31 October 2008

To be or not to be : the problem with ontology.

To be or not to be : the problem with ontologyWhen Hamlet was pondering the question of "to be or not to be" he was contemplating ending his sea of troubles by taking his own life. This nicely delineates the Western attitude to 'being': despite the fact that 'to be' is a verb something either is or is not. One of the fundamental religious questions of our time is: "does God exist?" This question is regularly covered by the UK media, and has recently been the subject of heated and vituperous public debate. The study of what exists is known as ontology. Etymologists tell us that onto is from a present participle, ōn, of the Greek verb eimi 'be'. In the West the question of the nature of being is one that goes back to the ancient Greeks.

The question of ontology is at the forefront of the western mind, however for Buddhists it seems to me that ontology - questions of being - present a translation problem on the one hand, and a methodological problem on the other.

The translation problem emerges when we begin to examine ancient Indian equivalents of the verb "to be". These have roots in as-, bhū, or hū - although actually is really a dialectical variant on bhū. When you want to assert something definite and concrete - "there is a something" in Pāli you tend to use the root as. The form atthi is common - for instance atthi ajāti - "there is the unborn". Bhū is also frequently translated as "he is, there exists" and yet PED also says about bhū that it means "to become". The Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary gives a much wider sense for bhū: "to become, be, arise, come into being, exist, be found, live, stay, abide, happen, occur" and so on. In Sanskrit bhāvanā can also mean "the saturation of any powder with a fluid, steeping, infusion". Bhū is the root of words meaning "beings" (as in human beings; bhūt in Hindi are ghosts!) and is also used in the part-participle to indicate the content of insight: yathābhūta-ñāṇādassana which I have suggested might be translated as the knowledge from seeing the process of becoming.

Clearly the ancient India notion of 'being' is far more fluid than our contemporary Western notion (the slight influence of Quantum theory notwithstanding). We see being as a state which is stable and fixed, while the ancient Indian saw being as a process, a cyclic process even. The same root gives us bhāva which in Buddhism carries the connotation of returning again and again to this world over many life times. So where we read verbs from "to be" in a Buddhist text we are apt to misunderstand what is intended. So this is the first caveat: that existence in a Buddhist context is always a coming into being, not an either or. However note that the Sanskrit word satya (Pāli sacca) can mean both real, existing; and true.

The other problem emerges when we take a look at the Buddha's method. The idea of dependent origination is famously summed up by Assaji as:

Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā
tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha,
tesañca yo nirodho
evaṃ vādī mahāsamaṇo
A standard translation being:
Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause,
And also what their cessation is:
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse
We tend to translate "dhammā" as "things" which takes us into the realm of ontology. Now clearly Buddhists down the ages have been at pains to explain that "things" are impermanent and disappointing and lack any immanent noumenal essence (the latter being more relevant to Brahmins - see Anatta in Context). We use examples of "things" being impermanent - cups which break, rivers that flow, and people who die for instance. It is true that "things" are on the whole impermanent. But careful observation tells us that actually many things are quite stable, and some objects may well not change noticeably in our lifetimes - geological time-frames in particular stretch to hundreds of millions of years, with changes noticeable only on the scale of millions of years - something which would not have been knowable in the time of the Buddha. To the ancients geological features would have appeared unchanging and timeless. However what can and does change all the time is our relationship to, and experience of, objects of the mind and the senses. It is this subjective aspect of experience which constantly changes even when the object does not!

In any case as a technical term dhammā does not indicate "things" as such, that is dhammas are not external independently existing objects, but the objects of manas, the mental sense. Dhammas are mental phenomena. As such their ontological status becomes difficult to define - is a thought or a sensation existent or non-existent? Or perhaps neither existent nor non-existent, or perhaps both? Or none of the above? The Buddha's stellar successor Nāgārjuna made it clear that the terms existent and non-existent do not apply to dhammas. This is sometimes seen as paradoxical, but the difficulty can usually be found in a wrong understanding of what a dhamma is. The statement has profound implications, but is not at all mystical, in fact is it quite pragmatic.

Sangharakshita has pointed out the methodological advantages of basing the teaching of Dependent Arising on an experience - especially the experience of suffering (Sangharakshita p.142 ff). It is because we are intimately acquainted with experience, we all suffer to some extent, and experience is less likely to throw up a lot of arguments about definitions. I take this a little bit further and suggest that the Buddha fully intended that his principle be applied to experience rather than the objective pole of experience. Early Buddhism tacitly acknowledges a distinction between the mind and it's objects, but this is not the same as a separation. In fact the one cannot be experienced without the other. So I am arguing for a distinction with a methodological benefit, not for a physical and metaphysical absolute.

Now if we take dhammas as having a firm ontological status, one way or the other, or even if we get caught up in trying to define that status, a number of problems emerge. If dhammas are considered real in any concrete sense then that suggests that we are experiencing a sort of stable external reality when we have an experience. We become concerned with questions about the nature of that external reality: like establishing once and for all "does god exist?"; or the allied question "how did the universe begin?" These have no bearing on what we should do now about suffering. Look at the resources in terms of time and energy that goes into these enterprises - how many books and lecture tours recently have been devoted to this stupid argument that no one can win. You can't prove that God doesn't exists even when God is plainly irrelevant. You can't prove that God does exist - at best you have an experience that you might label an experience of divinity. And yet quite intelligent people try to convince each other they are right - right and wrong become absolutes when you believe in really existent "things" behind experience. Belief in reality leads to fixed ideas about anything - canons of literature or law for instance. It also leads to follies such as the millions spent on trying to work out how the universe started. There may be some minor spin-off technologies that filter down to the us regular folk, but how does it help us to deal with our own suffering to know if the Higg's Boson is "real" or just a convenient mathematical fiction?

If dhammas are considered as absolutely un-real then all experience is just an illusion. Nothing really matters, nothing really happens. It opens the way to nihilism and to amoralism. If everything is illusion then there is no reason to favour moral action over immoral. This view is less common in the West. Our nihilism seems to emerge as a reaction against the failure of our belief in reality, that is through disillusionment rather than a positive belief in unreality or illusion. We want to believe in reality, but experience the disappointment this belief brings.

The many philosophies that are critiqued by the Buddha in the old texts (which we assume to have existed amongst his contemporaries) were not the result of things being real or unreal, existent or non-existent - they were the result of someone believing they were real or unreal. Eternalism and nihilism are views about experience. We frame the debate in terms of the nature of reality because that is our Western bias - we believe in reality, and we haven't fully taken on board the Buddhist teaching. But whatever reality might be like, our working ground is experience. If we want to go beyond experience then we need to examine experience itself, need to focus our attention on the process of experiencing - this is what the texts and the more genuine traditions indicate again and again. Then through knowing directly for ourselves the nature of experience we can give up on views about the world, because our theories cease to be relevant to the task at hand.

The "to be or not to be" habit is a difficult one for us to break. We think that things exist or not, and this spins us off into other either/or oppositions. We think there is right and wrong for instance that is distinct from our experience of positive and negative results. We find it hard not to think in these terms, and in terms of definite "things". Because we hardly even see that we layer our experience with these concepts, it is difficult to see that we are doing it. It's really only through disciplined meditation and reflection that we can break the habit. Once we let go of the "to be or not to be" habit a whole range of new possibilities open up to us.

  • Sangharakshita. 1993. A Survey of Buddhism : it's Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages. 7th ed. Glasgow : Windhorse Publications.

image: Sir Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, Alternate Film Guide
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