13 March 2009

The World and What Exists

Some time back I wrote a post about the early Buddhist attitude to ontology - the issue of what exists, and what the nature of that existence is. I argued that ontology plays no part in the Buddha's presentation of his teaching. However in a note to the Flower Sutta (SN 22:94; PTS S iii.138-140) Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the foremost authorities on Theravāda Buddhism, states "The Buddha's utterances at 22:94, for example, show that he did not hesitate to make pronouncements with a clear ontological import when they were called for" (Bodhi 2000 : 734, n.29). I want to look at key passages in this sutta, and examine the claim that they have an "ontological import".

The Flower Sutta begins like this:
Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, lokena vivadāmi, lokova mayā vivadati. Na, bhikkhave, dhammavādī kenaci lokasmiṃ vivadati. Yaṃ, bhikkhave, natthisammataṃ loke paṇḍitānaṃ, ahampi taṃ ‘natthī’ti vadāmi. Yaṃ, bhikkhave, atthisammataṃ loke paṇḍitānaṃ, ahampi taṃ ‘atthī’ti vadāmi’’.
At Sāvatthi: Bhikkhus I don't dispute with the world, the world disputes with me. A Dhammavādin doesn't quarrel with anyone in the world. That which the wise in the world agree "it does not exist (na atthi), I too say "it doesn't exist". That which the wise in the world agree "it exists" (atthi), I too say "it exists".
Dhammavādī is an adjective which describes someone who professes, or speaks, Dhamma. Vāda is an argument, view, or ideology; and the -in suffix (vādin) is a possessive - someone who has that view. In my translation I've adopted Dhammavādin (the uninflected form) because it is on the model of Theravādin, or Yogacārin and should be familiar enough. I quite like the term Dhammavādin.*

The sutta continues by asking what it is that the wise agree doesn't exist in the world? The answer is forms, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness that are permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change do not exist in the world. These are of course the five khandhas, aka the apparatus of experience. What the wise agree as existing in the world are khandhas that are impermanent, suffering and subject to change.

Taken at face value this passage we might read this as an ontological statement. However I think we need to be quite careful. The problem is with the word loka. Literally it means 'world', and Bhikkhu Bodhi is clearly taking it to mean that the khandhas exist in some impermanent sense in the world (loke/lokasmiṃ). However in his long essay on the word on 'loka' Jan Gonda (1966) shows that the original meaning of the word was something like 'the visible world' or 'the world of experience'. The original image is one of a clearing in a forest - loka is what can be seen clearly, what appears to the mind. On the physical level this means the sensual world. However it also has the connotation that we have in English with regard to the world - one can live in 'one's own world' for instance. In this case the meaning is more personal, it is a psychological term. Gonda is concerned with Vedic literature which predates the Buddha, but he establishes the metaphorical/psychological use of the word. Sue Hamilton (2000) has shown that this is also how the Buddha uses the world loka. Hamilton links loka and khandha together as part of an elaborate extended metaphor developed by the Buddha for describing the subjective pole of experience.

So I would paraphrase the above as: in the world of experience, there is nothing in that experience which is lasting, satisfying, or independent of experience. Read in this way there is nothing here of ontological import. Bhikkhu Bodhi is mislead by reading loka literally rather than metaphorically. I think the Buddha was an empirical realist - he has no explicit quarrel with the idea that there are objects of the senses, but he has nothing definite or positive to say about such objects or their natures.

To play the devils advocate for a moment, if we were to accept Bhikkhu Bodhi's assertion that the Flower Sutta has something ontological to say, then what would it be saying? Presuming also that Bhikkhu Bodhi, going along with orthodox Theravada doctrine, accepts that the khandhas are a complete definition of reality, then what is being said in this sutta is that nothing definite can be said about the reality that Bhikkhu Bodhi is thinking of. In this view nothing at all is stable. There is nothing in this view on which to pin an ontology. Nothing exists in fact. So accepting the proposition we are lead to a paradox - one that is often overlooked. The way out of this is provided by Hamilton. What the Buddha is describing is not reality but experience. If reality really were so fluid we could not experience it. By necessity we must water down the statement that 'everything changes' to 'everything changes, but some things change slowly enough for us to experience them as persisting'. In fact everything that we experience as a something, must change slowly else we wouldn't experience it as a something. If something is there one second and gone the next, we usually assume that it was a trick of the mind (recalling that the Buddha had only his bare senses and no camera or other recording equipment!). So things must actually exist for a time in order for us to experience them.

However Hamilton's is a more elegant view. It is our experience of things which is changing from moment to moment, which is never satisfying. The fact that our experience changes from moment to moment says nothing about the nature of reality. It is a comment on the nature of consciousness and awareness. This is a statement that can be taken at face value, without having to back off to allow for practicalities. In fact it has important practical implications for Buddhists in the sense that it directs our attention not to the world as such, but to the world of experience.

The sutta later describes each of the khandhas as "loke lokadhammo", which Bikkhu Bodhi translates as "a world-phenomena in the world". It is this that the Buddha has awoken to (abhisambujjhati) and realised (abhisameti). If we read loka as something more like 'world of experience' then the Buddha is saying that he has understood the elements of experience in the world of experience. I think we can see this as further vindication of Hamilton's approach to the subject. Her view is that the khandhas are not the sum total of existence, but the elements of, or by which we have, experiences. What the Buddha was interested in was understanding the very process whereby we have experiences, and why we misinterpret them to our detriment. The nature of the world as an externally existing 'something' (kiñci) is not relevant to this question, because the Buddha, like many Western thinkers, took the view that we could not directly touch that something. We have only the information of our senses and what our mind makes of them. It is by understanding the mechanics of the process - by watching it in action - and disentangling ourselves from the stories we tell about experience, that we can free ourselves from the erroneous conclusions that cause us suffering.

* Members of the Western Buddhist Order are known as Dharmacārī or Dharmacāriṇī which are, respectively, the masculine and feminine nominative singular of the adjective dharmacārin. Dharma is familiar, and cāra means "going, motion, progression, course; proceeding; practising". The -in suffix, as above, is a possessive. So dharmacārin describes someone who is practising the Dharma. Dharmacārin is the stem or uninflected form and therefore gender neutral. I have argued, so far unsuccessfully, that the WBO should adopt this usage rather than the gender specific terms.

  • Bodhi. 2000. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha : a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Gonda, J. 1966. Loka : World and heaven in the Veda. Amsterdam, Noord-Hollandsche U.M.
  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
See also: To be or not to be : the problem with ontology. Jayarava's Raves 31-10-2008

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