Ontology

Given that the first premise of Buddhist doctrine is that human discontent arises out of unrealistic expectations, it is natural that Buddhists would have concerned themselves with determining what is realistic, which of course entails determining what is real. The need to determine what reality is leads naturally to a number of metaphysical issues.

The main question in this module will be: What kinds of beings are there?

Why does it matter what kinds of being there are?

One of the most important terms in Indian Buddhism is yoniśo manaskāra, which is often translated as “wise attention” or “careful reflection.” What the expression literally means is processing something in the mind by referring to its sources or its components rather than referring to its surface appearances. The eight-century philosopher-poet Śāntideva gives numerous examples of how one might deal with feelings of irritation that might develop into anger and then into a more lasting attitude such as hatred. If someone acts abusively towards you, he advises, it is less constructive to to look at the offender as an obnoxious, bothersome person than it is to investigate what has caused the abusive behavior to manifest. If one looks more deeply into the matter, one will see that the offensive behavior has been caused by an imbalance in the person’s body chemistry, or by fear or insecurity or some other kind of psychological or even physical pain. No one chooses to have unbalanced body chemistry, nor does anyone choose to be afraid or insecure or unhappy. As soon as one sees the abusive person as a victim of circumstances over which he has no control, rather than seeing oneself as a victim of the other person’s bad temper, one can learn to meet abuse with compassion rather than retaliating in anger or thinking of the other person as an enemy. Śāntideva’s advice is modeled on a well-known passage in the Dhammapada, usually one of the first texts that a Buddhist encounters and studies. That text says “One who thinks of oneself as a victim of another’s insults or beating or robbery will never find a way out of hatred. One will stop hating only when one stops thinking of oneself as one who has been insulted, beaten or robbed.”

How does a person go about responding to violence with kindness, to robbery with generosity, and to insults with encouraging words? The strategy that most Buddhists have followed over the centuries is to learn not to take unpleasant behavior personally. Rather than seeing the abusive behavior and the insults as coming from Joe or Susan, one sees the unpleasant conduct as coming from essentially impersonal factors over which no one can claim to have full control. Learning how to see things impersonally is part of what is meant by the expression yoniśo manaskāra. What this involves is learning to analyze large and complex things into smaller and simpler and more manageable parts. The assumption is that it is easier to deal with several small problems than to deal with one large problem, and that most problems that look like a single big problem are in fact made up of several small problems. Underlying this assumption is the conviction, which is expressed in Buddhist thought in a countless number of ways, that there is something more genuinely real in simple things than in complex things. Complex things are derivative in that they could not exist at all unless the smaller parts of which they are composed existed. So the typical Buddhist view is that an individual is more real than a collection of individuals, such as a nation or a tribe or a family. The notion of a clan or tribe or race or nation may be a useful fiction in some contexts, but it is a fiction all the same, and acting as if fictions are realities can have negative and destructive consequences, as the long history of human warfare will attest. What is perhaps more challenging is that the idea of an individual person is also a fiction, one that if taken as a reality can have negative and constructive consequences. More about the Buddhist analysis of personhood will be said in the chapters in Part II of this book. In this chapter, the principal topic will be the typical Buddhist commitment to the ontological principle that collections are fictions while the things that are collected are more fundamentally real.

What are simple beings