The Philosophy of the Buddha According to the Digha Nikaya: Part One – Metaphysics

The Digha Nikaya

The Digha Nikaya – literally, collection of long discourses – consists of the 34 longest suttas of the Pali Canon. The sequence of the suttas of the first nikaya, or collection, is based on their length. However, as the longest and therefore the most thoroughly worked-out part of the Pali Canon, the Digha Nikaya constitutes its foundation, and so we begin with that. We will be adding additional reviews of the subsequent nikayas as we proceed with an examination of the Pali Canon from our universal, nonsectarian perspective.

The Five Branches of Philosophy

In Western philosophy, there are five fundamental branches, which proceed in a logical sequence: metaphysics, which includes ontology; epistemology, which includes psychology; ethics; and politics. In addition, there is the branch of aesthetics, which we do not discuss here since it does not appear that the Buddha developed a theory of aesthetics in the Digha Nikaya, although the Pali Canon does include poetry and Buddhism itself certainly developed an aesthetic sensibility in a variety of areas of artistic endeavour. The sequence of philosophical branches is necessary, in the sense that the study of politics depends upon ethics, which depends upon epistemology, which depends upon metaphysics. Although it is true that all of these philosophical inquiries merge into and depend upon each other, metaphysics is the logical foundation of all of them, since without a fundamental theory of reality one cannot develop any other kind of theory, all such theories referring as they do to the real if they are to involve truth (truth is, by definition, the realization of the real). This is the Greek view inherited by the West, of course, and it presents a problem for the study of Buddhism, as we shall see.

Briefly, we define metaphysics as the study of the nature of reality in its ultimate and essential aspects; ontology as the study of the nature of being in the more specific sense of the nature of the world, existence, matter, cosmology, etc.; epistemology as the study of knowing or knowledge; psychology as the study of the nature of the consciousness and the mind, especially but not exclusively that of humanity; ethics as the study of right, wrong, and the rules that govern or should govern human conduct;  and politics as the study of the state, not just as it is but also as it should be. To these primary categories, we have added soteriology, as the study of the nature of self-perfection. These seven categories, it will be seen, constitute a comprehensive basis for classifying, analyzing, and synthesizing the thought of the Buddha as it is expressed in the Digha Nikaya, who expressed self-consistent and comprehensive views on all of these topics.

 Metaphysics – The Nature of Reality

The philosophical assertion of the primacy of metaphysics presents an immediate problem for the student of Buddhism, for it is virtually axiomatic in Buddhist studies, especially within the Theravada school, that the Buddha disdained to speak of metaphysics in his teaching. Thus, the Wikipedia article on Buddhist philosophy conventionally asserts, “Early Buddhism avoided speculative thought on metaphysics, phenomenology, ethics, and epistemology, but was based instead on empirical evidence gained by the sense organs (ayatana).”  Although the primary texts asserting this view are found in the Majjhima NIkaya, there are passages in the Digha Nikaya that appear to support this view. For example, in the Brahmajjala Sutta, the very first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the Buddha outlines a list of what the teaching is not, which includes the sixty-two kinds of wrong views, including speculations concerning the past and the future, represented by such theorizers as Eternalists, partly Eternalists and partly non-Eternalists, Finitists, Infinitists, Eel Wrigglers, Chance-Originationalists, and advocates of doctrines of Conscious Post-mortem Survival, Neither Conscious Nor Unconscious Post Mortem Survival, Annihilationists, proclaimers of Nibbana Here and Now, etc. However, those who consider this discussion to support the view that the Buddha did not have any metaphysics might be given pause by the fact that in addition to all of these theories, clearly identified by the Buddha as what the teaching is not, the Buddha includes “elementary, inferior matters of moral practice”! Shall we conclude therefore that the Buddha did not have any ethics? The suggestion appears ridiculous.

Similarly, in the Pattika Sutta, Sunakkhatta, a disaffected follower of the Buddha, criticizes the Buddha for not teaching a doctrine concerning the beginning of things (paradoxically, there is a sutta on this very topic!). In the Pasadika Sutta, the Buddha further states the reason that he does not teach any doctrine concerning the post-mortem status of a Tathagata: “Friend, this is not conducive to welfare or to the Dhamma, or to the higher holy life, or to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquility, realization, enlightenment, Nibbana. That is why the Lord has not revealed it.” The latter argument is identical to the one found in the Majjhima Nikaya. However, note the language: “This is why the Lord has not revealed it.” The Buddha does not state that he has no metaphysics, but rather that he does not choose to reveal them to the inquirer because the inquirer has not attained enlightenment, which is a different matter altogether. In fact, there are many places where the Buddha does state either that he knows the answer, or actually reveals a metaphysical view. In fact, metaphysics pervades the worldview of the Pali Canon. Thus, for example, in the Brahmajala Sutta, the Buddha states, “This the Tathagata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge.” In the Tevijja Sutta, the Buddha, in conversation with the Brahmin Vasettha, states, “it might be said that … a man on being asked the way [to the Brahma world] might be confused or perplexed – but the Tathagata on being asked about the Brahma world and the way to get there, would certainly not be confused or perplexed. For, Vasettha, I know Brahma and the world of Brahma, and the way to the world of Brahma, and the path of practice whereby the world of Brahma may be gained.” Moreover, in the Patika Sutta, the Buddha specifically denies that he would “make any statement that was ambiguous.” Later on in the same sutta he states unambiguously, “I know the beginning of things” – one of the very subjects for which he was blamed for not teaching. He then goes on to say, “and I know not only that, but what surpasses it in value.” In the Sampasadaniya Sutta he says, “I know the past, whether the universe was expanding or contracting, but I do not know the future.”

It is clear from the foregoing quotations that in fact the Buddha did have a metaphysics, but that it was not his policy to discuss it with those who were unenlightened, because metaphysics as such are not conducive to enlightenment (and he gives reasons for this; see below). For beginners he appears to have advocated ethics, detachment, and the meditation on love. Presumably, however, he did reveal metaphysical teachings to the Arahants, who were enlightened, perhaps including more advanced followers as well. Another reason why the Buddha may have been reluctant to teach metaphysics is that such things are beyond the common ken, rooted as logical discursive reasoning is in dualistic thinking. There are hints of this in Brahmajala Sutta, where whole groups of doctrines in all of their logical variations (affirmation, negation, both affirmation and negation, neither affirmation nor negation) are refuted. Yet another reason, stated explicitly in the latter sutta, is that specific metaphysical doctrines predestine their believer to rebirth in a metaphysical state corresponding to that conviction. In other words, any metaphysical conviction that can be stated and held is relative, contingent, and therefore incompatible with the ultimate realization. Clearly, these last two objections are mutually interrelated and together point to the Buddha’s ultimate metaphysical view that the true nature of reality is transdual.

Having established that the Buddha did in fact have metaphysics, let us descend from the empyrean to the level of discourse that the Buddha actually advocated for the unenlightened listener, but from the metaphysical perspective. Here we affirm the familiar doctrine of the First Noble Truth, codified no doubt from the fundamental view of the Buddha. Although the  Four Truths are customarily regarded psychologically, in fact the first truth is also clearly metaphysical in implication and leads direct to the Three Marks of Existence (tilakkhaṇa) and finally to the fundamental metaphysical doctrine of the paticcasamuppāda, customarily translated dependent origination or dependent arising, but perhaps more clearly translated by the single word coproduction or codetermination. From there we will pass on to ontology, the nature of being.

I need not quote the suttas to remind the reader that the First Noble Truth is the deceptively simple statement that “life is suffering.” For the Buddha, this is a primary metaphysical Absolute. The Buddha does not mean by this statement that life is hard, but rather the radical metaphysical insight that the essential state of existence of any sentient or feeling being is pure pain, and that the sensation of pleasure or happiness is a mere delusion that will succumb soon enough to the realization that there are no exceptions, and no possibility of any exceptions, in any existent state, characterized as such a state is by the Three Marks: change (anicca), non-self-identity (anatta), and suffering (dukkha), as just stated. For this reason, Buddhism comprehensively and decisively rejects any kind of heaven or rebirth in another, idealized world, since no world can be conceptualized that is free of the marks. Any such world, to be a world, must be characterized by change and non-self-identify and therefore, ipso facto, suffering. The spiritual state, then, is not rebirth in a higher world, as taught by religion, which the Buddha rejects entirely, but the qualitative transcendence of the very concept of “world,” which in turn implies the qualitative transcendence of the dualistic mind itself. Such a state is literally inconceivable, and therefore any attempt to describe, explain, or conceptualize it is doomed to failure and predestines the thinker to rebirth in just such a world as he imagines, except that any such rebirth is inherently temporary and unsatisfactory. Thus, the Buddha uses the negative construction, nibbana, to describe it, while simultaneously rejecting nihilism. Thus, the Buddha creates a metaphysical paradox that can only be resolved by the experience of enlightenment itself.

Finally, the metaphysics of the Buddha takes the form of the principle of paticcasamuppāda, which in its primary form is the realization that all existents, characterized as they are by non-self-identity, are infinitely mutually intervolved. This extraordinary insight, which was only confirmed scientifically 2,287 years later by the publication in 1905 of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, and the subsequent development of process philosophy, quantum physics, etc., was subsequently articulated in the form of the wheel of causation, in which the Buddha progressively analyzes the demonstrable state of suffering into a logical sequence of progressively more subtle and fundamental causes and effects (nidanas), viz., birth, becoming, clinging, craving, feeling, contact, six sense media, name and form, consciousness, volitional fabrications, and ignorance. The Buddha asserted that the final two principles, ignorance and the volitional fabrications, are mutually codetermining. While these precede consciousness, they are clearly non-material in nature and therefore implicit in the paticcasamuppāda is the doctrine that mind, in its most abstract metaphysical sense, is primary and that matter, identical with name and form, is derivative.

I cannot leave this discussion of Buddhist metaphysics without identifying three more principles that appear in the Dighha Nikaya that are so subtle and unobtrusive that only one who pays the strictest attention will discern and understand them. These are:

  • the papanca, which Maurice Walshe translates the “the tendency to proliferation,” but which is better translated to expose its essence as “expansion, diffuseness, manifoldness,” or, as I would put it, the metaphysical principle of differentiation, referred to in the Sakkapanha Sutta;
  • vinnana-sota, which Walshe translates quite satisfactorily as “the unbroken stream of human consciousness,” identical with the bhavanga, referred to in the Sampasidaniya Sutta;
  • the Buddha’s statement in the same sutta, already cited, concerning his non-cognition of the future.

With respect to the papanca, I have already alluded to the ultimate metaphysical view that the nature of reality is transdual. The transdual nature of reality represents the unity and, indeed, the nihility – themselves both one and neither – that reconciles and transcends the duality, the primary expression of which is the binary: 0 and 1, yin and yang, nibbana and samsara, female and male, etc. Although this reality is, as we have already stated, absolutely beyond conception, certain aspects of its nature can be intuited from our position as dualistic, thinking beings. Thus, although technically the transdual is beyond stasis and kinesis, for example, we may also say that, relatively speaking, this reality is essentially dynamic, in the sense that it posits itself and in positing itself gives rise to what we may characterize as a kind of “activity” (otherwise the duality of nibbana and samsara would not arise and there would be no one to write these words or phenomena to write about, illusory though they may be). The root of this paradox lies in the principle of differentiaton, by which the particular is “distilled,” as it were, out of the void, to manifest in the form of dualistic samsara. Thus, the Buddha says,

Owing to the presence of what do they arise, owing to the presence of what do they not arise? They arise, Ruler of the Gods, from desire. Owing to the presence of desire, they arise, owing to the absence of desire they do not arise. But, sir, what gives rise to desire? Desire, Ruler of the gods, arises from thinking. When the mind thinks about something, desire arises; when the mind thinks about nothing, desire does not arise. But, sir, what gives rise to thinking? Thinking, Ruler of the Gods, arises from the tendency to proliferation [papanca].

Desire and ignorance are of course the two primary causes of suffering in the wheel of coproduction or codermination that in turn lead to the two primary yogas, centred on the heart and the mind respectively. According to the paticcasamuppāda, ignorance is the ultimate or root cause of desire, but here we learn of a cause anterior to thinking itself: the tendency to proliferation, otherwise, the metaphysical principle of differentiation, expansion, diffuseness, manifoldness. While I certainly would not like to suggest any kind of original discovery on my part, the significance of this principle is certainly not widely recognized either in the Theravada, which claims the Pali Canon as its basis, or in the scholastic literature of exoteric Buddhism, including the desert of Western academic Buddhism and religious Buddhism. One may find it recognized in the original historical writings of Padmasambhava.

With respect to the vinnana-sota, the Buddha refers to the third and fourth “attainments of vision” of a Buddha, viz., “he comes to know the unbroken stream of human consciousness as established both in this world and the next … [and] that is not established either in this world or in the next.” In other words, the vinnana-sota, generally rendered “mindstream,” is the essential individuality (principle of differentiation) that underlies, inheres in, and is beyond all logical states of is, is not, neither is nor is not, both is and is not (the use of such logical paradoxes as a form of argument pervades the Pali Canon, and appears to allude to an essential logical fallacy in the question that makes the question meaningless). Directly related to the papanca, the mindstream is the deathless that is the essence of karmic continuity and deathless transcendence.  Thus, to cite just one of innumerable examples, in the Janavasabha Sutta Brahma Sanankumara says with reference to the Buddhadharma, “Open are the doors of the Deathless!”

Sometimes this principle of universal individual differentiation is called simply the Now, which leads us to the third principle, the Buddha’s statement that he knows the past but not the future. Reality being in-finite and infinitely differentiated, samsara is, as the texts state, beginningless and endless, a binary sequence of infintesimal moments of now-not-now-not-now-not, etc. that gives rise to the experience of time but is itself timeless. The implication of such metaphysics is that the future is endless novelty, not the tiresome eternal recurrence of Nietzsche, although such a cycle may certainly exist as a possibility within the totality of infinite possibilities. Thus, even the Buddha, with his complete and perfect understanding of being, cannot anticipate a literally unable to be anticipated future. Once again, this view is entirely consistent with the worldview of quantum physics, in which reality is characterized by infinitely differentiating, intervolving, and continuously changing probabilities.

to be continued…


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