he encourage his followers to accept any course of action without reasoning or criticism.

Some took this anti speculative attitude as the only sign of a through going empiricism which must frankly admit the inability of the mind to decide on empirical questions. Some other followers mostly Mahayanist interpreted Buddha’s view neither as a denial of reality beyond objects of ordinary experience nor as a denial of any means of knowing the non empirical reality but only as signifying the indescribability of that transcendental experience and reality.

Although Madhyamikas hold the middle path and don’t really deny absolute unreality or absolute reality, they do come off as problematic. If everything mental and non mental is unreal then by that logic any speculation about the transcendental reality which is beyond common experience should be false too. That’s holding the manas or mind as something fault, which in turn is like saying that any reasoning is faulty which is suicidal.

Subjective idealists also come off as problematic as they admit that external objects are absolutely unreal and only exist within the consciousness. When asked about why a person cannot create any object at any time they reply that mind is a stream of momentary conscious state and within the stream there lie buried the impressions of all past experience. But then again, there are times when the mind mistakes a rope as snake. It can be justified by saying that well a snake does resemble the rope, but it’s still faulty at the end.

Critical realists admit that both mental and non mental realities are real. They emphasize that the existence of the objects is not of course perceived, because what mind knows is the copy or representation of the object in its own consciousness. But it can be inferred. However inference can be problematic sometimes, and most the time it’s accidentally true in some cases. It isn’t possible to visualize all cases.

Vaibhasikas agree with Sauntrantikas regarding the reality being both mental and non-mental but only differ in the sense that one must admit that existence of object is known through perception and can’t be known through anything else. Fire is inferred from the smoke because they were seen in the past together. But this is also problematic in the sense that just because something was seen together in the past together doesn’t mean that it will continue to remain so. A precious stone which was blue in color may turn green after hundred years. The past wouldn’t matter in that case then.

In conclusion I would like to say that all of the four schools rectify their stance by pointing out the fault of the other school, yet they’re unable to get rid of intellectual uncertainty of their notions. Therefore it seems like they really missed the point about anti speculation which Buddha made. These speculations remain uncertain and indeterminate. Although Sunyavadins in my opinion are still closest in principle to Buddha’s teachings because Buddha did emphasize on the indescribable nature of the transcendental reality and how he experienced things which just can’t be described. Not to forget that he also emphasized about taking the middle path, as he was opposed to the idea of extreme ascetism which can be interpreted as being opposed to absolutism.

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