Buddhism: ontology or process philosophy?

Strictly the 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.’
Essentially impermanence (becoming) means subject to change, whereas permanence (being or essence) means not subject to change. In other words, becoming (or any process of change) is only possible within the context of impermanence. Heraclitus, if we’re to believe Plato, is famous for his view that “everything flows,” whereas Plato is famous for his “idea of eternal forms”. Buddha taught that what we mistakenly cling to as ‘self’ is really only impermanent phenomenon
(anicca+anatta) subject to arising, changing, and passing away, whereas the Vedas and Upanishads are generally understood to teach that our “self” (atman) is something real and eternal, something “that is”.
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. Buddhism seems closer to something like process philosophy in Western philosophical terminology, where the focus is on processes (or becoming) rather than unchanging being (or essence). In Buddhism, becoming (bhava) refers more to the sense of identity that arises when there’s clinging to one or more of the aggregates. However, the basic idea is that our sense of self is merely a process of ‘I-making’ and ‘my-making,’ which possibly can be classified as a type of process philosophy.

According to the Buddha’s teaching, conditionality is the basic principle of understanding reality.
The question whether the Buddha’s teaching on conditionality was primarily ontological or pragmatic in its emphasis is perplexing. If ontology is defined as the study of what really exists, then in a certain sense there does not seem much basis for regarding the Buddha’s teaching on conditionality as ontological because there are many passages in the Pali texts where the Buddha makes it clear that he is not interested in speculating about what really exists or doesn’t exist. The main emphasis of all his teachings is the practical context of the spiritual path, so his teachings on conditionality should, first and foremost, be understood in that very practical context. However one could also make an argument for saying that Buddhist teaching on conditionality is a kind of ontology because the Buddha makes the universal statement that ‘things arise on conditions and they cease when those conditions cease’. This clearly implies that conditionality is the way everything in the world works. Thus, to the extent that it is an ontology, it is a process ontology – nothing can be pinned down as to its essence but there is still an underlying process to reality, the ‘nature of things’ to say.

The only area of metaphysics the Buddha does engage in is causality; but even here, he doesn’t offer proofs but 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.


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