17 June 2016

Buddhism and Existence

An important axiom of Buddhist philosophy is that existence is always associated with permanence. "Temporary existence" is an oxymoron in Buddhist thought, as is the phrase "contingent existence". By definition in Buddhism, existence cannot be temporary or contingent. Because of this axiom, Buddhists are constantly arguing against the existence or non-existence of certain features of experience and/or the world in ways that probably puzzle Western philosophers (at least, they puzzle me). A simple example that illustrates the kind of problems Buddhists have is referring to the trilakṣaṇāḥ as the "three marks of existence". As the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15) makes clear, the term "existence" does not apply to anything which is impermanent. This confused use of the word "existence" where it does not belong, is only one of many confusions that ought to alert us to underlying problems in the Buddhist worldview.

In this essay I try to show why this axiom is problematic and how it hampers Buddhists when they try to think about experience and the world.


The question of what exists is one of the most enduring questions of philosophy, where philosophy is understood as the quest for knowledge about the universe, ourselves, and ourselves in relation to the universe. The study of what exists is known as ontology. It is usually considered alongside the second most important question of what can we know. The study of what we can know is called epistemology. In order to make definite statements about what exists, we ought to know about great deal about the subject. And yet for many philosophers there are barriers to what can be known about what exists, some would say that there is an epistemic impasse. If someone is making a strong statement about what exists or doesn't exist, it is usually very interesting to ask "How do you know?" Many religious people assert that they know things, but turn out to believe in an epistemology which does not allow them to know any such thing.

Defining "existence" is difficult. Something that exists... just is. Our definitions cannot help but be tautological, because the concept of existence is fundamental to how we understand the world. We have to use perception as a reference point. Something is more likely to exist if we can experience it through more than one sense; if more than one person experiences it at the same time; or, if through some cunning apparatus we can observe features not available to our senses. Just to confuse matters, some people claim that experiences only they have had do exist; while others claim that experiences we all have all the time do not exist.

So, generally speaking, existence is predicated on independent corroboration: something which is present, independent of a given sense or a given person is judged real (or more likely to be real). This comes back to an important point I have made about comparing notes. We gain objective knowledge of the world we experience by comparing notes with other people, or sometimes with our own previous observations, and using common features to eliminate the purely subjective (i.e. uncorroborated) elements of perception. What remains is objective, in the sense that we infer that it exists independent of our perceptions. A lot of philosophers discount or overlook the importance of comparing notes which I have called the solipsistic fallacy. It's easy enough to show that other minds must exist, at least in the sense of being independent of our own minds. (I did this in my essay, Buddhism & The Limits of Transcendental Idealism. 1 Apr 2016).

Philosophers add another strand to the definition of existence. Something is real (i.e. it exists) if it can act as an agent of causality. This might seem simple enough, but the argument over what causality is, is far from settled. As Hume observed a few centuries ago, we never observe causality, we only observe sequences of events. Since events are clearly caused, Kant argued that causality was a metaphysical a priori - something that we humans bring to perception to make it comprehensible. To us, causality is real, but only because we could not understand experience without it. For physicists, who are mainly structure reductionists, this all boils down to the exchange of force bearing particles by mass bearing particles. Antireductionists point to emergent properties that are causal, and thus challenge the reductionist paradigm.

But the status of mind is one of the key mysteries of ontology. What is mind? What is it made of? Does mind exist in the way that material objects exist? Since mind can only be experienced through mind (through what Buddhists called the mind faculty), and other minds cannot be directly experienced, the usual definitions of existence are suspected of being inapplicable in the case of mind. The status of mind in ontologies is an unresolved and hotly contested dispute. Some say that mind must be substantively different from matter, i.e. a separate kind of stuff (a position that emerges from substance antireductionism, i.e. dualism or pluralism). Others say that mind is an illusion (a position shared by some structure reductionists and idealists). A middle position is that mind is causal and thus real, but only as an emergent property of certain structural organisations of stuff, not as a distinct stuff (the position people who combine substance reductionism with structure antireductionism).

Nothing about this is simple or agreed. Loads of people understand the disagreements, but no one has been able to produce an account of the world that approaches a quorum for a consensus. Most accounts of the situation take a position and try to convince us the others are wrong. But many plausible accounts exist for each of the positions and each has valid criticisms of other accounts.

Having only recently learned about the distinction between substance and structure in these discussions, I find it plausible that some combination substance reductionism with structure antireductionism is the most productive direction to look for a satisfying answer.

My understanding is that some complex structures do have emergent properties that are irreducible and causal. These cannot be understood in reductionist terms and thus reductionism as a general paradigm is falsified. It may be however that reductionism as a method for understanding structure is still valid at some levels under certain conditions, but as a general explanation it simply does not work. I also think that substance reductionism makes the best sense of the approaches to substance. But strong arguments against both of these positions are available. In the end, as always, what we choose to believe comes down to what we think is most salient in the discussion and that is powerfully affected by our existing worldview. All one can do, if one takes it seriously, is read opposing points of view and try to understand them on their own terms. And see where that leads.

Given the state of our knowledge, any definite conclusions will be premature at best. But if I had to defend a position, today I'd opt for some combination of substance reduction with structure antireduction. A world made of matter, but featuring properties emerging from organisation or structuring that are irreducible and causal. With the caveat that some very clever folk disagree with each and every aspect of this position (and some who disagree with all of it).

Everything Changes

That the world we experience is constantly changing is obvious and this feature has been remarked upon in Western philosophy for millennia and continues to be remarked upon, even by those who have no contact with Buddhists. Some naive Buddhists think that "everything changes" is their special contribution to philosophy, but it isn't. As I remarked in 2011, Everything changes, but so what? (09 Sept 2011), everyone knows that everything changes. But if this is true, then it is quite a puzzle that Buddhists insist on this axiom that existence equates with permanence. If everything you can see is changing, it is quite counter-intuitive to conclude that existence requires an entity not change.

This stance towards experience leaves Buddhist struggling to explain existence (in the everyday sense of the English word) and also struggling to explain change. In the early chapters of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna particularly struggles to explain change given his views on existence and time. The combination is incredibly unwieldy and he's trying to cram everything into verse. The result is so confusing that 2000 years later people are still writing articles claiming to have finally understood what he was trying to say (e.g. Loy 1985, Arnold 2012).

One possible answer to why Buddhists might have adopted this axiom, and ended up making arguments against existence, is that at the time Brahmins believed in the existence of an unchanging essence of the universe, called Brahman. Each person reflected this universal unchanging essence in ātman. In an embodied human being, ātman played no part in daily life and was not affected by the turbulence of experience. All ātman does is provide a necessary link to the universal essence. One can discover ātman through introspection, and if one does this, it "becomes one's whole universe". The Sāṃkhya philosophy has something similar, i.e. a permanent, unchanging, passive observer at the heart of our being, which they called puruṣa. So the idea of a permanent unchanging essence that exists beneath the exterior layers of experience was common at the time we think Buddhism might have been getting started.

But even if they were arguing against ātman or puruṣa, there is no need for the Buddhists to adopt the idea that existence is permanent or not at all. Perhaps what happened was that early arguments against ātman were encoded in stories that stipulated the Brahmanical belief as a starting point. This does happen in some stories, much as Socrates would often stipulate his opponent's view and they use logic to draw out nonsensical conclusions in an attempt to get the person to abandon the view. And perhaps, as time went on, it was forgotten which aspects of the stories were elements stipulated for the sake of argument and which were specifically subscribed to by Buddhists. This sounds like the Buddhists were not very clear on what they believed, which will strike many people as implausible . However we already know that this happened. Richard Gombrich has shown how Buddhists forgot various metaphors and jokes. In particular, the parody of Brahmanical cosmogony in the Agaññā Sutta (DN???) gradually became a Buddhist cosmogony. Similarly the Brahmanical gods (deva) and departed spirits (preta) were incorporated into Buddhist cosmology. These examples are summarised in Gombrich (2009).

So perhaps the incorporation of this axiom was just an historical error? We don't know and I'm not sure how we would show that it was. In the end we just have to deal with the presence of this problematic axiom without understanding why Buddhists adopted it.


A central proposition in Buddhist philosophy is the principle of conditionality. This principle says that "things" arise when the necessary conditions are present and don't arise when they are absent; that "things" ceases when the conditions cease. It's not clear from the Nikāyas whether or not the necessary conditions are sufficient for arising or not. "Things" can mean many things to many people, but I have found it useful to consider two broad domains.

Firstly "things" can refer to mental activity. Mental activity occurs when a sense object strikes our sense faculty and as a result  a sense cognition arises. When all three occur, we become aware of having a sense experience. So mental activity arises in dependence on the coming together of three conditions: sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition. I have previously argued that this is the primary application of this principle. The main reason for highlighting this feature of experience is to explain why happiness is not found in experience.

Secondly we can apply this psychological model to the arising of phenomena more generally. Indeed in Western Buddhist teaching, the conditioned nature of all phenomena is usually illustrated by pointing to the contingent nature of some complex object that is easily analysed into parts. This application is an example of what Richard H. Jones calls structure reductionism, the view that complex objects are merely collocations of elements; that they are merely the sum of these parts. Buddhists in particular insist that a person or being is simply the sum of their parts. In this view a complex object, like a being, can be completely understood in terms of the properties of their parts. There is no possibility of synergy and there are no emergent properties.

It is true that in this approach, Buddhists nominate four mental elements, so the Buddhist reductionism is not equivalent to modern scientific structure reductionism in which all structures can be understood in terms of combinations of lower level elements, ultimately in terms of quantum fields. Despite the success of modern substance reductionism, which argues that the universe is made from one kind of stuff, structure reductionism largely fails to explain important aspects of our universe such as living organisms or consciousness. On the whole chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology (and related disciplines) can only be explained in terms of irreducible emergent properties, that is to say, in terms of structure antireductionism. Human societies cannot be understood by summing the properties of the individual human beings that make them up. They can only be understood by recognising that the relationships between people make an irreducible contribution. In terms of substance, a society is made up of people; but in structural terms we are forced to consider relationships that only exist when two or more people are interacting. Such structures and properties act as efficient causes, which means that, in Western philosophical terms we have to accept that such higher level structures are real. This need not lead us into substance dualism, because this is not a comment on the substance of the universe, only on its structure. And this distinction is one that is often lost sight of by scientists. (It's new to me this year).

Although early Buddhists did distinguish between physical and mental sensations, they do not seem to have considered there to be two different substances account for this distinction. As far as I can tell, early Buddhists were not substance antireductionists or mind/body dualists. It's possible that the authors of the various Abhidharmas saw each kind of dharma that they enumerated as a different kind of stuff, making them substance antireductionists or ontological pluralists. Dharmas are an odd choice as fundamental stuff because none is in fact fundamental - all dharmas are conditioned by other dharmas and thus none exist independently (they do not "exist" at all in Buddhist terms, since they are temporary).

There is a contradiction between these two domains of application of conditionality. I've said that conditionality applied to objects is structure reductionist: beings are no more than the sum of their parts. The contradiction is that the first application, to mental activity, appears to be antireductionist: an experience emerges from the collocation of sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition. Also the new experience is causal in that it affects our behaviour unless we over-ride it. The experience is not inherent in any of the individual parts, but only emerges when they all work together in the presence of a sense object. Thus experience is an irreducible emergent property of these collocations:. Experience only emerges when all three factors are present and interacting in the right way; and it produces a phenomenon, experience, that cause us to respond in different ways. This is an example of structure antireduction

So when it is applied in the domain of experience the Buddhist principle of conditionality can seen as a structure antireduction; but when it is applied in the domain of objects, is usually described in terms of a structure reduction. I'm still not sure what to make of this contradiction, except to add it to the growing list of contradictions at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. 

A good many people make a huge error with regard to this principle of conditionality, including some renowned intellectuals. That error is to say that the principle of conditionality is a theory of causation. This is emphatically not the case. Early Buddhist texts say nothing at all about about causality or how things arise from conditions. To the best of my knowledge no Buddhist explanation of conditionality ever strays into trying to explain causation. There is no Buddhist theory of causation. Despite this Buddhists and Buddhist studies scholars ramble on about the Buddhist theory of causality and about the principle of conditionality as a theory of causation. Again I'm not sure what to make of the persistence of this egregious error. 

In our native philosophical traditions we would describe this collection of ideas as an ontology, i.e. a theory about what exists. But Buddhists have this axiom that what exists is by that very fact permanent. So Buddhists cannot say that something that arises when the conditions are present exists. Arising and existing have to be two different things in Buddhism. Sometimes people emphasise that Buddhism is about becoming rather than being

I've previously observed that "everything changes" is a rather banal observation that has been current in our native European philosophical traditions for throughout recorded history (about three millennia). "Everything changes" is just an obvious feature of the world, something to remark on and remember, but not on the level of profound revelation as Buddhists seem to make it. The reason "everything changes" is considered profound by Buddhists seems to relate to the axiom that existence must be permanent. It's only if one believes that existence is permanent that "everything changes" takes on such huge importance. So another puzzle is why a Westerner would cite this proposition as profound and quintessentially Buddhist. 

However, if things that exist must be permanent, it makes it very difficult to describe phenomena. I've said that the principle of conditionality was primarily a description of experience arising and passing away. The ontology of experience is tricky. If I experience the song of a blackbird, does that song "exist"? Or not exist? A "song" is a phenomena that occurs in my brain when I decode sound waves arriving at my ears and make them into something coherent. Neither existence or non-existence seems to apply. I do hear a song, but where is that song? Additionally, experience is constantly changing, even when the object of experience is not, because my attention and my mental processing of sense stimuli play a constant role in experience. Arguing that experience is neither existent nor non-existent is reasonably straightforward. I think most people would understand this. But this principle does not work so well in other domains.

Applying conditionality to objects might have seemed like a way out of the impasse created by not being able to refer to them as "existent". After all, it's obvious to everyone that the world changes. If an object that changes cannot be said to exist, then we might lean towards concluding that it does not exist. The latter is the basis of idealism (the idea that all phenomena are only mental phenomena and that there is no mind-independent reality). Since early Buddhists acknowledge the role of objects in experience, idealism might seem like an unpromising approach for a Buddhist to take. Arguably, however, Yogācārins did adopt this approach. However, arguments about whether Yogācāra is a form of idealism continue to rage in academia. The pro and anti camps both put forward strong arguments, backed up by reference to authoritative texts. It's not clear to me which side has the better argument and I'm not sure I can bring myself to care enough about it to work it out. Yogācāra is a post-hoc theory that invents supernatural entities to solve it's problems. It's Occam's beard. Or something. 

However, if Buddhists rejected the idea that objects exist (as permanent entities), they also rejected the idea that objects don't exist (and permanently don't exist). We could call this an ambivalent ontology. As with the application of the principle of conditionality to mental activity, the idea is that objects are neither existent nor non-existent. But if objects don't exist and they are not non-existent, then what state are they in? It's much less clear that this works for objects in the way it works for mental activity. We can see why Erwin Schrödinger's thought experiment involving a cat has become a faux amis or 'false friend' for Buddhists trying to work with this ambivalent ontology (See Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat. 29 Oct 2010). The cat is a metaphor for a subatomic particle that does not follow the laws of classical mechanics. The cat, and all physical objects that we can perceive through our senses, do follow the laws of classical mechanics. Macro-objects do not undergo superposition and are not affected by the observer effect (See Buddhism and the Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics. 18 July 2014). Quantum mechanics has nothing in common with the confused ontology of ancient Buddhists.

Many Buddhists and academics think Nāgārjuna was terribly clever to work through the permutations of these possibilities and reject them all. But he was not clever enough to question the premiss that existence must be permanent and all that this entails. His task would have been much easier if the idea of temporary existence was available to him. As it is, he fudges things in the end, because he has to admit a kind of contingent existence that ordinary people see as a self-evident fact, but which, apparently, disappears when one has become awakened. The problems created by permanence cause him to take one step towards a sensible ontology and two steps away from it.

Rather than focus on the useful observation that existence is an evident property of objects that greatly simplifies any discussion about the nature of the universe or reality, Buddhists instead mainly focus on the the speculation that objects do not exist because they are not permanent. This leads many Buddhists into a kind of nihilism in which they claim that ultimately objects do not exist. Indeed, the most common traditional complaint about Nāgārjuna was that he was a nihilist. Most of the Buddhist world rejected Nāgārjuna's conclusions, or accepted them only with caveats introduced by later commentators, which mitigated his apparent nihilism. Of course modern day Mādhyamikas bristle at the suggestion of nihilism and claim to be misunderstood, but the charge has been around since about the 4th Century CE and like the charge of idealism against Yogācārins, it refuses to go away.

Another problem emerges from the Western side of Buddhist modernism. From Plato we get the idea that phenomena are just the vague reflections of an idealised, noumenal world: they are like shadows on the wall of cave. It does seem to be true that the experiences we have a representations of the world, created by our brain, to optimise behaviour. Perfect accuracy in such a model is not required or desirable. Speed of response is an important factor. Rules of thumb get us through most situations. But there is absolutely no reasons to project our desire for perfection onto the world. There is no reason to put the physical world on a pedestal. Nor is there any reason to despise it in favour of some mythical world of perfection in the spirit realm. We only make it harder to understand the world when we leave these projections in place. The world is what it is.


So we're left with this situation where reality is not only ineffable, but knowledge of reality is ostensibly accessible not through experiencing objects themselves, but only through mystical experiences in which one is cut off from all sensory experience. Reality appears to "exist" over and above objects; objects themselves only mislead us about reality. Most Buddhists appear to believe that objects are at best an illusion, but that perfect knowledge of a perfect reality is available to them via meditation. The failure of this knowledge to ever manifest seems not to deter this belief. Indeed those who do have breakthrough experiences in the present day all seem to agree that the traditional definitions of Awakening need rewriting, because they do not describe the lived experience.

Confusion piles upon confusion. At the same time, Buddhists try to convince us that their philosophy is not only sublimely insightful, but represents the acme of human intellectual achievement, the ultimate truth. At present, I could hardly be less convinced of this claim. And for this reason I find the argument that Buddhist philosophy is relevant to the present rather implausible (for similar reasons I think much the same thing about all pre-modern philosophy).

For a long time I resisted philosophy. Its not my forte, I don't have the background for it, and I've found the history of ideas more interesting. But it has gradually become clear as I explored the ideas of early Buddhism that there were problems that can only be addressed as philosophy. Western Scholars have been interested in Buddhism for about 150 years or perhaps longer. There is one plausible account of some Buddhist influence on David Hume (Gopnik 2009, 2015). Drawing influence from some novel and exotic ideas and actively thinking about Buddhism are two very different things. There is very little critical philosophical engagement with Buddhism. Academics are mostly historians of ideas, who work to clarify how Buddhists thought at a particular period in history. For some reason they always seem to want to present Buddhism in the best possible light. I suspect this is linked to the perceived prestige of their field and how that perception affects their standing in academia and their career path. And of course academia is increasingly being infiltrated by Buddhist clergy who bring with them commitments to traditional worldviews and belief systems.

Historians of ideas use critical methods to clarify the ideas being discussed in texts, but they do not submit those ideas to any kind of evaluation in the light of the current state of knowledge. So scholars are still trying to clarify what Nāgārjuna said and to show how his philosophy works on its own terms, but they do not venture an analysis of how it works on our terms. Maybe because it doesn't? This raises a couple of questions. Should Nāgārjuna's philosophy be expected to work on our terms? Should our terms be the yardstick? Let me clarify here that by "our", I mean modern people. Modern knowledge is contributed to by people of many ethnicities, nationalities, etc. The contrast is between traditional and modern, not between Asia and Europe. Asia is modern now too.

I do not say that Nāgārjuna's writing is not a valuable account of Indian thought in the 2nd Century CE. His texts have an intrinsic value in the history of the human search for knowledge. The history of ideas is important and it deserves to be studied in the same way that history is studied more generally. And the existence of a European bias in history is problematic because it is too narrow to accurately reflect how humans have conceived of the world.

Knowledge is also superseded from time to time. Just as the Greek philosopher Parmenides (who thought that "everything that exists is permanent, ungenerated, indestructible, and unchanging") is taught in classes on the history of philosophy, but not in science classes; Nāgārjuna's relevance is to history, not to the present. But Buddhists often write about Nāgārjuna is though he is the best philosopher in history and absolutely relevant to the present. And yet Nāgārjuna epitomises the pre-modern philosopher who never questions his own religious assumptions about the world and merely tries to shape the world to his conclusions.

Knowledge is superseded because those currently involved in research will find a flaw in a theory, discover new evidence, or find a better way of conceptualising a problem. We may complain about conservatism in our field, but paradigm shifts do occur. In Buddhist studies we have seen shifts in historical paradigms in, for example, how we conceive of the early Mahāyāna. What we have not seen is any shift in the paradigm of how Buddhist Studies scholars evaluate Buddhism. An exception might be Paul Williams, who after some years of following the Gelugpa scholastic tradition of Buddhism; converted back to Roman Catholicism, citing dissatisfaction with Buddhism. Many of us that follow other forms of Buddhism are equally dissatisfied with Gelugpa Buddhism, we don't see the need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Leaving aside the natural antipathy between Christian and Buddhist philosophy, where is the critical evaluation of Buddhism qua philosophy? One has to look beyond the literature of Buddhist Studies, but even then it's sparseOf the hundreds or perhaps thousands of papers on Buddhism I've read over the years, I can think of only a handful that evaluate Buddhist ideas for coherence, plausibility, or applicability. It never used to occur to me that this lacuna was significant. I suppose I just thought that of course these Iron Age and Medieval ideas would still be relevant. To a Buddhist, anything Buddhist is always relevant. Though this is not a mistake any scholar would make about European philosophy. None of the papers I'm thinking of reference the others and so they are not part of any kind of concerted response to Buddhism in Western terms. Christian theologians may well be an exception to this, but they are hardly relevant to contemporary philosophy.

The upshot is that, as far as I know, no philosopher has ever considered, let alone questioned or critiqued the Buddhist axiom that existence and non-existence are always permanent states. No one I have ever talked to about Buddhist doctrine has ever bought it up. My Buddhist teachers have not remarked upon this oddity. So there appears to be no critical response to this central axiom of Buddhist thought. Poor philosopher that I am, I think I see a number of problems with Buddhist philosophy that would provide plenty of scope for research.



Arnold, Dan. (2012)  The Deceptive Simplicity of Nāgārjuna's Arguments Against Motion: Another Look at Mūlamadhyamakakārikā Chapter 2. Journal of Indian Philosophy 40(5): 553-59.

Gombrich, Richard. (2009) What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox.

Gopnik, Alison. (2009). Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism? Charles Francois Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network. Hume Studies 35 (1&2): 5–28

Gopnik, Alison. (2015). How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis: David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment. The Atlantic. October 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/how-david-hume-helped-me-solve-my-midlife-crisis/403195/

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Loy, David. (1985). The Paradox of Causality in Mādhyamika. International Philosophical Quarterly 25: 63-72. DOI: 10.5840/ipq198525148
Related Posts with Thumbnails