Answering the biggest question of all.
The Big Question
The question “why is there anything at all?” or originally framed as “why is there something rather than nothing?” by the 17th century rationalist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz has remained ‘unsolvable’ to most modern man. Some philosophers have argued against the validity of the question whilst others simply dismissed the question as irrelevant. Regardless, the question was dubbed as ‘the fundamental question of metaphysics’ by the prominent 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger (author of ‘Being and Time’) and as ‘the biggest question of all’ by another modern philosopher.
The existentialist once asserted that existence precedes essence (i.e. life precedes life’s meaning), which can be recognised authentically. However, on a separate occasion about 2,200 years before Leibniz, the Buddha did not stop at the assumption that existence is that which is first (or equally) present with regard to appearance of phenomena, but he went further to assert that appearance of phenomena precedes existence. The Buddha’s Teaching (Dhamma) is one that is concerned with understanding the nature of all phenomena (dhamma) and is thus, in my opinion, well-equipped to provide a solution to this ‘unsolvable’ question. Unfortunate to the history of most Western Philosophy, the wisdom that is present in Eastern Philosophy was hardly accessible (i.e. unavailable, poor translation of archaic languages) and overlooked for the most part.
In this article, I attempt to answer the big question through my own understanding of the Buddha’s Teaching thus far and argue that the Teaching not only answers the question, but also leads one on to answer the more pertinent question regarding existence (i.e. on happiness). I express my deepest gratitude to Ven. Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero from Hillside Hermitage for his wisdom and clarification on the Buddha Dhamma, and I hope not to misrepresent the Teaching in any way while I take full responsibility for the writing and publication of this article.
The Short Answer
In order to answer the question posed, we need to first understand the context and content of the question. The question comes from a questioner who acknowledges his own existence (context), that which perceives the ‘outside world’ external to him yet finding himself to be ‘within’ it, thus ‘something’ (content). To begin, we shall evaluate its content but at the same time not forgetting its context.
Firstly, we need to see that ‘something’ (i.e. phenomena) can be discovered by consciousness only if it is already present (appearance). Presence of phenomena is that which can only be ‘found’, in the form of an experience as a whole. The fact is that things need to first be ‘given’ to be attended to (i.e. ‘found’), which fundamentally means that it is beyond one’s control: one is not its creator. The appearance of phenomena is beyond one’s control but nevertheless exists as an experience. At the same time, it is the appearance of phenomena because of which the experience can exist (i.e. appearance precedes existence), although it is important to note that existence is that which is immediate to one (i.e. directly attended to) whilst appearance can only be discerned peripherally (i.e. recognised in the background). Thus, both appearance and existence are simultaneously present in time with the experience, whilst the structural priority of the two remains unchanged.
‘Nothing’, even though is an absence of things, for it to exist means that it must first appear – its presence is positive. In other words, ‘nothing’ that exists is already something: an experience (e.g. cessation, death). Alternatively, appearance is the context of phenomena while existence is the content. Thus, ‘something’ and ‘nothing’, ‘birth’ and ‘death’, although opposite in direction with regard to existence, they are not fundamentally different as they are mere manifestations of phenomena that is dependent on the appearance of phenomena that are already there. Therefore, it can be discerned that phenomena that are beyond one’s control are impermanent: they arise, cease and persist-while-changing on their own terms.
To ask, “why is there something rather than nothing?” is to question the existence of phenomena but not their appearance, which structurally comes first. To ask, “why is there appearance?” makes the question meaningless because appearance is that by which existence is dependent upon to be (i.e. appearance precedes existence), through which phenomena can manifest. The appearance of phenomena is thus primordial as far as existence is concerned and what comes before that is inconceivable because existence is first required to conceive.(1)
However, even though existence is inconceivable apart from appearance, the Buddha pointed out that appearance of phenomena is not that which is directly responsible for existence, but rather existence is directly dependent on the presence of assumption (upādāna) in regard to the appearance of phenomena (i.e. appropriation of natural phenomena as ‘I’, ‘mine’ or ‘myself’). In other words, appearance of phenomena is a necessary condition for existence, but the reverse is not true. Thus, presence of existence already implies a diverted notion of reality, a reality that is conceived (i.e. appropriated with the presence of assumption) as opposed to it being discerned as it is (i.e. as phenomena), thereby implying a distorted reflection of the mere appearance of phenomena. Therefore, presence of assumption is that which determines existence but not the appearance of phenomena as such.(2)
Elaboration and Illustration
1. It is akin to the question “why is there an experience of wetness when one dips one’s hand in water?” as opposed to “how is there an experience of wetness…?”, which is explainable as “dependent on an internal sense object – hand (1), external object – water (2) and contact between internal and external object – touch (3)”. From this very rough example alone, we can see that the experience of wetness can only come about when the three requisite conditions are fulfilled, which in themselves are compounded (i.e. the direction of discrepancy in moisture content was not described). As to why the experience of ‘wetness’ is experienced as such, as it happens, it is unexplainable – it comes with existence, it just is. Similarly, the appearance of phenomena already is (i.e. presence is always positive and validates itself).
2. The second explanation can be illustrated by the example of an ice-cream seller (human) and ice-cream selling. An ice-cream seller (existence) and ice-cream selling (manifestation) are inseparable from each other and is only possible with the presence of the human (appearance). With ice-cream selling (manifestation), the ice-cream seller (existence) and the human (appearance) who sell the ice-cream seem inseparable. However, we know for a fact that the same human (appearance) needs not be an ice-cream seller (existence), in which case the ice-cream selling (manifestation) would cease. With the cessation of being an ice-cream seller (existence), the ice-cream selling (manifestation) ceases too but the human (appearance) remains.
The Harder Question (And Its Short Answer)
Having arrived at the end of it, the more appropriate question that could be asked is hence one that pertains to the existence as a whole and not at the level of appearance of phenomena. Since we have determined that existence is inconceivable apart from experience, the better (and harder) question would then be “how does the experience come to be? how does the experiencer come to be?”, because there cannot be an experiencer separate from the experience, thus existence.
As we have introduced the presence of assumption on the appearance of phenomena as a necessary condition for existence, we shall then analyse the following in further detail to understand existence: phenomena as the five aggregates, what assumption is and how they relate to each other. The key to this answer is in what the Buddha called the law of dependent origination (paticcasamuppāda) with regard to the ‘self’, through which the nature of ‘self’ can be discerned as that which is fundamentally beyond one’s control to begin with (as mentioned earlier):
Well then — knowing in what way, seeing in what way, does one without delay put an end to the effluents? There is the case where an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person — who has no regard for noble ones, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma; who has no regard for men of integrity, is not well-versed or disciplined in their Dhamma — assumes form to be the self. That assumption is a fabrication. Now what is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by that which is felt born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That fabrication is born of that. And that fabrication is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. That craving… That feeling… That contact… That ignorance is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. It is by knowing & seeing in this way that one without delay puts an end to the effluents.
Or he doesn’t assume form to be the self, but he assumes the self as possessing form… form as in the self… self as in form… or feeling to be the self… the self as possessing feeling… feeling as in the self… self as in feeling… or perception to be the self… the self as possessing perception… perception as in the self… self as in perception… or fabrications to be the self… the self as possessing fabrications… fabrications as in the self… self as in fabrications… or consciousness to be the self… the self as possessing consciousness… consciousness as in the self… self as in consciousness.
Now that assumption is a fabrication. What is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by the feeling born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That fabrication is born of that. And that fabrication is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. That craving… That feeling… That contact… That ignorance is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. It is by knowing & seeing in this way that one without delay puts an end to the effluents.
Or he doesn’t assume form to be the self… but he may have a view such as this: ‘This self is the same as the cosmos. This I will be after death, constant, lasting, eternal, not subject to change.’ This eternalist view is a fabrication… Or… he may have a view such as this: ‘I would not be, neither would there be what is mine. I will not be, neither will there be what is mine.’ This annihilationist view is a fabrication… Or… he may be doubtful & uncertain, having come to no conclusion with regard to the true Dhamma. That doubt, uncertainty, & coming-to-no-conclusion is a fabrication.
What is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by what is felt born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That fabrication is born of that. And that fabrication is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. That craving… That feeling… That contact… That ignorance is inconstant, fabricated, dependently co-arisen. It is by knowing & seeing in this way that one without delay puts an end to the effluents.
– Saṃyutta Nikāya 22.81
In brief, paticcasamuppāda is the atemporal principle of simultaneous presence, in which two or more things (i.e. phenomena) are dependent on one another to exist:
When there is this, there is this; when this arises, this arises; when there isn’t this, this isn’t; when this ceases, this ceases.
– Majjhima Nikāya 79
The Buddha analyses phenomena, which simultaneously determine the ‘self’, as the five-assumed-aggregates: form, feeling, perception, fabrication (i.e. phenomena that determines other phenomena), consciousness. They are otherwise called ‘five heaps’ and not ‘one heap of five’ as they too are compounded and dependently co-arisen and as such are of the nature of impermanence: they arise, cease and persist-while-changing in accordance with their causes and conditions. As such, the five aggregates are inherently inaccessible to one, unownable and do not conform to one’s desire (craving).
Bhikkhus, for a noble disciple, there isn’t this: ‘When there is what, is there what? When what arises, does what arise?’
Rather, bhikkhus, for a noble disciple there is this very knowledge here, independent of others: ‘When there is this, there is this; when this arises, this arises. When there is ignorance, there are determinations. When there are determinations, there is consciousness. When there is consciousness, there is name-&-matter. When there is name-&-matter, there are the six domains. When there are the six domains, there is contact. When there is contact, there is feeling. When there is feeling, there is craving. When there is craving, there is assuming. When there is assuming, there is being. When there is being, there is birth. When there is birth, there is ageing-&-death.’
He understands thus: ‘In this way this world is originated.’
Bhikkhus, for a noble disciple, there isn’t this: ‘When there isn’t what, is there not what? When what ceases, does what cease?’
Rather, bhikkhus, for a noble disciple there is this very knowledge here, independent of others: ‘When there isn’t this, there isn’t this; when this ceases, this ceases. When there isn’t ignorance, there aren’t determinations. When there aren’t determinations, there isn’t consciousness. When there isn’t consciousness, there isn’t name-&-matter. When there isn’t name-&-matter, there aren’t the six domains. When there aren’t the six domains, there isn’t contact. When there isn’t contact, there isn’t feeling. When there isn’t feeling, there isn’t craving. When there isn’t craving, there isn’t assuming. When there isn’t assuming, there isn’t being. When there isn’t being, there isn’t birth. When there isn’t birth, there isn’t ageing-&-death.’ He understands thus: ‘In this way this world is ceased.’
Bhikkhus, when a noble disciple understands in this way, as it really is, the origin and passing away of the world, this, bhikkhus, is called a noble disciple, who has succeeded in view, who has succeeded in seeing, who has arrived at this true Dhamma, who sees this true Dhamma, endowed with the trainee’s knowledge, endowed with the trainee’s wisdom, who has entered upon the stream of Dhamma, with noble penetrative understanding, who stands touching the door to the deathless.
– Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.41
Assumption (i.e. one of four types: sense pleasure clinging, view clinging, virtue-&-duties clinging, or self-doctrine clinging) is neither the same nor different from the five aggregates, but rather it is the passion-obsession in regard to them that is conditioned by craving (i.e. one of three types: craving for sense pleasure, existence, or non-existence) rooted in one of three unwholesome roots (i.e. greed, aversion, distraction) in regard to the presently enduring feeling whether pleasant, painful or neutral respectively, out of ignorance of their un-ownability (i.e. our ‘self’ is not our own). The presence of assumption thus perverts the structural order of things — existence is assumed to precede appearance: one or more of the five aggregates are assumed to be ‘this Is mine’, ‘this is I am’, ‘this is my self’ — and causes one to suffer on account of craving for/against the dependently co-arisen phenomena that are inherently beyond one’s control.
To give a sense of how paticcasamuppāda works without going into the specifics, the most general and immediate example would be the occurrence of birth and death, which is clearly beyond one’s control. One might refute that even though one never chose to be born, one can choose to die (and even the nature of death is ‘accidental’ in the sense that one can only cause harm to oneself indirectly and wait for Death to find one). However, this is beside the point and is a misconception based on the assumption that ‘time’ takes precedence over ‘experience’, whilst in reality ‘experience’ is that which comes first. Thus, ‘birth’ and ‘death’ is always an occurrence in the present and that the reality (or possibility) of death, regardless of its manifestation at any given point in time, is directly conditioned upon the manifested birth: with birth, death applies. As such, any limited control that comes with existence is already contained within (i.e. bounded to) the presently enduring phenomena as such – they arise, cease and change-while-standing in accordance with paticcasamuppāda and not one’s sense of ownership.
As the Buddha said: “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination.”. Through ignorance of paticcasamuppāda is the nature of conditioned phenomena obscured (i.e. as permanent, satisfactory, self), with the presence of assumption (i.e. appropriation, identification, clinging) in regard to the five aggregates that causes beings to suffer. Conversely, through seeing paticcasamuppāda is the correct structural order of things restored (i.e. understanding that phenomena that determine the ‘self’ are impermanent, suffering, and not-self), with the abandonment of assumption in regard to the five aggregates through the giving up of craving at its root – existence (i.e. becoming) ceases and suffering passes away (transcended).
Therefore, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the Teaching not only answers the question regarding existence (i.e. it is inconceivable to explain appearance of phenomena as one cannot step outside of oneself) but also leads one to understand the more pertinent question in life – suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation.
Note: Paticcasamuppāda should not be mistaken as a deterministic principle, but rather as a principle of conditionality. Otherwise, abandonment of craving would not be possible, which incorrectly implies that beings are bound to suffer.
Ñāṇamoli, N. (2014). Meanings. Path Press Publications.
Akiñcano. (2019). With The Right Understanding. Path Press Publications.
Dīgha Nikāya 15 – Mahānidānasutta: The Great Discourse on Causation
Majjhima Nikāya 18 – Madhupindikasutta: The Honey-Cake
Majjhima Nikāya 38 – Mahātanhāsankhayasutta: The Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving
Majjhima Nikāya 43 – Mahāvedalla Sutta: The Great Series of Question
Majjhima Nikāya 44 – Cūlavedalla Sutta: The Lesser Series of Questions
Majjhima Nikāya 64 – Mahāmālukyasutta: The Greater Discourse to Mālunkyāputta
Majjhima Nikāya 109 – Mahāpunnamasutta: The Longer Discourse on the Full-Moon Night
Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.1 – Paticcasamuppādasutta: Dependent Origination
Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.2 – Vibhangasutta: Analysis of Dependent Origination
Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.35 – Avijjāpaccayasutta: With Ignorance as Condition
Saṃyutta Nikāya 12.37 – Natumhasutta: Not Yours
Saṃyutta Nikāya 22.81 – Parileyyaka Sutta: At Parileyyaka
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