The Buddha’s Conception of the Universe (Warder)

The Buddha’s Conception of the Universe (from Outline of Indian Philosophy, by Prof. A. K. Warder, 1956, 1960, 1964, Delhi 1971)

The Buddha’s conception of the universe is thus of natural and impersonal forces and processes, of conditions and phenomena, transient, with no enduring substances. It is not correct to speak of persons ‘who’ do things, but only of events which occur. It is enough to describe the ‘qualities’ (a possible translation of ‘dharma’, which we have otherwise translated ‘phenomena’) and the conditions under which they appear. There is no justification for assuming any substance, not definable apart from these qualities, in addition to the qualities we observe. This is a conception of the universe which is de-personified, de-anthropomorphised, a collection of natural forces and phenomena to be described without postulating any unnecessary entities, or in fact any entities at all, only the minimum of observable qualities. It is a thoroughly empiricist conception. It implies a whole critique, an analysis, of metaphysical concepts (such as ‘soul’), worked out in detail by later Buddhist philosophers, and of metaphysical statements (such as ‘the universe is eternal’). No doubt in many of the texts the language of the ordinary people of India is used, with its ‘persons’ and its popular conceptions of all kinds. But this is popular preaching for the sake of teaching moral precepts to ordinary people, in language they can understand; we are expressly told in the properly philosophical, or we might say scientific, texts, that to be accurate we must drop the personifications of everyday language: if taken literally, such personifications will lead to untenable metaphysical extremes such as an eternal, and therefore unchanging, soul, or the annihilation of a soul which persisted for a lifetime only. Nirvana, finally, is not the annihilation of a soul, or the release of a soul, it is simply the cessation of a process, of a sequence of events.