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The Metaphysical Position of Early Buddhism


The Metaphysical Position of Early Buddhism


Deepa Chaturvedi

Associate Professor & Head

Department of English

Government Arts College

Kota, Rajasthan, India


The ancient Upanishadic acceptance of the Self or Consciousness as a part of the Absolute or the Super Consciousness was in a way reinterpreted by the Buddha in his concept of anattä, i.e. Non-Being. Whereas the Upanishadic metaphysics accepts the amalgamation of the five khandas as contributory to the presence of the Being, the Buddha sees the absence of the Self in this amalgmation, recognizing the frugality of existence and calling it not -being.  The paper here briefly analyses the theory of Not Being propounded by the Buddha and seeing whether the objective of both the Upanishadic writings and the Buddha were the same in accepting the presence of the Self and rejecting it respectively.

Keywords: Khandas, rüpa, arüpa, Upanishadic, Atma

“Neither conceptualizing, nor conceptualizing wrongly, nor lacking conceptualization, nor conceptualizing nothing-in one who has achieved this state, sensory recognizable experience (rüpa) ceases, for what is called ‘verbal proliferation’ (papaïca) has its origin in conceptualization.” 

These words of Aṭṭhakavagga of the Suttanipäta, which promote an ascetic system of silence and repudiate our very cognitive apparatus or faculties as based on linguistic and conceptual delineation is in fact the very essence of early Buddhism.

The Sutta Nipāta—the Discourse Group—is the fifth text in the Khuddaka Nikāya, or Short Collection, which in turn is the fifth collection in the Sutta Piṭaka of the Pali Canon. The Sutta Nipāta  is a collection of 72 suttas divided in  five chapters. In addition are  two sets of poems - the Aṭṭhaka Vagga,  is a set of sixteen poems which propagate  the theme of non-agglutinant, a non-osculant stand in life, and the Pārāyana Vagga,  is a set of sixteen dialogues, between the Buddha and practised brahmans. The Sutta Nipāta in itself is a compendious collection of Buddh’a teachings.

The Buddha had himself rejected theoretical generalizations and avoided all ontological questions and commitments regarding the being or the status of the individual and the external world.  But the metaphysics as we commonly see it, as a philosophy that deals with the first principles of things or reality, including questions and sub questions about being, time, temporality, substance or matter, space, causation, identity etc. finds place in a unique epistemology advanced by the Buddha.  According to this epistemology the range or the parameter of whatever is conceived , perceived or grasped  is through the cognitive faculties or apparatus which is embodied in the five ‘Khandhas’.  The Päli terms for the five Khandhas – Rüpa, Vedanä, Saïïä, Samkhärä and Viïïana have been roughly translated by scholars in English as matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness respectively.  Each entity in this world is an amalgamation of these five Khandhas which give rise to the concept of a living being or entity but there is no separate or individual entity that is the self of that person.  The Khandhas are thus most often described as being aggregate parts, none of which, individually or collectively, taken together or in parts, is one’s self.  “What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’, is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these five”, states Rahula [1].  Thinking of these as separate, as existing by themselves or as operational by themselves is the greatest ignorance and leads invariably to Dukkha.  In Theravada tradition, the five aggregates are regarded as representing one physical (rüpa) and four mental (arüpa) aggregates, or collectively, mind and matter.  So we have no self but we are composed of the five aggregates.

But this concept can be understood with the close aligned one-that of anattä. Attä means self and “an” is a negative prefix.  The teachings of the Buddha state that all things, of whatever nature or description, human-beings or otherwise, are anattä.  And this theme is related to the one discussed above – that is usually explained as stating that human beings comprise of the five khandhas.

Now how to understand these two in unison and interpret both in the light of the Buddha’s teaching has been a daunting task for scholars across the globe.  The early Buddhist texts believed that human being might not be understood properly in any positive way.  The major part of the early Buddhist tradition and scholarship was much concerned with what a human being is not, laying stress on the negative prefix attached to attä - the self.  And the importance of these concepts could not be overlooked as all major secondary sources of the Buddhist tradition laid stress on them as being the heart and core of the teachings of the Buddha.  The doctrine finds place in the literature in a simple formulaic statement – ‘All things are anattä’ and understood in a more generic way would mean and refer to ‘the fact that things are a certain way, and the fact that there is a regularity of things’ (sabbe dhammä anattä; dhammaṭṭ hitatä; dhammaniyämata [2]).  But we usually find that the application of the doctrine is but narrowly focused  when it says: that a, b or c is anattä – where a, b and c  refer almost always to the human being, with its being, and usually with one or the other five khandhas which go into the composition of the human being.  Now this is a very important contextual reasoning which tells us what sort of existence or being is denied and therefore it leads us to deduce what a, b and c are not.  But here lies the interesting part of the deduction too and that is it opens itself to various interpretations as to the implication of the doctrine.

And these several interpretations as to what is being established, gives different kinds of emphasis or direction to the concept of anattä in general and Buddhist teachings on the whole.  Traditionally, the anattä doctrine has been interpreted alongside an explanation of the chief requisites in the attainment of nirvana.  In fact a lot of emphasis is given to this concept, making it to be an indispensable and dominant part of the Buddha’s teachings.  This is the goal of the Buddhist teachings, a path which leads to liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth to which a self is bound.

But one thing needs to be made clear here.  The annihilationist whose interpretation is that nirvana is to be achieved by extinguishing of the self, by annihilating the self needs to be looked into with caution as the early Buddhist texts seem to deny this concept of the ‘blowing out of the self’.  Off late Buddhists and scholars alike have successfully established a contrasting view, thereby refuting the annihilistic view explaining that what needs to be blown out is not one’s self but of what fuels one’s continuity.

The interpretation which is now validated and accepted by Buddhist scholars like Sue Hamilton and Noa Ronkin, categorically states that the relation of anattä to nirvana suggests that one has to understand that one is not, nor does one have, and nor have one ever been or had, an abiding self.  The Buddhist teachings lead to almost a culminating point in emphasizing a sort of a negative experiential goal, an experience of not what your self is, but that you do not have one.  Ultimately you are not.  And this leads us to a more positive metaphysics that the concept of anattä is to be understood in conjunction with the teaching that one should understand oneself in terms of the five khandhas.  Traditionally, the texts explain the relation between the anattä and the khandhas by way of an analogy which says – “when all constituent parts are there, the word ‘cart’ is used; in just the same way, where there are five khandhas, there is a convention of a ‘living being’ [3].”  This is suggestive of the truth that the self is a composition or an aggregate of five separate parts which, when together, constitute the functioning self, but one must remember that apart from this temporary, short-lived and fragile combination there is in fact no essential self, neither has been in the past nor shall be in the future.  This concept is a riddle and sometimes appears to be in contrast to the overall Buddhist teachings taken collectively.  But as soon as we realize that the focus of the Buddha’s teaching is not essentially on the personal experience of the ongoing process of births and deaths but on our own personal responsibility of acknowledging that through the effects of our desires, perceptions, sensations and volitions, we have created our own present and will create our own future.  This leads us to believe that if we are the creators of our own being, our present and our future, we can also change it as we want or require.  The famous injunction of the Buddha thereby finds an echo in this concept which says ‘One is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge?’  The reason for dukkha is that these desires and perceptions emerge in a matrix of ignorance and we keep encouraging them, fuelling them, and thereby fuelling our own self, our own continuity.  The great effort is to de-fuel this continuity which needs to be blown out for that sacred goal of the attainment of nirvana.  As Sue Hamilton says – “it is the qualitative side of one’s own mind that determines the qualitative content of one’s rebirths.”  So we can say that the Buddhist teachings try to analyze how and why we are continuing as we are and also tell us we can and how we can eventually target liberation as our ultimate goal.  And here lies the whole crux of the Buddhist teachings.  Buddha expects his followers to ‘Know’ and to be ‘Enlightened’ so as to be able to crush and get rid of ignorance.  This awakening is the road to nirvana and the Buddha wanted us to awaken from this trance like slumber of ignorance to the enlightened path of understanding the frugality of the existence of the self, so much so that he denied answering questions pertaining to the existence of the self only.  But still the doctrine could be understood in terms of showing how something works, i.e. the presence of being rather than trying to analyze what is being or what it is not.  It is important to note here that the emphasis is on how all the factors and aspects of human existence in this cycle of life are dependent on other factors.  In this context, Sue Hamilton explains that the structure of the anattä could be stated in the way that x is the case because of y and can and will cease if y ceases, where x is intrinsic to cyclical human existence.  This makes it quite clear that it is the correlated nature of all our actions that explains the mechanism of both how one is responsible for one’s own experiences, in the present and in the future, and also shows us the path of achieving nirvana.  The answer to the riddle of escaping dukkha than is implicit: if we understand how this process works in fuelling the continuity of the cycle of lives, we can do something about changing it.  The logic of the whole concept therefore lies in guiding us to enable us to achieve salvation.

Further, the metaphysical doctrine of Paticcasamuppäda strengthens the idea that everything is dependently originated and not only this, it is due to this dependent origin, it is supposedly conditioned (samkhata) too.  In the whole experience of the self, there is nothing, of whatever nature, which exists or occurs independently of the factors that condition its existence. All such things are therefore conditioned.  It is not only the state of any individual being at any given moment dependent on conditioning factors, but so are all animate and inanimate objects of the world.  And so this can also be said to be an alternative understanding of the anattä doctrine.  If all things are dependently originated, then it follows that nothing has independent existence or self-hood, not even human beings.  As such, any existence of any kind cannot be permanent and stable as non-dependence is the pre-requisite of such independent existence.

This interpretation amply demonstrates that these teachings were in direct contrast to the other prominent tradition of that time, notably those of the early Upanishads, which categorically stated that in fact the essence of a human being, one’s Real Self, is identical with the immortal and unchanging essence of the universe.  This is evidently expressed in the Upanisadic formula ‘Atman is Brahma’.  Atman is the Sanskrit equivalent of the Päli word attä meaning self, and Brahman refers to the Universal Absolute.  So it goes to prove that the Brahmanical tradition of the Upanishads in India at that time said that if one realized, existentially speaking this micro and macrocosmic identity, then one achieved liberation called moksha, release from the cycle of lives on earth in which all human beings , otherwise continue.  So we conclude that early Buddhist teachings are in contrast to the Upanisadic teaching that the essence of one’s self is immortal and unchanging: identical with the essence of the Universal Absolute.

Though we have established that anattä also refers to the fact that things are a certain way and that there is regularity.  And it is not to be debated whether a being exists or not.  The sole concern here is the state of existence.  And howsoever different both schools seem, their objective is the same, and that is annihilation of continuity.



  1. Rahula (1985, p.25, chapter 6) is the locus classicus for a description of this.
  2. Sabbe dhammä anattä; dhammaṭṭ hitatä; dhammaniyämata: AN I 286. The formula is also found at dhammapada 5-7; 277-9; and cf. also MN I 336; DN II 157.
  3. SN 1 135.


Hamilton, Sue, Early Buddhism: A New Approach. The I of the Beholder, Curzon Press, Richmond, Surrey, 2000.

Jayatilleke, Kulatissa Nanda, Early Buddhist theory of knowledge, G. Allen & Unwin, London, 1963.

Ronkin, Noa, Early Buddhist metaphysics. The making of a philosophical tradition, Introduction. Routledge-Curzon, London, 2005.

Rahula, Walpola, What the Buddha Taught. Unwin Brothers Ltd., Old Woking, Surrey,  1990.

Wijayaratna, Mohan, Buddhist monastic life. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.