The Philosophy of the Buddha According to the Digha Nikaya – Ontology

… continued

Ontology – Cosmology

If metaphysics is defined by the ultimate, essential, and abstract comprehension of reality, ontology refers to the universal ground of what is experienced, comprehended within the Buddhist worldview by the term “samsara.” Literally “faring on,” samsara is the continuum that results from the idea of time. Thus, samsara is the dimension of temporality, characterized by the Three Marks: change, non-self-identity, and suffering, and infinite involvement (paticcasamuppāda). Time is already within the domain of the binary. Time is a single state experiencing itself as a continuous succession of states. Only the state of “now” is absolute, past and future being merely successive phases of a present that is nonetheless temporal. Each such temporal state is inherently paradoxical, in that it is both “on” and “off” simultaneously, creating the perception of continuity. This momentary state is what time is inherently, identical metaphysically with the principle of differentiation. It produces the “tendency to proliferation” that is the root of ignorance. Its essence is reflexive self-consciousness in itself, without content, yet aware.

Since the metaphysical truth of reality is the mind, its ontological truth is time, which is also intention. Intention is grounded in volition, which is identical with reality. Only reality can be volitional, because only the trans-system is non-systemic  or, to put it another way, only the non-contingent can be non-contingent. Volition in itself is also paradoxical, because volition implies constraint. This paradoxicality is a characteristic of any discussion that involves reality, which is inherently transdual (and therefore inherently dual, i.e., samsaric). Volition in itself is pure novelty. Within the context of the dual, it expresses itself as the intention that becomes the will that creates the infinitely proliferating becoming of kamma. Kamma, the law of cause and effect, is the motor of the world. Every thought, every word, every action is both an effect of a cause as well as a cause of an effect, but intentionality, volition, will in itself is perfectly free of constraint. Intentionality is characterized as the point of view, informed by ignorance or wisdom, attachment or non-attachment, desire or desirelessness, rebirth or birthlessness.

The point of view is the centre of an infinitely differentiated and intervolved system that is quadratically extended vertically and horizontally. Vertically, it is extended in terms of matter and energy. Horizontally, it is extended in terms of space and time. Together, this quaternary constitutes samsara, the temporal flux of birth/rebirth that is sentient existence.

Vertically, matter-energy is divided into the World of Desire, the World With Form, and the World Without Form, from highest to lowest “vibration.” The formless world is the foundation of samsara. It is divided into spheres of neither perception nor non-perception, at the threshold of the transdual; nothingness; infinite consciousness; and infinite space. “Below” this in terms of energy or vibration are the sixteen planes of the World of Form, followed by the World of Desire that is familiar to us, consisting of six higher planes, generally mistranslated “heavens,” the human world, and four lower planes, inhabited by animals; ghosts; anti-gods; and hells respectively. All of these spheres, planes, dimensions, and worlds include innumerable numbers of worlds and beings that all coexist, exchanging information and being born and reborn for infinite time in a beginningless and endless process of infinite intervolvement. Our universe and the multiverse of which it may be a part is an infinitesimal and momentary facet of the entire process, yet we exist within it as an essential participant, and in our essence are nothing less than the reality of the totality itself, both its product and its cause.

Horizontally, we inhabit a temporally and spatially extended and expanding universe consisting of billions if not trillions of individual worlds consisting of an intervolving process originating in a high-energy singularity. The suttas refer to spheres of expanding and contracting worlds, and beings (devas, humans, and sub-humans) who are born and reborn in and between these worlds in endless cycles of kammic transmigration.

Innumerable numbers of devas, humans, and subhumans inhabit these planes and are reborn between them based on kamma, so all are merely types of sentient beings and therefore all capable of mutual communication and comprehension, potentially. Devas, generally mistranslated “gods,” actually mean “beings of light.” In a Buddhist sutta, the sun and moon are explicitly identified as devas. The Buddha says that he learned the dhamma not only from his own enlightenment experience, but also from these higher beings, which may appear to and communicate with advanced human beings, often to communicate teachings. The tavatissa devas are the highest plane that have physical interaction with the world of human beings. The devas are splendid, mobile, beautiful, good, and bright. The subhuman beings include animals, who live short, brutish existences driven by kamma and suffering; ghosts, who become attached to earthly people and places and wander amongst the living, aimlessly and hopelessly seeking sustenance; anti-gods, adherents of a dark spirituality that who expelled from the World of the Thirty-Three Devas, two planes above our own, in the proto-past; and the hells, really purgatories since none are permanent. The early Buddhist hells were unpleasant places to be sure, but the apocalyptic imagery we associate with “hell” are later developments, and none of them are permanent. Therefore, they are really purgatories rather than hells.

Higher dimensions or worlds are happier places than lower dimensions or worlds, in which the higher worlds are characterized by greater longevity, knowledge, power, and pleasure, but all such worlds are kammic and all are characterized by the Three Marks: change, non-self-identity, and suffering. In fact, in Buddhist soteriology human beings occupy a unique place between the trans-human and the sub-human worlds. The former are generally too pleasant really to encourage the spiritual life, although there are Buddhists there (God himself is a Buddhist, it seems, since it was Mahabrahma, the chief of the world of the Great Brahmas, nine planes above the human world, who descended to the human world to ask the Buddha to teach the dhamma to humanity). The subhumans are so instinctually and causally driven and their lives so short, competitive, and unhappy that the subhuman worlds also do not create a positive environment for dhamma to flourish. The Buddhist suttas represent human birth as a rare opportunity that is widely coveted in the non-human worlds.

Buddhism describes the worlds as spheres or closed systems that recur in time. Thus, worlds come into existence in a high energy state, expand, and then devolve and finally contract into a state of potentiality, whereupon they reappear, beings, beginning with the highest (i.e., most energetic) devas, almost immediately begin to be reborn into them, and the cycle recurs forever. Devas include beings that we may regard as “inanimate” objects, but the Buddhist worldview, shared, perhaps surprisingly, by contemporary science, regards sentience as the inherent potentiality of matter and therefore universal. String theorist Micho Kaku, for example, has compared the “consciousness” of a thermostat to that of a cockroach, making no qualitative difference between them. In the Buddhist worldview there is no qualitative distinction between an ant, a human being, and a star – all are manifestations of one underlying process that is essentially the same. We are no more capable of perceiving the consciousness of a star than an ant is capable of apprehending human consciousness. History itself as a progressive devolution into lower, inferior, and more “material” states of being, but the primary sentience that is the essence of being is always present and accessible in principle, and when the devolution has reached its nadir, renewal appears automatically as its polar opposite.

There is no fundamental difference between subjective and objective, microcosm and macrocosm. Reality is reality. Consequently, the worldview just presented, especially the division into a vertical continuum of energy states referred to as the lokas, is also a description of consciousness. Thus, the kammic entity will be reborn in that world or state to which he has attained at the moment of death. The worlds of form correspond to the jhanas, whereas the worlds without form correspond to the states of formless meditation. The Buddha stated that he who has attained the first jhana is qualified to teach dhamma.

to be continued …

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