Buddhist Ontology?

I am now writing this post in a gate at Singapore’s Chang-i Airport waiting for the plane to be readied to take me home. I came here to attend an international conference on “Science, Technology and Human Values in the Context of Asian Development,” which was held on the campus of National University of Singapore on July 27 to 29. Most of the papers at the conference dealed with how the intellectual resources of Asian religious traditions could provide answers to today’s challenges emerging through the recent advances in science and technology.

I presented a paper on “Nanotechnology and Asian Values” at the conference. However, during some of the discussions and debates at the conference, there was a talk about “Buddhist ontology.” The discussion was framed within the context of tradition versus modernity. Since the talk was about Asian values and science and technology, the key question was how the values could be useful for the development of science and technology, as well as for ethical deliberations on questions arising from the two. Then the ensuing debate focused on whether reliance on traditional Asian values be construed as a relapse onto the past and if not then how much could it be without so relapsing. The question is a very important one and the conference devoted much time discussing it.

As for Buddhism, the question then becomes how talks about samsara and rebirth and so on could fare with the modernist attitude that puts its trust on science and technology. If we are to see how Buddhist values could help solve problems arising from science and technology, such as bioethical problems, environmental problems and so forth, then how do talks about samsara and rebirth fare with the modern scientific mindset? One participant questions what he perceives as the Buddhist “ontology” which seems to be incompatible with modern science. Then in what sense could talks about relying on Buddhist values in the scientific age be meaningful?

What I answered was in fact in consonance with many others. Relying on Buddhist values does not mean that one is pre-modern and does not have anything to do with science and technology. One can well be a Buddhist and a thoroughly modern (or even ‘postmodern’) one who believes in the efficacy of science and technology and more importantly in the critical and rational mindset that accompanies basic scientific rationality. Meera Nanda calls this “scientific temper,” a concept which is enshrined in the Constitution of India.

There are in fact many ways to argue for this. One is to show that sooner or later science itself will come around and validates samsara and rebirth. In fact many scientists are beginning to appreciate the important role that meditation can play on how the brain works, what is known as neuroplasticity.  But in fact that is quite some time in the future. Another way is to keep talks about samsara and others inside as private issues and focus on what are now being shared by Buddhism and science. Compassion is a key element in Buddhism and the altruistic attitude is appreciated by science too. That is an example.

And if we focus further on the intricacy of the Buddhist thought, it appears that the term ‘Buddhist ontology’ is a misnomer. According to the teaching on Emptiness, no things whatever, ultimately speaking, exist. In other words, no things exist in virtue of their inherent characteristics. In this sense it does not make much sense to say that there is an ontology, for ontology is talk about the ‘to on’ or ‘being’ in Greek. But in Buddhism this is precisely the contested concept. So the idea is that Buddhism does not have an ontology in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle had their ontologies. For Plato and Aristotle, things do have their inherent characteristics; this is precisely a very Greek thinking. But that is opposite to what the Buddha taught. Since things are all in flux, so much so that it does not make much sense speaking of one thing rather than another, then how can there be an “ontology”?

This is also supported by Nagarjuna’s argument that ultimately speaking the Buddhist “philosophy” is the “relinquishing of all views.” This is deeply ironic because philosophy is nothing if not promoting of some views, not relinquishing them. But if all views are to be relinquished, then no version of any ontology can be held. So no Buddhist ontology. (This, by the way, does not imply that the Buddhist one is a skeptical or an agnostic viewpoint; this is very complicated — more on it later.)

This position of Buddhism of critical assessment of any ontologies make it clearly not incompatible with the modern scientific attitude. For what could be held to be against it? Thus it perfectly makes sense to talk about relying on the Buddhist principles to support ethical deliberations about science and technology in society. For when things are in flux and have no inherent characteristics, they are pliable and malleable enough to be molded, so to speak, so that they fit with the modern agenda. But that will actually have to be a topic of a later post…

3 thoughts on “Buddhist Ontology?

  1. Daniel Cool February 15, 2012 / 6:05 pm

    I have a little objection to your view that Buddhism philosophy does not have an ontology..
    You say everything is in flux, which implies that nothing can be defined by its inherent characteristics. But what is that “everything” to begin with? If there is no ontology, then there is no everything to begin with, and in turn, nothing can be “in flux”…
    Furthermore, it is quite impossible that there can be no ontology. If there’re none, where’re all these illusions coming from? I think we cannot say nothing exists, and yet somehow we have all these impressions…because, at the very least, such illusions exists.
    Even for Berkeley’s idealist philosophy, where all is just idea, there’s ontology – the ideas (and God).

  2. soraj February 15, 2012 / 8:25 pm

    I think you are right. This is the fundamental paradox of Buddhist philosophy. “Everything is in flux” just means that no matter what you pick out as a “thing” – as something that functions as an instance of a concept, even as you point to something saying “this” – it is in flux. That is, there is no inherent nature to it. Of course there are things, but those things do not stay the same for a moment. Things are then illusory because we normally take them to be quite real and stable, while in fact they are not.

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