Ethics, epistemology and ontology of Buddhism

Bhupendra asked:

What is Buddhist epistemology, ontology, metaphysics and axiology?

I am a student of M.Phil of Trubhuwan University in Nepal. I am trying to understand the philosophical perspective to see the theories and other. But I couldn’t understand the epistemology, ontology, metaphysics and axiology of Buddhism.

Hope to get satisfying answer from you.

With regards,

Answer by Peter Jones

Hi Bhupendra,

You are expecting a lot if you want a quick way to understand the epistemology, ontology and ethics of Buddhism. What may be helpful to you is that all three would reduce to one in the end. That is, the axiology is explained by the epistemology which is explained by the ontology. Or you could start at the other end.

This is the internet age and there is plenty to read on these topics. It frightens me that a student at a Nepalese university would ask this on a public forum. Do you not have some experts around and a good library? Here are some thoughts in case not.

The world would reduce to or simply is a unity, such that all sentient beings would share an identity. When Schopenhauer explains altruism as the ‘breakthrough of a metaphysical truth’ this is what he is getting at, that while the truth of identity is for us often just an intuition, even so this would often be enough for it to have an impact on our behaviour. It was familiarity with what he calls his ‘better consciousness’ that allowed him to give this account of altruism. Buddhist practice would entail verifying this identity fully in experience. If it is unverified, not real for us, then our behaviour is guided by ignorance, while if it verified then it is informed by knowledge. Thus ethics would be solved by knowledge and ethical confusion caused by ignorance. ‘Sin’ would be ignorance such that, as Jesus says somewhere in the non-canonical gospels, ‘Sin, as such, does not exist’. Thus Buddhism has what Franco Varela call an ’embodied’ ethics and not a rule book. Erwin Schrödinger puts it like this.

“When you know by direct intuitive evidence either (a) that you are one with every sentient being or (b) that nothing substantial makes you distinct from the other sentient beings, being good with others is a matter of course.”

Schrödinger is always neat and tidy with his words and doesn’t waste many, so he may be worth reading. You can see that a knowledge of ontology would be the key to ethics. Likewise epistemology, the question of what we know and how, would be solved by ontology. By realising the ontological structure of the world we would, equivalently, realise the nature of knowledge and its source. If we go in search of a solution for epistemology then we will end up with ontology and ethics. They stand or fall together and must be understood together as three aspects of one knowledge or three derivatives of one fact.

I hope this vaguely helps. For ontology I would recommend Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. With work the ethics and epistemology can be derived from this. As for understanding it, this could be a life-time’s work, some would say more, and it would depend on practice as well as intellectual study. But getting the general idea is not so hard. On the ‘advaita’ view this would be the same axiology, epistemology and ontology as that of the Upanishads.

Good luck with a difficult topic.


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