‘Ultimate’ Reality and ‘Ultimate’ questions

Compared with the crucial teaching on human nature and destiny and the need to get on with it, other big ontological and metaphysical questions are secondary in Buddhism and even get in the way. There are many traditions of Buddhist philosophy, in both Theravada and Mahayana, but none are speculation for its own sake but all geared to the matter of central importance which is getting everyone out of suffering. The historical Buddha was said to have refused to discuss a number of questions including: is the world eternal, not eternal, both or neither? Is the world finite, not finite, both or neither? Does the Tathagata (Buddha) exist after death, or not, both, or neither? Is the ‘self’ identical with the body, or is it different from the body? These questions are similar to the ‘ultimate’ questions of other religions, so it is clearly of importance that the Buddha refused to answer them. He described them as ‘a net’ and refused to be drawn into such a net of theories, speculations and dogmas which waste the time that should be spent on taking action. It is said that it was because the Buddha was free of bondage to all theories, philosophies, dogmas and ideologies that he achieved enlightenment. He told a well-known story of a person shot by an arrow who refused to have the arrow removed until he knew all about it – type of wood, family background of the person who shot it – and so died. Likewise we can waste time discussing fascinating philosophical and metaphysical questions instead of getting on with freeing ourselves from greed, hatred and delusion.

The ‘ultimate’ is not something often discussed in Buddhism. This is because the Buddha, after much meditation, concluded that everything is changing and impermanent so that there is nothing permanent and unchanging like the ultimate ‘God’ in monotheistic religions, or the soul/self in other Indian religions or Christianity.  Theravadins consider nibbana to be the opposite of the three marks, so it could perhaps be described as ‘ultimate’ but Mahayanists who follow the philosophy of Madhyamaka view even nirvana as being empty of ‘svabhava’ or ‘own being’, independent, ultimate reality. So not even nirvana or Buddha or Buddha nature is ultimate in the sense of being separable from everything else, so perhaps to talk of ultimate reality in Madhyamaka Buddhism is not quite right, except perhaps to describe the ultimate truth that nothing is ultimate.

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