Buddhism: ontology or process?

From my reading of the Pali Canon, it seems to me that the Buddha’s teachings generally tend to avoid metaphysics, including ontology, in favour of a pragmatic approach to understanding mental stress and suffering (dukkha) and removing its causes (e.g., see MN 63). If anything, I’d say Buddhism is closer to something like process philosophy in Western philosophical terminology, where the focus is on processes or becoming rather than unchanging being or essence, e.g., Heraclitus vs. Plato; anicca + anatta vs. atman; or anything else that looks at change vs. essence. Essentially (for those less familiar with these concepts), if something is impermanent, it means that it’s subject to change, whereas that which has a permanent being or essence isn’t. In other words, becoming (or any process of change) is only possible within the context of impermanence. In the examples I gave above, the former are examples of things dealing with processes or becoming, while the latter are things dealing with unchanging being or essence.

For example, Heraclitus, if we’re to believe Plato, is famous for his idea that “everything flows,” whereas Plato is famous for his idea of eternal forms. In the second example, the Buddha taught that what we mistakenly cling to as ‘self’ is really only impermanent phenomena subject to arising, changing, and passing away, whereas the Vedas and Upanishads are general understood to teach that our self is something real and eternal, something that is.

So strict ontology deals more with what inherently is or exists from its own side (i.e., being or essence), whereas the basic idea behind process philosophy is that what ‘exists’ is best understood in terms of processes rather than things or substances, and that change — whether physical, organic or psychological — “is the pervasive and predominant feature of the real.” As such, it’s sometimes called ‘ontology of becoming.’
Of course, in Buddhism, becoming (bhava) refers more to the sense of identity that arises when there’s clinging to one or more of the aggregates, but the basic idea is that our sense of self is a process of ‘I-making’ and ‘my-making,’ which I think can be classified as a type of process philosophy. The only area of metaphysics the Buddha does engage in is causality; but even here, he doesn’t offer proofs so much as suggests that adopting these views in a pragmatic, common sense manner is empirically useful in the quest to end suffering. Hence, Buddhism avoids many of the metaphysical quandaries, including questions of ontology, that seem to plague other philosophical/religious traditions.

jason at 5:32 AM


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