Four Questions for the Buddha

Why Ontology Is Important

Many religious Buddhists, especially Theravadins, disdain ontology. Based on certain statements of the Buddha reported in the Pali Canon, they regard Buddhism as a system of psychology only. Thus, they assert that the Buddha’s empirical observations concerning suffering, desire, and attachment are a sufficient basis for a soteriology of absolute renunciation. Even they, however, position their soteriology ontologically as the renunciation of all subsequent rebirths and the end of samsara itself. Thus, the religious Buddhist is involved in a paradox if not an explicit self-contradiction. However, such an approach leaves Buddhist soteriology open to criticism. For example, in the absence of ontology all one can assert is that emotional detachment eliminates the experience of suffering in this life. Such a Buddhism becomes little more than a system of psychotherapy.

The hedonist might retort that since the ego does not survive death, why should anyone care about subsequent rebirths? In this context, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is just as rational an ethic as Buddhist renunciation. One might even argue that moderate pleasure-seeking in combination with a moderate work ethic that benefits future generations is more truly altruistic than absolute detachment. One might even deride the Buddhist view as a kind of selfishness, even parasitism (this would probably correspond to the mainstream Western view of religious Buddhism). The religious Buddhist who disdains ontology has no real reply to this other than sullen belief. Thus, they put Buddhism in the same position as any other religion.

I would argue that this type of religious ethical Buddhism is actually adharmic. It undermines its own position in a variety of ways. I would also argue that religious Buddhism of this type falls into nihilism. It also incurs the charges of being incomplete as well as being a system of faith rather than knowledge. These objections become even more persuasive as technology moves us closer and closer to a society where many forms of suffering, both emotional and physical, are increasingly marginalized because of technological and pharmacological advances. For all these reasons, I reject the religious perspective that ontology is not an essential component of the Buddhadharma as anachronistic.

If  the dharma is to be regarded as a system of truth and not merely as an historical phase of human development or an academic divertissement, questions of ontology must be seriously asked and seriously answered. I can do little more in this blog than articulate the issues and perhaps indicate possible future avenues of inquiry that might lead to a solution, if not for me than for others who may have the knowledge and the bravado to break free of the consensus of the past as we are dragged, nolens volens, into the future.

Once one accepts the premise that Buddhist ontology is important, one is then required to articulate it. This is not hard to do, pace the religionists and their academic sycophants. The Buddhist scriptures, including the Pali Canon, provide ample evidence that the early Buddhists thought ontologically. Nevertheless, the more one studies Buddhist ontology the more difficult its study becomes. In particular, four fundamental questions arise. The early Buddhists themselves recognized this. The Mahayana scriptures also address these questions, not always satisfactorily. These questions are:

  1. If ignorance is the ultimate cause of suffering, what is the ultimate cause of ignorance?
  2. If samsara is a mirage, what is the reality to which it attests?
  3. If all phenomena are caused by karma, how can samsara be transcended?
  4. If samsara is beginningless, how can it have an end?

We will address these questions in the following.

Four Questions for the Buddha

1. If ignorance is the ultimate cause of suffering, what is the ultimate cause of ignorance?

According to the Second Noble Truth, the cause of universal suffering (duhkha) is desire (tanha). By tanha something closer to emotional attachment is meant. This item reappears in the doctrine of codetermination (paticcasmupdda). Here craving (tanha) and clinging appear as the eighth link in the chain of causation (nidana) in direct chronological or causal sequence and the third nidana in reverse order.

The chain of causation proceeds to analyze the sequence of causal factors. Based on the law of karma, these underlie the later stages of becoming, birth, aging, and dying, viz., feeling, contact, the gates of the senses, mind and matter (namarupa), consciousness, the mental formations (samskaras), and, finally, ignorance (avidya). The Digha Nikaya also identifies the “tendency to proliferation” as a factor prior to ignorance. This is not a truly metaphysical factor, however since it can also be eliminated by yoga.

So far, all of this is perfectly sound and self-consistent. All of the factors identified accord with the law of karma. Since the essence of samsara is change (anicca), as samsaric productions, they are essentially temporal and therefore potentially able to be eliminated. However, since samsara is non-self-identical and inherently temporal, this begs the question of their ground, i.e., the self-identical and the permanent. Samsara is merely one polarity that necessarily posits its corollary, nibbana, which together constitute transdual reality. The ontological status of nibbana is clearly stated even in the Pali Canon.

I actually received a note from a Buddhist professor of some notoriety who claimed that because samsara is illusory it does not exist. Therefore, this question is meaningless. It did not occur to him that his line of argument destroys the entire Buddhist project as well. If samsara is non-existent, then ignorance, desire, and suffering are equally illusory. I will be discussing this further in the context of the mirage of samsara, below. For now I’d simply like to refer to the fact that, no matter how many factors one analyzes the continuum of cause and effect into, the real itself is by definition the ultimate factor in any process or continuum. You cannot get rid of samsara by calling it illusory. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (Mahāvaipulya pūrabuddha-sūtra prasannārtha-sūtra), for example, recognizes this with perfect clarity. It asserts that the real is both ignorant and enlightened, and neither, i.e., it is transdual. In other words, ignorance itself is necessary in some sense. This is paradoxical.

This problem of Buddhist ontology is exactly paralleled in Christianity. Christianity has a similar problem of explaining the origin of Satan (evil) in God (good), where the latter is posited to be primary and all-powerful. Both Christianity and Buddhism locate this issue in human volition. Thus, they beg the question of why a perfect being would choose to suffer. This problem afflicts any soteriology that upholds renunciation as its essential principle.

No matter how you slice and dice it, in the final analysis ignorance, desire, and suffering are all given by the real. This is a real problem for Buddhism. The closest solution I know of is the transdual view of reality. Teleology does not seem to apply here. Reality, lacking nothing, cannot really have a teleology. Or can it? Clearly, reality is essentially kinetic or dynamic in some sense; otherwise, we would not exist in any sense. This too is paradoxical. Nevertheless, I suspect that the solution lies along these lines. Unfortunately, I am not sufficiently well read in Mahayana scriptures to identify its basis in tradition. To my knowledge, Dzogchen comes closest to solving this issue, however.

2. If samsara is a mirage, what is the reality to which it attests?

Indian metaphysics put great philosophical stock – in my judgement, too much – in the temporal, transitory, ephemeral, and essentially illusory nature of phenomenal appearances. The Buddha took this tendency to its logical conclusion in his brilliant doctrine of non-self-identity (anicca). Taken to its extreme, the particular dissolves “back” into the non-local, which precisely describes the relationship between samsara and nibbana. This view of the world has been confirmed by quantum physics (confer David Bohm’s doctrine of the explicate and implicate orders).

However, one cannot use this doctrine either to negate the real, as our esteemed professor above would have us do, or to negate samsara itself. Even a mirage posits an original of which it is an eidolon. The Pali Canon itself makes this clear. The Buddha refers constantly to “the deathless” to which the attainment of nibbana attests. The Buddha also specifically repudiates nihilism. Thus, the attainment of nibbana does not imply nonexistence. Rather, it implies some sort of supreme existence. It is a state that transcends conceptualization. In this context, the problem of suffering becomes even more acute.

3. If all phenomena are caused by karma, how can samsara be transcended?

In addition to its changeable, non-self-identical, and suffering nature, two primary characteristics of samsara are that it has no beginning – a beginning would introduce the paradoxical and self-contradictory problem of creation, i.e., theism – and that it is driven by the law of cause and effect (karma). Buddhism makes no distinction between mind and matter. In fact, the samskaras are more fundamental than either of these, so nothing – no thought, no word, and no action – is unaffected by karma. Everything is infinitely interconnected. This is the essence of the doctrine of codetermination. Yet, the soteriological telos is the transcendence of samsara.

According to the mechanistic, rule-bound perspective of religious Buddhism, samsara itself overcomes itself through the experience of dissatisfaction: i.e., as sentient beings become aware of the inherent unsatisfactoriness of existence within samsara, this awareness itself generates the intention to transcend it. This intention becomes more and more dominant over millions and billions of rebirths. Thus, the will to renunication becomes increasingly influential until it becomes completely established. Then the whole will of the samsaric being is directed towards the progressive eradication of the obscurations through a progressive (and essentially negative) process of self-purification.

The idea of “impurities” itself raises several problems, however. First, what is the relationship between these reputed impurities and reality? This is really the same question as the question concerning suffering, discussed above. Second, is it really possible to rid oneself of all of the impurities?  Buddhism identifies the most significant impurities as killing, stealing, sex, lying, and drinking. These constitute the bases of ethical conduct. We have shown elsewhere in our writings that the objective elimination of these five behaviours, qua behaviours, let alone the hundreds of additional impurities that a monk or a nun is expected to expunge, is, objectively considered, impossible, even for a Buddha. The possibility of eliminating them in intention is left open. This is also problematic, however, since, as we have shown, karma does not discriminate between mental and material factors.

In fact, the Buddhist scriptures make clear that what is in fact eliminated is not the actions (this is Judaism, Islam, Jainism), but rather the intention, and that it is actually intention (i.e., mind) that drives karma. The latter is consistent with the Buddhist metaphysical worldview. However, it does not solve the problem of samsara. As I have mentioned, samsara is beginningless. Since samsara is beginningless, therefore, all samsaric beings have already passed through an infinite number of rebirths. This being so, all such beings should have already experienced the radical ontological dissatisfaction that is posited to underlie emancipation. Samsara, therefore, should not exist. Per contra, if we posit that individual beings have a discrete point of origin in samsara, i.e., are finite, then the problem of origination arises again in an even more perplexing form.

4. If samsara is beginningless, how can it have an end?

It is perfectly clear, as stated above, based on the Buddhist scriptures, that samsara must be beginningless. Its eschatology is less clear. Religious Buddhism implies that the Arahant, who has completely eradicated the impurities through the process of progressive renunciation described above, literally transcends rebirth. In the Mahayana, this intention is replaced by that of the bodhisattva. The immediate goal of the bodhisattva is to renounce emancipation until all other beings are liberated. Nevertheless, their ultimate goal is the same as that of the Arahant. When all other beings have transcended rebirth, then the bodhisattva will too. Thus, logically, samsara itself is ended.

Thus, samsara appears to be postulated as a temporary process that ultimately destroys the preconditions of its own continuation. This would, however, imply that it is a finite process. This is paradoxical for the same reasons as stated above. First, how can a process that has no beginning have an end? Second, such a process should already have eradicated itself. Psychology does not save us here either. One might argue that the causative factor of karma is intention, not action. Thus, by the “end of samsara” perhaps we are meant to understand the end of attachment. However, given its “beginninglessness,” the objection above still holds: samsara should no longer exist.


The foregoing considerations are certainly not intended to do any more than indicate a number of directions for further investigation of some of the problems underlying Buddhist metaphysics and ontology in the context of modern critical consciousness. It is, I believe, consistent with the Buddha’s demand that the dharma be rigorously scrutinized and submitted to criticism. This is not an approach that is popular amongst either religionists or academics, except for that tiny subset of creative and visionary scholars like Herbert Guenther who approach the subject philosophically. To his credit, the Dalai Lama has encouraged just this kind of approach. The Dalai Lama has declared quite unambiguously that anything in Buddhism that does not hold up to critical examination should be discarded. It does not matter how sacrosanct it is. Personally, I intend to continue my investigation of the Pali suttas as well as extend my reading of the Mahayana sutras with the objective of discovering whether Buddhist tradition somewhere indicates the solutions to these questions. My hope and belief is that it does.